In popular musica term that increasingly embraces classical music and jazzyear-end “best-of” lists have become so ubiquitous and contrived that they hardly mean anything anymore. In glossy magazines, such lists are dominated by titles released by the record companies that spent the most advertising dollars in the pages of the publications in question (or that hired the best publicists). In newspapers and other periodicals, best-of lists typically are littered with titles that writers and editors might not have “lived with” (much less listened to), but that out of deference to the guardians of hip, they fear should be there.
The following is an attempt to do something a little different. The Scene’s editors asked a half-dozen or so music writers to submit briefly annotated lists containing the 10 things that were the musical highlights of 2004 for them. We didn’t restrict participants to listing just singles or albums; instead, we urged them to cite local club shows and concerts, as well as to include any music-related books, movies, DVDs, events or happenings that they found meaningful or otherwise significant.
We don’t harbor illusions that these lists are exhaustive or definitive. (God knows, the paper needs a regular hip-hop writer, and yes, that’s an advert: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Still, we believe that the constellation of responses that follows offers a Nash-centric snapshot of the year in music that is more reflective of how people engage records, shows and whatnot than the glut of lists that are published every year at this time. Mostly, we hope you find them good reading and that they start a few discussionsor fights.
THE STATE OF ROCK 2004
1. WILCO, A GHOST IS BORN (NONESUCH) Wilco’s difficult fifth album loses the hurdy-gurdy effects of Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but keeps the experimental spirit, with stripped-down instrumentation that makes Jeff Tweedy’s shambling structures sound dangerously incomplete. It’s not a crowd-pleaser, but Tweedy’s haunted rasp and preoccupation with repetition may best describe the exhausted, nerve-wracked pop world of 2004.
2. THE WALKMEN, BOWS + ARROWS (RECORD COLLECTION) The decadently atmospheric guitars of The Walkmen’s 2002 debut found good reason to drone on the band’s sophomore release, with tight, vicious patterns to drone in. Over the racket, singer Walter Martin wails about betrayals and lost hope in a voice that makes clear he’s not just talking about his social life.
3. THE VELVET TEEN, ELYSIUM (SLOWDANCE) Daring to be dramatic, The Velvet Teen worked postadolescent melancholy into mini-symphonies to rival the lush fantasies of Brian Wilson. Wilson’s beautifully compromised SMiLE is probably the real album of the year, but The Velvet Teen’s Jeff Buckley fetish and epic self-absorption is more in line with the world today.
4. REIGNING SOUND, TOO MUCH GUITAR (IN THE RED) After releasing the accessible but unnoticed neo-garage gem Time Bomb High School two years ago, these Memphians batter around their tiny audience on the follow-up, threading R&B hooks through needle-jumping noise. It takes some getting used to, but as a deceptively disciplined howl of fury, the record holds its ground.
5. NEKO CASE, THE TIGERS HAVE SPOKEN (ANTI-) Case stands at the nexus of the vibrant Canadian art-pop scene and the Chicago alt-country cult, but not until her conceptually brilliant live record has she so seamlessly joined rock passion with rootsy heartache. It’s folk music history reinterpreted by an idiosyncratic, big-voiced wonder.
6. RJD2, SINCE WE LAST SPOKE (DEFINITIVE JUX) A promising Midwestern turntablist makes good with a low-key, visionary record that fuses hip-hop, lounge-pop, indie-rock and suburban poetics. He filters retro cool through a modernist’s sensibility, without the drag of irony.
7. ELBOW, CAST OF THOUSANDS (V2) Post-Coldplay hitmakers are piling up on British docks, waiting for export, but it's the below-the-radar Elbow who have the sense of grandeur and the imagination to stand with their top peers, even if the band are more interested in subtle drift than in world-beating melodies.
8. THE HOLD STEADY, ALMOST KILLED ME (FRENCH KISS) These Minneapolis rock evangelists rely on one jokebandleader Craig Finn's garish, boyish pop fantasies expressed in a monotone shoutbut the joke is legitimately funny and bears retelling. Finn parodies the petulance and mayhem that surrounds cultural saviors, while not so secretly hoping that he'll become one.
