Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

(cross posted at, click on the cover to listen to the album at, where available)

Lists like these are intrinsically flawed. There are records you might love fiercely for a month, a week, a day and then you won't care about again. I felt that way about Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors. There are things that never really grab you the way they seemed to grab a lot of other people – see Phoenix and Grizzly Bear. There are things you really want to like more than you do (Mos Def and Flaming Lips). There are classic artists that did fine records but not great ones (Dylan, Springsteen, Costello). How do you boil down a year of listening? If I went by statistics, my favorite music of 2009 was that of a pretentious college student in 1973. If I factored popular appeal into the equation, I'd be telling you that the Lady Gaga record is better than you think. It is definitely better than I thought it would be.

My strategy toward this list was as follows: What records from this year did I find myself going back to throughout the year? What got stuck in my head? What made me push away from what I was doing and actually focus on the sounds and the words, go into that music tunnel for a while? These are the albums I came up with.

10. Los Amigos Invisibles—Commercial
Disco funk bands were a dime a dozen in 2009, but nary a Williamsburg party boy can touch the boogie-down mastery of Venezuela's Los Amigos Invisbles. Commercial is a brazen title for an album that is exactly that, landing like a mirror-ball meteor on all that heard it.

9. Generationals—Con Law
It's not often a regional record latches onto me the way Con Law did. On more than one occasion, I'd have a sing-song melody—unabashed pop laced with a twinge of melancholy or disaffectedness—cycling in my head. I would scour my iTunes library for it to no avail, only to dial up Generationals and find it again. I don't mean to say this is the sort of quality records to which local pop acts should aspire; it's the kind of thing to which all pop acts should aspire.

8. Vic Chesnutt—At the Cut
At the Cut was already on my list before Mr. Chesnutt's sad passing at Christmas, but I wondered if I still felt the same way about it after. Like most Vic Chesnutt records, the world gives way as his songs unfold out of the speakers, those portraits of vulnerability, bravery and emotional openness. You are tempted to read the recent music of a suicide as a farewell note, but At the Cut is anything but. It's the warm manifestation of the same struggle to live that we all feel.

7. Mt. Eerie—Wind's Poem
I feel for teenage loners even though I no longer am one. It's what I find appealing about metal; that abrasive isolation creates warmth into the microcosm of music. Mt. Eerie is not a metal act by anyone's definition, but Wind's Poem does have its juggernaut moments of roaring noise. The real powerful thing on the record though, is the delicacy of the voice. Listening to this album is a little like experiencing Michael Cera's darkest night of the soul: sweet, maybe a little cloying at times, but ultimately heartbreaking and life-affirming stuff.

6. Camera Obscura—My Maudlin Career
"French Navy" is hands down my favorite single of the year. It is classic Phil Spector girl-group splendor from the drum crack to the ooh-ooh's. But man, it is good, and the rest of the record maintains that momentum. I defy anyone's heart to not beat in unison with this Scottish band's starstruck litany of heartbreaks and dust-offs. It's not the kind of record that makes you think or pause, it's the kind of record that makes you go ooooooh with the things that it doooooo….

5. Tortoise—Beacons of Ancestorship
Y'know, I looked for a jazz record that I could really latch onto and couldn't find one, so this album of exquisite fake jazz will have to do. Tortoise plays to all of their strengths on Beacons of Ancestorship: they lock into geosynchronous orbits, they blast off on fusion tangents and they construct elaborate scaffolding on which they hang large swaths of sumptuous color. It's one of the most immediately appealing records of their career and one of the smartest.

4. The Black Crowes—Before the Frost/Until the Freeze
No record of 2009 surprised me as much as this one. I anticipated the congenial stoner rock that I've come to expect from the Robinson brothers, but what I got was an encyclopedia of ballads, folk melodies, blazing rockers, hell, even a convincing disco number, all recorded before an intimate audience in Levon Helm's barn. It is what I wish every giant band would do once in a while; instead of meticulously making a Faberge egg, make one gigantic juicy omelet with all the ingredients you have. Everybody likes a good omelet.

3. Yo La Tengo—Popular Songs
I know plenty of people who see the cuddly-meets-edgy fuzzed melodies of Yo La Tengo as a blueprint for living, a model for being both hip and down-to-earth. The Hoboken trio walks the middle path between the two on the aptly named Popular Songs, getting their orchestral Led Zeppelin side out one minute, an R&B vamp the next, buffeted by songs that make you wanna break out the skateboard or have a picnic or just enjoy the world like those happy carefree people in the commercials are always doing.

2. Wilco—Wilco (the Album)
I recognize I am squarely in Wilco's demographic: older, white, male, a dad, music snob, has a guitar or three but can't really play them. Maybe most important to that Wilco demographic is the resistance to being demographed. I tried to pick this record apart, and still the songs and the sound were stellar. Jeff Tweedy sounds in union with his band, pushing whatever rock traditions that got him here into new territory.

1. Bill Callahan—Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle
There are records full of great songs and great playing and then there are records written like a spellbinding novel, where you are not sure how all of this is going to tie together but the way it progresses compels you to the end, and that end leaves you breathless. Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle is one of those records. "Too Many Birds," a masterfully built song, a simple structure of building up a message word by word until it reveals a gigantic message that you somehow didn't see coming, serves somewhat as a central post on which this magnificent record hinges. It swings in weird directions at times but hang on, because the ride will be worth it when it's over.

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