Mix Suggestion: The Best of 2009
As always, I am glad this year is over. I'm going to preemptively call 2010 a wash as well. (Especially since they're already airing campaign spots for Maine's gubernatorial election in November, which all but ensures I will completely lose my mind with politics-related stress two months into the new year.) However, at least this year wasn't so thoroughly miserable that I don't feel up to assembling my annual "best songs I've heard of the year mix," which I bailed on last year! Grudgingly indulge me, won't you?
There are still plenty of promising 2009 albums I haven't heard (e.g., LANDy, The xx) or properly absorbed (e.g., Dalek, Antlers), but these are the best tracks that stuck with me. Runners up for this tracklist included "Birds" by Telefon Tel Aviv, "So Slowly" by Early Day Miners, "Dett" by Plaid, "Hurry for the Sky" by Robyn Hitchcock, and "Stiff Me" by Robert Pollard. As always, if you have a rebuttal or would like to contribute your own best-of mix to this page, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
With that, I give you The Incontinent Ouroboros: The Best I've Heard of 2009.
1. Metric--"Help I'm Alive" (4:46) Emily Haines has never needed much more than a beat, barre chords of varying levels of distortion, and the occasional synth to record songs that could bring arenas to their feet if given the opportunity, but rarely have her compositions sounded as enormous as this expression of anxiety caught in a tug-of-war between soothing keyboard bass and needling percussion. (I'm admittedly not sure where the cheerful bridge, which instantly achieves "Sweet Jane" levels of familiarity, fits into that metaphor.) It's a fine marriage between overcompressed radio pop and the dynamic drama of artists like Interpol and the Arcade Fire; i.e., the sort of thing the producers of Gossip Girl or Chuck might drop into an episode that would cause you to think, "Wow! That song is by far the best element of this show!" Frankly, it could be half as long as it is and I would be far more enthusiastic about it, but the barely-masked vulnerability in Haines' intonation of lines like "If I stumble, they're gonna eat me alive" could have kept me hooked for twice as long too. From Fantasies.
2. Magnolia Electric Co.--"O! Grace" (3:27) Back in the early, raggedy days of his band Songs: Ohia, Jason Molina came across like an indie-rock Neil Young, both for the strangled yowl he called "singing" and the poetic inscrutability of his lyrics. Roughly 13 albums and one name change later, however, his songwriting has matured to the point where I'd rather listen to Magnolia Electric Co. for my Neil Young fix than Young himself. (At least until Molina also starts writing album-length odes to his car.) Spacious and bittersweet, this rumination on disappointment and heartache matches effective lyrics like "I've been as lonesome as the world's first ghost" with grin-inducing harmonies and unimpeachable folk-rock hooks. I even halfway like the incongruous, David Bowie-style saxophone! From Josephine.
3. Fever Ray--"When I Grow Up" (4:31) My favorite song of the year, from my favorite album of the year. Fever Ray is the creepy, synth-based solo project of The Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson. She's not creepy in a trying-too-hard goth way, mind you, but creepy in a slightly unhinged way that would make you reluctant to trust her with anything in the tool chest. With keyboards recalling Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" and a tone of strident electro-paganism recalling Bjork's "Hyper-Ballad," "When I Grow Up" can stand alongside either song with its addictive musicianship. Bizarre and fascinating lyrics like "Last night I drew a funny man with dog eyes and a hanging tongue/It goes way back/I've never liked that sad look from someone who wants to be loved by you" make this track a classic unto itself, however. From Fever Ray.
4. Mountain Goats--"Psalms 40:2" (3:13) Mountain Goats mastermind John Darnielle is always at his most compelling when he's attacking his acoustic guitar with frictional insistence, still barely keeping up with the hyperliterate ideas and character sketches he's singing through his nose, so you know what it means when I say this track builds to his strumming at its pick-snapping fastest. Darnielle explained the song's story only obliquely in this remarkable Pitchfork interview, but it seems to follow the road trip of two unsavory converts to fundamentalism who are vandalizing churches throughout the Midwest, half out of closed-minded disrespect for denominations whose teachings are different from their own perverse dogma, and half as a belligerent, self-destructive experiment to see if the trail of intolerance and fear they left behind could be enough to put them beyond even God's forgiveness. Between the subject matter, the insistent thwapping of drummer Jon Wurster, and Darnielle's increasingly crazed hollering of the refrain, "He has raised me from the pit and He will set me high," it's an intentionally ugly little song, but damned if it isn't chilling. From The Life of the World to Come.
5. Antony & the Johnsons--"Epilepsy is Dancing" (2:41) I go back and forth on appreciating the fey chamber-pop peddled by Antony & the Johnsons, but this song is unquestionably a keeper. Here, Antony's mannered delivery provides a gentle, out-of-body distance to the narration as he describes an epileptic seizing in a snowbank, going into painfully specific detail as the victim spouts nonsense, contorts mechanically, and helplessly waits it out. I particularly like how the woodwind-buoyed misery of the line "Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner" gives way to the the relieved "Ooh, now it's passing! Ooh, now I'm dancing!" conclusion and embodies both emotions without changing a note. Far from being precious, it is, in its unobtrusive way, as sympathetic and powerful a view into an unfortunate individual's frustration with his physical being as Metallica's "One." From The Crying Light.
6. Yo La Tengo--"By Two's" (4:29) Popular Songs may be Yo La Tengo's first album in over 20 years(!) that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend due to some saggy songwriting in its latter two thirds, but this song ranks near the top of their numerous mimimalist lullabies. Georgia Hubley's voice can't help but mesmerize, particularly when she's muttering alongside a keyboard drone and a peacefully snoring bassline, yet the band can't resist artfully blemishing the tune with a little guitar feedback and, what the hell, a clarinet. It's a thing of gossamery beauty that makes you feel like you should sit perfectly still while it's playing, lest an errant breath create a breeze that could knock the whole thing over, you oaf. (I feel obligated to mention that misplaced apostrophe in the song title really bothers me.) From Popular Songs.
7. Joe Pernice--"I Go to Pieces" (2:26) To supplement his novel It Feels So Good When I Stop (which I haven't yet read), Joe Pernice released a casually pleasurable "soundtrack" in which he performs covers of ten songs mentioned in the book, of which this take on an early British Invasion classic is the best. The deadpan silkiness of Joe's whisper-sing makes a fine substitute for the now-corny Everly Brothers harmonies of Peter & Gordon's original (and completely eschews the Elvis-isms favored by the song's author, Del Shannon), and everything about Peyton Pinkerton's chiming lead guitar makes you think it should have been in the original. It's everything a great cover should be: Audibly enthusiastic about the source recording without being overly reverent, and a song that adds a new dimension to the performer's repertoire while still fitting in sensibly with his other work. That description sounds really stodgy, doesn't it? Permit me to add that this song is, in Pernice's typically wry way, fun as fuck. From It Feels So Good When I Stop.
8. Neko Case--"People Got a Lotta Nerve" (2:33) As someone who will side with animals over humans every time, in any situation, I find it unspeakably satisfying to hear one of the greatest voices in the history of popular music snarking, "You know they call them 'killer whales,' but you seemed surprised when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank where you can't turn around/It took half your leg and both your lungs." Over a jaunty and infectious jangle-pop arrangement, Case spends a couple minutes rolling her eyes at humanity's hubris in thinking we can outsmart nature, or at least not expecting animals to fight back against our attempts to capture/conquer/exploit/control them. The humans still emerge victorious by the song's end, thanks to guns, but that doesn't mean they occupy any sort of moral high ground. If Werner Herzog had waited a few years to release Grizzly Man, he could've had the perfect song to play over its end credits. (I guess there's always Ang Lee's upcoming Life of Pi adaptation...) From Middle Cyclone.
9. Future of the Left--"The Hope That House Built" (3:41) Considering Future of the Left was formed in Wales (from the remnants of celebrated noisemakers Mclusky), it might be pure coincidence that the band's name and the prominent allusion to "hope" in the song's title suggest that this is specifically a blazing takedown of the American Democratic Party in 2009, but it sure does fit. After all, the Dems boast a president who campaigned on a platform of "hope" and "change" but who is loath to stick his neck out for the latter, therefore inspiring none of the former. They've got a significant majority in Congress, but regulatory legislation is still carefully watered down not to require any substantive concessions or changes in practice from the industries (health insurance, banking, credit cards) whose unchecked greed and disregard for the livelihood of everyday citizens caused the problems that swept the Democrats into office in the first place. And the Dems know that they're still guaranteed the votes of the progressives and liberals whose principles they're all too happy to betray because the nation's only other viable party is infested with unrepentant warmongers and fundamentalists who are even further from those voters' ideals. If it weren't for the sneering howls from blessedly cynical frontman Andy Falkous, it would be unsettlingly easy to picture this song--with its stomping, anthemic rhythm and plummy, sarcastic refrain, "Come join, come join our hopeless cause!"--being chanted, beer steins raised, in a Stonecutters-style Democratic Party lair, just before everyone lines up to paddle Dennis Kucinich. From Travels with Myself and Another.
