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The Year In Review 2009

Best of 2009

Critic: John Brodeur

1. The Flaming Lips

Embryonic

The album: The music industry all but tagged its toe in 2009. Yet the Flaming Lips single-bandedly made the case for ye olde long-player with this, their first double album. Definitely not for the casual listener, nor for shuffle mode—I’ve yet to once start this record and not play it through. A strong Album of the Decade entry from this ever-evolving band of free thinkers.

2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It’s Blitz!

They played at refined on their last effort, but this time they hit the trifecta: songs, performances, production. Beneath these disco requiems lies a deep weariness—it’s the rare dance record with gravitas.

3. St. Vincent

Actor

A different door opens on each of Actor’s 11 songs, each leading to a unique and visionary world of sound. It’s pop music, but it’s so much more.

4. Dan Auerbach

Keep It Hid

The Black Keys did some quality freelancing this year. Most notable was singer-guitarist Auerbach’s first solo release, which added golden-era power pop (“My Last Mistake”) and moving folk ballads (“When the Night Comes,” which should be called “Eat Shit, Ray LaMontagne”) to the funky blues stomp frequented by his main band. This fall, under the name BlakRoc, the Keys hooked up with the likes of RZA, Mos Def and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard to make one the year’s best rap records.

5. Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Liquid sugar, laced with PCP.

6. Andrew Bird

Noble Beast

Bird’s catalog of great melodies expands one by one over a sparsely arranged, deliberately paced album.

7. Baroness

Blue Record

It was a good year for Southern metal. Mastodon’s Crack the Skye could have just as easily fit here, but it was Savannah, Georgia’s Baroness who made the year’s best heavy record by imbuing it with a sense of fun. It’s got both balls and scope, and it’s accessible.

8. Dinosaur Jr.

Farm

Another batch of killer tunes, loaded with killer guitar solos. In a decade crowded with alternative-rock reunions, J., Lou and Murph continue to set the pace by giving us something more than just canned nostalgia. (Their contenders for the Best Reunion title, Mission of Burma, also turned in a high-quality set this year with The Sound the Speed the Light.)

9. The Decemberists

The Hazards of Love

The most stridently out-of-fashion band of their generation finally go all-in with a full-length rock opera. Shape-shifters, fair maidens, forest queens—this is not generally the stuff of modern pop culture. But Colin Meloy and his band, along with a trio of guest vocalists (including an intimidating performance by Shara Worden), sell the drama by playing it with nary a wink.

10. Jarvis Cocker

Further Complications

It’s a straightforward rock record, engineered by Steve Albini, with direct nods to the Stooges and the Spiders From Mars. At first, this did not sound like the obvious recipe for good Jarvis. But he never said he was deep: On Complications, Cocker verbally gesticulates like he’s on a post-breakup karaoke bender. Don’t be fooled by the self-loathing in the lyrics—our man is having a lot of fun.

Best of 2009

Critic: Kirsten Ferguson

1. Reigning Sound

Love and Curses

This album from Memphis garage-punk-soul-R&B band Reigning Sound stayed on repeat in my car for at least three months, so much that I ended up spending an inordinate amount of time contemplating its sequencing (couldn’t figure out why the stomping “Stick Up for Me,” maybe one of the best anti-establishment songs ever, was buried toward the end). Regardless, anything you can listen to on repeat for three months without tiring has to be great.

2. The Thermals

Now We Can See

Pure energy from Portland power-pop trio the Thermals on this set of giddy tunes; with loosely connected songs like “We Were Sick,” “When We Were Alive” and “When I Was Afraid,” I came to think of it as a concept album about zombies, but actually I think these unbelievably catchy songs are supposed to be about something more serious, like mortality.

