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

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

veckatimest

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp Records; released May 26th, 2009)

What exactly does a “perfect” album sound like? What criteria would one use to accurately gauge a “perfect” score?

I don’t want to sit here and try to tell you that music criticism is some academic thing; the easiest way to rate an album is good (I will definitely listen to this again!) or bad (I will not listen to this ever again!). That’s how I arrive at my first opinion, after the initial listen. Does it warrant a repeat listen? If yes, why? Because my curiosity is piqued? Or is this actually good music? What is it I like so much about this that I’m going to immediately listen to it again? This is where it becomes a little more scholastic; this is where I begin to pick it apart- this is the actual criticism.

So I’ve broken down all the major categories to what makes a particular song/album so interesting, along with the question/thoughts that run through my head when I’m in reviewer mode:

1) Vocals- “What is the singer saying, and how is it being said?” “Are they whiny, annoying?” “Why are you screaming at me?” “Are they too low in the mix?” “Nice two-part harmony there.”

2) Instrumentation- “What is that second guitar doing there?” “Is this lead necessary?” “Is that an oboe?” “Ooooh, I like that drum fill there!” “Rhythm is everything…” “Tight groove, holmes!” “HORNS! Music needs more horn sections!” “Electric, acoustic, whatever.”

3) Sound- “Where’s the melody?” “Has this record been properly produced to allow said band’s sound to emerge?” “Are they trying to capture their live aesthetic?” “Oh, it’s awful and drony, when will it end?” “What the fuck is that buzzing noise?” “That sample again? So played out, man…”

4) Structure- “Does your intro need to be more than three minutes long?” “Where’s the bridge? Anybody seen the bridge? Take me to the bridge!” “Why do so many songs follow the same intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-outro formula? Don’t they know that’s boring?” “Yeah, that car crash at the end of the song was subtle.”

5) Mood- “I just wanna dance to these synths!” “Or, no- these violins make me wanna cry on my pillow and look at my picture of you from our junior prom.” “Wow, ambient…” “This is some brutal grindcore!” “The lead singer’s insecurities are making me a little uncomfortable.”

Now that you’ve effectively delved into my neurotic mind; you can better see how it is I go about “reviewing” music. We all know that more often than not what the writer is saying about the piece of music hitting his/her ears has nothing to do with the actual music, it’s more or less an aural Rorschach Test- it’s making me feel anxious, it reminds me of a bad memory, I think it’s making me flatulent, this is so joyously happy, etc… that sort of thing.

I’m thinking back to Grizzly Bear‘s Yellow House and the little capsule review I did for that record on my old site. I was hyper anxious the last few months of that year, getting ready to move three thousand miles west. I remember listening to that album a lot on Friday nights, during my pizza delivery gig- it really calmed me down amidst the michigoss of cash-grabbery. Here’s what I said:

Freak folk was huge this year. These guys remind me of Cass McCombs and/or Nick Drake. Call it freak-folk, psychedelic folk, acid folk, whatever. I just know that I like it. It’s like coffee-house folk music but someone slipped something into the coffee. Colorado may just be one of my tracks of the year, it’s haunting, yet comforting and beautiful. I got this too late in the year, check back soon and it’ll probably be in my top 10.

Haunting, yet comforting and beautiful. That pretty much sums up Grizzly Bear‘s music for me. It’s perfect in that that’s exactly what it does to me- it scares me a little bit, but at the same time tells me everything’s going to be alright, and that it’s okay to be afraid.

Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear‘s (and 2009’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. Whereas their 2004 debut Horn Of Plenty was pretty much a Droste solo record, Yellow House incorporated more input from guitarist Daniel Rossen (see also: Department Of Eagles), bassist (and producer) Chris Taylor and drummer Christopher Bear, making Veckatimest a truly cooperative endeavor; I can see all four of the guys huddled over the mixing board for days and weeks making sure every little thing is as it should be- and nothing is out of place.

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.

Take the track Ready, Able– with its light but steadily building drums that give way to an ethereal Droste vocalization, cut short by a droning and repetitive guitar riff that again drops away into another world of exquisite celestial instrumentation, exposing the main theme of the song; one of the most beautiful moments on the record. Which is a broad statement to make since there are so many noteworthy moments on this album.

It hasn’t hurt the album that the tracks Two Weeks and Cheerleader have been all over the blogosphere lately, hell- it hasn’t hurt that the record was leaked almost three months early, even though it’s one of the shittiest rips imaginable. But as iPods go, the good old folks at Apple insist that mp3s encoded into AAC format at 128 kbps is the best they can do, so if you’ve been listening to that sub-par rip of course it’s going to sound amazing on your little portable device, which is what I’m doing until I buy the vinyl with everyone else on Tuesday.

Where does it rank in terms of this year’s best? So far, it’s at the top of my list. It’s moodier than the one-note joyousness of Merriweather Post Pavilion, sweepingly covers more emotional ground than Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, more cohesive and less sprawling than the gigantic Dark Was The Night and explores more than one genre contrary to the garage-a-trois of Fuckbook.

Oops, I just let slip my top five records this year…

So, in summation- Veckatimest fits all the criteria explained above (marks of excellent in all categories); vocals, instrumentation, sound, structure and mood; even the supposed lulls in the album serve as vehicles for the more poignant lyrical expressiveness. Hold Still, arguably the low point of the album, is an homage to the fragility of life as humans know it, and I like songs that explain that we’re here for only a short time, cliche or not. But the favor is again returned with the triplet of beautiful songs at the end of the record- While You Wait For The Others, I Live With You and Foreground. It’s like an unfair parting shot, to stick not one or two, but three awesome songs at the bottom of the playlist, making me just about freak out to the deafening silence as the album plays itself out.

Best album of the year, but I have to add “so far”; there’s seven whole months left to 2009…

Tracklisting:

01 Southern Point

02 Two Weeks

03 All We Ask

04 Fine for Now

05 Cheerleader

06 Dory

07 Ready, Able

08 About Face

09 Hold Still

10 While You Wait for the Others

11 I Live With You

12 Foreground

Grizzly Bear