Saturday, December 19, 2009

My Top Albums of 2009

It's always fun around this time of year both to read other people's year end lists and to put my own together. I like the sense of people and groups sharing what music really worked for them, what really moved them enough to make them want to tell someone else about it. That said, not only am I listing my top 30 albums of the year, but I'd be happy to hear from you what were some of yours. Without further ado...

30. Cass McCombs – Catacombs
Great “guy + acoustic guitar” album. This record doesn’t always have the strongest singing, but the songwriting and the laid back performance give the sings a sense of sincerity that is quite endearing. Cass tells good stories, and you get the feeling that he’s genuinely trying his hand at honest expression through another’s eyes, which is never an easy feat. The result is quite lovely at times. A perfect example of this is “Harmonia,” which I forgot to include in my favorite songs list.

29. Memory Tapes – Seek Magic
I feel that I haven’t listened to this album enough to get a real sense of its full potential. I know that it’s a great listen, taking elements from disco, 80s pop, alternative, and dance. I can certainly tell that a lot goes into the crafting of the songs on the record. I’m still figuring out the moves and shifts on the album, but I know that it’s really good. The strongest song on the record for me is easily “Stop Talking.” It really shines with both the soft dance verses and the strong chorus. What I appreciate most is the diversity of sounds that go into the record. Album closer “Run Out” is also really pretty.

28. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
I am so torn about this album and band in general. I haven’t really gotten Grizzly Bear the way that many other people appear to. Yellow House just didn’t do much for me at all. I found it sleepy and difficult to engage. Veckatimest is a vast improvement for me, but it doesn’t do enough for me to fall in love with everything they do. The album has some real gems like “Two Weeks,” “While You Wait For the Others,” and “Ready, Able.” Some points in the record are good, and others fall squarely into the “I just don’t get it” category. Ed Droste has one of the nicer voices in indie music this year, though, I must say. You know that they put a lot of thought into the record. That doesn’t mean, though, that it all makes sense.

27. The Antlers – Hospice
This is the quintessential emotionally draining record. The Antlers debut with a concept album about an abusive relationship between a dying patient and caregiver. Yikes. And you really feel the anguish in the music too, all the way from the softest sung (practically whispered) verses to choruses that let out a yell. They really know how to play the highs and lows off of each other. This record is so thoughtfully constructed, but at the same time it’s such a tiring expression of despair. “Bear” and “Two” are probably my favorites on the record. Overall, it’s really good; just don’t expect this one to brighten your day.

26. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Emil Svanangen’s one-man show Loney, Dear is quite impressive. He makes high tension indie pop. There’s a softness that feels vulnerable. He clearly expresses feelings, and he adds in a lot of soft percussion for good measure. You get a good mixture of optimism and melancholy. “I Got Lost” injects a sense of melancholy realism before we get the sunny optimism of “Summers.” On this record, you get the constant struggle between both, lyrically and musically. Another great example of this is “Violent,” a song that simultaneously connotes tension and joy. That struggle, though, is where the beauty in the record shines.

25. Dodos – Time To Die
Dodos second album is a bit of a departure from their first. Visiter was aggressive and zany, especially for a guitarist and a drummer. At times the risk paid off, and other times, it was a turn-off. On Time To Die, the guys calm down and take a more measured approach to songwriting. The result is a really enjoyable album. This one is softer and a little more mature feeling. It doesn’t totally lose the edge of its predecessor, but some of the rough spaces have been smoothed out. I think that’s a positive development. Each of the songs has more space to grow and breathe some. Sometimes this really pays off, like “Fables” and “Troll Nacht.” Other times, you get songs that have great moments mixed in with disappointments. Examples: “This Is a Business,” and “Two Medicines.”

24. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Honestly, I’ve gone back and forth on this album throughout the year. At times I think it’s a well crafted concept album, and other times I think it’s overwrought and pretentious. While I doubt that struggle will be settled once and for all, seeing the band perform the entire album in concert (from front to back) gave me a sense of appreciation for what they were doing. There are some really strong moments on this album (“The Hazard of Love 1” and “The Hazard of Love 4”), and then there are some serious WTF moments. They throw in a jarring switch from a light melody to this hard, proggy, slow riff that completely throws off the rhythm of the music. And they do this exact move (same chords and all), like, 3 times on the album. Some of it’s just off, but the stuff that’s on is really nice and fits well with the rest of their body of work. For that reason, I have it here.

23. Viva Voce – Rose City
I have been a fan of Viva Voce for years. Husband and wife team of Anita and Kevin Robinson have really been enjoyable, even when they’ve gone into more experimental territory. With Rose City, however, they’ve added a couple members and gone back to more traditional melodies while still keeping some of the edge that they’ve sharpened on previous albums. The result is a collection of songs that really shine and stay in your head. “Devotion” totally feels like a movie soundtrack song. “Midnight Sun” is a slow jam with a nice calming effect coming from the piano. The instruments have a great sound, and everything comes together well.

22. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
The long awaited new album from this Norwegian acoustic guitar duo may not be as strong as the absolutely lovely Riot On An Empty Street, but it is a great album in its own right. They approach a broad range of topics from the death penalty to the trouble people often have reading each other’s signals. For two guys singing with guitars, these fellows are great at providing a full sound with little more than their instruments and their voices. Some of my favorites on the record are “Mrs. Cold,” “Boat Behind,” and “Peacetime Resistance,” but the entire album is a nice record that doesn’t impose upon you.

21. Ingrid Michaelson – Everybody
Ingrid has probably the strongest female singer-songwriter music out there right now for me. Her songs are generally optimistic, supportive, and heartfelt at the same time. Sure, they’re mostly about relationships, and they don’t really tread new ground lyrically. But the faith in the strength of companionship coupled with the solid musicianship make this a great listen. The songs don’t ask too much of you, and they don’t make you work hard. Sometimes, that can be the recipe for a nice album. That and it’s a good record to sing along to. Favorites of mine are “Soldier,” “Maybe,” “The Chain,” and “Mountain and the Sea.”

20. ZAZA – Cameo
This band shows some promise. Their 6-song EP mixes Radiohead-esque indie alternative (“Sooner or Later”) with some aspects of 90s style trip-hop (“Faith in the Faithless”). The music has an aura about it that makes it feel larger than the sum of the individual sounds that go into it. It’s a strong showing for ZAZA’s debut recording.

19. The Appleseed Cast – Sagarmatha
The Appleseed Cast is another one of those bands I’ve really liked for a while now. This album finds them relying more on their instrumentation than on lyrics, and the result is both a little challenging and really rewarding. The album opener, “As the Little Things Go,” clocks in at over 8 minutes, and the singing doesn’t begin until about 6:20. Oddly enough, I don’t miss the singing. I think that the instrumental moments are as expressive as the singing ones. It’s like the singing voice is just another instrument, not different stylistically from the other components of the music. The Appleseed Cast has really honed their sound, and I really enjoy the effort.

18. Burning Hearts – Aboa Sleeping
In an earlier post previewing albums I liked at the halfway point in the year, I mentioned this album sounding like a more organic version of Stereolab. I stand by that characterization, and more listens haven’t diminished my level of enjoyment with this record. Songs like “I Lost My Colour Vision” are just so peppy and engaging that you can’t help but be curious how the rest of the album is gonna turn out. Thankfully the duo doesn’t disappoint. I mean, there’s even a song that includes an old recording of irregular heartbeats. Through high and low points, the songs keep pushing along and inviting you along for the ride, but they don’t impose. Instead, they just pique your curiosity and make it worth your while to keep listening.

17. We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls
Here comes another Scottish band whose lead singer keeps his accent. I really enjoy these bands, and I had a couple of them on my list last year (including top album). This year has one on the honorable mention list (The Twilight Sad) and this one on the proper list. We Were Promised Jetpacks are kind of like a cross between Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad, if that’s even possible. They’re a bit on the emo side, but that’s ok with me because they resemble the kind of emo music I enjoyed a few years ago before it became popular and began sucking. WWPJ have a nice array of songs that really pack an emotional punch whether the lead singer is softly groaning or full-out screaming.

