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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

My Top 50 Albums of 2009

My Top 50 Albums of 2009

After a month of relistening to records and shuffling the order more times than I'd like to admit, here's my final list of favorite albums of 2009.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti)
- As with Fox Confessor (my favorite album of 2006), Neko brings so much into this album it's hard to label or even adequately describe. There's a cinematic quality to her songs , and the multi-layered arrangements are crammed with ideas both bold and subtle. Many listens later I was still discovering little music tidbits and lyrical twists. I don't always know exactly what she's singing about, but I love sound of her words and the images she conjures up. And she has one of the finest voices I've ever heard, which makes listening to just about anything she does a treat.
- “This Tornado Loves You” on Letterman
- “People Got A Lotta Nerve” video

2. Madness - the Liberty of Norton Folgate (Yep Roc)
- The original line-up returns for their first album of original material in a decade, and it might be the most consistent album of their career. This is classic British pop in the tradition of Keep Moving (1984) and Mad Not Mad (1985). It’s more mature than their earlier manic ska, but still quite fun and full of sing-along choruses. While many of the songs will one day sit comfortably along singles from their hey-day on a hits comp, they work best listened to as a whole album. That way you can appreciate how they build on each other and how well the album is paced. It’s great to have Madness back and is such fine form.
- "Dust Devil" video
- album sampler

3. Coconut Records - Davy (Young Baby)
- This is the second album from Jason Schwartzman's one-man pop project. The songs are relaxed, expertly crafted pop numbers with an almost sublime beauty. At times there's a slightly melancholy Elliot Smith vibe, but more often his style seems more influenced by mid 60's radio pop. The record is a little quirky, but he takes his music serious enough to never seem like a throw-away side project. When this came out I was worried this would be a record I'd tire of due to overexposure, but sadly it seems to be one of 2009's lost gems.
-"Microphone" video
-"Any Fun" video

4. AC Newman - Get Guilty (Matador)
- On his second solo album Carl Newman doesn't deviate much from what's he's been doing with New Pornographers, except ere he has a bit more latitude to make the arrangements quirkier and the instrumentation just a little more eclectic. Newman takes a classic power pop songwriting base and rebuilds the songs into something much more interesting, but he never sacrifices catchiness. It isn't as instant as some of his other work, but its charm builds with repeated listens thanks to his skill as both a songwriter and a performer.
-"Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer" DUMBO session

5. Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 - Goodnight Oslo (Yep Roc)
- This is the most straight forward batch of songs Robyn has had in...well...maybe ever. His songwriting seems sharper and more focused here, and his eccentric playfulness adds to songs this time, rather than detract from his mastery of melodies. I love when Robyn get's weird, but sometimes it can be a bit much, so I’m glad to see him focusing on the songs more. He sounds relaxed and very natural, and his voice is in grand form. And it’s all punctuated by his backing band, the Venus 3, which includes Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey. It's been a long time since a Robyn Hitchcock album has excited me this much, and it’s reminded me why he was such an important artist for me in the 80's and 90's.
- "I'm Falling" video

6. the Krayolas - Long Leaf Pine (No Smack Gum) (Box Records/Talking Taco Music)
- This San Antonio band is equal parts Tex-Mex and Mersey Beat, with a little bit of ZZ Top, Mike Nesmith, and an Americana twist on Badfinger thrown into the mix. All of the playing is top notch, and many of thee songs are complimented by a killer horn section. Almost any time a song from this album comes up on shuffle I end up playing the whole album. I have no idea why this wasn't one of the much buzzed records of 2009.

