2009 IN REVIEW: The Blurt Top 50

Beirut is artist/album of the year; other top
picks include Flaming Lips, Doveman, Vivian Girls and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

It’s that time of year again – the most magical time of the
year, even! No, silly; not when you dress up like an implant-enhanced Santa’s
little helper party girl or a tanning-booth’d randy-elf guido and present your
honey with that special holiday “gift.” (For those of you under 20, substitute
appropriate Hot Topic and Alternative
Press
goth/emo imagery.)

 

No, we’re talking time for the year end best-of lists, the very thought of which should make most
of you shudder. I mean, does anyone actually believe these things have any
meaning, or that in six months’ time people will even remember who topped what
media outlet’s Top Ten poll? For that matter, have you seen the inane, navel-gazing critics’ comments in the last few Pazz
And Jop Polls? Did you submit your own? Didn’t you feel strangely… unclean?

 

Far be it from BLURT not to surf the seasonal zeitgeist,
however – or put another way, here’s where we try to pick up some hot blogger
action (because bloggers seem strangely fixated upon year-end lists) by
delighting, infuriating, boring and/or enticing you with our own. Feel free to grit
your teeth, shout at your computer screen and email us your own objections/additions.
The best ones will be published in our spring 2010 issue.

 

To the musicians themselves: we love you all, and we wish we
had room for more than 50 out of the nearly 20,000 musically stimulating,
artistically groundbreaking, releases we received in 2009. But trust us:
appearing on the annual BLURT list is something you should aspire to – or at
least something your publicists should work towards so they can extract one
last fee from you – so if you don’t see your name below, work harder (duh) next
year. It just might be your ticket to fame, fortune, and a few stray Twitter
and Facebook mentions.

 

See also: Blurt
presents “The Artists Have Spoken” – some of our favorite artists submit their
personal Top Tens for 2009. And “Revenge of the Writers” – the staffers and contributors offer their personal best-of and worst-of lists. 

 

***

 

ARTIST & ALBUM OF
THE YEAR: Beirut – March of the Zapotec and Realpeople
Holland (Pompeii)

 

Way back in the spring we knew that Zach Condon’s latest
effort would be one of our favorites. We just didn’t calculate its lingering
potency. So here we are in December, still slack-jawed and genuflecting before
the album, of which we observed thusly in our review:

 

Orson Welles once
famously reveled in the bacchanalia of Brazilian carnival while filming
documentaries on the U.S.
government’s dime. Now, Zach Condon might not be as much the boy genius as
Welles was. But while vacationing in Oaxaca,
singer/composer Condon reportedly threatened to make his own films before
recording, impromptu-like, with a 19-piece marching Mexican band. Half of this
package was recorded under the quiet-man guise of Realpeople that he used for
pre-Beirut bedsit recordings. The best phrase to describe those tunes (dubbed
Holland) are tender traps – cool murkily produced
cave songs whose melodies shimmer when Condon’s voice ignite their flame. The
Zapotec songs? Not unlike the mile-high airiness
that impacts DeVotchKa’s quaint mash-up Balkan-bolero from below and above,
Condon’s “La Llorona” and “On A Bayonet” exist in an arid
vacuum; moments of foreign intrigue that come across as luridly alien but kinky
good fun.

 

Meanwhile, BLURT reporter Nancy
Dunham
tracked down Condon and filed a Beirut report in the first print issue of our
magazine (our sixth overall, following five digital magazines), which we
revisit here for your edification:

 

Think of Zach Condon
as something akin to a minstrel or pied piper
. Except he plays the trumpet
– not a flute – as he leads his followers. Now that his third album has been
released, expect the 23-year old leader of Beirut to have more devotees than ever as his
old-world style music with a peppy, sometimes poppy, indie-folk vibe gathers
momentum.

 

That following is a bit of a mystery to Condon who first won
Internet fame a few years ago when he recorded a bunch of songs in his bedroom
and began to post them – to great reviews – on MySpace. “My dad wanted me to be
a guitar player and he gave me guitar lessons and it just wasn’t clicking,”
says Condon. “I sort of chose the trumpet as a rebellion against him.”

