Best Music of 2009

February 11, 2010

I know that many of you are too busy to even buy/download or listen ten albums in a year, but if you know me, you know I try to find the time.

Feel free to listen to some samples at Amazon or elsewhere online and consider giving them a spin. No particular order — my top ten, and then some, for 2009:

With cameos by Calexico, M. Ward, and the New Pornographers, Case’s fifth studio effort, Middle Cyclone (Anti), finds its heart in the middle of America. Probably my favorite album from the past year, I cannot say enough good things about it. Amazon named Cyclone its best album of the year, and continues to price it so low that you can’t afford not to get it.

Wilco: WILCO

The Chicago sextet’s seventh studio album, Wilco (Nonesuch) is a modest collection of solid, well-written songs. Turn it up!

A brand new studio album from Bob Dylan, Together Through Life (Sony), finds Dylan successfully collaborating with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on all but one of the songs here. A few clunkers, but all in all worthwhile.

Dan Aeurbach: KEEP IT HID
As the frontman for blues rock duo the Black Keys, Auerbach is known for his powerful songwriting and guitar playing. His first solo effort, Keep It Hid (Nonesuch), highlights the simpler moments. Not a “wimpier Black Keys album” as some have said, but a solid collection of well-crafted songs.

The Avett Brothers: I AND LOVE AND YOU (Sony)
American roots music put forth by the two multi-talented brothers from North Carolina. I And Love And You is their sixth full-length album since their debut in 2001 and their first major label release. The Avett Brothers’ words paint pictures and short stories in your mind and they do it extremely well. The three words that the title refers to, when said from the heart, can rock your world.

The Decemberists: THE HAZARDS OF LOVE

The band’s fifth album, began as an attempt to write a title song for The Hazards of Love (Capitol), Anne Briggs’ fabled 1964 EP of unaccompanied singing, but seems to have grown out of control. This 17-track concept album tells the story of a fair maiden called Margaret who is ravished by a shape-shifting demon. Prog-Folk concept album is more than a bit self-indulgent, but still one of the best releases by far. Check out some samples.

Bruce Springsteen: WORKIN’ ON A DREAM

Apparently Springsteen is dreaming that it is the mid-1960’s in Phil Spector’s America, and it works for him on this, his sixteenth studio album. Like 2007’s Magic, these sounds could be coming from a mono am radio during the Johnson administration as easily as an iPod during the first days of Obama.

The title track and song “This Life,” feature some of the best vocal harmonies this side of the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison. A few tracks have an obvious Byrds influence — the guitars on “Life Itself” sound like they are right out of “Eight Miles High.”

Much like Magic before it, I’m not happy with what sounds like over-compression on the Brendan O’Brien production, but O’Brien and Springsteen insist that it was the sound they were going for. Musically, it is a gem and worth seeking out, no matter which decade you may have come of age. (Sony)

Andrew Bird: NOBLE BEAST
This record is a constant pleasure, offering the sort of tunefully creative pop that combines some of the emotionalism of Belle and Sebastian with the whimsy of Badly Drawn Boy and the croon of Rufus Wainwright. He stumbles here and there with some uneven lyrics. The songs on Noble Beast (Fat Possum)are a bit complex, with unexpected left turns and unusual structures and they take a few listens to sink in. I highly recommend the US vinyl version.

(Geffen Records) For those of you, like me, who have been carrying around the cassette of this show for over fifteen years, this official 2-Disc set is a Godsend. Wait — fifteen years!?! An impressive, if not essential look at their catalog back in the day. Highlights include songs from the then forthcoming In Utero album, including the first ever performance of “Tourette’s” and the soon to become classic “All Apologies.” The DVD , has a 5.1 Surround Mix by Robert Ludwig and might be a better option for the A/V geeks -Audiophiles among us.

Monsters of Folk: MONSTERS OF FOLK

For those caught unaware, Monsters of Folk is comprised of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, singer/songwriter M.Ward and producer Mike Mogis, four of this generation’s most critically acclaimed artists. Great teamwork here recalls the happier days of CSNY or the one-off Thorns release of a few years back. All four songwriters sharing vocals and songwriting duties. M. Ward is a wonder: an amazing multi-instrumentalist with an interesting, quirky voice and appreciation of musical history. His solo album, also released this year, is worth seeking out. Monstrous and folkie, I was introduced to this via WFUV-FM. I give this my highest recommends. (Shangri La)

Tons of great reissued/legacy stuff this year, most of which I haven’t had a chance to hear…

    2009’s Top Five Legacy Releases (Live or Compilations)

(Mono and Stereo) You may have heard something about these tuned-up compact discs…

Ella Fitzgerald: TWELVE NIGHTS IN HOLLYWOOD 4-CD box set of 73 completely unreleased live recordings from Ella in her prime.

The Doors: LIVE IN NEW YORK 6-CD box set that contains all of the Doors’ performances in their entirety recorded in 1970 at the Felt Forum in New York. All four shows were mixed and mastered by the band’s long-time engineer, Bruce Botnick.

Nirvana: LIVE AT READING (See above)

Perhaps too mammoth for me to digest in less than a year, I honestly haven’t listened to quite all of it yet. 8-Disc CD Set (or 10-disc DVD or Blu-Ray) appears to be the definitive, chronological survey of his entire body of work. Volume I covers the period from his earliest recordings with the Squires in 1963, through to his classic 1972 album, Harvest. I’m sure that whichever format you end up getting this in is fine., but if you’re a classic rock collector, you definitely should pick it up…



With Kurt Cobain long gone and after eight years of George Bush’s America, PJ starts its own label, with their ninth album as its first release. With longtime producer Brendan O’Brien, the boys still want to stick it to “the man” and “corporate America,” even though it is a Target exclusive release. A marked improvement over recent offerings, dig out your 90’s flannel shirt for “Amongst the Waves” and “The Fixer.” “Just Breathe” might be the greatest love song Pearl Jam has ever written.

Forgive me! I had a busy year with changing jobs, getting married and buying a house, all in the matter of six months. I haven’t listened to this, but its got to be great, no?

Regina Spektor: FAR
Don’t just write her off as another girl with a piano. The emergence of the Moscow-born, Bronx-raised Regina Spektor is a great story and this, her third album. Mid-tempo and pleasant, there’s alot to like here.

Various Artists: DARK WAS THE NIGHT
31 exclusive tracks were recorded for this compilation. Available as a 2-CD, 3-LP and will benefit the Red Hot Organization – an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIV and AIDS. Contributors include Andrew Bird, Iron and Wine, Spoon and Conor Oberst. The few tracks that I’ve heard sound terrific and there was a great deal of buzz around this collection at the end of the year.

A sort-of sequel to his widely-acclaimed 1978 release Stardust, American Classic revisits some old favorite standards, covered previously by Nelson and others. Unremarkable, but solid. I think it is a “grower.” Just avoid the vinyl version. Ticky and surface noise, the bastards. If you’re going to do vinyl, do it right, for the love of all that’s holy.

Yeah, so I’m pretty bad at keeping my “Top Ten” lists to ten.