Tag Archives: best albums of 2009

The Thermals “Personal Life”


The Thermals
“Personal Life”
[Kill Rock Stars; 2010]

Rating: 6

“Now We Can See”: damn is that a great album. This 2009 release from The Thermals is filled with enticing melodies of rebirth, alcoholism, and letting go all conveyed through the lens of Darwin’s evolution. I ranked it #6 on my “Best Albums of 2009” list, and its staying power is made evident each time I find myself returning to it amidst the downpour of amazing albums in 2010 (more on that in December…). Unfortunately, “Now We Can See” never got the credit it deserved from most major music journalists. Instead of deeming it a miracle that the band could follow up their modern classic “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” with another blistering set of songs, most reviews responded to “Now We Can See” with a yawning “Oh, these guys are still good…”.
Which leaves me wondering if a band is at a fault when they release great album after great album. It’s what I’d like to refer as Tim Duncan Syndrome – after winning back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in 2002 and 2003, Duncan never received the award again. A look at his career stats shows that there was never a fall off in his nightly performances through most of the decade, a sustenance that led Charles Barkley to nickname him “Groundhog Day”. Despite this perpetual dominance in the paint that drove the Spurs to four NBA titles, it seems journalists became bored with his unyielding talent and decided to award the player of the moment each year (how many titles did Steve Nash win again?).
Perhaps if Duncan had a Jordan-like year off to pursue a career in professional swimming his continual dominance would have been better appreciated. And maybe that’s what The Thermals are doing with their latest album “Personal Life”. I’m not saying that the 2010 release from The Thermals is a cataclysmic failure like Jordan’s baseball career. In fact, there are some fantastic songs on the album that flow within the vein of what has become the band’s signature sound. “Personal Life” just lacks the significance that their past few albums have had – it lacks the weight. I’d like to believe they are taking a break from writing songs with depth in order to be better appreciated a year from now. I hope this is the case.
It’s album of love songs. That’s it. No allegories. No references to the bible. Just love songs. So yes, I guess the album has that signature Thermals album “theme” to it, but I’m pretty sure “love albums” have been recorded a million times over (if only they’d utilized a metaphor like the Roman Empire or the Civil War to express the struggles of love). But to just write a collection of love songs without any deeper meaning? I guess I’ve just come to expect more from the Portland band that is usually writing intelligent pop-punk songs. Never have they sounded so literal.

The album’s weakness goes beyond my textual analysis; the songs just aren’t as good as what I’ve come to expect, and I think I know why. The power chord has left the building; the distortion pedal has been put in the pantry. “Personal Life” consists mostly of bass driven songs with Hutch Harris meandering across the fret board trying to keep occupied without accomplishing much. Only on “I Don’t Believe You” do we hear that signature crunch, which also happens to be the best song on the album. It’s classic Thermals, plain and simple.

The video also features Carrie Brownstein of Sleater Kinney and Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock:


The album starts off strong, but quickly dwindles into songs that lack the excitement of what we’ve come to expect from these three. Again, I must stress that the songs aren’t horrible; you can still hear the band’s knack for melody throughout. It’s just missing something.
The most disappointing moment has to be “Your Love is So Strong”, starting off with a promising “Oh-wo-ee-oh-oh-oh-oh!” intro reminiscent of their 2009 hit “Now We Can See”. But this is no “Now We Can See”. Instead, it builds up to stagnation. Unlike it’s 2009 sister, this song never explodes into the passion felt within their music in the past.

You can have this:

Or this:

Maybe it’s the angst that’s missing. “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” had an anger towards God and the government, “Now We Can See” held a disdain for the past and mistakes, but “Personal Life” has only love. “You Changed My Life”, “Not Like Any Other Feeling”, “Only For You”: these aren’t the types of song titles that lead to fist pump or jumping humping. These are songs for spooning in a Snuggie. No thank you. I’ll take my rage elsewhere. Let’s just hope that The Thermals read some Vygostky sometime in the near future; that psycho-babble will frustrate anyone.

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Top 20 Albums of 2009 (11-20)

2009 was the year of disappointments. Obama’s change never really took shape, the Lakers and Yankees won championships in their respective sports, and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” sucked ass.  The disappointment flu bug didn’t avoid the music world, where perennial greats like A.C. Newman, Andrew Bird, Beirut, The Decemberist, Handsome Furs, Built to Spill, and The Dodos all released mediocre albums (this list could be longer, but I thought I’d spare you the details).  Fortunately it was not all a wash, with many bands stepping up in 2009 with ambitious albums that beg to be reckoned with.  

