The Best CDs of 2009, pt. 1: the Gold LPs
2009 was arguably the best year for new music since 1979, and that’s saying a lot, even if I’m wrong. For whatever reason, this year was just packed with incredibly great CDs from bands we knew were great, bands we didn’t know were this good, bands we hadn’t heard from in a long time and bands we’d never heard of, period. The result – it was all I could do to keep up, and I fully expect to spend the next couple of years tripping over even more awesome releases from 2009 that I missed this year. So in advance, apologies to those artists I didn’t find my way to in 2k9.
So here’s the format. There are usually three tiers: Gold LP, Platinum LP and CD of the Year. (The LP is taken from my personal site, Lullaby Pit, which is where this annual tradition started several years ago. And the fact that albums used to be LPs. Get it?) This year the glut of outstanding CDs have necessitated the addition of a new level – SuperPlatinum – because a few of those platinum discs are a notch above the rest. Over the next few days, then, the Scholars & Rogues/Lullaby Pit Best CDs of 2009 will be rolled out in four installments.
Up first, in roughly alphabetical order…
The Gold LPs
Apoptygma Berzerk – Rocket Science
Over the last four or five years we’ve seen Stephen Groth evolve Apop from industrial FuturePop into a more mainstream Nu Wave sound. In fact, it’s hard to find FuturePop anymore (the industrial world seems to have retreated broadly from the melodic of late). If you hadn’t heard Apop since the early part of the decade, Rocket Science would probably come as something of a jolt, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was something new by Shiny Toy Guns. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the whole neo-’80s movement is one of the more interesting things to happen to popular music in awhile, and when Groth moves some of the synths out of the way and picks up the guitar the result is pretty cool.
Asobi Seksu – Hush
A great deal has been made of Asobi Seksu stepping away from the noisy guitars that have defined their particular brand of shoegazer, but in truth shoegaze and dreampop have always been big tent styles. So while Hush is less dissonant than previous efforts, I didn’t find the transition jarring at all. They just slid a couple of steps away from the My Bloody Valentine end of the spectrum toward the Cocteau Twins end, and in doing so didn’t really compromise the essential texture of their sound at all.
Cracker – Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey
Cracker was a very big deal back in the heyday of the Alternative 1990s, but like so many of those great bands they seemed to have dropped off the face of the Earth one afternoon when Alt Radio decided to reformat. Or something. All I know is that they weren’t there anymore, along with Collective Soul and Garbage and a bunch of others.
They never stopped making music, though. Radio just decided that “alternative” wasn’t cool anymore, even the rootsy, oddball alt-country-tinged music of Cracker. The good news is that their latest, Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey, reminds us of the good-natured, easygoing vibe of Kerosine Hat. Even better, it manages to feel fresh and contemporary without being self-consciously “indie.”
Jag Star – Static Bliss
Sarah Lewis is one of the most relentlessly spot-on pop-rock songwriters in the business today. She’s also a dynamic live performer and is pretty enough that she landed a make-up model deal. So why she’s not a household name by now I can’t tell you. Static Bliss is probably a tad poppier than the band’s 2007 Gold LP winning The Best Impression Of Sanity, which rocked a little harder. Still, the lead track seems to be riffing on The Cult, so…
The Luxury – In The Wake Of What Won’t Change
One of the best Power Pop releases of the year, with an ambitious, arena-sized sound and a gift for compelling hooks and lush harmonies. There are so many bands mining the pop underground these days that it can all run together after awhile, but “Boston’s best Britpoppers” (says Northeast Performer) assimilate some of the best ideas from the last four decades of guitar pop into an effort that’s distinctly their own. It’s not easy sounding like yourself in a genre where everybody sounds like somebody else.
Metric – Fantasies
In many ways, Fantasies is what modern pop ought to be. It’s meticulously crafted without being calculated. It’s slickly produced without being artificial. And it aims to attract a larger audience, but does so without feeling like a sellout. Perhaps if Emily Haines were willing to whore herself to a phalanx of cynical label execs, synth-mongering producers and song doctors she could be as big as Kelly Clarkson, but one doesn’t get the sense that she’d feel at home with the American Idol set. Good on her. It’s nice to find the occasional rocking pop CD that you can feel good about enjoying.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Yes, the name is somewhat overwrought, but the music makes up for it. The Pains draw from a number of influences, including The Smiths and early ’90s dreampoppers like Ride, and the overall effect of the disc is warm and fuzzy, an occasional note of melancholy swimming in a sunny haze of happiness. The real strength of the CD is the near-perfect affinity between songwriting, performance and production, though. There are always lots of ways to do a song, but in this case it’s hard to imagine any other path that wouldn’t have degraded the CD.
The Soundtrack of Our Lives – Communion
This sprawling, two-CD set isn’t what we were probably expecting. These 24 tracks, each ostensibly about an hour in the day, constitute a concept album of sorts, and given the band’s history, we’re not at all surprised to find a smart, earnest exploration of the relationship between alienation and acceptance throughout. Communion‘s main problem, I suppose, is the band’s 2001 masterwork, Behind the Music. In a nutshell, that effort was so spectacularly realized that their subsequent efforts seem flat and unfocused by comparison. Perhaps this is unfair, though. Regardless, Communion rewards close attention.
Superdrag – Industry Giants
A few years ago Superdrag front man John Davis realized that he was yellow. Literally. He concluded that the rock lifestyle had gotten the better of him and that he was drinking himself to death. So he broke up Superdrag, rehabbed and released a contemporary Christian CD. This effort was worlds better than most modern religious music (which almost always puts the “religious” ahead of the “music”), but it was a pale shadow of what Superdrag had been about.
Now the band is back together, and the comeback disc is … well, somewhere in between Superdrag’s best moments and Davis’s solo Jesus record. The guitars are big and noisy and there’s no shortage of attitude (especially on the CD’s best track, “Aspartame”), but across the board Industry Giants lacks the white-hot edge of the band’s pre-breakup work (think Head Trip in Every Key here).
That said, when world-class athletes come back from long injuries it always takes them awhile to play themselves into “game shape,” and that’s sort of how this feels. The good news is that one of rock’s absolute best bands for the better part of a decade is back in the saddle, and there are plenty of indications on this disc that they can get themselves back in game shape before too long.
Trembling Blue Stars – The Last Holy Writer
Quiet, beautiful and intimate, this wistful collection of songs reminds us of the emotional power of lost love in a way that pays full due to the sadness of breaking up without unraveling the delicate tapestry of the relationship’s happy memories. Musically TBS evokes the swirling melancholy of bands like The Church, OMD and a variety of early ’90s dreampoppers.
VAST – Me and You
Over the course of his first four CDs, Jon Crosby established VAST as one of the most outstanding bands in the world – whether radio and popular audiences knew it or not. One of the keys to success was the deft way in which he played “soft and pretty” against “loud and raging” – the resulting dynamic tension stretched the listener to the point where, at any moment, he or she was wide open and vulnerable.
Then, with 2007’s April, there was a clear shift: less powerful, more pretty. This tendency is still in evidence on Me and You, and while the music itself remains engaging, with a full measure of the ominous beauty that marked his earlier work, it sorely misses the impact of hard rockers like “Here” and “The Gates of Rock and Roll.” It’s hard to imagine VAST doing work that isn’t at least very good, but lately we’ve seen the truth of Bono’s edict that “very good is the enemy of great” borne out.
White Lies – To Lose My Life…
My first reaction, upon hearing To Lose My Life…, was “wow – they sure sound a lot like The Killers.” And they do – right down to the song structures and arrangements. This is both a compliment and a criticism, I guess – The Killers are one of the dominant forces in the Nu Wave and their sound is a winner all the way around. On the other hand, it’s hard to establish yourself as a serious player when you’re easily compared to another artist, especially when that artist came first.
I’ll let you sort this out on own. For my part, this is a fantastic collection of songs that, in all honesty, is stronger in places than last year’s Killers release.
Honorable and Dishonorable Mention, and Other Releases of Note
Gigdets Ga Ga – The Big Bong Fiasco
GGG is thoroughly steeped in the traditions of American Power Pop, and they’re also gifted songwriters. Straightforward and honest, hooky and jangly, they occasionally evoke memories of The dBs (and I think I even hear a snatch or two of Pure Praire League) – all good things…
Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
Lily Allen’s debut CD launched her into the big time on a wave of catchy songwriting, cheeky attitude and a potty mouth that would make a pirate blush. All those elements are present on the follow-up, but somewhere along the way something else happened. Specifically, somebody decided that it was time for Lily to go all pop diva on us, and the result is an impossibly thick and alienating coat of studio polish that buries Allen beneath 128 tracks of gloss. It’s like somebody walked her through Liz Phair’s career and said “why wait – you should sell out now.” Except that Lily was already doing pretty damned well, whereas Liz was starving for financial success. So I don’t get it, and I’ve tried. I’ve given this disc dozens of spins and there’s less to it every time.
The Mary Onettes – Islands
In a way, Islands was something of a disappointment. Not that it’s a bad record by any stretch, but after 2007’s rapturously delicious self-titled release, I guess I was hoping the follow-up would be even better. It isn’t. The main issue is that Islands lacks the soaring highs of The Mary Onettes – while “Puzzles” is a nice lead-off, there’s really nothing on the level of “Void” or “Pleasure Songs.” I’d certain encourage you to give it a listen, though. If I’d never heard the previous disc I’d probably think a lot more highly of this one.
Washed Out – Life of Leisure
There’s a new style called “chillwave.” Of course, there’s so much diversity among the bands that are allegedly part of this movement that it makes more sense to just talk about the bands themselves. So, this EP from Washed Out (and it’s hard to imagine a better name for the project) is wooly and dissonant, sounding like it was recorded in a closet on a two-track with tape that had been smeared with Vaseline. It’s a little trippy, a little shoegazy, and a little ’80s Caribbean sounding, and if my description comes anywhere close to communicating the sound I assure you, it’s an accident. It’s very cool, though. You should go listen to it.