My 13 Favorite Albums of 2009 13-6

Well, here we are in 2010, the year we make contact. For those of you who don’t know, a new federal law went into effect at midnight on New Year’s Day: if you hear any of your fellow citizens call this year “oh-ten”, it is legal to punch them in the face exactly one time.

Having safely seen 2009 out the door, I think it’s time to start talking shit about it. Everyone loves a list, especially one that doesn’t include Animal Collective or Phoenix, so I compiled a list of my 13 favorite albums of 2009. I don’t know if they’re the best albums of the year or not and I don’t care. They’re the ones I like the best and, honestly, I think that’s all anyone can say. Also, my list contains 14 albums (well, technically, 13 albums and an EP) because there was a tie. Anyway, feast yer eyes on this here list (helpfully rendered in a distinctly non-slide-show format):

13. Lord Cut-Glass, Lord Cut-Glass. I’ll just assume everyone knows that Lord Cut-Glass is really former Delgado Alun Woodward. And I know that my review of this record spent a good deal of time bitching about how the Delgados ought to just reunite, come to the U.S. and play shows in the courtyard of my apartment complex. But the fact remains that Lord Cut-Glass is a really beautiful record; Woodward lilts over plucked acoustic guitars and low brass, quietly issuing some of the best melodies of his career. Highlights include “Picasso,” “Even Jesus Couldn’t Love You,” “Holy Fuck,” “A Pulse” and “Big Time Teddy.”

12. Mike Doughty, Sad Man Happy Man. Last year, Doughty put out an album called Golden Delicious that I liked well enough at first. And then it kinda grew off of me with a stunning quickness. Just wasn’t feeling it, I guess. However, because I love Mike Doughty, I’m always willing to listen to his stuff. This year, he put out the superb Sad Man Happy Man, which I nabbed from Amazon’s digital store for five freaking bucks (gargle my balls, I-Tunes). SMHM is driven by Doughty’s chunky guitar strumming and absurd humor, and it’s my favorite album of his since Skittish (which has to be one of the most underrated albums I’ve ever heard). It opens with one of its best moments, “Nectarine (Part Two)” and also includes the coolest prayer ever (“Lord Lord Help Me Just to Rock Rock On”) and “Year of the Dog,” which might be Doughty’s best tune since “Sweet Lord in Heaven.”

11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz. 2009 was a great year for some of my favorite female vocalists, not least of whom is Karen O. of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Not only did I get to delight in an affordable deluxe edition of It’s Blitz! (Amazon’s mp3 store has not yet let me down in the cheap goodies department), but I got to see the Yeah Yeah Yeahs play a kickass set at Coachella (one of the best sets I saw at that festival). The album is filled with awesome turbo-pop (starting with a pair of aces in “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”) and a few pretty ballads (“Hysteric” splits the difference between the two types of song and is, in two words, fucking awesome). It’s Blitz! firmly established the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as one of the best bands in America and their live shows will back that claim up for the doubters.

10. Brother Ali, Us. I could make a joke about how Brother Ali is the king of white rap (ha ha, because he’s an albino, ha ha), but, taking Us as exhibit A for the prosecution, it’s more accurate to place Ali near the top of the hip-hop heap, regardless of skin pigment. Jay-Z has never, in my estimation, done anything to rival  “Tightrope” or “The Travelers.” To my knowledge, he’s never even tried. With Us, Ali threw down a gauntlet of new rules for the hip-hop community, chief among them: no skits and fewer songs about how badass you are (Us has ’em, but they’re matched pound for pound by songs of real substance and at least one tune wherein Ali shows gratitude for his good fortune, saying, “I’m the luckiest sonofabitch that ever lived”). Us is a truly refreshing album, and it stays fresh with every listen.

9. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Speaking of refreshing, Camera Obscura released one hell of an orchestral pop album last year. My Maudlin Career, despite its potentially emo-sounding name, starts and ends with a bang (“French Navy” and “Honey in the Sun”, respectively) – in between, Tracyanne Campbell drops lines like “when you’re lucid, you’re the sweetest thing” and “drinking has never been the same again”, the latter from the stellar, mournful ballad “Other Towns and Cities”. My Maudlin Career is so good that I think almost anyone who likes music will like it. But some people who like music like Wavves, so I could be wrong.

8. The Minus 5, Killingsworth. Killingsworth is the album that elevated Scott McCaughey from Person of Interest to Folk Hero in my estimation. It’s basically a dark country rock album, but it’s so fully realized and wittily rendered (“your wedding day was so well-planned/ like a German occupation”) that it cannot be denied. Backed by an excellent chorus of women, McCaughey sings of lurking barristers, broken love, and crowded urban apartment life (“Big Beat Up Moon”) with a drunken weariness that is deeply appealing to young curmudgeons like myself. He also takes the time to satirize fundamentalist Christianity on “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, a song that never fails to but a big smile on my face.

7. The Future of the Left, Travels with Myself and Another. I have said many times that, all appearances to the contrary, I like more music than I dislike. A small subsection of music that I like is nasty, noisy stuff that almost no one else I know likes. Titus Andronicus comes to mind here, as does the Future of the Left, whose Travels with Myself and Another beat its way into my skull and won my heart last year with its pounding drums and Andy Falkous’s snarling vocals. Subjects range from girls who get off on hitting people (“Chin Music” will only be appropriate at a very small number of weddings:  “I only hit him ’cause he made me crazy/ I only hit him ’cause he made me mad/ she only hit him ’cause it gets her wet/ yeah, she’s one of a kind/ she’s got chin music”) to the practical concerns of Satanism (“You Need Satan More than He Needs You”). Travels with Myself and Another pretty much kicks ass, though it’s not for the faint of heart or the humorless.

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast. I guess #7 and #6 on my list are a study in contrast. Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast is an understated, mellow, and completely lovely work – his finest to date, if I may be so bold. It blends Bird’s myriad musical talents (no one on earth – no one – can whistle like this motherfucker) into quirky pop (“Fitz and the Dizzyspells”), old school folk (“Effigy,” which is nothing short of stunning), and whatever you’d classify “Not a Robot, But a Ghost” as. Some of the songs have unique movements, but they never seem to wander, even on the seven minute “Souverian.” Bird is a musician’s musician, a guy you can study as well as enjoy, and Noble Beast is the textbook for aspiring musical ninjas.

I know. It’s taken me four days into the new year to even start counting down my favorite albums of the old year and now I’m doing it in two parts. Pitchfork took a week to do their list and they still fucked it up, so maybe it’s better that I’m taking my time. I, for one, wholeheartedly endorse every choice I’ve made so far. Tune in tomorrow or Wednesday for albums 5 through 1, which are bound to include demure rodents, plenty of references to whiskey, a rant about shitty record labels, the best pop album of the year, the word vagina, and plenty of weather.

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Cass McCombs < Jason Mraz? A Discussion of Strummy Songwriters

CASS MCCOMBS- CATACOMBS

While this is, ostensibly, a review of Cass McCombs’s new album Catacombs, it will end up being a rundown of the guy-with-guitar-and-heart-on-his-sleeve genre, a genre that’s getting a little too bloated of late. Someone needs to sift the wheat from the chaff, and, unfortunately, Cass McCombs is firmly in the chaff.

I can sum up Catacombs for you in one word: boring. Or two words: fucking boring. How about three? Really fucking boring. You get the idea. Moving on.

There are several variations on the dude/guitar/singer/songwriter formula, some of which are all right and some of which are annoying as hell. Jason Mraz, while still a more compelling listen than Cass McCombs (it pains me to say that), traffics in the gimmicky word-play, gee-look-how-fast-I-can-spew-semiclever-lyrics sort of singing/songwriting. So, needless – but still fun – to say, Jason Mraz really sucks. This doesn’t seem to stop people from adoring him, much like another strummy bum I know named Jack Johnson who is my generation’s Jimmy Buffet (those of you who have read Bollocks! even one time know there is no way that can be a compliment). Jack Johnson did a bunch of songs for the Curious George soundtrack and it still impresses me that he escaped playing the titular character as well.

