When we posted our first year-end lists way back in 2006, the whole mp3 blog thing was still fairly new. We certainly weren't the trailblazers, but we did have the advantage of starting our little music blog before the internet became flooded with the likes of us, before services like Hype Machine and Elbo.ws were required to sift thru the ever-growing cosmos of the music blogosphere.
So instead of ranking and listing and widdling down and hierarchizing as I've done for the past few years, I'm just going to give you my favorites in a few catagories that I hope matter to you. The good news is that my favorite music this year and this decade doesn't seem to be everybody else's favorite music, which gives me a chance to advocate for only a handful of artists, in the hopes that they'll reach your ears with the same delight that they've reached mine.
Best Local Detroit Track of the Year
"Electric Way" - Zoos of Berlin
Zoos of Berlin
This year, I made it to only a fraction of live shows, compared to years past. But I still must have seen Zoos of Berlin 6 or 7 times. I'm a fan of all the tracks on their debut Taxis and their EP, there's something about "Electric Way" that keeps me coming back. It's like nothing else they've released-a dance party jam. Those first few snare hits from drummer Colin Dupuis launch you into a devastating rhythm of Trevor Naud's bright-toned guitar rakings and Will Yates' Stevie Wonder-like keyboard taps, with Daniel Clark holding it down with a slow, laid-back, and sleek bass line. The breakdown is fucking majestic. And the highlight of the song for me is Dupuis' gradually resounding crash cymbal hits, coming out of the bridge at 2:50-a little touch that makes a hell of an impact.
But the most interesting thing about "Electric Way" is that it kind of ruins the feel of the Taxis LP as a whole. The album is defined by its consistent use of the downbeat-sometimes emulating the chugging of a train, at others the pulsing of blood-lavishly draped with Yates' aggressive keyboard layering over Clark's basslines, which move Escher-like over and under the chaturbat melodies. On the whole, it's a heady, elegant affair. The word "debonair" has been used by some reviewers, and appropriately so. But "Electric Way" is all upbeat, dancy, unstoppably catchy. It just doesn't fit in with those other songs.
Including "Electric Way" as the penultimate track on Taxis is, to me, the equivalent of having Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" as the second-to-last track on Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
But who can blame the Zoos for doing this? If you had written a song like "Electric Way," could you have saved it for later? Could you have murdered this darling? I couldn't, and I'm glad Zoos of Berlin couldn't either.
It must be tough to be such a talented band that you can't help but mess up your excellent album with one of the best songs of the year.
P.S. The decision for best Detroit track of the year would have been more difficult if The Dead Bodies would have released a recording of "Hugs and Kisses."
Album of the Year
The Atlantic Ocean - Richard Swift
"The Atlantic Ocean"
I judge an album on two essential points:
1) do the songs get stuck in my head to the point where I unconsciously sing them as I go about my day
2) do I actually care about the songs, on a personal level?
Most albums I listen to fall into either one or the other category. Sometimes, I run across albums with high marks in both categories. But to be my favorite album of the year, it's got to be both, and in spades.
This is why Richard Swift's The Atlantic Ocean beats out Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as my favorite album of the year. As much as I love "Lizstomania" and the entire Phoenix album (I think "Armistice" is actually the best song on the album), when the first line is nonsense like "So sentimental. Not sentimental, no," I can't honestly make it the album of the year, no matter how much I adore it. I love that song, but I just don't really care about it. I feel the same way about this http://www.jasminlive.mobi/ album that I feel about a lot of Michael Jackson's music-it's great to dance to, great to play in the car, it's undeniably great, but it doesn't really mean anything, does it?
On the other hand: "Save your prayers / I'm an unbeliever / and I don't fall apart easily / 'cause I got no heart / got no one to make me cry. / And everyone knows when they're gonna die," sung over a steady piano thumping like a hammer on the nails of a coffin-that's some heavy shit, and it's catchy!
Or: "Where have you gone? / And no lights in the home. / We gave it our best but we made it a tomb. / So I'll take the ocean, and you'll take the land. / And hope that our son understands."
