Monday, December 28, 2009

The List - 2009 - Best Music - Loring Wirbel

What just happened? By all rights, a recessionary year was supposed to see big and small labels alike hunkering down, avoiding releases whenever possible. Instead, artists went the extra mile to put out some fine material, and labels seemed willing to go for broke in making sure releases hit the streets. In fact, they were so anxious to make some revenue, some monster releases like remastered Beatles and Pixies’ “Minotaur” were offered to out-of-work music fans. Most of the strict re-issues were not considered for the list this year, as I try to focus on new material (Neil Young was a partial exception for “Archives,” though points were taken off for replicating material.) What you will notice here is that the Top Ten only just squeaked by, because dozens of albums this year were better-than-average keepers. I also didn’t go the NPR or New York Times route of putting artsy-craftsy musicians like Dirty Projectors or Animal Collective up top. It’s great to see more experimental music gain a wider audience, but a release had to grab me viscerally first. But this year, you could reach down past 100 and still find some really great albums. 2009 was better than it had any right to be.

Special Awards

Graham Smith and Kleenex Girl Wonder walked away with best liner notes, this year and perhaps ever. The footnoted nonsense gracing Mrs. Equitone was like a Wiki written by an improv comedian. In serious videos, Imogen Heap’s “First Train Home” may have had pretentious moments, but her face in the Alice-in-Wonderland landscape as she sings “I’m not that much fun to be with” is stunning. Regina Spektor gets honorable mention for the three videos with “Far,” all fascinating in their own right. On the funny video front, Surge Wakefield’s dance remix of the King Curtis “Bacon is good for me!” Wife Swap rant may be the funniest clip on YouTube in years. On the political/cultural front, we’ll give Boss-man Bruce and Bono some recognition for braving the cold weather of inauguration for some fine performances, but frankly, I’m more inclined to give general awards to both David Rovics and Flobots for never, ever giving up at being necessary voices of integrity and resistance.

Anticipation: January brings new Vampire Weekend, new Spoon, new Susan Cowsill, a Charalambides bootleg dating back to the early 1990s, and three separate Vibracathedral Orchestra albums. Once again, we’ll start with a bang.

And of course, this list is dedicated to the memories of Jack Rose, Jim Carroll, and Vic Chesnutt.


Regular Studio Albums, 2009

1. Gossip, “Music for Men” – Sure , (the former) THE Gossip always made interesting dance music, but how did flabulous lesbian and fashion plate Beth Ditto end up with the most powerful album of the year? Was it Rick Rubin’s in-your-face production? Not sure, but this is like last year’s Flobots release – pick the weakest cut, and it bowls you over. Listen to all the cuts, and you’re left a quivering mess on the floor.

2. Polvo, “In Prism” – While I liked the 1990s version of Polvo, I’m not quite sure what happened here. The addition of cello is haunting, to be sure, but this album worked on some deep subconscious level that leaves me unable to explain why it ranked so high.

3. Ben Harper and the Relentless Seven, “White Lies for Dark Times” -- Another surprise, as I’ve always considered Harper a hippie-Americana political balladeer, mildly interesting etc. Here, he cooks up a rowdy barstool album where everything clicks. Bonus Edition Handicap: DVD is worth finding, documentary a trifle better than most, not horribly essential.

4. Doug Gillard, “Call from Restricted” – The former GbV lead guitarist lends proof to the dictum that careful editing sometimes is better than being prolific. His former bandmate Robert Pollard had several stunning albums this year, but none as carefully crafted as Doug’s.

5. The Mountain Goats, “Life of the World to Come/In Flux” – There are some who were worried about John Darnielle’s first “Christian” album, or about an album confronting death and transcendence. Would it end up as weak as “Get Lonely”? Maybe it did for some, but for me it was liberating in the same sense that watching the movie “The Road” was uplifting. John teaches us to have staredowns with death and our worst fears, and rejoice in what is yet to come. Bonus Edition Handicap: “The World in Flux” bonus disc is similar to “Come, Come to the Sunset Tree” in offering acoustic reworks, but this disc is made essential by the inclusion of “Proverbs 6:27”, a powerful song inexplicably left off the commercial release.

