The Best Records of 2004 

From "indie rock" to mix tapes to y'alternative country.

Page 3 of 6

DAARA J
Boomerang
Who knew that Senegalese hip-hop was so fly? Straight outta Dakar, Daara J's Boomerang established a new high point for Motherland rap, while supplying what's missing from its American counterpart. Blazing-hot tracks like "Esperanza" and "Bopp Sa Bopp" suggest there's a positive side to global warming, and the band's sound -- equally influenced by American hip-hop, Jamaican reggae, and West African mbalax and tasso -- is both esoteric and accessible, without being predictable in the least. (Wrasse)

RAPHAEL SAADIQ
Raphael Saadiq as Ray Ray
Pimpin' is easy, if you're Raphael Saadiq. On Ray Ray, the neo-soul architect drives his white Cougar past tired R&B clichés, delivering an album designed for "Grown Folks" who still like to groove. The album's nu-blaxploitation theme song is dedicated to Rick James, and Saadiq makes the late funkster proud with an appealing combination of emotion-stirring songcraft and musical chops. You'll find hooks for days on jams like "This One," "Detroit Girl," and "Not a Game," while "Rifle Love"' (featuring Tony Toni Toné and Lucy Pearl) locks on target and doesn't miss. (Pookie)

MADVILLAIN
Madvillainy
What a year for MF Doom. The illest villain who's still chillin' made guest apps with everyone from Wale Oyejide to De La Soul, released a dope solo LP (Mm..Food) and, most importantly, dropped an inspired collabo with producer Madlib that proves hip-hop's heart still pumps fresh blood. Madvillainy's fiendish concoction of beats and lyrics was as zany and bugged-out as the combination of its two iconoclastic principals would suggest, but behind all the dark humor lies serious science. (Stones Throw)

AZEEM
Mayhem Mystics
It's almost too bad John Ashcroft is retiring, because his affinity for Big Brother-like voyeurism provided inspiration for songs like Azeem's "Under Surveillance," one of the best commentaries yet on the social consequences of the post-PATRIOT Act era. The rest of the album is just as good, blending Azeem's insightful observations ("Birth Right First"), metaphysical spirituality ("Seals"), and rebel-rousing exhortations ("Yes We Can") with the jazz-funk beats of the Wide Hive collective and the turntable cuts of DJ Zeph. (Wide Hive)

SHOCK G
Fear of a Mixed Planet
Digital Underground founder Shock G will always be linked to his colorful, proboscis-flaunting alter ego Humpty Hump, but there's more to him than just a nose. His first "solo" album -- which ends up being a collective effort, as usual -- reveals a poignancy that has all but disappeared from rap music since onetime DU protégé Tupac passed. Shock elegizes 'Pac while gently mocking the misanthropic tendencies of the Thug Nation on "Keep It Beautiful," revisits classic EPMD on "Weesom Hustlahs," and updates PE on the title track. Shock's positive messages are perfectly complemented by original production that's funkier than George Clinton's Underoos. (33rd Street)

TINARIWEN
Ammasakoul
If Led Zeppelin were politically active tribal nomads from the Sahara, this is the album they would make. Combining electric and acoustic instruments with world, folk, and rock rhythms and lyrics sung in their native tongue, the "blue men" of Mali have crafted a must-listen masterpiece that transcends the world beat genre. Mystical, sublime, and totally engaging, Ammasakoul demands to be placed alongside any conventional guitar-based pop album, or for that matter, any album from any genre released this year. (World Village)

VARIOUS
Tree of Satta
More than 450 variations on the "Satta Massagana" theme have been recorded, and this aptly named compilation collects twenty of the best versions of roots reggae's most enduring and meditative riddim, beginning with the Abyssinians' original. Amazingly, the "Satta" melody never gets weary -- even as it's put through its paces by the likes of Yami Bolo, Luciano, Tommy McCook, Ernest Ranglin, Natural Black, Jah Mali, Anthony B., Big Youth, Dean Fraser, and others -- resulting in a much wider appeal than the typical riddim-driven LP. (Blood+Fire)

ZAP MAMA
Ancestry in Progress
Zap Mama hits you with a harmony-laced bop gun that gets under your skin and into your heart. Freely blending traditional African chants, vocal percussion loops, and elements of neo-soul, hip-hop, and R&B, Ancestry in Progress shows who really has the goodies. It's easy to fall dangerously in love with ZM frontwoman Marie Daulne, but there's nothing toxic about the organically stimulating melodies found here, which raises the creativity bar for female vocalists and then some. (Luaka Bop)

STEFANIE KALEM

ART OF FLYING
Is Ever Gone
The astonishing folk universe of ex-San Franciscans Dave and Ann Costanza is simultaneously expanding and becoming more focused, with production by Larry Yes that spreads a soft, glowing blanket of keyboards, bicycle bells, finger-snaps, reverb, and ambient goodness all over the proceedings. Most of the vocals are Dave's this time, though a young Costanza daughter offers a startling reading of a piece that begins Fuck you, America. (Artistown)

THE DELAYS
Faded Seaside Glamour
From the synthesized steel drums of opener "Wanderlust," it's clear the Delays don't get a lot of sunshine in Southampton, England, which would explain why their version of sunny pop is so rich and exciting. Faded Seaside Glamour unites the VU-inspired dream-pop of the La's with shoulder-shaking melodies and Cocteau Twins-style layered vocal intoxication; Greg Gilbert's rapturous falsetto lifts it all above the gray clouds. (Rough Trade)

JULIE DOIRON
Goodnight Nobody
Whether singing about a sort of Zen hopefulness or taking the perspective of a just-left lover, the Montreal-based mother of three lays it all honestly and simply on the line, downcast but never dreary. Her voice is buoyed by fuller instrumentation than on previous efforts, and vocally, Doiron calls to mind the smoky altos of Shannon Wright and Cat Power, but without the histrionics -- in their place is a peaceful sense of poetry. (Jagjaguwar)

PJ HARVEY
Uh Huh Her
In 2004, this formerly shy lass from Dorset turned her self-consciousness inside out, covering the CD liner with a decade of self-portraiture and creating a record where the instrumentation is so minimalist and warmly muddy as to be her very innards hanging out, red and indistinguishable. And "Shame" is one of the best songs of her career. (Island)

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