The Ten Best Albums Of The Year; 2009

The intro paragraph is totally over-rated as far as I’m concerned; I never use these to my advantage. I just blabber about nothing, trying to set up the article- that’s all you really want, right?

10. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt.II (Ice H2O Records; September 8th)

raekwonWhenever an album has Ghostface Killah on it, along with an absolute all-star production staff (that beef between Chef & RZA has been squashed over the disagreements in production of 8 Diagrams). Tracks by Dilla, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Erick Sermon, The Alchemist, Dr. Dre and Mathematics, guest verses a-plenty from Tony Starks, Inspectah Deck, Meth, RZA, GZA, Masta Killa, Jadakiss, Busta Rhymes, Beanie Sigel & Slick Rick. How could this album not be completely awesome? Four years in the making, label changes, beefs arise and beefs quelled, it’s the best hip-hop album of the year, a title previously held by both DOOM and Mos Def’s terrific records from earlier in ‘09. So many standout tracks- House of Flying Daggers, Cold Outside, Black Mozart, Gihad, Penitentiary, Surgical Gloves, 10 Bricks, the ODB-tribute Ason Jones and contender for track of the year New Wu (with Ghost & Meth, produced by Bobby Digital himself) which revisits the classic Wu style of yesteryear.

Key tracks: House of Flying Daggers (ft. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, Method Man & GZA), Cold Outside (ft. Ghostface Killah & Suga Bang Bang), Black Mozart (ft. Inspectah Deck, RZA & Tash Mahogany), Gihad (ft. Ghostface Killah)

9. Atlas Sound – Logos (Kranky Records; October 20th)

atlasI love Bradford Cox; I swear that man could pee into my ears and just the sound it makes would be one of the twenty best records of the year. Logos, his second offering under his solo moniker Atlas Sound is a step further into accessibility away from his previous album; here he’s less into the murky atmospherics and sound collages and more into exploring structure and form- take the album’s centerpiece for example, Quick Canal. It’s an eight-and-a-half minute homage to Stereolab‘s influence on Cox, and for good measure the main voice behind the ‘Lab Laetitia Sadier is featured on vocals. Also featured on vocals is (guess who) the most visible performer of the year, Noah Lennox– I swear this guy has had more work doing back-up vocals than anyone in recent memory; check out the standout track Walkabout.

Key tracks: Walkabout (ft. Noah Lennox), Quick Canal (ft. Laetitia Sadier), Criminals, Shelia

8. The Clientele – Bonfires On The Heath (Merge Records; October 6th)

clientele-bonfiresSome bands are able to capture a feeling so well and set it to music it’s as if they were born to do it. Each of The Clientele‘s four proper full lengths are so apt at capturing a specific mood- here on Bonfires On The Heath it’s autumn all year long. The imagery of fallen leaves- oranges, yellows and browns; the English countryside readying itself for a foray into winter time; it’s one of the best “fall” records (makes me miss “real” season changes; we get off easy here in California). It’s sort of been the antithesis to all these “summer beach fuzz pop” records that have completely inundated the landscape; it’s more than welcome, too. In the land of perpetual summer, we need more than one season to be represented. Not all of us love the middle months.

Key tracks: Never Anyone But You, I Wonder Who We Are, Share The Night, Harvest Time

7. The xx – xx (Young Turks Records; August 17th)

the xxSometimes a record has such an undeniable pull on your psyche that it can’t be ignored. I gotta admit, the album cover is what got me (at first); it reveals absolutely nothing about the music within. Then a few listens through and it was like a hook in a fish’s eye; stuck beyond belief. This “too young to sound this sexy” quartet (now a trio) from south-west London made the sleekest and sexiest album of the year; singer Romy Madley-Croft sounds years past her age- think of Portishead‘s Beth Gibbons with less smoke in her lungs. Rounding out the sound is Oliver Sim‘s breathy vocals (not to mention deep basslines), all over top of Jamie Smith‘s minimal but perfect beats and samples. By far the best debut album this year, probably of the last few.

