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Albums of the Year: 2009

December 22nd, 2009 7 comments

You can finally exhale: here are my top 20 albums of 2009. Apart from the two top spots, the order is rather random. Ask me in ten minutes’ time, and Grizzly Bear or M. Ward might sit at number 3 and 4. I’ve put sample tracks of each album on a mix; the song titles appear at the end each abstract.

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1. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
I didn’t expect Hawley to top his majestic 2005 album Coles Corner. A profoundly soulful pop symphony with accomplished and unusual instrumentation, Truelove’s Gutter may very well be the best album of the decade.
(Open Up Your Door) Homepage

2. Ben Kweller – Changing Horses
Kweller at last finds his sound (changing horses?) with an outstanding country album that provides an antidote to the corporate side of the genre. An absolute joy.
(Gypsy Rose) Homepage

3. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Wilco are incapable of releasing a bad album. The eponymous album will probably not go down in the band’s history as a classic, but it’s solid quality.
(You And I) Homepage

4. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
It took me a few listens to realise just how good an album this Rick Rubin-produced effort is. Stay-At-Home Indie Pop put it better than I could: “Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love.” But will you still do so when Brandi gets that first clutch of Grammys, Indie-Pop? See if you can guess, without googling, with whom Carlile duets on Caroline.
(Caroline) Homepage

5. Farryl Purkiss – Fruitbats & Crows
The South African singer-songwriter dude returns three years after his excellent full debut with rockier effort. Purkiss draws his influences widely but manages to create his own coherent, late night sound.
(Seraphine) Homepage

6. Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year: Imagine Dylan as an indie artist, but with an appealing voice. There is a bit of an experimental edge to it, which in the wrong mood can be annoying, but exhilarating in the right mood.
(Doomsday) MySpace

7. Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change The World With Music
Released 17 years after it was actually recorded, this is supposed to be Paddy McAloon’s lost masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but a damn good, and very accessible album, on which McAloon is on a bit of a God trip.
(Last Of The Great Romantics) MySpace

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Pitchfork calls the New Pornographer “a force of nature”. Hackneyed turns of phrases, even when they intend to pun on an album title, sometimes are just the most appropriate. Case is so much a force of nature that listening to the album can leave the listener exhausted.
(People Got A Lotta Nerve) Homepage

9. Monsters of Folk – Homework
I should love this. Two Bright Eyes guys, M. Ward and the singer of My Morning Jacket, and a batch of very good songs. It’s a fine album, and yet it fills me with a sense of unease, the same vibe I got from the Travelin’ Wilburys (and one song here sounds like a Wilburys track!). And yet, I keep returning to Homework
(Man Named Truth) Homepage

10. Peasant – On The Ground
This deserved more of a buzz. Nicely crafted guy-with-guitar stuff that recalls Joshua Radin and, yeah, Elliot Smith, with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. A lovely cool-down album.
(Fine Is Fine) MySpace

11. Eels – Hombre Lobo
E offers nothing much new here, but, hey, it’s an Eels album, and does everything you want an Eels album to do. That’s enough for me.
(That Look You Give That Guy) Homepage

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beguiling and frequently surprising. It’s an aural extravaganza. Now, which Ben Folds does Two Weeks borrow its riff from?
(Two Weeks) MySpace

13. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
Indie-Pop may be in love with Brandi Carlile; I declare my (admittedly promiscuous) love for the likewise deceptively named Mindy Smith. Stupid Love, it must be said, is not as breathtaking an album as Mindy’s debut, One Moment More, but it has Mindy’s beautiful voice and pleasant enough songs.
(What Went Wrong) Homepage

14. Bob Evans – Goodnight Bull Creek
I’m a great fan of Evans’ 2006 sophomore album, Suburban Songs. Like that set, Goodnight Bull Creek was recorded in Nashville. Creek lacks the immediately catchy songs of the previous album, but has a much richer, textured production.
(Brother, O Brother) Homepage

15. Jason Paul Johnston – Willows Motel
Solid country, recalling Prine rather than Twitty. And just when I think Johnstone has settled into predictable country mode, he pulls something that makes me think, “What the fuck was that?”
(She’s A Friend) MySpace

16. Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
Again, to quote myself: I am not acquainted with Nadler’s previous effort; apparently it is gloomier than Little Hells. Well, this one isn’t a courtjesters’ convention of heedless madcappery either. It is, however, a beautiful, hypnotic album which draws much of its inspiration from medieval, cloistered sounds.
(Rosary) Homepage.

17. M. Ward – Hold Time
Here Ward draws from the heritage of country and soul, from the Beach Boys and from Spector — the choice of two covers affirm the retro vibe: an excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On, a less than brilliant rendition of Hank Williams’ Oh Lonesome Me (featuring Hank Sr’s namesake Lucinda). The production is polished, the sound a lot more mainstream than previous albums
(Rave On) Homepage

18. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Our Swedish homestudio-bound genius returns with another magical multi-layered chamber-pop epic which is at once orchestral and, largely thanks to the man’s voice, intimate.
(Airport Surroundings) Homepage

19. Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers
I am not a big fan over covers albums. Usually they are self-conscious about doing something “different” with a song, or issue redundant carbon copies. Cover albums work when the performer is idiosyncratic, so unique that he or she need not try to make a song sound differently. Johnny Cash pulled it off; and for the most part Hinson does so here, where he takes on the likes of Sinatra (My Way, the ambitious fucker!), Leadbelly, Holly, Dylan, Beatles and John Denver, armed mostly only with his trusty guitar and croaking voice.
(This Old Guitar) Homepage

20. Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
Pitchfork nailed it when their reviewer called the singer-songwriter  Gibson’s music as “far better suited to a fireplace and a cup of warm apple cider than to your local Starbucks”. Beasts of Seasons is bleak and beautiful.
(Funeral Song) MySpace

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More Albums of the Year

On current rotation – June

June 24th, 2008 1 comment

I’m not sure if 2008 is turning out to be a good year for music or not. A year ago, new releases by Wilco, Rosie Thomas, Bright Eyes and Brandi Carlile had me very excited. Sky Blue Sky turned out to be my album of the year, and I will be listening to it for many years to come. I’m not sure I’ve yet discovered my album of 2008, even though there are some albums I really like. But, none as much as Wilco’s last year. Here are tracks from some of 2008’s albums I’m enjoying very much, to go with the previous rotation, which featured Tift Merrit, whose effort may well be my album of the year so far, with Kathleen Edwards and the Weepies in the mix.

Jay Brennan – At First Sight.mp3
Jay Brennan – Half-Boyfriend.mp3
Jay Brennan – Housewife.mp3 (all three direct download links)
To start off, three tracks from an exciting new artist in the genre of “guys with guitars named like schoolteachers”. The alternative title for the genre would be singer-songwriter, but that has become a bit of a dirty word (unjustly so). I am sharing the above tracks at the invitation of Jay Brannan’s record company, where he is stablemates with the absolutely wonderful Rosie Thomas. And Brannan does channel the Thomas/Damien Jurado/Sufjan Stevens vibe, right down to the engaging lyrics which ask you to pay attention (just listen to Housewife – video here). His debut album, goddamned, will be released on July 1. I’m looking forward to hear more of Brannan’s songs; on evidence of these three songs, it could well be contender for my year-end list.

The Weepies – All Good Things.mp3
The Weepies – Can’t Go Back Now.mp3
I have bigged up the Weepies since I started this blog. The new album, Hideaway, came out in April, and has been on regular rotation ever since I got hold of it. It’s one of those albums I play when I survey my music, and have no idea what I fancy; the default go-to album de jour. The Weepies – Deb Talan and Steve Tannen – have produced a richer sound than previously without straying too far from their acoustic roots. This is a very warm album; I sort of imagine it like having good coffee and freshly baked waffles on a sunny Saturday morning.

Kathleen Edwards – I Make The Dough, You Get The Glory.mp3
I featured Kathleen Edwards (and Deb Talan) in the Songbirds series. So I was really looking forward to her new album, Asking For Flowers. At the first listen, I was a little disappointed. Second, third listen…same. I was about to write off the album when Indie Pop Ian virtually instructed me to give it a few more chances. Seeing as he is a man of refined taste who shares my love for the Songbirds, I did. And, boy, was he right, and I wrong. This is a mesmerising album with fantastic lyrics and a great alt.country bent. Forgive me, Kathleen, for doubting you. Come December, this may well be in the top 3 of my albums of the year.

Weezer – Heart Songs.mp3
Some say Weezer are living off the greatness of two albums they made in the ’90s. I think that’s a little harsh. The last set was, in my view, pretty good (Perfect Situation is a top notch song). So I approached the new album with hope, and some trepidation. Because Weezer albums can be quite poor, too. The new album, nicknamed the Red Album, falls in between the two extremes. There are a few tracks that beg to be skipped, and others that are a joy. I particularly like Heart Songs, in which Rivers Cuomo tabulates all the artists who influenced him, from childhood to stardom: Gordon Lightfoot, Eddie Rabbitt, Springsteen, Grover Washington, Abba, Devo, Quiet Riot, Judas Priest and so on – though I think he might be confusing Debbie Gibson with Tiffany…

Death Cab For Cutie – Talking Bird.mp3
And yet another album I had been looking forward to. I was gratified to read The Quietus giving it a positive review (more surprisingly, The Quietus didn’t rip the new Coldplay album to shreds, as I had expected and, indeed, hoped). Death Cabs’ Narrow Stairs is a fine, richly textured album which rewards repeated listens. It satisfies my occasional desire for a Death Cab fix – for now. The rub is this: Narrow Stairs does not have the stand-out tracks of 2005’s Plans (I’ll Follow You Into The Dark, Soul Meets Body), and as an Indie symphony does not quite reach 2002’s Transatlanticism‘s lofty level. So I wonder if in, say, three years time, I will listen to Narrow Stairs instead of these two albums (or, indeed, some of the earlier ones, such as We Have the Facts And We’re Voting Yes from 2000). Maybe it’s too early to say: I will continue to play Narrow Stairs in the hope that it will lodge itself permanently in my head. It just might.

Neil Diamond – Act Like A Man.mp3
Micah P. Hinson – Throw The Stone.mp3
I played this album with Any Minor Dude sitting next to me (playing a football manager game). He looked up from guiding Manchester United to greater glories and pointed out that he liked what he was hearing: Micah P. Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra (Any Minor Dude also endorsed Jay Brannan, by the way). Sounds like Johnny Cash, he said. And he is quite right, of course. In fact, throw in Nick Cave and Steve Earle, and you have Hinson’s sound. The album is coming out in mid-July, so I trust that the buzz is going to build. This album deserves it.