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Albums of 2004

Yes yes, it’s that time of year when a bunch of us diskant types feel the need to share with you our thoughts on what the Best Records Of Last Year were. The following albums were decided upon by collecting a large shortlist (if that’s possible) of our individual favourites, which were then voted on using a mathematically-watertight selection formula. 2004 seemed to be an odd year for albums – both myself and many other people I spoke to bought far fewer than normal. Whether this is due to some kind of odd musical natural selection, or a lack of decent releases, it’s hard to say… but the albums below are – despite a few conflicting opinions – all worth your attention.

Who we are: Steve Ansell (SA), John Coburn (JC), JGram (JGR), Jon Goodwin (JGO), Simon Minter (SM), Simon Proffitt (SP), Marceline Smith (MS), Dave Stockwell (DS), Chris Summerlin (CS).

* * *

Sonic Youth – Sonic Nurse

MS: Probably the most acessible and ‘together’ SY album for a long time, and by that I mean you can put it on at work and no-one complains. Most SY albums have one of those Kim songs and one 25 minute noodly nonsense track that never fail to bring about looks of pity and disgust from workmates. Maybe it’s not much of a step forward in terms of sound and experimentation but it rocks and it’s nice for them to prove that they can just knock one of these out any old time and thus the improvisational nooding is something they choose to do, not something they’re forced into because they’ve forgotten how to write songs.

JGR: Sonic Youth’s recent years records have all followed a similar sort of stream whilst also having their own identity. This record saw a nod back towards noise and ferocisity in a style befitted to hipsters in their forties.

SA: Some of this is cool but some of it seems very song-y, I think I miss the wilder sound of Sonic Youth. A lot of this sounds a bit restrained – they have amazing guitar textures and find some interesting sounds but it’s not quite as intense as some of the other records.

CS: I still think some of it’s a bit noodley at times, but the Kim songs are so direct and rocking and catchy it wins the album out in the long run. I think.

SP: Despite the fact that I’m a big Yoofhead (I just made that term up, I think, and I know it’s repellent. I hope no-one calls anyone that in earnest) I don’t have this album yet. Even though it’s only about a fiver online. I think that says alot. Most likely it says how much I’m missing out on a fantastic album.

DS: Please let this not be album of the year. Seriously. I think it’s fucking rubbish. The aural equivalent of a spent cock: what was once huge, throbbing and urgent has become limp, messy and severely diminished. Plus, the stains on the sheets from the night before are off-putting and extremely embarrassing. I blushed for them every time I tried to listen to this thing. Just go and buy every other album they did before this one; they’re all much, much better. Even Experimental Jet Set, Trash & No Star

SM: Anybody who suggests that this isn’t a great album is a cloth-eared, boss-eyed and slack-jawed fool. It is obviously fantastic stuff, recalling some of the best elements of all of Sonic Youth’s work and rolling it all up into a coherent and consistent set of songs.

* * *

Aufgehoben – Anno Fauve

DS: You mean there’s music in this thing? I thought it was a luxury version of pass-the-parcel for vinyl snobs / haven’t undone the wire holding it all together so as to keep the scumcollector’s value / have been playing the quarter-inch-think blank Perspex slabs on my turntable and wondering if this is what the new Merzbow will sound like. (Actually, the vinyl with the ‘music’ on sounds like I thought Merzbow would sound like before I actually heard him. That is, it’s bracing, interesting, and good.)

SP: An absolutely exhausting, monumental album, 100% uncompromising and skull-crackingly intense from start to finish. And after 40 minutes of harrowing, arrhythmic war-zone, just as you think you can’t take anymore, you get your first repetitive beat – punishing sledgehammer blows that last barely 30 seconds before imploding into some serious toxic sludge. A masterpiece.

SM: Am I allowed to comment on this, seeing as how I released it? I’ll try and be impartial, but it’s difficult. This is an outstanding album, it steps away from the more beat-heavy earlier Aufgehoben albums into a more abstract, intense and frightening place. So much more than just noise for the sake of it, the album swoops from quiet drones of feedback to in-the-red white noise within the carefully-controlled blink of an eye.

MS: Well, this is what I get for asking both label owners to vote in the poll! In contrast to my other votes, this is the only record on my list that I actually paid money for and also the only one I haven ‘t actually listened to. I bought it mainly for the astonishing packaging and also because I trust the two Simons that it must be worth listening to. Why I haven’t listened to it yet is more complex – partly a disinclination to take it to bits but mostly because I am lazy and this record is HEAVY and the record player is all the way over THERE and it isn’t on my iBook. Also, no doubt, it amuses me to own such an expensive weighty record and not even listen to it. Someone should slap me.

CS: What the fuck is this? Does this mean I am now old and out of touch?

