Anyone who claims that there isn’t as much good music now as there was “back in the day” just isn’t paying attention. We live in an era of impossible musical riches. The internet, and in particular websites such as emusic and Itunes, have to a large degree freed artists and smaller labels from the pressures and costs of physical distribution. They have also served as a kind of grand equalizer, which has brought music that may have gone unnoticed to the fore, and also pushed a lot of big label dross into the background. If you devote even a tiny bit if attention to what is going on out there musically, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of music being produced, and by the plethora of genres and sub-genres. The editors of the (very useful) website Metacritic estimated in preparing their end-of-the decade “best of” that about 20 000 albums get produced each year across the range of idioms that comprise contemporary popular music.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation tells me that that amounts to something like 60 albums a day. Now, I listen to a lot of music. I have earphones in my ears pretty much wherever I go. I have headphones on in my office a lot of the time, and I listen to music in the evenings as I prepare lectures of catch up on email. Even so, I probably haven’t listened to more than (parts of) 250 or 300 albums this year.

So to say that the list that follows represents a “best of” would be a huge overstatement. Rather, it represents a necessarily idiosyncratic trajectory of one pair of ears through about 1% of 2009’s musical output.

I wouldn’t even want to claim that it represents any kind of an objective assessment on my part. If I had written this list tomorrow, it probably would have contained different items. 2009 has been a great year for music. My initial shortlist for this top 10 list contained more than forty items. Still, I love these ten albums, and I am happy to be part of a culture sufficiently varied and complex to have produced them.

Finally, I am a music blogger, not a critic. That means that I can choose for my top 10 albums music that I really liked, rather than music that I simply admired. There was a lot of very admirable music out there last year, full of technical innovation, musical virtuosity, weird tempos and key changes, and the like. A lot of it will end of on critics’ top 10 lists. But I have to say that many of the bands that have become critics’ pets leave me cold. So you will not be hearing in the lines below of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest, Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, or even Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion. As estimable as they may be, the albums listed below are ones that I find myself going back to.

The Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss)
If I had to go out on a limb and pick my favorite album of the year, it would probably be The Antlers’ Hospice. The band from Brooklyn has produced that rarest of things in these days of Itunes single-song downloads and Ipod shuffle mode: a real concept album. The concept is a bleak one, centering as it does on a relationship with a cancer-stricken loved one. But the execution is sensitive to the many different waves of emotion one goes through in dealing with the disease, from despair to hope to elation at the slightest sign of encouraging news. The music borrows from a range of idioms that together constitute that nebulous category of “alternative” rock – shoegaze, ambient, and pretty straightahead rock. But like all great music it assimilates its influences and produces something entirely novel out of them. Peter Silberman is about as compelling a voice as has emerged in recent years in the alt-rock world.

Girls, Album (True Panther)
The band Girls produced an album simply entitled Album which I would also have to place at or near the very top of the pile. Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens has had, to say the least, an interesting life. Raised within a millenarian cult by a mother who was often forced into prostitution to raise money for the group, he ultimately escaped and found himself on the streets of Texas cities, only to find himself taken under the wing of a Texas millionaire.
Band lore would have it that Owens was shielded from hearing popular music for all of the years that he lived with the cult. It is odd, then, that the album should sound so replete with all sorts of musical references, from the obvious influence of the Beach Boys to more subterranean references to everyone from Elvis Costello to Roy Orbison.

Various Artists, Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy (Shout! Factory)
Have you ever heard of Mark Mulcahy? Neither had I, until I came across a compilation album released in 2009 entitled Ciao My Shining Star. Mulcahy fronted two Boston-based bands, Miracle Legion and Polaris. He has subsequently put out a number of critically well-received albums, the latest being In Pursuit of Your Happiness, released in 2005.
His wife died suddenly in 2008, leaving him as the sole caregiver for the couple’s two young children. Rock royalty came to the rescue, and Ciao My Shining Star was born. The album, recorded to raise money for Mulcahy’s childcare needs, brings together Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, Frank Black, Dinosaur Jr., Juliana Hatfield, The National, Mercury Rev, and the late Vic Chesnutt, to name but a few. Tribute albums are invariably mixed affairs, but this one is almost uniformly excellent. The album goes through a great many stylistic changes over the course of its 21 songs – from the spare electronica of Thom Yorke’s chilling take on “All for the Best” to David Berkeley’s lovely, folky, “Love’s the only Thing that Shuts me Up”, to Dinosaur Jr.’s guitar-drenched “The Backyard”. But they are held together by the excellence of the songs, and by the consistency and integrity of Mulcahy’s vision. And none of the artists phone in their performances – they are all on their A game.
Mulcahy’s songs are intensely and deeply personal, and deal with the types of topics songwriters have been dealing with for centuries, but they do so in an honest and unfeigned way. There isn’t a cliché anywhere in Mulcahy’s lyrics. Many of them resonate in a way that only great art does.
After hearing this CD, I hunted down an early Mulcahy album entitled “Fathering”, released in 1999. As great as the performances contained in Ciao are, they do not prepare you for Mulcahy himself. He is a unique vocalist as well as a great songwriter. Nick Hornby once identified that album’s opening track, “Hey Self-Defeater”, as one of his favorite songs, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Mulcahy was one of the models he had in mind in coming up with the character of Tyler Crowe in his recent novel Juliet, Naked. He is a singer/songwriter largely ignored by the public but capable of inspiring almost religious devotion in those few listeners who have been touched by his work. Get Ciao My Shining Star, one of the great albums released in 2009, and use that as an entryway into Mulcahy’s woefully underrated body of work.

Vic Chesnutt, At the Cut (Constellation)
Everything I have just said about Mulcahy might also be said about the late, great Vic Chesnutt. Chesnutt died on Christmas Day 2009, but not before releasing one of my favorite albums of the year, At the Cut. I blogged about Chesnutt last week, and won’t repeat everything I said about him then. Suffice it to say that Chesnutt’s collaboration with Guy Picciotto and Montreal-based musicians from Silver Mt. Zion stands at the pinnacle of a distinguished but tragically abridged career.

The Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock (Teamlove)
To these ears, The Felice Brothers are the musical heirs of Dylan and the Band circa The Basement Tapes. Their music might best be classified as Americana – not country, not folk, not rock, not blues, though somehow indebted to all those genres. Their 2009 album, Yonder is the Clock, is their strongest to date. The songs sometimes seem thrown together and improvised, as Basement Tapes did, but just as in the case of that classic album, they are possessed of darker undercurrents. Felice Brothers were until not that long ago plying their trade in the subways of New York City, and though those days are now behind them, one can still hear the intensity born of desperation in such songs as “All When We Were Young”, though rollicking songs like “Penn Station” ensure that Yonder is the Clock is anything but a bummer.

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart combine the pop sensibilities of indy bands like Belle and Sebastian along with Ramones-y buzz guitars. Their eponymous 2009 album is 35 minutes of loud, jangly pop pleasure. Somehow, the band’s peculiar name fits the music perfectly.

Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend (Acony Records)
Nothing is more surprising to me than my late-in-life embracing of country music. For most of my life, the genre was associated with bad TV shows featuring Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash (to say nothing of our own Tommy Hunter) and really bad clothes worn on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry by the likes of Tammy Wynette. But alt-country as purveyed by the likes of Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, and the neo-traditionalism of Gillian Welch and others, have brought me around.
This year, few albums have provoked more unalloyed pleasure than Dave Rawlings Machine’s A Friend of a Friend. Rawlings is Gillian Welch’s longtime sideman, and he is partly responsible for the gorgeous harmonies on her records. Rawlings’ record is equally gorgeous. Welch’s fingerprints and voice are all over it (she co-wrote 5 of the album’s 9 songs). And the album’s opening song, “Ruby”, channels Gram Parsons so accurately it will raise goose bumps.

King Khan and BBQ Show, Invisible Girl (In the Red)
Montreal has acquired the reputation as being the global epicenter of brainy rock à la Arcade Fire and even brainier post-rock à la Godspeed and Silver Mt. Zion. While they have put our fair city (back) on the musical map, they should not be allowed to overshadow the contribution that Montrealers have made to the simple but very real pleasures of old-school party music such as rockabilly and garage rock. This year has seen a bumper crop of albums made by artists with deep connections to our city that celebrate rock’s simpler pleasures. Bloodshot Bill, who achieved local fame by being invited, uninvited and reinvited to a Saint-Jean Baptiste celebration, released Get High Tonight, and King Khan and Mark Sultan have resurrected the King Khan and BBQ Show to release the excellent Invisible Girl. This is music for rock purists who believe that rock music started going wrong when rock musicians began thinking of themselves as artistes.
Rumour has it that Mark Sultan and Bloodshot Bill will be collaborating on an album in 2010. I wouldn’t be surprised if it found itself in my top 12 months from now.

Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man (ATO Records)
This album by the former Soul Coughing frontman came out in October and has since then gone almost completely unnoticed, as far as I can tell. It has only been a year and a half since Doughty released Golden Delicious, an album widely reviled by Doughty’s fans because of its excessive sheen. Perhaps fans weren’t expecting something new from Doughty so soon.
Whatever the disappointment that the last album might have caused, it should be entirely offset by this superb album. The arrangements are spare and intimate – basically just Doughty, his off-kilter musings and his percussive acoustic guitar playing, and a couple of side player contributing tasteful touches here and there. The songs are all rib-stickers, reminiscent of the very best of Soul Coughing.

Manic Street Preachers, Journal for Plague Lovers (Columbia)
The Manics are an institution in the UK, though they no longer have much of a following on this side of the Atlantic. They have been around for over twenty years now, and have produced some abrasive masterpieces, in particular The Holy Bible, released in 1994.
In 1995, band member Richey Edwards disappeared without leaving a trace, having last been seen in a Bayswater Hotel. Shortly before his disappearance, he had given a folder full of lyrics and poems to a fellow bandmember. They have been the stuff of legend and rumour for years. The band has finally decided to make use of them on this record. It is therefore not surprising that Journal for Plague Lovers is the band’s most richly realized album since Holy Bible.

10 More:
Condo Fucks, Fuckbook (Matador)
MeShell Ndegeocello, Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street)
Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM (Because/Elektra)
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Dark Night of the Soul (self-released)
Speech Debelle, Speech Therapy (Big Dada)
Reigning Sound, Love and Curses (In the Red)
Pissed Jeans, King of Jeans (Sub Pop)
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Beware (Drag City)
Jamie T., Kings and Queens (Virgin)
Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador)

Posted Sunday, January 3rd, 2010 at 10:09 pm
Filed Under Category: Uncategorized
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Response to “A 2009 Top 10 (of sorts)”

Kylie Batt

Я конечно, прошу прощения, но не могли бы Вы дать немного больше информации….

The internet, and in particular websites such as emusic and Itunes, have to a large degree freed artists and smaller labels from the pressures […….

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