Best of 2009: The Albums
Well, friends, this is one of those lists that I should have posted a month ago. But by now my procrastination is clear. New Year’s Resolution: Get these best of 2009 lists out of the way and start focusing on new stuff, like the latest Vampire Weekend album.
Johnny Cash interpreted everyone from Hank Williams to Trent Reznor in his six-decade music career, but a special place in his heart and mind was always reserved for the songs that mattered to him the most. When Johnny’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, was 18, he handed her a handwritten list of “100 Essential Country Songs” and said “This is your education.”
The List could easily have been entitled The List, Vol. 1 since it barely scratches the surface of Johnny’s list. Rosanne faithfully interprets songs by Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard and The Carter Family, and one can only imagine how daunting it must have been knowing that her versions would be compared to those recorded by her father throughout his own career. Thankfully, she does a great job and has a few big names on hand to help her out: Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Tweedy.
Key cuts: “Sea of Heartbreak” (with Bruce Springsteen), “Long Black Veil” (featuring Jeff Tweedy), “She’s Got You”
I hadn’t heard the name Jason Lytle before I went to see Neko Case at Massey Hall in 2009. Dazzling as Neko was, her opening act definitely left me with a good impression, and I immediately sought out his debut album Yours Truly, The Commuter. As it turned out, Lytle had been writing songs and playing music for more than a decade with Grandaddy. A solid debut with some fantastic songs.
Key cuts: “Ghost Of My Old Dog,” “Birds Encouraged Him,” “You’re Too Gone”
8. Friend of a Friend, Dave Rawlings Machine
For years, Dave Rawlings has served as Gillian Welch’s proverbial right-hand man. He’s co-written her songs, sung her backing vocals, and played some great guitar to go along with it. Dave Rawlings Machine shakes things up by placing Rawlings at the forefront and Welch at his side. On Friend of a Friend, Rawlings’ debut as a frontman, they’re joined by members of Old Crow Medicine Show, Bright Eyes, as well as Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Rawlings proves his worth throughout, as a singer, songwriter and performer.
Key cuts: “Ruby,” “Sweet Tooth,” “Bells of Harlem”
7. Live in London, Leonard Cohen
After a fifteen year absence from live performance, Leonard Cohen embarked on an extensive tour of Canada and Europe in 2008. Those of us lucky enough to attend one of these concerts were able to experience a 75-year-old Cohen who was at the top of his game. Cohen’s crack band of ace players and singers provided the perfect backing to a wonderful evening.
Those who were there on Cohen’s tour and those who were not will find equal pleasure from Live In London, which was recorded at the O2 Arena on July 17, 2008 and has a running time of more than two and a half hours. Not a single phase of Cohen’s career goes under-represented by the set, with songs like “Bird On A Wire” and “Suzanne” taking their place alongside “First We Take Manhattan” and “Take This Waltz.”
Key cuts: “Everybody Knows,” “Hallelujah,” “If It Be Your Will”
6. The Fall, Norah Jones
The Fall isn’t quite like anything Norah Jones has released before. Sure, her distinctive voice is there and as effective as usual, but what’s different is the sound and tone of a lot of the material. Producer Jacquire King, who engineered Tom Waits’ Mule Variations album, along with accomplished session musicians like Marc Ribot and Joey Waronker, help get Norah out of her comfort zone and the results are dazzling throughout.
Key cuts: “Chasing Pirates,” “It’s Gonna Be,” “Back To Manhattan”
5. The Atlantic Ocean, Richard Swift
Richard Swift’s early releases are a bit of a throwback to vaudeville and early jazz, while the more recent Dressed Up For The Let Down incorporated some more modern influences like The Beatles and Harry Nilsson. The Atlantic Ocean cosmically jettisons Richard Swift into the future. The songs seem to came from the same vintage as Swift’s earlier work, but the trumpets and saxophones of yore are replaced with a wide array of keyboards and synthesizers. Elsewhere, Swift channels vintage soul and does so with an uncanny ability that you’ll swear you’re listening to the real thing.
Key cuts: “The Atlantic Ocean,” “Bat Coma Motown,” “Lady Luck”
4. Monsters of Folk by Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk are the indie rock equivalent of a supergroup, pitting Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and M. Ward in a studio together for an album’s worth of songs. The results are delightful and tend to keep things on the fun side (taking an obvious cue from another supergroup, The Traveling Wilburys). Although Oberst, James, and Ward each have their moments in the spotlight, the album’s best tracks, like “Say Please,” find each of the singer-songwriters trading verses. Not one of these talents dominates, which is part of what makes the album so strong.
Key cuts: “Say Please,” “The Right Place,” “Man Named Truth”
3. Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Elvis Costello
Elvis Costello appreciates so many different types of music, it’s hard to know what style he’ll surface with when he comes out with a new album or tour. Since 2000, he’s released two rock ‘n’ roll records, a jazz record, a classical record, a country-rock record and an R&B record. Last year, Costello released Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album deeper steeped in folk and country than anything he has ever done. Although reviews were polarized, I found this to be a fantastic collection of songs, extremely well-performed by Costello and a crack band that featured T-Bone Burnett, Jeff Taylor, Mike Compton, Dennis Crouch, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Jim Lauderdale. No drums anywhere to be found. Better luck next time, Pete Thomas!
Key cuts: “Down Among The Wines and Spirits,” “Sulphur To Sugarcane,” “The Crooked Line”
2. Wilco (The Album), Wilco
Being a Wilco fan is pretty easy. The band tours frequently, so you always know they’ll be in town before too long to deliver a great performance. More importantly, you come to expect that a new studio album will surface every few years and that it will be awesome. Wilco (The Album) is no exception. Even though the band is distancing themselves from a lot of the avant garde influences prominent on albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born and continuing to veer into pop territory, their songs remain strong and unique, despite being some of the most accessible of their career. Side-note, Wilco (The Album) enters the canon of Greatest Album Covers of All-Time with its “camel at a birthday party” theme.
Key cuts: “Wilco (The Song)”, “You Never Know,” “You and I”
1. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case
Neko Case began her career steeped in Americana, but over the past few albums she has incorporated more and more musical influences to a point where it’s hard to classify her music. Songs like “People Got A Lotta Nerve” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Smiths record. One thing remains clear on Middle Cyclone, and that’s that Neko Case has some of the best pipes in the business. Her amazing voice, paired with some of the best songs I’ve heard all year, made Middle Cyclone my pick for Top Album of 2009.
Key cuts: “This Tornado Loves You,” “People Got A Lotta Nerve,” “Don’t Forget Me”
Tags: best of 2009
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