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« This Week In Tyranny | Main | A Bold Prediction »

Best Music of 2009

Introduction

If you dig these songs please consider buying them. Most can be had for less than a buck.

All these were downloaded freely and legally this year so I’m posting them in good faith. Links will be live for a week. If you hold the copyright on one and would like it removed, please let me know and I’ll comply. You heartless, small-minded, ungenerous b******.

Here are my favorite songs this year from my RSS feeds. I use Sharp Reader as my aggregator but it requires the .NET framework, which older computers may not have. Feed Reader doesn’t need it and is good too. See the “Free MP3 sites” part of my blogroll for my current feed list.

Most weeks I burn as many new songs as I can fit onto a rewritable CD and give it a thorough listen (usually five times), so in that spirit I keep the list under the same limit. In a way 80 minutes is arbitrary, but it’s also respectful of listeners to show some restraint. If you fall in love with my taste in music drop me a line and I’ll get you the rest of the songs I considered but didn’t have room for.

On the reckoning of time

I age songs by release date, not recording date. Until I get my grubby little hands on it, it doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned. When it first makes it out to the public it is new, no matter how long it may have been gathering dust somewhere.

Recommended albums

Singles dominate music like they haven’t since the glory days of the 45. And just like then, technology is driving it. This is the age of the 99 cent download and no one mourns paying $17.99 for a CD that has the song you really like and a bunch of crap. Some artists can still knock out an album’s worth of quality music, though. It’s a treat to listen to a longer exercise that hearkens back to the days when, as Roman Candle so poetically put it on another great 2009 song, “ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls.” In addition to the ones mentioned in the list here are the albums I enjoyed listening to front to back in 2009:

Assembly of Dust - Some Assembly Required

Fruit Bats - The Ruminant Band

Lushlife - Cassette City

Amanda Blank - I Love You

Those last two are from Philadelphia, as is the artist at #2. Did Philly just have a good year or is it officially A Scene now?

Hype of the year: Yo La Tengo

It would have taken the second coming of Sgt. Pepper to justify the raving that accompanied the release of what was basically an above average alternative rock album. Maybe I’m just not hearing it, maybe it was herd instinct or maybe folks were afraid to appear too uncool to appreciate it, but I got more listening pleasure out of the prefab pop confection “Read Between The Lines” than most of the tracks on Popular Songs. It’s a good album. It has some very good songs. Leave it at that.

Honorable Mention

I usually reserve an Honorable Mention spot for a longer song. Most years there’s at least one 7+ minute song that I like quite a bit, but since I try to get lots of different artists on the list I don’t want a single tune to crowd out several other candidates. When a longer song really blows me away (like “Bushels” by Frog Eyes in 2007) I’ll make room, but overall I prefer to keep my selections under five minutes or so.

Colossus” - Lightning Bolt (Buy)
This year’s State of Metal address. A nice mini-epic with a suitably outsized title. Black Sabbath doesn’t get enough credit for its continuing influence; the sludgy, noisy beginning traces a fairly direct line back to them. By the end they’ve made it all their own, though. Drummer Brian Chippendale appears to have escaped from a mental ward.

For a slower, quieter Honorable Mention check out “Cruiser” by Red House Painters. Fabulous.

The List

(And yes as proof of concept I burned them on to a CD using Winamp.)

21. “Sometimes” - Donkeyboy (MySpace page)
When I first listened to “Sometimes” I thought, this sounds really good; there’s no way it will hold up. Not only did it hold up, it kept sounding better.

20. “Anyway” - Spady (Buy)
Swing for the fences sir, and Godspeed.

19. “Muscle Cars” - Wussy (Buy)
Ever since Pete Townshend introduced me to the joys of repetition I’ve tried to keep my ears peeled for it. It can turn preference into desire, desire into urgency and urgency into desperation. That’s just how Lisa Walker uses it in the chorus; it gets the feeling across without her having to wildly emote. Between her tentative warble and a beat that chugs along just below top gear, it sounds not like an original as much as a cover by an earnest but raw tribute band. Irresistible.

18. “Rev” - Elusive Parallelograms (Buy)
Fuck the beer. This is Milwaukee’s best.

17. “Magic Show” - Electric Owls (Buy)
Has echoes of “Cinderella Man ” which means (see #1) that I never stood a chance.

16. “Falling Stars” - Sarah Siskind (Buy)
I can’t really improve on Jordan’s take. Production this clean usually makes a song sound sterile, but Siskind makes it work. The whole album is great as well.

15. “Blue Jeans” - Jessie James (Buy)
I like Christina Aguilera. “Genie in a Bottle” is one of the best pop songs of the 90’s and her other singles always sounded good to me too. She has a very full sounding voice, a good range, and enough restraint to not turn every song into an exercise in vocal pyrotechnics. Those are all fine qualities for a diva, and a less common thing than it ought to be. Jessie James sounds like a direct descendant, with the same rich tone that’s at times a dead ringer, a straightforward approach to the vocals and a catchy hook. The country/electronic sound is pretty darned creative too. Long Live Aguilera (her influence, anyway).

