Let’s get right to it. In settling on my top ten albums of dearly/gladly departed 2009, almost all the tracks that I lingered on turned out to be the slower numbers. Could it be a commentary on the year, one that saw my own household and the nation at large work with considerably meager resources and disproportionately grand expectations, resulting in the need to draw something more than simple pleasant distraction from music? Or could it be that the weather outside is soggy and cold and I’ve been operating in my pajamas with a bit of a hangover, thus making peppy dance songs sound less enticing? It’s hard to tell. But like I said earlier, no further delay!
10. Why? ~ Eskimo Snow ~ Anticon
Like the clownish guy at a party, Yoni Wolf knows how to get your attention right off the bat, as evidenced by the first words on Eskimo Snow when Wolf explains, “I wear the customary clothes of my time like Jesus did, with no reason not to die.” But Why?’s work goes beyond non sequiturs and bon mots, not to mention bizarre punctuation tendencies. The lyrics come from an absurdist’s vigilant eye, and the bell-heavy music makes the horny preoccupations in songs like “In the Shadows of My Embrace” appear almost whimsical. The production gets a little silly on more than a few of the tracks, but you can think of that approach as the funny man from the party pulling out all the tricks he knows to get you to smile.
9. mewithoutyou ~ It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright ~ Tooth & Nail
This past year, the Decemberists put out a record that barely sounded like the Decemberists of albums past. So while that band explored their hard and prog rock proclivities with mixed results, a band called mewithoutyou from Philadelphia assumed the helm of braying vocals and evocative, well-read lyrics. The rousing music giddily pulls the listener through mewithoutyou’s tableaus of modern-day mythology, drawn from pastoral imagery, religious folklore, and hyper imaginations.
8. Fanfarlo ~ Reservoir ~ Atlantic
It’s a double-edged sword when a band boasts rich layers of orchestral instrumentation as well as lush production values, in that the final product can sound nearly clinical, too pristine to have been made by human beings. All the same, there’s no denying that Farfarlo’s Reservoir is a booming, gorgeous album that sounds just as eloquent in a miles-wide amphitheater as it does in the few square feet of one’s bedroom.
7. Neko Case ~ Middle Cyclone ~ Anti-
You could spill ounces of toner in rapturous descriptions of Neko Case’s cool and confident voice, her pretty red hair, and her impressive résumé of projects. The component of Case’s work that often gets overlooked is the honest, thoughtful quality of her song-writing. On Middle Cyclone, she assumes the forms of a lovesick tornado, a prematurely married girl, and occasionally, a smart and bruised woman who has allowed herself to indulge in romantic fantasy for just a little bit too long. There’s a lot of anger in Middle Cyclone on behalf of the wronged earth as well as its unjustly treated inhabitants. Since Case herself has tried to avoid the use of metaphor in her songs, I’ll back off the hackneyed “force of nature” reference and say flat-out that this album is lovely and, just below the surface, even more brutal than the sword on the cover.
6. Laura Gibson ~ Beasts of Seasons ~ Hush
It’s extremely appropriate that I saw Laura Gibson perform at a big, old church in downtown Portland this last year. The obvious reason is her album’s, Beasts of Seasons, dual themes of communions and funerals and the related explorations of loss, grace, and self-improvement. All Christian associations aside, the main reason I’m grateful to have heard Gibson in that venue is because the broad acoustics serve her soft, husky voice and careful fingerpicking style perfectly. Part of the notion of church, part of the reason some of us failed Catholics squirm at the very mention of mass, is the requirement that an attendee sits quietly and attentively. But it doesn’t feel burdensome when you get to listen to Laura Gibson sing. It’s the best way to hear her.
5. Avett Brothers ~ I and Love and You ~ American
The brethren Avett became grownups in 2009. That’s not to say that the two thirty-something brothers and their bassist, Bob Crawford, haven’t done a ton of growth, from their country roots to their stellar 2007 album, Emotionalism. But despite the fact that I and Love and You is the band’s major label debut and supported by the magical ear of Rick Rubin, there is a profound level of humbleness in the thirteen tracks. There is confidence without cockiness, though the effortless harmonies and bobbing pianos certainly afford the band some bragging rights. There is also a dominant insistence on love and acceptance minus the need to shroud such a desire in irony or gimmicks. You might call such a perspective naïve or ambitious, but just a minute into the title track, you already understand that the Avett Brothers have earned the right to ask for something epic.
