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Records of the Year 2009

December 11, 2009

I guess I’m being a bit precipitous doing this records-of-the-year thing today — for one thing we’ve still almost a twelfth of the year to go, for another I haven’t even heard that new Flaming Lips album yet — but I have this superstitious need to get it out the way before Pitchfork starts doing its 2009 countdown and makes me question my list (or indeed replicates it completely).

So here they are: The Ten Best Records of 2009 That Aren’t By Grizzly Bear or Animal Collective:

Bill Callahan Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Domino)

http://www.myspace.com/toomuchtolove

A warm, bucolic record, ‘country’ in the fullest sense of the term. Nine beautifully orchestrated songs, from the whimsy and savagery of ‘My Friend’, to the tender, summery ‘Rococo Zephyr’. Populated by various plants and animals — lions, bees, doves — there’s a strong narrative to several of the songs, not to mention some wonderful jokes, my favourite being the centrepiece of ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’. Accompanied by a jaunty trumpet line, Callahan sings of dreaming “the perfect song”: “I woke halfway and scribbled it down, | And in the morning what I wrote I read. | It was hard to read at first, but here’s what it said–” only for it to turn out to be the nonsense phonemes of the song’s title, which Callahan, deadpan, sings as if they do hold “all the answers”. In the swooning, gorgeous ‘Jim Cain’, Callahan sings his whole career to date: “I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again.”  He sings the dark alive like no-one else.

Callahan’s Myspace page is titled ‘Official Fuck Myspace Page’. Boy, I feel silly for adding the link.

The Field Yesterday and Today (Kompakt)

http://www.myspace.com/thefieldsthlm

Expanding considerable on the precise arrangements of frenetic song-snippets that made up debut album From Here We Go Sublime, The Field’s Axel Willner here realises six immense songs that mix tiny, unidentifiable samples into a rich textured soundscape that recalls what used to be called trance music, but expands it in every direction. From the shuddering, glimmering ‘Leave It’ to the escalating tension and release of the opening track, the marvellously-named ‘I Have the Moon, You Have the Internet’; to ‘The More That I Do’, in which glimmers and gleams escape like bubbles from a irresistibly propulsive rhythm, a beautiful sampled guitar lick or riff that sounds the shape of a treble clef, and a gasping, ecstatic vocal sample. Recognisable lyrics appear for the first time in ‘Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime’ (like the Chemical Brothers, Willner seems to prefer his titles to have something of the didactic about them), and ‘Sequenced’ features live drumming from Battles’ John Stanier: the quarter-hour song that closes the record begins with a pattering arpeggio and gradually (well, it has the time to be gradual) evolves towards a star-cruising composition that seems designed expressly to soundtrack coalescing galaxies or swarming sharks in science documentaries. When Stanier’s live drums kick in — there’s no other phrase for it — at the four minutes mark, it’s unbelievably thrilling.

Fever Ray Fever Ray (Rabid Records)

http://www.myspace.com/feverray

Nobody seems to have been expecting a solo record from the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Anderson, but there it was in the second week of January: a concept album of sorts about new motherhood, the insomnia and ambiguous feelings that followed Dreijer’s giving birth. In the ‘If I Had a Heart’ video, our first sighting of the new act, a candle-lit boat travels up a black lake, towards a house in which bodies lie supine, stunned or annihilated, while its invaders stalk the property in vast tribal masks, casting inhuman shadows. Over a looped beat that sounds like a heart guttering on the brink of its last beat, Dreijer intones: “More, give me more, give me more.” One’s worries for the new child are raised by the song’s other, even more terrifying refrain:  “If I had a heart I would love you | If I had a heart I’d sing.”

I feel somewhat for the child who has unwittingly inspired songs in which the sleep-deprived protagonist is trapped in a cell (‘Concrete Walls’), makes craven bargains (‘Dry and Dusty’), recalls her own childhood as a series of groundless promises (‘Seven’), and at the conclusion of the record (‘Coconut’), sings with an air of ominous, quasi-erotic triumph, “Lay back with a big cigar | Lay back, we are where we are. | Lay back with a big cigar | Lay back, this is where we are.” By this stage any notion of personal identity has been stripped away or distorted, both in the lyrics and via Dreijer’s customary use of pitchshifting and layering to turn her own voice into something both more and less human than it began, and alluding to knowing anything about oneself seems either bitterly ironic or even a sneer.