10. Electric Six--"Escape from Ohio" (3:11) This disproportionately, hilariously angry tale of a California-bound bus broken down 50 miles south of Bowling Green gained special meaning for me after the brakes fell off my car, briefly stranding me in Lebanon, Ohio, a few months ago. Even if it hadn't, though, this loud, punchy faux-rampage would have made the list. Dick Valentine rails against the state with intentionally lame potshots ("What's so great about a buckeye?") and more pointed commentary ("They say what you give is what you're gonna get, so it's no wonder that everything's gone to shit/Because they've given us John Boehner and you'd better believe they've given us Jean Schmidt!"), and, as is typical of the dozens of essential songs the Electric Six have recorded over the past six years, it's hilarious without sacrificing real rock entertainment. Also, listen close for the best surefire rock-geek giggle since the Stone Roses gag in Shaun of the Dead. From KILL.
11. Mike Doughty--"Lorna Zauberberg" (3:02) The first ten years of Mike Doughty's career, from Soul Coughing's Ruby Vroom through his solo Rockity Roll EP, blew my mind so thoroughly that I grant you the man doesn't have to do much to impress me these days. As long as he doesn't lazily rewrite the same song for the fifth time and he stays away from deflated jam-band arrangements, I am completely on board. "Lorna Zauberberg" doesn't require a personal bias to be enchanting, though. Atop a friendly bassline and a bouncy acoustic rhythm, Doughty basically just sings a lighthearted journal entry about apartment-sitting for a woman on whom he's nurturing an innocent crush. It may be slight, but it's a lovably easygoing song, full of domestic details and decorative flourishes like a squeaky cello and some overheard chatter. I always relish Doughty's urban people-watching observations like "Methadonians sleep right where they stand/A weeping tranny is cradling a steak knife," too. Nice, upbeat stuff. From Sad Man Happy Man.
12. Meat Puppets--"Sapphire" (3:59) Have the notoriously misanthropic Meat Puppets ever recorded an honestly uplifting song before? If not, this inaugural foray into optimism is a doozy. It's surprising enough to hear the delicacy with which the sad, piano- and classical guitar-speckled verses proceed, but the true suckerpunch comes when the huge chorus drops in and Curt Kirkwood consoles, "Though a feather or two has been plucked from your wings, flying is always the same." If you felt clinical enough to really pick apart the song's structure, it's pretty deftly executed for a band whose interests have historically run more toward licketysplit finger-picking and the lyrical embrace of decay, but "Sapphire" is more effective on a simple gut level. The Kirkwoods would probably laugh at me for finding it affecting--as may you--but it's thoughtful and humane in a way songs like "Backwater" and "Plateau" never hinted at. From Sewn Together.
13. Bibio--"Sugarette" (Wax Stag remix) (6:20) Stephen Wilkinson--aka Bibio--released one of the cooler albums of the year with Ambivalence Avenue, a weirdly intimate mishmash of folk rock and cut-and-paste laptop electronica that suggests Prefuse 73 remixing Crosby, Stills & Nash. He followed it a few months later, though, with an agreeable companion CD that offered a few bonus tracks along with eight Ambivalence Avenue remixes, and that's the disc from which this track hails. In the hands of dated keyboard enthusiast Wax Stag, the glitch-hop beats of the original "Sugarette" are smoothed out in favor of warm analog synths, and Wilkinson's choppily-edited vocal track is more clearly played up, its alien pitch alteration and burblings all the more adorable for being closer to the listener's ear. Mmm. From The Apple and the Tooth.
14. St. Vincent--"Laughing with a Mouth of Blood" (3:01) There's a lot to like on Annie Clark's second album as St. Vincent, but this song best shows off her ability to make accessible and imaginative music without being bland or cutesy about it. The arrangement is full of standard singer/songwriter elements, bent just enough not to sound like a retread of anything in particular, such as the self-effacing call-and-response vocals or the blanket of strings that starts off like a lush Nick Drake arrangement but grows winkingly tense as the song progresses. Clark's voice has a Joni Mitchell-style camaraderie to it, but her melodic sense also has enough XTC-style angularity to keep me listening to her and not merely pulling out Hejira again. Sometimes all a formulaic pop song needs is a little properly-placed torque to become something special. From Actor.