This guy's singing about real stuff, in a really interesting way. Which isn't to say the album is a dirgefest. The melodies are more often than not extremely light and breezy-easy to sing along to and memorable, and there's a lot of fun in this album too. We have Swift singing joyfully "Sometimes you lose sometimes you win. / I want to drink until I'm broke and then just see what kind of shit we get in." And these aren't even the most memorable lines. (that might be from the title track: "I'm part of the scene. / I'm part of the scene. / I got the drum machine. / Boom-tap, boom-tap. / Boom-tap, boom-tap.").
Swift's singing voice is an unusual one. If it weren't for the modern production quality and the fact that Swift uses the history of pop music over the past 40 years to inform every single note of the album, I might have thought that this was a long-long album sung by Peter Lorre. I like unusual voices-my two favorite singers of the past decade are Dan Bejar and Joanna Newsom, and that tells you something. But Swift's voice does have a reach and fluidness to it, even though he can often sound as if he's gargling water while singing. Ultimately, this is a good thing-if anyone else were singing these songs, they wouldn't sound as good (no one can sing "Atlantic 000-cean" the way he does).
But the voice is only part of what kept me coming back to this excellent collection of diverse songs full of various stylings and a lot of grace. First, there are so many different sounds in this album: cheesy electronic keyboard runs, cowbell, 70s/80s McCartney/Harrison synths that sound better than the solo Beatles albums they were drawn from. The modes run from traditional Irving Berlin-like ballads to straight up Motown swing and soul to rollicking rhythm n' blues. This album's really got everything you could ever want, and makes it hard to move on to other albums because there's so much good in here.
Opener "Atlantic Ocean" is instantly catchy, with an unforgettable hook, letting you know over and over that "you're gonna drown, drown, drown." "The Original Thought" starts sleepy and moody but turns into a swaggering little tune that gets you bouncing in your seat and, in my case, strutting down the hallway at work while listening on my iPod. It's hard to say too much about this album without seeming to be too overzealous about its charms. Richard Swift is a hook-machine. But the hooks are grounded in gravitas: the songs are about heartbreak, break-ups, and many times about coaxing someone to not cry. Swift's lyrics have a certain existential charm. Like Jens Lekman, Morrissey, Andrew Bird, Leonard Cohen, and The High Strung's Josh Malerman, Swift has a way of expressing the difficulties of living in a godless, uncaring world while still caring a hell of a lot about it. He often tackles issues of loss or heartache with arch wisecracks or downright sarcasm, but he does so in full and sometimes surprising orchestrations. No matter how bleak things can get, this guy can write one hell of a pop song.
The Atlantic Ocean - Richard S.
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Why? - Eskimo Snow
Best Tracks of 2009
Tie: "You Saved My Life" - Cass McCombs
Cass McCombs' Catacombs is one of those albums that you want to download at a very high quality in order to capture the excellence of its recording and mixing. With a good set of headphones, you can hear the air in the room of the recording studio, the reverberation coming off every snare hit, the articulating sounds coming from the back of McCombs' throat.
"You Saved My Life" is the album's masterpiece. It's slow and building, sweetly sung, and gripping, yet it's not some heart-wrenching, plaintive ode, but an honest lyric dedicated to a lover who has made all the difference, encapsulating all that comes with knowing that "there's so much to lose." The best part of the song to me is at the end when McCombs sings the "you" in "you saved my life" with a whimsical high-falsetto, a jokey little voice crack that I first interpreted as McCombs ruining the song. But after repeated listens, I came to a different conclusion. When your life is so good, and you feel that you've really found where you should be and who you are in this crazy, often sad world, you're totally into jokes! There's room for them. That crack in McCombs' voice is a well-deserved wise crack, and it's the best part of the whole song.
Tie: "One More Time" - The Library (now known as Prayer)
"One More Time"
UPDATE: As my readers who know about music real good have pointed out, this is actually a Joe Jackson song. I listened to the original version of this song just now, and it's quite great, although it doesn't dismiss the fact that The Library/Prayer did a good job of covering it and making it their own. I'd even say that they've made the hook even more catchy than the original version.
