Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year That Was

[via blacklung]

Another year come and gone, and here at the WS HQ, we've been doing a lot of reflecting on the year in music. Lots of surprises and interesting sounds in 2009, and it's fun to think where my musical tastes were this time last year. For me, 2009 was a year of auditory exploration: I expanded my musical horizons to places that just a short time ago I was too afraid to venture to. Below is a list of my favorite albums from this past year, but first an explanation.

Why albums? Why not individual songs? The same reason why we don't merely extract our favorite words or sentences from books; we view it as a whole. For me, a stunning album is more rewarding and lasting than an individual song. It is the microscopic parts working together to elevate the form to a higher level. A good song is a good song, but I am intrigued and moved by a collection of good songs, all in concert to present a lasting artifact. And these albums are by no means any claim to "the best" of this year. There is too much music to listen to these days, so this is more a list of what caught my attention. I am sure I have missed something extraordinary, but that's what makes music so fun: playing catch-up. Good music does not conform to our time frames. Finally, I don't want to numerically order these albums. These are all excellent works, for widely different reasons that are impossible to compare and quantify.

I hope these are interesting as well as inspiring. My picks:

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

I have spent more time pondering this record than most in my collection. It is a record that requires patience and investment, and in this day and age, those are two qualities that seem to be fading from music fans' grasps. Yet Veckatimest is a work that rewards repeated listens, like most classic records do: new details pop up, the songs unfold, and you really get to live in the songs and see how they tick. It is the sound of a band at its creative peak. I like Grizzly Bear's previous album a little bit better (Yellow House) just because I am sucker for its autumnal atmosphere, but that doesn't take away from this album's brilliance. At it's heart, Veckatimest is a great pop record, full of rich harmonies and memorable melodies, but presented in an obtuse way that always leaves you guessing and wanting more. It's a long album, but it's one of the few in recent memory where I want to start the record over as soon as the last notes fade out. Obvious highlights are "Two Weeks" and "While You Wait For The Others," both technicolor explosions crammed with catchiness (and great examples of the differing styles of the two songwriters). Yet I grew to love the moodier pieces like "Fine For Now," "Cheerleader," and "About Face" as well, each finely crafted to work off the song before and after it. It's a cohesive statement and one of the most exhilarating records I own.

Grizzly Bear--Two Weeks
Grizzly Bear--Fine For Now

, Songs of Shame

This year saw not so much a resurgence of psychedelic music, but a refinement. Since its 1960s birth, psychedelia has stuck around on the edges, but a new generation has breathed fresh air into those weird sounds. Woods are the standard bearers, adding a good deal of heart to a subgenre of music that can be a bit self-gratifying. Songs of Shame is a skeletal record that sounds ancient; it's infused with loneliness, regret, but also mystery, not unlike dusty old field recordings from a bygone era. It sounds completely American, full of wide open spaces and dark corners to explore. But most of all, I love this record because it's the sound of a group of friends making fun music together. It radiates warmth, and in the digital age, it's completely therapeutic. Songs like "To Clean" and "The Hold" wield distorted guitars like flags, beckoning everyone to follow Woods into its crazy, entrancing world. Their cover of Graham Nash's "Military Madness" strips the song to its core and exposes a raw anger that is certainly indicative of their time. And then they ratchet up the emotion with "The Number" and "Rain On," songs where those weird sounds take a back seat to some heady lyrics.

"And it feels like it should today
Falling back on a better place
You wouldn't hide awhile
If you knew it for two more days

I won't shovel through
All the shame that led me too
You wouldn't pass it off

Oh, how the days will rain on you."

Unlike a lot of bands these days, Woods actually have something to say.

Woods--The Hold
Woods--Rain On

Wye Oak, The Knot

Sadness--it can be debilitating, or it can be inspiring. The Knot is not a happy record. It is insular, but also triumphant. This Baltimore duo uses a wall of sound to exorcise demons, and the beauty is in how the album slowly unfolds. Touches of pedal steel, Andy Stack's insistent rhythms, and especially Jenn Wasner's smoky voice and inventive guitar playing keep the listener fully invested. Some records seek to dazzle you with labyrinthine changes and effects; Wye Oak lets the honesty of the music wash over you, and you can't help but fully immerse yourself.

Wye Oak--For Prayer
Wye Oak--Talking About Money

Timber Timbre, Timber Timbre

As soon as this record starts, I can barely make it through the first song, "Demon Host," because "Lay Down In The Tall Grass" follows, a perfect song if I've ever heard one. But I always curb my impatience, and it's a good thing: this record is brilliantly sequenced, full of songs that are simple, quiet, captivating. It begs you to lean in closer and fall into the rabbit hole. This is only Timber Timbre's third album, and its mature and enchanting headspace is hopefully an arrow pointing to good things to come.


Timber Timbre--Demon Host
Timber Timbre--Lay Down In The Tall Grass

The Strange Boys, ...And Girls Club

The Strange Boys have come a long way from playing battle of bands in our high school gymnasium. Back then they were known as The Waves, but a name change, steady gigging, and a little maturity have added swagger, menace, and real chops to their brash sound. The album cuts like a knife, a pure distillation of blues, rock, punk, country, and soul, wrapped in a coolly paranoid vibe. Songs like "Woe Is You And Me" and "Poem Party" used barbed guitar licks to great effect, while "They're Building The Death Camps" and "For Lack of a Better Face" repetitively build with hazy charm. Ryan Sambol's strangled screech might be a bit too bitter for some to stomach, but it suits the dirty sound perfectly. The record sounds like a greatest hits to some lost 1960s garage band; whenever I put it on, I never want the time warp to end.

