29 January 2010

Best Music of 2009

I’m almost done with my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s list, but it seemed kind of ass-backwards to post that one before doing my Best of 2009 list. I had thought this year was going to be kind of an afterthought, what with the inevitable end-of-decade hoopla, not to mention that I appeared to be headed for my oldest and most esoteric Top 10 ever, but having now had a chance to catch up on some late-breaking releases, as well as others that I’d missed during the year, I’m now convinced that this was a pretty decent year, one with at least 13 or 14 albums that would have easily made my 2008 Top 10. Even better, 2010 is shaping up to be a monster, with strong new releases from Spoon and Four Tet already making bids for next year's list and new albums on the way from most of my other current faves. Less happily, this is my first rapless Top 10 since…well, ever, I guess. Raekwon’s fine Only Built for Cuban Linx…Pt. II came closest, but, good as it is, it seems like evidence that hip-hop is now entering its classic-rock period. That’s not a good thing, in case you were wondering. On to the list:

1. U2—No Line on the Horizon

U2’s 12th studio album is one of its best, with longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois asserting themselves as full-on collaborators. Following the solid but too comfortable How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), No Line on the Horizon reclaims the sense of musical and spiritual searching that has defined the band’s best work. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.) (“Unknown Caller” “Moment of Surrender”)

2. The Field—Yesterday and Today
This supremely chilled out second album from Sweden’s Axel Willner improves on the formula of his 2007 debut, From Here We Go Sublime, adding a little rhythmic variation to his melodic techno. The most striking move is a cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” a new wave hit from the Korgis, which briefly adds a human voice to Willner's mix, but each of the six tracks on this carefully constructed album is subtly distinguished from the others. The result is the most aesthetically realized music of the year. (“Leave It” “Sequenced”)

3. The XX—XX
The debut album from a quartet of British early-twentysomethings who know what a VCR is. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim trade intimacies in vocals that feel almost whispered against the minimalist precision of the band’s arrangements. Supposedly they’re influenced by early-2000s R&B, but I can’t hear it. I’m thinking their parents must have listened to The Cure. Or possibly their grandparents. (“Crystalised” “Night Time”)

4. Julian Casablancas—Phrazes for the Young
The first solo album from Casablancas continues along the musical (synthpop, crooned vocals) and spiritual (Baudelairean) vectors of the third (but apparently not last) Strokes album, First Impressions of Earth (2006). I’m now convinced he has the stuff to develop into an American version of Jarvis Cocker, should we dare to even hope for such a thing. Included is the funniest/saddest song about NYC gentrification ever (“It started back in 1624…”). (“11th Dimension” “Left & Right in the Dark”)

5. Sonic Youth—The Eternal
Sonic Youth’s 15th proper album, and first for Matador, dissects and reconfigures musical elements from various phases of the band’s music to date—atonality, ironic pop forms, noise, hard-rock riffing, etc. As with U2 on No Line on the Horizon, the result is an album that feels both quintessential and not quite like any of their other records. Returning to the lo-fi sound of their ’80s period, the band stretches out gloriously on extended cuts like the alternately anthemic and meditative “Anti-Orgasm” and the unsettling “Massage the History.” (“Anthem” “Massage the History”)

6. Florence & the Machine—Lungs

With the Amerindie scene increasingly overrun by turgid hipster music (well represented in this year’s Pazz & Jop poll), it was refreshing to hear something hi-fi from a new artist with a big voice and bigger songs. A 23-year-old native of London, Florence Welch combines a variety of influences, mostly of the misfit female variety (Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk, etc.), and musical styles (alt-rock, soul, mainstream pop) on this buoyant, overflowing debut. (“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” “Between Two Lungs”)

7. Fever Ray—Fever Ray
This solo project from Karin Dreijer is in many respects even darker and more disturbing that her work with brother Olof as The Knife. The gothic soundscapes and distorted vocals recall the duo’s Silent Shout, but repeated listenings reveal Fever Ray as a more intimate, if no less mysterious, record, eschewing some of the dissonant sonic flourishes of the earlier album in favor of a haunting ambience. (“When I Grow Up” “Now’s the Only Time I Know”)

8. PJ Harvey & John Parish—A Woman a Man Walked By

For some reason, I didn’t much care for this when it was released in March, but having rediscovered it a few weeks ago, I’m now convinced that this war-haunted album is Harvey’s best since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), a reminder of how indispensable her artistic vision remains. The somber tone is similar to that of 2007’s dirge-heavy White Chalk, but here sadness and regret are tempered by anger, and Parish’s presence as collaborator adds some much-needed musical variety. (“The Soldier” “A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go”)

9. Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca
Something from an arty hipster band that I do like. (“Stillness Is the Move” “Temecula Sunrise”)

10. SunnO)))—Monoliths & Dimensions
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to get into metal—most of it tends to lose me as soon as the singer opens his mouth. SunnO))), a duo comprising guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, isn’t exactly a metal band, but the music does employ some of the instrumental and, yes, vocal tics of the genre in the service of what the band has termed “power ambient” music, a label that aptly describes Monoliths & Dimensions. The album’s doom-metal sonics are complemented by unexpected elements like a women’s choir and even a French horn. The vocals on the first track still remind me of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s a hypnotic song that holds up to repeated listenings, and the album only gets better from there. (“Big Church” “Alice”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

I half-assed this list so badly last year that I almost didn’t do one this time, but I’m happier with this one.

