Here’s a video that runs through my favorite albums of 2009.
Before I made that video, I sketched out a rough list in order to encourage people to pick up good albums as Christmas gifts. The order was different then, but here’s a glimpse of that post, which contains more details descriptions than the video.
I’m posting this far too early, so I’m sure to revise it soon, but right now, here are my favorites in a very, very tough year. So much good stuff.
- Joe Henry – Blood from Stars
If I’d only read the lyrics, I probably would have picked this as my #1 for the year. Turns out the music is every bit as enthralling.This is an album about the kind of faith you need to ride out a storm, to find hope in spite of your own failures and wickedness, to learn from that experience we call “the dark night of the soul.” And the music aches with the burden of suffering, pangs of guilt, and the depths of sorrow. It sounds, at times, like the music’s being played in the hold of a ship on stormy seas, a ship that’s about to break apart… and you? You’re Jonah, beginning to realize the error of your ways.Some friends have complained that they’re not fond of his voice. Okay, so Henry doesn’t have one of the world’s most beautiful voices. Neither do Dylan, Cohen, Phillips, and on and on. What I call an *interesting* voice will drive others crazy, and vice versa. All I can say is that sometimes, as with Antony and the Johnsons, the music soars because of the beauty of the voice: They could sing passages from a Stephenie Meyer novel and make it sound well written. Sometimes, though, the strength of a singer is not about the traditional “beauty” of his or her voice, but about the expressiveness, or the textures, or the characters created by that voice. Henry has one of those voices. It took some getting used to, but now I’m grateful for how it keeps my attention focused on the poetry of his lyrics.
- St. Vincent – Actor
A technicolor trip through one of the brightest, boldest new rock stars on the stage. Annie Clark’s debut, Marry Me, was a knockout. The follow-up will pummel you silly with surprises and hooks.I so admire her efficiency. None of these songs wear out their welcome, even though they’re stacked as high as a seven-layer cake with sonic sweetness and frosting and gumdrops. This album is just as fierce, fresh, and fantastic today as it was in the spring, and the louder you play it, the more details come to the surface.
- Aaron Strumpel – Elephants
Praise music inspired by some kind of holy terror. I shake when I listen to it. It’s the sound of a man fumbling with the laces of his shoes because he’s just discovered he’s on Holy Ground.Full disclosure: The album is produced by one of my closest friends – Todd Fadel.Fuller disclosure: I somehow didn’t know he’d produced it until after I’d heard overwhelmed by my first couple of listens, so my rating here is an honest assessment unaltered by bias.
- Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
I enjoy jazz, but I rarely hear an instrumental jazz album that affects me in a powerful, personal way. This Joe-Henry-produced record provided an automatic lift to my spirits every time I put it on this year. Either Toussaint and Henry have invented a new brand of jazz, or somebody needs to give me a name for what they’re doing so I can go find a whole lot more of it. It’s playful, soulful, surprising, and even funny.
- The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
My favorite rock-band record of the year. But you have to hear the whole thing in one go. It’s an epic, mythic story told through this song cycle, full of true love, enchantment, nightmarish villainy, and even more nightmarish vengeance. It’s a fairy-tale celebration of true love, staged with an audacity and a disregard for marketability that you rarely see anymore. The commercial success of The Decemeberists represents great hope for creative, artistic musicians everywehre.I don’t know why so many found it to be a disappointing follow-up to The Crane Wife. Okay, so it’s not easy to pull singles off of this. Still, what an achievement. And who knew that the Decemberists plus My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden would be so much more exciting than just The Decemberists?
- Wilco – Wilco (the Album)
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot now has competition as my favorite Wilco album. This one gets better and better every time I play it. At first, the big rowdy rock songs won me over. Now the quieter tracks are sinking in. Some beautiful lyrics, moving expressions of humility and longing, and a band working together better than ever before.
