It was kind of a shaky year in most respects, but musically, the 00s went out with a bang. Few (if any) records from ’08 will hold their value as long as the best of ’09. A lot of huge debuts this year bode well for a bright decade to come as well. Before we dive headfirst into it, let's take another look back at 2009. (note: album links should take you to some actual music)
1. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
We all know that music critics prefer angst to joy, the only real exception being their obsession with Brian Wilson, and even he was a certified crazy person who wrote his share of sad songs. So I guess it’s the tiresome Beach Boys comparisons alone that explain the almost universal acclaim of Merriweather Post Pavilion. Or maybe, some things are just objectively good. Maybe people who don’t like this album really are tasteless cretins. What’s so good about it? The most inventive and beautiful vocal arrangements since The Beatles. The natural, cathartic theme--the healing power of music--proving itself with every beat and melody. The way the lyrics you can understand weave themselves around the instrumentation you can discern to produce emotions you can’t necessarily define but whose warmth and intensity you can’t ignore. It’s the greatest American album since In Utero. We probably have a long wait before anything of this caliber comes along again.
2. BLK JKS: After Robots (Secretly Canadian)
BLK JKS are the anti-Vampire Weekend. And I like VW, don’t get me wrong. But where VW made a debut album of American pop music and sprinkled African seasoning throughout its songs, BLK JKS are African musicians whose worldwide debut (although the band has been around for nearly a decade) draws inspiration from various Western styles while retaining a decidedly indigenous foundation. The group’s not-so-secret weapon is drummer Tshepang Ramoba; the man could have stood in for Tony Williams in Miles Davis’s late 60s quintet, or joined in on a Bob Marley jam with ease, but I wouldn’t put death metal past him, either. He is equal parts propulsion engine and decorative artist. Singer Lindani Buthelezi has the haunting, melodic quality of a young Justin Hayward, and the guitar attack mounted by him and Mpumi Mcata reveals the duo’s origins in My Bloody Valentine-style walls of noise, but there is so much more finesse and diversity layered above and below the shoegazing. You have to call this progressive, but it is not prog; it’s an alternately raging and gorgeous synthesis of everything musical a handful of continents have come up with so far. (read my feature article about the band here)
3. Mount Eerie: Wind’s Poem (P.W. Elverum & Sun, Ltd.)
Here’s an odd concept: indie singer/songwriter suddenly discovers one-man black metal band Xasthur, and makes an album that sounds exactly like the result of that infatuation. Best known for the ambitious lo-fi sound he crafted with the Microphones until 2004, Phil Elverum now operates under the Mount Eerie moniker, another solo artist lost in the pretension of dithering with “band names”. This album bugged the crap out of me at first: here’s this hipster reaping accolades for peppering his freak folk with a sound that Aidan Baker (Nadja) and Campbell Kneale (Black Boned Angel) have been perfecting in relative obscurity for years. But I could only stay bugged for one listen, because this album is just so damn good. It reconciles sundry pastoral idioms into a cohesive conceptual whole, an immensely satisfying lyrical and musical journey through an alternately disturbing and calming landscape. Initially, I felt the disparate elements didn’t add up to much more than the album’s two obvious highlights, “The Hidden Stone” and “Between Two Mysteries.” But those were enough to keep me coming back, and the more I peeled back layers of sound, the more I felt that the raw emotion of the material was enhanced by every jarring flourish. Now, it just feels like one huge statement, a force of nature akin to its subject matter, another undiscovered genre in itself.
4. Krallice: Dimensional Bleedthrough (Profound Lore)
If the goal is to make the listener edgy and frantic from note one, Krallice succeeds immediately. Then, the band’s second album continues to bludgeon your expectations of what is possible in black metal. The band’s 2008 self-titled debut was a harrowing endurance test that felt almost too exultant to be evil. This follow-up plants roots deeper within a traditionally black sonic palette, but it expands upon the triumphant potential of the build-to-infinity aesthetic, making this possibly the most exhilarating black metal album ever. There are passages of music that feel as if they’re careening toward disaster, until suddenly a gigantic riff will gut punch you back into awareness. Lyrics are rarely a strong suit in metal, but Krallice sheds the clichéd mythical/occult messages of its peers in favor of actual spiritual and philosophical questing, even borrowing a passage from “a text fragment written by Michelangelo, circa 1522”, according to the liner notes. But it’s the music that will draw or repel you, obviously. It will probably take a few listens before you notice the oddly melodic basslines that underscore the merciless guitar work, but you’ll instantly marvel at the whirlwind of atmosphere and savage power of a track like “Autochthon”, the unrelenting madness of “Intraum” or the impenetrable wave of guitar ferocity that leads to the crushing end of the album, “Monolith Of Possession”. It will leave you breathless…or running scared.
