My priorities this year were so far from keeping up with new releases that I've totally failed at coming up with a respectable best-of list—one comprised of actual 2009 releases, that is. I probably could have come up with eight or ten new albums I heard this year that I liked, or that were solid (see last week's post for recommendations of that nature.) But I can't bring myself to make that kind of list. This is something I went on about last year, but my simple stance is that an end-of-year list should be as long as the quality of records dictates it should be. So, if I were to do a list that only included 09 albums, I'd have a top two, maybe a top three. That seemed insufficient as far as a worthwhile blog post goes. So this year I'll dispense with the 09 list and the rundown of favorite old stuff and just jump straight to my own personal favorite acquisitions of the year. I've neglected to include mp3s this time around because all of these acts are going to show up in my playlist post tomorrow (75 songs!). If you're especially eager to hear any of these bands, however, I encourage you to click on the categories at the end of this post; somewhere or other on this blog I have done mp3s for all of these before.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather Post Pavilion is such a transcendent success because it works on the two most essential levels: one, it's a riveting album if for no other reason than its sound—the samples, the harmonies, the songs' cohesiveness, all adding up to something greater than the sum. But two, it's also just a straight-up jam. It's just a fucking fun record to play! "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes," "Brothersport" (especially the big instrumental ravey moment toward the end)... these songs appeal to the head-nodder, the car-dancer, the occasional funky boss that I am. Avey Tare and Panda Bear's voices blend with each other and with the music itself, creating a kind of sonic morass with a shining pop core—it's like the aural equivalent of looking at a searchlight in deep fog: ominous yet comforting. MPP weaves its thread through foreboding numbers like "Almost Frightened," through romantic sentiments like "Bluish," through flirtations with the abstract in "Daily Routine," yet remains compelling and, again, simply pleasurable, throughout. At this point I'm exhausted by talking about this band at all—praising them, defending them, parsing them, dissecting them. Then again this album isn't really for talking about—at its core, no classic album is. It's just for putting on and feeling in your gut that it's incredible.
Faust: Faust IV
Did I really only pick this album up this year? I guess I did—I bought it right around Christmas 2008. But man, it feels like I've known this album forever. I prefer that lie; otherwise I'd have to feel the ache of knowing that I'd made it to my third decade without this in my life. (Confidential to all Animal Collective fans: I've said this before but will reiterate that I find Faust to be a kind of spiritual ancestor to AC—they have a similar blend of seriousness and playfulness, of accessibility and experimentation, of genre jumping and genre defining. You owe it to yourself to dig up at least one of AC's roots by getting this album.)
Dr. Dog: Fate
Wait: Fate was on my 2008 list! I know. It was my fifth favorite album of last year. But it deserves a second shout-out because I think I wound up listening to it more this year than last. If I were to remake last year's list, this would be #1. Unlike the top two on the present list there is nothing remotely experimental about Fate; it happily, confidently blends an adoration for the Band and other classic rock acts, all of whom you've heard of before. The album is also structured like a conversation, with main songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken trading tunes back and forth, each grappling with themes of religion, free will, and yes, fate. By the end of the album you almost feel like they might have even reached a healthy conclusion. Fate is a smart, compelling album—and it's become an essential part of any road trip or pick-me-up playlist.
Neko Case: Middle Cyclone
Neko Case made the best record of her career. It can be hard to settle in with—most of the tracks on Middle Cyclone are aching ballads, and it can feel monotonous during the first few times through—but once the record clicks, those aches are your aches. As with the Dr. Dog record, Middle Cyclone mostly sinks its teeth into a lyrical theme—bad romance—in which each song adds a level of depth to all of the others. You hurt for the woman in "Pharoahs" in part because you already felt for the narrator of "Middle Cyclone." You worry for the person behind "This Tornado Loves You" after you meet the protagonist of "The Next Time You Say Forever." And so on. It's not all like this: "Prison Girls" is some hot noir; "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" is just a powerhouse (and a little nuts); and I'm not going to say no to a Harry Nilsson cover ("Don't Forget Me"). Neko Case made the best record of her career—did I say that already?
The Byrds: Ballad of Easy Rider
Dillard & Clark: The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark
These two albums came out in the same year, 1969, and they make a good pair. Easy Rider is the second Byrds album to feature Roger McGuinn and a bunch of guys who weren't original members (and it's also an excellent country record that is as good as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, maybe better). Fantastic Expedition, meanwhile, features three ex-Byrds in Gene Clark, Chris Hillman, and Michael Clarke (and is also an excellent country record that is as good as Sweetheart of the Rodeo, maybe better).
Animal Collective: Sung Tongs
What can I say? This one was new to me this year. (Richard, after so many conversations in my comments about the merits of Sung Tongs, I hope you feel vindicated that this album has risen in my esteem with every passing month.) Yeah, I still like MPP more, but the allure of this record is so different it's difficult to compare. MPP is immediate; the melodies of Sung Tongs burrow. The rhythms of Sung Tongs waft past you if you let them, but they're not aimless. (And to my surprise it was produced by a kid I knew in high school!)
The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms
See last week. I still love it.
Tomorrow: 75 songs. Portrait of a listening year.