My Favorite Music In 2009

So I actually listened to some new music this year, although I didn’t go out on too many limbs. Gonna try to put them in some semblance of order, in ascending order of how much I listened or want to listen to them; drumroll, please…

The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

Gotta admit, I don’t listen to the Flaming Lips much. I mean I liked “Fight Test” okay when it came up on the radio but it wasn’t like THIS IS A REVELATION I NEED MORE FLAMING LIPS, STAT. It was ok pop music, basically, not that it makes me a good person to judge a band by its radio singles. Embryonic is basically being roundly hailed as a rebirth for the band, and the band seems to be embracing this with all kinds of unsubtle vaginal imagery in both the album cover and the video for the last song (VERY NSFW, NAKED PEOPLE AHOY) on the album, which (the imagery) makes the band name sound like something that someone really ought to see an OB-GYN about.

But I digress! Really I’m not sure what to think of this album. I mean it starts with basically the skronkiest guitar sound I’ve heard in years and only gets more psychadelic from there, and those of you who know me will know that “psychadelic” isn’t really my thing, but on the other hand it’s a double album that I don’t end up drumming my fingers and waiting for it to be over! The lyrics are frankly kind of stupid in places and New Age-y almost everywhere, but they’re serviceable and inoffensive and the focus is really on the weird-ass music. And this album really does have the works in terms of weird-assery. One of the songs samples what I can only assume is a lecture on some kind of higher mathematics, to give you an idea. It’s not necessarily all that melodic, but it is cohesive and compelling, and with some more TLC it might have been higher on this list.

Points of entry: I don’t know, actually; when I throw this album on, all the songs kind of blend together, like they should in a good cohesive album. Not to say they’re homogeneous, because they’re not, just that they flow well. The first track, “Convinced of the Hex,” sets the stage very well, with the tone of menace that’s sustained for almost the whole length, and also has that skronky guitar I was talking about.

Circulatory System - Signal Morning

I’m showing my preference for (a) more melodic music by (b) bands I already know by putting this and Embryonic at the bottom of my list, which is why I can’t really claim any aspirations toward making a significant pastime out of music writing. Circulatory System has some distant ties to Neutral Milk Hotel, which as you may know released one of the most highly regarded indie albums of all time — In the Aeroplane Over the Sea — about a decade ago. Maybe you didn’t. I guess my point is that this band has a pedigree.

Signal Morning is no Aeroplane Over the Sea or it’d probably be my number 1, but it’s got that tender, flaky combination of moist sumptuous melodies and mildly abrasive electronica and distortion. It’s almost old-style (more on what I mean by this later) Fiery Furnaces-esque in this combination, and suspect that it too will reveal, you know, facets and shit with repeated listening. The FFs have made me feel that it’s not really anything breathtakingly new, and some of the songs are a little directionless and tuneless for me, but there are some tracks that take risks and succeed gloriously. Also the album ends with the title track, and I always love that (see: Destroyer’s Thief, and by the way that link is to an article by John Darnielle about said album, or really more about Destroyer in general, which is pretty awesome in several ways).

Points of entry: “Round Again” sums this album up pretty well, with its endless variations on one motif and propensity for changing gears in the middle without sounding like a totally new song (which is what sets these guys apart from the Fiery Furnaces' early albums). Same applies to “Blasting Through,” maybe even more so.

The Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away

Wow! The Fiery Furnaces make an album that sounds kind of normal! I don’t like it as much as the stuff that was totally fucked! But it’s a damn fine album nonetheless. Certainly easier to listen to than, say, Widow City, which I can’t imagine most people throwing on while trying to do their math homework.

Eleanor’s lyrics on I’m Going Away ain’t winning no prizes from me — I have to admit I prefer Matt’s ridiculously detailed and impossible-to-sing vague story tunes to Eleanor’s more conventional tales of woe and loss — but they do probably suit the music better than Matt’s words would. All in all, this is the album the Furnaces-skeptics have been clamoring for ever since some fool wrote that they could be a good band if they just reined in their excesses and wrote the pop songs we all knew they had in them. Here you go, guys. It’s no Blueberry Boat, but it’s pretty good.

Points of Entry: Lead single “Even In The Rain” is, indeed, a top-notch pop song, despite the WTF-inducing guitar solo (of which there are many on this album; one gets the sense that Matt poured some of his weirdness into his guitar work since it doesn’t manifest itself as much in the songwriting). Anyway, the video is pretty funny too. I think the best song might be “Staring at the Steeple,” with a lumbering menace that the rest of the album lacks.

Blackout Beach, Skin of Evil

Conventional pop album → weird, spiky, fucking oppressive album. You may but probably don’t know Carey Mercer as the evil genius behind Frog Eyes, makers of some of the most demented music I’ve had the pleasure to experience, and here he’s recording under a new name. He’s toned down the manic intensity of some of Frog Eyes' work but left in all the menace and masculine fury (“…but fucking William, I want to crack his neck and perform one million castrations with his bones…”) in a vaguely elaborated concept album about a woman, Donna, and the men who loved her and still probably do. Or hate her, or more likely hate the other men who loved her. All of the above.

