In the Age of Musical Abundance, it’s the height of arrogance to think that any Best Albums list would presume to be definitive. You can have favorites in 2009, but to anoint “The Best”? No way. Too much music. In this transformative year, the fact that we don’t physically own a piece of music is no longer a hindrance to hearing it. With streaming sites like Pandora, lala and (soon) Spotify, we have music available immediately — even if it doesn’t actually reside on our hard drives. Toss in MySpace and you’ve got millions of hours of new music at your disposal anytime, anywhere. Too many options.
Sure, if you’re focusing on a specific genre, like indie rock, hip-hop, electronic music or pop, you can probably whittle a year’s releases down to a respectable 10. But for us polygeek generalists who jump from genre to genre based on mood, astral alignment and sneaking suspicion, keeping up with everything in the pile is way too much effort for too little payoff.
Like most, I become obsessed with a record and don’t want to listen to anything else. It is my driving companion, evening soundtrack, morning energizer. It rolls around in my head while I work. When something gets stuck, I become so single-mindedly focused on it that everything else falls by the wayside. What follows are 10 of my obsessions from this past year. This is the stuff that I couldn’t get out of my head, in no particular order.
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (Honest Jon’s)
The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s backstory is incredible: Seven of the Chicago brass band’s nine members are sons of jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran, best known for his work in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and as a founding member of Chicago free-jazz collective Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. But unlike Sun Ra or AACM, whose structures were loose, HBE makes funky, tight instrumentals, which draw from the New Orleans brass band tradition but infuse the sound with skippin’ hip-hop rhythms. On this year’s eponymous debut on Honest Jon’s Records out of London, HBE shows incredible dynamic range. Songs like “Jupiter” are soft and focused but contain so much texture and variation that you can just see these dudes in the basement working it out over and over again. There’s an intuitiveness to the arrangements, which comes from sharing the same blood and fire. A track like “War” arrives in a burst of brass. You can almost feel your hair knocked back by the blast.
Zomby, One Foot Ahead of the Other EP (Ramp Recordings)
Nothing funkier came out this year except maybe Major Lazer, an incredible dancehall breakdown, which every Jamaican music fan should own (even if neither of the duo’s principals, Diplo and Switch, are Kingstonian). Zomby is what I want to celebrate, though. The mysterious masked man from London has forged a singular path through the world of British dubstep and guided the slow, bass-heavy, stutter-step post-jungle subgenre into a crisp, retro-future realm. He is funky in the way that Kraftwerk were funky. With beats laid so rigidly and cleanly precise, Zomby turns computer music rubbery. The sounds may be antiseptic and electronic, but they shake. “Godzilla” sounds like Detroit techno funneled through an Atari 2600 and into a frequency modulator, this weird synthetic confusion. “Gloop,” from last year’s totally weird self-titled EP, sounds exactly like its title: The preeminent sound is a digital beat that makes a gloop sound and is coupled with Fresh synthetic handclaps. Zomby’s remix of Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” cut out a lot of that band’s messier tendencies and infused it with bleeps, and, as in most of his tracks, the most prominent tones are the sound of an Atari spaceship slipping into hyperspace. Digital explosions in digital black holes make digital dribble.
Larkin Grimm, Parplar (Young God)
Parplar was released at the end of 2008, but never mind. It didn’t get any attention last year or this year, and it’s an absolutely thrilling, self-assured, funny, depressing, ferociously individualistic album. It’s the kind of record that hard-drive diggers will discover 30 years hence and create some sort of cult around. According to my iTunes, I’ve played the song “Dominican Rum” more than any other this year, and mostly that’s because it contains some of the the wittiest bitter rants this side of Polly Jean Harvey. Grimm has said in concert that the song is about Britney Spears: “The microcosmic spiraled eggs inside my uterus/Are sparkling and bursting with the greenest yellow pus/The milk that feeds my baby from my breast is flowing black/It looks like oil and smells like death and I can’t hold it back.” Touchstones? Maybe Joanna Newsom, maybe the aforementioned Harvey (who released her nearly perfect A Woman a Man Walked By with John Parish this year, another gem). But Grimm is way more pessimistic than the former, and stranger than the latter. Parplar’s tone-setting first line, repeated a few times, is: “Who told you were going to be all right?” followed by, “They were wrong.” I love that kind of pessimism, especially from a self-proclaimed radical environmentalist.
Discovery, Discovery (XL Recordings)
On the surface, the “conceit” of New York band Discovery is a tad dubious. White Brooklynites make a modern-day R&B album. Hmm. In practice, though, this wonderful pop album will have you dancing on the ceiling, with tears in your eyes, all night long. Featuring guest appearances by members of both Dirty Projectors and Vampire Weekend — wait! come back! — Discovery’s self-titled debut draws from the Pet Shop Boys, Beyoncé, Dirty Projectors, Erasure and ’90s new jack swing to create something thoroughly modern. It’s a mystery why people slept on this record; it’s totally hummable. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” should be have been a Billboard hit, and their version of the the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” recorded before Michael’s death, reimagines the pop gem as a synthetic handclap beat explosion.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Beware (Drag City)
Will Oldham is a prolific songwriter. He drops at least a record a year, usually, and most contain a few gems and just as many inspired throwaways. Beware, though, is a perfect country-rock record, and I offer the song “I Don’t Belong to Anyone” as evidence. With a lilting voice that’s never been stronger, Oldham, who is Bonnie “Prince” Billy, croons about the joys of being single in simple, renegade fashion: “It’s kind of easy to have some fun/When you don’t belong to anyone,” he sings before the song falls into a fiddle-led bridge. “You Don’t Love Me” mines the same territory from a different angle: “You don’t love me, that’s all right/’cause you cling to me all through the night.” But this isn’t a lonely record: There are belly laughs and Neil Young homages — “My Life’s Work,” for one — as well as peaceful meditations on mortality. Combined, Oldham/Billy has created the best album in a career filled with highlights.
The Strange Boys, The Strange Boys and Girls Club (In the Red Records)
There was no better debut rock & roll album this year than The Strange Boys and Girls Club. Made by four guys in their early 20s who look 16, the Austin band’s cocky, self-assured, witty maximum R&B album drew from early-career Rolling Stones and Kinks without being derivative, and sounds as cocksure as Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Live, they click with a ferocity that belies their physical stature (these guys are skinny and small). Singer Ryan Sambol’s yawl suggests Dylan, and when he sings, on “I Heard You Wanna Beat Me Up,” that “I’m in trouble with another man, I did something I shouldn’t have,” it’s hard to tell whether he slept with him or stole his girlfriend. The band just signed to Rough Trade Records, and the buzz on their forthcoming full-length is loud. The Strange Boys. Say it again: The Strange Boys.
Tom Brosseau, Posthumous Success (Fat Cat Records)
I wrote a lot about Tom Brosseau this year. The North Dakota transplant, who now lives in Los Angeles, has a voice that’s a gentle warble, an unsurpassed lyrical wit, and a melodic sense that leads to totally hummable songs. This is the record I listened to most this year — but not that many other people did, apparently. His earlier records were pretty basic, able, singer-songwriter releases, but for Posthumous Success — which hopefully won’t prove accurate — he teamed with Fat Cat Records label mates Adam Pierce of Mice Parade and Small Sails’ Ethan Rose to make a thicker, richer, rock record. These are structured, sturdy songs but with an effortless glint to them. “Give Me a Drumroll,” for example, features the recurrent Miss Lucy character, and starts as a simple plucked guitar thing before expanding into a glorious harmonic convergence of ringing tones and, yes, a brushed drumroll. Like most great records, it has a few, quiet interlude instrumentals, and they are the perfect pauses before getting back to the matter at hand.
HEALTH, Get Color(Lovepump United)
It’s a mystery why Brooklyn’s getting all the praise in the underground for their bands, when Los Angeles this year spit out so many distinctive sounds. The Manimal posse offered Warpaint, Rainbow Arabia and Hecuba, and the thriving Low End Theory scene continued to excite with Nosaj Thing, Jogger, Flying Lotus and Daddy Kev. But the band who created the best Los Angeles album of the year was HEALTH, four dudes who harnessed noise, punk and rhythm to create a wildly unique — and abrasive — sound. The band deftly walked a line between beat, punk and noise musics, and on Get Color, they suggested a convergence that seemed absolutely inevitable. Their video for the raging “Die Slow” was one of the best of the year, and the song, well, shreds. And that’s just the tip. It’s not an album for everyone, but for those who like rhythm and fury, it’s a beast.
Rokia Traore,Tchamantché (Nonesuch)
I don’t speak French, and Malian born Rokia Traore sings in the language, but that doesn’t matter. She could be singing the collected lyrics of LMFAO on Tchamantché and I’d still be transfixed by her voice, her phrasing, the way her music floats through the room and lands softly on your eardrums. Amadou & Miriam get a lot of the ink, and deservedly so when it comes to Malian pop music, but Traore travels somewhere more ethereal. Guitars wend and percussion dots, but they take a gentler and quieter journey. This, her fourth album, is her first for Nonesuch, and should have brought her a bigger audience. “Zen” ought to convince anyone, and her take on George and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” rivals both Billie Holiday’s and Barbra Streisand’s versions. Really. She’s that good.
Various Artists, Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890–1950 (Dust-to-Digital)
If 2009 was a year of future sounds and fresh directions, it was also a year in which a few labels dipped way, way back to create curated collections that were as, er, indie and free-spirited as any hipster band. Mississippi Records out of Portland, Oregon, continued to issue shocking LP-only collections of pre–World War II blues, gospel and world music (Mata La Pena: A Compilation of International Music was a big hit on our turntable this year). And the Atlanta-based Dust-to-Digital label released Take Me to the Water, which focused solely on songs about baptism recorded before the rock & roll era. It’s a gospel collection, basically, which collects country and blues music without regard to race or denomination. Call-and-response a cappella shouts sit next to Washington Phillips’ fiery “Denomination Blues Part I” and the Carter Family’s “On My Way to Canaan’s Land.” The release is packaged as a book and features beautiful reprints of vintage baptism photos, as well as a typically smart essay by cultural critic Luc Sante. If you want to hear the sounds of ghosts swimming, look no further.