Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jesse K's Best Albums of 2009!

Okay, Facebook friends you voted and the tally for your favorite albums of the year is:
#1 Middle Cyclone, Neko Case. You showed the love.

#2 a tie
Veckatmist, Grizzly Bear
Far, Regina Spector.

#3 traffic jam of a tie
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix
Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros
My Maudlin Career, Camera Obscura
Dragonslayer, Sunset Rubdown
It's Blitz, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Lots of other good things you love that I was listening to, too! Califone, Iron & Wine, White Rabbits, Yacht, Roseanne Cash, Kings X, Animal Collective, Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, Mountain Goats, Dark was the Night, Owl City, the Avett Brothers, The Dead Weather, Monsters of Folk, The Decemberists, Lucinda Williams. Some I need to check out--Diana Krall, Mindy Smith, Art Brut, Polvo--something I always love to do.

So here are my promised picks!

A Baker's Dozen of Best Albums of 2009

Ah how to pick the best? This year I decided not to worry about ground breaking and just settle for the ones I have found myself listening to time and time again.

The first victim of this approach was Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective, which I suspect is going to be, hands down, the most popular choice for album of the year in Indie circles. It was released early last winter and I would have given it the gold medal then too. Now I notice that when a track comes up on random play in my itunes, I tend to skip forward to another song. I am just not feeling the love. So here is what I am loving.

1. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin The Low Anthem

I haven't seen Low Anthem live. I really had no sense of them at all when I got the CD, but I have been playing it over and over in my car. The title track "Oh My God Charlie Darwin" truly deserves that overused word "haunting." It is lead singer Ben Knox Miller's falsetto, but it's also good song writing and there is more on the album to back up that first impression. "Ticket Taker" might be my favorite track. I notice the very short Wikipedia article on Low Anthem says Miller and band mates Jocie Adams & Dan Leftkowitx play "acoustic guitar, electric guitar, upright bass, electric bass, banjo, clarinet, violin, mandolin, harmonica, keyboard, piano, fun machine, casio, horn, trumpet, trombone, drum kit, tongue drum, cell phones, music box, zither, pump organ, Tibetan singing bowl, broom, shakers, tambourine, wood block, cowbell, filing cabinet, crotales and oil drum." If so, they do play them with restraint. This is a album built on the human voice and the words it carries. Low Anthem are coming to Milwaukee March 6 with the Avett Brothers (already on my Best Concerts of 2009 list) and I am hoping the weather & life are kind to me and I make it over for the show. If you want to check them out--they have a great live set up you can download (legal and for free, as the saying goes) at the always excellent Daytrotter (www.daytrotter).

2. Noble Beast, Andrew Bird. I am a little surprised to see Noble Beast come in at #2--even though this is my list! When Noble Beast came out earlier this year, on first listen I found it less original than Bird's previous CD Armchair Apocrypha, which I loved and which was a surprise critical and commercial hit. Based on Armchair's success, Bird moved from the small club where I first saw him perform in Madison (and where, he joked?, someone stole his equipment) to playing this fall in the same IM Pei designed hall that the Madison Symphony and the Madison Opera use. And his shows now sell out. Often months in advance. Part of that is the joy of seeing him perform. Until I saw him the first time, whistling, singing, playing his violin and guitar all on a single song and controlling the samples he makes on the spot with pedals he works with his stocking feet, I just couldn't really appreciate what it was he was doing. And if you see him perform more than once, you will realize that each time he plays a piece it is different. If you are a hardcore Bird fan, you buy the Inklings EPs he sells at his concerts with variations of his compositions. And compositions is the right word. For Bird the voice (including the whistling) is an instrument on an equal plane with the violin and the guitar and he is his own quartet. The violin, especially, is essential to his compositions, not just instrumentation that is brought in to make this or that record sound richer or more sophisticated. If you have read my Baker's Dozen of Best Concerts of 2009, you'll know i love seeing Bird live. But it was Noble Beast as a record that had to grow on me. And it did.

