2009: Jennifer Kelly
In retrospect, 2009 seems like a tortoise and hare sort of year, a year in which big flashy records faded and smaller, quieter ones took over.
For instance, I started 2009 the same way a lot of people did, stunned by Animal Collective’s Merriweather Pavillon. Around the first weekend of January, I was certain that it would be record of the year, even a little disappointed that the year was so manifestly over already. But fast-forward 11 months, and Merriweather Pavillon doesn’t even appear in my top ten. It’s not that it wasn’t an excellent record. It was. It’s not even that it mightn’t be record of the year in some aggregated, macro sort of way.
Still the records you end up loving are the ones that you listen to over and over again, and after a breathless twice-in-a-row session early in January, I never got back to Merriweather Pavillon. I wasn’t reviewing it. They weren’t doing interviews. I had a big pile of stuff to get through. And so I set it aside. This was not really an isolated occurrence. The same thing happened with a lot of big records: Sonic Youth’s Eternal Flame, Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm, Mountain Goats’ The Life of the World To Come, and Califone’s All My Friends are Funeral Singers.
My point is that there’s nothing definitive about my list. It’s a subset of a subset of a subset. The records that I got to hear at all were a small, almost entirely random portion of the total released this year. The albums that I listened to a lot – for reviews, for interviews and occasionally just for pleasure -- were an even more haphazard set within that group. And so, the ones that made my top ten have very little in common – a NZ theme, the word “guilty” possibly – but mostly just the fact that I love them all.
My favorite pop album for 2009, as razor-sharp as it is achingly sweet, with one song at the end (“All My Days and All My Nights”) that’s everything I wanted from New Pornographers’ “Mass Romantic” but wasn’t quite getting.
Another grower, very much in the mid-1980s Bats tradition, but tinged with a bittersweet acknowledgement of transience and mortality.
Bishop’s exploration of his Arabic roots (he’s part Lebanese) has him tamping down the technique for technique’s sake and focusing on simple, riveting melodies. Arab percussion, woodwinds and bass in the background is partly three guys he hired for a day and never saw again (INS issues), and partly Bishop himself.
My favorite punk rock from this year, all stutter, slur and manic repetition a la the Swell Maps. “Hey Una” was probably my second favorite song for 2009, after Obits’ “Widow of My Dreams.”
Another one that crept up on me, starting out as just another pretty record, and ending as a bit of an obsession. There’s a spectral loveliness to van Etten’s voice, a little hitch in the purity that makes her sound like a haunted child.
I was pretty sure the Reigning Sound’s Love and Curses (I’ve got him at #13) was going to be my top-ranked ex-Oblivians disc this year, until I noticed that the one I was actually listening to, over and over, was Disco Outlaw. It’s a rougher, more classic rock sound, alternating between raved-up country garage (“Ditch Road”) to steam-hazed blues (“Blood Bank Blues”) to classic rock swagger (“Against the Wall”).
My favorite new band from this year, Tim Cohen’s Fresh & Onlys put a mildly psychedelic gloss on 1960s Nuggets pop, putting tambourines, chiming guitars and Syd Barrett-ish whimsy into play. The first album’s giddy sweetness gave way to Grey Eyed Girls‘ slightly more polished, echo-spooked sound, but both are excellent, so please don’t make me choose.
Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt builds radiant textures of sheer sound, sometimes gathering tone into fuzzed, oversaturated pop (“What Grows,” “Different Mirrors”), sometimes allowed it simply to shimmer a pure dazzling light (“Antoine”). Not much good on shuffle, these tracks, you have to sink into the album as whole.
It took a founding member’s departure to shake this band out it hippie groove. When folk melodist Ryan Vanderhoof left just after Love is Simple, Akron/Family regrouped, shifted its focus from Beatle pop to Afro-beat, and made the best album of its career. “Everyone Is Guilty” is the long shape-shifting opener, approximating the live show with its multiple moods and movements, but what’s beautiful about Set ‘Em Wild is how its divergent tracks fit together into a densely packed, furiously plotted, gorgeous whole.
There’s an effortlessness I like about David Kilgour’s work, a sense of imagery and song arrived at through daydreams. “Back in the Day,” especially, sounds as if it were kicked out of the dust, its shuffling rhythms and loose lines eddying and falling back. It’s almost too slack to be a song, you’re thinking, until about midway, it coalesces into something as natural and familiar and melodically inevitable as breath. The two Robert Scott songs, too, are really beautiful, especially closer “All Those Notes.”
Five more good ones:
1. The Feelies - Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth (Bar-None)
By Jennifer Kelly