My Favorite Albums of 2009 5-1

I know we’re a few days in already, but I have a couple New Year’s resolutions I’d like to share with you, both of which pertain to language you find in abundance on the internet. The words “douche” (or “douchebag” or “douchetard” or “douchefuck” or et cetera) and “hipster” are used far too much on the internet. This year, I will not use the D-word (or any of its various permutations) on this blog. At all. Ever. It’s done. Don’t worry about me coming up with alternatives, either. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s finding new ways to hurl invective. As for the word “hipster,” when it comes to music, everyone thinks they know what a hipster is and everyone thinks it’s not them. It’s become a completely meaningless – and therefore useless – word. I don’t use that word a lot myself, but it is hereby banished from Bollocks! in the hopes that I can inspire other people on the internet to stop using it.

So let’s get on with the continuation of my meaningless – and therefore useless (but entertaining, one hopes) – list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. Here’s the score so far:

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man, Happy Man.

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!

10. Brother Ali, Us

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast

And now here’s the top 5:

5. Sparklehorse and Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul. I know, this album wasn’t technically released this year, but it damn well should have been. It’s still streaming on NPR’s website and the Wikipedia suggests that you can fire up your favorite torrent software and obtain a copy of the album for yourself at an exceedingly reasonable price. Sad thing is, Dark Night of the Soul is well worth the price of admission that EMI is so unwilling to charge. Featuring guest appearances by the likes of Wayne Coyne, Frank Black, and Iggy Pop (to name but a few), the album is pure beauty from start to finish. Danger Mouse has asserted himself as the preeminent collaborator of the last few years (perhaps of the decade, if you’re into that sort of declaration) and he and Mark Linkous (who collaborated on some of Sparklehorse’s underrated Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain) create gorgeous sonic landscapes upon which their friends (including David Lynch!) freely frolic. The highlights are numerous, but “The Man Who Played God” (featuring Suzanne Vega), “Insane Lullaby” (featuring the Shins’ James Mercer, who is partnering with Danger Mouse to release an album as Broken Bells later this year – I’m sure EMI will find some way to fuck it up, if at all possible), and “Star Eyes (I Can Catch It)” are my top 3. If you like music at all, find a way to hear this album, legality be damned!

4. Metric, Fantasies. I think 2009 was a pretty good year for the kind of pop music that I like to listen to. My favorite pop record of the year – no contest – is Fantasies by Metric. Emily Haines has an amazing, versatile voice and Fantasies is infused with loud guitars and pounding drums. This is the album you put on at top volume while flying down a freeway in the summer. And this is one band that understands brevity – the album is but ten tracks, but every single one is a killer. A different one gets stuck in my head on just about a daily basis, although “Sick Muse” and “Front Row” are the most frequent visitors. “Sick Muse” deserves special credit because, as the song builds to the chorus (where Haines sings “I’ll write you/ harmony in C”), it gives  me the feeling of going down a particularly awesome water slide or cannonballing into cool water from some dizzying height. That feeling is exactly the feeling you should get from pop music and it’s why Metric currently tops the list of bands I really need to see live.

3. TIE: Modest Mouse, No One’s First and You’re Next and Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. I know this is supposed to be some sort of exercise in perfectly ranking the albums I loved from last year, but there’s no escaping the fact that Modest Mouse and Lucero both made albums that I think are precisely the third best things I heard all year. No One’s First and You’re Next is technically an EP of songs recorded during sessions for Good News for People Who Like Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, and the songs make it clear that they weren’t omitted for a lack of quality. “Satellite Skin” and “History Sticks to Your Feet” are instant classic Modest Mouse tunes, to say nothing of “Autumn Beds” and “King Rat.” Rather than being a miniature pile of odds ‘n’ sods, No One’s First is a potent reminder of the fact (indisputable!) that Isaac Brock is a brilliant lyricist and that Modest Mouse has become a formidable musical force for awesome.