9. LORETTA LYNN, VAN LEAR ROSE (INTERSCOPE) As much a Jack White album as a Loretta Lynn one, this rowdy and sweet cross-generational confab rescues classic country by treating it as an evolving entity, not the waxworks that purists pretend.
10. RILO KILEY, MORE ADVENTUROUS (BRUTE/BEAUTE) Not since Fairground Attraction twirled merrily out of the UK in the '80s (before promptly twirling away again) has a band so effortlessly fused twilight twinkle and airy melodicism. These roots-poppers have the edge on Fairground, because Jenny Lewis' voice and attitude draw on the impudence and sorrow of Chrissie Hynde and PJ Harvey. She's blunt, but winsome.
ECLECTICA, TAKE ONE
By David Maddox
1. SANJAY SUBRAHMANYAM, SARRATT CENTER This South Indian vocalist, who has a rich voice and a sly, sophisticated delivery, gave the best performance of any type I heard all year. You may not think of Nashville as a center of Indian music, but Sankaran Mahadevan and Monica Cooley, who brought Subrahmanyam to Sarratt, organize an ongoing music and dance series at Sri Ganesha Temple that offers some of the most consistently satisfying performances in town, regardless of genre.
2. JOANNA NEWSOM, THE 5 SPOT Starting her show singing a cappella and fiercely clapping her hands, Newsom pulled the audience in tight for the really smart songs she sings in her childish voice. Her language performs a trick of being fanciful, literary and rooted in a sense of place at the same time.
3. SLEEPYTIME GORILLA MUSEUM, THE MUSE I didn't have a clue about this group until I saw them play live. After a long stage setup for their complicated homemade instruments, they went into a ritualistic set complete with a processional and audience/congregation response that played brilliantly on the energy in a club like the Muse.
4. NASHVILLE SYMPHONY/TURANGALILA-SYMPHONIE Although the acoustics in Jackson Hall stink and dampened the sonic effects, the NSO did a great job with this long, tough score by the greatest composer of recent generations, Olivier Messiaen.
5. VIKTOR KRAUSS & JACK SILVERMAN, THE BASEMENT Krauss had an album out this year with guys like Bill Frisell and Jerry Douglas. Nothing against Frisell and company, but I think the stuff rocks more when Krauss gets together with Silverman (the Scene's senior editor) and his band The Ordeal to play the same tunes. Half the fun is watching Krauss, who just seems delighted to be playing.
6. HENRY WARNER, THE 5 SPOT This sax player was completely unknown to me, in part because he only recently has retired from a day job that kept him from touring. He played articulate bop-based free jazz that started with one standard and flowed freely into another and another.
7. JACKIE-O MOTHERFUCKER, SPRINGWATER A large band in which subgroups work on different things and the parts cohere through patience and repetition. They played a generous set that gave the music time to seep in and change your brain chemistry for the better.
8. "CAMERA OBSCURA," WRVU-91.1 FM Angela Lin's radio show, which went on hiatus this fall, mixed serious contemporary composition and early music, the kind of stuff WPLN can't get away with broadcasting.
9. JOHN ROCKWELL, "THE WORDS AND MUSIC EQUATION" This commentary in The New York Times confirmed my predilection to listen to sounds first, then go back and pick up on words. Let's face it; most lyrics aren't great literature, and who cares if they aren't as long as they come with a great tune, a stunning performance or inventive production.
10. JOLIE HOLLAND, MERCY LOUNGE She gave a fine performance, but I would have traded it all for one line from a Freakwater song that she sang late in the show: "There's nothing as pure as the kindness of an atheist." Just to contradict myself in pick No. 9.