3. Jack-O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers

The Disco Outlaw

Saw a short documentary a few months ago about Memphis musician Jack Oblivian, a garage-rock powerhouse who’s been cleaning houses by day in order to make music at night. Felt guilty about copying this off somebody, so went out and bought it: a rockin’ collection of hard-luck tunes topped off by a classic ode to rock rebellion, and song of the year, “Against the Wall.”

4. Mike Gent

The Name of This Record Is Mike Gent

Figgs singer-songwriter Mike Gent struck out on his own for this carefully crafted solo album filled with nostalgia-filled pop gems like “Paper Knives” and “(Romantic Needs Led to) False Alarms,” an obscure Frogs cover (“Buried Me Alive”) and a flamenco-inflected version of the Figgs’ “Little Yellow Eyes.”

5. Superchunk

Leaves in the Gutter

Really it’s an EP—the Chapel Hill indie rock band’s first CD release in seven years—but would have made for a kickass album if they’d only added a couple more tunes. “Learned to Surf,” “Misfits & Mistakes” and “Knock Knock Knock” may be the most infectious Superchunk songs in years, recalling the heady rockers of 1995’s Here’s Where the Strings Come In.

6. Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3

Goodnight Oslo

Spent nearly a week this fall in the same tiny Seattle hotel as Robyn Hitchcock and didn’t speak to him once, even while making coffee in the kitchen as he made tea. The guy really looked like he didn’t want to be disturbed. Hitchcock’s latest displays some of the misanthropy that frequents his work, but Goodnight Oslo has positive elements as well, and his Seattle mates Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey in Venus 3 add a shimmering beauty to these intoxicating tunes.

7. Japandroids

Post-Nothing

Nothing else on the album quite lives up to the promise of “Heart Sweats,” a searing tune that kicks off with a rumbling drum beat and a menacing wall of distorted guitar, but the Vancouver duo make a glorious racket for a two-piece, with a melodic streak to boot.

8. Vetiver

Tight Knit

Evoking both ocean and forest on their fourth album, California country-folk outfit Vetiver captures the pastoral psychedelia of a Big Sur hippie love fest minus all the self-indulgence; on nearly flawless tunes they marry trippy ’60s harmonies with a rollicking early-’70s cosmic country vibe.

9. Death

. . . for the Whole World to See

Technically a reissue, but these scorching songs from early 1970s Detroit punk band Death—considered the missing link between the hard rock of Detroit’s MC5 and latter ’70s punk bands like the Ramones—were rarely heard until unearthed recently and released this year. Sons of the band members have a Burlington, Vt., punk band called Rough Francis who cover these tunes; they played a great set at Valentine’s a few weeks ago.

10. Wooden Shjips

Dos

The latest from San Francisco kraut-rock revivalists Wooden Shjips: a handful of hypnotic tunes (with two lengthy jams topping the 10-minute mark) that suck you in to the group’s mantra-like grooves.

Best of 2009

Critic: David Greenberger

1. Various Artists

Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney

Though far from a household name, Gaffney was beloved by many for his finely wrought, emotionally rich songs. After Gaffney’s death last year, Dave Alvin set out to make this album. Among many high points are David Hidalgo singing Los Lobos’ version of the title track, and Boz Scaggs on “Midnight Dream.”

2. Clare and the Reasons

Arrow

Enchanting and essential. The sound is centered around Clare Muldaur Manchon’s incredible songs and vocals (yes, another singing Muldaur daughter), and the arrangements of her French husband Olivier Manchon. Strings mix with gentle electronics to add wondrous layers of texture.

3. Yo La Tengo

Popular Songs

The pop record that turns into a monumental sonic landscape. From taking a stroll and falling in love to turning off your mind, relaxing and floating downstream, it’s all here.

4. The Fiery Furnaces

I’m Going Away

Hard to pin down, but catchy as all get-out. Indie rock meets fractured soul meets Dadaist wordscapes.

5. Terry Adams

Holy Tweet

Summer radio hits, muscular band workouts, and enough hooks and surprises circumnavigate the globe.

6. Erin McKeown

Hundreds of Lions

Collaborating with producer and arranger Sam Kassirer has taken McKeown to a whole new place. It sounds familiar, because it’s her, but the inventive instrumentation combined with the apparent joy in taking chances have made this album her triumph.

7. Ran Blake

Driftwoods

Pianist Blake covering material made famous by singers. It’s by turns brooding and explorative, and the set’s title aptly captures the sound of the man at his piano.

8. Jesse Winchester

Love Filling Station

Bad album title, great album. Country soul has an essential new chapter.

9. Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey

Here and Now

Old pals reunited. This has the unhurried bearing of an album they truly wanted rather than had to make.

10. Tiny Tim

I’ve Never Seen a Straight Banana

What a treat this is! Richard Barone, formerly of the Bongos, recorded Mr. Tim more than 30 years ago. A perfect combination of a teenager with the incredible good sense to make the recording, letting the artist lead the way, and a performer with a veritable encyclopedia of popular music in him with which to fill the tape. Further good news: This is volume one, with more to follow.

Best of 2009

Critic: Erik Hage

1. Kings of Convenience

Declaration of Dependence

A mellow, gorgeous album from this Norwegian duo who describe their own modus operandi best when, delicate voices intertwining, they croon, “What we build is bigger than the sum of two.”

2. Jack Peñate

Everything Is New

This London singer pulls from diverse cultural strains of music to create the best dance-pop album of the year.

3. Dinosaur Jr.

Farm

Soulful, stormy, and dense alt-rock, with J. Mascis’ voice creaking through it like a rusty hinge. What else would you expect from a band who perfected their own paradigm years ago?

4. Mastodon

Crack the Skye

A monster of an album—dreamy, thunderous, riveting, and melodic.

5. The Big Pink

A Brief History of Love

A compelling marriage of shoegaze fuzz and chant-along electronica from this British duo.

6. Japandroids

Post-Nothing

A slashing and crashing guitar-drums duo from Vancouver whose voices frantically rub up against each other, finding new and bracing ways to express anxiety and dread.

7. Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

Constantly original and constantly great, evoking antiquity while remaining forward-thinking.

8. Speech Debelle

Speech Therapy

This young London woman concocts some of the most gauzy, frank, and striking hip-hop on the planet and puts to shame nearly all of her U.S. counterparts.

9. Passion Pit

Manners

Explosive and delightful electro-pop straight out of Cambridge—Mass., that is.

10. Various Artists

Best of Chess Records

This is where a whole lot of it begins . . . and ends. Etta James, Muddy Waters, Little Richard, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley—and a few other reasons as well.

Best of 2009

Critic: Mike Hotter

1. Bela Fleck

Throw Down Your Heart

Banjo master Fleck journeys back to where his instrument of choice originated, and helps creates a musical document just as profound in a cultural sense as it is in purely musical terms. The companion DVD is even more highly recommended.

2. Death

. . . for the Whole World to See

That my favorite rock record of the year was recorded in the mid-’70s speaks volumes about either my dinosaur tendencies or the harried state of rock at the end of its fifth (or is it sixth?) decade. Either way, those interested in rock history will find plenty to thrill at here, where an R&B band from Detroit took cues from the Stooges, MC5 and Arthur Lee’s Love, making a glorious racket that prefigured Bad Brains years before they were banned in D.C.

3. Built to Spill

There Is No Enemy

Their best and most affecting album in a decade. Doug Martsch’s lyrics are as wistful and insightful as the guitar lines are eloquent and soaring.

4. Yo La Tengo

Popular Songs

Wherein the essence of all that is good about Hoboken’s finest is finally captured cohesively, from 3- and 4- minute pop beauties to 15-minute experiments in how far you can bend rock & roll instruments to their most primal qualities.

5. James Blackshaw

The Glass Bead Game

A mysterious and solemn beauty of a record, perfect for fans of the late guitar giants John Fahey and Jack Rose, Blackshaw also broadens his palette with some Philip Glass-like piano excursions. For those who want something for their more meditative moods, you may enter here—just beware of getting lost. (Thanks to Matthew Loiacono for the tip.)

Best of 2009

Critic: David King

1. The Flaming Lips

Embryonic

Clicking and bubbling, clanking and pulsating, only to eventually explode—Embryonic was simply amazing. It was the treat of the year to hear the Flaming Lips return to their noisy, experimental ways.

2. Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavillion

Psychedelic pop mixed with robotic rhythms and tribal chanting. Animal Collective delivered a weird that just about anyone can love.

3. Converge

Axe to Fall

An album that laid waste to all previous expectations of the hardcore veterans. A powerful soundtrack for everything ugly.

4. Art Brut

Art Brut vs. Satan

Frank Black’s production helped British neurotic Eddie Argos channel his inner child and deliver the band’s best album to date. “D.C. Comics and Chocolate Milkshake” may not be a universal anthem, but it is an anthem for a certain sect of the population, of which this writer happens to be a part.

5. Dinosaur Jr.

Farm

Never would have guessed I would have a Dinosaur Jr. album on a Top 10 list in the year 2009, but I do. Why? Listen to the record.

6. Between the Buried and Me

The Great Misdirect

How did the current masters of prog-metal follow up their genre defying, multiple movement, magnum opus Colors? They decided to focus on songwriting—songwriting influenced by Mr. Bungle, Genesis, Dream Theater and Pink Floyd. The odd results could be considered a brilliant success or a must-see car crash of a disaster; either way the album is a must-listen.

7. Silversun Pickups

Swoon

Yes, Swoon in some ways is a perfect valentine to ’90s nostalgia, but it is delivered in the form of one of the most solid rock albums of the year.

8. The Gallows

Grey Britain

Nasty, street-hardcore, sussed up with extravagant production to deliver one message: Britain’s youth are overflowing with rage at government corruption, at the status quo. It’s “Anarchy in the U.K.” for the testosterone set. It sounds like heads are gonna roll.

9. Franz Ferdinand

Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

Surprisingly, it took the addition of a synth player for Franz Ferdinand to find their rock swagger, and swagger Tonight does, like T. Rex with a disco beat.

10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs

It’s Blitz!

They traded in their guitars for synthesizers and made the catchiest album of the year. Now if I only could get “Zero” out of my head.

Best of 2009

Critic: Josh Potter

1. Animal Collective

Merriweather Post Pavilion

It’s only once in a great while that an artist comes along who can simultaneously use the tools of the day for contemporary relevance while appealing to something timeless and universally human. Simply put, Animal Collective are game changers. The finest of the year, and the closest to a collection of singles the band has yet recorded, MPP isn’t their best album by a long stretch (I’d go with 2004’s Sung Tongs), but it was their mainstream coming-out.

2. Dan Deacon

Bromst

Deacon has described this album as less of a party and more of a celebration. The sentiment fits the way Bromst traded Deacon’s trademark ironic levity for a sort of post-ironic earnest mania. This ensemble record is as fast, ebullient, and filigreed as anything he’s put out with his solo electronics console (even more so), but the result is less of a sugar high than an endorphin rush. After all, what’s a celebration but a party with a purpose?

3. Micachu and the Shapes

Jewellery

I found out about this British trio the old-fashioned way: through a friend’s whispered suggestion, that I assumed had something to do with Pokemon. Micachu’s music is damn near unclassifiable: quirky pop tunes that compress jangly acoustic instruments, fuzzy drums, cheeky hooks, garage and grime production values, and Deerhoof-vintage changes into happy little nuggets of goodness.

4. Tortoise

Beacons of Ancestorship

Post-rock pioneers Tortoise have been somewhat exempt from the recent wave of ’90s nostalgia because they never really stopped innovating on their original formula. Beacons is a beast of instrumental styles ranging from prog-rock to oblique jazz ballads, electronica to warbly spaghetti-western themes that display instrumental prowess without resorting to wankery.

5. Akron/Family

Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free

Mantra has always played a large role in Akron/Family’s music, so this one’s title serves as a proper mission statement for the band’s most lively, unhinged record to date. Adding Afrobeat and beefy riff-rock to their repertoire, Set ’Em Wild turned the freak-out into a dance party.

6. Black Dice

Repo

After The Wire magazine ran an article heralding the genre this summer, the latter half of 2009 has been dominated by talk of “hypnagogic” pop—music that conjures that liminal, childlike state between sleep and wakefulness. More than the genre’s standard bearers (Neon Indian, Memory Tapes), Black Dice have cobbled together one of its major works with Repo, a woozy slurry of beats, babble and ’80s kitsch.

7. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Up From Below

The Magnetic Zeros are one of those freaky family bands like the Polyphonic Spree who catch listeners with their sheer novelty before reeling them aboard the bus with consistently lovely songcraft. Generous folk rock (like their hit “Home”) is the foundation of a sound that includes wind-swept desert psychedelia and Bowie-style theatrics.

8. Black Moth Super Rainbow

Eating Us

In a tough move, I had to bump the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic from my list to make room for this, and the symbolism is apt. BMSR have that same neo-psychedelic penchant for mixing sweet and dark elements, and with the help of Lips producer Dave Fridmann, Eating Us is one pretty fever dream.

9. ILAD

Here/There

Count this young Richmond, Va., band among the Tortoise faithful who have learned to use their instrumental savvy to economical ends. Here/There shifts from jerky prog to dreamy tropicalia, uptempo country to patient groove-rock, and it generates some surprising staying power along the way.

10. Cuddle Magic

Picture

It would be easy to chalk this one up as a token local pick, as Railbird bassist Ben Davis co-fronts this 10-piece indie orchestra. It would also be easy to disqualify Picture on the grounds that it doesn’t “officially” come out until February, but I’ve been pleasantly and uncontrollably infected. The disc seduces with hushed Sufjan-style pop vocals, but unfolds under repeat listening to reveal a singular blend of jazz, bossa nova, interlocking minimalism, and time signature trickery.

Local Recordings

Best of 2009

The following releases were selected by our staff as the cream of this year’s regional crop. They are presented unranked and alphabetically.

Aficionado

The Myth About Real Life

This Don Fury-produced EP was one of the most ambitious and well-executed local releases of the year, with Albany progressive-indie outfit Aficionado—horns a-blazing—setting fire to a quartet of feverish tunes, from the euphoric title track to the burn-the-circus-down crescendos reached on “I Don’t Believe We’ve Met.”

Alta Mira

Alta Mira

While most independent music these days is being forged on laptops in the privacy of mom’s basement, Alta Mira are thinking big. Two years of work, collaboration with a Grammy-winning engineer, and the support of a sleek new label helped launch the band’s debut LP. One listen should prove they spared no expense and settled for nothing less than the record they were meant to create.

Empire State Troopers

Turn Lights Out

According to members of EST, a hard rock five-piece with Saratoga County roots, “I turn lights out” is a phrase uttered by a band member’s relative in a moment of drunken barroom bravado. It’s also an apt description for the crisp pummeling delivered by the band’s second full-length (and their second produced by Sebadoh and Fiery Furnaces bassist Jason Loewenstein) on metal-on-metal tracks like “The Cog” and “Kids All Scream.” Singer Kelly Murphy’s clever way with words and in-your-face vocal delivery hit their peak on “Jack Clutch,” a white-trash anthem and staple of the band’s live set.

Matthew Loiacono

Penny Riddle

Eight songs: each a minute long. What have you got? In the hands of Loiacono, you end up with a complete musical statement that is part dreamstate, part intriguing blend of organic instrumentation and experimental sonics. Your best approach here is just to loop the album over and over, absorbing the melodic prettiness; cheeky, beat-ridden interludes; and stuff that can only be described as the soundtrack to the most stirring and strange indie-film you haven’t seen yet (perhaps set somewhere in the Midwest, with the Great Plains zipping by in a car window) . This is far from a clever response to a self-imposed challenge, but an enchanting and concise album worth spending an afternoon with.

Eric Margan & the Red Lions

Midnight Book

Midnight Book, a baroque-pop song cycle chronicling a romance that runs its course, was on par with any major indie release this year, both in scope and song quality. Columbia County’s Eric Margan and his Red Lions ensemble of players dressed the album’s theatrical, drowning-in-love-themed tunes with layers of evocative strings and lush but not ostentatious flourishes.

Brian Patneaude

Riverview

In jazz, the organ-trio formula carries with it a certain set of conventions. It’s up to the artist to decide whether or not he’ll follow them. For Riverview, saxophonist Patneaude stretched the formula to carry a set of original compositions and standards that swing, groove, mourn and rejoice at turns.

Ashley Pond Band

The Warning

The excellent follow-up to Pond’s 2007 release Dala found the songstress adding a rhythm section to expand on her bluesy, intimate sound. But not by too much: Bassist Sarah Clark and drummer Scott Smith add pulse and propulsion when called upon, but they mostly lay low and let Pond do her force-of-nature thing. It is the Ashley Pond Band after all.

Sean Rowe

Magic

The one-man folk-funk machine got dark on his second full-length. Producer Troy Pohl adds an air of ethereality to these contemplative scripts, surrounding that deep, soulful baritone with layers of guitar and cello to accentuate Rowe’s abiding Leonard Cohen jones. The “old” Rowe is here too, in the form of the uptempo blues number “Wrong Side of the Bed.” If you had any question as to why this guy landed all those cherry gigs this year, Magic should put you right.

Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned

Charles Mingus’ Garbage Pile

When NPR’s Bob Boilen chose this year’s Sgt. Dunbar EP from a stack of 1,083 submitted CDs to preview on-air in the run-up to SXSW, despite a band name he admitted he “was not crazy about,” he introduced a national audience to a truth we’ve long known—that a bunch of horns and junk percussion can be a wonderful antidote to the abundance of fast, loud guitar rock. Although they’re some of the band’s most focused tracks, balancing tight horn lines with Alex Muro’s consistent songwriting, the EP seemed something of a teaser for the next era of B3nson Records’ flagship act.

Lee Shaw Trio

Blossom

From the waltz feel of the title track to the shifting melodies of the disc-closing “Nipper’s Dream,” Lee Shaw’s Blossom is a delight. The pianist’s interplay with drummer Jeff Siegel and bassist Rich Syracuse led to such fruitful results as the insinuating “Blues 11” and the languid “Algo Triste.” Though mostly made up of Shaw’s originals, the rhythm section contributed a couple of tunes, and the cover of Fats Navarro’s “Fats’ Blues” was punchy.

Super 400

Sweet Fist

Recorded at the legendary Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn., and featuring cover art by none other than Revolver cover artist and Beatle buddy Klaus Voorman, Sweet Fist has all the markings of a top-notch professional product. Neither of those things would matter if the music sucked, but Super 400 don’t do suck: It’s another fine set of the Troy trio’s signature yearning, classic-tinged rock.

We Are Jeneric

Animals Are People Too

In the B3nson-sphere, it can be difficult to tell which act is a side-project, as everyone pretty much plays with everyone else. We Are Jeneric duo Eric Krans and Jen O’Connor made a strong case that their Dunbar reconfiguration is a different animal altogether with their fauna-centric concept album. More than mythologize the critters that live on the couple’s farm, it added West African and Afro-Cuban idioms to the group’s repertoire.


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