Before we get to I Rock Cleveland’s Top 20 Albums of 2009, I would like to note a couple things. First, all the usual caveats apply, i.e., this list represents on man’s opinion, lists are made to be argued about, and this list by this particular writer does not include much, if any, mainstream pop, R&B, or hip-hop. This was not done out of some nefarious plan to boost one form of music at the expense of others, nor was it done because this particular writer refuses to acknowledge music contributions by certain segments of the population, rather I simply do not listen to much mainstream pop, R&B, or hip-hop.
Secondly, and more importantly, those who know me personally, know the single biggest factor affecting my music consumption in 2009 was the Great Recession and my own, nine month quest to gain re-employment. Not only did being unemployed affect my ability to purchase music, but it also had an influence on the type of music I listened to. I lost patience with many of the flavors of the month and became even more skeptical when it came to those albums universally praised by the internet hype machine. Instead of listening to Animal Collective, or Grizzly Bear, or Dirty Projectors, or another piece of under produced, over acclaimed lo-fi revivalism, I went back to the masters — Dinosaur, Jr, Mission of Burma, Yo La Tengo, and Uncle Bob. I listened to a lots and lots of Uncle Bob.
I remember coming across an article in New York Magazine praising the Brooklyn music scene, and I remember thinking to myself, “This is the best Brooklyn has to offer? This isn’t an endorsement of a scene, this is a torture playlist tailor made for the CIA! If you want a suspect to talk, make them listen to Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, and the Dirty Projectors and never let the records stop.”
Still, even if I spent a good deal of the year disillusioned (With both the music world and the world in general), and even if all the musicians, music journalists, music bloggers, publicists and hangers-on living in Brooklyn would be better served by getting the hell out of Brooklyn and seeing how the rest of the world lived, there were 20 albums worthy of your time and your money released during 2009. Furthermore, I’d argue these 20 albums would stand on their own merits regardless of which year they were released or what type of year I personally had to endure — My trials may have steered me in a particular direction, but they did not make me lose of sense of what rocks versus what does not rock. These albums are all listed below and they all come with my personal seal of approval, starting with Embryonic, The Flaming Lips’ triumphant return to wonderful and weird.
“Once you get past the eccentricity and the volume and the harshness, and you give up lowering bass, raising treble, positioning and repositioning speakers, and you finally find 70 minutes to sit down and let it all sink in, you’ll find Embryonic to be an awesome record, awesome in the truest sense of the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word.
Highlights abound in the form of tech-y, astro-lounge grooves (“Convinced of the Hex” and “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Mountain”), ominous movements of robot rock gone horribly wrong (“See the Leaves,” “Powerless,” and “Worm Mountain”), and fragile, startlingly beautiful, atmospheric pieces (“Evil, “If,” and “Gemini Syringes”). Yet, the tour de force doesn’t arrive to the very end, when “Watching the Planets” encapsulates an album’s worth of rigidity, beauty, subtlety, and oddity in one five minute shot of acid rock madness, providing a fitting end to an album which succeeds and exceeds The Flaming Lips previously high standards of strange first set on 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. (I Rock Cleveland 10.22.09)
No longer the gangly group of spindly, zombie punks of their debut, The Horrors have undergone a stunning transformation between albums one and two. The change involved more than shearing their Robert Smith hairdos and ditching those heroin-chic outfits. With Portishead’s Geoff Barrow acting as producer, they’ve abandoned The Ramones, The Cramps, and their horrific, B-movie romps for a much more nuanced sound. Think Interpol, The Cure, or The Psychedelic Furs aided by Barrow’s twisted production sense, one where it’s impossible to tell which tracks are running forward, which are backwards, where in blazes that guitar sound came from, and whether that sound you think is a high hat even came from a drum kit or a drum machine. Then once you’re done marveling at the sounds Barrow coaxed out the band, there’s an even bigger surprise — An abundance of singles — “Who Can Say,” “I Can Only Think of You,” “Do You Remember?” and “Sea Within a Sea,” are but few of the many stand out tracks. (I Rock Cleveland 06.01.2009)
Sure, O’Malley and Anderson can shake your speakers like few others in the world of heavy, but it’s not the ruthless, unending heavy rumble which makes Monoliths and Dimensions essential listening. It’s the attention and care with which album opener “Agharta” seamlessly shifts from the droning brutality of guitar and bass to something approximating free form jazz. Horns, woodwinds, and strings shriek frantically as they vainly try to have themselves heard above that unearthly shake. It shifts again with sounds of creaking boards and rustling water overtaking the orchestral din. All the while, Csihar speaks slowly and deeply, deeper than a human voice ought speak, harnessing the eternal forces of nature, intoning the storm to end all storms.
