Friday, February 12, 2010

The Best of 2009 - #15 - #1

Here it is. The Best of 2009. Now, get listening!

15. Act III: Life And Death - The Dear Hunter (Triple Crown)

Put these on your iPod right now: "What It Means To Be Alone", "The Tank", "The Thief"

Part Broadway play, part rock opera, The Dear Hunter's principle member, Casey Crescenzo, continues his foray into the art of the melodic, bombastic, and orchestral concept album. A much more accessible Mars Volta, The Dear Hunter employs some of the emo aesthetic, but really lets the strength of the songwriting, in particular, the melodies and orchestration, propel the album without getting mired into fulfilling whatever expectations come along with the emo genre. Musically, the album is all over the place with some really straight out alterna-pop songs, some strange vaudevillian type numbers, and complex arrangements all interwoven. An ambitious album, Act III: Life And Death proves that, while quite a few other bands are doing what they are doing these days, The Dear Hunter is one of the most impressive.

Have yourself a listen here.

14. Everything Touching Everything - These United States (United Interests)
Put these on your iPod right now: "Will It Ever", "Good Night Wish", "The Important Thing"

These United States give you a little bit of everything in their latest release, but what it comes down to is that bandleader Jesse Elliott has assembled excellent musicians who pull off a great Americana record. There's a little garage rock here, as well as some overt alt-country, but the album never veers too far in one direction, rather relying on a lot of brushed percussion, steel guitars, and piano accents to provide the common thread. There are nice tempo shifts here as well as some pretty grandiose compositions. These United States crafted a rootsy record that is the perfect length, has catchy riffs, and can easily be enjoyed as a whole effort. In this day and age of "Shuffle brain", there's something to be said for that.

Have yourself a listen here.

13. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present: Dark Night of the Soul - Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse (Self-released)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Just War (Ft. Gruff Rhys)", "Little Girl (Ft. Julian Casablancas)", "Daddy's Gone (Ft. Nina Persson)"

Multi-instrumentalist and producer Danger Mouse continues his successful string of releases and collaborations, this time tag-teaming with Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse and myriad singers (from Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips to Julian Casablancas of the Strokes to the late, great Vic Chesnutt.) The result is a trippy, dreamy, sometimes creepy (thanks to Iggy Pop) collection of thirteen tracks that range from pop to country-tinge, to rock, to trip-hoppy beats. There's a little psychedelia here and despite the wide range of vocal guests and individual song styles, there's an interesting thread of life, love, and pain throughout, culminating in David Lynch's recitation of the title track. Due to legal issues, this one is hard to find, but it would behoove you to track it down. Behoove, I say.

Have yourself a listen here.

12. The Knot - Wye Oak (Merge)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Tattoo", "For Prayer", "Mary Is Mary"

This Baltimore duo's sophomore release is a lush and lavish affair, with rich songs that are dense with sound, but not so much so that the individual instruments get lost. Some of the songs drone (in a good way) and call to mind some of the better shoegazer bands and even a little Yo La Tengo. Jenn Wasner's voice, though not completely remarkable, works perfectly within the context of the 10 songs here. Mixing in some violin and steel guitar rounds things out and the sprinkling of up tempo numbers makes The Knot a nice, well-rounded release.

Have yourself a listen here.

11. Townes - Steve Earle (New West)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Rake", "Lungs", "Where I Lead Me"

The rank of this collection of Townes Van Zandt covers is particularly notable considering, prior to this release, I had heard very little of Steve Earle and even less of Van Zandt. So, the songs we all basically new to me. Earle's fragile gravelly voice here comes across as completely heart-breaking on some numbers and sinister on others. Both work exceptionally well as does Earle's impressive acoustic guitar playing. I'm a sucker for minor key numbers and they are here in abundance and, whether Earle displays a roadhouse swagger or an introspective vulnerability, it works wonderfully and makes Townes not just a run-of-the-mill cover album.

Have yourself a listen here.

10. Noble Beast - Andrew Bird (Fat Possum)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Effigy", "Tenuousness", "Not A Robot, But A Ghost"

Oddly alluring, haunting, and undeniably quirky, Andrew Bird's Noble Beast is chamber pop at its finest. Meticulously crafted with no note wasted or out of place, the 14 tracks revel in lavish orchestration, odd meters, and Bird's often head-scratching anunciations. While all very reserved and proper, Noble Beast does project to be a grand release - something you hear in its entirety and marvel at how the complicated can sound so easy. And when Bird does let his hair down a little and kick the tempo up a little, like on "Not A Robot, But A Ghost," comparisons to the experimental, yet still accessible parts of Radiohead's catalog leap to mind. And that's always good company to be in.

Have yourself a listen here.

9. A New Tide - Gomez (ATO)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Little Pieces", "Lost Track", "Airstream Driver"

Ahhh, the art of the song. Those who know me know how much I appreciate artists who still master the art of the "song." These five guys from England really get it and while A New Tide is not as rocking as some of their earlier releases, Gomez still knows how to write some catchy pop and still tinge it with a bit of an edge. Still alternating between three lead singers, I find myself drawn to Ben Ottewell's gravelly smoothness (sounds like an oxymoron, but if you hear him, it's not) more than the others, but everyone is just so good at what they do, it's hard to play favorites. A New Tide tends to favor the acoustic mellow side quite a bit, but when the band, and more importantly, the songs are this good, that can be easily overlooked.

Have yourself a listen here.

Previous List Appearances: Abandoned Shopping Trolley Lane (#18 in 2000)

8. Masters Of The Burial - Amy Millan (Arts & Crafts)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Bury This", "Low Sail", "I Will Follow You Into The Dark"

Amy Millan (of Broken Social Scene and Stars) doesn't have the kind of voice that knocks your socks off. But for some reason, her delicate and soothing vocals are just so easy to listen to and enjoy. Masters Of The Burial is a quick record, but one that is striking in how much it packs into a short period of time. The songs border on minimalistic, though acoustic and electric guitars intermingle with strings and mandolins to forge an enjoyable sonic tapestry. Despite although the album never gets out of a low gear, at the end of it all, because of her wonderful vocals and song arrangements, I'm left wanting more. And that is a sign of a strong release.

Have yourself a listen here.

7. Remind Me Where The Light Is - Great Northern (Eenie Meenie Records)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Houses", "Snakes", "Mountain"

Part guitar-driven rock, part ethereal spookiness, LA's Great Northern is unfortunately a well-kept secret. Powered by guitarist/singer Solon Bixler and vocalist/keyboardist Rachel Stolte, Remind Me Where The Light Is harkens one back to the golden age of alternative music (the 90s!) where catchy songs mingled with great vocals and musicianship. Great Northern's strength here lies with Stolte's dreamy vocals and the musical drive of the tunes here. The harmonies here are equally impressive and the album is boosted by the track "Houses," which just might be my favorite song of the year. Great Northern might not be greatly known, but talent like this can't be hidden in the dark forever.

Have yourself a listen here.

6. Wilco (The Album) - Wilco (Nonesuch)

Put these on your iPod right now: "Bull Black Nova", "One Wing", "Everlasting Everything"

While Wilco (The Album) will never be mistaken for Wilco (The Landmark, Seminal Release), it still ranks as a solid release, especially factoring in that this, more than any other Wilco record, feels like it benefits from input from the whole, talented band. Granted, Jeff Tweedy is still in charge and he might have smoothed his songwriting edge here, relying on more mid-tempo acoustic numbers sprinkled with the occasional George Harrison-esque leads from Nels Cline, but the fact that this is a very strong record and worthy of mention this year speaks volumes to Wilco's talent. If virtually any other band attempted such a record, it probably would have been deemed forgettable, especially against the prior catalog. The fact that Wilco makes (The Album) remarkable demonstrates just how good they are.

Have yourself a listen here.

