Speaking of snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes, I worked my last December day of the year on Friday, and now am settling into two luscious weeks of time off over the holidays (one of the hidden benefits of working in academia!). Before the college closed, I went to the radio studio on one of the snowiest and coldest days of the year and recorded my third year-end appearance on NPR’s World Cafe with David Dye. We chatted about some of my favorite albums from this year, and you can listen on Friday January 1st, at 2pm/ET on the radio or 3pm/ET on the XPN website — or stream the archived show through the NPR site shortly after it airs. Whee!
Now in the waning countdown before Christmas, as we open our advent calendars and go on walks to look at the lights, I revel in concentrated time to do things I enjoy — like talk to you all about some of my favorites things in 2009, this last year of the decade.
FUEL/FRIENDS FAVORITE THINGS IN 2009: TEN ALBUMS
THE XX, XX
Hands down, this is my favorite album of the year. They’re barely twenty, but The xx have created a stunningly complete, addictively good album. I cannot get enough of this London band, formed around the female/male pair of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim — best friends from school since they were age three. Their self-titled debut album fuses sparse, effortlessly cool beats and a new-wave sensibility, with thoroughly delicious male/female vocals that play off of each other like the best doo-wop or soul duets. Their playful back-and-forth chemistry (oddly) reminds me of an analgesic, blissed-out Otis Redding and Carla Thomas, in the perfection of the duet. Romy’s voice is very malleable, an immensely flirtatious alto, and in every place, Oliver’s is the perfect counterweight back.
Recorded largely in a garage at the XL studios, over the course of many nights and in the wee small hours of the morning, the album is meticulous and quiet, but it also laden with space and echoes that get under my skin. It is an unabashedly sexy album, full of insinuating bass-lines that propel the songs forward, and clever bits of minimalistic drum machine or coy xylophone melodies. Everyone that I play this for, even if it’s on in the background, instantly wants to know who it is. I think it would be near impossible to not be drawn into this album. It’s like a sticky spiderweb.
Basic Space – The xx
MUMFORD & SONS, Sigh No More
I first heard this indie-bluegrass folk band from London while prepping for SXSW early in 2009. The friend who sent me the link knows of (and is largely responsible for) my love for The Avett Brothers, and here in the music of Mumford & Sons I found the wrenching honesty of Frightened Rabbit blended with the banjo-plucking soul and brotherly harmonies of the Avetts. I was completely sold from the very first listen, and I have listened to this album more than almost anything else this year. Sigh No More is out in the UK now, coming to the US on Glassnote Records in early 2010.
This young band makes honest, compelling music that veers towards triumphant even as they chronicle the litany of life’s difficulties. It’s epic and substantial music, loaded to overflowing with truth that crawls under my skin with its vulnerability. And perhaps it’s the multiple voices rising together of all the band members, but there is a distinct feeling of kinship here, almost like a gospel choir or a Greek chorus, a community vibe that lends some sort of strength through such raw lyrical content. As one who often mulls over issues larger than I can get my head around, I appreciated this year how folks like David Bazan, Mountain Goats, J Tillman, and Mumford and Sons all truthfully explored matters of God and grace and falling and seeking in their music. Mumford and Sons are intensely wise in their lyrics, seeming to bely a personal understanding of God’s grace to a broken world, but also an intense, brutal struggle. As I wrote to a friend, “I love how they sing both about grace and the Maker’s plan, but also bald-facedly sing, ‘I really fucked it up this time.’”
The Cave – Mumford & Sons
Fanfarlo exploded this year from Sweden and the UK, with a shimmering, hard-driving, gorgeously colored album. There’s so much brilliant light in their songs that they’re almost like the anti-xx to my ears this year. I first fell in love with their song (and video) for “Harold T. Wilkins” right before SXSW this year, and then was sucked into their debut album deeply and irrevocably. It is rich, primal, earnest, and effervescent. Although I was first enticed by the thumping drums and the cathartic yell-along lines, they use a hugely expressive palette of instruments — heavy on the shiny trumpets, the dazzling saws, mandolins and accordion.
