December 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews noteworthy music from 2004

There’s no getting around it: Every year, more albums are rolled out by the music industry — approximately 25,000, give or take a few thousand — than we possibly have room to review. And some of them are damn good, too. So to make some amends and relieve our guilt, we decided to take a second look at 10 noteworthy 2004 discs that slipped through the EW cracks when they were released. You’ll find a smattering of electronica, indie hip-hop, vintage soul, alt-rock, even gospel. Happy catching up.

Various Artists, Unclassics
If Pac-Man had utilized music the same way Halo or Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater now does, its soundtrack might have sounded something like this compilation, aptly subtitled ”Obscure Electronic Funk & Disco 1978-1985.” Next to current dance tracks, these forays into ping-ponging, clap-happy thumpers, newly mixed by underground DJ Morgan Geist, seem especially primitive. Heard now, though, they also feel surprisingly human. It’s easy to envision actual hands twiddling the knobs that created the cute-as-a-puppy synths on Zodiac’s ”Pacific” or the choir of creepy vocoder voices on Pluton & Humanoids’ ”World Invaders.” That last title even sounds like a vintage video-game, doesn’t it? B+

Mark Lanegan Band, Bubblegum
Just when most of us had written him off, the former Screaming Trees Frontman — and notorious ex-junkie — rouses himself enough to make alt-rock blues darker and scarier than Jon Spencer or even Jack White ever imagined. Whether the music crawls on all fours or crunches hard (the latter with the aid of Josh Homme, ex-GN’R members, and PJ Harvey), it seems as if it were rising up from a deeply dug well, especially Lanegan’s glowering pirate-in-recovery voice. For all his turmoil, he hasn’t sounded this focused in years. ”Will you walk with me underground/And forgive all my sickness and my sorrows?” he sings. Sure thing. A

The Hidden Cameras, Mississauga Goddam
Flamboyant orchestral pop about religion and enemas doesn’t get any better than…actually, it doesn’t really exist outside the world of the Hidden Cameras, a Canadian folk-pop project led by singer-guitarist Joel Gibb. Refiguring Phil Spector’s over-the-top ’60s production style (strings, tambourines, and handclaps) into chirping anthems for church-going blasphemers, the Cameras’ second album portrays a conflicted inner life of sexuality and spirituality that would make Mel Gibson cringe. (Or maybe hum along?) B

Madeleine Peyroux. Careless Love
Imagine a young Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday reincarnated and tackling songs by Dylan, Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, and Elliott Smith, and you’ve grasped the basics of cabaret singer Peyroux’s lithe second disc. Highlighting the singer’s sultry, heavy-lidded delivery (with a voice that could have emerged from an Edison phonograph a hundred years ago), the album is the perfect treat for adventurous Norah Jones fans. Modern jazz crooners rarely sound as comfortable warbling rock-era songs as Peyroux does (her years in Paris no doubt helped). In her capable hands, jazz crossover gets a good name. A-

Haiku d’Etat, Coup de Theatre
Three MCs. Three voices. Three styles. That’s the appeal of this West Coast hip-hop supergroup — virtuosic microphone fiends Aceyalone, Micah 9, and Abstract Rude — set loose over a dozen sparse beats that gave them space to take risks. And they really take advantage, riffing like jazzmen on topics playful (”Kats” and ”Dogs”) and profound (”Coup de Theatre”), while bending their words into a dizzying kickboxing match of syllables and punchlines. A-

Various Artists, Wattstax: Highlights From the Soundtrack
Quick history: Los Angeles, 1972, an African-American Woodstock. Coinciding with the reissue of the documentary filmed at the event, this companion disc fiercely captures R&B in the years after Motown’s heyday and before disco dominated. Bow down before frenzied soul-guitar raunch (the Rance Allen Group’s ”Lying on the Truth”), horns-on-fire work-outs (Johnnie Taylor’s ”Jody’s Got Your Girl and Gone”), I-will-survive ballads (Carla Thomas’ ”Pick Up the Pieces”), and forgotten oddities (the Bar-Kays’ genuinely weird ”Son of Shaft/Feel It”). When it’s over, don’t be surprised to find sweat beads on the disc. A-

Ambulance LTD, LP
Not that we needed another artfully di-sheveled Brooklyn band with a hip list of Brit-rock influences (Slowdive, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine) and a Velvet Underground fetish, but this alluring debut is hard to shake off (see Download This for a preview of their upcoming CD). Other neo-post-punk acts might be more original, but few have Ambulance’s potent brew of literate lyrics, warm-fuzzy riffs, and infectious hooks. Bonus: It’s never clear whether singer Marcus Congleton is in love with a girl or drugs or both. How Lou Reed of him. B+

Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light
Maybe it’s because the unwavering fervor of jam-band nation isn’t far removed from that of religious cults, but this union of the slide-playing roots rocker and the veteran gospel septet feels relaxed and natural. Turns out Harper writes a pretty good spiritual, too; ”Pictures of Jesus” and ”Take My Hand” could have been lifted from an old gospel songbook. B+

Amp Fiddler, Waltz of a Ghetto Fly
Journeyman Detroit musician Joseph ”Amp” Fiddler worked with Prince and George Clinton, and the singer-keyboardist proves himself an apt pupil on this slick, seductive debut. Actually, he genuflects a bit too deeply at the altar of his former bosses (with some heavy Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder worship, too), which keeps this set of spacey funk trips and blissed-out soul ballads from feeling wholly unique. But Fiddler works in enough 21st-century electronica tweaks and hip-hop touches to keep this neo-soul exercise from straying into nostalgic ickiness. B

DJ/Rupture, Special Gunpowder
The Boston-born, Harvard-educated, Barcelona-based DJ/Rupture creates a messy, pan-global mash that would be equally at home in a grad-school seminar or a humid nightclub. The mix of styles — Jamaican dancehall meets North African drumming meets British electronica meets avant-garde noise and so on — has a distinctly postcolonial approach, tossing together cultures on a musical playing field where nobody’s the boss. Special Gunpowder, a heady, beat-centric seminar, goes best with The Nation in one hand and a Red Stripe in the other. B+

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