Key tracks: Islands, Crystalised, Shelter, VCR

6. White Denim – Fits (Downtown Records; October 20th)

white-denim-fitsProbably my favorite straight-forward “rock” album of the year; imagine a world where time machines exist- let’s put Grand Funk Railroad in a jam session with Pavement and see what happens. White Denim’s Fits, perhaps? GFR was a riff-heavy power trio and the Pave was the lo-fi, thinking man’s take on said “dude” rock. So to mash them two together would be the closest approximation to what White Denim appears to be going for; and to great success. Crammed full of riffs (the first five tracks); the musical ideas stretch briefly into some dub explorations (Sex Prayer), down home-style country boogies (Paint Yourself), a funky Boz Scagg-meets-Jeff Buckley falsetto number (I’d Have It Just The Way We Were), acoustic-tinged dream pop (Regina Holding Hands and Syncn)- just when I thought “indie rock” was getting boring, here comes something that’s forward-thinking by looking back.

Key tracks: I Start To Run, Mirrored And Reversed, Radio Milk How Can You Stand It, All Consolation

5. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros Records; October 13th)

flaming-lips-embryonicI had pretty much made up my mind that I wasn’t even going to listen to this record, I had completely written the Lips off. Then a friend described it to me as “loose and spacey” so I decided to listen to it, and I’m totally glad I did. Not only is it one of the best records of the year, it’s one of the Lips‘ best (not a huge fan of either of the over-Pro Tooled Soft Bulletin or Yoshimi records, and I thought At War With The Mystics was rather weak) and it hearkens back to a simpler time; i.e. Clouds Taste Metallic-era Lips, sans guitar-centric approach. This album is actually heavier on the bass side of things; favoring the bottom-end as the featured (or dare I say “lead”) instrument. If they used Pro Tools here (and I bet they did, Dave Fridmann again helps out with production and it’s a well known fact that that guy loves the Pro Tools software) they’re trying hard to sound like they aren’t using it; most songs here sound like a minimum of tracks are being used- deep bass, minimal click-and-glitch drums, creepy synths, reverbed guitars, echoed vocals; that’s about it for most of the 18 songs on this double record. I haven’t even mentioned the guests that show up to help out (MGMT, Karen O and some German mathematician guy). How they created something so massively psychedelic, mind-bending, genre-warping, messy; this “thing” that sounds as if it’s going to spin out of control any second yet keeps it together; is the genius of Wayne Coyne and Company. Embryonic is a great title; some of these tracks don’t sound completely finished- there’s a sense of The Flaming Lips gestating this sprawling ball of humanity and birthing  out something so bare and beautiful.

Key tracks: Convinced Of The Hex, Powerless, Silver Trembling Hands, The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine

4. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar; June 23rd)

sunset2Roll the 12-sided die against the troll now, and save your hit points for the wizard on level 9- he has illusion magic. Seriously; this album makes it cool to say you were once into Dungeons & Dragons (even if it was only for a few weeks while you were a Boy Scout in 1988). Sunset Rubdown’s third full-length is a progressive rock concept album with all the imagery of medieval mythologies, twisting melodies, soaring guitars, midi-influenced instrumentation- and for all the shit I’ve given Spencer Krug about his voice; here it works to amazing and eccentric avail. Anyone who has spent more than three minutes talking to me about music can walk away while holding me in contempt for my mentioning how awesome early-70s prog rock is; well, this is akin to that. I have to say I’m really loving this record; all the geekery I once partook in has been neatly packaged into a 49-minute aural landscape of sorcerers, meteors, ancient Greek muses, ghosts and dragons.

Key tracks: You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II), Idiot Heart, Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!, Silver Moons

3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp Records; May 26th)

grizzly-bear-veckatimest2009’s most highly anticipated album is like that calming voice whispering from beyond the shadows, telling you not to worry, take a deep breath, relax, you’ll get through this- we’re all going to get through this, but first; there’s the topic of trust- we have to take you somewhere, can you offer yourself to us for just fifty-two minutes? We promise to get you home safely, and it may just change you for the better. From the opening notes, it’s obvious that Veckatimest is a marked departure from Yellow House; for one- it’s a warmer sounding record. It has much brighter textures helped by a more developed and inclusive “group” feel to it- the vocal harmonies are wound much tighter. It’s benefited greatly from lead Grizzly Ed Droste’s insistence on including all four members as equals in the collaborative effort. From the subtle turnarounds on Fine For Now to the Hard Knock Life-aping piano riff on Two Weeks to the bass and drum interplay on Cheerleader to the interwoven vocals on Dory; it’s an album that has grown exponentially more interesting upon repeated listens- one of those fabled “sleeper” albums that doesn’t sink its teeth into you fully at first listen, although you know it’s something special. By the third, fourth, fifth listen it has become that record you find yourself listening to daily while on your lunch break or while taking the train, or any spare moment of alone time you have you find that you’ve let Veckatimest fill up those minutes.

