Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Albums of the Year (50-26)

My list of top albums or musical experiences is tough for me to compile each year. I want it to reflect my tastes and listening preferences. I think I have good grasp of what makes a song, album or performance great (I have created my own little formula), but know that my experience with rap, top 40 and country, along with jazz is lacking on many levels. Also, those are not my preferred genres, so I will leave it to more knowledgeable souls to decide the top 10 Nashville Country artists and albums (I will add the ones I think transcend their boundaries).

I do not want to be myopic, assuming my little world is the sun around which good music revolves. I understand that Lady GaGa may be one of the best 50 albums of the year. However, I just don’t get her and no matter how many listens I give to her latest, I doubt I will ever grasp its “greatness.” That said, you will see a few mainstream artists on my list, including one very high. Sadly, I know I have missed many extraordinary albums this year due to lack of unlimited time and funds. I know the latest by Cass McCombs, Sonic Youth, Coconut Records, Taken by Trees, Bowerbirds, Jarvis Cocker, Major Lazer, Manic Street Preachers, Kurt Vile, Mariachi el Bronx, Camera Obscura, William Elliot Whitmore, M Ward, Edward Sharpe and mewithoutyou could be superior to anything on my list. I fully acknowledge this and may find out next week that I should have spent the time to get to know each of those albums a bit better (by the way, I loved some of those albums and have no idea why I did not include them on this list).

My last of many caveats is this. I know the long form album is becoming passé. In fact, my favorite band in the world, Radiohead says they have given up (for now) on the form due to its limitations. This year alone, they released a couple of songs that could top this list. Modest Mouse and Bon Iver also released excellent EPs. However, I am still gonna hold on to the album as the ultimate form of rock art until further notice. So, here are numbers 50-41:

50. Dark Night of the Soul by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse- The powers that be have forced this album underground due to licensing issues or as a way to exert power over the artists involved. Don’t let that stop you from listening (the artists encourage people to download it illegally) to this gem from Gnarles Barkley’s genius producer and Virginia low-fi band Sparklehorse. There are many guest stars including Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals on the excellent Just War and Jason Lytle. There should be a film to accompany this soundtrack (there is a slide show).

49. These Four Walls by We Were Promised Jetpacks- An album of raw talent that is yet to be restrained, this could be the advent of the next U2, the next Frightened Rabbit or the next band to disappear while never living up to its potential. I am not sure which one. The songs are here and the it is a fresh approach to post-punk Scottish anthems along the lines of the aforementioned bands and others like Glassvegas and The Alarm.

48. Humbug by The Arctic Monkeys- The haters like to compare them to a British version of The Strokes, but last I checked the Strokes made one of the decade’s best albums. I love the assured voice of Alex Turner, akin to a sweet looking kid on the street corner that could walk you across the street or mug you. The songs are solid and the performance is tight.

47. No Line on The Horizon by U2- Most readers know I hit my U2 wall earlier this year after the ecstatic uncritical late blooming deification of Bono and Company by my friends in the Emerging Church movement. They waited 20 years to bestow such honors on U2 and acted as if their latest overblown James Cameron-esque claw stage was the pinnacle of concert and worship experiences, as if a church should lead its congregants in such a form of “worship.” That said, the music on this album is solid, if unspectacular. There are moments of heights that only U2 can reach, such as Breathe and lines only Bono can sing without sounding like a nincompoop, but there are signs of a band a bit too long in the tooth needing to lurch forward to its next stage of development or just hang it up and become a Rolling Stones-like review of their greatest hits for a bunch of 40 and 50 year olds that think they are still cool.

46. Two Suns by Bat for Lashes- If Nora Jones wrote songs sang them like Bat for Lashes, I would actually like Nora Jones. You have heard this music, which hearkens back to Kate Bush much of the time, but it sounds fresh in BFL’s arms.

45. Beware by Bonnie “Prince” Billy- Will Oldham’s alter ego is not for everyone, but it is for me. A former alt rocker that has embraced is inner Merle Haggard, singing the kind of country music Nashville will not touch. Standouts include I am Goodbye which would sound right on a George Jones album, but would never get play on today’s country stations and Beware Your Only Friend. This is an underrated gem of an album.

44. Wind’s Poem by Mount Eerie- If I had discovered this nugget earlier this year, I have a feeling it would be much higher on my list. If you ever heard the band Microphones, this is the same leader with a new name, just to complicate your life and hide in plain site. He says it is influenced by black metal, but if it is I would call this album a beautifully affecting sonic maelstrom of quiet loudness.

43. Miike Snow by Miike Snow- Yes, I spelled it right. As a kid I loved the X-men. Jean Grey’s alter ego the Phoenix was one of my favorites before going evil and turning into the Dark Phoenix. Now take the band Phoenix, the French pop band from the ipod commercials. They are infectious light pop. Now darken them, a lot. They become Dark Phoenix… and you just rename them Miike Snow. Seriously, I wish I had heard this album earlier this year since it is terribly pop, but with dark as night lyrical content and filled with a love of minor keys. Two of the guys were responsible for hits by Brittany Spears and some American Idols, but they saw the light (or moon) and created something wholly other while keeping their bubblegum sensibilities.

