The end of 2009 is upon us, friends. It was a year that many of us didn’t look forward to, already knowing to expect financial woes and potential job losses (if not already realized ones) going into it – a year where the unexpected road ahead seemed to promise more hardship than exciting new possibilities to explore. but a poor year for the world was a rich year for music – either because artists channelled their angst into some of the best songs they’d ever written, or because more and more of them were jumping ship on the big labels and finding freedom to go where their imaginations would take them even if the audiences weren’t as big as a result. Some found artful ways to downsize while others played it as over-the-top as they could in defiance of expectations. In the end, it was a more exciting year than I could have anticipated, one that has left me with a lot to look forward to.
THE TOP 10 ALBUMS OF 2009:
1. Vienna Teng – Inland Territory
Vienna is no stranger to my year-end lists, having taken over the top of my 2002 list retroactively after I first discovered her music in 2003, coming very close to the top in 2004, and then scoring another #1 spot in 2006. She’s done it again with an album that is more stylistically varied than any of her past work, still recalling the lush piano ballads of her early days and the textured chamber pop of Dreaming Through the Noise, but also exploring a newfound love for electric keyboards (“White Light”, “Kansas”, “The Last Snowfall”), and taking thrilling detours into Gospel/spiritual territory (“Grandmother Song”), ragtime (“In Another Life”), and even a brief flirtation with Latin music (the bridge of “No Gringo”). By the time you get to the shockingly aggressive “Radio”, it’s easy to see the breadth of artistic brilliance at this woman’s fingertips – and that’s not even taking into account the songwriting, which populates the dry land between two seas with all manner of fictional characters – some heartbroken, some indignant, some poor and homeless, some too privileged to think they’re vulnerable. It’s more of a “mixtape” album than a “mood” album that flows consistently from track to track, and that’s by Vienna’s own admission, but when the results demonstrate an ability to think outside the box so consistently, I can’t complain.
Standout Tracks: “Antebellum”, “No Gringo”, “Radio”, “The Last Snowfall”
2. Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome
Derek Webb’s sudden genre switch from rootsy folk/rock to glitchy electronica could have been as disastrous as I’m expecting Joaquin Phoenix‘s hip-hop career to be, but given Webb’s tendency to hit his audience where hit hurts, the music needed to have a little bit of attitude. Most critics will focus on the fact that Webb dared to say the s-word on “What Matters More”, a sort of contraband track that isn’t on the version of the album you’ll find in stores, and either commend or criticize him for this harsh choice of words directed toward an audience of Christians whom we wanted to confront about their apathy, but that’s small potatoes. The entire album hacks and slashes at the subculture we Christians have built, dealing with false concepts of love we’ve constructed, shallow concepts of God we’ve cooked up, and excuses we’ve made for ignoring neighbors in need. I think it grabs more attention to play the prophet to a sick backing beat than it does to the tune of the same old acoustic guitar chords. But unlike a lot of Christian music that considers its message to be important, the music isn’t compromised for the sake of it, and the two work together as one to create a formidable disc that’s completely unlike anything you’d have expected after Derek’s previous efforts.
Standout Tracks: “The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum”, “What Matters More”, “I Love/Hate You”
3. Mew – No More Stories…
I had never heard of this Danish band before, and they were heartily recommended to me this year by someone who had experienced their layered, melancholy euphoria on past albums And the Glass Handed Kites and Frengers. I’ve listened to those, and they’re pretty, but No More Stories (I refuse to type out the full title in a mere summary review) blows them out of the water, each track taking its own imaginative shape and somehow wringing irresistible pop hooks out of some of the most gnarled rhythmic shapes. From the out-of-sequence epic “Cartoons and Macrame Wounds” to the fast and furious Caribbean rhythms of “Vaccine” to the psychedelic choir workout of “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy”, this band is tough to pin down – and then they go and give you a relatively straightforward shot of energy like “Repeaterbeater” or a relaxed, compact pop single like “Beach” and somehow the results are just as tasty. The album’s centerpiece, the cathartic “Hawaii”, is perhaps the finest piece of music I’ve heard all year, and it’s gorgeous enough to make me wish I were there right now. (Oh wait… I am!)
Standout Tracks: “Hawaii”, “Tricks of the Trade”, “Vaccine”
4. David Crowder Band – Church Music
17 tracks and 72 minutes of continuous music is a difficult thing to construct in the studio by any standards. Pulling off that technical feat while writing good songs with a common theme running through them all is exponentially harder. Doing all of this in the process of making a Christian “worship album” seems dang near impossible… but the DCB was up to the task, proving in the process that intelligent, creative music and “worship music” don’t have to be mutually exclusive ideas. The heavy use of electronic elements here was a brilliant move – an intentional jolt to the traditional understanding of the type of music appropriate for church services, but listen to the lyrics of the title track and it all makes sense. Aside from exploring the dark and light sides of electronica, the band takes breaks for somewhat more traditional pop songs, a couple ballads in the album’s reflective center, and a rousing rocker near the end sure to bring the house down at one of their live shows. All of this is done in a genuine, reverent manner, also disproving the notion that you can’t give genuine honor to God and have a bit of over-the-top fun at the same time. I just recently found out through Crowder’s blog that every song on this disc is meant to refer to a point in the history of music used in the Christian church, and that the story’s told in chronological order, so this album provides an obscure puzzle for those willing to listen deeply (and with a lot more knowledge of history than I personally have!), while also working on a simple level of praise and gratitude for those whose listening skills are more entry level (which is likely most of the audience that buys “worship music”). So be warned, Christian bookstore browsers – contents may inspire abnormal levels of actual thought!
