Saturday, December 12, 2009

Top 50 of 2009: 50-25 Unranked Pt. 1

How do you encapsulate a year in music in which you hardly took notice of? Or that's a lie. I noticed 2009. I started the year trying not to. That failed, I fell into old habits. I listened and listened and listened. I stopped listening. Along the way I found a couple records I truly love, a few that I find actually brilliant, but mostly I found about 50 records that are merely pretty good. The year wasn't weak. No, I just didn't care about a lot of it. While compiling these records, I didn't include artists who have placed high on previous lists. Wolves in the Throne Room for instance were #1 in 2006, #7 in 2007 and this year they are not even in the top 50. The Avett Brothers were #1 of 2007 and are not on the list this year. Miranda Lambert my #5 of 2007, isn't on this list either. It wasn't really a year to hold onto my favorites. Maybe we can call it a paradigm shift in my own listening habits. This list isn't radically different from other lists you can find on the internet, it's not radically different than you would expect from me if you've been following the last six top 50 lists I've made. There are bands I hated on previous years (Dirty Projectors and Grizzly Bear) who will appear on this list, we can just get that out of the way. A mix of new, old, expected, wtf, who knows. My heart isn't really in this - and it shouldn't be. Every record listed here is good, that is guaranteed. What's more - I can guarantee there are lots of good to great records that aren't going to be mentioned on this blog. I'm doing this out of habit, and though I am still listing 50 (actually 54), maybe only the top 10 are records I actually think to be something truly special. And only a handful of records (not necessarily even in the top 10) are records that I really lost myself in and listened to many many times this year. I'm not jaded, I'm not obligated, I just didn't go through the year thinking about ranking these records as I listened. And that's a good thing. You should do it too. But you can still read this list.

So here is the first part of #'s 25-50 unranked, please excuse all the hyperbole ahead of time:

Alex Cline - Continuation
(Feb. 10) (Cryptogramophone) (Myspace)

RIYL: Free (yet peaceful) avant-garde-leaning jazz

Nels Cline - Coward
(Feb.10) (Cryptogramophone) (Myspace)
RIYL: Guitar experimentations and effects pedals and maybe some jazz and ambient

Twin brothers Alex and Nels Cline released what can probably be considered the best albums of their careers this year. Coinciding with Cryptogramophone's 10th anniversary, these albums allowed the brothers to show their artistic merit in their own (similar) ways. Percussionist Alex Cline's Continuation is a five-piece peaceful free jazz excursion, laden with shades of buddhism and giving back to the earth. The album seamlessly moves between traditional jazz sounds to passages of folk and ambient music. Cline and his backing band (featuring cello and harmonium along with piano and bass) keep in step with each other throughout, providing a truly engaging listening experience.

Nels Cline, perhaps best known as the ripping guitarist on recent Wilco albums (or his past 30 years of work as a leading avant-garde jazz guitarist) offered up an album that is a bit different from his brother's, but not lacking in ambition at all.
Coward is a complete solo affair, wi
th Nels playing more instruments and loops on the release than most talented musicians get to try in their career. The record also has a feeling of loss, despair and beauty, dedicated to the Cline's loss of their mother in 2008. Tracks range from ambient and feedback-laden soundscapes, to electric/acoustic instrumental moments to tracks that feel like the backing track of an excellent rock song. As a pure artistic statement, Nels' compositions on this record showcase what I consider likely his best material and perhaps some of the best and most interestingly composed music of the entire year.

Asobi Seksu - Rewolf
(Nov. 10) (Polyvinyl) (
RIYL: Hope Sandoval, Slowdive, Cocteau Twins

I didn't agree with guitarist James Hanna's decision to follow-up the awesome and heavily guitar-drenched Citrus with this year's Hush, an album devoid of guitar entirely. Wanting to try something new, the band focused on synthesizers and other instruments. It sounded awful and was one of the most disappointing albums of the early part of the year. However, in November Asobi Seksu released Rewolf, an album featuring acoustic reworkings of their past material (and a Hope Sandoval cover). The album shouldn't work, it's not as though the band writes songs that should be considered special enough to warrant acoustic renditions. However, the fey, dreamy sound that these versions create are just thoroughly pleasant. The melodies and harmonies really shine through with the minimal instrumentation. Every song sounds like the backing track of a love scene in some new hip indie film. It's not going to be for everyone (and most critics panned it), but to me, it's much better than their proper album from this year and more pleasant than some other light indie-pop records from the year.

