Overlooked Favorites from 2004

Balancing sugary, catchy pop with punky rock, The Butchies remain one of the most hideously underexposed bands anywhere — probably because of their sexual-orientation politics. In 10 tracks and just a hair over half an hour, Make Yr Life puts meaty hooks, great harmonies, anger, affirmations, and longing into the blender and ends up being my favorite CD of the year. Anchored by singer Kaia Wilson, this trio produces beautifully realized three-minute nuggets of passionate, smart music. The title track and the buzzy, feedback-fueled anger of “Lydia” stand far above anything else I heard in 2004. It’s simply criminal that this band doesn’t have something approaching the critical and commercial success of Sleater-Kinney.

Polly Jean Harvey started her career as an abrasive, sexual banshee and over time polished her act until she became something of a respectable alt-rock goddess. Her 2000 record Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea found her at the apex of a commercial style that emphasized songwriting over her sheer performance magnetism. Uh Huh Her, from its grunt-like title to its raw, unvarnished sound, marks a return to the elemental Harvey, last heard on 4-Track Demos more than a decade ago. Two minutes of the sloppy, jerky “Who the Fuck?” have more rock-and-roll piss, swagger, and muscle than just about anything I heard this year, along with a haunting moan and what might be the album’s defiant motto: “You can’t straighten my curls.” Nothing else on the CD is nearly as aggressive, but in its entirety Uh Huh Her is an attempt by Harvey to re-claim her soul. It works.

Tift Merritt is quite a bit alt-country and a little rock-and-roll, and she’s also got soul. On her second album, Tambourine, Merritt’s gorgeous, warm, expressive voice gets a pop spit and polish from producer George Drakoulias, and it’s clearly an effort to goose sales. But as the record careens from country to rock to blue-eyed soul (horns included), it miraculously becomes greater than the sum of its crass parts. It looks and smells like a radio-friendly sellout, but it sounds great, with a lot of crossover potential. That voice, reminiscent of Emmylou Harris but without quite as much twang, is a versatile instrument that roots the album even as it explores lots of stylistic territory.

On Probot’s self-titled debut, Dave Grohl takes on ’80s thrash/speed metal/hardcore in all their permutations, using vocalists/lyricists from legendary bands. If you already like that sort of thing, you probably already own this cheesy good time. If this type of music is not your thing, stay far away.

With its plainly descriptive title and subtitle, one might expect Annie Quick’s Bigger: Ten Songs About Georgette to be a blunt instrument, but it’s a subtle work, matching the nuance of Quick’s singer-songwriter voice and lyrics with an aggressive and surprising instrumental and emotional attack. When the solo on the opening track comes from the bass, it’s time to throw expectations out the window. “Fed Ex” is a smart synthesis of both sides of Quick’s art, with a driving, layered backing track and lyrics such as “If you could Fed Ex my rejection to me, I could sign for my own failure.” Ignore that Bigger is meant as a concept album and enjoy it for what it is: a harder-rocking version of Fiona Apple.

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