Surely you’re reading the title of this note and saying to yourself, “Typical, Paddock,” or “A bit late for this, isn’t it?” But, really, do you put a date on good music? I think not. Since I like to try to squeeze in as many life changes as I can in any given year, usually during the same month, this has taken a while to sure up. But the roadtrip from West to East allowed me to more quality listening time, and I’d like to think this list is better for it.
So whether you give a shit about what follows or not, it’s now in your lap. Tell me what you like, or what I missed. And by all means, please point out every spelling and grammar mistake missed by the army of copy editors that combed through this steaming pile of self-indulgence.
Without further ado . . .
1. Hometowns by The Rural Alberta Advantage
Songs: Dethbridge to Lethbridge, Don’t Haunt This Place, Drain the Blood
What a find. RAA flat-out rocks. Lots of hard-driving percussion, appropriately timed pauses to let the momentum build up, and Nils Edenloff’s strained, passionate vocals. Their songs are short and move fast, and each track offers something a little different, mixing in some strings here, some haunting choruses there, but all in the spirit of keeping the train moving, thanks mostly to the great drum work. Despite the pace, it’s not only a highly spirited debut, it’s a fairly intimate one, and that’s why it’s my personal favorite of 2009. You could probably back these lyrics and Edenloff’s voice with an entirely differently style, and it’d still hold up very, very well. Can’t wait to hear what’s next.
2. Middle Cyclone by Neko Case
Songs: This Tornado Loves You, People Gotta Lot of Nerve
Evocative. Utterly moving in so many ways, but with some of the better pop hooks you’ll ever come across, which is probably what makes this somewhat unique in Case’s body of work. It can’t compare to Fox Confessor, which was a truly seminal album, and it took me a while to get over that. Cyclone, to me, initially came off as a bit uneven and a little less sophisticated in comparison, but with time, and with the privilege of finally–finally–seeing her live, I got over all that. And, then, of course, and completely beside the point, I love her. Love. Neko Case, I love you.
3. Actor by St. Vincent
Songs: The Strangers, Actor Out of Work
I really don’t know why this didn’t get more attention. Stark, deliberate, she presents deep, complex, soundscapes that fill out very definite spaces. The composition of every track is extremely tight, and she’s usually seamlessly guiding a few layers in every song. The lyrics are somewhat minimal, but exceptional in content and application, and she really accentuates them with a very composed, beautiful voice. Perhaps the easiest album to recommend on this list.
4. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle by Bill Callahan
Songs: Jim Cain, Eid Ma Clack Shaw, Rococo Zephyr, All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast
Bill Callahan, just Callahan, used to be the band Smog, and has without question grown since dropping that moniker and whatever identity went along with it. He uses strings and strong, steady cadences to build emotion and contrasts them with his amazing baritone voice, which is then again contrasted with intense, personal lyrics. This all helps to create an aura that is somewhat ethereal, and it pulls you with a quality that borders on vouyerism. Callahan shares a bit too much, but you’ll find this damaged soul so charming you won’t care.
5. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear
Songs: Southern Point, Two Weeks
Grizzly Bear debuted with Yellow House a couple years ago, a chamber-esque waterfall of sound that clearly stood out for it’s beauty and full, expansive character. That carried over into _Veckatimest_, but the mosaics on this effort are even more interesting for the constraint that’s been applied to them, and are complimented with airier pieces (in feel if not lyrics), such as the poppy “Two Weeks.” So that’s two brilliant albums to start their careers. Not bad, fellas.
6. Yonder is the Clock by The Felice Brothers
Songs: The Big Surprise, Run Chicken Run, Katie Dear, Memphis Flu
I’ve got a soft spot for these guys, as they are Upstate NY natives. And they are every bit of what you might call down-home, ripping it up, it would seem, on the front porch, or telling a slow, sad story in the backyard. Genuine, unfettered, soul flows through this rootsy enterprise, lead by brother Ian’s gravely voice and a quirky sensibility that can in turn add both depth and levity.
7. Jam Tarts in the Jakehouse by The Bitter Tears
Songs: Slay the Heart of the Earth, Bachelor’s Say, Worthless Sleeze
The Bitter Tears are a barroom band from Chicago that’s not like any barroom band you’ve ever heard. They are boozy, for sure, but fairly odd, and yet strangely tuneful and well coordinated. Laugh and tap your toes with these guys. Garsh darn fun.
8. Elvis Perkins In Dearland by Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Songs: Heard a Voice in Dresden; Chains, Chains, Chains; 123 Goodbye
Yet another sophomore effort that indicates the arrival of a true artist. Elvis is the son of the late Anthony Perkins, of _Psycho_ fame. _Ash Wednesday_ demonstrated a real talent for quirky, beautiful lyrics, laid against nicely arranged music, but only in fits and starts, inconsistent from song to song and even within songs. Perkins put it all together here with an album that is brimming with confidence: this is clearly a man who has found his voice. And what a voice it is. At times, it’s as much an instrument as the myriad of horns, organs, harmonicas, guitars, and drums that drive the big sound of each and every track, sometimes reminiscent of New Orleans jazz. Tempo plays a part here, too, at times slow and swaying, but never languid, then quick and strong, and always playful.
