Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2009

10. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca It's an interesting turn of events that an album that was first hard for me to get into at all would land on a top ten list for this year in review of albums. However, Bitte Orca, as intense as it may be at times, is a fitfully beautiful record. The music is insanely orchestrated as well are the vocal arrangements. The flurry of female harmonies behind Dave Longstreth's trembling voice add an element of wonder and awe to the record. Album opener "Cannibal Resource" starts of as a standard pop track but quickly veers somewhere else into the world of avante garde. The whole album kind of reels you in back and forth in between traditional pop sounds and arrangements and then swirls in with interestingly structured vocals and off tempo drums or intricate guitars. A nice break from these intense tracks comes in the form of "Two Doves", a beautiful little song stripped down compared to the layers you will see on all other tracks. The closer, "Fluorescent Half Dome" is easily one of the strangest and most beguiling tracks of the year.

9. Pink Mountaintops - Outside Love - There is something to be said about the Canadian rock scene. It's been a refreshing escape at times from the artier stuff that prevails from places like Portland and NYC (and that isn't meant to sound like a cut.) Like it's doppelganger Black Mountain, Pink Mountaintops takes on a poppier element to the psych rock vibe. Mixing in "Wall of Sound" style reverb on tracks like "Axis: Thrones of Love" and with just as many voices layered like the Dirty Projectors record, the band creates a lush sound filled with sound. No empty spaces can be heard. Wether the droning guitars and fuzzed bass or the choir of vocals, there is no room for silence. Even on quieter tracks like "While You Were Dreaming" there is still a hum somewhere in the background to give the music depth of feel. Both Amber Webber and Stephen McBean take helm of the vocal work. Overall, Pink Mountaintops have found there sound after two experimental works. Outside Love is beautiful and shimmering with it's honest faithfullness to the rock of old.

8. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs - As Yo La Tengo albums go, Popular Songs has a distinctly nostalgic vibe to it. As I had said in an earlier post, this is the bands ode to pop music with a dash of their own sensibilities. From track one through nine, we get conventional pop songs. This doesn't take away from it as Yo La Tengo has reveled in 60's garage and psych pop for ages with their own unique twist (see "By Two's".) So a solid disc of 9 great pop songs and three experimental tracks (a droning raga of sorts in "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven", the ambient acoustic crackle of "The Fireside" and the noise guitar epic "And the Glitter is Gone.") These are fun diversions from the record but the best moments lie in the sunny side of tracks like the syrupy sweet love song "I'm On My Way" or the psychedelic ballad "Here To Fall." It's a solid outing that works best as a collection of what Tengo has done best over the past two decades.

7. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion - The more I go back to listening to this record the more I get it. At first I was just like "what?" But it captivated me enough to keep coming back. And the more and more I spun it, Merriweather Post Pavilion is truly a fantastic disc to listen to. I may be a flip-flopper to some going from not enjoying it to loving it but sometimes music has to grow on you. Where I was first truly captivated by this record was the song "Bluish." It's a cutesy song lyrically and musically it is a bubbly trip through a neon landscape. Something about this album is constantly percolating and warming. "Summertime Clothes" is a futuristic beach blanket jam and "My Girls" is a hypnotic travel through a grown up landscape filled with foreign and tribal sounds as well as an echoey Brian Wilson choir. The churning sway of Merriweather Post Pavilion may be the ingredient Animal Collective needed to get their strange avante pop music. They definitely caught my attention and now my admiration.

6. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic - Strange enough that this album also garnered the same reaction that Merriweather Post Pavilion did. The Flaming Lips last two efforts are glossy, well produced pysch rock with a sweet edge to them. Yoshimi will forever stand as one of the best albums I've ever heard so when I first put Embryonic on, it's abrasive Brillo pad edge threw me for a loop. Once I got over that I found the ridiculously great nature of this record. "The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine" may be an update of "One More Robot/ Sympathy 3000-21" but that is not to say it isn't something new as well. The hypnotic blips and bloops, the intensely fuzzed bass and drums constantly battling your ears and Wayne Coyne's signature existential lyrics in a haze of echo, this is the perfect space traveling acid rock track. "See The Leaves" starts as a similarly droning rocker and slips into a full on tribute to Saucerful of Secrets era Floyd. Something is much more dire and serious about this music and for that reason it makes it one of The Flaming Lips finest records. It may be a long daunting listen, but this double album has less lag moments then At War With the Mystics which I also love. That being said, Embryonic isn't as immediately catchy as other Flaming Lips records, but the process of it taking over your listening docket is inevitable. It's just a more harrowing experience and one that is likely to accompany many an acid trip for fans in the future.

5. Julian Casablancas - Phrazes for the Young - In a surprising twist, The Strokes main man's first solo output, well belated after other members of the band tried their best at solo outings, comes a a sweet victory. As far as The Strokes go, it seemed as if they were unable to change or do something different with their sound on the last album. It turned out to just be a parody of their first two solid records. Thankfully Julian Casablancas finally dropped Phrazes for the Young and it is a refreshing piece of pop music mastery. Rather then the gritty CBGB influenced Is This It, Casablancas brings in synths and drum machines giving his solo stuff a different sound. Even if the first three tracks sound like Strokes songs, they sound like they were processed through a different lens giving the record a refreshing sound. Whether it be the extremely poppy "11th Dimension" or the brooding organ opening into guitar splashes on "4 Chords of the Apocalypse," we are treated to the same boozey goodness that Casablancas is known for. The stellar and introspective track "Left & Right In the Dark" is a fantastic song, if not one of the best tracks you will hear from 2009. It may be a paltry 8 tracks, but Phrazes For The Young never seems to lull and sometimes brevity is the way to go on an album.

