Feature ·

A look back at the best albums of the year

Sixty albums? Yeah, we know: Less is more, brevity is beautiful, blah, blah, blah. All we can say in our defense is that you weren't in charge of summing up a great year of music. 

We tried to make the list more exclusive. We did. We debated coin tosses, throwing darts, drawing straws, knife fights and firing the entire staff. But in the end, we had to go big. A top-25 list may have sufficed last year, but 2004 flat-out demanded a hell of a lot more space.
This year, we witnessed triumphant returns to glory, flawless collaborations, long-overdue reunions and a disturbing amount of animal costumes. Hip-hop saw major gains, and folk became urgently relevant again. Dance-punk became dance-rock. Lots of new faces made us hopeful for the future, and some old favorites created some new favorites.
There was a lot to like this year, and now, Prefix humbly presents our guide to liking it all. Enjoy, and be thankful: We almost made it a top-107.
~Mike Krolak

 

60 Danger Mouse
The Grey Album (Bootleg) February 2004
For as much press as this "unofficial" record has gotten, there still hasn't been enough. It's a breakthrough from the bedroom of a pop-music professional. An album that takes this much work and dedication should be recognized for the standout it is. I motion we knight this D'mouse bloke. (Listen)
~Dominic Umile
59 Coachwhips
Bangers Versus Fuckers (Narnack) Jan. 27, 2004
New Yorkers who make distorted garage rock aren't exactly the newest thing, but what sets the Coachwhips apart is that they play five times faster than any other band, and their album is insanely consistent -- none of those surprise ballads or "meaningful songs." Oh, and it's nice and concise for those of us with short attention spans. (Listen)
~China Bialos
58 Savath and Savalas
Apropa't (Warp) Jan. 27, 2004
This record just gets inside your body and becomes part of you. Each time I listen to it I hear new things, but I'm not really experiencing it as much as absorbing it. It's becoming a dream in my head, and I am unsure if it even really exists. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier
57 Masta Killa
No Said Date (Nature Sounds) June 1, 2004
Probably the most patient member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Masta Killa lays the smack down with trademark Wu beats and a flow that makes every line resonate like a great hook. (Listen)
~Mike Krolak
56 American Music Club
Love Songs for Patriots (Merge) October 12, 2004
In a year of comebacks, American Music Club didn't garner as much attention as others who had been away for longer, but after a ten-year hiatus, Mark Eitzel and gang created another truly beautiful record. It made me regret ever doubting them. (Listen)
~Steve Bittrand
55 The Decemberists
The Tain EP (Acuarela Discos) March 29, 2004
The Decemberists' five-piece heavy-metal suite may come across as something of a bizarre practical joke, but it may in fact showcase the raw talent of this band more than any of their other releases. Vaguely inspired by an epic poem of Celtic folklore called "Tain Bo Cuailinge," the band channels everyone from Iron Butterfly (Part I) to Ozzy (Part V) in the cycle of this eighteen-minute masterpiece. Of course, the initial appeal is a fish-out-of-water scenario with the typically acoustic-and-accordion-heavy band rocking out with gritty electric guitars on a minor-key riff. But as the song matures and develops its plot, the true level of skill that went into creating it becomes apparent. It's still worth a laugh, but trying not to be moved by the amazing climax is next to impossible. (Listen)
~Mike Dougherty
54 Les Savy Fav
Inches (French Kiss) Oct. 2, 2004
The "Godfathers of the Brooklyn Sound" have finally completed their career-spanning art project. The chronological progression of these tracks reveals them to be one of the smartest punk bands around today. It might even get them into RISD. (Listen)
~Kevin Dolak
53 Rogue Wave
Out Of The Shadow (Sub Pop) July 13, 2004
A juicy slice of California pop drizzled with melancholy and topped with a sense of humor. Yum. (Listen)
~Mike Krolak
52 Hot Snakes
Audit in Progress (Swami) Oct. 5, 2004
They use the same exact drum beat for, like, the first half of this record, and it's so good that I don't even give a fuck. (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
