Friday, December 18, 2009

Top 25 of 2009

In keeping with a "tradition" I began last year, I have again decided to compile a list of my top 25 albums of 2009. At first I was a bit disconcerted as I didn't think I could even come up with 25 total candidates, because for a number of reasons it seems that a lot of my purchases this year were from 2008 and 2007 - this was apparently the year for me to catch up on all of the great music I'd missed earlier. To me 2009 felt a little light in terms of new music, and on initial examination I felt that older albums from the past couple of years still overshadowed everything from this year. There weren't that many new releases for which I waited in anticipation or pre-ordered as compared to last year, and looking around at other top-ten lists I do believe my tastes were more divergent this year. However, once I started getting into the business of putting this list together, I really started thinking differently about it all. Many of the great albums I bought this year just haven't really made it into my daily rotation, for reasons ranging from a packed iPod to my new predilection of listening to Sound Scene Revolution, Planet Money and This American Life podcasts while on my long drives through northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Over the last couple of weeks I've made it a point to listen to nothing but new music, and consequently I've sharpened my focus and come to the realization that 2009 was far from a disappointment in terms of new music.

As with last year, I picked 25 albums and subjectively ranked them in the course of about a minute, then re-ranked several times before settling on the following. I'll never really be happy with this order, as for the most part every time I listen to one of these I feel it ought to be higher. I should have stuck with my 30-second rule from last year, but whatever... I've also listed what I feel to be the "stand-out track" on each album, which is not to say it is the best or even my favorite, but the song that maybe pops into my head when I'm in the shower or scrolling through my iPod. So, without further ado:

#25: Fanfarlo - Reservoir
This one was close to the biggest surprise of the year, in part because I had never heard of the band or their music before. I ended up winning this album, in a beautiful limited edition box with hand-lettered liner notes, from a post-Forward Music Fest contest on I'm Just Sayin' Is All.... The Arcade Fire comparisons are apt, but there is more to this album than just the similarity of sound. I like that this band has added more rather than strip down their sound, with the lush instrumentation from horns and accordions really balancing out the driving drums. This one's going to keep growing on me. Stand-out track: "Luna"

#24: Stereotyperider - Songs In The Keys Of F And U
A long-time Suburban Home band, I was first introduced to Stereotyperider when I ordered a hundred mixed CDs from SH in a warehouse-clearing deal. Two Stereotyperider albums were included in the mix, and Prolonging The Inevitable stuck out as one of my favorites of the bunch. Earlier this year I read on the Org that they were coming out with a new album. Unfortunately the band called it quits shortly afterwards, but it did not deter me from including this album in one of my several orders from SH. While the band and album names don't exactly roll off the tongue, the music makes up for any shortcomings. This is an example of well-crafted post-hardcore and is definitely a high point for the band to go out on. Stand-out track: "Useless Point"

#23: Say Hi - Oohs & Aahs
Say Hi is a Barsuk Records band, the home of many great bands (Nada Surf, Ra Ra Riot, What Made Milwaukee Famous). Say Hi has much in common with the aforementioned bands, and Oohs & Aahs is loaded with hooky indie rock songs that come together perfectly. The drums and guitars are precise, with the keyboards and vocals layered on top of the staccato beats like frosting. This style of indie rock isn't something that I'm always in the mood for, but when I do have the craving Say Hi completely hits the spot. Stand-out Track: "November Was White, December Was Grey"

#22: Austin Lucas - Somebody Loves You
To really appreciate Austin Lucas you have to see him live. It's shocking to hear his beautiful voice given his burly tattooed appearance. Fortunately I was able to see him on the Suburban Home Tour earlier this year. Lucas has a haunting quality to his voice, but the true strength of his songs is in his lyrics. Musically he tends to favor stripped-down acoustic guitar with the occasional percussion accompaniment. The experience is unlike any other. Stand-out Track: "Go West"

#21: Ben Nichols - The Last Pale Light in the West
Earlier this year Ben Nichols, the lead singer of Lucero, came out with a solo album of songs he'd written based on the novel Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. I've not read the book, but after listening to Nichols' EP I've decided that I really ought to. I pre-ordered this immediately upon learning about it, and received a digital download that I listened to repeatedly every morning upon coming into work. The music is mainly acoustic with accompaniment from accordion, electric and steel guitars, combined with Nichols' rough voice. The mood of the songs is both dark and portentous while at the same time catchy and joyous. It feels almost like these songs are hundreds of years old, passed down over the years and just now seeing the light of day. Stand-out Track: "The Kid"

#20: Drive-by Truckers - The Fine Print (A Collection Of Oddities And Rarities 2003-2008)
It's shocking almost, but this DBT collection of B-sides, alternate versions and unreleased tracks comes together almost as well as their past few albums. It's not that the songs are thematically consistent or even tangentially related, but the mix of songs from Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell just feels so right. In some ways this is a fan's collection, but I'd offer The Fine Print as a jumping off point for the uninitiated more so than the past two albums. Hearing this has really primed the pump, so to speak, for their new album The Big To-Do, coming out next March. I can't wait. Stand-out Track: "Play It All Night Long"

#19: Felice Brothers - Yonder Is The Clock
The second album from this amazing band from the Catskills in NY didn't strike me quite as hard as their debut last year. Yonder Is The Clock doesn't seem to have the same flow to it, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't prefer the faster songs on this. However, after listening more closely I've really come to appreciate the slower, deeper songs on this album. This album may lack the frenetic energy that made the debut so enticing, but there's an underlying maturity that takes longer to seep in. Stand-out Track: "Katie Dear"

#18: Jon Snodgrass - Visitor's Band
Both principles of Drag the River put out solo albums on Suburban Home this year, and while I enjoy both only Jon's made the list. This is mainly due to the fact that Chad Price's solo album is a stripped-down acoustic affair, while Snodgrass has a full sound with a backing band. It's almost as if these songs are closer to the complete Drag the River sound, and this is comforting to me. Snodgrass has a rougher voice and what sounds to me like a penchant for writing more rock songs, while still including several slower ones. On Visitor's Band the guitars dominate the show, with a driving beat from the bass and the drums keeping it all moving. Stand-out Track: "Remember My Name"

#17: Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
I've always liked the British band the Manic Street Preachers despite their relative obscurity in the US, but I hadn't really expected to enjoy Journal For Plague Lovers as much as I do. The story behind this album is that all the songs were written by the former guitarist Richey Edwards before he disappeared and presumably committed suicide in 1995. The sound is pure Manics - guitar rock anthems coupled with acoustic guitar ballads. It's also pure brilliance. Stand-out Track: "This Joke Sport Severed"

#16: The Only Sons - Steel Hearts
This was by far the best find on the Internet this year. This band from Tennessee put up their album for download on their website - for free! It's definitely worth checking them out if you have any interest whatsoever in alt-country: http://theonlysons.net/home/. The band hits all the right notes, with gruff vocals, red-hot guitars and biting lyrics. I really hope they come through Wisconsin sometime soon, because I just know that this would be a kick-ass show. Stand-out Track: "Drew Blood"

#15: Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Although I may never have been a Green Day superfan growing up, I always thought they were much better than non-fans gave them credit. Starting with Warning and through American Idiot, Green Day proved there's plenty of room for growth in the punk scene. 21st Century Breakdown continues in this vein, with overarching themes and a continually maturing sound. I don't see them slowing down anytime soon. Stand-out Track: "Peacemaker"

#14: The Takers - Taker Easy
This is straight-up alt-country twang, more country than alt in some ways. The Takes come right out Gainesville and represent yet another excellent Suburban Home release this year. They combine the best aspects of the genre and put out an album that's front-to-back solid. With a sound similar to Drag the River and the Waco Brothers, it didn't take me long to snap this up. But aside from sounding amazing, the lyrics that back it all up, especially the slower songs, are what really makes this a memorable album. Stand-out Track: "Social Smoker"

#13: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - S/T
Isbell's first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, was one of my favorites of 2007, and I was excited about this new one from the minute I heard "Good" on 89.3 The Current while driving north on I-35. The album itself is a much more soulful exercise than the first, and I feel that Isbell's writing definitely benefits from this new musical direction. While the album doesn't have the the straight-up rocking feel that Sirens of the Ditch did, there's more of an emotional core underlying these songs. It took longer for them to sink in, but overall I find myself enjoying this album even more because of it. And as always, the live show is unmatched in energy (though I shamefully missed the last one). Stand-out Track: "The Last Song I Will Write"

#12: Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons - Death Won't Write A Letter
This singer from Appleton, WI is primed for mainstream success; everyone's saying so. I received this album along with Fanfarlo from I'm Just Sayin' Is All... and immediately loved it. Chisel's combination of indie rock with an almost gospel-sounding fervor is exhilarating. The musical backdrop ranges from hard-charging indie rock to softer acoustic songs, but everything is tied together with Chisel's expertly crafted lyrics. Stand-out Track: "Born Again"

#11: Son Volt - American Central Dust
The new album for Son Volt continues the creative resurgence Jay Farrar has brought forth in the last few years. I've always been on the Farrar side of the Uncle Tupelo split, and the slower pace of this album really brings his lyrical skills forward. The overall feel of this album strikes me as more thoughtful and introspective than past albums, and it is easy to let the power of the songs pass you by at first. It took a while for me to appreciate American Central Dust, but its impact is indelible. It was on a long drive on US 53 toward Superior that I first realized this, and I'd hazard a guess that this is the best road music of 2009. Stand-out Track: "No Turning Back"

#10: Titus Andronicus - The Airing of Grievances
OK, I might be cheating a little since the band originally released this last year. No matter, I make the rules around here and I'll allow it since the re-release I've got is from January. This band consists of extremely well-read indie/punk/shoegaze (per their MySpace page) kids from the Garden State. They've made an album of cacophonous rousing songs that really show how well the best aspects of these different genres can come together. The sound is fuzzy and washes over you with waves of guitar distortion, all driven by the relentless rhythm section. The vocals are shouted with all the emotion of the best punk band, but the lyrics reflect much more depth than would be initially expected on first listen. The songs come off as upbeat but a closer listen reveals so much doubt and existential self-loathing. It's refreshing, really. Stand-out Track: "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'"

#9: The Von Ehrics - Loaded
These Texas cow-punks signed with local label Crustacean Records and put out their best album yet. Loaded combines the best aspects of Ramones-style punk with country-fried Texas rock. The band is as tight as ever, and the songs reflect the trials and tribulations of life in a rock and roll band, but still make me want to learn a few chords on bass and hit the road. Stand-out Track: "A Week Of Living Dangerously"

#8: Blueheels - The Only Dance You Know
My favorite Madison band went back to their collective hometown of Neenah and recorded an extraordinary live album over the course of two nights at a local pizza place and bar. I really wish I could have been there. Had it not been for the fact that I was just back from my vacation, I would have done what I could to be there for at least one show. The live show these guys put on is second to none, and what is refreshing about The Only Dance You Know is that the band has enough confidence in their new material to really showcase it. I'm not usually a fan of live albums; as a general rule I feel they don't capture the intensity and excitement of the live music experience. I'm happy to say this is definitely not the case here. As an added bonus, the six-second intro is perfect - funny, informative and segues seamlessly into the opening track. Stand-out Track: "Twist & Toil"

#7: Nakatomi Plaza - Ghosts
I first heard of this band through a sampler associated with the Fest 6, and my initial interest was piqued by Red Leader Records' online comp. I always liked the band and what songs I'd heard, and I told myself that I'd one day either see them live or buy one of their albums. Then I read the band was going to call it quits, but before breaking up they intended to record one last album. This is that album, and while I can't compare it to any of their previous work I can state definitively that Nakatomi Plaza went out on an incredibly high note. Their sound is heavily influenced by punk and hardcore but has a distinctive quality that separates this from everything else I've heard. The dual male/female vocals are one aspect of this, but what is really striking is the inventive and expert musicianship that provide the foundation of this album. I'm sorry to see them go. Stand-out Track: "The Finish Line"

#6: Justin Townes Earle - Midnight At The Movies
Justin Townes Earle is quite probably my favorite new songwriter of the moment. I was first attracted by the pedigree, but it is his talent that is the real source of amazement. I bought The Good Life last year, and in retrospect it probably should have made my Year End list. No oversight this time around - Midnight At The Movies takes up where the previous album left off and expands on the retro-country sound that JTE has mined to such success, combining uptempo numbers with emotional ballads and a Replacements cover thrown in for good measure. I'd seen him open for Jason Isbell earlier in the year, and while he was touring with just one accompanist he still managed to capture the full-band feeling. I'm very excited to see him again, as he'll be playing the High Noon in a couple of months. Stand-out Tracks: "Mama's Eyes"

#5: The Thermals - Now We Can See
I was somewhat late to the party when it comes to this band, but after picking up The Body, The Blood, The Machine last year I was a quick convert. To say my anticipation for this album was high would be an understatement, and while I don't believe anything could live up to their previous album I was never in any way disappointed with Now We Can See. The Thermals' signature sound is relatively unchanged, dare I say cleaner, with the raw punk energy of their past releases seemingly better focused and directed. The songs are eminently catchy, of course, and the album theme is, well, I'm still figuring it that out. That's the biggest surprise from this album for me - that I would have to really ponder the lyrics. This was a very good surprise to have, and one that keeps me coming back over and over for repeated listening. Stand-out Track: "When I Died"

#4: Bomb the Music Industry! - Scrambles
Jeff Rosenstock's Bomb the Music Industry! is a band that I stumbled across several years back mainly due to the fact that they release all of their music for donation or for free via Quote Unquote Records, and I was in the market for free music. This worked out better than I could have possibly imagined, as BtMI! has steadily become one of my favorite bands of the last few years. Diligently exploring the musical boundaries of what it means to be a punk or ska band, as well as documenting the experience of growing up (not always voluntarily) in the 00's, Rosenstock and gang have gotten progressively better on each successive release. Scrambles is the most coherent combination of Rosenstock's often intensely personal lyrics and the band's musical experimentation. While I liked all of the previous BtMI! albums, this was the first I loved. Stand-out Track: "Saddr Weirdr"

#3: Yesterday's Ring - Diamonds in the Ditch
This album ended up as my favorite Suburban Home release of 2009, which is saying something as this label is on a red-hot streak. But considering that I'd not ever heard of this band until midway through the summer, the fact that Diamonds in the Ditch ranks so high is a bit surprising. After all, this band is a side project of a Montreal punk band (the Sainte Catherines). I ended up getting this from Suburban Home as I was looking to round our my order to get reduced shipping so I figured "Why Not" and added it to the order based on a single song I'd hear earlier this year on a SH comp. This paid off in spades, to be sure. The gritty combination of punk and alt-country musical themes combined with melancholy lyrics detailing life on the road make this album resoundingly impressive. Stand-out Track: "Punx Not Dead It's Just Sleeping"

#2: Flatbear - Flying Days
I like to think I'm fairly well-versed in the local music scene, and I enjoy supporting local music as much as the next guy. That said, I was blown away by the incredible debut album from Flatbear (now called Flight) despite having seen them play live on several occasions. Blame it on the crowd noise or the fact that I was there to see another band, but for whatever reason the skill and craft of Jentri Colello and her band went ungrasped by me. This all changed during a Friday night show as part of the Forward Music Festival, in which Flatbear played an opening slot for Ra Ra Riot. I was transfixed during their set, watching Josh Harty and Tony Messinger on guitar and bass respectively, flanking Colello and cranking out a mesmerizing set. Something just clicked with me that night, and I made it a point to pick up Flying Days (a steal at $5) at the merch table right after their set. Even more surprisingly, this CD stayed in my car for the better part of the next two months. Whereas I would normally burn the songs on to my computer and then transfer to my iPod, this album stayed in my CD player and received multiple spins. The musicianship of the band is unquestionable, showing both restraint and power, while Colello's voice becomes an instrument unto itself. Simply amazing, start to finish. Stand-out Track: "Sea of Monsters"

#1: Lucero - 1372 Overton Park
This was the album I most anticipated receiving in 2009, and instead of my high hopes leading to disappointment they were in fact surpassed. The musical progression that has been fairly obvious on Lucero's last few albums reaches a plateau here, with the full incorporation of the Memphis soul sound to Lucero's already-perfected mix of punk and alt-country. The results are nothing short of stunning. As evidenced by his solo album from earlier in the year, Ben Nichols' songwriting skills have gone into overdrive. The band seems to be as tight as they've ever been, even with the addition of new members and a horn section. I am in awe of how good 1372 Overton Park is. To put it all in perspective: as great as the previous 24 albums are, there was never for one doubt in my mind what #1 would be. Stand-out Track: "The Devil and Maggie Chascarrillo"

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