Stunning, Colorful, Wise: The Best New Records of 2009

December 31, 2009

Everybody’s making a list, and with just a few hours left in 2009, the Interference editorial staff share their favorite new albums of the year. For the hardcore U2 fans among us, No Line On The Horizon sort of trumps the rest, so this list is limited to all the other bands in the world, excluding the one that most of us consider the best.
Stunning display of avant-pop
10. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
Coming from the band that recorded the majestically emotionally bipolar album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2003, Embryonic is quite the shock. The Flaming Lips finally took all of that morbid subject matter that has been present in their lyrics for years and transferred it to the music as well; though a jarring move, it makes for (easily) the band’s best album since Yoshimi and a surprisingly pleasant listen.
9. P.O.S. – Never Better
Representing Minneapolis, Rhymesayers, and the Doomtree collective, P.O.S. brings some of the most percussive, hard-hitting, yet incredibly accessible hip-hop of the year. He manages to thread together politically conscious lyrics alongside of references from “The Big Lebowski” (the famous line, “The Dude abides,” as well as “You’re out of your element, Donnie, shut up,” appears in “Let It Rattle”). And it works beautifully. P.O.S. also contributes a large portion of his own beats to Never Better, just another personal touch that makes the album his and his alone.
8. The Antlers – Hospice
This is, quite simply, an emotionally devastating album, describing the trials and tribulations of taking care of a terminally ill person (who is, understandably, extremely difficult to deal with). I do have to be in the right mood to listen to it, but the cohesive, beautiful, and heart-shattering way in which Hospice comes together makes it well-worth the emotional trauma it can inflict upon me.
7. Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind (EP)
This is the second EP to make it on my list and for very good reason; Fall Be Kind is not the first, but second excellent release from Animal Collective this year. From the whispers to “Let me begin” on “Graze” to the euphoric call and response “What would I want? Sky” on the song of the same name (which includes the first licensed Grateful Dead sample) Fall Be Kind is 30 minutes of sheer ambient, autumnal bliss.
6. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast/Useless Creatures
Released as a double album, with Noble Beast including the more typical Andrew Bird songs and Useless Creatures containing only instrumental tracks, it showcases Bird at a very good place in his career. Noble Beast sees Bird playing with not only words now, but with the sounds of syllables, exemplified with “Anonanimal,” which is probably in my top 3 songs of the year. And, Useless Creatures doesn’t disappoint either, with the peak being, for me, “Hot Math,” a dizzying seven-minute violin piece recorded in Bird’s barn.
5. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
This is an album that I reviewed at its release, so I’m going to cop out and just give some highlights from that: “Ecstasy is a “poetic frenzy or rapture” and ecstatic describes an “exalted feeling” of an “intense” and “pleasurable” emotion. Aptly named, Mos Def’s The Ecstatic finds itself correlating to these two related words and definitions; throughout the record, a mix of emotions emerges-from joy to sorrow and from passive indifference to fiery passion-all of them expressed with a deep potency.
Even with its oddball moments, such as “No Hay Nada Mas,” a song completely rapped in Spanish, The Ecstatic is one of the best hip-hop albums of the year and an early contender for best album of the year. But, more than that, it is a return to form for one of hip-hop’s best, a return to form that fully showcases Mos Def’s talent and certainly keeps fans anxious for more that will inevitably come, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
4. The xx – xx
Considering I just heard this only a few weeks ago (at the recommendation of a co-worker), I think its placement this high up on the list should be a good enough indicator of what I think about the debut album from The xx. From start to finish, xx bonds together like no other album I’ve heard this year. It’s sleek, it’s sexy, and it was made by a few 20-year-olds (a few Brits that are my age?!?). Apparently, I need to get to work making something this awesome.
3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Is there anything that I can say about this album that hasn’t already been said? I don’t think so. It’s fantastic. Let’s move on.
2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Ah, so many memories with this album. Driving around Minneapolis with friends, blasting “Two Weeks” as we cruised away from Minnehaha Falls. Sitting at the river, enjoying the scenery. For months, Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest was the soundtrack to my life. And I still haven’t tired of it. Sure, it’s poppier and more accessible than 2006’s Yellow House, but is that such a bad thing? I certainly don’t think so, and songs like “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” epitomize that fact for me. But, my absolute favorite on the album is “Foreground,” a perfectly tranquil ending to a sublime album.
1. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Wow, what an album. Thank you, Dirty Projectors, just thank you for Bitte Orca. It’s a stunning display of avant-pop, complete with plenty of guitar wankery, out of key singing on Dave Longstreth’s part, and some of the most gorgeous female vocalists ever put to record. From the first listen, I was hooked. For days, Bitte Orca would finish, and I’d start it right back up again, making this my musical drug of the year. And, without a doubt, my favorite album of 2009 (an outstanding achievement, considering the competition it was up against in this fine year of music).
–Cassie Traun
An abundance of new color
10. The Mars Volta – Octahedron
After the headache-inducing Bedlam in Goliath, the Volta stripped their act down and pulled a Radiohead by making a “relationship” record.  It’s still the craziest relationship record you’ve ever heard, but in re-emphasizing melody and musical dynamics over sheer aggression, they’ve made a welcome return to the paths of righteousness.
9. Franz Ferdinand – Tonight
Even the bands you get wasted to can mature.  Tonight is the sound of the Glasgow outfit drinking, dancing, biting hard, and hanging-over on its way to possibly, maybe, sorta becoming a real grown-up one day.  But don’t count on it.
8. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Sure, it’s got a couple instant classics in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”.  But is the rest of the album really that good?  I wasn’t convinced when the record first dropped in March, probably because I was expecting more of their normal rock fireworks.  However, as the months passed, I slowly shed my expectations.  Now the album’s shimmery, atmospheric mood pieces seem the perfect counterpoint to the giddy dance euphoria of the key tracks.
7. …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead – The Century of  Self
In early February, …Trail of Dead set the tone for the rest of ’09 by dropping the most epic, least-noticed, and best record of its career.  Hopefully, it will be re-evaluated and better-appreciated by rock cognoscenti in the coming years.
6. Karen O and The Kids – Where the Wild Things Are Soundtrack
Karen O has long been a poster girl for the youthful Id set loose, so Spike Jonze’s cathartic, Freudian adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic is a perfect fit for her sensibilities.  This gentle set of songs and instrumentals — highlighted by an absolutely heartbreaking cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Worried Shoes” — gives the film an emotional center that helps soften the blow of Jonze’s edgy visuals.  It also gives O a chance to show her sensitive side, and that side is arguably more impressive and genuine than the rocker chick we all know and love.
5. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
An increasingly rapturous and emotionally-affecting set of psychedelic groove experiments, Embryonic is vintage Lips; it sounds like the greatest record Can never made.
4. Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom Live
The Glitter and Doom Tour was one of the most talked-about live acts of 2008, and this brilliant collection of performances shows why, demonstrating the gravely-voiced crooner’s versatility in moving from circus grotesquery to shattering ballads to stand-up comedy, all at the drop of a worn, dusty, bourbon-soaked hat.
3. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Rock opera returns!  The Portland, Oregon quintet has been moving inexorably toward a project of this scale for years; unknown was whether or not Colin Meloy and Co. had the finesse and sheer rock power to pull it off.  They do.
2. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
An elephantine epic involving metaphysics, Rasputin, a battle with The Devil, and… stuff, Crack the Skye is the year’s other big concept record.  Already one of the most respected names in metal, Mastodon made a bold move by taking their sound to proggy new levels.  The result is arguably the best album in the band’s already-formidable catalog.
1. Grizzly Bear – Veckitamest
One of the most ambitious indie bands on the scene, Grizzly Bear display astonishing growth and an abundance of new color on their sophomore effort, proving in the process that 2006′s masterful Yellow House was no fluke.  If they continue to produce work as varied and singular as Veckitamest, they will be the new Radiohead for the Aughts.
–Luke Pimentel
Wise and wordly meditations on love and loss
10. Those Darlins – Those Darlins
Put Patsy Cline in a punk band or take the Ramones to resurrect in a Nashville dive and we approach the magic that makes Tennessee’s Those Darlins one of 2009′s musical miracles. Fronted by a trio of “sisters” that share the Darlin surname, the group released a self-titled debut that serves up soulful doses of sass and snarl fueled by the sauce, brewing a gutsy blend of sweet tea that balances between tang and twang. Formed as an outgrowth of the extraordinary girls’ rock camp based in Murfreesboro where the members were both campers and counselors, the Darlins have toured constantly, building a reputation in live rooms as well as on this superior disc. Favorite tracks: “Mama’s Heart” and “The Whole Damn Thing”
9. Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed
Discovering this disc late in the year while reading someone else’s “best of,” I was instantly moved by the potent pasting of love upon rage. The UK’s Turner joins a vast new tradition of punks playing folk, giving epic passion to each track as if the future of all romantic relationships and the success of a global people’s revolution depended on the next song’s sincere execution. It’s with an earnest and eager spark that Turner makes it work with a shameless reach that reminds me of Billy Bragg and Against Me! Favorite tracks: “Sons of Liberty” and “The Fastest Way Back Home.”
8. Pink Mountaintops – Outside Love
Stephen McBean may not have the name recognition of Jack White and Jim James, but in the year of everybody’s side-projects and supergroups, the sheer brilliance of British Columbia shines with haunting grace throughout the whispers and worbles of Pink Mountaintops’s wanton testimony to music’s witchy majesty. McBean masters the mix with the same wizardly presence he brings to Black Mountain, and this mellower sibling may fade like the northwest’s fog, but while its melodic chants maintain their grip, they give and give again with just enough gravity to keep up us from floating away. Favorite tracks: “Vampire” and “Holiday”
7. Passion Pit – Manners
Every summer needs a dance record, and in 2009, Michael Angelakos brought the love with swirls of synthastic glimmer and gyration. Beneath the obvious beauty, boogie, and beauty, Passion Pit pose poetic ambition and a diaphonous optimism as fragile as its themes, putting more than a little meaning onto the dusty dancefloors of the festival circuit where Passion Pit toured its testimony to electronic pop. Favorite tracks: “Moth Wings” and “Sleepyhead”
6. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
A different sound but a similar spirit to Polyphonic Spree, this is the genuine article of grandiose choirs and throwback revivals in the itinerant evangelical mood of Up With People or Jesus Christ Superstar. Alex Ebert is Edward Sharpe and his band of merry women and men are The Magnetic Zeros. Inspired by Kerouac and Alcoholics Anonymous and packed into a tour bus with the band’s name painted on the side, the Zeros offer more than this seeming brand of steamy beatitude. The debut album fuses tender folksy with epic cinematic strokes, creating yet another soundtrack to the post-9/11 mood where music is our collective apology, a sexy and spiritual shalom of apocalyptic gorgeousness.  Favorite tracks: “40 Day Dream” and “Home”
5. Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
Jam band transcendental with indy rock credentials, Akron/Family survived losing a key member to a Buddhist retreat center to release a glorious jangle and tangle of stripped down mysticism. Psychedelic in the most unpretentious and rooted sense, this record may border on more conventional rock than the band’s previous efforts, but the results still conjure the experimental heights, what I see as the cotemplation of truth and the pursuit of sonically-induced ecstasy as core values of the human condition. Favorite tracks: “River” and “Sun Will Shine”
4. The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy
Showing that the gripping backwater ambiance of 2007′s Invitation Songs was far from fluke, Pete Quirk carries us back to the campfire intimacy for another set of arm-waving relief and foot-stomping epiphany. Cave Singers charm their way into the breadth of the current indy-folk explosion on the wings of Quirk’s lofty lyrics and choir-leader’s vocal charisma. Favorite tracks: “Leap” and “Shrine”
3. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
A collaboration between My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, Conor Oberst, and M. Ward, this super-dooper group gets down with soul-fueled, folkified fusion. These troubadours spit tracks and traverse a creative tapestry stitched from their combined visions to offer a surprisingly coherent classic in sound, spirit, and quality. If the construct of the compassionate, conscious rock star has a future in this century, it may fall on the shoulders of folks like James and Oberst who don’t necessarily preach their values but whose music still points us toward a cleaner, saner path. Favorite tracks: “Man Named Truth” and “His Master’s Voice”
2. One EskimO – One EskimO
Singer Kristian Leontiou claims to have created One EskimO to attain qualities we all crave in music, the “magical, ambient, filmic, acoustic, beautiful and meaningful.” The self-titled album achieves its mission, taking listeners to spiritual liftoff in ethereal waves of desire and song. The album closing “Amazing” presents the pop anthem as a sweet and sacred necessity, bending toward unconditional love and universal transformation. Favorite tracks: “Kandi” and “Amazing”
1. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
The brothers Avett make some simple but challenging demands in the striking mature tone of this major-label album, stating in “The Perfect Space”: “I wanna have friends that I can trust/that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was.” A pure record that arrived at precisely the right time to guide me through some life-altering shifts, the Avett Brothers pop breakout delivers on all the hype and promise of a burgeoning career. These wise and wordly meditations on love and loss or attachment and ambition all give truth to the worn notion that a particular band can provide the perfect soundtrack to your life. Late this year, the Avett Brothers did just that for me and I imagine many more who love this kind of pop-folk-rock! Favorite tracks: “Ten Thousand Words” and “Laundry Room”
–Andrew William Smith

Everybody’s making a list, and with just a few hours left in 2009, the Interference editorial staff share their favorite new albums of the year. For the hardcore U2 fans among us, No Line On The Horizon sort of trumps the rest, so this list is limited to all the other bands in the world, excluding the one that most of us consider the best.

[Read more]

Xmas Mix 2009: Tori, Sting, & Sugarland Light Up The Long Winter Nights

December 23, 2009

Christmas music: some love it, many loathe it. This week it’s everywhere from radio to shopping mall, and frankly, some scrooges would rather hear your school-teacher’s fingernails on the chalkboard than yet another chirpy and cheesy rendition of a Christmas classic. However, for those of us who adore holiday and seasonal music, December offers the richest opportunities to explore the annual snowscapes of sound where myth and modernity merge.

In 2009, we got a great crop of new Christmas albums, with maybe one exception.

Apparently, the Jacksons re-released a Christmas disc this year, which makes a lot of sense, what with Michael having died and all. Neil Diamond has a new Christmas record, too. These didn’t find their way into my advent playlist, but they look respectable. Only one record I wanted to like, I couldn’t fathom. All props to the great poet and prophet that is Bob Dylan notwithstanding, his new Christmas album blindsided me like a drunk’s pickup truck on a snowy road. We’ve come to tolerate and even revere the gravel and guts of his wretched-sounding voice, so thick with the years. On his original work, we reject the “he can’t sing” shenanigans with the poetic argument. Fact: his lyrics stand the test of time. But a Christmas album? I couldn’t keep this one in regular  rotation with so many other holiday alternatives just a click away.

Now, I probably would have never discovered the country pop powerhouse Sugarland had it not been for a student of mine writing an essay about the band. But with the group on my radar and a new holiday disc out this autumn, I decided to give Gold and Green a twirl. Carried on the angelic smoke of Jennifer Nettles’s soaring Nashville tongue, the record brings the requisite balance of secular bumpkin beauty and sacred candlelight beatitude. “City of Silver Dreams,” “Nuttin’ for Christmas,” and “Little Wood Guitar” are all worth the admission price, and when Nettles and her cohort Kristian Bush take it to church on “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the Christmas Eve vibes wash through you.

Reclaiming carols with vivid and experimental interpretations, Tori Amos’s Midwinter Graces graces us with haunting and hypnotic hymns. The particular timbre of her delivery, the way she emphasizes each syllable as if Christ’s coming depended on her enunciation, the exquisite orchestral arrangements–all these inspired ingredients spice a recipe that we will return to each year, relishing each song like a grandmother’s fresh-baked cookies. Listeners who basked in Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong a few years back will probably love this record.

Tori-Amos-Midwinter-Graces

Sadly, some of the reviews I’ve read seem to question the record’s intentions, seeing Amos as unfit for delivering the Christmas message. The daughter of a minister, Amos has explored spirituality and religion in all her work, and perhaps these critics object to her take on the sacred, infused as it is by influences beyond the boundaries of some folks’ interpretation of the season’s reason. I’ve always respected Amos but have not given her catalog anything close to a complete listen. This gorgeous disc gives me the kick in the musical guts I needed to give Tori Amos more of my listening time.

