>> Sunday, December 13, 2009
A Year in Music: Best Albums of 2009.
First and foremost I need to ask for forgiveness for my absence from this glorious blog. I have been devoid of a computer for the last 6 months and the itch to write nearly killed me. So, you have my profoundest and sincerest apologies. With that in mind, I fear that my ability for string coherent words together to form witty one-sided banter may be a bit on the rusty side, so bear with me while I gain my bearings.
This year, for the first time in many years, seemed insignificant. One day bled into the next until this year felt like last. Stretching within my own confines proved to be a fruitless task, this year was doomed to be nothing special, static, and forgettable. Understand, this is not a bad thing; quite possibly, it is something to celebrate. No news is good news. My life, for the first time in years, was dramaless and boring. Dramaless and boring, is great for one thing. Losing oneself in those true inner passions. Rediscovering exactly how discovering something feels. This was my year in music. A year of discovery. And it was bountiful.
In 2009 I purchased a total of 144 albums and EP’s, 58 of which were actually released between November of 2008 and December of 2009. That is 58 new recordings from this year alone that made this year anything but forgettable. And, yes, I did, purchase all of these. And yes, this is where all my money goes. It’s better than a drug habit, although, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
As 2008 progressed, I took a noticeable step away from my standard singersongwriter persona. I started to really appreciate music that took real chances. Music that tried something new and of value. Leaning more and more towards the Los Campesinos! and The Dodos of the world, I started to purchase records I never would have considered two years ago. This was just the start of a hell of a journey.
This year was about taking chances in safe places, between the left and right side of storytelling headphones. I hope you enjoy. I will do a quarterly review of this list to track the changes that are sure to follow.
1. Slow Club – Yeah, So
This album is full of fresh pop hooks that burrow their way into your subconscious, clearing the fog in the process.
I have had a slight affinity to cuteness in the last year. And this affinity has taken up residence in some of the music I have fallen into these last 12 plus months. I am not sure that Slow Club will reinvent any rock and roll wheels, but sometimes, making a really good wheel is more than enough. This album is full of fresh pop hooks that burrow their way into your subconscious, clearing the fog in the process. I had a lot of trouble ranking my top 4 albums this year. Having to decide what was number one was easily the hardest decision I have made in 13 days, but when all was said and done, the simple fact is, I listened to this band more times (by a mile) than any other group of the year. They may not be technically brilliant, they may be somewhat replaceable, hell some of the songs sound like they were recorded in a shower stall of a junior college, but none of that matters or compares to how this music makes me feel. This album, as well as the 4 other EP’s released in the last two years, made a static year alive. I love this album. I feel that in 15 years, when I am driving my children on an eight hour drive up to my family lake house in Canada, this will be on the playlist like Jimmy Buffett was the soundtrack for my childhood roadtrip memories.
Songs that Hit: Nearly all.
Songs that miss: I Was Unconscious, It Was A Dream.
Songs that I will listen to forever: Christmas TV. Let’s Fall Back in Love. Thinking Drinking Sinking Feeling.
2. fun. – Aim and Ignite
Rebellious. That is about the only word/concept/idea that can possibly even start to describe this record. From Be Calm, a powerful showtune-esque toe tapper, you can clearly tell that Nate Ruess, former creative force and lead singer of The Format, is not one to bend to typical structures of pop records in this digital, radio centric age. This album is about taking chances as much as is homage to an array of influences. Both All the Pretty Girls and Benson Hedges are love songs to the power and beauty of classic Queen, not that you could ignore the glaring influence of Freddy’s voice throughout. Nate hits notes that make my testicles hurt just to hear, let alone attempt sing along. Light a Roman Candle with Me is as close to a song by The Carpenters you can get without alienating listeners. Overall, each song tells a different story. Each song instills a different emotion. Each song leaves a lasting impression. There are so many ways to describe this album that is almost doesn’t seem fair to even try, no words will compare to you sitting on a park bench, slipping on a set of headphones and listening to this enigma of a band yourself, and frankly, its genius.
Songs that Hit: All
Songs That Miss: None
Songs that I will listen to forever: Be Calm. Barlights. At Least I'm Not As Sad (As I Used To Be).
3. The Temper Trap – Conditions
This is not a one trick pony record. It’s a backflip pony record, and that’s a hell of a trick.