51 Scissor Sisters
Scissor Sisters (Universal) May 4, 2004
The ultimate party album of the year. Pounding beats and shit-loads of sass help to form unique, complex songs that also happen to be amazingly funky. (Listen)
~Jonathan Eccles
50 Green Day
American Idiot (Reprise) Sept. 21, 2004
The Tommy of our generation. I'm totally serious. (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
49 Junior Boys
Last Exit (Domino) Sept. 21, 2004
These swanky synthsters really nailed their first one -- like New Order mated with Daft Punk and popped out a ready-made hipster. An ambient blend of electro blips, lush trance loops and waves of digi-boogie, nothing is too processed or over-cooked here. Great music for robots who like music. (Listen)
~Gwendolyn Elliott
48 Death From Above 1979
You're A Woman, I'm A Machine (Last Gang/Vice) Oct. 26, 2004
The perfect album to hate to. If The Strokes were more talented and more pissed, they'd be begging to tour with Death From Above 1979. (Listen)
~Jay Riggio
47 A.C. Newman
The Slow Wonder (Matador) June 8, 2004
If I were a member of the New Pornographers, I would be pissed at Carl Newman for hoarding these songs for himself. A power-pop gem of Canadian magnitude. (Listen)
~Mike Krolak
46 The One A.M. Radio
A Name Writ In Water (Level Plane) April 19, 2004
Hrishikesh Hirway soundtracks your most introspective moments with acoustic guitars, glitchy electronics and an uncanny sense of peace. (Listen)
~Mike Krolak
45 The Libertines
The Libertines (Rough Trade) Aug. 31, 2004
"Can't Stand Me Now" alone makes this a worthy album, but there are plenty of great songs to go around. Sure, there are throwaway songs where there were none on Up the Bracket, but a half-brilliant album is still pretty good, you fucking pessimist. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier
44 Pinback
Summer in Abaddon (Touch and Go) October 12, 2004
Summer in Abaddon is Pinback's best album to date. Their sound has evolved, but the band is still rooted in infectious pop hooks that you can't help but sing. A gorgeous album from start to finish. (Listen)
~Steve Bittrand
43 Fiery Furnaces
Blueberry Boat (Rough Trade/Sanctuary) July 13, 2004
I like to imagine Matt and Elanor Friedberger's songwriting process as a re-enactment of backseat fights they had on family road trips as children. "Let's go this way!" "No, this way!" They shift about eight times before the song ends, but each way was the right way. (Listen)
~Kevin Dolak
42 Air
Talkie Walkie (Astralwerks) Feb. 17, 2004
We couldn't really be sure where this well-groomed French duo was going with 2001's gloomy 10,000 Hz Legend, but Talkie Walkie lighted the proceedings with panache. The weightless sex of "Cherry Blossom Girl" finds a home with the introspective "Alone in Kyoto" on an album that somehow makes gettin' it on the perfect arena for existential malaise. (Listen)
~John MacDonald
41 Man Man
The Man In the Blue Tourban Without A Face (Ace Fu) Oct. 19, 2004
These four guys, who are arguably man-children like myself, are completely out of their fucking minds. Fucked up, with the help of every high-school-music-class instrument you can think of, Man Man miraculously succeeds in making more ass-shaking jams than Menudo. If Man Man isn't on your playlist right now, you're an asshole (Listen)
~Jay Riggio
40 The Thermals
Fuckin' A
Thrashing lo-fi punk noise started to seem passé until Fuckin' A became this summer's refreshing blast, reminding us that noise and anger are still important even if we don't hang out on Astor Place. Hutch Harris's frustration is rooted in the same anger of so many indie classics. (Listen)
~Kevin Dolak
39 Elliott Smith
From a Basement on the Hill (Anti-) Oct. 19, 2004
Cliché, yes, but clichés exist for a reason. This may not be his best album, but it is incredibly beautiful, particularly compared to a number of albums that came out this year. Had he pieced this record together himself, though, I do wonder if he would have ended on the painfully pessimistic "A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free." (Listen)
~China Bialos
38 Cee-Lo
Cee-Lo Green is the Soul Machine (Arista) March 2, 2004
Man, Electric Circus is the worst album ever. The neo-soul/hip-hop combos have been just awful, but this is excellent. Someone please make Cee-Lo a star. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier
37 !!!
