Saturday, December 12, 2009

end of year list #1

I know it's early yet, but the holiday season is all a-buzz around us and I thought I'd go ahead and get the end-of-2009 stuff going with a little listmaking cheer. A warning, though: I'm an English major. This means I write a lot. So there's many a paragraph to brave. But you can make it. I have faith in you.

ten favorite albums

10 • Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix
I tried not to let Phoenix's show-stopping performance at this year's Monolith Festival influence my decision on this album's placement, but it didn't work. Where before I listened to this album I heard fun, bouncy indie-pop, now my mind is overcome with powerful images of smoke machines and strobe lights and I'm suddenly reminded just how fantastic it can be to be alive sometimes. Now just try telling me that music capable of conjuring that emotion doesn't belong on a list somewhere. I'd love to hear why.

9 • Intuit by Ramona Falls
Perhaps the year's most unlikely inclusion, if only because I honestly wasn't expecting to be that impressed by a solo album (sorta) by the guitarist/pianist from Menomena. I was wrong. If anything, this is even better than his mother act: an understated, often beautiful assortment of indie-rock songs that don't necessarily provide immediate satisfaction as much as crawl under your skin and stay there.

8 • Controlling Crowds, Pts. I-IV by Archive
A sprawling 127-minute behemoth that actually impresses because of its length rather than in spite of it. By deftly weaving together elements of electronica, prog-rock, and hip-hop, this British bazillion-piece creates a dark, hypnotic, otherworldly atmosphere unlike any other I have heard in music. The final product feels less like an album than its own self-contained universe. That its best moments (the seductive slow-burner "Collapse/Collide," the gorgeously melancholy "The Empty Bottle," the should-have-been-huge "Pills," and of course the splendid title cut) also constitute some of the year's finest tracks doesn't hurt, either.

7 • It's Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Talk about a breakthrough. I had heard both of Yeah Yeah Yeahs' albums prior to 2009, but something about them failed to impress me. The decidedly glossier, more synthed-up It's Blitz, however, grabbed me by the throat and demanded my attention. Apparently it had a similar effect on the rest of the world: "Zero" is justly one of the most inescapable tracks of the year, and while my personal tastes gravitate more towards the likes of "Dull Life" and "Heads Will Roll," I can't begrudge these guys (and, of course, girl) a single ounce of their mainstream success. They've earned it.

6 • Daisy by Brand New
Especially after the consecutive home-runs of Deja Entendu and The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, I'm not about to argue that Daisy isn't a deeply flawed album. It is. But it's also an immensely fascinating one, bringing to the forefront an unchecked aggression only previously hinted at. The result is far and away the band's angriest, most brutal outing to date. And even though the WTF-worthy opener "Vices" may not sound a damn thing like "Okay I Believe You, But My Tommy Gun Don't," the band retains its preternatural ability to make everything they do -- regardless of one's intrinsic bias against the styles they tackle -- sound fresh, exciting, and wonderful. Daisy may not represent the most rewarding or satisfying turn they've taken, but it nonetheless holds its own as an assured, forceful, and cathartic rock record. Admit to the truth: they're still the best at what they do.

5 • Fantasies by Metric
Metric has always been a good band. Emily Haines' charisma and the band's tight songwriting have always sort of ensured that. Fantasies was my first taste of how, with a little more focus and polish, they can also be a great one. Their past albums all had moments of brilliance, but the records themselves lacked the sort of consistency that Fantasies all but makes up for. As a piece, it's slick, tight, and totally addictive. But more to the point, it's a lot of fun. Describing just how warm and purely enjoyable this album is is no easy task, but it's perhaps not quite as difficult as resisting the urge to play it over again once it's finished.

