Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s is from CHIRP’s March Director and DJ, Tony Breed.
They say the album is dead; people are just interested in singles. I say the album will never die. Sure, most CDs these days are just collections of songs written at the same time — not really “albums” at all — so why not just buy the good songs and leave behind the filler? (This is not news; it’s been the case for decades, but it’s only been recently that you can buy any single songs that interests you.)
But there are still people making real albums: collections of songs around a central theme; songs that proceed in order and sound better as a whole than as individuals; or sometimes albums that tell stories, like an opera or a ballet. No less than four of my top ten albums of the 2009 are true albums: The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips, Madness, and Sufjan Stevens. And the rest? Well they are good too.
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (Capitol)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
You know what I love about the Decemberists? As they’ve gotten more popular, and switched to a major label (minor-major, perhaps), they’ve just gotten weirder. the Hazards of Love is not just a concept album, it’s an actual story told in song, like any one of the story-songs from Picaresque elongated into a full album. And it’s brilliant. It’s suffused with prog-rock goodness, and features guest vocals by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond. The one flaw? With Colin Meloy singing two roles and narrating, it’s a little hard to follow. Two more guest vocalists would have been welcome. (Ooh! Ooh! The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt as The Rake; would that not have been great?)
Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros.)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Another album with a dash of prog rock and a good dose of weird. I discovered The Flaming Lips with 2002’s excellent Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, where the sweet, odd and tuneful title track is followed by a wild instrumental breakdown featuring screaming. Embryonic is like that track: it grabs you by the collar, throws you to the ground, demands your attention.
Pomplamoose – Pomplamoose Videosongs (Self-Released)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
And now for something completely different: a fantastically adorable duo who make videos for all their songs and post them to their YouTube page. Perhaps you, like me, saw their amusing cover of Beyoncé‘s Single Ladies when that was being forwarded around. Perhaps you didn’t then go to their video home page and listen to some other songs. If you had, you probably would have fallen in love and bought their album, as I did. Singer Nataly Dawn has a gorgeous voice, and Jack Conte’s instruments and production create perfect confections. Promise me you will check them out.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz (Interscope)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Take note: if you are a band and you want to change styles for an album, this is how it’s done. It’s Blitz’s electro dance sound is reminiscent of Ladytron and CSS, as well as a good chunk of 1983. It certainly helps to have Karen O, who has great presence, vocally (see her collaborations with Har Mar Superstar and The Flaming Lips, and her work on the I’m Not There soundtrack).
The Noisettes – Wild Young Hearts (Mercury)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I am a sucker for an album that moves through a variety of styles, and here the Noisettes are, pushing all of my buttons. Well‚ it’s more like an overview of Motown, with all the requisit hooks, but a dash of rock thrown in. Downsides: the album is a bit overproduced, particularly for a band known as one of the rowdiest live acts in London. And their disco-inflected hit, Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go), is a bit too slick, repetitive, and under-written for my taste (but I still groove to it every time it’s on, and never get the urge to skip to the next track).
Madness – The Liberty of Norton Fulgate (Yep Roc)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
My goodness, is Madness back? And could this be any good? YES. Peppy, cheerful ska, great stuff from start to finish, never repetitive‚ and capped off with an epic 10-minute track incorporating elements of South Asian music, in honor of the Punjabi population now living around Norton Folgate in London.
Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
For me, Sonic Youth had always been a band that can cross the line with their dissonance and noise, into something I just don’t want to hear (e.g. the second last few tracks of Goo). The Eternal sees them instead riding that line, never crossing it, always staying close to the edge. It is a whole album that is like their best stuff. It is Sonic Youth sounding like Sonic Youth in the best possible way.
St. Vincent – Actor (4ad)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Oh Annie Clark you are an odd one, with your dark vignettes, sweet vocals, and angular notes. I dub you the inheritor of the Kate Bush/Tori Amos weird-lady singer-songwriter mantle. Keep it up. I look forward to your whole career. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE (Asthmatic Kitty)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Yeah, I know, sometimes you just want to smack him. Ambitious, grand projects that get attention: Sufjan Stevens is an artist who knows how to get himself noticed. But at the same time, he’s good. He delivers. If only every artist who was this talented set themselves on projects of this magnitude. What this is, basically, is Stevens trying to make classical music. It’s like Sketches of Spain for 2009 (in fact, it has some real echoes of that great 1960 Miles Davis album), except instead of being about beautiful Spain, it’s about the BQE, the most unloved and unlovely highway in the five boroughs of New York. It features Stevens’ signature arpeggios and flute trills, as well as a funky electronica breakdown in the middle. It also comes with a DVD video (the album being really a soundtrack to the video) featuring a trio of hula-hoopers that I confess I have not yet watched. (Yes, hula-hoopers. You do kind of want to smack him, don’t you?)