6. Florence and the Machine, “Lungs” – British citizens will hate me for this, since Florence is about as overexposed as Lady Gaga, but damn this woman can sing, and the arrangements are superb. Bonus Edition Handicap: Don’t bother with the two-disc edition, but if you can find the four-disc “Lungs” with dance remixes, a live show, and videos, it’s the best deal in town.

7. Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” – Neko’s another woman with overexposure problems, but she’s not just a beltin’ redhead with a nice country twang. Her songwriting has advanced tremendously in the last couple years, and this animal-centric suite is even brave enough to use found sounds from nature, giving Neko the proper aura of weird.

8. Elvis Costello, “Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane” – I haven’t had Elvis in my Top Ten in a long time, and many critics seemed to be lukewarm on this one. Sorry, they’re nuts. This is a bluegrass-Creole mashup with some exquisite playing, and some complex lyrics involving P.T. Barnum, Jenny Lind, and surrealistic views of antebellum America in the 1850s. An amazing work.

9. Regina Spektor, “Far” – Some critics were calling Spektor “too cute by half” on this release, apparently for song gimmicks like “Eet” and the barking and howling on “Dolphin Song.” Hey, it worked for me. These were great compositions, intelligently done. Bonus Edition Handicap: Two extra songs worth hearing and four clever videos make the double-disc edition worth seeking out.

10. The Swell Season, “Strict Joy” – After throwing their breakup out in public and winning the Academy Award for best song, it would have been natural to think that Glen and Marketa would make a second album that was a weak echo of “Once”. Instead, this odd and oft-understated album starts out sounding like Van Morrison, and ends up like a full-frontal Frames. Better than we might have hoped for. Bonus Edition Handicap: The three-disc version has a full audio live concert and its DVD equivalent. Definitely worth it.

11. Them Crooked Vultures (s/t) – Notice this high ranking compared to the relatively low status of Wolfmother, who want to bring a Led Zeppelin sound to a 21st-century world. TCV puts a real live Zep (John Paul Jones) together with Foo and Queens of Stone Age members, and the result is a strident, unusual album that advances hard rock without trying to sound like Zep. Wolfmother, on the other hand, tries too hard at emulating heroes.

12. The Flaming Lips, “Embryonic” – After meandering in a prog-rock wasteland the last couple albums, Wayne’s kids come back with an album that recalls “Ziareeka”. And it’s no surprise they’re covering Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side” for iTunes. These songs show the Lips at their best, perhaps best since “Soft Bulletin”. Bonus Edition Handicap: It all depends on how you value high-quality sound. The standard version has all the same material, but the 2-disc/1-DVD version provides better split of standard audio, and DVD-quality audio. There’s also a 2-LP/1-CD option. Not as over the top as U2’s five or six versions, but close.

13. Sonic Youth, “The Eternal” – Another “just like old times” album, this has SY returning to a mix of solid rock and experimentalism, up to the standards of their great early-90s works.

14. Grizzly Bear, “Veckatimest” – This ranks the highest for me of the three “art-twee” albums favored by so many critics. All three have elements of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”, but Grizzly Bear sustains more truly interesting moments than the newest by Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors. Still, to those who would call this the album of the year, I would point out it still has its zzzzzzzz moments. Bonus Handicap Edition: The second disc in the super-edition has many of the same KCRW and BBC tunes that are on the singles, so you’d want to get one or the other – not both.

15. Monsters of Folk (s/t) – Certain addle-brained people have such a distaste for Conor Oberst and/or My Morning Jacket, they consider this supergroup the worst of all possible worlds. Point is, they’re wrong. There are a couple of throwaway songs here, but many more killers, and a loose sense of fun that recalls Traveling Wilburys.

16. Starving Weirdos, “Into an Energy” – If we count “Path of Lightning” as a studio release, many SW fans might rank it higher than this one. But this release is out on a major traditional-music label, features shorter works, and is intended to gain Starving Weirdos the wider audience it so richly deserves. Bonus Edition Handicap: The second disc on the rare two-disc version has fascinating instrumentals that you will want if you’re a fan, though you won’t die without it.

17. The Xx (s/t) – The reason so many people get excited by this minimalist group is the hypnotic way that Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim can sound like Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan, if they were backed up by Joy Division or Interpol. The only reason this is not Top Ten is that the minimalist, sensual sound can be self-limiting over a full-length’s worth of cuts, but it deserves to be heard.

