Friday, January 01, 2010

10 Albums of and Around 2009

Ok, so looking back over the dates in my blog it's been about 3 months since my last post, which probably means my readership is toast. One of my new years resolutions (same as last year's) will be to post a little more regularly on here. More on that with my next post (a year in review).

Last year I did a "10 albums that rocked me during 2008" post that you can read by clicking here. So, I figure an inaugural post for the new decade covering the new music that rocked me through 2009 would be good. As I said last year, these albums didn't necessarily come out during 2009 (though many of them did), and, except for my album of the year, are in no particular order.

First off here are a few statistics for the number crunchers. Of the ten albums, eight are from 2009. One is from 2008 and one is from 2007. Four of the 10 different artists are returners from last years list. The ten albums have a total of 127 songs, which equates to about 7.8 hours of music. And with that, on to the albums.

Kicking off with an artist who appeared here last year, Regina Spektor came back strong with her first new release since 2006 (unless of course you count the wasted and phoned in "You Don't Know Me" on Ben Folds's 2008, "Way to Normal"). Far is, in my opinion, her best album to date. From the first few seconds of its strong opening track, "The Calculation" through to the very end "Man of a Thousand Faces," the one strength that stands out above all the rest is the recording. For my ears, this is one of the most perfectly mixed sonic recordings I've ever heard. Each instrument and vocal is clear and crisp and can be picked out while not overpowering the appropriate mix. Standing at the forefront of this album in my opinion, and what would've definitely made a better closing track than the actual album closer is "One More Time With Feeling."

One of the most important part of my writing processes, one that is hotly debated by writers as a strenght or a detriment to the writing process, is a good soundtrack. Ask a dozen authors and you'll get one of two answers: "I can't write without music," or "I can't write with music." A good soundtrack is essential for me. The two major artists that put me in the mood while writing the Rider during the last year both put out new albums during 2009, and both have made the list.

The first of these two bands is Pilot Speed. Their album, "Into the West" was (like much of my music) a random discovery on my iPod. With hints of U2 and Coldplay filtered through a more "indie" sound, their heartwrenching crescendoing compositions became the voice of the bleak arid world that Edmund is riding his motorcycle across. So when a month back I discovered their third quarter release Wooden Bones I was expecting more of the same. What I got was nothing at all like that, and it was freaking great! Still building and layering, their sound has become harder, and Todd Clark's voice more mature. For my money, nothing beats the strong opening track, "Put the Phone Down," but I can't get away without mentioning the way the title track, "Wooden Bones," opens up about halfway through into a soaring epic.

The second band ironically took the exact opposite approach. Paring away the huge string sections and the wall of sound effects, Sleeping At Last has instead taken their introspective and poetic lyrics and let its quiet ruminations on faith, life, and love infect the music with a stripped away simplicity that hides a mature intricacy. Storyboards shows the band's range and their ability to create a truly intimate experience with their sound. I would be lying if I didn't say that I found their 2003 release, Ghosts, a better album overall. That album, more than any other, defined the Rider for me (as can be seen with each song having a playcount well into the triple digits), but Storyboards does come strong and will no doubt grow with my in the coming year. Check out Clockwork from that album.

I Monster was sort of the trojan horse of my music collection. A few years back, Duke put them on my computer, and made me put them on my iPod with the promise that I'd listen to them soon. "Sure, sure," I said until he let it drop, and I probably did listen to it at the time. Or, at the very least, I turned it on and let it play. Whether or not I did, I couldn't remember ever hearing it and enjoying it, but for some reason, it stayed on my iPod. Then, at some point back around August or September I was feeling sort of stagnant with the music I'd been listening to and flipped to a random artist. It was, of course, I Monster, and their 2003 release, Neveroddoreven. It was great! It stayed at the front of my listening for a week, accompanying me as I made my twice a week trips to and from Ann Arbor for class. Of course, not much after, the first thing I did was seek out more of their music. By coincedence or otherwise, when I went hunting for them, happened to be the same week that A Dense Swarm of Ancient Stars was released, and what I'd enjoyed in their first album was exponentially increased with their sophomore release six years later. Bending genres like a rolled over semi truck bending fenders across an eight lane highway, I Monster is something like psychadellia, and something like electronica, and something like what lounge music might sound like if Bosch, Dali, and Dr. Seuss had a morbid bastard child lounge singer with a huge libido. Picking a track off this album is tough, but I'll go with my first love and tell you to check out "Dear John." This album almost took the album of the year position.

Mike Doughty is an artist very near and dear to my heart. He's also one of those artists who releases shorter albums more frequently, so last year his 2008 release, Golden Delicious, made my list. He's back with Sad Man, Happy Man, an album that at once feels more akin to his early solo record Skittish, but benefits from the production values of his later albums. The compositions here are more spoken word acoustic rap than before, but his joy of chorus's repeated ad nauseum are not gone. I can't get the drums and driving sound of "Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On" out of my head.

One of the two albums not released this year that are making it onto my list is Angels and Airwaves' sophomore release, I-Empire. Knowing that they are band members from Blink 182, The Offspring, and 30 Seconds to Mars, would've been an immediate turnoff for me, but thankfully I was nowhere near a computer when I first heard the album. Like Sleeping At Last, and artists that made last year's list (Coldplay and Snow Patrol), Angels and Airwaves hits you with an epic anthemic wall of sound, sweeping string sections, and balls to the wall driving intensity. Their guitars ape U2 at its biggest, and their lyrics all bleed with craving and intensity. I eagerly await their 2010 release Love, and the accompanying movie. Secret Crowds is the song to check out.

Another returning band from last year's list is The Panderers. Where many of the previous artists rely on chorus pedals and synth fill to bolster their sound and fill them out to a broad sweeping size, the Panderers do the exact opposite, stripping away everything until you have a clean electric guitar, thumping plucked bass, and a drumset that probably has a snare, a tom, a ride cymbal, a high-hat, and a kick, and nothing else. These guys are in your face with simplicity and catchiness that can't be matched. Their first major label release, Mucho Diggo, has a plain stripped away southern rock feel. The kind of music that makes you feel like a badass listening to it. The closing track, The Prison Song, is the one to check out, sounding like something Johnny Cash forgot to record.

Back at the start of the year Zach (guitarist of Ambush of Tigers) introduced me to the band School of Seven Bells. This trio (made up of a skinny guy and two attractive twins) is an electronica group hailing from New York. Their freshman release, Alpinisms, is a fun electronica album with ethereal synths and driving beats. Check out "Face to Face on High Places."

These last two albums presented a challenge for me. Both have been huge on my playlist this last year since I found them, and both are deserving of album of the year, but after much deliberation I've picked one (not wanting to cop out).

The runner up was an end of the summer discovery. Duke got it from his work, and, on the night James left to meet Zach and the rest of Ambush of Tigers out in Portland, we drove around and listened to the entire thing. Owl City is the insomnia-induced project of Adam Young. With its catchy pop hooks, and tight electronic instrumentation, Owl City's third album, Ocean Eyes is their best yet. When we heard it, all three of us (Duke James and I) knew that we were hearing the long sought after second coming of the Postal Service. After a bunch more listens, I can't necessarily say that it was as groundbreaking or generation defining, but the album is above all else, damn good and freaking catchy. By this point everyone knows their single, "Fireflies," but if that's all you've heard, it's just scratching the surface of this album. Veering wildly from its roots in the Postal Service to 80s New Wave and synthpop and 90s dance electronica, Owl City is able to do it all with a mostly straight faced. It's also the only band that could get away with terribly punny lyrics like "I've been to the dentist a thousand times, so I know the drill," and other great zingers. This entire album is great, and that's why it gets the number 2 slot, but the track that really stole my heart was "On the Wing." Make sure to check out his other 2 albums under the moniker Owl City, their quality is just as good as Ocean Eyes.

The Album of the year slot for me was, as I said, a really tough decision. Hell, the ten albums of the year was hard enough (I had 15 on the list when I started this post). But after a lot of thinking, and polling friends, I finally picked one. Returning from last year's ten list, with their newly released Act III: Life and Death, Casey Crescenzo's solo project, The Dear Hunter has managed to take a stonking great project and move it another step further along. Act I gave us their sound, heavily produced, intricately layered, and utterly shameless. Act II showed us their range, veering from harmonies that would sound at home on a Boys2Men album, to tango, to the emo-rock of "Red Hands." Critics of Act II decried the variation as too schizophrenic, unfocused. With Act III, the Dear Hunter takes the range and breadth of Act II, and puts forth a unified and maturing sound. The story takes our hero, The Dear Hunter, and sends him off to war in a situation that is like the worst nightmare of the Great War's western front. The album takes us to the midpoint of the six album cycle, and with its release came the announcement of an even more ambitious nine album project based off the seven colors, bookended by a black and white album. Casey Crescenzo is, as far as I can tell, certifiably insane with work, but his output has been constantly good, and he's not disappointed us with delays or wanderiness (here's looking at you Sufjan). I'm eagerly awaiting his next album. Everything on this album is pure gold. Perfect Production mixes, great lyrics, and gorgeous sound. But to pick one that really took the album and made it stick, I'd have to go with "The Tank."

So those are the ten new albums that got me through 2009, and will stick with me for years to come. Others that didn't make the list included Passion Pit's "Manners," Bon Iver's "For Emma, Forever Ago," Styrofoam's "A Thousand Words," Ben Folds' "Way to Normal," and the bizarre Beatle's solo projects mashup pretending to be the new beatles album from an alternate universe, "Everyday Chemistry."

Next up I'll do a recap of 2009 (with pictures) and a sneak peek of things to come in 2010. Thanks for sticking with me.

(note: all images are copyright of their respective whatevers, and are used without permission...if this pisses you off in some way, let me know, and I'll pull em)