Pop & Rock Year in Review 2004

Pop & Rock Year in Review 2004
Funeral (Merge)
It's the debut album by a Montreal band that no one had heard of 12 months ago. Yet a mere two months after its release, the Arcade Fire have become the most beloved new band in North America. "Is it a dream? Is it a lie?" they sing on "Power Out." The avalanche of acclaim that has greeted Funeral would send even the most egotistical daydreamer reeling with incredulity. But this is no dream, nor is it a lie.

As the band drives to Massachusetts for the first gig of their fall tour, they pass around a cell phone and attempt to answer questions about the past year. "It's exciting" and "it's overwhelming"; not much more. They don't say so, but you can tell they are reluctant to go on the record about their achievements, lest they look cocky and arrogant — even if they have every right. Start with the fact that Funeral sold out of its first pressing immediately. Near-unanimous five-star reviews fuelled the frenzy. Their weekend at the CMJ conference saw them become kings and queens of New York City in four days flat: they were wined and dined every night, The New York Times followed them around all weekend, and Spin had to squeeze in a Prospect Park photo shoot on a shivering Sunday morning just before the band left town for a month-long songwriting and wood-chopping retreat in Maine. Some of their musical heroes — indeed, some of the most influential artists of the last 30 years — are ordering albums and squeezing into sold-out shows. They are a Canadian secret no more: other than two shows in BC this December, Canada won't see the Arcade Fire again until the spring of 2005. At the earliest. Meanwhile, we have Funeral, its golden hymns of renewal leading us to rejoice until the springtime sun shines again. These are timeless tales — of snowy tunnels, burnt out streetlights, paradise lost, death and rebirth — and they'll be cherished long after the initial rush wears off. Better yet, this is only the beginning for the Arcade Fire. The crown of love is now upon them. Michael Barclay

Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade)
After delivering a whimsically delightful debut album of lo-fi oddball blues rock, the Friedberger siblings came storming right back in less than a year with an album that divided its listeners like no other. Clocking in at 76 minutes, Blueberry Boat is an ambitious effort that comprises riotous solos and bursts of noise, ingenious storytelling within miniature rock operas, and impeccable fluidity despite a record number of tangents. What could they possibly do to top this? Cam Lindsay

The Slow Wonder (Blue Curtain)
New Pornographer Carl Newman proves he can work under any name, especially his own. Canada's best pop tunesmith didn't waste any time coming back with a flawless collection of hook-filled pop songs to love and identify as simply Newman. Combining a majestic stroke of '60s nostalgia with an undeniable sound of today, The Slow Wonder is another example of how lucky we are to have this wunderkind writing songs for us. Cam Lindsay

Let It Die (Arts & Crafts)
There's no question that Leslie Feist has a spectacular voice, but it's what she does with it that elevates Let It Die far above any other chanteuse record. There's that tiny catch in her throat when she sings about "babies [that] haven't been born" on domestic-fantasy-as-perfect-single "Mushaboom," or that sly purr that keeps the slinky "One Evening" from getting too glib. She used to sing in her little flat in Toronto as the streetcars went by — now she shines bright in the City of Lights. We like to say we told you so. Tabassum Siddiqui

Set Yourself on Fire (Arts & Crafts)
As insurgents in what's been called the Soft Revolution, it seems odd that Stars followed up 2002's Heart with the more muscular Set Yourself on Fire. Remarkably, they managed the added beef while still maintaining the band's customary beauty. From subtle string sweeps to the fluid colloquial interplay of singers Amy Millan and Torquil Campbell, Stars prove — again — that it's possible to make sincere and sentimental music without sounding trite. Andrew Steenberg

A Ghost is Born (Nonesuch)
Despite hand wringing by both long-time fans and recent converts, Wilco's sound on Ghost drifted more toward the rhythmic bounce and artsy experimentation of Tortoise and Sonic Youth while maintaining its folk rock sensibilities. Chunks of poetry from Jeff Tweedy's book, Adult Head, were reorganised into songs, providing a unique glimpse at his writing process. There are a few glorious guitar freak-outs, beautiful ballads, and streetwise narratives that come together to form a wonderfully cohesive and inventive record. Vish Khanna

Antics (Matador)
Things are tighter and more energetic, but what makes Antics more than just a sophomore album is the one instrument that continues to manipulate us like a cult leader: Paul Banks's baritone. It is the palpable tension in Banks's voice that keeps us returning like a scared child who edges ever closer to the large chained dog, testing the limits and, excitedly, waiting for the inevitable attack. Chris Whibbs

