Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Favorite Records 2009

I tried keeping a running tally of any record that knocked me on my ass this year, and spent the last couple of weeks adding a couple new releases and separating it into the 20 records right now I can see still being awed by in 20 years and honorable mentions which I’m not quite so sure will make that list but still gave me a lot of pleasure and in some cases it was an incredibly close call between what made the list and what didn’t quite.  I’m a little disheartened to see my list is overwhelmingly white (15 out of 20) and male (11 out of 20), and not so disheartened or surprised to see that it’s less rock-heavy, it was one of those years, I think.
Anyone reading, feel free to argue with the choices in the comments and especially suggest things you think I might have missed.

1. Current 93, Aleph at Hallucinatory Mountain – I have to admit I lost Current 93 for a while, let’s say between All the Pretty Little Horses and Black Ships Eat the Sky but what an idiot I was.Black Ships and this new one are two of the best records he’s ever made, two of the best psychedelic records anyone’s ever made and two of the best, most idiosyncratic expressions of flawed, questioning but incredibly potent and tangible faith I’ve ever heard, as much as Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will” or Hank Williams’ “I Saw the Light” but of course it doesn’t sound like any of those.  He takes another stunning list of collaborators and gets them to do what they do but twists it just slightly into a tapestry that doesn’t sound like anything else. 

2.  Eleni Mandell, Artificial Fire – Part of me just wants songs well-sung, and Mandell made maybe my most listened to record of last year, I don’t think a week went by when I didn’t spin this two or six times.  If her last record, Miracle of Five was a February rainstorm of torch songs and woodblock prints and not-quite-trusting the love she’d found, this is that first day in May when the jackets come off, the skirts make an appearance, and the sun isn’t yet filtered by all the leaves so it throws a rare gold over everybody.  Her lead guitarist took as much from Ribot as Mandell did from Waits – hear his comping behind her on the title track as she half-snarls “I’m a killer at heart / And I wanted to feel / So I laid out a trap / With my artificial fire”.  This sounds like a million things, the aforementioned Tom Waits, early Kelly Willis, classic ‘60s pop, but it doesn’t sound just like any of those things.  I defy you to get these songs out of your head.

3. Cynthia Hopkins, The Success of Failure (The Failure of Success) –This is both the first of her records under her name (not her band Gloria Deluxe) and the first of her theater pieces where I just experienced it through the album (I had tickets to St. Ann’s in Brooklyn but a stroke and breaking some toes made that trip impossible). And it doesn’t feel like a band record, it feels like backing is floating around her voice, and Jesus, that voice and those melodies.  This isn’t as readily accessible as Accidental Nostalgia or Must Don’t Whip ‘Um but it feels more personal.  OR that might be a sleight-of-hand, but who cares with songs that keep rewarding me on every listen?  “Evolution” which plays the Battle Hymn of the Republic, a racist, reactionary song, into a paean toward the purging and refreshing of time and change.   “Amnesia is a Myth” which starts as a rock song like she hasn’t done before, with the loud electric guitar and the horn stabs behind her deciding “A requiem is a fiction / Born of wishfulness … / I”m still here, / My mind, my body / In reality / There’s no escaping me”. 

4.  Sunn O))), Monoliths and Dimensions – Every record they get better and become more like themselves while opening up to show other facets of their obsidian sword  and this broke through to a whole new level of sophistication, from more melody to Eyvind Kang’s strings to the choir, all of which kind of sank pieces of James Blackshaw’s still very good new record,  it lifts this and shoots through with different colored light.  And the last piece, “Alice”, featuring Julian Priester, is hands-down the most beautiful single piece I heard all year.

5.  Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Infernal Machines – Best big band record in years, since Brooklyn Qawwali Party’s debut or that awesome Guillermo Klein record.  A record that conjures classic Carla Bley and Maria Schneider and Bob Brookmeyer charts but from the first cajon beat on “Phobos” through the brass like a sunrise you’re trying to outrun on “Transit” on through the flashes of horns that get tangled together then recede as quickly as they appear on the dark “Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar)”, this is a record no one else could have made.   You could sing these melodies to yourself in the shower but it doesn’t sacrifice depth for catchiness or real soul for some expectation of soulfulness and it never confuses ornamentation for real idiosyncrasy.  This is a perfectly-played record with the rough edges intact.

