Friday, December 25, 2009

Andrew G's Top Albums of 2009

1. Bat For Lashes, Two Suns

Natasha Khan of Bat For Lashes was kind enough to let us in on her exciting candid therapy session which is the fantastic Two Suns. On Two Suns, she wrestles with identity, desire, and longing. The subjective struggle with these issues naturally bleeds into her notion of reality until it becomes fantasy. While this fantastical identity crisis may sound far out, it’s difficult to think how it would be any other way when dealing with these crucial issues. (Think of really any Charlie Kaufman film) Without a doubt, Natasha Khan is able to pull this album off with such passion, conviction, and astoundingly beautiful vocals in her heartfelt performance.

With a tight 80’s dance track, Natasha Khan “flashdances” her way through this nightmare on tracks like “Daniel,” “Sleep Alone,” and “Pearl’s Dream” that oddly wouldn’t be out of place on either a Kate Bush or Justin Timberlake record. Then there are the hazy, achingly beautiful wilderness folk songs like “Siren Song,” “Good Love,” “Piece of Mind,” and “Moon and Moon” which make you wonder what supernatural powers Khan has. “Good Love” and “Moon and Moon” are enhanced by deadpan back up vocals that seem to be straight off of a lost jukebox from a David Lynch movie. With Two Suns, you cannot help but live through this album and feel the triumph and relief conveyed by Bat For Lashes.

"Daniel" (live on Later...with Jools Holland)

"Sleep Alone" (video)
"Good Love"

2. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

After taking a break from these guys earlier in 2009, I came back to Veckatimest and the album felt like it was filled with bona fide classic standards (“While You Wait For The Others” and the sweeping “Ready, Able”). The four guys in Grizzly Bear do gel together to create a synergy of finely crafted minimalist chamber pop. Moreover, the understated character of Veckatimest only enhances how psychedelic the album is. The strong songwriting, subtle production, and sparse orchestral arrangements of woodwinds and strings catch your ear and add color to these skeletal songs. Examples of classic weird moments would be the crisp tambourine snap and percussion in “Cheerleader” (which is like a warped version of the Shangri Las’ “Leader of the Pack”), the last minute of quasi barbershop vocals on “All We Ask,” and the eerie laughter in “I Live With You” which feels like a version of “Rhapsody in Blue” from hell. The weirdest song of them all is “Dory” which sounds right at home with the strangest parts of the Beatles’ White Album but more possessed. Likewise, Grizzly Bear show off their inscrutable lyrics, which do not make sense on their face but are totally relatable, and the band’s ability to write instant classics.

"All We Ask" {live after their show @ pabst - see if you can spot yours truly...}
"Ready, Able" (live on Letterman)

3. Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years

The always reliably excellent and endlessly creative Super Furry Animals are frequently in my year end top 5 (Rings Around the World 2002, Phantom Power 2003, Neon Neon 2008 (singer Gruff Rhys’s side project)). Dark Days/Light Years is no exception. I read that the album is made from songs the band wrote throughout the decade and is a study in grooves. And quirky grooves are what we get here, particularly krautrock grooves. That 1970’s hypnotic German drone influence is on excellent display on songs like “Inaugural Trams,” “Cardiff In The Sun,” “Pric,” and “Moped Eyes” (which fuses in a Steely Dan groove to boot). We also get an exercise in unbelievable riff rawk grooves on “Crazy Naked Girls” and straight sugar high bubble gum pop grooves on “Helium Hearts” and “Where Do You Wanna Go?”

Furthermore, on Dark Days/Light Years, we continue to get more of the Super Furry Animals’ zany witty social commentary. For example, “Inaugural Trams” may be the best argument ever for am environmentally conscious welfare state public transportation utopia. (Try to counter that Tea Partiers!) “Cardiff In The Sun” is like a Google satellite view of the gentrification of the band’s welsh hometown. Also, the Super Furry Animals pontificate what it would be like if the only thing left in tact in the rubble after a missile strike was a Neil Diamond greatest hits record. (“The Very Best Of Neil Diamond”) Given the band’s and album’s enjoyable reliability, I would not be surprised if Dark Days/Light Years is the only thing left in tact after the ice caps melt or a nuclear winter occurs.

"Inaugural Trams"
"Moped Eyes"
"Crazy Naked Girls"

4. Wilco, Wilco (the album)

With their last few releases being harped on for not being Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco bounces back from the boring Sky Blah Sky with an album that still isn’t Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but instead showcases a sense of humor and an eclectic musical taste. Seems like Wilco finally made a Pavement record.

Wilco (the album) is full of solid alt country pop songs that draw upon the band’s discography but are a bit more dynamic and shorter in length than usual. It’s like a Wilco brewery tour and tasting: Some songs have hints of A Ghost Is Born (the guitar freak out “Bull Black Nova,” the beautiful slow ballad “Country Disappear”) while others reach the higher Summerteeth tones on the palate (“You Never Know,” “Deeper Down,” the chimes of “Everlasting Everything,” Wilco (the song)”). Even Sky Blue Sky gets fermented longer for a more potent classic rock (the great “One Wing” and Feist duet “You & I”). Also, it was pretty surreal how Wilco turned this album into a Milwaukee lovefest. I hope they start reserving spots for camels by Mader’s and Turner Hall because I wouldn’t mind if Wilco cruise in this mode for awhile and release more albums like this.

"Bull Black Nova"
"One Wing"
"Country Disappeared"

5. Girls, Album

There is a rich history of dumbness behind great rock ‘n roll: Iggy Pop & The Stooges (with their proud Neanderthal approach), The Ramones ("Sniff some glue!") and more recently with Art Brut ("Formed A Band!"), Andrew WK ("Party!"). Girls are the latest in this proud history. Girls seem like the funny skater kids from middle school that would wear shorts in winter and were last heard of being expelled from alternative ed. These dudes woke up on the beach and just want to have “pizza and a bottle of wine,” “soak up the sunshine with you,” and “shake a leg or two” before they kick the bucket. Although these simple lyrics are total clich├ęs, they pack a heavy emotional punch. The emotion comes from singer Christopher Owens’ sincerity where he deeply feels and believes these songs. This is mainly out of necessity because the songs feel like they are all he has keeping him from being washed away to sea.

Girls' songs take their musical cue from 50’s/60’s California garage surf pop that more than occasionally sounds like slow dance 50’s prom music. “Lust For Life” is brief but thrilling garage ditty wish list of simple pleasures making life worthwhile. “Hellhole Ratrace” is an aching 7 minute beach bonfire sing along that tries to surf/ride the wave out of mortality and depression. “Headache” is luau lounge music complete with pleading romantic crooning. Then there is “Darling” which is fittingly the soul sister to Miley Cyrus’s “Party In The USA” where both songs simply praise the healing power of music. Overall, Girls are not dumb but rather are what Taoism calls the “uncarved block” meaning they are in a natural state of simplicity with pure perception. With this perception, no wonder Girls offer such dumb/simple truthful answers for life’s heaviest complexities.

"Lust For Life" (video)
"Hellhole Ratrace" (video)
"Morning Light" (video)

6. Beach House, Teen Dream

Teen Dream is a surprisingly energetic album from Beach House. While their last album Devotion was a beautiful record, it had the uncanny feeling of taking a bath in prescription painkillers. With Teen Dream, it’s as if Beach House switched from Quaaludes to mojitos. Each song floats on an intoxicating verve and turns out an incredible memorable moment or melody hook on each song that stops you in your tracks.

Victoria Legrand’s vocals stand out. She is as emotive as ever. On “Silver Soul,” her breathy passionate vocals convey a sexiness and conviction previously unheard of from Beach House. “Lover of Mine” sounds like an 80’s pop hit with an irresistible vocal hook piled on top of multiple other great vocal hooks. On “Better Times,” Legrand sounds chill inducing assertive. With “10 Mile Stereo,” Legrand’s vocals create a soaring song usually reserved for a Coldplay. The rich guitar, as well as the drums and percussion, help this album glide. Listening to Teen Dream, you cannot help but be taken by the flow of this album. I want to construct a bungalow with a full bar decked out in white Christmas lights just to listen to this album. Teen Dream is not being released until 2k10 and mark my words: I am probably already highly underrating this album!

"Silver Soul"
"Lover Of Mine"
"10 Mile Stereo"
"Better Times"

7. Fiery Furnaces, I'm Going Away

The confounding and incomparable Fiery Furnaces are playing it somewhat straight on I’m Going Away but are still sort of weirder than ever. At first listen, it may seem that brother and sister Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger are emulating the Carpenters (the other sibling pair) covering the “Taxi” theme song, particularly on the melodic but still strange“End Is Near” and “Drive To Dallas.” However, the Fiery Furnaces are only calm like a bomb because their knotty music has muscle and explores all sorts of nooks and crannies. Check out the playskool Black Sabbath on “Staring at the Steeple,” the catchy 70’s pop of “Cut the Cake” with the Friedbergers trading off vocals, the piano rumble of “Even In The Rain” or the guitar and piano crunch on the excellent “Lost At Sea.” Additionally, Eleanor Friedberger continues to be one of the most compelling expressive singers around. Listen to her restrained intensity “Drive To Dallas” or her soul sweating on “Keep Me In The Dark.”