1. Girls—“Lust for Life”

2. Bob Dylan—“It’s All Good”

The title kind of says it all.

3. Bat for Lashes—“Daniel”

I’m highly ambivalent about Two Suns, much of which is beautiful and mesmerizing, even as other bits feel fraudulent. This is the type of goth-tinged pop song that a band like Love and Rockets might have been able to get on the radio 25 years ago, but which has sadly disappeared from the mainstream.

4. The Arctic Monkeys—“Cornerstone”

I want to hang out at the Parrot’s Beak. Or the Rusty Hook.

5. Patterson Hood—“The Pride of the Yankees”

Also some mention should be made of Edan’s unclassifiable “Echo Party,” a 29-minute track that reimagines the old school hip-hop party jam as some synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’, and of The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms (1980) and The Good Earth (1986), the most significant rock reissues of the year.

08 January 2010

Best Songs of the 2000s (part 2)

Here's the second half of the Top 100 Songs of the 2000s. There were many great songs, but there was only one real contender for No. 1, since nothing else quite captured the, um, shall we say tone of the past 10 years. I'll try to get the albums list up next week. Until then, enjoy...

50. “Galang”—M.I.A.

49. “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood”—Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

The best song I’ve heard about the early days of the war in Iraq, perfectly capturing the thing that made this war different from all the others, that feeling that it simultaneously was and wasn't happening. It’s also about child stars.

48. “We Major”—Kanye West (feat. Nas and Really Doe)

47. “Sawdust & Diamonds”—Joanna Newsom

A moment of almost unbearable vision.

46. “Black Cadillacs”—Modest Mouse

45. “Maps”—Yeah Yeah Yeahs

This classic classic-rock ballad may be the only song from this band that I care about.

44. “Rain Fall Down”—The Rolling Stones

On 2005’s A Bigger Bang, Mick tried actually singing on a Stones album for the first time in about 25 years, and it turns out the old guy can still do it (“Feels like we’re living in a battleground and everybody’s jaa-ah-ah-ah-uzzzzed”).

43. “Weak Become Heroes”—The Streets

42. “99 Problems”—Jay-Z

This masculinist banger was more or less what the whole rap-metal thing was trying to get at all along.

41. “The Hardest Button to Button”—The White Stripes

Jack White channels his inner Iggy Pop.

40. “Hercules Theme”—Hercules and Love Affair

39. “White Winter Hymnal”—Fleet Foxes

38. “House of Jealous Lovers”—The Rapture

Back when hipster music wasn't such a bad thing.

37. “Amazing”—Kanye West (feat. Young Jeezy)

36. “Ms. Jackson"—Outkast

Andre and Big Boi do some brilliant tag-teaming in the service of a song of remarkable emotional maturity and complexity.

35. “A Certain Romance”—The Arctic Monkeys

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alex Turner: “And over there there’s broken bones/There’s only music so that there’s new ring tones/And it don’t take no Sherlock Holmes/To see it’s a little different around here/Don’t get me wrong though, there’s boys in bands/And kids who like to scrap with pool cues in their hands/And just ’cause he’s had a couple of cans/He thinks it’s all right to act like a dickhead.” I’m not sure how you learn to write lyrics like that, but sitting around listening to records definitely isn’t it.

34. “Pagan Poetry”—Björk

33. “Turn My Way”—New Order (feat. Billy Corgan)

Bernard Sumner lays it all out, with an assist from Billy Corgan. It’s the best track the latter was ever involved in, and that’s not a slam on the Smashing Pumpkins. Well, not a total slam.

32. “And Then Patterns”—Four Tet

31. “Never Gonna Change”—Drive-by Truckers

Southern gangsta rock at its finest. Still, the question lingers: Were the gun-toting, drug-trafficking truck drivers of Alabama really worthy of such a tribute? Yes. Oh yes.

30. “Umbrella”—Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z)

Supposedly this song was offered to Madonna and Britney Spears, but it needed the voice of an unspoiled newcomer (e.g., the 19-year-old Rihanna) rather than that of a jaded pop star (e.g., the 21-year-old Rihanna).

29. “Hard to Explain”—The Strokes

Rollin’ down the street smokin’ endo.

28. “Heat Breeze Tenderness”—Youssou N’Dour

I’m not sure the English translation of the lyrics in the album notes for Nothing’s in Vain quite does justice to what’s happening here, but I think I get it anyway.

27. “The Righteous Path”—Drive-by Truckers

Patterson Hood envisions the American Everyman, circa 2008. The verse about the narrator’s troubled friend is a remarkable blend of empathy and self-delusion.

26. “I Predict a Riot”—Kaiser Chiefs

It was huge in Britain, dammit.

25. “Another Morning Stoner”—And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

24. “Don’t Panic”—Coldplay

First song on their first album and the best thing they’ll ever do.

23. “Everything in Its Right Place”—Radiohead

22. “Clint Eastwood”—Gorillaz

21. “Modern Way”—Kaiser Chiefs

A rock anthem for our time.

20. “The Rat”—The Walkmen

Ah, the jaded city (“When I used to go out I’d know everyone I saw/Now I go out alone if I go out at all”).

19. “Superheroes”—Daft Punk

I think it’s “Something’s in the air.” Or “Love is in the air.” Or “Throw guns in the air.” It’s the repetition that matters.

18. “Flashing Lights”—Kanye West (feat. Dwele)

That hint of autumn underneath the ocean breeze.

17. “Moment of Surrender”—U2

U2 reached a number of long-sought aesthetic goals on No Line on the Horizon. This 21st-century hymn, mostly recorded in one amazing take in Morocco, represented one.

16. “Good Fortune”—PJ Harvey

Once in a while when the sun is shining and your head’s just right, the city’s not such a bad place after all.

15. “High Water (For Charley Patton)”—Bob Dylan

One of the songs that defined that surreal period immediately after 9/11, as its feverish lyrics took on resonances that even its august maker could scarcely have anticipated.

14. “Star Guitar”—The Chemical Brothers

A dispatch from some mythical place where the sun never sets and the music never stops.

13. “Jenny Wren”—Paul McCartney

Like an aging hall-of-fame pitcher who might not be able to bring it every time out—but can still reach back and throw a gem on a given night.

12. “Heartbeat”—Annie

Tip of the hat to Pitchfork for drawing my attention to this slice of pop perfection from Norway. Stopping brilliantly short after two choruses, the whole thing is pure elemental bliss, but it’s Annie’s distracted reading of the final verse that launches the track into the stratosphere, the dancefloor encounter of the song’s opening now slipped into memory.

11. “Finer Feelings”—Spoon

Memphis meets Sandinista on the best track from the best album of the decade’s most consistent band.

10. “Pyramid Song”—Radiohead

Possibly the most beautiful piece of music in the Radiohead catalog.

9. “Losing My Edge”—LCD Soundsystem

The particular anxieties of the aging hipster, captured with the keen humor and minute precision of one who knows of what he speaks.

8. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”—U2

Inspired by the suicide of INXS frontman and F.O.B. Michael Hutchence, one of the best white gospel tracks of all time.

7. “Jesus Walks”—Kanye West

The way Kathie Lee needed Regis.

6. “The Way We Get By”—Spoon

With a litle help from our friends, of course.

5. “B.O.B.”—Outkast

Just obviously great. I have nothing further to add.

4. “Casimir Pulaski Day”—Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan’s theology of suffering.

3. “Unknown Caller”—U2

Brian Eno’s never seemed more like a full-fledged member of U2 than on this majestic 2009 track, in some respects the pinnacle of a 25-year collaboration.

2. “Unison”—Björk

It wasn’t a great decade for love songs, but Björk was never much for following the crowd. Nestled at the end of her finest album is her greatest track ever, a nearly seven-minute fusion of strings and synthesizers, electronic beats and choral vocals. Somehow all the humanity and all the technology comes together, and it’s a glorious thing to hear. Play it loud.

1. “Paper Planes”—M.I.A.

The whole damn decade in 3:25.

06 January 2010

Best Songs of the 2000s (part 1)

At long last, the first half of my Top 100 Songs of the 2000s list. I’ll get the second half up once I finish writing some more blurbs.

I guess I should use this space to say something pompous about “the decade in music” but I think the past 10 years resist any easy generalizations or categorizations. Music from more sources than ever is now far more accessible than it’s ever been, which is all in all a good thing.

It goes without saying that what follows is a highly personal, idiosyncratic list of the decade’s best songs. It's certainly not a list of the decade's best singles, although I did make an effort to include a handful of songs from the pop mainstream. Favorites are played; age is shown. Lots of worthy songs are absent; many more I haven’t heard. I was going to do a worst-songs list too, but it turned out they were all by the Black Eyed Peas. Anyway, enjoy. And if you don’t like my picks, then make your own list. But whatever you do, don’t come bitching to me.

100. “In Houston”—Tapes ’N Tapes

99. “Daniel”—Bat for Lashes

Unlikely hot influence of the moment: Kate Bush.