6.  Booker T Jones, Potato Hole – Why can’t the Drive By Truckers just be a classic-soul rhythm section?  Because this and the Betteye Lavette record they were on a few years ago are the best things they’ve done since The Dirty South.  But really, this is Booker T’s show and it’s great to have him back at the height of his powers making the organ moan.  The pop covers, “Hey Ya” and “Get Behind the Mule”, don’t seem gimmicky in the slightest – beyond harkening back to the long tradition of Booker T and the MGs engaging with current pop music (like the record of all Beatles songs).  But it’s the originals that really swing on this, especially the one-two punch of the acid-tinged “Native New Yorker” and the just-dusty-enough ballad “Nan”.  Can’t wait to see him in Columbus in May.

7.  Tyondai Braxton, Central Market – Having only been familiar with Battles and a little of his solo looped guitar work, I wouldn’t have expected this in a million years.  The first track, “Opening Bell” reminds me of Terry Riley and Julius Eastman with its smaller melodic cells and that’s carried forward through the angrier “Uffie’s Workshop” but it embraces seams, more outwardly “electronic”, for lack of a better word, gestures and it feels completely modern.  Bang on a Can’s version of “In C” is my perfect example of what I call “Sunrise Music” - something where I’m on the bus going East on Morse Road into these beautiful magenta, pink and orange sunrises and just put my book down and stare and listen – but this has spent most of the year giving that a run for its money.

8.  Tom Russell, Blood and Candle SmokeWith backing by Calexico, Tom Russell found his groove again.  His best record since Borderland, maybe since Rose of the San Joaquin.  It’s business as usual, sure: hard-bitten, half-ironic tales of his tough-guy past, check (“East of Woodstock, West of Vietnam”, “Criminology”); loser saints stranded in parts south, check (“Guadalupe”, “Crosses of San Carlos”, “Mississippi River Running Backwards”); the circus as looking glass and metaphor, check (“Don’t Look Down”, “Darkness Visible”); but who cares when it’s done this well?  And my favorite love song that came out all year, “Finding You”, so I’ll end with a snatch of that:
I need all the blessings
To keep this heart at home
To remember all the troubled nights
When I slept alone
Till I found you
Now I’m blessed and I am pleased
When no one else is looking, I will fall down on my knees
And I’ll pray to any god who leaves the light on late at night
For the miracle of miracles, the one that changed my life..

9.  Allen Toussaint, Bright Mississippi – Much like the Tom Russell, this is both textbook business-as-usual but also not at all.    Another great textured Joe Henry production rehabbing a classic figure most people probably haven’t thought about in a while.  A perfect acoustic record of jazz and blues standards, from “Egyptian Fantasy” to “St James Infirmary” to “West End Blues”, with a crack band especially Marc Ribot on acoustic guitar and Don Byron on reeds (mostly clarinet).  But you’ve never heard an Allen Toussaint record like this, leaving his voice and his lush arrangements behind and really focusing on his piano playing.  If his duet with Ribot on “Solitude” doesn’t move you I’m going to look for a pulse.

10. Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens, What Have You Done, My Brother –What I said about “Solitude”?  That goes for this whole record.  Best soul record of the year.  Best gospel record of the year.  I find it hard to listen to half of this without tears springing to my eyes, and most of this without wanting to dance.

11. Noveller, Red Rainbows – Most of the time, the “best drone-heavy” distortedly lovely solo electric guitar record would be damning with faint praise, but in a year with, among other things, Kevin Drumm’s awesome Imperial Horizon, that’s damn high praise.   The music on this glistens and twists and dances just out of your reach then evaporates like smoke.  Pieces like “St. Powers” come on sounding like an orchestra tuning up, then shift into an orchestra showing off its colors, as in Beethoven’s ninth.  Sustained drones and feedback and almost simple folk fingerpicking don’t just exist alongside Drumm’s miasma and Bailey’s alleged lack of idioms, they all inform each other.  I know I keep harping on this, but in what’s becoming the theme of this list, a beautiful and beautifully singular work in a genre many, many people have worked in and are working in.