5. Themselves: CrownsDown (Anticon)
It’s been seven years since the last proper Themselves album (The No Music.), which I loved, but CrownsDown almost makes it obsolete. Doseone showed potential as an up-and-coming MC even then, but he emerges on the new album as a velocirapper on par with Twista, stylistically unmistakable and unmatched in modern hip hop. On angry tracks like “You Ain’t It” and “Gold Teeth Will Roll”, he strikes with more venom and vigor than the entire Subtle (his main project this decade) catalog combined. Few hip hop artists would even attempt the vocal gymnastics of “Daxstrong”, “Oversleeping” or “The Mark”, which also showcases Jel on a lyrical tear. Jel has scrounged up some of the slickest beats of his career, lacing organic drums, gunshots and techno mmch into a dangerous noir concoction, finding thematic connections between every landscape and lyric. The subject matter is all classic hip hop, veering away from the weirdness that comes naturally to Themselves, which struck me initially as a bit of a cop-out. But the strength of this material is so undeniable that for me, it soon emerged as a modern masterpiece within the traditional paradigm. Jel and Dose are so prolific with their myriad projects, none as satisfying as this album. But maybe it took a bit of distance for them to return to their bread and butter with such conviction.
6. The Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino)
Since I’ve never spoken to Dave Longstreth and only once written about him, it’s hard to believe that he took my advice to heart and stopped trying to sound like an American Elvis Costello. Or should I take some credit for the awesomeness of Bitte Orca? In 2007, the band struck me as a frustrated mass of ideas not quite able to cohere, but it was obvious for brief moments when everything gelled that the ideas were brilliant. Bitte Orca is definitely one of those albums that feels like a culmination of all the work that came before it, yet it’s so sonically eclectic that it hints at potential development into something even more refined in time. But that might ruin the breathless spazziness that makes this band so exciting. I worry that Amber Coffman or Angel Deradoorian will realize she is easily a strong enough singer for a promising solo career. Or that Longstreth will cause irreparable damage to his fingertips with his muscular staccato guitar trills. But even so, as long as he can keep coming up with songs as insanely mesmerizing as these, he’s got to find some way to get them out. I can’t think of another album so convoluted, yet so instantly memorable.
7. P.O.S.: Never Better (Rhymesayers)
Let’s face it: the Rhymesayers stable is the most homogenous herd of hip-hoppers since No Limit went under. If the collective’s flagship artists weren’t churning out such consistent quality, this could be a real problem, but 2009 saw the release of a solid Atmosphere EP, a really good album from Brother Ali, a great album from fringe-posse member DOOM (albeit on a different label; see below), and this album from P.O.S., the cream of the crop. The man’s punk rock past still shines through clearly on many of these tracks, but his greatest strength lies in never taking himself too seriously, lightening the load with laughter and pure delight in language, while the overall gravity of his message is never lost. Particularly poignant are his paeans to individuality in the face of racial divisions, “Purexed” and “Out Of Category”. He spits his pissed-off poems with utter conviction and a conversational rhythmic flow that puts Kanye and his ilk to shame. His best beats are his least busy, particularly the sparse sticks-n-synth wash of “Optimist”, but the production mostly takes a back seat, not forgettable, not generally notable. P.O.S. the writer and performer justifiably overshadows other concerns, and on tracks like the climactic “The Brave And The Snake”, there might as well be silence behind the voice. Besides, with references to Isis, Mitch Hedberg, The Big Lebowski, and a Fugazi sample, how can you go wrong?
