OFF KEY in 2004!

Eric D'Orazio

At long last, 2004 is coming to an end. From box office flops to presidential flip-flops, the year at hand has been a trying one, to say the least. Who can forget such things as Britney’s wedding, P. Diddy threatening death to non-voters or Dave Chappelle proudly announcing “I’m Rick James, b**ch!”? Through all of this, the music of 2004 reassured us that we were not yet completely insane. In fact, the fourth edition of Y2K has been the greatest year in music since 1997, if not 1994. So, with that in mind, it’s time for me, The Villanovan’s friendly music guru, to once again count down the finest albums of the year. Though I’m sure everyone has been waiting a good 12 months for this issue, I’ll keep it to a nice “Top 10,” catering to a short attention span. Just read it and sleep:

10. Interpol, “Antics”

Since the release of Interpol’s debut album in 2002, I’ve been calling them the greatest thing since sliced cheese. However, with respect to this year’s follow-up, you won’t find me blowing smoke up their rears. What was supposed to be a stellar second effort is simply a sophomore slump. Their latest is a meager set of 10 tracks, a third of which lack the necessary hooks, half of which forgo intellectually provocative lyrics and most of which fail to fulfill the promise of their debut. Quite simply, this half decent effort has traded in the band’s dark demeanor for a false sense of joy by way of the mainstream. But hey, at least they’re not The Killers.

Standout tracks: “Next Exit,” “Not Even Jail,” “Length of Love”

9. The Streets, “A Grand Don’t Come For Free”

Mike Skinner has done it again. Under his hip-hop title, The Streets, he makes his latest effort what 2002’s lauded “Original Pirate Material” was not: a concept album. Quite possibly a first for the rap game, the British emcee tells his story of losing 1,000 quid, meeting a keen girl, losing her to one of his friends and regaining his lost cash. Throughout it all, he utilizes his own beats and procures rhymes so intricate and cockney that other rappers pale in comparison.

Standout tracks: “Blinded By The Lights,” “Fit But You Know It,” “Empty Cans”

For an even greater thrill, try the Japanese release of the album. It comes with a second version of “Fit But You Know It,” backed by up-and-coming indie rockers The Futureheads.

8. The Futureheads, “The Futureheads”

If you haven’t guessed it, The Futureheads are an up-and-coming indie rock band. They’ve collaborated with The Streets, toured with Franz Ferdinand and are currently the talk of the British music press. Their bombastic performing quality comes across in stunning detail on their self-titled debut, which fires through 15 songs in under 36 minutes. Some may say they’re a faster Talking Heads, others a modernized Ramones. But by way of their new album, they’re just plain unique.

Standout tracks: “A to B,” “Meantime,” “First Day”

7. The Out Crowd, “Then I Saw The Holy City”

I believe it was Walter Sobchek of “Big Lebowski” fame who once said, “Do you see what happens when you meet a stranger in the Alps and you feed him scrambled eggs?” With that in mind, Portland band The Out Crowd is that stranger, and they’ve got a good omelet with their debut album. Like many bands from their area, they exude a psychedelic sound with “strung out” vocals, guitars and synthesizers, so much so that their debut clocks in at 72:39 with only 14 songs. Overall, they take the ’60s-esque Portland scene to an even higher level, all with the help of members from the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the approval of The Dandy Warhols.

Standout tracks: “Little Elf,” “Drugsick,” “All I Want”

6. Matt Sharp, “Matt Sharp”

Matt Sharp has seen more success than most musicians combined. Not only was he the first (and foremost) bassist for Weezer, but he was also the lead man of indie rock heroes The Rentals and a key collaborator with such groups as Tegan and Sara and Ash. This year, he made his full length debut as a solo artist. His 11-track eponymous album evokes a folksy, mellow feel, with tales of lost loves, meeting new people and moving cross country. Backed predominantly by acoustic guitar, the new direction is certainly a “sharp” one, in contrast to the singer’s pop-rock past. Yet putting aside his taste in music, Sharp shows little sign of slowing down.

Standout tracks: “Goodbye West Coast,” “Just Like Movie Stars,” “Thoughts From A Slow Train”

5. Graham Coxon, “Happiness In Magazines”

Having been fired from Blur two years ago, few thought Graham Coxon would be able to make it on his own. However, the legendary guitarist proves otherwise with his fifth solo outing. It’s got all the potency of an early Blur record, just without the pesky Britpop fluff. His guitarwork on the album is among the best of his career, and its four hit singles have given him chart credibility where none was thought possible. When all is said and done, he comes across as a truly rocking solo artist, thereby putting the “it” back in “Brit.”

Standout tracks: “All Over Me,” “Freakin’ Out,” “Hopeless Friend”

4. Franz Ferdinand, “Franz Ferdinand”

I earmarked this band last December and reviewed their debut album in March. They hit the mainstream in May. Somehow the phrase “I told you so” doesn’t quite cut it. But no matter; they still have one of the top records this year, fueled by no less than five smash singles internationally and countless animated videos. So far, their success in America is outstanding, but it’s not getting to them. After all, they know they won’t be leaving here with you.

Standout tracks: “Take Me Out,” “Darts of Pleasure,” “Come On Home”

For further excitement, try the newly-reissued version of the album, with a remixed version of “This Fire” and the indelible b-side “All For You, Sophia.”

3. Manic Street Preachers, “Lifeblood”

It’s a real coincidence that Manic Street Preachers, the greatest political rock band of our time, released their seventh album on the day before Election Day. Entitled “Lifeblood,” the new effort actually comes across like 1996’s landmark “Everything Must Go”: partly political, but mainly life-affirming. There are songs about loneliness, emptiness, suffragists and even Richard Nixon. Though the band has for the most part covered this territory before, their songs have never sounded this good. Case in point: lead singer James Dean Bradfield’s vocals are so voluminous that all other rock singers pale in comparison.

Standout tracks: “1985,” “The Love of Richard Nixon,” “Solitude Sometimes Is”

2. Ash, “Meltdown”

After leaving the world in pop-rock bliss with 2001’s “Free All Angels,” Northern Ireland’s finest band returns with a hard rock sound and new designs on world domination. Though some aspects of their Britpop past remain intact, their latest is a masterpiece à la alternative, with a deliciously hot title, out-of-this-world musicianship and tracks so sharp that the record could be a greatest hits set unto itself. Undoubtedly, Ash has the album of the year. Had it not been for a decade-defining effort from a certain Bay Area punk trio, they would hold the top spot.

Standout tracks: “Orpheus,” “Out Of The Blue,” “Renegade Cavalcade”

1. Green Day, “American Idiot”

It’s been 10 years since Green Day burst onto the scene and gave punk rock the shock treatment it needed. Since then, the boys from the Bay Area have thrown dookie, become insomniacs and given us a warning, all the while having the time of their lives. This year, they finally got around to releasing their finest album to date. Appropriately titled “American Idiot,” the rock opera tells the tale of Jesus of Suburbia, a young man who leaves home only to find that all of society is poised against him. Like Dr. Phil, the album tells it like it is, and in a format that has not been readily used since the ’70s. Because of this, Green Day has inadvertently created the album of the decade, one that represents the youth of America and the state of affairs that surround them. What Nirvana’s “Nevermind” was for the ’90s, so is “American Idiot” for this first part of the 21st century.

Standout tracks: “American Idiot,” “Holiday,” “Give Me Novacaine,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends”