Sunday, December 6, 2009
As the year and decade comes to a close the weight of recollection forces each critic to be a little sterner than usual. By any standard though, the year was disappointing as several highly anticipated albums failed to sparkle much interest. Album sales continued to plunge, a sign of musical recession but the few industry cash cows (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift) have sold (out) well and duly garnered Grammy nominations. The year started out hotly as Animal Collective dropped the freak/folk bomb in Merriweather Post Pavillion while, months later, Grizzly Bear had tongues wagging with Veckatimest as it too emerged from a lengthy gestation period. The summer months came and went without much but a busy last quarter saw the release of good music that the bulk of this list contains. Here is part one of three of the best albums of 2009:
The queen of Norwegian electro-pop returns after a long gestation period with an album that was very much worth the wait. Critics have been inking their praises from last year, but it does takes a special type of musician to still emerge above sea-level amid the translation of ideas from Island to an alternative release plan. Though Don’t Stop does suffer from a little carbon dating, Annie’s ideas are still more vastly fun and interesting than the generic hash that populate American pop through the likes of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. There is a steady progression from her debut (Anniemal) even though this opus lacks the immediacy of tracks like Heartbeat and Chewing Gum. The delayed release of Don’t Stop hasn’t derailed her imminent stardom but it does leave her playing catch-up with an audience that forgets its heroes once the limelight settles on someone else. No matter though, our heroine is persistent as standout track Take You Home proves, with its pulsating club beat and relaxed vibe. She varies the pace while poking fun at her art form with Loco and The Breakfast Song, in the process further distances herself from the ensuing pack. Amazing feat given all the cards stacked up against her… Annie pulls a gem out of a near-dire situation.
Wild Young Hearts
A worthy listen alone for the striking vocal command of lead singer Shingai Shoniwa. Listen how she tears into soulful tracks like Never Forget You and the playful title track. At such moments, her drawl is reminiscent of Amy Winehouse as both artists share that knack for stern warning yet clear-eyed steeliness. The band has learned not to take itself so serious to the point of self-obsession so when they let fly with crunching guitars, there isn’t a hint of guilt behind it. They’re just having fun while Shoniwa is still the camp, biding for her inevitable time and rise.
28: Zero 7
I haven’t listened to enough trip/hop or down-tempo music apparently to tell the extent of the critical praise Zero 7 garnered over the years before Yeah Ghost but I do know good music when I hear it. With the departure of Sia the duo (Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker) had to scramble to fill the void and they’ve done so admirably with two women on the cusp of a break-through. Eska Mtungwazi adds vocal muscle (Mr. McGee, Everything Up) while Martha Tilson channels her best Beth Gibbons impersonation on Pop Art Blue and Swing.
27: Andrew Bird
Andrew Bird remains a complex artist to listen to because one suspects there is some magical and intellectual quality that is vital to take in. Indeed, the opener Oh No superbly blends his soaring vocals and obscure lyrical references (‘oh arm and arm/ we are the harmless sociopaths/calcium mines were buried/ deep in your chest’). Vague name-checking but what stands him apart from his talent pool is the attention to detail that Bird has been able to expand like some potions master.
26: M. Ward
Ward has stated in interviews that his idea for the album was preservation of an idealized time and he goes about it in a calm manner. Hold Time will stun some fans because the direction of his music has retread from earlier releases such as Post-War. Ward however is a man at peace and even amid this serenity he fins references to unleash his soul. Jailbird and Fisher of Men strum with a plaintive quality but do not be fooled: Mathew Ward is reinventing the wheel yet again.
25: Elvis Perkins
Elvis Perkins in Dearland
No sophomore slump here for Perkins who has found a way to resolve his famous last name—he is the son of the late actor Anthony Perkins and make peace with it. Determined to look ahead, the album wilfully peels away structure for an emotional connection that is refreshing. Whether it is the inspiring salvo of Heard Your Voice in Dresden to the crackling opener Shampoo, Perkins has put his familial past behind him as tidily as possible.
24: Mos Def
The Ecstatic feels like a weeded-out jam session that didn't quite go entirely according to plan but somehow holds together anyway. Critics have rushed to proclaim it a stunning return to form and that it is. Tracks like Wahid and Quiet Dog Bark Hard strike thunder yet there’s nothing here as epic as Ms. Fat Booty. Mos Def though has gotten his mojo back and while he’s not tread Kanye territory yet, that is a good thing.
23: Ola Podrida
Belly of the Lion
David Wingo returns with an unraveling of the adolescent phase of life. The arrangements are spare and his vocal tenderness recalls Bon Iver but he is more cinematic. Belly of the Lion is the soundtrack to the American life growing up: You Father’s Basement explores the discovery of delicious sins as much as Lakes of Wine is decidedly a cagey look at the impending future. The subtext behind the album though is the quiet poetry of our every day life which we never seem to notice.
22: St. Vincent
Annie Clarke’s lyrics are sympathetic observations rendered with clear, economical language focused on a specific moment of conflict or epiphany, occasionally undercut with self-deprecating asides and subtle humor. Actor tackles the ennui-filled life of women and explores the angles involved in such complicity. The standout, Actor out of Work, is the only track that breaks out of subdued mode with its pop vibe but even down-trodden Clarke’s work is fascinating. The album fades out towards the end but the top-half is brilliant—The Neighbors, The Strangers, Marrow—all coalesce to evoke the spritely imagination wrapped up in her head.
21: Sunset Rubdown
Spencer Krug is perhaps the finest perfectionist in indie now because he’s building his own myths as he goes along. As Sunset Rubdown, we have him in a solo setting that is fascinating to observe. Black Swan must have been dubbed several times before he was satisfied with its finished state but it works so well because of that fact. Silver Moon, a love song (?!) loses itself in all the various vocal nuances thrown in eventually but they all pale in comparison to Apollo and the Buffalo…, a stunning retelling of some obscure mythological reference where Krug soars towards the end.