Dreijer’s incense-clouded, laser-riven live show, which more resembles a pagan rite than a gig, and a succession of terrifying music videos have punctuated the entire year, making the project as integrated whole as much an art piece as a musical side-project. Dreijer intends to retire Fever Ray at the end of this year: a brave move, but entirely congruent with how she has seen the project unfold over the last twelve months. 2009 may be the only year, then, in which we have Fever Ray, and it seems to me a no-brainer, therefore, that Fever Ray should be the album of 2009.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs It’s Blitz! (Interscope)

http://www.myspace.com/yeahyeahyeahs

Still punk, still beyond cool, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs here craft a brilliant synth-pop record that retains the spiky art-rock and the maturer, emotive voice that characterised their first and second albums respectively. ‘Skeletons’, ‘Runaway’ and ‘Little Shadow’ form a trio of heartfelt ballads that, ‘Runaway’ in particular, marry poignant vocals to colossal sounding arrangements: as Karen O coos wordlessly between verses, a simple piano line gives away to a vast swell of sound that rises up behind her, volcanic. ‘Heads Will Roll’ is the manifesto for the album’s dancier, poppier direction: “Off, off, off with your head! Dance, dance, dance ’til you’re dead!” But it’s lead single ‘Zero’ that remains 2009’s most dazzling song: a bouncy, triumphant assault capped off with an unassailably catchy synthesiser breakdown. I haven’t the faintest idea what Karen O is singing about when she cries joyfully, ‘Was it the cure? Shell shock! Was it the cure? Hope not…’ but nonetheless still find it thrilling all these listens later. Even better, in the video, rather than pouting or doing an ice-queen act, she is bouncing on the roofs of cars like they’re trampolines, a huge grin on her face, and helplessly, you grin back.

Handsome Furs Face Control (Sub Pop)

http://www.myspace.com/handsomefurs

Handsome Furs’ second album concentrates and intensifies husband-and-wife team Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry’s paranoid, lo-fi aesthetic into a series of murky, hypnotic songs. Perry plots synth arpeggios over programmed beats; Boeckner howls and gnashes, and lets loose squalls of searing guitar. A vague illegal-alien theme permeates the record, sometimes lyrically (most overtly on ‘Talking Hotel Arbat Blues’: “I don’t know but I’ve been told | Every little thing has been bought and sold … There was a guy came in from the cold | But he’s never going to get past face control”), sometimes through the music, with its messes of feedback and implacable marching-band drumbeats. A bizarre, echoing fanfare, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’, plays like the national anthem of whatever dissolute country Handsome Furs have got themselves trapped in.  In ‘All We Want, Baby, is Everything’, they misquote a New Order bassline and lyric, use the title as the manifesto of the eastern-bloc country they’ve invented, and create the record’s best moment.

Sonic Youth The Eternal (Matador)

http://www.myspace.com/sonicyouth

Personal disclosure: I came late to Sonic Youth, taking a chance on Murray Street, and have been resolutely failing to catch up with the back catalogue since. Rather, I’ve been picking up each new album, and customarily spending about a year getting fully into it: not so The Eternal, which arrived instantly likeable. From the initial blitz of ‘Sacred Trickster’ to two fantastic Lee Ranaldo songs (‘Walking Blue’ and ‘What We Know’ — I start to wonder if I actually like Ranaldo’s compositions the best) to a final knockout in ‘Massage the History’, I liked this album immediately and immensely.