Standout Tracks: “God Almighty, None Compares”, “Church Music – Dance (!)”, “Eastern Hymn”
5. Muse – The Resistance
I did NOT like Muse before this year – I thought Matt Bellamy was trying way too hard with his ‘vocal histrionics” and I thought the band was ripping off Radiohead. Looking back, I can see that I was overreacting based on vocal similarity and a few of the more dramatic, moody tracks on Absolution, and that they changed quite a bit over the course of that album, and also when they brought more of an electronic element into their sound on Black Holes and Revelations. But The Resistance is where I really learned to love the band, as they proved themselves adept at highly accessible pop singles that referenced both the 80’s and modern music (“Uprising”, “Undisclosed Desires”), exploratory progressive rock epics (“United States of Eurasia”, “Unnatural Selection”), and even classical music (the closing “Exogenesis” suite), all with a mysterious, “conspiracy theory” sort of air to it that made for an “out of this world” sort of listening experience. The band is aptly named – they go where their muse leads them, and it’s quite a delightful exercise to try and keep up.
Standout Tracks: “Uprising”, “Undisclosed Desires”, “Resistance”
6. Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
After the miserable Stand Up, several years of farting around when a new album was expected, and then the death of saxophone player Leroi Moore, I thought this band’s best days were way behind them. So color me surprised, because Big Whiskey turned out to be their best in over a decade, a record that busts out of the gates with a new lease on life while keeping a somber eye on the unpredictable spectre of death. Jeff Coffin picks up where Moore’s recording sessions left off to ensure these tracks are loaded with with peppy sax parts, while Carter Beauford sounds as lively as ever behind the drums and Dave turns in some of his most inventive guitar parts on both acoustic and electric. (I’d love a little more Boyd Tinsley, but where his fiddle is audible, it’s effective.) Dave’s songwriting has always been a bit sketchy, and he’s never going to be my go-to guy for sound philosophy on life after death, but it’s fascinating trying to figure out what’s going on in his head as he tackles everything from global warming to his personal issues with Jesus. And there are a few good old-fashioned love songs (some of them actually about love, not just sex, despite what Matthews may have once claimed regarding it all being about sex) in between just to break up the tension. What’s important here is that they focused on the songs, allowing each to establish its identity without overstaying its welcome, and yet they didn’t let that put the clamp on instrumental expression like they did on Everyday. So they’ve come up with some solid templates for further expansion, but if you want to hear them jam on this stuff for 20 minutes straight, go see them live.
Standout Tracks: “Funny the Way It Is”, “Lying in the Hands of God”, “Seven”
7. Falling Up – Fangs!
2007’s Captiva, with its focus on spacey synthesizers and away from the youth group-friendly guitar riffing that originally helped them make a name for themselves, was a gamble for Falling Up. This next chapter, which could also be considered an “electronic rock” album, actually puts a lot of the focus on the rhythm section, with drums dominating the landscape for a rhythmic, often groove-based science fiction experience. Falling Up’s lyrics, even when trying to fit the mold of Christian radio on a few of their singles, have always tended toward the obscure thanks to Jessy Ribordy‘s habit of writing songs right out of his bizarre dreams and titling songs after lyrics that only show up in other songs. Any Falling Up album is a massive mystery just waiting to be untangled, but Fangs! is perhaps their most ambitious, purporting to tell a story of an ancient civilization on some distant planet who discovers that their clothes are all poisoned and sends a hero off in a spaceship to turn some underwater gears on Neptune and… yeah, I don’t really get it. I don’t have to get it to enjoy the music, though, and this record takes some thrilling turns as it explores its curiously antiquated sci-fi setting. A long section in the middle where the pacing sags due to several ballads in a row is the only reason i can’t give this one full marks, but it’s still one of my most listened to records for all of 2009, and it might just be the band’s best even though it’s bound to baffle fans of their early work.
Standout Tracks: “Lotus and the Languorous”, “Magician Reversed”, “A Colour Eoptian”
8. Doves – Kingdom of Rust
Another band that’s been around for a while but was just introduced to me this year. These British lads struck me as quite similar to Elbow at first due to the husky voice of Jimi Goodwin, but Elbow’s more about romantic finesse and Doves have a bit more grit and experimentation fueling their brand of Britpop. It’s not bad company to be in, though. Doves are a surprisingly malleable outfit on this disc, leaving no stone unturned as they explore electronic rock (“Jetstream”), thrashy garage rock (“House of Mirrors”, “The Outsiders”), dreamy layered ballads (“10:03”, “Birds Flew Backwards”), lush love songs about women of a dubious nature (“Spellbound”), and even disco/funk (“Compulsion”). It’s a lot of ground to cover in an 11-track album, and the disc is loaded with potential hits that wouldn’t be too much of a reach for modern rock radio, so it’s a great example of art and pop colliding.
Standout Tracks: “Compulsion”, “Spellbound”, “Jetstream”
9. A. C. Newman – Get Guilty
I’m a big fan of wordplay, and A. C. Newman is really good at wordplay. It’s not so much the type of wordplay that throws a lot of puns at you – it’s more than the man has a love of words that sound similar, and alliteration, and occasionally obscure terms than can be brought out to do his bidding. I don’t know if it’s always meant to have a decipherable meaning, but there are enough ironic twists that can turn one of his songs in a direction different from where I expect it to go that i don’t mind not understanding it. The man’s got a gift for hooks, too, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone familiar with his band The New Pornographers (which I got into as a result of enjoying this record). Here, the ramshackle band he surrounds himself with gives the music more of a 60’s pop feel, which might normally be too “basic” for my tastes, but Newman changes it up from track to track and makes sure something intriguing is always happening.
Standout Tracks: “The Heartbreak Rides”, “The Palace at 4 AM”, “Submarines of Stockholm”
10. Jars of Clay – The Long Fall Back to Earth
My favorite band goes indie, and then… they make 80’s-inspired pop music? Who would have stopped them from doing this before? While they didn’t take the indie rock world by storm or whatever grandiose notions I had for the band, they ultimately did what I love them for – they defied my expectations and made an innovative pop/rock album (in fact, a longer one than I’d normally expect) in the process. This time the music had to grow on me because it referenced an era of music that I never really got into, but drum programming and synthesizers actually suit these guys just as well as the beloved syncopated guitar strum, so The Long Fall merely adds another layer to their stylistic moprhing. Pop music doesn’t have to mean shallow music, of course, and this turns out to be Jars of Clay’s most relational album yet, mostly sidestepping the more religious language of their last few albums and focusing on bridges between people that are in need of mending. Light-hearted and almost silly songs like “Closer” and “Don’t Stop” would only work if balanced by the probing depths of songs like “Safe to Land”, “Headphones”, and “Scenic Route” that dare to say, “I want to explore the depths of who you are, even if it’s painful, even if we don’t see eye to eye – it’s better than existing in a solitary bubble”.
Standout Tracks: “Safe to Land”, “Scenic Route”, “Heaven”
11. Deas Vail – Birds and Cages
This inventive piano rock band with their androgynous lead singer and their malleable concept of rhythm (seriously, these guys have a great drummer) has done it again, perhaps not quite reaching the heights of their debut, but definitely offering up another set of songs worth plumbing the depths of.
Standout Tracks: “Cages”, “Sunlight”, “Birds”
12. Sleeping at Last – Storyboards
One of the most “dreamy” indie bands in my collection has moved further away from guitar rock with this collection, basing the arrangements largely around acoustic guitar, piano, ukulele, and strings, which somehow fits the fragile nature of their poetic lyrics. Their music is good medicine for a wounded spirit… or just an excessively curious one.
Standout Tracks: “Porcelain”, “Slow & Steady”, “Timelapse”
13. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
The band followed up American Idiot the best way they knew how – with another rock opera that seems poised to outdo the last one. 18 tracks broken into three movements seems ambitious, and not every idea works, but it covers more musical ground than AI did even if the results aren’t as consistent. The exploration of violence as a motivator for change, and of the damage that mindless religion can do to society (though I don’t think all religion is mindless – this might be where we disagree), is often not easy to hear, but it’s still quite interesting.
Standout Tracks: “Last Night on Earth”, “Peacemaker”, “Restless Heart Syndrome”
14. Meg & Dia – Here, Here, and Here
This sister-fronted rock act has graduated from somber, poetic indie rock to brash, bratty mainstream rock – and you can hate them for selling out or give in to the irresistible attitude and the cutting observations on some pretty messed-up relationships. Is it art? I’m not totally sure, but it’s a blast.
Standout Tracks: “Are There Giants Too, in the Dance?”, “Hug Me”, “Black Wedding”
15. MuteMath – Armistice
MuteMath sounds a bit more emotionally dowtrodden these days than they did on their feel-good debut, but the angst seems to give them extra reason to pound on their instruments and manipulate them in bizarre ways. These guys’ll almost never play a sound directly that can’t be manipulated through an amp and several yards of wiring in some way, and it’s that abuse of technology that makes them so much fun.
Standout Tracks: “Spotlight”, “Clipping”, “Goodbye”
16. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Eccentric New York indie rock band decides to go pop and make dance music for the audiophile crowd. Or something like that. There are some rockier moments here worth noting, but the furious, danceable energy of the opening tracks and a few disarming ballads are the real calling card here.
Standout Tracks: “Zero”, “Skeletons”, “Dull Life”
17. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Speaking of eccentric dance music, these guys almost seem to have the market cornered, bridging the gap between effervescent choruses that worm their way into your brain and dissonant, experimental compositions that can take several sittings to digest. What’s uncanny is how much warmth Avey Tare and Panda Bear are able to pack into a normally cold and distant genre by way of their lyrics, which are largely centered around love, family, and just feeling really frickin’ good.
Standout Tracks: “Lion in a Coma”, “My Girls”, “Summertime Clothes”
18. Thrice – Beggars
I wouldn’t have expected a record so compact as a follow-up to their four-disc Alchemy Index set, but sometimes there’s a lot to be said for just getting into the studio and banging out a record without a ton of overanalysis. Some tracks return to a harder rock sound that might intrigue Thrice fans of old, but there’s still a good amount of world-weary bluesiness and ambient experimentation farther in, so it’s a potpourri. That works best for fans like me who don’t want an album to sound exactly the same from track to track.
Standout Tracks: “All the World Is Mad”, “The Weight”, “Circles”
19. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
I’ve been impatiently waiting for a proper follow-up to Illinois for four years now… and I’m still waiting. But this instrumental multimedia project, in which Stevens and an orchestra ponder a day in the life of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, is actually quite adept at exploring the quiet grandeur of a roadway’s early morning hours and the headache-inducing woes of its rush hours. I might consider this a side project, but it’s still pretty dang good and it demonstrates once again how versatile Sufjan can be.
Standout Tracks: “Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise”, “Movement IV: Traffic Shock”, “Movement V: Self Organizing Emergent Patterns”
20. Switchfoot – Hello Hurricane
This may not be my favorite Switchfoot album, since it’s a bit poppier than their last two, but I can see them branching out in a few new directions here, particularly on some of the grimier rockers and one or two climactic ballads. They’re trying to evolve beyond just giving us platitudes on how there’s more to life, and I think they’ve made some strides in that department here. Even when they don’t, they’re still head and shoulders above a lot of modern rock bands in the “quirky hook” department, and Jon Foreman‘s tireless songwriting activity is commendable given the other projects he’s been a part of in recent years during the making of this record.
Standout Tracks: “Mess of Me”, “The Sound (John M. Perkins’ Blues)”, “Sing It Out”
EPs AND OTHER MISCELLANY:
Stuff that was really good, but gets disqualified from my “top albums” list by virtue of not being true, complete albums, or not being a true 2009 release.
Future of Forestry – Travel and Travel II EPs
The first two EPs of a three-disc project by this inventive, instrumentally prolific Christian rock band were stellar enough to provide an album’s worth of solid material in their own right. The first installment, themed around air travel, built off of the Future of Forestry sound fans came to know on Twilight, with worshipful flights of fancy such as the dazzling “Colors in Array” and the gorgeously intimate “Closer to Me”. The second set, with sea travel as its theme, dismantled that sound and reconstructed it around an array of percussion instruments, documenting a journey toward Heaven’s shore in highlights such as “Hills of Indigo Blue” and the joyous stomp-clap throwdown of “So Close So Far”. The final, land-travel-themed installment is still in the works for 2010.
