1 · Riot on an Empty Street

And so we approach the end of this marathon. In the words of Bill Shatner, “Why did I bother?” I guess because I like being able to look back at what I’ve enjoyed, and why; and because I’m aware of how much my own tastes have been shaped by the recommendations of others, and am hoping to repay them, in a karmic sense at least, by passing on a few of my own. Appropriately, my favourite album of 2004 was itself the result of a recommendation.

A while ago, when I was at a loose end, I actually went through and rated a whole bunch of albums at Amazon so that its automated recommendations would be based on more than the last couple of things I’d looked at. For a while it started recommending things I already owned, but after those were out of the way, a few I hadn’t heard cropped up: most frequently, Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights.

So I gave it a try. It wasn’t terrible—kind of a slowed-down Strokes, like early-’90s shoegazers with New York accents and the Edge on lead guitar—but wasn’t as essential as the Amazonian artificial intelligence would have me believe. But it was good enough to try their follow-up, Antics, and this one’s more like it: more focussed, less meandering, with epic intros and crescendos (“Not Even Jail”) and tracks that don’t invite easy comparisons to other bands (“Evil”). Maybe Amazon isn’t just A.I., but precog.

One of my favourite New York bands of the ’90s, Luna, were also a recommendation, but from a much more reliable source. In fact, James has put me onto quite a few of my favourite bands, at least of non-Australian origin; our tastes aren’t identical, but there’s enough overlap that he can usually tell when I’ll be interested in something. So he tipped me off when Dean Wareham’s new band emerged from the ashes of Galaxie 500, and sparked a decade-long love affair. Which ends, sadly, this year, as the band call it quits with the understated Rendezvous. It isn’t quite the equal of 2002’s Romantica, but contains some outstanding songs nevertheless, every one a reminder of how much I’ll miss them.

Nowadays, James doesn’t even have to thrust an album into my hands for me to take the hint (eventually). When I saw the Kings of Convenience’s Quiet is the New Loud on the £5 shelves at FOPP, I remembered him commenting on its clever title and pleasant contents, so thought nothing of handing over a fiver to see what he meant. And I’m very glad I did. They’re the Neo-Folk equivalent of the New Jazz I wrote about the other day, and like so much of that, they too come from Northern Europe: Norway, in fact. Fans of Röyksopp will recognize Erlend Øye’s voice (he sang on “Poor Leno” and “Remind Me”), but unlike Melody A.M. there’s nothing electronic here: just two guitars and “two soft voices”. Simon and Garfunkel comparisons are inevitable, but the music of Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe sounds more intimate, and their accents give it a distinctive flavour.

Their second album, Riot on an Empty Street, is even better than the first: a few carefully chosen orchestral instruments deepen the original palette, while Canadian vocalist Feist adds a feminine touch to two key tracks, “Know How” and “The Build-Up”, to serve as end-markers for each half of the album. It all shows just how effective the sparing use of extra musical elements can be; some reviewers complained that the Kings should have incorporated the electronic influences of their remixes and side projects into the album, but why does every soup have to be minestrone? Rather than a wall of sound, this is like staring through a window at a quiet fireside scene. Never have rainy days and long nights sounded so appealing.

All that, and it has the sexiest cover of any album released this year.