Friday, December 18, 2009

My Favorite Albums of 2009

What a strong year for music! I've had a hell of a time narrowing down my list this year. Once I got it down to my top 30 albums, it took me forever to parse it down to ten. One thing that I noticed about my particular list is that it really leans heavily towards the country/folk-ish albums. I'm usually a big indie rock geek, but for some reason none of the rock releases that professional critics are lauding this year really did anything for me (e.g. Grizzly Bear, Phoenix, Animal Collective, etc.). Does this mean that I am getting old and I subconsciously don't want to listen to what the damn hipster kids are into? Am I turning introspective and listening to music that more closely resembles the calamity that is my life? Would I feel the same had Okkervil River put out an album this year? Hmmm....

This list also leans towards artists that I saw live this year, and I have tried to reference back to their show somewhere in my review of that album. This system is probably not fair to the artists that I didn't see this year, but what can I do? I see an enormous number of shows every year, and if an artist/band doesn't get his/her/there ass(es) to Toronto, its not my fault.

Any of these top ten can rotate to the top of the list at any given time, but on this day, in the year of our lord two thousand and nine, these are my ten favorites.

1. Justin Townes Earle - Midnight at the Movies

Justin Townes Earle knows his country music history. Hell, given his middle name and surname, he's lived part of this history. Which is one of the reasons why Midnight at the Movies is so special. JTE, while acutely aware of his family legacy, writes songs that are uniquely his. In fact, many of these songs have so much classic country character that they sound like they could have been written by A.P. Carter. The instrumentation is almost all acoustic, and mixes classic country, bluegrass, blues, folk, and even a bit of rock. And in true classic country style, JTE loves to tell stories in his music. The title track tells of a lonely soul waiting in the dark movie theatre for a few hours of affection from his mystery ladyfriend. "Mama's Eyes" may be JTE's most poignant song, describing his difficult relationship with his father, while acknowledging that he's also his mother's son. "Sure it hurts but, it should hurt sometimes." What a great lyric for anyone who has even had issues with their parents. "Forgiven for This" describes the disintegration of a relationship with the narrator hoping for eventual absolution. And every great country album needs a song about folk legend John Henry. "Dirty Rag" is a short bluegrass instrumental that sounds like it could have been written by the Sadies. The harmonica part on "Halfway to Jackson" really makes you feel like you are listening to a train chug by. But then JTE pulls a fast one on us with a brilliant country-fied cover of the Replacements "Can't Hardly Wait." Who hasn't had the mandolin riff from this song stuck in their head since the album came out in March? In a year full of cover song recordings, this one is my favorite. There is a not a bad song on this album. Midnight at the Movies is a must own for all country music fans.

Halfway to Jackson.mp3
Buy: Midnight at the Movies

2. Carolyn Mark & NQ Arbuckle - Let's Just Stay Here

I will admit that the reason this album is so high on my list is that their live show was absolutely killer. After hearing Carolyn Mark sing I turned into this crazy/creepy fan girl and confessed my love for her when I ran into her in the washroom that night. How embarrassing. How old am I? Anyway, the album is wonderful, alternating between songs written by Mark and NQ Arbuckle. Some songs are serious ("All Time Low"), some are fun ("Canada Day/Toronto"), some are kick-ass covers ("Too Sober to Sleep," "Downtime"), some will make you dance ("When I Come Back"), and some will make you cry ("Saskatoon Tonight"). And how can you not love a song that name drops the Drive-By Truckers ("Officer Down")? Mark and Neville Quinlan's voices blend so well, and the musicianship on the record is top notch. I can't wait to see them again!

When I Come Back.mp3
Buy (Amazon): Let's Just Stay Here
Buy (Maple Music): Let's Just Stay Here

3. Mark Olson & Gary Louris - Ready For The Flood

I still remember exactly where I was the first time I heard the Jayhawks trademark song "Blue." My dad was driving me home from college for spring break 1995 and we were somewhere north of Milwaukee when "Blue" came on the radio. I've been a huge Jayhawks fan every since. The Jayhawks as we knew them may not exist anymore (they more or less have to pay Rick Rubin to use the Jayhawks name), but Mark Olson and Gary Louris continue making beautiful country/folk music, and Ready for the Flood sounds like it could be a proper Jayhawks album. Not that its a sounds totally like a Jayhawks release, but all of the elements are there. Highlights include "The Rose Society," "Bicycle," "Turn Your Pretty Name Around," "Saturday Morning on Sunday Street," and the rest of the album. Its also a long alum: 15 tracks and over 55 minutes. But as soon as its over you will want to play it again. I was worried that people would forget about this album since it came out in mid-January, and I remember freezing my ass off in February just to see this duo preform in Toronto. In summary, to quote my buddy Daddy, "The sound of these two humans harmonizing together again will melt your cynical heart and make you weep like a newly born babe washed in the white, blinding light of love." Well said, Daddy.

