Monday, January 11, 2010

Finally, The Best of 2009

Well here it is. After blasting through the last of the longlist, these are the ones that made the cut. It's clearly a little late considering I announced these selections on UMFM on December 31st, but what can I say - my plan to have Archer nap extensively so I could write heaps hasn't exactly come to fruition.

20. Kings Of Convenience – Declaration Of Dependence (Virgin/EMI)
Every year I reserve a space on my Top 20 for Kings Of Convenience in the hopes that they actually release an album. If they don’t then I release it into the wild for some other album to take its place, but thankfully, 2009 saw this Norwegian duo finally release the follow-up to Riot On An Empty Street. Five long years I’ve waited, but I’ll take quality over quantity anytime from these two.

19. Mos Def – The Ecstatic (Downtown)
Like I said on the year-end wrap up that Station Manager Jared McKetiak and I did on UMFM, if you’d asked me at the beginning of the year which was more likely – Kings Of Convenience releasing a new album, or Mos Def releasing a good album, I’d be hard pressed to choose. Strangely enough, both things happened in the last twelve months and both find their place on my Top 20. The Ecstatic is a return to the fine form Mos once showed he was capable of before he got tied up with being a movie star and released albums simply for the sake of fulfilling his contract. It’s vital, it’s exciting and it’s packed with ideas and cogent rhymes.

18. The Very Best – Warm Heart Of Africa (Green Owl Records)
Combining the production talents of UK duo Radioclit with the otherworldly voice of Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, The Very Best seems like a boastful moniker but when you listen to Warm Heart Of Africa, it’s hard to deny how accurate the trio are. WHOA followed a promising mixtape of original and remixed material with a baker’s dozen of originals that are chock-a-block with both ideas and joy.

17. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
It had to appear somewhere... this is the album most likely to show up on the lists of just about everyone who blogs about music or makes lists like these. Released in late January ’09, this one stood the test of both time and hype.

16. Bird By Snow – Songbread/Another Ocean (Gnome Life Records)
If you read my glowing post about this album back in March, you wouldn’t be surprised to find it here.

15. Evening Hymns – Spirit Guide (Out Of This Spark)
A long-time Ear To The Sound favourite, Spirit Guide is the first full-length for Jonas Bonnetta under the Evening Hymns moniker and a surprisingly muscular and taut record considering prior material. Bonnetta hasn’t lost his knack for writing achingly beautiful quiet songs (“Cedars” for one), but he has augmented that with some robust rockers (“Dead Deer” and “Broken Rifle”) as well.

14. Antony & The Johnsons – The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)
Speaking of achingly beautiful quiet songs, Antony Hegarty is the crown-prince of such material and The Crying Light is the jewel in his crown. He follows up the Mercury-prize-winning I Am A Bird Now with an album that finds backing band The Johnsons crafting arrangements and instrumentation that more deftly matches Hegarty’s ethereal vocals. Tonally and lyrically the material shifts away from individual sadness to examine universal connectedness. I was just as blown away by this record as I was by the last – and that’s saying something.

13. Japandroids – Post-Nothing (Unfamiliar/Polyvinyl)
I knew it. And I called it. WAY back (March 2008) when I wrote about the Lullaby Death Jams EP, I said Vancouver duo Japandroids were worth watching out for. Post-Nothing totally rewarded my expectations in the band and proved the pair could find new and exciting ways to make a two-piece sound like a band four times as big.

12. Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy (Big Dada)
Well, I gushed about this one in August so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find it here.

11. Ilyas Ahmed – Goner (Root Strata)
Of all the selections in my Top 20, this is the one I’ve yet to see on any other lists. Which is a shame, because Goner totally deserves to be heard and heralded, by as many people as possible. Ahmed is a Pakistani-born, Oregon-based guitarist who had previously released a handful of albums on limited-edition CD-Rs. His latest is both his first for Root Strata and a step towards rock song-structure after the folk/drone of his earlier material. Those elements are still present but Ahmed has built on them, no longer hewing so close to the sound of the CD-Rs. He’s opened himself up to something new, and I suggest you do the same.

10. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better Learn Faster (Kill Rock Stars)
San Franciscan Thao Nguyen follows her first effort with the Get Down Stay Down (We Brave Bee Stings and All) with the first credited to both her and the band. Know Better Learn Faster feels even fuller than that last record and has an energetic bounce to it that nicely complements Nguyen’s off-kilter vocals about busted relationships and repaired hearts. She’s definitely the ‘glass half full’ type.

09. Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele – The Good Feeling Music Of Dent May & His Magnificent Ukulele (Paw Tracks)
I kind of wish all the people gushing about the Animal Collective album had taken the time to check out this semi-related effort (it was released on the AC founded Paw Tracks). While the songs are tongue-in-cheek funny and Dent does indeed play the ukulele, this is neither a novelty record nor a gimmick. It’s a brilliant piece of pop songcraft that both plays with and to hipster crowds and nearly erases the image of Tiny Tim’s not so magnificent ukulele.

08. The Wooden Sky – If I Don’t Come Home You’ll Know I’m Gone (Black Box Recordings)
I wrote about this record in a two-fer back in September and I still think “Bit Part” is the best Blue Rodeo song the band never wrote.

07. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)
I actually wrote a brief blurb about this record on the Music Trader blog (and if you didn’t know that the Osborne Village institution had a blog, you should bookmark it). “Stillness Is The Move” does indeed “sound so frickin’ good” but the great thing about Bitte Orca is the more you listen to it, the more songs (and elements within the songs) sound so good. And it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

06. Timber Timbre – Timber Timbre (Out Of This Spark / Arts & Crafts)
Thank goodness I got straightened out on when exactly this record came out. I’d originally excluded it from my rankings thinking it came out in December ’08, but its original release came in January ’09 – around the time I wrote about it.

05. Lee Fields & The Expressions – My World (Truth & Soul / Do Right)
So glad this one wasn’t an unearthed treasure from yesteryear. Since I wrote about this record, I’ve come to the conclusion that Fields and Marvin Sease once shared a hairdresser.

04. Miike Snow – Miike Snow (Downtown)
Here’s that electro-pop record that blew Junior and Begone Dull Care out of the water. They were really good, but this one is incredible. I raved about it in June.

03. Antlers – Hospice (Frenchkiss)
Summer ’09 was apparently a good time to catch my ear.

02. Quantic & His Combo Barbaro – Tradition In Transition (Tru Thoughts)
While the above-mentioned Jared McKetiak was a little surprised this didn’t make the number one spot – what with my love of all things Quantic, a passion for cumbia and other Latin sounds, and a soft spot for anything with a cuica – Tradition In Transition was the only album that stood a chance of unseating what for me was the unequivocal ‘best album of 2009.’ And that’s saying something.

01. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)
Some years I wrestle with a few top contenders right up until the last possible moment. Other years one album establishes itself as the best and subsequent albums can only try to usurp it. 2009 was the latter. From the moment I first heard Veckatimest I knew everyone else would have a tough road ahead of them if they were going to be better than this truly beautiful record. I played it to my son before he was even born, it was that special a record.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Longlist Pt. 4 - Four and out...

Atlas Sound – Logos (Kranky)
Ah, to be as talented and prolific as Bradford Cox. It’s not enough that his initial focus – Deerhunter – is so darn good. No, he has to go and have a side-project that is wholly different but just as good. Atlas Sound is ostensibly a solo effort, but on Logos Cox enlists Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox for two of the strongest songs (“Quick Canal” and “Walkabout”). The former is a nine-minute cut that doesn’t feel laboured or ‘epic’ but just long enough and the latter is the type of sunny-with-a-chance-of-weird we’ve come to love from the AC.

The Deep Dark Woods – Winter Hours (Black Hen)
I was among the folks who lumped Saskatoon’s The Deep Dark Woods into the ‘death-country’ category along with Elliott Brood after their last record, Hang Me Oh Hang Me. (And yes, like chillwave, death-country is another genre tag that we can leave behind us in the aughts .) With Winter Hours it certainly sounds as if the ‘Woods have left it behind – there’s a sunnier tinge to some of the numbers and considering the title, a fair bit of warmth as well. While “All The Money I Had Is Gone” was one of my favourite songs of ’09, I still contend that “The Bird On The Bridge” is one of the best songs Neil Young hasn’t written but could have.

Maxwell – Blacksummer’s Night (Columbia)
If Vegas gave odds for when artists are likely to put out a record (they may do this, I don’t gamble so I don’t know for certain), Maxwell would likely have been giving long odds prior to 2009. His last album (Now) was released in 2001 and it looked for all intents and purposes like we had a second D’Angelo on our hands (fitting considering their music shares comparison points as well). But whaddya know – with Blacksummer’s Night, one of the world’s finest falsettos made a triumphant return and soundtracked the creation of more than a few 2010 babies no doubt.