Gradually, holes appear in Csihar’s vision of darkness. “Big Church” opens with the sound of a graceful, if not foreboding choir, providing a balance to his impenetrable, unnerving rant. While the plodding, behemoth of a guitar riff behind “Hunting and Gathering,” made even more grisly with the occasional whip and snare, is countered by a majestic procession of horns. Then, at the end of this dark, brutal journey there is light, as the gargantuan guitar crunch of O’Malley and Anderson makes way for a light, uplifting suite of French horn, English horn, trombone, oboe, violin, viola, and harp on album closer “Alice,” a track which just may be the pinnacle of ambient, doom metal to date. (I Rock Cleveland 06.01.2009)
No matter what the software makers call shuffle these days — Smart DJ, intelligent mix, or auto playlist — the fact remains that these so-called “Smart” mix makers will always find the Creed in your music library and play it at the worst possible time. Naturally, this problem can be avoided by never using the shuffle option, but the idea of an instant mix-tape at the push of a button is so appealing, that we inevitably return to shuffle time and again.
Yo La Tengo have an alternate solution to the shuffle conundrum. Put on their new album Popular Songs and let them do all the work. There’s Brit-pop (“Avalon or Someone Very Similar,”) jangly, ’90s alterna-pop (“Nothing to Hide,”) cheeky lounge music (“Periodically Double or Triple,”) motown (“If It’s True,”) and ’70s soft rock (“I’m on My Way.”) There’s sunny, West Coast psychedelic pop (“When It’s Dark,”) an introspective piece of minimalism (“The Fireside,”) and an extended instrumental jam of feedback and rough, chugging guitar (“Glitter is Gone.”) Few, if any, modern acts to pull off an album like this. Fewer, still, could make it listenable. Yo La Tengo, have done even better. They’ve made an authentic, cohesive, and thoroughly enjoyable album drawing from the widest spectrum of popular song styles, and best of all, there’s no Creed in this mix. (I Rock Cleveland 09.30.2009)
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo – When It’s Dark
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo – Nothing to Hide
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo – Periodically Double or Triple
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo – Here to Fall
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo – Avalon or Someone Very Similar
Like swimming in a sea of red cough syrup, Nadja’s all-encompassing guitar rumble is woozy and ethereal, and moves as if time itself has been distorted. Crawling, sprawling dirges seep slowly through the speakers, shaking anything not secured by mega putty. Yet, as impressive as the Nadja listening experience may be, one thing has been missing from their career to date — songs. Twenty minute experiments in ambient doom metal only appeal to a select few, but take that same formula of creeping tempos and heavy, heavy, and hazy guitars and apply them to other people’s pop songs, and, well, now we’re on to something.
By working within the parameters of more traditional song structures on When I See the Sun Only Shines on TV, a covers album comprised of both obvious and surprising influences, Nadja have succeeded in making their most accessible record to date. While choices like My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” and Slayer’s “Dead Skin Mask” may fall in the obvious influence category (Shoegaze+Metal=Ambient Doom) it’s on the more surprising selections that Aidan Baker and Leah Buckareff really impress.
