Music: Top Fives of 2009
The ’90s return! Or at least, we think they might. LEO critics pick the best albums of the year.
Each year a million arguments rise like weeds among music journalists, bloggers, artists and average fans, factions that aren’t mutually exclusive: Who killed this year? We let our critics pick, hoping minor verbal skirmishes ensue (insert winks and nods here). LEO’s cast of freelance critics stay mindful of the locals while paying due respect to nationals and regionals.
That lists exist in today’s crowded musical culture feels anachronistic. Tunes are more ubiquitous than ever. Like magazines, you can seek out which subgenre fits your style, mentality, political viewpoint, day of the week, breakfast. It’s a wonder anything even catches fire before the masses have moved on to something else.
Therefore, we implemented a few guidelines: no soundtracks, no live albums, no greatest-hits collections, no compilations, no reissues, no cover albums and no bootlegs. Those parameters in stone, let the fights begin. —Mat Herron
Dinosaur Jr., Farm (Jagjaguwar) — Proving 2007’s near-perfect comeback Beyond was no fluke, Farm does something even more impressive — it re-establishes these indie-rock giants as a working unit. Unlike most comeback follow-ups, expectations for Farm were arguably higher than those for the unexpected Beyond, and it’s to their eternal credit that some 20-plus years into their career, Dinosaur aren’t just “good for their age.” They’re arguably making their best, most consistent records yet, fusing the seething vigor of their SST years with the maturity and consistency of their ’90s output. Memo to Pixies and My Bloody Valentine: This is how you stage a reunion.
Morrissey, Years of Refusal (Lost Highway) — Lost among reports of onstage collapses, concert walk-offs and all the usual sturm und drang that typifies Morrissey’s career was the fact that he made a really, really good album this year, one that holds its own with virtually anything the man has done since leaving the Smiths. On songs like the suitably portentous “Black Cloud,” Moz summons drama and bravado in spades, sounding as hungry and relevant as an artist half his age. He’s too often taken for granted, but in retrospect, Morrissey’s triumphant comeback may have been the musical story of the decade.
Lou Barlow, Goodnight Unknown (Merge) — Barlow capped a banner year for Dinosaur Jr. (see above) by releasing his second solo album. Coming off 2005’s hushed, monochromatic Emoh, Goodnight’s sometimes clangorous arrangements pop with color, but they adorn songs that, at their core, display the same mix of sad-sack introspection and autumnal prettiness that characterizes all of Barlow’s music. This means that Goodnight recalls Sebadoh as often as it does Barlow’s more recent work, but that’s hardly a criticism — indeed, it’s merely a testament to Barlow’s gifts that he manages to make such material so consistently rewarding time and time again.
C+, Learning to Sail My Ship (self-released) — C+’s obvious ’90s indie-rock influences — even more readily apparent in their bracing live show — suggest that Ship should be a far pricklier affair than it is. But those edgier influences can’t hide the group’s big, gooey comfort-food heart, and Ship succeeds on this delicate balance of breezy charm and fanged menace, best illustrated on “Ever Since They Came Here,” in which a sighing, Sebadoh-worthy ballad gives way to an ominous, lead-footed stomp. You’d never know it from their unassuming demeanor, but with a record as great as Ship, C+ are well on their way to becoming Louisville’s most interesting band.
The Breeders, Fate to Fatal (self-released) — Forget digital distribution — this is the future of music: major bands recording, distributing … hell, even hand-pressing their vinyl-only releases, all without the aid of a record label. The EP’s four songs don’t make much sense together: a rough-and-tumble basher, a sinuous ballad featuring Mark Lanegan, an acoustic Bob Marley cover, and an amiable four-track doodle. But like the rest of the Breeders’ beautifully messy output, it gels on the strength of the Deal sisters’ irrepressible chemistry. Musically, it’s a blast, but ideologically, it’s a revelation, and the awesomeness of owning a record handled by Kim Deal is pretty hard to deny.
Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros (Community Music/Fairfax) — In a world where so many songwriters trade on a hanging cloud of misery, it’s refreshing to hear music by people who seem pretty OK with what they’ve got. “Home” and “Janglin’” stand up to repeated listens and rank among the year’s best.
Girls, Album (Matador) — Points for re-appropriating “Lust for Life” in a way that wasn’t corny and for “Laura,” which captures perfectly the brutality and confusion of a friend break-up over a sunny-sounding little tune.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote) — I was as heartbroken as the next girl when I found out the refrain of “1901” was fall dead, fall dead, fall dead and not ballin’, ballin’, ballin’, but the pain passed quickly and gave way to a fantastic record you can always dance to. Hard to believe it took us nearly a decade to realize what a great act this is.
Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar) — If by mid-track on “Idiot Heart” you have not memorized the chorus, unrolled the window and screamed along, you don’t have a soul. Concurrently baroque and unfinished, each track is more perfect than the last.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz (Interscope) — The YYYs suffer no delusions. For better or worse, they aren’t the same band that gave us “Maps.” Accept this and embrace wholeheartedly the confusion and joy that is “Heads Will Roll.”
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) — Warmth from a band that already showed it had everything else. It’s sort of the same story as with TV on the Radio’s Dear Science: The band relaxed, and their mix of fun and creativity evolved to a higher level. I originally thought Animal Collective’s sampling-on-sampling combined with Brian Wilson worship was a bit much. But I couldn’t stop playing this disc, and maybe now I never will.
The xx, The xx (XL) — Beautiful minimalism from a band that should be too young to avoid missteps. Yet these London kids successfully focus on the point where club music meets R&B. They recognize that the bass can carry most of the arrangements, but the spaciousness never falls into torpor. Instead, there’s a naturalistic intimacy and energy, even in the silences. The best moments are when the not-quite-clueless guy and the sexy-without-trying girl intertwine their voices with hauntingly easy grace.
Espers, III (Drag City) — This seems to have been a good year for psychedelic indulgences. Witness the fine-if-traditional light-and-heavy of Sleepy Sun’s Embrace, and Sunset Rubdown produced a playfully rococo Dragonslayer that often mocked its own ferocious musicality. Philadelphia’s Espers aren’t too far removed from these styles, but their somewhat-electrified chamber folk sets itself apart with discipline, even when they rock. Their tunes have strong core ideas that stay flexible without sagging. Leave behind today’s ubiquitous anthemic affectation and take in a refreshingly cool spring of dry, quirky listening.
Baroness, Blue Record (Relapse) — Sure, there’s Mastodon. Them Crooked Vultures confidently swing. But the best heavy album of 2009 was from this Carolina crunch with a soupcon of roots in Appalachian folk instead of the usual blooze. The vocals are merely serviceable (sometimes layered to fine effect), but the writing, guitar-playing and recording hang together with a cohesiveness that’ll have you sorry it ends so soon.
Brandi Carlile, Give Up the Ghost (Columbia) — This year, an entire wave of worthwhile efforts from singer-songwriters hearkened to the legacy of Kate Bush. Bat for Lashes’ Two Suns was ambitiously mixed adult-contemporary orchestration and internal dialogue. Lungs by Florence & The Machine plays like a collection of similarly tweaked singles. Gemma Ray’s latest batch of near-noir miniatures, Lights Out, Zoltar!, was criminally neglected. But all those birds sound like they’re singing either to or about some guy they just met at a club. Carlile’s third album is a wonderful, harrowing account of relationships through the full breadth of life. Even her most modest songs speak with complex emotions, and the bracing folk and rock arrangements are given commendable clarity by producer Rick Rubin.
Mastodon, Crack the Skye (Reprise) — Atlanta’s most powerful musical export grows proggier with this one and has officially mastered the “epic” galaxy of the metal universe. Crack the Skye is a concept album — this is Mastodon, after all — involving Czarist Russia, Rasputin, out-of-body experiences and outer space. As a structured narrative, it’s pretty much incomprehensible, but as heavy metal thunder? Pure bliss. Worth the price of admission alone for closer “The Last Baron,” which is the offspring of Iron Maiden and Rush who grew up listening to Tool.
Gallows, Grey Britain (Reprise) — Except for the orchestral sweetening on a few cuts, “Grey Britain” is straight-up, old-school hardcore punk: defiant and pissed-off. Gruff, authoritative vocals shouted over lean, choppy riffs, all conveyed with passion and rage. Apparently there’s still no future in England’s dreaming.
Air, Love 2 (Astralwerks) — Smoove ’lectro jams from France’s premier cinematic art-pop duo. They keep the Eurosleaze vibe, but in addition to standard pop nuggets like “Sing Sang Sung,” there’s a pleasingly ominous undercurrent to “Do the Joy” and “So Light Is Her Footfall” that adds a whiff of menace to the overall mix, or, at least, as menacing as Air get. Their best since Moon Safari.
