Monday, December 28, 2009

The Top 20 of 2009 (with videos)

Physical State: chilly
Mental State: spacey
Music: Ulrich Schnauss - Far Away Trains Passing By
Fashion sense: jeans, polar fleece

As is the custom on a lot of blogs, in magazines and in the newspapers this time of year, here are 20 releases that made a difference to me in 2009. I have included links to youtube videos for the standout tracks below to add another element to this year-end list (in no particular order). Enjoy!

01. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest - Two Weeks

The Brooklyn quartet signed to the mostly electronic label Warp are back again with an amazing follow-up to their spectacular Yellow House. Veckatimest builds on their previous experimentation with vocal pop structures, intricate and sophisticated instrumentation and the whole history of music it seems but much bigger this time. Beautiful musical swells and a unique vocal choruses made this an easy choice for the top 20, if not my album of the year.

02. Atlas Sound - Logos - Walkabout

The ringleader of Atlanta marvels Deerhunter, Bradford Cox may be one of the most prolific guys in indie-rock these days. His constant experimenting with kaleidoscopic sound collages, electro-acoustic melodies and voice layers ensures that Atlas Sound, his solo side project, continues his domination of the sub genre of space folk on experimental Chicago label Kranky. Walkabout with Noah Lennox of Animal Collective was easily one of the best tracks on the album.

03. Ohbijou - Beacons - New Years

The band that holds court at the centre of the Bellwoods indie-rock community blew up in a large way this year for me with Beacons. The sweet overlapping vocals of sisters Casey and Jenny Mecija, always the beating heart of Ohbijou, are now surrounded by incredible orchestrations and a band that seem to have finally hit their stride. We’ll be hearing from them come Polaris nomination time, my prediction.

04. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster - Cool Yourself

San Francisco by-way-of Washington DC songstress Thao Nguyen turns in her second album for the mighty Kill Rock Stars. As a trio now, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down boys have done a lot of touring with the success of their previous We Brave Bee Stings and All and that time spent together has paid off. This spirit of improvisation and performance has driven them into a totally different stratosphere in my opinion. True entertainers, in a live setting they were amazingly consistent and energetic.

05. Girls - Album - Laura

The San Francisco duo of Chris Owens and Chet White live in that neat area where Elvis Costello, Buddy Holly and The Rock*A*Teens could share a couple of drinks at the local smoky tavern. The greasy pop of Girls owes as much to Memphis, TN and Sun Records as it does to the rougher-hewn 45s of early Beach Boys and the immediacy of New York punks The Ramones.

06. Sonic Youth - The Eternal - Sacred Trickster

The godfathers of the New York no-wave/noise scene for 30 years are back once again with a new home Matador who seem to have given them carte-blanche. Not since Daydream Nation and Goo have they been this great in my opinion. Lee Renaldo faces off against Thurston Moore in guitar improvs while the thundering backbone of Steve Shelley’s drumming is always on point. A true return to ass-kicking form.

07. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs - Nothing To Hide

Anyone who knows me well knows there’s always a spot for Yo La Tengo in any year-end best of or desert island disc. The Hoboken, NJ trio just continue to set the bar high and have since the ’80s. Ira Kaplan has fully embraced the spacey organ à la Air and Stereolab pitted against bubblegum soul and straight-ahead rockers like this one Nothing To Hide. Their musical canon continues to be one of the most dynamic expressions in indie-rock.

08. The Thermals - Now We Can See - Now We Can See

Portland, Oregon’s power couple Hutch and Kathy, now on Kill Rock Stars, turned in one of the best of their career so far. Here they channel the classic sound of Pixies and Buzzcocks while Hutch continues to sound like a over-caffeinated John Darnielle.

09. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - s/t - Young Adult Friction

This NY quartet seemed to come out of nowhere to unleash one of the most dynamic debuts by an indie-pop band. Marrying the classic sounds of C86, Sarah Records and the jangle of The Smiths with a new slant on a poppy shoegazer sound straight out of a John Hughes movie (RIP John), they were easily a top choice.

10. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career - French Navy

Tracey-Anne Campbell still has the bubblegum pop revival scene cornered along with her Scottish cohorts yet again this year. Their sweet melodies and melancholy orchestrations from the British 60s and Spector are out in full force this time out.

11. Friendly Fires - s/t - Photobooth

This St. Albans, UK trio were one of the funkiest dance-punk parties out there in music this year and this debut garnered them a spot on the coveted Mercury Prize shortlist. Photobooth was the single that started it all off as an ep before they recorded this very danceable full-length. Originally released in the UK in 2008, their debut this was re-released in North America this past summer with extra tracks.

12. The xx - xx - Crystalised

What were you doing at the age of 20? Picking up beers and getting blotto with your buds? Easing into university with no real purpose? Well this London quartet (now a trio) were hard at work recording a collection of dark moody indie-rock with smart beats that belies their young age. An interesting vocal trade off between Romi Madley Croft and Oliver Sim also made this debut quite remarkable to me.

13. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns - Pearl’s Dream

Natasha Khan grew by leaps and bounds on this sophomore release building on her layered mystical sound only hinted at before on the previous Fur and Gold. At times it felt like an interesting moody hybrid of Cat Power, Bjork and especially Kate Bush on this standout track on the album, Pearl’s Dream. Mercury prize winner?

14. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone - People Got A Lotta Nerve

What can you say about Neko except that she has one of the greatest voices in rock and while she cut her teeth in alt-country in the early days, on Middle Cyclone she has transcended her humble beginnings to create a beautiful pop record. The dense production and complexity here from Neko in 2009 is some of her best work yet.

15. Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels - Pulling On A Line

After many years Tony Dekker has finally reached the apex of his career with a solid backing band, a move to Nettwerk and a distinct vocal confidence after many live shows. Once a solo troubadour, he’s now the ringleader of a strong and dynamic ensemble of classic musicians that frame his sensitive and heartfelt songs.

16. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle - Jim Cain (live in-store solo performance, Used Kid Records)

Now dropping the Smog moniker Bill Callahan has moved from his simple sparse lo-fi of Julius Caesar to lush orchestrations and big production many albums later. The sound is epic now but at the heart there are still the trademarks that have made Bill one of my faves of all time: that dark baritone and incredible songwriting.

17. Timber Timbre - s/t - Demon Host

Taylor Kirk of Brooklin, ON sounds like he comes from the swamps of the Deep South or spooky Appalachia circa 1930. Alan Lomax would have liked to have met this guy. This was released in 2009, believe it, its true. This guy is way out there man!

18. The Antlers - Hospice - Kettering

This concept album from the inventive Brooklyn trio tells the “fictional” story of a man lamenting the slow decline of a partner to bone cancer. Pete Silberman wrote the album over a two year self-imposed exile. One of the most moving and poignant cds of the year.

19. Mono - Hymn To The Immortal Wind - Follow the Map

This epic instrumental album from Japan’s Mono is their most ambitious work ever. Teaming up with a 28 piece chamber orchestra and the skillful hand of Steve Albini, this was a beautiful film for the ears that I kept coming back to all the time.

20. Chihei Hatakeyama - Saunter - A Stone Inside The Box (no video)

I discovered this Japanese electroacoustic artist’s debut Minima Moralia earlier this year and greatly anticipated this follow-up. Built of layered and processed guitar, this might be the most beautiful organic ambient work on Kranky in years.

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