Ben Frost - By The Throat
(Nov. 10) (Bedroom Community) (Myspace)
RIYL: Coil, Pan Sonic, soundtracks to your impending murder

Looking through reviews of Ben Frost's music, you will find some reference or phrase similar to "disturbing but beautiful", "scary yet serene", "abrasive yet gentle." How can one construct music so contradictory? I don't know, but Ben Frost does. The Icelandic native and member of the Bedroom Community collective (home to some of my favorites: Sam Amidon and Nico Muhly) has followed up his brilliant Theory of Machines with an album full of more contradictory musical segments. Layering beautiful, serene, gentle string instruments (with the help of his accomplished friends) with the howling of wolves and the sonic equivalent of buildings exploding, By The Throat holds your attention. With his near mastery of blending these disparate sounds, Ben Frost might very well be the current leader in the creation of truly creepy music. That is, the beauty he weaves in an out of the monstrous synths only adds to the entire creepy spectrum. It is a brilliant album from one of the most forward thinking musicians around right now.

Ben Klock - One
(March 9) (Ostgut Ton) (
RIYL: Pantha Du Prince, Shed, Sascha Funke (I don't know really. Good techno?)

If nothing else, 2009 was a year in which I really attempted to gain a proper introduction into the worlds of techno and classical music. Whereas I live a life that is rife with classical music, techno has and will remain a "scene" that I am not associated with. Though every year I have done this list, there has been at least 1 or 2 techno or dance music releases, it was really not until this year that I began to actually explore the genre a little deeper. As a singles based medium, I still don't have a clue what is hot and what is not. I don't know where the scene is going, I hardly know where it's been. I can rarely tell the difference between the regional sounds that producers create. I'll never be a techno guy, but I can cheat and read some blogs and read some websites and gather a few things here and there to enjoy. Last year, Ostgut Ton put out Shedding The Past which I consider to likely be the most complete techno LP I've heard this decade. Early on during this year, they released One by Berlin-based producer Ben Klock - and it's near the top of that best LP list as well. Like Shed's release, Ben Klock has put together an album that is perfectly sequenced. This isn't a collection of songs - this is an album. For 71 minutes, you are taken through the course of an album that only the best can do. There may be a narrative, there may not - I'm never good at trying to describe or guess what DJ's are trying to accomplish. But when it comes to mood, pacing and equal parts mixture of dance, groove and some headphone-only trips, Ben Klock's debut LP is second to one. Check back a year from now, this might be at the top of this list.

Blues Control - Local Flavor
(July 14) (Siltbreeze) (Myspace)
RIYL: Michael Rother/Neu! but dirtier and based in "blues"

Joe Colly's review of Local Flavor on Pitchfork ended by stating the album "feels like an album that a few will love and a larger majority will find head-scratchingly opaque." Now, I don't know what opaque actually means in this context, but the point is: if few love this record, then I am one of the few. In fact, if you would have asked me about a week after this album was making it's way to me, this would've been top 5 material. I took a bfreak from listening to this for a while, though in the last couple weeks have become semi-obsessed again. I find this to be much better than their previous LPs, which left me a little in the dark as to what I'm supposed to find interesting (I guess they are, I just didn't love them like this). I knew on first listen that this was a good album. There's more to it. Maybe it is the addition of Kurt Vile playing sax, maybe it is the true Krautrock feeling that "Tangier" has. I don't know, it's 35 minutes of great instrumental music. Distorted guitars, stabbing piano, shar synths, drawn-out synths. It's all here and it sounds really good.

Borah Bergman Trio - Luminescence
(Jan. 27) (Tzadik) (Myspace)
RIYL: John Zorn/Masada uploads from my blog. Piano based ethni-jazz

Despite the fact that I uploaded the entire Masada "Book of Angels" series (sans the latest installment) earlier this year, I'm not a die hard Tzadik records fan. I think they produce a lot of great jazz releases, but with the plethora of stuff that gets released every month on the label (such is a way of life with John Zorn), there is a whole lot of shit in those releases. The "Radical Jewish Culture" series often turns me off. I seem to give as many of the releases I can a try (good luck keeping up) and most don't do it for me. I like jewish music, I guess. I just don't need to listen to 43 new albums of avant-garde Jewish jazz every year. 2009 was no different from 2008 in this regard, except for Borah Bergman's second release under the RJM subheading. Luminescence features not only the always brilliant pianist Bergman, but the equally adept Kenny Wollesen and bassist Greg Cohen. I really enjoy these three and as a trio they work great. As a jazz release, this might be my single favorite of the year, it was certainly the one I listened to the most. The Jewish aspect certainly runs through the entire length, but's not overpowering the improvisation and traditional jazz elements that keep this release so pleasant. There is nothing abrasive on here, but it's not light. Bergman weaves in and out, improvises as only he can and really keeps the spotlight on himself. If you like piano jazz, you'd be doing yourself a disservice not giving this a try. It's the one Tzadik release this year that truly stood out to me.

Clipse - Til The Casket Drops
(Dec. 8) (Columbia) (
RIYL: Most people know what the Clipse sound like.

