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Best CDs of 2004

By Marc Weidenbaum

What a difference a year makes. As anyone who’s checked in on Disquiet.com occasionally during 2004 knows, my listening this year has been focused largely on music released free and legally via the web, whether by netlabels or by individual artists, as highlighted in the daily Downstream entries. Last year at this time, I listed 15 favorite full-length recordings, so deep did the shelves seem with strong CDs. This year, the shelves are more packed than ever, but frankly, there were no individual releases that stuck the way last year’s Disquiet chart toppers did (those by Kid Koala and Boxhead Ensemble).

In 2004, new records by many old favorites, like Squarepusher (Ultravisitor), Beastie Boys (To the 5 Boroughs), John Adams (On the Transmigration of Souls) and DJ Krush (Jaku), albeit very fine in their own right, didn’t demand concerted, continued, curious listening. Admittedly, no single netlabel release seemed to hold its own against these, though two on the Stasisfield label, John Kannenberg‘s Four Painters and RaemusStream Studies, certainly came close; the gap is narrowing quickly. Still, there was a bounty of good work. What the following 10 albums (well, 11 actually) have in common is not only that they made for regular repeated listening, but they were also the albums that came to mind often when other records were playing. Consider these listed in alphabetical order:

William Basinski The Disintegration Loops (2062) There’s a whole lot of loss sewn into this lengthy, dark ambient series by Basinski, who was impelled to produce it after viewing the World Trade Center collapse from nearby Brooklyn. Four heavy sets.

Bjork Medulla (Elektra) Her conceits often threaten to overwhelm her music, as initially seems to occur here, on an album constructed almost entirely from the human voice, most notably her own, which is one of the most powerful and distinct in contemporary music. Then you realize that the sense of being overwhelmed has less to do with the impact of the plan, the big idea that fuels the album, than it does with the intensity of its musical production, the sheer emotional force of her relentless effort.

Greg Davis Curling Pond Woods (Carpark) and Somnia (Kranky) With his debut full-length, Arbor, also on Carpark (2002), Greg Davis helped define the contours of a folk realm for electronic music, drawing in traditions of the ’60s folk resurgence, a predilection that benefited from his academic training in composition. With Curling Pond Woods, Davis defied expectations in many ways, primarily because the ’60s folk-pop elements became more defined, not less. With covers of the Incredible String Band and the Beach Boys, and echoes of much psychedelia, he joined the tradition rather than merely sampling it. Somnia, on Kranky, takes a more drone-oriented approach, but it’s no less compelling for its relative formlessness.

Fennesz Venice (Touch) Christian Fennesz can build small cities from things as slight as glitches, hum and over-amplified guitar, and this album collects a dozen examples of his soundcraft: the orchestral depth of “The Point of It All”; the vibrant chaos of “The Stone of Impermanence,” with a melody buried deep in its core; the buzzing liveliness of “Circassian.” One highlight is “Transit,” a vocal track featuring singer David Sylvian (following up Fennesz’s work on Sylvian’s Blemish from last year); it’s like a Wim Wenders film condensed to under five minutes.

Iron & Wine Our Endless Numbered Days (Sub Pop) The slocore band Iron & Wine is ambient by association, like Low before it, and Galaxie 500 before Low. When you perform your songs at this pace, and with this trenchantly naked a production style, you draw attention to moments (bits of instrumental fragility, aching little tears in vocal lines) that are generally lost in the all-too-familiar churn of verse-chorus-verse.

Jóhann Jóhannsson Virthulegu Forsetar (Touch) Easily one of the most compelling composers working today, ushering a dense hush from dozens of instrumental players working in unison. A must for those who appreciate the gravitas of Arvo Part and Gavin Bryars.

Medeski Martin & Wood End of the World Party: Just in Case (Dig) (Blue Note) There’s something beyond enlightened about the way the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood explore together, and in their diverse independent projects, the depth of the groove — something downright righteous. This set is, as they say, knee deep in the pocket, and its electronic stamp of approval comes courtesy of its intense production, thanks to John King, better known as half of the Dust Brothers (masterminds behind the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, Beck’s Odelay).

Savath & Savalas Apropa’t (Warp) Of all the pop estuaries that feed into and out of electronic music, from noise to classical minimalism to Muzak, few have the fortitude of tropicalia. Though the singer (Eva Puyeulo Muns) and songs on this album are Catalonian, the feel is often pure Ipanema. Muns’ partner in Savath & Savalas is Scott Herren, best known for his downtempo hip-hop, recorded under the Prefuse 73 pseudonym. There’s a sweep and breadth to their collaboration that much electronica lacks, and an intimacy and attention to intricate production details that virtually all pop-vocal recordings ignore. Just listen to “Ultimo Tren,” how an extended field recording works into a drum pattern, and you’ll be hooked.

Secret Frequency Crew Forest of the Echo Downs (Schematic) Like high-end footwear, music that appears cutting edge one night often seems anachronistic the next day. The sort of album that the Secret Frequency Crew produced this year fits in nicely with the sort of downtempo, hip-hop-extracted electronica that Funki Porcini, RJD2, Tommy Guerrero and others have foisted… well, for years. Still, it’s rife with enough rhythmic and melodic inventions to keep the Patent Office staff up late.

Craig Taborn Junk Magic (Thirsty Ear) A fine melding of contemporary jazz and digital performance/production, bringing the kind of rhythmically challenging melodies we expect from Ornette Coleman together with the noir-influenced electronics of Cinematic Orchestra. In a year when records by Tim Berne (Souls Saved Hear), John Zorn (many in the “50th Birthday Celebration” series), Arto Lindsay (Salt) and Marc Ribot (a central guest on the MMW album also mentioned in this list) recalled why the Knitting Factory club in lower Manhattan was such a central location for new music in the late 1980s, this record made you feel like you were still there.

THE YEAR IN REVIEW, BRIEFLY: Worth listening to alongside MMW’s End of the World Party and Taborn’s Junk Magic is guitarist Bill Frisell‘s Unspeakable, easily his best electric solo album, which is too interesting to explore in depth in this space. Suffice to say, though, that producer Hal Willner‘s contribution of turntable and sampling deserves some more attention. Also, Mylab by Mylab, aka Tucker Martine, Wayne Horvitz and a bunch of formidable guests (Frisell, Skerik, Danny Barnes and others). Oh, and The Turntable Sessions: Volume 1 from the Amulet label, run by MMW’s drummer, Billy Martin. Oh, and Chief Excel (of Blackalicious) grafting together Fela Kuti tracks on Underground Spiritual Game. Yeah, it’s a deep well. One major disappointment in this realm: hip-hop DJ El-P‘s High Water, among the Thirsty Ear label’s latest efforts to remix outward-bound instrumentalists (in this case: Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, William Parker, Matthew Shipp and others); El-P is, simply, far too reticent to participate actively in the proceedings. On the flipside, to hear one of jazz-tronica’s canonical works done straight, listen to Miles Davis‘ “In a Silent Way” revisited on Don Byron‘s Ivey-Divey.

The stunning and ongoing wave of (often artist-driven) improvements in digital media and technology hasn’t only given birth to new music; it’s helped keep progenitors going, both by drawing bringing a new audience to the work of the early mavericks, and preserving their groundbreaking work on CD. It was a year rich with new or old music from such elemental figures as, among others: Alvin Curran (Canti Illuminati, Maritime Rights, Our Ur, ABO, Lost Marbles, etc.) James Tenney (Postal Pieces), Harry Partch (lots of stuff) and Tod Dockstader (with David Lee Meyers on Pond, a new work built almost entirely from frogsong). Almost a retro act at this stage, one highlight was Loop Orchestra‘s Not Overtly Orchestral (Quecksilber), which needs to be heard to be believed. The Loop Orchestra creates lush aviaries of texture with nothing but reel-to-reel tape loops. Imagine if Tape Music Center cofounder Pauline Oliveros were to coax a DJ team, say the X-Ecutioners or the Skratch Piklz, out of their comfort zone and into the Twilight Zone.

If selecting albums of the year is silly, then doing a parallel list of singles is downright ludicrous, (1) in part because of the sheer number of songs released each year, (2) in part because the “single” barely exists at a time when (2.1) major record labels have all but forsaken ’em and (2.2) iTunes, Bleep.com and similar online digital-music retailers have turned all songs into singles, and (3) in part because the list of favorites just keeps changing, but come New Year’s Eve, here are the pop-oriented hits in heavy rotation: Beastie Boys‘s “Ch-Ch-Check It Out” (hip-hop production as classic rock), Crystal Method‘s “Weapons of Mass Distortion” (with Wes Borland on guitar — what Limp Bizkit may have sounded like, had Fred Durst left the band once upon a time instead of Borland), Eminem‘s “Just Lose It” (relative to the somewhat disappointing new album, Encore, this is more like nostalgia for his preview full-lengths), Fabolous‘ “Breathe” (crystalline in its momentum and production), Iron & Wine‘s “Passing Afternoon” (from the full length, see above), Skalpel‘s “1958” (Ninja Tune’s Polish extraction), Squarepusher‘s “Venus” (some rhythms never die), Josh Todd‘s “Blast” (pure pop metal, but as addictive as it is urgent), Usher ft Lil Jon and Ludacris‘ “Yeah!” (see “Breathe”), Snoop Dogg ft Pharrell‘s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (the antidote to “Yeah!” — laid back as all get out).

And, as always, much of the year’s best sounds and soundscapes were buried behind and beneath the scenes of major motion pictures. Of particular note were the scores to: Ocean’s 12 (David Holmes), The Bourne Supremacy (John Powell — the orchestra is entirely analog, but it has the same delicacy, and the same rhythmic juts, as his techno-laced theme for the remade Italian Job), Zatoichi (Keiichi Suzuki), Hero (Tan Dun), Wicker Park (Cliff Martinez — the movie was beautifully shot and pretty crappy otherwise, but it’s worth noting that Jóhann Jóhannsson had a track in the film, yet it’s on neither the pop-song CD or the score CD), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Jon Brion) and The Motorcycle Diaries (Gustavo Santaolalla).

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