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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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Top 50 Songs of 2009 (26-50)

50. Dutchess and the Duke
“Scorpio”


The harmonizing voices on this song perfectly capture the heartbreak of the narrator. Despite being near his lover, he still feels miles apart. A few weeks ago I was playing this song in my classroom during journal time, and one of my students commented that it sounded like something from “Juno”. I agreed, although I don’t remember Moldy Peaches ever sounding this damn beautiful.

49. NOFX
“Best God in Show”

Despite releasing a couple lackluster albums in the past few years, NOFX still have a gift for catching you off-guard. On the surface, “Best God in Show” is a happy-hippy jam, but when you get past the joyful ska riff and cheery organ, NOFX is once again questioning religion in a way that is both humorous and thought-provoking.

48. M. Ward
“Never Had Nobody Like You”

Once you get past the use of a double negative in the title, you will find M. Ward has written another hum-able gem that would fit perfectly alongside other classics on “Transfiguration of Vincent”. It’s just too bad he had to let Budweiser throw it into a comercial about guys hi-fiving…who okays these things and deems them as funny?

47. Jay-Z
“DOA (Death to Auto-Tune)

Jay-Z is the godfather of the rap world. When the Hova says auto-tune is dead, you better take notice. Like a modern-day Biz Markie, Jay-Z howls “Na, na, na, na! Hey, hey, hey! Goodbye!” off-key throughout the song, along with the use of live instrumentation, ranging from a squealing saxophone to a sultry guitar line. While most of the rap world has become a caricature of their former selves, Jay-Z continues to sing his own song, even if it is out of tune.

46. Bon Iver
“Woods”

Wait just one second Jay-Z…like a musical zombie, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon breathed new life into the auto-tuner with this captivating new approach to the played-out device. Somehow the old timey lyrics of “I’m building a still” work perfectly through the 21st century lens, sounding like a robotic barbershop quartet. And somehow, Vernon is still able to convey the loneliness and solitude of being alone in the woods.

45. Slayer
“Americon”

In a year where we got a glimpse of the stock market’s dirty under-belly and the corruption of American big business, it’s nice to see Slayer take a break from wreaking havoc on Christianity and focusing on the sick fucks who have preyed upon the middle class of this country for too long. There is something poetic about such an “evil” band taking on the true evil of this “land of deceit”.

44. Ty Segall
“Lovely One”

Ty Segall is often banging away at his guitar from start to finish, but on “Lovely One” he takes a break from his distortion pedal, starting off with a calming little guitar strum, eventually leading into the infectious chorus that would fit perfectly alongside The Animals and The Loving Spoonful on a classic oldies station.

43. Lightning Dust
“I Knew”

This song seems pressing despite the lack of a real drum track. The pulsing undertone continues from start to finish while the piano and organ truly take shape as percussion instruments, driving the two-minute romp through its existential path. How can something sound aged and cutting edge at the same time?

42. Pissed Jeans
“Goodbye (Hair)”

Historically, hardcore punk songs are about several defined topics: criticizing the government, criticizing the use of drugs/alcohol, or conveying how horrible it is to be a teenager. Pissed Jeans like to take a different stance. On past albums they’ve lamented the difficulties of being a stalker, the shame felt when cumming, and the perils of scrapbooking. On their 2009 release “King of Jeans” they even present the misery felt during the process of losing your hair:

I still can’t believe this is happening. I’m not fifty years old. I consider myself a young adult and want others to see me this way. If my looks deteriorate, it’ll wreak havoc on my self-esteem. Is that what I have to look forward to?

 Although humorous (and hitting a little close to home for a bald fella like myself) the song also conveys the anguish and frustration that is associated with growing old and losing your youth, one hair at a time.

41. Phoenix
“1901”

I know what you’re thinking: “How could he put this song so low on his list?!” Yes, I will admit that when I first heard this song during the spring, I played it endlessly. It’s catchy as hell and is even capable of getting a white boy like myself on his feet dancing (after a few beers mind you). Unfortunately, my love has turned to loathing due to the Cadillac ads played in heavy rotation during the commercial break of every football game. Despite this hatred, I still can’t deny what a great song it is, or was (don’t worry, Phoenix gets more cred on this list…)

40. The Love Language
“Lalita”

You’ve heard this song before, but in actuality you haven’t. Weird? That is the power of The Love Language my friends. Quit trying to remember where you heard it and just sit back and enjoy the tune you’ve never heard before but swear you have.

