Okay, technically I suppose I’m a few weeks late on the whole midyear thing (July 2nd was the actual midpoint), but at this stage in the game trying to come up with a short list of my favorite albums — when there’s so many yet to listen to — is a dizzying prospect. Seriously, each week seems to bring a new gem — either one that I’m catching up with or waiting on to be released — that deservedly warrants my attention. I’m not complaining — such is the nature of this type of list — but, hey, ultimately it’s going to be incomplete.
Thus far, 2009 is shaping up to be an intriguing musical year, and with the exception of a couple of albums, most of these releases are from established artists several albums into their careers; representing a type of songwriting that’s about further honing and synthesizing musical ideas that have already been there. For the most part, this means there are no radical shifts in style other than, perhaps, towards the more “accessible”. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — we’re still talking art here.
In tackling this list, I chose to forgo the standard 1 through 10 thing and went with an alphabetical one instead. As I said above, the list is incomplete and, truthfully, I’m just too lazy to try to nail down something so fluid. Call it a copout if you want, but, trust me, we’ll all be better for it in the end. Besides, you’ll get your ranked top 10 list at the end of the year.
In the meantime, if you haven’t already, I highly recommend you pick up some of these albums.
The best albums of 2009… so far:
Amadou and Miriam: Welcome to Mali
The back story behind this husband and wife duo from Mali is the stuff of Hollywood rock biopics and the music on Welcome to Mali makes them absolutely deserving of one. In many ways, this record begins and ends with Amadou’s virtuoso guitar playing, combining traditional Malian blues and other African elements with Western rock. But if there’s a sweeter, more achingly sincere voice than Miriam’s on any other record this year, I’d like to hear it, and ultimately that’s what one takes away from this breathtaking album.
Andrew Bird: Noble Beast/Useless Creatures
This album was released in two versions; the standard Noble Beast and the deluxe Noble Beast/Useless Creatures. And while I love the standard version Noble Beast (and perhaps it would have made this list regardless), the deluxe two disc version, with the instrumental Useless Creatures, is revelatory — capturing everything that Andrew Bird is about. Of course, Noble Beast is still filled with Bird’s love of words for words sake quixotic lyrics, but here they seem to be accompanied by a surer sense of melody, making the odd word combinations resonate in ways they haven’t before. Every time I hear the lines from the song “Masterswarm”; “So they took me to the hospital, they put my body through a scan/what they saw there would impress them all, for inside me grows a man”, riding on the back of its rising melody, I want to melt. I can’t tell you why exactly, but I understand what he means.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
A friend of mine said upon hearing this record, “this is the first Beach Boys’ album I’ve ever liked”. And I understand where he’s coming from. It’s impossible to listen to Merriweather Post Pavilion and not hear the best ideas and elements of that seminal group. But it also must be said, this sounds nothing like a Beach Boys’ record. Animal Collective have indeed decided to explore a more pop aesthetic on Merriweather, focusing on Panda Bear’s melodic vocal harmonies and sensibilities, while foregoing instinctual forays into discordance and horror, but the term “pop”, as it applies to Animal Collective, is a relative one. Densely layered and transcendent, this is nothing short of a masterwork.
Beirut: March of the Zapotec & Realpeople: Holland
I don’t know, maybe I just have a soft spot for Balkan infused song stylings filtered through Oaxacan brass bands, but damn, if this isn’t another inspired delivery by Zach Condon’s Beirut. But that’s only the half of it — literally — as Beirut technically makes up only half of this record, the other half goes to Condon’s electro-indie endeavor, Realpeople. Two EPs, with two different aesthetics, merged into one record, this really shouldn’t have worked as well as it does. But with Condon’s mournful voice as the through line and the brilliant “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille” bridging the two projects, it’s a very satisfying journey that works in spades.
Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle
Sublime. Contemplative. Beautiful. Purposeful. Dark. All these are apt descriptions for ex-Smog singer Bill Callahan’s new solo effort. Orchestrated in a way his previous band never was — or attempted to be — the storytelling and arrangements of these songs suit Callahan’s deep melancholic voice perfectly. Like last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver, this is a haunting, personal record that lingers long after it’s finished playing.
The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love
If there are two things as a music fan I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around over the years it would be prog rock and Jethro Tull… no, wait, there’s a third, rock operas. Now if you told me in 2009 that one of my favorite records would have elements of all three (some more than others), I would’ve dismissed your suggestion outright. But if you then told me it would be a Decemberists’ album, well, the conversation would’ve lasted a little bit longer. Even still, the fact that the record is as good as it is, is a bit of a surprise; heavy, crunching guitars, ridiculously rocked out vocals from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and repeating motifs, it’s a hell of a ride that gets better upon repeated visits. And, yes, there’s some sort of story.
Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca
To say that everything that’s going on here is a bit dizzying, is to undersell what the Dirty Projectors are all about. In fact, the band throws more at a single song, than most artists do over a career; orch pop, R&B, electronica, chamber choir, you name it. Is it a mess? Well, that depends on how you like your pop… err… art pop. If you’re looking to hook onto a melody or rhythm for an entire song, I suggest you look elsewhere. But if you’re willing to let go — let the ideas (yes, ideas, it often feels a bit brainy) lead you through these, arguably, delicious nine gems, then you’re in for quite a treat. Download “Useful Chamber” and if you like what you hear, the rest of the album will surely work for you.
Another Swede responsible for great indie rock? Well, yeah. Throwing everything into the mix — pianos, mandolins, violins, trumpets, toys and traditional bass, drums and guitars — lead Fanfarlo songwriter Simon Balthazar has created one of the best orch pop records you probably haven’t heard. Why some records take off and others don’t, it’s hard to say, but with production by Peter Katis (The National, Interpol), you’d have thought this would have.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
All right, you get it, I’ve got a particular soft spot for meandering, midtempo, throw every instrument you can think of into the production mix pop. And while you may want to keep that in mind in regards to my opinion about Veckatimest, it doesn’t change the fact that this is a brilliant, lovely record. Opening with the sprawling America-esqe “Southern Point” and then moving on to, arguably, one of the best singles of the year, “Two Weeks”, you know what you’re going to get within the first eight minutes — an album of meticulously produced, well thought out pop songs.
Loney, Dear: Dear John
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the album has two of my favorite songs of the year, “Airport Surroundings” and “I Was Only Going Out”, and while it isn’t Loney, Dear’s best (that would be Loney Noir), it is an affecting collection of songs about sorrow and longing. Oh, and just in case the significance of the title Dear John, slipped past you, multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanänen (Loney, Dear himself) is looking to work a few things out. Which is fine, because Dear John is well worth the wallow. A folk-techno hybrid of sorts, this is a slightly new direction for the band.
Mos Def: The Ecstatic
As much as I love Mos Def the renaissance man, his music so far this decade has been inconsistent at best. Which is all the more reason why The Ecstatic leaves me… well… ecstatic — it bumps. Funky, loose, poignant (and perhaps a little lazy at times), Mos has something to say that’s worth listening to and thankfully he has the beats and sounds to deliver it over. Working with the likes of J Dilla, Madlib, Mr. Flash, Oh No, Slick Rick, ex-Black Star partner Talib Kwelli and others, seems to make for an inspired work environment.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Another band on this list that has taken what they’ve done so well in the past and perfected it 2009. Pure power pop electro fun, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, represents the best in sugary songcraft. Deceptively simple and catchy, it might be easy to dismiss this record as lightweight. But don’t let your desire to dance or the seductive hook-into-your-brain melodies fool you, there’s a whole mess of romantic angst going on here as well. I mean, c’mon, they’re French.
Serge Gainsbourg: Histoire De Melody Nelson
First, let me throw out a couple of caveats in regards to this one: 1). I don’t speak French. And 2). This was originally released in 1968. In regards to the first, this hardly matters when it comes to Gainsbourg — especially this record — all you need to know (and believe me there won’t be any confusion about it) is that machismo and sexuality are what he’s going for (surprise surprise). As to the second, well, until this year, the album has essentially been out of print and unavailable to all but the most committed of crate divers. So caveats aside, what do we have? A funky, dripping, sexy album that’s as hip now as it no doubt was then.
Travis Callison: Free
For good or for bad, a lot of contemporary pop music is either somewhat saccharine or filled with angst. And while obviously I don’t have a problem with either, Free is neither of these things. Blending elements of hip-hop, electro, soul and the best elements of modern folk, Travis Callison isn’t entirely creating new sonic landscapes, but rather new messages… and that, in its ambition alone, makes this record exciting. Callison’s guitar playing certainly owes much to Hendrix, but only in the way hip-hop owes something to jazz — definitely worth checking out. Download it for free here.
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)
Stylistically, Wilco (The Band) has always been a bit slippery to pin down, but with Wilco (The Album) and Sky Blue Sky before it, a definite sound is starting to emerge. Feeling like a 1970s post-Nixon era drive down the PCH (or what I imagine that would be like), most everything on this LP would fit nicely onto 70s AOR radio. But that said, there’s nothing nostalgic about the songwriting (see “Bull Black Nova”), but rather an attention to craft that comes from a seasoned band clearly in sync and at the top of their game. I mean, really, how else can you explain the audacity and success of a rock song with the lyrics “everlasting love” that wasn’t penned by Bryan Adams or Celine Dion for the closing credits of a romantic Hollywood blockbuster? You can’t. And that’s what makes Wilco (the band) and Wilco (The Album) such a rewarding experience.
Fever Ray: Fever Ray, Neko Case: Middle Cyclone, K’ naan: Troubadour, St. Vincent: Actor, Röyksopp: Junior, Dan Deacon: Bromst, Junior Boys: Begone Dull Care, Telefon Tel Aviv: Immolate Yourself, Japandroids: Post-Nothing, Red Hot Compilation: Dark Was the Night, Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Its Blitz, White Rabbits: It’s Frightening, Woods: Songs of Shame, the dodos, Time to Die