Well, here we are.
2009 was a random and chaotic year for me, one that made me feel older and less accomplished than ever. My job nearly went down in flames, as the mighty Sun-Times almost collapsed under the weight of its own debt. I watched my father get re-married. I saw several of my close friends tie the knot themselves, while several others had kids. I wrote some amazing stories, made as many friends as I lost, and came out the other side hopefully a little wiser.
But honestly, I’m pretty glad this year is over. I spent a lot of 2009 just hanging on for the ride, and I hope to spend 2010 forging my own direction a little more. Even if there’s no outward evidence that I am different, I feel different than I did 12 months ago. It’s time to shake things up.
The music of 2009 was equally random and chaotic. I said this last week, in my honorable mentions column, but the music I’ve chosen for my top 10 list this year is almost relentlessly serious-minded. I did a lot of soul-searching and reconsidering in 2009, and I think the artists who did the same ended up resonating with me more than the goofy-fun pop I generally tend to like. There is no Click Five-style pop record on this year’s list. (Not even Tinted Windows, which came closest.)
Instead, there is an awful lot of death, and confusion, and loss of faith, and painful redefinition. One of my top albums this year is entirely about watching someone die, and dealing with guilt and shame. One of them is entirely about breaking up with the god you once held dear, and feeling the tectonic plates beneath your feet shift. Yet another is entirely about the ways in which love tears everyone apart, but in the end, as the waves come in and fill your lungs, it’s all worth it. The artists on this year’s list don’t just address topics like these, they wrestle with them, defining their own points of view before our ears.
Less dramatically, I think the album-as-complete-statement went through a rebirth this year. Consider this: a major multimillion-selling band, a highly respected indie outfit, and a brand-new group of songsmiths making their debut all decided this year to craft full-blown rock operas, all with tremendous results. (The multimillion-selling band even divided theirs into three acts.) The idea of the album as a complete thought, an unbroken thematic whole, extended to all corners this year. Hell, Beyonce even made a concept record of sorts.
This, of course, fills me with joy and hope. I’ve been an albums guy for as long as I’ve been listening to music, and the creeping death march of iTunes and the singles-driven download-only market has found me lamenting the loss of the album as an art form. But 2009 showed me that it’s still alive and well, and I felt it was important to celebrate that, to latch onto those conceptual album-length pieces and laud them whenever possible. It helps, of course, that many of them are excellent, and several are amazing. In addition to the three rock operas in my top five, this year’s list contains at least two other concept records, and depending on your definition, perhaps more.
And I love that records like these are coming out in the heart of the download storm.
The rules for my top 10 list are simple, yet constantly under scrutiny. I’m thinking about changing a couple for 2010, but for now, they remain straightforward: only new original full-length studio albums are considered, and only those released on CD this year. That means no greatest-hits albums, no live records, no covers albums, and no records that revisit old material, no matter how radical the reinterpretations. (Sorry, Marillion.) That also means no albums that were released for download only. I need to be able to hold it in my hand to consider it. (This is a rule I am thinking about changing, but happily, I don’t have to this year. Perhaps next year.)
Within that framework, though, I’ve found 10 records that move me, thrill me, and make me think. To my mind, this is one of the strongest lineups in years, although I know I’ll be out on a limb with some of them. But this year’s list is a celebration of good old-fashioned songwriting, and of the album as complete statement, and I couldn’t be happier to present it to you.
Here it is, the 2009 top 10 list.
#10. Harper Simon.
Paul Simon’s son waited until he was 37 to release his debut, and it sounds lived-in, and thoroughly considered. I was initially hesitant to sign on for Harper’s album, since these progeny projects never seem to hold up. But this one is remarkable. Harper Simon gets help from a lot of friends in high places (friends he probably would not have made had his last name not been Simon), including a crack Nashville band for the more country-fied numbers. And yes, his dad steps in to co-write a few tracks. But the core of this album is the songs, and they are wonderful. “Wishes and Stars,” “The Audit,” “The Shine,” “Shooting Star,” “Ha Ha” – these are all fully-formed things of beauty, and among the year’s best. This isn’t a case of famous band members propping up an offspring vanity project. This is the sound of a terrific songwriter and artist finding his voice.
#9. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches.
