I recently heard an interview with actor/musician Billy Bob Thornton talking about his band and music in general and one of the things he said that struck me as odd was; “There has been no good music since 1980”. Not more than a week later I got an e-mail from a friend (going through a serious Talking Heads phase) who lamented that all the music he heard in cafés these days sounded like wood veneer paneling and wondered if our generation (the 80s) was the last generation to do anything musically original, adding, “perhaps this is what Terence McKenna meant when he talked about the end of novelty”.
Now, I won’t argue that the seminal bands of the 60s and 70s have a place in the lexicon of rock ‘n roll, or the startling originality of the Talking Heads, or the fertile musical soil of the 80s (sorry Billy Bob), or whether Terence McKenna was… well… whatever. But I will argue that the music today is as vital, interesting and, yes, as great as anything that’s come before it. Sure, there’s an element of the derivative, but I don’t see that as a bad thing — it just means that bands of today have so much more to play with, riff on and reimagine.
I have a theory — and it’s probably not too original — that whatever music you grew up listening to as a teenager, or while in your 20s, that’s the music that will resonate most deeply with you. For Billy Bob it’s the Beatles, Smokey Robinson and The Stones, for my friend it’s the Talking Heads, The Replacements and The Swans and for me, well, for whatever reason, I feel connected with whatever’s happening at the moment. Which isn’t to say I don’t feel connected with the music of my past, because I do, it’s just that my appetite for music is like a shark, if it stops moving it dies.
Anyway, it’s been a good year for music; it started with a bang and finished just as bangin’ i.e. bookended by two Animal Collective releases. I hope some of what I’ve written or listed here inspires you to search it out, make a purchase, load it onto your iPod and move, dance or sway to the sounds of 2009. All in all, it’s been a vintage bottling and if you’re in your teens or 20s, just think, in 2029 you too can wax nostalgic about the music of your past; “Man, they just don’t make music like the Dirty Projectors anymore.”[Site note: As I’ve said before, numbered lists such as this are a slippery proposition. Pretty much anything here could be moved around and it would be just as representative of what I was digging this year. I’ve left some things off — such as EP’s (and there been some great ones: Delorean, Bon Iver, Washed Out, Animal Collective, Deerhunter, Memory Tapes, etc.) — simply because I wanted to keep this list at a manageable 50 (if you can call 50 manageable). Bottom line; if I did this list next week it might look completely different.]
50. Empire of the Sun: Walking on a Dream
48. Travis Callison: Free
49. Wild Beasts: Two Dancers
47. Bear in Heaven: Beast Rest Fourth Mouth
46. Real Estate: Real Estate
45. Hush Arbors: Yankee Reality
49. the dodos: Time to Die
44. Cass McCombs: Catacombs
43. Megafaun: Gather, Form & Fly
42. Telefon Tel Aviv: Immolate Yourself
41. Junior Boys: Begone Dull Care
40. K’ naan: Troubadour
39. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Its Blitz
38. Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
37. The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa
36. The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come
35. Field: Yesterday and Today
34. Fever Ray: Fever Ray
33. Bibio: Ambivalence Avenue
32. Nosaj Thing: Drift
31. Xx: xx
30. Various artists: Dark Was the Night
29. Röyksopp: Junior
28. Atlas Sound: Logos
27. Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs
26. JJ: JJ N° 2
25. Various Artists: 5: Five Years of Hyperdub
Yeah, it’s kind of a copout to put a 32 song compilation on a list such as this, but this is number 25 and it’s just a damn fine record. Arguably the most important dubstep label, Hyperdub, has amassed an impressive catalog of heavy, bottom-ended music. And that’s the thing — catalog. Most of this has been released as singles, so unless you’re a DJ, or a collector of this stuff, you probably haven’t taken the time to pick any of it up. Split into two discs — past and present — it’s a good glimpse into where the label has been and where it’s going. Can you dance to it? Good question.