39. Morrissey
“Something’s Squeezing My Skull”

When Morrissey expresses that he is “doing fine”, you know he’s lying. Despite being an older gentleman, he still seems to be dealing with his demons, some of which take pleasure in squeezing his skull. Drugs? The perils of relationships? Insanity? Who cares really. At least musically Morrissey sounds better than ever, with a Gang of Four, angular riff and the closing chant of “Don’t give me anymore!” that you just can’t get enough of.

38. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”

The fact that you are hooked on this song within 10 seconds says it all.

37. Sonic Youth
“Thunderclaps for Pyn”

https://bobdylanwrotepropagandasongs.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/09-sonic_youth-thunderclap_for_bobby_pyn2.mp3

When I lived in Omaha I liked to go to the Old Country Buffet on barbeque night. I’d skip over the salad bar, the fried foods section, and even noodle salad row in search of one thing: BBQ ribs. I’d fill my plate with ribs, and ribs only. When all that remained was a plate with meat-less bones I’d go back for seconds, engulfing a pig’s entire rib cage by the end of my visit.  Sonic Youth’s “The Eternal” is much like a buffet line, featuring a wide range of Sonic sounds from over the years, ranging from the art noise of early days to the sparser atmospheres of recent albums. But, like a plate of short ribs, this past year I often found myself skipping over the other tunes in search of a nice earful of “Thunderclaps for Pyn”.  Yummy!

36. Lightning Bolt
“Sublime Freak”

How do you make a Lightning Bolt song more chaotic? Add bongos. But there is so much more going on in this song; there is actually a chorus! YES FOLKS! A CHORUS! And if you listen close enough, it almost sounds like a 1960s surfer tune. I can see the beach blanket gogo dancers now…

35. Japandroids
“The Boys are Leaving Town”

Sure, this song has sentimental value for me, reminding me of my road trip this past summer where Paul and I listened to this at the beginning of our trip and later saw the band perform in Boise, Idaho. But this song made its way on this list for more reasons than the memories associated with it. Simply put, it kicks ass. Being the anti-thesis to Cheap Trick’s “Boys are Back in Town”, Japandroids have taken the classic teenage angst of leaving town and given it a jolt with rolling, jumpy drum fills and passionate, lo-fi vocals.

34. Andrew Bird
“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”

Every interview/review I read about Andrew Bird’s 2009 release “Noble Beast” focused heavily on the album’s use of whistling. This is for good reason. Every song on the album features whistling at some point, an aspect that becomes annoying pretty quickly. Only on “Fitz and Dizzyspells” does Andrew find a happy medium between his violin and pierced lips, creating a joyful romp that begs you to put a smile on your face.

33. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Zero”

Karen O singing about leather? I’m sold.

32. Animal Collective
“Brother Sport”

In the past few years the tribal sounds of bands like MIA and El Guincho have become more and more popular.  How soon we forget that Animal Collective brought this sound to the forefront years ago.  On “Merriwether Post Pavillion” the boys finish the album off with “Brother Sport”, a tropical rumpus that works perfectly as a final track due to its celebratory tone. It also serves as a reminder that the Collective can still make you shake your ass off if they really want to.

31. Lou Barlow
“The One I Call”

I know, I know. I hate love songs too.  And I’ll admit, Lou Barlow’s “One I Call” would probably work great on a John Cusack chick flick.  But you can’t resist its earnest lyrics nor can you deny the comfort of the combination of Lou’s voice and his guitar. If I saw Lou on the street, I’d probably yell to him, “Great song Lou!” to which he’d glare at me in disgust (inside joke).

30. Blank Dogs
“Open/Shut”

Guided By Voices meets The Cure circa 1980s? Oh, what a sweet combination, like peanut butter and jelly.

