When we posted our first year-end lists way back in 2006, the whole mp3 blog thing was still fairly new. We certainly weren’t the trailblazers, but we did have the advantage of starting our little music blog before the internet became flooded with the likes of us, before services like Hype Machine and Elbo.ws were required to sift thru the ever-growing cosmos of the music blogosphere.
So instead of ranking and listing and widdling down and hierarchizing as I’ve done for the past few years, I’m just going to give you my favorites in a few catagories that I hope matter to you. The good news is that my favorite music this year and this decade doesn’t seem to be everybody else’s favorite music, which gives me a chance to advocate for only a handful of artists, in the hopes that they’ll reach your ears with the same delight that they’ve reached mine.
Best Local Detroit Track of the Year
But the most interesting thing about “Electric Way” is that it kind of ruins the feel of the Taxis LP as a whole. The album is defined by its consistent use of the downbeat–sometimes emulating the chugging of a train, at others the pulsing of blood–lavishly draped with Yates’ aggressive keyboard layering over Clark’s basslines, which move Escher-like over and under the melodies. On the whole, it’s a heady, elegant affair. The word “debonair” has been used by some reviewers, and appropriately so. But “Electric Way” is all upbeat, dancy, unstoppably catchy. It just doesn’t fit in with those other songs.
Including “Electric Way” as the penultimate track on Taxis is, to me, the equivalent of having Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” as the second-to-last track on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.
But who can blame the Zoos for doing this? If you had written a song like “Electric Way,” could you have saved it for later? Could you have murdered this darling? I couldn’t, and I’m glad Zoos of Berlin couldn’t either.
It must be tough to be such a talented band that you can’t help but mess up your excellent album with one of the best songs of the year.
P.S. The decision for best Detroit track of the year would have been more difficult if The Dead Bodies would have released a recording of “Hugs and Kisses.”
Album of the Year
I judge an album on two essential points:
1) do the songs get stuck in my head to the point where I unconsciously sing them as I go about my day
2) do I actually care about the songs, on a personal level?
Most albums I listen to fall into either one or the other category. Sometimes, I run across albums with high marks in both categories. But to be my favorite album of the year, it’s got to be both, and in spades.
This is why Richard Swift’s The Atlantic Ocean beats out Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix as my favorite album of the year. As much as I love “Lizstomania” and the entire Phoenix album (I think “Armistice” is actually the best song on the album), when the first line is nonsense like “So sentimental. Not sentimental, no,” I can’t honestly make it the album of the year, no matter how much I adore it. I love that song, but I just don’t really care about it. I feel the same way about this album that I feel about a lot of Michael Jackson’s music–it’s great to dance to, great to play in the car, it’s undeniably great, but it doesn’t really mean anything, does it?
On the other hand: “Save your prayers / I’m an unbeliever / and I don’t fall apart easily / ’cause I got no heart / got no one to make me cry. / And everyone knows when they’re gonna die,” sung over a steady piano thumping like a hammer on the nails of a coffin–that’s some heavy shit, and it’s catchy!
Or: “Where have you gone? / And no lights in the home. / We gave it our best but we made it a tomb. / So I’ll take the ocean, and you’ll take the land. / And hope that our son understands.”
This guy’s singing about real stuff, in a really interesting way. Which isn’t to say the album is a dirgefest. The melodies are more often than not extremely light and breezy–easy to sing along to and memorable, and there’s a lot of fun in this album too. We have Swift singing joyfully “Sometimes you lose sometimes you win. / I want to drink until I’m broke and then just see what kind of shit we get in.” And these aren’t even the most memorable lines. (that might be from the title track: “I’m part of the scene. / I’m part of the scene. / I got the drum machine. / Boom-tap, boom-tap. / Boom-tap, boom-tap.”).
Swift’s singing voice is an unusual one. If it weren’t for the modern production quality and the fact that Swift uses the history of pop music over the past 40 years to inform every single note of the album, I might have thought that this was a long-long album sung by Peter Lorre. I like unusual voices–my two favorite singers of the past decade are Dan Bejar and Joanna Newsom, and that tells you something. But Swift’s voice does have a reach and fluidness to it, even though he can often sound as if he’s gargling water while singing. Ultimately, this is a good thing–if anyone else were singing these songs, they wouldn’t sound as good (no one can sing “Atlantic 000-cean” the way he does).
But the voice is only part of what kept me coming back to this excellent collection of diverse songs full of various stylings and a lot of grace. First, there are so many different sounds in this album: cheesy electronic keyboard runs, cowbell, 70s/80s McCartney/Harrison synths that sound better than the solo Beatles albums they were drawn from. The modes run from traditional Irving Berlin-like ballads to straight up Motown swing and soul to rollicking rhythm n’ blues. This album’s really got everything you could ever want, and makes it hard to move on to other albums because there’s so much good in here.
Opener “Atlantic Ocean” is instantly catchy, with an unforgettable hook, letting you know over and over that “you’re gonna drown, drown, drown.” “The Original Thought” starts sleepy and moody but turns into a swaggering little tune that gets you bouncing in your seat and, in my case, strutting down the hallway at work while listening on my iPod. It’s hard to say too much about this album without seeming to be too overzealous about its charms. Richard Swift is a hook-machine. But the hooks are grounded in gravitas: the songs are about heartbreak, break-ups, and many times about coaxing someone to not cry. Swift’s lyrics have a certain existential charm. Like Jens Lekman, Morrissey, Andrew Bird, Leonard Cohen, and The High Strung’s Josh Malerman, Swift has a way of expressing the difficulties of living in a godless, uncaring world while still caring a hell of a lot about it. He often tackles issues of loss or heartache with arch wisecracks or downright sarcasm, but he does so in full and sometimes surprising orchestrations. No matter how bleak things can get, this guy can write one hell of a pop song.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Why? – Eskimo Snow
Best Tracks of 2009
Cass McCombs’ Catacombs is one of those albums that you want to download at a very high quality in order to capture the excellence of its recording and mixing. With a good set of headphones, you can hear the air in the room of the recording studio, the reverberation coming off every snare hit, the articulating sounds coming from the back of McCombs’ throat.
“You Saved My Life” is the album’s masterpiece. It’s slow and building, sweetly sung, and gripping, yet it’s not some heart-wrenching, plaintive ode, but an honest lyric dedicated to a lover who has made all the difference, encapsulating all that comes with knowing that “there’s so much to lose.” The best part of the song to me is at the end when McCombs sings the “you” in “you saved my life” with a whimsical high-falsetto, a jokey little voice crack that I first interpreted as McCombs ruining the song. But after repeated listens, I came to a different conclusion. When your life is so good, and you feel that you’ve really found where you should be and who you are in this crazy, often sad world, you’re totally into jokes! There’s room for them. That crack in McCombs’ voice is a well-deserved wise crack, and it’s the best part of the whole song.
Tie: “One More Time” – The Library (now known as Prayer)
CORRECTED: 8:00pm est, 12/29/09
UPDATE: As my readers who know about music real good have pointed out, this is actually a Joe Jackson song. I listened to the original version of this song just now, and it’s quite great, although it doesn’t dismiss the fact that The Library/Prayer did a good job of covering it and making it their own. I’d even say that they’ve made the hook even more catchy than the original version.
That being as it may, covers do not qualify for making this year-end list, and since Jackson wrote this song in the late 70s, his version can’t make the list either.
Congrats, Cass McCombs, you win our prize!
The backstory: This past spring, I received a package from some music PR agency with a bunch of promo CDs. It had some decent stuff, but most of it I listened to once and never again. But included was this mysterious, non-descript CD case with a drawing of a pope or cardinal blessing some dude, with the background in a stain-washed pink. The name of the band was The Library, and on this very good EP is a song called “One More Time,” a song that I’ve listened to more than any other song this year.
Recently, you may have heard the song on TV. A bad version of it is now a Taco Bell commercial. You’ll know it next time you see it on the TVs. “One more time. / One more time. / Say you’re leaving. / Say goodbye.” Well, that jingle is a shadow of what might be one of the most epic hooks I’ve ever heard. An electronic, dance-club pop song, “One More Time” incorporates all the tricks that any Top 40 songsmith ever employed for the likes of Brittney, Gaga, or Madonna, but it does it with such verve that it’s really impossible to say there is a better pop song on those Top 40 charts this year.
And yet the band is still a mystery to me, mostly because they did a terrible job of naming themselves. “The Library” pulls up 70,700,000 results in Google, and I’m guessing less than 1% of those apply to this band. Their myspace page is a wonder in failed usability–taking out all of the features that allow people to find out what the band is all about and leaving that annoying music player that works like crap. It seems as though the band has recently changed their name to “Prayer,” which is an even dumber name, pulling in 91 million unrelated and higher-ranking results. So apparently, the name change was for reasons that were more fatuous than practical, because Prayer is a pretty bad name for a band. The end result is that they made it too difficult for me to really learn anything about them, and after awhile I just gave up.
What I did find out thru their label page is that these guys are from LA, and play mostly LA clubs in the electro music scene. The lead singer looks like he’s from LA (please insert all your midwestern stereotypes about people from LA here). But one thing I know for sure is that this guy is responsible for what I consider the best pop song of the year and, with Mr. McCombs, the best track of the year.
Honorable Mentions for Track of 2009
“Marrow” – St. Vincent
While I’m not a big fan of the album, this track really blows my mind, probably because a lot of it reminds me of what Xiu Xiu would sound like if Jamie Stewart would stop being so difficult.
“Something is Squeezing My Skull” – Morrissey
It pulls riffs and rhythm from four different songs from Your Arsenal and Southpaw Grammar but the melody Moz sings in the chorus, with that killer vibrato, is the best vocal maneuver he’s pulled off in years.
“Now We Can See” – The Thermals
This is what happens when you take the best of 90s alternative rock and make it your own.
