Monday, December 14, 2009

2009 End-Of-Year Celebrations: TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2009

Let us consider the state of music today.

The twin heads of iPod and iTunes are king. The mp3 is more accessible and valued to most than the physical artefact of a vinyl or CD. New music is leaked and disseminated frequently and instantaneously, usually from unfinished sources via pirated websites. Radio is in a worse state than ever before, a shadow of its former dominating self. Independent record stores are closing up shop all over the world, even the mighty Virgin MegaStore had to close its doors forever on their iconic Times Square branch. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are the new go-to for A&R men and record companies. Genres and styles have become so diverse and fragmented that the lines have not so much been blurred as disappeared. Save for some of the vanguards of music’s past (think U2, Rolling Stones, Madonna) few can command the sales and global recognition to command enough sway over the record industry.

It seems such a chaotic and in some cases, dour, state of affairs and yet…

And yet, the music itself is still so great. 2009 was a boon, at least artistically and musically speaking.

While cynics continue to prophesy the end of the music industry, that the traditional model of record labels, singles and such is unsustainable, that the dawn of the digital era marks the final nail in the coffin of the album format. It still prospers.

In fact it seems the more that the general mainstream moves away from the album format, the more resistant the counter-forces that cling to it become.

So, as always, this list is a tribute to the album format. Those artists who still contribute to the rich history of organising their songs and sounds into an cohesive whole – a statement that music is still valuable, important and best of all life-affirming

15. Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
Perhaps the most appropriately titled album in the last twelve months was the side-project for Sigur Rós frontman Jón þor Birgisson and his partner Alex Somers; fitting because this is the best soundtrack for inducing sleep, possibly ever. Despite the number of plays according to my iTunes I’m sure my conscious engagement with this record is far, far less.

If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. There’s certainly a place in everyone’s life for music whose chief function is to soothes and relax. If this brings to mind thoughts of chill out compilations, wallpaper music and those cheesy relaxation tapes they play at health spas, then the truth is not too wide of the mark.

In fact the album was borne of hippy credentials, being recorded entirely on solar-powered laptops at home in Reykjavik. Any semblance of the traditional instruments used to create it however are stretched and slowed beyond recognition. Also featured are string arrangements from Icelandic cohorts Amiina, and apperances by the Kopavogsdaetur choir, most notably on the chiming beauty of Boy 1904 and Daniell In The Sea.

The similarities to Sigur Rós are unmistakeable, from the childlike artwork to the comfortable familiarity of the cooing vocals of Jónsi himself. But as much as there are similarities there are many differences too. If 2008’s Með suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust was Sigur Rós dawning upon an earthier, more human sound, then Riceboy Sleeps winds back the clock, returning to the spacey soundscapes of the band’s earlier work.

Like the ambient wash of Brian Eno’s Music For… series, Riceboy Sleeps is the search for a soundtrack to something that isn’t wholly tangible; and it mostly succeeds. These are long-winded compositions that take their time, and don’t necessarily go anywhere.

It’s a cinematic ballet performed underwater, the aural equivalent of fighting to keep your eyes open. Its innocent and naïve and yet teeming with pathos. Indian Summer aches with melancholy as much as whimsy, All The Big Trees creaks and moans as its title would suggest and Howl chatters with the sound of animal life.

Its delicate nature means that Riceboy Sleeps won’t be for everyone, and in fact risks being downright abhorred in the eyes of hard-nosed cynics or dismissed as simpering background music for those who demand energy and urgency from their stereos; but it’s this same quiet attitude that makes the record so rewarding. Riceboy Sleeps does what the best music does, it transports you. Often to the land of dreams, if it’s time for a nap, call me Riceboy.

14. The Mars Volta - Octahedron

If last year’s The Bedlam In Goliath was the culmination of The Mars Volta’s impossibly heavy prog-salsa-metal witches’ brew, then Octahedron finds them jacknifing into the complete opposite direction. While the group have always maintained a lighter side to their work - think back to the creepy acoustics of Televators or the demented flamenco of The Widow - here they embrace their acoustic side whole-heartedly. In fact, prior to release, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala was quoted as calling it their ‘unplugged album’ and while that’s not strictly true – there’s plenty of energy and electricity coursing through Octahedron’s veins – it’s definitely, in spirit and tone, a more lucid affair.

Sure, there are a few concessions, such as Cotopaxi’s fevered urgency or the blood-fuelled riffage of Desperate Graves, but everywhere else the album favours space, atmosphere and restraint to usually privileged tropes such as power, complexity and eclecticism.

I don’t think I’d ever had described a Mars Volta track as ‘melancholy’ or ‘beautiful’ before, but there is simply no other way to articulate the aesthetics of new cuts like With Twilight As My Guide or Copernicus.

Since We’ve Been Wrong drafts the template, with enough legroom and reflection to actually take in the brilliance of the band’s synergy. It’s a full five minutes before we hear the full band kick in, a potent mix of every element - from Rodriguez-Lopez’s winding guitar lines, Thomas Prigden’s virtuosic drumming, Isaih Ikey Owens textural keyboards and Juan Alderte de la Pena’s bass work – contributing to the overall sound. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals cut through clearly and precisely too, with the most direct lyrics of his oeuvre yet, retaining their kaleidoscopic surrealism but woven with a new melodic economy.

As I've said before - in a funny sort of way, it is the band’s most daring album yet, potentially alienating their hardcore fanbase, who have fought hard to understand their chaotic logic, by dedicating an entire album to a new take on their usually titanic sound. As a result, it may also be the group’s most accessible work yet. Don’t be fooled though, despite its newish velour skin, it’s very much a case of, to paraphrase Macbeth, looking like the innocent flower while still being the serpent beneath it. Mars Volta is still capable of the colossal psychedelic head-fuck they are so famous for. Just consider this a new genetic strand of their sound, because as Bixler-Zavala himself assured “that’s what our band does, celebrate mutations.”

13. Q-Tip - Kamaal/The Abstract

In a year when artists such as Prince, Mos Def, Kid Cudi and even a more genre-bending Jay-Z all released new albums, one Kamaal John Fareed, better known as Q-Tip, offered a record that did everything his contemporaries did and more. An LP flush with funk jam workouts, bright lyrical wordplay, laidback grooves and enough acid-jazz to really stretch the boundaries of the hip-hop genre.

The freakiest part? It’s actually seven years old. Which shows how far ahead of his time Tip really was, but also how short-sighted his label back then – Arista – was for shelving it. Its genre-busting sound predating the popular rise of colourful hip-hop the likes of Outkast and Common by several years. Though it would become a bit of a legendary ‘lost’ album thanks to various leaks and bootlegs over the years, it was only once Q-Tip bought back the distribution rights that we now have an official completed version. Ironically, it’s a natural evolution on from the excellent The Renaissance from 2008, despite actually coming before it. Its forward-thinking genre fusion hasn’t aged a jot.

Album opener Feelin’ is a good example of what’s to come. Q-Tip’s nasal rhyming backed by the kind of jazz-inflected hip-hop he pioneered back when he went by his birthname Jonathan Davis. But the track soon gives way to a party jam of rabble-roused singing and funky band moves. Led by a guitar riff that would be angular if its upward movement wasn’t so damn catchy, constructing a bedrock for a tasty organ solo that jazz legend Jimmy Smith would be proud of.

It’s a track that puts all the cards on the table, but still leaves plenty of room to play different games; and it does. Barely In Love offsets its gloomy subject matter with an infectious R&B stomp while Heels is a tune that Prince wouldn’t sniff at. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett shows up for a blow on album highlight Abstractionisms, and the string of A Million Times and Blue Girl floats by in a beautifully blessed-out flow.

The mission here is to indulge in warm, organic funk and soul fusion with an eye to improvisation. Hell, a lot of the tracks are nearly instrumental, with Tip’s rapping kept to a bare minimum. Rest assured though, that as always with Q-Tip, when he does get to spitting, the lyrical themes are a few stations above the bitches-and-bling clichés of rap. There’s philosophy (Do U Dig U?), an ode to single-parenting (Even If It Is So) and taxing ruminations on the contradictions of love (Barely In Love).

Hip-hop purists may balk at the distinct lack of samples or extended rapping, but since Tip delivered an instantly classic old-skool album in the form of The Renaissance, Kamaal is his chance to take the creative boat out a little further.

Even when the focus is drawn away from Q-Tip, his presence is always felt, like every good master of ceremonies should, he is at once the orchestrator that ties the whole jam together but not afraid of fading to the wings to let the music do the talking. The overall mood is playful and relaxed, much like his virgin days with A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip is still following and carving the “People’s Instinctive Travels And Paths Of Rhythm.”

12. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Remember that trifekta prediction I pulled a while back? Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last twelve months, you’ve no doubt heard of Grizzly Bear. As obvious an assumption as that is however, it’s no less remarkable considering their relative obscurity this time last year.

Even back in 2006, when swathes of underground (and not so underground) music lovers proclaimed Yellow House a masterpiece, Grizzly Bear remained a proposition for those in the know. They seemed to be the band’s band, beloved of Radiohead (who took them on tour) and influential enough to rope in like minded indie bands like CSS, Atlas Sound and Band of Horses to perform covers on their Friend EP. Cut to present day and it’s safe to say that their fan-club is no longer the exclusive territory of musicians and die-hards. Where once they were celebrated if little-known underdogs, 2009 has seen them ushered into art-rock aristocracy. The catalyst for their brisk conversion from paupers to princes? That would be Veckatimest.

Or more accurately: the lucid, ethereal, sophisticated, sumptuous sounds of Veckatimest.

If you don’t think much of Grizzly Bear’s third studio album, give it another spin. Veckatimest is almost the textbook definition of a ‘grower.’ While the subtle doo-wop influenced Two Weeks or the choppy While You Wait For The Others will reveal their charms almost immediately, the rest of the record will take time to unravel and enjoy. To quote closing track Foreground “Pattern evolving, motion insolvent/something about this might/take all evening.” The experience can be likened to navigation; you know the ultimate destination but not the terrain.

In fact, geography is a fitting simile when discussing Veckatimest. Named after an obscure island in Dukes County, Massachussets and garnered with geometric artwork composed of earthen colour, its conceptual theme can be felt subtly throughout. Musically, the Brooklyn four-piece are working much further off the map, furthering their ornate, intimate orchestrations along with their experimentally hewn pop.

From the beautifully decorative Southern Point that opens the album to the closing minimalist beauty of Foreground, it’s a venture that - despite its middling pace, lilting nature and painstakingly arranged sonics – is an exciting, organic record.

The off-kilter groove of Cheerleader and Ready, Able chug along with a vague sense of urgency while Dory takes a trip to the bottom of the ocean with suitably bubbling harmonies and muted harmonic swells, the perfect backdrop to the lyrics, “We’ll swim around like two dories let loose in the bay.” Even the more abstract refrain of Hold Still and I Live With You contain vigorous moments in their sleepy tempos. Indeed, it takes patience to tease out its rewards, but it’s never difficult listening, whether it’s in Fine For Now’s glacial harmonies and baroque swells or the skyward shuffle of All We Ask and While You Wait For The Others; there’s always some new sound or trick to engage with.
There's something intensely rewarding in the knowledge that the turning point of Grizzly Bear's wide-spread profile is based on an album whose identity is elusive even as it puts its music and creativity first, the notion of 'selling out' is as alien as that enigmatic title. Veckatimest is an album that's as deserving of its success as it is mysteriously beautiful.

11. Foriegn Born - Person To Person

Foreign Born are an emblematic example of a little heard of group who succeeded due to the fragmentation of the music industry. While the blockbuster releases thin out (think of the diffused welcome new albums from U2, Jay-Z and even Green Day received) it leaves room for smaller bands to sneak into the limelight, acquiring some much-deserved attention. And there’s nothing sinister to it, it’s just about great tunes from a great group – and that’s all Person to Person is. And what tunes. Just as I was smitten with it upon release, its quality keeps me enraptured.

A tight and tidy ten tracks with about four minutes a pop, in a classicist album structure, things starting upbeat and rocky but mellowing out towards the end. It works beautifully in the record’s favour, each track being strong enough in its own right, but also contributing to the running order.

Based in LA, the exotically named troupe of Matt Popieluch, Lewis Nicolas Pesacov, Airel Rechtshaid and Garret Ray cut an impressive shape on the likes of Blood Oranges, the squiggly guitar jangle and anthemic burble of Vacationing People as well as the Strokes-ian clip of Can’t Keep Time.

It’s no surprise either that for a band located a the heart of California, that Person To Person makes for a brilliant summer album too, from the brightly-lit road tune that is That Old Sun to the effervescent guitar licks on the Afro-Pop of Early Warnings. Even, ironically, the icily titled Winter Games – all ragged bluesy guitar set in a bedrock of solid rhythm - could be the soundtrack to iced tea being served poolside.

Even when the mood takes a deliberately choreographed downturn away from bright-lit anthems for its final third, it still contains a buoyancy to lift spirits. It Grew On You (a less-busy version reworked from an older EP) mixes the brusque rhythms of drummer Garrett Ray’s percussion with placid organs that wind seamlessly into the loungey See Us Home. Final farewell Wait In This Chair closes the album with a simple grace of irresistible harmony and melody, reminding you that the album has been in no short abundance of either.

Like many bands on this list, Foreign Born, are a band who has spent a few records and years honing their craft, and while the breakthrough success of acts like Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Phoenix may seem like overnight successes, as is always the case, they’ve been working their asses off to get to this point. Person To Person is no exception, the winning result being that though they’ve drained blood, sweat & tears – they make it sound effortless.

Five down, ten to go. Watch This Space.
As always, feel free to add your thoughts below.

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