7. Milk and Honey Band - Dog Eared Moonlight (Ape Records)
- Lush, pastoral pop with shimmering guitars and rich harmonies from Andy Partridge's Ape Records. The songs are intricately crafted with beautiful multi-layered melodies. They're from Brighton, but their sound at times has an Americana-via-British folk-and-pop vibe to it. Occasionally they build up an epic Coldplay feel, but they never lose any of the intimacy that makes the record so special. The album unfolds effortlessly, with each song gently adding another element to their sound, and has become a late night headphones favorite.
-"Waste of Time" video
- "Just You" video

8. VV Brown - Traveling Like the Light (Island UK - coming out on Capitol in 2010)
- The debut album from UK soul/pop singer V.V. Brown was probably my most played album of the Summer and is still a staple on my MP3 player. She genre jumps and throws in an eclectic mix of influences, but this is basically a poppy R&B dance party record. On the surface this could be mistaken for a no-brainer radio friendly pop record, but the arrangements are smarter than that and songwriting chances are taken that payoff big. The songs are instantly likable, backed with infectious rhythms and slightly quirky melodies. It’s hard to pigeonhole VV, but the UK press seems to think she fits into the neo-soul revival. She did tour with the Ting Tings in the UK, and that is a good match that gives you an idea of how wide reaching her sound is. This record has a 2009 vs. 2010 dilemma for me, since it's coming out in the US in early 2010, but I’ve already played it way too many times to wait for next year’s list.
-"Shark in the Water" video
-"Crying Blood" video

9. the Leftovers - Eager to Please (Oglio)
- This is classic big hook power pop with a high energy punk pop kick and one of 2009's most fun records. I hear early Beatles, Material Issue, the Ramones, Velvet Crush, and the Buzzcocks and a bit of supercharged bubblegum. This is driving-fast-with-the-top-down Summer music that screams to be played loud and often. The Portland Maine band gets help from producer Linus of Hollywood and members of the Muffs, the Donnas, the Romantics and the Rubinoos.
- "Telephone Operator" video
- "Dance With Me" video

10. Duckworth Lewis Method - the Duckworth Lewis Method (1969 Records)
- This quirky Irish band features Neil Hannon (the Divine Comedy) and Thomas Walsh (Pugwash) and their debut album is entirely about the sport of cricket. The band is even named after a somewhat controversial mathematical cricket score keeping method. This record is delightfully fun and distinctly British - all with a great sense of melody and some fantastic harmonies. I hear bits of the Kinks, later XTC, and the pseudo music-hall style that so many UK artists in the 60's experimented with. It might look like a kooky novelty record based on the review, but it really is a pop album in the classic British tradition. This marks the second year in a row that a concept album about a sport made my year end list (last year it was the Baseball Project featuring Steve Wynn - perhaps next year it'll be a record about table tennis).
- "Meeting Mr. Miandad" video

11. Sonic Youth - The Eternal (Matador)
- For their 16th album Sonic Youth has made a pastiche of their entire career in one album. There's lots of guitar noise, art-punk dissonance, and occasionally meandering distortion filled jams with some outright ferocious playing. For all of the art rock noise and sonic experimentation though, they almost never lose sight of the catchy pop hooks the songs are built around. This album has some of their most intriguing ideas in years and maybe their best playing ever. A few years ago I saw them play Daydream Nation in it's entirety, which was very cool, but I think I'd prefer to see them do this album live all the way through.
-"Sacred Trickster" video
-performing "Antenna" on Jools Holland

12. Brendan Benson - My Old, Familiar Friend (ATO)
- Fourth solo album from Brendan, featuring more expertly crafted power pop that proves he's one of the best artists currently making records in the genre. Brendan pulls in countless references from fifty years of pop and rock and effortlessly melds them into very memorable songs that sound like one else.

13. Franz Ferdinand - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (Sony/Domino)
- For album number three FF deliver a slightly less interesting version of their first two records, which still puts them ahead of most bands that put out records in 2009. Their angular post-punk pop formula still works for me, and they tweak it just enough to keep it interesting. This time around they inject a bit more dance rhythm and let the songs stretch out a bit, but they never really let loose.
-"Ulysses" video
-"No You Girls" video

14. Lee Fields and the Expressions - My World (Truth & Soul)
- A stunningly great old school soul album in the tradition of Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, and a cross section of many of my favorite Stax and Philly International singles. Whether it be the lush ballads or the funkier soul grooves, Lee sings about heartbreak with an intensity seldom heard these days. I really didn't know anybody could still make a record like this in 2009. I feel sort of bad that he’s been making records for 40 years and I'm just discovering him now.
-NPR Piece