 

Crediting his impetuous instrument choice at age 15 to a
fascination with a mariachi band, the instrument soon threatened to almost
overtake the life of the teen who had immersed himself in the Beach Boys and
Motown prior to picking up an instrument. First he started with his school’s
band – playing first chair for a few years – and soon he was tinkering with
writing and composing, sharing his work only with his older brother, who
offered ideas and constructive criticism.

 

“I remember I was completely dead set about making music
every day,” he explains. “It was one-sided. I was literally skipping school,
skipping meals. I didn’t think of it as a weird thing at all but I had just
dropped out of life.” Adding to his excitement was his discovery that he could
sing, too, although the trumpet is what kept him going. “You can pack so much
personality into a trumpet. You have complete control over the tone and pitch.
That’s something you don’t have with other instruments.”

 

A few attempts to form a band flopped, mostly because Condon
balked at having to ratchet down his experimentation and individual growth in a
collaborative setting. But once his music took off – specifically, with the
2007 release of The Flying Club Cup (Beirut debuted with 2006’s
Gulag Orkestar) – he “grabbed a couple friends that could play instruments and
formed the band. We started out with a four-piece, with a couple ukes, a bass
and drums. Then all of a sudden, everything blows up and I felt like I had to
make a bigger show.”

 

Beirut’s
lineup has thus far been a shifting one, sometimes expanding to as many as nine
players; at the moment it comprises five members. But don’t think the Santa
Fe-bred, New York
residing Condon has turned into a Chris Botti trumpet player, who famously
practiced every day just short of three years. In fact, Condon says he’s
something of the opposite of Botti. When tour time rolls around, he’s often a
bit rusty because he hasn’t played since the previous tour. That’s ok, though,
because Condon’s in no huge rush to hit a special goal. Perhaps that’s not
surprising for a guy with such a laid-back attitude that he originally named
his songs by pointing at a map and using whatever country’s name was under his
finger. (The band’s name, incidentally, was one of those original song titles
that stuck.)

 

“I don’t have that kind of discipline,” he says, of artists
with Botti-like practice regimens. “I wasn’t built for that rough of a
lifestyle. I had a problem first year and I realized I just had to take control
of the situation or someone else would. There are definite career paths I could
definitely see myself taking. For now, though, I just want to keep it open
ended.”

 

THE OTHER 49:

 

2. Doveman – The Conformist
(Brassland)

WE SAID: 10 out of 10 stars. The Conformist is so good, and Thomas
Bartlett’s music as Doveman is usually so undervalued…The songs on this album
are far more direct and (relatively) forcefully expressed than Bartlett’s music
has been in the past, but if it’s now a lot closer to rock music than it was in
the past it’s still an unusually graceful and gentle variety of it.

 

3. Flaming Lips –
Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

WE SAID: Probably the most forward-feeling album the group’s
done since their space-age symphony from 1999, The Soft Bulletin… “Jamming” [but] despite the inclusion of several
songs clocking in excess of five minutes, this is not traditional jamband
territory, thanks in no small part to producer Dave Fridmann’s watchful eye
over undue excess and a Teo Macero-like sensibility informing the editing and
mixing of the music.

 

4. Vivian Girls –
Everything Goes Wrong (In The Red)

WE SAID: The Vivian Girls make a glorious racket on “Walking
Alone at Night,” the fuzz-driven rocker that sets the tone for nearly
everything that follows… Pop as Beat Happening fans would understand it – nice
and primitive with just a hint of Carole King and the Spector girl-group vibe.

 

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs –
It’s Blitz (Interscope)

WE SAID: 10 out of 10
stars.
Gone are the Ramones-in-the-seventies guitar sounds, replaced by an
Arp synthesizer, [giving] It’s Blitz a retro yet funky sound. The
beat’s heavy when needed but there is just the right amount of musical
flavoring to spice up songs so they stand out from the crowd… may well be the
album to beat this year.

 

6. Jason Isbell &
the 400 Unit – Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit (Lightning Rod)

WE SAID: 10 out of 10
stars.
Lord, how did the boy get this good? From the playing to
the arrangements to the lyrical depth of emotion on display, not to mention the
rich Southern soul vibe coaxed from the if-walls-could-talk confines of Muscle
Shoals’ Fame Studios, this eponymous platter is a scorcher.

