tongue-tied lightning

2009: The Year in Music

All in all, 2009 was a disappointing year for music.  It seemed everything I looked forward to was a bit underwhelming.  Animal Collective (queue the disagreements), Bob Dylan, Neko Case, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Monsters of Folk, Neil Young, etc.  It says something that my three favorite records are from bands I hadn’t heard prior to this year, or in the case of my favorite record, a band that hadn’t won me over with their previous releases.  So, while the old standbys seemed to fall by the wayside there were surprises found in some new places.  Mostly Brooklyn.

Biggest Disappointment

The first Flaming Lips album in well over a decade I haven’t been able to find much in.   I do applaud them for changing it up instead of going back to the well that seemed to be drying up with At War With Mystics, but this record just feels… unfinished to me.  There aren’t really any songs on it.  Which can work, granted, but I don’t find their ‘psychic explorations’ very intriguing.  Certainly not as catchy as the more melodic stuff they’ve been doing since 1993.  It’s not an awful record, but given the high expectations I had, I was more than a bit disappointed.

Honorable Mentions

In alphabetical order, by artist:

Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light: I gave I Am A Bird Now more than a few listens, and I could never get past the fact that while Antony’s voice was powerful and emotive, something about it irked me.  On the recommendation of a friend I gave The Crying Light a go, and from the first track I was won over.  Beautiful orchestral pop, and for some reason, The Crying Light seems to have been the key that’s allowed me to go back and unlock I Am A Bird Now.  I get it now.

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast: After The Mysterious Production of Eggs and Armchair Apocrypha, I found Noble Beast a bit of a letdown.  However, the more I come back to it the more I find to appreciate.  It features many of his best songs (Anonanimal, Effigy, Natural Disaster) even if there are some cuts that don’t click with me, places where it feels like he’s reaching a bit too much (Not a Robot, But a Ghost).  But still, a strong enough record to recommend.

Steve Earle – Townes: “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.”  Steve Earle attempts to back up that bold statement with his latest album, Townes.  And while I don’t agree with it, he makes a hell of a case.  It’s not my favorite Steve Earle record, perhaps because many of Townes’ recordings are better than Steve’s, sorry to say.  But there is something poetic in today’s most underappreciated singer-songwriter recording a tribute to his 70’s counterpart.

Mos Def – The Ecstatic: Not a great album, but such a comeback from the unlistenable True Magic and The New Danger, it’s hard not to feel Ecstatic about it.  It feels like Mos actually cares about making good music again.  There are some really strong cuts here.  And it bodes well for his future.  One that, after the superlative Black on Both Sides and Black Star, I was close to giving up on.

Phish – Joy: Probably the most controversial choice on the list.  Alot of Phish fans have been disappointed with Joy, but I think it is a solid pop record.  Phish’s more progressive compositions and raging jams have never translated well to the studio.  Their best record, and last with Steve Lillywhite prior to Joy, Billy Breathes is also a pop record.  Joy is on par with something like Farmhouse and a huge improvement from Round Room and Undermind.

Jazz Album of the Year

Medeski, Martin & Wood’s first entry in the Radiolarians series didn’t really impress me.  It felt a bit disjointed, unpolished, and I was afraid the subsequent volumes would follow suit.  But with Radiolarians II & III their gamble has paid off and they have put out some of the best music they’ve recorded since their Gramavision days.  Two deep groovy fun records with plenty of replay value.

Top 10 after the break.

Top Ten Albums of 2009

Super Furry Animals have had a hell of a decade, and Dark Days/Light Years puts a nice cap on it.  I think it’s my favorite outing of theirs since Phantom Power.  It’s a bit top heavy, which seems to be a trend this year.  But it’s still a great collection of songs from Gruff Rhys & Co.

Favorite Song: MT

Some people seem to think Built to Spill have lost whatever magic they had in the 90s.  I’m not of this opinion.  Certainly they haven’t made another Perfect From Now On or Keep it Like A Secret, but You in Reverse is some fantastic guitarcentric rock, and There is No Enemy picks up where that one left off, but is a little more song based than jam/guitar based.  This record also houses some of Martsch’s best lyrics, ever.

Favorite Song: Hindsight

Sufjan goes Orchestral and I follow.  The BQE is a surprisingly evocative piece.  Commisioned by BAM and inspired by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, this composition for 40 piece orchestra is pretty impressive.  The package is extensive, much like his Songs for Christmas box, featuring a DVD with the film he shot to accompany the piece, a booklet featuring an essay on the BQE and many photos, and a ViewMaster reel of all things.  The vinyl edition came with a graphic novel following the hijinx of the Hooper Heroes, the… heroines? of the film.  Which is all fun and gives people incentive to purchase The BQE rather than download it.  But what’s important is that the music is good, and it is.