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Great vocals, great lyrics, great songs. She just hits the ball out of the park with this album. The singing is so emotive, and the melodies so evocative.
Honorable Mention: John Vanderslice / Romanian Names
It’s always to hard to whittle my list down to 10. Romanian Names is great for all the same reasons the Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone is great (though the vocal styles are very different). I say, go get both of them.
Song of the year: “Swing” by Zero 7
You know that song you hear on the radio, stop what you’re doing, and just listen? This year it’s “Swing”, by Zero 7, featuring vocals by Jackie Daniels. There are a number of other good songs on the album, though it didn’t really cohere as an album for me. But this song, this one track… I could listen again and again.
Guest of the year:
Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond as the queen on Hazards of Love is so, so good. Note to self: check out My Brightest Diamond. That’s gotta be good stuff.
Belated 2008 album of note: Grace Jones / Hurricane
Not released in the US, Hurricane (Jone’s first album released in 19 years) didn’t get any attention here at all. By the time I even found out it existed, 2008 was almost over. Comeback albums can be hit-or-miss, and I didn’t muster the enthusiasm to get myself a copy until a few weeks ago. This album is a hit; great stuff, start to finish — everything I would want it to be, and absolutely worthy of your attention.
Some people foster holiday spirit with migraine-inducing shopping sprees, others will foster that spirit by candlelight with about 20 of their friends cramped together in an apartment to hear a trio of indie minstrels play carols with saws. On December 8 the Rogers Park home of a friend served as one of the Chicago stops for Julian Koster’s cross-country caroling trip. Formerly of Neutral Milk Hotel and currently of the Music Tapes, Koster and friends used some non-traditional instruments to play some traditional holiday carols, including selections from his album The Singing Saw at Christmastime, released last year on Merge Records. In the dim space, kitschy holiday props and Koster’s colorful bits of invented folklore accompanied the ghostly crooning of the singing saws. Everyone left feeling a little warmer, and I don’t think it was just the spiked hot cocoa that did it.
Please forgive the shoddy video quality — candles and Christmas lights make for a wonderful mood but rather unfortunate recording.
You can learn a lot of valuable lessons from the movie Airheads. First, Moby Dick is a book. Second, if a mediocre heavy metal band takes over a radio station in an effort to secure a recording deal, the band will have to deal with Judd Nelson (begging the question, is it really worth it?). And, most importantly, you learn that if someone asks you who would win in a wrestling match between Lemmy and God, it’s a trick question, because Lemmy IS God. But who needs a movie to tell you that, when you can plow through the Motorhead catalog, from “Ace of Spades” to “We Are the Road Crew”, and realize that Lemmy is a deity. In Mr. Kilmeister’s honor, please throw up a horned hand, and, with your free hand, hit shuffle and share the first ten tunes that pop up.
Gang Of Four — He’d Send in the Army (Solid Gold): There are some folks who insist that Solid Gold is even better than Go4’s classic debut Entertainment. I’m not one of those folks, but Solid Gold more than stands up on its own. The songs are not quite as consistently awesome, but they are good and the band’s sound thickened up a just a little bit. Here, the band builds tension with quiet interludes consisting of Hugo Burnham brushing his high hat, with small bursts of guitar, before the song hits its lurching groove (the type of groove that clearly inspired The Minutemen).
Cassandra Wilson — Strange Fruit (New Moon Daughter): Wilson is one of the top contemporary jazz singers, with her smoky, insinuating voice. Her music is informed by shades of other styles, and she loves to deconstruct and rearrange songs. This is a funky take on the standard that Billie Holliday owned. Cassandra doesn’t take it away from Billie, but she certainly puts a distinctive (and quite cool) spin on it.
The Streets — Let’s Push Things Forward (Original Pirate Material): No matter how often Mike Skinner disappoints, the first two Streets albums will always provide him some cover. His yobbish ruminations on the geezer life and his melding of hip—hop and garage/2—step/grime still sound so cool. The combination of Skinner’s narration and reggae hook on this cut works very well.
