Friday, January 1, 2010

Top 2(2) CDs of 2009, A List in Pieces

It has certainly been a while since I have written about music, actually it has been a while since I have written much at all, so I am making a return to this writing show by doing a series of year end wrap up lists. Now you may be thinking that 2009 has already ended and these efforts are all irrelevant. You may also be thinking that such an endeavor is far too generic for this blog. Well, my year does not end until around March, so I'm technically ahead of the game by a few months. I also am going to attempt to avoid Top 5's, 10's, 15, and so on in favor of more obscure numbers. With that, let's get to the CDs.

One more disclaimer though, the top of the list is so tough, any one of my Top 4 can easily be my number 1, it's just an arbitrary order I picked, the records are all mostly fantastic.

20. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures

I generally am a fan of these so called super groups, collectives of proven musicians all shunning their previous band mates and hoping that coming together will result in an amount of awesomeness that is both capable of destroying all other types of lesser music and probably ending world hunger, or aborting children, I'm not really sure. Either way, ASIA this is not, but I suppose that is not all bad, despite the involvement of the detestable Dave Grohl. Much like Grohl's other works, Them Crooked Vultures contains a ton of self indulgent mindless noise that is loud for the sake of being loud and, of course, thoroughly lacking much joy, but when the guys decide to focus on the music, shortening the length of songs and zoning in on provided concentrated loudness paired with simplistic lyrics, the record succeeds tremendously. At the very worst, there is nary a rock record that works better while driving, as long as you're driving with reckless abandon.

19. Jonas Brothers - Lines, Vines and Trying Times

Initially I had intended to conclude my list with this record, you know, really shock people when they opened up this countdown, but either way this record will serve as a barometer for the list yet to come, and what has already occurred/missed out on a spot. Jonas Brothers have never been my favorite band, sure "Burnin' Up" is fantastic but outside of that and a few other songs I have been mostly cold on spending any elongated time with the band. While this record did not convince me to reevaluate my previous feelings, this record was nothing short of an incredibly welcome surprise. While sitting down and resting on the sales success of records past was certainly an option, the record cast aside most prior convention and turned out to be a celebration of sound and style as the three sought to expand their musical capacity while making a slightly more mature record. From the heavy opening "World War III" to the hip-hop infused, sporting a guest appearance from talented artist Common, "Don't Charge Me For The Crime," Lines, Vines and Trying Times is a hopeful sign for the band's future records. The band does not sacrifice the heartthrob lyrics about love and life that have made them marketable in the past, but they do shed the traits that many detractors focused on in the past.

18. Bob Dylan - Together Through Life

Thirty two studio albums ago who would have guessed that Dylan would still be cranking out albums at an astounding pace and with such insane quality? Not I, because I probably wasn't even a sperm at that point in time. Either way, this album does prove that Dylan has lost little over the years, still beautifully written and delivered. Produced beautifully and a mystifying listen, this may not be on par with some of Dylan's best records, but when you have such a diverse and excellent catalog such a title is not nearly as important.

17. Miley Cyrus - The Time of Our Lives

In a year where nearly every Disney heavyweight released a full length CD the most successful starlet to date, Miley Cyrus, went against the tide and teased the world with an EP, collecting seven songs that boasted the wildly popular "Party in the USA." That song is more than enough to solidify a spot on this list, but top to bottom the whole CD is a fun ride that demonstrates Miley's ability to hop in and out of different musical styles from track to track, an impressive ability and one of her greatest strengths as a performer. I am still holding out for a proper follow up to Breakout, and less material under the less interesting Hannah Montana alias, this CD is enough to hold me over and another step in Miley's artistic development.

16. Annie - Don't Stop

The picture box tells me that music from Norway is all metal all the time. By extension, Norway must suck. But then along comes Annie to flip my perspectives all around. A pop parade that is a quick and joyful ride through wonderfully simplistic lyrics and catchy choruses which mask enough depth to make numerous listens not just enjoyable, but rewarding. From the in your face intro that is "Hey Annie" to the stunning conclusion that is "Heaven and Hell," this Annie record is not an experience, nor is it a mind changing listen, but it's refreshing, fun, and enjoyable. What more could you ask for from a record?

