Best of 2009 (better late than never I suppose)
Here it is, arguably end of the decade but certainly end of the album era, sadly. Compiling 10 top albums and reissues seems almost quaint already, even if it is my preferred means of experiencing music. And so, here it is, my list. Coming soon, my list of songs of 2009. Until then, may your open fire be covered in roasting chestnuts. And may that bastard Jack Frost keep his teeth away from your nose.
1. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti)
Emphatically delivers on the accumulated promise spread across Case’s solo albums and collaborations. The brash hellion of her early work has gradually been supplanted by an adroit confessional composer. From here, she might want to consider stretching the envelope with a producer from outside the coterie of collaborators who have served her well to this point. But I’m not complaining.
2. Buddy & Julie Miller – Written In Chalk (New West)
Buddy and Julie Miller are great at a lot of things (singing, songwriting, playing). But their greatest achievement may be to cling so tightly to tradition while simultaneously avoiding cliché or kitsch – the very things that sink so many twangtastic efforts.
3. Lee Harvey Osmond – A Quiet Evil (Latent Recordings)
What started as a busman’s holiday from Tom Wilson’s day gig with Blackie & The Rodeo Kings has become a standalone outlet for his restless creativity. It’s some of Wilson’s finest songwriting (and in David Wiffen’s “Lucifer’s Blues” and Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It,” his keenest cover judgment) set in the grooviest, funkiest, spookiest music he has yet achieved. Wilson calls it “acid folk,” I’ll just call it great and hope this isn’t a one-off.
4. David Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend (Acony)
No one who has observed Gillian Welch’s career could have doubted Rawlings had the capacity for making his own great record. So the only startling thing about A Friend of a Friend is that Rawlings took so long to do it.
5. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador)
At the risk of repeating myself, there is no group which has so consistently and powerfully mixed intimacy with noise. I don’t know how they do it, I’m just glad they keep doing it. And after some forays into some softer, more melodic music (some of which endures here), Popular Songs is a loud and proud reawakening of their noisier impulses.
6. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (Columbia)
As the world careens toward economic, ecological and geopolitical chaos, it begins to take on the contours detailed in Dylan’s latest spate of comeback albums. Does that mean Dylan is a Nostradamus-like prophet, or has the world aligned with his lyrics in some kind of monstrous meta-art project? Discuss.
7. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days/Light Years (Rough Trade)
The Welsh group has evolved into something that defies critical pigeonholing. I can’t think of another group so well steeped in the fundamentals of melody and traditional music making and manages to integrate the latest technology into their recordings in a thoughtful way.
8. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)
If the Beach Boys had holed up in Brooklyn instead of Hawthorne, the results might have sounded like this.
9. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La)
The problem with supergroups is the expectation that they will ever exceed the sum of their parts. The best ones transcend those expectations and simply become their own entity, which – next to making some memorable music – may be MoF’s great achievement.
10. Leonard Cohen – Live In London (Sony) and Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (Sony Legacy)
Perhaps by coincidence, two live documents of Cohen en spectacle were released this year, separated in their making by some 40 years. Live In London is a superb document of his most recent career-capping world tour (surely, at his advanced age, his last?). Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 – particularly the Murray Lerner’s filmed portion — captures Cohen’s strange effect and affect. He ambles, newly awoken in his trailer, onto a stage and before a crowd of some 600,000 angry punters who had, hours earlier, responded to Jimi Hendrix’s set by setting the stage ablaze. And yet, Cohen somehow almost magically restores order with his deadpan, oblique commentaries and lugubrious melodies that, after all these years, somehow simultaneously soothe and unsettle.
1. Neil Young – Archives Vol. 1 (Reprise)
There’s been a lot of talk about this release, maybe too much talk (and maybe some of it by me). It’s far from perfect: track selection is erratic, the packaging is awkward, some of the music is “hidden” and requires less passive listening and more of the kind of engagement of video gaming. On the other hand, there has never been a retrospective set that so thoroughly immerses the listener/viewer in a self-directed tour of the artist’s work. And while there is never enough of a good thing, Young has seeded this first set with some remarkable unreleased material. It could not have been fun managing the inventory of three different formats (CD, DVD and Blu-Ray), it was more challenging to manage expectations. But this was a set designed to be available in the high-definition visual and audio format of Blu-Ray, and the results are a titanic achievement that equals Young’s own achievements during the formative years commemorated herein.
2. Procol Harum – 40th anniversary reissues (Salvo)
Absent from this list is the Beatles much-ballyhooed reissue campaign. Yes, they remastered their original albums and it was long overdue. While many swooned, others fumed. How could they justify releasing the mono versions of those early albums as a ridiculously overpriced box set when so many other groups (Kinks, The Move, the Bee Gees) have, without fuss, managed to give fans mono and stereo mixes squeezed onto a single package? I’ve never been a big fan of Procol Harum, but these reissues from the Salvo label should be presented to Macca, Ringo and Yoko with a note saying “here’s how it’s done!” Beautiful digipak reproductions of the original covers, insightful liner notes, thoughtful appendage of alternate mixes, rehearsals, b-sides. The combined effect is a total re-evaluation of the group’s status in the musical pantheon. If not exactly underappreciated, they’ve been valued for perhaps the wrong reasons for too long.