8. Minsk: With Echoes In The Movement Of Stone (Relapse)
As good as 2007’s The Ritual Fires Of Abandonment was, I didn’t see these drudgy, slow-burning growlers taking such a creative leap in two years. With Echoes takes the menacing dust storm of its predecessor and lets it cohere into rock-solid songs while retaining the vast, lumbering might of a herd of Brontosaurs. Frontman Christopher Bennett has matured into a much more confident singer, ranging from the eerie chanted melodies of “Means To An End” and “Crescent Mirror” to the King Buzzo-esque primal rage of…um, the rest of the album. Minsk’s past work has relied too heavily on a forbidding atmospheric haze that muddled the impact of the instrumentation, but these riffs are more sophisticated, the synthesizers more striking yet unobtrusive, and Tony Wyioming’s drumming is more purposeful, even though he retains the unmistakable tribal essence that drives the Minsk sound, refusing to play remotely like a typical metal drummer. But it’s the songs that ultimately drive this album; anthemically dynamic even amidst the unrelenting desolation, they imprint themselves on you like pop songs, except you never get sick of them.
9. Pissed Jeans: King Of Jeans (Sub Pop)
A lot of people completely missed the humor in Kurt Cobain’s songs, traced on a stringline from Flipper to The Jesus Lizard to Nirvana, but not Matt Koslof. As much as he and Pissed Jeans adhere to an 80s hardcore ideal, King Of Jeans is the closest thing musically to Nirvana that I’ve heard since 1994, but without being a blatant ripoff. It’s just that Koslof has an easier time resisting his pop impulses. He either sings like a drunken, wounded animal or a bored, cracked out junkie, somehow coming up with four syllables for the word “idiot”, but the guitars are relatively in tune compared with the band’s last record (2007’s Hope For Men), and pretty damn catchy for all their willful abrasiveness. The whole package isn’t the most original music of the year by any stretch, but it’s the most straight-up fun. Juvenile lyrics mix with increasingly world-weary commentary and even a bit of soul searching, but Pissed Jeans leave it to the music to get heavy.
10. Wilco: Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
I can’t blame anyone for giving up on this album. I very nearly did myself. After several listens, I couldn’t stop thinking, this is the band that made Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Only the slithering, murderous “Bull Black Nova” and the clever “Wilco (The Song)” really grabbed me; everything else seemed very middle-aged. It wasn’t until I started thinking about the entire Wilco catalog, about the way Jeff Tweedy is constantly forcing heartache into sweet pop hooks and subliminally trying to depress you with ear candy, that I realized he wants “You Never Know” to sound like the Traveling Wilburys, that he’s got to butter you up with a Fiest duet (“You And I”) to be sure you listen all the way through to “Everlasting Everything”, the second consecutive Wilco album-closer about the dubious concept of eternal love. And then “One Wing” suddenly made sense to me, Nels Cline’s concise flurry of anxious guitar at the end of the song driving home the heart-wrenching lyrics. It wasn’t long before I realized that from the gnawing longing of “Deeper Down” to the upbeat folk-pop of “Sonny Feeling”, the album will sit right alongside anything in Wilco’s impressive catalog. There’s just nothing blatant about Wilco any more, but there’s still something in Tweedy’s veins bloodier than blood.
HONORABLE MENTION (geez, guess I should’ve done a top 20)
Blut Aus Nord: Memoria Vetusta II - Dialogue With The Stars (Candlelight)
With this album, I am comfortable with the possibility that this band will never make anything as terrifying and unique as 2006’s masterpiece, MoRT, because the more traditional black metal that they do make is so damn good. This album seems at first like a virtual clinic for the rest of the field, but it’s actually much more than that. Where most bands of this type make music that’s belligerently inaccessible because they couldn’t make something palatable to the general public, this album hints that Blut Aus Nord could be making pop music, but Vindsval (the group’s mastermind) chooses the route of maximum subversion. I think he’s actually trying to sucker extreme metalheads into subconsciously craving pop songs. Just don't take that to mean this is pop music by any stretch.
DJ Quik & Kurupt: BlaQKout (Mad Science)
I was pretty much resigned to the fact that Quik was never going to have any kind of major breakthrough, that he’d always be a well-respected also-ran in the world of hip hop producers. It’s not like this album was a gigantic hit, but now I have my hopes that he’ll finally get his due some day. Now, he’s only a rapper by default, but he does have a gradually endearing vocal style all his own, and it just works with Kurupt’s hard-knocked, perpetually-baked rhyming. Who’d’a thunk? Plus, these are some of Quik’s catchiest, quirkiest beats since Suga Free’s Street Gospel…and they are instantly recognizable as his, retro now to the point of actually being classic? Listen to “Watcha Wan Do” without moving your body. That I’d like to see.