The Dodos Time to Die (Frenchkiss)

http://www.myspace.com/thedodos

This took a while to grow on me, unlike their previous Visiter: principally I was disappointed that the cavernous drums that dominated Visiter seemed to have been scaled back for Time to Die. However, the songwriting is more consistent than on the previous record: there are fewer short (and/or horrid) throwaway tracks, and TtD splits itself evenly between ‘old style’ crescendoes (with big drums) such as the title track and opener ‘Small Deaths’ which whips itself into a happy frenzy by the end; sweet straightforward but enjoyably long songs (the standouts of the whole album are ‘Troll Nacht’ and ‘Longform’) and a couple of more experimental moments: ‘Two Medicines’ has a neat, strange, back-to-front structure, while ‘This is a Business’ is a more frantic herky-jerky affair with a propulsive double-time beat. In fact, subsequent listens prove that the excitable drumming of Visiter is present on almost all of these; and those songs which lack it are the weakest of the set: ‘Acorn Factory’  prefers to showcase admittedly impressive fingerpicking guitar, but sounds too MOR to impress; ‘The Strums’ is carried along on a subtle low-key roll that suggests the song will burst to life like ‘Small Deaths’, instead of which it treads water, its would-be climax weirdly muted.

In separate news, one of my favourite gig moments of the year was the Dodos playing ‘Troll Nacht’ in pitch darkness but for LED torches of various colours strapped to their wrists, moving with the rhythms of their music… but perhaps you had to be there.

The Antlers Hospice (Frenchkiss)

http://www.myspace.com/theantlers

Heavily indebted to the Arcade Fire, both sonically and lyrically: another year, another record themed round a dead relative. The Antlers coat their miserable/redemptive music in a cloak of white noise, though, which adds to it a weird, found-sound atmosphere, as though the songs are coming in from an extremely distant remove of both time and space. The chiming melody of ‘Atrophy’ sounds like it’s drifting from a Wurlitzer at the far end of a fog-shrouded pier; in the aftermath of massive crashes of sound in ‘Thirteen’, a silence opens up and a haunting, genderless voice sings from the dark near death, as the shiver runs up and down your spine, ‘Pull me out… can’t you stop this all from happening?’ This is all, of course, blatant heartstring-tugging, and the references to hospital beds, funerals, anorexia and near-death experiences likewise are sometimes on a knife-edge: what pulls me back from loving this record wholeheartedly is the sneaking sense of its being a bit too cynically constructed, its highs and lows too closely following the trail the Arcade Fire blazed (sorry) — compare ‘Wake’s soaring lesson on self-actualisation, “Don’t ever let anyone tell you you deserve it” here with the Arcade Fire’s constantly ascending crescendoes on ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible, for instance. Largely, though, this can be forgotten when the songs themselves are as beautiful as ‘Kettering’ and ‘Thirteen’ or as (gulp) uplifting as ‘Wake’; only ‘Epilogue’ breaks the spell the rest of the record has worked hard to cast, as singer Peter Silberman’s undeniably impressive vcal range sees him veer too close to a Jeff Buckley yelp, and the song goes from poignant to schmaltzy.

Six Organs of Admittance Luminous Night (Drag City)

http://www.myspace.com/sixorgans

A freak-folk record that wears its heart of darkness on its sleeve. Discordant tones ride in on Ben Chasny’s beautiful acoustic guitar and warm, rich voice in the second half of ‘The Ballad of Charley Harper’; ‘Bar-Nasha’ is a georgeous tribal-patterned ritual chant; ‘Ursa Minor’ a lament for an entire way of life destroyed (“Me and my baby got about a month left of food | After that I don’t know how we’ll last”). On ‘Anesthesia’ Chasny sings of vengeance so winningly that you can’t help but support him in whatever mysterious, presumably unrepeatable campaign he has supported (“I can’t blame them for wanting to cause you so much loss | In fact I pledged just a little time to their cause”); in any case, at the end he seems to castigate himself, through a miasma of looping, piercing strings and feedback: “Deceitful… deceitful… I’m a vengeful man…” And in the final, astounding, ‘Enemies Before the Light’, over an unsettling back-and-forth trembling, a sizzling static and a deep roll of bass, Chasny intones lines a vocoder picks up and repeats in a distant pitch. Halfway through this doomy, grisly thing, a migrainous electric guitar line rears up like a snake and a new, colossal push of black noise swallows up the song, swamping and underscoring Chasny’s voice. The record ends with a scouring wailing guitar and the dissolution of the fearsome noise that has built up: you fall back from the song like you’ve woken from a nightmare vision. Very nearly the best album of the year.