4. David Bazan ~ Curse Your Branches ~ Barsuk
During his live performances, in the breaks between numbers, David Bazan famously has his audiences ask him questions, and when I saw him at Mississippi Studios a couple months ago, a person asked him why he fell out with his faith. Bazan’s response? “Because I determined that it was bullshit.” But somehow, in spite of his recent uprooted stance, Bazan’s work is free of self-pity. He holds nothing back as his narrator watches his grasp slip away in the slide toward alcoholism and helplessness. In a year that struck a healthy fear of the unknown in a lot of people, a voice as shrewd and generally hilarious as David Bazan’s is a welcome form of assurance.
3. Dirty Projectors ~ Bitte Orca ~ Domino
It might be easy to dismiss the Dirty Projectors as a hipster fad. They were covered by a ton of artists from college a cappella groups to famous sisters. They earned the devotion of Questlove. The band is from Brooklyn, for goodness sakes. All the signs of twee are present, but nevertheless, the eccentric mind of Dave Longstreth and the fresh-faced folks who make up the Dirty Projectors produced an inventive, thrilling record. While most music critics as well as fellow musicians remain stumped about how to describe what the Dirty Projectors sound like, the factor you can count on throughout Bitte Orca is that you have no idea what each song will do. With every dizzying run of Longstreth’s guitar, blast of sound after a quiet interlude, and choral spasm from Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, the album may be too haphazard for some listeners, but the rest of us are too busy having our socks knocked off to care.
2. Rodrigo y Gabriela ~ 11:11 ~ ATO
If you’ve followed this blog, you already know that for me, 2009 was a year for a multitude of live music and a score of bizarre maladies. So when I contracted H1N1, it was less of a surprise and more like a running gag in a sitcom. I tried not to bitch too often about the various illnesses that plagued me, but I am still so pissed that the swine flu kept me from watching Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Schnitzer in October. “But you saw a bunch of shows, what does it matter?” some of the less perceptive of you might ask. To that body of imaginary readers, I would direct you to obtain a copy of 11:11, press play, and proceed to have your aural cavities rocked in a way they have not previously been rocked. Because if you already knew what the duo is capable of, you’d be pissed at my side. Each track on the album is a tribute to artists who have influenced Gabriela Quintero and Rodrigo Sanchez, and based on the frenetic rhythms and enthralling guitar work, every listener should be just as thankful. If you happen to be in Australia, Japan, or Western Europe this year, see one of the band’s concerts for me.
1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ Elvis Perkins in Dearland ~ XL
There is no algorithm to picking one’s favorite album of the year. You could arrange your iTunes library by the highest play count numbers then do a bit of fuzzy math under the influence of a few glasses of Malbec, maybe with some improvised program of Obscure Band Affirmative Action tossed in, so you appear open-minded but not indiscriminately so. But that just isn’t the case. Sometimes, you only need a snip of a given album, and you already hear that album playing on a days-long loop from your stereo. You memorize the words from a couple songs within a day. And even if you listen to technically more deserving albums afterward, if someone were to grab you at gunpoint and demand that you name a favorite album – because that’s totally what armed assailants want to know – you would give that album’s name.
As soon as I heard Elvis Perkins sing, “What am I if bound to walk in chains ’till I die?,” I knew what I’d be writing about in this entry.
While the song that the line comes from isn’t even the best one on the album, the emotional hooks that the song plants serve as a handy representation of what the rest of the self-titled effort does. Some of that response has to do with the music, which swings from deliberate and morose to airy and lively, all carried by Perkins’ passionate tenor and the band’s generous supply of instruments. Part of the album’s resonance is in its subject matter, which bids goodbye to loved ones from the past, present, and even future in the indomitable single, “Doomsday.” On a very personal level, however, I think the reason Elvis Perkins in Dearland tops my list is because it’s exactly what I needed to hear this year, as age and the nebulous notion of an impact started to weigh on my mind more than effective hangover cures and dinners that can be cooked within half an hour. This album has a few great tracks by which to brood, much like Perkins’ debut, Ash Wednesday. But at the same time, when I begin to take it all too seriously, the album hones in on the fluidity of joy in day-to-day existence. In 2010, I hope that the balance between documenting and living life becomes easier to negotiate, and I hope to do that with the kind of skill this album possesses.