For whatever reason, 2009 turned out to be a really good year for music. It was probably my favorite year for music in half a decade, and certainly an improvement from the dark days of 2007/08, gloomy years when I sort of began to wonder if I actually liked music anymore (I didn't even bother making a list for 08—can't even remember what if anything I was enjoying at the time). But anyway. That is in the past. Let us be grateful for today. Here is my list, arranged in no particular order:
Top Ten Albums
Vic Chesnutt—At The Cut
I think I sort of took Vic Chesnutt for granted. I loved Little and The Salesman And Bernadette, but found his other work sort of patchy, and largely stopped listening. When North Star Deserter, his previous collaboration with Guy Picciotto and Thee Silver Mt. Zion came out, I gave it a cursory listen but didn't hold it in any particular regard. But a few days before Christmas, I sat up late drinking and giving At The Cut the attention it deserved: it's a stunning record about death and decay by a fantastic singer and lyricist that will unfortunately be forever linked with the circumstances of Chesnutt's death.
Built To Spill—There Is No Enemy
Built To Spill's previous album, You In Reverse was distressingly by-the-numbers: it wasn't a bad album by any means (the band has never released anything even like a bad album), but it sounded aimless, which is probably worse, implying disinterest or lack of commitment. It felt like the band only made the album because making albums is what bands do, and it had been awhile since their last one. But There Is No Enemy, despite sounding more or less exactly like every other Built To Spill album, feels light years ahead of its predecessor. Doug Martsch actually sounds engaged with the songs he has written, and even though the subject matter is often less than sunny, There Is No Enemy makes me feel an incredible joy.
This was the year that I rediscovered Willie Nelson. Having loved Red Headed Stranger for years, when confronted with Nelson's other, later, albums, I was invariably disappointed by their uneveness. As it turns out, I was just going in the wrong direction: Red Headed Stranger is actually just one of about a half dozen great albums he produced in the 70s. Phases and Stages, Yesterday's Wine, Shotgun Willie and The Troublemaker are all fantastic records that I introduced myself to thanks to Phosphorescent's woozy collection of Nelson originals. Great, beautiful record.
Mt Eerie—Wind's Poem
This was the first Phil Elverum album I ever really got into, and it's a grand, amazing thing. The sonic equivalent of being alone in a huge dark forest and listening to the roar of wind shake the trees. An album about being a very small thing with a very small voice that sounds both humbled by and in awe of the enormity of the earth and the forces at work upon it
The Mountain Goats—The Life Of The World To Come
Apart from At The Cut, no album made me think about dying more this year than The Life Of The World To Come, from the suicide (David Foster Wallace?) in “Phillipians 3:20-21” to John Darnielle's mother-in-law, cancer-stricken, in “Matthew 25:21” (“the last of something bright burning/still burning”) to the captive Thylacine, last of its kind, baring its teeth in defiance in “Deuteronomy 2:10”, a song about the eventual extinction of everything.
Califone—All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
Much like Built To Spill, the last Califone album seemed more like the work of a band making a record just for the hell of it. It is to their credit that in spite of its rather workmanlike quality, it was still pretty good—an album they could have made in their sleep, but still pretty good. They came back in a big way with All My Friends Are Funeral Singers, though. It's what Califone do best: combine ancient Harry Smith Anthology-style songcraft with modern production—clanky percussion, washes of synthesizer, buzzing frets and distortion. Califone are masters of creating dreamy sonic landscapes that are at once incredibly vivid and somewhat hard to pin down. A great album by one of America's most overlooked bands.
Lil Wayne—No Ceilings
For all the praise heaped on Tha Carter III, No Ceilings (despite a kind of crappy final third)beats it by a mile. A friend of mine once described Wayne as a really smart dumb rapper, which, to my mind, is a perfect descriptor. And with that in mind, he sounds his absolute best, to me at least, when backed by the shittiest, ringtone-stupid beats, which are in abundance here, making No Ceilings my personal favorite Wayne album.
Magnolia Electric Co—Josephine
I have reached the point with Jason Molina and his work where I've sort of lost my ability to be objective. Most reviewers thought this was a mediocre effort, but for my money Josephine is the best album the band has released since 2001's Magnolia Electric Co. In theory a concept album about a recently deceased friend, Josephine in fact tackles the same issues Molina has wrestled with for over a decade: disappointment, failure, the inability to live up to one's potential. Probably the most musically varied Molina release yet, with traces of doo-wop (“Rock of Ages”), straight-up country weepers (“Song For Willie”, the title track), and the haunted, rootsy numbers most closely associated with the band (“The Handing Down”, “Map Of The Falling Sky”). My favorite album of the year.
Bill Callahan—Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Bill Callahan continues being one of the four or five best lyricists working today. He is an absolute master at paring things down to their most simple components, whether it be heartbreak or coming to terms with one's atheism. I suspect that this album, along with At The Cut have probably the most staying power of all the records listed here. Fantastic, heavy stuff.
