Albums Of The Year; 2009

There were a ton of amazing records released this year, and as you’ll see in a minute, most of them were released by Swedish bands (no, wait), I mean Canadians (uh, what?), let me rephrase that; oh just read…

25. Volcano Choir – Unmap (Jagjaguwar; September 22nd)

volcano-choir-unmapBon Iver‘s Justin Vernon and the guys from math rock outfit Collections Of Colonies Of Bees make their debut record; and it’s a fractured take on music, experimenting with sound and structure until the song itself doesn’t so much resemble an actual song as it does a collage of noise and textures. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not experimental in the “I can’t listen to this nonsense” way, it’s experimental in that it seeks to achieve musical harmony without traditional or conventional instruments. In fact, the studio itself is the main instrument on Unmap– that also doesn’t mean you won’t hear Vernon‘s trademark falsetto (it’s there in most of the songs); it just doesn’t dominate the landscape like it does with his day job. And there ain’t a whole lotta guitars on this records either; there’s an mbira, some auto-tuned vocals (that I hate to say really work nicely here) and more cuts and edits with a certain super-expensive premium music software program that I should hate, but strangely have endeared themselves to my ears far too often these past few months.

Key tracks: Island, IS; Husks And Shells, Still, Seeplymouth

24. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms (Lefse Records; October 13th)

neon_indian-psychic_chasmsDo you miss your old Sega Master System? Cuz I miss mine; I was thinking about buying one off eBay so I can play Out Run and Alien Syndrome and Alex Kidd In Miracle World. See, this album by Alan Palomo (the one-man 8-bit army behind Neon Indian) has got me jonesing something fierce for my old video games. We weren’t as cool as the Nintendo kids, we got Sega for Christmas in 1986, while all of our friends were playing Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros., we had Hang On and Safari Hunt (the bastard cousin of Duck Hunt). Our friends would come over to play and treat the Sega as a leper, refusing to play or even look at it. That’s what this album reminds me of; the soundtrack to a childhood spent down my basement trying to get to the next level of Black Belt.

Key tracks: Deadbeat Summer, I Should Have Taken Acid With You, 6669 (I Don’t Know If You Know), Terminally Chill

23. Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar Records; April 28th)

japandroids-post-nothingApparently no one plays bass anymore. That ain’t a bad thing- just the other day I saw a bumper sticker that said “Everyone follows the bass” and I immediately blurted out (to no one in particular) “I fucking hate bass players”. Yeah, too bad everyone that starts a band nowadays either wants to be the drummer or guitar player. Later, bass. Vancouver garage duo Japandroids don’t need one anyway, their “heavy-on-the-toms-and-cymbals” sound fills the air with what could be some low-end notes, but a bass would really slow these guys down. They both share singing duties, trading back and forth or going at it together. If there’s one thing the Pacific Northwest can do is rock the shit out of a garage. Without a slow, plodding bass-playing jerk fucking them up. I fucking hate bass players.

Key tracks: Young Hearts Spark Fire, The Boys Are Leaving Town, Wet Hair, Rockers East Vancouver

22. Wildbirds & Peacedrums – The Snake (The Leaf Label; April 13th)

wildbirdsThese Swedes rely heavily on larger-than-life vocals from Mariam Wallentin and drum circle beats from her husband Andreas Werliin. Now Bjork would be too obvious (because of Sweden’s proximity to Iceland) and I’m hearing something else in there as well; but it’s really hard to describe in the context of direct influences. This is pretty unclassifiable as far as a genre is concerned; they won the award for the Best Swedish Jazz Act of ‘08- but it’s not quite “jazz” as much as it’s a freak-out, albeit a controlled one. There’s really no “instruments” besides drums, vocals and occasional ambient synth washes or a few notes here and there; oh, and drums. Did I say drums? Every song is a workout, there’s an amazing amount of range in Wallentin’s voice (sometimes it’s bare, other times she’s multi-tracked over herself, I’m hearing Siouxsie, PJ Harvey, and Kate Bush) and the timbre of the drums go from warm to bright and open to resonant. Wildbirds & Peacedrums The Snake is one of the “dark horse” records of the year- coming from out of nowhere. I’m glad people are making music like this.

Key tracks: There Is No Light, Liar Lion, Island, Chain Of Steel

21. The Rest – Everyone All At Once (Auteur Recordings; April 21st)

The-Rest_fullBig, anthemic songs wrapped in heavily orchestrated strings- I’m hearing great hooks here; the vocals recall both the yelpings of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s Alec Ounsworth and the plaintiveness of Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch; the music is akin to Arcade Fire’s brand of baroque pop with a dash of The National’s shadowy melancholia thrown in for good measure- but it doesn’t do this band justice by lumping them into those easy comparisons. Showcasing a vast array of styles, Everyone All At Once is exactly that- you get everything all at once. Retreating to the faraway northern woods of Ontario to record this record, this band has crafted a genuine masterpiece- fully realized, beautifully crafted and dynamic in scope; The Rest should be the next big band to come from The Great White North, and if they aren’t on critic’s “year-end/best-of ‘09” lists I’m formally lodging a criminal investigation to as why they aren’t.

Key tracks: Modern Time Travel (necessities), Walk On Water (auspicious beginnings), Apples & Allergies, The Lady Vanishes

20. DM Stith – Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty Records; March 10th)

dmstithSince there isn’t a track on the record called Heavy Ghost, I’ll just have to say that the name captures the feel of the record- it’s somber, haunting and reflective. Stith’s vocals are lilting and ethereal, the sparse guitars and reverb-drenched pianos are at times juxtaposed by strange percussion (or none at all); it’s a charming and creepy psychedelic folk album that at times abandons what could be considered “western popular music structure”. DM Stith creates a creepy and fragile (yet insanely interesting and charming) alternate reality within this record- it’s a haunting reminder that some of our waking hours are inhabited by unseen forces that can be a burden; or we can acknowledge them and try to make peace.

Key tracks: Thanksgiving Moon, Pity Dance, Braid Of Voices, Isaac’s Song

19. DOOM – Born Like This (Lex Records; March 24th)

doombornxMF, Metal Face, Metal Fingers, Viktor Vaughn, Supervillain, King Geedorah. Whatever name Daniel Dumille wants to use, he creates a new persona just like that- and here on Born Like This, he uses all the top producers; Jake One and Madlib as well as a few unreleased beats from J Dilla (who is still the best producer in the game, three years after his passing). It never sounds recycled or stale- obviously the work of this gang of hard working crate-diggers is beyond anything anyone else is doing and the samples are getting more obscure. Should I also mention guest rhymers like Raekwon (rhyming over the slowed-down version of ESG‘s UFO) and Ghostface (appearing here as his Tony Starks character) straight slay the mic on their tracks; but they don’t steal the spotlight from DOOM– it’s his record and it’s full of verbal acrobatics.

Key tracks: Microwave Mayo, Yessir! (ft. Raekwon), Angelz (ft. Tony Starks), Gazillion Ear

18. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino Records; June 9th)

bitte-orcaAccessible? You bet- Dave Longstreth‘s music is usually a workout; it can be both hard to listen to and lyrically obtuse (but not even a little bit on Bitte Orca). This is more of a group effort and Dirty Projectors’ sound is rounded out by the lovely voices of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman; as if their David Byrne-collaboration wasn’t a precursor to how awesome their music was about to sound; when this album leaked the internets basically shit themselves in anticipation, by the time the album hit the shelves the reviews were pouring in with accolades. Crafted with care, it’s artier components aren’t that much of a stretch (try listening to Slaves’ Graves & Ballads or the New Attitude EP if you want to be challenged), conceptually it follows the design laid out by Longstreth in previous releases- brown finches, sleepwalking through life, post-9/11 paranoia, war, etc. There’s music for stupid people and then there’s music for thinkers. Guess which one this is…