Louis Armstrong — Blueberry Hill (The Essential Louis Armstrong): I intend to spend some more time investigating Satchmo’s early years, with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, where his trumpet playing rules. But he was a pretty terrific singer. This is a great interpretation of the Fats Domino classic, despite the backing choral vocals that sound like they were taken from a 1940s musical.
The Boys — Turning Grey (The Boys): The Boys were the least sophisticated of the first wave of poppy punk bands (in comparison to The Undertones and Buzzcocks). But they delivered the goods, and by that, I mean the hooks, one right after another. Most of their songs are power pop songs with an extra burst of adrenalin. If you dig The Exploding Hearts, here are their ancestors.
Montage — Men Are Building Sand (Montage): After Michael Brown left The Left Banke (best known for the ‘60s smash “Walk Away Renee”), he formed this similar baroque pop outfit. Sundazed tracked down the masters and although this doesn’t quite hit the heights of The Left Banke, it’s not too far off. This is a pretty number, though I have no idea what the title means.
The Morells — Eager Boy (Shake And Push): I have a lot Morells on my iPod. This Springfield, Missouri band played a mix of traditional rock and roll with a bit of R & B and country mixed in, while penning some originals and covering contemporaries like Marshall Crenshaw and Ben Vaughn. This is a semi—rockabilly tune with a spirited vocal from D. Clinton Thompson, who also shows off his six—string mastery.
Bad Religion — Million Days (Into The Unknown): Bad Religion is so proud of its second album, that it has never been released on CD and has been out of print for over two decades. Why? Because the band abandoned its hardcore punk for hard rock with definite prog rock overtones. This certainly sticks out like a sore thumb in the band’s catalog. But they have nothing to be embarrassed about, as this is still an entertaining album, as the songs are very well constructed. This is a mid—tempo number and it’s kind of hippy dippy, and the only Bad Religion song, I think, with a section of “la la la la” vocals.
Tom Waits — Midtown (Rain Dogs): This is a brief instrumental on one of Waits’ many essential albums. It’s brassy and jazzy and sounds like it could have been waxed in 1950. Yep, my iPod is feeling very jazzy today.
The Vapors — Bunkers (New Clear Days): Yes, these are the guys who hit big with “Turning Japanese”, fodder for many VH1 One Hit Wonder specials. It’s a shame. Not to knock “Japanese”, which is a fun song, but it wasn’t representative of The Vapors’ sound. Singer David Fenton constructed songs that mixed the percolating rhythms of The Jam (and the Kinks inspired observational lyrics) with some post—punk edge. This song fits in that mold, with a big emphasis on rhythm, as almost every instrument has a percussive edge and the bass playing is rubbery and flowing. Underrated band.
Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s is from CHIRP’s Music Director, Billy Kalb.
Woe be to the radio DJ who has to take a sabbatical from radio; my exposure to new music was strictly regulated by my wallet this year. So, if not the best, here’s a list of my favorites.
Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros.)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
If not the best record of the year, it was easily the most welcome. After the Technicolor dazzle of The Soft Bulletin and the serene trippiness of Yoshimi, the Lips lost me with 2005’s At War with the Mystics; it was fun, but I worried that the band had given themselves over entirely to cartoonish spectacle and Santa costumes at the cost of the songs. But here we have some spectacular new blood: not quite a return to form, or even a retreat to the olden days. Just a generous burst of the gloriously unpredictable weirdness that we’ve come to expect from Wayne Coyne & co., and it’s their best in 10 years.
Fever Ray – Fever Ray (Rabid)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
The first eight words will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end: “This won’t ever end ‘cause I want more.” Fever Ray’s Karin Dreijer-Andersson is a vampire, a demon, a soulless thing out to drain your life. This much is clear from opener “If I Had a Heart”, where she pitch-shifts and twists her voice until it barely registers as human. As an album, however, Fever Ray ultimately proves the contrary — Dreijer-Andersson is a human with a heart, and her songs here demonstrate an aching vulnerability rarely seen in her work as one-half of The Knife.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (Domino)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Damn but I’m glad for Person Pitch. Panda Bear returned to his main gig after his wildly successful 2007 solo adventure with a new sense of purpose. Animal Collective always struck me as a brilliant band tripped up by its own experimental overindulgences, but the focused, well-rounded MPP changed the game: an AC record that your mom could enjoy, yet compromising nothing in the way of derring-do. It felt right on time for 2009.
Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
How epic is that? Spencer Krug dials back the strangeness from the indie-prog Renaissance Faire bramblebush that was 2007’s Random Spirit Lover and delivers a record called Dragonslayer? Krug – by far the weirder of the two main dudes in Wolf Parade – has never played it safe, but this is as inviting as his Sunset Rubdown project has ever been. Part of that seems to be due to his having figured out how to make use of the whole band — in particular self-described “Jane-of-all-trades” Camilla Wynne Ingr, who has more vocal duties than ever before — but mostly it’s because the album just kicks effing ass. And wasn’t it always the D&D kids who most wanted to be rock stars?
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (Fat Possum)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Andrew Bird had the poor luck of releasing his latest on the same day as Animal Collective released theirs, quickly getting lost in the shadow of Merriweather Post Pavilion hype. That’s often the case with Bird, who builds sturdy, well-liked but unflashy albums of elegant indie rock time and again only to be buried in end-of-year lists. For his sake, Noble Beast makes my top 5. Bird continues to find new ways to surprise and engage with little more than a guitar, a violin and some masterfully arranged whistles. Well done, sir. Well done.
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I’ll readily admit that I don’t think it’s their best work, but no one – not even Animal Collective – was less likely to make a major splash this year, and yet this summer found David Longstreth and his band playing Millennium Park. WTF? This is the closest the Projectors have ever come to an equal balance of challenge and familiarity, a sort of outsized avant-pop for the decade to come. Don’t believe me? Just listen to Solange Knowles’ cover of “Stillness is the Move” – that’s Beyonce’s sister, you know.
El Michels Affair – Enter the 37th Chamber (Fatbeats)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Hypothetically, this shouldn’t have worked. I mean, the RZA’s Wu-Tang productions are already bulletproof. How could you change them without ruining everything? But somehow, taking them back in time by 35 years and reimagining them as a run of killer jazz/funk/soul jams still hit all the right notes. The El Michaels Affair – a loose collective of session players – turns what could have been a lukewarm covers record into a genuinely faithful yet original tribute to the 36 Chambers.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Arcade Fire, where have you gone? By 2009, the official playbook of indie rock had evolved into a sound so sleek and tuneful that Michael McDonald was taking note: “The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians,” he told Paste. That’s not to say it’s dad rock, though. (I’m pretty sure my own dad has zero interest, and I even played him the b-side where McDonald does vocals.) It’s just a renewed appreciation for the kind of pop that flourishes within the chamber setting, and the realization that sometimes your song just needs a children’s choir. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
Dan Deacon – Bromst (Carpark)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Before Bromst, I was sure that Dan Deacon’s music was a fleeting pleasure. He’s wacky and fun and all that, but where’s the staying power? It’s neat, but is it good enough to be high art? Will it stand the test of time? After Bromst… who cares? Deacon’s an oddball savant making his own brilliant Saturday morning cartoon pop with reckless abandon and enviable aplomb. Months on, Bromst still impresses, and listening to a track like “Snookered,” well – wait, what was that? A passing trace of Brian Eno? Ah, I see. High art, indeed.
The Xx – Self-Titled (Young Turks)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
It’s not a complicated formula: spare, spacey boy/girl post-punk duets. Songs about love. Songs about heartbreak. Songs about VCRs. It’s an album that’s considerably more than the sum of its assembled parts, just a dazzling little surprise from a new band no one had heard of before this year. And these kids are how old? 19? Hell yes, consider me ready for that next album.
Best album from 2008 that took me until 2009 to fully appreciate: The Walkmen – You & Me (Gigantic)
What can I say? It’s a grower.
Best song from 2009 that was so good it totally overshadowed the also-good album it came from: Bill Callahan – “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast” Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle was great, but this track somehow made the rest of it look less great.
Album I ended up liking a lot even though logically I shouldn’t have: God Help The Girl – God Help the Girl (Matador)
My brain: “You know, this is basically indie rock showtunes.”
My heart: “Oh, I’m aware. Your point being?
My stomach: “Shut up, you guys. I want a sandwich.”
