Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The 20 Best Albums of 2009

Every media outlet under the sun (not to mention some in the dark, too) has issued a best-of-the-year list. While mine inevitably has some things in common with others, it simply represents my personal favorites. There may be other meritorious titles out there, but if they’re not listed here, it means either they were not the cream of this year’s crop to my ears, or I simply didn’t hear them. More likely the former though, since I listen to a heck of a lot of music. Anyway, you’re welcome to disagree.

As I began to consider this list, I was tempted to state right off the bat that 2009 was not a particularly impressive year as far as new rock releases were concerned – especially when compared to the bright sonic lights that breached the horizon in 2007 and 2008. Yet, as I got into assessing the albums, I began to think that maybe 2009 wasn’t so bad after all. One thing is for sure, Pink Floyd’s influence continues to abound in modern music – on both the dense, hard rock side and the mellow, spacey side of the sound spectrum.

= mostly mellow

= a mix of mellow and rockin’

= totally rockin’

NightjarMarty Willson-Piper – This might be my favorite record of the year. Simultaneously lush, yet uncluttered, this latest solo release from the Church guitarist is rich in multi-layered acoustic guitars, string accompaniments and evocative harmony vocals. There is real drama – both lyrically and musically – in the songs. It all adds up to exuberant and romantic music that manages to be both crisp and atmospheric. (See my previous, more detailed posting on this CD here.)

Untitled #23The Church – This Australian band, forever pegged to the 1980’s thanks to their biggest hit, 1988’s “Under the Milky Way,” has continued making great music ever since, albeit mostly under the commercial radar. This is the latest in their string of underappreciated releases – though this one did seem to earn a few more industry accolades than the previous few. Overall, Untitled #23 is quite different sounding from the other titles on this list. It’s not as immediately accessible as some here, but its subtle treasures and nuance reward those who invest repeated listening. I particularly like it for its mix of airy, contemplative atmospherics and edgy, churning portentousness – all done with lots of guitars! Highlights include “Deadman’s Hand,” “Space Saviour,” “Operetta” and the two poppy songs, “Pangaea” and “Sunken Sun.” (See here for my post on the band’s “So Love May Find Us” 2009 U.S. Tour.)

Hold TimeM. Ward – Another stellar release from Conor Oberst’s bud, Matt Ward, the rockin’ folkie from Portland, Ore. Ward has been making outstanding, multi-textured music for years, but it was his 2008 collaboration with Hollywood starlet-cum-singer Zooey Deschanel that put him in the public consciousness. On this 2009 release, his unique vocal style, alternatively falsetto and raspy baritone, are coupled with understated band support. Great lyrical turns of phrase, jaunty acoustic guitar and percussion – occasionally embellished by reverb-and-vibrato-drenched electric guitar, strings or keyboards – make this a thoroughly enjoyable listen and a fairly unique take on the musical style that has come to be referred to as “Americana.”

Wilco (the Album)Wilco – This is a mostly middle of the road effort by a band that a few years ago was really pushing the envelope in their evolution from “alt country” to something akin to America’s Radiohead. They may never top Summerteeth and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but the current Wilco lineup always delivers stellar performances and sharp songwriting, if not exactly boundary-pushing compositions. Nevertheless, the sinister pulse and climactic instrumental exploration of “Bull Black Nova” on this release earn it ranking right up there among the group’s best songs. On the whole, Wilco (the Album) seems to combine many of the characteristic elements of the band, going all the way back to their 1995 debut, A.M. While what emerges from the blender might make for a somewhat blander serving of Wilco, it is still haute cuisine compared to most bands today.

Glitter and Doom Live Tom Waits – Yes, the raspy “singing” is an acquired taste. But, like Dylan, even the potentially off-putting vocals are subsumed by the creative wit of Waits’ songs about the seedy underside of life. Love and genuine humanity are always percolating just beneath the surface. This collection of performances from Waits’ 2008 tours features a cross section of his rollicking, bluesy, sometimes vaudevillian, catalog. Expected Waits’ standards (“Lucinda,” “Get Behind the Mule,” “Metropolitan Glide,” “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” “Make It Rain” et al) are seamlessly integrated with less familiar fare. A second disc features excerpts of the troubadour’s famed between-song storytelling. While strong enough to stand on their own, Tom’s tales lose a little something when devoid of context. Nevertheless, this second disc is entertaining, if not likely to get repeated listenings. (I’m surprised a similar package has never been done with Springsteen, who is likewise renowned for his between-song banter.)