24. Clientele: Bonfires on the Heath
I wouldn’t say Bonfires on the Heath is treading any new ground for Clientele, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sticking with the 60s style jangle pop, sorrowful lyrics and hummable melodies that swim inside your head for days, this is an another assured release. Sublime and haunting in a way few albums are, #24 on this list seems ridiculously low (case in point why numbered lists are frustrating). But here’s the thing; 10 years from now when I revisit the best music from the first 20 years of the 2000s, Bonfires on the Heath will probably be in the top 10. Or any Clientele record, for that matter.
23. 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, from this incarnation of the group, 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 1970s AOR FM radio. That said, there’s nothing nostalgic about the songwriting (see “Bull Black Nova”). Instead, Wilco (The Album) finds a band at the top of its game, digesting its influences and, again, defying expectations. Because, really, how else can you explain the audacity 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 that’s absolutely free of irony? You can’t. And that’s what makes Wilco (the band) such a rewarding experience.
22. 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.
21. Girls: Album
Hype is a funny thing. So is the knee-jerk reaction to it. And while I’d like to say I’m immune to both, the truth is — where the indie music blogosphere is concerned — not so much. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to jump on or off a bandwagon because some Brooklyn music journalist tweeted I should, but until the record companies start sending me review copies of albums, before I plop down my nine bucks on this year’s Vampire Weekend, I’m going to follow a few social networking threads. Which brings me to San Francisco’s own Girls, this years uber indie “love ’em or despise ’em” sensation. Toss off, the band’s colorful story, stick with the requisite lo-fi aesthetic, garagey Beach Boys melodies and dizzying songcraft and, well, you have yourself a hype/backlash defying, wonder of an album.
20. Andrew Bird: Noble Beast/Useless Creatures
This album was released in two forms; Noble Beast and Noble Beast/Useless Creatures. And while I love the standard version Noble Beast (and perhaps it would have been on this list regardless), the two disc version, with the instrumental Useless Creatures, is revelatory, capturing everything Andrew Bird is about. Of course, Noble Beast is still filled with Bird’s quixotic love of words for words sake lyrics, but on Noble Beast they seem to be accompanied by a surer sense of melody, making the odd word combinations resonate in ways they haven’t before. For instance, 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 out of 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.
19. 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 then caveats aside, what do we have? A funky, dripping, sexy album that’s as hip now as it was no doubt then.
18. 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 production 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.
17. Passion Pit: Manners
How to make a pop album that’s both loved and loathed: Ingredients; 1/8 part Syrupy sweet/anthemic synths, 1/8 part contemporary indie falsetto: 1/8 part slightly vague yet. romantic lyrics (of the happy sad variety), 1/8 part select choruses accompanied by children’s voices, 1/2 part uncanny sense of melody and songcraft. Stir, package and release. Serves untold amounts of summer indie music festivals. Delicious.
16. 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 Mexican 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 bridging “My Night with the Prostitute from Marseille”, it’s a very satisfying journey that works in spades.
15. 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 guest singer 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.
14. 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 dedicated to sorrow. Oh, and just in case the title Dear John, didn’t give it away, multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanänen (Loney, Dear) is looking to work some things out… which is fine, because Dear John is well worth the time. A folk-techno hybrid of sorts, this is a slightly new direction for the band.
13. Helado Negro: Awe Owe
This is another one of those albums that if you try to pull it apart and latch on to individual songs, you’ll probably be disappointed. On the other hand, if you let the beachy, fuzzy, glitchy electronic tropicalia of Roberto Carlos Lange’s debut wash over you, then trust me, you’re in for a treat. In heavy rotation late this summer, I’ve got some advice for you; if you’re stuck somewhere cold — oh, I don’t know, north east of the Mississippi, bracing for another dump of snow and you like your latin music with a dash of experimentation — look no further than Awe Owes, click download and start thinking about swimsuits and mojitos.
12. 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 protection mix orch 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 first eight minutes — an album of meticulously produced, well thought out pop songs.
