The business of music seems to be forever spiraling towards something that seems like a bottom, despite the fact the black hole is still largely out of site. This doesn't keep artists and fans from uniting in that universal bliss flowing from the discovery of a wonderful song at the perfect time to make everything better. The older I get, the less time I seem to have for pure, undistracted music listening, but the more important it is to find and fall for a handful of great records. 120K miles on airplanes was my salvation this year, a time for quiet contemplation and the place, flying above the clouds with my headphones on, where I logged my best listening. These were the records that made this year so colorful.
1) Girls - Album (Matador)
Inevitably every year I fall hard for a record that manages to further reinvent that hazy, melodic Brian Wilson mid-60's California feeling. This year the debut from San Francisco's "Girls" rips that page up, and then reassembles it into a glorious, grungy scrapbook of freedom and loss. The band is primarily the brainchild of Christopher Owens who, as a child, survived itinerant drifting as part of a bizarre cult only to run away from home and then to reemerge years later as the author of one of the most emotive and uplifting albums of the times. There is a beautifully ragged, druggy, innocence dripping from every note.
But Album is an adventure in texture. It lives somewhere between rock and pop, psychedelic and lo-fi, happy and sad. A song like "Hellhole Ratrace," my vote for the finest song of 2009, is an epic meditation on "love and affection" that starts innocently enough with a gentle guitar that builds into a wall of emotion cycling through a few repeated choruses for seven blissful minutes. Other songs stay closer to the Wilson ethos of the instruments, just kind of echoing the crashing of waves on the Pacific and the wind through the palms, e.g. "Headache." This album is a wonderfully warm place to escape to and dream.
2) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)
Up until now I have been more a passive 'admirer' than a genuine fan of this sprawling, often too precious "orchestral rock" band. And like so many of the incredible new bands that have invaded and settled in Brooklyn, Grizzly Bear is something completely different. To start you will hear four completely different vocalists, each with their own distinctive style alternating between breathy and hushed to melodic and operatic.
The best songs on Veckatimist ('Two Weeks, 'Southern Point') just seem to soar in a very different way than most of the other great records this year. Somewhere between jazz, the kind of choral music you might hear in a church, and a few rock tunes that really tap into an addictive groove exists one of the most sophisticated and diverse albums in years, further proof that the idea of an album has not yet fully succumbed to the current trend of individual songs without context.
3) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)
To say Dirty Projectors is an acquired taste would be both a probable understatement and disrespectful to the band. This is the kind of music that only happens when a kid from Yale with a big vocabulary, great taste in music and a broad musical education decides to devote his life to indie rock. The result is mash-up of well appointed classical strings, unusual choral and vocal timings, synth-based electronic beats, and incredibly diverse guitar lines. This is art rock for those with a pop sensibility. Bitte Orca is one part Jeff Buckley, one part '77 era Talking Heads.
Any attempt to describe what happens over the course of the album's nine songs could be seen as misleading but I'll try. The record is broadly dance music, but nothing I would know how to dance to, but then something way more precious and chamber music-like best relegated to a drawing room, and then vocal gymnastics not really definable at all. The only real thread for me is that all directions initiated within these songs lead to and start from somewhere I can comfortably call brilliant.
4) The xx - xx (Rough Trade)
It is how hard for me to gauge how accessible this record really is, given that it took me exactly one listen to recognize and then fall for the incredible craft and beauty of these eleven songs. Usually music this patient and precious takes a while to appreciate given the quiet nuances hidden below the surface, but for me it was immediate. The music stretches across a few genres but lands squarely in none of them. There is a bit of 4AD era shoegaze (lush, pale saints, etc.) some mellow electronica (Zero7, Portishead) and then something more straightforward and poppy.
The fact that this is a debut album by four English 20-year-olds (this is the first album I have ever loved where the artists were exactly half my age) adds to the story but there is nothing novel about the music. The songs are largely built on melodic vocal exchanges between the two childhood friends who started the band, layered over pristine beats and loops that tend to neatly soak up the hushed lyrics like red wine by a paper towel. There wasn't a sexier, more consistently perfect album released this year. I can wait to hear what they are doing when they are 40.
5) The Clientele - Bonfires On The Heath (Merge)
I have long been a wild fan of the soulful, retro pop of The Clientele, but for the most part their five earlier records were all so subtle and precious that broad appeal was always doomed at conception. But this time around the ten songs are all carved from an upbeat, jangly totem, adorned with strings, brass and toe tapping guitar rhythms.
