Stephen King lists the best music of 2004
Compiling a year-end ”best-of” list is a tradition for most critics, but it has also become something of a tradition to adopt a tone of lofty, humorous disdain while offering them (I think of this style as New York Times Modern). ”What a very silly thing to be doing,” the critic seems to be saying, ”but if you want to waste your time — here’s my list.”
You won’t find that attitude here. I love end-of-the-year lists (although I have a tendency to avoid the ill-tempered 10 Worst bitchfests). I love them so much in fact that it’s going to take me three whole columns to elucidate my own favorites. I’m starting with the best music I heard in 2004, and I haven’t bothered overmuch with whether or not the music in question appeared after January 1: ”A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I think Vanilla Ice said that. And I begin where I always do, by saying that I still miss Marvin Gaye and still wish someone would release a single as danceable as KC & the Sunshine Band’s ”That’s the Way (I Like It).”
Here’s the way I liked it in the year now drawing to a close:
The prodigiously talented Eminem delivered two great tracks, one sacred and one profane — ”Mosh” and ”Just Lose It.” If any two songs have ever done a better job of marking the two ends of hip-hop’s playing field, I don’t know what they are. Some critics have spanked ”Just Lose It” for its silliness (the song’s high point is a fart noise). My response: That’s right, fool, it’s silly. Now you silly too. ”Mosh” is angry and adult. That doesn’t make it better than ”Just Lose It,” just different. The two together show how much running room hip-hop affords a fleet-footed lyricist. Em takes advantage. Good for him.
Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose was the best country album I heard this year (especially the kickin’ ”Have Mercy”), but the best country singles could be found on the radio: ”Suds in the Bucket,” by Sara Evans; ”Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” by Big & Rich; and ”Earthbound,” by the incomparable Rodney Crowell.
Before I move on to my idea of the best albums of the year, I want to mention two more individual tracks. The best pop single of 2004 — no doubt in my mind — was ”I Believe in a Thing Called Love” by the Darkness. I have no idea where this group comes from; judging from the lead singer’s weird, drilling falsetto, Mars might be a good guess. That voice may not be for the long haul, but on this single it mates perfectly with the fuzz-tone snarl of the rhythm guitar and the song’s lyric, which is the ideal expression of adolescent ecstasy: ”God, you’re touching me!” The album (Permission to Land) is sorta ordinary, but that one song is for the (teen)ages.
The other track comes from the recent John Lennon album Acoustic. Halfway through a fairly mediocre grab bag of musty artifacts assembled by Yoko Ono, slotted between a tame rendition of ”The Luck of the Irish” and a muttered fragment of ”Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” comes a scarifying version of ”John Sinclair” that made the hair stand up on the nape of my neck. You listen to this and all at once understand that Lennon was a great deal more than the cool Beatle; he was very likely the essential Beatle.
And the best albums I heard this year, with no apologies (and no fake boredom):
(6) Mojo Box, by Southern Culture on the Skids. Thundering garage rock with a twist of the lip. Is that twist a grin or a sneer? You decide.
(5) Tonight Alright, by Spiderbait. Just great rip-ass, back-draft rock & roll. Check out the Bait’s insane cover of Ram Jam’s ”Black Betty.” If Clay Aiken tried to sing like this, he’d catch on fire.
(4) Live in Aught-Three, by James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards. The best live rock album of the year. Generous, at more than 70 minutes, and not a single bad track, although ”Choctaw Bingo” is still the standout.
(3) The Revolution Starts…Now, by Steve Earle. Earle is one of the best songwriters currently working the American pop-music scene, and this album — written and recorded at full gallop — is fiery and funny. Earle understands both working-class dreams and the working-class demons that sometimes lead ordinary Joes and Janes to ruin. And if that sounds like a country song, don’t be fooled. This record rocks.
(2) Ollabelle, by Ollabelle. This is gospel music for people who ordinarily don’t listen to gospel. Not a bad track on the record, but nothing released in the last 12 months can match the joy and exuberance of ”Before This Time.”
(1) American Idiot, by Green Day. Not just the best album of the year, but one of the best to be released in the entire rock era. There has never been a record so sweet and meaningful that is also so…damn…LOUD. American Idiot succeeds on every level. Green Day has created a rock & roll masterpiece of far greater ambition than Tommy. I’ve played the spots off this sucker, and every time I listen to it I can barely believe how good it is.