When the movie High Fidelity came out in 2000, I was working in the music department of a Borders store. Two of my co-workers and I, separately and unbeknownst to one another, went to see it during its opening weekend.
On Monday we all agreed how accurately and embarrassingly (for us) the film, based on the book by Nick Hornby, had captured the habits of the truly obsessive music fan.
Rob Gordon (John Cusack) owns a record store that caters to vinyl-hounds and import-hungry collectors. He finds time to do little else but ruminate on failed relationships and listen to music that makes him ruminate on failed relationships.
But, just like my Borders crew, Gordon, along with his two slacker employees, musters the energy to make inane “Top 5″ lists about arcane music categories, like the best songs about death or the best album-opening tracks.
I escaped the Borders retail hamster wheel soon after, but I’m still a compulsive list-maker. And one of the most satisfying lists to make is the time-honored year-end best-of list, which among other things helps to justify all the money I spent in search of my next hit of great music.
Here are 20 CDs from 2004 that scratched my itch:
2. Ray LaMontagne, Trouble (RCA). With a voice like a shy Otis Redding and a sound like Moondance/Tupelo Honey-era Van Morrison, LaMontagne’s debut album is stunning and beautiful. With the first line he sings, his rough-hewn style steals your breath and grips your heart. Best cut: “Trouble.”
3. Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose (Interscope). A welcome batch of new, self-penned material from one of country music’s most creative forces. With Jack White (White Stripes) at the production board and on guitar, Lynn alternates between stark simplicity and Led Zeppelin-like grandeur. Best cut: “Portland Oregon.”
4. Holmes Brothers, Simple Truths (Alligator). Working from a simple guitar/bass/drums formula, this trio bends genres–like gospel, soul, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, and country–and gritty harmonies on an adventurous batch of covers (songs by Hank Williams, Bob Marley, and Collective Soul, among others) and well-crafted originals. Best cut: “We Meet, We Part, We Remember.”
5. King Wilkie, Broke (Rebel). This Charlottesville-based quintet has quickly become one of the best bluegrass bands in the world by combining youthful exuberance with workmanlike dedication to an exacting craft. Their picking is great, but their harmony singing and old-school songwriting lift them above the pack. Best cut: “It’s Been a Long Time.”
6. Alison Krauss and Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder). Yet again Alison and her band deliver a gorgeous blend of bluegrass and acoustic pop, with Grammy’s most-awarded woman soaring and slipping through the best bunch of songs she’s ever tackled. Best cut: “Restless.”
7. Bob Dylan, Bootleg Series 6: Concert at Philharmonic Hall (Sony). This much-bootlegged show from Halloween 1964 has Bob at the peak of his solo acoustic period. His impishness and razor-sharp voice has the folkies enthralled, just months before he was to abandon them to remake rock in his image. Best cut: “Gates of Eden.”
8. Ron Sexsmith, Retriever (Nettwerk). The past decade has seen this Canadian singer-songwriter quietly establish himself as one of the best around, and his seventh album features bittersweet lyrics and lush melodies sung with a voice tinged with sublime sadness. Best cut: “Hard Bargain.”
9. Tom Adams and Michael Cleveland, Live at the Ragged Edge (Rounder). Two of bluegrass music’s most able and inventive sidemen recreate–and update–the sound of an old-time barn dance with just a fiddle (Cleveland) and a banjo (Adams) on a live gig that they didn’t know was being taped. Best cut: “Back Up and Push.”
10. Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S. (Nettwerk). Though their debut album doesn’t have half the spirit and fire of one of their live gigs, this acoustic quintet picks, fiddles, and wails its way through weird old-timey material with attitude, skill, and a modern edge. Best cut: “Wagon Wheel.”
11. U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope). Newly named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (man, I’m getting old), U2 reinforces its unique position as the band most able and willing to sing and play songs about big ideas without losing a step sonically. Best cut: “Vertigo.”
12. Los Lonely Boys, Los Lonely Boys (Sony). Texas’ Garza brothers–Henry on guitar, JoJo on bass, and Ringo Jr. (yes, really) on drums–breathe new life into the moldering blues-rock scene with a sound that variously recalls classic Santana, the Allman Brothers, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Best cut: “Heaven.”
13. The Blue Nile, High (Sanctuary). More than a few bands have made four great albums in the last 20 years, but only one band has a perfect four for four over the same period: this group of perfectionist reclusive translucent folk-popster Glaswegians. Best cut: “I Would Never.”
14. Tift Merritt, Tambourine (Lost Highway). The Dusty Springfield/blue-eyed soul comparison is the most obvious one, but a countrified Stevie Nicks fits too, especially since Merritt does her own songwriting. Features unsung guitar hero Mike Campbell, one of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. Best cut: “Good Hearted Man.”
15. Mark Knopfler, Shangri-La (Warner Bros). Ex-Dire Straits leader’s fourth solo album has just what you’d expect: warm, laconic electric guitar lines and involving lyrics about interesting characters (Elvis, Sonny Liston, and McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc for starters) sung with wry ease. Best cut: “Boom, Like That.”
16. Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light (Virgin). Jam-band slide-guitar maven/singer-songwriter teams with the gospel group whose three founding members have been together since 1939. Harper leads on most cuts and the Blind Boys sound more comfortable here than on recent crossover projects. Best cut: “Well, Well, Well.”
17. Jamie Cullum, twentysomething (Verve). Though sure I wouldn’t like it, I took a chance on this much-hyped jazz/pop crossover effort from the annoyingly precocious British singer and pianist. Great arrangements and great fun on tracks ranging from “Singin’ in the Rain” to the hip-hop “Frontin’.” Best cut: Radiohead’s “High and Dry.”
18. Robyn Hitchcock, Spooked (Yep Roc). With Gillian Welch and David Rawlings guesting on most of the album, this project from the peculiar London singer-songwriter couldn’t help but live up to its name. Weird acoustic guitar-based tunes with slight Pink Floydian undertones. Best cut: “Television.”
19. Open Road, In the Life (Rounder). This Colorado-based bluegrass outfit is a little more honky-tonk than their counterparts King Wilkie, with Bradford Lee Folk’s heart-sick vocal style following a tradition that includes Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Dwight Yoakam. Best cut: “One is a Lonely Number.”
20. Various Artists, Garden State [Soundtrack] (Sony). Writer/director/star of one of the year’s best films, Zach Braff also picked prefect tracks–from artists like The Shins, Coldplay, and Frou Frou–to score his character’s arc from depression to love. Best cut: ex-Men at Work frontman Colin Hay’s “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You.”