Tuesday, December 22, 2009

That Wonderful Year in Music... 2009

Like any two-bit wannabe music critic on the world wide internets, I have chosen to drink the Kool-Aid and post my inevitable "Best Albums of 2009" list. If the music scene of the past 12 months could be summed up in one word, it would be "weird." I'm not saying that to be derogatory, though. As pretty much anything unique, irreverent, and forward-thinking pushed itself further away from the mainstream, Top 40, CHR, and Modern Rock radio became a synthetic cacophany of studio wizardry, sounds that were so polished that they could barely breathe. Lady Gaga, arguably the breakout artist of the year, was as praised for her songcraft as she was ridiculed for her bizarre, Madonna-lite wardrobe and aloof "genius" persona. There was hardly a dull moment in 2009, though only history will tell if it was a great year for music.

1. Bitte Orca, The Dirty Projectors. To describe the sound of this NYC-based art project is nearly as difficult as pigeonholing them into a particular subgenre. This album is a fascinating as it is obtuse, from frontman David Longstreth's abstact lyrics to the repetitive "ay, ay-oh, aaaay-ohhhh" choruses of their three female vocalists. Once you get beyond the idiosyncracies, Bitte Orca pays a debt to '60s baroque-pop and R&B girl groups, as evidenced by tracks like "Two Doves" and "Remade Horizon." It's very bewildering upon listening to it for the first time, but this disc grows on you in repeat plays.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix. Who would've guessed that Saturday Night Live still possessed the ability to be a kingmaker for unknown musical acts? Though I initially reacted to Phoenix's performance of "1901" and "Lisztomania" with mild satisfaction, there was something fresh and distinctive to these songs that I must've missed the first time around. It was new wave revival at its purest, yet they don't sound anything like our American brand of New Order and Cure proteges.
3. Vecktimest, Grizzly Bear. Much like my #1 pick, Grizzly Bear is a New York City-based outfit that pays fleeting homage to the sounds of yesteryear as they look ahead to an uncertain future. There's a recurring theme of love and yearning in this album, 12 bittersweet and earnest tracks enhanced by the band's Beach Boys-esque harmonizing, eerie choral arrangements, and swishy instrumentation. You can feel the weight of their ambition, yet you never get the sense that Vecktimest will collapse at any moment.
4. Actor, St. Vincent
5. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective
6. Fantasies, Metric
7. Crack The Skye, Mastodon
8. Far, Regina Spektor
9. Humbug, Arctic Monkeys
10. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case. Whether she's solo or with The New Pornographers, Neko Case has proven to be of the most consistent and fascinating artists of the past decade. Her latest disc is no exception, a concept album about natural disasters and the damage it leaves in its path, a theme that becomes a metaphor for love and loss. My only complaint about this disc is the closing track, which is little more than 30+ minutes of crickets chirping; is this supposed to embody the calm after the storm, and if not, is there any point to it?

Honorable Mentions: The Crying Light, Antony and The Johnsons; Embryonic, The Flaming Lips; Backspacer, Pearl Jam; Swoon, Silversun Pickups.

"Percussion Gun," White Rabbits
"A Whole Lot Better," Brandon Benson
"Hang You From The Heavens," The Dead Weather
"Day & Nite," Kid Cudi
"Ain't No Rest for the Wicked," Cage the Elephant
"Dreams," Brandi Carlile
"You and I," Wilco feat. Feist
"Outlaw Pete," Bruce Springsteen
"The Fear," Lily Allen
"Heavy Cross," Gossip

1. "Wrong," Depeche Mode. A stunning, intense thriller of a clip. Just so you know: Dave Gahan and company make a brief cameo about halfway through the film.
3. "Panic Switch," Silversun Pickups.
4. "Make Her Say (I Poke Her Face)," Kid Cudi feat. Kanye West and Common.
5. "Mykonos," Fleet Foxes.

Unlikliest Session Musician: Rather than rest on his laurels, wallow in his millions, and continue to unsuccessfully adopt African orphans, Sir Elton John contributed piano riffs to new releases from Brandi Carlile and Alice In Chains.

2009 was a banner year for awful album titles. If I could whittle it down to the five worst, it would look something like this:
Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King, The Dave Matthews Band
Confessions of an Imperfect Angel, Mariah Carey
No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away, Mew
Pray IV Reign, Jim Jones
Raditude, Weezer

1. Full Circle, Creed. Apparently inspired by Pearl Jam's recent creative resurgence, Eddie Vedder's unwitting protege Scott Stapp reassembled his old band for their first full-player in eight years. There's a major difference, though; where Pearl Jam is evolving in sound yet maintaining their musical and creative core, Creed plays like they wish 1999 had never ended. In short, it's the same pretentious, vaguely spiritual ipecac that you hated ten years ago.
2. Halestorm, Halestorm. Say what you will about mainstream modern rock, but I think we all agree on the fact that it's one big sausage-fest. Lzzy Hale (not a typo) and her cliched "I hate guys/I'm a complicated woman" rhetoric will do nothing to change that.
3. The E.N.D., The Black Eyed Peas. Three words: "Boom Boom Pow." They've got the formula so down pat, you'd think this CD was assembled in a high school chemistry class.

Next Week: my favorite TV shows of '09, and my final thoughts on the year (and decade) that was.


  1. HeyStu ~ I enjoyed reading your commentary, but must confess, stodgy as I am, am only vaguely familiar with one of these albums: Humbug by the Arctic Monkeys, and that is because my 72 year-old aunt requested it for Christmas and got it (she's not stodgy) :)


  2. Really? Wow. For a moment there, I thought maybe your aunt mistook Humbug as an album of Christmas music...