3. Life of the World to Come, Mountain Goats. Okay, continuing with the surprised to see a CD so high on the list theme. I am still not sure this is a truly great Mountain Goats CD. It is not Tallahassee. But it is a pretty damn good CD and a good Mountain Goats CD is worth a lot of hours of listening. For those of you who don't know it, The Mountain Goats is/are John Darnielle (the one guy as plural band meme). And starting with his early lo-fi recordings (and I mean lo-fi, as in singing into a boombox and selling the result as cassette tapes) he has written an opus of songs that merit one of the most Phd worthy Wikipedia pages of any band (with a separate page for discography). He writes about the Alpha Couple, a not quite? autobiographical pair always on the verge of divorce or death from their various addictions. He writes straight out autobiographical songs like the ones on Tallahassee about growing up with an abusive step father. He writes songs that are flat out sci fi (see the entry below for the EP Moon Colony Blood Bath). He writes like an adult in a new century who is not at all sure where this world is headed, in the most cosmic sense. On the Life of the World to Come all the songs have bible verses as titles--but don't let that put you off. This is not Christian rock. Many of the songs feature speakers who are less than holy in any conventional sense. In Psalms 40:2, the speaker desecrates a church then checks into a Red Roof Inn where "we slept like infants in the burning fuselage of my days." This CD continues the exploration of desperate seekers in what might or might not be the end times that Darnielle sung about last year on the his great EP Satanic Messiah where the theme was the third world forgotten rising up against their rulers. But on Life there are also heartbreaking, more personal songs as well, with a quiet voice singing of the soul's deepest realizations and regrets, as in Genesis 3:23 where the speaker breaks into a cabin singing "I used to live here. I used to live here. I used to live here." If you are a lyrics person (hello poets!) you have to spend some time with the Mountain Goats.

4. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello. I like Elvis Costello (aka Declan Patrick MacManus). From early--My Aim is True is a really a classic--to late. I agreed with a lot of critics that last year's Momofuku was a match for that early work. But I am not an exhaustive fan. Lots of records in Costello's 32 year career that have never graced my turntable/cd player/ipod. So I read the reviews of this record--which tended to frown on it as Costello wandering off the ranch after Momofuku's return to rock n' roll. And let it pass me by. Then I ended up having to drive a rental car without any tunes on me from Albany, New York into the Berkshires and back. I stopped at a Target and gazing at the sad, half empty display that is music brick and mortar retailing these days of the download, I spotted only two CDs I could imagine owning that I didn't have yet. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane and The Monsters of Folk. I snapped up Monsters (which I had been eagerly awaiting) and got the other just for rotations sake. And you know what? In every way, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is the better record. Monsters struck me as four guys taking turns singing songs that sounded like the songs on their own albums, not a breakthrough for anyone, not a group in any real sense of the word. But Costello's voice on Secret is different. He has turned into a first class interpreter of the ballad. Two of the songs on the album were originally writen by Costello for Johnny Cash, but Costello also includes some songs he wrote for an unfinished commission for the Royal Danish Opera about the life of Hans Christian Anderson and his relation to the famous singer Jenny Lind. And these-"She Handed Me A Mirror," "How Deep Was the Red," and especially the amazing "Red Cotton" which imagines P.T. Barnum reading from an Abolitionist pamphlet are some of the most striking on the album. And with T-Bone Burnett producing him, the striped down acoustic folk/country/bluegrass backing makes this album feel like some wonderfully odd bit of Americana that was lost and is now found.

5. Dragonslayer, Sunset Rubdown. Okay, I do like a (odd) distinctive voice (see Crying Light, Antony and the Johnsons below). I am really love Spencer Krug's (the lead singer/central intelligence of Sunset Rubdown). I like it when he sings for his main band, Wolf Parade and I like it even more in the more complicated, slightly more ornate songs he does as part of his "side project" SUnset Rubdown. I say side project because lately there has been more Sunset Rubdown work out than Wolf Parade (and did I mention his other bands Frog Eyes and Swan Lake and Moonface?). A busy--and luckily for us, talented guy. Krug manages to work emotion into every move of his singing, though his is in no way a conventianally good voice. And he writes songs for Sunset Rubdown that are eccentric and filled with surreal images and mythological characters. Sunset Rubdown songs are long, and full of time shifts with equal nods to English folk music and rock opera. In some ways, Krug shares some of Colin Meloy's interests (that are so apparent--and sometimes mocked--in this year's The Hazards of Love) but he addresses them with the manic energy of a jester not the calm of an Elizabethan bard. Listen to a track like "Up On Your Leopard, Upon the End of Your Feral Days" (clocking in at a relatively short 4:47) and you get it all. And you also catch what I love besides Krug's voice. This music makes you want to dance around waving ribbons over your head--maybe pausing once in a while to viciously knee someone who is standing in your way.
Romanian Names John Vanderslice,