2009 reissue on my Christmas list that I’m most looking forward to: Kraftwerk – The Catalog (Astralwerks/Mute) / Various Artists – Can You Dig It? The Music and Politics of Black Action Films 1968-1975 (Soul Jazz)
It’s a tie. I know, they couldn’t be further apart, but I can’t honestly say which one I’m more excited for.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I’ve been traveling all day for the holiday. Sorry this is going up so late. –M.G.
Throughout the month of December we’ll be posting lists of the best music of the year as determined by the volunteers that make CHIRP what it is. Today’s list is a bit of a different appraoch to the “top ten” courtesy of CHIRP volunteer David Schermer.
Best Album by a Supergroup Despite Conor Oberst’s Contribution
Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
What goes better with Jim James’ voice than Jim James’ voice? Fried Chicken? Maybe. The voices of M. Ward and Conor Oberst? Certainly. They put on a 3 hour + show at the Auditorium Theater. What could beat that? Well, on the following night (Halloween), they performed their encore as KISS in full costume and makeup.
Best Non-Comedy Album by a Comedian
Steve Martin – The Crow: New Songs for the Five String Banjo (Rounder)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
The album of all original bluegrass songs isn’t funny. It’s not funny how good it is either. So what if he hasn’t made a decent movie in like forever. He’s made a great album here. Sure he’s backed by some of bluegrass’s best, but he doesn’t need them. Warning: he doesn’t sing on most of the songs.
Best Song About God
Regina Spektor – “Laughing With” Far (Warner Bros.)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
This would probably win this category even if it didn’t compare God to Jiminy Cricket. However, it’s nice that it did.
Best Song Off M. Ward’s Hold Time (Merge Records)
“Stars of Leo”Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Congratulations “Stars of Leo.” After drawing your name from the hat, you’re the lucky winner. Congratulations hat for containing so many great songs.
Best Song in an Off-Broadway Musical of a B-Movie
“Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” – The Toxic Avenger Musical Original Cast Recording (Time Life Entertainment)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Pulp was known for their full, sumptuous productions (typified by the work the legendary Scott Walker did on We Love Life), so Steve Albini does not come to mind as the obvious choice to record Mr. Cocker. But the team works to perfection. Cocker’s songs are still a mix of Roxy Music-style glam and classic ‘50s and ‘60s rock, though he adds some more rocking sounds to the repertoire this time around. His band tears into it, and Albini makes it sound, in spots, pretty ferocious. Trading in raw for lush makes the music more sensual and sleazy, especially on the songs where Cocker portrays the many different ways a middle aged man can try to get in the pants of a 20-something year old woman.
Best Musical Appearance on Late Show with David Letterman
Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – “Home” Up From Below (Vagrant)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I’d never posted a video to Facebook before this one. Figured I had no choice since these guys are really something you have to see for yourself. Nobody commented on it but I’m sure that’s just because its greatness rendered everyone speechless. Sadly their record doesn’t quite accurately capture their contagious energy and optimism. Even more sadly, their show at Lincoln Hall sold out before I got a ticket.
Best Bob Dylan Christmas Video
Bob Dylan – “Must Be Santa” – Bob Dylan – Christmas in the Heart (Sony)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Watch it. It’s even funnier and more fun than most of the bad reviews this album has received. I love it. Then again, I’m Jewish. But about as Jewish as Bob Dylan.
Best Musical Discovery I Should Have Made Over 25 Years Ago
Love – “The Red Telephone” Forever Changes (Elektra/Wea)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I know. I know. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know. Thanks to East Village Radio on the internet I now know about the great Arthur Lee and his psychedelic masterpiece. If anyone out there wants to see rainbows without having to attend a gay pride parade or drop acid, listen to this album.
Best Album By an Artist Whom I Can’t Believe Died This Year
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Sony)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
Maybe his best musical days were already behind him. Still it’s really sad he’s gone. Mama-se, mama-sa, ma-ma-coo-sa.
Best Album Discovery From Reading a Best of 2009 List
St. Vincent – Actor (4ad)Amazon / Insound / iTunes
I always thought that was Miranda July on the album cover. And I like Miranda July, so I don’t know why I never bothered to pick up this album but thanks to everyone for naming it to their ten best and forcing me to pay attention. I myself am laughing with a mouth full of blood after punching myself for not having given it a listen sooner. Laughing of course because of the way I punch.