I shouted it from the rooftops. “2009 is OVER!” The joy and the relief were tangible. I survived. Nothing like the promise of a new calendar, is there?
For reasons that are obvious, I wasn’t as familiar with pop music as I should have (and wanted to be) in 2009. But a couple of dozen releases still found their way into my hands, many of them quite good.
Unlike years past, there wasn’t a clear-cut list-topper. Nothing like Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up on Me or Cat Power's The Greatest. It was more of a log-jam, really.
But I was out there in my flannel shirt nimbly stepping from log to log with my trusty log harpoon (what are those long pointy things lumberjacks use, anyway?) and have successfully unclogged the logs. The cold, wet feet are only a small price to pay for bringing order to my (and perhaps your) world.
1. Now—The Hepadaboo I’m an all day sucker for synth pop. The sort practiced in the early-eighties by OMD and Depeche Mode. Ten years later, Stereolab elevated the form, integrating elements from German bands like Can and Kraftwerk. But after Stereolab’s decent into lounge music hell, the genre was essentially DOA.
So when I hit upon this, and the eleven-minute opener “Song”, I nearly wet myself. Despite being together since 1998, Now have just two albums to their credit. But this London-based collective makes them count. The Hepadaboo was the freshest-sounding music of 2009.
Check the pulsating “Song” and the charmingly off-kilter “Last”, which strangely enough, is the album’s closer.
2. Built to Spill—There Is No Enemy The title is a seeming benediction, coming as it did, post-Bush. And the music within often reflects that relief, drifting contentedly like a tube raft down a river on a steaming summer afternoon as Idaho-based Built to Spill work fiddle, brass and pedal steel guitar into their oeuvre.
But that doesn’t mean Built to Spill have gone soft. There Is No Enemy boasts several barbed-wire confections that will have you reaching for the volume. There’s more to dig in Idaho than just potatoes.
Check the speeding ticket invitation that is “Good Ol’ Boredom” and the questioning “Hindsight”.
3. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career This winsome Scottish quintet followed-up their 2006 breakthrough Let’s Get Out of This Country with another winning effort. It might take several listens for My Maudlin Career to sink in, but once it does it nearly requires a court order to evict.
Tracyanne Campbell’s vocal delivery is fetching, and the band’s understated playing makes this a textbook of all that is good about Scottish pop. To quote the estimable Ms. Campbell, “You make me go woo with the thing that you do.”
Check “Honey in the Sun”, the should-have-been hit single “Swans” and “French Navy”.
4. The Avett Brothers—I and Love and You The Avett Brothers have been at it for some time, which if nothing else proves they mean it. Like the Band, the Avett Brothers ooze a sort of plain-spoken sincerity that is tough not to like. Scott and Seth Avett’s voices sound like letters that have been read and re-read many times; they're creased and a little worn.
The piano-based compositions are sparingly adorned with guitars, drums, horns and fiddle, which only adds to their resonance. Hard to understand how they’ve remained under radar so long.
Check the haunting title track and “Incomplete and Insecure”.
5. Booker T.—Potato Hole I was suspicious, too. Another sixties relic trying to recapture the glory of a long-ago prime. But that opinion dissolved about half-way through “Native New Yorker”. This is the sort of groove-based, in-the-pocket music that makes a perfect soundtrack for a party. It’s not pretty, glossy, or fashionable. It’s just good.
Potato Hole will have you bobbing your head and smiling in surrender to its undeniable mojo. And the recast of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” is a ball.
Check either of the aforementioned. Now.
6. The Veils—Sun Gangs I don’t know why Finn Andrews’ voice isn’t on the list of World Heritage sites, but it should be. Like all great voices, it’s a place. And to hear it ride the rising tide of “Sit down by the Fire” is a treat. Sun Gangs would’ve made a brilliant EP, as it bogs down a bit in spots.
But if “Begin Again’s” chorus of “We’re just following the light of long dead stars” isn’t the sound of 2009, I don’t know what is.
Check the fervor of “Sit down by the Fire” and the solemn contemplation of the title track.
7. Deer Tick—Born on Flag Day At their best, Deer Tick infuse their roadhouse C&W with a Lynyrd Skynyrd-sized dose of rawk guitar and all the right rough edges. The line between inspired rough edges and annoying rough edges is a very fine one, and Deer Tick mostly stay on the inspired side, which is why Born on Flag Day appears here.
Check the fiery album-opener “Easy” and the fiddle-fired sway of “Smith Hill”.
8. Girls—Album When Album is good, it’s very, very good. And when it’s not, it’s not. Songs like “Summertime”, “Ghost Mouth” and “Lust for Life” (which isn’t that “Lust for Life”) are among the year’s best tuneage.
But some of what’s left veers dangerously close to generic nerdy geek Jesus & Mary Chain-sourced indie rock. Wait. Can I do that over?
Anyway, check the pale-virgin-on-a-beach laments of “Summertime” and “Laura” and anything else mentioned here by name.
9. The Noisettes—Wild Young Hearts Not the all-girl band of atonal thrashers their name suggests, London’s Noisettes bring a little something extra to the party—melody, texture and stylistic variety. There was a hint of it on their 2007 debut What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?, and it explodes on Wild Young Hearts.
The jazz-folk of “Atticus”, the cinematic breadth of album-closer "Cheap Kicks" and the pure pop of “24 Hours” makes it clear there’s more than one color on the Noisettes palate.
Check “Atticus” and “24 Hours”.
10. The Flaming Lips—Embryonic It’s been a really long time since I listened to a Flaming Lips album. Ever since they polished away the quirk and the inspired weirdness for 1999’s The Soft Bulletin. I know fans and expectations can be straitjackets, and I’m likely one for saying I’m glad the quirk and the inspired weirdness are back.
It’s just that the Lips are so damn good at it. Embryonic is the best thing to come out of Oklahoma since Laura’s blog about her Dad.
Check “Convinced Of the Hex” and “Watching the Planets”.
The Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca
Yeah Yeah Yeahs—It’s Blitz!
The Dead Weather—Horehound
Papercuts—You Can Have What You Want