Key tracks: Two Weeks, Cheerleader, While You Wait For The Others; Ready, Able

2. Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk; March 31st)

greatlakeswimI was trying to figure out why I loved this record so damn much; it’s by a Canadian band that plays a nice blend of folky Americana- then it hit me. Canadian bands do Americana better than American bands nowadays- I think that’s because whatever the American Dream once meant means more to Canadians than it does to Americans. Things like civil liberties, freedom of press and universal health care are all American pipe dreams; in Canada they are reality. Politicizing aside; Great Lake Swimmers make great, laid-back folky tunes in that whole echo-chamber aesthetic completed by mandolins, banjos and wistful church organs reminiscent of early-70s MOR light rock. This was the most surprising record of the year, I liked it just fine until I took a long car ride this summer and it made me fall in love with it; blame the vibraphones, jangly 12-string guitars, that aforementioned Hammond organ sound, actual church bells (recorded at Singer Castle), string sections, dobros; all done in various warm, resonant studios in an around the Thousand Islands area where the St. Lawrence River meets Lake Ontario.

Key tracks: Pulling On A Line, Palmistry, She Comes To Me In Dreams, Everything Is Moving So Fast

ALBUM OF THE YEAR…

Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City Records; April 14th)

bill callahanCallahan is a writer’s songwriter- I only have a few Smog records but the general theme of his music that stands out to me is that he’s a master of self-deprecation. Not so much here; it’s still somber and melancholic, but Callahan takes it easy on himself, instead he’s using his supremely masterful wit and deadpan black humor to take shots at the political and religious right. He’s at his most capable when he’s wringing the emotion out of every last word with his dry delivery, aided here by bare bones instrumentation with occasional strings. I’ve listened to this record far more than any other this year (even bought the vinyl copy as well) so not only is it getting the “Best Album of 2009” award, it’s one of the best of the decade and the best of Callahan‘s career. Occasionally a record speaks to me on so many different levels; this year this was the one that hit home the most points. The opening lines of the album worked like a hook into my brain: “I started out in search of ordinary things / How much of a tree bends in the wind / I started telling the story without knowing the end…” and then Bill sets about telling us nine stories without ever knowing the end. There’s the one about half-remembered dreams of the perfect song, another couple songs about birds, wind, or flying in general. There’s a song for a departed friend, and then the almost ten-minute album closer Faith/Void; with its repeated refrain “it’s time to put God away (I put God away)…” I think I know what Callahan‘s talking about here- how to find peace and solace in this crazy world without faith; a level-headed, secular, humanistic way to approach serenity. And that’s why this album is a complete success; the artist formerly known as Smog has accomplished a perfect synergy between music and words; both serve to support each other

Key tracks: Too Many Birds, Jim Cain, Faith/Void, Eid Ma Clack Shaw

Ten Albums…

A.C. Newman – Get Guilty (Matador; 1/20)get-guilty

I’ve been slow to warm up to The New Pornographers; which is weird considering I really like both Neko Case and Destroyer‘s solo work. Most of my nit-picking with the Canadian supergroup is irrational; I’m just not huge on their brand of power pop. So I blame Carl (A.C.) Newman for that. I’d call his solo efforts New Pornos-Lite, as if you could water-down their treacle even more; he renders it down to a sub-aspartame quality of sweetness. Which is nice if you wanna impress your date by popping this CD in the car’s stereo before bringing her to a coffee shop after a Renee Zellweger movie, but if you’re that type of person I seriously doubt you’re reading independent music websites to inform your tastes. Anyway, if you like catchy indie pop like Rilo Kiley and Death Cab, you’ll like this. Grade: 5/10