15. John Wesley Harding - Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (Rebel Group)
- Recorded with the Minus Five (featuring Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck), this is one of the strongest albums in his already rich catalog. Of course the lyrics are fantastically clever, funny, and insightful - Wes is one of the best lyricists out there - but the music is the sharpest and most immediate he's done in a while. His roots as a folk artist are still there, but the focus is more on the band dynamic, and he’s made a great jangley pop record that highlights his charming personality. If he comes to your town make sure you see him - I saw him this Summer and it's one of best shows I've seen in a long time.
- an acoustic version of "Top of the Bottom"

16. Placebo - Battle for the Sun (Vagrant)
- I’ll admit I'm not very objective on Placebo since I love the feel of their albums and am a fan of everything they've done. I've grown to like Brian Molko's nasally warble and I'm a sucker for their brand of guitar driven alterna-glam. They brought in Tool’s producer to give the record a bit of a kick, but it’s not really any more powerful than the last few records. As usual, there’s a lot sharp guitar, a strong rhythm section, and arena ready bombast with ambiguous lyrics and an eerie quality lurking just below the surface.
-"Battle for the Sun" video
-"Never Ending Why" video

17. Morrissey - Years Of Refusal (Lost Highway)
- This is the most powerful Morrissey album since Your Arsenal back in 92. Here's an even more exaggerated version of Morrissey, with big guitars, driving rhythms, and his over-the-top dramatic flair in both lyrics and vocals. At times Morrissey can sound like he's forcing the character he's created, but on this record he seems perfectly at home. It's a cynical, angry, and occasionally very nasty home - but he wears it well.

18. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note)
- This might be one of the easiest-to-like albums of the year. It's so damn pleasant that it's not hard to see why advertisers and TV producers keep coming back for more. It's danceable pop music with a slick sheen, but it also has some fantastic guitar lines and some of the year's best synth riffs. After a few promising albums they pulled it all together for this fourth album and are overdue for some adulation.
-"Lisztomania" video
-"1901" on Letterman

19. Peter Holsapple & Chris Stamey - Here and Now (Bar None)
- The long awaited follow up (17 years!!!) to their first post dB's collaboration, "Here and Now" highlights the chemistry that apparently never went away. As with Mavericks, most of the material is gentle pop with gorgeous harmonies and relaxed melodies. Just hearing them sing together again is a treat, and whets my appetite for the rumored dBs album in the works.
-snippets of Peter and Chris performing new and old songs in Summer 2009

20. Show of Hands - Arrogance Ignorance and Greed (Hands On Music)
- 20th album from the politically charged English folk duo that had somehow eluded me up until this year. The record is almost entirely acoustic (with a variety of unamped instruments and guest musicians), but it’s not lacking in urgency. They’re well versed in traditional British folk, but they’ve updated the genre with an almost punk intensity (if New Model Army was a folk band I think they’d sound like this). The lyrics tackle many current issues, including the AIG scandal, evolution doubters, local crime, and an angry and very personal criticism of alternative medicine. Despite the darkness of the subject matter, the music is beautifully played and would hold up even without the vocals.
- “Arrogance Ignorance and Greed” video

21. Michael Carpenter - Redemption #39 (Big Radio)
- It's pretty obvious that Australian pop wonder Michael Carpenter has spent his life absorbing tons of great records and learning what makes his favorites work. He doesn't really emulate anyone in particular (although on one cut I think he was on a major Queen kick when he cut it), but you can hear his spin on the whole history of great power pop writing in his grooves. It's hard to believe that Michael is a one-man band, because there's a warmth in the playing that sounds like a road tested band, not one man in a home studio. He has an incredible attention to detail - there's not a wasted note here and nothing that could be called filler. I wish more records showed the enthusiasm for the craft of songwriting that Michael has, and the chops to pull it off as well.

22. Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane (Hear Music)
- Produced by T-Bone Burnett in Nashville, this is Elvis stripped down and mostly acoustic with a band of ace musicians featuring mandolin, dobro, fiddle, accordion, and double bass. This was a big grower for me - I thought it was just OK when it first came out, but I found myself coming back to it more than I expected. It's hardly a challenging album, but Elvis sounds very at home with the style and songs, and there's a certain comfort now in just hearing his voice on a new batch of songs.
- "Sulphur to Sugarcane" on Letterman

23. Art Brut - Art Brut Vs. Satan (Down Town)
- Eddie Argos' sing-rant shtick got a little old by the second album, but it totally works again this time thanks to more driving guitar, propulsive rhythms, and some great production from Black Francis. The pace is frantic like a musical sugar rush and the lyrics are hysterical with loads of references to records and other bands (my fave being a song about just discovering the Replacements). I was not expecting to enjoy this album nearly as much as I did - the managed to get past the novelty of their delivery and make a viable rock album.
-"Alcoholics Unanimous" video
-"the Replacements"

24. Wilco - Wilco (Nonesuch)
- I never cared much for Wilco until the poppier Summerteeth, which was surprisingly my #1 album of 1999, but then I lost interest again as the next albums didn't have the same bite. I've bought every album because they're always full of interesting ideas, but they usually get shelved and unplayed soon after release because the songs didn't hook me. Maybe it's because they experiment a little less and focus more on the melodies, but this time I keep coming back and keep finding more to like. One of the things I like about this album is it's subtly, which makes me wonder if maybe I didn't spend enough time with the last records.
-"You and I" on Letterman (w/ Feist)

25. the Pains of Being Pure at Heart - the Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)
- Pains of Being Pure at Heart are my favorite musical plagiarists of 2009. They unabashedly steal from Jesus and Mary Chain, the Hummingbirds, the Shop Assistants, the Primitives, and the more melodic My Bloody Valentine to create an album of fuzzy guitar fun and charming boy/girl vocals. Maybe it's their naive enthusiasm that makes this work so well, but this New York band's debut sits nicely alongside some of my favorite albums of the late 80's.
-"Everything With You" video
-"Young Adult Friction" video

26. Hatcham Social - You Dig the Tunnel, I'll Hide the Soil (Fierce Panda/TBD)
- The debut album from this south London trio draws greatly on the jangley guitar pop of the first two Smiths albums, the Pastels, and Postcard Records (Orange Juice and early Aztec Camera), with a few nods to Echo & the Bunnymen and Lloyd Cole. Despite wearing their influences on their sleeve, the songs still sound very current thanks to solid songwriting and a very clean production from Tim Burgess of the Charlatans.
-"Crocodile" video
-"Murder in the Dark" video
- "So So Happy Making" video

27. Jarvis Cocker - Further Complications (Rough Trade)
- The second post Pulp album from Jarvis is stripped down and more guitar heavy with a sinister edge, thanks in part to Steve Albini behind the boards. Jarvis is still wordy and spills out loads of great lyrics, but it was the fuzzy rock pop riffs that really hooked me (at times it's almost Urge Overkill like - especially on the single "Angela") . This is a surprisingly very fun record.
-"Further Complications" video
-"Angela" video

28. 1990's - Kicks (Rough Trade)
- Scottish band returns with a 2nd album of glammy dance pop rock that's light on substance, but heavy on catchy melodies and strong grooves.
-"59" video

29. the Thermals - Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)
- Energetic pop punk from Portland with hooks so simple and catchy it's hard to not bop your head and tap your toes.

30. Ex Norwegian - Standby (Dying Van Gogh Records)
- Debut album from a Florida pop band that bounces around stylistically, but at times they sound a bit like the Posies, Chomsky, the Shins, and even a little Big Star.
-"Something Unreal" video

31. Rosanne Cash - The List (Manhatten)
- This is a wonderful, intimate folk album (in disguise as a country record) of classic American songs pulled from a list given to her long ago by her father. Her voice is in great form and she seems very confident in her interpretations. For me, the shining moment is her stunningly beautiful version of "500 Miles" (followed by a killer "Long Black Veil" with Jeff Tweedy).
-"I'm Movin' On" video