Jim O’Rourke’s latest is a departure from his last big releases, a trio of pop records named after (and inspired by?) Nicolas Roeg films released around the turn of the century.  Here we are presented with a 40 minute instrumental piece. Upon opening the record you are presented with a note from Jim instructing you to please listen to it loudly through speakers.  I was surprised to find it so quiet and reserved.  It’s a guitar based piece that builds slowly, never to an overwhelming climax, but a satisfying one none-the-less.  It is aided by listening to it loudly to pick up all the nuances in the work.  Jim hasn’t released an LP of original material since 2001, but The Visitor was worth the wait.

In retrospect perhaps the last two entries should be switched.  Anyhow, in the wake of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot people seem to be upset Wilco’s records don’t reach that level of innovation anymore.  It’s lamentable, but is it unexpected?  Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the kind of peak a band reaches once in a career, and to hold their subsequent records to that standard is unfair.  What Wilco has made with Wilco (the album) is a solid album, consisting of solid songs.  They are focusing on craft rather than innovation and much as the album title suggests it encapsulates who they are as a band right now.  It’s a collection of well-crafted songs and a clear improvement over Sky Blue Sky.  Is that so bad?

Favorite Song: You Never Know

I’ve been a fan of Andy Cabic since he first came up with Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom in 2004.  With Tight Knit he continues to move away from the freakfolk sound he helped pioneer and has made an album that wouldn’t sound out of place alongside the more rootsier 70s rock albums.  It’s a modest record, but it’s no less great for that.  The songs are catchy and fun.  It’s solid, possibly his best yet.

Favorite Song: Another Reason to Go

I enjoyed Akron/Family’s first record, Love is Simple was a bit of decline, but with Set ’em Wild, Set ’em Free they’ve crafted what is easily the apex of their career.  The album has a few tracks that don’t work (MBF, notably) but the peaks are so powerful it easily qualifies as one of the years few transcendent records.  Get lost in it.

Favorite Song: River

2007’s Marry Me was a good record, but with Actor St. Vincent has made something really special.  She has said in interviews she got started writing this by watching her favorite films on mute and attempting to compose scores to them,  and with Actor she feels like something of an auteur.  Going beyond composing happy songs in major keys and sad songs in minor keys, she has realized the turmoil present in the lyrics in the very fabric of the songs.  Much of Actor seems concerned with the appearances we put on, the fear of our true selves being discovered (what would the neighbors think?), the cognitive dissonance that arises from this contradiction.  Likewise many of the songs embrace this, juxtaposing beautiful Disneyesque clarinet and string parts with fuzz-drenched ugly guitar solos.  It’s the same mindset apparent in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm realized musically, perhaps summed up best in the title of my favorite song on the album “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood.”  It took me a bit to warm up to this record but I think it’s one of the great artistic achievements of the year.

Favorite Song: Marrow (Mouthful of Blood isn’t on YouTube)

This is another album I struggled with for awhile before fully embracing.  I kept coming back to it after reading about Dave Longstreth’s talent from many artists I admire (David Byrne, St Vincent, et al) and eventually it clicked.  His intricate melodies and sometimes schizophrenic songs remind me strongly of Of Montreal (which some people love and others find aggravating, I belong to the former group), and while I haven’t dug into their back catalog just yet I think Bitte Orca can stand tall with the best of Kevin Barnes work.  The guitar work alone is very impressive.

Favorite Song: Temecula Sunrise

From the first time I heard it, Veckatimest was my favorite album of the year.  I first gave it a shot for something to do, as I hadn’t been completely won over by Yellow House, but it wasn’t long before I was completely riveted.  I really don’t think there’s a bad song on the album, and there are many great songs.  Apparently Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen used songs they had already written alone on Yellow House and with Veckatimest they composed songs together, specifically for the album.  Not that Yellow House doesn’t have some tremendous songs, but their sound really gels on Veckatimest.  It’s quite easily the album of the year for me.  I’ve been listening to it nonstop since May.

Favorite Song: While You Wait for the Others


2 Comments so far
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It’s good to see someone thnniikg it through.

Comment by Norm

Gee wisrlkeil, that’s such a great post!

Comment by Lanette

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