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My Favorite Things

Style's critics pick their favorite CDs of 2004.

Comets On Fire "Blue Cathedral" (SubPop). This Santa Cruz, Calif.-based band delivers a wall of guitar-heavy acid rock with echoing, howled vocals intertwined with delirious organ instrumentals and the occasional sax solo. Recorded by Tim Green (ex-Nation of Ulysses), "Blue Cathedral" constantly teeters on the cusp of jam-band territory but never nods off. This is the ugly Manson-face of psychedelic garage rock that would blow most hippies' beads asunder.

Monoshock "Running Ape-like from the Backwards Superman: 1989-1995" (S-S Records). The Comets can be seen as a refined version of the Bay Area's unsung psych-noise heroes of the early '90s, bands like the now-defunct Monoshock, which released the definitive compilation of its drunken, MC5-meets-Sun Ra freak rock. Not the greatest record of the year, but this cosmically overdriven slopfest gradually reveals a deeper, fuzzed-out bliss, especially for those who fondly remember the space rockers Hawkwind.

Animal Collective "Sung Tongs" (Fat Cat Records). If you're looking for a more sonorous example of psych music, check out the warm choral harmonies and digi-pastiche of Animal Collective. Its 2004 folk-pop release strings together imaginative melodies, tribal acoustic strumming and a childlike sense of lyrical play. Created by the duo of Avey Tare and Panda Bear, "Sung Tongs" is innovative and refreshingly hummable.

Chris Bopst

Louis Ledford "Reverie" (Waterboy Records). Who would have thought that we had the next Leadbelly in our midst right here in Richmond? Louis Ledford is the real deal. On "Reverie," his plain-spoken wit and astute observations on the human condition evoke memories of Woody Guthrie and John Prine without succumbing to trite, forced imitation. The unpretentiousness of his music captures the deeply human resonance of 20th-century American folk idiom with a casual, one-on-one intimacy indicative of a time before video killed the radio star. Ledford has reinvented the art of front porch storytelling with tunes refreshingly free of pretense.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds "Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus" (Anti Records). The postmodern king of sleaze is back with his most satisfying recorded work since 1997's "The Boatman's Call." This two-CD release incorporates his lucid sinner/saint mythology with the Bad Seeds' vast musical palette, resulting in a pleasant yet disturbing listen. He pulls off this tricky combination with a craftsman's ear for subtlety. He draws the listener in with the lilting beauty of his arrangements while he perverts the melodies with his stinging verse. Even when he is singing the joys of love, there is a sinister intent in his soothing intonations that implies that the devil is never too far away.

The Streets "A Grand Don't Come for Free" (Vice/ Atlantic). Thankfully the hip-hop/garage sound of Britain's The Streets (aka Mike Skinner) didn't succumb to a sophomore slump. If anything, Skinner's radical departure from the fist-pumping, infectious grooves of 2002's "Original Pirate Material" is one of the most satisfying musical reinventions of 2004. "A Grand" is a meditative ride into the subconscious desires, passions and hardships of a Play-Station-loving, girl-chasing, beer-guzzling youth facing manhood straight in the eye. The album is not simply a collection of songs; it's the hip-hop equivalent of the Who's classic rock opera, "Quadrophenia." Skinner has transformed his music from party anthems to contemplative observations on everyday life that give Ray Davies a run for his money in chronicling what it means to be a youth in England.

Andy Garrigue

Brian Wilson "Smile" (Nonesuch). Brian Wilson's pop masterpiece, "Smile," took almost 40 years to complete, and it's been worth the wait. Originally conceived as a "teenage symphony to God," "Smile" contains gorgeous harmonies, intricate arrangements and fully realized versions of "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations." Wilson's voice is in excellent form, and the overall effect is quite rapturous. Smile was the event of the year in pop recordings.

The Polyphonic Spree "Together We're Heavy" (Hollywood). The Polyphonic Spree is a band out of Texas decked out in colorful robes, boasting full orchestral instrumentation and lyrics that seem to focus inordinately on such things as "the sun." On the second release, with more time in the studio to arrange and layer their complex instrumentation and choral harmonies, the Spree make impressive, ambitious, happy music that pleases on many levels, even if one cannot shake the feeling that we're listening to some lost cult from the '60s.

Old Crow Medicine Show "Old Crow Medicine Show" (Nettwerk). Old Crow Medicine Show's debut, produced by David Rawlings of Gillian Welch fame, is a straight up bluegrass effort, with more than a hint of modern wit and wisdom, and a lot of impressive picking. Expect more strong outings from these ragged but right neo-traditionalists.

Nathan Lott

Examining the year's releases in search of staying power, I arrived at an odd pair. One offers a glimpse of the America of yesteryear, the other of England's present youth culture.

Lambchop "Aw C'mon/No You C'mon" (Merge Records). This two-CD release was the fruit of frontman Kurt Wagner's auspicious yearlong song-writing project, during which he strove to pen one song daily. Ironically enough, the 24 songs that made the cut represent a return to symphonic pop from the down-tempo tunes and vocals-forward mix of their previous release. Shimmering instrumentals balance enigmatic stories told in Wagner's gruff baritone. The Nashville-based band makes full use of the session players at their disposal, adding strings to wistful and buoyant numbers alike. Stylistic breadth on the second disk—from the fuzzed-out guitars of "Nothing Adventurous Please" to a reincarnation of doo-wop on "Shang A Dang Dang"—shirks accusations of monotony.

