Talking Music: Reflections & Recommendations by Admohr

The Best Albums of 2009: No. 10 – No. 6

Posted in 2009, The Year's Best, Top Ten, Uncategorized by admohr on December 29, 2009

Annual ‘Best of’ List exchanges have remained an effective means of exchanging views & pushing recommendations across all different sorts of media from blogs & wall posts to established magazines & newspapers. And while it is clearly  foolish to assign a numerical ranking to subjective listening experiences and even more bizarre to try to summarize the influence of a piece of art in the very moment it was released – we all enjoy engaging one another in the same meaningless practices each year. What follows is my input on the year’s best music in the form of the annual Top Ten List.

10. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit

Listeners first met Jason Isbell as an occasionally-contributing writer of the Drive-By Truckers, writing first-person narratives on desolation & despair that could make even the characters in Darkness on the Edge of Town think that they might not have it that bad after all. And while lyrically Jason cuts the listener in a way that few can, the conviction in his voice is what really wounds when expressing the emotion behind words like the following:

Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale south
and I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
he had noone to fall on but me.

“Decoration Day” from Drive-By Truckers – Decoration Day

In 2009 Jason Isbell released his second solo album since splitting from the Truckers, and as a collective whole this is his strongest performance to date. What makes this effort so noteworthy even beyond the context of Jason’s career is the second half of this LP, where he gut-punches the listener through the succession of songs about broken lives and the collective effect carries even greater impact and is something he never had the opportunity to deliver in  his limited (yet flawless) contributions to the Truckers’ albums. “Soldiers Get Strange” captures the struggles of the out-of-battle soldier better than any other film, essay, or feature I’ve encountered to date – sampling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“You itch in your veins in the night”), embracing the baggage of your strained relationships, and the battle of an individual’s sense of self-worth (“They call you a hero / So many still fighting / This ain’t where you belong”). Isbell’s writing inundates the listener with realities that are guilt-inducing and painful to embrace.

Listeners encountering Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit experience a variety of perspectives & storytelling throughout the LP yet in the end will be shook by Jason at his best – defeated vocal expression of lyrics about just how hard living life can be.

Close your eyes and remember this, it won’t be back again – it’s almost gone.
Even times that don’t seem like much will be your only crutch when you’re alone.
Time moves slowly at seventeen and then it picks up steam at 21.
Pretty soon you’ll remember when you could remember when you loved someone.


9. Yo La Tengo Popular Songs

It is merely a testament to the independent rock-staple that Yo La Tengo is that Popular Songs is not in their-own top 3 albums, not their most accessible album, nor even a very convincing “collective expression” type of album – Popular Songs literally plays all over the place with a wild variety of different writing & performance styles only to be closed by three approximately ten minute performances (after an album full of 3 to 4 minute pop offerings) that aren’t even very similar when just breaking down those 3 lengthy jams alone. Such is the career of Yo La Tengo, a band whose masterpiece albums alone don’t bare immediate similarity to each other.

Popular Songs is an essential contribution because the writing & performances play like the most talented rock band one’s ever experienced while witnessing them at an absolute pinnacle. “Nothing To Hide” and “If It’s True” are just simply perfect pop-pieces that feel timeless even the first time the listener encounters them. The scorching “And The Glitter is Gone” overwhelms the listener with a distortion of noise over the repetition of a riff that tells a story without any lyrics at all. The beautiful “The Fireside” while largely ambient and completely out of place on an almost entirely rock LP still manages to embrace the listener in a way such that they really won’t mind that the landscape of the listening experience has completely changed from one track to the next. Because the performances throughout this LP are ultimately so moving that the listener has no objections to just being along for the ride when each piece is more beautiful than the next.

8. Richmond Fontaine We Used to Think the Highway Sounded Like a River

At its most convincing, We Used to Think… plays as the dialogue of a man deeply stricken by emotions of nostalgia (most evident in “We Used to Think the Highway Sounded Like a River”) or fear & dependency (in “A Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses”). Yet the whole of this album for Richmond Fontaine (which is somewhat confusingly the name of the band and not of any of the band members) is a powerful & diverse country rock performance with a style range including emotive, minimalist confessional pieces to drowning-in-guitars country rockers.

And amazingly it is actually the variety of song styles that makes We Used to Think… stand apart. The brooding, reflective pieces are balanced by bitter – even vindictive – country rockers (“Two Alone”) that serve only to reinforce the downtrodden perspectives being told in Willy Vlautin’s writing. The pinnacle of the album’s performance comes from the rocking highlight “Lonnie,” where Vlautin at his absolute raspiest howls:

If you come back I hope I remember you
But you know it’s getting hard to
If you come back maybe they’ll come back too


Musically, closer “Letter to the Patron Saint of Nurses” is an afterthought but emotionally the character’s earnestness & simplicity in expressing his feelings for his mate invokes the emotions of the listener himself better than any other piece of writing I’ve experienced this year.

7. Japandroids Post Nothing

One of the most effective uses of noise rock for any listener who dabbles in the genre is to just let the distortion overcome & bleed out the complications of life in a wall of white noise. There is nothing necessarily complex going on in Japandroids’ full-length debut – the choruses are predominantly “ooooh” and “woooah” over massive hooks, and lyrically there’s really only a few lines per song which are then repeated throughout the length of the song (though honestly with a great lyric like “We used to dream / now we worry about dying” I don’t mind listening on repeat because the effect is just greater each time).

But noise rock at its most convincing lets the feedback do the talking while the lyrics should at minimum stay out of the way – or at the absolute strongest moments – seal the deal for the listener who will continually reach over to turn it up a notch (even when already playing at the max). Post-Nothing‘s relentless opening tracks invoke No Age influence in a hyper performance drowning in layered-guitar noise. Track “Crazy/Forever” invokes Black Keys influence and not just because it’s a white male twosome. Closer “I Quit Girls” provides an almost required catch-your-breath moment with a slower jam yet never once backing off the volume. Japandroids never really stray from the same basic song writing & performance formula for this record – it is essentially just an eight song assault of some of the strongest fist-pumping rock put to record this year.

6. Camera Obscura My Maudlin Career

Camera Obscura doesn’t sound like the type of music that would inherently drag a listener down, but if that’s not what Tracyanne Campbell’s melancholic vocals of predominantly sad verses are doing to them then they are simply not paying attention. The twee-pop performance style of the band is light-hearted yet beautiful & layered. Picking the greatest performances from this album force the listener to take sides with the almost soothing reflective moments (“Away with Murder” or “James”) or the simply perfect pop songs (“Swans” & “Honey in the Sun”).

Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals could seemingly shine on their own without accompaniment, similar to other noteworthy vocalists such as Neko Case or Alison Krauss.  Which is not to take away from this band’s continuous flawless pop performances – but on a track like “Forest and Sands” the band is simply staying out of the way and observing something beautiful, where Campbell’s delivery is both the hook as well as the means that the story is told. And in the end it is the way that Camera Obscura continually finds the perfect balance of Campbell’s vocals and orchestral pop that surrounds her which allows the band to create something meaningful.


One Response

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  1. Randy from Omaha said, on December 29, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Nice selection, altho not sure about #7 or #9. But I do enjoy the commentary. Jason Isbell is in Charleston at the Pour House in February.

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