Year In Review 2009
The Flaming Lips
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
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
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.
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.
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.
sugar, laced with PCP.
catalog of great melodies expands one by one over a sparsely
arranged, deliberately paced album.
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.
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.)
Hazards of Love
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
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.
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.
We Can See
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.
Jack-O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers
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
Name of This Record Is Mike Gent
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
in the Gutter
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.
Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3
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.
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.
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.
. . for the Whole World to See
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.
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
of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute to Chris Gaffney
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.”
Clare and the Reasons
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.
Yo La Tengo
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.
The Fiery Furnaces
to pin down, but catchy as all get-out. Indie rock meets fractured
soul meets Dadaist wordscapes.
radio hits, muscular band workouts, and enough hooks and surprises
circumnavigate the globe.
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.
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.
album title, great album. Country soul has an essential new
Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey
pals reunited. This has the unhurried bearing of an album
they truly wanted rather than had to make.
Never Seen a Straight Banana
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
Kings of Convenience
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.”
London singer pulls from diverse cultural strains of music
to create the best dance-pop album of the year.
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?
monster of an album—dreamy, thunderous, riveting, and melodic.
The Big Pink
Brief History of Love
compelling marriage of shoegaze fuzz and chant-along electronica
from this British duo.
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.
original and constantly great, evoking antiquity while remaining
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.
and delightful electro-pop straight out of Cambridge—Mass.,
of Chess Records
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.
Down Your Heart
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.
. . for the Whole World to See
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.
Built to Spill
Is No Enemy
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.
Yo La Tengo
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.
Glass Bead Game
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.)
The Flaming Lips
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.
pop mixed with robotic rhythms and tribal chanting. Animal
Collective delivered a weird that just about anyone can love.
album that laid waste to all previous expectations of the
hardcore veterans. A powerful soundtrack for everything ugly.
Brut vs. Satan
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.
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
Between the Buried and Me
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.
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.
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.
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.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
traded in their guitars for synthesizers and made the catchiest
album of the year. Now if I only could get “Zero” out of my
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.
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?
Micachu and the Shapes
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
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.
’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free
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.
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.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
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.
Black Moth Super Rainbow
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.
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.
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
following releases were selected by our staff as the cream
of this year’s regional crop. They are presented unranked
Myth About Real Life
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.”
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
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.
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.
Margan & the Red Lions
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
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.
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.
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.
Dunbar and the Hobo Banned
Mingus’ Garbage Pile
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’
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.
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,
Are People Too
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