By Michael McCall
1 / 2. GRETCHEN WILSON, REDNECK WOMAN (EPIC) / LORETTA LYNN, VAN LEAR ROSE (INTERSCOPE) Two country homegirls representing. Writing about what they know with concise, vivid frankness, newcomer Wilson and legendary Lynn conjure unexpected breakthroughs that, in different ways, shook the staleness from the Nashville system. Wilson drove a stake through the dying country diva movement by refusing to doll herself up to sell records, in the process proving that real women can connect. Lynn, of course, taught that forgotten lesson long ago. This time, she revived her career by hooking up with a young rocker who understood that a personality as colorful and well-drawn as hers doesn't need varnish.
3. MARAH, 20,000 STREETS UNDER THE SKY (YEP ROC) Philadelphians Dave and Serge Bielanko employ urban neighborhood sounds to add color to their Springsteen-inspired soul-rock, then use catchy, inventive arrangements to add dimension to their irony-free portraits of true-to-life characters who prove how hard it is to be a saint in a modern American city.
4. MINDY SMITH, ONE MOMENT MORE (VANGUARD) Sensitive yet tough-minded, Smith has earned national recognition with this stunningly emotional debut. Her autobiographical songs seethe with moral fury or whisper with bruised tenderness, all of it furthered by the bold chances she takes with her expressive voice and unpredictable melodies.
5. BOB DYLAN, CHRONICLES, VOL. 1 (SIMON & SCHUSTER) This autobiography is surprisingly frank and illuminating for such an inscrutable fellow as Dylan. Avoiding gossip about his personal life, he focuses on the figures in music, film, literature, art and history who inspired him, portraying how he became a serious musician who took chances and learned to trustand then distrusthis instincts. After the millions of words written about him, Chronicles authoritatively delineates how and why he became what he became while leaving the magic and mystery intact.
6. BUDDY MILLER, UNITED UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF PRAYER (NEW WEST) This alt-country guitar hero's roots-rock gospel album balances righteous anger about how Christianity is misused and misinterpreted with openhearted testifying about the strength and solace he draws from his faith.
7 / 8. TODD SNIDER, EAST NASHVILLE BLUES (OH BOY) / BOBBY BARE JR.'S YOUNG CRIMINALS' STARVATION LEAGUE, FROM THE END OF YOUR LEASH (BLOODSHOT) These Nashville individualists mash rock, folk and alt-country into something entirely their own. Laughing to keep from crying, they draw on real-life escapades to create darkly hilarious goofs that address subjects ranging from pop culture and being your own worst enemy to the friction that comes from desiring both to be free and to be loved.
9. HELENE GRIMAUD, CREDO (DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON) This French-born classical pianist plots her work to tell an emotional story of introspection, spiritual yearning and release. She begins with a modern solo composition inspired by the beautiful second movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, then builds in intensity with idiosyncratic orchestral takes on Beethoven's Tempest sonata and Choral Fantasy, before pulling out the stops with an ecstatic version of Arvo Pärt's avant-garde "Credo." It's a moving progression that shows how a smart classical performer can enliven the genre with audacious invention.
10. VARIOUS ARTISTS, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER: THE SONGS OF STEPHEN FOSTER (ARP) A carefully chosen lineup of artists lift up Foster's classic and lesser-known works by translating them with timeless taste rather than forcing them into a modern box. From Mavis Staples' gospel throwdown on "Hard Times Come Again No More" to Judith Edelman's touching "No One to Love," nearly every song benefits from a personal handprint that's unlike any previous version on record.
A DJ (AND SOME ROCK BANDS) SAVED MY LIFE THIS YEAR
By Jason Shawhan
1. THE CURE, CURIOSA FESTIVAL AT STARWOOD They opened with "Plainsong," my favorite Cure song of all time, and I wept profusely, three feet from Robert Smith in the photo pit. I drifted in the waves of keyboards, never wanting it to end. Simply ecstasy.
2. MUSE The album Absolution (Taste Media/Warner Bros.); "New Born" in cranked-up supersurround sound at the Nashville Film Festival screening of Haute Tension; second stage at Curiosa at Starwood; headlining at Mercy Lounge. It was Muse's year, and every second of drama and orchestral crunch was heaven.