That being as it may, covers do not qualify for making this year-end list, and since Jackson wrote this song in the late 70s, his version can't make the list either.
Congrats, Cass McCombs, you win our prize!
The backstory: This past spring, I received a package from some music PR agency with a bunch of promo CDs. It had some decent stuff, but most of it I listened to once and never again. But included was this mysterious, non-descript CD case with a drawing of a pope or cardinal blessing some dude, with the background in a stain-washed pink. The name of the band was The Library, and on this very good EP is a song called "One More Time," a song that I've listened to more than any other song this year.
Recently, you may have heard the song on TV. A bad version of it is now a Taco Bell commercial. You'll know it next time you see it on the TVs. "One more time. / One more time. / Say you're leaving. / Say goodbye." Well, that jingle is a shadow of what might be one of the most epic hooks I've ever heard. An electronic, dance-club pop song, "One More Time" incorporates all the tricks that any Top 40 songsmith ever employed for the likes of Brittney, Gaga, or Madonna, but it does it with such verve that it's really impossible to say there is a better pop song on those Top 40 charts this year.
And yet the band is still a mystery to me, mostly because they did a terrible job of naming themselves. "The Library" pulls up 70,700,000 results in Google, and I'm guessing less than 1% of those apply to this band. Their myspace page is a wonder in failed usability-taking out all of the features that allow people to find out what the band is all about and leaving that annoying music player that works like crap. It seems as though the band has recently changed their name to "Prayer," which is an even dumber name, pulling in 91 million unrelated and higher-ranking results. So apparently, the name change was for reasons that were more fatuous than practical, because Prayer is a pretty bad name for a band. The end result is that they made it too difficult for me to really learn anything about them, and after awhile I just gave up.
What I did find out thru their label page is that these guys are from LA, and play mostly LA clubs in the electro music scene. The lead singer looks like he's from LA (please insert all your midwestern stereotypes about people from LA here). But one thing I know for sure is that this guy is responsible for what I consider the best pop song of the year and, with Mr. McCombs, the best track of the year.
Honorable Mentions for Track of 2009
"Marrow" - St. Vincent
While I'm not a big fan of the album, this track really blows my mind, probably because a lot of it reminds me of what Xiu Xiu would sound like if Jamie Stewart would stop being so difficult.
"Something is Squeezing My Skull" - Morrissey
It pulls riffs and rhythm from four different songs from Your Arsenal and Southpaw Grammar but the melody Moz sings in the chorus, with that killer vibrato, is the best vocal maneuver he's pulled off in years.
"Now We Can See" - The Thermals
This is what happens when you take the best of 90s alternative rock and make it your own.
"Lisztomania" - Phoenix
Just because Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was one of the most overrated albums of the year doesn't mean it wasn't also one of the best.
"Leftovers" - Jarvis Cocker
It takes place at a museum. How can I not love this song?
Maybe it's a result of my hampered attention span, or maybe it's a noncommittal fear stoked by the ceaselessly fast churn of new musical acquisitions as demanded by the perpetually buzzing hive mind of blogging culture, but I really felt drawn toward the EP format this year as a way to discover and indulge in new music without having to sit through - god forbid - the entire 40-plus minutes required for full length albums. Keeping in the spirit of the times, here are a few of my favorite EPs of the year:
10. Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange
Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange
"Famous Last Words" (buy)
Deerhunter is window shopping on the Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP. With "master the art of psychedelic drone rock" checked off their musical bucket list, the band has taken the opportunity to set aside their heavier sonic baggage and experiment with a leaner, more diverse set of styles. In the course of a spare fifteen minutes, Deerhunter manage to traverse from languid tropical punk to hyper-compressed Krautrock to a jangly, piano-and-tabla Georgian raga before returning to the tremolo-tinged garage rock they mastered back on Microcastle, all without breaking a sweat or indulging in so much as a single extraneous guitar solo.
9. Johnny Headband - Phase 3
Johnny Headband - Phase 3
"Wastin' Time" (download)
Resurrecting the frenetic energy of rave-era Primal Scream with the clamoring expansiveness of TV on the Radio, Johnny Headband have released a beast of an EP - a post-apocalyptic bacchanal rife with electrically charred bass, sandstorm guitars and howling, multi-tracked harmonies. It's just a shame that a noise this bombastic wasn't heard by more people outside Detroit.
8. Julianna Barwick - Florine
Julianna Barwick - Florine
Spectral choral music for the driftless. Recommended for those who thought Sigur Rós were too structured for their tastes.
7. Animal Collective - Fall Be Kind
Animal Collective - Fall Be Kind
"What Would I Want? Sky" (buy)
Animal Collective became one of the most fashionable bands to hate on this year for releasing one of the most inventive and enjoyable albums of 2009 (funny how that works, huh?). Regardless of your undoubtedly fixed opinions on the band, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist appear to be completely oblivious to the maelstrom of hype and web 2.0 academic treatises they've sparked as a result of Merriweather Post Pavilion and decided to cap the year off with one of their most curiously cohesive and playful EPs yet.
6. Flying Lotus - L.A. EP 3 X 3
Flying Lotus - LA EP 3X3
"Infinitum (Dimlite's Re-finitum)" (buy)
It's utterly inconceivable to me how music like this was conceived. It's like a photo negative of a what I expect a song to be: textures are reconfigured as percussion; beats are spliced, reversed, and processed into jittery, techno-futurist melodies; vertical planes become three-dimensional vectors; up is down; black is white; rhythm is the bass, and the bass is the treble. If this is what the future sounds like, I remain hopeful that I'll get my hoverboard after all.
5. Jon Hardy & The Public - Little Criminals: Songs From Randy Newman
LITTLE CRIMINALS by Jon Hardy & the Public from theFOUNTAINstudio on Vimeo. (download)
It was meant to be a brief affair: for one night only, St. Louis' hardest working band was going to pay tribute to one of America's greatest living songwriters. But the resulting collaboration played to the others' strengths so well that it would have been criminal to lose the effect to the woozy memory of bar lore. Randy Newman tends to play the role of a satirical schlemiel, but when his work is played with the forthrightness and brio of Jon Hardy & The Public the songs feel invigorated with new purpose and meaning. Great songwriting should allow for artful interpretation, and both are present here.
4. Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
"My Night with the Prostitute from Marseilles" (buy)
March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland is an odd job. It's two completely separate EPs, really. For Zapotec, Zach Condon took his Balkanized brass balls down to Oaxaca, Mexico to recruit a ragtag band of native horn blowers to backtrack his somber, wayfaring songs. It's fine; about what you'd expect. But what really got me excited was Holland, "Realpeople" being Condon's nom de plume for his pre-Beirut bedroom pop project. The resulting tracks can be a little undeveloped at points, but the strange juxtaposition of Condon's mournful croon with the wistful gurgling of cheap electronics produces some of the most listenable synth pop this side of the Magnetic Fields' Holiday.
3. Washed Out - Life of Leisure
Washed Out - Life of Leisure
"New Theory" (buy)
Beachy, headphonic, chill. During the interminably long Summer of Death, 2009, the slow jam sampledelica of Ernest Greene's Washed Out provided just the sort of escapist and nostalgic salve needed to reassure anxiety-wracked blogbros that everything was going to be a-okay.
2. Destroyer - Bay of Pigs
Destroyer - Bay of Pigs
When it was announced that Dan Bejar was going to release a 13-and-a-half minute "ambient disco" track based loosely around the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, there was no doubt that it was going to be anything short of epic. And where Kennedy failed with his CIA-trained Cuban exiles, Bejar delivered. Even in the most obtuse sense, I'm still not sure what - if anything - the song "Bay of Pigs" has to do with the actual event in 1961, but with blisteringly surreal lyrics about how "a ransom note written on the night sky above remind me what, in particular, about this wine I love," I'm not about to start complaining. Bejar is in fine form here, popping up like a harrowed and woolly narrator to regale us of the time he was trapped inside the sea's guts or bathed in golden sunlight, only to recede back into the foggy aether of synthesizer just as mysteriously as he arrived. The acoustic guitar, when it finally kicks in, feels like a life raft - the sturdiest, most reliable instrument in sight. If it weren't for a certain French band who penned a tune about a Hungarian composer, this would be the single greatest song of the year. Oh, and there's another track on this EP. It's okay.
