Let's do this ...
TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2009
My excitement level with regard to this list is a bit muted, and compiling felt decidedly dispassionate and undramatic. But it's to be expected -- I blew my listmaking wad amongst all the "end of decade" excitement this year (that list is complete but has yet to be posted). What's unexpected, however, is the fairly uneven quality of these ten records. I'm not sure if there is a slam dunk classic among them, not a single one that I can promise you that I'll go to bat for in five or ten years time. Each of them are great, albeit flawed albums, there's a little bit of Verve in nearly all of them.
I've posted about how in the past couple of years, I've been discovering music more or less at random -- rather than scouring music shops, blogs, and message boards for news about new releases and making sure to check out anything that might interest me, I let the music come to me. Sometimes I tracked down a piece of music right away, and stuff I didn't get around to hearing could be easily forgotten. Sometimes I couldn't wait to hear a podcast by some unknown DJ mixing two hours of c. 1991 Sheffield bleep, and often I didn't have the patience to sit through the entire new Lindstrom and Prins Thomas album because one prog disco epic after another gets to be a bit too much. Compared to past years, this year I spent far less energy tracking down new releases and heard fewer whole albums (listening to entire albums in one sitting has become much more of a rarity for me). But I listened to more mixes and podcasts than ever before -- just another step on the road to hearing music one track at a time, rather than one album at a time.
The decline of the albums as an artistic statement (and more so as a product mover) is nothing new. But this year, I did start to wonder about my long term listening habits, and the consequences of taking the "random" approach to its logical conclusion. Eventually, my listening habits would become completely scattershot. Contextualizing music becomes more difficult if you've cut yourself off from everything going on around you, i.e. the music that's considered to be notable by whatever passes for critical consensus these days. If I can't contextualize what I'm hearing, if I lose the ability to compare my tastes with those of others (and in order to do that, I must hear at least some of the music that "they" are hearing) then my own writing is in danger of becoming irrelevant.
[OK, let's not brag ... it's already fairly irrelevant, but it's in danger of losing whatever small bit of relevance it might have.]
10. Shackleton, "Three EPs"
One person's urban decay might be another person's dreary atmospheric boredom. "Three EPs" might be bleak, but it conjures up images of Indiana Jones-style chase scenes through mossy temples in humid climates. There are no murky city streets here, no ragga croaking, instead, its spidery basslines and eccentric percussion maintain a brisk, energetic pace throughout the album. David Holmes might have made an album like this if he decided to go dub on one of his film soundtracks.
9. Matthew Robert Cooper, "Miniatures"
This was released in September 2008, but I didn't see the album reviewed until this past January. Save for one track, I didn't hear anything from "Miniatures" until 2009 and listened to it regularly throughout the year, so I'm including it here. Compared to the denser atmospheres that are typical of Cooper's work as Eluvium, "Miniatures" feels like a collection of tossed off experiments, or even demos for tracks that could be further fleshed out and recorded for an Eluvium album. If so, even Cooper's leftovers handily slay most other "ambient" composers best work. It's a solid effort until you reach the final track, "Miniature 9", which pushes the album into "must hear" territory. It not only could have appeared on Aphex Twin's "Selected Ambient Works II" but could have been arguably the best track on that album.
8. Moritz von Oswald Trio, "Vertical Ascent"
So you may have noticed that I didn't like this album at a time when most like-minded techno heads were repping it as one of the year's best and most original albums. I've been coming around on it, partly by realizing that it demands patience and concentration, and as you allow it to envelop you, new details and phrases emerge from nearly every listen, jumping out from hidden corners of the record that you hadn't noticed before. From a cursory listen, these four long tracks seem to chase their tails. In fact, there is virtually no repetition here, but rather a stream of complex rhythmic patterns that constantly interlock and play off each other.
