Top 50 Albums 2009
By The Staff
50 :: Cool Kids
Gone Fishing Mixtape
It’s a pity this didn’t soundtrack more late-evening summer communions when it would have done so well. This I know because it buoyed so many of mine. Liking the Cool Kids isn’t hard—that dude mean-mugging in the corner during “Black Mags” is making a conscious effort like a priest at the Playboy Mansion—which is why it’s puzzling that this is sitting at number 50 on our list and probably won’t even make honorable mention elsewhere. I mean, what I find confusing is that their music isn’t, you know? Music isn’t to be diagrammed on a chalkboard, and a group’s output rarely equals the sum of its parts, but the Cool Kids’ music just sort of can and does. It’s simple: the most genial of boasting over an increasingly tight palette of crisp drums and ornate synths. Slam dunk, right?
There are those who find Mikey and Chuck’s brand of schmaltz cloying, but I’ve always interpreted it as charm, which they employ here in spades, their cool amplified by Don Cannon’s yelling. They spent much of The Bake Sale (2008) inviting us to parties, but it’s this tape that seems to be the shindig they had in mind. With Bun B and Luda in attendance for one of the best remixes of the year, no less. And though I’m clearly a Kool-Aid sipper and happy just to be mingling poolside, for those who might categorize them as monochromatic, rarely straying from their staid aesthetic, there’s “Weekend Girls,” which missed a lot of really great slow dances in August. So let’s kick this list off with some holiday homework: download this and try to fight the impulse to invite some friends over for a drink. If you have none then the Cool Kids will be your friends and will gladly accept alcohol.
49 :: Way Out West
We Love Machine
If dance music in 2009 lacked something, it was centrality. While each scene was ticked over nicely and high-quality music was in no short supply, there was no real grand narrative thrust that emerged to tie it all together. We’ve lacked both the killer cross-over singles that usually define a year and the kind of big Artist Album that really gets everyone talking. After the Metacritic triumphs of the Bug in 2008 and Burial and the Field the year before, it looks like the Long Tail effect is beginning to well and truly set into a scene that, at its best, resembles a ragged patchwork of niche factions.
In these circumstances it fell to grizzled veterans Way Out West—who really have no right to be this vibrant so late in their career—to deliver We Love Machine, the most universally lovable long-player of its kind this year. “Its kind” being a mesh of cosmic disco, the Pet Shop Boys on E, and a studio crammed full of vintage synths. Out went the epic progressive house soundscaping and breakbeat chemistry that defined Way Out West records of old and the result was a pure primary color pop-dance record that expertly bridged the divide between major-key exuberance and the coolest of dancefloor swagger. So much so that try as I might to sit down with the damn thing and extrapolate what the hell it says about dance music in 2009 that these Bristolian pensioners came out on top with a record that sounds like this, after five minutes all I can do is shrug, pump up the volume, and get back to my feet.
48 :: Mountain Goats
The Life of the World to Come
“Jaipur,” the song that began 2000’s Coroner’s Gambit, was the dubious account of a dangerous man who was willing to walk the country for his “sugared pastry cooked up in clarified butter” or die trying. “I’m the landmine hidden in the sand,” he warned, singing gospel at the gateway to his big bakery in the sky. Either way, he seemed not long for the world; yet one gets the feeling in the musically similar “Samuel 15:23” that this same character is alive and well, hawking new age wizardry and self-help tapes with equal aplomb. “There’s more of us coming, so mark our shapes,” he warns. Indeed, the very next song is about a group of teenage church vandals who feel pretty bad about the spray paint and the spirits they imbibe, “but not that bad.”
What sort of life is John Darnielle prophesying? One that is starkly beautiful. Outside of the violent, teeming coda of “Psalms 40:2,” The Life of the World to Come is the quietest album Darnielle has ever made, and one which also features an unbearably sad tribute to his mother in law. Early returns suggested the desolation of Get Lonely (2006); however, Life rewards the attentive listener with minute, lovely images of hearts finding their first beat and plants growing erect and blooming in the sun. Life goes on after death; the doomed animal, last of its species, instructs the listener to cherish the evanescent pleasures of life in “Deuteronomy 2:10.” A lover finds a way to perform the impossible in “Genesis 3:30,” because to not do so would mean losing out at marriage. It’s fitting that this album was in its best light on stage—songs whispered became shouted; simple piano songs became symphonies; old acoustic songs were widescreen epics. This album is actually full of screaming life—one shaped and sculpted by painful experience, but not totally hardened by it.
47 :: LSD March
Under Milk Wood
Most of what I’d like to say about LSD March’s Under Milk Wood can be summed up in a cursory examination of its closer. Colin hated this track when he reviewed the record; I feel quite differently. After well over half an hour of inventively rhythmic and very Japanese psychedelic drone-rock, big on some fundamental level but refreshingly sparse in pyrotechnics or frills, LSD March bring their seventh full-length to an end with the eight minutes of “Wa Akuma Ni Natta” (translation: “My Mother Has Killed Me”), which could have been the three most pop (if lyrically morbid) minutes of the record except that the British voice of a producer/engineer-type keeps interrupting with exasperated directions for improving the takes. Most will probably find this unbearably repetitive and/or annoying; I, however, keep finding myself caught up by the stupendously wry humor of the track as well as the engrossing way that the song constantly changes while remaining essentially the same. That this functional hybrid of skit-song with its altered loop of a dynamic and persistent filicide theme could then somehow move forward into an organ and hand-clap jam, replete with ridiculous guitar solo, is simply indicative of how cleverly audacious and quietly fuck-all LSD March are in terms of tone and ideas.
It’s a recognition that looks back and casts a slightly different hue on much of the rest of the record: that accordion line on “Shiroi Sekai De” isn’t slowly writhing in pain, it’s grinning in it; the drummer isn’t being lazy on the first four tracks, he’s making sure that you aren’t being lazy when you listen (or he’s probably stoned and hopes you are too); sludgy guitar riffs, echo-laden vocals, and drum fills such as can be found on “Dare ga Hoeru” aren’t just awesome in a rawk way—this shit’s both hilarious and heartbreaking in LSD March’s snow-buried world. December in a cold state is pretty much a collection of joyous, sad, strange, warm times in the midst of a somewhat bitter environment; Under Milk Wood dropped back in January. It works then, too.
46 :: Mountains
Mountains may have written the most deliciously unrefined build of sound in a year of incredible ambient music—a year when most ambient artists have enough trouble keeping their head above the crescendo of great material to get noticed, let alone distinguish themselves from it. The touchstones of the genre are in place, but were expanded, exploded, and ironized by (among others) Tim Hecker, Emeralds, White Rainbow, Jason Urick, Ben Frost, and William Basinski—all worthy contenders to 2009’s crown. (Rarely has so serene and staggering a genre sounded so competitive.) But it was Mountains who may sound the most like an actual band, who moved ambient from the secular realm of laptop tinkering to the performative, the public, and the chaotic. Their particular brand of improvised movement—much of Choral was performed live to tape—is almost inherently speculative, so that moments when fields of noise are stumbled upon carry with them the freshness of surprise rather than the mechanical intentionality and careful accumulation so often associated with music of this kind; Mountains are bringing a sense of spontaneity to the dedicated crawl of Choral‘s cacophonous, mellifluous beauty. But more than that, what Mountains are in fact doing is unplugging and re-connecting cables thought hard-wired into place from back in Eno’s days, from stylistic benchmarks that have long relegated ambient to a tech-nerd niche. They may someday be considered forebears to the popularization of ambient music—whatever form that may take.
45 :: HEALTH
For all practical purposes things are not going to get better, people have to eventually learn to be responsible for themselves, and no single frickin’ record is going to sum up emotional vacancy like a midnight hamburger or five real minutes alone. That said, Get Color burns too brightly. Its object is to get better, which it does, and every track performs the trick of making the same thing over and over sound alien and unworkable—as in how the beating monotony of “Before Tigers” is sent into an oblivion of distortion effects, only to be recovered, then destroyed. Rinse and repeat. HEALTH sets its limits and breaks them, again and again. Their second album proper, following last year’s HEALTH//DISCO, an album itself made of making the same thing over and over sound alien and unworkable, is highly repetitive, but also confusing and mysterious. This band relies on noise but they don’t push it to demented extremes. There’s no mad escape here, but what release they allow in the mix (the bass drum that roundhouses the end of “Die Slow”) is always being folded under, pushed into an ever-expanding black hole of feeling that makes their music both uncanny and weirdly life-affirming. This is the sound of ceaseless intrusion: a landscape of zero emotion, where nothing but nothing counts. Check the album standout and closer “In Violet” for this year’s most stunning use of monotony in rock. What’s to truly be gained when all you’ve got can be blasted into the same metal bars? HEALTH just keep getting sicker and sicker.