Mae – (m)orning and (a)fternoon EPs
Another group working on a three-EP set (with most of the individual songs released monthly as digital downloads with the proceeds going to various charities) planned to have the whole thing done in 2009, but the final disc got delayed due to the theft of the band’s equipment. But what we’ve heard so far shows great promise, especially on the fantastic (m)orning EP, in which indie pop goodness and progressive rock exploration collide in a refreshing, restorative collection of songs about the breaking of a new day. Just a few more songs and this would have been a contender for the year’s #1 album! (a)fternoon followed up with a less perfect, but still thematically sound, set of reflections on conflict within relationships. (e)vening is now slated for 2010, and I’m excited to see what themes the band plans to explore on the final set.
Pearl Jam – Ten (Legacy Edition)
After finding much to love about the band’s self-titled disc back in 2006, I decided that the remastering of their breakthrough debut album would provide me with a good opportunity to go back in time and explore the entire Pearl Jam catalog. While hardcore fans of the original Ten (released in 1991, back when I was too uptight to listen to “secular” music) have their nitpicks about the sound of the remaster compared to the original, I can enjoy either mix because it’s all new to me anyway, and it’s a solid set of songs in any event. This was Pearl Jam at their most accessible, taking some heat at the time from some “alternative music” devotees because they had, y’know, actual guitar solos and stuff. But so far, this is the Pearl Jam album that I’ve enjoyed the most – Eddie Vedder is just on fire, and the band he fronts is both tight and gritty, whether it be on their massively popular singles like “Alive” and “Even Flow” or less well-known tracks that have become personal favorites of mine, like the bluesy, grinding “Deep”. (And just one listen to “Why Go” makes me suddenly embarrassed to have ever thought of Creed as anything remotely original.) Ten has not only gotten me started on PJ’s entire body of work – it’s kicked off a “Respect the Classics” project that will hopefully acquaint me with the works of several highly influential rock bands that were doing their thing before I was informed enough to be interested in their work (or, in some cases, before I was alive).
A handful of really solid discs released in 2008 that I didn’t discover until this year. See the reviews for more info.
Fleet Foxes – Sun Giant EP
The Reign of Kindo – Rhythm, Chord & Melody
Calexico – Carried to Dust
The bottom of the heap for 2009. Some of this music was freebie stuff sent to me by the label (and I’ve gotten out of that game for good due to the diminishing returns), some was morbid curiosity on my part, and some was a genuinely unpleasant surprise from bands I’ve come to expect better of. (Note that this list goes from 10 to 1, with 1 being the album I’ve disliked the most all year.)
10. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
This is probably the most artsy-fartsy, critically-acclaimed album that I have dared to put on my “dislike” list in a good long time. And I’ve taken more than my share of flak for that, but I’m sticking with my guns. The band made a point of sprawling out and recording every fleeting idea that came to them on this whopping two-disc set, so much so that they almost forgot to write actual songs in the process. I know it’s like, cool and stuff to evoke psychedelic rock from the 60’s and Miles Davis at the same time, but there’s only so long that I can stand to listen to a one-note bass jam with earsplitting synth feedback overlaid onto it, or aimless, arrythmic tumbling drums, or whatever seemingly brilliant idea came to Wayne Coyne and his cronies after being stoned in the studio for three days straight. To add insult to injury, what few songs actually have something to say generally do it using Coyne’s most irritatingly high-pitched range, and the guy’s not a great vocalist to begin with. (See “Evil” and “If” – slow, drawn-out torture at its finest!) Other critics will slag At War with the Mystics for not being daring enough or whatever, but I thought that record was full of great musical ideas that actually held together as songs, and thus far it’s still my favorite by the band. Embryonic strikes me as the kind of record that critics like because they know it will confuse the general public, who haven’t done the endless hours of required reading about avant garde jazz or whatever the hell, and that’s basically like the grown-up version of listening to the most obnoxiously loud and filthy butt-rock band you can find just because it’ll p!ss off your parents.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Sonic Abortion“
9. He Is Legend – It Hates You
I loved the sneering, sarcastic tone of this hard rock act on 2004’s I Am Hollywood, but now I’m realizing what a fluke that was. 2006’s Suck Out the Poison was mediocre at best due to the noticeable degradation of Schuylar Croom‘s voice, and this band’s bad habit of firing and hiring guitarists hasn’t helped, either. They attempt a wider variety of heavy rock and metal styles with this disc, which makes it more “all over the place” and less drudgery, and Croom’s vocals have improved slightly, but it’s still a chore to get through 12 tracks of what is by and large a depressing mess of sounds. There are times when I find the hair metal influence amusing or the blues influence clever, etc., but for the most part, this band has mutated beyond the point where I’m willing to take them seriously any more.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “The Feeling’s Mutual!“
8. Third Day – Live Revelations
Can someone explain to me why live CD/DVD combo sets always contain more songs on the DVD than on the CD? Is it because a DVD can hold several hours of music and video while CD can only hold 80 minutes of music? That can’t be it in this case, because the CD only contains nine songs worth of live material from the band, while the DVD confusingly intersperses performances of old and new songs with the standard life-from-the-road documentary material, even to the point of excluding one of the songs found on the CD. Is it because of copyright issues regarding cover songs? Nope, because there’s a cover song on the CD that actually would have been awesome to watch on the DVD (U2‘s “When Love Comes to Town”, performed with Robert Randolph and members of Jars of Clay and Switchfoot). Is it because some of the tracks on the DVD are actually just footage of the artist talking in between songs, which would interrupt the flow of the CD? Nope, because the CD version of “Cry Out to Jesus” is merely a few minutes of Mac Powell talking over background music and only singing the chorus once at the end. There’s no explanation. Even for those who enjoyed Revelation, a largely lukewarm album even by the standards of this increasingly adult contemporary “rock” band, this live set really sells them short. For a band who goes on and on so much about how they love their fans, they sure have a funny way of showing it.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Just Like a Bad Sitcom – Needs Special Guest Stars to Sell It.“
7. Creed – Full Circle