4. Monsters of Folk - After a lot of debate, the triumphant super group from 2009 is the 4 headed beast of Monsters of Folk. Hardly a folk album, this collection of deliscious tracks takes the best of what M. Ward, Jim James, Connor Oberst and Mike Mogis can do in the studio. Songs like "Losing Yo Head" and "Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F)" could easily be heard as a My Morning Jacket track. "Sandman, Brakeman and Me" and "Slow Down Jo" is fresh off of an M. Ward disc and "Man Named Truth" drips of Bright Eyes. Although this sounds like it's a fruitless collaboration and more just a smattering of what each of these guys do on their own, there is a sense of magic and charm on the disc. The three voices come together and the insanely talented Mogis' production and guitar work make it something slightly different. Track highlights abound making Monsters of Folk easily one of the most fun listens of the year. Dare to not twist to "Whole Lotta Losin'" and try not to whistle along with Mogis' slide guitar on "The Right Place." It's infectiously good rock and roll that deserves it's constant rotation on your record player.

3. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - It's hard for me to detach the next three records as not deserving the top spot, but in any list there has to be some semblance of order. Phoenix, a band whose been at it for almost ten years, has finally been given their due time in the sun. From first listen of this record to now, there was no doubt it was the kind of album that would capture the hearts of many. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix may not be baroque like the titular composer, but it's beautiful music nonetheless. What Phoenix accomplishes with their instruments is fantastic. Try to discern the difference from a swirling synth line or just a completely effects driven guitar. It's not easy to do. "Listzomania" and "1901" are two fantastic pop songs that will probably be on rotation for some while. The trippy and utterly breathtaking "Love Like a Sunset (Parts 1 & 2)" are the pinnacle of experimentation with pop music. The first half being reminiscent of M83 and the second half being a short little appendage that ads an element of euphoria to the trip before makes it a stellar 1-2 Punch. "Rome" and "Girlfriend" will also find themselves lodged into the part of your brain that will never forget. A fantastic album that deserves listening on a summers day or in the dead cold of winter to warm your bones and put a smile on your face, Phoenix deserve much praise for the delightful album they've unleashed this year.

2. Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light - Antony and the Johnsons have easily made one of the most beautiful albums this year. The Crying Light is easily the best work Antony Hagerty has done on his own. It's a beautifully heartbreaking record to listen to. Themes of death, fragility of humanity and bodily deterrence is just fantastic. The lovely opener "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground" sends chills down my spine with each listen. "Epilepsy is Dancing" shows the both sides of the beauty of humanity, all at once fragile and beautiful. "Another World" laments the loss of reality and pining for a better place. "The Crying Light" oozes with beauty and heartbreak. All throughout, Antony Heagerty's trembling voice seems like it's about to fall apart at the seams at any time yet it stays strong from start to finish. Antony and the Johnsons have explored themes of loss and love and romantic visions of a better place before but never so heart shattering. When "Everglade" hits at the end of the album, we get one last feeling of an atrophied body but a beautiful spirit that remains. It's utterly gorgeous. I haven't even mentioned how beautifully orchestrated this record is with it's sweeping strings, heartfelt woodwinds and gentle piano. The Crying Light is a treasure.

1. Mastodon - Crack the Skye - It should come as no surprise since I basically showed my hand with this record getting high marks on the Decade in Review section of this blog. And after reviewing this record several times, Crack the Skye is still the best thing I've heard all year, even if the margin between the lat two records is small. Mastodon went from a straight up hardcore thrash metal band on Remission and the brilliant Leviathan, moved to a more experimental bridge between both thrash metal and prog on Blood Mountain and created one of the best, no matter how convoluted, concept albums yet here on Ctrack the Skye. Hell, the band even managed to make a metal track bittersweet as the album is highly influenced by Brann Dailor's loss of a sister (named Skye) to the tragedy of suicide. Beyond those crazy plot lines of golden umbillical chords and Rasputin, the music explodes with precision on fury. Many fans were turned off by the different direction, but I applaud the band for doing something different. All to often in the realm of Metal music, bands get stuck in their ways or just play the same shit over and over. When you hear the surf rock soloing on "Divinations" or have your mind exploded through each movement of "The Last Baron," Crack the Skye is an intense sonic journey. "Ghost of Karelia" is reminiscent of Tool while the titular track thrashes with the best in the Mastodon catalog. It's an undeniable masterpiece and an album that has a power and might all its own.

This was an interesting year. Usual stand-by favorites either lacked the ability to spark my listening (Wilco, Franz Ferdinand) or just barely missed this list (The Raveonettes, Dinosaur Jr., Air, Islands are all runners up.) Regardless, it seemd like a year of artists or bands that at first seemed unlikeable or just too strange slowly grew on me. Regardless, 2009 was a tasty year.

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