4 • The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists
Despite being one of my favorite bands, The Decemberists and I have a bit of a tumultuous history; as a result, I probably listened to The Hazards of Love significantly fewer times than anything else on this list. This ain't gonna keep me from extolling its brilliance, though: Meloy & co. have always been ambitious, and here that ambition reaches an all-time high. A 70s-inspired rock opera may not seem like the best path for a band still most famous for folk songs and sea shanties, but it fits them like a glove. In fact, it's something of a tour de force: exciting, cohesive, and even a little bit "mossy and evil."

3 • Swoon by Silversun Pickups
This is exactly the record I wanted them to make. Without changing the sound they developed on 2006's (incredible) Carnavas, they nonetheless refine it into something paradoxically more aggressive, yet more tender; more assured, yet more fragile. Pitchfork, in what may be their worst review of all-time, criticized the band for sounding -- and I quote -- "way too much like themselves." I think that's the exact reason why Swoon is one of the best albums of the year.

2 • Amor Vincit Omnia by Pure Reason Revolution
The best album of the year that no one heard. I did my part to share it with all my like-minded friends, but even this can't hide the fact that I really only stumbled on it by accident. So what gives? This is a wonderful album, far and away the most accomplished electronic release of 2009. By combining traditional prog and synth-pop sensibilities with rich melodies and lush multi-part vocal harmonies, PRR have created a rewarding and ambitious collection as unique as it is life-affirming. Do yourself a favor and seek it out. It really is that good.

1 • Dragonslayer by Sunset Rubdown
Spencer Krug is not human. Humans make mistakes. Spencer Krug does not do this (I lay blame for Swan Lake on Dan Bejar). To wit: the man has made both of my album and song lists for five consecutive years. 99% of bands don't even make it as far as releasing something each year, much less having it be among the year's very best. At this point, I just leave spots open for Spencer with faith that he'll fill them in at some point in the ensuing twelve months. Dragonslayer is not Sunset Rubdown's best album, but in many ways it's their most accessible and straightforward. Krug's songwriting is still intimidatingly brilliant, and the band has never sounded tighter. I don't need to have heard all of the albums released in 2009. I am sure: this is the best.

ten favorite songs

10 • "Panic Attack" by Rinôçérôse from Futurino
It's important to get this party started on the right foot. There were any number of songs vying for tenth place, but one re-listen to Rinôçérôse's giddy electro-rock floorkiller immediately decimated the competition. This is one bouncy and catchy and habit-forming song. Oscillating between guitar-heavy verses and a synth-driven rave-up chorus, it emerges as one of the very best straightforward, no-holds-barred dance-pop songs I've heard in quite some time. And I like it like that.

9 • "Daniel" by Bat for Lashes from Two Suns
I'll be perfectly honest. I don't really "get" Bat for Lashes. I suppose I see what she's trying to do, but it doesn't really click for me. That said, I can't deny that "Daniel" is a hell of a song (and I kind of wish the rest of Two Suns had followed its retro-80s stylistic lead): catchy, atmospheric, and utterly beguiling. Plus, "When the fires came, the smell of cinders and rain perfumed almost everything: we laughed and laughed and laughed" is far and away my favorite lyric of the year.

8 • "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!" by Sunset Rubdown from Dragonslayer
I don't know if Spencer Krug's lyrics really are more lucid and unambiguous here, or if I'm just in a position to better relate to them and therefore project my own clear interpreation, but either way this is likely the moodiest and most overtly melancholy song he's ever written. It's also gorgeous, emotional, and affecting enough that I feel entirely justified in my anger towards the band's decision to never play it live again.

7 • "I Say Fever" by Ramona Falls from Intuit
Even before it was graced with one of the year's coolest music videos, Brent Knopf's supremely enchanting piano ballad-turned-feedback laden rocker was already one of my favorite tunes of the year. Now it's pretty much mandated that I put it on this list somewhere. Special shout-out to "Clover," though. You almost made it, buddy.

6 • "Gold Guns Girls" by Metric from Fantasies
All you bands aiming to make the next great indie dance song, look no further than Emily Haines for a mentor. "Gold Guns Girls" might be the most unapologetically body-movin' thing the band has recorded to date, and its joyous, energetic synth-heavy sound is something wonderful to behold. And if the searing guitar riffs, the machine gun drumbeat, and the layered vocals weren't already enough to make it one of my favorite tracks of '09, the "more and more" coda pretty much seals it.

5 • "Controlling Crowds" by Archive from Controlling Crowds
Every year there's always a 10+ minute song so good that it ends up only feeling a quarter of its length ("Kissing the Beehive" last year, "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" the year before). This year it's Archive's tremendous electro-trip-hop epic, which builds and releases so masterfully that, even on an album as gargantuan as the one from which the song takes its name, it remains the clear and unequivocal standout. The part where Dave Penney sings over softly strummed acoustic guitars, "Keep me calm, 'cause I'm scared of the controlling crowds -- HERE THEY COME!" and the song suddenly explodes in a rush of synths and drum machines is probably the most viscerally satisfying moment in all of music this year.

4 • "Well, Whatever" by The Kingsbury Manx from Ascenseur Ouvert!
The inevitable dark horse. Simply the prettiest, most charming indie-pop song of the year. That's all there is to it.

3 • "Where There Is Light" by VNV Nation from Of Faith, Power, and Glory
If anything, 2009 can be remembered as the year that saved VNV Nation. In the past twelve months they have not only given us a breathtaking series of live shows (no really, you need to see these guys live), but also delivered their best album in a decade. Its final track, "Where There Is Light," is the musical equivalent of standing upon a high cliff overlooking a sea of sparkling city lights: dazzling, windswept, awe-inspiring. It's their finest moment since 2002's "Beloved."

2 • "Panic Switch" by Silversun Pickups from Swoon
I do not understand all the Silversun Pickups hate. I don't. If these people would stop comparing Brian Aubert to Billy Corgan for two seconds and actually listen to the music, they might realize that "Panic Switch" isn't just a good rock song, but a friggin' great rock song. The "I'm waiting and fading and floating away" bridge is the stuff dreams are made of. Just you remember that; it'll give you warm fuzzies the next time you hear it.

1 • "Deus Ex Machina" by Pure Reason Revolution from Amor Vincit Omnia
#1 with a bullet. Truthfully, there was never any competition. I heard this in February and knew pretty much instantly it would be my song of the year. What PRR do with these five and a half minutes is something extremely special. Bouncing from one inspired musical idea to the next, they provide a jagged, utterly addictive amalgamation of some of my favorite musical styles: electro-pop, industrial dance, prog-rock, heavy metal, and maybe even more heretofore undiscovered. It's mean, it's aggressive, it's adrenaline-pumping, and it's nothing short of brilliant.

five favorite shows
I went to more shows in 2009 than in all previous years combined, and as a result I am so overwhelmed with awesomeness that I find it impossible to rank the best of them. All five of these mark some of the greatest nights of my life; to attempt to stratify them would be criminal.

Apoptygma Berzerk @ the 9:30 Club (Washington, DC)
• Cut Copy @ the Bluebird Theater (Denver, CO)
• Metric @ the Ogden Theater (Denver, CO)
• Sunset Rubdown @ the Echoplex (Los Angeles, CA)
• VNV Nation @ the 9:30 Club (Washington, DC)

I live in Albuquerque.

in 2010 I might:
Make this post shorter. Then again, maybe not.

In any case, that does it for me. Check back for other hipsters' inevitable year-end lists, plus my own unenviable post-New Year's project of counting down my twenty-five favorite songs and albums of the decade. 'Til then!

mp3: "Panic Switch" by Silversun Pickups
mp3: "Pills" by Archive
mp3: "Deus Ex Machina" by Pure Reason Revolution
mp3: "Well, Whatever" by The Kingsbury Manx
mp3: "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" by Sunset Rubdown