Around the Well Iron & Wine – Like Tom Waits’ remarkable 2006 collection of leftover songs, Orphans, this double album highlights the depth of compositional talent of Iron and Wine main man Sam Beam. It comprises demos and unreleased songs from Iron and Wine’s first sessions in 2002 through those for 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog. Despite the variety of origins and sources, the songs hold together for a cohesive listening experience. The elegiac acoustic guitars, mandolins and banjos strummed and picked over Beam’s characteristically melancholic vocals are as emotive as ever. The demo-like informality and spare production fit the mood, creating what seems a fitting soundtrack to, say, the quieter moments of the Civil War. A good CD for Sunday listening, for sure.

Them Crooked Vultures – Want some real rockin’? This is it for 2009 in my book. While many of the titles on this list are on the mellower, folkie or artsy, space rock side of the spectrum, this one kicks out the jams – in a sophisticated way, of course. Despite the “super group” hype, this one actually lives up to expectations. (For more details, read my previous post on the TCV album here.)

There Is No EnemyBuilt to Spill – Not their best release in my opinion, but still a very good pop album, and certainly one of the best of 2009. If you like Soft Bulletin- and Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips, you’ll like this one. The boys from Boise offer up shimmering, mostly mid-tempo songs about the disenchantment, frustration and resignation of modern life. Nevertheless, with ample guitars creating sounds bordering on modern psychedelia, this record is far from a downer. Highlights include “Good Ol’ Boredom,” “Pat,” “Things Fall Apart” and, of course, the great single, “Hindsight” … “What about Canada?” indeed.

EmbryonicFlaming Lips – This is not Soft Bulletin- or Yoshimi-era Lips. It is rawer and, at times, more artistically aggressive than anything the band has done in years. Much of the slick pop production sheen of recent releases is stripped away to reveal a more abrasive, almost working-mix-like energy and sound (hence, the album’s title). This lengthy album has many highlights, ranging from the opener, “Convinced of the Hex,” through the Floyd-meets-Kraftwerk sound of “Evil,” to the pulsing, bass-driven rhythm of “See the Leaves” and “Worm Mountain.” There’s also the atmospheric, math-theory-spouting “Gemini Syringes,” the industrial staccato guitar of “Powerless” and the dance-club-friendly closer, “Watching the Planets.” And you can’t help but smile at the ludicrous animal mimicry on “I Can Be a Frog.” It’s good to hear the Lips regain some alternative edge before they found themselves walking that giant bubble ball into mainstream mediocrity.

Insurgentes Steven Wilson – Like his band, Porcupine Tree (see below), Steven Wilson’s first solo album channels Pink Floyd and Radiohead at all turns. Yet, overall, it’s much more than a mere knockoff. It has a remarkably subtle density in both its spacier, tranquility and its industrial aggression. The opening track, “Harmony Korine,” sets the dynamic tone for the rest of this well-developed set. Musicianship and recording is top notch throughout.

The Incident Porcupine Tree – The Pink Floyd and Radiohead influences remain front and center, but like singer/guitarist Steven Wilson’s solo album (Insurgentes), there is enough here that is uniquely Porcupine Tree to earn this CD kudos in its own right. Though undeniably prog-rock (something not usually to my liking), the alternately spacey and rockish musical bits and the Radiohead-meets-later-period-Beatles lyrics keep the slick production and sophisticated musicianship from taking over. Despite undeniable sonic resemblance to “Dogs” on Pink Floyd’s Animals album, the epic “Time Flies” is an impelling, multi-faceted highpoint, as is “I Drive the Hearse.” And “Drawing the Line” is prime single fodder; remarkable for a band that doesn’t seem too geared to that approach. In hindsight, this might be the album U2 was trying to make with No Line on the Horizon.

