Damn! what a year.
We lost Michael Jackson and we gained Girls. The Decemberists put out an LP almost as good as Picaresque, but what with the stiff competition you won’t find it on top 50 lists anywhere. Similarly, considering the new relative logic of the last twelve months, Muse and Mars Volta produced two of the top artistic failures of 2009, which were both fairly solid releases on their own. Adam Lambert rose. Chris Brown fell. It all feels like a 52-week fever dream, although that might just be the Fever Ray talking. And while we’re speaking of Girls and Fever Ray, the video seems intent again, for the first time in years, on killing the radio star.
About the blog. Confession time. This year The Muse in Music zigged, even after the rest of the music blogging world announced, in advance, that it would zag. We didn’t feel Dirty Projectors. Grizzly Bear. Wavves. Real Estate. (One of us didn’t exactly feel Phoenix or Loney, Dear, either.) A telling chunk of indie music this year was just too pastel, too chipper, too, well, beep-boop-beep. So when we kept droning on and on about how fantastic 2009 was treating us musically, we weren’t really talking about Animal Collective.
The best live show we saw together — and this is a bit disingenuous, as it is also the only live show we saw together — was Sea Wolf with Port O’Brien and Sarah Lov, an excellent line-up emphasizing textures and songwriting, harmonies and palpable energy. White Water, White Bloom and Threadbare — combined with Fanfarlo’s Reservoir — form a sort of three-way sampler platter for what we anticipate from indie music in the new decade. Sorry, John Taylor, but tomorrow’s frontman is no longer a magician: YouTube and Twitter have seen to that. The insular rock star is dead. Now the true, erudite musician will rise. The chip on his shoulder might remain when he responds to interview questions and Myspace friend requests, but onstage and in the studio, he is a businessman struggling for market share. He knows much more about the world than the dinosaurs of the previous era did, and he is, as Chris Corner of IAMX put it, a traveling salesman and gypsy. He is humbled, even (gasp!) human. And better for it.
It would be convenient if those three LPs formed the first three of our list, but as we said above and have been saying since January, this has been a truly remarkable year musically. Some of our preferences surprised us. Distilling the music of 2009 — the last year of a truly bewildering decade — might read something like this: during these last twelve months, all of the experimentation paid off. To wit:
10. Summons of Shining Ruins by Shinobu Nemoto. If this isn’t one of your RSS feeds, add one more electron stream to your coffee break and get after it. As the sign says, “This collection hosts complete, freely downloadable/streamable, often Creative Commons-licensed catalogs of ‘virtual record labels’. These ‘netlabels’ are non-profit, community-built entities dedicated to providing high quality, non-commercial, freely distributable MP3/OGG-format music for online download in a multitude of genres.” As you might imagine, these Clinical Archives gave us plenty to talk about this year, and Shinobu Nemoto’s understated transmission rose high above the chatter. (Myspace|Free download)
7. Riceboy Sleeps, by Jonsi & Alex. Conducted by Sigur Rós frontman Jón Þór Birgisson and his partner Alex Somers, Riceboy Sleeps features rich, simple orchestration, tragic imagery, and remarkable beauty. Those who have been paying attention since July know that I fired off a brief review before I realized the connection to Sigur Rós, but that is exactly the point. Music is finally transcending the personalities behind its creation. We can report on the art form instead of the artists, without fear of chasing our readers off. And you may have noticed the toll that it takes on both when media outlets lose sight of this. (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace|Last.fm)
6. Crack The Skye, by Mastodon. Low Fruit Alert, but the band name really suits them: stinking, gigantic, stampeding, prehistoric. Sometimes plinka plink plinka isn’t quite enough, and, well, if you buy one metal album this year…. Admittedly it was hard to forgive both band and the co-blogger for this post, but only because I had forgotten the first rule of music appreciation: a work must stand alone on its own merits. (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace|Last.fm)
5. Climb Up, by Apse. This is alien terrain, and not only because of the heavy space rock flavoring. Beats are tribal and muddled, vocals are distant and baroque. The music is universal. And driven. And weird. And sparse. And familiar. You could ask mom for a no-interest loan to this stuff, or you could summit K2. The opening track absolutely begs a naked beach bacchanal, but for PhD’s only. “Rook” declares checkmate. “Closure” is anything but. (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace|Last.fm)
4. Kingdom of Welcome Addiction, by IAMX. You paying attention, Mr. Glambert? This is how you do oversexed, oversized, homoerotic, arena rock electronica. The title track’s counterintuitive thesis and disarmingly positive outlook belong on every playlist, and power ballad “I Am Terrified” seeks to define at least one mathematical term more clearly. It stands as one of the finest tracks of the year. (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace)
3. Bird-Brains, by Tune-Yards. Go back to ’08 and revisit the buzz over Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, then apply the whole They’re Rubber, She’s Glue mandate: “Afro-pop,” “infectious,” even “bookish:” all of it applies to this crazy cool (and just plain “crazy”) debut. A month ago we wrote, “This is the second track from her bewildering, heady Bird-Brains, which by March or April we’ll likely all realize was the album of the year in 2009. We just haven’t had enough time to piece through it yet.” By now we’ve had a bit more time. Tick tock tick tock tick tock… (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace|Last.fm|Free download)
2. Embryonic, by The Flaming Lips. The okies deserve shortlisting based on effort alone. A bizarre and unflagging double album in October, a Dark Side of the Moon remake in December — to say nothing of a spontaneous dick-measuring contest with Arcade Fire in March — someone ought to pour the Lips a drink. And give them the afternoon off. Embryonic is a curious title for a well-established ensemble’s twelfth studio album. Nevertheless it plays: this is their finest and most cohesive work in at least seven years, which for many circles will earn them nothing less than the grade of “comeback.” (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace)
For several reasons — all of which are arbitrary and subjective — nothing would please me more than to award Wayne Coyne & Company the album of the year. For starters, I’ve been aware of them for years and they’ve scarcely recorded a note that I haven’t liked. Even more capricious, since Evangelicals took the prize last year and surely might next year, it would put a three-year-long stick in the eye of every city in the world but Norman, Oklahoma. But more than anything, music — like any other creative endeavor — is a young man’s game. At 41, I’d like to think the 48-year-old Coyne is still capable of the top slot. But fate had other plans. Pandora led us to A Hawk And A Hacksaw, which led us to The Leaf Label, which led us to…
1. The Snake, by Wildbirds and Peacedrums. The appellate judge has made it clear that my posting any more reviews of this LP would constitute a violation of the restraining order. (That must be one of the reasons the current tour doesn’t stop at Texas or the surrounding states.) Scroll through our previous work here. Give the album a spin at one of the following links, or just buy the thing. You’ve heard nothing else quite like it. (Lala|Rhapsody|Myspace)
(Postscript: the attentive reader will note that this dispatch skipped listings #9 and #8, which interestingly enough are, respectively, White Water, White Bloom (Lala) and Reservoir (Lala). Sea Wolf and Fanfarlo have a gaggle of last-minute editing room floor additions to thank for that, so hoorays all around!)