Louden Up Now (Touch and Go) June 8, 2004
The most consistently thrilling touring band of the past few years finally gets it right on record. Their new, more studio-oriented/friendly sound was a deal with the devil, though; the band's previously insane, energetic live show seems to have devolved into a karaoke act, at least judging by a New York City performance this summer. Louden is still hot enough that, in an ideal world, it would put every other dance-punk act into retirement. (Listen)
~Jesse Serwer
36 John Vanderslice
Cellar Door (Barsuk) Jan. 20, 2004
From deep within the bowels of Vanderslice's Tiny Telephone studio, Cellar Door was forged over the course of 2003 and released to kick off '04. He is a fantastic songwriter (cuts like "White Plains" and "My Family Tree" testify to that), but this album mostly continues to showcase Vanderslice as one the most creative producers around. His trademarked "Sloppy Hi-Fi" technique gives Cellar Door a wider sonic range than any other release this year; the album is spattered with subtle string arrangements, swelling brass, bits of electronic noise and too many other sounds to list. If the album proves anything, it's that Vanderslice is no longer just your average American four-tracker. (Listen)
~Mike Dougherty
35 Diplo
Florida
This guy kills it every time he blesses the masses with Hollertronix. But Florida is a winner because it's his own thing, not just the mastery of mashing up Bonecrusher with the Cure. He brings us close enough to Florida without actually having to count votes. This is way better than Space Mountain, man. (Listen)
~Dominic Umile
34 Sonic Youth
Sonic Nurse (Geffen) June 8, 2004
It's no Daydream Nation, but considering the quarter-century of trailblazing Sonic Youth had to live up to, Sonic Nurse is impressive in its refusal to compromise or patronize. Jams like "Stones" and "Pattern Recognition," in part made possible by the addition of studio guru and guitarist Jim O'Rourke, prove that "maturity" needn't be a four-letter word for a rock band. (Listen)
~John MacDonald
33 Devin the Dude
To Tha X-Treme (Rap-A-Lot) July 13, 2004
Devin's third album is his third best, but it still manages to beat out 100,000 other albums to get on this list. This dude is one Chappelle Show guest appearance from showing a lot of people where hip-hop should be. (Listen)
~Jesse Serwer
32 Black Keys
Rubber Factory (Fat Possum) Sept. 7, 2004
Throw Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray and some slamming drum work into the fray and Rubber Factory will happen all over your iPod. Adding Akron, Ohio and two more white dudes to the growing hotbed of blues-rock that has absorbed the Midwest, Rubber Factory is alive with a freakish kind of other-worldly possession. They make a lot of racket for a two-piece. And at 25 and 23, Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have the kind of soul that makes me wonder where they got it. (Listen)
~Gwendolyn Elliott
31 Jean Grae
This Week (Babygrande) September 21, 2004
Compared to Jean Grae's previous efforts, This Week unveiled something indelibly different in Jean Grae. This time, she exudes confidence, rhyming with a chip on her shoulder and popping shots at all mean muggers. With an album exclusively produced by 9th Wonder coming soon, Jean may make 2005 as big as she did '04. (Listen)
~Rafael Martinez
30 Morrissey
You Are the Quarry (Attack) May 18, 2004
Not since his defining Vauxhall and I has the Mozzer been so sublimely indignant ("Irish Blood, English Heart"), catchy ("First of the Gang to Die"), honest ("I Like You") and deadpan ("The World is Full of Crashing Bores"). It's enough to make you wish it doesn't have to be another seven years for another round. (Listen)
~Kevin Dolak
29 Adem
Homesongs (Domino) July 27, 2004
Every expression from Adem Ilham on his debut seems as if it should be delivered with grave reluctance, but he is instead announcing these things as if painting his innermost fragilities across an interstate billboard. Fifty years from now, when I get married, I'm gonna toast to my wife using the words to "There Will Always Be," Homesongs' closer. Actually, I'll have robots do it. There will be robots doing stuff like that by then. (Listen)
~Dominic Umile
28 The Alchemist
1st infantry (Koch) June 29, 2004
In most any other year, this would have been by far the best album by a hip-hop producer, but thanks to Kanye West and Diplo (with an asterisk -- I'm not sure I want to outright label him a hip-hop producer), my favorite Beverly Hills white boy comes in a distant third. On both ends, the dope tracks with Mobb Deep buddies Prodigy and Havoc (especially "It's a Kraze") more than make up for the travesty of Mobb's Amerikaz Nightmare. (Listen)
~Jesse Serwer
27 The Futureheads
The Futureheads (Sire) Sept. 7, 2004
The next XTC? The next Franz Ferdinand? Who knows, and who cares? These kids know how to write unfathomably catchy pop songs, and they can sing their asses off. (Listen)
~Dan Carter
26 Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