If I could make a list called “Broken up bands that should have never reunited”, Creed would be close to the top of that list. Their implosion in 2004 came just as we were all starting to get sick of the imitators that this ubiquitous post-grunge act had spawned, and while I may have enjoyed a reasonable amount of Creed’s songs during their heyday, I was over ’em. It was Scott Stapp‘s ego and epic public downfall that tore the band apart, and while I’m genuinely glad that old wounds could be mended and old friends could learn to get along again, I still worry that the primary incentive for mending fences was cold, hard cash. So this one was a case of “morbid curiosity” for me – I listened because I expected it to suck, and for the most part, my expectations were met. Stapp’s apparent love of broad, anvil-dropping cliches abounds, while his overbearing voice (which, to be fair, isn’t as ragged here as it was on his God-awful solo album) and his habit of playing the martyr ruin any surface-level enjoyment of radio-friendly tracks that might be considered remotely catchy. Surprisingly, it’s when the band stretches their musical boundaries that they suck the least – the surprising dissonance of “Bread of Shame” and the swampy vibe of the title track almost make good on their promises. the rest of the band aside from Stapp does the best they can with the tepid material they’re given – the rhythm section is tight, and Mark Tremonti gets more solo space to play around with. This same band, with better lyrics and a more talented singer, could probably manage to record an album worth listening to… oh yeah, that band actually exists. They’re called Alter Bridge.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Let me fix that misspelled band name for you: It should be GREED.“
6. Pillar – Confessions
It’s amazing how every new album Pillar comes out with is touted as blowing open a whole new era for the band, and yet it’s more of the same, watered-down, “vaguely hard rock in an era where rap-rock isn’t cool any more” type stuff as the album before it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. The cover of Collective Soul‘s “Shine” hit me out of nowhere – it actually made sense for the band sonically and they managed to not murder it. But when your “original” songs pale in comparison to Collective Soul (a band not exactly known for their lyrical prowess), I’ve gotta say, that’s pretty bad.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Can we play this in a booth where only priests can hear it?“
5. John Mayer – Battle Studies
I know this is an unpopular view, but I liked John Mayer better when he did the whole “acoustic sensitive” thing. He claims to have retired that persona, and he gets accolades as if he were some sort of blues guitar god, but I just don’t hear the proof on his albums. Maybe a little bit on Continuum, but the bland piece of crap he put out this year is musically about as middle-of-the-road as they come, save for the brief respite of his cover of “Crossroads”. The thing is, Mayer wrote better lyrics back when he was the slightly self-conscious guy with the acoustic guitar – compare something as clever as “My Stupid Mouth” to the downtrodden, repetitive breakup songs that litter this album. it’s like he’s figured out that there’s no need to mince words when you can just stand on a stage with a guitar and sound like a vaguely seductive “bad boy” by occasionally swearing or making references to getting stoned in your lyrics. Mayer no longer makes music for folks to relate to – he makes music to get himself laid.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “It’s a Battle Just Getting Through This Album.“
4. Revive – Chorus of the Saints
What is it that Third Day sees in these bland Australian bands? First it was the Paul Colman Trio that they “discovered” and foisted onto their American audiences back in 2002, now it’s this cut-rate act that never heard a Gospel cliche they didn’t think was a good idea to repeat verbatim in a song. This is another case of an album where I can’t be bothered to pick out highlights and lowlights, because honestly, the whole thing is just dull, paint-by-numbers Christian rock. It’s unfortunately a pretty good indicator of where Third Day themselves have been heading lately.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Please, oh Please, Stay Dead.“
3. The Lonely Island – Incredibad
I’ve enjoyed a lot of the Digital Shorts on Saturday Night Live, but hearing Andy Samberg and Co. unbridled and uncensored was another story. I’ll give ’em credit for having a working knowledge of the rap genres they’re parodying, but unless you like the type of humor that finds the boundary of bad taste and plows right through it, you’ll probably want to skip the majority of the tracks on this foul disc. The tracks that aren’t spewing as many “motherf*cker”s per second as possible are usually just downright corny, evocative of the typical bad SNL skit where we get the joke thirty seconds in but it gets dragged out for three minutes anyway. I’ll always have a soft spot for “Lazy Sunday”, and a few new tracks such as “Punch You in the Jeans” have some interesting wordplay, but really, I think these guys are better when they are forced to keep it PG-13.
Snarky Review Title that I Actually Did Use: “*I* Said You’re Wack.“
2. John Waller – While I’m Waiting
This dude only got a deal to put an album out because it was easy to cross-promote with the movie Freproof, which was overhyped by Christian audiences in overly conservative parts of the nation where we apparently don’t care about aspects of filmmaking such as, y’know, creativity. That didactic film about marital fidelity had a theme song which ended up being the title track for an equally bland album by one of those dime-a-dozen Christian vocalists who seems to want nothing other than to appeal to the middle of the road. So little about this album was memorable to me that I decided after three or four spins it deserved a bad grade simply for lacking personality. But if you’re looking for unintentional humor, check out the hilariously bad “Fireproof Remix” of the title track that contains, um, “inspirational” quotes from the movie as the music is sloppily mixed down just long enough for you to hear them.
Snarky Review Title that I Didn’t Get to Use: “Is This What Bad Kirk Cameron Films Are Being Used to Sell These Days?“
1. Skillet – Awake
This raspy-voiced CCM rock band used to be one of my favorites – there was a point when it seemed like they knew their sound wasn’t en vogue, and they didn’t care, because they were proud to let their freak flag fly. That was before 2006’s Comatose, an average disc which found them at the crossroads between their quirky electronic hard rock and an unhealthy fascination with weepy teen drama ballads. Awake seems to have picked up only the worst tendencies of Comatose – whatever songs aren’t pale reflections of better tracks from that earlier record are either embarrassing ripoffs of other bands (see the Three Days Grace clone “Monster”) or poorly-worded attempts at identifying with teenage angst (see the hilariously awful “Should’ve When You Could’ve”). They manage to squeeze out a few decent tracks in between, but when the high point of a Skillet record makes me think, “It’s pretty good, I guess” only because there are so many low points to measure it against, that’s when I start to be truly worried for a band’s future.
