MUSIC IN 2009: TOP 15 ALBUMS.
The Thermals / Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)
The Thermals' prior record -- their third -- got all kinds of acclaim, but it sounded to me just like the first two. It was good, but it was sparse, the production was thin in a way that seemed affected and the songs lacked variation. Here they sound full and organic, with a rave-up tone from the moment the rhythm section kicks in on "When I Died." The tunes are still a little same-y, but the album demands repeated listening nonetheless and makes it hard to sit still while it's on.
Superdrag / Industry Giants (Superdrag Sound Laboratories)
I've recently come to realize that Superdrag is probably my favorite band of the past 15 years, even though they didn't release anything between 2002 and 2009, and I've never seen them live. Based on my iTunes ratings, their debut is my favorite album of all time, and their third record is pretty high as well. This one follows in the footsteps of those two, putting forth more terrifically catchy and aggressive power-pop, with a fuzzy sheen laid on top. I was concerned that John Davis' alcohol-fueled evangelical turn would make a Superdrag reunion impossible or intolerable, but the God stuff is sparing and reasonable here.
Kid, You'll Move Mountains / Loomings (self-released)
Even though for some reason it's taken almost a year, I'm glad to see that this record is finally getting a little recognition. This hardworking group from northeastern Illinois/southeastern Wisconsin has created an emotionally driven and atmospheric indie rock album that rewards repeated listens. It is not surprisingly reminiscent of the last Troubled Hubble album (KYMM contains two former Hubbles), but it's more strident and gets a lot of mileage out of the addition of keys and boy/girl harmonies. The Chicago rock press is finally waking up to these guys and hopefully everybody else will soon.
The Prodigy / Invaders Must Die (Cooking Vinyl)
Wait, what? Who saw this coming? The Prodigy all but disappeared after helping spur the brief late-90s wave of electronica break over America, with just one middling album between then and this one. But the break helped, I guess, and they've put together an incredible succession of catchy rave-ups on this record. The opening/title track in particular is a superb, driving anthem, and even the seemingly mediocre cuts stick with you after a couple plays. I suppose if this is what one good album every 12 years sounds like I can't really complain.
Office / Mecca (self-released)
I'm not sure if it says more about me or the industry that two of my top five records this year are self-released efforts from Chicago-area bands, but there you go. This one is a giveaway in the digital format (with a for-cash LP also available), and the KYMM album was available for free for a while as well. Where that one is a beginning, this one may be an end, as the members of Office are now scattered all over the place. The sad result is that hearing these lush pop tunes live is not in the offing for the near future, or maybe ever. These songs are catchy as swine flu, though, and you can't beat the price.
Death Cab For Cutie / The Open Door EP (Atlantic)
As hectic as my 2009 was, I never got around to writing up my top albums of 2008. If I had, Death Cab's Narrow Stairs would've been in at #4 and I would've had all kinds of things to say about how it was their best album ever and a surprise after their dull major-label debut. This EP is maybe even more of a surprise -- enough so that it's the first EP to ever make my year-end list -- in that it's not just tossed-off junk. These songs fit the tone and quality of Narrow Stairs quite well, but don't necessarily fit into the album's cycle; they all would make great singles. The only questionable bit is the inclusion of an unnecessary acoustic take on "Talking Bird," which is not a terribly memorable song to begin with.
Fastball / Little White Lies (Megaforce)
The Prodigy, Superdrag, now Fastball -- it's like 1998 all over again in this list, and it's going to get even sillier a couple spots down. I guess as a result of major-label drama these guys have been pretty much AWOL all decade, but while in hibernation they streamlined their sound and came out with one of the best simple power-pop records in recent years. I remember thinking that All the Pain Money Can Buy contained a lot of great songwriting way back when, and that some of it was maybe obscured by the radio-friendly production. This album strongly supports that notion, slotting nicely into the guitar-pop axis that runs through the Beatles and Cheap Trick.