12. Jemina Pearl, Break It Up – In a year of great power-pop/catchy garage rock (The Tripwires, The Almighty Defenders, King Khan and BBQ, The Reigning Sound) this stood out above the others.  Flying in the face of prevailing trends, this sets her voice front and center over the steady drumming and the barely distorted melodic guitars like a Runaways record, and this is one of the few records I’d feel comfortable is saying is as good as a Runaways record.  Hooks for days I couldn’t get out of my head.

13.. Jessica Pavone, Songs of Synastry and Solitude – MVP of the year if anybody’s asking, Jessica Pavone, who showed up on three records in contention for this list – Taylor Ho Byunm’s Madeline Dreams and her latest collaboration with Mary Halvorson, Thin Air – but this one got its hooks in me and I kept showing up every evening to bleed.  A tribute in title at least to Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, one of the few records that meant a lot to me in adolescence and means even more now, so I may have been a soft touch for this album, but that all gets silenced by how beautiful it is.  Adding a double bass instead of a second violin deepens the sound in a couple of ways, especially adding the darker color to slide under the viola and cello like a river running through the bottom third of a Bonnard landscape.  “There’s No Way to Say” is the kind of waltz you do alone, drunk, in your kitchen, when you can’t believe what you said.  “Wednesday’s Rules” feels like the cratered person who just walked away from a tragedy trying to get through everything one day at a time.  But “Darling Options” seems playful, torn between two lovers but in a flirtatious, fantasy way, and “Here and Now, Then and Gone” feels like a gorgeous hymn for the age of Rothko and Franz Kline.  The clarity and simplicity of folk songs aren’t used as a front in this record, they reach for – and almost always attain – the beauty you get from a crystal-clear form used to amplify light on content; in this case, feeling.

14. Julia Wolfe, Dark Full Ride: Music For Multiples -  I saw a note where Wolfe said she approached this like a musical equivalent a Rothko painting, working with the tonal color of one instrument in multiples, and though I’d only heard “LAD”, the piece for 9 bagpipes at a CMJ showcase in New York, that was all I needed to hear to be sold, not just loving Rothko but also the few examples I’d heard of multiples of an instrument in composition, especially Eastman’s “The Holy Presence of Joan d’Arc”.  Starting with a bang on “LAD”, which is thick with overtones like foliage, so you get used to the organ-like clouds of notes and drones until this gorgeous folk melody comes through, a blast of red sinking into the browns and blacks.  “Dark Full Ride” is similar, in that it’s several percussionists mostly using standard drum kits but it doesn’t really remind you of Reich’s “Drumming”, closer to the Milford Graves’ duo records with other drummers but seemingly more controlled, more about landscape than spirituality.  More than the Pavone, there’s a concern with structure in each of these pieces but the structure is integral to getting to that feeling.  

15. Polwechsel/John Tilbury, Field – Keeping with the last couple of albums, this feels almost entirely like structure at first.  Especially in the second, titular track as shapes form out of scrapes and blurs and tones and then other shapes appear inside those shapes.  Best record they ever made with the quintet (John Butcher left after this album) and Tilbury is by no means a hollow guest or window dressing.

16. Sharon Van Etten, Because I Was in Love – Awesome Marissa Nadler record this year, but of records of that type, this stole my heart, plunged daggers into it and placed it back inside my chest to bleed a little more.  Minimal accompaniment of herself on guitars and Greg Weeks from Espers on organ, piano, percussion, and (I believe) a little extra guitar, and that voice, swooping through the air, with all the melodies-resolving-unexpectedly and the acid wit I love about Joni Mitchell better than maybe anyone has done this side of , well, Joni Mitchell.  The kind of thing you listen to on a summer night on a porch with some whiskey, together or alone.

17. Times New Viking, Everyone’s favorite polarizing Columbus band get better every record and it feels so good to say that.  So much has been written about this it seems like anything else is extraneous (or folly), the same mishmash of Pavement, V-3, big sign-along hooks and New Zealand 85 but the songs get stronger every year and what clarity they gain here doesn’t feel like they’re sacrificing anything.  Just like on the earlier, fuzzy records, they weren’t hiding anything.

18. Black Joe Lewis, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is – Neo-soul with a little more punky spirit and a rawer surface than Charles Walker and the Dynamites or Wiley and the Checkmates (both of whom I also like).  Standouts include “I’m Broke” which isn’t as witty as Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “What the Hell is This” but reveals its own charms over a simmering groove that feels like it’s going to fall apart at any minute.  A band that either can’t play solos or just doesn’t, horn and guitar breaks that stick in your head and a voice that’s just the right combination of sandpaper and sermon.

19. Nadia Sirota, First Things First – From the first track, Nico Muhly’s “Duet No. 1, Chorale Pointing Downwards” through the last, Judd Greenstein’s “The Night Gatherers”, I was utterly captivated by the debut record of this viola player who previously I only knew as the voice and taste behind WNYC (I guess now WQXR)’s Overnight Music.  The wisps of smoke coming together you hear in “Live Water” and the lush string section backing on “The Night Gatherers”, the cello and viola striking each other and sending ricocheting sparks around the room on the aforementioned duet.  For a record that’s mostly one person alone in a room, the world and all its life is in this.

20. Barry Chabala, An Unrhymed Chord (For 25 Acoustic Guitars) – There are moments where I wasn’t sure any of the sounds I was hearing were made by an acoustic guitar, but when it’s this gorgeous, who cares?  This is a record that the moment I heard it I knew this would be on this least, one of the most beautiful records I’ve heard all year or in a lot of years, and I’m as at a loss to describe it as I am a Rothko painting or a Brakhage movie or the entire oeuvre  of Gertrude Stein.
Honorable Mentions:
Anti-Pop Consortium, Flourescent Black
Antony and the Johnsons, Crying Light
Blackroc, s/t
Borah Bergman Trio, Luminescence
Brian Harnetty with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Silent City
Chuck Prophet, Let Freedom Ring
Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy, Spirit Moves
David Sylvian, Manafon
Dutchess and the Duke, Sunset/Sunrise
El Jesus De Magico, Scalping the Guru
Espers, III
Graham Lambkin, Softly Soflt Copy Copy
Henry Threadgill, This Brings Us To Vol. 1
Jack Oblivian, The Disco Outlaw
Jack Rose and the Black Twig Pickers, s/t
John Paul Keith, Spills and Thrills
Jonathan Kane, Jet Ear Party
Keith Jarrett, Testament
Kevin Drumm, Imperial Horizon
King Khan and BBQ, Invisible Girl
Knu Gmoon, s/t
Kris Kristofferson, Closer to the Bone
Larry Jon Wilson, s/t
Lightning Bolt,  Earthly Delights
Lucero, 1372 Overton Park
Magik Markers, Balf Quarry
Mary Halvorson and Jessica Pavone, Thin Air
Mono, Hymn to the Immortal Wind
Nels Cline, Coward
No-Neck Blues Band, At 6a.m. We Become the Police
Nouvellas, s/t
Phil Kline, John the Revelator
Polwechsel/John Tillbury, Field
Raekwon, Only Built for Cuban Linx Pt. 2
Richmond Fontaine, We Used to Think the Freeway Sounded Like a River
Sarah Borges, Stars are Out
Shackleton, Three EPs
Sir Richard Bishop, The Freak of Araby
Smith Westerns, s/t
St. Vincent, Actor
Taylor Ho Bynum, Madeline Dreams
The Ettes, Do You Want Power
The Juan McLean, The Future Will Come
Tripwires, House to House
Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity
William Basinski, 92982
Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, Willie and the Wheel
Wooden Wand, Born Bad


  1. Holy Toledo, Rick! I didn't even know this blog existed until about fifteen minutes ago, thanks to an offhanded comment from Marie. This blog is wonderful. You should be doing a radio show. I will be a loyal reader from this point on. Your descriptions alone make me want to seek out some of these albums.

    Here's to a great 2010.

    Take care,


  2. Shucks, John, thank you very much! To 2010 (and seeing you guys a little more in 2010)!