6, Actor, St. Vincent. St. Vincent is Annie Clark (the too rare woman as band meme). It is Clark's gorgeous flexible voice on all the tracks, but she also writes the rhythmically complicated music and the novelist lyrics as well--so she is no mere beautiful lead singer. If I have any excuse for not listing Neko Case here, it is that I prefer the flexible voice of Annie Clark to the more conventionally powerful one of Case. But I could have listed both--I know. So time for true confession, I have some deep preference for men's voices that as a feminist makes me hang head in shame, but not change my ways. One Woman! on a list of 13 Albums, my inner feminist says. But what can I say? I am putting myself into therapy about it. At any rate, in her songs, Clark addresses the condition of woman in the here and now. She is drawn, in particular, to the plight of restless women trying to break out of their conventional or unconventional lives into some new and better space, but their desperation is restrained by a sense of realism and/or self-doubt, and the music often muted. To me that only makes them all the more effecting. And, not matter the lyrics, the songs on this album are just flat out lovely to listen to.

7. Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Elvis Perkins in Dearland. Elvis Perkins is the son of actor Anthony Perkins and the great-grandson of the fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli. His father died of AIDS in 1992. His mother, Berry Berenson was on one of the American Airlines Flights that hit the Twin Towers and Perkins sings about this in his first album Ash Wednesday, which has a couple of really wonderful songs for the ages on it--"While You Were Sleeping" and "All Night Without Love." When I first listened to Elvis Perkins in Dearland, his new album with the band he has gathered around him, I wasn't sure I liked it. But I changed my mind, helped by seeing him live in a great performance that made My Baker's Dozen of Great Concerts 2009 list. Is there a theme running here? I often change my mind about an album after repeated listening, sometimes aided by seeing the performer live. The songs on Dearland are less lyrics focused, by they are joyous. The drumming is especially infectious. Listening to Ash Wednesday then this CD, it seems Perkins has gone through the valley of death and, in the tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral, is ready to cut the body loose and dance in celebrate of life.

9. Veckatimist, Grizzly Bear. Grizzly Bear is a singular animal that is a plural band, ie not one guy but four, Ed Droste (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Daniel Rossen (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Chris Taylor (bass, backing vocals, various instruments, producer) and Christopher Bear (drums, backing vocals)-- though it started as a just a name for Ed Droste's musical projects. It is Droste's voice (more falsetto) that is the signature sound of the band. Veckatimist is Grizzly Bear's third CD and when it was released early in the year the critical consensus was that it was a high point for the band, and maybe for Western civilization. But Veckatimist is another CD, like Merriweather Post Pavilion that started out high my list when it was released and then slipped. I still find it beautifuland lush. But is it deep? I am not sure, lyrically, but musically it is. It pushes indy rock/folk/psychedelic dare I say pop? to the breaking point of layered perfection. But it is not predictable, at least not unless you have been listening to nothing but Grizzly Bear. It wanders and loops and just when you wonder where it is going, it snaps back with the lovely collective chorus of voices that is Grizzly Bear's greatest strength. So it stays on the list. I am still listening to it.

10 Hungry Bird, Clem Snide. Clem Snide is Eef Barzelay. That statement will either make perfect sense to your or strike you as a joke, with two of the most absurd names you have heard lately side by side. Clem Snide is apparently character in several novels by William S. Burroughs, including Naked Lunch--but here it is the name of one of those bands that is really one man--a common place these days--plus whoever he wants to have in to help on a particular project. Barzelay's also records under his own name now, including last year's Lose Big, and if you like one of his incarnations, you will like the other. I am not sure I notice much difference. But that is okay with me. I am a fan of Barzelay's. I like his odd distinctive voice. And I really like his lyrics, which are often persona poems in disguise. Clem Snide is labled alt/country but I don't find much country about Hungry Bird--the instrumentation often strikes me as having a touch of jazz--unless it is the dusty, down and out nature of many of the characters Barzelay writes and sings about.

11. Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle, Bill Callahan.
Eef Barzelay is to Clem Snide as Bill Callahan is to Smog. Yep, Smog. But this record was made under Callahan's given, not his band, name. Callahan's songs are often simple with lyrics and tune gaining strength through repetition and restrained delivery. But it is his baritone voice that sells them. I've said it before and I will say it again, there are not enough really deep male voices in the indy/rock/folk/alt world. And I am a sucker for them. Also, Callahan has a dead wicked, even morbid wit. And in this album it really cuts through a lot of the twee sweet out there in the music world like a (nice cold gin and) tonic. The best song on the album may be the oddly title "Eid Ma Clack Shaw" where Callahan makes even the repetition of nonsense words have an increasing emotional impact.