“Lisztomania” – Phoenix
Just because Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was one of the most overrated albums of the year doesn’t mean it wasn’t also one of the best.
“Leftovers” – Jarvis Cocker
It takes place at a museum. How can I not love this song?
Best Album of the 2000s
After winning the Mercury Prize for The Hour of Bewilderbeast in 2000, Damon Gough, aka Badly Drawn Boy, fell into that troubled category of legitimized indie musicians, a netherworld between mainstream pop stardom and “indie cred,” whatever that is. This segment is represented by the likes of Cake, Ben Folds, and Aimee Mann, and later, Ben Kweller and the Eels. These bands get little enthusiastic coverage after their initial success, by both the P4Ks and the Rollings Stones/Spins. They have lots of fans that continue to consume their work and go to the shows, but they dwindle with each successful album. They are both too popular and not popular enough. It seems like their right place would be at NPR, but lately even All Songs Considered seems too focused on Animal Collective and Sigur Ros to give much time to this small, relegated class of musician. And it’s the reason why I’m not surprised that The Hour of Bewilderbeast isn’t making many “best of the decade” lists.
But I don’t think there’s another album that I’ve continually gone back to, nor an album that has traveled with me during the highs and the lows of the past decade, nor an album that has continually surprised me with every new listen as much as The Hour of Bewilderbeast.
If you read the album’s reviews from early 2000, soon after its release, you’ll find favorable adjectives mixed with complaints of Damon Gough being just the next graduate in Elliott Smith’s “whimpering” school of singer-songwriting. And at that time, I would have agreed, adding that Gough had graduated with high honors from that school.
But listening to Hour of Bewilderbeast now–after Sufjan Stevens, after Joanna Newsom, after Bon Iver, after Beirut, after Fleet Foxes, after every major “baroque pop” or “folk pop” act to have made a major impact in the last ten years–you have to be surprised at how much muscle the album wields at times.
The gorgeous opener “The Shining,” which introduces the central theme of the album, is followed by the oddly jarring “Everybody’s Stalking,” and later, “Another Pearl” features aggressive distorted chords and lots of fluid, active drumming. In fact, the album is full of drumming, sometimes jazzy, sometimes just a straight beat, but there’s a lot of activity on skins, and much of it of a high quality. “Disillusion,” one of the highlights of the album, is a disco-y romp that has nothing delicate or whimpering about it.
But really, it’s the emotional stuff and the mellow acoustic guitars and the balladeering that makes this album so memorable. Companion songs “Camping Next to Water” and “Stone on the Water” offer two of the best acoustic guitar riffs I’ve heard outside of the Elliott Smith songbook. “Magic in the Air” is simply one of the best love songs ever, even though it’s lyrics are a bit odd: laughing so much, then crying; leaving shoes in a tree; sleeping on leaves on a driveway. Like the two lovers the lyrics describe, the music is in no hurry. It’s flowing, dreamy, from the opening piano arpeggio to the lovely acoustic guitar lines that match the piano, which then break out in a lush and peaceful vamp. It’s a shame that, due to a copyright settlement, Badly Drawn Boy was forced to remove the original final lyric of the song: “‘Cause love is contagious, when it’s alright. / It’s alright.”
To me, the most impressive thing about this album is that it fulfills the promise of what an album can be, in the same way that classics like In an Aeroplane Over the Sea or Jeff Buckley’s Grace do: it’s not a collection of disparate songs, but a unified whole, where every song is commenting upon the previous one, or upon other songs. In other words, it’s a coherent and masterfully executed work of art. Every song moves along the story; every interlude signals a change in mood or a reprise or introduces a new section; all of the pieces of the puzzle fit together to reveal an image of what love and hope and disappointment and faith feel like. And it reaches anyone open to it right where it matters–the heart.
One more thing: I’m a middling songwriter myself. I’ve written some songs over the years. Some of them are ok. But as a middling songwriter, very conscious of his inadequacies as a musician, I can at least think to myself about what kind of album I would write if I really had any talent. And when I think of all of the albums I’ve heard over the past decade, there isn’t another album I wish I would have written myself more than The Hour of Bewilderbeast. That that is the true criteria for judging what your album of the decade should be.
Honorable Mentions – Best Albums of the 2000s
Destroyer’s Rubies – Destroyer
If you know me, you knew this was going to make it on the list.
Ys – Joanna Newsom
Surprised? That means you’ve never read this blog before.
Coke Machine Glow – Gordon Downie
From the leader of The Tragically Hip, this album is one of the most beautiful collections of songs I’ve ever heard.
Where The Change Is – The Flashing Lights
OK, this came out in Canada in 1999, but the US in 2000, so I’m counting it. I have a very fond memory of Lager House, 2000: “This song’s called ‘A patient you forgot to see.’ It’s about a patient you forgot to see.” One of the best live bands I’ve ever seen. Wish they were still around.
Sha Sha - Ben Kweller
Ben Kweller, you had me at “nothing isn’t nothing, nothing’s something that’s important to me.” Sha Sha. Sha Do.