Snarky Review Title that I Actually Did Use: “Let’s Do the Monster Bash!“
BEST SONGS OF 2009:
Here are the songs that excited me most in 2009. Most were released this year, some first came to my attention this year despite being released in ’08 or even ’07, and a few of them, I was just too dumb to notice how great they were at this time a year ago. My reasons for loving these songs as much as I do are too numerous (and quite honestly, subjective) to go into detail about here. Click the review links where available if you’re really that interested in knowing why I picked them.
1. Mew, “Hawaii” (from No More Stories…)
2. Jars of Clay, “Scenic Route” (from The Long Fall Back to Earth)
3. The Reign of Kindo, “Great Blue Sea” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
4. Vienna Teng feat. Alex Wong, “Antebellum” (from Inland Territory)
5. Future of Forestry, “Closer to Me” (from Travel EP)
6. Vienna Teng, “No Gringo” (from Inland Territory)
7. Fleet Foxes, “English House” (from Sun Giant EP)
8. Animal Collective, “Lion in a Coma” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion)
9. U2, “Magnificent” (from No Line on the Horizon)
10. Animal Collective, “My Girls” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion)
11. Grizzly Bear, “Southern Point” (from Veckatimest)
12. Vienna Teng, “The Last Snowfall” (from Inland Territory)
13. Anathallo, “Bells” (from Canopy Glow)
14. Future of Forestry, “Colors in Array” (from Travel EP)
15. Vienna Teng, “Radio” (from Inland Territory)
16. Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You” (from Middle Cyclone)
17. Dave Matthews Band, “Funny the Way It Is” (from Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King)
18. Doves, “Compulsion” (from Kingdom of Rust)
19. The Reign of Kindo, “Hold Out” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
20. David Crowder Band, “God Almighty, None Compares” (from Church Music)
21. Doves, “Spellbound” (from Kingdom of Rust)
22. Sleeping at Last, “Porcelain” (from Storyboards)
23. Mae, “Boomerang” (from (m)orning EP)
24. Muse, “Uprising” (from The Resistance)
25. Mew, “Tricks of the Trade” (from No More Stories…)
26. Mae, “A Melody, the Memory” (from (m)orning EP)
27. Future of Forestry, “Hills of Indigo Blue” (from Travel II EP)
28. The Reign of Kindo, “Something in the Way that You Are” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
29. Mew, “Vaccine” (from No More Stories…)
30. Calexico, “Two Silver Trees” (from Carried to Dust)
31. Meg & Dia, “Are There Giants Too, in the Dance?” (from Here, Here and Here)
32. Josh Ritter, “Right Moves” (from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter)
33. The Listening, “When” (from Transmission 1 EP)
34. Relient K, “Savannah” (from Forget and Not Slow Down)
35. Mae, “Night/Day” (from (m)orning EP)
36. Anathallo, “Noni’s Field” (from Canopy Glow)
37. Derek Webb, “The Spirit Vs. the Kick Drum” (from Stockholm Syndrome)
38. Muse, “Undisclosed Desires” (from The Resistance)
39. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Zero” (from It’s Blitz!)
40. Mew, “Beach” (from No More Stories…)
41. Falling Up, “Lotus and the Languorous” (from Fangs!)
42. Future of Forestry, “So Close So Far” (from Travel II EP)
43. Vienna Teng, “Grandmother Song” (from Inland Territory)
44. Fleet Foxes, “Drops in the River” (from Sun Giant EP)
45. Switchfoot, “Mess of Me” (from Hello Hurricane)
46. Derek Webb, “What Matters More” (from Stockholm Syndrome)
47. Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks” (from Veckatimest)
48. MuteMath, “Spotlight” (from Armistice)
49. Future of Forestry, “Close Your Eyes” (from Travel EP)
50. The Reign of Kindo, “The Moments in Between” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
51. MuteMath, “Clipping” (from Armistice)
52. Vienna Teng, “White Light” (from Inland Territory)
53. The Reign of Kindo, “‘Till We Make Our Ascent” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
54. Josh Ritter, “The Temptation of Adam” (from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter)
55. Doves, “Jetstream” (from Kingdom of Rust)
56. David Crowder Band, “Church Music – Dance (!)” (from Church Music)
57. Meg & Dia, “Hug Me” (from Here, Here and Here)
58. Falling Up, “Magician Reversed” (from Fangs!)
59. Vienna Teng, “In Another Life” (from Inland Territory)
60. Fleet Foxes, “Mykonos” (from Sun Giant EP)
61. Muse, “Resistance” (from The Resistance)
62. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Skeletons” (from It’s Blitz!)