3. THE ARCADE FIRE, FUNERAL (MERGE) This Canadian collective deserve every good thing that's been said about them. Their soundscapes are evocative and "Neighborhood 1: Tunnels" is, hands down, the song of the year. Their album is a majestic work of beauty and trepidation, like Darren Hayes' (sadly) Europe-only The Tension and the Spark.
4. THE KILLERs, HOT FUSS (ISLAND DEF JAM) Exploring a tangled narrative of murder, voyeurism and genderfuck, one of the few albums released this year with no weaknesses. No one does catchy and queasy quite like this Las Vegas dance-rock quartet, though local duo Good Lord to the Devil's Four-Song EP is just as unsettling and unforgettable.
5. ANDREW W.K., EXIT/IN Simply glorious. Somewhere in the night, Jim Steinman must have beamed gleefully. The Texas Terri/Cheetah Chrome throwdown at Springwater Aug. 5 rocked every bit as hard, just in a different way.
6. THE DANCE-POP EPIC is not dead, as the bounty of Kylie Minogue's "I Believe In You" (written and produced by Jake and Babydaddy from The Scissor Sisters), Gwen Stefani's "The Real Thing" (with one-half of New Order and one-third of Prince's band) and The Faint's "Paranoiattack" prove.
7. SHARON JONES & THE DAP-KINGS, EXIT/IN The funk was present, political and on fire. Their version of "This Land Is Your Land" proved the most inspirational moment of the year, approached only by The Scissor Sisters' "It Can't Come Quickly Enough" and Faithless' fearless "Mass Destruction."
8. AGNETHA FALTSKOG, "WHEN YOU WALK IN THE ROOM" (EDUARDO YANEZ'S POUNDING PEAK-HOUR REWORK) In this mysterious remix of the former ABBA vocalist's cover of the Jackie DeShannon classic, the unknown Yanez delivers the year's best remix, a big-room house mix with dark energy and oscillating keyboards that massage the brain and compel the ass to move. Ten-plus minutes of disco bliss.
9. MUSIC IN MOVIES Few experiences can top hearing a song used well in a film, and 2004 had plenty, like INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart" in Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut, Djulz's "Timeless Bass" in the opening of Anatomy of Hell, Damian Lewis' wrenching freakout to The Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" in Keane, the zombie beatdown to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" in Shaun of the Dead, and the Johnny Cash "The Man Comes Around"/Jim Carroll Band "People Who Died" book-ending of the remake of Dawn of the Dead.
10. REISSUES This year's essential reissues were the long out-of-print soundtrack to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and ZTT's three-disc Act anthology Laughter, Tears and Rage. The former provides both film and original album versions (with the Lynn Carey vocals) of all the Carrie Nations songs, the latter an exhaustive retrospective of one of the sadly forgotten bright spots of '80s Eurodisco.
TOP 10 ROCK SHOWS OF THE YEAR
By Tracy Moore
1. THE FEATURES, RCKTWN It was cool enough that The Features were releasing a much anticipated record on a major, but the crowd was even cooler: girls in vintage prom dresses, new-wave hipsters and a who's-who of the local rock scene, one of whom was overheard saying, "Hey, if somebody bombed this place tonight, there'd be no local rock scene left."
2. THE PIXIES, RYMAN AUDITORIUM Legendary and aloof, The Pixies rocked us that night like we weren't really there, but it was no matter; we were happy to finally be allowed in the same room with them. Cool points to the hip dad up front with his preteen son in tow, sporting a Pixies Doolittle shirt.
3. SAHARA HOTNIGHTS, THE END These Swedish pop-rockers raised the goblet of rockand the barto a bunch of sweaty dudes pumping their fists in the air and trying to conceal their drool, proving once and for all that girls rock just as hard as boys.
4. FEABLE WEINER, THE RED ROSE Nothing gives a local band a chance to tighten the screws like a pre-tour sendoff at their local watering hole. Josh Weiner introduced a new song to an enthusiastic crowd with the modest introduction, "Hey, check out this new songit's fucking awesome."