11. The Antlers: Hospice
The post-rock/indie rock aural tradition is loaded with sad sacks and melancholia to the point of almost ridiculous cliché. And while I’ve got no problem getting down into the mud with the best of ’em and vicariously rolling around in artistic pain, it’s not exactly what I’m looking for in my music these days. Which is why my love (and inclusion on this list) of The Antlers Hospice is such a surprise. Sure, I’m a sentimentalist, and the brazen honesty and sadness on this record are indeed seductive, but tackling a concept album (a relationship with a terminally ill child) — regardless of how sincere it wants to be — is a harrowing endeavor, and one wrought with potential failure. Hospice succeeds in spite of the odds and is an unqualified and paradoxically big and small sonic wonder.
10. Fanfarlo: Reservoir
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.
9. YACHT: See Mystery Lights
If there was ever an album where one song sold the whole thing for me, “The Afterlife”, the second track on this synthy retro fest, is that song. Easily taken as ironic, See Mystery Lights, is anything but — optimistic, spiritual, bouncy and, yes, a little derivative (hey, what’s wrong with a little homage to the Tom Tom Club and Kraftwerk?), if I’m gonna reach for a quick pop fix to remind me of what’s really going on, I could do a whole lot worse than to cue this record up.
8. 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.
7. Le Loup: Family
Falling somewhere between tribal rock, freak folk, a bite off the Animal Collective and Fleet Foxes mushroom, and a celebration with friends and family around a bonfire on the beach, Family works, not only because it’s able to hold all these things together, but because it just should. By that I mean, I can think of no other record this year I wanted to work more than this one. Call me a sucker for reverb soaked songcraft, but this one had me at the first cavernous note.
6. Neon Indian: Psychic Chasms
When I was a kid I used to have this portable, yellow Panasonic AM radio shaped like a warped donut that could be twisted apart into an S- shape and that I would carry with me everywhere. It was a beach radio more than anything else, the only one I had, and pretty hip looking. But the thing I remember most about this radio was the sound; whether it was the salt air’s effect on the transistors or all the sand clogging the speaker holes, it had a sort of warbly fidelity that gave the music a psychedelic glow. Psychic Chasms reminds me of that radio; warbly AM radio disco tunes that feel sunburnt and phased, but oh so cool.
5. Jack Peñate: Everything Is New
Pop music — despite the general misconception of what most people believe it is — is deep and complicated stuff. Argue all you want about the complexities post-bop jazz, the musicianship of prog rockers, and the what have you of what have you, but a good pop song — in my estimation — is shoulders above it all. Now don’t get me wrong, some pop has the lasting power of a snowflake on a dog’s warm nose, but even when it does, for that brief moment — when it’s makes that quixotic imprint on your brain and you’re humming something you didn’t even think you liked (*cough-Black Eyed Peas-cough*) — it’s nothing short of miraculous. Everything Is New as an album title might be Peñate’s cheeky way of saying, “look, I understand what I’m doing isn’t exactly original (think Robert Smith and Edwyn Collins), but I really believe in it and these are great songs.” Or maybe not. Whatever. Either way, this is brilliant pop album.
4. 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 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 that’s ultimately what what one takes away from this breathtaking album.
3. Sin Fang Bous: Clangour
Stepping out from his usual gig, Seabear, Icelandic musician Sindri Mar Sigfusson has created a modern folk classic — a twee, glitchy, multi-instrumental (synths, banjo, guitar, etc.) songwriting tour de force with a whole mess of catchy melodies to wrap your head around. Equally able to be dissected and listened to song for song or taken as a sonic whole with an odd psychedelic rhythm and logic, it’s a fairly obscure gem that deserves more buzz. Not sure what it is about the far north — the cold, the long days and nights, what have you — but they certainly export some lovely music.
2. 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.
1. 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 while the sampling and electronic beats do sound “familiar” and contemporary, the term “pop”, as it applies to Animal Collective, is a relative one. Densely layered and transcendent, this is nothing short of a masterwork.
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou!