1969 can go hang. The profitable industry of baby boomer-writ history will try to convince you 40 years ago was superior to the here and now, but, like patriotism, nostalgia is the refuge of a scoundrel. 2009 has been an unbelievable year for music. Away from the dim-witted pornography of chart-pop lurk thousands of albums made by independent artists working beyond boundaries of culture, tradition, and genre. Albums available to anyone with a computer, mere clicks away. Maybe there's too much new music, but there's nothing wrong with being spoiled for choice. And, choose I do: these 30 LPs, the best of 2009.
It's clearly the greatest soundtrack-to-an-imagined-monster-movie recorded by a Hollywood celebrity and a children's choir ever. Dead Man's Bones may be one-half Ryan Gosling, but their debut disc is the antithesis of every narcissistic actor's vanity project ever conceived: strange, spooky, ramshackle, raw, weirdly produced, uniquely its own thing, and an actual work of art. Gosling and pal Zach Shields are anything but dudes riffing on Radiohead records; instead, their electric-guitar-free sound draws life from monster movies, Halloween costumery, Tom Waits' junkyard cabaret, frighteningly-wholesome '50s doo-wop, the spoken-word-aided girl-group melodramas of the Shangri-las, and cult '70s-kids-choir LP, the Langley Schools Music Project.
Though three decades into her musical career, Carla Bozulich displays none of the trappings of the 'veteran' artist. Savagely unsentimental, disinterested in nostalgia, and utterly fearless, she marches forever farther into the darkness. Following up the brutal Hello Voyager
(one of 2008's best albums
), Bozulich heads even more 'out,' compositionally, with the harrowing Prince of Truth
, a suite of epic, freeform songs that either float perilously detached from the safety of rhythm/groove, or are blasted with ferocious torrents of noise. Throughout, Bozulich wails death-bed blues —“No white light shines on me/No tunnel above or little hands pullin' me back/Or pointing me into the black”— that summon a feeling of inescapable dread.
P.W. Elverum and Sun
Growing up in remote Northwest Washington, Phil Elverum knew all too well the eerie environs David Lynch dabbled with in his legendary soap-opera Twin Peaks
: the sinister forests in which a man could disappear completely, those spooky realms where the owls, indeed, are not what they seem. For his third proper Mount Eerie album, Elverum was inspired by stretches of solitude in woods, listening to the wind howling through the trees. An almost-concept-album about “an immense river of air tearing through the world,” Wind's Poem
draws on the wind-tunnel sound of black-metal, with giant masses of shrill guitar tone built up into colossal cloudbanks of sound. The result is Elverum's best album since his awe-inspiring Mount Eerie
LP in 2003.
For over a decade, Seattle drone-metal masterminds Sunn O))) have played their slow-crawl, scorched-Earth blues so loud they've rattled teeth and vibrated organs; their career-making maxim “maximum volume yields maximum results.” Their seventh LP, Monoliths & Dimensions
, can again be defined by its speed —torporific— and volume —skull-crushing— but it could never be confused as having a lack of ambition. Rather than resting on their movement-founding laurels, Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson have scaled heights of epic-double-album grandeur not seen since Godspeed You Black Emperor!
's Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
, employing strings, woodwinds, brass, concert harp, and conch shell in their four-part hymnal to the celestial.
Long live the rock-opera! So sayeth The Decemberists
, whose fifth LP finds Colin Meloy penning a 17 song, hour-long musical, his nasally sneer narrating a Victorian-era tragedy filled with woodland magic, infanticide, and ghosts. Veering between harpsichord interludes and bulldozing riffs, The Hazards of Love
marries those twin English movements of the late-’60s/early-’70s —heavy metal and the folk-revival— in grand fashion. Taking inspiration from Led Zeppelin IV
and Shirley & Dolly Collins’ Anthems In Eden
, Meloy summons the golden age of the album in defiance of the single-track-downloading present. Written, conceived, and executed as linear work, this Decemberists disc demands to be experienced, sequentially, from start to finish.
Many bands dabble in Soviet kitsch —see Franz Ferdinand’s Russian Constructivist design fetish— few seem interested in contemporary Russia. Enter Canadian couple Handsome Furs (Wolf Parade
’s Dan Boeckner, wife Alexei Perry), who've authored an LP as Russian travelogue. With its titular reference to Moscow nightclub policy, Face Control
is steeped in oligarchy, kleptocracy, government-mandated murder, and resumed Cold War posturing. Musically, Handsome Furs use the same elements as their Plague Park
debut —blunt drum-machine thunk, overdriven guitar, Boeckner's Beck-like moan— but to greater ends; louder, bolder, better. With this, Boeckner's band finally manages to measure up to Spencer Krug's previously-completely-superior Sunset Rubdown.
It's strange that Wolf Parade
are the 'main' band whilst Sunset Rubdown are, somehow, Spencer Krug's side-project. Krug'd already delivered two of the decade's best albums, 2006's Shut Up I Am Dreaming
and 2007's Random Spirit Lover
, prior to Dragonslayer
, his latest LP of chaotic keyboards, tangled guitar lines, and self-referential words (single “Idiot Heart,” for example, recasting lines from numerous old cuts anew). Like his Swan Lake bandmate Dan 'Destroyer' Bejar, Krug is authoring not merely songs, but an entire body-of-work; a dense underworld of intricate tunes and nimble lyricism (“Under all the folds of your dresses that you wear/There's an ocean and a tide and a riot in the square”) for fans to endlessly explore.
A true poet can take ugly language and make it beautiful; can find profundity in the gutter. So The Antlers' Peter Silberman does on “The Bear,” singing: “And all the while I'll know we're f**ked/and not getting unf**ked soon.” Such sailor-talk happily taps into the key theme of Hospice
: helplessness. Singing in a Bon Iver
-ish falsetto, Silberman carols a suite of songs that parallel a dying relationship with actual literal death; placing its tale of tortured, torn-apart lovers in a cancer ward to symbolize irrevocable loss and inevitable heartache. Stunningly, Silberman places these thematically-rich piano ballads in a musical dreamstate; clouds of keyboards and hazes of massed vocals creating an eerie, opaque atmosphere.
22. Jordaan Mason and the Horse Museum 'Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head'
Jordaan Mason's nasally wail and lyrical grotesquerie make his artistic debt to Neutral Milk Hotel obvious. But, where others gravitate towards NMH's pop side, Mason's music shows someone who's soaked in “Oh, Comely” repeatedly. Three years in the making, the Canadian songsmith's Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head is a work of uneasy listening; spilling like tortured bloodletting from an open emotional wound. Backed by a baroque nine-piece band of cardboard-box drums, saloon piano, musical saw, and marching-band horns, Mason caterwauls re: bodily functions, decay, disease, degeneracy, and Henry Darger. Or, as he puts it, “semi-illiterate songs about sex and sickness and the decline of (stupid f**king) western civilization.”
Far from your garden variety folkie warbler, geek-chic pin-up Laura Barrett is an odd bird of unusual plumage. The sometime-member of Toronto gay-pop big-band, the Hidden Cameras, conducts a singular musical study: writing sprightly, playful, often-science-fiction-themed songs on the kalimba. Matching her wordy, silly lyricism to circular, tumbling patterns plucked on the kalimba's brittle-sounding keys, Barrett oft keeps things stripped-down, but is just as apt at building grand layers of piano, tuned percussion, strings, and woodwinds. Victory Garden, her debut LP, comes steeped in both showtune-ish songwriterism and modern-classical composition, and introduces Barrett as an outré orchestral ally of blessed Canadian fiddler Final Fantasy.