Matt & Kim – Grand (Fader Label; 1/20)matt-kim

Touted as the younger, hipper version of Mates Of State; I’d say that’s only accurate in that the similarities they share are: yes, they’re a couple and yes; they play layered, synthy electro-pop. The comparison ends there – Matt & Kim are fun; while Mates Of State are a duo that sounds as if they’re stuck in a never-ending couples therapy session and every little marital slight and inadequacy is written down and set to music. Back to Matt & Kim; too much Matt, not enough Kim– when she finally does appear (not until track 6, Lessons Learned) her vocals are (big surprise!) pushed way down in the mix in deference to Matt‘s annoying vocal affectations that are akin to that awful singer from All-American Rejects. I said it was fun, but fun doesn’t necessarily equate to good. I guess this is how their relationship works; it’s basically a Matt solo project and he’s letting his girlfriend sing some la’s. Oh, she plays drums, too, but it seems as if most of the tracks have a drum machine. It was probably his idea she get hit by that bus… Grade: 3/10

Brother Ali – The Truth Is Here EP (Rhymesayers Entertainment; 3/10)brother-ali

Brother Ali got some flow. He’s got the rhymes, he’s got tight beats, he’s got enough balls to put out a nine-song, 34-minute record and call it an EP. He’s got the respect of the underground hip-hop community as well as the attention of rap magazine/bible The Source and got a little blurb in Rolling Stone‘s New Artist To Watch column. With three full-lengths and two EPs under his belt, Ali (real name: Jason Newman) seems poised to step up to the level of Aesop Rock, Atmosphere, Kool Keith, Sage Francis, the anticon. collective, El-P, MF Doom, Del, Murs– all the “underground” stars. His raps are confessionals; he’s adept at telling you exactly where he’s at in plain English but ain’t afraid to mix it up with superb metaphors and inoffensive tact. Ant of Atmosphere did the music (this collaboration is infinitely more interesting than his last record with Slug) and there’s so many great hooks and phenomenal samples. I’m also using this review as a soapbox to pledge to my readers that it’s a start in covering more hip-hop. Grade: 9/10

Asobi Seksu – Hush (Polyvinyl; 2/17)hush

Dream pop without the fuzzy guitars just doesn’t seem all that appealing- apparently their last album Citrus, from way back in ’06 was closer to shoegaze and got kick-ass reviews. Maybe I’ll listen to it someday. For now I’m stuck with Hush; its gentle melodies, soft atmosphere and breathy vocals- the album’s title implies exactly that, save for the track Me & Mary (there’s some fuzzy guitar). Asobi Seksu is Japanese for “casual sex”, so if you’re looking for something that you can spend one night with and never have to see again, you found it in recorded music. Let’s just hope this album doesn’t get all stalker-esque on you and start trying to message you on Facebook- we said “no strings attached” and didn’t exchange phone numbers. Please, just go… Grade: 4/10

Vetiver – Tight Knit (SubPop; 2/17)tight_knit

Remember when SubPop was known for exploiting that Seattle Sound about twenty years ago, all the way to the bank? Seems these days they’re hitting us with waves of easy-listening folk-rock from Band Of Horses, Blitzen Trapper, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, Tiny Vipers and the newly acquired Vetiver; banking heavily on their blend of bland acoustic/slightly amplified naturalismo/nuevo-hippie pap. It’s about half-interesting, half-boring in that I can listen to it as a critic and vaguely understand what it is they’re trying to do- they do that well; as a fan of music in general I can listen with reserved incredulousness that there’s yet another band blindly thrown into the mix playing this same ol’ shit again and again. With regards to Vetiver‘s talent- they’re a fine band, serviceable even. With regards to their overall sound (what I’m basing this review on) is that Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, I fell asleep. In short; whatever. Grade: 5/10

Royksopp – Junior (Astralwerks; 3/23)royksopp-junior

If I had a time machine I know what I’d do with it. Not go back and stop Hitler, or AIDS, or ask a different girl to the prom circa 1993- I’d go back and kill those fucking robots that call themselves Kraftwerk so that electronic music would’ve never happened. Now wait a minute- that means no Brian Eno, New Order, Depeche Mode, etc. but I’m willing to take that risk so that bands artists performers computer geeks like Royksopp and that god-damned Daft Punk would never exist as well. For every electronic musician that kicks ass, there are five that should’ve never happened at all. In this regard, I could go back even further and kill Karlheinz Stockhausen, considered by nerds everywhere to be the father of electronic music, but no one listens to him anyway (you can’t snort coke and dance to his music). Plus, Brian Eno could’ve then been a famous painter, New Order could’ve found an Ian Curtis-sound alike and stayed Joy Division and Depeche Mode… you know something- someone else could’ve made Violator in 1990 (INXS, possibly?) and no one would’ve missed out on anything. That album is the shit. Royksopp‘s Junior is just shit. Even the album cover makes me angry. Also, I haven’t figured out how to put the little dots over the o, because it would just be a waste of time and search engines don’t care about umlauts anyway. Grade: 1/10