14. “Teclar” - Os Mutantes (Buy)
I have no idea what the lyrics are. I don’t really care though; they could be chanting “death to whitey” and I’d put it on the list. A good hook is a good hook, baby.

13. “Smashed on Honey” - Coffinberry (Buy)
Maybe Cleveland pride is getting the better of my judgment here, but I think this is a first rate pop song. It gets in and out in just over two minutes, has a nice driving beat propelling it forward, and singer Nick Cross has the kind of upper register wail that will make you believe in rock and roll.

12. “Gettin’ High” - Rapid Ric (MySpace page)
It’s all a big laugh right now, but in a few years my kids will be old enough to be influenced by delinquents like this.

11. “Fuzzabeth Crackleby” - Shogun Kunitoki (Buy)
Knocked me pleasantly off kilter, like a sneeze.

10. “Halo” - Rachelle Van Zanten (Buy)
By my rough calculation I listen to between 1,300 and 1,500 new songs every year, and over 1,000 different artists. Very rarely a song will instantly grab me; on the first seconds of the first listen my neurons will go haywire and I’ll be like ZOMG THIS IS AWESOME!!!!! That happened to me twice in 2009. “Rev” at #18 is one, and this is the other. (Is it me or do the drums have a Wattsesque kick to them?)

9. “Rarichama” - Machesa Traditional Group (Couldn’t find any purchase page or official site)
I know nothing about the Botswanese music scene. There could be dozens of groups that could kick this one’s ass. The Machesa Traditional Group may be Botswana’s equivalent of Nickelback. I don’t know. That said, I can’t imagine enjoying a song much more than this, from Botswana or anywhere else. It has a great hook, the bendy vocal style that I do not know the name of but that I associate with south African music, and the lead singer has a terrific set of pipes.

8. (2009 Best Tuba) “House Party Time” - Dan Zanes (Buy)
Probably no genre is more likely to be dismissed out of hand than children’s music. All I can say is, don’t be too hip to give “House Party Time” an honest listen. It’s a great song irrespective of its target audience. The theatrical “hellooooo!” at the start of the bridge absolutely slays me.

7. (2009 Best Beat) “4 My Niggaz” - Paybak INC. (MySpace page)
Not just the best beat of this year, the best of the last several. Crazy hot.

6. “Riddle” - Grey Anne (Buy)
Things to dig about Riddle:

  • The way her staccato yelps puncture the wheezing, lumbering beat.
  • The strategically deployed hand claps.
  • “You don’t have to do what they tell you.”
That last one goes straight to my authority-hating heart.

5. “F KENYA RIP” - HIGHLIFE (MySpace page)
The reason I listen to songs five times before deciding on them is because sometimes it takes more than a few listens to get a feel for a song. I’d say my instincts are at least 99% accurate after three listens, but it’s that last one percent that has the most exciting surprises. I literally do not remember listening to F KENYA RIP the first three times; it made no impression, good or bad. When it started on the fourth time around I immediately knew it was one of the best songs of the year. A few “a ha!” moments like that every year justify a lot of listening in my book. Anyway, don’t write this one off if it doesn’t do anything for you right away. It’s worth giving a chance to.(There’s a personal story behind the song that I’ll drop in the comments for those who want to read it.)

4. “Oriental Uno” - Beats Antique (Buy)
Takes an exotic sound and gives it an indigenous makeover. I absolutely love it when music surprises me like this.

3. “You Can’t Force a Dance Party” - Dent May (Buy)
From the 2009 Album of the Year. Dent May is an anachronism, an ancient soul come to us through some tear in the fabric of space and time. He recalls the time of troubadours, when musicians traveled the countryside and sang of the timeless themes of love, destiny, longing and the frustrations of aging tennis stars. Whether for crowds of gentle folk in town squares or in royal courts for the mightiest in the land, Dent May and his soul mates would recount their tales for all who would listen, sharing with them the eternal truths of the human condition along with the occasional reminder that, truly, you cannot force a dance party.

2. “Jumpoff” - Jazmine Sullivan & Waajeed (feat. Coultrain) (Home page)
In the same way that you can’t blame Led Zeppelin for the avalanche of uninspired hard rock created by their would-be successors, it isn’t fair to think less of Aretha Franklin for unknowingly loosing a wave of screeching histrionics from marginally talented wannabes who thought they were nailing the next “Respect.” Your imitators are your imitators and there’s not much you can do about it. When one of them gets it right, though, you have to tip your hat in the original’s direction, and I think that’s the case with “Jumpoff.” Sullivan has a big voice, but she resists the temptation to use it to make the point that I Have A Big Voice. She belts out the verses, but keeps it in a range she can comfortably hit. Then she pulls it back in the chorus, going a little lower and letting the fabulous beat grab a little spotlight. Very nice. I have no idea if the Queen of Soul has heard this song, but if she has I have to think she approves.

