It’s past time for my latest best-of-year list. I’ve been procrastinating a bit, see, because 2004 was such an amazingly brilliant year for new music that I would have a hard time making a top-20 list, much less my customary top 10. Nevertheless, here’s my best shot. For the newer readers, note that this is a best of 2004, not 2005 — the extra year allows for a bit more perspective as well as a chance to catch up on releases that passed me by originally.
- Isis - Panopticon
I think I might be biased in favor of this one since it was my first real encounter with this kind of post-rock/metal hybrid. Nevertheless, Panopticon is epic, sweeping, majestic, and absolutely gorgeous: all while being balls-to-the-wall heavy. That’s quite an accomplishment in my book.
- Magma - K.A
When I first heard this, I couldn’t believe how good it was. Now, after having heard some live recordings of Magma from the past few years, I have no trouble believing it. These guys still have it — incredibly, after 35 years they really are still at the top of their game. An instant zeuhl classic, made even better by the fact that it boasts easily the best production and sound quality of any Magma album ever.
- Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - Of Natural History
One of the most promising new bands out there, and if their live shows are any indication, even an album as coherent and powerful as this one doesn’t come close to fulfilling that promise. No sophomore slump here — Of Natural History, especially its first half, pretty much blows me away — but I’d wager that the best is yet to come from these guys.
- Electric Masada - 50th Birthday Celebration Volume 4
This is the record that spurred my tentative exploration of John Zorn-related projects into a frenzy. Dense and intense fusion in the best sense of the term; like Bitches Brew-era Miles that rocks harder and sounds, well, a lot more Jewish. My review hypes it up a bit more than is necessary, but this is still a sterling release and a must for fusion fans.
- Zu & Spaceways Inc. - Radiale
Combine the brutal intensity of Italian free-jazzers Zu and the funky inclinations of Ken Vandermark’s Spaceways Inc., and the result is… one of the best albums of 2004. The first half features some wickedly heavy fuzz bass that would do any upstart zeuhl band proud; the second half opens things up a bit and has some killer covers of Funkadelic and Sun Ra. I prefer the less claustrophic and funkier latter half, but both are fantastic in their own right.
- Guapo - Five Suns
I’m a bit off on my review of this one, harping a bit too much on Guapo’s overt Magma influences. True, those influences are there, but man do they know how to use those influences to make something pretty stellar. The 45-minute titular suite is a hard-driving, nonstop instrumental beat-down that’s hurt only by the fact that it’s front-loaded, opening with its best and most creative 5 minutes.
- Kruzenshtern & Parohod - Songs
Where the hell did these guys come from? Wild punk-jazz klezmer, with an upbeat melodic sense tempered with a healthy penchant for all-out noise. And vocals that you’ll find either annoying as hell or unbelievably hilarious (I love ‘em). Definitely the most unique item on this list; I hope there will be a follow-up coming soon.
- Tanakh - Dieu Deuil
Smoky indie-rock featuring some of the most haunting, beautiful melodies of the year. Jesse Poe’s lyrics and rich vocals combine with many interesting, slow-paced instrumental interludes to make one of the more distinctive indie-rock efforts I’ve heard recently. One of those records that transports you into a different world while you’re listening.
- Thinking Plague - Upon Both Your Houses
This live recording from NEARfest 2000 is essential for fans of this contemporary American RIO band, mostly for its hard-edged, focused takes on tracks like “Warheads” and “Kingdom Come.” This is a rare, valuable document of a top band in top form, and one that rarely performs live.
- Mastodon - Leviathan
I really think I prefer the thrashier, dirtier Remission, but for some reason I keep coming back to this one. If “progressive metal” didn’t mean “symphonic prog with cheesily heavy guitars and even cheesier squealing vocalists,” Mastodon would be the ultimate progressive metal band. Instead, they’re just a kick-ass metal band with lots of proggy tendencies, and nowhere are those tendencies more evident than on this album.
This list, more than any other best-of-year list I’ve done, is likely to change practically daily. Any number of albums could pop into the top 10. Just a few honorable mentions, as I browse my alphabetically-ordered list: Amarok’s Quentadharkën, Tim Berne’s Acoustic and Electric Hard Cell Live, Anthony Curtis‘ Book of the Key, The Decemberists‘ The Tain, The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Miss Machine, El-P’s High Water, Faun Fables‘ Family Album, Satoko Fujii’s Zephyros, Receptor Sight’s Cycles and Connections, Univers Zero’s Implosion, Wilco’s A Ghost is Born…
The list could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. And the really shocking thing? The really shocking thing is that 2005 hasn’t been a disappointment after the awesomeness of 2004. Probably not quite as strong overall, but there’s been some amazing music released this year as well. Over at Pitchfork, in his review of Koenjihyakkei’s new Angherr Shisspa, ex-Ground and Sky reviewer Dominique Leone makes the bold claim that “In 2005, rock-based progressive music is bubbling below the surface with almost as much vigor as it did in the late 60s, just before it hit the pop charts in the early 70s during the heyday of Yes and ELP.” Based on the above list and my projected list for 2005, I’d have to agree. It’s a good time to be a fan of progressive music (with a lowercase, not a capital, P).
Note: you can also see my continually-updated top 10 lists from 1997 through 2005.