Thursday, December 03, 2009

My favorite albums of 2009

1) Porcupine Tree -- The Incident

Steven Wilson, the singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer of Porcupine Tree is a musical genius. That's not hyperbole. Wilson is a prolific chap who, in addition to 3 solo projects under 3 different pseudonyms, is also a member of two other bands: No-Man (atmospheric art rock) and Blackfield (concise pop rock). As a producer and contributor to other projects, his discography adds up to 265 Web pages on one website.

But Porcupine Tree is his major project and, after two decades, have finally broken into the major leagues with "The Incident" (a top 25 album in the US and UK, plus a sellout tour of 2,500 venues). They're difficult to categorize musically, but their music ranges from melancholic, Floyd-like ambient passages to thrashing hard rock to pop with vocal harmonies that the Beach Boys would envy. Wilson considers his greatest strength to be production, but I reckon his greatest talent is his unerring gift is melody and hooks. He's a wellspring of talent that continues to delight and surprise. (Take a look at my interview with Steven earlier this year for a glimpse into his thoughtful insights on music.)

Porcupine Tree is rounded out by three other unique musicians. Bassist Colin Edwin is a master of supple groove. Drummer Gavin Harrison, one of the world's greatest, has the arms of a blacksmith and the slight of hand of a Houdini as he lays down his patented "rhythmic illusions." Former Japan member Richard Barbieri is that rare thing: A singularly identifiable keyboardist who uses his keys to create moods, atmosphere, and texture.

Porcupine Tree's latest album is dark, dense, and deep. Each time I listen to the record, I drill down to the discovery of a new layer. In my review of the album in Filter magazine, I wrote in part, "The double album includes a 55-minute song cycle about transformative experiences in Wilson’s life, from an unsettling séance to daily memories of a girl he hasn’t seen in 15 years. Pretentious? Not in the execution. At times, Porcupine Tree soars past the celestial constellations Pink Floyd once explored (“Time Flies”); at others, it plunges beyond the tremendous abysses mined by Slayer (“Octane Twisted”). Amid these two extremes, Wilson’s wistful voice wanders through soundscapes of bucolic pop and industrial electronica. The once-underground band built its fan base with choruses that felt like priceless black-market commodities. Here, songs such as 'Blind House' and 'Flicker' uphold that tradition."

I concluded my review with a minor criticism: "Unfortunately, this is the first album in which the truly progressive rock group doesn’t break new musical ground. It’s a bit like Lance Armstrong placing second in the Tour de France -- not the finish one is accustomed to, but still a remarkable achievement." It's a churlish criticism, really, since the album certainly isn't a rehash of anything they've done before. The album succeeds as a summation of the band's progression over the past 20 years, freshly blending various elements from past albums to create a deeply rewarding experience. I've also revisited Wilson's first solo album, "Insurgentes" (released this time last year) many times during the course of this year and I'm blown away by the new No-Man concert DVD and accompanying live CD.

2) Chickenfoot -- Chickenfoot

Surprised? Me, too. The kind of big, dumb, rawk record that I didn't think I liked anymore. But I've listened to their debut a zillion times this year as it's my favorite driving music. More thoughts on the album here.

3) Engineers -- Three Fact Fader

The electronic shoegazers spent years making this second album. Their extremely mellow and ethereal debut suggested a melding of Talk Talk and My Bloody Valentine. "Three Fact Fader" is even better and has more colorful range. Listen to tracks such as "Brighter as We Fall," "Three Fact Fader" "Clean Coloured Wire" and "Sometimes I Realize" in the dark. In your mind's eye you'll envision unfurling fractals.

4) Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca

Grizzly Bear meets Jesca Hoop meets ... Steve Howe? Dave Longstreth's guitars and arrangements certainly remind one of Yes (especially "Remade Horizon"). Everything in this experimental album is delightfully unpredictable and off-kilter. From the slightly deranged backing vocals of Amber Coffman and Hakey Deckle ("Useful Chamber") to the way that the tempo speeds up and slows down in "Temecula Sunrise." At times, the rhythms have a hip-hop feel, at others the booming drums sound as if Phil Collins was in the studio, replicating his "In the Air Tonight" drum fills. Unique.

5) Grizzly Bear -- Veckatimest

Art Rock is back in a big way -- witness the success of Dirty Projectors, Bat for Lashes, and Animal Collective (all represented in this list). This followup to the excellent "Yellow House" album begins with purpose. "Southern Point" has a jazzy groove with double bass, light snare drums, and daubs of keyboard. Its chorus, held aloft by overlapping vocals and clattering drums, is the very definition of elation. You'll check the liner credits to see whether "Two Weeks" wasn't contributed by Brian Wilson. "I Live With You" seesaws between quiet pleading and crashing resolve. Grizzly Bear's key ingredient: unusual vocal arrangements and harmonies.

6) The Invisible -- The Invisible

For starters, the best album cover of 2009 (click on the image for a larger version). This British trio, whose debut recorded was nominated for this year's Mercury Music Prize, has been compared to Radiohead and TV on the Radio. Guitarist and vocalist David Okumu certainly sounds like TVOR's Tunde Adebimpe at times. But The Invisible favor a sparser sound and its flecked guitar and limber grooves are reminiscent of The Police. (Drummer Leo Taylor also plays for Hot Chip.) There are bold sonic touches, too. At times, Okumu creates synth sounds with his voice and the sound of a creaky door is employed as aural texture.

"Constant" beguiles with its insistent "hoo-hoo" backing vocals as Okumu sings, "You never change, always the same." On the single "London Girl," a funky bassline seemingly lifted from Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" is augmented by a tingle of xylophone. And "Monster's Waltz" has a chorus that must be the envy of Bloc Party. The album isn't available in the US, but it's well worth the import.

7) Bat for Lashes -- Two Suns

Bat for Lashes isn't actually a band, it's the name adopted by British singer Natasha Khan. Daffy moniker aside, she's a very exciting artist whose two primary influences are Kate Bush and Björk, my two favorite female vocalists. As such, Khan's music is otherworldly, slightly avant garde, and infectiously melodic. Like those two vocalists, Khan has her own unique voice that is wonderfully expressive. Alas, Khan doesn't have Bush's literary talents and so her lyrics share Bjork's penchant for fantastical gobbledigook with lines such as, "When I get hurt / been in the jungle / where's my bear to lick me clean." I'll be she has interesting dreams.

second album, "Two Suns," expands on the sparse dynamics of her debut, "Fur and Gold." "Glass" is one of the greatest songs I've heard this year, her voice effortlessly spiraling toward celestial realms. "Daniel," an ode to "The Karate Kid," is one of the year's most indelible singles. I can lose myself for an eternity in the penultimate song, "Traveling Woman," a stark meditation of voice and piano. Great live, too.

8) Doves -- Kingdom of Rust

The difficult fourth record. In an interview earlier this year, frontman and bassist Jimi Goodwin told me that the band spent several grueling years trying to discover new musical dimensions rather than repeat themselves. In the end, they were only partially successful. "Kingdom of Rust" still sounds distinctively like a Doves record, but it boasts some new elements. As I noted in the feature, the album opens with a "hive of synths in the Kraftwerk-like 'Jetstream.'" Elsewhere, the album’s most dominant new feature is "the feint and parry of Goodwin’s bass. In the parabolic arrangement of '10:03,' the seismic rumble at the midpoint threatens to split the song at its seams. By contrast, the bass line on 'Compulsion,' the most radical song on the record, is funk slowed down to moonwalk speed. The groove is reminiscent of that in The Rolling Stones’s 'Miss You.'"

The album's best track, "The Greatest Denier," was one of the last to be written and was a highlights of Doves' live set. If "Kingdom of Rust" wasn't quite the creative breakthrough the band had hoped for, many reviewers -- including Alexis Petridis of The Guardian -- hailed it as the band's best record. Indeed, the quality of the melodies makes it one of the top 10 records of the year. Doves recently played an acclaimed show utilizing a Bulgarian choir. That bodes well for a future direction.

9) Justin Adams & Juldeh Camara -- Tell No Lies
Les Triaboliques -- River

It's been a busy year for Justin Adams. Adams and Juldeh Camara have played two high-profile shows with Robert Plant (Adams was previously the guitarist in Plant's now dissolved band, The Strange Sensation).

He also recorded an album with Ben Mandelson and Lu Edmonds under the moniker Les Triaboliques. I've only just received a copy of the guitar supertrio's debut "RiverMudTwilight" -- thanks Simone at World Village! -- but I'm thoroughly taken with it. Very exotic. Almost no percussion. Each melody is created from complex interplay between instruments such as the electric guitar, acoustic guitar, t'bal, calabash, cumbus, bow-bus, saz, eSaz, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar, banjo, electric kabosy, barizouki, planktone, laouto, khomuz, and tilinka. (No, I hadn't heard of half of those instruments either!)

The music sounds like the work of a trio of wandering minstrels who have traveled through Morocco, Timbuktu, Istanbul, Havana, and Clarksdale. Transportive stuff that ranges from trance blues ("Crossing the Stone Bridge") to Latin swing ("Gulagurajira") to Gypsy jazz ("Ledmo").

As I noted in an interview with the guitarist, the second Justin Adams + Juldeh Camara album, released in the US earlier this year, is "atypical of collaborations between African and Western musicians, which too often sound like two disparate seams zippered together.... The first single, “Kele Kele (No Passport, No Visa)”, is built on a Bo Diddley-like riff and the flirtatious backing vocals of Zanzibar’s Mim Suleiman. “Banjul Girl” is so exuberant it would spark a stock market rally if it was piped into Wall Street."

10) Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion

When guitarist Deakin left the band, Animal Collective compensated with free-form synths and roundelay vocal harmonies. At times, the album drifts a little too aimlessly but its best moments -- "My Girls," "Bluish," "Lion in a Coma," "No More Runnin'" -- have a beguiling hippie-ish innocence to them.

11) Tinariwen -- Imidiwan: Companions

The nomadic musicians from Mali have released their best, and most diverse, album, yet. (My full review, here.) Uncut magazine's pick for best album of 2009, no less. And with reviews in publications such as Spin, Rolling Stone, and even Entertainment Weekly, Tinariwen has successfully bridged the unfortunate divide between"world music" and mainstream rock.

12) Francis Dunnery -- There's a Whole New World Out There

The former frontman for It Bites takes a time out from his long-running solo career to revisit, and re-interpret, his former band's songs. Radically so. At first, I was bewildered by the laid-back, jazzy sound of these tunes. The It Bites originals were an effusive blending of rock, pop, and prog. By contrast, these sublime versions are laid back, ranging from Steely Dan-like jazz rock ("Whole New World") to chill-out reveries with a lounge-y feel ("Staring at the Whitewash").

The album is rounded out by a few new tunes (the lovely "Animal Life and Plant Life") and a few choice cover versions such as Robert Plant's "Calling to You (Dunnery played on the original). His take on Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" is surprisingly sunny and one could imagine it fitting into a romantic comedy by Richard Curtis. It's an inspired reworking. Dunnery also nods to his early Genesis influence. A spare take on "Back in New York City" circles around the guitar riff, played on an acoustic guitar. Japan's "Still Life in Mobile Homes" is a slow ballad with soulful singing. A risky undertaking with a rich payoff.

13) Imogen Heap -- Ellipse

My review of "Ellipse" in Filter magazine, here: Imogen Heap’s delightful follow up to “Hide and Seek” has been gestating in the womb of her living-room studio for several years. An electro-pop auteur prone to insatiable tinkering, Heap has cannily generated interest in the long-running project through endearing vlogs and Tweets. She’s like Trent Reznor, only kookier.

Utilizing a similar sonic palette as its predecessor, “Ellipse” is all Pro-Tools graft. If songs such as “Earth” and “Tidal” feel encumbered by all the stratified layers of vocals, rhythms, and keyboard effects, their baroque mantles at least rest on a bedrock of indelible melodies. Heap has a keen ear for dynamics. The unexpected geyser of exuberance midway through “Swoon,” for example, makes it one of many tunes that will surely jostle for release as a single. And on the album highlight, “Canvas,” the desperation in Heap’s voice is echoed by traumatized violins as she wails, “I just can’t find the strength to pull you back.”

For all its shipwrecked romances, “Ellipse” doesn’t wallow in misery. In “Bad Body Double,” Heap even uses self-deprecating humor to fret about body issues before a date. Ultimately, that’s what distinguishes Heap: Her voice, by turns flighty and forlorn, has an honest personality often missing in pop.

14) Them Crooked Vultures -- Them Crooked Vultures

These gentlemen know a thing or two about great riffs. In Led Zeppelin, John Paul Jones came up with the riff to "Black Dog." The Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" packs the jolt of a defib
rillator. Queens of the Stone Age created one of the great rock songs of the decade in the form of the ZZ Top-like "No One Knows" (which features Dave Grohl on drums). This supergroup -- one of many to emerge this year -- have created an exilirating record. At 66 minutes, it is far too long and at times one wishes an outside producer had edited out the more self indulgent moments.

