Wednesday, January 06, 2010

2009 Music in Review

(or: "Really, musical artists, that's the best you can put together?")

2009 was not a banner year for music. Or, rather, it was not a banner year for listenable music. For the past few weeks, I've been lamenting various "best" lists: Pitchfork's is egregiously bad, and the Onion AV Club's is not much better. Decide for yourself, but a vast majority of the albums on that list seem more like disjointed slurred noise than actual music.

Therefore, here's my own "top albums of the year" list, picking through the very little from this past year that didn't suck so bad.

Best album that Pitchfork more or less got right: Two Suns, Bat for Lashes

It's not a wall-to-wall masterpiece. Two Suns has its weird operatic moments that are easily the worst bits of the album--as my friend and fellow music critic Andrew put it, "oh, no, Bat for Lashes, don't get all Nightwish on me." It has its share of songs, apparently a prerequisite for albums released in 2009, that sound more like atonal background noise than anything you'd listen to on purpose.

But I have a professed love of indie girl singers with pretty voices, and singer Natasha Khan's voice is both pretty and girly enough that it carries the album's better parts past its worse. Number seven album of the year? In a normal year, no, not even close. In 2009? Sounds about right.

Best album that most critics admit is pretty good: Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

It took me an embarrassingly long time to come around to this album. Pretty redhead indie girl singer/songwriter with a folkish voice that compares to Jenny Lewis's? Shouldn't I be all over that? Well, yes, I really should. Case's music is a delightful combination of "indie", pop, and folk that just barely survives its brush with country. In Cyclone, Case seems so determined to make her sound unique that she takes a carefree, at times reckless approach to song structure. Her method of "do what feels right" comes off as odd if you're expecting something conventional.

But like those cyclones, conformity to convention is never going to be Case's strong suit. It's not like we should expect it to be--this is coming from the woman who sings more love songs about animals than people and who's ready to pounce on some unfortunate passerby with a katana on her album cover. Instead of working yourself up into a structuralist frenzy, just take Case's voice for the treasure that it is.

Best album derived from American folk music: Among the Oak and Ash (self-titled)

Paste Magazine is better than Rolling Stone because Paste doesn't jam leftist politics down your throat at every opportunity (just occasionally). And Paste is better than just about any other music publication out there because it takes a truly unique approach to the music it likes. Pure-indie rags are a dime a dozen; the "why sing when you can autotune?" trash that's so popular now gets sufficiently covered everywhere else.

But Paste has no qualms about picking ludicrous genres and showcasing the best of them. Adult contemporary/adult alternative? Passe? Yes, usually, but Paste recognizes when that genre produces a worthwhile album. Americana, the sort that our great-grandfathers played with three-strong banjos? Boring? Not at all, says Paste--both important to our culture and an opportunity to develop something intensely artistic. Among the Oak and Ash, which I've already reviewed, is a fine example of all of that.

Best vocal performance of the year: Stages, Vedera

Stages is not going to win any prizes for originality, bound-pushing, or ground-breaking, and I realize that. But I absolutely love Vedera anyway. They're fantastically nice people, down-to-earth and caring towards their fans. Their music is relatable and pop-sensibly singable. And Kristen May, I'm convinced, gives the best vocal performances of anyone who's making music today. Seriously, I challenge you to prove me wrong.

Best Broadway musical disguised as an album: The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists

And here I was under the impression that the musical community as a whole liked the Decemberists... on the contrary, I think the only "top of the year" that Hazards showed up on was Paste's. Hazards is an album that I realize is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that's mostly because it's only tangentially an album anyway. It's a story, and you have to have the patience to bear with plot, character development, and even literary devices to get the most out of it.

It toes the line of campy, and mostly I see that as a sign that the Decemberists don't take themselves too seriously. But, even more importantly, they know how to make a hell of an entertaining experience.

Best tongue-in-cheek funk: Single Entendre, Here Come the Mummies

Here's a concept: ten or so dudes in full mummy wrappings play some of the most energetic funk this side of 1978. Why the mummy costumes? Tough to say, but rumor has it that they're a stealth funk supergroup, some of whom are signed to other bands or labels, and don't want to reveal their identities because that might represent a breach of contract. Now consider that their music is largely humorous, rife with sexual innuendo (just look at that album cover), and tell me this isn't the best band ever.

Currently listening: "The Tain" (part I), the Decemberists

1 comment:

Samantha said...

I think you've just convinced me to try out Among the Oak and Ash. It has a cute album cover too. :O