If there is one thing that music criticism teaches, it is that listening to 300 albums a year is only to scratch the surface of what is out there. Every year gets better, and the talent deeper, so any suggestion that this list is the ‘best’ of 2009 would be an overclaim – it is simply a list of the albums that kept coming back to the top of this reviewer’s playlist, improving with each listen. In no particular order, then...
Mean Everything To Nothing
Insanely great. When critics talk about ‘a band to watch’ and ‘a band laden with promise’, this right here is the album they always hoped would come out. A band who could make a 60-year old classical music fan headbang and mosh, while keeping the kind of sophistication that comes from writing songs that work wonderfully when acoustic (a la Dave Grohl). If there is competition for Manchester Orchestra, it might be the Foo Fighters (maybe, at a stretch, Biffy Clyro), although that would underplay the honesty Andy Hull is capable of in his lyrics. Manchester Orchestra are the best new rock band to leave America in 10 years.
Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
In what could easily have been another Traveling Wilburys-like release, Monsters of Folk, a collection of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Mike Mogis and M Ward (and on the tour, Will Johnson of Centro-matic) banded together to not be a supergroup. The seriousness which can occasionally be pervasive in their individual releases is largely absent here – they seem to be having some loose limbed fun. Some games have been upped, though – Oberst sounds right up for this one, with focus and drive that he has missed a little recently.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela
Rodrigo y Gabriela have become cult favourites for their intriguing blend of classical and flamenco guitar with a rock sensibility. Way more than polite dinner party music, the passion, grace and fire of their interplay is always entertaining. That palette has been expanded on 11:11, with leanings towards Al Di Meola-like jazz, the inclusion of rock guitarist Alex Skolnick, and another duo in Strunz and Farah. It is a wonderful addition, elevating the album from more-of-the-same (no matter how great) to ‘wow’. This album has dynamics, it has soul, it has rock and jazz, and it catches some of the heat of their live work perfectly .
She Keeps Bees
With a cast iron edge to the guitar, and a voice like Cat Power's Chan Marshall sung by Janis Joplin and a Patti Smith attitude, Jessica Larrabee leads this two piece wonderfully. The songs come across like thicker, edgier, bluesier White Stripes songs - deliciously sexy, confessional, naked and edgy. When Jennifer Trynin released her amazing debut album back in the 90s, it sounded just like this - all stunning power, control and sparse instrumentation. It is hard to avoid the Cat Power comparisons, but Nests stands those comparisons well by coming out on top.
These United States
Everything Touches Everything
These United States are probably the best band in the US that you’ve not started to listen to yet. Combining Big Pink-era Band style with Shins-y rock and a Rolling Stones funky vibe, Jesse Elliot and band offer up complexity, humour and a driven wit that proceeds past the listener like great rolling countryside past a high speed train. Elliot is a lyricist like few others – capable of pure poetry in his lyrics without overweaning English Lit references, he tells stories elegantly and maturely. Everything Touches Everything rocks up the sound a little, ending up around Jayhawks/ Deadstring Brothers space. It is a great sound, relaxed, but with urgency – the kind of music that Conor Oberst has headed towards but not quite landed the past few years.
Oh My God Charlie Darwin
It kind of sucks you in to believing it is another Fleet Foxes album, this one, sharing a label with that band, and then throwing in the first two songs, Charlie Darwin, and To Ohio, both lushly, gently sweet. But then, Ticket Taker sounds like Tom Waits took over Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band, as the (essentially 3-piece) band take a rowdier stomp into a bar for a couple of songs. A brave second disc, full of the kind of songs that the band wanted to make, rather than written to a formula. The Felice Brothers, Bon Iver or Fleet Foxes have not provided as wholesome an album as this so far.
Goodness knows how someone can do what Jay Mascis does in Dinosaur Jr for so long and stay so fresh. Starting with songs that Nirvana would have been happy with, then layering over insanely great fuzzed up lead guitar in a kind of Zappa-esque frenzy, it shouldn’t work as anything other than an ego-fest, but it does, wonderfully. Farm is a fantastically resolved album, better than pretty much any of the 8 preceding. Farm is tight, urgent and remarkably whole. If everyone who likes the way Neil Young does what he does when he rocks out would only give this one listen, they’d be converted.
Keep It Hid
Dan Auerbach is known as half of The Black Keys – the singer/ guitarist half. Keep It Hid is a significantly looser affair than any of the previous albums, with country, jazzy blues and psychedelia working their way in. Recording at home has given this album a more organic sound – Keep It Hid takes its own time, and is absolutely never rushed. Auerbach is a better guitarist than he was allowed to be in the Black Keys format, and Keep It Hid, in opposition to its title, brings that to light.
There is something so addictive about simple music when it is done so perfectly. When Clem Snide are on form, and oh, they are here, the music they make is soul food. Touchingly tender, wry, witty and ironic – poetry so carefully and cleverly observed and stories delivered with the gentlest of musical touches. The songs are a grown-up’s treat – like an uber-Snow Patrol before they made it big. A song like Beard of Bees is told as much as it is sung, Barzelay’s weary vocals providing the wry edge that tip it into beauty. With amazing mastery of melody, the 12 songs become like personal friends. As indie-rock bands go, there are few that do a better job for anyone over the age of 30 than Clem Snide.
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
Full of subtlety, layered acoustic perfection, it is as if Beck had suddenly both rediscovered his musical genius and mixed it with Elbow’s more anthemic moments. Having spent 20 minutes pressing ‘repeat’ on Krill, you may well go back to Radiohead-like opener Giving Away The Bride, or the acoustic-Nirvana-like Polish Girls. All My Friends is the band’s sixth ‘song-based’ album, and it is, by some margin their best – topping even the underrated Roots and Crowns. It has more songs, more individual songs that could be taken out of the album and still work as single gems. It may seem overblown to describe an album as ‘art’ these days, but this is an album where time only deepens the nuances and the attractiveness.
Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures is the latest supergroup to involve Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) and Dave Grohl (of, well, everything…), and rather remarkably adds in the Led Zeppelin quiet man, John Paul Jones. An album that rather neatly updates the Cream idea, riff heavy, and full of the bluesy thick rock that would make any fan of Clapton’s supergroup shed a tear of reminiscence. The format clearly suits each of the musicians, with the kind of punch we expect from QoTSA enhanced by some Led Zeppelin basslines. There’s nothing modern in any one of these 13 tracks, and that is perhaps the album’s greatest highlight – it presumes that great rock will always be great rock, without any need for frippery.
Molina and Johnson
Molina and Johnson
This collaboration has been a long time in the making, and has been well worth the wait. The two singers complement each other perfectly. Johnson’s grittier voice blending with Molina’s higher plaintive. The album feels like a Will Johnson album with additional beauty, added harmony, elevated poetry, which makes it just about perfect. This album defines what is best about Americana - the openness, the sense of space, relaxed reverie, landscape and travel. When Johnson says ‘our record was made in the late February sun’, that feels just so right.