1. El Perro del Mar - Love Is Not Pop
El Perro del Mar - Love Is Not Pop
"Heavenly Arms" (buy)
There's a lot to love here: the battered sincerity of 1980's Lou Reed, the fluid bounce of Balearic funk, the spectre of G.K. Chesterton, the amorous and classical voice of Sarah Assbring. This isn't a happy record - El Perro del Mar's rarely are - but it's spiritually nourishing, full of poignant and unchained melodies that exude a deep, inner warmth. It's a remarkable maturation for Ms. Assbring as a songwriter, who has set aside the conventions of 1960s girl group acts here for the light groove of organic dub, but it's the maturity and patience demonstrated within these songs that give them their allure.
Tom's Favorite Albums
The problem with maintaining a digital music library is that it gets so easy to acquire that there's hardly time left to appreciate. So while I easily listened to over 100 new releases in 2009, each met with at least a modicum of enthusiasm and anticipation, looking back there were only a handful that truly resonated with me and begged for repeated listens as the year wore on. There were plenty more quality releases that I could have included here, and some of my choices may be obvious to people who (like me) spend an unhealthy amount of time reading and writing these sorts of lists, but these are probably my 10 favorite albums of 2009:
10. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
"Too Many Birds" (buy)
For someone with a voice as oaken and stout as Bill Callahan's, he sure has a fleet-footed deftness in tackling ephemeral subjects, crafting Byzantine-tinged fables about familial burdens or grappling with the sudden loss of a perfect song that appeared in a dream and dissipated in the morning. This album, for me, is a little like an old Navy peacoat: heavy and maybe a little musty at times, but reliably built and familiar enough with broken-in grooves to comfortably return to when the weather demands it.
9. St. Vincent - Actor
I'm unreasonably suspicious of music that's too polished; it's probably some kind of latent handicap in music appreciation that resulted from being weaned on grunge and punk and the circumstantial necessity of recording imperfections in early rock and roll. It's like I need to hear a bum note or cracked voice every now and then to know it's human and not factory-made. But this year, faced with a definite resurgence of scrappy and (g)lo-fi bands, I found my patience with that old way of thinking wearing thin, and it took St. Vincent with a flawless orchestral pop record - with overtures to Disney scores, even! - to break through and show the error of my thinking. Actor is a pitch-perfect construct, but still emotionally heartfelt and filled with inventive and bedazzling compositions. Hell, even the feedback and discord is exquisite. It also helped that St. Vincent's live show was one of the best I saw all year.
8. A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Ashes Grammar
"Close Chorus" (buy)
There was a lot of top-notch shoegaze revival-type stuff this year - Memory Tapes, Fuck Buttons, the Big Pink - but it was A Sunny Day in Glasgow that really reinvented the genre in their own image. Sure, there are echoes of your Lovesliescrushings and All Natural Lemon and Lime Flavors, but Ashes Grammar requires total immersion - it's a record so texturally rich and rhythmically fluid that it's impossible to wrap your head around it in just one, or twenty-one, listens.
7. Pomegranates - Everybody, Come Outside!
"This Land Used To Be My Land, But Now I Hate This Land" (buy)
I probably recommended this record to friends and strangers more than any other this year. It really boggles my mind that Everybody, Come Outside! didn't catch on more than it did - a concept album loosely based on a restless time traveler, with influences equal parts Fela Kuti and the Wrens. What's not to love? This album has so much heart and charm, plus, it's filled with some of my single favorite moments laid to tape in 2k9 - the zany chorus on "Southern Ocean" where the boys shout the names of all the other oceans and feign going overboard; the exhausted exclamation "I'm so tired of living in a city where I can't see the stars at night!" on "This Land Used To Be My Land, But Now I Hate This Land;" the guitar lick on "Svaatzi Uutsi." This album is rife with the spirit of adventure, and I can't wait to see where the Pomegranates go next.
