I "met" GE after I learned of his terribly-neglected blog through a mention by one of my favorite authors/cultural critics John Sellers. What I Listened to on My Way to Work Today was my one daily read for the six or so months GE kept it going. The premise was simple yet genius. GE rode the subway in NYC to work every day, listening to his iPod filled with a nice variety of punk, alt.country, indie, folk, kids music, etc. He'd then post his playlist from every commute with a tidbit here or there and the list's statistics. Maybe my favorite portion of the posts were his daily observations of his kid, the Times, the Mets, or fellow commuters. Someone should pay him to start the blog up again and turn it into a book, but he's written two of those as well.
Anyway, you can tell from his list that he, like me, is stuck in the 90's. Sure, we learned to be savvy, discerning music enthusiasts in an age that saw underground bands move from the pages of zines to Pitchfork, but we also developed a fondness for the decade's aesthetic and ethos. So, if you never get a chance to read my 2009 top-10 list, pretend that GE's list is mine. Enjoy and comment freely.
This was an epic year for music…and it has nothing to do with a single album released in 2009. For me, the last year of the first decade of the new millennium will always be the year that my science fiction dreams became a reality. Seriously. Take yourself back about 15 years, when you were browsing those dusty record bins looking for Big Star’s #1 Record or Pavement’s Watery, Domestic EP on vinyl. Now imagine if a booming voice on high speaks to you. It says, “You there. Yes, you the one with the flannel shirt and unflattering long hair. In the future there will be a device, which you can hold in the palm of your hand, and which will contain your entire music collection! Actually, that’s not even right. It will contain nearly all recorded music that you ever want to listen to. Except of course The Beatles, those wily bastards, and a few other holdouts.” Naturally you would convince yourself it’s time to stop smoking pot and return your attention to those record bins…missing a chance to see into the future of music consumption.
Okay, okay, enough of the lame dramatization. Obviously how we listen has been evolving for a while now. But when Rhapsody released its iPhone app earlier this year I was floored. And it wasn’t even any good at first! The first version of the app crashed constantly and the audio quality was atrocious. But still, the ability to be anywhere in the world with a cellular or Wi-Fi connection and basically listen any song, album or artist that you want to at that very moment, is so damn cool. (Btw, the second version of the app was much improved including nearly mp3 quality audio.) Yes, I miss record stores. Yes, I miss vinyl. Yes, I miss liner notes. Etc. Etc. But I’m also kinda stoked about having part of the experience (the music) without even having get out of my chair.
Oh, also, there were some pretty good records released this year. Here are my favorite 15, in ascending order:
15. Sonic Youth – The Eternal
If you’re going to make it all the way through this list, get used to this phrase: “They still got it.” Pretty much that sums up more than half the artists on this list. In other words, I’m getting old (yes, I am) and stuck in my ways, or this was just a year when some great bands of the past 10 years (or more) closed the decade in style. This is a perfect example. Over 20 (holy shit!) years since Daydream Nation, SY’s newest hit a lot of those same visceral, noise-rocking notes. Every time you forget about them Thurston, Kim and Co. grab you buy the concert T-shirt and shake you like a rag doll.
14. Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones
At least I get to get the one entry on this list I’m going to get killed for out of the way early. What can I say? It’s a celebrity vanity project with a concept that treads dangerously close to parody. But somehow, Ryan Gosling and pal Zach Shields’ band found it’s way into my heavy rotation. Just in time for Halloween, “My Body’s A Zombie For You,” and its kids backing choral (a trend this year, see Grizzly Bear live), was the creepiest sweetest song I heard in a long time. Sure there’s are way too many ghoulish sound effects and filler, but the last song on the album (the all-too-short “Flowers Grow Out Of My Grave”) make me hope this isn’t just Ryan’s way of passing time between Rom-Coms.
13. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
There it is again, aging indie rockers. But damn, I’ll have what J. Mascis is having! This album rocks so consistently hard it’s a bit like running a marathon just getting through it. But it’s the good kind of work out.
12. Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk
Is it the album it could have been? No chance. Is it still an interesting and highly listenable collaboration by some of the best folk rockers, sometimes not-so-gently and not-so-folk-ly rocking today. After a month or so of trying to crack this record, I realized what the biggest problem was. (And, no, it’s not the band’s name although that’s a close second.) It’s the first track! Yuck. “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” has a Jim James meets Bee Gees feel that I really don’t like. But once you skip it, the album starts to sound a whole lot better. “Say Please” is a much better way to kick off the album. In fact, seeing MOF perform this song on one of the late night shows made me revisit. Watching these 3 talents trade vocal leads made me tune more into who was doing what and it made me appreciate the album not for the sum of its parts, but for the parts of its sum.
11. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
This is all you need to know about this album:
10. Girls – Album
One of this year’s blogger faves, Girls proved once again that The Beach Boys will never go out of style. In fact, “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” might as well be a Beach Boys outtake (minus the title, of course). Great, rough, raw pop from California.
9. The Decemberists - The Hazzards Of Love
Read a book? Listen to music? Thanks to The Decemberists you can do both! Indie rock’s most literary band pulls out all the stops on a concept album about...who the hell knows what. Whatever it is “The Wanting Comes in Waves” (with the help of Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond) builds to one of the best climaxes of the year. (Perhaps I’ve revealed too much…)
8. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
On paper this is a band I’m supposed to like. But somehow I never really got around to liking them until this year and was very impressed with their roots rock as channeled through Rick Rubin for his American Recordings. BUT, I want to put this on the record: I hope I never see them in concert. When I see them in clips performing (and this was backed up by a friend of mine) they seem particularly cheesy. The less I know about this band the better.
7. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Beware
His prolificness is matched only by his genius. Just one year after I ranked Billy’s Lie Down In The Light at (yup!) No. 7 on my year-end list, he pulls another No. 7 worthy folk rock gem out of his bearded ass. Amazing.
6. Built To Spill – There Is No Enemy
Indie rocks Neil Young is back in nearly Perfect From Now On form. Okay, impossible, but it’s probably his best since Keep It Like A Secret. Good enough.
5. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
YLT is on the top of their genre-shifting game in this their (could it be?) 11th studio album. You want funky? Try “Periodically Double or Triple.” R&B? “If It’s True.” Psychedelia? “By Two’s” 70s pop? “All Your Secrets” Pop rock? “Nothing To Hide” I would like to hire this band to play every party I ever throw. (Full disclosure: I can’t afford them and I don’t throw parties.)
4. Magnolia Electric Co. – Josephine
Normally known for his Neil Young-like jamming and country-inflected rock, Jason Molina’s produced a much more romantic album than anyone (meaning me) could ever imagine. With beautiful melodies and gentle touches of horns and piano. Then there’s the Hammond organ of “Little Sad Eyes” a gorgeous piece of melancholy that was one of my favorite songs of the year.
3. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Up From Below
Hands down, my favorite song this year was “Home” from this strange and sometimes wonderful debut. In fact it’s one of the best love songs, certainly one of the best duet love songs, I’ve ever heard. (With respect to Johnny Cash and June Carter.) Sure it’s really just a neo-hippie Polyphonic Spree, but this 11-piece plays with such exuberance its hard not to resist. It’s been a while since I’ve combed YouTube to find live clips of one song, but its worth watching Alex Ebert and his little pixie of a girlfriend Jade perform this song together as many times as possible. Other than a few songs (“40 Day Dream” and “Janglin’” notably), most of the album can’t compare to “Home”, but they shouldn’t even try.
2. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
How often do you hear an album that sounds overworked and yet brilliant at the same time? Now I’m sure some people would put Animal Collective on that list (notice they’re not on mine), but IMHO they don’t come close to the sonic pleasures of Grizzly Bear. Veckatimest demands your time-est and rewards two-fold.
1. Wico – Wilco (The Album)
Boring you say? No way. Wilco’s best album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was my go-to listen in ’09. From the beauty of “One Wing” and “You & I” to the roots rock pleasures of “You Never Know” and “Deeper Down” it’s the albums lack of ambition that makes it ambitious. Jeff Tweedy is so good and so on top of his game, but not phoning it in. I may be getting old, but at least the bands that are getting old with me are still helping me enjoy the ride.