2009 – The year in recorded musical performances

I swear that each year I have less and less time to spend listening to new music.  It seems like a losing battle anymore to keep up with all the new albums coming out, but I have to keep trying.  So rather than pontificate on the albums of the past year – as I’ve been known to do – I’m going for brevity in an attempt to get more done.  And I’m adding one new feature to this year’s year-end music wrapup (and future releases as well), by introducing a grading system.  Here’s the rundown:

  • Dig It – You can safely part with your hard-earned money for this and not feel like a sucker.
  • Download It – Still worth a listen, but you’ll probably want to just download it and cherry-pick the best tracks.
  • Ditch It – If you can find something of lasting value, you’re a better person than I.

Got it?  Good!  Let’s begin…

Andrew McKenna Lee, Gravity and Air (New Amsterdam) – To my untrained ear there isn’t a whole lot of variety in the world of classical guitar, so it comes down to whether the artist in question plays well and has good compositions.  Andrew McKenna Lee carries himself well in both areas.  Gravity and Air has beauty and virtuosity to spare.  Dig It

Ace Frehley, Anomaly (Bronx Born) – While not necessarily worth the 20-year wait, the Spaceman’s fourth post-Kiss solo album is about as solid as hard rock gets these days.  In a pleasant twist, Ace even adds a few new wrinkles in the form of some serious self-reflection and social consciousness.  And yes, it actually works.  Dig It

Eleni Mandell, Artificial Fire (Zedtone) – The only thing holding this back from being a great album is its length.  Dammit people, just because you can put more than 12 tracks on an album doesn’t mean you should.  Still, even with a few bland spots on this disc the music crackles and shines in enough places (“God Is Love”, “Needle and Thread”, “Tiny Waist”, and the title track) to make it one of Mandell’s top releases.  Forget the manufactured appeal of Lady Gaga – this is sexy music.  Dig It

Muse, The Resistance (Warner Bros.) – I still cannot decide what I really think about this album, but it is compelling.  I like a lot of bands with dumb lyrics, but somehow I’m having a hard time getting past Matthew Bellamy’s superficial, paranoid rants.  On top of that, The Resistance has no real flow to it and I just can’t excuse the three-part “Exogenesis” suite, as self-indulgent an exercise as I’ve heard on a record in years.  Still, there is a lot to like about this album.  There are big melodies, strong performances, and some very clever and intriguing arrangements.  It’s a good album, but I know Muse is capable of better.  Download It

Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures (Interscope Records) – I’m having a hard time figuring out what differentiates this from a regular Queens of the Stone Age release.  I guess it’s the presence of John Paul Jones?  Regardless of what you call it, it’s still plenty of fun.  Dave Grohl is remarkably restrained, to my disappointment, and Josh Homme is the same as always.  There are grooves and riffs a-plenty, though this music probably kicks more ass in a live setting.  Download It

Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue (Virgin/EMI) – You’re either going to give Jerry Cantrell a pass for forging ahead without Layne Staley or you’re not, it’s that simple.  I do, and my reward is the best AiC record since Dirt.  While I was hoping that the new guy (William DuVall) wouldn’t be on such a short leash, it’s not like he brings nothing to the table.   But really this is all about Cantrell, who proves that just about any older, established style of music can sound fresh when done well.  Doom and sludge was never so much fun to listen to.  Dig It

Robert Glasper, Double-Booked (Blue Note) – Perhaps in an effort to avoid getting stale, Glasper split this album between his brand of modern mainstream jazz and a more R&B/funk approach.  The jazz half is, as expected, stellar.  The second half is a little more uneven, but has its share of rewards.  Put together in one package, it simply reinforces my belief that Glasper is going to be one of the greats.  Dig It

Stefon Harris & Blackout, Urbanus (Concord Jazz) – If you dig Robert Glasper’s album (particularly the second half) you’ll probably like Urbanus as well.  The early ’70s Herbie Hancock/Stevie Wonder vibe permeates this disc, although the execution isn’t as uniformly strong as with Glasper’s band.  Personally I dig the more traditional jazz numbers, but the more funky arrangements are not without merit.  Download It

Moby, Wait for Me (Mute Records) – Ambient music is a tricky beast.  In the wrong hands, it becomes nothing more than background music for a light afternoon nap.  But in the hands of a true craftsman, it commands your attention as much as any other genre.  There is a downcast serenity to this album that almost crosses into sadness, but not quite.  The best approach to this album is to just relax and let it wash over you.  Download It

