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Best CDs of 2009

Posted by NumberSix , 22 May 2010 · 416 views

Most writers would give you their Top 10. In 2009 I bought eleven CDs. Why be cruel and shun the one loser? It's bad enough that this is five months late. The nice thing about writing to amuse myself is I don't need to stick to a set timeline or wallow in angst at how often I fail at relevance. Besides, I'm joyous enough at this year's quantity alone. I remember one year replying to a year's-best thread in the Music forum, digging through my purchases, and realizing I'd only bought three CDs that year. From my standpoint, 2009 was a virtual renaissance.

On with the countdown!

11. The Dead Weather, Horehound -- The more versatile half of the White Stripes found a few minutes between side projects to play drums for another side project of menacing, manic, blues-tinged tracks that could form a soundtrack called Songs for Women with Guns. My ears only warm to it in a few spots, chiefly the angried-up duet "Treat Me Like Your Mother", one of the few tracks with White on vocals. Somehow that seems unfair, but there it is. They already released a second album a few weeks ago, but I have yet to feel the urge to add it to the shelf.

10. Bob Mould, Life and Times -- The second-best album of 2009 by a former member of Hüsker Dü. Bob's sound has been growing older and mellower with every album, which I'm sure is great for those who like that sort of thing. Barring a few callbacks to the louder days of yore -- "MM 17", "Spiraling Down", the squicky-lyricked "Argos" -- this is mostly what the aging process sounds like.

9. Dead by Sunrise, Out of Ashes -- The phrase "Linkin Park side project" should turn away most Nightly readers, so I could use this space to reveal deep dark secrets or give away freebies or something. Chester Bennington's part-time ensemble merely sounds like LP minus Mike and the DJ, which is to say they mostly sound like generic radio rock. I like the anthemic sweep of "Fire", and "My Suffering" has Chester's same old scream-o shtick, but much of this sounds like even slower outtakes from Minutes to Midnight, which shouldn't have to be a bad thing -- it's just not always my thing. I wouldn't mind if they were given a second try, with the proviso that future attempts at relevance like the eye-rolling faux-punk "End of the World" won't boost their street cred, if that was the intent.

8. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown -- Not quite American Idiot II in that the arrangements take some unusual chances (are those Mideast instruments I hear on "Peacemaker"?), and the political slings and arrows add religion more conspicuously to their targeting systems in a way that makes me roll my eyes to the beat. I'm used to that from punk acts of yore, but not from today's major-label artists...well, the ones who reach commercial radio, anyway. I should commend them for taking a stand for their beliefs instead of sticking to milquetoast neutrality for marketing purposes, but it's not as charming if I have to lecture back at lyrics that try to lecture me. (Why do I bother with punk rock (so to speak) at all, then? See below.)

7. Tinted Windows, Tinted Windows -- Cheap Trick! Smashing Pumpkins! Fountains of Wayne! Hanson! Yes, that Hanson! Last summer members of those four groups formed the supergroup to end all supergroups -- or maybe just the supergroup to demean the term "supergroup" into obsolescence. Mostly it sounds like a solo showcase for Taylor Hanson's ever-femme vocals, but with a power-pop backup band he hasn't quite earned. James Iha fans may miss the hoops that Billy Corgan used to run him through, and ths sounds far too young for those over-50 Bun E. Carlos groupies. For me the real draw is the talented Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, whom I'm all but certain is responsible for everything melodic and hummable about this. "Kind of a Girl" wins the album early on, but "Cha Cha" is irritating enough to demand skipping during replays.

6. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix -- I'm old now and no longer permitted to stay hip to musical trends or up-and-coming bands, but I can still read Entertainment Weekly's mostly useless Music section, search for those band names on YouTube, and expose myself to newer acts from the current century. Hence these Frenchmen and what's obviously their big sellout moment. The middle section blurs together to my ears somewhere around track 4 or 5, but the zippy leadoff of "Lisztomania" and "1901" is a workout-ready twofer that keeps me in high spirits till the end.