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk; 3/31)lost_channels

I was trying to figure out why I liked this record so damn much; it’s by a Canadian band that plays a nice blend of folk and Americana- then it hit me. Canadian bands do Americana better than American bands nowadays- I think that’s because whatever the American Dream once meant means more to Canadians than it does to Americans. Things like civil liberties, freedom of press and universal health care are all American pipe dreams; in Canada they are reality. Politicizing aside; Great Lake Swimmers make great, laid-back folky tunes in that whole echo-chamber aesthetic completed by mandolins, banjos and wistful church organs reminiscent of early-70s MOR light rock. Grade: 8/10

Wolves In The Throne Room – Black Cascade (Southern Lord; 3/31)black-cascade

So as I’m record shopping last week over at the Berkeley Amoeba and I’m in the little metal section checking out the newly released vinyl Mastodon LP; I overhear two metal-heads- and one says to the other his favorite album this year is Wolves In The Throne Room‘s Black Cascade. Oooh, I think- what’s that? I hear the one say “it’s black metal” and the other was like, “No, man- it’s black ambient metal…” Duh, dude. I have no idea what the fuck that means, but as an audiophile it got me interested. I mean, “metal” is a relative term- like “heavy” and “black” (no, wait; black is absolute). Anyway, here goes a review: I have never listened to black ambient metal, my initial impression is that it’s sort of like superfast heavy metal played over synthesizers (like the ones you’d hear on side two of David Bowie‘s Low) that add “atmosphere” to the mix. So since I have no reference point to weigh this record against anything in its genre or compare it to (except speed metal on top of Brian Eno‘s keyboard washes) I’m going to say it’s a “demanding” listen, for the simple fact that it’s almost fifty minutes of skull-crushing drumming and endlessly droning power chords. I’m hearing elements of prog, hardcore punk and obviously thrash metal played with serious speed and technical prowess. There are some nice “soft” passages as well- the middle section of Crystal Ammunition is actually quite “pretty”, but the shortest song is ten-and-a-half minutes for Satan’s sake. It’s not for the faint of heart, and with song titles like Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog and Ex Cathedra, I’d say dudes who write endless hours of programming code in their parent’s basements (only stopping to play World Of Warcraft and chug Red Bull while never getting laid underneath their Lord Of The Rings posters) love this shit. Because those are the two dudes that I was eavesdropping on… Grade: 6.66/10

Crocodiles – Summer Of Hate (Fat Possum; 4/28)crocs

Can anybody tell me why I love this insanely fuzzed-out guitar pop? By all intents and purposes I should hate it- I grew up with an undying allegiance to and an appreciation for over-produced clean sounds, which carried into my 20s. Maybe it’s a subconscious rebellion slowly taking over in my mind. Anyway; I’m digging Crocodiles’ Summer Of Hate– it’s all the things I’ve been loving lately about music (see: No Age, Wavves, any reverb-heavy fuzz-pedal shit in general) that apes the whole Jesus & Mary Chain aesthetic. I could never fully get high on J&MC until re-visiting it through the ears of the aforesaid bands, but I blame Johnny Marr and Robert Smith for that; or any of the other bands I was into circa 1986. Grade: 8/10

Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love (Jagjaguwar; 5/5)pinkmtntops

I’ll get this out of the way first: best album cover yet this year. I’m loving the faux-Danielle Steele book cover set against a rumpled blue velvet background. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come from Stephen McBean‘s side project; he of Vancouver psych-rock outfit Black Mountain. It’s all dirgy and full of ballads of unrequited longing yadda yadda yadda… Basically the opposite of Black Mountains‘ in-yer-face wall of guitar sludge. I’m trying to feel this album because I’m a sensitive guy, I appreciate the heart-felt emotional output, but for some reason it just sounds hokey- sappy strings, corny crooning, things I abhor unless it’s coming from Morrissey or Bryan Ferry. Grade: 6/10