29. Propagandhi
“Dear Coach’s Corner”

Propagandhi usually rage against racism, government, and of course the fact that “Meat is murder”.  But never before have I heard them write about such unique subjects as they do on “Supporting Caste”.  The best has to be “Dear Coach’s Corner”, a vial criticism of the Canadian hockey show “Coach’s Corner” (I guess with Bush out of office, their song material got cut in half). The ranting tune basically states an annoyance with announcers conveying their own agendas when in the end, it’s just a game. Shut the fuck up:

Dear Ron McLane, I wouldn’t bother with these questions
if I didn’t sense some spiritual connection.
We may not be the same, but it’s not like we’re from different planets.
We both love this game so much we can hardly fucking stand it. 

 There is something admirable in Propagandhi’s approach; no one is free from being criticized. Who wouldn’t like to hear a song ripping into Bill Walton, Bob Davie, or Joe Buck?

28. Jay Reatard
“Wounded”

Everything in this song has its function. The “lade-da-da” that starts the song leads into a sweet little acoustic guitar lick, jumping straight into Jay’s yelling anthem, and finally kicking into the fist pumping chorus. And then, when you think you’ve figured it all out, the song finishes off with a killer closer that would put “Hey Jude” to shame.  Jay Reatard is a master songwriter; it’s about time we all accept his God-liness.

27. Matt and Kim
“Good Ol’ Fashion Nightmare”

Matt and Kim songs are so simple. A plinking piano over a pounding drum beat and Matt’s nasally whine. Yet, with only these few elements they are able to write irresistable pop hits. While “Daylight” may be considered their breakout hit in 2009, “Good Ol Fashion Nightmare” is just as charming and replay-able.

26. Beirut
“My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille”

When I heard Beirut was releasing a double CD (one disc of them performing with a mexican mariachi band and another of Zach Condon singing over electronic music), I expected the first CD to be the better of the two but was disappointed by his Mexican offering.  Instead, I fell in love with the second disc of five dance songs, devoid of trumpets and accordians.  While two of the songs are about hookers, “My Night With the Prostitute From Marseille” is the obvious stand-out of the album.

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Lightning Dust “Infinite Light”

Lightning Dust
“Infinite Light”
Jagjaguwar Records

Rating: 8.5

I hate when musicians use the term “side-project”.  It instantly lessens the worth of said project, presenting it as their baked potato to the main course. Lightning Dust, for example, is considered a side project for Amber Webber and Joshua Wells of Black Mountain.  While Black Mountain creates grandiose jam metal that conjure up memories of Black Sabbath, Iron Butterfly, and Deep Purple, they rarely stray from the formula, keeping with the retro feel from start to finish.

The “side-project” Lightning Dust, on the other hand, provides the dynamic duo the opportunity to stray from the mold. Wells describes it as an opportunity to “…do something that is sparse and minimal, and with a lot of space around it.” The word “space” couldn’t be a better descriptor of Lightning Dust, taking their music into unknown galaxies, exploring soundscapes while always being grounded in the past.  For example, the song “Never Seen”, although simple in structure, is sweltering with a thick atmosphere that is other-worldly. 

The album artwork supports this sci-fi theme with an image of a living room that looks out upon an environment that resembles Lando Calrissian’s Cloud City.  Yet, when looking closer upon the decor of this space hub, one is reminded of their grandmother’s home, with rocking chairs and antique lamps. 

Webber’s singing matches this grandmother imagery, with her warbly voice sounding wise beyond its years.  Like a weathered time traveller, she belts out passionate yarns over a background of organs and strings that meld sounds from across the span of time. 

The album is organized in a way that resembles a time traveling fantasy, starting with the antiquated “Antonia Jane” moving through string backed opuses like “Dreamer”, stopping by Black Mountain’s familiar 70s sound for “Wondering What Everyone Knows”, and ending with “Take It Home”, a track that could fit within Radiohead’s “OK Computer” with its building, apocalyptic finish.  

Throughout the album, the songs contain a sense of urgency, despite the lack of drums and the processional pace.  It is this urgency that makes this album seem much more essential than anything the two have done as Black Mountain. But the more I think about it, I’d prefer a buttery sweet potato over a pork chop any day.

 

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