Workers, Workers (Bleeding Death) — I heard through the grapevine that the band formerly known as Your Black Star changed its name to Workers because they thought their original moniker was holding them back or was too girly or something. Indeed, their new branding effort sounds much more hands-on, less egg-headed. While half of Jeremy Johnson’s vocals still sound like they were recorded in the Grand Canyon, Johnson, drummer Andrew Osborn and bassist Brandon Duggins have shed some of their space-rock atmospherics in favor of a more straightforward approach and continue to rock authoritatively. “Go” sounds like U2 wishes they still could.
The Prairie Cartel, Where Did All My People Go (Long Nights, Impossible Odds) — What happens when a bunch of Chicago-area alterna-rock veterans start dicking around with synthesizers, a sampler and assorted processed beats? Well, if it’s the Prairie Cartel, they contribute songs to the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise — truly the pinnacle of any artist’s career. But you also hear an album that deftly combines indie rock’s best traits and white-boy electronica into something unaffected by smarm or irony. Choice cuts include “Suitcase Pimp,” “Beautiful Shadow,” “Fuck Yeah, That Wide” and a cover of the 999 chestnut “Homicide.”
MARTIN Z. KASDAN JR.
John Scofield, Piety Street (Emarcy) — John Scofield continued his eclectic approach to recording and touring with this New Orleans-based Gospel outing. With the Meters’ bassist, George Porter Jr., keyboard artist and singer Jon Cleary and others, Scofield burns through a set of mostly classic numbers, such as “Motherless Child” and “Ninety Nine and a Half.” While Scofield can play a variety of styles authoritatively, his roots approach here serves him well. His distinctly edgy tone allows him to testify with spirit. This ensemble about burned down the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this past spring.
Garaj Mahal, Woot (Owl) — Garaj Mahal is Fareed Haque, guitar; Kai Eckhardt, bass; Alan Hertz, drums; and Eric Levy, keyboards. Partially recorded in Indianapolis, the band mix classic fusion sounds with Indian and Pakistani influences, with touches of prog rock and funk thrown in for good measure. With the exception of a brief “Bass Solo,” the rest of the songs run from six to 10 minutes apiece, giving the musicians the opportunity to stretch out. Both this band and Haque’s solo projects appear in Indy from time to time, and I hope they return to Louisville after an absence of several years.
Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain & Edgar Meyer, The Melody of Rhythm (E1) — Banjo master Béla Fleck continues his quest for new musical frontiers. His love of Indian music comes through with tabla master Zakir Hussain and bassist supreme Edgar Meyer. The title piece is a three-movement concerto recorded with Leonard Slatkin conducting the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Indian themes predominate, although the music is also informed by Western classical and American roots music. A stunning blend of virtuosity.
David Tench, In a Mellow Tone (self-released, available by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org) — Tench is something of a rarity, being an acoustic guitarist who plays jazz with a thumbpicking technique usually associated with country or bluegrass. Nonetheless, his warm sounds are all over 12 standards, including the Duke Ellington title track and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Seven of the 12 tracks are solo, while five feature subtle percussion by Paul Turner.
Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) — This is my pick as sleeper of the year. Toussaint is best known for producing and writing some of the finest R&B and pop music to come out of New Orleans (“Mother-in-Law,” “Southern Nights” … the list is long). On The Bright Mississippi, however, he sticks to piano and performs a range of songs firmly rooted in the jazz tradition. Such younger luminaries as clarinetist Don Byron, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and guitarist Marc Ribot join him. While he plays with a respect for the tradition, he emerges as a distinctive stylist on pieces such as the Thelonious Monk track “St. James Infirmary” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Winin’ Boy Blues.”
Blues Control, Local Flavor (Siltbreeze) — Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho have delivered the goods (full disclosure: Russ and Lea are friends, and I was present at their first show a few years back). That is, if the goods were super-hallucinogenic drugs that didn’t leave you damaged. Rather, they took you on a midnight journey through Tangier without leaving your living room. From beat-laden, not-quite-dance workouts to deconstructed guitar licks to massive underwater drones to ringing alarm clocks, there isn’t a record this year I’ve heard as wonderfully evocative of out-of-mind experiences.
Group Doueh, Treeg Salaam (Sublime Frequencies) — While it might put off some world-music purists, Group Doueh’s lo-fi recordings are not only more “authentic” than, say, bringing the band to Paris or London to record in some sterile studio, they’re also far more joyous. Listening to Treeg Salaam at a loud volume, you feel like you’re standing in some Western Saharan souk, watching guitarist Doueh and company tear it up — and seeing them have a great time while they’re doing so.