Mastodon, Crack the Skye (Reprise) – This has to be the disappointment of the year for me.  At one time I thought of this group as the successor to all-time metal greats like Slayer or Iron Maiden, but that’s in doubt now.  Crack the Skye commits the one unforgivable sin in music – it’s boring.  OK, maybe not the whole thing, but definitely the last half.  I’d like to pass the blame to producer Brendan O’Brien, who likely had a large hand in polishing all the edges off the band’s customarily aggressive yet melodic sound, but he’s probably not the lone culprit.  This is all sound and fury, signifying very little.  I need to go listen to Leviathan now. Ditch It

Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) – Call me uncool, or whatever term would indicate my being out of touch, but I don’t get the fuss at all.  Ditch It

QQQ, Unpacking the Trailer… (New Amsterdam) – This disc is proof positive that chamber music can be fun, interesting, and relevant even in the 21st century.  The exuberance that this quartet brings to their music is evident on peppy numbers like “Tøykey Jøykey” and “Beth’s Springar”.  But as many of you know, songs that are tuneful and melancholy are right in my wheelhouse so I can’t recommend “Sister Sparrow” enough.  And hey, you non-Norwegians out there owe it to yourself to hear the Hardanger fiddle in action at least once in your life.  Dig It

Franz Ferdinand, Tonight: Franz Ferdinand (Epic) – If this had come out right after Franz Ferdinand’s excellent 2004 debut album, it’s probably be slagged as a retread.  But because it instead follows the reviled You Could Have It So Much Better (which even the band disowns) it’s being hailed as a top-notch return to form.  In truth, it’s a little of both.  If you like your pop to bounce and have a little crunch, then you won’t be let down by this disc.  If you’re a casual fan of Franz Ferdinand or just want their best work, stick with the debut.  Download It

Röyksopp, Junior (Astralwerks) – I can’t fault Röyksopp for delivering an album that doesn’t meet my specific expectations, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be a little let down anyway.  No doubt, Junior is a well-crafted and expertly executed slice of ’80s style electronic dance pop.  It’s just that it lacks the nuance and subtly melancholy atmosphere of Melody A.M., one of the best albums of the decade.  Word is that the duo’s next album, Senior, might replicate some of that earlier feel.  In the meantime, now is the time on Sprockets venn ve dahnce!  Download It

White Rabbits, It’s Frightening (TBD Records) – Ouch.  Turns out not everything Britt Daniel touches turns to gold.  All the danger and chaos that made this band’s melodies so intoxicating the first time around are smoothed out to the point of no return here.  I love Spoon, and I loved the White Rabbits on their debut, but I’m not so jazzed about White Spoon.  Ditch It

Amy X Neuburg & The Cello ChiXtet – The Secret Language of Subways (MinMax Music) – This was one of the more challenging releases I reviewed during the year, but also one of the more rewarding.  Neuburg’s talents are undeniable, but certainly her style puts her at odds with just about everything the mainstream music world holds dear.  So yeah, I dig that.  This album is proof that avant garde isn’t actually French for “tuneless noise”.  Download It

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (Capitol) – This album loses points right away for making me track down an Olde English dictionary to decipher Colin Meloy’s lyrics.  Maybe hardcore fans care to wade through whatever story he’s trying to tell here, but I found it to be a chore.  Musically there is some good stuff going on here, but there’s just too damn much to wade through.  One of my favorite tracks from The Crane Wife is “The Island”, a great multi-part story that is told in just over 12 minutes.  That sort of economy is needed here, but is sadly lacking, so this one is for hardcore fans only.   Download It

Doves, Kingdom of Rust (Heavenly) – It’s nice when something you wait a long time for proves to be worth the wait.  Doves has done a great job of seamlessly touching upon their previous releases while at the same time creating a wholly fresh and vibrant work.  You want dark and brooding?  You got it (“Jetstream”).  How about naked emotion with a twinge of country?  Yup (“Kingdom of Rust”).  Oh yeah, and how about a slice of deep, nasty funk?  Eat up, kids (“Compulsion”). Dig It

Queensrÿche, American Soldier (Rhino) – After about a month or two I lost interest in Operation: Mindcrime II in spite of my initial exuberance.  But it was only after listening to this disc that I realized just how much more Queensrÿche had to offer.  Rehashing the tired old “but it’s not Rage for Order!” complaints aren’t worth my time anymore, so if you’re approaching modern Queensrÿche with that attitude then you will be disappointed.  The bottom line is that I make no apologies for thinking this is hands down the best release the band has put out in well over a decade (you can do the math to figure out what album I’m thinking of).  Geoff Tate had a definite story to tell here, and it’s that clear focus that drives the group here.  No cockamamie stories, just an honest message.  There are flourishes of the old ‘Rÿche in a lot of American Soldier, but this album definitely stakes its own musical territory.  Dig It

