2004 Retrospectravision
by Marc Hirsh

[This list also appeared, in drastically altered form, as a part of these articles.]

This year’s list is a bit of an inversion of last year’s, in that I’ve stalled out at five albums (and, for symmetry’s sake, five singles) but there is no question about the identity of #1, which is as clear and decisive as any I’ve heard in years. The irony of this occurring during the year when I made my professional debut as a music journalist is not lost on me, but there it is. In other news, longtime observers will notice the absence of You Am I on this list for the first time since 1996, a fact which I chalk up to them, you know, not releasing anything this year. And those scanning my musical predilections for psychological insight are in for a treat, as I’ve damn near made good on what I’ve been subtly threatening for years, as 82% of the entries listed here are (entirely coincidentally, mind you) at the very least fronted by women. Can an all-female list be far behind? Only her A&R rep knows for sure.

You looked so wacky and wise

1) Nellie McKay, Get Away From Me (Columbia). The very first word on her very first album, verified by the lyric sheet, is “hcabnasie.” One song is hooked around a phrase in Mandarin, another around the chant of the Wicked Witch of the West’s guards. She pants, woofs and bowwowwows in her big hit. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Norah Jones if she’d lost her fucking mind. As the living embodiment of the brilliant, utterly looped child prodigy in Joni Mitchell’s “Twisted” all grown up, McKay can barely hang onto a linear thought for more than five seconds, and she cops to a total lack of conscience in at least three songs, one of which (the concluding “Really”) is beautiful beyond words. It’s no surprise, then, that she’s all over the place stylistically: “Toto Dies” is a deranged tango, the jump-blues “It’s A Pose” calls us Y-chromosome-bearers on all of our shit and “I Wanna Get Married” (deep sincerity cloaked in flip irony) and “Won’t U Please B Nice” (in which she very sweetly and quite explicitly threatens to kill you if you don’t love her) will have both, if there’s any justice in the world, become supper-club standards in the brief time since Get Away From Me’s February release. And so it goes, but what the confidence and intensity of all of McKay’s tangents, asides and logical leaps indicate isn’t so much that she knows she shouldn’t be doing these things, it’s that she doesn’t understand why they don’t occur to anybody else. So if you’re wondering why a nice young woman who looks like a young Sally Kellerman and dresses like Faith Popcorn is screaming “Die, motherfucker!” in the midst of the stream-of-barely-consciousness rant at the end of the hip-hop-inflected “Sari,” well, that’s apparently just the way her mind works.

All is fair in love, and we're in love 2) Rilo Kiley, More Adventurous (Brute/Beaute). Maturity is such an ugly word when talking about indie-pop that the general reluctance of the CMJ-reading crowd to cry sellout in response to Rilo Kiley’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting and musical palette on More Adventurous is fairly heartening. Instead, the band’s audience stood by supportively and watched as Rilo Kiley spent the last year quietly, very subtly metamorphosing into a substantial act that couldn’t be more deserving of acceptance within mainstream alternative circles if it were revealed that the band’s name consisted of the Middle Scottish words for “radio” and “head.” Singer Jenny Lewis pulls off a delicate balancing act: empathetic but not histrionic, smart but not too clever, equally effective on the Dusty-in-Memphis soul of “I Never” and the nervy “Love And War (11/11/46),” where she tackles the words “All is fair in love and we’re in love” with a desperation that suggests that she believes them absolutely and that she might not understand what they mean. Most bands would kill for a moment like the one in the closing “It Just Is” where the strings come in, Lewis pulls just a little bit harder on the lyric and the song suddenly lays roots at the base of your spinal column, as though all of More Adventurous has been leading inexorably to that instant.

Blowing all the other kids away 3) The Secret Machines, Now Here Is Nowhere (Reprise). It seems a little odd to use a word like “restraint” when describing an album as blatantly prog as Now Here Is Nowhere, an album that sounds like Sigur Rós chatting up the Straitjacket Fits at a Flaming Lips concert (or Stereolab if they had made Emperor Tomato Ketchup under the thrall of electric guitars) and which is bookended by two songs that nuzzle against the nine-minute barrier. But the Secret Machines never succumb to the instrumental wankery that characterizes so much of their genre, acting instead as a tight, locked-in unit propelled towards their destination together; hell, bass player Brandon Curtis usually doesn’t do much more than stay on one note in sympathetic vibration with his drummer brother Benjamin. That’s more than sufficient, though, since from the cathedral opener “First Wave Intact” to the dream-like swirl of “The Leaves Are Gone” to the stomp and thunder of “Sad And Lonely,” Now Here Is Nowhere just kind of quivers from start to finish, with the band refusing to reveal its entire bag of tricks at once, confident enough to let each piece simmer just long enough for the changeup to hit hard when it finally happens.

Help is coming, one day late 4) Sam Phillips, A Boot And A Shoe (Nonesuch). Corralling acoustic guitar, brushed drums and odd percussion to generate a mood like tinny 1930s jazz exotica, Phillips makes it almost impossible to guess where her melodies might take her honey-and-sandpaper voice; the way that the minor key verse of “I Dreamed I Stopped Dreaming” curls into the major key chorus is a marvel of simplicity and all the more surprising for it. If A Boot And A Shoe falls just short of the peaks of 2001’s Fan Dance, its songs are less fragmentary, and her lyrics are painterly enough to be worthy of her gloriously expressive voice while being deceptively, almost painfully to the point; even the track that seems the least developed, “I Wanted To Be Alone,” nails, in a lyric of three scant lines that differ from one another by the merest whit, the futile devastations of a love triangle. “The moon’s never seen me before,” she sings elsewhere, “but I’m reflecting light,” and it’s nothing but the God’s honest truth.