Lead singer Simon Balthazar has a distinctive voice that’s absolutely evocative of a young David Byrne; all swoops and vibrato, but powerful and clear. The songs often feature time-signature shifts and a loosely-corralled sense of musical primal anarchy that reminds me of Arcade Fire at times, but with a greater effervescence (like a sheer wash of fluorescent color dripping down). It is a stupendous album, first song to last.
HANDSOME FURS, Face Control
Several albums I loved this year fused fascinating, seemingly disparate sounds together to make new amalgamations of awesomeness. Handsome Furs come from Canada via Seattle’s famed Sub Pop label, and have a very simple formula behind this fantastic album: raggedly anthemic electric guitar and howlingly visceral vocals (from Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner) with sexy-as-hell electronic drum machine beats (from the whipsmart bombshell Alexei Perry).
Face Control is unrelenting, often veering from effortless cool to earnest anthems in the same song – laced through with a seething mutual lust between these married two that melts the paint off the walls. The album radiates an icy Eastern-European aesthetic that the duo talked fascinatingly about when we chatted in July. I was hooked from the first time I popped the promo CD into my car stereo player on a roadtrip earlier this year, the yellow lines on the highway flying past to their immense beats. And to watch these two create their music live together at the Larimer Lounge (see: Favorite Shows This Year) was scorching, and somehow even more fantastic than this supernova of an album. It all sounds good to these ears.
Talking Hotel Arbat Blues – Handsome Furs
ROMAN CANDLE, Oh Tall Tree In The Ear
I like the way the world looks through a Roman Candle album. You stop to listen to the birds and frogs and cicadas, and see the beauty in every streetlight and every moth, and notice the millions of stars. Oh Tall Tree In The Ear is a fine bluesy Americana album full of richly literate lyrics that keep giving to me, even as I’ve listened to this album dozens of times. It’s hard to think back now in this cold winter weather, but not too long ago this was my soundtrack for the entire sticky warm months of July and August, driving around with my windows down and this sweetly unaffected album playing on my car stereo. It ranges from upbeat, windows-down tunes like this one (which I think channels some Mick Jagger) to slow, easygoing slow-dancing-on-the-back-porch tunes.
Although living in Nashville now, Roman Candle has roots that go back more than a decade in the Chapel Hills, North Carolina area, and those roots intertwine with folks I love like Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, which is what made me initially take a listen. I was summarily knocked off my hammock this summer by this thoughtfully-crafted little album, and its real attention to detail. You can listen to the lyrics like they’re poems. The title of the album is taken from a Rilke sonnet, and many songs are woven much more densely with subtle wisdom than you might pick up on first listen through. There’s a mature wisdom in the lyrics about love, attempting to balance growing up and growing old with someone, and that desire to go off and see Rome and watch the river go by, or hearing a song on a radio that makes you want to hop a train. As easygoing as it feels on initial listens, it keeps yielding up new rich appreciations every time I listen to it.
Eden Was A Garden – Roman Candle
LANGHORNE SLIM, Be Set Free
Langhorne Slim takes his first name from the rolling farmland town in Pennsylvania, and he makes a delightfully anachronistic blend of music that seems half a step outside of our time. Yet he’s got a youthful passion that I very much relate to, the same stuff I hear in any of the young rock bands I love. Langhorne’s not even thirty yet, but a lot of his songs seem to capture this weight of another generation. There’s a ramshackle, loosely-hinged folk glory on Be Set Free, with threads of everything from soul-stirring gospel to old brokedown blues in his music. It’s all held together with his vulnerable, emotive tenor that’s reminiscent sometimes of Cat Stevens, but with the ragged folksy storytelling chops of the sixties folk troubadour generation. There’s also a larger cinematic quality on this release, where Slim tries broad additions to the recorded sound, whether it’s a horn section or a rootsy group of folks stomping along to his songs (and even a vocal duet cameo from Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards).
