Thomas Bartlett addressed something in "Goodbye, Pimps and Hos," posted Dec. 14 on Salon.com, that has nagged me. As I've considered what might be the year's best CDs, I couldn't think of a significant album -- one that broke new ground in some way and made an impact. Mos Def's The New Danger sounds new enough, and the Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South has ambition to be big, even if the band's three-guitar stomp is rock 'n' roll at its most traditional. After that? Ehh, not much.
Bartlett observes, "In place of the forward-looking, sparse, jabbing production and challenging harmonic terrain that had been so dominant in hip-hop and pop, there was a new emphasis on warmth and fullness, on sumptuous orchestrations and comfortable, well-worn harmonies and baroquely florid arrangements. Perhaps taking a cue from an increasingly politicized culture -- where the hysterical response to an exposed nipple at the beginning of the year put pop culture on notice -- the most popular music stayed conservative, channeling the sepia-toned lushness of classic soul and pop."
There was a lot of enjoyable music made in genres I had almost given up on -- pop and R&B -- as artists returned to simpler pleasures. The best CDs demonstrated craft and intelligence, whether it's the immaculate, melodic pop of Ron Sexsmith's Revolver or Van Hunt's nuanced take on love and lust. With the war and election as a cultural backdrop, warmth and intelligence were far more personally useful than jagged, new wave by Franz Ferdinand and the like.
Perhaps the most ambitious CD this year was Brian Wilson's Smile (Nonesuch). He did, after all, go back and entirely remake and reproduce an album he recorded 40 years ago but never released -- an album that still sounds progressive now, even if it's almost entirely an exploration of melody and lushness. He even went so far as to locate a production console like the one the Beach Boys used when they recorded their vocals in the '60s, just to recreate every detail exactly.
Unlike Bartlett, I'm not sure this conservatism is a de facto bad thing. A reconsideration of melody and harmony is a welcome development after hip-hop and R&B have made rhythmic innovations the primary meta-subject of recent popular music. It's also a nice respite from the innovation-for-innovation's-sake aesthetic that often drives the music industry. If you want the newest thing, get crunk. Herewith, then, my top 10 national CDs of 2004, with local releases to follow in next week's column.
1. Drive-By Truckers -- The Dirty South (New West): The Drive-By Truckers understand the power of The Riff, and they use it here to tell stories of how working-class folk deal when the shit comes down. If that sounds depressing, remember -- there's The Riff.
2. Dave Alvin -- Ashgrove (YepRoc): In his strongest album since 1994's King of California, Alvin demonstrates his mastery of American roots music forms, not only musically but lyrically. He also remembers the importance of rocking, so Ashgrove never feels like a trip to the library.
3. Jon Langford -- All the Fame of Lofty Deeds (Bloodshot): As much fun as his punk is with the Mekons and his country is with the Waco Brothers, Langford's musically most idiosyncratic on his own, free from the momentum the other projects have accrued.
4. Van Hunt -- Van Hunt (Capitol): The album, like the live show, is audacious, even employing James Brown's intro. He's lyrically gifted and bold, unafraid to sing about how he'd do anything for a girl's attention. He's also musically talented enough to sing it with style.
5. Brian Wilson -- Smile (Nonesuch): The fragments of Smile were scattered on Smiley Smile, 20/20, Surf's Up or lost; hearing them in their intended context is simply stunning. Smile is one of those legendary albums that lives up to its legend.
6. Loretta Lynn -- Van Lear Rose (Interscope): The project reeks of trying to cash in on the popularity of Johnny Cash's recordings with Rick Rubin, but Lynn and Jack White produce an album that sounds contemporary, not like a caricature of her persona.
7. Snow Patrol -- Snow Patrol (A&M), Keane -- Hopes and Fears (Island), the Thrills -- Let's Bottle Bohemia (Virgin): These three British pop bands don't share much beside a slightly melancholy romanticism, which might the definitive pop song stance. As such, it and the bands must be honored.
8. Ron Sexsmith -- Revolver (Nettwerk): This Canadian's pop songs are like Faberge eggs, each small, perfect and remarkably beautiful things.
9. Mos Def -- The New Danger (Geffen): Mos Def borrows from almost all the popular genres touched by African Americans to create a unique hybrid, and he knows it. You can argue rightly that the album's too long and uneven, but no one besides Brian Wilson was more ambitious this year. 10. Finn Brothers -- Everyone Is Here (Nettwerk): The Finns are old hands, having been at the heart of Split Enz and Crowded House. The years have taught them how many surprises a pop song can hold; the biggest is how personal lyrics can remain somewhat private in songs a whole club can sing.
- The Drive-By Truckers show they understand the power of The Riff on The Dirty South.