Musicians add their voices to political battle

Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 31, 2004 at 11:10 p.m.
Good Charlotte tackles happiness, purpose, love and war in "The Chronicles of Life and Death," and Green Day questions the establishment in "American Idiot."
Thanks to a highly emotional and polarizing election season, 2004 became the year when musicians finally realized that staying out of politics isn't cool - it's a cop-out.
Punk rockers Green Day and Good Charlotte delivered their angriest and most incisive albums yet; Eminem released his anti-Bush video for "Mosh"; and a small army of rockers toured with Bruce Springsteen in the hopes of ousting the president.
None of it worked, but that's not the point. No matter for whom you voted, be grateful that artists are still willing to take chances and take a stand in the play-it-safe world of pop music.
Not every album on the following list is full of revolutionary fervor, but each one makes a bold statement - be it political, personal or both.
  • 1. Kanye West, "The College Dropout" (Roc-A-Fella). Black people dress funny, rappers should respect God, college is for losers - how can West make such outrageous statements? Because he also makes some of the best hip-hop music around. Whether rapping about being a wage slave at The Gap ("Spaceship") or making drug-dealing sound like a charming sitcom ("We Don't Care"), West keeps the beats banging and the hooks hot. "The College Dropout" is the funniest, sharpest, bravest rap album in years.
  • 2. Scissor Sisters, "Scissor Sisters" (Universal/Polydor). Who knew there was any juice left to squeeze out of disco, glam-rock and '70s pop? Somehow, New York's Scissor Sisters whip those old genres into something new, refreshing and oh-so-tasty. The secret ingredient: stellar songwriting from singer Jake Shears and bassist Scott "Babydaddy" Hoffman, who take their cues from Elton John, David Bowie and The Bee Gees. If Scissor Sisters don't get you up and dancing, you're dead inside.
  • 3. Joanna Newsom, "The Milk-Eyed Mender" (Drag City). Newsom's full-length debut is a thing of beauty and rare magic. But be warned: It's not for everyone. Newsom is a classically trained harpist who writes lilting chamber music and lyrics that border on medieval poetry: "I thank the Lord and I thank his sword / Tho' it be mincing up the morning / Slightly bored." Her squawking voice will either captivate you completely or drive you from the room, but here's a guarantee: "The Milk-Eyed Mender" is like nothing you've ever heard.
  • 4. TV on the Radio, "Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes" (Touch and Go). When was the last time an art-rock band actually freaked you out? TV on the Radio's frightening power comes from the commanding guitar lines of David Sitek (producer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and the soulful, shiver-inducing voices of Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone. This stuff is a whole new genre: Call it punk-gospel or futurist R&B. The Brooklyn band took home this year's prestigious Shortlist Prize, awarded by panelists such as Robert Smith, Jack Black and John Mayer.
  • 5. Lansing-Dreiden, "The Incomplete Triangle" (Kemado). One of the craziest, most enjoyable debuts in recent memory comes from an anonymous graphic-arts collective with roots in Brooklyn and Miami. They offered the disc at gallery shows last year, but it wasn't available in stores until Kemado released it in April. It's not pretentious - in fact, it's totally fun, veering between wiggy psychedelia and Gothic dance-rock. Sadly, Lansing-Dreiden does not tour.
  • 6. Green Day, "American Idiot" (Reprise). Finally, a punk album that questions the establishment - imagine that! Green Day attacks bigotry, complacency and the Bush administration, all within an ambitious (if scattered) rock-opera featuring multi-part songs and recurring characters. Always a revivalist act, Green Day here runs through British rock, doo-wop, glam and other rousing genres. It's a near-perfect piece of pop art.
  • 7. The Good Life, "Album of the Year" (Saddle Creek). The title isn't a boast, it's a description: These 12 songs describe a year-long romance between a drunken musician and a wary bartendress. (Things don't end well.) Front man Tim Kasher dissects himself and his mate with brutal honesty, never forgetting his sense of humor or his gift for melody. This may be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement - such emotional intensity is hard to repeat - but Kasher has the potential to be our next rock poet.
  • 8. Good Charlotte, "The Chronicles of Life and Death" (Epic). Surprise! The poster boys for lightweight punk have made an album that's - well, kinda deep. "Chronicles" tackles the big questions: not just life and death, but happiness, purpose, love and war. And the tunes are some of the band's catchiest yet, with big, joyous, jump-on-your-bed hooks.
  • 9. Zero 7, "When It Falls" (Elektra). This album of warm, down-tempo soul sounds just like its predecessor ("Simple Things"), but that's a good thing. It's hard to argue with pure sonic perfection, and studio craftsmen Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker have achieved it a second time. The usual syrupy-voiced singers are back - Sophie Barker, Mozez and Sia Furler - plus newcomer Tina Dico, who co-wrote one of the best tracks, the dusky "Home."
  • 10. Nellie McKay, "Get Away From Me" (Columbia). OK, she lied - she's not a precocious 19-year-old, she's a talented 22-year-old. That takes away some of her Salingeresque charm, but the double-disc "Get Away From Me" is still a daring, delightful lark. McKay dashes giddily from genre to genre, including wry cabaret ("Manhattan Avenue"), sloppy rap ("Sari") and even an advertising jingle ("Clonie"). Her kookiness is absolutely infectious - just don't ask the lady her age.
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