Oh, look, all right then: top eleven, and these two really have to figure:

Animal Collective Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

http://www.myspace.com/animalcollective

Grizzly Bear Veckatimest (Warp)

http://www.myspace.com/grizzlybear

Veckatimest is being promoted round London at the moment with posters that declare it this year’s ‘breakthrough album’, but the same could hold for MPP, and Animal Collective arguably deserve the accolade more for having taken longer than Grizzly Bear to hit the big time. No-one has a bad word to say about these records, it seems, though I think there are lapses in both: MPP tails off in its final tracks, as if the barrelling psychedelic energy that fires it fizzles out ten minutes before the end of the record; and there’s a bit of a plunge in quality in the middle third of Veckatimest, notably in the horrid aleatory skronking of ‘Dory’ and ‘About Face’ and the discordant plunking of ‘Hold Still’ — but then it blasts back into life with the tense, canyon-sized ‘While You Wait for the Others’ and the fearsome Bowie-in-Berlin swell of ‘I Live With You’ and all’s forgiven. The tracks I like best on these records are obvious standouts: Animal Collective marry their swirling, bubbling, gleeful energy with a homespun, home-making sentiment on ‘My Girls’ (a song which starts out like Candi Staton played underwater and ends with a joyous cry about the delights of a roof over one’s family’s head: “I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls…”) and their incantatory fireside-shaman schtick, which has sometimes irritated me in the past, comes good in the swirl of ‘Also Frightened’ and the badly punning ‘Lion in a Coma’. The record sets out its stall in opener ‘In the Flowers’: after a slow-building, spell-casting opening half, one of the AC sings, “If I could just leave my body for a night!” and the song explodes into a sizzling psychedelic extravaganza. Grizzly Bear, meanwhile, have the stratospherically ascending ‘Two Weeks’, an obvious highlight of Veckatimest that one wishes would just keep spiralling and ascending; the previously mentioned trio of songs that end the album share an affecting tone of optimism rising from darkness, concluding with the slow evocative glint of ‘Foreground’ (in my mind’s eye I see walls crumbling in the opening moments of the song). There’ve been occasional criticisms of Grizzly Bear’s ‘bloodlessness’ — Pitchfork’s annual survey asks whether the respondent would like to see less “prim, buttoned-up indie [a la] Grizzly Bear, Andrew Bird, St Vincent” — but the disjuncture between mannered, articulate vocals and extravagant arrangements gives the band’s best songs their pleasing tension.

Additional best songs of the year: Atlas Sound ‘Quick Canal’ (ft Laetitia Sadier) from Logos; Animal Collective ‘What Would I Want? Sky’ from the Fall Be Kind EP; Zola Jesus ‘Clay Bodies’ from The Spoils; Fuck Buttons ‘Surf Solar’ from Tarot Sport; The Gossip ‘Heavy Cross (Fred Falke Remix)’ from Music for Men; Dirty Projectors ‘Cannibal Resource’ from Bitte Orca.

Most disappointing record of the year: Passion Pit Manners. They came, they squealed. The world has one Mika already, thanks. And the Gossip’s Music for Men, but that was a bit more predictable.

Best ‘old’ album I heard this year: Fucked Up The Chemistry of Common Life (thanks, Tim!), the world’s most charming hardcore album. And as to gigs of the year, Fever Ray (again), Deerhunter, Handsome Furs, TV on the Radio, the Field and the Antlers all put on great shows — obviously there’s a crossover between the gigs I see and the records I love — while the Meltdown Festival’s pairing of Patti Smith and the (deep breath) Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band, who by now have probably changed their name to something even more ridiculous, was the year’s best coup — just a shame Patti didn’t revisit more of her ‘greatest hits’.

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