9. Monsters Of Folk by Monsters Of Folk
Songs: Say Please, Whole Lotta Losin’, Temazcal, Temazcal (Live)
You can only expect so much from a collaborative work, especially one that includes young artists that are as collectively prolific as this crew. _Monsters of Folk_ is predictably, but very forgivably, uneven. In my eyes, the individuals that make up this quartet seem to ever forestall the arrival of their considerable talent in an effort to simply make more music for the sake of making more music. But, thankfully, the admixture of M. Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Jim James brings out a little something different in each of them. The end result is a collection of great songs that, if not bound by anything other than proximity, will have you enjoying one song while eagerly anticipating the next one.
10. Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
Songs: The Wanting Comes in Waves, The Rake’s Song, The Queen’s Rebuke
This one’s a little bit of conundrum. It is, without question, the most ambitious album by one of this decade’s most talented and cerebral bands, and its scope is the most literate project band leader Colin Meloy, whose writing resembles true poetry, has ever embarked upon. Musically, it’s gorgeous, and it often rocks pretty hard. But in the end, it’s only good, with great parts, and that borders on disappointing for these guys. It may be that the album’s structure makes it a little too daunting: one long, rich collection of songs doling out one, long narrative. Given the linear dependency of each song, it also doesn’t help that _Hazards_ takes until track 8 of 17 to get going. But boy does it get going. Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond was enlisted to sing the part of the Queen, and she crushes it. Her powerful style works well to amp up the album and is a nice balance to Meloy’s voice. When it’s all said and done, it’s hard to complain about what we have here, so for me it’s still top 10. But the Decemberists have set their own standard, so anything less than top three or four in any given year is a bit of surprise.
11. bIrD-bRaInS by tUnE-yArDs
Songs: Lions, Hatari, News
Tune-yards is the alter-ego of one Merrill Garbus, and it’s said that only a live show will do justice to her strong voice. Based on photos of said shows, she also appears to be bat-shit crazy. But _Bird-Brains_ seems to be an indication that she’s using that chemical imbalance for good, creating hauntingly personal, idiosyncratic tunes. But don’t mistake her for Daniel Johnston. Her songs have many layers of rhythm and melody, and her music helps flatter those great pipes of hers. She gives the impression of being a truly creative force, and you wonder if she simply used whatever was sitting around her house in order to make the strangely compelling sounds found on this record. Garbus is all over the place here, but in the best possible way.
IN THE ARGUMENT
Reservoir by Fanfarlo
You get the sense that their next album will be huge. Their sound is something like David Byrne singing for Arcade Fire, and no one is going to complain about that. My only problem is that they sound too familiar, but you can’t help but admire how consistently good this album is with each listen.
Hold Time by M. Ward
We’re still waiting for Ward to make his great album, and if you’ve resigned yourself that it will never come, you might even love this one. You could listen to _Hold Time_ for Ward’s guitar work alone, which plays effortlessly on the many styles represented on this album. But like past works, Ward’s songs don’t do much to compliment each other, though you’ll find some great ones while picking through the pile.
A Friend of a Friend by Dave Rawlings Machine
Too much collaboration and touring has prevented Rawlings from releasing his own stuff sooner. He is an utter joy to watch in concert, as it couldn’t be more clear how much he loves playing music. And if you’re a Gillian Welch fan and have never seen her in person, you’ll see “Gillian Welch” is as much a duo as it is just her, and she’s completely amazing all by herself.
Blood Of Man by Mason Jennings
Admittedly, I’d left Jennings for dead. I don’t think this is quite as good as his debut, but it’s more related to the spirit of that stunning introduction, and it shows a promising direction to extend his considerable skills.
I And Love And You by The Avett Brothers.
The Avetts can be unbelievably sappy, and, at very brief intervals, are cringe-inducing, but somehow they nail it, hard, with every second song.
Guns Don’t Kill People…Lazers Do by Major Lazer
Something like reggae meeting rap meets funk? Hard to describe. Lewd to a fault at times, only because that can seem like a crutch, but even then they sometimes pull it off.
Too Soon For Flowers by Dry Spells
They sound a little like Fleetwood Mac playing the Pixie’s _Doolittle_, done in a small-town bar (does that make sense?).
Gather, Form, & Fly by Megafaun
The other half of Bon Iver. One might argue the good half, as there is no overuse here of Justin Vernon’s falsetto.
Hospice by The Antlers
This one was almost as ambitious as _Hazard_, and it was a debut. It similarly carries a single narrative from start to finish, and at times is utterly heartbreaking. It would have benefitted greatly from better production and more experience, but it seems like almost a given that this band will blow up big, and soon.
NOT FOR ME
Wilco [The Album] by Wilco.
That’s two albums in a row that just aren’t very interesting. Two stinkers after two of this decades greatest albums in _Yankee Hotel Foxtrot_ and _A Ghost Was Born_. I’m not shitting on them for stripping it down, they did that quite well with their early work, but this just isn’t doing much of anything. Makes you wonder how much influence Jay Bennett had after all.
Phoenix, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Etc.
No thanks. I literally don’t even hear these albums. They aren’t necessarily irritating (scratch that: Animal Collective is wrist-slittingly irritating), I really just don’t notice them after a few minutes. I’m starting to think it’s generational. Let’s create some interesting layers, add a touch of nuance, but just for, like, half of one track, then loop it. Again. Again! Again! Perfect for the sad, shoe-gazing, pre-schooler in your life.
The First Days Of Spring by Noah and the Whale.
Awful. Total and utter disappointment. “5 Years Time,” from their previous album, is too ingenious for something like this to happen. Boo.
Declaration of Dependence by Kings of Convenience.
Not really sure why they even put this out. I mean, they’ve had enough time. Yet it sounds like they just needed the money. In the end, they basically just decided to take a shit, call it an album, and call it a day.