44 :: Manic Street Preachers
Journal for Plague Lovers
If there’s a more explicit record-as-suicide-note than The Holy Bible, the 1994 album that remains Manic Street Preachers’ finest, I’m unaware of it. Richey Edwards’ diseased mind ran riot through all fifty-six minutes, prying skeletal bodies, holocaust fires, rotting flesh, and mutilated babies out of his subconscious with equal parts disgust and bemusement. It’s as if he took the exhortation Ian Curtis made on Joy Divison’s Closer—“This is the way, step inside”—as an unnecessary tease. The album’s first song begins “Dumb cunt’s same dumb questions / Virgins? / Listen, all virgins are liars, honey.” By the time “Yes” ends, Edwards and singer James Edward Bradfield will make a hook out of infantile gender mutilation. “Funny place for the social,” this breathing corpse will observe, “for the insects to start caring / Just an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff.” This is the way, get out.
Journal for Plague Lovers, based as it is on left-behind Richey-penned lyrics from before his disappearance in 1995, is no more cheerful, though it is far less inclined to rub the author’s face in his own vomit. It’s more like surrealistic television—sitting out an African Punch and Judy show with Stephen Hawking because they both failed the physical. “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time” is some strange talk show which asks nonsensical questions of infidelity while a child asks his mother what a Sex Pistol is. It’s often disturbing—“Peeled Apples” has a line about bruises on Richey’s hands from digging his nails out; “This Joke Sport Severed” is a painful wish to go back to a place where Richey was still tethered to sanity; “She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach” has lyrics befitting its title. But it’s also mostly nonsense; the effluvia of the diseased mind, not its conclusions. The late Edwards’s bandmate’s respond to all of this with something of an Irish wake, lending Journal for Plague Lovers a linear, muscular musicality often missing from The Holy Bible. Steve Albini’s work on the record results in a pounding force, and Bradfield especially is in fine, larynx shredding form on “Me and Stephen Hawking” and “Peeled Apples.” The end result is the best Manics album in a decade.
43 :: Jermiside & DJ Lowkey
Die Jerm Die Mixtape
Chet was more excited about the germ metaphors that conceptualize and contextualize this mixtape than I am—frankly, the whole thing seems a bit thetanesque to me—but I can’t help but agree with him that in a year where we’re forced to debate the over/under on the extent to which Raekwon and Clipse verses stack up to their older material (in the former case, pretty well; in the latter: hee) there’s something comfort-foodish about a little mixtape that features a rapper just throwing his world view in your face. And that’s maybe what I admire most about rappers like Jermiside, Invincible, Finale, or whoever else taps this vein. It’s not that they represent some brand new version of conscious rap—which: who gives a fuck?—it’s that they can make albums or mixtapes like this because they’re freed of the pressure of trying to please everybody who has expectations of them. Because, like we need another song about snitches.
More importantly, where Red Giants hewed a little too closely to recreating the vibe of a hip hop brand that has already had its day in the sun, this mixtape sees Jermiside looking forward, but in a limited way that willfully eschews big moments and typical rap album token tracks. This record is basically Jermiside narrating his late 20s, his goals, his ambitions, and his motivations for everybody to hear, and he positions himself in a way that makes his dissection of his life fascinating, compelling, and highly lyrical. Like, just imagine having a beer with a really open, well-spoken friend to a really great soundtrack. It’s like that, in that there’s no ball-busting hip hop singles here, but there is a lot of intimacy. And nobody feels the need to qualify a statement like that with a “No Homo” taking up three syllables that could be devoted to actually saying something.
42 :: Black Mold
Snow Blindness is Crystal Antz
Leave it to Chad VanGaalen to cap off a lovable decade of pretty good to astounding singer-songwriterly pop with the most difficult album of his career. Not that we didn’t have it coming: touring on Soft Airplane (2008) a year ago he brought along an animated film supposedly funded by “retarded amounts of money” from the Canadian government, all hand-drawn, stubbled with spasmodic arias, and terrifyingly weird. Trying to recount the garish nightmare I’d witnessed, tipsy and unprepared for the lights to dim, suddenly and unduly, I could later only come up with: “Cars became monsters, astronauts became putrid aliens, amoebas became amphibians and back again in constant flux—every line or color mutated without restraint—until it just kinda ended.” So, when Flemish Eye finally released some bits of the short under the auspices of a Black Mold record, I realized I wasn’t even close to capturing the mania (and blasphemy) of this shit:
Turns out tax money was paying for all that, as well as Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz, the film’s unofficial soundtrack and an instrumental collection by VanGaalen winnowed brilliantly to nineteen tracks from, purportedly, hundreds. Less a summation of his work up until now than a protracted exposé on all the unnerving detritus behind—all the ebony, filamentous fungi in the corners of—every straightforward song Chad’s ever released, Black Mold’s first (and possibly only) release is an album built solely of filler.
And not just from the dire-eyed, aphasic bits or loopy, abrasive ephemera of Infiniheart (2004), Skelliconnection (2006), and the aforementioned Airplane, but from the sinew that lassoes this whole list—of VanGaalen’s work, of my personal best-of-year list, of CMG’s 2009 Top 50. Without his suppurative but unqualifiably rich voice—itself wielding tenuous control over his Adonis frame, as if puberty were this intractable, nervous thing with which his vocal performances will forever spar—each track is willfully anti-terrestrial, literally all over the place: in between cracks, caked in the grout, between one’s teeth, behind the kitchen sink. While he can’t help but tease an already disoriented listener—especially after the heartrending opener, “Metal Spiderwebs,” only feigns an approach toward weirder pastures before “Dr. Snouth” upends all warm feelings amidst oscillator mayhem—with fundamentally traditional fingerpicking, toms, and acoustic guitars (you are a frog prince, “Uke Puke”), Snow Blindness is, at first, an intimidating kerfuffle.
But, as happens with anything Chad VanGaalen puts his touch to, the album as a whole eventually achieves a kind of sustained introspection; biorhythms emerge from synthetic storms and the arrangements take on the attributes of their ostensibly childish titles. Like Chet said in his review, there is nothing pleasurable about “Smoking Rat Shit”; “Pristine Boobles” is tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish, but somehow sexy; “Virtual Prison” is the sonic approximation of a robot pooping inorganic waste in front of a crowded room full of other robots who aren’t going anywhere. And yet, each befuddling gauntlet of noise, without any real catharsis or guiding light, develops a tactile character and accessible structure divorced from the formats in which VanGaalen’s fans have become most comfortable. Though it’s been unfairly written off by many as aimless and alienating, Snow Blindness Is Crystal Antz is an insanely engaging hour from an insanely talented artist, an album with more fingers in more pies than anyone feels safe to admit lest the crazy become infectious.
41 :: Nurses
In a year accessorized with the Spartan tenets of so-called “lo-fi”—the immediacy, the kitsch, the incompetently brandished wall of reverb, the B.O.—it’s a rare and wonderful thing to wade through this buzzing wash of music more read about than heard and fall in love with something tender, intimate, and warm. Enter Nurses, a quartet who’s had an ample dose of climate-change: from Idaho, then from San Diego, then from Chicago, and eventually planting, as a duo, in Portland. There they met percussionist James Mitchell and recorded their second album, Apple’s Acre, in a beautifully aging Victorian home, because those are the only kinds of Victorian homes Portland has. In an attic. Festooned with Christmas lights, no doubt, with a coffee-burnt dumpster couch. Were this attic in Brooklyn it would be a basement, the couch cigarette-scored, or something, I’ve never been there, I dunno—but it’s not, it’s in Portland, and like anything made in Portland, Apple’s Acre is a morbidly friendly piece of work.
These choruses want to crawl into your lap—that friendly. But far from needy, what’s here—and there’s a lot of sound to be had here—seems only to exist to contextualize what is also here. Every sound, every bleated baby noise and threatening organ fill, works together lest all hell break loose. As in: one is the fireman, one the dogcatcher, one the milkman, and so on. And like any functioning community, archetypes are unveiled and re-veiled over and over: check “Caterpillar Playgound” to be duped by a showy, sociopathic whistle; or the ravishing “Lita” to witness Chapman’s chops, how he reaches for registers he can’t even conceive in increments he can, at least until “Orange Cymbals” reveals that maybe this whole time the band’s second-best singer has been doing all the work. And plaintive alterna-ballads don’t come any better than the pebbly “Winter,” at once a distracting patchwork of diced hi-hats, of aloof robot effects, and a soothing pastiche of big golden harmonies.
Though sometimes it seems ready to give up and crumple dejected under its own weight, Apple’s Acre is committed to being a full record, stuffed with iterations of spare, even rustic, means (bratty, creaking piano, midi-synths, tambourine, the hollow walls of the attic, Chapman’s whinnying voice), and endlessly captivating for it. Hugely in debt to other heavyweights of 2009, like Animal Collective (“Bright Ideas”) and Grizzly Bear (“What Then”’s sparse croon pushed to something mighty), Apple’s Acre is also the perfect synthesis of everything great and terrible about indie rock in 2009—bedroom pop of the highest caliber.