Misery Is A Butterfly (4AD)
Lots of us thought Blonde Redhead was history, probably burned up by the magnificent three-album run in the late '90s that culminated with 2000's Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. This time out the band doesn't always sustain the sexual tension that made their other records memorable, but the best moments are ecstatic, perfect evocations of romantic hysteria. Carla Gillis

Infiniheart (Catch and Release)
Surprise! Out of a bedroom somewhere in Calgary comes one of the year's happiest indie rock moments. VanGaalen's debut collects ten years of recordings that find enormous strength in their precision, grace, and wavering croon. Chad patches together bits of unassuming electro sound with wholesome instrumentation and pitches like an old pro. A listen that clarifies its identity with each successive play. Star DT

Suffused with staccato guitar riffs, gummy bass refrains and a subliminal drum kick, the best tracks on this album stimulated the hips of hipsters everywhere, a rare feat for any rock band of the last 15 years. Produced by Swedish engineer Tore Johansson, this quartet's debut was rooted in a fixed time and place, capturing the sounds made by four young Scots on summer holiday in Scandinavia. When the band is playing arenas in the year 2030, you'll want to bring your kids along for the ride. Martin Turenne

Now More Than Ever (Three Gut)
According to his opening track here, "The longer the hesitation, the smaller the celebration." But as the year unfolded, Guthrie's third album — the oldest one on this list, released at the turn of the year — aged like a fine wine, to be pulled out for special occasions and moments of melancholic nostalgia. Unlike past efforts, Guthrie leans on his peers for some invaluable assistance: Andy Magoffin's sympathetic production and Owen Pallett's evocative string arrangements illustrated Guthrie's songs in glorious autumnal colours. Michael Barclay

Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch & Go)
Riding along on the indie scene's dance-rock wave, this bunch of doo wop-loving Brooklynite art-hipsters exceeded sky-high expectations with an album that broadened their already dense blueprint. Unafraid to go epic, they propped up soaring keyboard pile-ups with walls of guitar, club-worthy drums and tough emotional vocals. With the waters at their necks, TV on the Radio looked up and found euphoric solace in staring at the sun. Joshua Ostroff

i (Nonesuch)
Magnetic Fields leader Stephen Merritt furthered notions that he is contemporary pop music's greatest mastermind on the loosely conceptual i. Straying from his penchant for an almost orchestral use of synthesisers, Merritt produced his four-piece band playing nothing but "hand-played instruments." Once Merritt's familiar dry-witted hangdog vocals chime in, however, any difference from the band's previous instrumentation is barely noticeable. Another remarkable batch of moody, ingenious torch music from the Magnetic Fields. Vish Khanna

Blue Cathedral (Sub Pop)
Perhaps the most exciting dose of balls-out freak rock since Blue Cheer's Vincebus Eruptum, Blue Cathedral effectively pulls out all the stops and sets its controls for the heart of the psych while still managing to break out of the extreme underground's trappings. It could be because Comets on Fire know how to drop a peaceful Floyd-ian groove at just the right time, or maybe we're entering a new psychedelic era. Either way, this album rocks. Kevin Hainey

Bows + Arrows (Record Collection)
The fact that Bows + Arrows is, with one exception, 11 familiar slices of nicely honed Brooklyn-style garage noise doesn't matter, because that song — "The Rat" — has more glorious fury than anything else released this year. Enough, surely, to make every other New York rocker sick with envy. Carla Gillis

Mississauga Goddam (Evil Evil)
Say what you will about small towns and suburbs, but at least outside the city limits, you can still see the stars. On their sophomore album, Joel Gibb and company set their strings, guitars and percussion on a skyward trajectory, while majestic melodies pop goosebumps up and down your arms. Gay folk church music is here to stay — get used to it. Lorraine Carpenter

The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City)
When Newsom made this modest offering to the jaded public, steady word-of-mouth soon erupted into fervour. The 21-year-old harpist and songwriter from San Francisco is armed with voluminous wisdom and utterly original talent. Her voice — exceedingly strange and ageless — pulls you bodily inside her labyrinthine songs, mined with dense internal rhyme schemes and archaic language. Under the spell of her Appalachian harp, her stories unfold from oddness into perfect clarity. Helen Spitzer

