Sunday, January 10, 2010

Everybody's a Critic, Part II: Favorite Music (Albums) of 2009

2009 was a slightly confounding yet still exciting time for me when it came to music. First off, four of my favorite artists of all time – Bruce Springsteen, U2, Pearl Jam and Bob Dylan – put out new records this year (Dylan even released two!), and while they all contain thrilling elements that remind me of why I’ve been obsessed with them for the better part of my life, only one of them managed to rank among my top favorites as I look back at the last 12 months.

On the other hand, one of the records I listened to most this year was issued by a band whose previous work I’d been aware of but hadn’t really heard, and three – count ’em, three – of the releases that had the most impact for me were from artists I had never even heard of back in January, so that rush of being overwhelmed by something new was truly a welcome surprise.

On that topic of discovery, just a quick note here to thank those many people who have given me the priceless gift of their recommendations of music, films, books, art, TV series and more over the years.

I still firmly believe in the old-fashioned notion that a transcendent artistic achievement has the power to change a person’s life, and what could be more generous than sharing something that may do just that?

So, with that out of the way, here is the brief list of my favorite albums of 2009 – the furious five.

* The House That Dirt Built by The Heavy: A couple of friends – both from the Philadelphia area, coincidentally – tipped me off to this record at some point in December, and of this writing, I don’t think a day has gone by where I haven’t played it multiple times. Like last year’s Furr, by Blitzen Trapper, but even more so, The Heavy’s The House That Dirt Built is a dazzling assortment of tracks that easily jump from one musical genre to another yet are wholly of a piece and fit together snugly in a tight, 38-minute package that – for me – is the best complete record I heard all year.

Of course, before the kids in Philly mentioned it, I’d never even heard of this powerful UK band: Now, I can’t stop talking about them and this infectious collection.

The album proper starts with a bang, with the punky garage rocker “Oh No! Not You Again!” – featuring sexy backing vocals (“Baby, baby, want to play?” indeed!) – leading into the funky and blistering “How You Like Me Now?,” which sets its lead character’s attempts to reclaim a lost love (“Does that make you love me, baby?”) against a swaggering beat.

The jaunty “Sixteen” comes next, followed by the soulful “Short Change Hero,” which somehow seems to borrow from both Ennio Morricone and Groove Armada’s “Hands of Time” all at once, with vocals that wouldn’t sound out of place on a new Gnarls Barkley single. Undeniable.

“No Time” essentially sounds kinda like Soundgarden, with a horn section that wanders in halfway through (hint: a good thing), while “Long Way From Home” could be the most beautiful thing on the record.

Sure, maybe the reggae-infused “Cause for Alarm” was a bridge too far, but I give ’em credit for wearing their influences on their sleeves, and the fuzzy, propulsive“What You Want Me to Do?” more than makes up for it.

The House That Dirt Built closes with the plaintive “Stuck,” revisiting one of the album’s themes with the narrator once again trying to find emotional connection and a little human touch with someone just out of reach: “I don’t know if I can do it by myself … I’m stuck, ’til you make your mind up.”

All in all, a great album by a band from which I can’t wait to hear more.

* Tell 'Em What Your Name Is by Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: At some point in early 2009, I started seeing posts on music blogs talking about a forthcoming debut record from an Austin, Texas–based group called Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears. The name struck me as funny and cool, but I didn’t really pay too much attention until one day, out of the blue, someone sent me the MP3 to the album’s second track, “Sugarfoot.” As will be evident by the end of these ramblings, I’m a sucker for a good horn part, and on this song, the horns had me at hello.

The album is just a joy to listen to, basically from start to finish, full of James Brown–esque old-school R&B–style grooves mashed up with a shambolic punk spirit. Imagine Sam Cooke being accompanied by Chuck Berry on guitar, the Funk Brothers and a garage band.

And the titles of some of the songs – “Big Booty Woman,” “Humpin’” and “Bobby Booshay” – just make me laugh by looking at them.

“Get Yo Sh*t” might be my favorite track, a shaggy dog tale if ever there was one, about Joe coming home to find all his possessions thrown on the front lawn by his rightfully scorned woman, whose name he can’t even bother to remember. Despite his protestations that “I love you baby!,” she isn’t having it.

These guys put on a fantastic live show, too. If they come to your town, don’t miss ’em.

* Animals in the Dark by William Elliott Whitmore: One day, out of the blue, a friend brought me a copy of this record, suggesting it might be something I might like. As usual, she was right, and I’ve been thanking her in my mind every day since.