15. Various Artists - Hannah Montana: The Movie OST

Now I know I said I am not really a fan of Miley's work as Hannah Montana and I stick by that claim, but this CD isn't just Miley, and it's not just Miley being Hannah, and "The Climb" is way awesome. Plus there are some other great songs from Rascal Flatts and stuff, but obviously the standout tracks do come from Miley. Essentially what we have going on here is Purple Rain except the music is good, mostly, and the film is better, considerably. There are noticeable weak points on the record, but oh boy are those highs high. Plus it has "Hoedown Throwdown," what more could any CD ever need?

14. Various Artists - Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse Present Dark Night of the Soul

Another compilation album, right? Well mostly, I suppose, but when you put Danger Mouse mostly in charge of anything you know that the instrumental work is going to be top notch, and with the likes of Iggy Pop and company the record feels like a thrill ride of incredible proportions. The stand out track, "Angel's Harp," comes from former Pixies lead singer Black Francis, but there is nary a weak point on the album. I have not had a chance to check out the David Lynch visuals, especially after the marketing debacle that happened, but experiments like these, and obviously the mixture of so many different types of rock, are ventures I can fully endorse.

13. DOOM - Born Like This

Now I could spend this time talking about how it has been far too long for one of hip hop's most deceptively complex artists to release a new record, or I could go on about how DOOM's ability to change persona on command and from album to album is the marking that he has a better understanding of the genre than just about anyone else to ever hold a microphone, but I shall not. Instead I shall celebrate the magnificent "Gazillion Ear" track and the wonderfully tone setting "Cellz," beginning with a portion of the incredibly diabolical and moving poem "Dinosuaria, We," an artistic choice that hardly feels anything but natural. Much like every CD from DOOM it rewards repeat listenings and, unlike some of his weaker efforts, does not ever indulge in the beats; instead, the focus is right where it belongs, on DOOM's stunning lyrical prowess.

12. Various Artists - Have Yourself A Meaty Little Christmas

There are Christmas albums, there are comedy albums, and then there is this [adultswim] joyride. Hysterical from start to finish, with two standout tracks from Carl Bratananaluski about getting drunk, masturbating, and being unemployed before and after Christmas, a guest appearance from Neko Case, a great duet with Meatwad and Boxy Brown, and so much other comedic gold. Unlike other holiday music you just need to be ready to laugh when listening to this CD, it doesn't need to be Christmas. Which is genius, and is fantastic, and hopefully happens on a yearly basis because this CD is incredible.

11. Cage - Depart From Me

Cage is an incredibly interesting artist and with Depart From Me he continues to make strides from album to album. With Movies for the Blind he started getting used to his style, taking the most deranged rhymes and images a mind can create and stringing them together wonderfully. Then on Hell's Winter he built on that and started integrating the Head Automatica help on tracks. Then Depart From me happened and Cage essentially begins to craft a rap/rock hybrid that is artistically pleasing, mentally stimulating, and satirical enough without sacrificing the personal touches and disturbing marks that make Cage songs his own. A stunning record that needs to be listened to beginning to end in a single sitting for one Hell of an effect.

10. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

It has been quite a few years since The Flaming Lips released Clouds Taste Metallic, one of the best CDs ever recorded. Of course The Flaming Lips are nota band that remains stagnant and the sounds on Embryonic are nothing like what one would encounter on Clouds. Though that is hardly a bad thing as the over distorted, hyper produced sounds blends with the lyrics to create a surreal experience. Add in guest spots by Karen O, including on the CD's standout "I Can Be A Frog," a childhood story told with hints of sexuality and a demonic vigor. It's hypnotic and it's stunning, like the CD as a whole.

9. Felt - Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez

An impressive trinity of hip hop's most interesting artists, the pairing of Slug and Murs feels almost natural, producing a lengthy record full of fun songs and some darker ones like "Ghost Dance Deluxe." What had me worried going in was having Aesop Rock, an incredibly talented songwriter and producer, handling the beats because, while Aesop does great work, his beats always seem so well crafted for his style that I was questioning Slug and Murs's ability to conform to Aesop's style without sacrificing their lyrical prowess. The results work much better than I could have ever anticipated. Is the CD a fitting substitute for a new Aesop CD or a new Atmosphere CD? No, but it's still a mighty fine package.

