UPDATE: added a couple of additional albums into the list below.

There are now 11 days left in 2004. All the things adults used to tell me as a kid about aging and how fast time passes – it’s all true. They were right. It’s quite difficult to really step back and ruminate on the past year. It’s been a year filled with very dramatic highs – namely my engagement and wedding day. But there were other wonderous moments – the Red Sox incredible run through the playoffs, the continued amazement I get watching nieces and nephews grow into, uh, people. I also started playing hockey again, which is really comforting, actually. It’s been more fun than I thought, because I take it less seriously than I used to.

It wasn’t all great. We re-elected George Bush. The NHL isn’t playing because players and owners can’t find common ground in seperating billions of dollars. Billions. With a B. The Ramones kept dying. Ray Charles left the building. Britney Spears is still in the news. All these are sad, but all in all, I loved 2004.

That said, one of the few constants in my life remains music. I can’t claim to be nearly as voracious with my music appetite as I was in previous years (or decades), but I still manage to find a few records each year that just kick my ass. Here they are, in order:

Anders Parker – Tell It To The Dust – it’s been a while since an album was such an easy decision for my favorite of the year. Hands down, this one nails it. Parker’s ability to kick out a fantastic rock jam reminiscent of the best stuff Crazy Horse had to offer is only trumped by his ability to sit down and write a stunning ballad on a piano. In both instances, his voice recalls the warmth of Levon Helm (not the same style, persay, just the feeling)and his songwriting is right up there with anyone today. If you take a chance on anything this year in the music store, I cannot recommend this enough.

Mark Lanegan – Bubblegum – There’s always that one baseball player through the years who plays extremely well in the field one year, then hits like mad another year. Finally, after a couple of seasons, the law of averages comes through – that player puts it all together and has a monster season. Bubblegum is Mark Lanegan’s monster season. Lanegan’s made some brilliant records, but none that combine his two talents like this one does – his raw, whiskey-sour voice doing a neo-blues number and his other persona, the tortured Screaming Trees, rusting, aggressive arena rock. The thing that ties it alltogether is the voice – it’s one for the ages.

Franz Ferdinand – self-titled – Oh, how I missed you, 80s snotty rock! Franz Ferdinand’s debut knocked me right on my ass as soon as I heard the chorus of “Take Me Out.” It was one of those rare occasions when I bought an album based on one song. Usually that gets me into trouble, so it was a hell of a nice surprise to get an album full of quality pop-rock that sounds like Duran Duran in a streetfight with Pavement. “Matinee” might be one of my favorite songs of the new century so far.

Sloan – Action Pact (U.S. Version) – I know, I know. They were on my list last year. But how many times do I have to remind you all that this is my blog? Huh? Last year’s version was the Canadian release. The U.S. version contains “Step On It, Jean” – an extra track – so I am qualifying it as a multi-year release (sticking my tongue out at you, too). The truth is that this might not have made it had I not seen Sloan play two amazing shows to support the album back in the spring. They cemented themselves as my favorite live band for now. Maybe ever. You are really depriving yourself of something special by not witnessing the live spectacle of this band. Oh, the album is totally kick ass, too. Really.

REM – Around The Sun – In addition to making their best song in over ten years (“Leaving New York”), REM put together this mostly dour, sullen set of songs more or less as a trio and it ended up being their best album since “Automatic For The People,” and that’s saying a lot. They seem to have really been set adrift since Bill Berry left the band a few years ago. A couple of albums which were, at best, experimental, had me wondering what was up with these guys and hoping we’d get something real good to chew on eventually. Well, a band this good cannot be adrift that long. It’s more than safe to say that their best music is long behind them, but Around The Sun did restore my faith. It’s a good, solid set of songs.

Grant Lee Phillips – Virginia Creeper – Since splitting from one of my favorite ’90s bands (Grant Lee Buffalo) a few years back, Phillips has also been a bit adrift. A couple of solo albums were digestible, but spotty, so I wasn’t expecting much from Virginia Creeper until I slapped on the headphones and listened to it – and I haven’t stopped. It’s as close to a Grant Lee Buffalo album as we’ll get, in fact. He’s pretty much back with a full band, great songs, solid melodies and a knack for making appropriate music for both parties and quiet Sunday mornings. Phillips is back to being one of my longtime favorites. Welcome back, friend.

Preston School of Industry – Monsoon – I bet you anything Cheap Trick smoked some pot in their day. Now imagine if Cheap Trick wasn’t from Illinois, but from Southern Cal. And they were real stoners. Now you’ve got yourself some Preston School of Industry. Headed up by Spiral Stairs, he of Pavement (whoo! another Pavement reference!), this album floats and flutters it’s way into your brain and leaves you with a dopey smile on your face. This will definitely, um, Tyde me over, if you know what I’m saying. You don’t, do you?

Wilco – A Ghost Is Born – I listened to this enough for it to qualify. While nowhere as close to the excellent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Experience, this experiment still contained enough great stuff to add to the list. “Spiders (Kidsmoke)” is as Kraut as a bunch of white dudes from Chicago can get. “Muzzle of Bees” is simply beautiful, while “At Least That’s What You Said” is beautiful in its own cockeyed, indecisive way, brutal in some parts, beauty in others. Pretty much like the band, actually. Once again, though, the centerpiece for me was “The Late Greats” and “Handshake Drugs,” two songs that slowly crawl in through all the orifices in your head and probably never get out. Simple pop songs. Yum.

Two other albums I want to mention – Elliot Smith’s “From A Basement On The Hill” and Earlimart’s “Treble and Tremble” are worth mentioning here. When you hear a song like “King’s Crossing” (Smith) you start to really question just how much money the police are wasting looking into his death as a homicide. The song is so goddamn great, though, that I start to feel guilty because I’m enjoying the 4 minutes he put together about a lifetime of what seemed to be crushing, painful addiction. We’ll miss him. Earlimart’s album was one I was really looking forward to and I did enjoy it quite a bit. I hadn’t known, however, that it was a tribute to their fallen friend Elliot Smith and it ended up coming off as a bit too much like an Elliot Smith album. A small complaint, though. I mean, if you’re going to imitate and tribute, that’s not a bad place to do it.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention The Autumn Defense. Their album was released late last year and made it onto my Tops of 2003, but they didn’t tour on it until this year, and the two shows I saw, as I documented here on 2/14, were simply Earth-rattling. Easily two of the best shows I’ve seen in ten years. Who would have thought an unassuming little band could be so……big. They were unforgettable, and then some.

So there you go.