7. Courtney Love, "Nobody's Daughter"
Show of hands, who expected Courtney Love to reinvent herself as an elder stateswoman of rock with an album of grizzled rockers and acoustic balladry? Her nearest contemporary now seems to be Kristin Hersh, but if you compare "Nobody's Daughter" on a song-by-song basis to Kristin's widely praised 2007 album "Learn To Sing Like a Star", Courtney has her soundly beat on nearly every track. And even her voice sounds better preserved than Kristin's. How the heck did all this happen? You certainly wouldn't have believed it based on what you still hear about Love from the tabloids -- losing custody of her daughter is simply the latest disaster in what seems to be an endless sequence of unsightly news, pictures, and public embarrassments -- because on record, she's rarely sounded more determined or more focused.
6. Tim Hecker, "An Imaginary Country"
Tim Hecker's biggest strength has always been his biggest weakness -- he makes more or less the same album over and over again. He's reliable, but not particularly inventive, and his albums have become a bit too predictable. But the same is true of AC/DC! Do you see anybody complaining?
5. Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion"
Animal Collective became almost inescapably big this year, and not only within indie music enclaves. Five years ago, who would have thought that a bunch of Brooklyn noisemakers would reach this level of critical mass? It wasn't just that the album was widely praised, lots of albums receive high praise, and in the case of this one it was all either a) deserved, b) patently ridiculous and completely OTT, or c) lamentations for the supposedly halcyon days of "Sung Tongs" (all three cases appeared in nearly equal proportions). The catch was that the album felt canonized from practically from the second it was released, its reputation wrapped up and made final before the end of January. The speed at which all this happens puts "Merriweather Post Pavillion" in a category with albums like "Kid A", or "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot".
I'm not even sure I can properly evaluate this record anymore. I'm not even sure I was able to do it eleven months ago, not after hearing nearly every track countless times on live bootleg after live bootleg over the previous two years. In 2002, I experienced this with GYBE's "Yanqui UXO". By the time the album was released, every note was already a known quantity. Expectations were set in stone and fans delivered their pre-prepared pitch right on cue. Like with "Yanqui UXO", I don't really listen to MPP too much. The studio versions might paint a different sonic palate from the live versions that evolved over the preceding twenty months, but I never felt a pressing need to listen to this album because everything on it seemed so absurdly familiar.
Get back to me in five years with this one.
4. Ben Klock, "One"
Rarely has one techno record managed to collect virtually all the sounds that I want to hear out of clubland in that year. "OK" still feels like the last word in the dubstep/techno crossover, and "Check For Pulse" and "Underneath" hit all the cavernous minimal dub techno sweet spots. But Klock isn't afraid to deviate from his safety zone. "In a While" is a ringer for the material put out by R&S in the mid-90's, and "Cargo" is a reminder of why Richard D. James did his best work under the guise of Polygon Window. In all, "One" is an extremely accomplished debut by an artist who was firing on all cylinders this year.
3. Lisa Germano, "Magic Neighbor"
Hazy piano balladry and the warm feeling of shriveling up into a cocoon never sounded so sultry.
2. Moderat, "Moderat"
With most collaborations, it's enough to expect that the artists will combine their strengths. It's unreasonable to expect that the pairing will also lead to a cancellation of each others' weaknesses. As for Modeselektor, they have a tendency to dabble in goofy ragga and other assorted knob-tweaking silliness in an OTT attempt to be edgy and unpredictable. With Apparat, it's an inability to forge their bleepy melodies into memorable hooks or anything that would stand out in a club. "Moderat" goes from strength to strength, steamrolling over all those potential weaknesses, resulting in an album that's as close to the spirit and genre-bending variety of mid-90's Orbital as anything that's been released this decade.
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz!"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs were always more than just shouty NYC brats, but countless listens to "Maps" didn't really prepare me for the delicate neo-shoegaze balladry of a track like "Little Shadow" (although "Modern Romance", particularly when they played it live, should have prepared me for it but I wasn't paying close enough attention at the time). After hearing the starry-eyed wonderment of tracks like "Little Shadow", "Soft Shock", and "Skeletons", suddenly it made sense to cast Karen O as the token grownup to sing with a bunch of kids on the "Where the Wild Things Are" soundtrack.
Oh yeah, they don't do that thrash-y garage rock stuff anymore, they've tweaked those tracks and they now sound like Blondie-esque disco punk dancefloor fillers. And "Hysteric" is the best ballad they've ever done.
What, you still want more?