63. Jars of Clay, “Heaven” (from The Long Fall Back to Earth)
64. Metric, “Twilight Galaxy” (from Fantasies)
65. Thrice, “All the World Is Mad” (from Beggars)
66. A. C. Newman, “The Heartbreak Rides” (from Get Guilty)
67. Anberlin, “Breathe” (from New Surrender)
68. Green Day, “Last Night on Earth” (from 21st Century Breakdown)
69. MuteMath, “Goodbye” (from Armistice)
70. Meg & Dia, “Black Wedding” (from Here, Here and Here)
71. Future of Forestry, “Holiday” (from Travel II EP)
72. Green Day, “Peacemaker” (from 21st Century Breakdown)
73. Mae, “The Fisherman Song (We All Need Love)” (from (m)orning EP)
74. Mew, “Sometimes Life Isn’t Easy” (from No More Stories…)
75. Deas Vail, “Cages” (from Birds & Cages)
76. Mae, “In Pieces” (from (a)fternoon EP)
77. House of Heroes, “In the Valley of the Dying Sun” (from The End Is Not the End)
78. Dave Matthews Band, “Lying in the Hands of God” (from Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King)
79. Josh Ritter, “Empty Hearts” (from The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter)
80. House of Heroes, “Field of Daggers” (from The End Is Not the End)
81. Jason Mraz feat. Colbie Caillat, “Lucky” (from We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things)
82. Falling Up, “A Colour Eoptian” (from Fangs!)
83. Copeland, “To Be Happy Now” (from You Are My Sunshine)
84. Metric, “Sick Muse” (from Fantasies)
85. The Reign of Kindo, “Let It Go” (from Rhythm, Chord & Melody)
86. Derek Webb, “I Love/Hate You” (from Stockholm Syndrome)
87. Copeland, “The Grey Man” (from You Are My Sunshine)
88. Cool Hand Luke, “Failing in Love” (from The Sleeping House)
89. Animal Collective, “Summertime Clothes” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion)
90. Coldplay, “Glass of Water” (from Prospekt’s March EP)
91. MuteMath, “Backfire” (from Armistice)
92. Animal Collective, “Bluish” (from Merriweather Post Pavilion)
93. House of Heroes, “Code Name: Raven” (from The End Is Not the End)
94. Fleet Foxes, “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” (from Fleet Foxes)
95. MuteMath, “The Nerve” (from Armistice)
96. Thrice, “The Weight” (from Beggars)
97. David Crowder Band, “Eastern Hymn” (from Church Music)
98. Anberlin, “Retrace” (from New Surrender)
99. A. C. Newman, “The Palace at 4 AM” (from Get Guilty)
100. Andrew Bird, “Anonanimal” (from Noble Beast)
BEST LIVE PERFORMANCES OF 2009:
When it rains, it pours. After a drought of good concerts in 2008, 2009 was perhaps the best year for concerts in my entire adult life. Here are the best of the live highlights from my personal “Concert Journals” for this year – beautiful music made by talented artists who clearly love their craft.
1. Vienna Teng with Ben Sollee and The Paper Raincoat, Roxy Theatre, Hollywood, CA, 4/29/09
In addition to turning in another stellar album that retained my status of “gushing fanboy”, Vienna Teng continued to master the “small chamber ensemble” approach she’s experimented with over the years by appearing onstage as part of a trio including cellist/guitarist Ward Williams and percussionist Alex Wong. This, her flexibility on both electric and acoustic keys, and the use of a looping device ensured that she was able to recreate her studio material in innovative ways, from the striking layered vocals of “The Last Snowfall” to the audience-contributed harmonies of “Gravity”, and even taking a humorous moment to quote the “Star Wars Cantina” melody during the ragtime-inspired “In Another Life”. Opening act Ben Sollee was quite possibly the only blues cellist I’ve ever heard, while Alex Wong’s band The Paper Raincoat impressed with their lighthearted, percussive indie-pop, including the acapella number “Rewind” which I still can’t get out of my head. This concert gets the #1 slot because there were way more talented people on the stage that night than I thought humanly possible. Oh, and did I mention the unexpected cover of Radiohead‘s “Idioteque”, or the fact that Vienna was the second live act I saw this year who covered it? Bizarre coincidence. Brilliant song choice.
2. Future of Forestry, St. Johns Presbyterian Church, Los Angeles, CA, 9/12/09
Sometimes it’s the small, intimate shows where things go wrong that turn out to be the best. A trek out to West L.A. on a last-minute whim proved to be quite rewarding as we got to see this band’s latest artistic expressions of praise in action – only candles illuminated the room due to unforeseen delays in a lighting and sound system that the church had been hoping to install before the concert, but it provided the perfect setting for many of FoF’s more reflective tunes. The group hit most of the highlights from the first two Travel discs, which was especially thrilling as T. J. Hill demonstrated his prowess on the theremin during “Colors in Araay” and the entire group played percussion at once during an extended breakdown at the end of “So Close So Far”. A few old favorites from Twilight made the cut, and the group even threw in their own unique, baroque-pop-style arrangements of the well-known worship songs “All Who Are Thirsty” and “Wonderful Maker”. In an era where most Christian “worship bands” simply settle for taking the easy way out and copying the most popular sounds already available on Christian radio, Future of Forestry’s knack for approaching it artfully and getting the audience to slow down and reflect on their personal spiritual journeys is something to be commended.
3. Fiction Family with Molly Jensen, Largo at the Coronet Theater, Hollywood, CA, 2/7/09
Also an entry in the “too many talented people crammed onto one stage at a time” category is this makeshift touring band put together by Jon Foreman of Switchfoot and Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek. The two men sounded decent enough collaborating on an album – it wasn’t anything stellar, but it was an interesting glimpse into a long-distance collaborative process. But the songs all came alive in concert, opened up into folk/rock and bluegrass-inspired jam sessions in several instances, and deviating from the album tracklist several times to highlight Foreman’s solo work (the rousing “Resurrect Me” and the prayerful “Your Love Is Strong”), a few Watkins solo tracks I wasn’t familiar with as well as Nickel Creek’s “Somebody More Like You”, and Sean’s sister Sara Watkins even took the spotlight for her delightful cover of “Long Hot Summer Days” from her then-upcoming solo album. Having both Watkins siblings present made it feel almost like Foreman was a proxy for Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, and sure enough, the show had the playful atmosphere of a Nickel Creek show, even down to the left-field acoustic covers of alternative rock songs (this was the first time Radiohead’s “Idioteque” caught be my surprise in an unexpected setting, and they also tackled Arcade Fire‘s “Keep the Car Running”, which was another inspired choice). If the Creek never reunites, I’ll be quite happy with Foreman in a Watkins sandwich whenever he can manage to free himself up from Switchfoot’s rigorous schedule.
4. MuteMath with As Tall as Lions, Club Nokia Live, Los Angeles, CA, 10/10/09
This hyper-driven electronic rock band took it to the limit and then some, showcasing tracks from Armistice as well as fan favorites from their self-titled disc, often in as frenetic a manner as possible. Paul Meany‘s energy knew no bounds, his keyboard serving as just as much of a prop as an instrument as he stood on, flipped over, and otherwised abused it when not actually playing it. And any MuteMath fan knows that drummer Darren King is an animal – a fact proved over and over on workouts like “Spotlight”, “Burden”, “Break the Same”, and the finale “Reset”, which found the band dismantling their entire instrument setup as they performed. There was even an amusing moment during “No Response” when drum pads where projected on the wall for King to play, as if the song were part of a video game. Calmer moments like “You are Mine” and “Pins and Needles” halted the breakneck pace briefly, but overall, it was a joyously exhausting performance to behold. I had never heard of As Tall as Lions before that night, but they were a perfect fit for a MuteMath show, demonstrating their own inventive blend of electronic rock with keyboards, horns, and complex progressive rhythms (plus a few highly danceable ones) to dazzle the audience.