8. the Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come/The Life of the World in Flux

For about a year and a half now, I know that's not very long but give me a chance, the Mountain Goats have opened my eyes to the most beautiful music ever created. If I could write half as masterfully as John Darnielle I would probably kill myself because I would be so awesome incredible impressive. Either way, the latest from the band is a meditation on religion, an exposure of the faults and a celebration of the power. A brilliantly low keyed follow up to the insanely great four song Satanic Messiah EP. The partner CD, featuring scrapped tracks and outtakes is just as enjoyable. Darnielle makes poems come to life, a modern day Dylan, if Dylan wasn't still going strong. Religious or not this CD is incredible and revealing, it's what the Goats do best.

7. Japandroids - Post-Nothing

I'll keep things simplistic with the debut album from this duo. There is a certain majesty to the distorted instruments, the free vocals, the throw backs to power rock, the frantic nature of a few of the tracks, and the devastating beauty of "Young Hearts Spark Fire." Sure the record can evoke emotions, but it's the do-it-yourself nature of the record and how it all comes together to make something unique and magical that makes this record special. The downfall of lists is that this CD can't be my number one after proving for most of the year that it is nearly perfect.

6. Chamillionaire - Mixtape Messiah 7

This 4 disc behemoth is not nearly the artistic accomplishment that MF Grimm's American Hunger is, but as the final nail int he coffin that was Chamillionaire's glorious Mixtape Messiah series it is, with the exception of a non-existent final "Roll Call" track, as fine as a record could come. Cham proves, without question, that he is the most lyrically skilled rapper to ever grace a microphone, seamlessly sliding from beat to beat and making them his own on each and every track. Your mileage with the record will vary depending on how much you care for Screwed and Chopped music, but the brilliance on display here is astounding. Baller rap is not an apt title, Chamillionaire transcended that territory years ago. With Major Pain and Venom on the horizon, Chamillionaire's output remains impressive and the Mixtape Messiah Series has a fitting conclusion. Plus the CD was released for free on his website, which is even more incredible.

5. Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You

This CD almost escaped me in the shuffle, but apparently Lily Allen has been around for a while. Apparently she makes great music, as is proven by this record. The CD is devastating, it is funny, it is lovely. Lily assaults societal convention, consumerism, and various other topics over the course of the CD's run time, and all with a prowess and quite beauty that only serves to enhance the themes she hits on from track to track. "The Fear," for me, is one of the best songs ever written, but the entire CD does not have a blemish on it at all, from the opening bang to the closing "He Wasn't There," Lily Allen takes the listener on a ride to incredible places, whether you like what you find there or not. I am a weapon of massive consumption, but it's not my fault that's how I'm programmed to function.

4. Weezer - Raditude

I'll get this out of the way now, Raditude is, by a wide margin, Weezer's best CD since The Blue Album, and it may very well be even better than the band's masterwork. Rivers is at his finest here, taking the concept of "The Greatest Man That Ever Lived" and stretching it to an entire CD that makes use of Weezer's classic power pop rock, riffs on the club song trend in modern music with the delightful "Can't Stop Partying," and basically remains in full on sarcastic brilliance throughout the entire run with only a single lull in "Love is the Answer." I honestly cannot believe that this is not my top CD of 2009 because it is spectacular on each level. Rivers revels in the psyche of of an adolescent male, weaving in his ability to address deep themes with haunting lyrics, yet he improves on that and limits himself to simplistic rhymes and metaphors that are still more beautiful and impressive than even the best of writers. It captures the boy I once was and, as Rivers is more than willing to expose, in many ways still am. The CD is a power ride of unparalleled proportions and hopefully Weezer stays on this path for a long while to come.