Langhorne is a very charming, earnest man, and this past September as we shared his bottle of wine in the old-fashioned Boulderado Hotel, one thing he said that stuck with me was how all the songs he writes are love songs. On this, his third album, those loves can take so many forms — from bidding farewell on heartbreaking songs like “I Love You But Goodbye,” to the convincing swagger of “Say Yes,” to one of my favorite lines of the whole year here on this song: “You can have my television, long as I got lips for kissin’ you, nobody but you…” over that huge shiny Wurlitzer explosion and the gospel handclaps. I’m a total goner.
Boots Boy – Langhorne Slim
LISA HANNIGAN, Sea Sew
I first fell in love with Lisa Hannigan‘s haunting voice when she contributed mournful duets throughout fellow Irishman Damien Rice’s debut album “O” in 2003 – I think she infused an immensely gorgeous, heartbreaking weight to songs like “The Blower’s Daughter.” So after the two parted ways a few years back, I’ve been waiting for this album of her solo material and it was completely worth the wait.
There’s an unvarnished air of clean-scrubbed honesty and clever inquiry on Sea Sew. I got to see Lisa play an acoustic set the day after Halloween, at a Denver bookstore in the middle of the afternoon, where she captivated everyone effortlessly. In addition to playing really every instrument I could think possible in the live setting (most of which I don’t know names for) she manages to blend whimsy and beauty without being silly, which is very difficult to do. There’s a charming imagination in her songs, a pristine and heartbreaking depth to her voice, and an incisive emotional honesty to this album that kills me.
I Don’t Know – Lisa Hannigan
KAREN O AND THE KIDS, Where The Wild Things Are Soundtrack
It’s a daunting task to take a beloved children’s book, especially one with only a few dozen pages, and make it into a full-length movie that both kiddos and adults can enjoy. It’s even harder to make a soundtrack that fuses all those primal, wonderful sentiments that course hot through Spike Jonze’s vision in the film, and capture the innocence of youth without sounding child-like. I dislike most kid’s music (no Raffi, no); it’s why my little guy likes things like Wilco and the Avett Brothers. Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and her band The Kids, have made an album we both loved wholeheartedly from the first enchanting singsong melody, which both of us have been humming around the house for months.
This is also a completely palatable album for those who never get near the small people, but who still connect with some of the urgency and imagination of youth. The earliest previews of this film featured a more wild, acoustic version of the Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” with the lyrics about “our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.” Perhaps their early involvement in my initial impression are why mentally I get a very similar and marvelous sense from this album, in a year where I also finally truly got into Arcade Fire (!!). This soundtrack takes us to another place, “through night and day and in and out of weeks and almost a year to where the wild things are.”
Building All Is Love – Karen O And The Kids
MAYER HAWTHORNE – A Strange Arrangement
One of my students interned for a semester at the stellar Numero Group in Chicago this past Spring, they of the Eccentric Soul series and countless badass reissues from the lost vaults of cool. For a fresh-faced twenty year-old, Ben has formidable musical tastes, so when he told me to listen to Detroit whippersnapper Mayer Hawthorne, I took his advice immediately.
Mayer Hawthorne is only in his late twenties, and comes from a background of hip-hop/DJing, and despite a lifelong affinity for the sounds coming out of his dad’s old car stereo, he only started making this throwback doo-wop soul stuff just as a joke. Even the label heads couldn’t believe this was new material (not decades old) when Mayer first played his demos for them — even more amazing since he plays all the instruments, and recorded his swell songs on A Strange Arrangement at home in his bedroom. His music feels fresh and deliciously enjoyable – makes you wanna put on your good Sunday slacks and a healthy daub of Brylcreem and come buy me a mint julep.
Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’ – Mayer Hawthorne
DARK WAS THE NIGHT – compilation album
It’s hard to cohesively talk about this double-disc compilation album, curated by The National’s Dessner brothers to raise funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS. The range of Dark Was The Night is so vast and all so beautiful, so achingly perfect in the variation. The overall mood in the 31 tracks (from a stunning variety of most of my favorite musicians) is mostly melancholy – although there are a few bright shiny spots from folks like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
But from Antony covering Bob Dylan (and breaking my heart), to the duet with Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch that still sounds the closest to perfection that you can imagine –not to mention contributions from Bon Iver, Cat Power, The National, Grizzly Bear, Feist and Jose Gonzalez– this album is oozing with more flashes of talent than many albums this decade. So many things to love here, no wonder Dark Was The Night has already raised over $700,000 for HIV/AIDS. Beautiful.
So Far Around The Bend – The National
2008 ALBUMS I SNOOZED ON
I didn’t really hear these until 2009, but they sure as heck would have been in the running for my tops list.
- BLIND PILOT, Three Rounds And A Sound (sublime warmth)
- THAO, We Brave Bee Stings And All (sharp and smart and catchy)
- TALLEST MAN ON EARTH, Shallow Grave (newish discovery; I’m addicted)
- ANTHONY DA COSTA & ABBY GARDNER, Bad Nights / Better Days (oh man)
FIVE SINGLE TRACKS I’VE PROBABLY LISTENED TO MOST THIS YEAR
Song Away – Hockey (hot dang)
When You Walk In The Room – Fyfe Dangerfield (I want you endlessly)
My Body’s a Zombie For You – Dead Man’s Bones (whoa-ohhh)
July 4, 2004 – Jason Anderson (I am, I am, and I love this part)
Quiet Dog Bite Hard – Mos Def (there it go like simple and plainness)
Los Angeles’ Local Natives covering Simon & Garfunkel’s “Cecilia” in a backyard, banging on trees with sticks. This is pure joy, and helped turn me on to their marvelous sound. They’ve released Gorilla Manor on Rough Trade in the UK, but it won’t be out in the U.S. until 2010 (on Frenchkiss Records). I have high hopes for this album next year, once I get some time to sit with it.
Cecilia (Simon & Garfunkel cover) – Local Natives
Mumford & Sons at SXSW.
I wrote this of their set in the open-air Spring humidity of Texas: Theirs was one of my most anticipated shows and Mumford & Sons didn’t disappoint. They opened with that new song “Sigh No More” that I posted last week and it absolutely slayed me. The chorus sings of “love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free — be more like the man you were made to be.” I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.
RUNNERS UP/FAVORITE SHOWS:
- Okkervil River at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco (specifically the last song, “Unless It’s Kicks”)
- Handsome Furs at the Larimer Lounge in Denver
- Bat For Lashes at Outside Lands in San Francisco (with Josh Groban standing nearby, oddly enough)
- Denver collective Everything Absent or Distorted singing their final song together as a band, “A Form to accommodate the mess,” and hugging when it is over, representing everything that is right and good in the Denver music scene – and in the world of music in general.
- Finally seeing Lucero play “I Can Get Us Out Of Here Tonight” live, and being baptized into that cult.
- The Big Pink melting all of our faces off at the Larimer, a sonic wall of wonderful sound.
FAVORITE MUSIC-RELATED FIELD TRIP
Luckenbach, Texas (ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain)
FAVORITE NEW MODEL OF MUSIC DISTRIBUTION
The Dust Jacket Project
Joe Pug and I sitting on a Boulder park bench on a quiet summer evening, talking about the burden of the artist, the art of songcraft, and the places where youth and hopefulness intersect. Joe’s had a great year, and I still feel like he could maybe become a key songwriter of our generation. Talking to him felt eerily prescient, like being in the fledgling presence of someone who knows where he is going.
Hymn #101 – Joe Pug
And finally….. FAVORITE USAGE OF AN MC HAMMER SONG
That about wraps it up for me this year. Bring it, 2010.