As haunting as Graces,Sting’s softly surprising If On A Winter’s Night sends icicles of light into the headphones as if from heaven. Tired of the still more superstar interpretations of the same-old carols? As comforting as those familiar throes, Sting’s excavation of lesser-known, old-school holiday folk songs excites and entices, too. Indeed, this record reminds us what an artfully chilled and infinite wellspring the canon of soulful carols really is. A huge fan of Sting in the 1980s, I’d become somewhat skeptical of his later work, wondering if he was just cashing in like so many classic-rock dudes on the perpetual cache of his past promise. Winter’s Night proves me wrong as Sting prepares a midnight feast of “Soul Cake” delicacies and offers the mother of Jesus the sweet cherries of “Cherry Tree Carol.” Just like Robert Plant’s piercing elegance on Raising Sand, Sting’s fusion of the earthy and supernatural on this seasonal sendup soothes, seduces, and sends us searching for true love on a snowy mountain trail.

While I will never tire of hearing still further interpretations of December gospel standards like “Go Tell It On The Mountain” or “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” I’m grateful for the gift that comes late in every autumn of new holiday music. This last Christmas of the decade that ought to have been better for peace on earth and good will towards all, we naughty humans can get healed with the hope that yuletide music brings whether we are ready to listen or not. –Andrew William Smith, Editor

sting-winter

P.S. I shared this Christmas playlist with some friends this year:

Jars Of Clay – Peace Is Here

Styx – Hallelujah Chorus

Fee – All Creation Sing (Joy To The World)

Casting Crowns – O Come All Ye Faithful

Johnny Cash – Children Go Where I Send Thee

Bob Dylan – Little Drummer Boy

Sting – Soul Cake

Odetta – Virgin Mary Had One Son

The Staple Singers – No Room At The Inn

Aaron Neville – Go Tell It On The Mountain

Aretha Franklin – Angels We Have Heard On High

Jewel – Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Tracy Chapman – O Holy Night

Sugarland – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Tori Amos – Holly, Ivy and Rose

Sarah Mclachlan – The First Noel_Mary Mary

The Roches – The Hallelujah Chorus

Over The Rhine – Silent Night

Blind Boys Of Alabama – Joy To The World

U2000s (Part One): All The Decade We Must Leave Behind

December 16, 2009

Once called “the band of the 80s” in the group’s inaugural decade, U2 remains, according to Rolling Stone magazine, one of the best in the world at the end of their third decade.

As music critics, bloggers, fans, and radio hosts from around the planet engage in epic list-making and taste-staking to recall the first ten years of the century known to some as “the oughts,” U2 fare fairly well. In the Rolling Stone Top 100 Albums of the period, all three U2 records hold formidable rank (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, No Line on the Horizon, and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb coming in at 13, 36, and 68 respectively).

In the Rolling Stone retrospective, Rob Sheffield describes this as the decade when  U2 “regained their mojo and started making unabashed U2 records again.” In the feature on the group, David Fricke echoes what many fans know when he writes that U2 sustains “experiment and ecstasy like no other group of any vintage, with a sustained passion and belief in the big statement power of rock & roll.”

North of us, Canadian journalist Mike Devlin described All That You Can’t Leave Behind as U2’s “best [of the decade] by a long shot,” calling the record “an intensely personal offering” that “rivals anything in the band’s catalogue.”

U2000

Here in the Interference forums, devoted fans disagree about how to rank U2’s contribution to the 2000s. In a poll of those that post on the discussion boards, No Line on the Horizon holds a formidable lead with 68%, with All That You Can’t Leave Behind taking 24% of the votes.

Throughout the vigorous discussions, each album has its advocates and detractors, and the only thing close to a consensus feeling is the gratitude many fans feel following a band with such a long career and consistent catalog with members about to turn 50 years old.

Feel free to join the best of the year and decade discussions all over our forums, including U2’s year and decade as well as our discussions of the best non-U2 music out there for this year and for the first 10 of the century.

Stay tuned for special reports from our staff on our own interpretation of U2’s decade as well as on all the other great musical artists of the last ten years.

–Andrew William Smith, Editor