I know I haven’t reviewed Lucero’s 1372 Overton Park, but that’s because I just got it in the last month and haven’t stopped listening to it long enough to write about it. Yeah, Ben Nichols’s voice is shredded (it has been said of Tom Waits that he sounds like he gargled whiskey and broken glass. In that spirit, you could say Ben Nichols was gargling whiskey and broken glass when he accidentally swallowed), but he still tells a great story, (mostly) carries a tune, and manages to wax anthemic as fuck on album opener “Smoke.” There’s a badass horn section on nearly every song, but rather than coming off as gimmicky, the horns perfectly augment Lucero’s busted-ass country rock and aid the band in making their best album since 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, if it’s not their best album ever. You can have your Airborne Toxic Events and your Gaslight Anthems, but neither of those bands are fit to clear the (numerous) empty bottles from Ben Nichols’s table.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. If you watch the Grammys, it might be easy to forget that the word “artist” used to apply to a select group of people. On the Grammys, everyone’s an artist (for instance, Maroon 5 were named the best new artists of 2005. I’ll give you a minute if you need to go throw up), but in the really real world, the true musical artist is a dying breed. Or maybe not. Wayne Coyne, the Flamingest Lip, is a true musical artist, a guy who lives his art because it’s who he is. And in 2009, the Flaming Lips returned triumphantly with Embryonic, a spaced-out, bass-heavy, fuzzy hippie nightmare. Not nearly as experimental as Pitchfork would have you believe, Embryonic is nonetheless a powerful rock record featuring the Lips’ usual meditations on life, love, good, evil, ego, and death. And it all ends with the cosmic dance party “Watching the Planets,” the video for which features naked adults being born out of a giant vagina ball. No, really.

MY FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR:

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. If we learned anything last year, I think we learned that Neko Case is a goddess. Three years after releasing the excellent Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, Ms. Case topped herself with Middle Cyclone. Such beauty! Such violence: “Their broken necks will line the ditch until you stop it/ stop this madness” (from “This Tornado Loves You”); “The next time you say ‘forever’/ I will punch you in your face” (“The Next Time You Say Forever”); people are “filleted” on the stairs (“Polar Nettles”), and, of course, surprised when they’re eaten by man-eaters (“People Got A Lotta Nerve”). I could discuss at length, as other have, the obvious metaphors for romance as a force of nature (sometimes beautiful, sometimes deadly), but beyond all that academic shit, what the music of Middle Cyclone is – above all else – is almost profoundly gorgeous. Of the fourteen songs here, there are probably eight that give me chills every time I hear them. Listening to the album again (for the billionth time – if I ever get sick of this record, you can stick bamboo splinters soaked in lemon juice under my fingernails), the dreamlike “Prison Girls” is the one that really has a hold on me. For a while it was “Magpie to the Morning.” And so on. Neko Case is among the best singers in music right now, bar none, and Middle Cyclone is a stunning achievement. If you haven’t heard this album, there is a hole in your life that can, I suspect, be easily filled. Also, it bears repeating that Middle Cyclone‘s cover is among the most badass things I’ve ever seen.

The Songs of Rocktober 30-21

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Do you ever do “thirsty” Thursdays? Who has a job where they can do that? Don’t you have to work Friday morning? Okay, I don’t work until Friday afternoon, but I do work late  Thursday nights. If only there was some other way to celebrate this glorious Thursday. I know… how about ten more songs of Rocktober?

30. Sonic Youth – “Teenage Riot” – Probably Sonic Youth’s best song. It’s got a weird guitar tuning, but it’s a great song about how someone like J. Mascis should rule the world as some sort of guitar-wielding slacker Messiah. “Teenage Riot” is the lead track on 1988’s incredible Daydream Nation (you might notice that both Sonic Youth tracks on this countdown came from that record) and it might be the reason so many older indie types get all gooey over Sonic Youth. It may sound like typical electric indie stuff to the enlightened ears of 2009, but imagine this song hitting in 1988 when the best-known rock bands were complete tossers like Motley Crue, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Warrant, and Skid Row. In that context, Sonic Youth was performing a public service by releasing “Teenage Riot.”

29. Arctic Monkeys – “A Certain Romance” – “Over there, there’s broken bones/ there’s only music so that there’s new ring tones,” sings Alex Turner on the Arctic Monkeys’ best song (this is the one that was my gateway to liking this band). The lilting reggae guitar and jumpy bass line anchor the verses so Turner can focus on what’s really important: spittin’ some melodic vitriol. The Arctic Monkeys were but young pups when they cut this tune, but it is evidence of plenty of fight in those little dogs. It’s also evidence that their first album deserved some of the hype it got.

28. Wolf Parade – “This Heart’s On Fire” – Wolf Parade kinda splits its musical styles between the synth-driven pop of Spencer Krug and the growly, guitar-driven rock of Dan Boeckner. “This Heart’s On Fire” is a Boeckner tune, with chugging guitar, pounding drums, and earnestly howled vocals. I love the way Boeckner yelps “And you’re my favorite thing/ tell it everywhere I go/ I don’t know what to do” because every time I hear it, I realize that I’ve felt that way before. I might still feel that way now. Is a component of true love not knowing what to do with yourself? I think so. But there’s no way in hell I can sneak this song into my wedding play list anywhere. In lieu of that, it would make a good addition to Rocktoberfest (perhaps – perhaps! – a slightly better venue for it).

