I really wanted this column to be about the best local records of 2009 — that's what I did last year around this time, putting bands like Kinch, Miniature Tigers, and The Loveblisters on the top of a very solid list of albums from 2008.
Sadly, I couldn't manage such a list for 2009. I'm sure that will piss some people off, and there's certainly room for disagreement here, but I honestly couldn't find 10 truly great records by Valley bands released in the past 12 months. I solicited input from some of the scene's movers and shakers, many of whom contributed a few suggestions, but through all the Phoenix-bred records I heard in 2009 (and, trust me, I heard a lot), I simply didn't find enough to make a respectable list. A list of decent albums, sure, but not a list of stellar ones. I'm sorry, but that's unacceptable to me.
So, with apologies to Sam Means' The Sinking of Santa Isabel soundtrack (which had six pretty fabulous songs on it), Glendale death-metal act Job for a Cowboy's excellent second album, Ruination, The Love Me Nots, Willy Northpole, Trap, and Kinch, I'm not going to make a list of the top 10 local records this year. I absolutely refuse to name any record that's not unassailably excellent to a list of the "best" to come out of our nation's 12th-largest metropolitan area, which is what I'd have to do. Phoenix deserves better than that.
Martin Cizmar Sonic Truth
Maybe I was spoiled by 2008, a banner year for releases in the local music scene and a year that saw the release of records that led to Phoenix sending more bands than it ever had to the star-making SxSW music festival in March and made Dear and the Headlights the very first Arizona band to play Coachella in April. Viewed through that lens, 2009 was a great year for local music, making it even sadder when you realize most of what happened was a halo effect from work done the previous year — and what that means for 2010.
I wasn't kidding when I told you something special was going on a year ago, just like I'm not kidding when I tell you we're hurting now. Hopefully, the ship will be righted, and next December will see me deliberating about whether to do a list of the top 25 local records. I can't make the hurt go away, though; I don't play an instrument or sing.
In the meantime, here are my top 10 albums of 2009, as submitted to the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll. The list includes one Arizona band, though they're from (gulp!) Tucson. I know, I know, that's probably adding insult to injury for a lot of Phoenix scenesters, but Golden Boots' Western-Gothic tapestry The Winter of Our Discotheque is truly the 10th-best record released anywhere last year. It's embarrassingly ahead of anything Phoenix produced in 2009, and just one more reason I can't justify fluffing up some bullshit list. Listen to "Knife" and try to tell me you'd do it differently.
1. Islands, Vapours
Basics: Some dudes formerly of The Unicorns make a super-polished indie-pop record full of gorgeous, ear-catching melodies and deceptively intense lyrics.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Shimmery, joyous, poppy, Calypso.
Someone else said: "Though there is an overall whiff of the 1980s about Vapours, it sidesteps the traps of either sounding trendily vintage or indistinguishable from the rest of today's Reagan-era imposters." (Pitchfork)
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz
Basics: World's greatest art-punk band (which employs world's greatest female rock singer) makes synth pop record. It's predictably awesome.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Eerie, '80s, glittery, stylish.
Someone else said: "The alternative pop album of the decade — one that imbues the Killers' Hot Fuss and MGMT's Oracular Spectacular with a remarkable emotional depth and finesse." (Spin)
3. Wavves, Wavvves
Basics: Kid from San Diego makes noisy, ridiculously lo-fi indie rock that somehow manages to sound something like the Beach Boys. Kid implodes on stage in Europe, and everyone, mysteriously, seems to think less of him for it.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Lo-fi, Wilson-esque, noise, hyped, surfy.
Someone else said: "Cobbled together out of guitar, a drum kit, and bad recording equipment, these songs sound like Beach Boys B-sides sent through a fantastic slack filter where making everything sound effortlessly shitty is as important as conveying effortless cool." (The Onion AV Club)
4. Ida Maria, Fortress Round My Heart
Basics: Norwegian chick does something that perennially half-assed Scandinavian artists never do — make an album that's totally killer from front to back — and seems to be establishing herself as totally cool when Grey's Anatomy uses one of her songs, thus making her an untouchable in indie-rock circles. Also, this record really came out in 2008, though the U.S. release was 2009.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Boozy, bluesy, blunt, brilliant.
Someone else said: "Teeming with the type of pop-punk energy that Avril Lavigne never pulled off as well as Maria does here, Fortress gets as much mileage out of its massive sing-along choruses as it does from Maria's indomitable sneer." (Slant)
5. Ben Kweller, Changing Horses
Basics: Upbeat indie-rock darling from Texas makes an album with a pedal-steel-to-whiskey-song ratio far exceeding what's acceptable under the monolithic "critic's taste" rubric. People who think country music has to be a caricature of itself (and somehow be directly relatable to Johnny Cash) are shocked and horrified, although the album is, by far, his best work to date.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Twangy, country-fried, upbeat.
Someone else said: "Changing Horses is coddled by dutiful touches of dobro, strummy gee-tar and a curiously Palin-esque banishment of all g's at the ends of words. The album serves neither Kweller nor country music." (Paste)
6. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: End of the Day
Basics: Cleveland rapper moves to Brooklyn, acquires 99 problems, all of which are bitches. His concept album also acquires three Grammy nominations.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Introspective, melancholy, futuristic.
Someone else said: "Man on the Moon, the debut album from this rapper-singer from Cleveland, is a colossal, and mystifying, missed opportunity, misguided if it is in fact guided at all." (The New York Times, the world's most respected source for hip-hop criticism)
7. Matt and Kim, Grand
Basics: Brooklyn hipsters make spazzy, lo-fi and utterly irresistible Casio-pop record about being hipsters who live in Brooklyn, on Grand Street.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Jaunty, DIY, hipster.
Someone else said: "Matt & Kim create deconstructed pop that retains all of the elements of truly successful bubble-gum without the manufactured resonance." (Pop Matters)
8. Throw Me the Statue, Createresque
Basics: Seattle indie-pop act sounds like a less overtly effeminate version of Passion Pit, makes killer second record that's too unlike first record for many fans.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Smart, poppy, conflicted, easy listening.
Someone else said: "With few exceptions, including a three-song streak of lulled tempos at the album's close, the songs are unabashedly infectious, with clapping and stomping credits in the liner notes." (Paste)
9. Built To Spill, There Is No Enemy
Basics: Veteran Idaho band shows maturity, zeal with vibrant new record. Anyone who can get past singer Doug Martsch's Neil Young-esque vocals will dig it.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Jammy, bearded, college, coda-rific.
I previously said: "Enemy feels a little like the mid- to late-period live album the band should have released by now, and that's why it's probably the most complete Built to Spill record to date. Is There Is No Enemy Martsch's masterpiece? Not necessarily, but it's closer than at least five of his six other Built to Spill albums." (Me)
10. Golden Boots, The Winter of Our Discotheque
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Basics: Tucson band makes sophisticated second record that's gorgeous and achingly fuzzy with an incredible sense of place. Phoenix music critic is saddened his city did not make this.
Overused but descriptive adjectives: Alt-alt country, spacious, Southwestern, mish-mashed.
Someone else said: "Just as alt-country wove in elements of rock, punk, lo-fi folk, and whatever else was lying around on the floor into the fabric of traditional American country music, Golden Boots pulls country apart at the seams and stitches up a ragbag coat of many colors, patched up with dog-eared pop and psychedelic folksy charm." (Pop Matters)