Phantom Family Halo, Monoliths and These Flowers Never Die (Karate Body) — Generally, most current rock bands can’t pull off the sprawling double album, once a 1970s hallmark. But Phantom Family Halo manage to do so with aplomb. After multiple listens, I’m not entirely sure what the overarching theme or concept behind Monoliths and These Flowers Never Die is, or even if there is one, but this double album is executed so brilliantly, I’m not sure it matters. Hopefully the rest of the country will start paying attention to what these local greats are up to.
Mouthus, Divisionals (Ecstatic Peace!) — Back in May I wrote about Mouthus, the rackety, noisy, guitar-and-drums duo of Brian Sullivan and Nate Nelson, and their album, Divisionals, one of the mellowest yet undeniably great albums I’ve heard this year. I even went so preposterously far as to write that Divisionals contains “a mysterious set of cyclic drones, which interlock and mesh within each other, much as the strands of DNA within our cells.” Well, Nate came through Louisville in August and told me that Divisionals was performed on synths, a departure from their usual MO. There you go.
Extra Golden, Thank You Very Quickly (Thrill Jockey) — Despite listening to more music from around the world than ever, I find that not much of it is by current bands. The recent explosion of reissues of 1960s and 1970s African music is far more compelling than most new African bands, sadly. Extra Golden is an exception to that rule, and perhaps it’s because the half-Kenyan, half-American band has an extra rock element to it reminiscent of 1970s classics. Regardless, we’ve been lucky to see them twice in Louisville in the past year, and that they release consistently great albums.
Blue Giant, Target Heart EP, (Amore!Phonics) — A Viva Voce side-project and Portland’s own supergroup (including Chris Funk, Evan Railton and Seth Lorinczi). Amalgamations like this often amount to less than the sum of their parts, but that’s absolutely not the case here. The record is more exciting than this year’s Viva Voce release. A Southern, dare-I-say-it country vibe is added in just the right amount to a sun-drenched psych-rock aesthetic that this collaboration pulls off perfectly. Lyrically clever, musically brilliant and fun, get it on vinyl (the 12-inch has two bonus tracks).
OSI, Blood (InsideOut) — Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos may be an unlikely pairing, but the music borne of their union is astonishing. Their third outing trends a touch heavier than before, while maintaining the characteristically nuanced layering and completely relaxed vocal approach they’re known for. Available in a two-disc special edition, the savant electronic touch intertwined with metal riffs makes for unexpected, intricate compositions that demand a generous twist of the volume knob.
Porcupine Tree, The Incident (Roadrunner) — Five songs over two discs (the title cut is 55 minutes long), Porcupine Tree have made a definitive statement of progressive-rock genius. Impressive in both breadth and depth, the album covers more sonic territory than many bands cover in an entire career. Steve Wilson and Co. are at their best when they channel their abilities in service of compelling songwriting. This is exactly what they’ve accomplished on The Incident: intelligent music where grandiose aspirations do not preclude chop-heavy rocking, but rather incorporate both with deft mastery. Must be heard in its entirety to be believed.
Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (Rubyworks) — Wielding just two acoustic guitars, this Mexican duo has laid down 11 tracks of blistering magnificence. Perhaps you’re wondering if it’s possible to absolutely slay with nylon strings — Rodrigo proves it can be done. Perhaps you wonder if fingertips like polished granite and a rhythm guitar could result in a percussive juggernaut — enter Gabriela. The couple pays tribute to one influence per song (from Hendrix to Dimebag Darrell to Pink Floyd), and the results are beautiful and phenomenal.
Wolfmother, Cosmic Egg (Modular/Interscope) — Periodically, rock ’n’ roll finds itself in need of a savior incarnate. Now could be one of those times, and Andrew Stockdale might have the goods. With new members, he’s taken Wolfmother’s strut and wail and cranked it. This album is ’70s inspired without sounding dated, packed with rattling riffs and rock-til-you-drop energy.
Freeway, The Beat Made Me Do It (Mixtape) — An online-only mixtape serving as a teaser to an upcoming album surely should have no place on a Best Album of the Year list, right? When it’s all original verses and production and this good, rules be damned! Freeway has been easily the most prolific emcee of the year, beginning with December 2008’s Month of Madness (new song every day of the month), albums Philadelphia Freeway 2, Streetz Iz Mine, This Is My Life (Volumes 1 and 2), and mixtapes The Calm Before the Storm and now The Beat Made Me Do It, he’s been busy. Beat is produced by Jake-One and is full of ’80s boogie samples and loops. Ridiculously good.