Milk Man (Kill Rock Stars)
After the crunchy live-style of Apple O', Deerhoof pull together their slickest, best yet. Milk Man's spooky monster-ruled dream world, first born in a friend's drawing, pulls off postmodern-fruit-ghost-kiddy-creepy concept art with freakish flare, and damn if the songs aren't amazing too. With monstrous melodies to match outlandish ideas, Deerhoof are so far ahead of their peers at U of Weirdo, they may as well be Chancellor. Star DT

Seven Swans (Sounds Familyre)
Sufjan does what Steve Martin claimed impossible: make a banjo feel melancholic. Seven Swans is so elegant and elegiac it initially feels like a much "bigger" album, but Stevens manages to get by without layered strings. The songs are quiet, simple and contemplative but with a sense of certainty at their centre, which elevates them. Revivalist without inducing cringes or winces, even its earnestness becomes a rare strength. Eric Hill

Displaying incredible discipline and energy that screams, "Fuck entropy!" the song that truly encapsulates this band and album is the closer "Man Ray." It starts off in great, bombastic form and over its two-and-a-half-minute run messily deteriorates until the throat-shredding command of "shut up!" roars from the speakers. Imposing the aural principle of either do it right or don't do it at all, the Futureheads are scarily vital. Chris Whibbs

Pop Go The Weirdos
Perhaps no one in the past year of music should be more celebrated than the average pop fan, whose tastes veered from adventurous to downright demented in 2004. The Flaming Lips may have blazed trails on the "Beck & bunnies" tour, but there's overwhelming evidence that "challenging" has gone from epithet to high praise, due in no small part to word-of-blog among music fans.

Frog Eyes have generated bemused adulation with each release, but it was this year's The Folded Palm that sent online reviewers into uniformly hyperbolic spasms. It was the ideal musical climate for the reappearance of Brian Wilson's SMiLE, not to mention Björk's most challenging listen to date. Modest Mouse became unlikely crossover heroes, going from hard-earned indie obscurity to moving 30,000 copies a week of Good News For People Who Love Bad News, which, despite spawning a radio hit, seemed initially too twitchy to justify such love from the mainstream Top 40. So too for the Fiery Furnaces' career-defining Blueberry Boat, whose persistence on the charts for half the year was boosted each time it was decried as unlistenable.

Just as unpredictable was the word-of-mouth that lent elfin squeaker Joanna Newsom, her teeth-obsessed cohort Devendra Banhart and ethereal dweeb-folkers Animal Collective such indie ubiquity, or the unlikely ascent of audio-flagellants Wolf Eyes. Canadians have been at the forefront of this shift; in addition to the higher profile Frog Eyes and the Unicorns came releases from the out-of-nowhere junkshop punk of All Purpose Voltage Heroes, the Saskatoonian spazz-pop of Maybe Smith and the swoony histrionics of the not-so-ephemeral Les Mouches.
Helen Spitzer

Psych Out!
The Year's Ten Most Mind-Melting Moments

Gang Gang Dance (Fusetron)
A confounding mixture of beat-driven experimentation and challenging psychedelia that consistently shape-shifts one step ahead of its listener.

Keiji Haino Hikari Yami Uchitokeaishi Kono Hibiki (PSF)
Haino's first album of solo acoustic guitar work in some time effectively breaks down the aging instrument's conventions — as well as the listener's Eastern hemisphere.

Simon Finn Pass the Distance (Durtro / Jnana)
This frightening 1970 slice of obscuro Canadian-bred psych-folk finally sees proper release and receives its rightful due as a lost classic.

Harris Newman Non-Sequiturs (Strange Attractors)
Mind-bogglingly intricate solo steel guitar work (sometimes with suitable accompaniment) from the Montreal engineer behind countless crucial Canadian releases.

Yellow Swans Bring the Neon War Home (Narnack)
Shrapnel-sharp walls of noise shifting overtop banging beats and formless beauty.

Mouthus (Psych-O-Path)
Oddly erupting bursts of home-recorded noise-rock that could be a soundtrack to life on an alien plane.

Growing The Soul of the Rainbow and the Harmony of Light (Kranky)
Peaceful and serene, yet full of tension, Growing's sophomore album greatly improves on the promise of their debut.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. Mantra of Love (Alien8)
Two lengthy tracks, one peaceful, one war-like, from the Japanese band that should have won the U.S. election.

Sunroof! Cloudz (VHF)
Endless loops of slightly shifting and continuously entrancing psychedelic wonderment.

Ghost Hypnotic Underworld (Drag City)
This mysterious Japanese group's tour de force, a throwback to psych and prog rock's golden early '70s period.
Kevin Hainey