12. The Crying Light, Antony & The Johnsons. There are not enough baritones, there may be a day fast approaching when there are too many people singing falsetto. Maybe not this year, since I love The Low Anthem's Miller and as a Wisconsin girl have to give a Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver permission to sing in any register he chooses, but Antony Hegarty is in a falsetto class of his own, proudly so. I love his voice. But then I love opera too, which is not the world of realism and the natural voice. My daughter Magdalena, who is 18, could not bear to hear even on song from this album while riding with me in the car. But when I listen to songs like the soaring "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground" I feel it pull on my heart like the full moon on the ocean. And I am likely, when alone in the car, to cry a tide of tears. I listened to this CD a good bit after losing a dear friends earlier this year, and that probably explains some of my reaction. But I liked Antony's earlier three albums and think his cut, Knockin On Heaven's Door, was one of the strongest on the Dylan bio pic I'M Not There soundtrack. Give him a listen. It won't take long. You will either like him, or, like Magda quickly switch to someone else.

13. The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists. Okay, they were off the list, on the list. I have what I will confess is a Colin Meloy weakness (and yes I have noticed he sings with an Irish accent when he was born in Montana). I saw The Hazards of Love performed live twice. It was kick ass great musical theater. So I am listing Hazards as a cast album. And there are some great stand alone songs on it. Give The Rake's Song a listen. A really catchy tune about a man murdering his own children--that is up there with anything in Sweeney Todd. And in musical theater it is a thin line between the dramatic and the melodramatic. And, remember, I am also the one who likes opera? Who cares if a plot makes sense as long as there is a great love scene, a good villain, and a good death scene. The Hazards has all that and then some. But if you are new to The Decemberists, you might want to start with The Crane Wife.

Okay, a baker's dozen is never enough! I am going to squeeze in a few more. First three subcategories.

Compilation CDs
When "Various Artists" works and the sum is more than the parts.

1. Dark Was the Night, Various Artists. Hands down. A really great collection and it benefits AIDS research and treatment. My favorite tracks include Andrew Bird's cover of great Handsome Family song "The Giant of Illinois", the Feist and Ben Gibbard "Train Song" and "Hey, Snow White" by The New Pornographers.

Cover CDs
It is always fun to hear one artist take on another's tune and make it their own. Often at a concert, it is the surprise cover tune that sticks with me as my favorite moment of the night. Two great cover CDs this year, one a compilation disk, the other a CD length homage.

1. Score! 20 Years of Merge Records, Various Artists. Favorites "Sleep All Night" with both St. Vincent and The National, "Santa Maria" by Bill Callahan, and "My Drug Life" by the Mountain Goats.

3, To Willie, Phosphorescent. Phosphorescent is Matthew Houck (another one man band) and I love his work. But this CD of Willie Nelson covers took me by surprise--in a good way. I like Houck's vulnerable take on Willie's classics. My favorite track is "Too Sick to Pray". And if it sends you back to find the Willie Nelson originals that is a good thing; no one sings ahead of/behind the beat as effortlessly as Willie Nelson does. He is jazz disguised as country.

Little in body, big in heart: EPs are the chapbooks of the musical world and as a poet, I gotta say, I love them.

1. Joe Pug, In the Meantime EP. A new artist whose first CD is due out in February. He has been touring nonstop, opening for just about everybody. If you get a chance to hear him--go. He has a good session at Daytrotter ( if you want to check him out. He has a great way with a lyric. Listen to "Hymm #101" at Daytrotter or the instant folk classic "A Thousand Men" on the EP.

2. Moon Colony Bloodbath, John Vanderslice and The Mountain Goats and Black Pear Tree, Kaki King and The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle loves to tour with other people and each tour brings an EP. I love John Vanderslice, His CD Romanian Names almost made the Baker's Dozen. And I would have dearly loved to see their American Primitive Tour last spring. But in the meantime, this sci fi based EP is a trip, in every sense of the word. It is about the workers at an organ harvesting plant on the moon. I think. And the title track on the Kaki King/Goats CD, "Black Pear Tree" is sad and true and simple and still stunning. A perfect example, musically and lyrically, of less is more.

3. Fall Be Kind, Animal Collective. Just got it--and I am listening to it over and over. So here is my chance to show the Collective some love.

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