Best of 2009, Musically Speaking
The end of the year: time for seasonal winter ales, low level sports betting, gaining weight and, um, best of lists. Seriously though, is there not something down right human about spending an evening beside a roaring fire, using flickering candlelight to jot down your thoughts on the year’s music releases, reflecting on them, summarizing them, and ultimately ranking them? Yeah, I thought so too!
Truth be told, my decision making about what the album of the year is came down to a race between 2 albums: Tea Tornado by Marmoset and Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown. They’re both great albums, albums that struck me upon first listen and stuck with me throughout the year. Beyond that thought, I would hazard that they are both genius albums, albums that display each band at their best. Ultimately, however, whatever distinct allures I heard in the later were trumped by the former. Marmoset’s latest was largely overlooked, but it has a beauty, a purity that I couldn’t ignore. It has this immediate, slacker rock accessibility that gives way to an eerily tweaked world of innocence, death, longing and childlike metaphors that, upon repeated listening, was almost psychotropic in nature, at least for me. What I mean is that it has haunted me since its release. The songs are short and act like set pieces for the random moods of some hidden mind. Stoned and glorious, Tea Tornado is drenched in a conversational slanginess behind which resides some of the best songwriting of the decade, but it all feels so immediate, as if the first time I heard the album, I’d already heard it 20 times. Such a strange familiarity that leads to bliss.
But none of that is meant to take away from Sunset Rubdown’s latest release. Dragonslayer is Spencer Krug and Co.’s latest report from the front lines of his wildly disjointed fictional world. It’s an album full of minor epics that are populated by failed royalty, fallen actors, magical forces and mysteries within mysteries. What he does so well is tie his lyrics and singing into the emotion of the music, which is largely percussive, melodic, and pitch perfect pop rock. When the album swoons both lyrically and musically simultaneously (I’m thinking how he chants the mantra ‘you’ve got to wait’ towards the end of ‘You Go On Ahead’ as the music literally spirals into ecstasy) it provides an emotional release that’s just basically beyond anything else out there, at least for me.
An album that just grabbed me in the second half of the year is XX, by The XX. By grabbed, I mean I listened to it in awe, compulsively trying to decode its greatness. It’s a debut by a band that hardly registered on anyone’s radar pre-2009. They ride this minimalist wave where every strummed guitar line, every clicky drum sound serves to move the music forward. It’s this subtle balance: they sound so effortless, but effortlessness can always come off as strained or finicky. They just nail it. The production itself, what there is of it, is little more than reverb to sweeten the perfect, minor key melodic pop. Sensual and resonating, the female/male duets circle each other in a haunted world of post midnight splendor. In other words, it’s delicious.
Speaking of stunning debuts….Warpaint is 3 girls and 1 guy from L.A. They’re signed to Roughtrade now but their debut e.p., Exquisite Corpse, came out on Manimal. It’s amazing on its own but also really raises expectations for their forthcoming full length. Their music, which shifts between moody post punk, folkish torch songs and chanteuse ballads is full of awe, sadness, rage, hilarity, and ultimately beauty. Musically, they made me think of what Arab Strap would sound like if Arab Strap were Au Revoir Simone. Lyrically, they juxtapose the cosmic beside the personal until they blur into this smeary, haunted wash. They manage to make lyrics that could come off as vague and personal, but instead are ominous as all hell. They find these strings that tie the disparate tracks together in such a way that I feel that they knew exactly what they were doing, which says so much for a first release.
2009 is the year that rave broke….again. There were a slew of rave influenced releases this year, and most of them were produced by musicians that were way too young to have taken part in the original rave culture of 1990 or so. The best of the bunch by far is Dark Rift by Pictureplane. Pictureplane manages to make spirited music that sounds like all the dance music made between 1988 and 1993 while avoiding a curated feel. Somewhere in the waves of piano, nonsense vocals, and disjointed Stevie Nicks samples there is something truly transcendent. It’s totally inspiring to me to see rave music reinvigorated and evolved and I hope against hope that this moment becomes more than just an aesthetic homage, i.e. that rave’s utopian visions and yearnings follow.
A world away from Pictureplane, in basically every sense are Wolves In The Throne Room. Their Black Cascade was released this spring but is just the perfect fall album. Drenched in the damp chill of a Pacific Northwest autumn it is also a stunning testament to what Wolves in the Throne Room have being aiming at for the past 5 or so years. Their most fully realized release to date, Black Cascade diverts focus from the symphonic and non metal musical aspects of previous albums. The four tracks demonstrate a constantly evolving and shifting interplay between the instruments and vocals that, strange to say for a black metal album, can only be called strong songwriting. Black Cascade is focused, muscular, majestic, rage-full and oh so forsaken.
Another perfect fall album is Songs Of Shame by new urban pastoralists Woods. Rustic, bearded, and enigmatic, this album is full of primitive flourishes that push the sound away from torch bearing indie rock towards something that is both befuddled and eerie. They worship at the altars of early 70’s album orientated rock (they cover Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and Guided by Voice (even if it wasn’t recorded in someone’s basement in Dayton, it sure sounds like it was). Within the rambling, jam-like structures, I find catchy as hell melodies that again reminded me of the best GBV work, but it also all felt like a sing-a-long around a campfire. I was tapping my toes until I noticed the chill wind coming through the trees.
Chilled to the point of utter desolation, Xasthur’s All Reflections Drained is the work of an outsider artist genius. Malefic, Xasthur’s sole member and auteur has created an anemic masterpiece that’s not metal but is thoroughly black. Like a bitter flavor you crave, this album hit all the wrong notes, but did so squarely and perfectly that I just kept returning to it over and over. Released in late spring, it provided a strange shelter from summer days filled with glare and heat. Droning, disjointed, and low-fi, All Reflections Drained captures (via a wall of sound) the sense of failure and despondence that pervades the finest Black Metal. Poorly recorded drums, indecipherable vocals, and random samples punctuate the black sludgy mix. It’s all buried beneath a glacial wash of guitars buried beneath synthesizers buried beneath something empty and eternal.
Nothing released in 2009 sounded as bad ass as Monoliths and Dimensions by Sunn O))). Both abstract and overwhelmingly direct, it’s an album that I experienced as much as heard. In fact I doubt I’ve heard something so primal that also comes off as so intelligent. Its layers of sounds (chorus, vocals, chimes, guitar chords, orchestral strings) formed waves that were stridently drenched in awareness of their own intention and importance. Compositionally complex, this album just keeps reaching beyond itself. A monument to sound itself, It continues to blow my mind.
My standby album over the year was Emerald Eyes, by Fight Bite from Denton, Texas. Self released but widely distributed, this album managed to be all things for all seasons for me. Me thinks you could classify this under the ‘glo-fi’ label stuck to a ton of bedroom produced backward gazing electronic music, but with music this beautiful, labels are so beside the point. Full and layered, suffused with gauzy reverb and drum machines mixed into trebly mono channels, Emerald Eyes builds a scaffold out of primitive drum patterns and keyboards. What they hang from it is synthetic and pastoral (think Enya for the low fi electronic set). Their music is melancholic, drained of everything except beauty, and it stays with you long after listening.
Btw you can preorder Mark Gluth’s novella The Late Works of Margaret Kroftis here.