When you are a hip hop group with 4 classics under your belt in the span of about 4 years, you're eventually going to disappoint. Anyone who is anyone knew this album wasn't going to compare to Hell Hath No Fury and undoubtedly would lack the impact of game changers Lord Willin' and the We Got It 4 Cheap series. But it is still a good album. The Neptunes handle production on 8 of the 13 songs, though none of them are as exciting as the bare-bones yet sonically intense work of the previous two full lengths. The divide between Malice and Pusha seems to have grown. You can tell the two apart more than ever. Whatever, I don't need to describe this. The fact is that it's a Clipse album and most of it is enjoyable. 3 songs ("The Was a Murder", "All Eyes On Me" and "Champion") I find to be no good, but the rest is still top tier rap. Is it disappointing? Yes. But that is almost entirely because it's the Clipse we're talking about here.

CYNE - Water For Mars
(Aug. 11) (Hometapes) (Myspace)
RIYL: Early 2000's underground hip hop.

CYNE has been steadily doing their thing on the "underground" hip hop scene since 2003. Their previous 4 LPs have all been good, providing songs that don't meander around bullshit and just go straight into that "true" hip hop those geeks want. Last year, they released Starship Utopia and Pretty Dark Things which expanded their sound into a little more jazz and experimental territory, letting grooves ride out. This year, they are back to the forumula that made their even earlier release Evolution Fight really stand out in 2005. 20 songs, all pretty short, minimal yet pretty beats and backing music and just allowing Cise Starr and Akin to rap about what they want, how they want. It's smooth. It's quick. It's hip hop. I don't know of any other group out there that is more aligned with what kids with crooked caps called "real hip hop" and if CYNE is loved by these groups, so be it. They know what they're good at and they continue to put out good records. I just wonder how much longer this formula can work, maybe pushing even further than Starship Utopia would bring about truly exciting results.

Eilen Jewell - Sea Of Tears
(April 21) (Signature Sounds) (Myspace)
RIYL: Neko Case, Emmylou Harris, that song from "True Blood"

Lately, I've been finding the world's favorite jazz-style country singer Neko Case to be a bit much. She's great, I don't doubt it - but it has just reached a point where I don't really ever want to hear her stretch words out as long as she can, no matter how pretty her voice is. Eilen Jewell is much more in line with what I'm looking for right now. Musically, this album drifts from jazz to tin-pan alley to country to pop to some gothic sounding stuff. Vocally, Eilen Jewell is pretty subdued, almost a tease. Her voice is pretty, you know she's packing pipes - but it would probably ruin the music. And the music is dark - not dark and foreboding, but country music that works better as a nightcap. A little bit of swamp boogie is thrown in, a lot of the late 1960s, some references to dark colors, but topped with a beautiful sheen. There's no reason that Eilen Jewell shouldn't be one of the biggest acts on the adult contemporary chart. Maybe she's just too good.

Emeralds - What Happened / Emeralds
(Jan. 19 / September) (No Fun / Wagon)

RIYL: Ash-Ra Temple, Vangelis, Growing, Zombi, etc.

I suppose on the underground synth and guitar-based drone scene, you don't get much bigger than Ohio's own Emeralds. Since 2006, the group has put out countless releases, if not under the Emeralds banner than perhaps under their own names or another similarly themed drone project they are a part of. We're talking real limited quantities here. I like Emeralds. I have for a couple years now and though I don't go and try gobble up everything the collective puts out,
they definitely have a lot of great stuff. Their major "LPs" from this year, What Happened and the the self-titled are great. What Happened was probably their most blogged about release to date and is the easiest release of theirs to get a copy of. It's 5 tracks, 3 of which hover around the 15-minute mark. Opening with shimmering synths fading in and out, the album does a great job of balancing minimal sounds that build to huge crescendos. Though they get labeled as ambient by some nutjobs - don't be mistaken, they're not. Listen, this music isn't for everyone and a good portion of the people who read this list probably have both of these releases and many more from this group of musicians. Don't tell me these aren't their best - I don't care. The point is that they are still good and with the amount of releases these dudes put out, that's a feat in itself.

Freddie Gibbs - Midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik
(Aug. 27) (Self-Releasd) (Myspace)

RIYL: Young Buck, some members of Dungeon Family and Killer Mike, Eightball & MJG

If you forgive the horrible article itself, the fact that Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about Freddie Gibbs in The New Yorker is pretty cool. For those of you aren't down with and don't follow allhiphop and all the other mixtape shit that's out there: Freddie Gibbs is the real deal. I mean it. Releasing mixtapes himself that play way more like albums than mixtapes. Nice production, some extaordinary rhymes and a flow that can hardly be matched, Gibbs should be on top of the hip hop world. To me, the dude has a voice like Young Buck but a bounce in his flow that reminds me of Big Gipp from Goodie Mob. It's gangster rap from Gary, Indiana. Better than most of the gangster stuff that gets play these days, I don't know how the mainstream part of the world can ignore Freddie Gibbs much longer. I suppose he doesn't put out songs that would be successfucl singles, but it shouldn't matter. The people in the know won't be able to hold him much longer.

I'll post more in the coming days. I don't know. Who cares. Forgive the typos by the way.