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

More Hits and Misses…

Another installment of what was missed on The Musicologists. Or, better yet: Playing Catch-up (part 2). More stuff from ’09 that fell through the grates…

Mi Ami – Watersports (Quarterstick Records; released February 17th, 2009)

mi-amiDrum-punk outfit Mi Ami experiments all over the place with big dance beats, low-end booty bass, frenzied and screeching noise-punk guitars with a few electro-clash-ghetto-tech breaks thrown in for good measure, all seamlessly flowing from one genre to another. Remember the Dischord band Black Eyes? These are two of the guys from that group, Jacob Long and Daniel Martin-McCormick; and as D.C. punk bands go, they had to break up after two records. So you can expect it to be all over the place, and as confrontational and violent as it can be at points, it’s still a focused and coherent effort. Grade: 8/10

Fever Ray – Fever Ray (Rabid Records; released March 18th, 2009)

feverThis is Karin‘s (of Swedish electro-dance outfit The Knife) solo record. I respect The Knife for sticking it to Sony by charging them a fortune to use one of their songs  (the Jose Gonzalez version of Heartbeats for that Bravia ad, the one with all the bouncing balls down San Francisco hills) so they could start their own label. I also respect them for their outright disdain for the media, mainstream pop drivel and the rampant sexism in music. I can’t quite get fully into The Knife‘s music, which is a blend of dark downtempo electronica and upbeat techno-esque synths. Fever Ray‘s formula is similar, more on the shadowy side of things; dubby, atmospheric, brooding and meditative- there’s some scary songs in here. Grade: 6/10

Dan Deacon – Bromst (Carpark Records; released March 24th, 2009)

bromstI could’ve swore I was going to hate this. I forgot all about “hate”, hell; I forgot about any type of nasty emotion once this record started coming out of the speakers, I believe I was actually smiling right through to the end. So I listened to it again. And again. I usually don’t like music when the words “dance” and “electro” are used to describe it, but Dan Deacon made the happy fun time party album of the year right here. And I really like the title: Bromst. I just like saying it, over and over. Bromst! Grade: 8/10

DOOM – Born Like This (Lex Records; released March 24th, 2009)doom

MF, 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. It never sounds recycled or stale- obviously the work of these crate-diggers is beyond anything anyone else is doing and the samples are getting more obscure. Should I also mention guest rhymers like Raekwon and Ghostface Killah? This is the best hip-hop album of the year so far, and sadly; it’s the only hip-hop album I’ve listened to this year. Grade: 9/10

Superchunk – Leaves In The Grass EP (Merge Records; released April 7th, 2009)

chunkMac McCaughan and company are back with their sixth millionth release (more like 62, if you count LPs, EPs, singles, splits and compilation appearances) and their first studio release since 2001’s Here’s To Shutting Up (not counting re-issues, the song they did with Aqua Teen Hunger Force’s Meatwad in ’07 or any of their live Clambake Series albums). So is Superchunk officially a “go” again? I hope so; they’re one of the bands I played on my short-lived radio show in 1991 at WHHS before getting kicked off the air for broadcasting without a license. Anyway- these four songs revisit classic ‘chunk in all their guitar-driven glory; plus an acoustic version of the first track, Learned To Surf. Grade: 8/10

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone – Vs. Children (Tomlab Records; released April 7th, 2009)

casiotoneOwen Ashworth is CFTPA, a tweemo bedroom project (now taken out of the bedroom) that mixes awkward and uncomfortable wordplay with spare orchestrations, booming hip-hop beats, mellotron/organ/pianos galore. This record is something of a concept album; it travels around America peeking into the lives of various ne’er do wells- from Libertyville, Illinois to Wisconsin to Charlotte, NC to Montpelier, VT to Northfield, MN to Orinda, CA and finally to Kansas City. It’s interesting to say the least. Grade: 7/10

Black Dice – Repo (Paw Tracks Records; released April 7th, 2009)

blackdiceIt took a few listens to get into this, and after I got into it I couldn’t find my way out; it triggered a mind-bending flash-back. But I didn’t get scared, I just closed my eyes and rode it all the way through the fractalized tunnel and past the fluorescent banana slug thingys until I woke up nine hours later. If there’s avant-garde and experimental music, this is post-avant/post-experimental. A lot like Animal Collective‘s older stuff; it’s interesting in that it does really cool shit with samplers and noise. If you’re looking for songs/hooks/melody, look somewhere else. Grade: 8/10

Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (Drag City Records; released April 14th, 2009)

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 more than any other this month, so it’s getting the “Best Of April” award, it’ll definitely be near the top of my year-end list. Grade: 10/10

Death Cab For Cutie – Open Door EP (Atlantic Records; released April 14th, 2009)

dcfcWhat happened to this band? Ben Gibbard‘s lyrics have veered so far away from the alienated, nice-guy-finishes-last, sensitive-emo-dude-with-thick-frames-and-striped-sweater to this awful radio-friendly pap. I jumped ship when I saw them live; they made the mistake of touring with Franz Ferdinand (early ’06) and were completely blown off the stage by their openers. The best thing I can say about DCFC is that there’s still their back catalog (up to Transatlanticism) to listen to (and the fact that I can use these guys as proof that you start sucking once you sign to a major). Grade: 3/10 (and I’m being nice with this 3…)

Woods – Songs Of Shame (Shrimper Records; April 14th, 2009)woods

Dear Woods– please have no shame for the songs on this record. You evoke acoustic campfire sing-alongs with freaky electric guitars (that should be out of place, but they’re perfect), re-calling late 60s Americana (I would mention Neil Young, but that’s Canadiana), covering Graham Nash (who’s English) and a ten-minute lo-fi psychedelic freak-out. Let’s just say you’re equal parts Neutral Milk Hotel and CSNY, which is awesomer than milk, which I can’t drink because I’m lactose intolerant. Grade: 8/10

The Rest – Everyone All At Once (Auteur Recordings; released April 21st, 2009)

restBig, 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. Grade: 9/10

Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want (Gnomonsong Records; released April 14th, 2009)

papercutsSan Franciscan Jason Quever creates an atmosphere all his own- dreamy pop arrangements coated in opaque and foggy lyrics, much like the Bay Area weather. Getting help from Beach House‘s Alex Scally on this record; Papercuts is great at crafting a textural ambience to match the mood of the lyrics. I’d compare him to Cass McCombs in that regard, but “lighter” on the ears. Accessible like early 70s AM radio. Grade: 7/10

I’ve got more and more forgotton albums, coming soon…