27. The Flaming Lips – “Be My Head” – I was in a pretty good band (I liked us) this year called Radical Edward. We played exactly one show (drummer moved to NY, bass player joined the Air Force. “And in June reformed without me/ and they got a different name”… just kidding. I hope) and in that show, we covered “Be My Head” by the Flaming Lips. This song, from Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, is tons of fun to play and sing or just listen to at top volume. The guitars are all crazy (nice riff on G in there) and Wayne Coyne is his usual awesome, weird self. Sing with me: “Be my head/ and I’ll be yours.”

26. The Breeders – “Cannonball” – This song is embedded in my brain from growing up a child of the alternative rock 1990s. It wasn’t until much later that I would learn that Kim Deal was from the Pixies (a little-known band who never did anything remarkable) – in the meantime, I had “Cannonball” and the Breeders. This song was all over alternative radio as soon as that existed, with the distorted vocals, the palm mutes, that zig-zaggy clean guitar line on the verse. Every time I listen to it, I just stop and listen and I forget that I was miserable through much of the 90s – I just remember this song (and a handful of others) looming large on my radio, urging me toward a life of rock music geekdom. Thank you, Kim Deal. Thank you.

25. David Bowie – “Queen Bitch” – Another song that Radical Edward covered; I loved blasting out that G-F-C progression and doing the chorus noodles. One of Bowie’s best rock tunes and, naturally, it’s about drag queens. Doesn’t matter though – Bowie was the king of the 70s. If he made an album, it was amazing. If he produced your album, it was amazing. If you travel back in time, go to the 1970s, hang out with David Bowie, and feel your awesomeness increase exponentially. Physicists call this effect the 1970s David Bowie Awesomeness Multiplier (or the 70s D-BAM for short)

24. My Morning Jacket – “Off the Record” – I know the guitar intro sounds like Hawaii Five-O. I know. But this song, the verse of which is sung by Jim James (the awesome bear) in a manner that somewhat channels the ghost of Joe Strummer (this is something most mortals cannot do – you have to be the halfbreed son of Awesome and a bear) and the chorus is skull-fuckingly catchy. This song still makes me want to jump around the room and shout “Off the record!” along with Jim the Bear every time I hear it. And I hear it a lot. For a band that pretty much only traffics in raucous badassery, “Off the Record” is still a crowning achievement.

23. Titus Andronicus – “Titus Andronicus” – Time to get a little bit obnoxious. This New Jersey band is loud, abrasive, and – at times – unlistenable. Underneath all that is something of a melodic sense, which is brought to the forefront in “Titus Andronicus”, their catchiest song by far. The lyrics are dark (there’s even a tossed-off “Fuck everything/ fuh-uck me!” in there) and angry: “There’ll be: no more cigarettes/ no more having sex/ no more drinking ’til you fall on the floor/ no more indie rock/ just a ticking clock/ you’ve no time for that any more” and the chorus is “Your life is over.” It’s mad cathartic. My sister was dying when I first heard this band and I was plenty angry that someone so awesome would only live 31 years. So this is the song I listened to when I wanted to punch everyone and everything right in the fucking face. It still is.

22. Iggy Pop – “Lust for Life” – I’ve already established that David Bowie was awesome in the 70s. Proof? He produced Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life album, the title track of which (despite now being used to shill for cruise companies) is still one of the most badass songs ever. It features an iconic bass line and Mr. Pop talking about how he’s  worth a million in prizes (and how he’s had it in his ear before; you get three guesses as to what “it” is). Though he vows to stop beating his brains with liquor and drugs, you get the feeling that this guy is a more frequent backslider than Pete Doherty (If you don’t know who Pete Doherty is, do not despair. Simply substitute “Amy Winehouse” for “Pete Doherty” to make that joke work).

21. Franz Ferdinand – “Take Me Out” – This song got all the love in the world when it first came out, which (of course) meant that I resisted it with all my might. But no longer. “Take Me Out” is a pop treasure that actually rocks. The jagged rhythm guitars (that are, toward the end of the song, lovingly embraced by snarly little lead noodles), the crisp cymbal crashes, the fatalistic “I know I won’t be leaving here with you” lyrics. It still makes the feet stomp, and it still should.

There are only two days left of this madness. And then the ‘Fest begins. Tomorrow’s set features four of the best songs of the 1990s, a surprising (well, not to me) but raucous cover song, and a guy who banged Courtney Love and then understandably shot himself.

Here’s a lot of linkage if you missed the beginning of this countdown or want to go back and confirm that I have, so far anyway, excluded your favorite band: 100-91 90-81 80-71 70-61 60-51 50-41 40-31