Hudson's Best of 2009, Part 3: The Top 20 Albums of The Year
The experts are almost unanimous in saying the days of the album are dead. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Ok, the label-created ultra-commercial acts can’t give away a full album…and they shouldn’t. Not even a pre-teen believes that Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Adam Lambert, or the Black Eyed Peas can create a seamless collection of tunes. Fans of that type of music are just going to log on to their parent’s iTunes account and download the couple of hits (or acquire them through other means).
Outside of the pop spectrum, though, the album is still alive. If you like Built to Spill, Sonic Youth, or The Decemberists, you’re the type of person who wants to hear more than a couple of tunes. In some respects, it’s almost like the early 70’s has returned. The pop stars I listed earlier are the current versions of 7” single stars like The DeFranco Family and Paper Lace, while Wilco is today’s Band and the Flaming Lips are the new Pink Floyd…and Dylan is still Dylan.
The problem is that consumers of both groups are just not buying enough singles or albums. Record execs would love for you to believe that it’s all because of downloading, but that belief is way overstated. The fact is that as the economy is going down the tank, the amount of disposable cash is shrinking. The little money that is left after bills are going to video games, DVD’s, laptops, and other consumer goods. When the latest Call of Duty game grosses over $550 million in its first five days of release, and the latest Batman sells three million in ONE DAY, that doesn’t leave much money for CD’s or downloads.
Obviously, there are fewer of us who have that disease of NEEDING the latest great releases, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t worthy material. Here are some of the albums that rocked my iTouch this year:
1. 20. Black Lips, 200 Million Thousand. The world needs more bratty, snot-nosed, beer-stained garage rock. Known for their ramshackle live shows, their albums are always full of the sweaty swagger and debauchery they bring to the stage. 200 Million Thousand continues in that vein to an extent, but the tighter production brings about a much more coherent, more musically competent overall sound.
1. 19. Elvis Costello, Secret Profane and Sugarcane. Every few years Costello says he’s no longer interested in recording. Generally, a few months later he changes his mind and releases his best in many years. This is one of those years. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, Costello’s latest was recorded in three days, and sees him return to the country-tinged acoustic sounds of 1986’s King of America.
1. 18. Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs. One of the most intriguing bands in indie rock, Yo La Tengo have relased sixteen albums over their 25-year career. Unlike most bands with this type of longetivity, you still never know what you’re getting with each release.Their latest is possibly their most varied yet, jumping around from mellow pop to extended guitar workouts to even a tad of Motown-ish soul.
1. 17. Langhorne Slim, Be Set Free. With Ryan Adams apparently sitting at home these days writing awful poetry while watching his actress/pop star wife (Mandy Moore) bring home the paycheck, we must now look to Langhorne Slim for widely varied, gospel-tinged Americana.
1. 16. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. Take a bit of Rufus Wainwright’s croon, along with the whimsy of Badly Drawn Boy and set it to classic chamber pop (along with lots of whistling). Voila! You have multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird.
1. 15. Monsters of Folk, S/T. Although this much-hyped collaboration of indie singer/songwriter stars (Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Jim James, and Mike Mogis) didn’t quite live up to the publicity (it was definitely NO modern-day Traveling Wilburys), nobody can claim that egos took over the project. The foursome indeed gel as a real band, and while nothing on this record tops anything they’ve produced in their “day jobs”, the result is a pleasurable collection of captivatingly catchy tunes.
1. 14. Telekinesis, S/T. If the Beatles were a one-man indie rock band, they just may sound like Michael Benjamin Lerner. Producer Chris Walla and Lerner reportedly recorded and mixed this wonderful set of sugary goodness in just one day, but the result is a surprisingly layered, precisely constructed collection.
1. 13. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty. The leader of The New Pornographers turns up the volume a bit more than usual on this quirky collection of baroque pop. Newman has always been a witty writer, but lyrically he’s never been more devious.
1. 12. Vetiver, Tight Knit. There are times one needs a lush, laidback collection of cozy, 70’s-ish West Coast pop. When that happens, just pull out this wonderful album.
1. 11. Olson & Louris, Ready For the Flood. After playing on each other’s solo albums, the founding fathers of the Jayhawks (Gary Louris and Mark Olson) finally collaborate on a primarily acoustic disc that reminds us just how beautiful their voices complemented each other on albums such as Hollywood Town Hall.
1. 10. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, S/T. I’ve always been a sucker for noisy pop, and this Brooklyn band combines the best elements of My Bloody Valentine, The Smiths, and, most notably, The Jesus and Mary Chain.
1. 9. The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You. Renowned in alt-country circles for their harmonies, producer Rick Rubin tightens up their sound for their major label debut. Longtime fans may be a bit dismayed by the slick production, but it’s easily their best collection of songs to date.
1. 8. Art Brut, Art Brut Vs. Satan. How can I not love an album that includes a tribute to the Replacements? “Second hand records are cheaper/Reissues CD’s, extra tracks”. Besides that track, it’s hard not to love this sort of modern day version of The Fall.
1. 7. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. French pop that actually works? No way! This is easily the fun, guilty pleasure of the year – pure pop/rock with a touch of synth and dance elements.
1. 6. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. As Oklahoma’s strangest (and greatest) band gradually entered the homes of mainstream America, the “weirdness” that marked their early days quickly evaporated. Embryonic shakes the faintly strange but primarily conventional pop of the last album and replaces it with a much darker sound that’s full of weird twists and turns.
1. 5. Sonic Youth, The Eternal. On their latest album, Sonic Youth not only returns to their indie label roots but the supercharged sound recalls their late 80’s SST heyday. Twenty-five years after their formation, Sonic Youth remains one of the most essential bands of our time.
1. 4. Built to Spill, There Is No Enemy. After a couple of albums that were considered disappointing, Built to Spill rebounded this year with this album that marked a return to the sprawling, yet elegant, guitar wizardry of their 90’s heyday. Besides his incendiary guitar work, leader Doug Martsch’s songs are among his best ever.
1. 3. Bob Dylan, Together Through Life. There’s no doubt that the comeback of the decade belongs to the greatest songwriter of the last couple of generations. Dylan’s latest release continues in the old-style, minstrel-ish style of his last few albums, but is highlighted by Tex Mex-ish accordion provided by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. It’s also the most relaxed Dylan album in quite some time, and many songs reveal a rarely exhibited sense of humor.
1. 2. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love. Green Day wasn’t the only band to release a rock opera in the last few years. Unlike American Idiot, though, The Hazards of Love actually told a coherent story, which probably shouldn’t be surprising as Decemberists leader Colin Meloy is more of a traditional storyteller than Billie Joe Armstrong. That’s not to say this isn’t a challenging album, especially since few individual songs stand out, but is a rewarding listen if you can handle an elaborate story centered around a woman who is ravaged by her “shape-shifting lover“.
1. 1. Wilco, The Album. After a couple of somewhat lackluster albums, Sky Blue Sky and A Ghost Is Born, Wilco responded this year with their finest album since 2001’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Sure, the somewhat restrained sounds of those two releases are present here, but Jeff Tweedy’s songwriting has never been better and renowned guitarist Nels Cline is now fully integrated (he had joined shortly before 2007’s Sky Blue Sky).Wilco began the decade with the album of their career; they came close to topping it at the end.