In which the former Pedro the Lion singer finally breaks up with God. Those of us following his career to this point saw Curse Your Branches coming. What we didn’t expect is that it would hurt so much, or would be so tremendous an album. Bazan spends the lion’s share (sorry) of Branches expressing the doubts that brought him to this crossroad, often calling out God to his face for hypocrisy. He spends the rest wallowing in his own self-abuse – imagining his daughter following in his alcoholic footsteps, detailing painful fights with his wife. Only on “Bearing Witness” does he embrace the life he lives. That the music here is so jaunty and memorable is a testament to Bazan’s skill. Curse Your Branches is a difficult, divisive, powerful piece of work from a man unafraid to lay himself and his struggles bare. It is his finest album, because it hurts so very much.
#8. Mutemath, Armistice.
It took me a while to warm up to Mutemath’s second album. For one thing, I am still rapturously enamored with their first, and this new one is very different. It’s a more streamlined, much glossier affair, with strings and horns and half a dozen radio-ready singles. And it contains “Burden,” a poorly-arranged epic I still haven’t connected with. But seeing the band play these new tunes live drove it home for me: the rest of the songs on this album are terrific. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had “Backfire,” or “Electrify,” or “Goodbye,” or even “Odds” stuck in my head this year, and for an album that went through such a difficult birth (see: every lyric about confusion and doubt), Armistice just zips right by in a blur. It’s a sleeker Mutemath, but no less a remarkable one.
#7. David Mead, Almost and Always.
2009’s prettiest album comes from this criminally overlooked songwriter – I only know who he is thanks to Dr. Tony Shore. In a way, Mead’s own artistic restlessness has worked against him. He’s never sounded the same from one album to the next, and this one’s as radical a departure as any. It’s a drumless record of lovely ballads and ageless-sounding pop, full of songs that would have inspired the young Paul McCartney, back when he was covering “Till There Was You.” Mead is at the absolute height of his powers here, penning beautiful gems like “Blackberry Winters” and “Sleeping In Saturday,” but it’s with “Last Train Home” that he taps into that deep well of song, and writes something timeless. This is one to put on while watching the snow fall – it’s the sound of a gifted songwriter marshalling all his forces to make something as beautiful as he can.
#6. Imogen Heap, Ellipse.
Before I talk about how great the songs are on Imogen Heap’s third album, let me just wax ecstatic about the production. Heap is responsible for nearly every note and every knob-twiddle here, and she’s crafted the year’s most sonically detailed pop record. I hear something new every time I listen, and given that I’ve been listening to this regularly since it was released in August, that’s saying something. But now, the songs – they are utterly marvelous. Heap can write charming pop tunes like “First Train Home,” widescreen epics like “Wait It Out,” and a cappella wonderamas like “Earth” with equal aplomb, and she sequences them next to each other as if everyone had her range. Her songs skip about, from tales of loneliness to environmental warnings to fun romps about body issues, but Ellipse is consistently excellent from first note to last.
#5. The Antlers, Hospice.
The first of our rock operas, although Hospice is more of a sonic novel than anything else. The Antlers came out of nowhere this year, and their first time out of the gate, they moved me so much I cried. Hospice is a unified work about losing someone close, and about the feelings of guilt and helplessness that rise up to crush the living. It builds slowly – the opening tracks are at times almost inaudible – and tells its story with gentle sounds and soaring melodies. But by the time you get to “Wake,” the emotional centerpiece, the album has taken on a cumulative force. I am amazed that this is leader Peter Silberman’s first album, so completely does he succeed in weaving his tale. It feels bigger than him, somehow, and bigger than the two main characters and their small story. Hospice is a grand ode to loss and shame, and while it will never be named the feel-good record of the year, it is certainly one of the best.
#4. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns.
Okay, it’s not really a concept album. But Natasha Khan’s full-length exploration of the two sides of her personality is riveting, dramatic, and stunning stuff. The conceit is that Khan plays her dark-haired self and light-haired Pearl throughout the album, switching up points of view. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s the music itself that will keep you coming back to Two Suns. Khan has fully immersed herself in her fascination with Kate Bush here, and the songs live and die by their swooping, immense melodies. Every single song works, and the whole thing sounds wonderfully otherworldly. Kate Bush isn’t making albums like this any more. Thankfully, Natasha Khan is.
#3. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown.
Here’s something to try: listen to Dookie and 21st Century Breakdown back to back. I’m astounded that the same band who used to write songs about being too bored to masturbate have managed this extraordinary, wide-ranging concept album. It’s their second concept piece, after American Idiot, but 21st Century is everything its predecessor should have been, and wasn’t. The album is the story of two kids in love, and how they stay together while the world burns around them. It’s sharp, angry, political and incisive, but it keeps its romantic focus to the last, and that’s what makes the difference. That, and the wildly diverse and well-crafted music the band has written, leaping from rockabilly to klezmer to epic balladry to the band’s trademark three-chord stompers. This is Green Day’s attempt to write a punk rock opera for the ages, and from my vantage point, they’ve done it.
