Ok, so I’m a little late getting to this. But I still wanted to share my favorite albums of 2009 with you. So get cozy… ’cause it’s a long one. (I promise I’ll be more concise with future posts. But seeing as this is the inaugural one, I thought I should make it count.) Enjoy!
1. Mastodon, Crack the Skye
Rasputin + astral travel + head crushing riffs = the best goddamn metal album I’ve heard in years
First off, I have to thank my little sister Adrie for bringing this Atlanta prog-metal band to my attention. Their newest album could have easily slipped under my radar and I’m sure glad it didn’t because wow…. it’s stunning.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Crack the Skye restored my faith in guitar-based rock. Period. And while I don’t want to take anything away from the group as whole, I really have to single out the work of Brent Hinds. You just know he was one of those dudes who spent hours alone in his bedroom practicing his scales and learning to shred. And it shows in his playing. The guy can reel off searing solos that seem absolutely effortless. Unlike some technically proficient players, it’s not soulless technique on display. Brent’s solos are wonderfully melodic and heartfelt. Cue up, “The Last Baron” to the 11:16 mark and listen to how he lets those notes just hang in the air; the sense of space allows you to focus on that frickin’ beautiful tone and perfect vibrato. Maybe I’m crazy… but for me, it’s elicits just as much emotion as a great soul singer does. What’s more, there’s also a sense of humor to his playing. The surf-inspired passage in “Divinations” is essentially a take on an old Dick Dale style riff – albeit, a more sinister sounding one.
I don’t want to give short shrift to the other band members. Drummer Brann Dailor has the amazing ability to switch with ease between bludgeoning beats and groove-based playing. Troy Sanders’ bass lines are smart and kinetic. Guitarist Bill Kelliher, though he doesn’t step out into the spotlight as much, devises great counterpoints to Hind’s riffs. I can’t think of a better duo in hard rock or metal right now.
The other thing I love about Crack the Skye is how elaborate it is. Each listen reveals something new, whether it’s a subtle keyboard line here or a vocal overdub there. Nothing about this album feels rote. Clearly, these guys were striving to make a classic – one that would rank right up there in the rock pantheon with Master of Puppets or Led Zeppelin IV. And guess what? They’ve succeeded.
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz
For the better part of the decade, synth rock has been all the rage. So when I heard that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be releasing a new album in that vein, I couldn’t really muster a lot of enthusiasm for it. It felt like they were late to the party, you know? Following the pack seemed strange, considering there were such trend setters early on in their career. That said, I wanted to give It’s Blitz a chance and I’m sure as hell glad I did because the band’s greatest strengths are on full display here. As a front woman, Karen O has charisma in spades and when she commands, “dance ‘til you’re dead!” (“Heads Will Roll”), you’re pretty much willing to do whatever she says. The rollicking “Dull Life” harkens back to the gritty, garage rock sound of their debut. The shimmering ballad, “Soft Shock” reminds us of why “Maps” had us all swooning back in ‘03.
3. Metric, Fantasies
I didn’t have super high expectations for this album. Although I was a big fan of 2003’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Now, their follow-up (2005’s, Live It Out) felt tepid and uninspired, so my interest waned. But when I checked out Fantasies, I was absolutely blown away. From start to finish, Emily Haynes and the boys serve up taut, perfectly constructed pop songs. The album also benefits from smart sequencing; the giddy, dance-your-ass off tracks transition seamlessly into the more pensive, down tempo tunes.
These guys score major points in my books for releasing something that sounds like a complete album – a rarity, considering how many groups these days seem content to crank out singles and filler.
Fantasies is an absolute blast to listen to. Metric are kicking ass… and taking names.
4. Mos Def, The Ecstatic
I’m starting to see a thread here. There are several artists on this list who released excellent mid-career albums in ‘09, after boring the crap out of me in recent years. And Mos Def is one more example. Though I’ve always admired the Brooklyn-born MC (his Black Star collaboration with Talib Kweli remains a hip-hop classic), I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to his recent output. But The Ecstatic is exactly what I in the mood for.