5. THE PRIVATES, THE SUTLER One member has never quite forgiven me for what I wrote about the band's lack of onstage banter that night, but The Privates gave their audience a dose of what's missing from many local showsfrenzied rock with no filler.
6. THE CURE, STARWOOD Even though I had collected almost everything The Cure released through 1990, I never got the chance to see them perform live until this year. I was a bit apprehensive that the band's hypnotic goth-pop would seem as outdated and ridiculous as my teen-aged conviction that one day I would be Mrs. Robert Smith. But the band had me mesmerized all over again, playing every song that mattered and a few new ones I'd missed over the years while my musical taste was busy evolving.
7. THE SOUNDS, MERCY LOUNGE Buzz bands blow through town often enough and typically leave us with a performance that just as easily could have been accomplished by walking onstage, plugging in a boom box, playing their CD and leaving. And then The Sounds came. And blew the place up. And Maja Ivarsson climbed on the PA speakers. In stilettos. That's rock 'n' roll.
8. THE PINK SPIDERS, GIBSON SHOWCASE Just off the tour circuit and back in town for about a minute, the Spiders barreled through tracks from their then-unreleased LP Hot Pink, stopping only to lecture the crowd on the finer points of attending a rock show"Don't stand with your arms crossed," "Get off your ass," "Look alive"making everyone forget they were at a show at the mall.
9. JETPACK, THE END Nothing packs a Nashville venue faster than rumors of "record label interest." This summer the guys in jetpack sold out The End and lured the suits with their smart power-pop, earning them an official place as one of Nashville's "bands to watch."
10. STEVIE BINGE & THE FORK HUNTS, EXIT/IN Five local girls dressed in skimpy Wizard of Oz costumes played their thirdand finalshow at the Exit. Their parents came. They only had four songs. The chorus of one them was, "Fuck you / I'll fuck myself." And it was awesome.
CBG: THE YEAR IN COUNTRY & BLUEGRASS
By Jon Weisberger
1. BRAD PAISLEY & ALISON KRAUSS, "WHISKEY LULLABYE" This pair's version of this brilliantly bleak tale of betrayal, remorse and suicide by alcohol made for an unlikely but deserving hitand theirs might not even have been the best.
2. ALISON KRAUSS CROWNED THE TOP GRAMMY-WINNING FEMALE ARTIST EVER ( FEB. 8) Confounding the zealous guardians of genre borders, Krauss earned her way into cultural history by representing country and bluegrass with unsurpassed artistry and integrity.
3. THE RISE OF THE MUZIKMAFIA You don't have to be an unreserved fan of either Big & Rich or Gretchen Wilson to recognize that the success of "country music without prejudice" brings healthy diversity and energy to the genre.
4. BLUEGRASS GOSPEL GETS IT RIGHT 2004 was one of the best years in years for bluegrass gospel, with strong releases by acts ranging from veterans Paul Williams and Marty Raybon to angel-voiced Dale Ann Bradley and newcomers NewFound Road.
5. THE REEMERGENCE OF LORETTA LYNN If Music Row execs want to grumble about how Lynn's career was revived by the garage-rock production of Jack White, they only have themselves to blame; she's sounded great all along.
6. FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT Their candidate may have lost, but the Music Row Dems came off as winners by affirming that the country music community is no more monolithic politically than it is musically.
7. EARL SCRUGGS TURNS 80 The Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum stepped up to the plate magnificently, celebrating the banjo man's birthday with, among other things, a monthlong set of concerts that underlined his stature in Nashvilleand the rest of the world.
8. BACK TO THE BARROOMS Honky-tonk country came roaring back this year, most notably with the release of Mark Chesnutt's Savin' the Honky Tonk, an indie release that put the native of East Texas back on the sawdust floor.
9. A NEW GENERATION OF WOMEN Gretchen Wilson was the most successful, but new female acts in country and bluegrassCatherine Britt and Julie Roberts, among several othersoffered a bright counterpoint to the recent wave of male artists who arrived on the heels of complaints about the "feminization" of country music.