6. Fever Ray - s/t
"When I Grow Up" (buy)
Gothic, gnomic, unmistakeably Scandinavian - Fever Ray's self-titled debut was one of the most original and eerily engrossing albums of the year. It's hard to put it on and not be transported to an alternate dreamworld where mossy synths slink under pebble-skipped beats and mechanically monolithic voices emanate out of thin air. But for all the dark curvatures of Fever Ray's planet, there is a light, or at least an organic glow, that emits under every surface, making it curiously uplifting.
5. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t
"Come Saturday" (buy)
How did this make it so high on my list? The curmudgeonly critic in me feels obligated to gripe about how unoriginal the Pains of Being Pure at Heart are, how their whole sound is one big derivative trawl of so many obscure twee bands of yore that even mentioning C86 would be to obvious, how even their cover art rips off My Bloody Valentine. But you know what, my inner curmudgeon can stuff it, because I love this album. I love the everlivin' shit out of it. I put this on when I'm feeling down, when I'm feeling good, when I'm staring at spreadsheets, and when I'm getting my drank on. I listen to it all the goddamn time. Why? Because they sound like a hundred other bands I like, but better.
4. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
"In the Flowers" (buy)
For better or worse, Merriweather Post Pavilion has become the defining album of the year: the object of massively hysterical online hype, the heralded savior of a post-guitar/bass/drums indie landscape, a Billboard-climbing success that introduced broad swaths of casual listeners to subterranean electro-psychedelia, an impassable line in the sand for testy critics, a prime example of everything wrong with music today. But, to my ears, MPP still sounds as weird and invigorating today as it did when I first heard it 12 months ago. Each track pulses with life - bulging, pumping bass rhythms that you feel in your gut; playfully infectious harmonies; gleaming and luminous electronics laid down so thick it's like being bathed in starlight. This is music to get lost to.
3. The xx - xx
"Basic Space" (buy)
Out of the 11 tracks on xx, there are at least six that are stone cold singles. At least. I won't dwell on how young these London kids are, or how meticulously cohesive their debut aesthetic is, or how they unintentionally went toe-to-toe with Peter Bjorn and John in revitalizing a Young Marble Giants-indebted minimalist R&B style in 2009 and wound up schooling the whistling Swedish indie stars, but I feel I should emphasize how good this band is. They're really fucking good. Breathy boy-girl vocals, echoic guitars that are just teased, never battered, leaving most of the rhythm up to the imagination. With so many bands clamoring for attention by being louder, faster, flashier, it's refreshing to find a group willing to pull back and let you come after them.
2. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is at or near the top of plenty of "Best of 2009? lists. This is not shocking. It's a brilliantly executed, head-to-toe catchy, glossy pop tour de force. What is shocking is how defensive its defenders are, as though there were something to be embarrassed about over rock that is (at least partly) soft, French, and impeccably detailed. Apparently there are people out there who are virulently and vocally anti-Phoenix (or at least, anti- the success of this particular album) - this I find shocking!! Who are these people, and how can anyone be so foolishly anti-melody, anti-hook, anti-big-lovable-chorus, anti-this-adorable-fan-made-music-video and still call themselves music fans? Inconceivable!
1. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
"Useful Chamber" (buy)
I listened to Bitte Orca practically every morning for three months after I first picked it up. Just the thought of the opening windswept riff on "Cannibal Resources" causes the hairs on the back of my neck to stand on end. But for all the time I've invested in this record, I still find it hard to articulate in words how I feel, viscerally, about this music. The arrangements are stark, but rhythmically complex, with the bass often played as a a lead that weaves into David Longstreth's intricately filigreed, art-damaged Jùjú guitar work seamlessly, drum machines that mimic the palpitations of acoustic percussion, and the joyously ascendant harmonies of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman that lift my stomach into my throat when the rest of the music drops out. It's fantastic and, without taking this too literally, spiritually revitalizing. There are very few components to each song, but each element that is included is crucially, spectacularly vital.