St. Vincent, Actor (4AD) – While this is definitely not a sophomore slump for Annie Clark, it doesn’t quite thrill me the way Marry Me did.  Clark tries to establish a darker mood here, but oftentimes it’s done not through songwriting but through an over reliance on studio trickery.  Still, maybe I’m just not approaching this from the right angle.  I’m likely to change my tune on this in a few months with some more listens.  Download It

Gomez, A New Tide (ATO Records) – Meh.  Another band people make a big deal out of that I don’t get.  This is definitely not a bad release, but never really rises above “OK” for me.  Your mileage may vary.  Download It

Heaven & Hell, The Devil You Know (Rhino) – While some may look at this group as lesser Black Sabbath, I don’t see it that way.  The Ronnie James Dio-led incarnation of the band came out with a couple great albums in the early ’80s and then sadly splintered.  So now they’re back and, in a bid to not piss off Ozzy or his lawyers, have christened themselves Heaven & Hell.  But whatever you call them, they’re here to bring you rib-cracking riffs and the kind of music that makes Satan seem pretty boss.  But the thing is that once you get past the joy of hearing this particular group of musicians playing together, there’s nothing all that special about The Devil You Know.  It lacks the compositional variety or pure thrill of the best moments from their ’80s work.  But there’s nothing wrong with solid, workmanlike metal, right?  Download It

The Duckworth Lewis Method, The Duckworth Lewis Method (Divine Comedy Records) – I guess if you’re going to dedicate an entire album to cricket, you better make it as fun as possible.  On that front, tDLM succeeds.  This one-off project from Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh wins more often than not on the sheer strength of melody and brevity.  There’s probably a little too much winking throughout this disc to elevate it past the level of pleasant, but I’m sure that was the intent.  Just fun, fluffy pop here.  Download It

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (Rubyworks) – ¡Aye Carumba!  If this blend of metal and flamenco doesn’t get your foot tapping and your air guitar going, check your pulse.  The musicality on display here is phenomenal, and on top of that these songs are a metric shit-ton of fun.  There’s not much else to say, really.  Dig It

Manic Street Preachers, Journal for Plague Lovers (Columbia) – I didn’t get into the Manics until well after the 1995 disappearance of the mercurial Richey Edwards, to the prospect of a new album full of Edwards’ old lyrics didn’t thrill me.  I have to say, though, that the work he left behind sure was pretty damn good.  And on top of that, the group has assembled a uniformly strong set of angry, anthemic rockers, muscular pop songs, and melancholy ballads.  Well done, boys.  Dig It

Kiss, Sonic Boom (Kiss Records) – C’mon, you didn’t think I’d forget this one did you?  I was, shall we say, curious about this one based on the strength of the leadoff single, “Modern Day Delilah”.  I thought that Kiss had successfully navigated the waters of modern hard rock while still retaining their signature sound.  Turns out I was partially right.  While Sonic Boom is light years of that color-by-numbers, overpolished turd of an album Psycho Circus, it’s not quite the return to ’70s glory that Paul Stanley touted (I know, shock).  It is, however, a damn sight better than any fan had a right to expect, and shows that there might just be some creative gas left in the tank after all.  Still, I could’ve done without Tommy Thayer copping Ace Frehley’s guitar licks at every turn.  Download It

Minus 8, Slow Motion (Compost Records) – DJ/producer Robert Jan Meyer makes effective use of singers on this more toned down affair, particularly Hungarian vocalist Virag.  Slow Motion is a bit uneven but hits enough high points to make it a worthy addition to any nu jazz fan’s collection.  And it’s definitely a rebound from his last effort, EclecticaDownload It

Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch) – Because I knew better than to expect the followup to the gorgeous Sky Blue Sky to match that album for sheer beauty, I found a lot to like about Wilco (The Album).  The sense of humor that was in fact lacking from the previous record is definitely here, in the form of the cover art and title track mainly.  But mostly, this album feels like a summation of the band’s catalog to date rather than a new, unified artistic statement.  Regardless, it’s hard to deny the greatness of tracks like “Deeper Down”, “Bull Black Nova”, or “You Never Know”.  Dig It

Honorable Mention

Here are some more good albums (some very good) from the past year that I would love to write about (or already have), but there’s only so much time in the day and I’m only one man…

  • Mute Math, Armistice
  • The Black Crowes, Before the Frost…
  • Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Infernal Machines
  • Joe Henry, Blood From Stars
  • The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
  • Ori Dakari, Entrances
  • John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, Eternal Interlude
  • Voivod, Infini
  • John Zorn, O’o
  • Porcupine Tree, The Incident
  • Bat for Lashes, Two Suns
  • Russian Circles, Geneva