Shake the Sheets (Lookout!) Oct. 19, 2004
Ah ... okay. Now I get why everyone raves about Ted Leo: bouncy rhythms, somersaulting guitar lines and some of the catchiest damn songs you'll ever hear. (Listen)
~Mike Krolak
25 Mission of Burma
OnOffOn (Matador) May 4, 2004
Really? We could've had this stuff somewhat regularly for the past twenty years? Really? There needs to be a governing body that vetoes or approves band breakups. Mission of Burma would have gotten so denied, and I would've stamped "Approved" eighty-six times on Scott Stapp's face. (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
24 Tom Waits
Real Gone (Anti-) Oct. 5, 2004
By far his best in years. Only the lugubrious Mr. Waits can bring a sense of impending doom to his work and still make you feel like you're at the circus. With every boom-ack in the background meticulously recorded by Waits in his bathroom, Real Gone is a brave, industrial leap beyond Blood Money and a jumpy, drunken venture into his vision of the macabre. (Listen)
~Gwendolyn Elliott
23 Murs / 9th Wonder (Definitive Jux) March 23, 2004
3:16 the 9th Edition
Released only weeks before Madvillainy, 3:16 followed a simple blueprint of 9th Wonder's North Cacalac beats and Murs's blunted Cali vibes. At a meager ten tracks, the duo goes for quality over quantity, concocting an album that is reminiscent of another classic LP, Illmatic. (Listen)
~Rafael Martinez
22 Interpol
Antics (Matador) Sept. 28, 2004
[Note to anyone still worshipping at the shrine that is Turn on the Bright Lights]: Interpol has not only made a second record, but it's equal -- correction, better -- than the debut. It's full of hope, confidence and new direction. You may change your CD player now. And get into the fuckin' sun already. (Listen)
~Mike Pollock
21 The Hives
Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope) July 20, 2004
It's nice to see Interscope, former home of the Reverend Horton Heat, take another gamble on a rollicking group of rock 'n' rollers, especially some dorky-looking ones from Sweden, a country whose only other pop-culture claim to fame is a bikini team. (Makes you wonder where Nobel got it, doesn't it?) Tyrannosaurus Hives is the sophomore release from this garage-punk outfit, and here we find a much more layered, polished sound -- without the loss of the frenetic energy and driving bass that characterized Veni, Vidi, Vicious. It's a shame garage rock has fallen off most everyone's radar, because this is not only not specifically a garage album, it's one of the best rock albums of the year. (Listen)
~Sara Farr
20 Wilco
A Ghost Is Born (Nonesuch) June 22, 2004
This is a godsend for those who didn't care for Wilco's past catalog of creaky twang-rock and the semi-psychedelic experimentation on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Ghost is a straight-up rocker with solid songwriting, long guitar solos, and a bare minimum of ambient background noise. It may be polarizing for the band's fans, but this album sees the band wisely trimming the fat from both their sound and their songs. (Listen)
~Mike Dougherty
19 Xiu Xiu
Fabulous Muscles (5 Rue Christine) Feb. 17, 2004
This is how I like my gays -- weird and skinny and yelling about cum on their lips. (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
18 Iron and Wine
Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop) March 23, 2004
The tape-hissed intimacy of his debut my have pulled listeners in, but Sam Beam, the voice and guitar behind Iron & Wine, proved the second time around that there was more under his beard than old Robert Johnson records. Our Endless Numbered Days trades in the four-track for a real studio and a few friends without sacrificing a warm-hearted note of Beam's literate folk. (Listen)
~John MacDonald
17 PJ Harvey
Uh Huh Her (Island) June 8, 2004
On Uh Huh Her, the bluster of Harvey's earliest recordings mingles with the more polished elegance of her later work, reminding us that she can devastate us any way she wants to. (Listen)
~Kate Collier
16 Ghostface
The Pretty Toney Album (Def Jam) April 20, 2004
Yeah, that's Ghostface rapping over a whole song, verse and all. Yeah, that's Ghostface on the worst cover in recent memory. Yeah, that's Ghostface, making his fourth straight must-own record. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier
15 Devendra Banhart
Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God) April 26, 2004
Pop music continued its tiresome 21st-century trend of bandwagon-hopping this year, continuing to ride out neo-garage (enough!), then establishing neo-psych and neo-folk as the new "in things." The first of Banhart's two albums this year is the better one, and the best of both of the newest two neo-genres. (Listen)
~Nick Stillman
14 The Walkmen
Bows and Arrows (Record Collection) Feb. 3, 2004
A sophomore release that blatantly outdoes its respectable freshman counterpart, Bows and Arrows boasts the Walkmen's great live sound and the band's nonchalant eagerness to recreate it effortlessly in the studio. Just as the opener, "What's In It for Me," sounds like ancient AM radio tubes warming to their potential, this sweet piece o' wax has warmed my heart and soul on a weekly basis this year. (Listen)
~Dominic Umile
13 Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Abbatoir Blues and Lyre of Orpheus (Anti-) Oct. 26, 2004
What's weirder about these jams giving me a boner: That Nick Cave is older than my parents or that he's a dude? (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
12 Modest Mouse
Good New For People Who Love Bad News (Epic) April 6, 2004
Yeah, they're played on the radio now and people that you despise listen to them, but they're still fucking better than they ever were. Swallow your pride and love this album. (Listen)
~Jay Riggio
11 Kanye West
The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) Feb. 10, 2004
Even though Kanye's soul-sampling production became the industry flavor of the year, it was his ability to bridge the gap between mainstream and underground hip-hop that raised this album to another level. What other artist would have Jay-z, Ludacris, Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli on the same album? (Listen)
~Rafael Martinez
10 Animal Collective
Sung Tongs (FatCat) June 1, 2004
If I dressed up like an animal this often I'd make pretty crazy music too. Weird as fuck and celebrating every second of it. Yes, even you could win a rabbit. (Listen)
~Jonathan Eccles
9 Loretta Lynn
Van Lear Rose (Interscope) April 27, 2004
Loretta Lynn has made better songs, but she has never made a better album than this collaboration with Jack White. Quite simply, this is a perfect record. If you don't like this, I hate you. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier
8 Björk
Medulla (Elektra) Aug. 31, 2004
Medulla proves Björk can get away with anything -- even recording an album (mostly) without instruments. You may need to be in a particular frame of mind to enjoy to this album -- it's not something to listen to on your morning commute -- but it is undoubtedly the most beautiful one released this year. (Listen)
~Kate Collier
7 Brian Wilson
Smile (Nonesuch) Sept. 28, 2004
After years of debating, false compilations and bogus downloads of his shattered masterpiece, Wilson has finally released it for the masses, and it's further ahead than anything that rips it off these days. Congratulations are due to America's finest songwriter. (Listen)
~Kevin Dolak
6 TV on the Radio
Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes (Touch and Go) March 9, 2004
So what if the dudes in TV on the Radio look like those art history majors your older brother started hanging out with after he left for New York University? Desperate is wild, unpredictable and strangely hypnotic. (Listen)
~Mike Pollock
5 Arcade Fire
Funeral (Merge) Sept. 14, 2004
It's not a secret that great art can come from great tragedy, and the debut LP from this Montreal crew, some of whom lost family members during its recording, illustrates this point magnificently. Vocalist Win Butler's breathless calls-to-arms butt up against grand swathes of surging guitar, fist-pounding bass, swooning strings and immensely-danceable percussion that could kill a wallflower. (Listen)
~John MacDonald
4 Nas
Street's Disciple (Sony Urban Music/Columbia) Nov. 30, 2004
Following in the footsteps of Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac and Wu-Tang, Nas's double-disc effort is a lyrical feast with all the fixin's. Mr. Jones represents the full hip-hop spectrum, getting political on "American Way," setting the streets ablaze with "Nazareth Savage" and throwing an old-school park jam on "Virgo." His best LP since Illmatic, Street's Disciple may have ended the debate as to who is the greatest of all time. (Listen)
~Rafael Martinez
3 Franz Ferdinand
Franz Ferdinand (Domino) March 9, 2004
Bowie, Blondie and Gang of Four held their twenty-five-year reunion in '04, and Franz Ferdinand was the house band, taking requests as the booze and memories flowed. It's about as obvious a choice for record of the year as last year's Elephant, but just try to find someone who doesn't like all eleven songs this debut offered up, including the homoerotic "Michael." The best part: Their next album will sound nothing like it. (Listen)
~Mike Pollock
2 The Streets
A Grand Don't Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic) May 18, 2004
I guess in England, rap means really well-thought-out and brilliantly articulated concept records. In America, Nelly blows the collective minds of the hip-hop community by putting out a double-album that spells a new word if you hold both album covers up next to each other. (Listen)
~Ryan Duffy
1 Madvillain
Madvilliany (Stones Throw) March 23, 2004
MF Doom and Madlib have been wandering around the solar system searching for each other. Quasimoto was hot, and Viktor Vaughn is top notch. But when Doom and Madlib combine, they form like Voltron. (Listen)
~Matt Gasteier


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