Although their music is oddly distinctive, perhaps it's best described as a throwback to the mid- career albums of bands like Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, but set more in the 60's of swinging London, something way cooler and less poppy than those. The Clientele have a specific quality mostly driven by the cleanest, crispest guitar lines accompanied by just the right amount of brass. Somehow their music always displays a kind of James Bond suaveness, where the guy always gets the girl and the bad guys are seen running exhaustedly after a moving train far out of reach. The mood they set, complete with the hushed vocals and introspective lyrics, creates a feeling foreshadowed by the album's title that is warm and wonderful.
6) Lisa Hannigan - See Saw (Rough Trade)
There wasn't a lusher, brighter jazz-folk record for me this year than Lisa Hannigan's See Saw. It's important to clarify that this is not a precious acoustic folk record, this is a rich string and percussion driven almost cabaret experience rooted in a kind Fairport Convention musicality. These songs are often relentlessly compelling (e.g., "I Don't Know"), the kind of song that actually brings chills for no apparent reason, until eventually someone finds this and pegs to a TV where its innocence is lost forever.
But despite the incredible skill of the band, this group is mostly about the vocals and songwriting of the Irish Hannigan, who started her career with Damian Rice. She has one of those powerful but effortless voices that transports her songs to a place somewhere between other-worldly and suitable for framing. This is a record for adults, and specifically those with really good taste.
7) Jack Penate - Everything is New (Beggars Banquest/XL)
If John Hughes were still alive and making movies about teenagers in the 80's, there's no doubt that Jack Penate would be a frequent soundtrack contributor. His music is pure throwback to the best British new wave music of that period: think The Cure, New Order, Stone Roses. He infuses every song with that kind of edgy optimism and bounce that much of the pop new wave movement did so well.
Not unlike the Strokes unpacking trunk loads of old vinyl from the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, and others from that period, Penate is a truly amazing songwriter who often does a better job with this material than his original inspirations. Songs like "Be The One" and "Tonight's Today" are every bit as addictive as "Boy's Don't Cry" or "Pretty In Pink." More than almost any of my favorites from this year, each of the nine songs on the aptly titled "Everything is New" is a keeper in the classic sense. It's hard not to love this record.
8) David Bazan - Curse Your Branches (Merge)
David Bazan has been writing songs for eons under the name of Pedro The Lion, his largely acoustic indie folk alter ego. I have always liked this music, but on Curse Your Branches he has created something entirely different and beautiful. I'm not sure that you could argue that there is anything revolutionary going on here, but I'm not sure that matters.
By way of benchmark, I guess you might hear echoes of American Music Club in the sense that this is largely a low key rock band with a stylish mix of keyboards and guitars, which largely just set the stage for Bazan's vocals, what everything centered around. His songs are delivered in deep broad strokes and rely less on catchy choruses and more on linear storytelling than on refrains. For a record that seems less groundbreaking than many, there is something strangely seductive here.
9) Dinosaur Jr. - Farm (Anti-)
It's been 15 years since I last included a Dinosaur Jr. record on this list. I have never fallen out of love with the grungy early SST records and the later considerably more polished Warner Brothers records; in fact they still best satisfy my occasional urge for loud, but melodic post-punk noise. More than almost any band of it's kind, Hüsker Dü being a close second, Dinosaur Jr. always managed to hold tightly onto clean, clear melodies despite the pounding drumlines and throbbing guitars.
On the second reunion record pairing J. Mascis and Lou Barlow since their ugly split in the late 80's, when J. signed the band to a major label and Lou left to form Sebadoh, it is as if no time has passed. They still have an incredible knack for a pop song, with Mascis' muffled but comfortable vocals landing like an old friend on Barlow's mordantly optimistic musical sensibilities. In the event you don't believe me try playing "Plans" very loudly through headphones with your eyes closed and you'll be transported directly to 1992 before Nirvana broke it all open.
10) The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World To Come (4AD)
The Mountain Goats latest record is their 17th in less than fifteen years. This is the music of John Darnielle, whose nasal warbling vocals, hyper-literate lyrics and hugely prolific output has always been distinctive, if not always perfect. But this time out, despite a much more accessible overall feeling, the songs are extremely fragile and occasionally almost uncomfortably intimate.
The Mountain Goats have always told stories about the downtrodden, forgotten and suffering. But in telling some basic lessons, Darnielle looks to the bible for inspiration with each song title a different passage illustrating a specific aspect of human kind. Although broadly inconsistent, The Life features some of the catchiest most optimistic songs of his brief career (see "Genesis 3:23"). Perhaps The Mountain Goats is an acquired taste, but for passive admirers, this is a breakthrough, or at least it was for me.
11) Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs (Matador)
Twenty-five years and 15 proper albums later, I have been riding this train from the very beginning (a $3 radio station copy of "New Wave Hot Dogs" purchased on Coventry Rd. in Cleveland). More than almost any band I know, it seems like Yo La Tengo has been very gently evolving its sound, moving positively in the upper right direction, without any of the very specific defining moments that have signaled change for bigger bands (Dylan going electric, U2 or Radiohead going electronic). For me this is part of their rustic charm: familiarity without redundancy or misstep.