Mercer’s lyrics are almost incomprehensible when you listen but fascinating when you read them, and they lend a lot of weight to an album with kind of a thin concept. Hell, so do the song titles — “Cloud of Evil,” “Nineteen, One God, One Dull Star,” “Astoria, Menthol Lite, Hilltop, Wave of Evil 1982” — and the music, which honestly I can hardly call any of it to mind right now. All I can think of when I think of this album is Mercer’s voice, intoning threats and mantras and unhinged missives. I imagine this Donna as a light too bright to look at directly — she gets a song, “Woe to the Minds of Soft Men,” whose name is also its only lyric — and the other men as planets, orbiting her in a cold, terrible emptiness and occasionally shooting lasers at each other for having the audacity to orbit the same star.

Points of Entry: Well at this point you’re probably skeptical that there are any. And I hate to keep just picking the first song on the album, but the first song here, “Cloud of Evil,” really does pretty much open things up just the way it should. Hell, just those drums at the beginning make me a little uncomfortable. Which is basically what this album should do.

The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love

Man some people had a hate-on for this album. Other people freaking loved it. It’s not the Decemberists' best album. I mean let’s face it, two of the songs are exactly the same except the lyrics, which is pardonable in a concept album that tells a mostly coherent story but still seems a bit phoned in. And the first like 5 or so songs are pleasant enough but kind of drag a little. Maybe a little boring, even. And I don’t really like Becky Stark, one of the guest vocalists who features prominently in them.

But! I’ll take a slow first few tracks over the massive front-loading that so many bands do these days. And I think I’ve mentioned how the other guest vocalist, Shara Worden, completely blows the shit out of the water in every track she appears on, and it’s like the first word she sings jolts the album out of its first few tracks' stupor and everything from then on careens unstoppably toward its unavoidable, tragic and slightly nonsensical conclusion. Not the best album from the Decemberists, but the most ambitious, the hardest rocking, and ultimately the most deliciously over-the-top.

Points of Entry: More than any other album on this list, this one is a narrative, and so any individual track will suffer. But The Rake’s Song got some radio airplay, and it’s a good Decemberists-y pop song about murdering one’s offspring, and the aforementioned Worden-inspired shit-blowing-out-of-water occurs in “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid,” so you might want to check that one out too.

DOOM - Born Like This

This album is basically DOOM doing his thing again. Me, I love the thing he does, so it was pretty much a given that I’d be a fan of Born Like This, and from what I’ve heard I think it’s my favorite of DOOM’s solo releases and a hair above Vaudeville Villain (DOOM’s alter ego Viktor Vaughn’s album). Not as good as Madvillainy (but then, what is?) and difficult to compare to The Mouse and the Mask.

Lyrically, DOOM’s never been stronger, enough so that the guest spots kind of irritate me even though they’re not bad. The lyrics are somewhat heavier than they’ve been in the past, with DOOM trading Adult Swim for Bukowski, but the flow is the same, and of course I eat that shit up, even though I wrinkle my nose at the playful but nonetheless repugnant homophobia (disguised as superhero roasting, but not very well) in “Batty Boyz.” Goddamn that track and my feeling like I need to make excuses for liking this album even though it’s on there. The bottom line is that DOOM is as solid as ever, and the beats are among the best he’s ever rapped over, with “Gazzillion Ear” kicking things off in fine form with a sweet gear-change a third of the way through, “That’s That” featuring an effective but (to my ear) unconventional use of strings under some of the most enjoyably tongue-twisting lyrics on the album, and “Supervillainz” knocking things down with a beat so rambunctious and asinine that the album dissolves into nonsense after it. Woo!

Points of Entry: I mean, “Gazzillion Ear” is good enough that Thom Yorke (!) thought it would be a good idea to remix it (!!??!?), so it’s probably as good a starting point as any. Arguably, though, the centerpiece of the album is “Cellz,” which opens with the aforementioned Bukowski reading and concludes with DOOM basically, as far as I can tell, yelling at those damn kids to get off his lawn (“Kids doing skid bids, acting out is terrible/Word is bond, fix your clothes, put a shirt on/Pants sagging back when used to meant you had a skirt on/Squirts posin' as thuggers and hustlers”). I’m looking forward to some fucking crotchety old-man rap on DOOM’s next album in 2012.

the Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come

Well, obviously. The only surprise about this album is that it’s not at the top (well, technically the bottom) of this list. TLOTWTC (not a good acronym, but better than typing out the full album name) has drawn comparisons to the Mountain Goats' other “difficult” album Get Lonely because of its lack of rollicking uptempo numbers about people reaching the ends of their ropes, wanting to kill each other, etc., where it sounds like John Darnielle’s just got to be getting spittle all over that microphone — furious travelogue “Psalms 40:2” (which they played on the Goddamn Colbert Report) being a notable exception.

