Top 10 Releases of 2009
1. The XX – XX
After I put the list together, I heard Christgau (supposed arbiter for decades of cool in music and culture) waxing poetic on NPR about the London band The XX and their minimal aesthetic — apparently, he turned off a football game to hear the CD his friend had put on, which should impress Louisianans. The very next morning, I heard their single, “VCR,” on KLSU. Are they overexposed? Maybe. The fact is, this group of high-school friends (now just 22 or so), with their stripped-down compositions, really are The Next Big Thing, like The Arcade Fire were five years ago. Brilliantly reduced, with beautiful traded-off male-female vocals. And they’re coming to Spanish Moon in March.
2. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Like The XX, these kids have worked for a while (this time in Brooklyn) to put together a sound before releasing an album. In this case, the sound is full of distortion in the wall-of-sound style, with strong influence from 80’s-era Cure, but adding heartfelt male-female duets — are you sensing a trend?
3. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I have to admit, the title of this album made me think, “Another guitar-and-synth band with delusions of grandeur,” like so many lame Killers-type pretenders. (Incidentally, if you type “wolfgang amadeus…” into Google, Phoenix now comes up before Mozart. I’m not sure what this means). Want a Cadillac SRX? Phoenix can sell it to you. All style and no substance, I thought. Turns out, though, that all style isn’t necessarily so bad. Sweet New Order-type pop — best I’ve heard in a long time.
4. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
One half of the incredible electronic Swedish duo The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson, appeared this year with an equally stunning solo album under the name Fever Ray. Surreal vocals — I mean downright weird — combined with haunting melodies, yet they still work as pop songs.
5. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
OK, OK, I know: last year I went on an anti-prog-rock-revival tirade (ugh, keyboard parts that go nowhere!). But Sunset Rubdown, supposed side-project of Spencer Krug (better known from Wolf Parade), is my guilty pleasure for 2009. Maybe the difference is that these songs have substance; the baroqueness of them is in service of something big. “You Go On Ahead” is a strong contender for song of the year.
6. Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan
If you missed Art Brut’s appearance at Spanish Moon at the end of October, you missed the best show of the year in BR. Their latest, produced by The Pixies’ Black Francis, finds them calling out the general public for their terrible taste in pop, while providing a welcome antidote in the form of 2 min 30 sec songs like “Alcoholics Unanimous,” and “Summer Job,” full of catchy riffs and pithy lines.
7. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko (we’re on a first name basis, right?) seems increasingly fixed on the big picture — especially the idiocy of people who ignore their tiny individual power against nature, whether human, environmental, or both. Almost like a Greek tragedy, but her voice makes the bad news so easy to take.
8. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Great bands that actually did make plenty of noise in the ’80’s — as opposed to those that just copy the ’80’s — seem to be making big comebacks, too. Sonic Youth almost made the list with “The Eternal,” and so did Yo La Tengo with “Popular Songs.” Dinosaur Jr. followed up their return to form (return to existence?), 2007’s “Beyond,” with an even better straight-up rock album. J Mascis’ voice is as scratchy as ever, and the songs are catchy, powerful, and most of all, loud.
9. Malcolm Middleton – Waxing Gibbous
Middleton was one-half of one of my all-time favorite bands, the now-defunct Arab Strap. AS’s unflinching lyrics spared no-one, least of all the authors, in describing the harsh reality of love and life gone sour. I always thought of them as simultaneously the most vulgar and most romantic band I’ve ever heard. You might have noticed that that kind of sincerity goes over well with me (see also The Hold Steady). Middleton is sweeter with both the melodies and the lyrics in this, his fifth solo outing; it could almost be called twee.
10. The Raveonettes – In and Out of Control
I debated this final spot for a while. Danish duo The Raveonettes made the list last year with “Lust Lust Lust,” and as previously noted, the new Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo albums were each strong in their own ways (Grizzly Bear, too). Plus, there are some just plain silly moments on TR’s album, like the eye-roll-inducing “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed),” or “D.R.U.G.S.” But in that seemingly effortless Scandinavian way, both the tunes and their production feel so spot-on, and even the silliness is true to themselves. Heavy distortion over late-50s/early-60s arrangements, reminiscent of Jesus and the Mary Chain and, of course, layers of male-female vocals.