* * *

The Futureheads – The Futureheads

SM: For yet another band going down the early 80s path lined with Gang of Four and Fire Engines records, the Futureheads seem to have nevertheless captured something special and charming. The North Eastern accents come through brilliantly in the vocals, and there are elements of the Jam and Buzzcocks in there to provide an ‘up’, positive sounding and pleasurable album.

JGR: They sound like the Jam.

JC: I wish The Futureheads would get more famous because this is edgy, intelligent pop music that could be loved by any right-minded member of the British public. As it is, they still seem to be occupying the lower echelons of the Top 40 where the likes of Bennett and The Supernaturals once loitered uneasily. Barring the entirety of track seven, half of track two and an over-produced four-second vocal effect on track 12, this is a fantastic album that does not deserve to be found in £1 bargain bins this time next year.

SA: Why does all indie rock sounds like this now? Cod-Gang of Four guitars and the same fucking voice and drum beat on everything… Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand, isn’t anyone bored of this crap?

SP: I’ve got a track of theirs on a compilation. It’s pretty run of the mill spiky post-punk pop. It’s OK, I suppose. But I’ve gotta respect them for the Kate Bush cover.

JGO: Even though I put this in my top ten, I have to admit to being a little disappointed with it when it came out. Like the Deerhoof record it contains some of the greatest pop moments to grace my ears in the past year(s), but, like the Deerhoof record, it simply doesn’t do justice to what a great band they are on stage, and messes with some of their best songs (the middle bit in ‘Carnival Kids’ – what the fuck? Ditto the over-produced ‘Stupid and Shallow’). The first five tracks though… wow.

* * *

Sunn o))) – White 2

SM: Picking up from where White 1 left off, White 2 ups the pace a bit. By that I mean that there is a fresh wave of bass-heavy drone every three minutes. Positively disco-paced. The magic happens when this is on at high volumes, and you really concentrate on what you’re listening to.

SA: This is so heavy it’s impossible to listen to on a normal hi-fi unless you have it so loud your house almost collapses.

SP: Some people tread a fine line between high-art cock-out rock thrill and pantomime comedy. Sunn o))), unlike The Darkness, do this to perfection – they are both brilliant and ridiculous. Druid’s robes? Brilliant and ridiculous. Crushing, ponderously slow, plate-techtonic power chords? Brilliant and ridiculous. Mind-numbing repetition? Ditto. Etc. etc. It misses the point to mention that it’s been done before (they started off literally as an Earth tribute band). Lots of things have been done before. But not this well, and not with such sombre dedication.

* * *

The Go! Team – Thunder, Lightning, Strike

MS: Lots of people including JGram recommended this band to me but I never remembered to check them out until (the shame!) I saw them on the video screen thing in Top Shop. Oh dear. I have no idea who they are or what they think they’re doing but this has some of the most fun songs I’ve heard in a long while reminding me of more technically inventive but less political Riot Grrrl. I like shouting girls.

JGR: My favourite band all year. The album is a bit flawed but the moments where/when it all comes together on tracks like ‘Huddle Formation’ and ‘Ladyflash’ shows gives you the impression that this band may have “it” whilst also producing tunes that make your heart pulse that much more quicker and your day move faster.

SA: One of the worst bands I have ever seen in my entire life. Also friends of mine. It’s not even good pop music, it’s just fucking boring and very, very VERY cliched.

* * *

Deerhoof – Milkman

SA: This is great actually, why didn’t I vote for it? Really rockin’ scrappy drumbeats and really childlike songs that stop and start and play with the listener. Yeah!

CS: So much joy, so much love like a big pink heart actually bursting in front of you. Fresh like running naked into a 6 foot tall watermelon at 5000mph. I wish I had made this album. The reason I didn’t is because I am crap and Deerhoof aren’t. PS – Check the Sonic Youth Corporate Ghost DVD for an appearance from Chris from Deerhoof as a teenager.

JGR: Giovanni Ribisi’s favourite band, says he in the latest issue of FHM. No higher level of praise or recommendation required.

SP: Musically, this is totally wonderful – slightly deranged and twistedly sinister, like the audio equivalent of a Gottfried Helnwein painting. But please, what the hell is going on with the cover? Is it a deliberate reaction against po-faced Mille Plateauxesque clinicalism? Is it conscious undesign? Or sincere design? Whatever, it upsets me, but not in a good way.

JGO: Hit and miss. One of the best live bands I’ve seen all year, and the first track, ‘Milk Man’, is probably the best song I’ve heard all year. But there’s too much studio arseing around and not enough pop-rocking. When they find a tune though, they can sure find a tune.

JC: If I’d remembered that this album existed, it would have ranked about #6 in my favourite albums of last year.

MS: I haven’t heard this as I am not yet done with Apple O. Deerhoof were often recommended to me but I’m afraid I assumed them to be one of those crazy Dave S/Ollie noise bands. Luckily I went to see them live and was delighted to discover they were a crazy noise band but one with a tiny female singer yelping about pandas and lollipops and dancing with plushy fruits so I needed no more convincing of their awesomeness. The cover art for this record is possibly the worst I have ever seen though so I’m not sure if I can bring myself to purchase it.

DS: Less rough around the edges, jagged bits and stupid asides; more pop, and still genius. In my rough’n’ready-loving ways, I think it’s not as good as the last one, but ultimate kudos due for being diskant favourites two years running.

* * *

The Unit Ama – The Unit Ama

SA: Probably the best record in this list, really nice jazzy drums and awkward guitars and songs that twist around and take you by surprise. Good live, as well.

CS: This is the end of guitar music. Stop making it. It’s done. It’s over. The Unit Ama won. Someone shoul d give this CD to Shipping News and all those lame american bands that get together once a decade and churn out a sack of painfully average wank and show them how it’s done. Its aggressive but it’s not macho, it’s technical but it’s loose. It has the best guitar playing I have ever heard. I’m not just saying this because they called a song ‘Horses! (of Northumberland)’ or because they are the best, friendliest most inspiring people I know either.

JGO: Wow. I’m ecstatic that so many people have heard this, as I think they’re a great band. However, I keep emailing them for a copy / looking in shops and can I get to hear it? Can I bollocks. I did see it at someones house once though. Great cover.

DS: So good they recorded it twice! Ahem. Not as good as their live show, but then they are probably the best live band in the country. Support your local DIY bands! Buy this goddamned record!

* * *

Six Organs of Admittance – For Octavio Paz

CS: That’s a porn film, yeah? “You’ve had the 5th organ baby but now it’s time to admit the 6th” (sound of zipper).

SP: I don’t much care for poetry, not even Mexican poetry, but I do very much care for Six Organs of Admittance, and I care especially for this album. It’s beautiful, poignant, hypnotic and absolutely timeless: it’s as difficult to imagine this being recorded in the 21st century as it is to imagine it being lazily laid down to tape in the 60s, or played on a lute in some 17th century wattle and daub hut. But thank heavens it was.

DS: I don’t think Ben Chasny’s done anything other than very good albums to date, which is all the more impressive considering the rate at which he knocks them out. This one may be the best too. Even better as a counterpoint to the freaked-out and electrified Nightly Trembling (the two were released on vinyl at the same time with the same artwork on different coloured sleeves by Time-Lag – nice).

JC: I’d never heard of this person before and only picked the record up after noticing the title’s dedication to Octavio Paz. To my mind, one of the greatest people ever to have walked this planet. Recommendation enough, I borrowed it from the library and took it on holiday with me where I played it ad nauseum and accidentally scratched it to fuck.

* * *

Souvaris – I Felt Nothing At All

SP: A triumphant, majestic debut, exquisitely packaged. And a truly lovely bunch of guys. Plus it’s really good to see them still sticking two fingers up (with associated raspberry sounds) to the short pop song. Tunes and tones this good really need lots of space to breath and grow – each piece here is not so much a song, and not even so much a journey, but more of an exciting and varied gap-year in a series of strange foreign countries.

MS: Finally released with the loveliest packaging matching the muted tones and pastoral themes of the songs which have taken them into a whoe different sphere from their supposed Mogwai copying (like Mogwai were the first band to write a song over five minutes long). The songs build and swoop making use of the range of instruments at their disposal knowing when to drop things down and when it’s time to rouse you from your ponderings. Going to sound extra great when Summer is just turning to Autumn, if you can wait that long.

SM: So this came out at last! And it was worth the wait. Beautifully slow-paced and confidently languid, Souvaris stretch their songs out for as long as it takes them to get into your head, then a bit further. For me this album has upped their status from good band to great band.

DS: What the fuck is this shit?

* * *

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender

SA: She has a really sweet “little girl” kind of voice which I like, though I can’t say it sustains my interest for that long.

CS: Is she mentally retarded? I mean that seriously. I liked her live but I have avoided any sad records this year for fear of crying in front of my mates, and Matt Gringo warned me off this album for the time being.

SP: Christ, what an annoying voice she has. If she released an instrumental version, I’d buy the album ten times, but as things stand I can’t bear more than 30 seconds of it. I’m slightly bitter that this gets into the top 10 and Julie Doiron doesn’t. What grave injustice!

MS: I’m still not sure if I like this album but it’s one of my most listened to of the year so I guess I must do. Her voice is certainly odd but when kept in check alongside the beautiful harp it works perfectly. When the vocals start to dominate the songs it’s less successful but generally it’s a lovely little album of fantastical whimsy. Cancelling your Glasgow gig for a TV appearance is not cool though.

DS: I loved this album and played it to death for a full three weeks until literally every single one of my flatmates went out and bought a copy each. Since then, I’ve never felt the urge to put it on again: mainly because I now hear it all the time whatever my preference, and what ever your feelings about Ms Newsom’s voice, that preference ain’t gonna be all of the time…

JGR: If you say so. Suckers.

Our favourite films of 2004