16. Balmorhea – All Is Wild, All Is Silent
Balmorhea is a great group of solid musicians that play instrumental arrangements that include piano, guitar, banjo, strings, and solid drumming. This album features not only some gorgeous melodies but complex movements that provide wonderful inspiration whether you’re paying close attention to every note and beat or just casually playing the music while working or talking with friends. It’s really emotionally evocative music, and while I don’t think this album is right for every occasion, it’s a really wonderful record for a lot of them. This record is a testament to the power of music to move you without the need for words.

15. JJ - JJ N° 2/JJ N° 1
Swedish group JJ have put together a collection of really solid indie pop. They put out two offerings: N° 1 (a brief release featuring two songs: “My Life, My Swag” and “My Swag, My Life”) and N° 2, the band’s proper album. The most interesting offering on the album is “Ecstasy,” a song about the rave drug backed by the four-note riff that is the backbone for Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” The rest of the album features guitar and sweet vocals in songs about love and life that don’t feel hokey or overdone one bit. Pop music this well crafted doesn’t come along very often.

14. Various Artists – Dark Was The Night
This compilation of who’s who in the indie music world might run the risk of self-importance, but this record is really quite a solid collection. It includes not only the biggest names by themselves but also collaborations between big names. That gives the album a great deal of diversity, and oddly enough, the songs by (what I would consider) the biggest names aren’t even the strongest ones on the album. Dirty Projectors’ collaboration with David Byrne “Knotty Pine” is a really solid album opener, and Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” is one of my favorites on the record. The Decemberists’ “Sleepless” is, for my money better than anything on The Hazards of Love. This is one of the best various artist compilations I’ve heard in a long while.

13. God Help the Girl – God Help the Girl/Stills EP
God Help the Girl is a side project of Belle and Sebastian lead singer Stuart Murdoch. He put in ads for singers and auditioned a few, settling on about three female leads who trade off throughout the album. The record is apparently part of the story that is set to become a film in the next year or so. The music has obvious B&S undertones (in fact, 2 of the songs on the record are renditions of songs from the last B&S album), but there are key departures that give this group an identity of its own, more prominent and consistent being the most obvious. The Stills EP came later with some extra tracks that didn’t make it onto the album proper. It’s pretty good, but the best stuff is on the album. Faves include “Musician, Please Take Heed,” “Come Monday Night,” and “God Help the Girl.”

12. Delorean – Ayrton Senna EP
This little EP came out of nowhere and completely surprised me. It’s just 4 tracks (5 if you get it through eMusic) of solid indie dance pop (and 2 of them are the same song…one’s a remix of the other), but it’s so refreshing and catchy that I find myself returning to it again and again. The mixture of synth, guitar, and disco-type beats really make this thing shine. The lyrics are uplifting, and every note is so bright that this has become my go to good mood record this year. If you want a sense of what this record is like, then hear “Seasun” (the original version, even though the remix is pretty good too). On an EP of great songs, this is the clear standout for me. The melodies are just so fresh and well executed that my only fault is that it’s so short. I would love 4 or 5 more songs of this caliber to make a full album.

11. The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come
John Darnielle has made some solid music dating all the way back to his days of playing and singing songs like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton” into a home tape recorder (btw, you have to hear this song if you haven’t). This new album is a twist from previous records: the theme to this album is the Bible and its application to modern life in ways one might not expect. Darnielle names each song after a bible verse, and as usual, you can hear the emotional struggles that go into each verse, chord, and track. On the whole, the record is more subdued than some of his previous work, but that doesn’t mean that this record is safe or missing anything important. Rather, Darnielle has a knack for adjusting his songwriting for each set of ideas he wants to express. With songs about crises of faith, the importance of home, and even agonizing death from cancer, this record really brings a human dimension to the Bible in ways that I hadn’t considered before.