The Bird and the Bee / Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (Blue Note)
As so often happens when I love a debut album, this follow-up disappointed me at first, then grew on me, then quickly stopped growing on me, bringing me to the conclusion that I like it but that it's not that great. Sometimes, as here, one song has a lot to do with it -- "Diamond Dave" is incredibly stupid, but too catchy to give up on. Much of the rest is solidly enjoyable, but nothing hits the beautiful heights of the self-titled debut. Terrific musicianship and Inara George's incredible voice go a long way, though.
311 / Uplifter (Volcano)
So yes, this. Having this record here is a lot like having the last Foo Fighters record in my 2007 list -- it's a solid batch of unspectacular rock radio tunes, enjoyable but not life-changing. The main difference is that I've been a big Foo fan since the first album (hell, since the first "Dave Grohl has a new project" story on MTV News, more accurately) and have never really cared about 311 one way or the other. But there's a lot of great, stupid party rock on display here, none of which I'll remember in six months.
Passion Pit / Manners (Frenchkiss)
What a weird record this is for me. Amid a cresting wave of blog bands that combine elements of electronica, folk, psychedelia and children's choirs -- all others of which I've detested -- comes this bunch of bleep-bloopers with a sickeningly catchy debut full-length. There's not a lot of middle ground here, either. The songs that hit, hit hard; the ones that don't just kind of mark time. The first two tracks, in particular, make a great, high-energy couplet to kick the album off.
Karmella's Game / You'll Be Sorry (Insubordination)
The debut EP from Karmella's Game is the highest-rated record on my iPod. It's a bracing burst of snotty synth-pop that they can probably never live up to on a full-length record. Their debut LP didn't do it, and neither does this one. In fact, on first listen I was kind of disappointed, despite liking most of these songs when I heard them live in 2008. But it says a lot for how good the band's style is that the album continually grew on me throughout the year and eventually got some pretty heavy rotation. It's the mark of a band with a lot of long-term potential, I think, and hopefully they'll get enough recognition soon for that to be the case.
White Rabbits / It's Frightening (TBD)
I didn't see Fort Nightly coming a couple years ago, and I didn't see the changes on this album coming either. This is a band with six guys in it -- six! -- and you'd never know by listening to this Britt Daniel-ized record. Even on stage, the thinning out of the band's sound is clear when they switch from older to newer songs. It actually works fairly well (though not as well as their debut), especially on Spoon-y songs like "They Done Wrong / We Done Wrong," but it's hard not to feel like something's being lost when the big noise isn't being brought. On the other hand, all that space gives Stephen Patterson's yelps a lot more room to set the mood.
Pearl Jam / Backspacer (Monkeywrench)
It's kind of a sad commentary that this is Pearl Jam's best work in over ten years. After three mediocre and meandering releases, they seem to have taken a page out of the R.E.M. book and trimmed a lot of musical fat. This is a streamlined rock record that doesn't fixate too much on flourishes or hooks, or give any attention to history. While the band's self-titled 2006 release seemed to try to reconcile everything the band had done over the past 15 years without regard to the moment, this is an album that works right now. It's not their best by quite a ways, but it's solid and enjoyable, and it sets the band back on the right track.
Jail / There's No Sky (Oh My My) (Decorated)
The last Jail (er, Jaill) release before their upcoming Sub Pop debut is their best on every measure -- songwriting, musicianship, production. It also hit at the perfect time, as their local fan base was cresting and the market for punchy guitar-pop was on the way up. It's hard to judge this record the same way I'd do for most others, because I've heard these songs live a zillion times and in nascent forms with various instrumentations, but maybe because of that it's easier to see how they benefited from a process of refinement. Without being overly slick, the songs are clean and catchy, and sound like they're starting to outgrow Milwaukee.
Anya Marina / Slow & Steady Seduction: Phase II (Chop Shop)
It seems like maybe once a year or so I look into an unknown opening act from a show that's coming up, enjoy their material, enjoy their set, and walk away feeling like I've got some new, obscure thing to keep an eye on. Several weeks later, usually in comments posted on my YouTube uploads, I discover that this obscure act has a song on TV and is suddenly caught by the hype machine. This year it was Anya Marina, whose sweet and sultry basement-pop made an ill-fitting but very charming start to the Virgins show we saw last February. She got a song onto How I Met Your Mother, so hopefully she'll be able to ride that to bigger and better things in the near future.