3. Various Artists – Nuggets: Where The Action Is (Rhino)
Music history is fickle and short sighted. We seem to have a limited capacity for embracing the big picture. We all know the catalogue of greats, but many of the also-rans who drafted behind those titans are surely worthy of some attention, if at least for singular attention. For example, there is no reason to think the W.C. Fields Memorial Electric String Band achieved immortality. But I’m grateful that Rhino managed to capture their barmy sub-Byrds novelty nugget “Hippie Elevator Operator” here. That kind of excavation is replicated over and over again, across the 100 cuts compiled here. Also, kudos for the Dr. Seuss-style dimensions of the package. Much easier to pour over the contents compared to the narrow long-box books that have been the rule since CDs were introduced.
4. The Dukes of Stratosphear – 25 O’Clock and Psonic Psunspots (Ape House)
It would be easy to dismiss XTC’s brief flirtation with this 60s psych alternate identity as a one off lark. Indeed, that’s how it started. But as meticulously documented by the group in these beautifully appointed reissues, DoS became something much more significant. A kind of séance for an undervalued way of making records and a manner of perceiving and reporting on the world. Upon completion of their brief career as the Dukes, it’s worth noting that XTC entered into a creative renaissance and I doubt that’s a coincidence. Whether the Dukes of Stratosphear rocked your world or not, you can’t help but look at these reissues and wish that your favorite band took this much time and attention in their own reissues. And yes, I’m talking to you again, surviving Fabs.
5. Big Star – Keep Your Eye On The Sky (Rhino) and Chris Bell – I Am The Cosmos (Rhino Handmade)
If there is a way to measure a band’s public under-appreciation in its day versus lavish posthumous attention, then Big Star could easily lay claim to the greatest differential therein. Never has so much affection been displayed for a pop group so starved for attention when their career required it. The combined effort of these two releases – the former a quad-disc box capturing everything before the beginning and after the end, the latter an expanded representation of founding member Bell’s faltering attempt at a solo career – marks the crowning achievement of Big Star archeology.
6. Various Artists – Complete Goldwax Singles vol. 1 and 2 (Ace)
Although best known as the source of James Carr’s immortal recording of “At The Dark End of the Street,” Goldwax forever lingers in the shadow of better-known hitmakers like Stax and Motown. That’s a shame because Goldwax was home to some stunning voices (The Ovations, Spencer Wiggins, Ivory Joe Hunter) and an A-team of producers, players and songwriters (most conspicuously Dan Penn) who collaborated principally on soul, but also the odd country nugget, novelty records and tough R&B instrumentals. There’s nothing too fancy in this collection, just an attempt to bring together every A and B side from every Goldwax single. And that’s plenty to feast on.
7. Bert Jansch – LA Turnaround (Charisma/Virgin/Drag City)
Here’s to the long gone record men who showed as much creative brio (if even less business acumen) than their stable of artists. Tony Stratton Smith was the mad genius behind The Famous Charisma Label, home to a quixotic roster including Audience, Van Der Graaf Generator, Atomic Rooster, early Genesis, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and three albums by Jansch, the leading light of Brit-folk anchors Pentangle. Of the three Charisma/Jansch albums reissued this year by Drag City, LA Turnaround is by far the most intriguing. Initially recorded at Stratton Smith’s country home, with former Monkee Mike Nesmith producing, Jansch was accompanied by steel titan Red Rhodes and Beatles associate Klaus Voorman on bass. The result is a kind of transatlantic summit meeting between two indigenous musical traditions, best heard on the stunning reconsideration of Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” Cameras were recording the sessions and the footage is included as a bonus on the disc. Bonus points to Drag City for nodding to Charisma’s distinctive “Mad Hatter” LP centre label when designing the CD imprint for this reissue.
8. Rodriguez – Coming From Reality (Light In The Attic)
And while we’re praising record moguls of yesteryear, let’s also champion those brave souls committed to rediscovering and championing the ignored music of the past. Such is the charm of Seattle-based Light In The Attic, which has proven itself to be supremely adept at presenting cult items and uncovering underappreciated gems. Coming From Reality is the second where-has-this-been-all-my-life reissue from the works of Rodriguez, a hybrid funk/soul/folk artist who turned heads with LITA’s reissue of 1970’s Cold Fact. As impressive as Rodriguez’s work is (and it is very impressive), you can’t help but be heartened by the evident passion this label puts into resurrecting these lost treasures.
9. Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire de Melody Nelson (Light In The Attic)
While hardly as obscure as Rodriguez, everything I said about Light In The Attic’s talent for doing right by the artists they reissue can be applied here. Gainsbourg (whose daughter singer/actress Charlotte starred in the year’s most polarizing film, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist) is by now a figure of cult celebrity in North America but a figure of such epic renown in France that director Joann Sfar has subtitled her forthcoming Gainsbourg biopic Vie Heroique, or “heroic life.”
10. Gary Walker & The Rain – Album Number One (Lost Tunes/Universal)
If there’s a British cult music figure more obscure or enigmatic than the great Scott Walker (celebrated in this year’s best music documentary, 30 Century Man), it must be Gary Walker, the drummer in Scott’s formative group The Walker Brothers. Gary’s only post-Walker Brothers release was this disc, only in Japan. It’s loaded with garagey energy and freaky production, billed as “the first album recorded in 3D,” that apparently means going haywire with the left-right panning fader. Top track is their cover of The Drifters’ “If You Don’t Come Back,” which ends in a white noise collapse that would make the Velvet Underground blush.