The EternalSonic Youth – Still sounding like the bastard offspring of Patti Smith and Richard Hell, foster-parented by The Pixies and P.J. Harvey, it’s no surprise that this CD’s sleeve art contains a tip of the hat to prototypical rocker and punk scenester Johnny Thunders. But, overall, The Eternal leans more toward pop songcraft, with odd little instrumental embellishments (e.g. “Antenna”), than the thrash style that endeared the band to Neil Young’s rusty metal sensibilities. That said, the threat of sonic mayhem always lurks just over the precipice. Highlights include the propulsive, punk pop of “Anti-Orgasm,” which post climax mutates into a pastoral mood piece, and “What We Know.” There’s Lou Reed overtones on “Poison Arrow” and Echo and the Bunnymen guitars on “Walkin’ Blue.” The musicians deftly balance the sublime with the sonic assault … just as a good rock and roll band should.

Outer South Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band – Somewhat reminiscent of the early Wilco records and, even more so, George Harrison’s solo work, the second release from the wunderkind Bright Eyes leader and his new band features catchy, tightly arranged folk and countrified rock songs. The opener, “Slowly (Oh So Slowly),” provides a jaunty takeoff point. But the album’s most noteworthy tracks, “To All the Lights in the Windows” and the overtly political “Roosevelt Room,” successfully tread similar ground as previous Bright Eyes’ highlights “Four Winds” and “At the Bottom of Everything” – or even the best of Joe Strummer’s last years, for that matter. Despite the quirky title, “Cabbage Town” is another up-tempo standout, while “Difference Is Time” is a potent mid-tempo rocker (with drummer Jason Boesel on lead vocal) and “Ten Women” ably holds up the softer side. Clever wordplay and slightly menacing melodies bolster the overall pop sound, which has more in common with the southern accents and sensibilities of Tom Petty than the bleak coal-country vision of Dylan, to whom the young and prolific Oberst has so often been compared.

21st Century BreakdownGreen Day – I’m not really much of a Green Day fan. For my fill of snotty punk attitude with a bit of melody, I’m more inclined to go to the original source, be it The Damned, The Skids, the Dead Kennedy’s or even The Replacements. That said, the former Bay Area punks (now thirty-something parents themselves) just seem to be getting better with each outing. Musically, the spirit of The Skids is all over this record, interspersed by occasional suggestions of Bauhaus (“Christian’s Inferno”), The Beatles (“Last Night on Earth”) and even Gogol Bordello (“Peacemaker”). Overall, this album is full of concept without being either pretentiously high-brow or stupidly sophomoric … as good a soundtrack as any for the Decline and Fall of the American Empire.

Welcome to Mali Amadou & Mariam – Despite a long and distinguished career in West Africa and Europe, this is the breakthrough album for this husband and wife duo. Never mind the fact that many of the songs are sung in Malian or French, the infectious rhythms, tasty guitar chops and catchy choruses transcend all language barriers. Best of all, this album works whether you just want it for background ambiance or if you want get up and dance. (See my previous posting on the duo’s appearance in Boston last June here.)

The Hazards of LoveThe Decemberists – Critics’ darlings since their indie label days early in the decade, this Portland, Ore.-based quintet didn’t really resonate with me on their first few albums. It wasn’t until this year’s release that I became a convert, sold by the sophisticated song cycle presented through simple vocal and acoustic interludes and full band workouts. The ephemeral male and female vocals float over opulent instrumentation. But this time around, the group’s characteristic, almost Edwardian, vibe is interlaced with Floydian bombast. (I didn’t know they had it in them!) Raconteurs-like heavy pop riffs are masterfully juxtaposed with keyboard and harpsichord-driven motifs that recall mid-’80s XTC and ’60s British folk. As a unified thematic piece, the album tells a rather complicated tale of a young woman, a shape-shifting animal, her lover and a lecherous snake. Suffice to say, it’s a story that takes repeated airings to fathom. Yet, even with less acute attention, Hazards is a rewarding listening experience. Various characters are voiced by notable guests, such as Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond), Jim James (My Mourning Jacket), Robyn Hitchcock and others.