The Streets "A Grand Don't Come for Free" (Atlantic Records). A wildly different and technically inferior album, "A Grand" nevertheless is fetching in its own right. The concept album purports to tell the story of a thousand quid gone MIA but instead recounts a saga of ill-fated romance. It turns out Mike Skinner hasn't been listening to Eminem but Trembling Blue Stars, and the result is oddly endearing — even if the raps are lazy and some tracks unpolished. The Street's lyrical fascination with the minutiae of modern life, from bad cell-phone reception to fake tans, gels with his DIY pastiche of prototypical hip-hop samples and dance loops.

Hem "Eveningland" (Rounder Records). Hem's sophomore outing sees the Brooklyn-based folk octet employing the Slovak National Radio Orchestra with aplomb, demonstrating the capacity to craft fuller, more textured arrangements without forsaking the nuanced approach of their 2002 debut. Strings swell beneath an exultant chorus on "Redwing," but on "Lucky" they innocuously meld with the twang of pedal steel — a key element in the band's predominantly acoustic instrumentation. Richmond native Sally Ellyson gives voice to Dan Messe's oblique but never ironic lyrics, parsimonious harmonies undergirding her thin warble. Evocative of an uncertain nostalgia, Hem's sparse songcraft resonates with a convincing melancholy, freeing even exuberant love songs like "Dance With Me, Now Darling" from sentimentality.

Peter McElhinney

In a year of compromise, it seems fitting to recognize artists who are brilliantly following their own path. There were many good releases last year; these, in their way, aspired to greatness.

"Jerry Gonzalez Y los Piratas del Flamenco" (Sunnyside). Expatriate trumpeter/conga master Gonzalez explores the undiluted European tributaries of Latin Jazz. There have been jazz/flamenco combinations since Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain," but none has captured the passionate rawness of flamenco quite like this.

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins "Which Way Is East" (ECM). Although assembled into a sequence of suites, it's difficult to see this intimate CD as anything but two great musicians playing around in a living room full of instruments. It's perhaps a bit of a mess, but it's a mess inspired by life and love, and the spirit of shared adventure, vanishingly rare qualities in a polished and packaged marketplace. Higgins' death shortly after the sessions adds an elegiac edge.

Rene Marie "Serene Renegade" (MaxJazz). After winning hearts with charming versions of standards, ex-Richmonder Marie's new CD goes straight for the soul. The songs are almost all originals, with nonlinear structures and poetic, often dark themes. It is by far her most personal recording — and perhaps her best.

Shannon O'Neill

Morrissey "You Are the Quarry" (Sanctuary Records). Call it "Return of the King" or just call it a great listen. This first album of the new millennium from the man who made angst and melodrama an art form proves he is very much alive — and witty as ever. Such songs as "Irish Blood, English Heart" and "The World Is Full of Crashing Bores" reveal a songwriter who can mix insight with sarcasm brilliantly. Vibrant and powerful, "You Are the Quarry" is worth it for the cover photo alone.

Elliott Smith "From a Basement on the Hill" (Anti). Isolated, fragile and achingly beautiful, the combination of lone vocals and stripped-down production quality gives this posthumously released album a sound both heartfelt and heartbreaking. From introspective tracks like "A Fond Farewell" to the macabre "King's Crossing," Smith takes equally from the harmonies of The Beatles and his own experience. In all, the album captures the ups and downs, and thus the essence, of his talent.

Pink Martini "Hang on Little Tomato" (Heinz Records). Original, jazzy and fun, Pink Martini's second album will be a sure cocktail-party winner for years to come. A twist on typical swing fare, Pink Martini makes listeners feel they have entered the world of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with a contemporary twist. Each song is an inspired tongue-in-cheek interpretation of old-school lounge, and this is what makes it swing — not to mention the surreal lyrics. A variety of styles from jazz to cabaret will keep listeners guessing — in a good way.

Mark Richardson

Animal Collective "Sung Tongs" (FatCat Records). Animal Collective has always been a bit strange (the revolving cast includes dudes named Panda Bear and Avey Tare), but the formerly vague hints of melodic pop bubbling under the surface broke through in a big way on this, its fourth album. Incorporating swooning wordless harmonies, furiously strummed acoustic guitar, tribal percussion and breathless chanting, Animal Collective sounds like a talented group of overexcited kids who've just encountered music for the first time.

DJ/Rupture "Special Gunpowder" (Tigerbeat6). After two acclaimed mix CDs on which he found common ground between hip-hop, Jamaican dancehall, North African folk, and break-heavy electronica, DJ/Rupture creates an original album based on the same principles. Three languages and a half-dozen styles are present, and vocalists from around the globe bring their A-game. What Rupture calls his "strike against geography" is the sound of the future.

Philip Jeck "7" (Touch). British artist Philip Jeck once composed a piece for 180 turntables, but on record he works on a smaller and more detailed scale. Jeck mines his endless collection of cast-off records for odd sounds and then layers the looped bits with a genius for juxtaposition. A cloud of vinyl surface noise frames dreamy audio collages that drift between pastoral nostalgia and edge-of-the-seat anxiety. S

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