5. U2, Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA, 10/25/09
In all my years of being a fan, this was my first U2 show. To see a band this big perform in my hometown, in a show that would turn out to be webcast to the entire world for the benefit of those not among the 96,000 in attendance, was quite an honor. Even though the band’s new-century material hasn’t moved me as much as their work from the 80’s and 90’s, their setlist was the best of all worlds, opening with the one-two-three punch of my favorite tracks from No Line on the Horizon (“Breathe”, “Get on Your Boots”, “Magnificent”), and then heading back in time for favorites like “Mysterious Ways”, “Beautiful Day”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”… and, well, honestly, almost any U2 classic you could name (with the surprising exception of “Pride”). Despite playing these near three-hour shows night after night across the globe, the band still looked 100% into what they were doing, and the inventive stage constructed for the 360 Tour gave Bono, The Edge and Adam Clayton plenty of opportunities to interact with all sides of the crowd due to the circular layout of concentric rings. (Larry Mullen even got a break from his drum hit when he strapped on a djembe and walked a few laps during an unexpected remix of “I’ll Go Crazy If I Won’t Go Crazy Tonight”.) For a show that was by far the most expensive I’ll probably ever attend, and definitely the most crowded and logistically nightmarish (some friends and I walked over a mile to the Rose Bowl to avoid exorbitant parking fees and traffic jams), I didn’t regret a single cent paid or a step taken, and it was hard to believe at the conclusion of the meditative “Moment of Surrender” that it was truly, finally over. I won’t really say much about opening act Black Eyed Peas, because I was miffed to be at one of the only U.S. shows that didn’t get Muse instead.
6. Vienna Teng with Katie Herzig, Hotel Cafe, Hollywood, CA, 6/29/09
It’s probably unfair to list the same artist twice, but when my wife and I went to this concert, we thought we were just going to a Katie Herzig show, and we’d never seen her live before. I knew she and Vienna had been touring together, but didn’t think she was included on this stop. And it would have been worth the trip just to see Katie – she and her all-female backing band (consisting of an electric guitarists and cellist) ran though some excellent renditions of highlights from Apple Tree, also highlighting newer compositions such as “Two Hearts Are Better than One”, “Oh My Darling”, and the feisty “Hey Na Na”, which were later captured on her Live in Studio: Acoustic Trio collection for posterity. Vienna first appeared to collaborate on Katie’s song “Wish You Well”, which made me wish these two heavenly voices would one day record together. After a top-notch set from Katie with plenty of self-deprecating humor, Vienna performed an abbreviated, mostly solo version of her set from the spring tour mentioned earlier, bringing out a few favorites from Dreaming Through the Noise that she’d skipped last time around (including a cleverly looped version of “1Br/1BA” in which she provided her own makeshift percussion and soulful backing vocals), and getting the audience to fill in Alex Wong’s missing part on the heart-breakingly gorgeous “Antebellum”. I don’t know how Vienna keeps stumbling across other female vocalists that I also happen to be a big fan of – she’s been touring on and off with Over the Rhine as well.
7. Delirious? with Future of Forestry, House of Blues, Anaheim, CA, 3/18/09
Despite the inconvenience of commuting to the O.C. on a weekday evening, I knew that West Coast shows had become rare for this UK-based band and that this would likely be their last show in our area ever. The band gave us a rousing run through their history, largely focusing on tracks from their newest album Kingdom of Comfort (including leading off with the convicting title track), but medleying bits of older songs in surprising ways and centering the show around extended and emotionally loaded versions of tracks like their classic “History Maker” and my newer personal favorite, “All God’s Children”. The band that helped launch the “modern worship” movement closed their personal chapter of that movement with more than a hint of social justice, which is where I think a lot of the better songs in the genre are headed – not just focusing on “yay, praise God” cliches, but asking what it means to be examples of God’s love to folks who are in so much poverty that it’s painful for us first-world types to even see evidence of it in person. Future of Forestry hopefully benefitted from the extra exposure as a support act for this show, previewing their upcoming Travel disc with one song but otherwise sticking to some of the best tracks from Twilight, including the gorgeous love song “If You Find Her” and the majestic, pounding drums of “Sunrising”. That short set assured me that the band had survived its recent member turnover, and that was when I made the note to go see them play a full set of their own later in the year.
8. Jars of Clay, The Packinghouse, Redlands, CA, 7/24/09
While not at 100% due to the band literally not being 100% there (keyboard player Charlie Lowell was at home with his wife, who was just about ready to give birth), the Jars managed to do much with little, emphasizing a number of the guitar-based tracks on their largely programmed, 80’s-inspired album The Long Fall Back to Earth and filling in what they needed to by way of a laptop computer for the rest. The three remaining members (and their touring bassist and drummer) made sure that songs like “Safe to Land” and “Boys (Lesson One)” were still as heartfelt and poignant and didn’t sound anything close to phoned in. While the crowd seemed to have the usual “we want to hear the first album and don’t care about much else” attitude, as evidenced by their sudden excitement when “Love Song for a Savior” and “Flood” turned up late in the set, the band showed faith in where they were headed by sticking mostly to the new stuff, while surprising some of the old-school fans who didn’t only like the first album by pulling Much Afraid‘s “Frail” out of mothballs – to hear a song from one of my all-time favorite albums 12 years after the fact was certainly unexpected, and it gave Steve Mason and Matt Odmark ample time to improvise during their solos. Dan Haseltine pulled double duty on vocals and keyboards when needed, so I’d say everyone was giving 133%. It wasn’t a perfect show, but under the circumstances, it could well have been a disaster.