26 January 2010

The Top Ten Picks of 2009

Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career
Unless my renewed crush on Traceyanne Campbell counts, My Maudlin Career is a horrible album for falling in love. Indeed, it’s even worse for fucking. So what do you do with an album that ruins sex lives and inspires erotic twee reverie? Well, Jimmy, you crack open the booklet and read the lyrics. The fact that Campbell has finally become confessional – never made it to the cathedral – is less a reason to herald the album than to make sure your ex-girlfriend never listens to it. (On the other hand, Campbell does every man on earth the favor of showing them what a real woman in love sounds like.) In what not quite gives Pinkerton a run for its money, she chronicles with disarming candor and lack of fake bluster the painful dissolution of a relationship. Those who’ve characterized the album as mature don’t seem to have listened to anything else by Camera Obscura or, worse, were fooled by the irony of “Hey Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken”. (It’s a sad commentary on romance today that people seem to have missed the fact that the very first song on My Maudlin Career indicates the album’s emotional trajectory and instead they focus on what a great single ‘French Navy’ is!) This is a good record not because it’s Let’s Get Out of This Country Part Two but more because the band finally dropped its usual British reserve (or irony as B&S hipsters would brand it here) and embraced the harsh reality that romance kills and you can learn from it or continue to listen to Feist (or the Smiths as 500 Days of Summer taught me). Instead of photocopying “Dory Previn” ten times or more, the album opted to take a risk and tell the truth. Jettisoning bitterness and hate for a ruefulness and slight melancholy, Campbell reflects on her mistakes through these songs and to her credit makes them compelling reminders rather than hysterical rants. Sure, she’s Scottish so it’s not like Courtney Love would be an inspiration anyway, but it’s refreshing to know that there’s a woman writing popular music like this that shows more intelligence than Liz Phair (or entire seasons of Sex and the City). Camera Obscura grows up here – for once, it’s the message not the medium – and their fans, teenagers or no, need to join them.

Sunset Rubdown: Dragonslayer
This is the best indie rock record of the year – at the very least even in that genre given its nebulous distinction of excellence. The greatness of this record was determined by a little game. The game I played is imagining how this album would fare against indie rock’s titan du jour to see how great the album was. In this case, I played a little game of Sunset Rubdown vs. the Arcade Fire. It turned out that Sun Rub totally owned them. The songs, the arrangements, the energy, the playing, and even the singing blew away the competition. They fucking rocked it. And that’s the thing: this album is so good it’s like a good fuck: powerful rhythm, amazing stamina, and great fun afterwards. (Did you see the photo of these guys in their hot tub?) I know I use that word a lot in this list, but 2009 has been a year of fucking. Obama and Bernanke? They’re bad fucks. Sun Rub, however… How does it feel that the leader of the free world got his balls handed to him by a bunch of Canadians? Well, I’d say it feels pretty good considering that these Canucks fulfilled the hope that they inspired in me and that’s a lot better than anyone in DC has done lately. Especially that bank puppet, his boss, and his brain trust staff who look about as virile as the week old expired bananas on my kitchen counter. This album rocks because it’s great – don’t get me wrong – but it rocked my 2009. After a year like that one, I’d say that Sun Rub gets the extra measure of praise just for being a bright spot in a terrible canvas of desolation. When will they get their Nobel Prize?

The Thermals: Now We Can See
It’s almost perfect. It’s got everything I want, but with heart. I generally don’t pay attention to how much heart is in a record, but after a horrible year the Thermals gave me back my hope. I believe that hope is at the heart of the record. You’re moved and comforted by this band. The songs here are loud and strong enough to make them battle calls any time you need them. It’s still a great rock album, but it’s got that extra element that makes an emotionally satisfying piece of music as well as an aesthetically satisfying one. The Thermals do so without fuss or fault and it’s to their credit that this is their best album yet.

Devo: Freedom of Choice
Wow, this was not as derivative of “Whip It” as I’d feared. Instead, it eclipses that song and steps up to the punk heritage with nerdy élan. I love old synthesizers so just imagine my delight to hear them teamed up with a wicked rhythm section. I feel like I owe free drinks to some friends for telling me how good this band was. As a reissue, I include it here as it was simply one of the most exciting sounds I’d heard all year. As a matter of fact, it’s so exciting that it feels as if it’s barely aged. It rocks the fuck out. I feel kinda weird even calling this punk music. If it is, they belong with the iconoclasts in Suicide. It doesn’t feel like New Wave either. In much the same way as the B-52s, they are and are not New Wave. It’s just Devo, I guess. Whatever, I loved it. Use your freedom of choice and buy this now!

