Saturday, January 2, 2010

Favorite Albums of 2009

After being mercilessly bombarded by two rounds of "best of" lists(first for the year and then for the decade), I've finally arrived to the conclusion that my impartial opinion also deserves to be thrown into the bottomless pit of music blogging and never-ending juvenile commentary. After a frantic week of downloading and finally getting a chance to listen to a couple of missed gems, my favorite full-lengths of 2009 are here. I've gratefully tried to spare the reader from any longwinded sentimental discussions about what the noughties really represented or why I still bother buying vinyl.  Each album title has got a youtube behind it, enjoy!

10. The Antlers - Hospice
This record is not an easy listen by any means. Hospice feels long and its songs divulge into lighthearted themes ranging from agony to regret to surrender. Its sweeping transitions from soothing pianos to frenzied noise are not meant to energize the listener but rather place them in an confined state of mine. What it does contain however is an intensive character study about two lovers living through a desperate and incurable illness that can only mean frustration and pain for the survivor. The accompaniment is rightfully menacing for the context but as these Brooklyn newbies wondrously demonstrate on the closer "Epilogue", the awakening and rebirth that comes from loss can be as blissful and transformative as the trauma itself.

9. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
The Lips seem to have finally arrived to the conclusion that the jubilant orchestral pop formula that made Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin so great has reached its saturation point. After the deep disappointment of At War with the Mystics, I began to wonder if the band's best days were behind them. I mean, how many comebacks can one group really pull off? What they delivered though with Embryonic is an audacious and consistent group of songs which leave you feeling overwhelmed but also deeply satisfied with the experienced you just endured. It may contain some of the same pacing issues that plagued Mystics or lack the one-two pop punches that filled their earlier work but each song is meticulously constructed and demonstrates that this band has yet to lose their avidity to take risks.

8. Hyperdub - 5: Five years of Hyperdub
Dubstep isn't a genre that's known for its particularly rich albums. What I've come to expect from it are brilliantly textured singles that fill the room with soul drenching bass and immense mantra like hooks. The label behind a large number the genre's both emerging and established artists has been Hyperdub, and they've compiled an excellent collection of highlights to commemorate their 5th anniversary. The tempo on a few tracks is at times a bit too slow for any real type dancing but what 5 is trying to do is present a balance between urban music that's meant to be listened to on headphones in a dark, empty apartment and raunchy anthems that get a crowd all sweaty deep into the night.

7. Phoenix – Wolfgang Armadeus Phoenix
With Wolfgang Armadeus, these dressed to the teeth Frenchies finally released the great album that their fans always knew they were capable of producing. Lead vocalist Thomas Mars's phrasing has grown increasingly confident and the album's tight rhythm section has allowed him to spawn two unforgettable melodic singles with “1901” and “Lisztomania”. Yes, his lyrics are as nonsensical as ever but they are now sung with more conviction and eagerness than the album's predecessor. Perhaps the best example of this new gravitation to substance over style can be found on the closer “Armistice”.  More attention is now being given to creating a proper buildup to the song's euphoric ending as opposed to the jittery inclinations of the band's earlier work. This relentless and perfectionist work ethic of the clean and simple pop-rock song has now paid off for them and they've given us an album that doesn't seem to ever feel stale or cliché.

6. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
One's first impression of this group may lead some to believe that these Brooklyners are just another gang of noise pop revivalists who are taking advantage of the latest trend setter sweet tooth. But behind all the Jesus and Mary Chain comparisons, there is an extraordinarily rich collection of wistful shoe gazer indulgence. Lyrically this debut album is pretty damn somber but it manages to squeeze in just the right amount of irony without coming off as artificial or presumptuous. Each chorus grows more and more infectious 
with every listen while also featuring a sharp ear for concentrated adolescent angst.

5. The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa
Last year's mix-tape from this collaboration between DJ/producer Radioclit and Esau Mwamwaya was such an uplifting and energetic breath of fresh air in a year full of new afropop dance groups, that I doubted the pair would be able to reproduce this same exuberance onto a full-length. Thankfully, Warm Heart did not disappoint my lofty expectations but rather presents us with a young artist trying to define his sound while not be afraid to dabble into different genres. Standouts include the incredibly catchy title track and “Julia”, which features yet another stellar guest appearance from the ever present M.I.A. Let's just hope that this duo doesn't stop improving upon their winning mixture of diverse rhythms and rejoicing vocals.

4. Woods – Songs of Shame
At times it seems that minimally produced campfire folk has experimented with every possible combination of instrumentation and texture that the genre is running risk of running out of options to pull from its big bag of tricks. But Songs of Shame immediately strikes you because of it's odd balance of eerie tone contrasted with vocalist Jeremy Earl's shrill yet dampened vocals. The fragile and authentically heartwarming lyrics on personal favorite “Number” are so perfectly modest and caring that one can't help but appreciate the fact that simple authenticity hasn't gotten old. This idealistic stance becomes most clear on their subtlety despondent version of Graham Nash's “Military Madness” whose chugging melody and wistful message sound as pertinent now as when it was first written. Apart from being full short folk gems, the album dedicates nearly ten minutes on “September with Pete” to spotlight the group's psychadelic jamming roots. These noisy moments of tape effects and blaring guitars have also made them one of this year's best live acts.

3. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
There are so many possible comparisons that can be made with Natasha Kahn that at times she seems like more of a hip chameleon than a true creative force. Her previous album Fur and Gold left me with the feeling that although she was obviously talented in terms of voice and presence, her disunited vision would prevent her from ever releasing a solid album. Two Suns continues her tradition of using past and present female stars like Björk and Stevie Nicks as reference points, but now she pulls off her act so flawlessly that originality is no longer an issue. The killer single “Daniel” hits you like a 21st century “Rhiannon” with a cheezy disco beat that is so contagiously catchy that one can't help but idiotically sing along to it after just a few listens. The album also benefits from excellent pacing and density that keeps it sounding experimental yet strangely familiar. Emotional powerhouse “Siren Song” at first appears to be yet another homage to the likes of Tori Amos or Kate Bush but it's dark electronic finale takes this hybrid to exhilarating new places that are as seductive as they are exhausting.

2. The Smith Westerns – The Smith Westerns
The first time I heard The Smith Westerns, I was blown away by how they could make such a colossal sound with only the most basic garage setup. Every chord change is monumental and the album has 70s glam written all over it. While T.Rex's lyrics may have had a bit of a spiritual slant, these Chicago teenagers always stick to the same subject, girls. The songs may be sappy at times but it's the simplicity of everything that makes it so easy to fall with The Smith Westerns. The sound is crude and the lyrics often intelligible but at least this group is willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and have a bit of fun all at the same time.

1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
What I've always respected and loved about my favorite musicians is discovering and appreciating the path they took to reach their creative apex. Every highlight or misstep has it's own explanation and the evolution that Animal Collective have undergone to reach this point in their career has without a doubt been one of the most rewarding experiences of recent memory.  From the first time I saw them perform Feels to their last stop here in the summer, the band has never failed to impress me with their uncompromising desire to test pop music's boundaries. There's no way I could have imagined back in 2005 that they would be able to release such a harmonically memorable album with Meriweather. The sounds are as equally perplexing as before but the atmosphere they've created is some how now more plush and reassuring. The themes of each song are familiar and presented in a such a direct, humble manner that you can't help finding a bit of sanctuary in them.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Trev,
    great list. Earlier today, I went back and listened to one of the compilations you made for me, with some cut/copy and a song called Channel Zero and some other group project that sounded like it had MIA in the background.