The indestructable beat of Africa seems to loom larger in a lot of this year’s music and that’s probably why I hear a more prominent influence of the Talking Heads. Together with Brian Eno they were progenitors of a pop songcraft that used african elements while pushing at the boundaries of popular music and new wave. Several albums released this year felt like they arrived out of nowhere, with no musical forebears, and it may be naive but I feel like we’re at the crest of a new new wave. After years of feeling somewhat dispassionate about new music, I feel energized and excited about what’s in store.

As an aside, the way I encounter new music is different these days, less in clubs (growing boring, old man) and more on headphones. I’ve got shelves and shelves of CDs, which I’ve never liked and I hate to think of as a collectable product, but I completely abhor the idea of an all-digital collection. Artwork and liner notes and simply browsing a library are all valuable components in listening to music for me. I love vinyl, but it seems ridiculous to grow a large vinyl collection in this era. So I’m split between the three formats at the moment. I’m curious how you all are collecting music…have you given up CDs for an iTunes library?

Onward, here are my favorites for 2009.

 

Hold Time

M. Ward : Hold Time

I don’t know why I’ve carefully avoided Matt Ward’s music in the past but this album’s fluid amalgam of folk, country-rock and 1950’s AM radio makes a mockery of my stubbornness. Like a sleepier version of the Buddy Holly apartment tapes inspired by T Rex and a measured dose of sugar-coated Roy Orbison string arrangements.

Merriweather Post Pavilion

Animal Collective : Merriweather Post Pavillion

The cyber-psychedelic soundtrack to hash dreams and atari riots, Merriweather may be the most fully realized, fully eclectic Animal Collective record yet. Furthering their syncretism of circus music, trance and Eno soundscapes, the music is both tranquil and jarring, often in the space of a single song, but it insinuates into your mind like a Super Mario Bros theme gilded with Hollies harmonies.

The xx

The xx : xx

I revisited Portishead’s Dummy earlier this year and was surprised how great the album still sounds.  Like that debut, xx features a cool, spare landscape for the pining hearts of vocalists trading off near-whispered lyrics. Someone mentioned Young Marble Giants as a reference and the lonely clarion guitar lines and steady restrained beats are similarly austere.  I hear it more as Mazzy Star with an electronic heart, or the late night companion to Rebecca Gates’ Ruby Series.

Person to Person

Foreign Born : Person to Person

I’ve said it before, and i’ll say it again (year after year, no doubt): young men and women with ugly hair and challenging sounds will win the hearts of kids looking for whatever’s new, but timeless songcraft will outlive them all. I don’t know what Foreign Born look like, but this is a nearly pitch perfect record with great hummable songs. Oddly reminiscent of 90’s college rock, but cleaner, with a wider spectrum sonic palette evoking the Shins, Beulah and a grown-up Vampire Weekend.

Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear : Veckatimest

I felt the fawning over 2006’s Yellow House was much ado about relatively nothing, but this album really took me by surprise.  With swirling colors of instrumentation, interplay between voices and songwriters, Grizzly Bear exploit the moody isolation of Van Morisson’s Veedon Fleece and melodic surprises in Cole Porter’s songbook and create something new and entrancing. If the Zombies made an album after Odessey & Oracle, this could be their basement tapes.

Actor

St Vincent : Actor

On her second album, one-woman show Annie Clark seems to alternate between menacing Wicked Witch and soothe-speaking Glinda. It’s enjoyably disconcerting: I felt like Dorothy trying to find my way through the technicolor production and tornados of strings. I’ll stop here before I start comparing her guitar to a broom, but suffice it to say St. Vincent know how to cast a spell.

Bitte Orca

Dirty Projectors : Bitte Orca

Finding their stride, the Dirty Projectors mine the same playful pop experimentation of early-80’s Talking Heads and invent a new language, all sunny, brazen and serpentine. You can hear it in the odd and shifting time signatures where even the lyrical phrases turn unexpectedly, the bright syncopated sounds, and the full-throated sirens singing both histrionic and sweet. It’s a collision of aural color on a canvas, strikingly beautiful. This album just kills me.

Infinite Light

Lightning Dust : Infinite Light

A melancholy cousin to Brightblack Morning Light’s self-titled LP, Inifinite Light‘s warbly odes to love recall 70’s AOR, with acoustic guitar, organ, and electric piano, but occasionally flirt with vintage electronics and shifts in genre.  It’s largely moody, wintry, and witchy in a Stevie Nicks sort of way while the closing track “Take it Home” is a psychedelic dirge perhaps inspired by Isaac Hayes’ cover of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”.

Middle Cyclone

Neko Case : Middle Cyclone

Neko seems drawn to the savagery of the natural world. Animals and natural disasters have underscored her last three albums, but they’re present on Middle Cyclone on almost every song, as tornado, killer whale, owl, mollusks and red tides – metaphors for the chaos her protagonists render as part their natural code.  Insofar as you can read into the musician’s life through their music, the language seems almost intended to distract from some of her most direct and personal lyrics yet.  Maybe that’s too easy a reading, but when Neko appears crouching with a sword on the hood of a car, I believe her when she sings “I’m An Animal” and wonder if her claws are sometimes too dangerous for the softer creatures around her.

Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo : Popular Songs

Even better than their last album, Popular Songs is as apt a title as the Yo La Tengo Radio Hour. Playing this record feels like you’ve been invited into their garage to sit and listen to 10 great songs by bands you’ve never heard of.  There’s Motown, garage rock, catchy Kinks-ish melodies and ambient drone pop and, as usual, the tracks fall in sequence perfectly. I’m still going to be listening to this when I’m 80 years old, drinking vin santo and (hopefully still) half-lucid.  Give this a listen and I think you’ll be right there with me.

Other Good Stuff

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart : The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
I wanted to dismiss this as nothing more than hero worship but in emulating great pop shoegaze it hits all the right notes. Like a great Wannadies-meets-Smiths record with a little MBV distorting the blistering sunshine.
Flaming Lips : Embryonic
I can’t wrap my head around this at all.
Atlas Sound : Logos
Antony & The Johnsons : The Crying Light
Girls : Album
Sonic Youth The Eternal
Bon Iver : Blood Bank
The Clientele :Bonfires on the Heath
Vic Chesnutt : At The Cut
John Doe & The Sadies : Country Club

AC Newman : Get Guilty
Dark Night of the Soul : (Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse and David Lynch with others)
V/A : Dark Was The Night

 

Blah

God Help The Girl : God Help The Girl
Tortoise
: Beacons of Ancestorship
Camera Obscura : M
y Maudlin Career
Maybe it’s unfair to like someone better in their awkward bowl-cut, but Tracyanne’s more confident sound comes off as preening and dull.

Where You Been All My Life or Revisited

Fucked Up : The Chemistry of Common Life
Strangely catchy fusion of hardcore and shoegaze
Robyn Hitchcock
New Order
The Feelies
: Good Earth
Young Marble Giants
Mirah
Buddy Holly
: The Apartment Tapes

Haven’t Heard Yet

Jim O’Rourke : The Visitor

RIP Vic Chesnutt

You poor sad bastard. Listen to “Flirted With You All My Life” from this year’s At The Cut

“I’ve flirted with you all my life
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready

 

Oh Death
Really, I’m not ready”

Vic Chesnutt
 

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