December 17, 2009
Michael Piantigini's Top Albums of 2009
Listened to a lot of great new stuff this year, 10 of my most appreciated below. What better way to work out your (and my) love/hate relationship with Top 10 lists?
1. The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)
If I were truly in-the-know, the earlier indie release of Oh My God, Charlie Darwin should have been one of my top 10 of 2008, but lucky for me – and the world generally – Providence, RI trio The Low Anthem got promoted to the show this year and their sophomore album was re-released by Nonesuch. After seeing this performance of “This Goddamn House” from the band’s 2007 debut What The Crow Brings, a gut-punch performance so powerful and affecting that it makes one question their whole life, I was prepared to pack it all in and follow them around on tour or something. Or, at least, see them as much as I can. Of course, my punishment for not getting hip sooner is that I missed them in your more intimate venues, but their recent opening slot with Blind Pilot at the Paradise demonstrated that they are one of those rare quiet bands that can silence the chattiest of crowds and hold us mesmerized.
When I realized that the composer of “This Goddamn House” wasn’t even in the band anymore, I naturally worried that what was left couldn’t possibly be as good. Thankfully, I thought wrong and Charlie Darwin more than lives up to my hopes. The gentle songs are gentler, the rockers more ramshackle. The music more varied and the arrangements more creative. And songs to match: “To Ohio” feels like it’s always been there, and we’ve just discovered it on some lost reel of tape. The set makes you feel like privileged – like you’ve been invited to the most amazing, house party in the best sounding living room ever.
The Low Anthem: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter
2. Lo Moda, Replica Watches (Creative Capitalism)
Internet details on the Baltimore combo Lo Moda are hard to pin down, but listening to their two albums, 2007’s Gospel Store Front and this year’s Replica Watches, that mystery (whether inadvertent or not) seems to suit them fine. Alternately playful, hooky, sinister, and often all three, describing this album makes it sound much more difficult than it really is. For all the odd, creative arrangements of insistent droney riffs, there’s just enough hook to grab onto and get under the skin.
“Robespierre” riffs its way into an organ hook and string drone over a marching rhythm section while telling us “we’re practically nowhere,” but the building droner “Real Real” – simpler than it seems with droning strings, organs, and guitars trying to break free certainly feels like its heading somewhere. That somewhere may be the perfect pop gem “Paper Bombs” that has all the aforementioned properties, but in a tighter, neater package. If I was doing a "Top Songs" of the year it would surely be near the top. If one isn’t enough, I’m certain that if “Simple Geographies” were done got the exposure it deserves, it’d be some kind of hit.
Lo Moda: MySpace
3. Obits, I Blame You (Sub Pop)
Sort of like a more punk rock Feelies, Obits have the same jittery energy as their brothers and sister across the Hudson, but with louder guitars, grittier vocals, and an angrier attitude. It actually doesn’t seem fair to compare them to the Feelies, since Obits have more than their share of college/alternative/indie rock pedigree just from main singer and guitars Rick Froberg’s tenure in Drive Like Jehu and Hot Snakes alone. If the Low Anthem’s album sounds like you’re in the best sounding living room ever, this hooky, dual guitar (which is different from guitar-dueling!), soul-shaker is what’s going on in the packed, sweaty basement.
Obits: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter | SubPop
4. Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs/ Condo Fucks, Fuckbook (Matador)
For a band with a 20+ year history, it is more than a little amazing that Yo La Tengo have a clunker rate that is near zero. All the while absorbing styles and continuing to evolve and express those elements in great songs in a way that is distinctly theirs. They’re like a one-band record collection.
On Popular Songs, elements of soul and just classic sounding well-arranged 70’s “records” (when that really meant something) influences have led to gems like “Hard To Fall” and “If It’s True”, both with their classic string arrangements (by a classic string arranger!), stomping single “Periodically Double or Triple,” and the just perfect “All Your Secrets.” The latter having some of the better “do-do’s” you’re likely to have heard in a while.
Of course, there’s certain elements of their sound and style that they have continued to keep fresh after all this time – I’m talking here about how Popular Songs closes out with not one, not two, but three guitar epics in a row clocking in at 10 minutes, 11 minutes, and 15 minutes, respectively. Each, though, has totally different palettes and tones and they all draw you in in a different way. “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” mesmerizes with a droning repetitive vocal line over e-bowed guitars, while “The Fireside” relies on sparsely strummed acoustic guitars and sound effects, and “And The Glitter Is Gone” is just an all out heavy bass and guitar orgy. I’m all in.
Meanwhile, under the guise of long lost “legendary New London, CT trio” the Condo Fucks, the members of Yo La Tengo also displayed their impeccable taste with a bootleg-quality collection of covers of the likes of Small Faces, The Kinks, and Slade. Just plain fun.
