- Julia Fordham – That’s Life (Vanguard) It’s rare when an album achieves the quality of Concrete Love (2002), with songwriting, performance and production excellence. It’s rarer still when the next album is essentially a continuation of the same session with another batch of superb songs, perfectly executed, a true gift.
- Nellie McKay – Get Away From Me (Columbia) After almost overlooking this record when I first received an advance copy in late 2003 (the first listen didn’t register), it ultimately took control of my car player like no other release in recent memory. A witty, wise, wordy, and tuneful debut; that she was just seventeen (you know what I mean) when this was written and recorded makes it all the more remarkable.
- k.d. lang – Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch) Lang’s enormous talent is put to best use in this tribute to Canadian songwriters. Every track is a gem, and the title is completely justified, and not just for “Hallelujah.”
- Ron Isley & Burt Bacharach – Here I Am: Ron Isley Sings Burt Bacharach (Dreamworks) Going way beyond a simple rehash of the Bacharach-David catalog, this project displays a dynamic partnership between Ronald Isley and Burt Bacharach who makes a strong case for his being a musical renaissance man with his multiple roles of songwriter, arranger, producer, conductor, and musician, and who would’ve ever thought that Tonio K would resurface as a lyricist in the Hal David role. This disc provides a listening experience that I find totally cathartic.
- Keane – Hopes and Fears (Interscope) Anthemic Brit-pop lives, and is rarely done better than what this three man band (voice, keyboards, drums) puts down on their debut release. They seem like really nice kids too.
- Johnny A – Get Inside (Favored Nations) I could totally listen to this amazing guitarist play anything, and this new record serves up a great batch of new tunes. The original material is great, but he shows such a wealth of range and musical knowledge when playing live, I almost want him to do more cover songs.
- Chris Botti – When I Fall In Love (Columbia) I didn’t think Botti could better his rock album, Night Sessions (2001), but here he completely abandons the rock for a set of standards and has produced one of the best chill-out records ever. As 2004 ends, his appearances on daytime television, especially Oprah are launching sales of this disc into the stratosphere, much to the delight of his label.
- Rebecca Martin – People Behave Like Ballads (MaxJazz) Together with the Isley and Botti records, this disc provided a soothing office soundtrack all year long offering a nice counterpoint to the work environment. Almost reminiscent of the melodic mellow jazz style of Once Blue, but decidedly more jazz and less pop, this album has a wealth of understated melodic pleasures that are only revealed gradually over time with repeat listening.
- Holly Palmer – I Confess (Bombshell) A great third album, maybe even better than her soon to finally be released excellent second album Tender Hooks (2000). Being dropped twice in a career by essentially the same label (different regimes), both times with completed albums in the can and promo copies distributed might cause a lesser artist to hang it up. Holly responded by forming her own label and is now doing her best work ever.
- Jonatha Brooke – Back in the Circus (Bad Dog) The title refers to her move back to New York City, however her music seems to have gained more from her 2003 tour of Germany as opening act for the Hooters. That experience inspired her first ever cover songs, the new originals are some of her best songwriting ever and Eric Bazilian’s participation is a big plus, all of which add up to this being her most enjoyable album to date.
Just Missed the List: My top three were easy, they fell into place one-two-three. The next seven were way more difficult, as the following six albums struck me as equally worthy of being top ten material and it was painful to leave them out. I could very easily have picked an all-female top ten this year; last year my top ten only included two female artists (Dido and Roseanne Cash).
- Kasey Chambers – Wayward Angel
- Jem – Finally Woken
- Norah Jones – Feels Like Home
- Eleni Mandell – Afternoon
- Sia – Colour the Small One (Import)
- Zero 7 – When It Falls
More Great Records: 2004 was an excellent year, with many more great records by Gabriela Anders, The Blue Nile, J.J. Cale, The Cardigans, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Cowboy Junkies, Crosby & Nash, The Damnwells, Tina Dico, Five for Fighting, John Fogerty, Gov’t Mule, Daryl Hall, Hall & Oates, Juliana Hatfield, Mark Knopfler, Leo Kottke, Allison Moorer, Alex Parks, Queen Latifah, Sarah Randle, Chris Rea, Garrison Starr, Martina Topley-Bird, and The Trash Can Sinatras.