In the first of my belated end-of-the-year lists, here are my top ten albums of 2004. Since I’m not a music critic, a list like this is kind of silly, because, of the approximately ten bajillion albums released last year, I probably only bought about thirty or forty of them. So this isn’t anything approaching a true Ten Best Albums of 2004, as I’m sure there’s plenty of great stuff I’ve never heard, or even heard of.

Instead, most of the albums here are on other people’s top ten lists, and most of them have been featured in my sidebar, so there aren’t any real surprises or discoveries in this list. But for what it’s worth, here are ten albums I bought last year and listened to a lot, and which I highly recommend, ranked in order, just for fun:

10. Jamie Cullum. Twentysomething. If you’re as sick of Norah Jones as I am, check out Jamie Cullum. He’s fighting his own crusade to resurrect jazz for a new generation, but his is a lot more fun. He gets away with remaking Radiohead’s “High and Dry”, and the original songs are just as good as the covers.

9. The Streets. A Grand Don’t Come For Free. I still refuse to believe that that adorable little 12-year-old boy named Mike Skinner is the one writing and recording all these naughty, expletive-laden rhymes about drinking, “sharking” and bad drug trips. Someday there will be another Milli Vanilli scandal involving The Streets’ supposed frontman, and we’ll find out the only song he actually wrote is the sweet, melodic weepie “Dry Your Eyes”, which is so full of innocent schoolboy heartbreak it could only have been penned by the wholesome-looking kid in the videos. Such a nice boy!

8. Beautiful South. Golddiggas, Headnodders & Pholk Songs. Just when I’d given up on them, the band I once considered my favorite band puts out their best album in ages. Sure, it’s all cover songs, but that doesn’t mean they phoned it in. Every song is a cleverly arranged, totally unexpected, totally Beautiful South take on the original. Tons of fun.

7. Jon Brion. I ❤ Huckabees Soundtrack. The movie itself was a train wreck, which is probably what’s keeping this beautiful score from getting the recognition it deserves. I’ve never been a big fan of score albums, but the music here is so rich and evocative, it’s easy to close your eyes when you’re listening to it and imagine a million better movies in your head.

6. Tears For Fears. Everybody Loves a Happy Ending. I don’t care what anyone says. In music, you can go home again. The Go-Go’s reunion album a couple years back was the most solid album of their career, and in 2004, fifteen years after a nasty breakup, Tears For Fears put out an album that stands proudly alongside their best work, too. Thompson Twins, are you paying attention?

5. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Shake the Sheets. I wish more people listened to Ted, as he’s doing his small part to reclaim rock music from all the Limp Bizkits and Korns and the poseurs in the Ramones t-shirts. But then again, if he were as popular as he deserved to be, he wouldn’t be playing the small clubs anymore, and the best way to enjoy him is live. Easily the best concert I’ve seen all year.

4. Modest Mouse. Good News for People Who Love Bad News. I’ll admit I’m among the 99% of their fans who only discovered them through this album, and I don’t know any of their old stuff. So it scares me to hear people call this their “pop” album. To me, a lot of it sounds like a crazy homeless man broke into a recording studio. I guess I like it because I’m fascinated by crazy homeless people. But I still can’t figure out why the rest of the world liked it so much.

3. Wilco. A Ghost is Born. It’s inevitable that everything Jeff Tweedy does for the rest of his life will be compared to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, so here goes: A Ghost is Born isn’t as good as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But if they’d taken out that stupid ten minutes of machine noise on “Less Than You Think”, it might have been. Who needs “challenging” music? Most people have enough challenges in life without being challenged by their choice of leisure activities. Thankfully, the rest of the album is full of gorgeous songs like “Hell is Chrome” and “Muzzle of Bees”, songs that contain the good kind of surprises, because deep down, I think Tweedy understands that “enjoyable” is much better than “challenging”.

2. Will Young. Friday’s Child. Listening to this album is like rediscovering an old album made by some teen heartthrob in the 70s and realizing it’s better than you remembered. Sure, some of the songs Will co-wrote are a little dopey, but that only seems fitting. As long as the singing stays this earnest and the production this polished, I’ll swoon for him any day. Since it’s not available in the U.S. and probably never will be, here’s one of my favorite songs on it.

1. Keane. Hopes and Fears. Keane is to Coldplay as Travis is to Radiohead, which is to say not as “important”, but usually more fun. Sure, Coldplay’s success may have paved the way for Keane, but to call them derivative isn’t fair. You don’t write songs as absolutely perfect as “Somewhere Only We Know” and “This is the Last Time” just by copying someone else. It takes true talent. This is a band that has the potential to be around for the next twenty years, and twenty years from now, their fans will still be begging them to play the songs off this album. Every single one of them.

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