It is the season of 2004 retrospectives and best-of lists. In that spirit, I offer this meager review of 2004 music releases. Meager primarily because I just did not buy much new music last year. I actually acquired quite a bit of music last year, adding over 1300 songs to my iTunes library (admittedly many of these were me ripping CDs I already owned), but only 80 of these were 2004 releases (and quite a few of these were free MP3s from band and label websites). In the end, I only picked up six new albums last year, just about all by established members of my personal canon.
- PJ Harvey, Uh Huh Her : Her first album since 2000's Songs from the City, Songs from the Sea, this is certainly a good album, but does not match the near-perfection of its predecessor. I can't think of anything negative to say about Uh Huh Her except that after six months of listening, only "The Letter" has managed to stand out in my mind as an exceptional song. That track is quintessential PJ Harvey: haunting, jagged vocals and razor-sharp guitar riffs held together by a driving percussion that never let's you forget this is a rock song. PJ Harvey is the artist that wannabe angst-mongers like Kate Bush and Alanis Morrisette dream of being.
- Interpol, Antics : I probably shouldn't like Interpol, given that everyone traces their geneaology back to New Order/Joy Division/The Cure, all of which I never did have any time for. But 2002's Turn on the Bright Lights, reminded me, instead, of The Feelies, in its jangly, almost percussive guitars and (oddly appealing) flat vocal style. Antics is similar, although I hear the other influences more strongly here. It's still fun in a dreamily moody sort of way.
- Le Tigre, This Island : Their third full-length release, This Island sees Le Tigre polishing the art of merging the raw energy of feminist punk with the danceable beats of the techno-club scene. The explosiveness is still there (on "Seconds" and "Don't Drink Poison"), but the balance seems to be tilting further toward pop appeal. Occasionally, I think the balance has swung too far (the cover of The Pointer Sisters "I'm So Excited"), but more often they seem to hit it just about right and succeed in creating an unexpected hybrid: the dance-music of radical politics ("Viz," "New Kicks").
- The Magnetic Fields, i : There was probably no way that Stephen Merritt could live up to the expectations he established on the last Magnetic Fields album, 1999's epic triple-CD, 69 Love Songs. To be honest, i probably doesn't reach the level of my second-favorite Magnetic Fields album, The Charm of the Highway Strip (1994), but it is a solid effort and does boast at least one perfect gem, "I Thought You Were My Boyfriend," perhaps Merritt's best song ever.
- Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse : I have been faithful to Sonic Youth ever since I was exposed to the Starpower EP by a roommate my freshman year of college, although the intensity of my devotion is not what it once was. Stick-in-the-mud that I am, I still think 1987's Sister is the pinnacle of their oeuvre (with 1990's Goo a solid second). I kept up with them through the 90s but, to be honest, found a lot of the stuff from that period to be meandering and diffuse. Murray Street (2002) sparked my interest again, and I think Sonic Nurse might really signal a Sonic Youth renaissance. It seems more tuneful than anything they've done since Goo, and while I don't hear a "Schizophrenia" or even a "Kool Thing" on this, the top-to-bottom consistency of the album is impressive. Their art-punk sound seems to reach full maturity here: effortless, controlled, and utterly confident in what it is trying to do. I'm not sure this album will entice new converts to the SY cause, but it ought to be good for winning back a few prodigals.
- VA, Old Enough to Know Better - 15 Years of Merge Records : A 3-CD retrospective in celebration of Merge's 15th birthday, I got this on the strength of some of the more recognizable contributors (The Buzzcocks, Neutral Milk Hotel, Superchunk) and the presence of a number of I've-kinda-herad-of-them-but-don't-really-know-what-they-sound-like bands (The Clean, East River Pipe, Portastatic, Spoon, Versus). Also because proceeds were supposed to go to the Future of Music Coalition. Unfortunately, I haven't heard much on this to hold my attention -- no lost gems, no new finds (OK, maybe Portastatic, a side-project of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan). At least some of the money went to a worthy cause.