Mos Def, The Ecstatic (Downtown) — Mr. Smith reinvigorated! After a couple throwaway albums in which Dante Smith seemed no longer interested in his musical endeavors, he rises with a new record, a new label home, and all-new energy and interest in his craft. I don’t think I went a day without playing this at least once in its first two months of release, and it’s still played a couple times per week. The fact that it includes a scene-stealing cameo from the ruler Slick Rick is icing on the cake.
Madlib, Beat Konducta 5 & 6 (Stones Throw) — Almost missed this one on the list, as it came out (on CD) back in February. Volumes 5 & 6 were Madlib’s tribute to the late J-Dilla and serve as the most cohesive project of Madlib’s career. An all-instrumental affair with occasional vocal samples, I turned this disc on to at least a dozen people who otherwise hate hip-hop. It works in nearly any situation — work, drive, rest or play — and was one of my most-played albums this year. Madlib rarely disappoints under normal circumstances, but in this homage to his fallen friend, he outdid himself.
DJ Quik & Kurupt, Blaqout (Mad Science) — One of my favorite rapper-producers of all time, and simply one of hip-hop’s greatest producers overall, phoned in his last couple albums. DJ Quik didn’t seem as interested in composing music in a genre known for simple beat making. So he made a couple beat-heavy albums and didn’t bother with the musicality that cemented his legend. Kurupt is an agonizingly inconsistent emcee, and until Blaqout, I had given up on him. Blaqout is an insane collection of misogynistic anthems over some of the most ridiculous tracks of the year. It’ll make you blush, but it bangs.
Scanners, Dr. Gonzo & Nacirema Present… (Rags) — Scanners gets placement with a McGwire asterisk, in that it is so new to me that time will tell if this has the kind of staying power to remain one of the best of ’09. For the short time I’ve had this disc, I’ve returned to it countless times, and it has made this entire list difficult, because every time I reach for another disc to see if it belongs here, I would, in most cases, rather be listening to Scanners. A great feat for any album. An amazing feat for a local.
Pearl Jam, Backspacer (self-released) — This 34-minute tome-de-punk has Pearl Jam playing the way their faithful have always known they could. It’s a vindicating album that should hush detractors who long ago wrote them off as washed up and irrelevant. Backspacer favors tight, concise songs with gritty riffs and lyrics that run the gamut from hopeful to hopeless within a single line. Vedder’s voice sounds as fresh as ever: His growl rips through these songs like a lion through bouncing gazelles. The rest of the band sounds just as fresh with a renewed sense of collective purpose.
Hockey, Mind Chaos (Capitol) — Hailing from Portland, Ore., this quartet proudly wear influences like LCD Soundsystem and The Strokes on their sleeve without pretense. Mind Chaos follows their new-wave-meets-garage-rock debut, Smoking Weed in the President’s Face, and it’s hardly short of brilliant. Funky grooves and melodic electronics build a remarkable foundation for Ben Grubin’s bluesy/soulful vocals. In a year when many indie bands jumped to the majors to enhance the mainstream, Hockey did it with the rock ’n’ roll defiance we’ve been missing. “Too Fake,” “Learn to Lose” and “Wanna Be Black” are exultant anthems of an aging “Why bother?” generation.
Steel Panther, Feel the Steel (Republic) — At first, Steel Panther might come off as immaterial and sarcastic as The Darkness. But after weeding through an album’s worth of vulgarity and juvenile humor, you see that they aren’t so much paying homage to the hair-bands of the ’80s as ridiculing them. While there are no parodies here, every original song imitates a specific band of the era (Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Extreme, etc.). Metal heavyweights Scott Ian of Anthrax and Corey Taylor of Slipknot also help out.
Patterson Hood, Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs) (Ruth St. Records) — Hood has had a busy year. Between his solo career and fronting Drive-by Truckers, he has been consistently on the road and prepared four separate releases in 2009 and a fifth for early 2010. But it was here on his second solo record that he shined brightest. Working with a full band this time, he built a beautifully intimate album that feels like the kind of Southern rock we haven’t heard since Robbie Robertson left The Band. “Pride of the Yankees” might have the most poignant and self-aware lyrics Hood has ever to put to paper.
Chris Knight, Trailer Tapes II (Drifter’s Church) — The guttural heartbreak in the twang of Knight’s voice almost offsets the wispy sarcasm and snide wit of Trailer II’s tales of woe. The songs feel like they were pulled from that moment when a late night turns into an early morning, and the ache of his voice is the next day’s hangover.