15. Micachu--"Curly Teeth" (2:27) Hey, Dirty Projectors! It's possible to be a classically trained musician whose music goes beyond the predictable sounds and constructions of mainstream rock without intentionally derailing your songs every time they threaten to become enjoyable! Hey, Wavves! You can actually put fully-formed compositions into your four-track before you start coaxing amusing effects out of it, and the lo-fi murk will be far more interesting as color rather than an end in and of itself! Yep, other indie-rockers have a lot they could learn from oddball Brit Mica Levi, who--with production assistance from electronica perfectionist Matthew Herbert--fills this song with disparate noises and clatter that are only occasionally identifiable as genuine musical notes, only to masterfully pull the entire piece together with a uniquely gloppy melody. Not since M.I.A.'s debut have I heard something so refreshingly, intelligently annoying. From Jewellery.
16. The Flaming Lips--"Powerless" (6:57) It's best to experience Embryonic, the Flaming Lips' brilliant and unpredictable flight from the increasingly untenable pop territory they'd been occupying over the past decade, in its nightmarish, 72-minute entirety. But this hypnotically dank concoction makes a solid SparkNotes intro to the record. Michael Ivins's fuzzy bassline lopes in psychedelic circles, and Wayne Coyne's vocals, ordinarily so direct and expressive, are separated from the song by several canyons of echo. Wayne's voice then vanishes from the arrangement for nearly four minutes while a noodly guitar holds an increasingly upsetting battle with some bongos and the buzz of an unplugged cable. It's the rare song that manages both claustrophobic squirminess and helpless desolation. From Embryonic.
17. The Handsome Family--"The Petrified Forest" (4:11) Even before this song's release, there were a billion reasons to love The Handsome Family, but "The Petrified Forest" gives us a new one: A perfectly mournful break-up song plunked in the middle of an album of love songs that Brett and Rennie Sparks recorded as a twentieth wedding anniversary gift to each other. The context is pure black humor, but the tune itself is authentically heartbroken. Rennie's lyrics capture not just the way the world fades to monochrome after getting dumped, but the resulting feeling of being brittle as ash: "When you left me alone, the sky turned to stone and my legs rolled into the sea." Meanwhile, the accompanying tune that Brett composed is a memorable, downbeat acoustic affair that's in no hurry to get anywhere--because what's the point?--but which maintains enough of a pulse to stave off mopey dragginess. The result is a fabulous, barren tearjerker. From Honey Moon.
18. Cracker--"Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey" (3:26) It's a shame that no one really pays attention to Cracker anymore--I can't remember the last time I saw so much as a review of any of their records--because their latest disc, full of deceptively straightforward rock songs, is easily their most accessible since 1993's Kerosene Hat, their most rewarding since 2002's Forever, and their most muscular overall. The title--both of the song and album--seems to refer to the dawn of the apocalypse in America, at which various survivalist militia members (a pet topic of frontman David Lowery, both here and in Camper Van Beethoven) feel both vindication and the terror of impending war. I always love Lowery's hoarse bellow on charging rockers like this, and the watery, flanged guitar that pops up momentarily in the chorus is the sort of detail that makes this song for me. From Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey.
19. DM Stith--"Braid of Voices" (5:26) Now, as much as I do like St. Vincent, I'm not entirely in favor of this trend in which anyone who has ever worked with Sufjan Stevens--or worked with someone who's worked with Sufjan, and so on--gets a record deal. It's not like Sufjan himself has such stellar quality control instincts that the market needs to be further flooded with melancholy, meandering home recordings. And the debut album from My Brightest Diamond sideman DM Stith--heavy on pretty textures, stingy with essential song nutrients--largely does more to further devalue this currency than make a case for it. This standout track, however, shows a lot of potential for greatness if Stith vows to hold off on recording his songs until he has soaring, blissful melodies like this one to go with them. It's such a stirring vocal performance, in fact, that it takes a few listens to notice that the arrangement subtly travels from a simple piano figure through a fog of organs into a weird pile of percussion that manages to be cathartic without capsizing the whole dreamlike endeavor. (Yeah, then there's a tacked-on coda that reverts to "boringly pleasant" mode, but I feel the actual song is outstanding enough to make up for it.) From Heavy Ghost.
20. Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, and David Lynch--"Dark Night of the Soul" (4:38) The title track from a never-to-be-officially-released collaborative album full of big names, this crackly, limping song sounds like a lost Portishead track that's been sketchily reconstructed from the barest scraps. The Blue Velvet auteur actually sings, too! Granted, he only subjects his creaky larynx to about three notes over the course of the song and the result is then run through a tremolo pedal, but he hits the notes he's trying to hit, and it's not for nothing that some writers have mistaken his vocal contributions for Vic Chesnutt. Apart from its value as an impressive curio, though, it's a terrific mood piece. Danger Mouse may have received the lion's share of the credit for the album's composition, but the mildewed, cobwebbed atmosphere is distinctively Sparklehorsean. From Dark Night of the Soul.
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