5. Weezer, Raditude -- Because I have to maintain a complete Weezer collection. It's like the House of my musical world -- so very few differences between albums. This time around Rivers Cuomo seems to have upped the rock-star swagger quotient in the lyrics, takes a brief detour into sitar-land, and even allows a special-guest rap break in the slightly electronic "Can't Stop Partying" (thanks to hip-hop producer Polow da Don). Otherwise it's business as usual, another one to add to the pile. The bonus disc adds two more typical Weezer tracks, plus a lounge ballad and the weird standout "Run Over by a Truck", which cribs its undeniable plod-along beat from "Spirit in the Sky" and "(She Was a) Hotel Detective".

4. Rancid, Let the Dominoes Fall -- One of the most important aspects of punk rock is exercising the privilege to dress funny and snarl at others. Green Day wear ties and have money bins just like Uncle Scrooge, but Rancid appear same as they ever were on the surface, except older now. Their recording schedule is sporadic and their brief forays into other genres raise an eyebrow, but Rancid's formula feels less like cool-kid posturing and more like antisocial screeds straight from the heart, which isn't necessarily 100% mutually exclusive from my personal beliefs (maybe 70% or so, sure). Then again, maybe leader Tim Armstrong's work with Pink over on the top-40 charts has opened their minds to new and softer vistas -- in "Civilian Ways", the guys dare to pay tribute to their friends who serve in the military. If true punk rock had rules, wouldn't that against them? It's tantamount to subverting subversion itself! So yeah, I can dig it.

3. Grant Hart, Hot Wax -- The first-best album of 2009 by a former member of Hüsker Dü. It's been ten long years since his last album, and twenty since Dü imploded, but Hart is still skipping across genres and writing obscured lyrics just to gripe and snipe about them. The opening straight-up rocker, "You're the Reflection of the Moon on the Water", evokes imagery of Platonic cave shadows to smack down an egotist. "Barbara" is the younger submissive cousin of "Eleanor Rigby". Other songs like "School Buses are for Children" and "California Zephyr" use guitar or organ or sometimes both to lilt their tunes along. I'm not sure this will do anything for anyone who isn't already familiar with Hart, but for me it was a welcome return, except for how he maybe ought to move on a little further past the past.

2. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man -- I didn't even know he had a new album in the works until I ran into it by accident at Best Buy. This is why Entertainment Weekly's minimal reviews suck and why I need a more reliable source to keep me abreast of new CD releases. Yes, CD. Away with your iTunes. I love my hard copies. Internet overspending convenience hasn't changed my mind on that. I'm a fan of long-form works that don't require hours of programming, arrangement, data transfer, organization, categorization, and strategic realignment every single time I want to hear music for more than fifteen minutes at a time. I prefer my music in two simple steps: (1) insert medium; (2) "Play". End of effort. Unlike this mostly acoustic album from the former Soul Coughing frontman, whose limited yet no less variegated vocal range and acerbic lyrics are like a happy legal drug to me every time. Standouts this time include the positive "(I Keep on) Rising Up" and the half-shouted "Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On". I deducted points because too many titles use far too many parentheses. Four of the titles have two sets of parentheses in them, like "(When I) Box the Days (Up)". Are we meant to construct our own titles from the fragments we're given? Is this, then, a sort of cheap interactive entertainment where we, the listeners at home, can help name the songs for Doughty? Can we receive cowriting credit?

1. They Might Be Giants, Here Comes Science -- How great are the two Johns and their amazing long-running band? They're the only musical act I've seen live three times. They're the only musical act that puts out must-buy children's albums, of which this is their third. They're the only band that can write entrancing songs about the periodic table, photosynthesis, and the scientific method. They dare to make the electric car sound charming and obvious. They dare to let Dan Miller keep his guitar cranked to 10.5 even on a Disney kid's album. They dare to rewrite the theme from Davy Crockett into a sci-fi ditty. They dare to let the bass player sing on my favorite track, "I am a Paleontologist". They dared to spoofed Avatar in their last Indianapolis gig using sock puppets and an overhead projector. Oh, how they dare me to love them.

Odd thing I noticed after giving these each one more listen before posting this: nearly all these clock in at 40 minutes or less. Remember the days when artists padded every CD past the 70-minute mark, whether for added value or for unchecked self-indulgence? No longer a concern, apparently. I'm obviously not interested in doing the calculations to verify before purchase that buying the CD is cheaper than buying the same tracks on iTunes. Unlike comics, music isn't something I feel the need to nickel-and-dime into submission before I agree to enjoy it as an artform.

Then again, maybe I'm cutting music more slack than I do comics because music has had a tough time getting my attention lately. So far in 2010 I've bought exactly two CDs -- both of which were 2009 releases I just acquired today with my birthday money. Alas, this means both Cage the Elephant and Skillet are ineligible for inclusion on this list except as nice-try afterthoughts.

Maybe the second half of 2010 will cater more to me, or maybe I'm reaching the point where I'm meant to give up music and limit myself to foot-stomping hymns and .boring retread oldies stations. So far I hope not.




Bob's only #10? I thought that was better than some of his other recent albums, personally. :(

I didn't know about the Grant Hart album, though. I may have to check it out. And, due to the ever-present monetary concerns, I still haven't tried one of TMBG's kid albums. I know, I know - I need to do that!
TMBG's kiddie albums do have their share of fluff and airy nonsense (not to mention it comes with a DVD of cartoon videos!), but some of the more rockin' tunes hold up against any of their "grownup" material -- especially in concert, where nothing's off-limits on the set list. And for old fans, "Here Comes Science" also includes a revved-up studio version of their old classic "Why Does the Sun Shine?" where Flansy sings all of John L's formerly spoken-word parts, and Dan, Danny, and Marty go all-out in the background.

As for Bob...I really keep trying to give Bob the benefit of the doubt, and I'm still not quitting him anytime soon, but he's like some sort of mellow troubadour now, the kind that concentrates on eloquent lyricism at the expense of hooks and choruses and memorable lyrics. I can understand needing to turn down the volume, but it's not where I normally spend my CD money.

Grant, by comparison, sounds exactly like he did on Good News for Modern Man or even Intolerance -- lo-fi sound, minimal studio sheen, byzantine lyrics about real people no one's ever heard of ("Charles Hollis Jones" follows in the footsteps of past tuneful nobodies like "Wernher von Braun" and "Seka Knows"), and alternating fits of spritely petulance and wailing melancholy. He's far less prolific than Bob, but he's found this weird niche that still appeals to me.
Hmm, well, you already listed three "loud" tracks in your review. There's a little less distortion, but still plenty of energy to be found in "The Breach" and "Wasted World". There are also a couple moments that I think harken back to an earlier period, a bit. I think "Bad Blood Better" is a musical and emotional close relative of "Explode And Make Up" (maybe not quite the same caliber, but certainly the same vein). I think my favourite song on the whole album is probably the title track, "Life and Times". To me, it could've easily been written around the time surrounding Sugar.

It all adds up to an album that is perhaps mellower than many of his releases, but certainly not "mellow" as a whole. I'd say it's a fairly balanced album and, in fact, as a whole it's at least as hard of an album as Workbook. Actually, in many ways, I think the two albums remind me of each other. We each have our own opinions and ways of looking at this album, but I see this album as Bob sort of coming full circle. After the days of (to borrow from The Pixies) sonic waves of mutilation and then the days of electronic experimentation, he's come back to an album that is a mix of loud and soft, light and dark. Of course, with Bob, it's always (thankfully) mostly dark. B-)



Given our differing opinions of this album, you probably won't find this as cool as I did, but here you can find Bob doing acoustic versions of four tracks from this album: try and enjoy it! ;)

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