Key Tracks: Stillness Is The Move, No Intention, Cannibal Resource, Temecula Sunrise

17. Dark Was The Night – A Red Hot Compilation (4AD Records; February 16th)

dark-was-the-nightYou know; humanity’s defining feature, the one thing that gives me a glimmer of hope for this seemingly doomed world is the fact that when faced with adversity, we humans have a remarkable knack for banding together and breaking down our self-imposed barriers- so at a glance the musical pairings on this record would suggest the gap between artistic differences can be easily bridged. Some not so unexpected; Dirty Projectors have culled a huge influence from David Byrne’s catalog so I can totally hear how the album’s opener Knotty Pine works, Cat Power and Dirty Delta Blues (teaming up for a cover of Amazing Grace) have toured together, Leslie Feist’s collaboration with Ben Gibbard is well matched (both write really nice three-minute pop gems) and Conor Oberst paired with Gillian Welch is no stretch; two insurgent country mainstays sharing a track seems natural enough. What’s hard to believe that some of these songs would be considered “throw away” tracks, not making it on to these bands’ albums; The National, The Decemberists, Bon Iver, Yeasayer, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire and Beirut all have given excellent songs. The centerpiece of the album (placed at the end of the first disc) is Sufjan Stevens‘ cover of CastanetsYou Are The Blood, turning it into a sprawling and strange epic, an electro-classical magnum opus with piano breaks and brass sections over club-banger beats- it’s as if he’s trying to convey the entire scope of his musical output in ten minutes and fourteen seconds, joining the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit with his Seven Swans-era and those states-themed concept albums. Canadian hip-hopper Buck 65 remixes this track on the second disc, adding his two cents in the way of furiously spit verses.

Key tracks: Tightrope (Yeasayer), Sleepless (The Decemberists), Knotty Pine (Dirty Projectors + David Byrne), You Are The Blood (Sufjan Stevens)

16. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2 Records; May 26th)

wolfgangamadeusphoenixI wanted to hate this so bad. I knew what it was (electro-synth pop/rock), knew who made it (the French) and have read so much hype on this band before the album was even out that I was rolling my eyes every time I saw their damn name. Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix Phoenix every-fucking-where. You know something, it’s a really great record. Songs like 1901, Lisztomania and the album’s closer Armistice are a few of this year’s better tracks, and they’re all on one record. It’s like that damned MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular– initially I hated its freaking guts, but it kept polluting my mindscape until one day I let my guard down and BAM! I got it. And I get this- it’s supposed to be fun, dancy keyboards-and-guitars pop for the iPod generation. That’s exactly what it is. Can’t fight that…

Key tracks: 1901, Lisztomania, Armistice, Fences

15. jj – n°2 (Secretly Yours; July 1st)

jjn02This album has a stickiness factor of nine; once you get these songs in you you’ll be humming them to yourself throughout the day. They seamlessly jump from genre to genre; at once they’re dipping down low into downtempo chillout trip-hop jams next to African-influenced sing-alongs up against tropicalia beach tracks then on to an acoustic, folky number and back again… Are these kids for real? Oh, they’re Swedish, so they were born with the “Scandanavian pop melody gene” inherited from ABBA and heard in Jens Lekman, The Knife, et al. I knew they were too good to be true.

Key tracks: Ecstasy, Things Will Never Be The Same Again, Are You Still In Valida?, My Love

14. Taken By Trees – East Of Eden (Rough Trade; September 8th)

Taken-By-Trees-East-of-EdenMy god, this is a beautiful record- another Swede (damn they’re talented) named Victoria Bergsman (who you may remember as the female voice from Peter Bjorn & John‘s ubiquitous song Young Folks) made one of the surprise albums of the year by traveling to Pakistan to record with local musicians; let’s just say the effect is stunning. Perfect pop sensibilities crossed with Eastern instrumentation infused with polyrhythmic drumming and Sufi vocalizations from Sain Muhammad Ali. There’s a theme running through East Of Eden; of ancient harmonies given current twists- Noah “Panda Bear” Lennox stops by to lend his ethereal lilt to a track, as well as give his blessing to a cover version of one of his band’s songs. In short; a Swedish singer doing Beach Boys harmonies over Middle Eastern music.