42. Yours Truly, the Commuter by Jason Lytle- Jason is the former leader of Granddaddy, a respected indie pop band. This is nothing new for Jason, but that is not a bad thing. Heavily orchestrated at times, much of the album is whispered, but not quiet. This is a very pretty pop, but not precious album if you like that sort of thing. I would rather listen to this if given a choice between it an Fleet Foxes any day, even if it reminds me of them.

41. Know Better Learn Faster by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down- A fun album full of infectious songs my kids would like as much as me, if I let them hear it (I need to do it). Thao and her band love to change it up, usually in the same song with radical departures, usually just a few minutes in. Sometimes it sounds as if things are about to fall apart, which (if you know me) I consider a good thing in music.

40. Hazards of Love by The Decemberists- With each subsequent album after Picaresque, The Decemberists have proven the law of diminishing musical returns to be true. While others blather incoherently about this 'masterwork" I can only say, it is a solid album with inventive music and great, albeit disturbingly bleak (yeah, I get it... its a story) lyrics.

39. This is For the Light in Your Eyes by The Choir of Young Believers- It is not too hard to imagine the Polyphonic Spree fronted by Brian Wilson with musical direction by Moby. Okay, maybe it is. These songs are symphonic yet catchy with a nice bit of surprising intensity.

38. Imidiwan: Companions by Tinariwen- Not the masterpiece that Aman Iman was, but this Grateful Dead meets Santana is the Saharan desert is still transcendent music, unlike anything else on the planet.

37. Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown-It still borders at times on inaccessible, but Dragonslayer is as close as art rockers Sunset Rubdown will ever get to playing to the crowd. I am surprised this has not made more year-end lists.

36. Monsters of Folk by Monsters of Folk-By not making the top 10, this "supergroup" consisting of Conor Oberst, M Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket could be considered a disappointment. It is feel good folk pop basking in the goodness of CS&N while keeping close to the identities of the participants... maybe adhering too close is the problem. Still, it is solid and has a gem called Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.) that you should download.

35. Now We Can See by The Thermals- I am sure it is considered "post-punk, but it is pure pop rock and roll with inane lyrics, fast guitars and killer hooks. i likey the energy.

34. Blacksummer's Night by Maxwell- Nobody makes classier, sexier, smarter soul than Maxwell and it is about time he returns to the scene (what has it been, 8 years?). It may not be on par with Urban Hang Suite, but I think it still the soul album of the year.

33. Album by Girls- Did you know I like really sunny pop? I do. If you do too, then listen. In a few months, I think this may be in my top 10, but I am not sure yet. It could have staying power.

32. Other Lives by Other Lives- In the vein of Max Richter, this is classically influenced piano rock only possible after Sigur Ros has paved the roads. It can be one dimensional at times, but the use of minor chords and intricate progressions makes this my pick for background music, ala Son Lux from last year.

31. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin by The Low Anthem- I thought it would end up higher, but I don't go back much. Still, the mixture of Fleet Foxes sweetness on some songs while pumping it up with Tom Waits-like dirt on others is a good mix. There are some beautiful pieces, but a less than cohesive whole.

30. Hymns From Rhodesia by listenlisten-The most original album on this list, this is a haunting piece of religious heritage brought to the fore through stark arrangements of lost hymns from Africa.

29. Mean Everything To Nothing by Manchester Orchestra- A loud, angry guy channeling Kurt Cobain and Brand New through an emo lens, but still rocking better than any album I heard this year. If you want to hear what is sounds like to deal with a Southern Christian upbringing as things fall apart, this is your album. Anything I say makes it less appealing that it really is.

28. Technicolor Health by Harlem Shakes- Underrated NYC band that sadly just broke up. Imagine Vampire Weekend, but less technically perfect, but much more warm and real sounding.

27. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips- Strange band takes a strange turn towards its roots and 70s art rock, but that is okay. It is not as accessible as its last 3 albums, but it grows on you.

26. Aim & Ignite by fun.- As an unabashed fan of Nate Ruess' former band, The Format, I was devastated to find out they had broken up in 07. Providentially, he joined with a former member of Anathallo to cook up a piece of dark chocolate that goes down sweet (the music) yet leaves a bitter aftertaste (the lyrics). The dark lyrics are hidden by sugary theatrical pop, part Broadway, part Queen and all Format.

special mention: Not sure how to classify it or judge it against the rest, so I will not try. However, the compilation album Dark Was the Night is one of the better albums of the year and a good non-traditional album filled with positively great works by Arcade Fire, The National, Spoon and Yo La Tengo (could be on any of their latest albums). The gem of the set is You Are The Blood, a 10 minute masterpiece song suite by Sufjan Stevens. It is the best thing he has ever done and if this is an indication of his next phase, let me be the first to express my excitement.


Josh said...

not bad. not bad at all

LMcG said...

Hey, I'm really glad Thao made your list! My friend Will is the drummer. They have gotten huge, I predict very big things for the band in 2010. It just cracks me up to think of the goofy kid I hung out with in middle school rocking out across the nation... :)

Also, I haven't even listened to Arctic Monkeys' latest, but I will do so now.

Looking forward to reading the rest.