Build An Ark – Love Pt. 1 (Kindred Spirit)
Following up 2007’s Dawn LP, Love Pt. 1 finds the soul jazz collective continuing to make great, under-appreciated music with the emphasis on the soul-side of their genre. The folks at Dusty Groove call the record a masterpiece and hit the nail on the head when they talk about Build An Ark carrying the Love Supreme torch that John Coltrane first carried, with songs of hope and praise infusing Love Pt. 1. There’s no way to listen to this record and not be lifted by the positivity.

Lisa O Piu – When This Was The Future (Subliminal Sounds)
Lisa O Piu isn’t a person – there is a Lisa in the group, but this Swedish combo is actually a sextet. Lisa Isaksson IS the principle songwriter on When This Was The Future, but her songs benefit greatly from being fleshed out by the rest of the band; in addition to the typical ‘band’ instruments, they employ accordion, clarinet, mellotron and more. Produced by the same person responsible for Dungen, the album’s sound has much more in common with freak-folk (yet another genre tag worth discarding) – though opener “Cinnamon Sea” made me recall a great record I have from The Winter’s Consort which dates back to the early seventies. This was the future in the past and its time is now.

Heather Woods Broderick – From The Ground (Preservation)
Another year, another Broderick on my longlist. Last year, Heather’s brother Peter’s wonderful album Home made an appearance. The two may share the same lineage, but are still sonically divergent. HWB tours in Efterklang, but I don’t hear any of their post-rock seeping into From The Ground. Instead, I hear haunting and heartfelt music the likes of Tiny Vipers and Nina Nastasia create (though with less pathos than Nastasia).

Devil Eyes – Devil Eyes (Signed By Force)
Here’s what I said about Devil Eyes when I reviewed it in Stylus recently:

My wife accuses me of listening to a lot of ‘wah-wah’ music, by which she means ambient noodling and soft acoustic material; things like Radiohead’s Kid A and Iron & Wine. While it’s certainly true that a fair share of my collection has a gentle bent, there are times when dissonance, noise and just plain rawk are welcome on my stereo and the self-titled debut from Montreal’s Devil Eyes is a record made for just those times.
Raw and unadorned, Devil Eyes is all about brute force and sheer energy. The trio set a charging pace on opener “Rip My Heart Out” and don’t let up the assault for eight songs and twenty-five minutes. While they make an awful lot of noise with just guitar, bass and drums, a skronking sax is employed to great effect on a couple of numbers (including highlight “Noctilucent Ghost”) and the skronk echoes the yelps of vocalist Mattlee as he fights to be heard over the squall his compatriots make. The band have said in interviews that they want to be “thunderous” and Devil Eyes rumbles like the storm is fast approaching.

Florence & The Machine – Lungs (Universal Republic)
This one kind of snuck up on me. I liked “Kiss With A Fist” but it wasn’t until I found myself going back to this record repeatedly over a couple weeks that I realized just how much I like it, and how much more than that first single Florence & The Machine are capable of. In fact, Lungs is all over the map and very Kate Bush-ian in its approach to songcraft. And while Florence can be found wearing fake lungs on the front of her blouse on the album cover, a more accurate picture would be of her heart on her sleeve.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns (Astralwerks)
Speaking of Kate Bush, Bat For Lashes’ “Moon and Moon” (amongst other songs on Two Suns) really brings her to mind. This album managed to avoid the sophomore slump after Fur and Gold by going in a completely different direction. The charms of this album aren’t as immediate as the debut – they’re subtler and take a few more listens to reveal themselves, but give Two Suns your time and you’ll be rewarded.

Sunn 0))) – Monoliths & Dimensions (Southern Lord)
Droooooooooooooonnnnnnneeeee. I’m not sure I can properly convey just how droning (in a good way) this record is in words. But the uber-prolific duo Sunn 0))) aren’t just tuning their guitars down low and recording the squall – over the course of the four tracks on Monoliths & Dimensions they also incorporate an entire orchestra of instruments (reeds, horns, etc) and voices. They even rope Earth’s Dylan Carson into the proceedings, which seems fitting considering that Sunn 0))) began life as an Earth cover band.

Volcanoless In Canada – The Way Forward (Independent)
Having caught this Saskatoon band live at the Western Canadian Music Awards, I know for a fact that the energy they bring to their stage act is capably captured on The Way Forward. It’s a lively listen with great pop-rock hooks that are driven by, of all things, acoustic guitar. That the band manages to make it not seem wimpy is one of their bigger feats.

Ola Podrida – Belly Of The Lion (Western Vinyl)
Two years ago, the self-titled debut from Ola Podrida was my sleeper pick of the year, placing at #2 on my Top 20. While the follow-up fails to make my final 20 this year, it is still a lovely record with some delicate moments that recall Ola Podrida without sounding derivative or rehashed.

Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones (Anti-)
It’s not Halloween anymore, but these morbid songs about zombies and ghouls still hold up. As I suspected they would.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Longlist Pt. 3 - Let's start wrapping this up.

Took a bit of time off from my 2009 rundown to head down to Minneapolis so that I could catch my Vikes lay a beating to the NY Giants and then get things sorted back at home, but we better get through the longlist so I can finally post my Top 20 of the year.

Rain Machine - Rain Machine (Epitaph)
Well this here TVOTR side-project is something I already wrote about on Ear To The Sound. I know it’s not for everyone, but it was most definitely for me.

Junior Boys - Begone Dull Care (Domino) Like Royksopp’s Junior, Begone Dull Care stood a good chance of being the top electro-pop record of the year had it been released some time other than 2009 (The answer to this particular riddle can be found in the upper reaches of my Top 20). More dreamy, gauzy stuff from these Hamiltonians on their third effort and some of it – like one of my favourite songs, “Hazel” – is pretty upbeat for them.

The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You (American) Their first for American after a string of releases on Ramseur, these real life brothers from Concord, NC manage to merge the rural idyll with some urban hipster elements (on the title-track most especially). Scott and Seth caught the ear of Rick Rubin with their mixture of bluegrass and rock and I and Love and You definitely caught my ear.

Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band - S/T (Dead Oceans) I wasn’t terribly interested in this band based on their awkward name with its whiff of pretension, but Dead Oceans is a label I find to have a uniformly good roster so I gave this Seattle quintet a listen. I was impressed by how they marry some jangly pop songcraft with more muscular, lo-fi rock structures.

Aarktica - In Sea (Silber Records) I had no clue how prolific Jon DeRosa is before falling for In Sea, but in addition to his ambient project for the under-appreciated Silber Records, he also dabbles in chamber pop, acoustic folk and country in Flare, Dead Leaves Rising and Pale Horse and Rider respectively. And to top it off, he’s been recording as Aarktica for over a decade now. Slept on him in the past, but definitely made a 2010 resolution to do so no longer.

Bear In Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes)

Bear In Heaven’s another one I covered previously. If you haven’t checked it out by now, what are you waiting for?

Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms (Lefse Records) Neon Indian seems on the face of it like hipster-bait. Take one musician from Brooklyn and one visual artist from Austin, TX and have the pair create a ‘multimedia’ effort that includes film and music. Even the fractal/Rothko of their cover art begs to sit above a “Best New Music” tag on Pitchfork. But as contrived as the whole thing may (seem to) be, Psychic Chasms is a really catchy record with its crazy mixture of disco/synth-pop/electro/etc.

Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP) Speaking of crazy mixtures, Bristol group Fuck Buttons blend post-rock, electronic elements and noise to great effect on Tarot Sport. I don’t know about calling it “noise-house” (as Allmusic did) since – like chillwave – this is a genre tag we could definitely do without.

Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino) I’ll be honest, this UK quartet’s previous record – 2008’s Limbo, Panto – didn’t really do it for me. And while Two Dancers isn’t miles apart from the sound of their debut, for some reason this one resonated with me. Hayden Thorpe’s vocals are as crazy as ever, with his low croon and his yelping falsetto in full effect and the band has married that voice to some stand-out tracks including highlight “All the King’s Men.”

Jack PeƱate - Everything Is New (XL Recordings) XL has this terrible habit of sending out their play-copies with the most basic liner notes and no artwork, so it’s not the most appealing CD on the pile when I’m receiving new music at the station. But I try to give their stuff a listen considering the label has released some really solid records over the years. Thank goodness for their track record or I wouldn’t have heard Everything Is New, a slick little pop-soul record that seemingly only a Brit can make. My penchant for Rick Astley (no, really), had me predisposed to enjoy this record.

Amosoeurs - S/T (Profound Lore) I only discovered Amosoeurs thanks to their connection to another French black metal group, Alcest. Souvenirs d’Un Autre Monde, which could have been one of my top albums of 2007 had I not discovered it in early 2008. C’est la vie... but I did manage to hear Amosoeurs this year. Allmusic calls it a “failed sidetrack” for the members of Peste Noire, but while agree that the record is all over the map, I don’t see that as a negative.

Julie Doiron - I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day (Endearing) The uber-prolific Doiron (who has a new album out called Daniel, Fred & Julie) found her latest solo effort coming in at #3 on the Top 200 of 2009 for Earshot based on airplay on Canadian campus/community stations. Needless to say, she’s not just in my wheelhouse with her melancholy tales of love lost and sparse musical arrangements.