Previous list appearances: Summerteeth (Honorable Mention in 1999); Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (#6 in 2002); A Ghost Is Born (#1 in 2004); Sky Blue Sky (#5 in 2007)

5. Middle Cyclone - Neko Case (Anti)

Put these on your iPod right now: "The Pharoahs", "Polar Nettles", "Prison Girls"

While mainly a mellow, downtempo affair, Neko Case's latest offering shows remarkable growth, both lyrically and musically. Case's amazing voice is still heavily showcased, thankfully, and her band is still spot-on. Completely abandoning the twang of her early records and even the alt-countryish tendencies of her later offerings, Case presents Middle Cyclone as more of a singer/songwriter record - albeit with heavy and mature lyrical content and interesting musical nuances. While it might not immediately grab you, repeated listens draw out just how excellent this is and makes her fans very excited at what's around the corner.

Have yourself a listen here.

Previous list appearances: Blacklisted (#8 in 2002); Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (#1 in 2006)

4. Broken Side Of Time - Alberta Cross (ATO)

Put these on your iPod right now: "City Walls", "Broken Side Of Time", "Rise From The Shadows"

Just a really excellent pure rock and roll album at a time where excellent pure rock and roll albums are extremely hard to come by. The bluesy tinge would make you think that this band comes from a place a little further south than their New York home. But their sound is completely authentic and, if you can find yourself eventually used to Petter Ericson Stakee's admittedly occasional unique vocal stylings, you'll discover Broken Side Of Time to be utterly enjoyable, solid from start to finish, and a breath of fresh rock and roll air.

Have yourself a listen here.

3. Lungs - Florence + The Machine (Universal Republic)

Put these on your iPod right now:
"Drumming Song", "Dog Days Are Over", "Hurricane Drunk"

What an utterly impressive debut from flamehaired Florence Welch and her excellent band. Welch's voice is so soulful, powerful, and flawless it propels each of the stellar 13 offerings here, with the richly textured music lurking just below her amazing vocals, but far from drowned out by them. The songs are filled with energy, catchy, and extremely well-written. The varying tempos, even incorporating some dance beats, punctuated with strings and even a harp, really makes Lungs are wonderfully diverse debut. There is not a single skippable track out of the baker's dozen and virtually all of them could easily be radio singles. Yet, while you are listening to Welch and her outstanding band, "pop" isn't the first word that comes to mind. "Wow" tends to be that word.

Have yourself a listen here.

2. I And Love And You - The Avett Brothers (Sony)

Put these on your iPod right now: "The Perfect Space", "I And Love And You", "It Goes On And On"

North Carolina's Avett Brothers really hit the jackpot with a gorgeous, sprawling and fun record that defies categorization. There are garage rock stompers, some 50s style pop, acoustic folk, and alt-country twangers. The key to bringing it all together is excellent songwriting and expert use of a variety of instruments - their widespread use of piano in their songs is a tremendous accent without making it a piano record - as well as fantastic record pacing and vocals. The harmonies are lush and deep, and the compositions all fit together like pieces to a puzzle. They've been around for awhile now and it seems with their latest release, an amazing record and all that entails is incredibly effortless.

Have yourself a listen here.

1. The Hazards Of Love - The Decemberists (Capitol)

Put these on your iPod right now: "The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid", "Won't Want For Love (Margaret In The Taiga)", "The Hazards Of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle The Thistles Undone)"

Simply the most musically stunning album of the year. Adding to the intrigue is that it is a concept album about a shape-shifting forest being, his affair with a human woman, a jealous nature queen, a murderous rake, and vengeful children. Colin Meloy's impressive lyrical narrative is superseded only by the tightness of the band, which seamlessly shifts between acoustic folk, bombastic hard rock, and everything in between. Adding another complex layer are the sweet, ethereal vocals of Becky Stark (as Margaret) and the mindblowingly powerful Shara Worden (the Queen) who completely steals the show. The reach of the disc is mighty - a perfect concept, executed perfectly by perfect musicians. Not just the best album of 2009 by a country mile, but one of the best in a long, long time.

Have yourself a listen here.


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