Many of my favorite bands didn’t release new records this year, so I’d have to say I was a bit disappointed with 2009 overall. Still, there were plenty of gems worth purchasing.
It’s also interesting how many live albums showed up on my list. I enjoy live albums when bands add something new to the performance over the studio versions, so you can assume that any live discs that made my list have that element in common.
Without further ado, please enjoy my favorites from the past year. Let me know what you think, and please suggest anything you think I might enjoy.
Adam Lambert – For Your Entertainment – This record is needlessly over-produced–Lambert’s vocals are way too strong to be so buried in the mix–but there is a core of a really strong album here. When it works, it works big, such as on the title track. But we want to hear Adam, not his producers. I look forward to follow-up efforts that feature his vocals rather than somebody behind the mixing board. Biggest surprise: Lambert often sounds more like Richard Marx than Freddie Mercury.
Muse – Resistance - This is a solid record from a great band. So why don’t I love it? Because I feel like this is about the fourth time I’ve heard this album. There has been little to no evolution across the band’s last several releases, and there is nothing here that stands out and makes me say “I haven’t heard them do that before.” Muse has a reliable formula at serious risk of going stale, so I hope they can inject a bit of freshness into their next effort.
Bad Lieutenant – Never Cry Another Tear – What was the last good New Order record you heard? Well, here’s one for you. Bernard Sumner’s new project sounds like a reinvigorated version of his last band, focusing on the beat-combo sound with just a hint of the electronic dance grooves that pioneered an entire genre. I generally hate it when bands are named after movies, but in this case the music wins out.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest - This extremely eclectic record is hard to categorize. With moments ranging from avant-jazz to pop to folk and many other influences in between, Grizzly Bear makes a unique concoction that stands out from the crowd. If you’re looking for something off the beaten path, check these guys out.
Crystal Method – Divided By Night – These hard-driving electronic dance numbers never fail to disappoint, though some feel more innovative than others. The band makes good use of guest appearances by Justin Warfield (She Wants Revenge) and Peter Hook (New Order), but some of the other guests don’t bring as much to the table. Still, a really good record to drive to.
Flight of the Conchords - I Told You I Was Freaky – It’s not quite as fresh or engaging as their first album, just as the second (and seemingly final) season of their TV show wasn’t as consistently strong as their first. But even so, there is plenty of brilliance to justify purchasing this record. My hope is that the band can focus on writing great songs rather than writing songs that have to fit the plot of a TV episode, and that future endeavors allow the duo’s musical brilliance to shine.
Mark Kozelek – Lost Verses Live – Played live in an intimate setting, these Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters songs take on a new life over the studio versions. Seeing Kozelek live is one of those experiences you don’t forget, so every opportunity to capture it on record is worth the effort.
Rufus Wainwright – Milwaukee At Last – I love the way Rufus can effortlessly move from campy bombast to startling earnestness. While this live album doesn’t contain all of my Wainwright favorites, it’s still a worthy record showcasing one of our best modern troubadours.
The Bravery – Stir The Blood – Plenty of bands these days are cashing in on the sounds of New Wave and Power Pop, but few do it as consistently well as the Bravery. Even on first listen to this album, my toes were tapping. This might have made it to the Love It category if I had more time with it, but it came out fairly late in the year so I haven’t had enough listens to justify the higher ranking just yet.
Sting – If on a Winter’s Night… – Sting is protesting loudly that this is a winter album, not a Christmas album, and certainly it is more somber than traditional holiday fair. What makes it work is that Sting is savvy enough to inject just the right amount of pop flair and sing-along melodies to keep it grounded. But for the record, I wish he had gone into the studio with the Police instead.
Leonard Cohen - Live in London – Leonard Cohen has spent the last 40 years teaching a master class on how to write kick-ass songs, and he doesn’t look to be letting up in his golden years. With a typically amazing band backing him up, Cohen’s sardonic brilliance shines through. You’d swear he doesn’t sound a day over 74.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – You’ve probably heard some of this band’s catchy-but-quirky power anthems on various TV commercials and found it impossible to resist humming along. This was definitely one of the best rock records of the year, though I hope for a more consistent brilliance on their follow-up.
David Sylvian – Manafon - Sylvian is my favorite solo artist, and I love the experimental direction his work has taken as of late. That said, this record is definitely not for everyone. The minimalist music is often discordant and challenging, often more of a noisescape than a melody. Still, there is something about the lyrics that recalls Secrets of the Beehive for me, and I find the new record to be immensely personal and introspective. Those willing to make the journey away from the mascara-laden days of Japan may find the experience of Manafon as rewarding as I do.
Placebo – Battle For The Sun – These glam rockers have been putting out solid records since they started, and their latest is no less a sonic feast. Their sexually ambiguous hedonism is a blueprint for the kind of albums Adam Lambert should be making, laden with biting irony and irresistible hooks. The band has never sounded sharper.
Lisa Germano – Magic Neighbor – Best known for her violin duties alongside more rock icons than you can name, Lisa Germano has made a career out of releasing haunting solo albums that showcase her diverse musical skills. From breathy vocals to echoing dance beats, Germano once again reminds us how compelling her understated style can be. Magic Neighbor is the soundtrack to a cabaret for lost souls, the audience serving as ghostly observers to an otherworldly dance.
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast – Bird has released a number of records across several labels, all of which are worth the trouble of tracking down (or, I guess, downloading). On his latest, Bird once again explores a number of styles and is as likely to remind you of early Talking Heads as he is to recall Radiohead. Something of a chameleon, the real Andrew Bird is in there for those willing to look–and you’ll be rewarded for doing so.
Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You – What’s not to love about Lily Allen? She’s got the cutest British accent you could ever imagine and croons lilting 60s-esque pop full of frank lyrics about sex and relationships. The music is instantly catchy, but it’s Allen’s frank ballsiness that sells the experience. A naughty delight.
Iron & Wine – Around the Wall – This two-disc collection of rarities from I&W is a fan’s wet dream. While comprised of many solid songs that measure up well to the band’s album tracks, the styles have enough range that I find this set lacking cohesion. On paper, the notion of Iron & Wine covering New Order’s classic “Love Vigilantes” seems brilliant, yet I found the effort a bit forced. Still, these are minor quibbles and anyone who enjoys this excellent band shouldn’t think twice about picking up this collection. Perhaps I find Around the Wall to be overshadowed by the brilliant…
Gotta Have It
Iron & Wine – Norfolk 06-20-05 – This live set, quietly released in an unassuming sleeve on Record Store Day (if you don’t know about Record Store Day, shame on you!), showcases the band at its most engaging. While the recording itself is not technically the best quality, the warmth of the performance shines through like a beacon. The eighteen songs crammed onto this CD distill the charm of Sam Beam’s work down to a single memorable experience that is not to be missed.
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns – Cute girl singing catchy songs about knights and sword fights? Awesome! I can’t tell you what’s going on in the mind of songwriter Natasha Khan, but I love the unexpected twists and turns of this record. Part Kate Bush, part Cure, all amazing. A deluxe edition was released later in the year, featuring a second disc of live and bonus tracks. Highly recommended, especially for the standout track “Daniel.”
St. Vincent – Actor - Even more of an artsy experiment than the Bat for Lashes album, this disc by the luminescent St. Vincent (singer/songwriter Annie Clark) is evocative and, at the risk of repeating myself, unexpected. But while the Bat for Lashes record stays largely in the realm of the pop song format, Actor constantly keeps you guessing as to what turn will be thrown at you next. This is a close runner-up for my album of the year.
Joe Henry – Blood from Stars – If we’re fortunate, Heaven will turn out to be a shadowy club where the house band plays a steady, thumping groove that encompasses the best of jazz, blues, folk, and pop craftsmanship without falling into any one style. This band will be led by the creaky wail of Joe Henry’s plaintive vocals, making even the loneliest of souls feel a bond of kinship. Blood from Stars is another brilliant addition to Henry’s esteemed catalogue, a gem from one of the greatest songwriters of our time. My album of the year.
On Christmas Day the great Vic Chesnutt passed away in an Athens hospital. Left partially paralyzed by a car accident at age 18, Vic found he could still strum a guitar and released over a dozen albums, two of which were produced by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. A fixture on the Athens scene, Chesnutt’s heartfelt songs spoke of hope in an era of pessimism. He will be greatly missed.