18. Bad Lieutenant, “Never Cry Another Tear” – After so many years of New Order et al., I was a little reticent to trust Bernard Sumner to do another supergroup, but he has pulled it off with grace and a good pop sensibility. An album filled with three-minute pop wonders.

19. Built to Spill, “There is No Enemy” – Doug Martsch won my #1 slot three years ago with “You In Reverse”, and I almost thought this album was its match. Not quite. Still, BtS’s golden years are now – these albums are better than their commonly-loved “Keep It Like a Secret” and “Perfect from Now On.”

20. Casper and the Cookies, “Modern Silence” – I’m not sure how these wacked-out art-rockers from Athens, GA have stayed out of the public eye for so long, but their decision to recruit Elephant 6 members for the grand finale makes this album quite an amazing work. Bonus Edition Handicap: Get the double vinyl, which comes with download, extra CD, lathe-cut mini-disc, and pointless toys.

21. The Dirty Projectors, “Bitte Orca” – Yes, I do love DPs, the gorgeous female vocals on “Two Doves”, the angular time signatures…. But sometimes their cleverness can be a wee bit annoying, which is why I have them lower than many critics.

22. The Dead Weather, “Horehound” – Too many supergroups this year. And doesn’t the thought of Jack White from White Stripes and Alison Mosshart of The Kills sound just a bit TOO cool for words? But this album rocks, and deliberately aims for a sense of the goofy. Jack and Alison live up to their billing by being dopey anti-heroes.

23. Robert Pollard, “The Crawling Distance” – The crowd pleaser among Pollard’s many albums this year was supposed to be “Elephant Jokes” or a Circus Devils project, but this is the one that threw me for a loop, particularly with last year’s single “The Butler Stands for All of Us.”

24. The Future of the Left, “Travels with Myself and Another” – Ranked slightly lower due to a 33-minute length, FotL nevertheless gets high props for a sense of precision and discipline that sounds like System of a Down, playing art-rock. Nice.

25. Kleenex Girl Wonder, “Mrs. Equitone” – A complex, riff-heavy, and damned beautiful return to form for KGW – and the packaging is cool too.

26. Imogen Heap, “Ellipse” – In the strange category of “women channeling Kate Bush,” Heap succeeds on both the emotional and electronic-composition side of the equation. This didn’t climb up to the rank of Florence or Regina Spektor for me, because some songs meandered, but ones like “Earth” and “Bad Body Double” are amazing. Bonus Edition Handicap: A second disc of instrumental versions is largely superfluous in this case.

27. Cate Le Bon, “Me Oh My” – Cate is kind of in the Imogen realm, but with more psychedelia and blues-folk roots visible, and a weirdness that springs more from Welsh traditionalism than electronica. Occasionally you can almost hear influences of a Jesse-Sykes-Crazy-Horse snarl that would fit on a retro-rock station. But she definitely likes to get strange.

28. Son Volt, “American Central Dust” – A bid by Jay Farrar to go for a stricter Americana sound, which sometimes makes things less interesting than Son Volt’s weirder albums. But the album has beautiful moments, particularly in the sad song “Sultana’, on the steamboat disaster at the end of the Civil War.

29. Neil Young, “Fork in the Road” – A fun tour de force about being a grumpy old man in an era of recession, and the virtues of traveling on. Bonus Edition Handicap: The videos are part of the great game, and anchor this album in the context of the Archives.

30. Black Heart Procession, “VI” – While not a major change in direction, a perfection and distillation of that beautiful high-lonesome BHP sound. Maybe their best.

31. Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” – Some people think of Avetts as a 21st century Jayhawks, but in a negative sense, as in too polished and smooth-country for their own good. But guess what? Just like with Gossip at #1, this album was produced by dance and hip-hop specialist Rick Rubin, which doesn’t mean it sounds Top 40, it means that like Gossip, Rubin squeezes the best out of the Avett Brothers. A fine work.

32. Wilco, “(The Album)”, There are people who are convinced that ever since Jeff Tweedy discovered anti-depressants, Wilco has been going downhill. I am not one of them. This album has a poppy, fun feel like “Summerteeth”, and is definitely better than the last, “Sky Blue Sky.”

33. Bill Orcutt, “A New Way to Repay Old Debts” – The founder of Harry Pussy returns from a decade-long period of silent exile with a stunning album of acoustic, detuned guitar. In a year in which we lost Jack Rose, Orcutt has picked up the mantle of improv guitarist with a love for traditionalism.

34. Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” – So here’s the album some folks list at number 1! Am I just mad at AC for their “Crack Box” fiasco (see below)? No. This album is a bid for a wider audience, with lovely Beach Boys-style harmonies. But it doesn’t carry the ball forward on either melodic or experimental fronts, it’s just a nice treading-water effort. But the band remains just as amazing.

35. Fiery Furnaces, “I’m Going Away” – This is a nice mix of Eleanor engaging in her manic lyricism, and the band just having fun. Hard to imagine FF being loose jammers, but it almost gets that way here.

36. Bill Callahan, “Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle” – Mr. Ex-Smog is becoming a top-notch folkish songwriter, to the point where you could play this for traditionalist friends and not get kicked out of the room.

37. Astral Social Club, “Plug Music Ramoon” – After all the limited edition oddball releases by Neil Campbell’s newest project, we get a sprawling, layered work on elaborate LP. Bonus Edition Handicap: The extra 3” CDR is worth the effort to find.

38. Six Organs of Admittance, “Luminous Night” – No Elisa here (though Ben gives her credits), but a dynamite performance by Eyvind Kang, and more of a sense of the Six Organs operating as a set piece group of stellar musicians.

39. Pearl Jam, “Backspacer” – A very decent, rocking effort from Eddie and company. It would have been higher, except the tunes weren’t sticking in my memory that well.

40. Inca Ore, “Silver Sea Surfer School” – I’m automatically a sucker for anything the remarkable Inca Ore does, but I had to ask myself – would this attract as many uninitiates as “Birds in the Bushes” or “Birthday of Bless You”? Probably not. Nevertheless, Inca/Eva does not make a bad recording. Or at least she hasn’t yet.

41. A.C. Newman, “Get Guilty” – The founder of New Pornographers crafts a fine release of pop songs, deserves better than #40, but then, A.C.’s niece deserve higher ranking for her third Immaculate Machines album, too.

42. Robert Pollard and Boston Spaceships, “0 to 99” – A fine third-round follow-up to “Brown Submarine”, and for this listener, preferable to the second album, “Planets Are Blasted”, reviewed below.

43. Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” – When Phoenix concentrates on simple, straightforward pop, they’re like very early Talking Heads or Shins. Recently, they diverted into some uninteresting dance directions, but they came back to their roots with this new one, winning radio play and a spot on Saturday Night Live in the process.

44. Robert Pollard and Circus Devils, “Gringo” – A wild divergence from Circus Devils form, but in a good way. A Western-tinged concept album of sorts, sounding almost like Morricone at times.

45. Morrissey, “Years of Refusal” – This one, along with Antony below, came out right at the start of the year, and I thought it would be in my Top Ten. But there were so many good releases this year, I lost sight of the fact of how Morrissey had gotten back to writing hard-hitting, riff-filled pop tunes.

46. Antony and the Johnsons, “The Crying Light” – Some people were saying from the get-go that this early January release would be their top of the year. It was excellently crafted, but being an Antony release, it’s an intricate and unusual beast that takes some getting used to. Still, a beautiful effort.

47. Silversun Pickups, “Swoon” – These folks are utterly hypnotic when they’re on message. This album has several haunting and beautiful epic songs, such as “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone.”

48. Sunn O))), “Monoliths and Dimensions” – I go back and forth on Sunn O))), since I’m not a fan of any sort of metal, but appreciate this band’s loud droney experimentalism. In controlled doses.

49. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, “Outer South,” An excellent album, superior to the 2008 MVB self-titled album, overshadowed by Conor’s Monsters of Folk project. Having seen this band live, I can attest that songs like “Roosevelt Room” and “Ten Women” are as good as life gets.

50. Robert Pollard, “Elephant Jokes” – Touted as the most mainstream release of 2009, which is true in a sense, but is overshadowed by Crawling and Circus Devils.

51. P.J. Harvey and John Parish, “A Woman A Man Walked By,” P.J. has been doing so much border-pushing work of late, I would have expected this second collaboration with John to be a breathtaking effort. It is at times, but not always.

52. Jen Korte and The Loss (s/t) – When Jen and Jessica DiNicola do harmonies of heartbreak, it’s like a bluesey, countryish version of Azure Ray or Indigo Girls. But with lots more backup talent.

53. ..And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, “Century of Self” – Many folks gave up on Trail of Dead after a couple lackluster efforts, but this takes us back to the strident and intelligent sounds of the early 2000s. Really a nice work.

54. Lou Barlow, “Goodnight Unknown” – The first song or do on this album didn’t click, but slowly, Lou started sounding like an indie version of Snow Patrol – sounds sacrilegious, almost, but it works.

55. Circulatory System, “Signal Morning” – It’s great to hear any element of the Elephant 6/OTC crew back again, and Will Cullen Hart has put together perhaps a tighter band than the CS of eight or so years ago. But it doesn’t grab in 2009 as much as in the late 90s.

56. Black Moth Super Rainbow, “Eating Us” – I appreciate the fact that BMSR is trying to be more user-friendly than its earlier spazz-psych days, but often, this is too mellow and sweet to be as essential as their earlier stuff. But it remains great background music for parties. Bonus Edition Handicap: You want to get the “fuzzy box” edition, just because.

57. Brandi Carlile, “Give Up the Ghost” – Those learning Brandi’s music through “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Gossip Girl” may think of her as just the modernist songwriter du jour. Her work is actually quite good, and the band is tighter than in previous albums. Bonus Edition Handicap: Web site edition has a couple extra songs, interesting, non-essential.

58. Deer Tick, “Born On Flag Day” – John McCauley has made a few enemies for being a smartass country-singin’ roustabout with big dreams. But isn’t that where good music comes from? For the second album, this band has its act together pretty well, and it’s annoying to hear all the negative comments from some quarters.

59. Robert Pollard and Boston Spaceships, “The Planets Are Blasted” – One could make the point that this falls slightly into the sophomore slump problem of a band’s second album, but when a band’s first, second, third, and double-live albums all come out within 13 months, it all becomes a manic blur – and in Boston Spaceships’ case, it’s all good.

60. Magik Markers, “Balf Quarry” – Given what a genius I consider Elisa Ambrogio to be, this might seem like a relatively low ranking, but this is MM’s commercial album to introduce neophytes to the sound. Elisa’s important work this year came in her off-label works, particularly “Shame Mask.” Keep in mind that even on the mainstream work, you get remarkable tracks like “Shells.”

61. Yo La Tengo, “Popular Songs” – I like most YLT, and I like the way this veers between short pop tunes and long bizarro jams. But it doesn’t viscerally grab me as much as it grabs others.
62. The Pain of Being Pure at Heart, (s/t) – Some folks go wild over this band as the second coming of Belle and Sebastian. They may have the potential to become that good, but I like their single, listed below, better than the self-titled full-length.

63. AFCGT, (s/t) – Two distinct releases, a full-length LP and a 10-inch EP, came from this ad-hoc coalition of A-Frames and Climax Golden Twins. If you know either band, you can anticipate the way it will mix roaring fuzz-rock and experimental sounds. You’d be absolutely right. Both the LP and EP are essential.

64. Arctic Monkeys, “Humbug” – The third album by these dance-crazy Brits moves in a new direction, and a good one. This album sounds like mid-period Doors, dark-carnival styles and mysterious lyrics. A really nice surprise from the Monkeys.

65-68. Bardo Pond, Four Pack: Bardo Pond, “Gazing at Shilla”; Alasehir, “Torment of Metals”; Alumbrados, “Monochord”; Moon Phantoms (s/t) – So Bardo Pond stays quiet for a couple years, then hits us up with four new studio albums at once and a compilation to boot. It’s almost too much to absorb, but it’s psychedelic and beautiful, and includes a tribute to Robert Anton Wilson.

69. Decemberists, “Hazards of Love” – Don’t get me wrong, this is a nice album, but there are similar problems in the recent works of both Decemberists and Green Day: both bands set out to make de jure rock-opera albums after releasing de facto concept rock operas. In both cases, the earlier effort was better than the new one. Colin Meloy just overreached with “Hazards of Love”, and this isn’t as interesting as other Decemberists albums.

70. Pissed Jeans, “King of Jeans” – There are many people, like the New York Times, who will tell you Pissed Jeans are the future of punk-style rock. I don’t see it. The songs are interesting, to be sure, but the sound either moves into a growling roar similar to the worst of death metal, or spoken-word declarations that aren’t particularly interesting. Fun at times, but not game-changing.

71. Robert Pollard and Cosmos, “Jar of Jam” – A wonderful album, but maybe the least overall interesting of Pollard’s many, many works in 2009.

72. Heartless Bastards, “The Mountain” – Erika Wennerstrom has re-invented this band into a personal vehicle for her songs of angst and bravery, and that’s OK. The third album is significantly different from the first two, but in most ways, the change has done them good.

73. Green Day, “21st Century Breakdown” – Billy’s heart is in the right place, the story line is good, but 2CB suffers from the same problem as the new Decemberists – both “American Idiot” and “Crane Wife” were great because they were such surprises. 2CB and “Hazards of Love”, by contrast, suffer from being contrived.

74. Young Fresh Fellows, “I Think This Is” – It’s great to have YFF back, and they don’t disappoint on their return. An exciting and tight album.

75. Cheryl Wheeler, “Pointing at the Sun” – Cheryl has made the transition to self-produced indie label, and her freedom helps her music, with some of her most interesting work since “Sylvia Hotel.” Even if the last three songs all involve her dead cat, the fact that the last song uses maracas containing the ashes of said dead cat make that all the more remarkable.

76. St. Vincent, “Actor” – I like Annie, but find her live sets more compelling than this year’s studio album. This particular studio set is definitely worth owning, however.

77. U2, “No Line on the Horizon” – No, this is not intended as a slight against Bono. U2 has made a tight, exciting album, perhaps even better than “Atomic Bomb.” But there are many newcomers around these days, so old man Bono has to work twice as hard. Bonus Edition Handicap: U2 certainly gives the consumer choices – something like six different versions of this album exist. But does any material other than the movie matter, other than the main tunes from the studio album? Doesn’t seem like it.

78. Glands of External Secretion, “Meat Receiving” – Few can claim to understand what Seymour Glass and Barbara Manning actually do when they collaborate as the Glands, but it’s so great to have them back after a long hiatus. Hell, it’s good to have Barbara show up anywhere these days! Bonus Edition Handicap: You have to get the version with the bonus 3” “It’s Your Own Damn Fault” CDR, or you just ain’t Upper Echelon.

79. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “Ballads of the Revolution” – Well, Jackie-O’s studio album this year is better than the live album, but I’m not sure about the turn to more cowboy music. Honey Owens’ return is great, but Inca Ore is missed.

80. Califone, “All My Friends Are Funeral Singers” – Proof positive of what I said about U2. Califone’s last album was in my top ten. I expected this one to be. But the new one is langorous, spacey, meandering, and it’s hard to find the crunchy center. I love the title track and a few other songs, but it doesn’t rank as high as other Califone albums.

81. Dinosaur Jr., “Farm” – This album has several clever and interesting songs, and Lou Barlow is on this album, but try as I might, I find J. Mascis only mildly interesting. Nevertheless, a worthy effort. Bonus Edition Handicap: The EP in the double-disc version has some of the best songs of the whole studio set.

82. M. Ward, “Hold Time” – Matthew must be lonely now that Zoey Deschanel is married to Ben Gibbard – where is She and Him? Nevertheless, the new solo effort is interesting and countrified, though not as good as his work with the Monsters of Folk.

83. Astral Social Club, “Octuplex” – A fun set for VHF Records featuring Neil and gang, and guest Richard Youngs.

84. Franz Ferdinand, “Tonight” – A surprising turn to urban dancing, which isn’t always my cup of tea, but Franz Ferdinand makes it interesting. A smart and sophisticated album.

85. Inca Ore/Heavy-Winged, “Ring Mining” – A fascinating collaborative effort, of a mysterious nature to make for difficult listening, but worth it if you are willing to go ring mining and dig deep.

86. Iggy Pop, “Preliminaries” – So the mighty Iggy decides to do a crooner album in French. Seeing as how I have this one in the 80s, it must suck, right? Wrong. If it’s on this list, it’s still good, even if it’s in the hundreds. And that goes for Iggy singing in French, too.