Judging by this album, it feels like the Fiery Furnaces' get along great with senior citizens. Beyond having already recorded a whole album with their grandma, the Fiery Furnaces' folksy phrasing and desire to write old timey classic standards, like the showstopper “Take Me Around Again,” make it seem like they have spent some quality time with the greatest generation. For example, they sing about heading to Lake Geneva, watching the 4 o’clock local news, winning the local lottery, letting sangria sit for hours, and mixing up a batch of “cups and punches.” Their song “Cut The Cake,” which is about special ceremonial knives to cut cakes, reminded me about how my grandma was temporarily detained at an airport for bringing a special family knife for cake cutting to my cousin’s wedding.

Fiery Furnaces having a great interview with a Senior Citizen!
"Even In The Rain" (video)
"Drive To Dallas" (live)
"End Is Near" (unofficial video)

8. Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms

I remember being 5 years old in the neighborhood pool while the sun was setting, listening to 80’s hits through tinny speakers; so does Alan Palomo of Neon Indian. He has created instant nostalgia with Psychic Chasms. The songs here have been transported from that 80’s summer pool. This is hallucinative electro pop that has been faded by the sun and heat warped on top of the dashboard for two decades. The title track, “Deadbeat Summer,” “Local Joke,” “Terminally Chill, and “6669” all glide on shimmering synths and glistening guitar solos. “Should Have Taken Acid With You” is perfect intoxicated pop capped at two minutes. “Mind Drips” is what Boards of Canada would sound like if they ever chilled poolside. This summer, Psychic Chasm was the ideal soundtrack along with Phoenix, Discovery, and some Washed Out. Though, it seems it’s always an endless summer with Neon Indian.

"Deadbeat Summer"

"Mind Drips" (unofficial video)
"Should Have Taken Acid With You"

9. The Horrors, Primary Colours

Coming off of a successful guest spot on the “The Mighty Boosh” backing Sammy The Crab, the UK’s The Horrors release the moody excellent art punk of Primary Colours. Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Primary Colours has an impressive physicality similar to Portishead’s Third. The album has incredible sonic texture in which you can feel in the blistering guitar distortion bend and twist and hear the rush of distant reverb in the keyboards. With Barrow’s guidance, The Horrors find inspiration in the sonic melding of My Bloody Valentine and the sophisticated goth of Echo & The Bunnymen. The essential characteristic of Primary Colours is the dark amorphous cloud of distortion that permeates the album and hangs heavy on each track. A lot of Primary Colours feels like 60’s teen pop fed through a propulsive turbo jet engine (“Who Can Say”). Primary Colours also offers the churning, menacing “Mirror’s Image, the frantic “Three Decades,” the triumphant title track, and the slow burning “I Only Think Of You.” The album concludes with the epic 8 minute krautrock of “Sea Within A Sea” that is the awe inspiring peak of this album. Singer Faris Rotter sounds like The Fall’s Mark E. Smith if he had better etiquette and enjoyed his high school drama courses. The Horrors avoid becoming a British My Chemical Romance and became something much more thrilling, darker, and mature.

"Sea Within A Sea" (video)
"Who Can Say" (video)
"Mirror's Image" (video)

10. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The breakouts of 2009 that have been kicking around since 1998. Phoenix was purely kinetic this year. Songs like “Lisztomania” and “1901” have a contagious giddy tension that embodied a feeling of anticipation or potential for the listener to be on the verge of fully realized awesomeness. Credit should be given to Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’s colorful production which helped these songs so vibrant. While “Lisztomania” and “1901” caught the most attention, “Fences” was an under the radar disco groove, “Lasso” is perfect pop, “Rome” propels along a sunset horizon, and “Armistice” looked to settle scores. In 2009, it was great to have Phoenix on board to help build a consensus around great music for everybody.

"Lisztomania" (the cheezy but irresistible 80's "Brat Pack" version - RIP John Hughes)
"Lisztomania" (stripped down acoustic version that is actually pretty cool)

11. The Big Pink, A Brief History of Love
12. Morrissey, Years Of Refusal
13. Peter Bjorn & John, Living Thing
14. Atlas Sound, Logos
15. Mew, No More Stories Are Told Today, I’m Sorry, They Washed Away
16. Flaming Lips, Embryonic
17. Julian Casablancas, Phrazes For The Young
18. Jarvis Cocker, Further Complications
19. Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue
20. Cass McCombs, Catacombs
21. Dark Was The Night, Various Artists
22. Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall
23. Air, Love 2
24. Dinosaur Jr., Farm
25. Discovery, LP
26. Dark Night of The Soul, Various Artists
27. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion (I thought the album underwhelmed. It did not have the energy of Strawberry Jam. However, the last minute of both “My Girls” and “Brothersport” had unmatched jawdropping power.)
28. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!
29. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
30. Yacht, See Mystery Lights
31. Jeremy Jay, Slow Dance
32. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
33. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
34. Empire of the Sun
35. Art Brut, Art Brut Vs. Satan

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