Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Top 30 ALBUMS of 2009: 1--10

The finale...

10: The Fiery Furnaces
I’m Going Away

Here is rambling poetry juxtaposed with bar-hopping piano pop as only Matthew & Eleanor Friedberger can do. This is for the sophisticated, drunk on their own excess but the Brooklyn duo has broadened their bar act into a full-blown revue: Keep me in the Dark jazzes up things with a spiked guitar of all things. Ditto Charmaine Champagne, which interrupts its own flow with rambling Beat-like prose. Ultimately though, Eleanor lifts the bar with her lovelorn use of vocals, especially when the lights and her emotions get dark (Cut the Cake, Even in the Rain). It’s an ambitious turn around of musical direction but if accessibility encroaches on their art like this then they should unfurl even more.

9: The Sandwitches
How to make Ambient Sadcake

From its opening track, the deceiving Back to the Sea, one deduces that the alternative country genre has gotten a pleasant new addition, just not one to trouble the critics but that would be terribly wrong. By track three--- the bluesy The Revisionist---the band’s already drawing out intent with lines like, ‘God ain’t no friend of mine.’ The last half bites harder: Fire, a folk delight, recalls Fleetwood Mac in full flight while Marry Me one-ups St. Vincent’s recent effort with more feminine urgency. But the real impressive notion The Sandwitches explore here is that alternative-country can be exciting yet conform. In the process, through stompers like Wicked Inger, they’ve reminded Kathleen Edwards and even Nekko Case why we loved them in the first place: daredevils in this field are appreciated greatly.

8: Tanya Morgan

For their third album the members of Tanya Morgan (Von Pea, Donwill and Illyas) have retreated to a fictitious city. This is a location where phat beats are built upon concepts of other MCs without fear of imitation being limited to flattery. More important is the absence of modern swagger and in its stead is a holler back to a time when rap was concerned about its image. This allows the guys to bare their skills without obfuscation. There it is full blown yet playful on Never Enough and Blu. Another feature of the album is the sampling skill involved. The beats are not as outsized as Outkast but they cut nearly as deep. If I had to single out any track then it would be So Damn Down, where the band reaches a level of hypnotic groove that makes it impossible not to nod your head off.

7: Patrick Wolf
The Bachelor

The opening track, Hard Times sums up in its pristine production and steely lyrics the state of Wolf’s mind and the recording industry at large (we have grown to ignore/ mediocrity applauded/ show me some revolution/ this battle will be won). One track in and we are welcomed to the world Wolf inhabits and the showman and dramatist in him shines superbly. The Bachelor, though over-reaching at times, is very much an epic statement, the type of artistic bravura that has almost vanished from pop music ever since the start of this decade. Swinging from personal politics to depression to falling in love, The Bachelor is an immediate indie experience.

6: FrYars
Dark Young Hearts

Garrett’s geeky pop sensibility has years-worth of intuition, even here on the reworking of this album that eliminated nine of the original tracks. This is as fresh as pop music has been on an intellectual level lately as old standards have sadly descended into having nothing much to say (right, Pink?). Garrett brings a nerdy-level to his queer context, not the sappy sentimentality of an old queen (right, Antony Hegarty?). His outlook of music superbly blends pessimism and reality. For all the changes this is still a meticulously crafted yet subtle album that proves the process of growing up is fraught with self-loathing and questioning yourself endlessly but also that ultimate tool of triumph: reinvention. The best new artist of the year.

5: Atlas Sound

Rapidly revolutionizing shoegaze, Bradford Cox’s solo output culminates here with an impressive array of sounds because there’s more craft here than experimentation. There’s no shortage of shoegaze talent but while a promising act like Tickley Feather still hasn’t pulled it together, Cox sits atop this mountain and he is seemingly alone. Tracks like Quick Canal and Washington School simply shimmer with his beautiful 80s arrangement far more effectively than his debut last year. The production is intricate yet refined to the point of resembling nothing else coming from the genre; a sure sign of Cox’s emerging genius. An Orchid is spare but notice how the guitars loudly lulling everything in place. The two stand-outs are nestled right beside each other, Criminal and the pop-laced Walkabout which features Animal Collective’s Panda Bear. A tremendous album because here at last the genre has found its master.

4: Japandroids

Brian King sings the line, ‘so we can french-kiss the French girls’, on Wet Hair with such a teenager’s supercharged energy that it’s frightening. That’s my first and continuous impression of this excellent album. Along with David Prowse, King presents broad chords stewed in mid-90s fuzz as far as sonically different from say, The Smashing Pumpkins yet expressing the same exhilarating glee. It’s catchy stuff too without trying self-consciously to be so. Sovereignty exerts it mojo with punishing guitars and a dense wall of sound while I Quit Girls uses the same tactics to retread from itself. Quite a decent trick from a punk band that’s just as ease baying at the moon or in the basement alone, drowning out the rest of us.

3: Bear in Heaven
Beast rest forth Mouth

It seems every year unearths a new band with a fantastic album that I’ve never heard before. This year it’s Bear in Heaven and their sophomore opus that, literally, rocks. The band sifts the Mid-western aura like sand. Casual Goodbye, the ender, swallows its spastic sonic glow with the assuredness of a grandmaster. Deafening Love employs power keg beats and bleeding vocals to great effect.This wholesome Americana texture is akin to bands like Yeasayer and Blitzen Trapper, especially the scope of the former and vocal nuance of the latter. It’s a winning combination to be sure and it’s made even surer by the uncompromising length detail. Lead vocal Jon Philpots manages to stay on track with his ideas and not, like other sound merchants, taper of with blurry instrumentals.