Honorable Mention:

And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead “The Century of Self”

Converge “Axe to Fall”

Lightning Bolt “Earthly Delights”

Marissa Nadler “Little Hells”

Megafaun “Gather, Form, and Fly”

Memory Tapes “Seek Magic”

Mount Eerie “Wind’s Poem”

Pissed Jeans “King of Jeans”

Propagandhi “Supporting Caste”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs “It’s Blitz”

 

20. Bats for Lashes

“Two Suns”

“Two Suns” doesn’t feel like an album at all, rather an ancient, epic tale of love and survival.  What would it sound like if C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien were to form a band? This might be it right here, with Natasha Kahn’s voice resembling Lady Galadriel, speaking a tale that only the forest knows.  At times it is over-produced  which is a plus in this case, commanding your attention. A story of this magnitude can not be told in lo-fi (compare the PBS version of “The Chronicles of Narnia” to the latest film versions, and you’ll understand my point).  Although the lyrics tell of a mystical, metaphorical world of chivalry and heart-break, the music sounds like something new and unexplored.

19. Phoenix

“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”

“Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is more than a dance record, but you probably already know that.  It fronts as a collection of pop music, but in reality it’s a headphone album.  Every song features an ambience that will envelope your head and have strange sounds bouncing around inside your skull like a magical, musical Pong.  Even in its most mainstream track “1901” there are random bleeps and whistles that surprise you from every which way.  Phoenix, veterans of the pop music world, have mastered their craft, balancing memorable hooks with little nuances that make it an album you’ll go back to, over and over again.

18. Fuck Buttons

“Tarot Sport”

I’ll admit, when I first heard “Tarot Sport” I was a little disappointed. What made their 2008 release “Street Horssing” so great was how every song eventually led into a world of torture, usually a garbled voice howling a la Aphex Twins.  On “Tarot Sport”, the oppressed vocals have been set free.  The more I thought about it, the more I realized why the band had to move on. If they continued relying on the riotous finish to each song, what was at first an original sound would become a gimmick. Instead, the band looked to new horizons, realizing they could take their sound to higher altitudes.  Fuck Buttons want to take dance/electronica beyond the raves and gay night clubs.  Dance music has become a “boom boom boom boom” cliché. Fuck Buttons see that this music style can be grand, can go beyond what is copy and pasted on a laptop. It can build, layer upon layer. It can feature live instrumentation. It can gather sounds from beyond the digital world.  When I first heard the band name Fuck Buttons I thought it was in reference to the clitoris, but  with “Tarot Sport” I now know I was wrong. They are making a statement: “Fuck buttons!”  Electronica has relied on technology for too long. Instead, they take live tribal drums, growling guitars, and toss them into the digital mix.  Fuck Buttons have made an intrepid album that builds, much like their old sound, but shows the Bristol boys can be more potent and spacious than the girtty bite of “Street Horssing” would allow. 

17. Mos Def

“The Ecstatic”

By modern definition, “The Ecstatic” isn’t a rap album. It doesn’t contain any lyrics about driving in a Benz, wearing bling, or drinking Cristal. There are no sexual innuendos, tales of sex acts, or descriptions of shakin’ booties.  You won’t find any auto-tuner, in fact, Mos Def sings throughout the album with a voice that is smooth and rich.   The backing loops don’t even sound like the rap music of today. Mos Def sampled albums from Lebanon, Turkey, and Brazil (oh, and a little Marvin Gaye for good measure). Some songs sound Jamaican, others sound Arabic, and even one (“No Hay, Nadas Mas”) is rapped entirely in Spanish.  In fact, the entire album plays like a journey across the globe, with Mos Def professing lyrics about troubles that go beyond the hood.  Sure, the inner city can be tough, but try living a day in the ghetto of Iraq.

16. HEALTH

“Get Color”

This past fall I reviewed this album and claimed that HEALTH were now writing songs, which may have been misleading. The band is still as vicious as ever on “Get Color”, violently raging through a noise that is both clamorous and discordant like their work of the past. The only difference here is that they understand their music can be more than just noise; it can have peaks and valleys – it can have melodies.  Believe me, their are plenty of both rage and harmony to go around. While their self titled album leaves you beaten and bruised, “Get Color” serenades you to your feet just in time to take another wallop of destruction. 

