Best Albums 2004 (6-10)

10. Air — Talkie Walkie

I usually leave praise of production values to audiophiliacs, but this sounds so good that its form becomes its function: there’s so much joy in the shimmer and attendant reverberations that the notes’ enveloping aura takes on a meaning all its own. Since Nigel Godrich has produced terrific-sounding Radiohead and Beck albums that leave me cold, I credit Jean-Benoît Duncke and Nicolas Godin for making something of his pristine chill–re-imaging 2001 as an endless drift though space, without the hallucinogenic mystic coda.

9. M.I.A. vs. Diplo — Piracy Funds Terrorism, Vol. 1

This mix packs fewer illicit jolts now that we no longer have to anticipate the greatness of Arular. But if he slum exotica of Favela Booty Beats packed its own claustrophobic punch, Diplo spins baile funk as just one element in a world party. Whether claiming “Walk Like an Egyptian” as crypto-worldbeat or getting Fred Sanford on the good foot, Diplo reps for us mongrels lucky enough to be able to wink at our desperation. Maybe that makes him a cultural tourist. But if so he’s the Rebecca West of this shit.

8. Hold Steady — Almost Killed Me

Quotable to a fault, old enough to recognize history as more than a hypothesis, Craig Finn is at his gabbiest and broadest and take-him-or-leave-himest on this bare-boned debut. Tad Kubler’s guitars would beef up, Finn’s stories would grow grander and more direct, pianos would tinkle over the horizon. But Finn’s faith that one-liners and power riffs can bring us all together — fans of Born to Run and L.A.M.F., clever kids and hustling druggies, Neil Schon and Nina Simone and Andre Cymone — is bolstered by the sound of musicians who ain’t that young anymore overcoming adult reservations to commit to a rock and roll life. Look at them–they formed a band.

7. Sonic Youth — Sonic Nurse

Just so you know, I’m in the never-made-a-bad-record camp, jivey as NYC Ghosts & Flowers got at times. Far from a comeback, Murray Street sounded like a retreat, shell-shocked rather than lyrical–“transitional,” as they say, shortchanging clamor and beauty alike. This return to the concision of the grunge years, though without the compulsory marketplace sheen, steps out of the studio bunker and back into the light, showcasing a band that writes songs not because they have to but because they can, and folds Jim O’Rourke into the din for that same reason.

6. The Streets — A Grand Don’t Come For Free

A genuine rock opera (of sorts), albeit one made by a rapper (of sorts). Unlike Green Day, who encourage cynics to rationalize their prejudices as politics, Mike Skinner will never go Broadway, or even West End. In a genre which habitually puffs the perils of everykid up to grandiose proportions, Skinner surveys the quotidian and its attendant moral dilemmas with a distinctly post-adolescent sense of distance. A believer in chance, free will, and all manner of contingency, he remains a staunch anti-fatalist till the very end–of which he provides two alternate versions, in case you missed the point.

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