Every night I wonder who do you dance for 5) Sahara Hotnights, Kiss & Tell (RCA). What’s impressive about Kiss & Tell isn’t that Sahara Hotnights have figured out how to write quality material, though they have – hooks abound all over the album, even as their songs remain as anthemic as ever. It’s that they’ve dramatically changed their sound while maintaining the fundamental kernel of their personality, improving significantly in the process. Trading in their Les Pauls for Strats, the Swedesses dial down the Runaways crunch in favor of a leaner, less oppressive New Wave guitar-group approach that works wonders on gems like “Stay/Stay Away,” which presents an ambivalent chorus that’s sexy as hell right before raising the stakes by diving straight for the jugular in the postchorus. In so doing, they finally deliver a Sahara Hotnights album that I can feel good about listening to past the first song. Which is pretty terrific, incidentally.

Widows and orphans:

1) DJ Danger Mouse, “99 Problems.” Armed with a computer and copies of The Beatles and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, an unknown producer becomes a star and a flashpoint in the copyright wars by creating the sound that Charles Manson thought he heard when “Helter Skelter” was playing. DJ Danger Mouse may have gotten into legal trouble for this, but it was for the wrong crime.

2) Kelly Clarkson, “Beautiful Disaster” (live on The View, April 21) and 3) Fantasia Barrino, “Summertime” (live on American Idol, April 15). The once and future American Idols, live and without a net. Clarkson took an alliteration-riddled midtempo pop-rocker from her debut, stripped the thing down to piano and voice and was left with a love song so heartrending that she not only included it on her second album as well but ended the damn thing with it. Any rendition with the leaner arrangement is swell, but the version from The View (residing in various places around the web, including this site) was given added depth by Clarkson’s performance, delivered in a voice stretched so thin by her draconian management company’s demands that she sounds like she’s on the verge of collapse herself, a boon to a song about the psychological exhaustion of loving someone who’s bipolar. As for Barrino, it’s hard to remember, after all the hyperbole that the show constantly threw in our face, just how magnificent her initial rendition of the Gershwins’ masterpiece truly was: understated, perfectly modulated and so connected to the spiritual core of one of the gems of American popular music that she quite simply burst into tears as soon as she finished.

4) Kylie Minogue, “Slow.” Whoa. Um. Guh. If there was a more enticing invitation to erotic bliss that came out this year, I sure didn’t hear it (sorry, Mom, sorry, Dad – I know about these things). Yes, I know that the words are about dancing. No, I’m not that naïve.

5) Dresden Dolls, “Girl Anachronism.” From the Dolls’ self-titled debut album (which would have kicked off this year’s Next Five had I gone that route) comes a song that encompasses most, if not all, of the themes I’ve already mentioned: it’s sung by a woman, steeped in cabaret (in both its lower- and upper-case forms) and art-rock, possessed of a punk spirit, completely and utterly insane. Oh, and it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

That will never happen again Close readers of previous lists will note my persistent weakness for teenage melodrama, the reasons for which I prefer not to psychoanalyze, thank you very much (I prefer to concentrate on one musical fetish per year). So I suppose it was inevitable that I would eventually stumble across, and hand over the Better Late Than Never Award to, the Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama (RPM, 1994) at some point. That discovery was complicated, however, by the existence of two different collections of the same name, released by the same record company, which is based in Britain. Oh, and the one you want is out of print (catalog #136). A tough hand to play, but thanks to a little invention that I like to call eBay, we’re all winners. Except, of course, for the Shangri-Las themselves, who find themselves in such dire straits over the course of the 28 different songs on Myrmidons that the famously morbid “Leader Of The Pack” can’t even break out of the midrange of the adolescent histrionics on display here. The plaintive “Out In The Streets” (boy gives up drag racing for girl and becomes depressed and undatably boring as a result), the sinuous “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” (an injunction to love and respect your parents from one who learned the lesson too late) and especially the incomparably sublime “Give Us Your Blessings” (in which two teens die horribly in a car wreck while eloping because they were crying so hard at marrying against their parents’ wishes that they couldn’t see the “Bridge Out” sign, people!) are just a sampling of the terrible fates awaiting these girls. With a few notable exceptions, like the hilarious and sweet ode-to-a-bad-boy “Give Him A Great Big Kiss” and the jazzy attempt at a new dance craze “Sophisticated Boom Boom,” someone’s almost always getting hurt in these songs, and Mary Weiss’s tremulous, Noo Yawk-accented voice suited the material (provided in many cases by the best of what the Brill Building had to offer) to a tee; “Never Again,” a fairly straightforward ballad about nothing more tragic than a breakup, may be the great unheralded female rock vocal performance of the 1960s. By the time Weiss shows up to give “Good Taste” and “Dating Courtesy” tips in the radio spots included at the very end of the disc, you’re pretty sure you can’t believe a word she says. Then again, maybe you should. She’s obviously seen things that would make your blood curdle, and I for one am grateful for her wisdom. MWAH!

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