And I’m not merely complaining about the genre here because there are good singer/songwriters out there. They’re just hard to find sometimes. M. Ward is pretty awesome, largely because he writes good melodies and has a deliciously old-school sound to him that I really dig. Elliott Smith was one of the best of the stummy bunch, and is probably largely responsible for people like Cass McCombs and this one uber-emo kid I saw at a small theatre in Sherman Oaks last week (I’m not gonna out the kid here, but he was hilariously, embarrassingly bad – I literally laughed through his set).

Technology has served to somewhat democratize the music business in recent years because we’ve reached a point now where anyone with a laptop and a halfway decent microphone can make an album. The one big downside to this is that anyone with a laptop and a halfway decent microphone can make an album. It doesn’t mean everyone should. I can’t speak for McCombs’s other albums, but with Catacombs, he’s crafted easily one of the ten most boring albums I’ve ever heard (and my parents listen to Kenny G for dog’s sake). So if you find your normal listening choices a little too exciting, why not try Catacombs?

McCombs’s biggest mistake is assuming that long and winding melodies will compensate for the one-dimensionality of the record as a whole. In his case, the melodies are all delivered at a near-whisper (I know Iron and Wine does this but the key difference is that Iron and Wine is, generally, awesome) and in half the songs, they’re repeated well past the five minute mark (incidentally, I don’t have a problem with songs being longer than five minutes. But, if you’re going over five, your song should be at least as awesome as The Clash’s “Straight to Hell” or LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends”, which surpasses seven minutes and is still one of the best songs of the decade. Yes, the whole fucking decade). While Pitchfork finds this “aurally hypnotic,” I would like to suggest they’re confusing hypnosis with coma-inducing boredom.

Elliott Smith was one of the few singer/songwriters I can think of who could whisper his way through most of his songs and not sound like a tool, and that’s largely due to a lyrical skill that your McCombses, Mrazes, & Johnsons couldn’t touch in a lifetime of trying. Listen to “Say Yes” if you doubt that shit. In fact, listen to all of Either/Or and XO if you doubt that shit. And, if you doubt that shit after that, you’re quite possibly hopeless.

There’s a certain point where I feel like Cass McCombs is too committed to the shtick of being a lo-fi, quiet, “mysterious,” singer/songwriter and that’s a death trap for innovation. Tom Waits realized this in the early 80s  when he got tired of being the wisecracking, boozed up, jazz/country piano man and started making some of the most interesting (and awesome) music of that entire decade. And yet, I somehow doubt you’ll hear much about Frank’s Wild Years on I Love the 80s. Why? Because, as stated so many times before, VH1 knows fuckall about good music. (And, in a way, Tom Waits is the king of all the singer/songwriters – I’m not one to agree with the Pitchfork kids much, but I have a hard time disputing their assertion that “You will not write a better song than Tom Waits. Period.”)

Some of you may want to cry “sexist” at me for not including any women in this singer/songwriter rundown, but here’s why I didn’t: generally speaking, the women do it better than the boys. Neko Case would roughly fit the singer/songwriter mold here and Middle Cyclone is a fucking masterpiece. If Catacombs could compare to it, I’d give Cass McCombs an actual review instead of using his album as a springboard to complaining about his chosen genre.  (I just envisioned sitting the two albums on a table together and watching Neko leap off that car’s hood and chopping Catacombs in half. Kathleen Edwards is also superior to many of her male counterparts, though she seems to get a lot less press. Ani DiFranco is not only better than Jason Mraz but I’m pretty sure she could beat him in a fight (also, she’s one of the most truly, committedly, and successfully independent artists out there right now – so independent, in fact, that Pitchfork doesn’t seem inclined to review her albums). And I know she’s been quiet for a while, but I’ve got pleny of love for Beth Orton as well.

So here’s the thing, I think: the solo singer/songwriter field is littered with mediocrity because it’s so easy to do. You buy a guitar, figure out some chords, and then pour your soul out onto a piece of paper. You weld the words to a melody you can repeat with your modest vocal range, you repeat it until someone listens, you make an album, and some asshole in Los Angeles spends a thousand words and the better part of a morning completely shitting on your precious art. On a long enough timeline, we can all be singers in cafes and, no matter how shitty our songs are, we can find at least one person who thinks we’re so deep. But let’s not do that, okay? Please?