In this week’s issue, we asked our small gang of in-house and freelance music writers to think deep and come up with the studio or live collections, box sets, reissues, or EPs that best stood out in their minds — the albums that received repeated play time in the car, on the stereo, or on the iPod. The following lists contain some surprises — and a few that even earned multiple listings.
It is a common habit among music journalists across the country to make a big deal out of their own personal tastes by posting these kinds of "best of" lists. Sometimes they reflect the top-charting, best-selling albums of the year and industry trends. But best-selling and most popular collections aren’t necessarily the strongest artistic efforts, though. As these lists demonstrate, there’s much more to 2009’s new music than what the mainstream music media might suggest.
This is the first of two compiled lists. Dig it.
HAIRE’S ROCK RUNDOWN
Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound — When Sweet Sleep Returned (Tee Pee)
This psychedelic trip is part Crazy Horse, part Kyuss — think of it as stoner rock lite with a Cali cowboy kick. The creepy "Two Stage Rocket" will give you flashbacks.
The Mumlers — Don’t Throw Me Away (Galaxia)
This classy, jazzy disc is one of the most organic sounding albums of the year, and it’s packed with smooth-stepping tunes and a delightfully drunken vibe. "Coffin Factory" is a Zombies-esque beauty, while "99 Years" will make you order another scotch.
Portugal the Man — The Satanic Satanist (Equal Vision)
Don’t let the title fool you: this is easily one of the peppiest releases of the year, a pure pop gem that sounds a bit like Stardust-era Bowie, that is if Ziggy was a dancing fool and not a glum-glam troubadour. The opening track, "People Say," has one of the catchiest choruses around.
Mastodon — Crack the Skye (Reprise)
Don’t dive into this leviathan expecting Cookie Monster vocals, the kind that blighted every other Mastodon release. This time, the Atlanta metal gods are singing — and holy hell, if they don’t do a bang up job of it. This is the metal album of the new millennium. The 10 minute-long "The Czar" is one part Pink Floyd, one part kick your mother-grabbing ass.
Pretty Lights — Filling Up the City Skies (PGA Music)
For fans of RJD2’s Deadringer and Moby’s Play, this beat-happy, loop-loving electro offering is the best bargain of the year — it’s free. "Something’s Wrong" is the best song that Portishead never made.
Chris Haire is City Paper’s managing editor and a regular music contributor. He prefers beer to wine, and is fixin’ to act fatherly.
Mission of Burma — The Sound The Speed The Light (Matador)
Pylon — Chomp (DFA)
AC/DC — Backtracks (Sony/Legacy)
R.E.M. — Live in Dublin (Warner Bros.)
Sonic Youth — The Eternal (Matador)
Wilco — Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
Elvis Presley — Elvis 75: Good Rockin’ Tonight (Sony/Legacy)
Volcano Suns — The Bright Orange Years (Merge)
Band of Skulls — Baby Darling Doll Face Honey (Artist First)
Cracker — Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey (429)
Lesemann is City Paper’s music editor. Black coffee, black and white sitcoms, and stout are his "thing."
STRATTON’S LIST 2009
Various Artists — Playing for Change: Songs Around the World (Hear Music)
A visionary travels the world recording street musicians, then compiles their performances together into 10 amazing tracks.
The Felice Brothers — Yonder Is the Clock (Team Love)
The Felice Brothers are a fantastic influence on music. Listen to them.
Gaslight Street — Blue Skies for Fools (independent)
The local album of the year. Campbell Brown and Co. prove they’ve got a smooth Southern rock voice with national appeal.
Pierce Edens and the Dirty Work — Long Days Above Ground (independent)
This gravelly-voiced Asheville songwriter sings like Tom Waits after a night of drinking. Add a spoonful of passion and a shot of wit and it’s a solid winner.
The Avett Brothers — I and Love and You (Sony)
Say what you will about the Avetts going radio-friendly with Rick Rubin, but this album is full of stick-in-your-head sing-alongs.
Dave Rawlings Machine — A Friend of a Friend (Acony)
Gillian Welch’s partner takes the wheel for a change, recruiting Old Crow friends for a rollicking ride on the folk train.
Boulder Acoustic Society — Punchline (Nine Mile)
As if the impeccable gypsy jazz wasn’t enough, the album folds out into a View-Master toy. Genius.
Lindsay Holler & The Western Polaroids — Helltembre (independent)
Passionate and pure, with Holler’s unmistakable swagger.
Béla Fleck — Throw Down Your Heart, Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: African Sessions (Rounder)
The banjo master travels around Africa, playing banjo with traditional musicians. And holding his own.
Assembly of Dust — Some Assembly Required (Rock Ridge Music)
Strangefolk’s Reid Genauer returns with his strongest material yet, and plenty of talented friends making appearances.
Stratton Lawrence is a freelance writer and a regular music section contributor. He can play all six strings at once (usually in tune).
Jessie Torrisi — brûler brûler (Wild Curls)
"Hungry like Me" is a flat-out scorcher of a song, and that’s just the beginning of brûler brûler. There’s a lyricism to this indie singer-songwriter that borders on hypnotic.
Various Artists — Chicago Blues: A Living History (Raisin Music)
In this tribute to the blues of that windy big city a bit northwest of here, past and present combine, speculating on the future all the while. This is a two-disc set that reminds you of just how smooth and easy that sugar sweet sound can go down.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers — The Live Anthology (Reprise)
You can’t help but think about what an amazing storyteller Tom Petty is. These songs, cherry-picked from decades of live performances, paint a picture of consummate musicians doing what they do best.
Them Crooked Vultures — Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
Every once in awhile, the big guns gather round, mess around, and just make something really freaking cool. In this case, it’s John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl, and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) laying down some wicked sounds.
Kiss — Sonic Boom (Kiss Records)
Not a whole lot of new ground covered on this one, granted, but, then again, classic is classic for a reason and Kiss is full-bore barreling down to their hard-rock roots here. A perfect late night road trip companion.
BRIAN SEWELL’S BEST
Fever Ray — Fever Ray (Mute)
A challenging and minimal electronic album from Karin Dreijer Andersson of Swedish duo, The Knife. Eerie in all the right ways, Andersson’s voice is tweaked, shifted, and warped.
Animal Collective — Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
The beloved Baltimore band’s most refined and celebratory release to date, a dreamy, inviting, and generally fun record.
Dirty Projectors — Bitte Orca (Domino)
A circus of Jimmy Page-inspired guitar acrobatics and super-catchy tunes. The mid-album rock out "Useful Chamber" would take home gold on a top songs list.
The Antlers — Hospice (Frenchkiss)
Brooklyn band The Antlers’ post-rock album sounds epic, but could hardly be more concentrated. A meditation on death and duty voiced in a confessional narrative. Touching, melancholic, sentimental to a fault, and unforgettable.
Phoenix — Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)
Some of the best hooks of 2009 are on the French indie band’s fourth studio album. Thomas Mars’ endearing lyrics and the impeccable mixing stand out.
Grizzly Bear — Veckatimest (Warp)
The Brooklyn quartet shot for the stars after 2006’s Yellow Hous. Some tracks didn’t make it, but those that did are stellar. It’s modern-day Americana that goes from folksy to choral before you can pronounce the album title.
Bat for Lashes — Two Suns (Astralwerks)
It would be easy to compare Natasha Khan to everyone from Vashti Bunyan to Björk, but her quasi-mystical approach to songwriting makes for a record of fleeting beauty, like a dream where you meet a gypsy with all the answers.
Dan Deacon — Bromst (Carpark)
Like a more playful Philip Glass, Deacon’s second album is a realized work of repetition, fine tuning, and instruments being played hard and fast. Bromst doesn’t fit comfortably in any particular genre, and can’t be ignored for that reason.
Fuck Buttons — Tarot Sport (ATP)
The duo’s second album is a jarring, electronic noise-rock record with the post-rock structures of bands like Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor! Still very experimental, Tarot Sport was a welcome departure from their screamfest, Street Horrrsing.
Tim Hecker — An Imaginary Country (Kranky)
More meticulous electronic compositions from the Montreal-based ambient musician. The listener is invited to explore Hecker’s imaginary landscapes of feedback and expansive, constant blankets of sound. Textured like the wind, An Imaginary Country builds like a rising storm.
Brian Sewell is a Charleston-based freelance writer with a Yankee pedigree who might change his name to "Classified."