Key tracks: Watch The Waves, My Boys, To Lose Someone, Anna

13. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino Records; January 20th)

merriweatherEnvision The Flaming Lips having an orgy with The Shins on really strong microdot while channeling Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s tape-loop manipulations, all the while conjuring up a seance with Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds harmonies; that’s a pretty close idea to what Animal Collective has done on Merriweather Post Pavilion. And the artwork is pretty rad; stare at it long enough and you’ll get the sensation of movement. Maybe you can still see it with your eyes closed. Maybe, you can get yourself into that “tunnel” and really trip out. Who out there knows what I’m talking about? Indubitably the Collective’s Avey Tare, Panda Bear and Geologist have been inside that lysergically-induced mind warp and this record will probably serve as some sort of spirit guide for a new generation of chemically experimental kids, much like Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s did thirty-plus years ago.

Key tracks: My Girls, Brother Sport, In The Flowers, Summertime Clothes

12. The Love Language – The Love Language (Bladen County Records; February 10th)

thelovelangWhere’s this band been hiding all my life? Ahh, North Carolina, Raleigh to be exact. Okay, next question: how do you get that delicious reverb coating on your songs? This whole record has that wonderfully lo-fi Tascam four-track feel to it (or could be Fostex) and the aesthetic works to great avail; the songs are so wonderfully melodic they could’ve been recorded underwater and I’d still get the point. The back story is also too good to ignore; lead singer/main songwriter Stuart McLamb gets kicked out of previous band, breaks up with abusive girlfriend, drinks a lot, ends up in an overnight holding cell, moves in with parents, sobers up and writes/records this album. I swear, Hollywood writes shit like this; but it’s too good to not believe- and I for one am a believer. Another huge surprise album for me in a year filled with nice surprises.

Key tracks: Lalita, Sparxxx, Two Rabbits, Stars

11. A Sunny Day In Glasgow – Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Discos; September 15th)

ashes_grammarAshes Grammar is a 63-minute icicle of ambient-electro-shoegaze-dream pop from the Philadelphia sextet known as A Sunny Day In Glasgow (they got the name from a former band member who spent some time in the lovely Scottish city); there are hints of murky psychedelia, club/dance beats half-buried under said murk and noisy passages strung all throughout the journey here- think My Bloody Valentine crossed with Stereolab produced by Brian Eno. It’s got some of the most gorgeous music I’ve heard this year, there are little bits of the record where it drags at times but if you can just sit through those few awkward minutes, you’re rewarded with some true aural beauty, time and time again.

Key tracks: Close Chorus, Shy, Curse Words, Failure

Stay tuned for albums #10 to #1, coming tomorrow!

DM Stith – Heavy Ghost

stith

DM Stith – Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty Records, released March 10th, 2009)

Ten years ago, Sufjan Stevens and some friends started a small boutique label called Asthmatic Kitty Records. Their claim to fame (besides for releasing Sufjan‘s records) is that they’re known for bringing together strange and eclectic new sounds. Their list of clients reads like an all-star festival of weird: My Brightest Diamond, Castanets, Rafter, Cryptacize, Fol Chen and Bunky, just to name a few.

(I got temporarily sidetracked on their website just now and ended up going to eMusic and downloaded some of these wonderful and strange new sounds…)

Back to the review now- David Michael Stith was actually working as a graphic designer in Brooklyn up until being approached by Shara Worden (she of the amazing voice behind My Brightest Diamond) and was corralled into producing their 2006 breakthrough album Bring Me The Workhorse. He then started writing his own music as an experiment, recorded a demo called Ichabod & Apple, kept honing his songwriting, released an EP (Curtain Speech) at the end of ’08, kept writing, recording and the album Heavy Ghost is the end result of all that hard work.

Since their isn’t a track on the record called Heavy Ghost, I’ll just have to say that the name captures the feel of the record- it’s somber, haunting and reflective. Stith‘s vocals are lilting and ethereal, the sparse guitars and reverb-drenched pianos are at times juxtaposed by strange percussion (or none at all); it’s a charming and creepy psychedelic folk album that at times abandons what could be considered “western popular music structure”. Take the opening track for example: Isaac’s Song, a clanging and dissonant piano over an unsettling rhythm with scary sounding vocal runs- I wouldn’t listen to this record after midnight or with the lights out.

But Pity Dance shows that Stith is indeed concerned with things like melody and tone quality; that’s exactly what this record is full of, a palette rich in dark colors and earth tones. Creekmouth sounds like a tribal gathering- the driving and rhythmical drums and bass line bubble underneath, carrying the song towards an electro-synth finale and into Pigs, which is more subdued in mood and eerier, yet there’s an indescribable beauty involved here, as if in communion with a spirit world.

A perfect segue into Spirit World, as Stith continues to haunt the listener’s ears with his spooky apparitions. There’s some backwards-masking over a deep and dubby bass, the spectre is gone as quick as he arrived; into the ether. Providing a bit of commentary is the next track BMB, imploring, “…what did you say?” over and over; it’s as if this song is begging the ghost that visited in Spirit World to answer. Thanksgiving Moon is a sparser composition; it’s just Stith, guitar, an unidentifiable instrument (some type of organ or possibly a hurdy gurdy?) and some barely-there horns that give way to a chilling choir- he’s masterful at creating a mysterious and ghastly setting.

The album’s most beautiful and fully-realized song, Fire Of Birds, is fleshed out of a combination of all the elements that make this record what it is; acting as a distilled version and boiling down the entire scope of the full-length’s 44 minutes- it’s at times shiver-inducing and creepy; the next beautiful and life-affirming. Then it appears sparse and frail; then it’s dense and sturdy. It’s this delicate balance that makes this record so outstanding. On Morning Glory Cloud, Stith mentions it as a dream: “I have a dream and it’s gone, Catholic clouds rolling on…”– which now makes a whole lot more sense to me; I was raised Catholic and I’m familiar with our superstitious love/hate relationships with “ghosts” (the Holy Ghost, exorcisisms, risen from the dead after three days, etc…) so it leaves the impression that Stith, too, was influenced by his religiosity. That song rolls to a full boil until it gently fades into the stark piano piece GMS with its soft and mournful wails. The only other instrument on this song is a plaintive violin, giving it a melancholic vibe.

Braid Of Voices is a reflexive piece in that it sounds like it could be looped end-to-end and never resolve; the slow building intro gives way to the semi-explosive middle section and then the hanging, single-note fade into the minor chord piano outro that mimics the intro section. It’s a nice lead-up to the album-closer, Wig, and its buzzsaw-like quality of sonic waves, and that familiar churning hurdy-gurdy sounding thing.

The album unfortunately comes to a close here, I could go on listening for another hour (at least), DM Stith creates a creepy and fragile (yet insanely interesting and charming) alternate reality within this record- it’s a haunting reminder that some of our waking hours are inhabited by unseen forces that can be a burden; or we can acknowledge them and try to make peace.

Tracklisting:

1.   Isaac’s Song
2.   Pity Dance
3.   Creekmouth
4.   Pigs
5.   Spirit Parade
6.   BMB
7.   Thanksgiving Moon
8.   Fire Of Birds
9.   Morning Glory Cloud
10. GMS
11. Braid Of Voices
12. Wig

DM Stith