- M. Ward – Hold Time
Paste magazine handed She & Him (M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel) their album of the year award in 2008. But this solo venture from Ward is better in every way: It’s a high-spirited, contagiously groovy good time with literary lyrics, spiritual contemplation, and production that makes it sound like something new and like a forgotten folk-rock classic buried for thirty years. Listen to “Epistemology.”
- David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
Simultaneously the most arresting and frustrating album I heard this year. I’m both dazzled by Bazan’s imagery and honesty as I am aggravated by his over-literal, unpoetic interpretations of certain Scriptures: narrow translations that become the basis of his dismissiveness. (I know a lot of Christians who believe that the story of Adam and Eve is True with a Capital “T” without insisting that it is a play-by-play, documentary account of what exactly happened, but that’s too complicated a conversation to have here.)Still, as a portrait of an artist who is in a crisis of family relationships as he is a crisis of faith, this plays like a spiritual grandson to Leslie Phillips’ The Turning. And in view Bazan’s prolific career, this is his finest work musically, vocally, and lyrically. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see where he goes from here.
- U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Even a middle-grade U2 album is more impressive than most bands’ finest work, in my opinion. The high points of this one are very, very high but the low points are frustrating, because they could have been such great songs. It’s lyrically more cohesive than anything they’ve done since Pop. Bono is finding new strength as a vocalist and a storyteller.
I hate to say this… I think most of the fault here lies with the producers, who over-produced some tracks, and spoiled the opening track with a layer of gauze. (Compare the album version with this more exciting version, where they actually sound like a band.) Nothing here blazes with the fresh energy of “Vertigo” or “Elevation,” nothing has a groove to rival “A Man and a Woman,” and the band goes too quickly and too frequently for what has become the U2 signature: the big, raputurous singalong refrains of “Ohhhhhhhh oh oh!”
Still, “Moment of Surrender,” “Breathe,” “White as Snow,” and “Magnificent” prove that U2 can still surprise, thrill, and elevate its audience, and “Unknown Caller” shows they still relish the right to be brilliantly ridiculous.
- Iron and Wine – Around the Well
It plays like a best-of collection, and yet most of it I’ve never heard before. Not a bad track on the whole thing.
- Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
I think it’s Neko’s strongest work, both musically and lyrically. It’s a great record about how you’ll get burned if you look to Mother Nature for Motherly Love, and about how romantic love can be just as unpredictable and devastating. These songs should only be sung in a voice like a tornado. Never turn your back on Neko Case.
- FOUR-WAY LIVE ALBUM TIE:
Leonard Cohen – Live in London
A perfect showcase for Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and banter.
Over the Rhine – Live from Nowhere, Volume 4
The finest live collection yet from the band, a rip-roaring rollercoaster ride through the best songs of their first decade, featuring the original lineup of the band in better form than ever. Just listen to this take on “A Gospel Number,” and you too will shout “I CRY MERCY!”
Bruce Cockburn – Slice O’Life
If this were Cockburn’s farewell album, it would serve nicely. He’s not the guitarist, or the singer, that he once was, but this album finds him enjoyably casual and still capable of surprising, glorious improvisation.)
Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom
Astonishing reinventions, a consistently surprising track list, and yet it all holds together as if these songs were meant as one cohesive album.
- The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Okay, every year I do some catching up and start listening to bands that have been recommended to me for years. This year, that band is The Clientele. And I’m sorry that I’m late to the party. This album has an enthralling blend of the dreamy and the edgy, and it makes me want to hear earlier albums.
- The Felice Brothers – Yonder is the Clock
As this was a very disappointing year for a lot of us Dylan fans, there were plenty of other folk-rock efforts to keep us happy, and Yonder is the Clock is the finest I’ve heard all year. And I’m still fairly new to it: It might be higher on this list next time you check in.
- Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
This is a very difficult album to love, but it’s so impressive in its hooks and erratic melodies. “Stillness is the Move” is one of my favorite songs of the year… yes, partly because the lyrics are inspried by Wings of Desire.
- Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
Bird sounds less eager to impress; this is his most introspective work yet, but he seems incapable of anything less than beauty. The lyrics investigate what it means to be truly human, and ponder the unquantifiable mysteries of human life beyond the numbers. Listen to “Not a Robot But a Ghost” and “Privateers.”
- Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
Tracks from a good Buddy album, tracks from a GREAT Julie album… but alas, the two don’t fit together very well this time.
- Passion Pit – Manners
It’s a party on a disc, with lyrics that make you do some work. I played this on the commute to work, just to wake myself up and charge up the batteries. I like this bit from the Pitchfork review: “…it’s the sort of heart-to-heart populist record that’s every bit as sincere as it is infectious– though Angelakos sings in a manner rarely heard outside of a shower with unpredictable temperature control, it feels symbolic of a band that’s completely unashamed, not shameless, in its pursuit of a human connection.”
- The Dead Weather – Horehound
Barrels of nasty fun, and the most engaging of Jack White’s adventures beyond The White Stripes.
- Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines
What *is* this stuff? Rock? Jazz? Swing? I want more.
- Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Sometimes she a little too fond of Sarah McLachlan’s Easy Listening mode, but when she gets serious, watch out… here comes Sinead O’Connor 2.0. If I were in high school, I’d have a crush.
- Sam Phillips – Hypnotists in Paris, Cold Dark Night, and other music available on The Long Play
It was the best idea from a musician this year: Sam Phillips subscription service, offering subscribers exclusive EPs, audio commentaries, exclusive videos, journal entries, photographs, and so much more. It’s a membership to a club full of ideas, good company, surprise special guests (like Joe Henry!), and a community of people who all appreciate one of America’s best songwriters.
And the songs do not disappoint. Her Christmas EP is now essential holiday listening at Overstreet Headquarters.)
- Elvis Perkins in Dearland — Elvis Perkins in Dearland
It’s a little too controlled for me, but the songs and the album’s cohesiveness are very impressive.
- Dark Was the Night
This is one of those rare various-artists projects in which there are two good songs for every clunker. Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond steal the show, but it’s quite a show all the way through.
- Dave Perkins — Pistol City Holiness
If you’re wondering where the punk-blues spirit of Chagall Guevara went, it turns out it never left Dave Perkins. Handle with oven mitts.
- Circulatory System – Signal Morning
Fuzzy, frantic four-track bursting with great ideas.
- Dave Matthews Band – Big Whisky and the Groogrux King
No, I can’t believe it either. I didn’t know they could win me over. But I’m really into this one.
Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire
Unsettlingly sexy country-rock. The best Lucinda Williams album since Car Wheels, but not by Lucinda Williams.
Antlers – Hospice
Strange, atmospheric, and addicting.
PJ Harvey and John Parish – A Woman a Man Walked By
But for the vile title track, I’d say this is Harvey’s best album since Stories from City, Stories from the Sea.
Amadou and Miriam- Welcome to Mali
A whole-hearted hallelujah of an album. I have a feeling if I could translate the lyrics, I’d be even more enthusiastic.
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
I can’t take the lead singer’s voice for long, but there are some irresistibly beautiful songs here, especially “Another World,” both the saddest and most moving song I heard this year.
Eels – Hombre Lobo
More of the same, but that’s not such a bad thing
Alela Diane – To Be Still
Diane is now high on my Artists to Watch list. This is a strange dream of an album, located on the map between Suzanne Vega and Beth Orton… and that’s a good place to be.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – A Stranger Here
Once again, producer Joe Henry brings out the best in a living legend.
Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
I need to spend more time with this one, but I’ve been moved both times I heard it.
Still gotta hear new album by:
Stuart Murdoch, Two Cow Garage, Southeast Engine, Mountain Goats, Japandroids, and a lot more.
Letdown of the Year:
Bob Dylan, Together Through Life and Christmas in the Heart. So, two brilliant Dylan albums this decade, followed by these two which I quickly put aside.
I tried, I really tried, but I don’t hear what others are hearing:
Flaming Lips – Embryonic
Animal Collective – Merriwether Post Pavilion
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest