Monday, January 4, 2010

Nicest Albums of 2009

I’m gettin’ tired here, so I’m leaving a few entries without a lot of detail and maybe not making complete sense in some cases. Happy New Year to all, and I’ll be back soon with my albums of the decade. Hope some other folks still have lists in the works.
— Tom McMahon

15. Get Back Guinozzi! – Carpet Madness
The photo on the front of this album is like a Bizzaro version of the Buena Vista Social Club cover. And like with that Cuban masterpiece, it was the album cover that led me to check out this band I had never heard of. It was a rewarding venture. This is an irresistible batch of lo-fi party jams, with chirpy, French-accented vocals and hilarious lyrics like “Ooh, Mommy, Mommy, I love your tan.” Oddly enough, it includes a fantastic cover of the Clash’s “Police and Thieves.”

14. Alela Diane – To Be Still
Beautiful, haunting folk with some lush but organic-sounding arrangements.

13. Farmer Dave Scher – Flash Forward to the Good Times
More catchy stuff from this Beachwood Sparks and All Night Radio space cowboy. Less psychedelic but a little more soulful than ANR’s Spirit Stereo Frequency.

12. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
This is alternately mind-blowing and frustrating. “In the Flowers” is one of my favorite songs of the year. I love the way it jumps from an enchanting, dreamlike atmosphere to what sounds like a raucous street carnival. MPP is undoubtedly sonically innovative all the way through, but I find several of the songs to be tedious — particularly “Brother Sport” and “Taste” — with some lyrics inducing cringes (for example, the many-times repeated “Am I really all the things that are outside of me?”). I think they have a better album in them.

11. Desolation Wilderness — New Universe
Some of my favorite albums make me think of driving along the wide-open stretches of the central California coast, the Pacific shimmering in the sun. This album taps into that feeling, even though these guys live in Olympia, Wash. But it’s pretty clear from the song titles (“Venice Beach,” “Boardwalk Theme,” “San Francisco 2AM”) that they had California on their minds.

10. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
An incredible voice, and an outstanding songwriter. This album feels more fully realized than Fox Confessor did to me, although I don’t know why the last track, which is nothing but cricket noise, had to go on for more than 30 minutes.

9. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife goes downtempo and even darker. I love this, but I also miss the crazed, fantasy-like electro jams that prevailed on the Knife’s Silent Shout. Here’s hoping that the siblings reunite soon.

8. The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Just reading the lyrics of this album — which, unfortunately, may be their last — gives me the chills. Listening to Alasdair MacLean sing them in his soft, serpentine voice set to ghostly guitars, pianos and organs is, often, a transcendent experience. I think Suburban Light will, for me, always be their pinnacle, but this would be a great swan song.

7. Washed Out – Life of Leisure
I guess this is technically an EP, but it’s too good to leave out for that reason. Although I’ve never been to Miami, I think Life of Leisure should be the soundtrack to cruising around the city in a convertible on a summer night. It’s not nearly as slick as that might make it sound, though. It actually has a kind of warped, old-cassette feel to it. But it is seductive, what with its ethereal harmonies and pulsing beats.

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
I didn’t think this would eclipse their Yellow House for me, but as I just listened to it one more time, I realized that it finally has. Probably enough has been said about Veckatimest already, so I’ll just go with, “Pretty, pretty … pretty great.”

5. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
As Andrew Bird was about to play in Los Angeles after this album came out, the local paper had a blurb that I found really insightful. It said something to the effect of him having been tip-toeing on the verge of making an essential album. That’s the way I feel about this one, and the way I’ve felt about others of his. The first several songs on Noble Beast are so strong that it can’t help but lose some steam around the middle. But then he ends it with a great run, including a triumphant remake of one of his old tunes (the name of which he changed from “The Confession” to “Privateers”).

4. St. Vincent – Actor
I remember briefly checking this out around the time it was released and not thinking much of it. I must not have been listening very closely. Later in the year, Jamboree veteran Colin forced me to give it another shot, and I soon realized that this is no pedestrian singer-songwriter fare. It sounds by turns old-timey and experimental, charming and powerful. I continue to be stunned every time I experience the end of “Black Rainbow.”

3. Papercuts – You Can Have What You Want
This guy, Jason Quever, makes melancholy sound so inviting. The way the opening track washes over you with a plaintive organ and then hits you with “Once we walked in the sunlight / Three years ago this July 5th / Before the earth was a distant dream” — you just can’t help but be carried away. Strongly recommended if you like Beach House, with whom he’s played and whose Alex Scally plays here.

2. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
They say this is some sort of rock opera, but I haven’t bothered to really try to figure out the plot. Honestly, it doesn’t matter much to me. Even without considering the story, this is the biggest and boldest Decemberists work yet. It is a masterfully crafted and thoroughly engaging album. The “casting” of Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden from My Brightest Diamond is perfect — the former’s voice beautiful and innocent, the latter’s powerful (oh, man, powerful!) and sinister. Then there’s the spooky kids choir. The recurring musical themes tie it all together and really give you a sense of what’s happening, even if you don’t follow the lyrics.

1. Alasdair Roberts – Spoils
Alasdair Roberts (pictured above) was one of my favorite artists of the decade, but I didn’t expect to be blown away like this at this point. Spoils, his fifth album under his own name (he previously went by Appendix Out) is as addictive as it is ambitious. He turns out his most interesting batch of original compositions, many of them shifting into thrilling new directions mid-song. Roberts also branches out instrumentally, throwing in several intriguing antique contraptions (psaltery, anyone?) as well as some prominent electric guitar (even a solo!). Throughout the album, the influence of the Incredible String Band is well incorporated — never overbearing. Perhaps unfairly, I didn't expect Roberts to be able to top No Earthly Man, his intense collection of death-themed folk songs and my favorite album of 2005. Now, it’s hard to imagine him surpassing Spoils, but I hope I’m wrong again.


Daniel said...

Good list, T-Bone. I'm Lala'ing that Farmer Dave album and enjoying it thoroughly. The cover is so bizarre but pretty awesome.

Paul said...

Great stuff, Thom. As expected, a mix of stuff I love, don't like, and haven't heard. I checked out Get Back Guinozzi! and Alela Diana on lala today; the former didn't get me but the latter convinced me from the first song. Maybe it was made to be listened to on a quiet Monday morning.

I need to hear that Decemberists record, although I still feel like they've sort of lost the plot with their ambition (a la Of Montreal). That said, the fact you like the record without totally buying into the rock opera conceit makes me think I could do the same.

I think you're right that the new Neko Case record is more fully realized than Fox Confessor, but I think that unfinished quality is one of the things I really like about Fox Confessor. As good as Middle Cyclone is (and it's very good), it doesn't have the mystery of Fox Confessor.

So the Clientele is one of the best bands of the decade, right? 5 good to great albums, and each time I've seen them, they've killed it.

The St. Vincent record is such a cool record. My reaction (mostly surprise and awe) to females shredding on guitar reveals my sexism. I love when she just MAKES NOISE. A really good album.

Daniel said...

There's a cool video of the Decemberists preparing to perform Hazards Of Love live on tour. My boss saw them 3 times during that tour and speaks very highly of their live show.

Also, if ya'll watch this video can you name the song that plays during the opening credits? It's not the first music that plays but it starts around 1min15secs. I know I've heard the song, but can't place it.

michelle mcmahon said...

I'm so happy FD made the list. Our love is a wave, Hot-T!

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!

Thomas McMahon IV said...

I agree that the Clients are one of the best of the decade. By the way, have you heard their It's Art Dad compilation? It's a bunch of early recordings. I guess they only sold it on a tour a few years back, but I found a download of it somewhere recently. Maybe it was here:

Nice piece on the Decemberists. I really regret not having caught them on that tour. Didn't recognize the song in the opening credits.

Thanks, Anonymous!!!!!!!!

Paul said...

Don't know the song either.

Art is dad.

Thomas McMahon IV said...

God is Dad.

Paul said...

Yahweh or the Highway.

michelle mcmahon said...

Anonymous totally dissed me because I posted first, which makes mine the worst.

Chris said...

So glad you listed the Farmer Dave album - which would definitely have flown under my radar. So good! I was always bummed All Night Radio never made a second record.

michelle mcmahon said...

Spirit Stereo Frequency was the soundtrack of my life for like a month this year!