87. Matt and Kim, “Grand” – A decent sophomore album from the goofy couple who seemed to be a novelty act at first, but proved that they know how to consistently write songs. They are a joy to hear and be around.

88. Magnetic Health Factory, “Western Medicine” – No slight is intended for putting Eric O’Connor’s tour de force down in these parts – they still beat out Dylan, Eels, Art Brut, etc. MHF is continuing the tradition of the pop collage perfected by GbV and Pavement, which not enough bands seem to follow these days.

89. Davendra Banhart, “What Will We Be” – I’ve done Davendra a disservice by not ranking him higher, and it’s only due to not figuring out what he will be. Sometimes, he reaches back to Latin American roots, on this album he’s trying for more straightforward pop songs, but his talents for perfect arrangements grow with each album. Definitely recommended.

90. Charlie Parr, “Roustabout” – I’ve only discovered the glories of Charlie Parr in recent months, and saw him at a backyard barbecue last summer, where he was talking of doing an album with the dearly departed Jack Rose. With Jack gone, Charlie will have to extend his love for Delta blues to become a leader in traditionalist guitar.

91. Todd Snider, “The Excitement Plan” – Folk-rock’s funnyman gets halfway serious in a new studio effort that united him with John Doe’s Yeproc project. A solid effort. (Notice that several male songwriters – Andrew Bird, John Vanderslice, Mason Jennings – will start showing up down here despite very good releases. An overload this year.)

92. Graham Lambkin, “Softly Softly Copy Copy” – Our former Shadow Ring frontman gives us two long slices of instrumental experimentalism, featuring violinist Tamara Lubelski. But no Adris Hoyos appearances, unfortunately.

93. Jack Rose, “The Black Dirt Sessions” – Since Jack passed away in early December, it might be appropriate to put this way up. But let’s be honest – Jack’s efforts to unite traditionalist and experimental streams represent a special category that not all can appreciate. If you love Jack, you’re already there.

94. Tortoise, “Beacons of Ancestorship” – It’s great to have Tortoise back, and their new sound has a more solid bass line. But that at once gives them wider appeal, and makes them more mainstream in their instrumentals. It’s a common problem, as seen in Black Dice, Black Moth Super Rainbow, Fuck Buttons, etc. As you can see below, Tortoise navigates this problem better than others.

95. John Vanderslice, “Romanian Names” – Glad he got the chance to tour with Mountain Goats this year, because Vanderslice is on the “always a bridesmaid” list of intelligent, competent songwriters who don’t get noticed enough. And this album deserves notice.

96. Art Brut, “Vs. Satan” – Eddie makes much more fun out of a punk aesthetic than someone like Pissed Jeans, but this album was typical for third-round joke-punk affairs – funny and rollicking, but without a lot of memorable tunes.

97. Clem Snide, “Hungry Bird” – Fans of Clem have this one in their top ten or twenty. I’m convinced of the band’s unique genius, almost sounding a little like David Gray fronting an indie band, but it didn’t push higher for me. Bonus Edition Handicap: Go ahead, get the version with the extra EP, nothing essential but fun songs nonetheless.

98. Tori Amos, “Hopelessly Addicted to Sin” – Maybe this got lower ranking because I was so blown away by “American Doll Posse,” which I still consider her best album. This was just pensive, sad Tori by comparison, not bad, but nothing unique and unexpected like the last album.

99. Andrew Bird, “Noble Beast” – I’m always rooting for Bird to gain a wider audience, but the songs here are interesting, but not necessarily a leap forward anywhere. It’s OK to have a holding-pattern album, but I’m still waiting for the millions to recognize his talents. Bonus Edition Handicap: The “Useless Creatures” CD is like Imogen Heap’s extra instrumental disc – do you really need it? Alternate artwork is cool, though.

100. Barn Owl, “From Our Mother” – I only discovered this band recently, through the collab work with Tom Carter. Haunting and interesting, a soundtrack of lost souls. Bonus Edition Handicap: Find the version with cassette tape. It’s worth it.

101. Do Make Say Think, “Other Truths” – One of the few remaining remnants of Godspeed You Black Emperor continues to make intriguing instrumentals, but comes close to falling victim to the Tortoise/Black Dice problem – is it going too mainstream?

