Up on the Sun is counting down the days until the unveiling of music editor Martin Cizmar's personal Best of 2009 list with some other lists from Phoenix New Times' stable of excellent freelancers. Today we bring you a list from Jason P. Woodbury, a New Times contributor, a staff writer at Tiny Mix Tapes, who is also a record store flunkie and musican. His top 25 Records of 2009 can be found at his blog, and unlike his Top 10, it is not solely (only mostly) composed of music from nerdy white men.
There's been no shortage of retro-soul/R&B in the past few years, but even the best examples of the genre suffer from a serious case of "trying too hard." Hawthorne's debut succeeds not because of its authenticity, though it does sound remarkably so, but because rather than try and mimic classics, Hawthorne straight rips them off. A Strange Arrangement is a fun "name that riff" record, yielding answers ranging from Curtis Mayfield to The Temptations, but it's hard to focus on any accusations of creative plagiarism when the songs groove this hard. Don't believe me? See if you can listen to "Your Easy Lovin' Ain't Pleasin' Nothin'" without cracking a smile and tapping your foot.
9. Stephen Steinbrink-Next New Sun (Gilgongo)
Not sure if I'm threading a technicality here, as Next New Sun didn't come out proper in 2009, unless you count the VHS/MP3 version that Steinbrink released before going on tour, which I totally count. It puts the ever prolific Steinbrink at two full length albums in 2009, following his debut under his own name, Ugly Unknowns, released earlier this year. While Ugly Unknowns, great in its own right, served as a transitional record, Next New Sun stands as Steinbrink's finest album to date, nodding to his past self-mythologizing with songs like "Bold With Fire Pt. 2" and pointing to entirely new directions with the title track, the kind of song that causes records like this to catch on big time and blow up all over the blogosphere, which I have a feeling Next New Sun is going to do when it's released on vinyl and CD by Tempe-based Gilgongo Records early 2010.
Visit Steinbrink at his blog.
Chesnutt's tragic death on Christmas Day will undoubtedly cause a surge of interest in At the Cut, his final artistic statement. Featuring production work by Guy Picciotto and members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor, the record feels chillingly like an encapsulation of all of Chesnutt's work, cementing his oeuvre as the kind of stuff that's beyond genres, commanding post-rock, alt-country, backwoods folk and southern-gothic gospel with a unmistakable voice, at once tender, terrifying, wounded and ferociously strong. Songs like "Coward" and "Chinaberry Tree" display his mastery of tense, violent musical force, while tunes like "Granny" and "Flirted With You All My Life," already emotionally fierce before his death, take on breathtakingly heavy connotations in light of the sad events of Christmas Day, with Chesnutt singing, "Lord Jesus, please, I'm ready," mournfully.
Though long viewed as a genre dominated by meat-heads and caveman brutes, it's telling that heavy metal's progression in the 2000s has been unparalleled, incorporating loose strands from the worlds of pop, post-rock, hardcore, punk and avant-garde classicism into the bludgeoning riffs and stomping rhythms that have defined its sound for the past 30-or-so years. The result is work like Blue Record, an album that veers wildly from doomy distortion to chiming, harmonized melodies, from growling menace to remarkably adept singing. Baroness represent the rarest achievement in metal; a band that has compromised none of their ethos and sacrificed none of their massive force, and yet have crafted a work that is accessible to non-metal heads and heshers alike, a record suitable for head bobbing or head banging, with none of the chin-stroking elitism such "crossover" records usually wind up saddled with.
I know a good story is a hard to pass up when writing about anything, let alone a strange, Cobainish-waif who's bizarre, cult-screwed up childhood angle seemingly adds so much to his Spiritualized-via-Ariel Pink pop-rock, but the endless repeat of Girls singer/songwriter Chris Owen's back-story only served to annoy me this year, as did the band's NSFW attention grabbing antics and un-Google-able band and album names. Despite a classic case of "annoying-musician-gets in-way-of-the-music," Album is a fantastic chunk of indie-pop, managing to turn ruminations on pizza, playful homo-eroticism, girls and suntans into the sort of fare classic records are made of.