Earlier Clicky Clicky Yo La Tengo coverage
Yo La Tengo: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook | Twitter
Condo Fucks: Matador | Documentary
5. Reigning Sound, Love and Curses (In The Red)
I’m admittedly late to the party, but Reigning Sound hit me hard this year and have me scurrying to catch up – I can’t believe I've lived this long without them! Led by longtime Memphis rocker Greg Cartwright, late of the greasy Sun Studios-inspired garage punks, The Oblivians (and occasionally still of – the Oblivians did a European tour with the Gories this year), Reigning Sound still have that Sun influence, but are tempered by more prominent soul influences (the Stax side of Memphis?). Still garage rock and primal swagger, but with the sneer making room for a knowing weariness, Love and Curses, their fourth album of original material has a warmer, lusher guitar sound than the biting attack of it’s immediate predecessor, 2004’s Too Much Guitar, and it is pure garage rock comfort food.
Reigning Sound: MySpace | Facebook
6. Wye Oak, The Knot (Merge)
Just when I was starting to think the guitar and drum duo line up was just too limiting to really allow a band any breathing room, along comes Wye Oak to prove me stupid. Jenn Wasner’s honey-sweet voice and nimble guitar riffiing are more than well-supported by Andy Stack’s... well, everything else. It is a sight to behold: some songs have him keeping the beat with one hand (and his feet) while playing bass lines with the other all while supplying harmonies. Hooky stomper “Take It In” leads the way, but gives over to the shoe-gazers like “Talk About Money” and “Tattoo” and the lurching “That I Do.” The Knot is one of those exciting albums where a band tops their road-tested first record with an even better set of songs.
Wye Oak: Intertubes | MySpace | Facebook
7. The Bats, The Guilty Office (Hidden Agenda)
I may just be a sucker for the well-crafted strummy guitar pop that New Zealanders seem so to be so good at, but The Guilty Office is really is one of those deals where we what have is just good, solid songs. The Bats have again returned with another batch that makes me ask, what more do you need?
The Bats: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter
8. Varsity Drag, Night Owls
Long-time Boston rock underdog Ben Deily, the under-credited co-founder of the Lemonheads and arguably the creative force of that band’s formative years is back with Night Owls, the latest from his band Varsity Drag (and the first with the latest lineup with his Mrs., Lisa on bass and Josh Pickering – the bass player in 90’s-era Deily project Pods – on drums).
Looking at the credits, it seems that it would be a back-to-basics affair, with the production handled by Tom Hamilton – no, not that one, the other one, who produced those aforementioned early Lemonheads records back in the day. In some ways it is – Deily’s got a distinct style – but there’s more going on here, and Night Owls takes chances: “Morning” is practically a self-contained rock opera, and “Post Script” is as naked a piano ballad as any, all the more poignant coming from a classic punk-rocker.
Deily hasn’t been as prolific over the years as us greedy fans would like. To have a new full-length just 3 years the Drag’s debut EP (albeit years in the making), For Crying Out Loud, is a happy occasion indeed.
Earlier Clicky Clicky Varsity Drag coverage.
Varsity Drag: Intertubes | MySpace | Ben Deily | Twitter
9. Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly (Hometapes)
Had Megafaun not been one of those serendipitous SXSW stumble-upons - had they been just sort of explained to me - there's a chance I would have dismissed them as another bunch of hippy rednecks making with the wanky jam-band antics. As I said above of guitar-drum duos, I'd be proved stupid. They have a warm, soulful sound and feel that has a way of making you as intrigued by the sound collage of "Darkest Hour," as you are hooked into the sunny three-part harmony pop sound of "The Fade," and the lyrical direction of both add even more depth.
Gather, Form & Fly is a thrilling exploration of the marriage of traditional folk instruments - guitars and banjos and percussion - and sound manipulation both analog and digital. One of the best things about it is wondering where it will lead Megafaun next.
Earlier Clicky Clicky Megafaun coverage.
Megafaun: Intertubes | MySpace | Twitter
10. Mean Creek, The Sky (Or the Underground) (Old Flame)
Why is it that when a band like Mean Creek so eagerly reaches for the sky, it is so surprising and refreshing? In a world of bedroom pop, it helps when good bands with good songs turn up now and then to remind us about ROCK. Look, I'm not going to lie to you: there's plenty of big rock touchstones here - there's some Zeppelin, some Pink Floyd, and - so help me - does "Beg & Plead" ever so much remind me of mid-90's Boston rockers Smackmelon (I guess you'll have to trust me on that one, kids), but the songwriting is solid, the arrangements tight, and the vibe inspirational.
Mean Creek: Intertubes | MySpace
BONUS LIST! Top 5 Songs not on any of those albums that I just couldn't not mention:
1. Wilco, "One Wing" from Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
2. The Clean "In The Dream Life U Need A Rubber Soul" from Mister Pop (Merge)
3. Superchunk "Crossed Wires" from the Crossed Wires 7" (Merge)
4. Bare Wires “I Lie Awake” from Artificial Clouds (Tic Tac Totally)
5. Noise Addict “Big Ups” from it was never about the audience (self-released)
Check out Jay Breitling's Top Songs of 2009, and watch for his Top Albums of 2009 next week!