3. Demi Lovato - Here We Go Again

Another CD I cannot believe is not at the top of this list. Easily my most listened to CD of 2009 Demi Lovato grows so much on her sophomore CD. Don't Forget is great, but from the opening bars of "Here We Go Again" to the sadly out of place "So Far, SO Great," Demi plays with the quietloudquiet dynamic that she first displayed in her debut CD, a technique perfected obviously by Pixies years before, but it takes center stage here as Demi separates from Pixies comparisons and shows a maturity that, if it wasn't for the Disney shackles, would likely make for one of the best CDs ever recorded. "Every Time You Lie," "Everything You're Not," and "Quiet," the last being a great encapsulation of Demi's style especially on her more rock heavy songs, are thrilling rides that not only pair excellent sound with great lyrics, but also show a development in her own unique style. And of course there are the more traditional pop stand outs like "Here We Go Again" and the wonderful "Remember December," but even these songs, like most of the tracks, have an underlying angst and maturity that I am sure will only grow as Demi is allowed to bring more and more of her own personality to her records. I cannot say enough good things about Demi, she is poised to own a genre of music with talent, grace, and maturity for years to come, existing not as a pop star, but as a rock musician and I cannot wait to continue the ride. I'm anxiously awaiting her next CD.

2. Lady GaGa - The Fame Monster

And now for the two CDs that completely blindsided me last year, one earlier in the year (that's coming up), and one in just the past couple of weeks. My aversion to the radio made sure that I had no exposure to Lady GaGa prior to my still unfinished (only 19 left, I should finish that) quest to listen to each song on Pitchfork's Top 100 Songs of 2009 list. And God Damn was I missing out. Sure the Deluxe Edition includes The Fame, a pretty great CD but one that is a bit top heavy, but The Fame Monster is an 8 song joyride that grabs hold at the very start with the incredible "Bad Romance" and does not let go until the rough "Teeth" at the very end. Mix in the entrancingly dark "Monster" about halfway through and the more upbeat "So Happy I Could Die" and "Telephone" throughout and you have an incredibly compact masterpiece. There is not one bad song on this CD, it is so well paced, so varied, and so enjoyable that I was, as I mentioned earlier, completely struck with how much I enjoyed this record. I don't know much about Lady GaGa's professional image, which is apparently all part of this artistic statement, but it doesn't matter, the CD is amazing. Perfect.

1. St. Vincent - Actor

So what could possibly beat out a perfect CD? Another perfect CD, obviously. St. Vincent has apparently done a few records before as well, but since I live under a rock I was completely unprepared for what Actor would deliver. With razor sharp talons Actor packs a scathing sarcasm that sits beautifully alongside the quiet voice that accompanies the dark and striking imagery on each track. With nary a low point to be found the high water mark arguably comes with the title track, but Holy Hell are "Marrow," "The Bed," "Black Rainbow," and "Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood" chillingly gorgeous. From the moment I heard this CD until I finish writing this list, St. Vincent has proven over the course of 2009 to have a tremendous lasting power and poetic beauty that has me eager to check out her back catalog. What a fucking brilliant piece of art.

And now for the two records that make this list a 21. I would provide some more exposition, but I'll do that as I list them.

Selena Gomez and The Scene - Kiss & Tell

I am upset that I was unable to put this on the list, but I am even more disheartened at what happened to Selena. Now I don't know her, I don't know what her artistic vision was, and I don't know how happy she is with the record. I do know that, for the most part, the CD is a thematic mess with flashes of brilliance. "Naturally" is a great single and a great pop song. "As A Blonde" and "Stop and Erase" are each fun pop-rock songs with a bit of commentary to each. There are other high points. But the record just lacks a uniform tone and it really feels like Disney is just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. I mean the album art is reminiscent of the Demi CD, some of the songs are reminiscent of Demi, others of Miley, and very few sound like uniquely Selena. I wanted to love this CD, and Selena proves that she certainly does have singing talent, I still prefer her vastly as an actress, but that's neither here nor there, she shows she can sing and sustain an entire album. I just hope they allow her more freedom with her next record and that she does have a single tone and definitive identity because I'm really sad that such a tragedy happened to her with this album. Do note though, there are a ton of positives buried in the uneven record, it just needs to be more focused.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

There is no excuse here other than I haven't listened to it yet. Been sitting in my iTunes forever, but I got it the same day as the GaGa CD to end the year and I have been listening to Lady GaGa too much to give this one the chance it deserves. Case was great in The New Pornographers, she's great on Have Yourself a Meaty Little Christmas, and I'm sure the CD is great. Just haven't gotten a chance to listen to it yet. Sorry Neko.

Comments are welcome and, for anyone with a literary mind, I encourage checking out my poetry blog filled with all original works for your reading pleasure.

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