I imported this little album from down under primarily on the strength of the track Sweet Disposition that was featured on the season finale of one of my favorite shows “Greek.” And I’ll tell you what, it was not an easy get. It took me three weeks to even figure out what song was on the show, and then another week to find a record store in Sydney that was willing to ship it internationally, costing me nearly 40 bucks for a ten dollar album. But, it was worth it. Boy was it worth it. This is not a one trick pony record. It’s a backflip pony record, and that’s a hell of a trick. You go from sweet, sweet arena rock on songs like Down River, Rest and of course Sweet Disposition to gentle, almost do-op sounds on songs like Love Lost and Fools. If you want to be surprised, if you want to be entertained, if you want every single mood you will ever know, expressed to you in clear, amazing vocals, strong baselines, and energizing guitar licks this would be the album for you.
Songs that hit: Sweet Disposition. Love Lost, Resurrection. Fader. Down River. Science of Fear.
Songs that miss: The second half of Drum Song. It’s brave to toss a fully instrumental song on an album like this, but, it is just way too long.
Songs that I will listen too forever: Sweet Disposition and Love Lost
4. The XX – XX
It’s like booty call music for the heavily sedated.
Pride is a foolish endeavor. Pride almost left this gem of a record unlisted here and undiscovered in my heart. This little English band made a big impact on me, and, I assume, many other indie music fans. This album is the equivalent to a peanut butter and banana sandwich. Combining two things that shouldn’t blend, in this case, Sexiness and Sadness, in the most harmonious of ways. Hands down, the saddest sexy album I have ever heard in the most gratifying way. It’s like booty call music for the heavily sedated. While narrowing down my selections for this list in front of you, I contacted 3 of my closest musical advisors, The Kramer’s in Brooklyn, and Mrs. Malone in Austin with a very unwatered down version of this list. I have upmost faith that if I had made an egregious error, or a glaring omission, these people will let me know without hushed tones. I sent this, of course, with hope that they would agree full heartedly in my selections and tell me how brilliant I am. This, however, was not the case, I was met with both with harsh criticism and stirring insights on my current selections as well clear misses. Mrs. Malone pointed out within 2 hours of pursuing my list that I did not have The XX. I believe her exact email stated in its entirety:
And, being the friend that I am, I of course thanked her for her suggestion and had absolutely no intent to look them up. I hate not being the one to find that new amazing band that the exclamation points proclaimed this one to be, and I was going to ignore her suggestion on stubbornness alone. But, I swallowed my pride after hearing about 14 seconds of Basic Space and purchased the album. The rest is #4. Listen with your headphones on.
Songs that hit: Islands. Crystalised. Basic Space. Shelter. VCR. Intro. Hot Like Fire (cover).
Songs that miss: Fantasy.
Songs that I will listen to forever: Crystalised Basic Space. Shelter.
5. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
This album is heartbreak disguised as rock and roll.
If this list was written in May, this would have been my number 1 or 2 record. It is really a strong record. And, if I am going to be honest with myself, I think I hurt its ranking on this lovely list. I really, really overplayed this record from April when it came out until probably the end of summer. And no matter how much you love a record, you can develop an allergy to its melody after a while. I over saturated myself with Andy Hull in general in the last year. He has another little sad, nautical band called “Right Away, Great Captain” that I suggest you check out if you want to understand how a band can possibly be described as both sad and nautical. But anyways, after taking a break from the fall to the winter from this record, I started to slowly move it back into my rotation and re-realized its power and beauty. This album is heartbreak disguised as rock and roll. Hitting on topics from child abuse in My Friend Marcus, to touching on addiction and longing in 100 Dollars, this album deploys a whole bevy of stories to tug at the listeners strings. The heavy guitar riffs and thumping drums are a clear departure for the band from their recent albums/EP’s. But it feels like a step in the right direction. You still get pieces of the ”old” band on songs like I Can Feel a Hot One and I’ve Got Friends, which will keep the purists happy. Personally, I am proud of this group. There is something to be said about taking chances as a band, you don’t always succeed, but sometimes you get electric Dylan.
Bold statement….. This album has the potential to become for my 20’s/30’s what “August and Everything After” was for my teens.
Songs that hit: EVERY SINGLE ONE. Seriously, I may be undervaluing this record due to my own over indulgences.
Songs that miss: Not a single one
Songs that I will listen to forever: I Can Feel a Hot One. Shake It Out. The River. Jimmy, He Whispers.
6. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
These are perfectly crafted pop-rock songs that make you want to rethink your objections to all French people.