DOOM: Born Like This (Lex)
The truth is that (MF) DOOM is not the greatest rapper in the world, but purely in terms of rhymes, this record blows away the rest of the pack, so his vocal skills will suffice. “Once sold a inbred skinhead a nigga joke/Plus a brand new chrome smokin’ with the triggers broke”(“Gazzillion Ear”)? “They screamin’ for attention/Beamin’ at the mention of a scary demon convention”(“Microwave Mayo”)? And these are just a couple that look good on paper. You need to hear ‘em; just try not to think about what a superior MC could do with these lyrics.
Fever Ray: Fever Ray (Rabid)
I never heard anything by The Knife that really grabbed me, but I’m going to have to go back and check my work. This solo project by Knife singer Karin Dreijer pushes all the right buttons for me. It’s drenched in molasses-thick, intoxicated ambience, garnished liberally with exotic flourishes, and moody as all hell. For such a heavily processed album to evoke such deep emotion quite frankly gives me the willies. Dreijer may have found that creepy sexuality that I missed on Portishead’s last album, and then she made it all mechanical and cold and somehow it still tugs at me.
Gallows: Grey Britain (Warner Bros)
This is the most gloriously pissed off British punk rock album since the early 80s. It’s got a slight metallic chrome to it, but that doesn’t diminish the snarling indignation and outrage of a generation trying to disown the archaic empire that birthed it. Since the advent of the Offspring, Blink-182 and emo, it’s hard to keep straight what exactly punk is any more, but Gallows ought to satisfy even the most hardcore old-schoolers. Wait, this is on a major label? Shit, I guess it must be lame after all, just like the Sex Pistols.
Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown)
In the best year for hip hop so far this century, Mos Def made a welcome return to music with this fantastic album, filled with incisive political commentary and radio-ready jams like the irresistible “Quiet Dog Bite Hard” (and, in a perfect world, “The Embassy”). Aside from a couple tracks of filler (“Wahid” = pure waste of space), this album flows remarkably well despite the requisite eight different producers and a wide stylistic range, due to Def’s trademark fat-lipped flow and consistently ear-grabbing beats.
Secret Chiefs 3 (Traditionalists): Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini (Mimicry)
Still waiting for an album that contains all the incredible new songs SC3 have been playing live the past few years, but this will do for now. It’s one of those albums that you hear and just wish they’d make a movie deserving of it as a soundtrack (which is how the album was envisioned). It would be pointless to single out any of its 30 tracks, but they will paint you enough beautiful but disturbing pictures for at least a short film.
U2: No Line On The Horizon (Interscope)
Here are four men in their late 40s who have made their most restless album since 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. It’s got a couple of duds (“Get On Your Boots”, “I’ll Go Crazy”) that the band, true to form, has improved upon in its live shows, but the best songs on the album reveal a band still completely unwilling to rest on its laurels. Bono sounds as passionate as ever on the title track, “Magnificent” and “Moment Of Surrender”, and he is still writing lyrics (particularly “Cedars of Lebanon”) that can crush you, while The Edge continues to refine and redefine his sound without completely abandoning the qualities that made him a star. (read my original review here)
The xx: xx (Young Turks)
These rookies of the year have a surprisingly well-defined sound for a quartet (now trio) of young, romantic goths. It’s not that they don’t sound like youngsters; thematically, you’ll surely be reminded of the rose-colored awkwardness of your favorite teenage nostalgia. But the dark synth pop sound and crisp guitar patterns are as sophisticated as any jaded adult (i.e. The Postal Service?) could come up with. This is yearning and pleading straight from the soul, impossible not to feel it, a perfect capture of a long, crucial moment in personal evolution.
MuteMath: Armistice (Warner Bros)
In an August 2008 interview for The Morning Call, singer Paul Meany said of MuteMath’s forthcoming album, “Anyone who thinks the first album is perfect will hate this record.” I wish I'd seen that article before I got my hopes up for Armistice. It is certainly one of the worst albums I heard in 2009. The lyrics read like a fourteen-year-old Scott Stapp contemplating the unfairness of life. The music sounds as if they rearranged the hooks from the (virtually perfect) self-titled debut and had NO further original ideas whatsoever. I feel bad for these guys, and a little embarrassed that I had so much faith in them.
Porcupine Tree: The Incident (Roadrunner)
Wait, I forgot about this album! It’s worse than Armistice by quite a bit, actually. Not as big of a letdown, since PT’s last album was junk too. Actually, kind of a relief, because I’m pretty confident I can just give up on this once-great band now. (read my original review here)
Eminem: Relapse (Aftermath)
After several listens, I was able to admit that this album isn’t horrible, but it does pretty much suck. Marshall recycles pretty much all the goofy voices he’s used before and comes up with zero new ones, falls back on all the old misogyny and celebrity-baiting and gay-bashing without any of the brilliant weirdness that used to make even his worst impulses tolerable, and the few stabs at self-examination just don’t come off as genuine. No really mind-bendingly great rhymes, either. Just the caricature on auto-pilot. (note: I haven't heard the "Refill" portion of the re-release yet, but I doubt the Kanye West cameo will be a game-changer for me.)
Isis: Wavering Radiant (Ipecac)
At least on the last album (2006’s In The Absence Of Truth), Aaron Turner was trying some new ideas to counterbalance his lack of inspiration in actual songwriting. It felt like a transitional album, so I gave it a pass, expecting big things to come. So this album crushed those expectations; it sounds like a young band trying to copy one of the many Isis clones that are all trying to sound like Isis used to sound. It’s almost as auto-cannibalistic as The Incident, just not nearly as cheesy. But it’s total drudgery from the former post-metal pioneers. And it's too bad about all the major media publications pretending not to have just discovered Isis, and not recognizing what a rehash this record is.
Katatonia: Night Is The New Day (Peaceville)
Damn you and your writer’s block, Anders Nyström! This album isn't terrible, either, but I expect a lot from Katatonia. And since the burden of writing almost everything fell on singer Jonas Renske, his lyrics went from blunt to almost mindless on this album. "Forsaker" was offered as an advance download, and it is a killer track, with lush harmonies and punishing, original riffs. I got way too excited over it, because it's by far the best song on the album. There are a couple of other good songs, but overall, it's not much more than a decent collection of Tool-esque metal. That's all most bands of Katatonia's ilk could hope to achieve, but these guys are capable of so much more.
ESSENTIAL SONGS OF THE YEAR (excluding the above albums)
7 Worlds Collide, “Bodisattva Blues”
Across Tundras, “Badlands Blues”
Akron/Family, “Last Year”
Air, “Do The Joy”
Alberta Cross, “The Thief And The Heartbreaker”
Alexi Murdoch, "Some Day Soon"
Animal Collective, "Graze"
Atmosphere, "The Ropes"
The Bad Plus, “Barracuda”
Baroness, “Swollen And Halo”
The Barrettes, “Waiting”
Bat For Lashes, “Pearl’s Dream”
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, “My Life’s Work”
Brother Ali, “Fresh Air”
Buckethead, “Blood Bayou”
Cage, “Kick Rocks”
Dan Deacon, “Woof Woof”
The Dead Weather, “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
Decemberists, “The Rake’s Song”
Decibully, “If I Don’t Work”
Future Of The Left, “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You”
Gomez, “Airstream Driver”
Great Lake Swimmers, "She Comes To Me In Dreams"
The Hue, “Waking Visions”
Ida Maria, “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked”
Japandroids, “Wet Hair”
Kid Millions, “Victim To The Beat”
Les Claypool, “Bite Out Of Life”
Lily Allen, “Everyone’s At It”
Marbin, "Crystal Bells"
Mason Jennings, “Lonely Road”
Muse, “Unnatural Selection”
Nadja, “Dead Skin Mask”
Paper Chase, “We Have Ways”
A Place To Bury Strangers, “In Your Heart”
Raekwon, "Black Mozart"
Russian Circles, “Fathom”
Sonic Youth, “Anti-Orgasm”
Speedfreaks, “View Of Reality”
St. Vincent, “Marrow”
Sugar Stems, “If U Want Me”
Sunn O))), “Alice”
Sunset Rubdown, “Black Swan”
Therapy?, “Bad Excuse For Daylight”
Timber Timbre, "Lay Down In The Tall Grass"
UGK, “Steal Your Mind”
Volcano Choir, “Still”
Willy Porter, “How To Rob A Bank”
The Wood Brothers, “Fixing A Hole”
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Zero”
YOB, “Breathing From The Shallows”