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.
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.