Thursday, January 19, 2012

Best Music of 2009: Perspective in Retrospect

Just when you thought you'd had enough of my endless lists...surprise!  I know 2009 has been over for, like, a whole week now(*), but why the hell would you do a best of the year while the year in question was still going on, anyway?  And when I made 2009 ineligible on the "Best of the 2000's" list, it really made this one a foregone conclusion.  That, and I wanted an excuse to try my hand at making a collage.  (Verdict: I can do better.)  Here we go, and I promise to be much less wordy this time.

(*) Or a week and two years, whatever.  I began this on January 7 of 2010, abandoned it (and the blog in general) when things got a bit wonky for me, and honestly forgot it even existed until a couple months ago.  It was roughly one third done at the time, and I've tried to complete it the way I would have then, but at the end I'll have some things to say about how two years have affected it. Also, I completely lied about the "less wordy" thing. Honestly, I am encouraging mass skimming of this article, as it's way too long and indulgent. So, do what you always do, but enjoy it less (more?) because of my consent.

First, an honorable mention/explanation of their absence for Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion and Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest.  In the case of Animal Collective, I just haven't had it very long (maybe a month).  I know, I know, Pitchfork (and just about everyone else) proclaimed their undying love way back in January, but previous albums hadn't done it for me, so I passed.  Then, I found it for cheap and discovered it was actually pretty good.  "My Girls" and "Summertime Clothes" are both on the list of best songs I've heard this year, and the whole album has a sunny, infectious feel to it that I rather enjoy.  On the other hand, in the eight or nine times I've listened to it all the way through, it all seems to blend together in such a way that I forget which songs were which, and that's a problem.  Maybe it would have ranked if I had it the whole year, maybe not, but I have both enthusiasm and reservations so far.

Veckatimest definitely does not suffer from the problem of sounding too similar, and it also has two songs that feel like potential classics, "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait for the Others."  In fact, I think I like a little more than half of it.  My major concern with it is basically the same as the one I mentioned in regard to TV on the Radio's Return to Cookie Mountain in my best of the decade list: admiration over enjoyment.  And one amazing song that makes the others more frustrating for their lack of accessibility.  The odd song structures and arrangements cut both ways; when they work, it can be genius, but when they don't it just sounds like you're trying too hard.  Oh, and if you have a song on your album that I actively hate (I'm looking at you here, "Dory"), you are hurting your chances of being on my prestigious list.  I'm sure once I finally see them live I'll be reborn, but for now I'll leave my Grizzly Bear Kool-Aid on the kitchen counter and listen to something that I don't feel like skipping through.

Anyway, on to my twelve favorite albums of last year:

12. Modest Mouse, No One's First and You're Next
Yes, it's only an EP, and yes, it's made up of eight tracks that were released as singles and then later compiled for this, but it's my favorite Modest Mouse since The Moon and Antarctica.  I really don't think there's a weak song, with "Satellite Skin," "Guilty Cocker Spaniels," "The Whale Song" and "History Sticks to Your Feet" being especially awesome, and that's a huge change from how I've felt about most previous Modest Mouse efforts.  Typically, there are as many as sixteen tracks per album, and that results in a lot of filler.  Maybe what this really says is that Isaac Brock and company are better off just writing a couple songs at a time and then collecting them all once they've done enough.  In any case, this certainly deserved to be mentioned, even at the back.

11. Heartless Bastards, The Mountain
If there's one thing you learned about me from my decade list, it's that I love anything that does classic rock well.  Blues-rock works too, and that's where this bunch fits in.  Lead singer Erika Wennerstrom has a very distinctive drawl, and it can take some getting used to, but I love it.  This album's biggest problem is how great the first song is, making it hard to get past.  "The Mountain" starts with just a distorted strum for a few measures, before kicking in with a haunting slide guitar that floats behind Wennerstrom's voice during the verses before essentially acting as vocalist for the choruses.  It's a beautiful yet rocking song, and the first time I heard the album I listened to it three times before getting to track 2.  There's plenty more to love though, with ragers like "Early in the Morning" and songs that tweak the format a little, like "Wide Awake."  Definitely my favorite surprise of the year.