Stylistically, nothing is off-limits, from the wailing, Bollywood-style vocal line and psychedelic riff that opens “Supermagic” to the skittering beat of “Quiet Dog Bite Hard” to the Middle Eastern samples scattered throughout. It’s a dizzying mélange, but Mos Def’s agile rhyming is the anchor. He takes us back to his childhood, providing vivid descriptions of life in Bed-Stuy in 1982. (“The windows on the ave. look like sad eyes/they fix a sharp gaze on you when you pass by.”) On the Iraq War themed “Auditorium”, old school rapper Slick Rick makes a guest appearance, offering some comic relief with his trademark laconic delivery. The production throughout is top-notch and for the first time in years Mos Def sounds fully engaged.
5. St. Vincent, Actor
St. Vincent is the stage name of a talented Tulsa-born musician named Annie Clark. Based on the album cover (a headshot of Ms. Clark with her doe eyes and cherubic curls set against a tangerine background), I figured the music would be twee and bland. But as it turns out, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. This album is, without a doubt, the most original piece of music I’ve heard all year.
St. Vincent really seems to have a knack for creating cool contrasts. Pretty, melodic vocals butt up against grinding, staccato guitar parts that wouldn’t be out-of-place on a Nine Inch Nails album. Orchestral elements sit comfortably alongside rock drumming. It’s really difficult to categorize this album – there are simply too many twists along the way to really shoehorn it into one particular genre. (“Marrow” reminds me of 80’s era Bowie with its funky, electro breakdown.) A multi-instrumentalist who also co-produced the album to boot, St. Vincent is crazy talented.
FYI for all you Vancouver people: St. Vincent will be playing a show at the Venue on Feb 4th.
6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Let’s face it. The age of Auto Tune has made it possible for some pretty God awful singers to flourish in the music industry, their pitch corrected voices all bearing that telltale robotic quality. Which is why I find it so refreshing to listen to someone like Neko Case. She’s had that clear, resonant sound right from the beginning. The first time I saw her in concert, she was touring in support of her second album, Furnace Room Lullaby. And although she wasn’t very well known at the time, Case silenced the noisy rock crowd and commanded people’s attention with that big, sweeping voice of hers.
While she’s always had the powerhouse pipes, Case has really evolved into a first-rate songwriter on her previous two albums: 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood and 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The latest disc is full of gorgeous tunes and imaginative lyrics. I especially love the playful imagery in the love-gone-bad tune, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” (“You know they call them killer whales/but you seemed surprised/when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank.”)
As a singer, Case doesn’t have a huge range. But what’s important is that she understands the power of dynamics. Many singers feel they have to go full-tilt at all times, to create the greatest impact on the listener. But Case doesn’t make that mistake; she knows when to dial it down and when to turn up the volume, based on what the song requires. I think she’ll continue to make awesome albums and I can’t wait to see where she heads next.
7. The Field, Yesterday and Today
I saw The Field (a.k.a Swedish musician Axel Willner) this past summer at Richards on Richards on a sweltering evening and his icy, minimal electronic music was the perfect antidote to the weather. On his second album, The Field starts with simple patterns, slowly adding layer upon layer of sound, creating a hypnotic effect along the way. I also appreciate the way he approaches sampling. On “The More That I Do”, he takes the song “Lorelei” by The Cocteau Twins, chops up Elizabeth Fraser’s vocal lines into tiny snippets and uses them to punctuate the beat in a percussive kind of way. Cool stuff, indeed.
(Attention drum geeks: The Field recruits ex-Helmut and current Battles drummer John Stanier for a few of the tracks – one more reason to check out Yesterday and Today, if you haven’t already!)
8. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns
British musician Natasha Khan – who goes by the moniker Bat for Lashes – is sort of a Kate Bush for the New Millennium. Like her Cloudbusting countrywoman, Khan writes unabashedly girly tunes and doesn’t shy away from bringing a little theatricality back to popular music. (Wood nymph outfit? Check. Videos with inexplicable modern dance routines? Check.)