15. Lightning Dust

“Infinite Light”

Although this album may seem sparse, it is much more complex and ambitious than your first assumptions.  Yes, Amber Webber’s warbly voice does sound lost in some type of echo chamber, but the music as a whole will fill up every corner of your room, drowning you with tales of wisdom and curiosity.  Lightning Dust proves that the folks behind Black Mountain can do more than write psychedelic metal (just imagine what could have happened if Black Sabbath and Joan Baez collaborated in the 70s).  This music is like a lost and distant star.  Amber guides us towards it, leading through the cosmos of sound, visiting strange, ancient melodies, and finally offering us up to the light.

14. Future of the Left

“Travels with Myself and Another”

If you’re expecting Future of the Left to be Mclusky with a different name, you’ve been mistaken. Yes, the lyrics are still witty and wry and the guitars at times still bark and growl at you, but the majority of the album has a different edge to it than the classic Mclusky work. “The Hope That House Built” is a march about jumping on the bandwagon of a hopeless cause, “Throwing Bricks at Trains” is Devo through a hardcore lense, and “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” is Big Black for the new millenium.  In the song Falco screams “It doesn’t smell like a man! It doesn’t taste like a man! but does it fuck like a man?”  The same question could be asked of Future of the Left. It doesn’t always sound or smell like Mclusky, but it still sure fucks like Mclusky.

13. BiRd-BrAiNs

“tUnE-yArDs”

Merrill Garbus, the brains behind BiRd-BrAiNs, recorded her entire album from her home, using only a loop pedal, a ukulele, a drum set, and a digital recorder.  With such a simple palette, it doesn’t seem like she could take the sound very far, but you would be mistaken.  “tUnE-yArDs” is an accomplishment in resourcefulness because she is somehow able to create music that is complex and ever-changing.  At times it is simple folk music, at others it is calming R&B.  Unlike most of the R&B on the radio, BiRd-BrAiNs is personal and real.  Throughout the album you can hear the echoing voice of a little boy talking, laughing, and coughing in the background (I’m guessing he’s her son but I have no proof of who the mystery child is) and he becomes a part of the music, a character in her little world.  Throughout the album, she somehow takes the sounds of cars passing or a child coughing and meshes them into her tunes, making mistakes sound like an intrical part of the song.  While many artists try to take their sound to uncharted territories, she somehow makes home sound like a new and alien place. 

12. Wavves

“Wavves”

It’s easy to hate Nathan Williams. His melt-down at the Primavera Festival in Spain became a YouTube sensation earlier this year. He was sarcastic, bratty, and simply put, an asshole.  Yet, I feel he’s gotten a bad rap. We all have bad days, right? In the same style as the ESPN show that tries to defend Dennis Rodman’s behavior, I’m going to give you “Five Reasons You Can’t Blame Nathan Williams”:

 5. Wavves never wanted to be famous. Their first album was self-released and recorded in William’s bedroom on a 4-track. It was simply a kid having fun with his guitar.

4. Williams was on a mixture of Valium, Ecstasy, and alcohol the night of the famous Spain show.  Sure, we can blame him for being so fucked up, but do you think his 2009 album would be so damn cool and divergent if he were a sober fella?

3. People from Spain are not worthy of Wavves. Get over it, filthy Imperials.

2. Drummer Ryan Ulsh was holding Nathan back…of course, I have no proof of this.

1. The band got too big, too quick.  Their album came out in February, and within a couple weeks, they were the biggest buzz band of 2009.  Within a month, they were playing before festival crowds (including SXSW) that they never could have imagined when recording their first album. 

Despite these facts, many moved past Wavves, judging Williams by his behavior and not his music.  Their loss. Wavve’s self-titled album is a roller coaster ride through no-fi Valhalla, a combination of crackling guitars and spacey synths with Nathan’s muffled voice shouting throughout.  This is damn good stuff; you can’t deny it. But then again, maybe I’m biased. After all, I always did find Rodman’s behavior on the court to be refreshing and graceful, a beautiful disaster prancing up and down the court.

11. Alela Diane

“To Be Still”

“To Be Still” is not cutting-edge, nor is it going to change the face of music as we know it.  Its strength lies in its familiarity. No, it doesn’t sound like anything on the radio, yet you feel like you know this voice; you know these stories.  Throughout “To Be Still” Alela paints pictures of nature, all images and colors you’ve seen in your time, yet not from her unique perspective.  “To Be Still” is an album that is cozy and welcoming like a campfire.  Sit. Be still. Let Alela’s glow captivate you, filling your soul with warmth and comforting you through the cold winter nights.

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