10. Wilco, Wilco (the album)
When this came out, I was really excited, raving about it perhaps more than it deserves.  As the year has gone on, I've become less enamored of it, but not so much that it doesn't deserve a spot.  By my reckoning, a somewhat disappointing album by Wilco is still better than most other things.  I discussed a lot of the criticism in the previous review, but I think my biggest problem with it is how top heavy it is.  Earlier, I defended the slower songs in the back half, but their shine has worn off considerably over time.  However, the good stuff is still pretty great, especially tracks 3-6.  Yes, you could hear the Feist-guesting "You and I" any time you walked into a Starbucks, but it's still a lovely song, and "One Wing," "Bull Black Nova" and especially "You Never Know" are some of the band's finest rockers from any album.  Maybe more time will dampen my feelings for it even further, but I still like it enough to put it here.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!
First thing's first: "Zero" is a classically great song, a standout of the last ten years, and certainly my favorite YYY single.  In fact, it's pretty much enough to earn the album top 10 status all by itself...which is fortunate, because most of the rest is lacking.  When the band's sound evolved for Show Your Bones, I loved it.  But this latest change to a more electronic disco sound just doesn't work that well for me.  After "Zero" opens things in rousing fashion, "Heads Will Roll" keeps the rave going and "Soft Shock" has some really cool synthesizers.  The rest, however, is mostly forgettable.  "Dull Life" most resembles the sound of their previous records, so it's no surprise that it ranks as my second favorite on the album, but I'm not convinced it's really all that good.  "Runaway" and "Hysteric" sound like they're trying too hard to recreate the success of songs such as "Maps" and "Cheated Hearts."  This may be a weird complaint after I've mentioned that the album doesn't sound enough like the old stuff, but there's a difference between playing a certain style and outright aping yourself.  Because it's a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album it's not bad, and there is one classic song here, but I hope their next evolution works out better.

8. Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years
Wackiness is just as much a staple of their sound as catchy choruses, so things that would raise an eyebrow if coming from other bands--say, leading off an album with a song called "Crazy Naked Girls," for instance--shouldn't merit much attention when Gruff Rhys and company do it.  But, c'mon!  It helps that it's a totally gonzo, awesome song, with Rhys repeating the title over and over while the music evolves from what sounds like a house party into shred-tastic arena rock, but always with the usual Super Furry Animals tongue stuck firmly in cheek.  Really, the only thing wrong with the track is that there was no accompanying video made.  "Mt" continues the glam spirit of things, with keyboardist Cian Ciaran handling lead vocals, and "Moped Eyes" pairs a steady dance beat with Rhys's smooth vocals, bringing to mind his Neon Neon side project.  "Inaugural Trams" is either a result of the sunniest drug trip ever or the national anthem for Toontown.  Franz Ferdinand's Nick McArthy's guest rap in German is probably a clue as to which, but I haven't figured it out.  In the end, this is little too long, and definitely not as immediately enjoyable as past albums like Hey Venus! or Rings Around the World, but multiple listens reveal something that stands with their best.  Plus, any album that leads to a press release like this is invariably awesome.

7. Obits, I Blame You
Rising from the ashes of a beloved band can be really hard.  There is a lot of baggage that can't be avoided, expectations that demand to be met, fair or not.  When Speedo decided to kill all of his bands a few years ago, it also took Hot Snakes/Drive Like Jehu lead singer and co-mastermind Rick Froberg away from us.  Speedo came back first, but Froberg came back better, releasing this surf-punk-noise gem.  The comparisons to Hot Snakes are unavoidable, like I said, but his songwriting style and voice are really the only common factors.  Even there, Froberg reveals he can croon a little, scaling back the screaming for a more melodic sound, especially on songs like "Light Sweet Crude" and album closer "Back and Forth."  Elsewhere, he still brings the signature yelp; "Widow of My Dreams" sets the tone with a driving beat and jangling surf guitars for a minute or so before Froberg joins the fray: "Leave us alone, man.  Leave us in peace!"  Second guitarist Sohrab Habibion ably takes the role that Speedo assumed in Hot Snakes, even handling lead vocals on "Run," and I suspect his influence may have a lot to do with the surfy, tinny, low-fi sound.  The whole thing is produced to sound like 60's garage rock, and it gives it immediacy and edge.  It's a hell of a debut, and even manages to satisfy this rabid Hot Snakes fan without ever sounding like a rehash.  Speedo, it's your move.