If I told you that one of the best releases of 2009 was a contemporary folk disc which blended the populist topicality of Steve Earle with Billy Bragg’s fiery indignation and Bruce Springsteen’s humanity, sung by a guy that sounds like the Midwestern spawn of Tom Waits and Keb ’Mo (hat tip to another friend for the latter comparison), would that be something that would interest you? I would hope so.

I could write all day about Animals in the Dark, but I’ll spare you that except to note a few things.

Picks to click are the leadoff track, “Mutiny,” a fiery (and not safe for all workplaces) indictment of our leaders and their reckless stewardship of the country; “Johnny Law,” a rollicking tale of an encounter gone bad with the po-lice; and “Old Devils,” another examination of how the more things change, the more they stay the same (“They tell me there’s a war without no end, the old devils are at it again”). Hey HBO, "Old Devils" is the perfect theme song for your upcoming “Boardwalk Empire” series. Trust me.

Other standout tracks are “Hell or High Water” and “There’s Hope for You.”

But the outright gem is “Who Stole the Soul.” Now, it’s a running joke that I can’t go a day without somehow referencing Bruce Springsteen. Hell, I’ve already done it a few times in this post, and I’m going to do it again right here. In its earnest questioning, “Who Stole the Soul” confronts unchecked imperialism and directly criticizes the Constitution-bending we’ve witnessed over the last eight years in this country. When Whitmore sings that he won’t let go of “these things beyond value that we cherish so dear,” I was reminded of Springsteen’s “Long Walk Home” from the 2007 Magic album, specifically the line about the flag flying over the courthouse meaning that certain things were set in stone, like (1) who we are as a country and (2) what we’ll do in the name of the land in which we live, but (3) more importantly, standing for the things we won’t do in its name – immoral torture, illegal occupation, unjustified military intervention, etc.

At the end of “Who Stole the Soul,” the narrator has seemingly had a breakthrough, happy to proclaim that he’s “got back the spark from inside of me” and urging listeners to hear the shuffle of his dancin’ feet. That determination to meet challenges head-on reminded me of that simple verse in “Racing in the Street” from Darkness on the Edge of Town, about how some guys give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece, while others come home from work, wash up and go racing in the street. Inspiration comes from mysterious places sometimes.

Anyway, Animals in the Dark by William Elliott Whitmore – highly recommended.

* 1372 Overton Park by Lucero: For years, many of my friends have tried to impress upon me how fantastic a band Lucero is. The testimony came from pals everywhere, whether it was D.C. (yes, Anderson and Company, I’m looking at you), New York, the great state of New Jersey or the locals here in L.A.

Try as I might, I found myself basically appreciating their previous work, but never falling head over heels for it until the day back in August when a friend, Jack, sent along a link to stream the audio of their new single, “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo.” I think it took about 30 seconds for me to determine this was my favorite track of the year: those horns, that jagged voice, the infectious rock and soul vibe!

I waited – exceedingly impatiently – for the complete album to arrive, and when it did, it was chock full of unexpected treasures, from “Smoke” to “What Are You Willing to Lose,” “Sounds of the City,” “Sixes and Sevens” and more.

Having stupidly missed seeing them not once but twice in two different tiny Southern California venues last year, I hope against hope that they’ll swing back through here again this year.

So, Lucero, my apologies for not having been on the train earlier, but late to the party is better than not showing up at all, right?

* Backspacer by Pearl Jam: The fellas come out swinging on their latest record, with three crushing, guitar-driven rockers – “Gonna See My Friend,” “Got Some” and “The Fixer” – right out of the gate that reminded me of why they’re one of the best bands on the planet.

Now, the record admittedly doesn’t keep that pace throughout, and the collection of songs doesn’t rise to the level of the band’s seminal efforts of years past, but – to me – Backspacer is still a standout piece of musical work for 2009, relative to other releases of the past 12 months.

“When something’s loooooost, I want to fight to get it back again.”

To be continued ... with favorite individual songs of 2009, featuring some of the above plus The Airborne Toxic Event, The Avett Brothers, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band, The Dead Weather, Doves, Elvis Costello, Girls, Glasvegas, Green Day, Justin Townes Earle, M. Ward, Muse, My Chemical Romance, Rhett Miller, Ryan Bingham, She & Him, U2, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wilco and The XX.

Until then...


christopher said...

Totally heard a little Chris Cornell on "No Time." Not a fan of the reggae action, but still a great "play from start to finish" album. You know how I feel about BJL, aka Okkervil River...

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