A-ha’s other top 40 hit, “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” is stripped of synth pop, screwed and slowed, until it becomes a dark and claustrophobic tale of loneliness. Other-worldly chants and whispers lurk beneath Baker’s monochromatic vocals and wistful keyboards are replaced with crushing, relentless tides of guitar. Elliott Smith’s quiet and reserved folk song, “Needle in the Hay,” gets a similar dose of heftiness, removing all its druggy innocence, instead enveloping the listener within the narrow walls of addiction as those big, bruising guitars push ever closer and closer. Even that fun loving Canadian comedy troupe, Kids in the Hall, get the Nadja treatment, with their mid-Nineties power pop piece, “Long Dark Twenties,” becoming a dark, enthralling epic once the tempo is halved and Baker adds black, cascading waves of static. The transformation that “The Sun Always Shines on TV,” “Needle in the Hay,” and “Long Dark Twenties” all undergo is so complete that nary a trace of light is left when Nadja is done with them, and quite amazingly, something so innocent as a-ha can not only follow Slayer, but also sound equally ominous. (I Rock Cleveland 04.28.2009)
From the all-consuming fuzz of “I Want You to Know” to squelching opening solo of “Over It,” to the sinewy outtro during “Plans,” Mascis’ guitar is and remains the focus of Dinosaur, Jr, perhaps now more than ever, validating those Neil Young comparisons, both in sound and style, and as a mentor for the new generation. And while his gurgle and mumble vocal delivery will never make him a singing sensation, there’s significantly more confidence and clarity in his voice, as if he’s finally ready to emerge from behind his giant stack of amps.
If the guitar mastery of Mascis is a given, what hasn’t been a given in recent Dinosaur, Jr releases, going as far back as 93’s Where You Been and 94’s Without a Sound, is consistency. Most of their albums have been a mix of obvious singles (“Feel the Pain,” “Out There, “Start Choppin'”) and album fodder. This isn’t the case with Farm. Nothing in the album’s sixty minutes seems forced, or out of place — not “See You,” a mid-tempo ballad featuring a winding, almost jammy riff, and not “Said the People,” a slow, murky, psychedelic piece. Even the Lou Barlow numbers, “Your Weather” and “Imagination Blind,” are far more integrated into the album than they were on the band’s first comeback attempt, Beyond, no longer sounding like someone sandwiched some of his Sebadoh tracks in the middle of a Dinosaur, Jr album.
Farm ends abruptly on that second Barlow track, “Imagination Blind,” leaving the album open-ended. Not that Dinosaur, Jr has anything left to prove at this stage in their career, but it does seem to be sending a clear message to anyone who doubts their motives — “Here’s 60 minutes of our best work, and we could have easily done 60 minutes more. (I Rock Cleveland 07.15.2009)
And just as I asked myself, “Self, where did all the good frustration rock go?” I came across Eddy Current Suppression Ring’s self titled debut, originally released in 2006, just recently reissued by Goner Records for American consumption. Oh, this one’s got it all for the down and outs — Woman woes (“Yo Yo Man,”) money woes (“Insufficient Funds,”) and why can’t I have ice cream for dinner woes (“Cool Ice Cream,”) — all set against ragged a soundtrack of revved up garage rock, workingman punk, and intricate, but still aggressive, post-punk. In the home of Eddy Current Suppression Ring, The Fall, Stiff Little Fingers, and The Sonics all have a seat at the dinner table, and all leave surly, sour, and hungry. Hell, even when things go the right way, as on “Winter’s Warm,” Brendan Suppression, sounds drunk, disorderly and one step from either cracking a skull with a wrench, or cracking his own skull on the pavement. (I Rock Cleveland 09.30.2009)
Post-Nothing is a record where the production — gritty, and always a bit in the red — serves the album and the artist quite well. Had Japandroids chosen to go the smooth and shiny digital route, songs like “Wet Hair” and “Heart Sweats” would have been exposed for what they are — late ’90s emo and cock rock, respectively. Yet, by concealing their true influences with a no-nonsense, plug-in, and rock-out aesthetic, Japandroids have a truly enjoyable rock album on their hands. Turn off your mind, turn up the volume, and enjoy. (I Rock Cleveland 06.01.2009)
The fact that Boston Spaceships is the home of Robert Pollard’s finest post-GBV work is something I’ve been trumpeting since the release of Brown Submarine in 2008. Now with Zero to 99, the third disc recorded by Uncle Bob, John Moen, and Chris Slusarenko under the Boston Spaceships banner, others are starting to take note.
