Part 2! Whoo! Part Twoooooooooo’s coming up, so you better get this party started! There’s been some fall-out from the first ten albums that I would like to address. Apparently, the last set was “tearing [BROOKE!] apart.” That is not a good outcome. I do not mean to tear people (especially BROOKE!) apart. Instead, I offer this list as a set of recommendations and a way to foster discussion about the musical year 2009. However, I do see the frustration since I flaked and decided not to make the hard decisions and do a top ten list. What comes next, though, IS a top ten list! Hooray!
#10 Royksopp – Junior
This Royksopp album is the first time I’ve listened to the band in meaningful way (instead of just hearing their name and listening to clips). Junior is a tight, dance-y album that knowingly hints to many parts of the pop spectrum. It’s like Royksopp just showed up, walked in, roped off the scene, and gave David Caruso that look that says “We got this.” and then they make the pun and take of the sunglasses and the Who plays! Fuck you, David Caruso. Royksopp’s here.
#9 – The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
I think one day, John Darnielle is just going to release an album where he talks about the songs between tracks. Listening to Darnielle talk about his music is usually entertaining and even enlightening at times. The Life of the World to Come scoffs at the thematic focus of recent Mountain Goats releases and hammers home ideas that this album has a format and this album has some ideas. The Mountain Goats use Biblical passages for inspiration and ideas rather than making musical versions of stories that have already been told. “Psalms 40: 2” for instance, is about sniffing glue by a chapel in Lawrence, Kansas but echoes an idea of coming out of the pit of despair and miry clay.
#8 – The XX – XX
I don’t know how much of the XX’s musical sexiness comes from the use of X’s in their name, how much of it comes from the interplay between Oliver Sim’s voice and Romy Madley Croft’s voice, and how much of it comes from the hushed sounds of the band. Admittedly, it is odd describing the music as sexy, but the music does evoke notions of secrecy, intimacy, and vulnerability. The bare-bones approach of the band could be dismissed as simplistic. However, I find it a reminder of the power of a whisper. XX is like a secret closely told, face-to-face, that makes the words sound \ wonderful and inviting. Also, for all that is made of the sexual aspects of the album, there is an underrated sweetness to some of the songs, especially “VCR” and the closing track “Stars.”
#7 – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
There was a two week period during the year where I listened to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart exclusively (well, almost exclusively). The band is infectious. The clap along breakdowns, the sing along choruses, and the dance along drums make it hard to ignore the band. While their debut album did have a bunch of previously released song, the band saw an opportunity to strengthen the sound of each tune giving it more poppy goodness. Hooray for poppy goodness! Hooray for learning!
#6 – Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I was driving around last week and I had this theory that Phoenix may have saved modern rock radio in the tristate area. They are radio-friendly but also have a cool factor about them. Their out-of-the-blue appearance on Saturday Night Live started the buzz (they got to play THREE songs. who gets to play three songs besides U2 and the Black-Eyed Peas [Who probably had to pay to do all three of their performances]? Phoenix played three songs because WOW. They should change their name to P Woww) and they followed up with a spring and summer of trucking around the U.S. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix delivers ten tracks of bouncy yet meticulous power pop.
#5 – St. Vincent – Actor
When I used to read guitar magazines (obsessively) I found out about a bunch of guitarists/bands that guitar magazines absolutely LOVE. I wish that I still read guitar magazines and I hope they would cover St. Vincent because I think they would freak out about Annie Clark’s playing. On first listen, Actor was a bunch of great songs. I knew that Annie Clark played guitar, but the album was not dominated by guitar. Then I kept listening and realized she was making the guitars not sound like guitars. Then in fact, shit got real.
It’s not just a guitar album. St. Vincent’s songs use brass, woodwinds, and strings to heighten the cinematic aspects of the music. Actor has such a wide array of sounds on it that it makes me think Annie Clark should run music. “Marrow” had perhaps the “dopest” (and I use the term “dopest’ sparingly) beat on this side of the universe. Clark’s songs are lush while still being able to shift from warm sounds to cool spare sounds. THE CLARK IS DEF-IN-ITE-LY IN THE BUILDING!
During a particularly difficult week during the summer, I decided to take a drive to a record store and pick up some things. I found an Owen EP I was looking for and decided to pick up Bitte Orca due to the good things I heard about it. Perhaps it was the sour mood in which I found myself, but I did not like it at first. When my mood had steadied, I listened to the album again in order to give it a fair shake. With each listen, the album opened up for me and I found new things to love about it. Chief among these is the track “Two Doves.” That song is beautiful. That song is GORGEOUS. Bitte Orca packs a staggering amount into one album. However, over time, an intricate comfort develops. The album goes a lot of places but it is able to maintain a signature and even catchy sound (so catchy that Solange Knowles even covered a song. Solange!).
#3- Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
One day, you may find yourself driving on I-80/I-90. You may find yourself leaving some place you love or going some place on an adventure. You’ll wonder why Ohio is so boring and how Pennsylvania can be so vast and woody. You’ll curse the Ohio Department of Transportation for not using the EZ-Pass system but you will also love the convenience of their roadside stops. You will underestimate the distance to Cleveland. You will sob on entrance ramps and laugh on bridges during phone calls with friends that will make you miss your exit but at that moment you are fine with missing your exit because of the voice on the other end of the phone. You might be caught in western Pennsylvania while the worst rain you have ever seen beats down on the hood of your car and you try and remember what to do if it starts hailing. While on such a trip, you may listen to music. At some point, you might think that Saves the Day’s Stay What You Are is the perfect road album but your judgment will clouded by so many things that you cannot make a viable critical assessment at that point. Eventually, you’ll realize that the rollicking, reckless, twangy sounds on Middle Cyclone are the perfect way to cross hills and plains between New York and the Midwest. Case’s songs give color and heart to a drab world.
Eventually, you will arrive somewhere and you will still love Middle Cyclone.
#2 – The Antlers – Hospice
I think it’s unfair to lump Peter Silberman and Justin Vernon together in some type of formulaic relationship in regards to how their breakthrough albums came about. While For Emma, Forever Ago and Hospice are both full of personality and revelatory accounts, each album has a distinct approach. Justin Vernon may have the burden of being referred to as Bon Iver instead of his name while Peter Silberman can escape as the frontman of The Antlers (which is probably just a matter of semantics). However, Hospice has an expansive volume that heightens the emotion. The Antlers sounds more like a band. They make you question if a band is not making all those sounds, what person could?
For a while, I found it difficult to get through For Emma, Forever Ago because the songs handled emotion with a subtlety that was outdone by its appropriateness. There was a pointed quality to Bon Iver’s work that just tore at the heartstrings. I’ve heard that the intensity of Hospice has a similar effect on people. I think that the intensity gives the album a cathartic element that a more restrained record might miss.
Some bands in 2009 gained a sort of mythic quality due to the various stories that surrounded them. The story of Hospice gave the Antlers a certain mystique. I found it initially difficult to get past the idea that this music was somehow profiting off of a certain suffering. The album, though, does not claim a woe-is-me, look-how-I’ve-suffered mentality. There is a more personal and complex sadness on the album which the band deals with excellently, both sonically and lyrically.
Lastly, I just want to point out that the Antlers have an element that is often overlooked. While many of their songs focus on an atmosphere of sound and drawing out different musical phrases, they also have a knack for lyrical hooks. Phrases like “And all the while I know is we’re getting fucked/ and not getting unfucked soon” and the anthemic “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve that” are more like rallying points than typical post-rock contemplation. The Antlers have a masterful grasp on every aspect of their songs and it shows on Hospice.
#1 – Girls – Album
Speaking of bands with a mysterious, epic tale, Girls take that milkshake (I DRINK YOUR MILKSHAKE! THERE WILL BE GIRLS!). While the harried past of Christopher Owens sheds some light on Girls’ music, it’s not vital to the songs. The songs have a vitality and enthusiasm that does not need to be justified or informed by a back story.
I first found Girls when I was not looking for Girls. In fact, I found Girls while I was waiting. Girls was opening a show (for my most listened to band of 2009). I listened to “Hellhole Ratrace” beforehand. For a while, I resisted the song because it was seven minutes long and who has time for that jazz in this modern world! But I listened to it and found it interesting and swirling. So I had an idea of Girls but didn’t really know what to expect from the show. For most of Girls’ set, I was really excited because certain members of a certain most listened to band of 2009 were standing behind me. But this is not about them! It is about Girls!
The band’s set went through their repertoire of low fidelity, sunny fare. Before one of their own songs, Owens and the team played a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream” that was very close to the original. However, it worked that way. Girls had a way of taking things that you had heard before and presenting them in a different context. They drown the past in reverb and echo to give it a new meaning.
Album was released in early fall. While the songs carry lots of summer feelings there is a wave of autumn-esque nostalgia and longing in them. “Lust for Life” is all about wishes and hopes for new starts. The standout “Morning Light” is probably the least summery track on Album but it powerfully hits on many of the album’s themes. Owens’ voice floats over heavily distorted and affected guitar and feedback loops while maintaining “We know it won’t last forever” until declaring later “Maybe if we try it right/ We could make it last forever.” Album resonates in a dream world while recognizing the power of actions and coping.
Using the name Girls and titling your first release Album could work against a new band. If the songs don’t get you, the band’s videos will. Girls also cultivate a distinct aesthetic in their videos. Often times, that distinct visual style leads to their videos being not safe for work or grandma (because of the guy using another guy’s penis as a microphone). Such videos may seem to be cheap shocks, but they don’t come off that way. Instead, the band’s videos reflect a sunny, carefree mentality while showing that sunny and carefree things don’t mean you can’t use someone’s cock as a microphone.
Is Album the best album of 2009? Maybe not. I know I enjoyed it a great deal. Maybe over time, another 2009 album will jump to the top of my heart but right now Album feels like it said the most to me for the year. I know that’s not a critical point or even something that I can explain very well but it is how I feel. That’s life!