10. The xx – xx
Another surprisingly impressive record that came out of nowhere this year comes from the xx. This record exemplifies the notion of doing more with less. Some other albums on this list have taken a somewhat minimalist approach to their songs, but this one finds ways for just a few simple notes to fill tons of space. I don’t know how they do it. Couple that with the guy/girl back and forth singing through pretty much the whole album, and you get a very unique approach to indie pop. It’s like the two are singing private and intimate (emotionally as well as physically) conversations to each other. There’s such a sense of honest expression of affection and companionship to the record that it piques my curiosity to hear it again and listen more closely each time. It’s good to see this group getting some recognition for this album. (The xx will be touring with JJ next year… should be a good show)

9. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
I’d heard of Fuck Buttons before, and I was a little turned off by their previous album. It was good techno, but I thought they were a bit too noisy and experimental for my enjoyment. This record took a couple listens, but it didn’t take long at all for me to become enamored. They keep some of the odd sounds here, but those are mitigated by moments of pure beauty. There’s an undertone to the music on this album that employs soothing and refreshing sounds and builds on that. The song structure is both complex and reminiscent of post-rock. Even in the moments where they start to make odd noises that begin to feel uncomfortable, they quickly pull back into melodic arrangements that showcase a complexity. The length of the songs gives the movements time to build and fully reveal themselves, and that’s just really nice. They make techno that pushes the envelope, but the attention to melody and detail is so stunning that the risks totally pay off.

8. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart/Higher Than the Stars EP
2009 was such a good year for indie pop. Case in point: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Their fuzzy, poppy music jumped onto the scene around March, and they wouldn’t leave for the rest of the year. The songs are so catchy and retro-esque (combining some 80s new wave with 90s alternative and twee pop) that you can’t help but love them. Even if you feel that the songs are a little too retro-pop, you can’t fault them for it because they get the mix right so much that it’s so difficult to complain about their music. “Young Adult Friction” is a solid example of this phenomenon. It’s a love song set in a library, which of course adds hipster/nerd cred. The Higher Than the Stars EP even adds some more to the collection with a mix of clean and fuzzy guitars to stretch out their sound a little bit. This group has managed to create 2009 music that would fit well anywhere along the last 25 years.

7. Passion Pit – Manners
Speaking of surprisingly good indie pop, I was all set to dislike and dismiss Passion Pit when I heard about their album. They’d put out an EP that contained “Sleepyhead,” a wonderful song that got a little too much attention. Plus, they were part of the new craze that I was starting to hate (but eventually learned to accept and even enjoy) of indie dance music. Then I heard the full length effort, Manners. I was completely blown away with the first listen. The music is just so damn fun. This group pulls off a record of songs that relentlessly and unapologetically push through with shiny happiness, and they make it sound effortless in the process. The record includes “Sleepyhead,” which is a major plus, but the rest of the album stands up on its own as well. Michael Angelakos’ perpetual falsetto and the strong combination of guitar and keyboard create an effort that really gives you a lot to sing along to. There aren’t a lot of tricks or clever turns of phrase, just well executed danceable pop songs.

6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
What a great year for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They returned with an album that easily violates and exceeds expectations at the same time. If you’re familiar with Fever To Tell, you’re probably expecting them to craft another abrasive record that demands you to push through and recognize its strength, but no. This record finds YYYs smoothing out some of their rough edges and exchanging that raw nerve aggression for a more mature, synth-pop approach. The record that comes out is really quite stunning. Karen O hasn’t sounded better, and the synthesizers added to a cleaner guitar give you solid melody from start to finish. The album opener “Zero” is a head turner, but then it transitions into the best song on the album “Heads Will Roll.” After that, though, the album doesn’t end up sinking into mediocrity at all. The band tries out some slower material that harkens back to “Maps,” and what they come up with can give that ballad a run for its money. Don’t think that they’ve completely abandoned the harder edge, though. The middle of the album has shades of earlier rawness with “Dull Life” and “Shame and Fortune.” PS…this album is tied with another record for best album cover of the year. Guess which one.

5. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion/Fall Be Kind EP
It took this album for me to become a convert to the much loved Animal Collective. I gave the album a shot because of the hype, and I was really impressed at how accessible it was. Previous albums from this group have been hard for me to swallow whole because I felt like they were experimenting for the sake of experimenting. This record proved me wrong. They are able to emphasize pop crafting and melody here without losing the edge that earned them critical acclaim all these years. “My Girls” is probably the song of the year, but other songs like “Brother Sport” and “Summertime Clothes” are so catchy that they’ll stay in your head for days. Plus, the lyrics are surprisingly simple and sincere. They don’t go for grandiosity, just genuine expression. The LP came out in January, and the EP came out in December, creating good bookends on the year. Both are really worth your time.

4. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
It’s no secret that I thoroughly enjoy Neko Case’s singing. So it’s also no surprise that I’m inclined to like her album when it comes out. That doesn’t mean, though, that I’m wrong about this album being completely great. She has one of the most unusual and beautiful love songs of the year with album opener “This Tornado Loves You,” and the entire album has such personality that it’s thoroughly lovely. This album also has the distinction of being co-winner of album cover of the year for me. By now you’ve seen it, right? Neko on the hood of a car wielding a sword. The cover both inspires confidence and sums up the spirit of the album. There’s a sense of love coupled with a fearless fighting spirit for that which is loved. Other strong points on the album include “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “Middle Cyclone,” and her cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me” played with a dozen or so pianos that she got for free from the internet. How can you dislike an album that has that kind of story?

3. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I don’t remember how, but I came across Phoenix’s previous album,
It’s Never Been Like That a few years ago, and I was surprised that they weren’t bigger than they were. They had solid pop sensibilities, great melody, and catchy beats. Well, now they’ve finally hit the big time with this effort, and I say it’s well deserved. From the opening duo of “Lisztomania” and the ubiquitous “1901” (if you’ve seen a Cadillac commercial this year, you’ve heard it) to the closer “Armistice,” you get even more refined and cleverly textured pop music that is unafraid to be exactly what it is. Even the 2-part “Love Like a Sunset” provides a nice transition from the first half of the album into the second half. This is another group that I’m very happy to see get some recognition for a well crafted album.

2. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
I’ve really enjoyed Camera Obscura’s music, even dating back to when they basically sounded like Belle and Sebastian. Let’s Get Out Of This Country is a strong candidate for my favorites of the decade list. This album picks up where the previous one left off, and while it may not reach all the highs that one did, it’s got some of the most memorable moments for me this year. “French Navy” starts off the album innocently explaining the freshness of a new love, and then it transitions into “The Sweetest Thing,” which contains hands-down my favorite line of the year: “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing.” “Swans” is a peppy little number sure to get toes tapping. “James” is a sad breakup song that connotes the frailty of love. The title track is another solid song that has a nice disconnect between the somber lyrics and the upbeat music. Final track “Honey In the Sun” would be the best way for Camera Obscura to close an album if they hadn’t already done “Razzle Dazzle Rose” on the previous album. Each has a different tack: “Razzle” is kind of a dissolve ending that just melts away; “Honey” packs one final punch and sticks in your head all day. Great album. It makes me curious to see where they’re gonna go next.

1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors are another one of those bands who weren’t really on my radar much until this album. Like my previous two albums of the year, this one’s a grower. Bitte Orca might be more of a grower than earlier albums, but the payoff is as great if not more so. Each time I listen to this album, I find more and more that was packed into the songs, from additional instrumentation to the quirky but stunning vocal arrangements that frequently pop up out of nowhere just to give the song extra punch. Opening track “Cannibal Resource” is one of those songs that feels a little off the first couple listens, and then one time it just clicks! The opening guitar riff, the seemingly random falsetto notes from lead singer Dave Longstreth, and the backup vocal gymnastics from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian all come together in such a mesmerizing way that it’s difficult not to appreciate the intricate thought that went into writing and arranging this song. And that’s just the first track! Each track has something like that. Some combination of instrumentation, singing, and songwriting just works both within the song and in the album as a whole entity. The beauty of the whole project for me is that I wasn’t really expecting many (if any) of the twists and turns that the album provides, from non-traditional time signatures to chord arrangements to uncommon harmonies. But it all works so well that I have to give the band credit. One wouldn’t think that a collection of nine songs could be as ambitious as these are, but the ambition is both palpable and rewarding. Other strengths (even though there certainly aren’t weak moments) include “Stillness Is The Move,” “Two Doves,” and “No Intention.” I went back and forth on whether I thought this was the best album of the year, and ultimately, I decided that the sheer ambition of this record combined with the talent required to put it together pushed it in their direction. Amazing record, and shame on you if you don’t have it.