But, of course, TLOTWTC still has songs about people in cul-de-sacs and bottoms of pits, who can only hope that there’s no way to go but up, because those people are and have always been John Darnielle’s stock in trade. It’s just that on Get Lonely and this album they don’t so often feel the need to yell about it.

Last year’s Heretic Pride seemed to me like tMG’s “Awesome, we have a drummer now!” album, but now that Jon Wurster’s presence has had some time to sink in he’s not busting out his mad chops as often. The drumming on TLOTWTC is atmospheric as often as it is propulsive — viz. the first and last tracks — and it works to the album’s credit. tMG have never been about virtuosity, but Wurster is a skilled drummer, and even when he’s not flagrantly showcasing that skill he’s subtly lending some extra oomph to the quieter tracks.

There are a lot of quieter tracks on TLOTWTC, many of which are genuinely affecting; my two favorite examples of this are “Deuteronomy 2:10,” a startlingly vivid evocation of three creatures facing their species' extinctions, and “Matthew 25:21,” wherein Darnielle is himself the character at the end of his rope as he faces his mother-in-law’s death from cancer. Oh, by the way, all the tracks are named after Bible verses, in case you hadn’t heard. Despite this, Darnielle’s lyrics are in much the same vein as ever: sometimes inscrutable, as in the probably heavily metaphorical Christian-about-to-get-eaten-by-lions (maybe? unless the “beast” mentioned is the Devil?) song “1 John 4:16,” and sometimes pretty much totally straightforward, as in “Matthew 25:21.” All in all, it’s another Mountain Goats album that doesn’t disappoint, and I expect nothing less than the best from them anymore.

Points of Entry: Well, as I said, “Psalms 40:2” got played on the Colbert Report, so I guess the band thinks it’s the best hook to draw people in, and I can’t really disagree. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the last song on the album, “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” which has a nice video that has the vocals mixed too high but will still give you an idea of what to expect from the several piano-driven songs on TLOTWTC.

Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer

Poor Spencer Krug and his Sunset Rubdown didn’t even make my list the last year they made an album, Random Spirit Lover in 2007. Too bloated, hectic, inscrutable, dense and tuneless to my ears. They knocked it out of the park with Dragonslayer, though, a concise 10-song warrior of an album with hella catchy melodies, typically labyrinthine and literate lyrics from Krug, and nary a dull moment anywhere on it.

Dragonslayer is supposedly the result of a conscious effort on the part of the band to use fewer overdubs, but it still gets pretty busy in places. The big difference I hear is that the songs are actually really good. Random Spirit Lover devotees have been decrying the lack of experimentation, but few of Dragonslayer’s songs are structured in any kind of conventional way, and there’s enough abrasive guitar squalling for me, at least, on “Black Swan,” which for some reason seems to be the lead single, if indeed that’s what the presence of a trippy video indicates.

Spencer Krug’s voice is the same as it ever was: “yelpy” is the (not actually a) word that comes to mind. For me, it’s remarkably effective when it’s put into the service of some actual compelling melodies, and Dragonslayer has them in spades. Add in the metaphor-laden lyrics that seem to reveal more about what Krug’s yelping about with every listen while still keeping some essential kernel of truth shrouded in mystery, and you’ve got the whole package: an album that feels like it’s just the right length, and one that’s as immediate as it can be while still demanding repeated listenings. All that and the goddamn thing’s only $5 if you buy it through Amazon, and has been for months! Of the albums I’ve heard this year, this one’s the best, and it’s an uncontested best, not like in previous years. Do yourself a favor and go get it.

Points of Entry: Probably the rockingest song on the album is Idiot Heart, which I gather has been around for a while but kicks ass in its final form here. My favorite of the more subdued tracks is “Nightingale/December Song,” which contains some references to previous Krug lyrical mythology but has a lyric that stands alone too: “Like all fireworks and all sunsets, we all burn in different ways/You are a vast explosion and I am the embers,” so good! Most of the tracks are on YouTube, actually, and it’s hard to pick any more to put above the others, they’re all so good. Other tracks on this album are “You Go On Ahead,” “Silver Moons” and “Dragon’s Lair.”

And then, of course, there are some albums I just didn’t get around to absorbing like I ought to’ve. Among them:

Lastly, a couple EPs that bear mentioning: Destroyer’s Bay of Pigs, mostly just the title track, which is standard-issue Destroyer lyrics (beginning with the apt line “Listen/I’ve been drinking”) over a surprisingly effective “ambient disco” backing track, and Moonface (actually just Spencer Krug under yet another pseudonym) with “Dreamland EP: marimba and shit-drums,” which I’ve actually only listened through once because it came out last month, but right now I’m feeling like Krug can do no wrong, Random Spirit Lover notwithstanding, and of course the EP’s name is an obvious winner.

Here’s to an awesome musical 2010. I’ve already got the new Vampire Weekend (preliminary verdict: too much studio fuckery, songs not as good, still fun) and the new Owen Pallett (previously Final Fantasy) (preliminary verdict: if the chips were down I might go gay for him). <3 music!