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Friday, November 20, 2009

A year in music

I heard plenty of good/great stuff this year, and with only a few weeks left in the year, I thought it was time to share. Since I like to list the artists that I listened to and enjoyed the most during the year, regardless if they put a new record out in 2009, here's the whole enchilada.

Thank you, Jason Hensel
Jason, my good friend, bandmate, and housemate of five years, decided to move out and buy a house at the beginning of the summer. As he prepared to pack everything up, I combed through his vast CD collection to burn copies of anything and everything I've wanted to hear but never got around to.

As I filled up half of a CD-R spindle, I came very, very attached to Beth Orton's first two albums, Trailer Park and Central Reservation. I shied away from Orton's material for years because I was led to believe it was mostly electronic with some forays into folk. Luckily, especially upon listening to Central Reservation, I realized the opposite was true.

Since summer, I've listened to "Sweetest Decline" about a few hundred times. Something about the combination of a jazzy groove, Orton's sweet vocals, and a lively piano just kept me listening over and over again. All that led me to check out the rest of Orton's material, and while there are plenty of merits on Daybreaker and Comfort of Strangers, her first two just ring the truest for me.

Thank you, Ryan Slavinsky, Borders, and Half Price Books
If it weren't for my friend Ryan and his love for Sloan, I'd probably miss the greatness that is this band.

I've known about Sloan since their One Chord to Another record, but I never felt inclined to check out any of their albums. While waiting to pick Ryan up one night, I heard tracks from the band's marathon album, Never Hear the End of It, playing in his den. I was struck by how tuneful the songs were and loved how each song transitioned into the next one. Getting a copy of that record, along with copies of almost all of their records, I had plenty to go through.

As luck would have it, the closest Half Price Books to my house happened to have every single Sloan record that I really wanted (from Navy Blues to Parallel Play) for cheap. Couple that with a massive clearance sale at all Borders stores where Never Hear the End of the It was over half-off, I now had much more Sloan in my library than just my rarely-listened-to copy of their A-Sides compilation.

Thank you, Vagrant Records' sale at the Warped Tour
While covering the Warped Tour for the Observer back in July, I came across Vagrant's merch booth. They were selling a ton of their CDs for only five dollars a piece. I picked up two records: The Hold Steady's Stay Positive and Placebo's Battle for the Sun. I liked the Placebo record, but man oh man did the Hold Steady have a more powerful impact. Songs like "Constructive Summer," "Sequestered in Memphis," "Lord I'm Discouraged," and "Magazines" helped me through some really rough months between the summer and fall. The Hold Steady is a band that plenty of people believe in; and now I'm one of the converts.

Listening to the Dillinger Escape Plan every year has unexpected pleasures
I can't seem to get tired of this band. They might sound like what a fit feels like, but tracks from Miss Machine and Ire Works have been played many times on my computer and car's CD player. I look very forward to their 2010 release, Option Paralysis.

Combine Glasgow with Las Vegas
Based on description only, Glasvegas's self-titled debut album (which saw stateside release this year) sounds like a bad retread of what the Jesus and Mary Chain did many years ago. Shimmering guitars, girl-group melodies, and simple drumming might make people dust off a copy of Psychocandy, but this Scottish four-piece put out a very fine album. It's loud, it shimmers, and it's hard skip a track. (And the stateside version has two great bonus tracks tacked on at the end.)

Music that's good when you're driving home at night and you're not sober but not drunk
I've found Neko Case's solo records work better while driving at night or in the early morning. Something about the scope of her voice and her hard-to-pinpoint version of country, folk, and gospel sounds so good when the sun isn't out. Her '09 release, Middle Cyclone, continued that trend for me.

Sometimes re-recording a B-side is a great idea
For the first time in their entire career, Zao made a record that featured the exact same, full lineup from the previous one. Awake? is not as frantic as The Fear Is What Keeps Us Here, but boy, does it cook. And the new version of "Romance of the Southern Spirit" just towers over the original version that was recorded as a bonus track for the Japan release of The Funeral of God.

The best two dollars I've ever spent on an album
Saddle Creek did a great promotion with Cursive's Mama, I'm Swollen: release the album digitally a full week before the proper street date for a price that was too good to be true. Thankfully, the MP3 copy I purchased for only two dollars (it was one dollar the previous day and three dollars the following day) was the real deal.

I'm not going to lie: previous Cursive albums flow better than Mama, I'm Swollen. The middle of the album just seems to drift, yielding songs that I usually skip over. People who really like Cursive and the Good Life might have liked this record more because it seemed to strike a balance between both bands, but not so much for me. Yet the power of the first four tracks and the final track are up there with the best the band's ever done. I'd even go so far to say "What Have I Done?" is one of Tim Kasher's best songs, period.

The Paper Chase (thankfully) did not follow The Foghat Rule
I remember when John Congleton told me he had enough material for a double album following the Paper Chase's Now You Are One of Us. I got very excited at the idea, but after listening to the first volume of Someday This Could All Be Yours (the second volume is due to arrive next year), I'm happy to take a new Paper Chase one disc at a time. Their records are so dense with a lot of twisted beats and melodies along with friendly melodies. Trying to wade through two discs worth would probably be too much for one sitting.

Nothing seems to stop Converge from making great records
I didn't have high hopes for Converge's Axe to Fall. Like most metal-infused music, not every record by a band you love will blow your mind. Even though Axe to Fall has all the earmarks of the Converge sound and style since Jane Doe, the band comes through again with another fine album. And the Tom Waits-like detour in "Cruel Bloom" is one of the best surprises I've heard on any album this year.

The lack of a lineup change between albums did not sway Wilco from making another great record
Definitely a happier-sounding record compared to Sky Blue Sky, (The Album) continues my love for Wilco. I couldn't help but think of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass when I heard Sky Blue Sky for the first time, and the same applies to this album. If Sky Blue Sky was more "Isn't It a Pity" and "All Things Must Pass" then (The Album) is more "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life?" And that's perfectly fine for me.

One record helps gain a major appreciation for a band's entire catalog
Mastodon's Crack the Skye helped me realize the many wonderful qualities of this band. This is definitely a record I'd suggest to people as a starting point, and highly recommending checking out all their previous records if you like what you hear. These guys aren't trying to be the Heaviest Band on Earth; they're trying to best they can be and be unafraid to expand their sound. This is still the same Mastodon but with other welcome additions like meaty grooves in spots. After years of eluding me about their greatness, I now understand.

If I'd have to pick just one new record above all else, this would be it
I distinctly remember the early summer night my friend Seth gushed to me about how amazing We Were Promised Jetpacks was. Their debut, These Four Walls, was about to come out in the U.S., but he had an import copy for a few months beforehand. Since Seth and I like a lot of the same music, I was inclined to check out something he raved about.

Without a doubt, this record grabs me with its twists and turns. On one hand, there's a familiar kind of vibe with the hopping drumbeats, but on the other hand, you don't really know where the songs are going. These aren't traditional, verse/chorus/verse/bridge/chorus songs. There's anger mixed with propulsive energy and catchy melodies. For many of the same reasons why Bloc Party's Silent Alarm is one of my favorites of the decade, this album fits nicely in the same league.

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