 

7. Russian Circles – Geneva (Suicide Squeeze)

WE SAID: By this, their third and most accomplished record,
Russian Circles have learned to mine the nuance within their grand, sweeping
statements. Geneva succeeds on its ability to maintain momentum and finesse on both ends of
the loud-quiet spectrum. Its dynamic lies in the band’s ability to weave its
parts together in a complementary coalescing of tones.

 

8. Avett Brothers – I
and Love and You (American Recordings/Columbia)

WE SAID: Frontloaded with some of the mellowest tunes the
band has ever recorded… Truth be told, though, while I and Love and You is suffused in an almost Zen-like restraint,
there’s still a fervor, a roaring passion lurking just beneath the surface that
will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the Avett Brothers thus far.

 

9. Sonic Youth – The
Eternal (Matador)

WE SAID: It’s vital, prickly, noisy, and more contagious
than anything they’ve done previously. There are the usual suspects of odd
off-kilter tunings. There are new elements, like SY’s three singers – Ranaldo,
Gordon, Moore – cackling as one. And it’s Sonic Youth’s fifteenth studio album…
moving lock, stock and sonic destruction to Matador.

 

10. Regina Spektor – Far (Sire)

WE SAID: The changes the 29 year old enacted with the rich
torchy pop of 2006’s Begin to Hope have grown in leaps and bounds ‘til we hit the present. That’d be #Far#; its kaleidoscopic draping and
purplish tones running behind Spektor’s lulling, prickling trill like a slowly
burning strip of film.

 

11. Sweet Billy
Pilgrim – Twice Born Men (Samadhisound)

WE SAID: 10 out of 10
stars.
Britain’s
Sweet Billy Pilgrim turns introspection into universality while somehow drawing
a line connecting melancholia to rapture. The trio’s sophomore effort has a
kaleidoscopic spectrum of associations: Shaker songs, Radiohead, poetic lyrics,
experimental electronics, and Jon Brion-esque cinematic gestures blur while
essentially remaining within standard song forms.

 

12. Monsters of Folk
– Monsters of Folk (Shangri La)

WE SAID: Lyrically, the songs draw from a well of
inspiration – spiritual questioning, the brotherhood of man, the meaning of
life and the search for happiness – shared by each of the songwriters in their
own work. Sonically, the album sounds like the Beatles post-Let It Be, with influences as diverse as
the strengths of the individual songwriters.

 

13. Sally Shapiro –
My Guilty Pleasure (Paper Bag)

WE SAID: As the album title suggests, fun throwbacks to dance sounds of the
‘90s and pop disco of the ‘80s – to which Shapiro herself added, “Of course,
this kind of music is easy to joke about, but the music and the feelings, they
are authentic.”

 

14. Tegan and Sara – Sainthood (Sire)

WE SAID: Sainthood is Tegan and Sara’s sixth album of overcast,
poppy folk dedicated to the frustration of love and relationships. The songs
come weeks, months, years down the road, allowing these stylistically
indistinguishable twins to finally say all the things they never could… They’ve
figured out how to fully collaborate after fourteen years [and] heartbreak may
be a thing of the past.

 

15. The Ettes – Do
You Want Power (Take Root)

WE SAID: They’ve got power, if you want it, with production
by Greg Cartwright of the Reigning Sound. But the Ettes are that rarest of
breeds – a garage-rock revival whose mojo doesn’t suffer when they pull it back
a notch or two. But if you think that means they’ve turned their backs on rock
and roll, you clearly haven’t heard the rockers here.

 

16. Them Crooked
Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)

WE SAID: Rather than think of this ever as a Zep-tribute,
from Josh Homme’s rattling low voice to the macho blues roll of the thing to
the rhythmic interplay between John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl, it often sounds
more dedicated to the likes of Mountain, Cream and even the Doors. Yet, it is
wholly its own proud, roaring entity.

 

17. Brother Ali – Us
(Rhymesayers)

WE SAID: Truth to power amid the obligatory boasting, Us is rich in the kinds of social
critiques that mainstream hip hop has seemingly marginalized of late. Brother
Ali has one of the most supple, melodic flows currently going, and it’s also to
his credit that he almost singlehandedly takes the folk-art tradition of
storytelling and elevates it to a new level.