Saturday Morning on Sunday Street.mp3
Buy: Ready For The Flood

4. Ben Nichols - The Last Pale Light In The West

In early 2009 Ben Nichols of Lucero put out his first solo album which immediately frustrated me because I had to wait eleven more months before I could put it on my best of list. We are used to Nichols writing kick-ass rock songs about getting drunk and breaking hearts, but when he put out an acoustic album based on Cormac McCathry's novel Blood Meridian, alt country fans everywhere were blown away. To quote Mr. Nichols himself, "I'm partial to the sad, slow shit," and that statement really shows on this album. Most of this album is slow, melancholy folk music, and you don't necessarily have to know the book to appreciate the lyrics. "Your mother died night you were born, her name you never knew..." Tell me that is not the alt country lyric of the year? And who would have thought that Ben freakin' Nichols would lead me to finally read a McCarthy novel? Which lead me to read another one, which lead me to buy two more as e-books which Brad Pitt will read to me while I am on vacation this winter.

Davy Brown.mp3
Buy: The Last Pale Light In The West
Buy the book: Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West (orig. published 1985)

Although this album came out in April, it wasn't until I started getting my thoughts on 2009 organized in November when I really started to listen to this album. When I hit the ole shuffle button on my 2009 playlist, the songs from this album always had me looking at my Zune and thinking, "This is great. Who is this?" This is an unhappy record, disguised in happy folk melodies. For example, the opening song "Cry" sounds like it could be an upbeat, poppy folk tune until you listen to the lyrics. "There's no poison like a dream when it all comes undone." Not to mention the downer of an album title. "Green Mountains and Me" is a beautiful song about love gone wrong. There are several references to dreams not coming true in various songs on this album, especially in the song, uhh, "Dreams." Its not to say that this album is super depressing, but like life, we all have a hard time coming to terms with what will and will not be, and Cleaves does an excellent job at expressing these feelings in song.

This album was produced, mixed, and engineered by Gurf Morlix, who also put out one hell of a solo album this year. Morlix also plays various instruments and sings backup vocals on this album.

This album has the most variety of any album that I listened to in 2009. Although its tagged as "country," it ranges all over the place from traditional country, to ballads, to country-rock, and continues on the long tradition, and Lund's previous songwriting, of humor and storytelling in country music. And some of the songs even contain musical elements of jazz and blues. The opening track, "Horse Doctor, Come Quick" is about scoring drugs off of a veterinarian, which I am pretty sure was also an episode of the Trailer Park Boys. "This is My Prairie" is an environmental/anti-corporate ballad that could have been written by Steve Earle. "A Game in Town Like This" is about regret, and it may be the best song that Lund has ever written. The fact that this song is not played on country radio makes me weep for the future of humanity. Edit: this "fact" may not be totally accurate as country radio doesn't exist in Toronto and I have done no other field research.

A Game in Town Like This.mp3
Buy (Amazon): Losin' Lately Gambler
Buy (Maple Music): Losin' Lately Gambler

Pseudo-new Drive-By Truckers is better than most brand new releases. I say "pseudo-new" as some of these tracks have been floating around as bootlegs for quite a while ("The Great Car Dealer War"), some were used on random compilations (covers of Tom Petty's "Rebels" and Bobby D.'s "Like a Rolling Stone"), and some tracks are outtakes ("Uncle Frank" and "Goode's Field Road"). My personal favorite is the Trucker's unbelievably rocking cover of Warren Zevon's "Play it All Night Long" which sounds like it could have been straight out of their 2001 opus Southern Rock Opera. I also love the juxtaposition of "Uncle Frank," an anti-Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) rocking rant sung by Mike Cooley, followed by a deliberate pro- song "TVA" by Jason Isbell. And how great it is to hear new Isbell-penned Truckers songs? DBT have been together for over 15 years and undoubtedly have tons of other tracks stashed away. I can't wait for the next batch of oddities and rarities.

Bonus: I got to see the Truckers at a private show in November. I rule!

Uncle Frank.mp3
Buy: The Fine Print

The reason I love this album is very simple. I am a child of the 80s, and this record sounds like it was recorded in 1989. Indeed, all three original Dinosaur Jr. members are back for their fifth studio album: J. Mascis on guitar, Lou Barlow on bass, and Murph on drums. Farm sounds like a modern Bug (1989) with lots of Crazy Horse-style guitar distortion and killer riffs. Ten of the 12 tracks were penned by Mascis, while the other two are by Barlow. My only criticism of this album is that the Barlow tracks kind of drag relative to the kickassery (is that a word? spell check says yes) of the Mascis songs. But Barlow's tracks do not diminish the greatness of this record by any means. If you don't want the entire album, just promise me that you will pick up the first four tracks. They rock harder than anything else I have heard in 2009. In a year when indie rock mostly let me down, these aging indie rock gods showed the hipster kids how it is done.

Buy: Farm

This is the sleeper album which I kept coming back to in 2009. I often found myself on a late night subway or streetcar train, slightly intoxicated, thinking, "I really want to listen to Doug Paisley." This debut album contains sweet, gentle country folk. It opens with the heartbreaking "What About Us?" "Cause I just ain't no good alone." Gulp. "We Weather" is a tender love song about making it through the rough patches in a relationship, and contains some beautiful pedal steel work. "Digging in the Ground" has a wonderfully unique piano lick. "Take My Hand" is about reconciliation. If you like James Taylor without all of the cheesiness and a little more country, then you should check out Doug Paisley. (Awful comparison, I know, but its the best that I can come up with. Doug, if you are reading this I apologize.)

Edit: Better comparison: Paisley's Canadian brethren Hayden, but with more twang.

Take My Hand.mp3
Buy (Amazon): Doug Paisley
Buy (No Quarter): Doug Paisley

10. Lucero - 1372 Overton Park

I didn't really like this album until I saw Lucero live. Then I fucking loved this album! There was a lot of hoopla in the blog-o-sphere about the fact that Lucero had incorporated a horn section into its band. To me, it was like Ben Nichols had spent too much time with The Hold Steady, for whom he did background vocals for their 2008 album Stay Positive. In fact, I thought it was The Hold Steady when I first heard it. Overall, I was fine with the horns, and even liked them better live where they were less pronounced. The thing that bugged me about this album was that wasn't that much different from previous Lucero releases. Not that this is a bad thing. I love, love, love their older albums. But after hearing Nichol's solo album (see #4) you realize how much more they can do than "boy with sketchy past meets girl with sketchy past, they get drunk, his/her heart is broken" (more or less the first eight tracks of 1372 Overton Park). "Drinking women chasing whiskey," from "Sixes and Sevens" is classic Lucero songwriting, as are most of the songs on this album. The only song that really stands out to me is "Mom." Nichols slayed me when he did this song live. The song is an ode to the band's mothers, telling them yeah, we fuck around a lot, especially when we are on tour, but don't worry, you raised us right, and we will be home soon. Amazing. I want to hear more songs like "Mom" from Lucero. If 2007's Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers was the "piano album," and 1372 Overton Park is the "horn album," I fully expect the "pedal steel" album in 2011.

Buy: 1372 Overton Park


toomuchcountry said...

Thanks for saying what I've failed to say so far. Most of my top 20 for The Bird List were homer picks. Artists/bands I saw live or have some personal connection to. The list was too extensive to make objective picks. Picked more from the heart vs. objective comparisons.

Will said...

Great list. Unfortunately, the Corb Lund comment is true down in the States. Commercial country radio wouldn't touch a song like "A Game In Town Like This". Not peppy enough for the soccer mom crowd that country program directors shoot for.

simon2307 said...

Great post Aimz.
Cheers for flagging the Doug Paisley, have being enjoying that album.

Funny the Slaid Cleaves really hit home with me when I first heard it, just faded away.

TMC, definite case of heart ruling head this year, so little to choose between so may great releases.

AMP (American Music Photography) said...

Interesting list, but i expected it to be since you are in Toronto, good to see the Justin Townes Earle album at number one. Many lists were compiled down here in the states with out that album on it or no where near the top spot. Some choices here i have never heard of, Doug Paisley for instance, and i didn't even know that Dinosaur Jr. was still together and making music, guess my head is firmly planted in the Texas music scene. Good read, love Corb Lund, he's making better music about the cowboy way than most Americans. Wonder if he's going to be in Steamboat this year, have to take a look.

Mike said...

great list. lund, townes earle, and the ben nichols albums were all underrated this year.

if you want, feel free to check out my top 50 albums of ‘09:

we have some shared opinions

Lynchie from Aberdeen said...

Some great songs. Hadn't heard the Lucero track before, so thanks for that. And all the very best for 2010.

Anonymous said...

Awesome list. I'll have to check out a couple of them. Okkervil starts recording in January :)

Bobby B said...

I don't know a few of these but I really like the country-ish vibe of your list. I'm hoping to catch Justin Townes Earle in March and I was actually at the Olson/Louris show at the Mod Club, sitting right near the front.

Zach Jennings said...

Wow, so much to say about this list. For starters, as someone who lives about 2000 miles away from Canada (Austin), I've gotta say that Corb Lund's CD release party was a 2009 live show highlight of mine. Hayes Carll and Doug Moreland joined Corb and the boys as they thoroughly dominated the Threadgills crowd. Next, the Dino Jr. inclusion warmed my heart. I remember buying the compilation album, "Fossils" on cassette tape when I was a young mallrat simply because I liked the band name, the font that they used and the names of the songs" "Little Furry Things", "Freak Scene", "Chunks"??? As much as I appreciated Barlow's side projects, particularly Sebadoh's early stuff, to me Dino Jr has always been J's baby. This latest effort did nothing to change my mind but holy hell, how do these guys still churn out such relevant music after 20 years in the game? And honestly, you pegged it: this album (Farm) could have been put out in 1989 and fit right in (in a good way). All in all, yet another great EOY list that I'm reading way too late at night... P.S. have you heard of a BC band called The Sumner Brothers? They're steadily growing on a few of us Texans (not quite Corb levels yet, though).