6. Franz Ferdinand, Tonight
Franz Ferdinand stormed into the collective hipster consciousness with the irrepressible "Take Me Out" in 2004, but their second album seemed not to garner near as much attention even though it essentially improved upon the recipe from their debut.  On Tonight Franz Ferdinand seem to have taken that lesson to heart, going with a synth heavy approach. The result is maybe their danciest, and certainly their weirdest album yet.  Weird ain't all bad, though. Opening track/lead single "Ulysses" dares you to not sing along with frontman Alex Kapranos as those aforementioned synths lead into "La, la la la la, Ulysses!"  The first time I heard the song, I started out smirking at the obviousness; by the fifth I was shouting happily along.  Other highlights include the keyboard-happy, seriously 80's-leaning "Twilight Omens," the You Could Have It So Much Better throwback "Bite Hard," and the bouncy "What She Came For," a song that combines three minutes of enjoyably standard Franz fare--dancey beat, singalong choruses, twitchy guitar--with fifty seconds of explosive, blistering punk.  And just in case you hadn't noticed they were messing around with the status quo, the back end offers up "Lucid Dreams," featuring a slow descent from guitar rock into straight techno.  Not all of the tweaks work, but overall they maintain the charm of their first two releases.  At this point, I'm a believer.

5. Built to Spill, There is No Enemy
I didn't get around to listening to this until after I'd seen them at Outside Lands, but I wasn't worried--Doug Martsch and company are nothing if not reliably consistent.  That isn't to say that Built to Spill keep putting out the same record, just that they've yet to release a bad one.  There is No Enemy finds them in a mellower, more reflective mood than You in Reverse, but it retains all the best aspects of the band's sound.  In particular, the epic lead guitar is still all over every song, in particular during the mid-album stretch of "Life's a Dream," "Oh Yeah" and the angriest, fastest song here (and, not surprisingly, probably my favorite), "Pat."  Clocking in at a brisk 2:39, it's the song that most brings to mind Martsch's manic flailing and head-bobbing he always does in concert, and the one most likely to get you pulled over.  There are additional touches this time around--horns on a couple tracks, strings on another--but they never feel intrusive or gratuitous, instead adding to the overall feel.  And Martsch's lyrics, which he claims aren't really about anything specific, again manage to find the perfect rhythm for the songs while also feeling profound, his protestations be damned.  In the end, the message seems to be one of hopeful melancholy, of accepting the things you can't control in an effort to be happy.  In that spirit, I gladly accept Built to Spill's current trajectory.  If only we could all age so gracefully.

4. The Dead Weather, Horehound
Raise your hand if, when The White Stripes first broke out and you would listen to "Fell in Love with a Girl" and "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" constantly, you ever imagined a time when they would be Jack White's third best band.  I know I didn't.  And yet, less than a decade later, that's where we find ourselves.  My love for The Raconteurs has been well-documented, and this year White collaborated with another interesting talent in Allison Mosshart, lead singer for The Kills, while also bringing along bassist Jack Lawrence from The Raconteurs, and guitarist Dean Fertita.  The result was the grittiest thing he's ever done.  The early White Stripes recordings may have been lo-fi, but they--

(cue sounds of brakes screeching, records stopping, whistles blowing, babies crying and demons laughing, all at once)


All right, that just went on, didn't it? Writing from your own perspective from two years ago is harder than I thought, so enough of that. It also makes a somewhat natural stopping point, though, since my top three albums from that year are the same now as they were then. To wit:

3. Mastodon, Crack the Skye
2. Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures
1. Dinosaur Jr, Farm

Though they all undoubtedly deserve the level of attention the others received above, I'll just say that Crack the Skye is Mastodon's best album to date, dipping just enough into more traditional songwriting to make songs hookier while maintaining the band's typical weirdness (a concept album about Rasputin, anyone?) and musical ingenuity; Them Crooked Vultures has a tendency to sound too much like a Queens of the Stone Age album, and not just because Josh Homme is the main guy behind both bands, but when the three principal musicians are Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones, that's a minor complaint--at times it actually sounds like Led Zeppelin and QOTSA had a baby; and Farm concretely reestablishes Dinosaur Jr as a serious force, showing up all the 90's nostalgia acts in the process in a way that only J Mascis, Lou Barlow and Murph could.

Anyway, the real reason I decided to thaw this sucker out was my fascination with just how different my feelings were about the albums on the list, and even the ones I decided not to include. I never warmed to Animal Collective beyond what I said at the top, but Grizzly Bear grew on me rather unexpectedly. The bottom part of the list has fallen off almost completely; I almost cringe in guilt to see those Modest Mouse and Heartless Bastards records included when I haven't listened to them in ages. In fact, let's go to the early 2012 version of the list:

1. Farm
2. Them Crooked Vultures
3. Crack the Skye

Though somewhat comforting that I essentially predicted the three that would have the most lasting impact on me, it's also boring for the sake of this article, so onward!