98. “Ride Around Shining”—Clipse

97. “Somebody Told Me”—The Killers

A lot more fun than the unbearable “Mr. Brightside.” Less emo, more Journey.

96. “When Under Ether”—PJ Harvey

95. “Formed a Band”—Art Brut

Acidic rock from across the pond (“We’re gonna be the band that writes the song/That makes Israel and Palestine get along”).

94. “Still Tippin’—Mike Jones (feat. Slim Thug and Paul Wall)

93. “Romeo”—Basement Jaxx

92. “Sink Hole”—Drive-by Truckers

In which a resourceful Southerner comes up with an elegant solution to his foreclosure problem.

91. “You Know I’m No Good”—Amy Winehouse

Not “Rehab,” which is neither cute nor funny.

90. “Nothing Ever Happened”—Deerhunter

89. “Never Let Me Down”—Kanye West (feat. Jay-Z and J. Ivy)

88. “Let Me Sleep (Next to the Mirror)”—Idlewild

Scottish rockers deliver a punchy power ballad with a title worthy of Morrissey.

87. “Stress Rap”—Cannibal Ox

86. “Never Miss a Beat”—Kaiser Chiefs

85. “Something in the Way of Things (In Town)”—The Roots (feat. Amiri Baraka)

The sort of fusion of poetry and popular music that almost never works. Exceptions: Patti Smith’s Horses; not much else.

84. “Toxic”—Britney Spears

83. “Starálfur”—Sigur Ros

I could easily have picked the more elemental (and better known) “Svefn-G-Englar” instead.

82. “Hounds of Love”—The Futureheads

See No. 99

81. “Hola’ Hovito”—Jay-Z

80. “Mississippi”—Bob Dylan

“You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way,” the man says. He comes close though.

79. “Karen Revisited”—Sonic Youth

78. “Monosylabik”—DJ Shadow

An exercise in sheer virtuosity. Shadow continues to slice and reslice the same beat, goaded on by the recurring taunt “What you gon’ do now?”

77. “Bowtie”—Outkast

76. “A Paw in My Face”—The Field

Axel Willner chills out to some Lionel Richie.

75. “All Falls Down”—Kanye West

“And the white man get paid off of all of that.” Apparently the phrase “white man” was bleeped out on MTV. Standing up for the master race since 1981.

74. “Return of the Loop Digga”—Quasimoto

73. “Lust for Life”—Girls

72. “Float On”—Modest Mouse

The buoyant theme song of the most depressing political year in memory.

71. “Heartbreak Stroll”—Raveonettes

70. “Someday”—The Strokes

In many ways we’ll miss the good old days.

69. “Schism”—Tool

The cry of the madman—or the last sane person in a world gone mad (“I know the pieces fit”).

68. “Stillness Is the Move”—Dirty Projectors

67. “First of the Gang to Die”—Morrissey

It’s hard not to read this as Moz’s typically perverse tribute to his legions of Latino fans.

66. “Chop Suey!”—System of a Down

65. “Shakey Dog”—Ghostface Killah

Dense, vivid narrative rap.

64. “Accordion”—Madvillain

63. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)”—The Arcade Fire

62. “Hurt Me Soul”—Lupe Fiasco

Lupe can get a bit preachy for my taste, but this track from his debut is a bull’s-eye. The torrential flow of the climactic final verse is too generalized to qualify as political analysis but perfectly captures how overwhelming it all seems.

61. “$20”—M.I.A.

Showing off a tremendous range of influences, Maya raps about the cost of an AK-47 in Africa against a dense backdrop of chants, synths, and the bass line from “Blue Monday.”

60. “I Feel Like Dying”—Lil Wayne

Clearly the product of some serious drug use.

59. “Better Living Through Chemistry”—Queens of the Stone Age

See No. 60.

58. “Earthquake Weather”—Beck

It wasn’t the best decade for Beck, but this track from 2005’s Guero is sufficient evidence that he’s still relevant.

57. “The Rip”—Portishead

56. “Please Please Please”—Fiona Apple

The cry of the frustrated experimentalist. I feel her pain.

55. “Mr. Bobby”—Manu Chao

Can’t we all just get along?

54. “Idioteque”—Radiohead

The October 2000 release date of Kid A seems alarmingly prescient now. It’s almost as though something unbelievably horrible was about to happen and none of us had any idea.

53. “Long Walk Home”—Bruce Springsteen

If Obama had wanted a candid campaign theme song, he could have done worse than this update of “My Hometown.”

52. “Don’t Tell Me”—Madonna

The best of Madonna’s late-period singles and a concise articulation of a particular worldview. It’s not a worldview I share. Truth be told, it’s not a worldview I particularly respect. But it is delivered with conviction.

51. “Get Ur Freak On”—Missy Elliott

Some consensus choices are tough to argue with.