There you go! Thanks for reading this far. Have a great holiday season and happy new year!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Top Albums of 2009: Honorable Mention Edition

As I said before, it's been a great year in music. This has led not only to a large number of albums on my favorites list but also complicates organizing the list. That said, I think I have settled on my top 30. The albums below are just under that cut. They aren't in a particular order necessarily, and they didn't make the cut for different reasons. Some were nice but didn't wow me as much as the top 30. Some I just recently acquired, so I haven't had enough time to listen to them enough to really get them. So, here they are.

The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
Venice is Sinking - AZAR
The Crayon Fields – All the Pleasures of the World
Regina Spektor – Far
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Maria Taylor – Ladyluck
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Brendan Benson – My Old, Familiar Friend
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Au Revoir Simone – Still Night, Still Light
The Bird and The Bee – Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future
fun. – Aim and Ignite
Headlights – Wildlife
Jonsi & Alex – Riceboy Sleeps
Mono – Hymn to the Immortal World
Metric – Fantasies
The Raveonettes – In And Out Of Control
The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty

Later this week (hopefully), the proper list.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Top Songs of 2009

It's been forever since I've posted something. It might have to do with the project that was the subject of the last post. Well, I have finished my 2nd of 3 case study chapters, and to reward myself, I'm going to go through my annual favorite songs and albums of the year lists. This year, I will add a faves of the aughts list since that's so fashionable right now. I'm working on the albums lists, but for now I shall list favorite songs of the year.

Let me start off by saying that this has been an incredible year in music. I've been pleasantly surprised at both the number of albums released by bands I like a lot and albums by new or heretofore undiscovered groups that have caught my attention. There have also been really solid albums by bands whose previous work I liked well enough but wasn't too crazy about. Overall, I've just really enjoyed the quality and diversity of music that's come across my radar screen this year. So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite songs of the year, in no particular order.

Animal Collective – “My Girls”
Camera Obscura – “Honey In the Sun”
Camera Obscura – “French Navy”
Neko Case – “This Tornado Loves You”
Neko Case – “People Got a Lotta Nerve”
Phoenix – “1901”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Heads Will Roll”
Passion Pit – “Sleepyhead” (this one might be cheating since it came out in ’08)
Dirty Projectors – “No Intention”
Delorean – “Seasun”
Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”
The xx – “Crystallized”
JJ – “Ecstasy”
Viva Voce – “Devotion”
Maria Taylor – “Cartoons and Forever Plans”
Regina Spektor – “Eet”
Metric – “Gimme Sympathy”
The Twilight Sad – “Reflection of the Television”
The Bird and the Bee – “Fanfare”
The Appleseed Cast – “As the Little Things Go”
The Antlers – “Two”
The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – “Young Adult Friction”
The Raveonettes – “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)”
A.C. Newman – “The Heartbreak Rides”
Burning Hearts – “I Lost My Colour Vision”
We Were Promised Jetpacks – “This Is My House, This Is My Home”
Andrew Bird – “Anonaminal”
Yeasayer – “Tightrope”
The Decemberists – “Sleepless”
Feist and Ben Gibbard – “Train Song”
The Mountain Goats – “Genesis 3:23”
Ingrid Michaelson – “Soldier”
Dodos – “Fables”

I didn't want to have too many repeat artists. Needless to say if you see the same artist on favorite song and album lists, I like other stuff on the album as well. Coming soon: favorite albums of '09: honorable mention edition.