The Strange Boys--Probation Blues
The Strange Boys--For Lack of a Better Face

Mulatu Astatke
, New York - Addis - London - The Story Of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975

Jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke's sound reads like a music nerd's dream: combining elements of American and Cuban jazz, Ethiopian folk, and psychedelic funk, it's certainly original. Yet as this stellar retrospective proves, it's not all heady, name-that-influence spectacle--this is fantastic music that invites people of all tastes to enjoy. Songs like "Yerkermo Sew," "Mulatu," and "Yegelle Tezeta" provide dark, moody canvases for Astatke's crack band to improvise over with sax, vibraphone, and fuzzed-out electric guitar. Astatke led the late '60s cultural revolution in his native Ethiopia with songs like "Lantchi Biye" and "Wubit. He brought his traditional melodies to a new generation by utilizing young Ethiopian vocalists to sing over his globalized sounds. Part of the appeal of this collection is the way it progresses, not chronologically but rather like a proper album. The darker songs trade off with more of his danceable Latin-tinged compositions before giving way to two final cuts of hazy, sunny jazz. The album is a breathtaking peak into an innovative personality's brain--over the course of an hour, international boundaries blur and fade away altogether.

Mulatu Astatke--Yegelle Tezeta
Mulatu Astatke--Lantchi Biye (ft. Tilahoun Gessesse)

Death, ...For The Whole World To See

What a find: the tapes spent decades collecting dust in lead singer Bobby Hackney's attic, but his son's inquisitiveness pulled this Detroit punk trio out of complete obscurity. ...For The Whole World To See collects all seven songs from that forgotten 1974 session, and the results are stunning. As the New York Times declared, "this band was punk before punk was punk." It's a self-assured set that continues the trailblazing started by those other proto-punk Detroit natives, the Stooges and the MC5. It's a shame Death were overlooked, since they seem to be the missing link between those former bands and the sound that defined the latter half of the 1970s. These guys had real chops, too: sure, there's the requisite rocket-fueled rock and roll ("Keep On Knocking," complete with searing guitar solos and gang vocals) and hardcore punk rhythms ("Rock-N-Roll Victim"), but Death also have a keen sense of dynamics. "Let The World Turn" starts out as a jazzy ballad before exploding, and "Politicians In My Eyes" utilizes start-stop techniques to create the record's most intense song. And it's not just a snapshot of its time: Death is timeless.

Death--Keep On Knocking
Death--Rock-N-Roll Victim

Califone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

It's hard to find a band as consistently good as Califone. Their discography is not only extensive but filled to the brim with creativity. This album serves as the soundtrack to lead singer Tim Rutili's film of the same name (which I have not seen), but it works exceptionally well as a stand-alone. Califone are the masters of junkyard folk, utilizing all sorts of archaic instruments and found sounds to create weird compositions that split the difference between Appalachia and the avant-garde. The record feels cinematic, even if you didn't know it was a soundtrack. Each song flows effortlessly into the next, all anchored by Rutili's ghostly warble and the band's patient playing. Songs like "Funeral Singers" and "Buñuel" build slowly before their payoffs, feeling widescreen, ancient, and measured like no other music today. Beauty and dissonance coexist simultaneously, leaving the listener off-kilter and ready for more. This record is much more acoustic than past efforts, but it's no snoozer. Full investment will pay handsomely.

Califone--Funeral Singers

Cotton Jones, Paranoid Cocoon

This was the first record I listened to all year, as it was quietly released last January. Fittingly enough, I initially thought this record was good, not great, but I returned to it in the middle of Austin's hottest summer in a century. Some records are amplified by the surroundings they are consumed in, and months of 100-plus degree days made this album's hazy country-pop undeniably refreshing. It unfolds in a dream-like state, as each song is washed in reverb and fuzzy around the edges. Singers Michael Nau and Whitney McGraw are superb complements, sounding like a latter-day Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra. And the songs take the shape of those classic Hazlewood-Sinatra compositions from the late '60s, except here they are more earthy and beer-soaked. "Up A Tree (Went This Heart I Have)" bops along with minimal, country-fried orchestration before bleeding into the Southern soul of "Gotta Cheer Up." The gently sun-warped instrumentation on "Some Strange Rain" and "Photo Summerlove" adds a dose of dreamy, nostalgic depth to the surrounding toe-tappers, but it's "Blood Red Sentimental Blues" that takes the cake. It's plodding in a good way, allowing the Nau/McGraw vocals to wrap around the beat and shoot skyward to the emotional peak of the record. With Cotton Jones, less is certainly more, and given a lot of today's surroundings, Paranoid Cocoon is a welcome oasis.

Cotton Jones--Up A Tree (Went This Heart I Have)
Cotton Jones--Blood Red Sentimental Blues

What were your favorite 2009 records? Let me know by commenting below. I always love a good recommendation. Thanks for reading.

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