10. LARRY SPARKS NAMED BLUEGRASS MALE VOCALIST OF THE YEAR (OCT. 7) Grumbling about the bluegrass industry's putative softening wasor should have beensilenced when this reserved, hardcore legend deservedly took an honor that usually goes to more gregarious or younger singers.
ECLECTICA, TAKE TWO
By Bill Levine
1. BEST EFFORT TO EXPAND THE RANGE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC IN NASHVILLE: ALIAS CHAMBER ENSEMBLE It's risky to give a local premiere of a recent Pulitzer winner's largely untried work or of other modern composers, like John Adams, who are rarely performed outside a few cultural enclaves. But Alias navigate between the familiar and unfamiliar with ease and clarity.
2. BEST SUBSTITUTE FOR AN ONGOING COMMERCIAL JAZZ SERIES: MTSU VISITING JAZZ ARTISTS SERIES Nothing downtown this year could match the Kenny Werner Trio (Feb. 5), who ventured far beyond anything that local audiences have seen in years, and saxophonist Benny Golson (April 17), who spurred an entire orchestra to take solos on his classic "Jazz March."
3. BEST BOON RESULTING FROM THE SHRINKING CLASSICAL RECORD INDUSTRY More selective and better releases of new and living composers and the record companies' commissioning of special projects, such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies' Naxos String Quartets.
4. BEST RECOVERY OF A LOCAL MUSICAL TRADITION: NIGHT TRAIN TO NASHVILLE EXHIBITION & CD The cultural artifacts and the music reawakened interest in a vibrant tradition of local R&B that was displaced by urban renewal, but never really died. The best consequence of this exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum (and the Grammy-nominated CD that accompanied it) was the renewed attention paid to the survivors of this era, such as the Jefferson Street Bluesmen (see below).
5. BEST LOCAL BLUES CD: BLUES IN THE STREET, JEFFERSON STREET BLUESMEN Recently entered into competition for a W.C. Handy Award, this album embodies what the Night Train phenomenon helped trigger: making a musical legacy come alive and speak boldly to the present.
6. BEST STANDARD-BEARER OF VANDERBILT'S GREAT PERFORMANCES SERIES: ETHEL (OCT. 9) The string quartet Ethel combined classical, rock, blues and folk styles with a postmodernist twist that called attention to how each part of a composition or ensemble can be dismantled and then reintegrated, thus rising far above all clichéd attempts to "fuse" classical with other genres.
7. BEST PROMOTIONAL CONCEPT: WILLIE NELSON AND BOB DYLAN TOURING MINOR LEAGUE BALLPARKS Nelson's and Dylan's Aug. 20 appearance at Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn., wasn't Woodstock, Farm Aid or even Bonnaroo, but it generated the feel of an event that time forgot. Who cares if Willie and family had only an hour to recite his greatest hits or if Dylan's latest reincarnation had him dressed up like Bob Wills and drowned his already incomprehensible delivery under rockabilly and thrash?
8. MOST UNDER-APPRECIATED CONCERT SERIES: VOIGHT-KAMPFF MUSIC Even moving a few of these shows into The 5 Spot didn't draw the type of walk-in traffic that would actually listen to top-rank avant-gardists. But back at Voight-Kampff's usual home base at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center, a few hearty loyalists were riveted by performances like that of Japanese percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani, who balanced tact, force and textural variety (April 13).
9. BEST AND ONLY PURE LISTENING ROOM: NASHVILLE JAZZ WORKSHOP'S JAZZ CAVE The venue for the Jazz Workshop's "Snap on 2 and 4" series hosted local combos on the second and fourth Fridays of each month and occasional guest artists like big-band drummer Jeff Hamilton (Nov. 12-13).
10. BEST INTIMATE PERFORMANCE: LENI STERN, MAY 18 AT 12TH & PORTER Stern's command of multicultural storytelling and soft textures on guitar and vocals made this performance a refreshing change from the jazz-inflected divas-of-the-moment who are stretched thin in larger halls. n
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