Islands: Vapours
In a world where Vampire Weekend is considered art, I can’t say I’m surprised that Islands doesn’t get more attention. Then again, Islands takes the game more seriously than those fucks from Columbia. Hell, at least Islands makes an effort – which is more than can be said for the last three Weezer records – and stays to entertain. When your friends and heroes let you down then you find new friends and heroes. Or you do it yourself. Haters could say that Islands is to music what Scott Pilgrim is to comics. I disagree. Scott Pilgrim is Islands. As a matter of fact, I listen to Islands when I read Scott Pilgrim now. They go together like that. Vampire Weekend and Weezer are the dilettante slackers. Islands is better than that. They are forever. They are also even better here than on their last album. They’re lighter, sunnier, and happier here. I like dancing feet and I like a good beat so why complain?

Furture of the Left: Travels With Myself And Another
If only the future of the American left were as good as this band. What? It’s on. Sorry, guys. Anyway, I love Mclusky so it stands to reason that I’d love this album. Basically, it’s just like Mclusky, but louder and brasher. Somehow louder than the Thermals, it’s snotty punk rock with a rotten sense of humour (they’re British so come on here). Give this to your nearest teenager now.

The Big Pink: A Brief History of Love
Do not let these guys tour with Camera Obscura! They’ll either end up as bad influences or hospital patients. (I can see the melée now: two guys with a drum kit and a bank of keys are no match for five pissed-off Scots with a full band and equally large bank of keys – I hope Traceyanne’s insurance lets her smack people in the face with her powder blue guitar.) If men are best advised to keep Maudlin Career away from the ladies then the women are equally advised to keep A Brief History of Love away from the misters. “Dominoes” notwithstanding – the favorite song of rock stars and Colin Farrell alike – it’s a great post-shoegaze album. It’s another pop album – put this band on the bill with Pains of Being Pure at Heart – but one of a skuzzy, electronic sort.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart: s/t
It’s almost tied with the Thermals in terms of fun, but instead as a pop album rather than punk. It’s got some of that JAMC fuzz (they even have a song about hard drugs and Jesus – wait, does this mean they also like Lou Reed?) and a little of that shoegaze hiss, but the real touchstones here are the Smiths and the Cure. It’s energetic, brief, and engaging. If there was a God, he’d give this to his kids and make Stephanie Meyer a fan of them. I hope these kids have a future where they kill everyone in Stars and cover entire Smashing Pumpkins albums. Hell, maybe they’ll show up on the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack with Islands. It’s a lovely album and I hope that this band goes far. It certainly rocked my summer and it still rocks now. Just throw this album on the bar-b with the shrimp and try to tell me it’s not as addictive as tequila. At the least, it’ll help wash the taste of Black Kids out of your mouth.

The Pink Mountaintops: Outside Love
If they were a real cult, they’d be on Drag City. Instead they get to be on an awesome label with Sun Rub. I was surprised that they had little to say about sex or religion on this album, but at least McBean and company kept it in the family and sang about their friends instead. And love. And vampires. And hope. It’s certainly their most heartfelt album as well as their least unhinged. Instead of the world going down in flames, Pink Mountaintops see a world around the campfire. With a more spacious production sound, they also open up from their usual claustrophobia and provide a few anthems. They kept the songs in focus here for a quieter musical affair. I had expected more Bible fondling, but maybe they’ll save that for the next one. As usual, Amber Webber is here along with special guest Jesse Sykes. I’d say that this is the band’s most mature record yet, but in truth it’s quieter and more assured. The lyrics certainly show a welcome thoughtfulness as well. All in all, it’s a refined effort and it steps beyond the side project shadows that it usually lurks in.

The Mountain Goats: The Life of the World to Come
Do not get scared off by the Bible verses. Darnielle takes these stories and makes them his own tales of second chances. There’s hope and redemption in Darnielle’s world. It’s almost a joke on modern Christian fundamentalism that Darnielle is able to pull this off, but he does. Like any Mountain Goats album, it’s simple, heartfelt, and challenging. Darnielle may not ask you to write his words on your heart, but it can’t hurt either.

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