Anyone who knows me in meat space can testify that I am addicted to music even more than bourbon. You can take my shelter, you can take my food, you can take my booze. But if you take away my music—my speakers and headphones—I think that would be akin to death. Nothing brings me more joy than good music (well, I can think of a person or two sitting next to me who does more, but that’s another post). This year in music did not disappoint. I’ve tried to winnow down what I liked this year to ten albums—which was torture. Believe me. I had ten albums, but then realized I had spent five hours working on this, so I deleted the last two. So, below is my top eight picks for this year’s pop albums (I could come up with lists for other genres, but I need to reserve my writing for, uh, making a living). Please feel free to comment with your own recommendations. I probably won’t disagree. Here are the albums that I found myself listening to the most:
Antony & the Johnsons, The Crying Light: Antony Hegarty’s main outfit has released yet another powerful album of storytelling songcraft that defies description. I could go on, but I worry whatever I say would do damage to the strange beauty Hagarty manages to create with his unusual arrangements and torch-song stylings. This is late night, contemplative music—slow, contemplative, and searching. And it’s unquestionably a very sad album, but there is a weird joy in this sadness. Frankly, I’m not sure how to describe this album except to say it is moving and not for easy listening. Sit down with this album when you have time to think and feel. Hercules & Love Affair this is not. This is the closest to beautiful a pop album can get.
Avett Brothers, I and Love and You: This threesome is the darling of the independent music press, but I must confess this is among the most genuine Americana rock albums of the year (even better than the Drive-By Truckers b-side collection this year). Listening to this album reminds me of early Jackson Browne albums (“Doctor My Eyes” comes to mind), but it’s still unique in youth and sensibility and harmonics. Piano and organ and guitar in equal measure, this is heart-felt songcraft about love and longing and traveling and hope. I’m so terrible at describing music, so I’m left with comparisons: think here of Neil Young on living life everyday, on feeling weary, on the kind of living that leads you to think you don’t need to shave today—that shaving is not what’s important. The title track really does capture the mood: three words that are hard to say, so two “ands” are inserted to make it ok. This is country-ish in tone, but only in that California country way. If you like the Eagles or Nash, I cannot recommend this album enough. Hell, if you like American folk rock, this one is a must. Better than Wilco’s entry this year. Seriously.
The Church, Untitled #23: It’s hard to let go of the memory of the Church’s “Ripple” video, tripped out on acid with friends in my bedroom . . . at that moment we were all convinced of the band’s genius. I saw them live in Minneapolis in graduate school, and my jaw dropped at how good they were, absent the radio hits and drugs and them just playing their normal, non-hits. Since that live experience, I’ve kept up with the Church and have, for the most part, really admired their work (ok that double-album was not so good, I agree). I know folks think these guys are past-beens, but Untitled #23 really proves that assumption wrong. This album is so smart, so well put together—so tight—that I’m almost outraged to see it not mentioned in anyone’s best-of lists for the year. The signature, hypnotic guitar work is still there, the signature breathy vocals are still there, but the Church keep evolving, writing, thinking. There are so many good songs on this album, but the stand-out track is “Anchorage,” a torch song that should win back any lost lover—intense. This is dark, jangly pop at its best. La Roux (below) had stolen my best album of the year spot, but this is a very close second. Seek it out.
Fever Ray, Self-titled: I picked up Karin Dreijer Andersson’s The Knife albums many years ago and have been a fan. It’s not quite dance music, but not quite pop either; the Knife occupied a sort of intriguing middle space between mood music and Sheik Yer Bootie. The last Knife album had a couple of moody pieces that hinted at what Fever Ray was to be: contemplative, electronic mood music. This solo project by Karin opens with a looped drone (sounds like a cello) with “chopped and screwed” lyrics (that is, vocals slowed down to crate a low, male voice effect), that gives way to a song with tinny female vocals with an intonation that reminds one of popular Asian music. This is a hypnotic and repetitive moody album, dark to be sure, but in a way that is crisp and thoroughly postmodern (ok, so what does that mean? Well, it means . . uh. . . give me some time to explain). Nothing on this album sounds organic—it’s all very synthetic and cold; the vocals range from “scream-happy” female chants to slowed-down speech (such that the vocals become a kind of melodic moan). This album walks periously close to ambient were it not for the vocals and percussive elements. It’s late night music, to be sure, and thoroughly intoxicating. I know Andersson is from Sweden, but there’s definitely an Asian aesthetic going on here . . . .
La Roux, Self-titled: I have to thank a RoseChron reader for urging me to listen to this gem (thanks Diane!!!!!). Elly Jackson (and a team of writers, although most of this album is decidedly Elly’s craft) has put together one of the most marvelous albums never made since 1988. The synth-work is definitely retro (think Sega Master System), but the sensibility and lyrics are not: from the opening track “In for the Kill” to the fiendishly addictive single “Bulletproof,” Jackson’s knack for a pop melody with a postmodern cynical edge are unmatched. Nothing I’ve heard this year sticks in your head as much as these songs. This is pop genius, there’s just no denying her talent or knack for a riff. Her voice is raspy, not necessarily beautiful or altogether feminine—sometimes it sounds as if she’s about to lose her voice. Her voice’s sense of toughness and intimacy reminds me of Cyndi Lauper in tone, but the sound is altogether unique, bluesy at times but also on the top and reluctant (again, there’s a sort of 80s brittleness to the vocals). It’s Hall & Oates meets cynical reason and a soul, but with a hot red-head. This album should be on your work-out rotation, and your pump-up for going out “mix tape.” I’ve had it on non-stop in the car to work and on work-outs. This is my top pick for 2009. Seriously: if you like pop music and synth, this album is a must have.
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly: When I was a boy, before I lost Jesus and he lost Music, my father was fond of acoustic guitar and artists on the Windham Hill label (in part because their early discs were fully digital when the standard were all analog to digital). Windham Hill is most known as the label and principle outlet for the work of Will Ackerman, who wrote simple, slightly melancholy instrumental folk songs, sometimes with the accompaniment of strings and the occasional flute. Unfortunately, Ackerman’s music got stuck the label “New Age,” which has limited its exposure. Former Mazzy Star mumbler Hope Sandoval’s new album strikes me as Windham Hill with vocals—what melancholic New Age might sound like with a voice. The comparisons to Mazzy Star go without saying, but still, the soothing cleverness of Sandoval’s stylings bring a smile. Hands-down the love-making album of the year.
Gossip, Music for Men: The fourth album from this three piece is a genuine surprise. 2006’s Standing alerted us to the power of Beth Ditto’s insistent diva-ness, but I honestly thought that would be the peak and the band would topple under their three-chord charm. Boy did I misjudge. This year’s Music for Men is a soulful, dance-floor wallop, heavy and insistent but . . . surprisingly experimental! Amid the dance tracks are a few rockers—heavy drumming, heavy strumming screamers! Clearly Gossip (formerly The Gossip) have embraced their queer culture appeal—the title of the album references the album’s single promise, an anthem to gay club rotation—but this is not a “sell-out” (I’m thinking of Erasure here, who have given up on the universal appeal of queer sensibility). The funky, bass-heavy tunes register a self-smugness, but they never fail to deliver on a good groove and infectious melody, and piano and synth riffs have made their way into the mix (as well as a few, well-placed shout-outs to soul hits from the past). This is a great, feel-good punk disco with a few rock tunes thrown in. You cannot help but move your ass to these tunes. Ditto’s voice would convince anyone to make out with her; she’s just delicious. Very, very good.
School of Seven Bells, Alpinisms: “Dreampop” is a term that has been around for some twenty years, affixed to Cocteau Twins and Slowdive and Lush, meaning . . . well, breathy voices and swirly guitars. Formed by twin sisters and a defector from the Secret Machines, the School of Seven Bells make the kind of music us acid-dropping shoegazers used to put on heavy rotation. The twins harmonize over drones and twingly guitars, with unique percussive beats in a way that cannot help but invite the label—and dammit, I like it. A lot. There’s not much “new” here musically, except a rather innovative return to a musical idiom that many of us feared was long gone. The music is beautiful and moving, if not altogether unique. The album ender, “My Cabal,” is perhaps one of the most perfect dreampop songs ever recorded—I regret I’m too old to get down with psychadelics. But if I had some mushrooms . . . . Fans of Lush, early Blur, Lucious Jackson, please take note!