If you would have polled me 4 years ago, I would have ranked 80’s electro-pop revival pretty low on my list of tolerable genres, somewhere ‘tween Pipe Organ and Instrumental Spoon (the utensil, not the band) music. But, as of late, my hesitant edge has softened a bit too new sounds. I think it has a bit to do with my aforementioned affinity to cuteness. From Lisztomania, Rome, and my personal favorite 1901, this group from Versailles leaves an undeniable wake in its path on the pop landscape this year. These are perfectly crafted pop-rock songs that make you want to rethink your objections to all French people. This record is not for everyone. Hell, this record may draw some pretty harsh words, Stevie. But, the quality of the sound, the structure of the record as a whole is something the musical environment has been begging for. This is as well made a record as I have ever reviewed.
Songs that hit: Lisztomania. 1901. Rome. Lasso. Countdown. Armistice.
Songs that miss: Both Love Like a Sunset parts 1 & 2
7. Matt & Kim – Grand
This music is not complicated, it is not intricately written or perfectly sung, but it makes its point clearly and easily.
Answer: Daylight, Lessons Learned, and Good Ol’ Fashioned Nightmare.
Question: What are three of the best songs to strike the indie landscape this last year?
You could not pick up an indie music zine, skim a blog, or watch a rewards show this last year without running into Matt & Kim. And it is a well deserved, albeit, overwhelming song of praise. If you are feeling a bit down, or possibly about to get into a scuffle of some sort, this would be the album I would recommend pump you up. From beginning to end, it is relentless. Never has a two piece band sounded so large. It’s almost as if Matt and Kim learned how to play their instruments on fast-forward, they do not seem to know how to slow their roll, and we are all the better for it. This music is not complicated, it is not intricately written or perfectly sung, but it makes its point clearly and easily. As good as this album is, it does not live up to their self titled debut, which, I insist you pick up.
Songs that hit: Daylight. Lessons Learned. Good O.; Fashioned Nightmare. Don’t Slow Down. Cinders. Spare Change.
Songs that miss: Cutdown. Daylight Outro (Remix).
8. K’naan – Troubadour
He raps National Geographic Bi-lines.
Obviously, if you have read any of my other lists, you will realize that Hip-Hop is not really my forte. Judging what is quality from what is over-produced garbage is not really in my wheelhouse so to speak. So, it takes something special to grab my attention, a back story of sorts, to make me give a rap album a fighting chance. Don’t get me wrong, I buy quite a few albums of this genre, but never with the intention to even consider them for one of my lists. I had no clue to K’naan was, I had not heard a single track to justify spending $12 on his album, but, then I read an article, not about his music, but about his story that woke me up. K’naan is a Somali refugee, a man, who needed to express his story. Express what he saw growing up in a war torn world; as he so eloquently stated in I Come Prepared “My Job is to write what I see / So a visual stenographer is who I be.” So, he picked up albums by Nas and Rakim, and phonetically learned to speak English through hip-hop, and now his story is set to a beat with some of the best and most intricate rhymes I have heard in a very long time. He raps National Geographic Bi-lines. His story of tragedy and triumph is unmistakable and undeniable. I feel like, if given the proper chance and the push, this album could become what “The Miseducation of Lauren Hill” was, a crossover album that impacts all aspects of society and is celebrated amongst all music lovers, not just hip-hop fans. This album made me listen.
Songs that hit: Wavin’ Flag. I Come Prepared. 15 Minutes Away. People Like Me. Bang Bang. America. Take a Minute.
Songs that miss: Honestly, if you like lyrical hip-hop, no songs miss. The beats could be stronger.
Songs that I will listen to forever: People Like Me. Wavin’ Flag. Take a Minute.
9. The Swell Season – Strict Joy
I could not imagine sitting and writing about the tumble of love, with the tumbler sitting across from me.
There is nothing strict about this joy. I know, lame line, and one that almost every blogger is sure to use to review this album, but it’s also the most honest statement I can make about this record. To be frank, I was not sure Glen and Markéta could step out of the shadow that “Once” and Falling Slowly had cast. It was a task that only a really musically secure group could accomplish, and I was not sure they possessed that quality. I have never been happier to be proven wrong. As a fan of the movie “Once” (all time favorite), I approached this record with more hesitance than normal. I did not want to love it, because of what it reminded me of. I did not want to hoist false praise due to my own heavy-handed bias. So, when originally writing this list, I left this off, knowing very well that it was probably a mistake. It took going to see Glen, Markéta and the boys from The Frames live at The Paramount to make me realize how big of a mistake it actually was. Objectively, I can say, it was the best concert I have ever been to, and it made me re-approach this album with less hesitancy. Upon doing so, I found a much fuller sound than on both the “Once” soundtrack and first Swell album. The songs paint such gorgeous pictures, with both Glen and Markéta's personalities strewn about. Not to mention the lyrical content that composed this magical little record. What you may want to know, no, what you need to know, is that Glen and Mar fell in love during filming, and stayed together for 2+ years. Only to break up, just before writing and recording this album. This is the ultimate break up album. The songs were not only written with a broken heart, but with two hearts, suffering from the same break. I could not imagine sitting and writing about the tumble of love, with the tumbler sitting across from me. I think this album will climb on my quarterly reviews.