 

18. Neko Case –
Middle Cyclone (Anti-)

WE SAID: If Neko Case got in touch with her inner animal on Fox
Confessor Brings the Flood
, with Middle Cyclone she’s nearly gone
full feral. Like Zen poet Gary Snyder, who says he prefers not to distinguish
in his work between nature and humanity, Case’s sixth full length challenges
the distinction between instinct and higher consciousness.

 

19. Chuck Prophet –
¡Let Freedom Ring! (Yep Roc)

WE SAID: A sense of unease and uncertainty, leavened by a
self-styled pugilist’s natural defiance, courses through these tunes. Part narrative,
part confessional, ¡Let Freedom Ring! is the sound of an artist at the top of his game.

 

20. Mountain Goats –
The Life of the World To Come (4AD)

WE SAID: John Darnielle has never shied from emotional
struggles and tough truths, even when they’re couched in fiction, and here he
deals with some of the big ones: crises of faith, questions of mortality, the
deep effects of friendship and love.

 

21. Lissie – Why You
Runnin’ EP (Fat Possum
)

WE SAID: Lissie’s music reflects a certain unpretentious
beauty. Her somewhat low and charmingly modulated voice dips and soars as she
sings about getting to heaven, corn fields and other Americana-themed images
[including] gospel, folk and other genres.

 

22. OTEP – Smash the
Control Machine (Victory)

WE SAID: Otep Shamaya is perhaps the most astute
contemporary chronicler of the human condition, in all its foibles and
hypocrisies, in rock ‘n’ roll today; if this were the ‘60s, she’d be at the
forefront of the folk protest movement. But it’s 2009, and with her band’s dramatic,
fist-pumping brand of melodic metal providing the backdrop, she’s as utterly
“now” as they come.

 

23. Busdriver – Jheli
Beam (Anti-)

WE SAID: From Jhelli Beam‘s first moments to its
last, MC Busdriver finally sounds like a man given the Christian name of
“Regan Farquahar.” It’s a rich, nearly-British sounding title and he
plays up its (his) theatricality like a team of schizophrenics tackling Hamlet.

 

24. Danger Mouse
& Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul (unreleased)

WE SAID: EMI blocked the release of the album for
undisclosed reasons, leaving fans to seek out the music via underground
avenues. Although it rarely gets particularly heavy, even with the sympathetic
strings, airy static bleeps and swells of orchestral harmony, this is a dark
album about lonely people searching for connection.

 

25. Wilco – Wilco
(The Album) (Nonesuch)

WE SAID: Wilco’s new record [is} awash in heart-on-sleeve
directness leavened by a deceptive sonic complexity that has songs peeling off
layers, like an onion skin, with each successive listen. Throughout, Jeff Tweedy
holds his head high, serving up some of the most impassioned vocals of his
career.

 

26. Steve Earle –
Townes (New West)

WE SAID: As clichéd as it sounds, Earle’s love and
admiration for the elder statesman of Texas songwriters, Townes Van Zandt, is
evident on each track. And while he delivers the goods faithfully, he doesn’t
let his reverence get in the way of making the songs his own. In fact, save for
“Pancho and Lefty,” he improves on the originals right down the line.

 

27. Tinariwen –
Imidiwan: Companions (World
Village)

WE SAID:
This is communal, performed music, meant to tie a troubled community together
and give it hope. Guitar solos, when they come, lift off in flurries and
slides, then settle back into an intoxicating home groove. The drums have a
side-slipping, caravan-like syncopation, not wholly foreign to American soul
and R&B rhythms, but bearing the unmistakable trace of the desert. The
vocals, a mournful call, a ghostly group response, [have] loneliness, loss,
endurance and human triumph in their repetitive cadences.

 

28. BLK JKS – After
Robots (Secretly Canadian)

WE SAID: In today’s clotted alt-rock market, a distinctive
style is essential. BLK JKS’ dubby debut EP, Mystery, suggested that
the South African quartet — though basically unknown abroad a year ago — had
already met that requirement. After Robots [is] every bit as exciting…
BLK JKS can be lucid as well as misty, which bodes well for their already
fairly brilliant career.

 

29. Duckworth Lewis
Method – Duckworth Lewis Method (1969)

WE SAID: Against the odds Neil Hannon of the Divine Comedy and Thomas Walsh
of Pugwash  have come up with a record
[about cricket] that’s not only hugely enjoyable but that also avoids the
dreaded “novelty album” category. [It pays] homage to Ray Davies, a
master of the genre when it comes to matters quintessentially English… and more
importantly, it’s also a great pop album.

 

30. Reigning Sound – Love and Curses
(In The Red)

WE SAID: There’s something positively regal about the music, a timelessness and a grace that’s often hard to find these
days… a pure dance party authenticity that reaches back decades while touching
the eternal teenager within. Reigning Sound: they’re real, and they definitely mean it.

 

31. Ryan Bingham
& the Dead Horses – Roadhouse Sun (Lost Highway)

WE SAID: Where 2007’s Mescalito suffered from some
sonic sameness, Roadhouse Sun explores much more musical territory,
from the crunching southern rock of “Day is Done” and “Endless
Ways” to the Byrds-ish “Dylan’s Hard Rain” and the stomping
bluegrass “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So.” Roadhouse Sun is
not just Mescalito‘s equal but its better.

 

32. James McMurtry –
Live In Europe (Lightning Rod)

WE SAID: Live in Europe is another chance to notice how in and around
the anger about macroscopic events, McMurtry is capable of extraordinary nuance
in describing the lives of ordinary people on a microscopic level.

 

33. Antony & the Johnsons – The Crying Light
(Secretly Canadian)

WE SAID: The Crying Light is not a New York album. Instead,
Antony sounds
like he has retreated inside himself, which translates into muted hooks, more
intricate arrangements, and songs that twist themselves into unusual shapes…
[It] may be a slow burner, but it burns long and bright.

 

34. Animal Collective
– Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

WE SAID: Merriweather Post Pavilion may be the most
hyped album by a band few people have ever heard of. Before it was even
officially released, bloggers were proclaiming it the best album of 2009. In
this case, you can believe the hype – well, most of it anyway.

 

35. Dave Rawlings
Machine – A Friend of a Friend (Acony)

WE SAID: The best thing about Rawlings [is] how
authentically he hedges the line between old-time heart and alt-country cool.
There’s something to be said for a guy who can equally channel the vibes of
A.P. Carter and Jim James.

 

36. Sharon Van Etten
– because i was in love (Language of Stone)

WE SAID: Early Cat Power comes to mind here; one embraces
her singing as a real-world, truth-telling antidote to the excessive theatrics
of pop stars like Mariah Carey. These introspective songs, their vulnerable and
slightly obtuse lyrics communicating a fragility about matters of importance to
a young woman’s heart, offer a welcome introduction to a new singer-songwriter
whose talent should win her a devoted, growing following.

 

37. Tom Waits –
Glitter & Doom Live (Anti-)

WE SAID: On the jazz-noir “Make it Rain,” the humpback swing
“Singapore” and the bleak and beautiful “Trampled Rose” there’s an
effortlessness between Waits and his tight six-piece ensemble that comes from
its master’s having lived within the roar for decades. He’s finally tamed the
beast.

 

38. Kid Sister –
Ultraviolet (Downtown)

WE SAID: A fresh, inspired, silly, infectious, danceable
hip-hop record. Its club leanings may make it a hard sell for hardcore hip-hop
heads, but the masses, primed by Lady Gaga and M.I.A., may ultimately embrace
Kid Sister’s dance-floor rap.

 

39. Wye Oak – The
Knot (Merge)

WE SAID: The language of country and roots music permeates
their borderline shoegaze rock, as slide guitars, pedal steel, and folksy vocal
arrangements splash light onto the band’s sometimes-gloomy musical tableau… A
thoroughly engaging and consistently interesting new record full of sentiment
and shifting dynamics.

 

40. Swell Season –
Strict Joy (Anti-)

WE SAID: This sophomore album doesn’t veer from the template
they initially established, one that’s occupied with lush textures, hushed
sentiments and a generally mellow mood. Fortunately though, they don’t get
bogged down in dour or dewy-eyed melancholia; these tracks build and crest,
ruminating with atmospheric ambiance that cushion these melodies and sweep them
up in a beguiling embrace. 

 

41. Justin Townes
Earle – Midnight at the Movies (Bloodshot)

WE SAID: When you’ve been sired by an alt-country insurgent
like Steve Earle it might be expected that you’d practice your own rebellious
regimen. [But] the younger Earle prefers to tap tradition, injecting bluegrass,
blues, folk and even ragtime into rootsy ruminations. Ultimately, Midnight
at the Movies
finds Earle a solid leading man.

 

42. Baroness – Blue
Record (Relapse)

WE SAID: The dark adjectives –
doom, gloom, sludge and so on – are quickly becoming insufficient for describing
Baroness’ metal. Its genre-stretching moments provide a bigger chunk of the
entertainment value than they did on 2007’s well-praised Red Album… sometimes Baroness goes into exhilarating territory by
taking only a few deliberate steps left of center.

 

43. Jim O’Rourke –
The Visitor (Drag
City)

WE SAID: [An] enriched sense of nuanced, film score-like
orchestration. Finding just the right blend of pulchritude and calm in its
subtle, layered composition and muted piano-and-banjo-laden space-outs, The
Visitor
makes for a great Sunday night dinner guest and is by far one of
the finest fares in O’Rourke’s wildly diverse catalog.

 

44. Mos Def – The
Ecstatic (Downtown)

WE SAID: Hearkening back to the spooky greatness of Black on Both Sides, it’s his strongest
effort in years, awash in autobiographical sketches set against a musically
exotic backdrop that includes liberal deployment of guitar – in hip-hop, an
underutilized instrument – and samples of Eastern music.

 

45. The xx – xx (XL
Recordings)

WE SAID: So many “x”s, so few “xo”s! But this British blend
of minimalist pop, dubstep and psychedelic folk plants such a big wet one on
you that you barely notice it’s simultaneously pickpocketing you. It’s moody,
but not maudlin, with a hard-to-disguise romantic streak that, in another era,
might be called bedsit music. In 2009, though, it’s just mesmerizing.

 

46. Metric –
Fantasies (Last Gang)

WE SAID: Metric’s ability to weave Emily Haines’ powerful
lyrics into songs that can be taken at face value – as punky, danceable, indie
pop that’s found plenty of commercial appeal – is the reason the band’s music
is magic. Those who want something deeper know that piercing the poppy, synth
heavy sound and tuning into Haines’ lyrics is akin to peeking into a diary –
heady stuff.

 

47. Handsome Furs –
Face Control (Sub Pop)

WE SAID: From the moment the glitchy synths begin popping on
opening track “Legal Tender,” the Handsome Furs start writing the
most idiosyncratic 8-bit love note ever composed on a synthesizer. Vague hints
of ‘80s nostalgia peek around the corner of every song, skulking like a late
night lover.

 

48. Dan Auerbach –
Keep It Hid (Nonesuch)

WE SAID: A quieter record, with elements of soul and country
added into the blues-rock the Black Keys are known for. Whatever Keep It
Hid
lacks in terms of surprise, it more than makes up for in solid songs
and guitar work.  Sometimes there’s something to be said for
dependability.

 

49. St.
Vincent – Actor (4AD)

WE SAID: Actor finds Annie Clark advancing several
steps further [than debut Marry Me] not only by embellishing the
arrangements to a greater degree but by purveying melodies that are still every
bit as compelling… Elusive and ethereal, her music mines a cosmic
consciousness, occupying the same space as My Brightest Diamond, Feist and
Joanna Newsom.

 

50. Girls – Album
(True Panther Sounds)

WE SAID: San Fran heroin chic duo (sometimes more like a sprawling collective) puts the “dope” back into
psychedelia like it was 1967 all over again, minus the hippie love-in silliness
– this, indeed, is deeply cynical stuff, but delivered so free-spiritedly that
you can’t help but bask in the sunshine pop that peeks through. How can you resist
an album with a song titled “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker”?

 

[Photo of Zach Condon of Beirut by Dennis Kleiman]

 

 

 

 

 

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