#2. Quiet Company, Everyone You Love Will Be Happy Soon.
Even with all of the tremendous songwriters on this list, an unknown from Texas named Taylor Muse has outdone virtually all of them. I don’t say this lightly: this is the best set of pop songs I heard this year. On his second Quiet Company album, Muse writes about faith, love, hope, his marriage, his family, and the certainty that the sun will always rise. It’s a massive, triumphant record, one that wrestles with God and life throughout, but comes out smiling, with hard-earned optimism. It’s also a record of indelible, incredible melodies, and songs that live and breathe and grow before your ears. Muse doesn’t put a foot wrong once, not once in 15 songs, and his joy and confidence are infectious. It’s a crime that only a handful of people have heard this record, but you can help put that right by going to their site and checking it out. You won’t be disappointed.
So what could top an album of the year’s best songs? How about our third and final rock opera, a brash and bold (and somewhat crazy) experiment unlike anything else out there right now? How about a single, hour-long, grand and eloquent piece of music that stands head and shoulders above what anyone else even tried this year?
#1. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love.
I don’t know what kind of band the Decemberists are. Describing them seems futile. Leader Colin Meloy is obsessed with centuries-old folk songs, and he’s fashioned his band as a traveling minstrel show, a band of roving bards who spin tales and songs partially to keep the traditions alive. But they are also a powerhouse rock band, able to play with the force of any of their contemporaries. They’re unique – the closest analogue might be Jethro Tull, but they are oceans apart in sound and personality.
And yet, Meloy has been embracing his inner prog-rocker for some time now, an evolution that reaches its full flower on The Hazards of Love. It’s the story of a woman named Margaret who falls in love with a shape-changing faun named William. When she becomes pregnant, she ventures into the woods to find him, angering his mother the Queen, who then hires a man who killed his own children to kidnap Margaret. And then there is the magic river, and the ghostly return of the dead kids, all leading up to the tragic and beautiful ending.
Hazards is as much a sonic novel as Hospice, but it’s more like an epic folk tale, passed down from generation to generation. It is a single unified piece – the CD is divided into 17 tracks, but there are no breaks, and Hazards is meant to be heard all at once. And the music! Meloy has carefully crafted this thing, establishing themes to pay them off later, reprising moments (even just in the backing vocals) for thematic resonance, and tying everything up in the end with amazing grace.
If all of that makes it sound like work, then you should know this: Hazards rocks, thunderously, like no Decemberists album before it. Like most stories of this type, it starts softly and peacefully, but it picks up momentum, and by the end, the sheer force of the narrative carries you along like a river. The final few tracks are creepy, tragic and heartbreaking, as William and Margaret resign themselves to their fates, and by the time you get there, you’ll be captivated. This is musical storytelling at its finest.
Meloy plays several parts here, including William and the Rake, but his wisest move was hiring Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond to play the Queen and Margaret, respectively. I can’t overstate what they bring to this album, Stark with her high and lovely voice and Worden with her powerful, soulful pipes. It plays like an ensemble piece, rather than a narrated story, and that makes all the difference.
So why this very strange record about shapeshifters and wicked queens and undead children? Why put this piece of music on the top of the heap? A couple of reasons. First, it’s brilliant – nothing about it should work as well as it does. Second, it takes a mighty stand for the album as unified, conceptual statement. You can’t excerpt The Hazards of Love and get the full effect, and most of these songs are parts of a whole, unable to stand on their own. The band hammered home their intentions by performing the entire piece in sequence live this year, which was a wonder to behold.
But mostly, this record moves me and fills me with joy like no other this year. Every time through, I’m captivated anew with the wonder of this music. You can’t explain this album, and you couldn’t pitch it to a record company. You just have to hear it. And each time I hear it, I end up loving it more. I am caught up in the rushing waves of the story, a story that in the end is about the ways love tears us all apart. The Hazards of Love could have been written hundreds of years ago – it sounds out of time, its theme as old as the stars. That it also sounds fresh and new and unlike anything I’ve ever heard sets it atop this list. I can’t imagine naming anything else the best album of 2009.
And there you have it. Next week is Fifty Second Week, and then I’m taking seven days off, to put my feet up and relax. And then? Year Ten. Seriously. I feel like I’m just getting warmed up. Thanks for reading. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.