Talking Music: Reflections & Recommendations by Admohr

The Best Albums of 2009: No. 5 – No. 1

Posted in 2009, The Year's Best, Top Ten by admohr on December 30, 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.

5. Morrissey Years of Refusal

The most driven & powerful rock record of 2009. The performance from beginning to end is just completely scorching as Moz clearly sets out with something to prove with this record full of pointed songwriting and performances that feel like you’re catching a band on a night when they’re simply on fire. Years of Refusal features an expressive edge that’s without precedent in Morrissey’s discography (and yes, I’m including his time w/ the Smiths). “All You Need is Me” bullies the listener in a way Moz is just simply not known for – it almost flaunts the fact that Morrissey is still (capable of) writing better songs than much of what is getting attention today.

But when it comes down to it – the success of Years of Refusal may have just as much to do with Morrissey’s backing band as Moz himself. Songs like “That’s How People Grow Up” could have been placed on any of his solo albums in the early 90s but the powerful, accelerated tone of the performance distinguishes it from any other album. “One Day Goodbye Will Mean Farewell” is an elaborate composition featuring an unexpected trumpet solo that still feels like an essential part of the performance. The album surprises the listener in its aggravated pace, but the way the band just absolutely nails it in the assault of song after song the listener not only embraces the ride but can’t wait for the next twist.

Track “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” is simply one of the most moving performances of the year. While the band is a driving force on this record, Moz takes center stage with this song featuring the most personal lyrics of the album and a strong, full-bodied vocal delivery that completely overwhelms the listener. The song is unmistakably Morrissey at his strongest yet the rock performance distinguishes itself from the rest of his catalog making it an essential contribution. And the same can be said for Years of Refusal on the whole.

4. Ha Ha Tonka Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South

I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to overselling a band’s performance as a “religious experience” yet when Ha Ha Tonka toured clubs this fall that is quite literally what it was – a projection screen set up to the side of the stage played a loop of televangelists at their most extreme while the band poured into “The Outpouring.” The clips weren’t playing without reason – the themes throughout much of Novel Sounds… are complex and touch upon the battles of maintaining faith (or is it the ironies of Faith?), especially when realizing one’s self guilt. But even with such thought-provoking lyricism, the story of Ha Ha Tonka is told entirely through the performance – or more specifically, some of the most enjoyable country rock / pop-rock I’ve heard in years.

Novel Sounds… is a journey from edge-on country rocker to late-night confessional to hook-laden pop-rock. And sometimes this journey takes place in the same song, in the case of “Close Every Valve to your Beating Heart” which starts as a minimalist vocal piece soon turns on to an avalanche of guitar and throaty wails about how we’re all going to “tie one on tonight” as the result of lost hope. Brett Anderson & Brian Roberts share vocals throughout the album, yet Roberts commands the most attention on his contributions truly pushing the band’s total sound to something transcendent amongst other rock performances. On the surface the predominantly pop songs in the middle of the record don’t belong in the same collection as such reflective tracks as “A Siege of Sorts” or even the darker pieces like “What Shepherds of These Hills.” But when considering the subject matter & themes of this record, the performance swings become just another means for how this story is told.

There is no other record this year that I could possibly recommend more. The album is the type of cross-genre performance that has something for every listener and the songwriting does nothing but further intrigue & engage upon the inevitable follow-up listens. And for the listener looking for thought-provoking reward in repeated listens, they couldn’t possibly ask for anything more.

3. Sunset Rubdown Dragonslayer

Spencer Krug, the creative force behind Sunset Rubdown, has a knack for utilizing some of the most off-putting sound elements in his massive compositions and the result for the first-time listener is a dangerous mix of massive hooks yet performances that are comprised almost entirely of abrasive sounds that may cause the listener to pull the plug on the experience before they’re halfway through it. Krug, whose vocals are always completely laced with conviction, is sometimes limited to almost animal-like uttering to get his point across. There are piercing, practically industrial sounds dominating even his most accessible tracks. But the point for the first-time Spencer Krug listener is as true as ever for Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer – just stick it out and don’t get distracted by the sometimes-bizarre individual elements. The whole assembly here is absolutely beautiful and undeniably powerful. Krug’s music is just simply capable of shaking the listener more than almost any other listening experience.

Track “Nightingale / December Song” might literally be what the end of the world sounds like. A shrieking organ (or something) is employed halfway through the song in siren-like amplitude only to give way to some of the most chill-inducing vocals of Krug’s career, and frankly if this isn’t what the end of the world is going to sound like the effect on the listener is going to be the same whether that’s actually happening or not. The performance is terrifying as Krug berates the listener into consuming his lyrics when the piece peaks with his line: “Let me hammer this point home…” but the way Krug relentlessly drowns his compositions with momentum on top of spite-filled lyrics – getting the point from Krug has never, ever been a problem. The day that Spencer quits being consumed by anger for whatever or whoever it is that is moving him is the day the world will be robbed of some of the most powerful music being written today.

As an obvious fanatic of the guy’s work, I think Dragonslayer is just an extremely close second to the masterpiece that is the band’s prior LP Random Spirit Lover but amazingly I think one of the most convincing moments of Krug’s entire cross-band career is the album’s opener in “Silver Moons” despite being one of the more reserved tracks of the LP. The conviction in his voice has never been greater when he sings “Maybe these days are over now,” reflecting over the culprits in a failed relationship. The song is an epilogue (despite being the opener here), both to a relationship but also in the context of albums full of spite-filled lyrics. The fates have been sealed in this song’s particular instance, but Krug cannot help himself as he’s overcome while revisiting the mistakes that have been made. He’s full of contempt even while defeated making this one of his most loaded performances ever. Krug never lets a moment pass without loading it full of emotion and this piece is just simply him doing that best.

2. Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca

As a listener there just isn’t a greater moment than reaching the end of an LP where you want nothing more than to start the record over from the top and play it straight through again. An album that engages you and maintains that attention, an album that catches you off guard with a surprise around every corner, an album where you can’t figure out your favorite moments on their own without placing them in the context of every other song on the LP – this is the pinnacle of the greatest listening experience. And for all of these reasons Bitte Orca is really the greatest album listening experience of the year.

Bitte Orca is expressive from the moment the record begins as David Longstreth asks a “ques-tay-un” about arbitrary limits in a song called “Cannibal Resource” which at minimum would seem to potentially touch upon the issue of eating other humans – or something – but the song’s performance and composition is far more graceful and beautiful than its potentially murky subject matter would force you to believe. Longstreth’s unique vocal expression sets the listener up for an abrupt change in “Stillness is the Move” where a rhythmic beat and Amber Coffman’s simpler yet gorgeous vocals carry an entirely different performance compared to the first three. And as perfect as “Stillness…” is, the song is only further enhanced by the presence of “Two Doves” which immediately follows as a simpler, reflective & orchestral number. The listener gets five songs in and literally has no idea what to expect on the second half of the album. And on that ensuing half, tracks “No Intention” and “Fluorescent Half-Dome” are just as enjoyable as any other moment on the first.

Longstreth’s lyricism may be intriguing if not vague, but song meaning inevitably gives way to the listening experience on the whole which is really the centerpiece of this album. For instance album highlight “Temecula Sunrise” obviously has some tongue-in-cheek wordplay going on, but the song is simply so beautiful that some of whatever that message is gets lost in the fact that it is just a joyous listen. The burden is on the listener to come back time and again to figure out what exactly Dirty Projectors are singing about on Bitte Orca, but with perfectly crafted songs from beginning to end coming back to this album is no burden at all. The listener will be starting it all over again as soon as the record comes to a close.

1. Justin Townes Earle Midnight at the Movies

Some of the greatest album performances of my lifetime and the lifetimes before mine are those albums that are able to mold multiple genres or influences into one, allowing the listener to discover that the different worlds of music aren’t all that different after all. This specific type of performance always moves me the most because ultimately the genres we try to store performances in are arbitrary, and when the themes across different performance styles or influences are similar there’s just no reason why a performance can’t inherit the qualities of one while remaining disciplined in the other. Justin Townes Earle’s Midnight at the Movies plays as the album of the son of a country rock legend named after another songwriting legend who, while he grew up, was influenced by his roots in addition to everything else he listened to. From one passionate listener to the next, I cannot think up any compliment for a record better than that.

The performance of each song on this album – regardless of the influence being sampled from track to track – is completely genuine and in touch with the spirit of the sampling. There are loads of traditional country and bluegrass on this record – “Poor Fool” and “They Killed John Henry” come first to mind and characterize the record as a distinctively country performance. But tracks “Midnight at the Movies” and “Mama’s Eyes” are nothing more than heartfelt pop songs that undeniably carry a country songwriters influence yet are characterized by the genuine nature of the songwriter and the restraint of the band & vocalist in the performance. One of the album’s many highlights is the Replacements’ cover “Can’t Hardly Wait” which not only captures the drunken-confessional spirit of the original, but adds an element to the song that bares the nerved emotion that’s in Westerberg’s words. Songs “Dirty Rag” and “Black-Eyed Suzy” play as throwaway bluegrass segues, yet these moments alone characterize the journey the listener is on in Midnight at the Movies.

But as great as this album is in taking the listener on a journey from one influence to the next, the ultimate strength is the songwriting & expression of Earle. The album would be nothing more than a fun journey were it not for the total-honesty portrayed in “Mama’s Eyes” or “Someday I’ll be Forgiven for This.” The album has confessions & story telling amongst dance hall stomps and solo, somber vocal pieces. It is traditional bluegrass while covering punk rock. But Earle’s words and just the way he tells it to us is what makes this album genuine and meaningful. He puts a smile on the struggles of life while reminding us just how hard life & love can be. And really, it’s the mirroring of the dualities that truly exist in life that makes this album something special. And in that regard I think its the most expressive performance I’ve heard this year.

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