My Old Familiar FriendBrendan Benson – This guy consistently writes more great hook-driven pop songs than anyone since Matthew Sweet. When not trading vocals and guitar licks with Jack White in The Raconteurs, Benson has a critically acclaimed solo career in his own right. Besides the aforementioned Sweet, the fedora-sporting Benson’s catchy compositions conjure the spirit of Dave Edmunds, Something Happens (an impressive Irish band that followed in U2’s footsteps for a few years in the late ’80s) and even Paul McCartney at times. If you like sunshiny pop and dramatic balladry, you can’t help but like this infectious album. Great overall musicianship and production. Pretty much every song is a pure pop winner.

The Fall Norah Jones – “The lite jazz chanteuse rocks out,” or something to that effect, is what the early critics said of the multi-Grammy winner’s 2009 release. Well, not exactly. I didn’t find The Fall quite crossing the bridge over to Rock Island. Yes, some of the tempos are a little more upbeat, and the electric guitar may be turned up a notch with a few added effects, but Norah’s warm, folk, pop, jazz vocals are still the star of the show. While Jones is familiarly sultry on several songs, she sounds almost Lucinda Williams-like on the hauntingly atmospheric “Light As a Feather,” and nearly funky on “Young Blood.” She shows some humor on “It’s Gonna Be” and “Man of the Hour”(about her dog!). She even channels Alison Krauss on the country-ish “Tell Her Mama” and “You’ve Ruined Me,” which along with the neo-psychedelic “Stuck” are highlights. Overall, a strong fourth outing from Ravi Shankar’s most famous daughter.

White Lies for Dark Times Ben Harper & Relentless 7 – Backed by the Texas trio Relentless 7, the noted slide guitar specialist gets extra funky on this outing. Alternately bluesy, hard rockin’ and soulful, Harper’s instrumental chops stand out, but there’s catchy lyrical phrasing bubbling through on many songs, too. The jamming is Hendrixian at points (“Lay There & Hate Me” and “Keep It Together”), Black Crowes-ish at others (“Boots Like These” and “The Word Suicide”). The opening track, “A Number with No Name,” kicks it off, and it all rocks on from there.

Live in LondonLeonard Cohen – The old Zen-master’s pension recovery tour reminded us all of his sensitive songwriting and performing brilliance. His heartfelt, literate approach to rock/folk/whatever you call it is simply unparalleled. At 73, Leonard Cohen is dignity incarnate. This live recording from his July 2008 concert at London’s 02 Arena covers the full span of his 40-plus year career, featuring all of the expected “hits.” His large backing band is absolutely stellar. Sting wishes his band sounded this good. I recommend the DVD version of this release, since it has the same song list as the CD but the added bonus of the visuals, which in this case add a lot to the overall effect.

Others that were seriously considered, but didn’t quite make the top 20 cut:

No Line on the HorizonU2 / Together Through LifeBob Dylan / Monsters of Folk / The FountainEcho & The Bunnymen / Battle for the Sun Placebo / American Central DustSon Volt / Imidiwan: CompanionsTinariwen /Songs from Lonely AvenueThe Brian Setzer Orchestra / HorehoundThe Dead Weather / Fork in the RoadNeil Young / Electric DirtLevon Helm / Through the Devil SoftlyHope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions / Outside LovePink Mountaintops


  1. Great choices, except for the Flaming Lips' Embryonic, which is a self-indulgent mess in my opinion. This sort of thing was done with much more flair by Zappa circa Absolutely Free.

  2. Thanks, Norbert. I wouldn't have thought of the Zappa reference. I wasn't that impressed with Embryonic upon first listen, but it grew on me. To me, the self-indulgence is primarily in the length of the CD. It would have been better at about 50 min. rather than 70, I think. Of course, that's been a problem with many during the CD era.

    Thanks for posting your comments!

  3. A truly fine list. But thanks to the reminder about Tom Waits, I emerged from my wash-off-the concert-beer-shower shower this morning to a hail of the Bone Machine himself, rasping at full volume. Caught a splinter in the gut. 2010 has arrived. Ouch.