The Best CDs of 2009, pt. 3: the Super-Platinum LPs
In Part 1 we noted that 2009 had produced some really good music. In Part 2 we explained that the past year had given us some really great music. Today, though, we take an unprecedented step, because a few of the platinum-level releases from 2k9 were simply a cut above the rest, necessitating the creation of a Super-Platinum LP award. But that’s okay – if artists keep cranking out more exceptional music than we have categories to deal with, we’ll keep inventing new ways of honoring their efforts.
IAMX – Kingdom Of Welcome Addiction
Darkness? Yeah, Chris Corner knows a thing or two about darkness, and in Kingdom Of Welcome Addiction he’s kind enough to escort us through a blasted, perversely alluring landscape of addiction, lust, self-loathing, sexual degeneracy, spiritual poverty and alienation that’s about as dark as it gets. And the landscape is distinctly British in a way that recalls perhaps the greatest portrait of England ever painted, TS Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Kingdom… is the modern-day degradation that Eliot would certainly have written about were he alive today (and brave enough to venture into the nightlife and the underground), told in a brutally honest first-person by a narrator who is addicted to the underbelly. It’s fun to think that, were he alive, Eliot would be IAMX, but perhaps not – in order to produce Kingdom Of Welcome Addiction one would have to go native, and Corner spends the entire disc wandering down alleys that would make someone as straight and uptight as Eliot wet himself.
Musically, Kingdom… throbs and pulses, a seductive, haunted, hypnotic melange of electropop, trip-hop (Corner was originally a member of Sneaker Pimps), neo-post-punk, darkbeat, goth and cabaret. While the overall effect isn’t exactly warm and inviting, it is, well, addicting, and that is perhaps the point. Corner draws you in, even as you resist, like the rat that has made the fatal mistake of looking into the cobra’s eyes.
I don’t expect that everyone is going to like IAMX, but its depth, power and brute frankness are impossible not to respect.
Jets Overhead – No Nations
I try to be an enlightened human being, but every once in awhile I can’t help wanting to haul a reviewer out behind the barn for a good nard-stomping. Such is the case with AMG’s take on No Nations, Jets Overhead’s stunning 2009 release. Said reviewer damns with faint praise from the first word to the last, leaving the unwitting reader with the impression that JO has presented us with a nice little record, and nothing more.
Well, they’re right, to a point. This is a very nice record. It’s pretty, soothing, meticulously crafted: “Not a note is out of place, no voices are raised, the tempos are firmly set at mid, and the general feel is that of a meandering stroll along a winding country lane.” All true. What AMG fails to grasp, however, is that all this niceness belies a masterful artistic control and a spiritual depth, a confident questing voice that seeks to speak without disturbing the organic quietude of a forest in a light rain. Yeah, I’m inserting my own imagery here, but No Nations pretty much invites the listener to do just that – here, we’ve created this lush, beautiful aural space for you; come in and make yourself at home.
No Nations also suggests a trajectory for the band’s musical growth. Their last disc, Bridges (my CD of the Year for 2006), was marvelous, but it was also steeped in a ’60s California sound that would have seemed gimmicky and limiting had it returned for an encore. Instead, Jets Overhead here treats us to a sonic backdrop that feels contemporary even when they’re relying on electric pianos that signify the 1970s more than the 2000s.
All in all, No Nations illustrates why Jets Overhead is one of the best bands alive right now, whether certain reviewers get it or not.
Adam Marsland – Go West
On the surface Go West sounds like a remarkably catchy and accomplished collection of guitar pop gems displaying influences ranging from Elton John to Todd Rundgren to The Beach Boys, with the occasional dash of jazz and techno eclectica tossed in for flavor (to say nothing of a Stevie Wonder-meets-P Funk show-stopper early on in the second disc). And rest assured, even if you didn’t understand a lick of English, this would still be one of the best Power Pop CDs you’ve heard in years based solely on the five-star tunesmithing and flawless performances.
The thing is, unlike so much of what emanates from SoCal these days, Go West is about a lot more than the surface. Listen closely – the sunny sheen of the songscraft is undergirded by a lyrical substance that occasionally veers into the dread-serious: take Marsland’s observations on subjects like honesty, self-obsession, and especially dysfunctional family life (“1 in 4” will send you running for the shower). Marsland has always been a thoughtful songwriter, but on Go West he strikes deftly at the essence of real human relationships in a way that we simply don’t expect from the pop underground genre.
Marsland isn’t a household name, but he should be – he’s been cranking out smart, engaging music for years (first with Cockeyed Ghost, and now as a solo artist). And with Go West he’s produced that defining moment album, the work that marks the pinnacle of an already outstanding career. The only shame of it is that he’ll now have this epic looming over him every time he pens a new song or heads into the studio.
Still, as curses go, “enduring 5-star masterpiece” is tolerable…
Silversun Pickups – Swoon
There’s no doubt that SSPU are disciples of Smashing Pumpkins – there are moments where you’d swear that Swoon was the Pumpkins reunited – and their critics will do all they can to reduce SSPU to the status of tribute act. This is unfair, to say the least, because there are a lot more interesting influences at work than just Billy Corgan. It would be more accurate to paint the Pickups as a sort of Pumpkins-meets-Shoegaze hybrid, noting the obvious sonic debt owed to Catherine Wheel, My Bloody Valentine and Radiohead, even The Pixies and Sonic Youth.
Swoon manages to convey all the rough edges of these artists, while at the same time adding a layer of distinctly California polish – and while this thin coating of sheen seems to put some folks off (it can’t be authentic if it sounds like they used a real producer, you know), there’s nothing inherently wrong with an extra measure of professionalism, so long as it serves strong songwriting and performances (instead of masking weak songs and a lack of talent – which is kinda what happened when Billy Corgan and Butch Vig sent James Iha and D’Arcy to fetch them a pizza while they did Siamese Dream pretty much by themselves, now that I think about it).
Bottom line: these are the fantastic songs, performed with an urgency that gets its hooks into your skin. If they lack the rawness of Smashing Pumpkins, don’t sweat it – they more than make up for it in the cathartic fog they learned from those other important influences.
Next: the CD of the Year