4. There is No Enemy
5. I Blame You
6. Wolfmother, Cosmic Egg

Ahh, change is good. Built to Spill and Obits both move up, bumping Franz Ferdinand and The Dead Weather to parts unknown, and we have a newcomer in Wolfmother. Apparently the end of 2008 was particularly slutty for Led Zeppelin, because Black Sabbath knocked her up too, producing this criminally overlooked follow-up to Wolfmother's crazy hyped debut. Seriously, if you like hard rock/metal, the first eight tracks are as good as almost anything the last couple years.

7. Silversun Pickups, Swoon
8. The Black Crowes, Before the Frost...
9. Brendan Benson, My Old, Familiar Friend

I knew I liked Swoon at the time, but I don't think I'd fully given myself over to it yet. The Black Crowes retired on a high point, using a live setting in The Band drummer Levon Helm's barn to creatively reinvigorate themselves. Benson, Jack White's co-lead in The Raconteurs, made a killer power pop record that I wouldn't have paid attention to even five years before; now it finds its way back into my rotation every six months or so, which is more than can be said for some of the albums it deposed.

10. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
11. Horehound
12. Muse, The Resistance

Well, would you look at that! Grizzly Bear made it after all. Though an impressive live show had a fair amount to do with the turnaround, repeated listens had me appreciating the beauty and intricacy of the record. "Dory" can still fuck right off, but most of the rest is kind of awesome, if you'll allow me such eloquence. The Dead Weather are hurt in hindsight by how much better their second album was--I hardly ever pick this one up anymore--but in a weak year it was still enough to cling to the bottom rungs of this overly long list. And The Resistance started off as an album I liked to mock for its silliness and goofy grandiosity, but two years later I would compare half of it favorably to most of their catalogue. The title track and "Unnatural Selection" in particular are among my favorite all-time Muse songs.


Revisiting/revising/finally completing this list after all this time has brought me to a couple conclusions. The first (and far briefer) of the two is that after excluding 2009 from my best of the decade list because I needed more time with these releases to put them in the proper context, it seems counter-intuitive to have immediately tried to rank them anyway. That leads me into my second conclusion, though, which is that thinking of these lists as anything more than a snapshot of how you feel at that exact moment in time is just silly.

Now, that may seem painfully obvious to everyone else, but as someone who's always loved ranking things it took me a while to figure out. I feel so strongly about my opinions, and am so loathe to present them as anything but fact, that accepting their fluidity would have once felt like a concession. (Back when Foo Fighters debuted, I insisted that I hated "This is a Call" long after it'd won me over, all because I'd been initially underwhelmed.) Plus, the best music comes from the songs and albums you form a personal bond with, and the idea of that bond not sustaining is almost as sad as losing touch with a good friend.

But the reality, of course, is that your relationship with music is constantly subject to change. For years I've had a top tier of favorite bands, my own little Mt. Rushmore that was set, er, in stone (Just like the real thing! This metaphor is great!) no matter what came along. But most of those bands are either inactive or  long past their best days, while almost every year--sorry, 2009!--I discover new bands that have records I love almost as much, or in some cases more, than some of my personal all-timers. On a more micro level, I look back at 2009 and wonder why my list looks the way it does; 2009 me would look at the updated version and scoff.

All of this brings up other thoughts about the state of music criticism in general, and how a review written after only five or ten or even forty listens in a relatively short amount of time is mostly useless, but this is long enough already. For my own purposes, I will go forward looking at lists like this one as a conversation starter and a personal time capsule that I can go back and get riled up about in the years to come. And if someone discovers something they really like on there, all the better.

In that spirit, one more list, presented without comment, except to say that 2010 was a lot stronger than 2009, and this list too is different from how it would have looked a year ago:

Top 20 of 2010
  1. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs
  2. Titus Andronicus, The Monitor
  3. The Besnard Lakes, The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night
  4. Surfer Blood, Astro Coast
  5. Black Mountain, Wilderness Heart
  6. The Futureheads, The Chaos
  7. Ted Leo & The Pharmacists, The Brutalist Bricks
  8. The Dead Weather, Sea of Cowards
  9. Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest
  10. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record
  11. The Black Keys, Brothers
  12. LCD Soundsystem, This is Happening
  13. Grinderman, Grinderman 2
  14. Spoon, Transference
  15. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Beat the Devil's Tattoo
  16. Against Me!, White Crosses
  17. Torche, Songs for Singles
  18. The Black Angels, Phosphene Dream
  19. Frightened Rabbit, The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  20. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid

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