Now we turn to this year's music, and I have to say that so far, I've been quite impressed with the large amount of good music that's come out so far. We're just under halfway through, and I have a number of year-end list contenders. I don't know if there has emerged a clear frontrunner for album of the year just yet, but I'm enjoying the trial and error. The following albums are ones that I've found myself listening to over and over, ones that I'm still in the process of engaging and appreciating more deeply with each listen (in no particular order). I'll try to offer at least a little preliminary commentary on them.
Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
Highly recommended for fans of Belle and Sebastian or just well crafted and shy twee pop. They deepen their sound even more than on Let's Get Out of This Country, which is a good thing. The songs are warm and engaging, and the album fits well into a number of moods. Not much else to say other than a great album that grows nicely. Side note: Erin and I will be going to see them in Atlanta June 19th. Anyone who wants to meet us there is certainly welcome.
Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Was there any doubt that this record was going to be good? Of course, Neko has brought out a solid collection of songs that are layered not only with careful crafting but carried on the strength of her amazing voice. While I think I liked Fox Confessor Brings the Flood a little more than this one, her current effort is by no means a slouch. "This Tornado Loves You" and "Some People Got A Lotta Nerve" are my two favorites. I've given this one some time off and plan on heading back to it in a little while to see if I think it can surpass her previous masterpiece, but it's really hard to dislike her work.
The Appleseed Cast - Sagarmatha
I've liked The Appleseed Cast for years, dating back to their time on Deep Elm Records. They were certainly part of my emo phase, but they didn't fit the traditional emo mold (more like post-rock, I guess). That's probably why I liked them so much. They were more about cogent melodies than about high-pitched singing about heartbreaks (btw, the Low Level Owl albums are amazing). This album straddles the line between instrumental and subtle singing post-rock, and does it better than they've done so far. Really great effort from these guys.
Burning Hearts - Aboa Sleeping
This album feels kinda like a more organic version of Stereolab, and it's really quite a wonderful collection of tunes. This album is bold enough to be confident in stylistic and substantive choices, yet unassuming enough that it trusts you to engage it on your terms. It doesn't force you to bend to its will, and I respect that a lot. (h/t Heartache With Hard Work)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I really enjoy this band's mix of fuzzy pop with the retro -- late 80s/early 90s -- indie pop. They recall numerous bands in various places, yet the record still feels current in 2009. It's a great record for head bopping or toe tapping, and the melodies can easily get stuck in your head. It's really nice that the songs don't take themselves too seriously and that they still come across with a solid authenticity that is very reassuring.
Various Artists - Dark Was the Night
Of course, this record is going somewhere in everybody's year end lists, right? I mean, it's a collection of the current who's who of indie music, from Arcade Fire to the New Pornographers to the National to Bon Iver. Add to that the fact that pretty much every act contributes a memorable, standout song, and you've got no reason to pass this album up. Plus, it's for a good cause.
Balmorhea - All is Wild, All is Silent
Another great instrumental album from Balmorhea. This one has a little more musical variety in it than the previous effort, yet the increased expansiveness doesn't feel like overkill. The additional instruments give it a broader feel, and again, it's good writing music.
Metric - Fantasies
Metric's new album is so bittersweet for me. On the one hand, the songs are really catchy, and it's clear that the band pays attention to the success of their performance. The main drawback to the album is that it's dreadfully overproduced. It of course brings a clean sound to the music, but at times it feels too clean and too precise. This flaw isn't enough to make me dislike the album, but it does tend to get in the way of a more complete engagement with the songs and the record as a whole.
Passion Pit - Manners
I was initially very wary of Passion Pit, having dismissed them as just another band from NYC doing the "indie dance music" thing that seems to be in right now (Hot Chip, Gang Gang Dance, MGMT, etc.), but this album really impressed me. Their pop sensibility and playfulness shines through, and they don't just get caught up into doing expiremental techno stuff and trying to sound uber-hip. They fuse the keyboards with guitars and more traditional pop sounds quite well. I gotta say, they converted me.
Maria Taylor - Ladyluck
Great female singer-songwriter who was formerly a member of the indie duo Azure Ray. This stuff is more coffeehouse and straightforward than the stuff she did in Azure Ray, and that gives the music a genuineness that is endearing. I predict that "Cartoons and Forever Plans" will make its way to a commercial before year's end.
The Bird and the Bee - Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future
Low key trip hop inspired dance pop. My favorite song here is "My Love." The album makes me think of Imogen Heap's solo work and stuff with Frou Frou. Very catchy stuff that is very easy to enjoy without thinking about too deeply.
Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
I know, I know...everybody and their friends will put this one on their list for sure. It's being treated as the greatest musical creation since Beethoven or something. While I usually see Animal Collective as very hit or miss, I must admit that I do really like this album. Finally, they put out a record that is much more accessible than anything they've done before, in my opinion. They tend to melodies and creating layers of music much more and better here than the previous albums which to me seemed much more interested in experimenting for its own sake (and gets pointless real quickly). "My Girls" is easily my favorite song from them.
This is a good start. I have other albums that I think it's too early to say anything about like the following:
Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (1st impression: great in places)
Viva Voce - Rose City (longtime fan of them, 1st listen of this record shows much promise)
Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP (good continuation of previous work)
Mono - Hymn to the Immortal Wind (too soon to tell if it's better than just good)
I'm also looking forward to other albums that I haven't had much/any chance to try out. I'm interested in the Dirty Projectors' new record (previewed it through NPR...not sure what I think about it). I am really excited about Phoenix's new album (probably will have to buy the CD at Target, since it's not on emusic...grr). I'm both intrigued and a little unsure about the new Grizzly Bear record. They're one of those bands that gets high marks from indie critics, but I just don't get them (Animal Collective was like that until their recent album). I like "Two Weeks," so I'm willing to give Veckatimest a try (if emusic ever decides to make it available).
If you've actually read this far, thanks! Also, I'm happy to hear suggestions for '09 records. What have you heard this year that impresses you? What/who should I be checking out?
UPDATE: I don't know how I forgot this one.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz
Great new album from YYYs. This album is more subtle than their previous work and with more synthesizers than before. It's a more mature approach, yet the album still has a good amount of fun to it. It's definitely worth the time investment to let it grow. I'm still getting more familiar with it with each lesson.