Inspired by a failed romance, her second album, Two Suns charges ahead with an intensity that her debut was lacking. The electronic elements on songs such as “Pearl’s Dream” and “Sleep Alone” give the music a lot of texture, adding to the ethereal vibe.
There are a few misfires here (“Siren Song” and “The Big Sleep”), but when everything comes together as it should… it’s pretty spectacular.
9. The Big Pink, A Brief History of Love
You may have noticed that a lot of new bands are gravitating towards that late 80’s/early 90’s period of shoegaze and dream-pop. The British duo known as The Big Pink seem to be going for a Jesus and Mary Chain/My Bloody Valentine-type of sound and I dig it. I agree – their band name is hideous – but don’t let that dissuade you. I was totally hooked when I heard “Dominos” with its roguish boasting, “These girls fall like dominoes” over a propulsive beat and fat, burbling synths. The leadoff song, “Crystal Visions” is the perfect music to zone out to with its wall of guitars, delay effects and reverb-drenched vocals. Sure, it’s no Loveless. But nothing ever will be. We just have to accept that fact and move on.
The xx, xx
I could listen to their single, “Crystalised” all day long. This group of 20-year old South Londoners sound like they just started playing their instruments yesterday… but that only adds to the hushed, intimate quality of the music. Love it.
Tegan and Sara, Sainthood
Take out the garbage. Vacuum the living room. Write 13 insanely catchy pop songs. Listening to the Quin sisters’ sixth studio album – a record jam packed with hooks – it’s easy to imagine that writing songs must be so natural for them, it’s just one more item on the to-do list. (Just try getting the chorus of “Don’t Rush” out of your head!)
Then again, you have to consider that the duo has been putting out records since ’99. Given the short career span of many other young musicians, this practically makes Tegan and Sara industry veterans. Over the past decade, the twins have matured as artists and learned how to showcase their strengths. If the assuredness of Sainthood is any indication, we’ll be hearing some pretty incredible music from them in the coming years.
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
Junior Boys, Begone Dull Care
Pearl Jam, Backspacer
(Review originally appeared in the September 24th, 2009 issue of prairie dog magazine.)
At this point in their career, Pearl Jam just doesn’t need to try that hard.
Over the years the Seattle quintet has built up enough goodwill to rest on their laurels — so, not surprisingly, some of their later records feel like the work of a band that’s coasting.
But on their ninth studio album, the group sounds re-invigorated and full of purpose.
The first single, “The Fixer”, is an incredible pop song — the bouncy rhythm, playful production values (handclaps!) and Eddie Vedder’s slinky phrasing make it downright danceable. When he belts out the hook “Fight to get it back again!” you can picture the crowd in the packed arena — fists in the air — chanting back the “yeah, yeah, yeah” refrain with all their might.
The guitars have a satisfying crunch (Stone Gossard and Mike McCready complement each other perfectly on songs like, “Amongst the Waves” and “Unthought Known”) and the rhythm section of bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron bristles with energy. The disc also has its gentler moments; “Just Breathe” is one of the prettiest things they’re recorded — the lush background orchestration is an unexpected touch.
Backspacer clocks in at just over half an hour and there isn’t a wasted note on the album. Much of that can be attributed to producer Brendan O’Brien, who’s back behind the controls after a long absence. O’Brien knows how to encourage the band’s best traits (big, anthemic rock songs) while discouraging their worst tendencies (awkward noodling.)
Pearl Jam has never been all that interested in turning tradition on its head à la Radiohead — they have too much reverence for their rock and roll forebears to mess with the rules. But sometimes you get the sense they feel like they’re supposed to.
Not here. On Backspacer, the band is completely comfortable with its identity.
And the guys sound like they’re having a hell of lot of fun together, which is no small feat after nearly two decades of making music.
Middle age suits Vedder and company just fine.