Wednesday, December 23, 2009

COLUMN: Best of 2009

You might ask yourself, should you be the sort of person who asks yourself questions about what you read in the paper, why the Dispatch/ Argus humor columnist is writing about the best records of the year. The truth is, I don't exactly have an acceptable answer.

Here's what I can give you, though: I've been a semi-professional music nerd my whole life. When I was in the womb, my mom would put headphones around her belly so that I could have something to do besides grow fingers and toes. (This also may explain my love of Neil Diamond.) I've been writing about, talking about, and collecting music my whole life. I started here as an entertainment correspondent, and doggone it, right now I wanna correspond about entertainment.

Still, I know my annual music wrap-up column is a bit unlike everything else I write about, so I was contemplating skipping it this year. Then I went to see Sondre Lerche perform at a Daytrotter show last month at Huckleberry's Pizza. That's when a guy recognized me and came up to say hi.

"I especially like that column you do every year with your music picks," he said, and THAT was all the validation this music nerd ever needed. So here you go, Random Pizza-Eating Dude. This one's for you. Behold the ten albums of 2009 that your record collection is hopelessly naked without:

10 - Seven Worlds Collide, "The Sun Came Out."

When the former frontman of Split Enz and Crowded House got it in his head this year to record a charity album, he invited a few friends down to his native New Zealand for Christmas 2008. Especially fortunate for Finn, since his friends just happen to be Wilco, Radiohead, KT Tunstall, Lisa Germano & legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr. For fun, they all holed up in a studio for 3 weeks writing, collaborating, and recording. The result is the double-album "Sun Came Out," a record so spontaneous you can hear the excitement oozing off the grooves.

9 - Pearl Jam, "Backspacer."

Wow. The Shane of 1994 wants to slap me right now, as I spent most of last decade cringing at the grunge fad, and no band was more self-important and easy to hate as Pearl Jam. Why the change of heart? To put it simply, they got good. I never would have known about the genius of "Backspacer" were it not for my pathetic need to master EVERY song released for the video game Rock Band. I shuddered at the prospect of being forced to listen to their new album -- until the game forced me to listen to it. Somewhere along the way, Eddie Vedder & Co. lost the cockiness and learned how to write decent tunes.

8 - JBM, "Not Even in July."

I've sat through waaay too many opening "bands" consisting of a token beardy guy with a worn acoustic guitar and quote unquote "earnest" songs. Those are the shows where other people in the crowd may be in rapt attention while I'm usually wondering where the bathrooms are and what I'm missing on TV at that moment. Singer-songwriters just bore me. But not every singer-songwriter is Canadian-born Jesse B. Merchant, better known simply by his initials: JBM. Taking the Americana cues of roots rock and blending them seamlessly into Nick Drake-style classic acoustic folk, "Not Even in July" is simply the prettiest record I've heard all year.

7 - The Trashcan Sinatras, "In the Music."

I think it's in my contract somewhere that if the Trashcan Sinatras release a record, it's bound to end up in my Top Ten. Once upon a time, I was in a record store and made a purchase based solely on the coolness of its cover art. That record was "Cake," the debut from the Trashcan Sinatras, and the music inside was 20 times cooler than the cover. Twenty years later, they're still churning out the same gorgeous melodies and clever wordplay.

6 - The Big Pink, "A Brief History of Love."

Being a rock band with electronic drums is a scary proposition. No matter how cool it may sound when you make it, technology will ensure that an even cooler electronic sound will await the decades to come. That's why bands like Jesus Jones and Depeche Mode, who were cutting edge in the 90's, sound dated today. The Big Pink may have very well escaped that fate by eschewing techno beats in favor of bone-rattling primal synths, hazy guitars, and epic runaway vocals that don't come with a "sell-by" date attached.

5 - Alphabeat, "The Spell."

Okay, you're gonna have to trust me on this one, seeing as how "The Spell" is currently only available in, umm, Denmark. But it's WORTH finding, I swear. Imagine a garage band whose primary influences are less Ramones and more Britney Spears. You don't often hear of pop bands starting from scratch, but that's what makes Alphabeat so special. No outside songwriters or svengalis in sight - just a little pop band from Denmark trying to be the next megastars. And with the dual vocals of spunky spitfire Stine Bramsen and gangly goofball Anders SG at the helm, Alphabeat are a non-stop charmer that can't NOT put a smile on your face.

4 - Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavillion."

This is a tough one for me. If there's one thing I hate, it's a band being weird for the sake of being weird -- and it don't come weirder than Maryland's Animal Collective. Creating records that are less songs than reconstructed sound loops and mind-bending harmonies, I long dismissed them as annoying art-wank. Then they had to ruin it and put out "Merriweather Post Pavillion," a record that, indeed, is still full of crazy sound loops and even crazier layered harmony -- but this time, it somehow WORKS and turns into a beautiful mess than outshines its own weirdness.

3 - Camera Obscura, "My Maudlin Career."

It's rare when pop music sounds sincere these days, but Camera Obscura have been making a career of it since 2001. Forever sounding like a cross between Petula Clark and the Ronettes, the band's timeless orchestral wall-of-sound pop has never sounded more confident, with Tracyanne Campbell's fragile voice gliding over tales of woe and love lost catchy enough to usurp their lyrical heartbreak.

2 - Girls, "Album."

A record whose brilliance is almost overshadowed by its backstory. Girls frontman Christopher Owens was born to active members of the Children of God cult, and spent his entire childhood in a nomadic communal existence. At night, he would sneak out of the house and busk on street corners for pocket change. By age 16, he'd saved enough for a plane ticket and escaped the cult, only to end up broke and homeless in Texas, before forming Girls. Their debut record sounds like what you'd expect from someone banned from secular music most of his life: non-conventional, non-conformist, and gloriously rule-breaking -- all bound by Owens' world-weary, Elvis-Costello-on-a-drunken-bender croon.

1 - The Raveonettes, "In and Out of Control."

If the world were fair, Sune Rose Wagner & Sharin Foo would be the most famous hipster duo on Earth - at least more so than the over-appreciated and lesser-talented White Stripes. For almost a decade, the Danish duo have been spitting out some of the most venemous and catchy noise-pop ever recorded. Timeless rock and roll that's half grime and half precision, and all from a band gutsy enough to record a sing-along anthem called "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed.)" Nothing better came out this year.

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