Songs that hit: Low Rising. In These Arms. The Verb. I Have Loved You Wrong. Feeling the Pull.
Songs that miss: High Horses. Back Broke.
Songs that I will listen to forever: In These Arms. I Have Loved You Wrong. Low Rising.
10. Boat – Setting the Paces
And then there is some music you do not listen to, you celebrate
*Every year, I try to include a local band in my list, because, well, I'm a homer for the northwest and want to celebrate it. Yes, this is a local band, but it would be on this list no matter where they were from, except Utah.
BOAT has been making this raucous indie noise for some time, and I say that with the greatest respect. However, in my eyes, BOAT has finally made an album. I think my co-writer of this blog may be offended with that statement, but that is not the intent. As I have mentioned to numerous people, I am a big fan of BOAT, I have their older albums, and although my collection is missing from what I understand, some excellent EP’s. I feel that I have a good feel for this band. But this album exceeded all my expectations. From songs like Prince of Tacoma, Lately (I've Been On My Back), and Friends Since 1989, I feel that BOAT has really come into their own. There is some music you listen too to set a mood. There is some music you listen to express an emotion you are too fragile to feel. And then there is some music you do not listen to, you celebrate. This is fresh music, and it deserves to be championed and celebrated.
Songs that hit: Lately (I've Been On My Back). Prince of Tacoma. Friends Since 1989. Tough Talking the Tulips. Your Muscular. The Name Tossers.
Songs that miss: 100 Calorie Man
Songs that I will listen to forever: Lately (I've Been On My Back). Prince of Tacoma.
11. The Antlers – Hospice
The Antlers take chances by holding back and letting some of the song keep their secrets.
Two things of note about this particular record, first, this is an album that is 100% better if you listen to it with quality headphones, and second, this album is, quite frankly, a novel.
I noticed this record because of the album cover; it was vivid, stark and informative. I purchased this record due to my quality trackrecord of finding bands named after animals. I know, that’s kinda stupid, but you run with a superstition until it runs you over. Which, thanks to Grizzly Bear, it now has. Anyways, back to The Antlers. If you have experienced loss recently, if you often deal with bouts of depression or are currently dealing with a grave illness, this may not be the album for you. This record is about death/dying, it is about recovery after loss, it is far too often tragic/blameful. It is simply beautiful. Any article on the net will mention that the band describes their sound as "a delicately branching instrument of force,” which, normally I would avoid such repeated dribble, if it was not so accurate. There are concept albums that are meant to be listened to in order, from start to finish. This is not one of them, it is much more. I can only describe the experience I felt when I finally sat still, headphones on, and really listened to this album from beginning to end, as reading a great, great novel; digesting the words and melodies and feeling changed by them. Again, headphones are must, often sung in a whisper, many of the track will sound simple, single instrumentations, until you really listen. The Antlers take chances by holding back and letting some of the song keep their secrets. This album, if not so grim would be much, much higher. It is the kind of album you may need to take in doses. Take this in. Be cautious. Enjoy.
Songs that hit: Bear. Kettering. Epilogue. Two. Shiva.
Songs that miss: None
Songs that I will listen to forever: Bear (May end as the best song of the year).Shiva. Epilogue.
12. Hey Marseilles – To Travel & Trunks (released in December of 2008)
If The Format and Bishop Allen had a baby in a French café, it would sound something like this.
Point of contention, this is my local pick. They are not on here, just because they are local, they have clearly and rightfully earned their place on this list. This is a seven piece Seattle band that plays even larger than that. Each member of the band is proficient at multiple instruments, and nothing seems overplayed, as is often the case in a band of this size. Consisting of 2 guitars, a bass, trumpet, cello, accordion, piano, mandolin, drumbourine, drums, handclaps, sousaphone, and thighs, this musical enterprise should be riddled with trying to do too much too often. But that is not the case. Their restraint is the key to their masterfullness. When trying to get people interested in the band, I have often resorted to using “if they had a baby…” metaphors. For example, I have said, if The Format and Bishop Allen had a baby in a French café, it would sound something like this. This is a cheap tool to create a buzz about a band, but in this case, it is really fitting.