Jason Molina, the mastermind behind Magnolia Electric Co., proves yet again that he is a master of his craft. Though ostensibly a practitioner of "Americana" music, Josephine never falls prey to the cliches and genre-standard exercises that ruin lesser records. Like his other release this year, the also worthy Molina & Johnson, the ghost of Magnolia bassist Evan Farrell hangs heavy over music, but while that record is a mournful remembrance, Josephine reads more like a reverie, with the band raging away in Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studios, moving from Crazy Horse style rave-ups to more soul inflected gospel sounds. Perhaps my appreciation for the album is clouded by witnessing the band live this year at Tucson's Solar Culture, where they brought the house down before retreating to the Hotel Congress taproom, where they sold me my copy of this LP.
It's a delicious irony that in 2009, "the year shit-gaze broke," the best album released by the label responsible for most of the representatives of that scene was from a band that had little to do with it. Sure, Real Estate travels in the same circles as Ganglians, The Vivian Girls, Woods and Wavves, but their debut hearkens back to more genial sounds, conjuring up images of deserted Jersey shores, singing drink orders like hushed mantras. It's the kind of songwriting born out of not trying too hard to be cool, focusing instead on the one thing that usually gets forgotten when a scene gets codified: good songs.
I can't think of a more spiritually inquisitive record this year. After exploring the finer (and looser) points of theology with Pedro the Lion, songwriter David Bazan cuts free with Curse Your Branches, shying away from no aspect of his personal search, be it his drinking, his family, his friends and his doubts. Musically, he's never sounded better, abandoning the lo-fi PacNorthwest folk of his early records in favor of lush, Radiohead rock, White Album funk and far more strut than a record this lyrically somber should possess. Accessing the human condition is no small feat, and this album is a testament to it, roaring in rage toward an indifferent god while honestly hoping there is one, denying the fear and guilt that religion has placed on the songwriter while trying to explain to his daughter how to be a decent human being. Few songwriters dare to get this "into it." Bazan used to shock his youth group fans by saying "shit" and "fuck," now he's shocking them and non-believers alike with far more controversial methods, his bracing honesty tapping into a vein we all share, one of questions, hope and the beauty of admitting to having not a clue.
Listen to David Bazan at his website.
O'Rourke has spent his entire career not trying to "reconcile" his love of pop tradition and the outer realms of sound, but by trying his damnedest to convince his listeners that they aren't all that different. The Visitor is his best attempt at doing so thus far. Dropping that vocals that defined his classic pop records was a risky move, but the payout is on display here. Electric pianos, banjos, guitars, skittering percussion and melodic bass create a sprawling exposition of the intersection of noise, drone and pop, soundtracking the journey by alternating between pleasant, tense, moody and outright joyfulness. Van Dyke Parks meets Faust meets John Fahey meets Led Zeppelin meets Michael Nesmith...this could go on. It's Jim O'Rourke.
Listen to The Visitor, a one track suite, at Drag City.
It takes gigantic balls to state that your record sounds like Prince sitting in on the Plastic Ono Band sessions, but ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Richard Swift has more than gigantic balls, he has the songwriting chops to match. A restless songwriter in the mold of Harry Nilsson, Swift doesn't just take down piano-man pop on his record, he sets his sights on low-down soul, zippy Stereolab grooves and Fab Four balladry, nailing them all with uncanny aplomb, like the pop perfection he's cooking up takes little to no effort. Songs like "The Ballad of Old What's His Name," featuring Sean Lennon, Mark Ronson, Ryan Adams and Pat Sansone of Wilco soars with down-and-out guts, while minor key creepers like "Already Gone" tip a cap to Tom Waits or Randy Newman. "Lady Luck," which beautifully apes "Everyday People," may be the finest soul-pop song this year, a minor miracle that somehow didn't take over the nation's radio waves. Not that it matters to Mr. Dickie Swift, who already hard at work on a follow up, destined surely to follow whatever muse tickles his fancy.
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