1. “That Song” - Tahiti Boy And The Palmtree Family (Feat. Tunde Adebimpe) (MySpace page)
In my musical taxonomy fans of an artist break down into one of the following categories:

  • Fanboys/Fangirls: Like everything an artist has done; old, new, popular, unpopular, you name it. I’m a Rush fanboy. I’ve listened to all their studio albums from their first one through Power Windows at least a hundred times. I know their appearances in popular culture are usually in the service of ironic hipster slagging, but I think Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals is as fine a three album sequence as any group not named The Beatles has produced. Geddy Lee’s voice is at best an acquired taste, but I don’t care. They are brilliant and I won’t hear a word against them.

  • Casual fans: Like the hits and not much else. I’m a casual fan of The Police. I spent a good deal of time around Police fans, so I’ve heard all their stuff, but for some reason didn’t get the bug. Give me Synchronicity and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and I have all the Police I need. And please don’t say “oh but you never heard the really good stuff that no one ever talks about like ‘On Any Other Day’!” Yes I have. All of them. Over and over. The charms of their early experiments in reggae/punk fusion are destined to elude me.

  • Snobs: The most obnoxious of the bunch. Snobs love the early stuff and have palpable disdain for the music that breaks it big. Something about the experience of being in a small group of intense devotees gets wrapped up in liking the artist, and popularity degrades the music itself in snobs’ eyes. It ceases being Art, they get all bent out of shape, and complain of their heroes going mainstream, selling out and other crimes against The Muse. It never seems to occur to them that perhaps the unwashed masses declined to properly celebrate the earlier work not from having been unexposed to it or from a poverty of imagination but because they heard it and didn’t think it was all that! I’ll admit to being a Peter Gabriel snob. I loved all his work with Genesis and his first two solo albums, particularly the second (Frippertronics!) But on the third one - the one with “Games Without Frontiers” and “Biko,” the one that finally began to break him to a wider audience - I wasn’t impressed; by the time So came along I thought he was just another pop star (though he’s still capable of a fine movie theme, which is more than I can say for some people). Snobs ruin more listening experiences than all the other groups combined.

  • Contrarians: The rarest group, and the quietest (even considering their small size). Contrarians like the least celebrated work, usually in the phase that comes after the snobs are long gone and the casual fans have turned their attention elsewhere. I’m a Grateful Dead contrarian; I like most of their stuff, but I think their best album is their final studio effort, Built To Last. “Blow Away” and “Standing On The Moon” are my favorite songs from them. I don’t know why I don’t like their earlier stuff better, but for some reason I don’t. I don’t need any fans instructing me in the error of my ways either. The desire to avoid just that kind of hassle is what usually keeps contrarians quiet.
Now, I went through all of that so I could write the following about the 2009 Song of the Year:

Sounds like Peter Gabriel before he sold out.

Reader Comments (3)

So here's the story behind F KENYA RIP. When I was about two years old my parents decided to take a weekend trip to North Carolina. They liked it so much it became our summer vacation destination every year. Growing up I got to see it slowly evolve from a sleepy resort area to a tourist trap to Spring! Break! All! Summer! to OBX. There was a sweet spot just coming out of the tourist trap period when there was lots to do but it didn't feel too crowded, and during that time it always seemed like there was a perfect Summer Song each year - one made for hearing on the radio during vacation. One year it was "Beautiful Girls" (discovered a few years after its release), another it was "Everybody Wants To Rule The World." There always seemed to be one.

This year I went back for the first time in about fifteen years, now with my adult family instead of my childhood one. In the intervening years my parents discovered the towns a little farther down Route 12, with Salvo, Avon and Buxton doing a fine approximation of what Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk and Nags Head used to be. The extra hour's drive was something like a time machine, and darned if it didn't come with its own Summer Song - F KENYA RIP. I kept listening to it over and over while we were there and it just felt right. When it started playing I could instantly go back without even closing my eyes. No longer a middle aged family man puttering along in a minivan in the 25 MPH zone, but back to the old Outer Banks, in the LeBaron, cruising down the then-blissfully traffic light free bypass road, windows rolled down at the beginning of an evening (and a life) pregnant with possibilities.

I'll always have time to listen to F KENYA RIP.

December 30, 2009 | Registered CommenterDan

Wow, embarrassed to say that I don't know *most* of these songs. But eclecticism is good--as is the opportunity to hear something new. Nice job!

December 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Thanks so much Amy!

December 31, 2009 | Registered CommenterDan

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