It was a very good year …

Despite the naysayers — and there are many gloom-and-doom pundits who insist there’s never anything good or new — there was an abundance of excellent music produced in 2004.

Sure, there were disappointments — “Around the Sun,” REM’s exercise in somnambulism; the absence of the Pixies from the local concert schedule; the demise of the World in the Strip District — but the good outweighed the bad:

Mr. Small’s Funhouse in Millvale and the Rex Theatre on the South Side proved to be good places to hear live music.

The Three Rivers Arts Festival again brought in a stellar lineup of musicians, including Wilco, Richard Thompson and Patti Smith.

The Clarks wowed the audience and the host during an August appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman.”

While not quite as cutting edge as I’d personally like, WYEP-FM is nevertheless a musical oasis in a lackluster radio landscape.

There also was a lot of good local music; particularly notable were efforts by Adam Evil & The Outside Royalty (“Necessary Evil”), Tom Breiding (“Two Tone Chevrolet”), Good Brother Earl’s self-titled release and The Breakup Society’s “James at 35.”

Favorite shows of the year? Lloyd Cole (sore throat and all) at Club Cafe in April and Patti Smith’s mesmerizing performance at Carnegie Music Hall in December. Special kudos goes to Joe Grushecky for bringing Bruce Springsteen to town for Flood Aid ’04, which raised $255,000 for the victims of September’s flooding.

And finally, in no particular order, a highly idiosyncratic and personal look at the albums of the year:

The Willard Grant Conspiracy’s “Regard the End” meditates on life and death, at times darkly (“The Suffering Song”), at times with buoyant optimism (“Soft Hand”). Robert Fischer’s haunting, Gothic-flavored music perfectly fits his faith-seeking lyrics.

Franz Ferdinand updated the spirit of the ’80s on its catchy and danceable self-titled debut. But Sons & Daughters produced the best album of 2004 by people who might wear kilts. “Love the Cup” featured minimalist rock songs with fetching call-and-response vocals and the best tribute song of the year, “Johnny Cash.”

The geopolitical landscape provided a wellspring of inspiration for artists so inclined. “New Roman Times,” by Camper Van Beethoven (recording again after 15 years) was the best of the “ripped from the headlines” school of writing, evocatively telling a story of a soldier’s journey from eager recruit to disillusioned veteran in a parallel U.S. universe. CVB’s masterful musicianship is impeccable if indescribable. Psychedelic gypsy country rock?

Green Day’s “American Idiot” also was fueled by disenchantment with the political landscape, and it rocks as hard as any release of 2004. The suite of songs “Jesus of Suburbia” just might be the year’s best nine musical minutes.

For pure escapism, nothing was better than Nancy Sinatra’s self-titled disc, with Jarvis Cocker, Pete Yorn, Sonic Youth and members of U2 writing music that fit her breathy style.

In counterpoint to Sinatra, Mavis Staples elevated hearts in her wonderfully soulful “Have a Little Faith,” the most uplifting and inspirational album of the year.

Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers often are regarded as a regional band, which is a shame, or a Springsteen imitator, which is criminal. Few bands anywhere know how to rock like these guys, and Grushecky again showed his songwriting smarts on “True Companion.”

“20,000 Streets Under the Sky” by Marah exhibits the same urban grittiness of the Houserockers, only the locale is Philadelphia. The band does the Bruce Springsteen-Asbury Park motif better than anyone since … well, Springsteen. And the wily British rocker Graham Parker released “Your Country,” smart, snappy songs about his take on British and American cultures.

Saying Wilco’s “A Ghost is Born” didn’t quite reach the heights of “Yankee Foxtrot Hotel” is akin to calling the view from Kilimanjaro not quite Mt. Everest. Jeff Tweedy and his band remain among the most innovative musicians in contemporary music.

David Byrne is another artist not content with the status quo. “Grown Backward,” recorded with the Tosca Strings, was a delightful divergence from standard pop music; even Byrne’s somewhat pretentious operatic excursions, “Un Di Felice, Eterea” and “Au Fond du Temple Saint,” were enjoyable.

Perhaps it’s time to put the descriptive jam band to rest, at least in regards to moe. “Wormwood” has a wide-ranging sound that synthesizes classic rock, alterna-rock, good old plain rock, funk, country … and probably a dozen or so other styles “jammed” together. OK, call ’em a jam band if you must, but it’s still an engaging album.

Modest Mouse’s “Good News for People Who Love Bad News.” is filled with ingenious, quirky music; the song “Float On,” in a perfect world, would be the song of the year.

Personal observations as songwriting exercises are often oh-so-pretentious. But Joseph Arthur’s “Our Shadows Will Remain” with its utter desolation was a truly riveting listening experience.

John Cale made one of the finest albums of his career in “HoboSapiens,” an exotic album of fragile beauty that lingers long after its final notes and shows why he is still one of rock’s most important figures.

“Damage” by Blues Explosion is the band’s best release since “Orange,” outrageous, blaring, obnoxious and courageous. Jon Spencer truly is the Muhammad Ali of rock ‘n’ roll.

The year’s saddest album was “From a Basement on a Hill,” Elliott Smith’s bittersweet farewell to the world. There’s enough lyrical evidence on the album to suggest Smith knew this was going to be his last recording, and while there’s an unfinished quality to much of the music, it nevertheless is a minor pop masterpiece.

Finally, three I just couldn’t stop playing:

Jim White’s “Drill a Hole in That Substrate and Tell Me What You See” is a wonderfully strange blend of music that defies categorization. Like a mad scientist, White mixes influences, whether it’s the funkadelic blues of “Combing My Hair in a Brand New Style” or “That Girl From Brownsville Texas” and its spooky carnival-like organ meshing with a keening lap steel guitar. Even White’s lovely duet with Aimee Mann, “Static on the Radio,” is underpinned by an atmospheric underbelly of strange sounds. An adventurous album that constantly yields new revelations.

It’s outrageous the Action Slacks are below even cult-band status. “Full Upright Position” is a music lover’s delight, an exercise in name-that-influence. There’s the Smith’s (“My Favorite Nation”) the ’80s synth pop of “My Favorite Man,” straight-up alterna-rock (“If I’m Not Deceived”) and the sweetest song of all, the country-flavored “Keeping Close to You.” A band that deserves a larger audience.

The one album that I continually went back to is Chris Stamey’s “Travels in the South.” Intelligent, shiny pop music of the highest standard, “Travels in the South” is the rare concept album that never loses steam. In every song, Stamey transports the listener to another place, dialing in distant emotions. From the buoyant hooks of the opening track, “14 Shades of Green,” the former dBs member sets an energetic pace. There’s the jazz-flavored “Spanish Harlem,” the wistful ’50s-style ballad “And I Love Her,” and “Kierkegaard,” which answers its philosophical question with an extended, percolating instrumental coda.

In the liner notes, Stamey writes that “to be a musician is to succeed in another kind of transportation.” “Travels in the South” is a rare first-class trip that goes off without a hitch.

Publication: Pittsburgh Tribune Review

Publication date: 02/01/05