What makes for a great album, one that will endure?

Striking sounds? An ability to unify the masses? That it’s enjoyable from start to finish – and worth repeating?

I honestly don’t know, and any analysis of such a topic inevitably would be incomplete because it can’t account for the most heavily weighted criteria – personal taste.

Every entry in my list of the 10 finest recordings of 2004 satisfies one of those queries I asked – sometimes more than one. But ultimately all this list signifies is a bunch of albums I can’t stop playing.

1 Brian Wilson, “SMiLE” (Nonesuch) – Whether this is the best album of 2004 or the best lost album of 1967 is as moot as whether Dylan & the Band’s “Basement Tapes” (another shelved, oft-boot-legged project from the Summer of Love) was indeed the finest music of ’75, when it officially saw the light of day. Actually, that debate is more moot regarding this complex yet accessible pop pastiche: It simply could not have happened way back when, nor would it have resonated bittersweetly.

Not only was Wilson in no mental shape to complete this masterpiece all those years ago – he began work in ’66, aborted the idea in May ’67, with only “Good Vibrations” and some scraps that wound up on later albums to show for it – but the other Beach Boys’ hearts were never in this segmented, surreal set. To finish this sprawl at any point in his life, fragile Brian needed as much morale-building as talent willing to be molded.

Nearly four decades later, he found that support system in L.A. power-pop outfit the Wondermints, plus assorted other first-rate players, all of whom coaxed the master back into the studio to make this mythological monster real.

It’s been overhyped now, and I’ve heard from plenty of people who aren’t as taken with it, but the simultaneously playful and prayerful results keep amazing me after more than 25 plays. It’s childlike, and then it’s as wise as Solomon. It’s eccentric and absurd, but then it will make perfect sense. Most important: No matter when I turn it on, it always manages to make the title spread across my face.

2 Green Day, “American Idiot” (Warner Bros.) – The essential 2001 best-of, “International Superhits!,” convinced me (up to then a mere admirer) that Billie Joe Armstrong is one of the finest tunesmiths of the past quarter-century. This, the first filler-free Green Day album, not only reinforces that notion – “Extraordinary Girl” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” are classic pop, while the title track is the best punk anthem in ages – it convinces me that Armstrong is some kind of visionary. One of the few “rock operas” that succeeds musically and makes conceptual sense, “American Idiot” expertly summarizes suburban youth disillusionment and ennui in a schizo narrative that revisits the Who’s “Quadrophenia.” As with that classic, this one’s fear and frustration speak to anyone who has ever wondered about the world’s ills while watching the wee hours tick by at a 7-Eleven.

No less an authority than Stephen King – a guy who knows a thing or two about rock ‘n’ roll – recently declared it better than “Tommy.” The boneheads at Blender should be ashamed of themselves for leaving it out of their Top 50 – a ridiculous, pandering list that, not surprisingly, includes dreck from cover girls Ashlee Simpson and Courtney Love.

3 “Franz Ferdinand” (Domino/Epic) – Thrilled though I am at the arrival of the new new-wave, it’s already as flooded by hacks as the first wave was. Thus, as was the case then, only the strongest – those with wit and substance and relentless energy and impressive hooks – will survive.

So far, this delectably nervy debut from a quartet of fashionable Scotsmen tops that small heap. Martial but highly danceable, shot full of herky-jerky guitar work that plays wicked counterpoint to Alex Karpanos’ theatrical bellow, teeming with gender-bending seduction, it may be the only offering from the new breed that can stand alongside the finest early work of the influences it mines – Gang of Four and XTC, namely.

4 Gomez, “Split the Difference” (Virgin) – The best album yet from the best band to emerge from Britain post-Oasis. Rarely these days are outfits blessed with three distinctive, engaging singer-songwriters – gruff, blues-inclined Ben Ottewell, sweeter Tom Gray, and Ian Ball, who is like an even-tempered Kurt Cobain. The group’s 1998 debut, “Bring It On,” won the Mercury Music Prize and brought expectations that weren’t met – until now.

Operating on a tiny budget, the band settled in a cramped, unpleasant studio in England and produced a double-album-length disc (better on vinyl) with timeless melodies and the stylistic sweep of the Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” What’d they get for it? Minimal exposure, ceaseless touring and a pink slip from their record label. Great cult bands never have it easy.

5. Nellie McKay, “Get Away From Me” (Columbia) – At just 21, this New Yorker-by-way-of-London unexpectedly dropped the most audacious debut in recent memory, one that doesn’t wane once during its omnibus 18 tracks over two discs. Cabaret, torchy jazz, tongue-in-cheek white-girl rap, Petula Clark pop, Broadway, Fiona-esque piano dramatics – McKay pulls “em all off in this lush, striking affair, produced by former Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick.

Better still: She matches her musical breadth with vivid, funny lyrics of uncommon intelligence and pacing and subject matter (depression, marriage, cloning, the government) that should impress the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Her creativity is so voracious and untamed she may quickly get bored with making records and move on to film and theater. Enjoy her pop life while it’s on display.

6. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus” (Anti-/Epitaph) – Two decades after splitting from the Birthday Party and embarking on a highly regarded solo career that nonetheless has left him a cult figure, this Aussie is now the unparalleled dark prince of philosophical macabre-rock. And this is his greatest testament, a double album – actually, two separate titles packaged in one classy case – that recapitulates his finest doom and gloom while skyrocketing it to new heights.

“Abattoir” is the nastier but more exultant half, a meditation on (among other topics) the wages of war, capped midway by the gospel salvation of “There She Goes, My Beautiful World.” “Orpheus” is the more peaceful antidote, a collection of (mostly) love songs that’s in keeping with his past few calmer efforts. He may never top either one.

7. “Scissor Sisters” (Universal) – Unquestionably the most fun album of the year, assuming your idea of a good time is five hyper-stylish, out-of-the-closet New York transplants rethinking Pink Floyd’s somber “Comfortably Numb” into a disco anthem with falsetto cries straight outta Bronski Beat.

That flawless novelty, however, though it hints at the group’s wild inventiveness, doesn’t speak for the whole disc, which encompasses Todd Rundgren, Pet Shop Boys, ’70s soft-rock, ’80s synth-pop and tons of primo Elton John. The irresistible “Take Your Mama” is the best song about coming out to your parents ever recorded, and the techno drone that kicks off the (theoretical) second side slaps the FCC silly. Derivative in every way, and that’s why it’s so brilliant.

8. Loretta Lynn, “Van Lear Rose” (Interscope) – The comeback of the year, and the Coal Miner’s Daughter had plenty of competition. This easily could have been a botched vanity project, with producer Jack White (of the White Stripes) overstepping his boundaries and swallowing Lynn’s traditionalism whole. Instead, it’s a perfect marriage of then and now – which, in Jack’s case, is still very much like then.

Against roomy music evoking old-timey hollers, classic Nashville weepers and the bluesier side of Led Zeppelin, Lynn shares some of the most arresting tales of her career – and in a voice that, like those of the best artists (regardless of genre), has only gained power and character as time has gone by. If what passes for mainstream country would take more cues from this – and Gretchen Wilson – radio might still be salvaged.

9. Wilco, “A Ghost Is Born” (Nonesuch) – Or “More Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” the harder listen. Two years after Wilco became a cause celebre more for an industry battle than for any music, only those truly committed to Jeff Tweedy’s one-of-a-kind (and ever-changing) Chicago group remain. And that’s as it should be.

As with its two predecessors, “Ghost” proves how far ahead of its time Wilco remains – instinctive, organic, unconventional, willfully ignorant of anything that doesn’t fit its wide aesthetic. This, then, is their “Kid A” – the more challenging counterpart to the breakthrough many music fans felt commanded to consider. If you haven’t written these guys off as too fractured, give this a spin; once you get past (or edit out) the three gloriously weird bits, the rest is among Wilco’s approachable best.

10. Kanye West, “The College Dropout” (Roc-A-Fella) – It deserves the Album of the Year Grammy, even over “American Idiot,” if for nothing more than what it represents: After years of recycled street portraits that, at best, produced solid collections of hits, someone finally made a purely hip-hop classic in the thought-provoking vein of Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and De La Soul.

Not that West’s manifesto is as gritty as seminal works from those acts, but that’s to its credit: Its study of ghetto life is every bit as profound, but it conveys its hopes and dreams – and fed-up anger – in liberating blasts of groove and harmony. Its airwave-seizing hooks (a given from Kanye) hide smart, sorrowful lyrics of optimism and perseverance. Should set a precedent for an important genre long mired in mediocrity.


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