32. Rip Chord - Beginner's Luck (1965 Records)
- Energetic Summer fun power pop from the West Midlands, England. It's similar to the first Soup Dragons album or a less aggressive Happy Hate Me Nots with short (9 of the 12 songs are under 3 minutes), sharp punky pop numbers with instantly catchy melodies and great harmonies. This has been a hard one to track down (the only copy I could find is a $40+ Japanese import - making it the only album on my Top 50 I don't actually own), which is a shame, because I know lots of people that need to hear this record. If you can find an affordable copy, please let me know because I really want a physical CD (the band's webpage and label store are both dead!).
-"My Precious Valentine" video
-"Lock Up Your Daughters" video

33. L'Avventura - Your Star Was Shining (Elliptical / TuneCore)
- Relaxed pop from San Francisco - featuring Jeff Davis, who wrote several of my favorite songs in the late 80's with Balancing Act. These are all well crafted pop songs with a laid back feel that really doesn't sound like anybody else. You can download the whole album for free at the band’s website through January.

34. Shazam - Meteor (Not Lame)
- The Shazam have always excelled at crossing big guitar glam with classic power pop, and that bond is even stronger this time thanks to production from Mack (Queen, Sparks, Billy Squier). Like my favorite Cheap Trick albums, there are a lot of ideas and influences crammed into the grooves, and the band isn't afraid to experiment with sounds and arrangements without losing any of the catchiness.

35. Dub Pistols - Rum and Coke (Sunday Best)
- This album from the London big beat/dub band/remixxers plays like a 2009 version of Paul Oakenfold's Bunkka album - lots of well produced electronic grooves that effortlessly genre hops and merges influences. There's hip-hop, electro-funk, ska, soul, and reggae - all done with a laidback Summery vibe.
-"Back to Daylight" video

36. Official Secrets Act - Understanding Electricity (One Little Indian)
- OSA are probably just another of the many new wave Brit pop bands signed in the post Kaiser Chiefs/Futureheads glut, but their songs strike me as just a little better than most of the other bands in the same scene. Other than the occasional art rock flourish in some of their songs, they're not onto to anything new, they just make catchy songs that I really dig.
-"the Girl from the BBC" video
-"So Tomorrow" video

37. Cheap Trick - the Latest (Cheap Trick)
- I'm a Cheap Trick apologist, and I tend to always give them the benefit of the doubt. With each new album I focus on the gems and forget about the clunkers - this album has equal parts of both. But when they hit, they hit big with songs that recall the rocking pop songs of Next Position Please and One and One. I get giddy each time a new Trick record comes out and play it relentlessly for the first few months, but usually as time goes on I play the new one less and go back to the first of their career. I'm not sure how much play I'll give this album in a few years, but for now, it's still a winner.

38. Grand Duchy - Petits Fours (Blackseal)
- This debut album from Frank Black and his wife Violet Clark is a pleasant surprise, since I had sort of lost faith in Frank over the years. While not a total return to the Pixies, there's plenty to satisfy someone longing for those days with Pixies-like rhythms and guitars and, most notably, the vocal interplay between Frank and Violet (who has a similar delivery style to Kim Deal). Focus has never been a strong suit of Frank's, and some of the songs are pretty loose in structure, but the sound and vibe of the album makes up for some of the songwriting shortcomings. This record has some of Frank's best growls since Trompe le Monde and Clark's eerie synth at times sounds like it could have come off of an Ultravox album, which nicely compliments Frank's distinctly American influences.

39. Young Fresh Fellows - I Think This Is (Yep Roc)
- YFF return with Robyn Hitchcock producing and a stellar collection of bouncy pop songs featuring some very mid 60's sounding melodies.

40. Passion Pit - Manners (Frenchkiss)
- This record did nothing for me when I first got it, but then the Mrs got me hooked on the Beck/Prince-like single "Little Secrets", which made me go back to the album and this time it stuck. Danceable synth-heavy electro-pop with some very likable ear candy.
- "The Reeling" video

41. Cracker - Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey (429 Records)
- I lost track after Cracker after their third record, since it seemed like they were just becoming a less interesting version of themselves. But this record is sort of a return to form - the band is tight as shit and David Lowery focused on songwriting rather than dicking around. Now I remember why I used to like them so much.

42. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)
- Green Day's second concept album is better than I expected, but the songs seem a little trapped into the format and loose a little (as opposed to American Idiot, which somehow worked start to finish). This record started around #20 on my list and kept getting nudged down as I tracked more albums. All of the parts work, but as a whole it just doesn't hold up for me. Although on shuffle songs from this album are always welcome.

43. Chris Isaak - Mr. Lucky (Reprise)
- Slick, easy to like pop that's hardly challenging, but sounds great. Chris has the voice and charm to take a batch of decent songs that would be forgetful in anyone else’s hands and make them special.

44. God Help The Girl - God Help The Girl (Matador)
- A new project of light pop from Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch. The album has the feel of a 60's French easy listening record with (mostly) female vocals, lush strings, and a big production sound. This is a record I like more for the sound and arrangements than I do for the actual songs.

45. Messer Chups - Heretic Channel (Solnze Records)
- Russian surf guitar band Messer Chups would already be one of the better bands in the genre if they played it straight, but what makes them so much more interesting is the way they experiment with sound effects, drop-ins, Theremin, and other sounds.
- "Moriarty Woogie" video
-"Vincent Price Bible" video

46. Echo and the Bunnymen - the Fountain (Ocean Rain)
- At this point Ian McCulloch and Will Sergeant seem to be coasting. The Fountain is an enjoyable album with catchy melodies and I'm always happy to hear Ian McCulloch's voice, but they now seem to be stuck following the template of the 1987 self titled album. Most of these songs would have been great b-sides for "Lips Like Sugar", but as album in 2009it feels a bit empty. I'm sort of torn though, since I still love that sound and enjoy whenever these songs come up on shuffle, but I just don't feel right recommending anyone go out and buy it unless they're a huuuuuuge fan.

47. Tommy Keene - In the Late Bright (Second Motion)
- Tommy Keene has become one of the more reliable pop artists making records - you can always count on his albums to be hooked filled with lots of great guitar. But he's settled into his formula so much that it's getting harder to differentiate one album from another. There's a little more edge this time around, and it's always nice to hear his voice, but I'm hoping he ventures into some new terrain next time.

48. Mission Of Burma - the Sound, the Speed, the Light (Matador)
- Their 3rd album since reforming is as good as the first two, but not very different. MoB seem to be working in a vacuum, ignoring what's happening around them in favor of doing what they do best. The playing is as intense as ever, but the songs are starting to get a little samey, especially with the muddy wall of sound that surrounds them. But within that formula Roger Miller is still creating guitar sounds and playing innovative solos like nobody else can. And I'm learning that Peter Prescott might be one of my favorite drummers out there even though I can't imagine his on-the-verge-of-falling-apart style working with many other bands.
- "1, 2, 3, Partyy" video

49. Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women - Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women (Yep Roc)
- One of my favorite things about Dave Alvin is the way he draws from many styles of American music and still ends up with cohesive, flowing album. This time around, along with country, rock, and folk, he brings in Cajun and jump blues while still sounding distinctly Dave Alvin. There's not a clunker on the album (surprisingly even his cover of "Que Sera, Sera" works), but it was almost too consistent for me to have anything jump out.

50. Deastro - Moon Dagger (Ghostly International)
- Fun new wave electropop from Detroit with loads of synths and swirling melodies.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It was a really good year for music, considering I was able to put together a list of 50 solid records and didn't even get to a few other faves like Pajo, Tinariwen, Desario, So Kalmery, and Magic Christian.

All right, now that I've closed the book on 2009, what's good coming in 2010? Bring it on!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Chicagoland winter pictures

A few photos from a surprise six inches of snow last night. I think they predicted "some flurries".

Chicago winter from the comfort of the couch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

some Post-it note doodles

I've noticed that sometimes I don't relax when I'm doodling in a sketchbook, but when I draw on post-it notes the cartoons feel much more relaxed.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Peace Bunny: an illustration I made for a Holiday Card Exchange

Pen and marker cartoon for a holiday card exchange I participated in. After I printed them up I ended up adding sprinkles to the cookies with a red marker since they seemed to be missing something.