Best Albums 2004 (1-5)

5. Courtney Love — America’s Sweetheart

Rock’s Dionysian dudes are too busy chugging hedonism to offer much perspective on their self-destructive impulses. Denied that luxury by biology and biography, not to mention brains, this slattern wastrel instead constructs her own pre-mortem memoriam. With a truly shot singing voice suiting her mortal self-consciousness, as Hollywood and Laurel Canyon each vie for the role as the 9th circle of hell, Love offers a case study in how little self-knowledge avails the truly doomed. Six years later, she’s still alive, and (cherry on top!) can’t stand the way this record sounds.

4. Mountain Goats — We Shall All Be Healed

John Darnielle does his first full-band disc up right. Declaiming with an intensity that bounds over the narrative gaps essential to his character studies, Darnielle explores the kinship between apocalyptic vision and paranoid speed-freak rant. If he’s cut back on the travelogues, that doesn’t mean his people are standing still–an arc that begins with “Ready for the world about to come” and ends with “Please don’t send me back to where I came from” captures the sheer fruitless effort and irritable camaraderie of the addict life. Also, Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, John Vanderslice, and Christopher McGuire make for some kind of back-up band.

3. Kanye West — The College Dropout

Whether enduring the indignities of retail, coaching gold-diggers, or smirking his way through a more wickedly funny tune about getting by outside the law than any g has felt free to fantasize, this proud dork threatened to expand hip-hop’s lyrical range even as his tongue-tied, conversational cadence undermined its undue emphasis on technique. And if his hang-ups about college are tiresome, at least he acknowledges higher education as an option without touting it as a panacea. Hip-hop heads may be within their rights to resent fellow travelers who cherry pick albums that supposedly “transcend” the genre, but some of us are old enough to remember when transcending the generic was what hip-hop set out to do.

2. Youssou N’Dour — Egypt

In 2001, the greatest living African singer traveled from Dakar to Cairo in to record with an Arab orchestra, a collaboration he shelved until the ideal time to make his ecumenical point arose. For homegrown fans, the cross-cultural mélange is chockfull of meaning. But even for Wolof-deficient Westerners, its beauty contrasts noticeably with his previous displays, instructively tracing the Arabic keen of the Senegalese singing style back to its headwaters. Read up a bit and it resonates even more. Or just check out the doc I Bring What I Love, which presents the first evidence that a Grammy win could possibly be meaningful to actual humans.

1. Rilo Kiley — More Adventurous

Always more L.A. than Omaha, Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett choose lopsided studio pop over jagged indie-folk, leading with three songwriting peaks that should’ve hit indie rockers where they live. “It’s a Hit” refracts all manner of American hypocrisy, including yours, through its Bush-bashing; “Does He Love You?” disguises a scenester’s envy for the security of the square world as love-triangle melodrama; and “Portions for Foxes” registers the psychological toll of casual sex among the stylish and neurotic. All of which barely dented the thick hermetic shell of an audience that deemed it deeply corny and uncool for Lewis to belt words that forced one to agree or disagree, rather than burnishing a lyrical mood, or better yet, drifting away on post-verbal formlessness.

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