Yet the best parts, such as "Fang" and "No Eraser, No Chaser," add up to more than the sum of the trio's parts. Best of all, "Scumbag Blues" sounds like the best song Cream never wrote as Josh Homme uncannily sounds like Jack Bruce. This is dangerous stuff to play in the car. Songs like Scumbag Blues, Bandoliers, and Warsaw are going to get me a speeding ticket one of these days.

15) Pearl Jam -- Backspacer

If only Kurt Cobain could hear them now. Once derided as a corporate entity trying to cash-in on the alternative scene, Pearl Jam quietly has amassed a devoted fanbase through a jam band ethos: marathon length shows with unpredictable set lists and a thriving business in official bootlegs.

On "Backspacer," the band sounds even more raw than on its previous, eponymously titled record. The opening trio of paint-stripping songs culminates with "The Fixer,"
the band's most ripping single in a
decade. There's also a more reflective maturity than before. Eddie Vedder's valentine to a loved one on "Amongst the Waves" is unnervingly moving with its lyric, "If not for love, I would be drowning." It's followed by "Unthought Known," which sounds like a hymn of exultant gratitude. Both songs are anthemic without being at all bombastic or overwrought. Elsewhere, "Johnny Guitar," a song about bluesman Johnny "Guitar" Watson and his many girlfriends, showcases a playful streak at odds with the band's frowny persona.

16) Chris Isaak -- Mr. Lucky

Chris Isaak is still rock music's Dorian Gray. Returning with his first studio album in 7 years, Isaak still looks much the same as he did in 1988 (must be something in the brylcreem). The eternal bachelor has been writing song after song about heartbreak for several decades now and one is tempted to think he's the musical equivalent of the boy who cried "wolf." Yet his pleading voice -- imbued with the lingering ghosts of Roy Orbison and Elvis -- is so earnestly soulful that you may have to replenish the tearducts by the end of "You Don't Cry Like I Do" and "Breaking Apart" (a remake of an earlier song, recast as a duet with Trisha Yearwood). A typically strong collection of tunes, ranging from the rockabilly rip curl of "Mr. Lonely Man" to film noir grooves of "Very Pretty Girl." The falsetto-howl chorus of "We Let Her Down" is one of Isaak's best.

17) Butterfly Boucher -- Scary Fragile

Head over to the Australian's songwriter's MySpace page and take a listen. As I noted in my review of the album, "No matter how many times you uncork the choruses of "Gun for a Tongue" and "To Be Loved," they never lose their fizz."

18) Phoenix -- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The French duo Air has sucked up all its creative oxygen. Thank goodness, then, that France has a great indie synth pop export to take their place. Phoenix released one of 2009's most unforgettable singles: "1901." The rest of the album boasts similarly hooky pop. The album should come with complementary party balloons.

19) The Swell Season -- Strict Joy

ians shouldn’t ignore the old adage, “Never date a coworker.” Just ask Fleetwood Mac. After their relationship ended, Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová somehow stuck together to create a terrific breakup album. Full review here.

20) Muse -- The Resistance

Brian May told Mojo magazine that "The Resistance" is his favorite album of the year. Hardly surprising. He practically wrote it. "The United States of Eurasia
" completes the coronation of Muse as the new Queen. This overblown glamslam record seems to have been made under a single guiding principle: excess all areas. It even includes a suite of orchestral pieces ("Exogensis: Symphony 1 - 3") that, fortunately, don't veer into Berlioz territory and area (relatively) restrained. Ultimately, the melodies are so catchy that resistance is futile. But Matt Bellamy has gone so over the top that Muse will surely have to pare things back on their next album. Terrible album cover, though, which is atypical for the band.


  1. Simon Gort5:51 PM

    Some great choices, Steve.

    My Top 20 of 2009 would have included -

    Fever Ray - Fever Ray
    Jeniferever - Spring Tides
    Jon Hopkins - Insides
    The Amazing - The Amazing
    Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Twice Born Men
    plus my favourite album of the year which must remain a mystery until Xmas day!

  2. I love what I've heard of Fever Ray (plus, see my picks for Great Songs of 2009) and I should have included Sweet Billy Pilgrim's excellent 'Twice Born Men,' too.

    Looking forward to checking out Jon Hopkins, too.

    I'm sure there are other great albums I've missed out on, like the debut by The XX, which I've just sampled and liked.