2: Grizzly Bear

Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen create the type of chorale music that sounds heavenly. The harmonies on Veckatimest are spun so tightly, so cleverly crafted that it leaves one gasping for breath afterwards. While You Wait for the Others, the centrepiece, reels out a steady brilliance that precedes even more of the same stuff. It’s not easy to attain such a level, a fact that most critics have put down to the long gestation of the album but it is this fanatic attention to detail that delights. Droste and Rossen play around each other while Christopher Bear connects whatever few seams that spill. You hear that guitar riffs lulling Two Weeks into precision, the jazzy undercurrents of Southern Point as well as the tenderness of All We Ask. Not to mention the beautiful, poetic lyrics that indicate the creative process involved on this project which, for all its fanciness, remains a chamber pop opus of the simplest order.

1: Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavillion

In the end it wasn’t close because with the release of MPP Animal Collective has topped all expectation and given us the most ideal embodiment of the freak/folk movement that has defined the decade in indie music. The trio has also now hit the rarefied air few bands ever find: becoming the standard of a particular genre. Witness their raw sound now morphed into headphone statements like the opening two tracks, In the Flowers and My Girls. Note the water-logged choruses of the Beach Boys-aping Bluish and Guys Eyes. What impresses mostly about MPP though is the variance of the style used. Whereas most bands in the genre cannot yet differentiate solid ideas on record, Avery Tare and Panda Bear are now at the point of looking back on the wealth of experience their creativity has afforded them. This is, therefore, their grown-up record, one where the personalities are no longer getting in the way but segueing with ease.



10: Metric
Gold Guns Girls

The fabulous electro-based pop we’ve been waiting for in vain by Kelly Clarkson ends up here instead on Emily Haines’ tongue. She has stated in interviews that the song deals with the ennui that faces those who can never seem to get enough of whatever they reach for but the smartly-contrived pop beat underlines the complexity of this impasse. Pop music of late has offered anything this intelligent or probing outside of FrYars so it’s great to see Americans still clenching hard to a fleeting idealism.

9: Here we go Magic

My guess is that finally there’s a term to describe a Jewish vampire but you can’t go by my interpretation. What is clear though is the brilliant juxtaposition of the glossy soundscapes and an undeniable 80s vibe so much so that Luke Temple can reflect shimmering electro-hi claps at will.

8: Major Lazer feat. Santigold & Mr. Lexx Hold the Line

Even when tinkering with dancehall, Diplo and Switch grab Santi and explode gloriously.

7: Yeah Yeah Yeah
Heads will Roll

A swift rollick into the depths of punk, O-style (‘dance/ dance/ dance ‘til you’re dead’). The glamorous new wave style that the band champions is dipped in spectral synths and an urgent house beat.

6: Sunset Rubdown
Apollo & the Buffalo & Anna Anna Anna Oh

All of Krug’s tireless energy bound in one defined moment. Wrapped up in Greek mythology and fierce poetry (‘my God/ I miss the way/ we used to be’), Krug channels an inner demon we’ve never had the pleasure to witness before.

5: FrYars

Bridging the gap between Antony Hegarty and Boy George and adding his own bookish, morose yet totally dance-driven aesthetics, FrYars gets moving.

4: Grizzly Bear
While you wait For the Others

In what must surely be the oddest collaborative effort of the year, Grizzly Bear enlist soul-man McDonald to help shape this sickly-sweet psychedelic wonder. There is a substantial amount of impatience driving the beat and vocal urgency here, as if positing a response to lack of action. Even without such deep meaning though, Grizzly Bear has come up with the nascent equivalent to the cropped vocal style that made Animal Collective’s MPP such a hit.

3: Animal Collective
Guys Eyes

The band’s most challenging song on MPP because the ambivalence of sexuality rears its head. The opening couplet is a clear fight for control, the type of fight men have been losing once their second head takes over. The dizzy, repeated vocal usage is apt as if to compliment the rush of blood that floods the mind when such sexual decisions arise. So whether this is an exploration of temptation to cheat or being bi-curious or plain masturbation, Guys Eyes is a clear step-up from the bizarre topics these guys used to sing about.

2: Patrick Wolf
The Bachelor

By even his lofty standards, The Bachelor represents a triumph of passage that not even Wolf could’ve expected given the tumult that surrounded the album of the same name. Fed-up with his own securities and an expressive sexual tone that was proving worrisome to market, Wolf unfurls a ballad, somber in its own admission of that highest ideal of heterosexual bliss: marriage. Or more precisely his exclusion from it given the global Prop 8 stance that hinders gays to get hitched. This is a personal lament too however, one where the true Wolf, finally sheds his accustomed excess to strip himself bare and vulnerable.

1: Jay Z feat. Santigold
Brooklyn we go Hard

Leaked exactly a year ago for the Notorious soundtrack, the song was thankfully spared from being on Jay Z’s latest self-gratulatory album. Ignore its charm at your own peril though because this display of swagger reeks of the street chops he’s lost for the past few years. Santi’s opening couplet threatens to disrupt the flow but her verse grows in head-nodding strength as it should; the sample is from her own excellent track Shove It.