Punk roots one-up country, Purple One on ecclectic list

In the annals of music history, 2004 will be remembered in different ways by different people.

Some will remember it as the year Eminem graced the masses with the hot-selling Encore, while slightly older fans might look back at 2004 as the year R&B pianist Ray Charles passed away. And what jaded naysayer of pop music will ever forget the glory that was Ashlee Simpson's hoedown-inducing meltdown on "Saturday Night Live"?

This reviewer will remember the milestones, but 2004 carries a bit of extra personal significance. It was, after all, the year blues-guitar hero Kenny Wayne Shepherd — after five years with no album — resurfaced transformed into a poser rock star with The Place You're In.

However, 2004 wasn't all bad. Most of the following CDs won't be spun on Milwaukee's homogenized radio scene, but adventurous fans should find something worth checking out.

1. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus

Brooding goth-punk hero Nick Cave recorded two markedly different releases, Abattoir and Orpheus, in the most fertile 16-day stretch of his career. Dark comedy and Cave's animated vocal contortions — at their best on "Hiding All Away" — galvanize Abattoir. Orpheus, meanwhile, finds the Aussie and his band putting serene melody at center stage. Cute bunnies and birdies even appear, but Cave, true to ever-twisted form, makes them dash their brains out and detonate, respectively.

2. Th' Legendary Shack*Shakers – Believe

They scream, they thrash and as Shack*Shakers oft-shirtless frontman Colonel J.D. Wilkes explains, the blues-tinged Pentecostal punk quartet has a seemingly unholy mission. "We're trying to marry up all the different three-chord forms of music that really get under your skin and just hammer it home with some disturbing musical energy," he said. Believe, with highlights like the revved-up gypsy/polka "Agony Wagon" and the demonically energized blues "Help Me," makes the Colonel's commentary seem like one colossal understatement.

3. Buddy Miller – Universal United House of Prayer

Country-maverick Miller gracefully enters the world of gospel and Southern big-tent revivals on Universal with enough fervor to make even the most jaded listener exclaim "Hallelujah" and flock to his preacher's pulpit. Miller's soulful country whinny carries the stirring spirituals and contemplative ballads, including a stunning cover of Bob Dylan's "With God On Our Side." His fiery church-house rockers ("Don't Wait") don't discriminate against any congregation.

4. The Minus 5 — In Rock

It's clear The Minus 5's In Rock is something special merely from the album-opening notes of the aggressive surf-rock instrumental "Bambi Molester" — it's one-and-a-half minutes of aggressive, in-your-face melody that maintains an undeniable quirkiness. Such is the rest of In Rock. Frontman Scott McCaughey and Co. never let the gas pedal leave the floor as they surge through 12 tracks of explosive, 1960s-styled pop rock that runs its course all too quickly.

5. Steve Earle — The Revolution Starts…Now

Earle never mentions President Bush by name on Revolution, but it's clear he's in the Nashville outsider's lyrical crosshairs. Bleeding-heart Earle transforms himself into a Halliburton trucker in Iraq and a forgotten special-ops officer, among others, while intelligently raging against the policy of America's head honcho. The music's quality seldom suffers for the sake of the message, and hearing Earle's gravelly rasp rise to full anti-Big Brother boil on "F the CC" makes Revolution essential listening.

6. Prince — Musicology

The Purple One has returned. The diminutive diva got back to basics on Musicology with catchy synth-based beats and funky soul arrangements. He tackles true love ("Call My Name"), freak love ("Illusion, Coma, Pimp & Circumstance"), post-9-11 racism ("Cinnamon Girl") and more, but Prince doesn't forget to do what he does best — get even the most awkward movers to the dance floor.

7. Ron Sexsmith — Retriever

Talented singer/songwriters like Ron Sexsmith never seem to get their due with the record-buying public. On Retriever, which didn't even make its way onto the charts, the Canadian-born Sexsmith crafts a lush atmosphere that's cozy and welcoming at the same time it's distressing. The boyish-faced Sexsmith's calling card? Roping listeners in with his dizzyingly saccharine melodies, then bowling them over with deeply powerful, intelligent lyrical content ("For The Driver," "Dandelion Wine").

8. Black Label Society — Hangover Music Vol. VI

Zakk Wylde, guitar-wielding sideman to Ozzy Osbourne, usually doesn't stray from his metal roots. When he does, as on Hangover, the BLS frontman reveals his soft spot for acoustic arrangements. Metal diehards may not love his forays into flamenco guitar ("Takillya") or the mellowest of the mellow ("Damage is Done"), but Wylde makes up for it with enough metal mayhem ("House of Doom") to keep all parties pleased.

9. Chuck Prophet — Age of Miracles

Of all the artists on this list, perhaps there's no one harder to pigeonhole than Chuck Prophet. On Age of Miracles, the under-acclaimed fretter builds upon his typically folk- and country-rooted sound with some curveballs. He begins, for example, with barroom scorcher "Automatic Blues," then glides into 1970s psychedelic clouds with a smile-inducing title track that came 35 years too late to become a hippie anthem.

10. Wilco — A Ghost Is Born

Ghost isn't the rock-landscape changing album that 2002 effort Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was, but no one expected it to be. Instead, Jeff Tweedy leads his outfit even further down an experimental road that yields airy treasures ("At Least That's What You Said"), freewheeling punk ("I'm A Wheel") and melodious pop ("Theologians").

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Dec. 9 2004.