Songs that hit: All. Sincerely.
Songs that miss: None.
Songs that I will listen to forever: Someone to Love. Rio. You Will Do For Now.
13. Tiny Masters of Today – Skeletons
Concise, and bratty, these songs are a flick to the ear on a cold January day.
My primary concern with listing this album on my best of blog was the fact I was not sure if I like it for the correct reasons. If you listen to the album without knowing the story of the band, you hear perfectly messy neopunk rock songs; tangible and special, but nothing spectacular. However, if you understand, this was recorded on a computer in a livingroom by Ivan and Ada, Brooklyn born brother and sister, ages 14 and 12 respectively, would that change your opinion of the record? Is it the music that I am enjoying, or the fact that it was made by such prodigies, and should one impact the other? I think, rightly so. Based on the music alone, this record may not stand up to the others that missed the cut for this list, but this is not just music alone. What these kids are doing, is nothing short of spectacular. The best thing about these youngsters, they do not pretend to be anything else. They are kids, they write songs like kids, they sing like kids, and the only thing that is not childish about them is their talent. Concise, and bratty, these songs are a flick to the ear on a cold January day.
Songs that hit: Pop Chart. Big Stick. Monkey in the Middle. Skeletons. Real Good.
Songs that miss: Two Dead Soldiers.
Songs that I will listen to forever: Pop Chart. Big Stick.
Honorable Mention (alphabetical order)
- Choir Of Young Believers – This is for the White in Your Eyes
- Fanfarlo - Reservoir
- Fruit Bats - Ruminant Ban
- Owl City - Ocean Eyes
- The Civil Wars – Live at Eddies Attic
- the dodos – time to die
- The Tune-Yards – Bird-Brains
- White Rabbits – It’s Frightening
Best Extended Play’s of the Year.
- Slow Club – Lets Fall Back in Love EP/It Doesn’t Have to be Beautiful EP/ iTunes Live: London Festival ’09 EP
- The Civil Wars – Poison & Wine EP/Live At Eddies Attic EP
- Bon Iver – The Blood Bank EP
- Never Shout Never – The Summer EP/The Yippee EP
- Matt Duke – Acoustic Kingdom Underground EP
Best Songs of the Year.
- Sweet Disposition – The Temper Trap
- Be Calm – Fun.
- Bear – The Antlers
- Poison And Wine – Civil Wars
- Lets Fall Back In Love – Slow Club
- Lately (I’ve Been On My Back) - Boat
- Shelter – The Xx
- Someone To Love – Hey Marseilles
- Daylight – Matt & Kim
- Sleepyhead – Passion Pit
- Crystalised – The Xx
- I Never Knew You – Cage
- People Like Me – K’naan
- 1901 – Phoenix
- Stillness is the Move – Dirty Projectors
- The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future – Los Campesinos!
- Pop Chart – Tiny Masters Of Today
- Percussion Gun – White Rabbits
- When I Go – Slow Club
- In These Arms – The Swell Season
- Basic Space – The Xx
- Big Stick – Tiny Masters Of Today
- I Can Feel A Hot One – Manchester Orchestra
- Love Lost – The Temper Trap
- Lisztomania – Phoenix
- The Walls Are Coming Down – Fanfarlo
- Fiya – Tune-Yards
- I Don’t Know - Lisa Hannigan
- Kandi – One Eskimo
- Your Biggest Fan – Nevershoutnever!
- Hello Seattle – Owl City
- Make Your Mind Up – Chairlift
- Shake It Out – Manchester Orchestra
- Brother Sport – Animal Collective
- Two Weeks – Grizzly Bear
Most Disappointing Albums Of The Year
- Bishop Allen –Grrr…. Quick note. This was the album I was looking for the most this year. But its like everything that made this band something special evaporated into thin air. They settled for formulaic, easy, lamely cute music. In my honest opinion, this album is a cost of their success from the previous self-produced records. I feel the finesse of heavyhanded label producers, or butchers, in this case all over this record. Still one of my favorite bands, but such a disappointment.
- Monsters Of Folk - Monsters Of Folk
- St. Vincent – Actor Out Of Work
- The Fray – The Fray
- Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest