Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jeff M.'s Top Picks for 2009

Yikes, did you guys see Zak call out Master Shake on his top 2009 picks? Kind sir, do I have what it takes to make sense of the year musically? After all, I am a musician. OK, a drummer... but that counts, right?

My Favorite 10 Albums of 2009

1. White Rabbits - It's Frightening.
Like I said, I'm a drummer, so I suppose I'm predictably drawn to a band with two drummers. But that's not the only thing that kept me coming back to this album all year -- there's also wonderful piano thronks, flanged out acoustic guitars, and snippets of studio talkback throughout (thanks to Spoon's Britt Daniel, who was behind the boards). The choice of instrumentation and mix allow each musical voice the space to breathe -- on its own, as well as be part of the larger whole. Leadoff track "Percussion Gun" is instantly likeable due to its insistent drumbeat and spare minor piano chords, but it's the subtle thrill of songs like "Lionesse" that put the icing on the cake. The song is completely unpredictable, owing to its unstructured, likely spur-of-the-moment jamminess, and if you listen on headphones, you can hear one of the musicians mutter at the end, "I hope that got on tape." (Thanks to Britt, it did).

2. Dodos - Time to Die
This one took a while to grow on me, but once it did, I couldn't stop playing it. Dodos added a vibraphone to their spartan drums/guitar duo, but like with the White Rabbits album, there's still plenty of space for the music to breathe. This is a tight band that plays with finesse and never shows off. The guitar strums occasionally, but is usually a jumbled melody of picked notes, while the drummer lets his floor tom do the talking and wisely keeps away from his cymbals. My favorite track, "Fables" rides on a drumbeat that switches from a reggaeton shuffle to a West African sway and is probably the only song I spontaneously sang along with this year, EVERY TIME: "I don't want to go in the fire / I just want to stay in my home."

3. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Back in the day (Feb. 2008), Master Shake and I went to see No Kids open for Dirty Projectors at the Black Cat. At the time, Dirty Projectors were bashing their way through their recently-released Black Flag covers album, and despite us (ok, me) digging the art-geek idea of covering an entire album from memory, something just didn't sit right with either of us. We left after three songs. Cut to this summmer, when I found out the Projectors were opening for TV on the Radio, one of my favorites. I went in with an open mind, and I'm glad I did. The bashing was still there, courtesy of their drummer, whose style is at once heavy handed and syncopated, like John Stanier from Battles. But it's what floats on top that makes this band special: squiggly guitar lines, (dare I say it?) funky basslines, a dash of keyboard, a flannel shirt, cutoffs, a couple of scrunchies, and four, count 'em, four vocalists, whose voices and vocal parts mesh together excellently. "Stillness Is the Move" is one of the best songs of the year.

4. Future of the Left - Travels with Myself and Another
Future of the Left's last album, 2007's Curses, was so fantastic that I wondered how they could possibly follow it up. Travels With Myself and Another finds FOTL writing a leaner, edgier album with fewer quiet-time tracks (there's nothing approaching "The Contrarian" or "The Big Wide O," for example). David Malitz of the Washington Post sums the album up better than I can (for the record, I had written some blather about "weapons grade songs"... seems this band inspires combat metaphors): "Guitars like knives, lyrics like daggers and a rhythm section that pounds with the ferocity and speed of a rapidfire machine gun. The Welsh trio is at once terrifying and hilarious; no other band is this loud, clever and catchy." 2 Tru! Standout tracks: "Arming Eritrea," "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You," "Drink Nike."

5. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I don't care how many movies and cars and diapers these songs hawked in 2009, or how popular this band and this album became. I only care that "Lisztomania" and "1901" were the best one-two album-opening punch I heard all year. Well, I also care to say that I love how so many of these songs end without a downbeat to finish them off, they just vanish into thin air, making me want to put them on repeat. FYI, in some countries, it is a crime not to own Phoenix's previous album, 2007's It's Never Been Like That.

6. Japandroids - Post-Nothing
To write a good song, do you need to write complicated guitar parts with more than three chords? Do you need to nail all your drum fills? Do you need to sing well? No, no, and no. You just need to play and sing like your life depends on it. And a garage and some gear, but that's beside the point. Japandroids give it their all on every song. The result is a supremely fun album. Top track: "Young Hearts Spark Fire." I like to think that when the duo plays it live, they hit all the starts and stops without looking at each other, ESP-style.

7. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns
Initially, it was hard for me to get through this album because the opening track, "Glass," is that good. I put it on repeat maybe 10 times before letting the rest of the album unfold. Welcome to her Otherworld.

8. Basement Jaxx - Scars
Quoth Master Shake: "Basement Jaxx?!?!?! You mean WHERRRRRRRE'S YOURRRRR HEADDDD ATTTT Basement Jaxx???" Yes, that Basement Jaxx. I've never really been a fan of these guys, but I checked out this album on a whim and was pleasantly surprised. All the guest appearances flow so well together, it's kind of unbelievable. The first half of the record is all hits, spanning multiple musical genres, sometimes within one song.

9. Cex - Bataille Royale
I almost slept on this one too since I hadn't looked Cex up since 2003 or so. On this album, Cex dropped the rapping and focused on what he does best: program ridiculously good beats. This is Baltimore Club. As played by robots. On the moon. Also, the robots are having sex.

10. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
I have been guilty of sleeping on YLT in the past, and was shown up for it by their last album, 2006's fantastic I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. Here, Yo La Tengo are comfortable and having a blast. They're playing around with you. When I first listened to this album, sometime during the third song, I wondered, "Do Yo La Tengo still write those fast, buzzy songs like "Sugarcube" and "Cherry Chapstick"?" Track 4, you betcha ("Nothing to Hide"). The opening to "If It's True" is so unabashedly identical to "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" that you realize, they're not calling it Popular Songs for nothing.

Just Missed the Cut

Neko Case - Middle Cyclones
Oh, Neko. You're always there for me with your fantastic voice, your crazy-good backing band, and your nature worship.

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
The tag everyone likes to hang on these guys is "boring." And even though my attention wavered during the middle of this album, second track "Two Weeks" and album closer "Foreground" were two of my favorite songs of the year.

Mount Eerie - Wind's Poem
A wonderful nature poem set to music ranging from black metal ("Wind's Dark Poem") to quotes from the Twin Peaks theme ("Between Two Mysteries").

Tim Hecker - An Imaginary Country

I'm Pretty Sure These Albums Would Be On My Best-of List If I Spent Some More Time With Them

xx - xx

Wye Oak - The Knot

Great Songs of 2009 from Other Albums

Riceboy Sleeps - "Happiness"
Ty Segall - "Die Tonight"
Metric - "Help I'm Alive"
Animal Collective - "My Girls"
Thom Yorke - "Hearing Damage"
Telekinesis! - "Coast of Carolina"
Fuck Buttons - "Surf Solar"
Lily Allen - "The Fear (Son of Vader Nitemair Remix)"
The National - "So Far Around the Bend"
Kevin Drew - "Love vs. Porn"
The Big Pink - "Dominos"
Atlas Sound - "Walkabout"
Cut Off Your Hands - "Turn Cold"
Mount Kimbie - "Maybes"

Best Live Shows I Attended in 2009
Run for Cover @ Black Cat (August 1)

Glenn Kotche (of Wilco) with Bang on a Can All Stars @ University of Maryland (March 29)

T.V. on the Radio & Dirty Projectors @ 9:30 Club (June 8)

Wye Oak @ The Black Cat (December 27)

Future of the Left @ Rock N Roll Hotel (October 29)

Des Ark & Trophy Wife @ DC Mini Gallery (June 18)

Space Tigers @ Velvet Lounge (June 14)

Sonic Youth @ 9:30 Club (July 6)

Best Book About Music I Read This Year
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records by John Cook, Mac McCaughan, and Laura Ballance
-- When I read it, I felt like I was catching up with old friends. And they made me a scrapbook with pictures, torn setlists, and broken guitar picks. In other words, a cool scrapbook.

Best Band, Album, or Music Book from the Past That I Discovered This Year

Low - "Violent Past"
-- via my brother from another mother, Dennis.

Robert Fripp and Brian Eno - No Pussyfooting.
-- Remastered, slo-mo'ed, reversed, chopped, screwed, and what have you. Headphones are your friend. This was like the year of Brian Eno for me.

Robert Wyatt - Comicopera
The Undertones - "Teenage Kicks"
-- I have John Peel to thank for these two. RIP big guy.

Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus
-- on the back of the book, Malcolm McLaren claims it is "crazy, wild, at times almost inarticulate." And he's right. But Mr. Marcus' enthusiasm and ambition in weaving together a mixtape of his favorite music, art, and political movements from the 20th century is plenty enough to win me over.


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