From Magnet Magazine came this bit, “When we got an advance copy this summer of the excellent new Boston Spaceships album, Zero To 99 (out next week on GBV Inc.), we were immediately floored by track two, ‘How Wrong You Are,’ possibly the best song Robert Pollard has recorded since the demise of Guided By Voices.”
Then, in today’s review for Pitchfork, Paul Thompson had this to say, “It is somehow 2009, five years on from the dissolution of lo-fi heroes Guided by Voices and at least 10 since the agreed-upon peak of his powers, and Bob Pollard’s making some of the best music of his life. Three albums deep into the Boston Spaceships and the prolific songwriter is on a tear to rival a few of his best-ever runs.” (I Rock Cleveland 10.08.2009)
Wizzard Sleeve’s “No Mongo” is one fantastic slab of something awesome. One could call it fuzz or scuzz or lo-fi or punk or psych and you’d be right. One could come up with clever metaphors like “Early Jay Reatard soaked in robo,” or “Like Seattle Sludge meets The Smell,” or “Like what music from Brooklyn would be sound like if it had any balls,” and you’d be right. The Mobile, Alabama band pulls from varied underground movements and a wide swath of scenes and whips them into one wild, reverb heavy mix. One where there may be one overriding riff, but it’s the devilish details – The bits and pieces, the scattered static, the cleverly buried, barely audible six string freak outs piled one on top of another – which make this cut so necessary. (I Rock Cleveland 11.19.2009)
As Wennerstrom recounts her regrets and resigns herself to soldier on with the spiritual howl of “Hold Your Head High,” you want to believe in her, and more importantly, you want to believe in yourself. Even if the words themselves, “Hold your head/Just as high as you can/Things are gonna work out soon/Things will come round again,” read a bit cliche, when you hear them sung with such devotion, you’re left with no choice but to believe better days will come.
With Wennerstrom’s voice so prominent in everything the Heartless Bastards do, the songs which work the best on The Mountain are often the ones where the music provides some balance. On “The Mountain,” the Bastards’ rustic rock is augmented by slide guitar and a big heap of fuzz. Similarly, the first half of the album (“Early in the Morning,” “Out at Sea,” and “Nothing Seems the Same”) follows this big voice and big guitar formula, and the results are as powerful as all get out. However, when the tempo slows, and the stacks of amps are traded for more traditional Americana arrangements, as on “So Quiet,” that voice, which is the band’s biggest asset, strains in vain to match the more delicate backing band. “Had to Go” nearly suffers from a similar problem, but the interplay between banjo and fiddle is so exquisite, that you easily look past Wennerstrom’s slow tempo struggles. Perhaps aware of her limitations, or more likely, ready to rock again, the Bastards plug back in to close the album with two blustery, bluesy numbers in “Witchypoo” and “Sway,” proving again, that when they match Wennerstrom’s big voice with guitars just as big, they’ve got something quite special. Maybe not Joplin special, but then again, there can only be one Janis Joplin. (I Rock Cleveland 02.25.2009)
12. Boston Spaceships
Planets are Blasted
Following last fall’s entirely enjoyable Brown Submarine, Pollard, Chris Slusarenko, and John Moen are already back with album number two, The Planets are Blasted. Part low budget Tommy, part At the Budokan, and part early American indie rock, it may lack some of the charm of Brown Submarine (see “Soggy Beavers”), but it’s more cohesive than its predecessor, louder, rowdier, and catchier. “Tattoo Mission” and “Keep Me Down” provide an early one-two kick of good time Rock ‘N’ Roll with robust rhythms, big melodies, and gnarled, squawkish guitar solos. Later, “Big O Gets an Earful” and “Heartache Revolution” both hint at the grandeur of the Who’s opus, but without any of the pompousness generally associated with the words rock and opera. While songs like “Queen of Stormy Weather,” “Catherine From Mid October” and “The Town That’s After Me,” will likely remind you of those quaint, sub two-minute pop songs which used to be so abundant during Pollard’s GBV days.
Like Brown Submarine, Pollard and the Spaceships save one of their strongest numbers for the set closer. “Heavy Crown” finds the band returning to the power pop found earlier on, but this time its juxtaposed with the recurring line, “In this city there is nothing to cling to,” adding some gravity to what should be a rousing, beers in the air moment. Still, you shouldn’t read too much into that line. It’s not like Pollard is saying goodbye. Hell, Boston Spaceships third album, Zero to 99, is already scheduled for an October release, and if it’s anything like the first two, it will provide many more rowdy moments to raise a Miller Lite to an American legend. (I Rock Cleveland 02.25.2009)
When is better than expected good enough to be great? When the band in question is Them Crooked Vultures, a supergroup in the truest sense of the word. Even if John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters), and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), get too jammy at times, there’s something quite pleasurable about hearing three masters of the rock genre seamlessly come together for a singular goal — Rocking the f*ck out.
VIDEO STREAM: Them Crooked Vultures – New Fang
And the beat goes on, and on, and on and on. Such is the way of San Francisco, psychedelic rock quartet, Wooden Shjips, where one beat can remain unchanged for eight, ten, twelve minutes; beside barely audible lyrics; patterned with slowly shifting keyboard tones; amidst a frenzy of feedback guitar, or a freely, flowing solo.
And the beat goes on, and on, and on and on, from song one to two, to three, four and five. Keys rarely change, and the mood rarely shifts. Droning repetition reinforces spectral, spooky, and mesmerizing scenes, like the worst trip you’ve ever been on, or the best, depending on your drugs, or lack thereof.
And the beat goes on, and on, and on and on. Eight, ten, or twelve minutes may have been only four, but who’s counting? When you’re lost in the beat, and you’re lost in the feedback freakouts, and you’re free of the shackles of the pop song, time is but a relative thing. (I Rock Cleveland 04.14.2009)
Exhibiting the rawness and aggression of a band half their age, Mission of Burma’s third post-reunion album, The Sound, The Speed, The Light, has more in common with the early-to-mid ’80s output of this seminal Boston post-punk band than with either of the two albums which directly preceded it. “1, 2, 3 Partyy!” and “Good Cheer” are as bold, direct and anthemic as any of their classic cuts, including “Academy Fight Song,” “This Is Not a Photograph,” and “That’s How I Escaped my Certain Fate.” They haven’t lost their sense of detail, either, filtering in manipulated sounds, augmenting the bottom end, amplifying the more raucous moments, and deceptively slicing the intros, outros, and bridges. Add in the pummeling drive behind such numbers as “One Day We Will Live There” and “Blunder” and the assimilation of the old Mission of Burma into Mission of Burma take two, is so complete, had The Sound, The Speed, The Light been revealed as a missing late ’80s LP, few would have reason to question such a statement’s authenticity. (I Rock Cleveland 10.29.2009)
With God Is Good, Om’s fourth full length album, and their first with drummer/multi-instrumentalist Emil Amos (Grails, Holy Sons) replacing Chris Hakius, the song nearly remains the same. Where once there was an abundance of open space between the bass of Al Cisneros and the drumming of Hakius, there are slight adornments of exotic strings. Long time followers of the duo shouldn’t be too concerned about this change. Steve Albini was once again behind the controls, and Amos even adopts a style similar to that of Hakius, where he often keeps time on the cymbals rather than measuring beats on the bass and snare. Opening number, “Thebes,” provides a prime example of how the new Om can meld seamlessly with Om 1.0 as an extended intro which tastefully integrates those new, subtle textures, eventually gives way to an extended, meditative chant. One which is deep, dark, rumbling and forceful.
As God is Good progresses, however, Om’s shift in style becomes more than a simple decoration here or there. While “Meditation is the Practice Of” is a measured excursion in drum, bass, and flute, the closing suite of “Cremation Ghat I” and “Cremation Ghat II” opens itself up into the type of cinematic sound scape more apt to be found on a release by Amos’ other gig, Grails, one where bass and drum remain the driving force, but the bulk of the spiritual imagery is produced by an assembly of exotic strings. (I Rock Cleveland 10.01.2009)
For All the World to See
Yet, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my short time with Death, it’s that you can’t count the Hackney’s out. A quick rip through “Freakin’ Out,” “You’re a Prisoner,” and “Where Do We Go From Here,” all from their 2009 re-issue, For All the World to See, and all with Bobby, Jr back out in front, and the flow of the crowd was reversed. Disenchantment flipped back to excitement. That special feeling, the one which comes from witnessing an act few others will have a chance to see in their lifetime, an act who only a few short years ago seemed destined to remain in obscurity, from hearing a band who by all rights should have a spot next to the MC5 and The Stooges as Detroit’s most influential progenitors of proto-punk, returned. (I Rock Cleveland 09.28.2009)
Matt Smith and Outrageous Cherry make crafting a top jam seem so easy: Find a hook, add hand claps, oohs and aahs, then lay down a beat and some words about a woman who’s done you wrong, and top jam. Yet, if writing a pop song was so easy, then every hack with a guitar and a dream would be doing it, right? If writing a pop song was so easy, we certainly would have found the next Beatles by now, right?
There’s something else at work here. Smith has this way with phrasing, deftly dodging the rhythm section when “I Wouldn’t Treat My Enemies the Way You Treat Yourself” picks up some serious steam in the chorus. The tempo, itself, doesn’t undergo a noticeable shift, and there isn’t a dramatic change volume. Nor, is there a screeching guitar solo to signify, “Now, this is where sh*t gets good.” No, that work is left largely to Smith’s lyrical ramble tambles delivered in double time. Lines like, “Call my name/It’s the same one you once knew/Just one more thing you outgrew/You’re so difficult to please/I wouldn’t treat my enemies the way you treat yourself,” wouldn’t sound nearly as pointed if they were properly enunciated or carefully crooned. Similarly, without Smith’s urgent cadence, the song itself would be just another power pop song about a girl to slot in your iTunes playlist between Matthew Sweet and Sloan. Instead, we have top jam. (I Rock Cleveland 03.11.2009)
Pick a band, any band from Disc 1 of Rhino Records The Brit Box, their four cd set chronicling UK indie, shoegaze, and Brit pop, and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart will pretty much sound like that band. The Smiths, The Shop Assistants, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Sundays, and The Primitives all make valid reference points. Maybe not so much The Happy Mondays, Primal Scream, or The Charlatans, but…you get the point. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart sound so much like their UK idols of the past, you’d swear they came directly from the late Eighties, early Nineites, pre-Oasis era in British music. Yet, they’re neither British, nor is this disc a relic rescued from the cut-out bin. No, they’re very much from modern times and they’re from Brooklyn. Does this fact even matter in this day and age when underground music strains to come up with new ideas? (I Rock Cleveland 03.09.2009)
The Dutchess and The Duke don’t need your fancy indie rock instruments. They don’t need clarinets, coronets, mellotrons, xylophones, harmoniums, theremins, or harpsichords. Hell, they don’t even need a bass or a snare. All the Dutchess and The Duke need are a guitar or two, a tom, a shaker, a tambourine and the occasional chord from a plain old organ. With Jessee Lortz, The Duke, taking on the decidedly, un-duke like role of the man perpetually down on his luck, their music is quaint, raw, and simple. Yet, as evidenced by “Hands,” it’s still able to pack an emotional punch, especially when The Dutchess, Kimberly Morrison, joins for harmony. (I Rock Cleveland 07.26.2009)