Sonic Youth—The Eternal
I have to confess that I never really “got” Sonic Youth. I respected them immensely, and I liked a handful of their songs, but their albums always sort of bored me. Growing up I made a couple of efforts to get into their music, but it never clicked. But somewhere around the time of Murray Street, I began to come around to their sound, and have as of this writing, fully embraced them, and would rank The Eternal on par with my own favorite album of theirs, Washing Machine. I still don't like Daydream Nation, though. Go figure.
Top Ten Songs
The single of the year, hands down. Shakira decides to make a sexy dance-pop track, and she does it so well it's a shame the rest of the album isn't as good.
We Were Promised Jetpacks—“Quiet Little Voices”
I listened to a lot of Scottish rock music this year, bands like The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit and We Were Promised Jetpacks, lots of very serious young dudes being serious about their feelings. They all sort of remind me of my old favorites Idlewild, who were also Scottish, and also terminally serious. The Twilight Sad are probably the best of all these groups, but “Quiet Little Voices” is probably the best song of the lot, soaring and anthemic and full of muscle. It sounds like it could have been a hit once, a long time ago. A song that has the kind of romantic melancholy you can only associate with youth.
Sunset Rudown—“You Go On Ahead” (Black Cab Sessions)
I typically only really like Sunset Rubdown in small doses, or not at all. I feel like Krug (and basically all of those guys in the Frog Eyes/Swan Lake/Destroyer/Wolf Parade mafia) has a tendency to be needlessly cryptic and yelpy and irritating, but this version (which is infinitely better than its studio counterpart) is loose and joyous and makes me wish I liked more of their material.
Keri Hilson feat Lil Wayne—“Turning Me On”
My favorite single sixty seconds of music this year was Wayne's gleeful, breathless verse dropped into the last third of this goofy Rihanna-lite club track.
Destroyer—“Bay Of Pigs”
Dan Bejar is probably the only person who could get me to intentionally listen to a weird ambient disco track that runs somewhere near a quarter hour. Its opening lines (“Listen, I've been drinking”) set the stage perfectly, conjuring images of a young socialite (“a crumbling beauty trapped in a river of ice/a crumbling beauty trapped in paradise”) gently staggering around a fabulous home on the edge of some personal—or, owing to the song's title, literal—apocalypse. A song bathed in pale white fluorescents.
Taylor Swift—“White Horse”
Swift's big hit this year was “You Belong With Me”, a pretty terrible song about a young girl who pines for an asshole who ignores her in favor of a vapid cheerleader-type. In the infinitely better “White Horse”, the girl gets what she wants, and finds out it's not all it's cracked up to be. An inversion of the standard high-school-love-conquers-all bullshit so prevalent in pop music, and a nice addition to the canon of leaving-my-stifling-small-town-behind-me songs. Swift is really likeable: I hope she gets better at music.
Animal Collective—“My Girls”
I've never really cared much for Animal Collective—they always just sounded so formless. But even I was won over by this song, which manages to shackle some kind of structure to their usual clusterfuck of directionlessness. “My Girls” was a refreshing blast of open-hearted optimism, a trait I generally lack, but one that, in the proper amounts, I'm more than willing to open myself up to.
Girls—“Hellhole Rat Race”
A trebly burnout's final words, recorded on cassette, and chewed to bits by the churning California sun. From an album dotted with a handful of bright spots, this one was far and away the brightest.
Twilight Sad—“Reflections Of The Television”/“I Became A Prostitute”
One of the things I never liked about shoegaze was how wimpy if often sounded. I like pretty, ethereal vocals as much as the next person, but I also like a little passion. The Twilight Sad are the best of a handful of young Scottish bands, and the closest to being a full-on shoegaze act, but one thing they are not is twee. The first two tracks off their album Forget The Night Ahead are seething, angry storms of distortion with pounding drums and ear-ringing feedback. If their feelings are hurt, they're out to hurt yours back.
Lady Gaga—“Bad Romance”/Britney Spears—“3”
I strongly suspect the me of ten years ago would probably have been horrified by most of the songs I enjoyed this year, but the me of ten years ago was pretty stupid sometimes, and was probably a bit too concerned with keeping it real (the me of ten years ago didn't even like bands with keyboards, unless they were like, upright pianos or a harpsichord or some shit), and the me of now really does not give even the slightest shit about that. There was a lot of trashy pop music I liked this year, including Miley Cyrus's “Party In The USA” (fantastic bubblegum) and “Videophone” Beyonce's collaboration with Lady Gaga, the It Girl of 2009. I find the argument that Lady Gaga is some kind of avant garde genius a little silly; she's obviously smart, and has an aesthetic ideal, but that hardly makes her Andy Warhol. The Britney Spears song, an ode to what the French would call a menage a trois, is more or less indefensible, but what the hell: I really liked it.
Which in the end, is the best defense one can ever offer in these kinds of situations.