Popular Songs is another wonderful testament to the extreme breadth of band, weaving between sugary sweet almost kids' music- worthy tunes like "If It's True," to lilting ballads like "I'm On My Way" to their long, spacey wall of sound dreamscapes like "Here To Fall." On the whole, this is a largely more accessible effort than usual, but this is a compliment. On a side note, in an era where more than half of all marriages end in divorce, watching and listening to the Yo La husband and wife team of Georgia and Ira making art is an inspiration. Popular Songs won't be popular to the unwashed, Taylor Swift loving masses, but to brainy music loving aging hipsters, this is a little slice of heaven.
12) The Low Anthem - Oh My God Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)
This is a sleepy, beautiful, chamber folk classic with branches as far reaching as Mark Kozelak, to Uncle Tupelo to Tom Waits. Hailing from the least country music mecca in the country, Rhode Island, this duo has crafted twelve songs that meander easily between the lazy and intimate to the more straight forward brand of alt-country.
Led by vocalist Ben Knox Miller, there is something easy and unforced that ripples throughout, but it is on the exquisite "To Ohio" that the band carves out its own unique space. It took a few spins for me to really get it, but in the end this one is a solid keeper.
13) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
Neko Case is a true force of nature. Her voice is among the most confident and controlled in music. It has been for the past decade as she has continually honed her craft somewhere between country and pop, both as a solo artist and the occasional "soul" behind the super group the New Pornographers. In general my bias for her will always drift towards her pop sensibilities rather than her purer country inclinations, but like Joni Mitchell, who always had a kind of cool groove to her early and middle records, Neko Case carries the songs on her back leading them with her voice, leading the music instead of merely following or conforming to it.
Middle Cyclone is another lovely record, but like most of her solo work it is filled with hugely perfect moments ("People Got a Lot of Nerve" and "This Tornado Loves You") and a few that tend to miss a little. But in the end it is hard for me to name more than a few female vocalists who have combined both the chops and songwriting abilities over the past bunch of years - Beth Orton, Cat Power, PJ Harvey. Neko Case is very much the real deal.
14) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You (Sony)
There was not another album that better alternated between the quiet and sublimely beautiful and the bouncy alt-country swagger than the Rick Rubin-produced major label debut of The Avett Brothers. This one almost slipped between the cracks for me. Something about the major label and the Rick Rubin stamp made me skeptical, but after a handful of proper listenings (and by that I mean headphones on an airplane), the songs just kind of settle in. There is just the right amount of emotion to make you care without veering into the land of the overstated.
Like Neko Case's Middle Cyclone, you probably don't need me to help direct you to a record like this, but it certainly fits neatly into my list for 2009. I guess there is a thick thread of folk that ran through my favorites this year, but these sweet tongued brother from North Carolina have created a minor masterpiece accessible to all. In that fuzzy realm that exists between country and folk "I and Love and You" holds its candle high.
15) Loney, Dear - Dear John (Polyvinyl)
I love the Scandinavian folkies: Kings of Convenience, Sondra Lerche, Jose Gonzalez and Nicoli Dunger. But Loney, Dear's latest effort transcends the genre and morphs into something quite different and special. Think the Postal Service, but stronger, much more urgent and less shallow-synth sounding. If the older Loney records were sparer, more acoustic seeming, Dear John is a gusher of both optimistic energy, much needed some days, and vocal melodies that just tend to find their groove and travel. With this big sound it is a combination of beats and percussion that lift off quietly and then burst like fireworks.
Perhaps I am getting carried away, but to listen to this record with headphones flying over the melting snowcaps of the Northern Sierras, you can't help but feel somehow liberated by the songs "Airport Surroundings" and "Everything Turns To You." Although Loney, Dear is largely the brainchild of Emil Svanangen this record is a fully realized, impeccably orchestrated pop opera.
16) Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career (Merge) Lovely, consistently upbeat Scottish pop.
17) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) Still not a total believer in AC, but this album was certainly a step in my direction.
18) Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino) Mildly weird, oft-kilter throwback British dance music that makes perfect sense.
19) Robyn Hitchcock - Goodnight Oslo (YepRoc) Proving that true genius just gets better with age.
20) Atlas Sound - Logos (Kranky) The uber-prolific Bradford Cox recruits Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier and Animal Collective's Noah Lennox to make a wonderful little jewel.
21) The Antlers - Hospice (Frenchkiss) This eerie and affecting album about loneliness and isolation is ironically hopeful.