102. Blame Sally, “Night of 1000 Stars” – I was lucky enough to discover Blame Sally at a live show in November, and am utterly captivated by the four very dissimilar women who make up this band. Yes, it’s listed at 100, but yes, it’s a great album.

103. Green Pajamas, “Poison in the Russian Room” – This ranking might make you believe that I’d utterly given up on Jeff Kelly and the Green Pajamas project, but truth is, this album has more life and intriguing ideas than the last couple GP albums.

104. Joan of Arc, “Flowers” – Another unfortunate ranking for a band I’ve always really liked. Tim Kinsella seems like he’s moving in some interesting directions, but I just haven’t given it the attention it deserves.

105. Eilen Jewell, “Sea of Tears” – Like Blame Sally, I just discovered Eilen’s rockabilly wonders this past summer, and she pours out fun – not the Wanda Jackson devil-doll kind, however. Since Eilen likes old-timey gospel, too, you almost might say she plays angel to Wanda’s devil. Or something like that.

106. The Minus Five, “Killingsworth” – Once again, these guys are up to more diverse fun than they’ve been to for quite a while, and the female backup voices are exquisite this time around. Oh, for a fair universe where all could have Top Ten prizes.

107. New York Dolls, “Cuz I Sez So” – Sure, David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are getting wrinkly and long in the tooth, but these guys still know how to crank out an excellent glam-punk album, even after all the tragedies this band has been through. Bonus Edition Handicap: Yes, the live bonus disc is worth it – you can never have too much live New York Dolls.

108. Idea Fire Company, “Beauty School” – Any outing by Scott Foust and Karla Gay Borecky is worth your time, but this year, you’d get some great material and save a lot of money by purchasing their live archive album listed below.

109. David Rovics, “10,000 Miles Away” – I spent so much time listening to his live album listed below, I didn’t take enough time to adequately absorb this beautiful collection of songs and spoken-word poetry. A very different Rovics album.

110. Raveonettes, “In and Out of Control” – At first, this seemed a little thinner than “Lust Lust Lust,” but so many of the songs have that Darlene Love-Ronnie Spector feel, I’m beginning to like this album. Bonus Edition Handicap: The extra EP has some good tunes on it you wouldn’t want to miss.

111. State Radio, “Let It Go” – State Radio puts on one of the best political-ska-punk shows around, reminiscent of The Clash in “Sandinista” days, though the studio doesn’t always translate the songs in full glory.

112. Wolfmother, “Cosmic Egg” – As mentioned much earlier, Them Crooked Vultures are reminiscent of Led Zep just due to their pedigree. These guys have a lot of youthful energy, but try too hard to emulate LZ. Nice, but too derivative. Bonus Edition Handicap: If you’re going to get any Wolfmother, you might as well get the full double-disc treatment.

113. Bruce Springsteen, “Workin’ On a Dream” – Yes, it’s kind of low for an album that was obviously such a labor of love for Obama etc., but Springsteen’s last go-round, “Magic”, was such a leap in bringing in a sound similar to The Magnetic Fields, that this just sounds derivative in comparison. Nevertheless, that newer, fuller Magnetic Fields sound is there, so it’s worth getting.

114. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “It’s Blitz” – Some people think of this as Karen O’s breakthrough album. Some even have it in their Top Ten. Not me. I liked YYY’s as tough punks, but Karen thinks she’s a dancing queen these days, and this album is simply too polished to be a classic.

115. Michelle Shocked, “Soul of My Soul” – Some reviewer (Pitchfork?) suggested this album was too long in gestation to be on target, and they have a point. Why include songs chiding Bush when Bush is gone. Nevertheless, she makes a great double-entendre in “Seeing Other People” about the split between citizen and nation being like a slow breakup of a couple. And I’ll always try to give Michelle some nice credit.

116. Bob Dylan, “Together Through Life” – OK, I appreciate the fact that Dylan sounds happy in his new Tex-Mex gig, and the songs sound well-loved. But really, what’s exciting or innovative here? We can say that Dylan is entering old age with grace and good fun, but that’s about all. Bonus Edition Handicap: Actually, having a disc of Dylan as DJ playing obscure Americana is kind of cool.

117. Trinity Demask, “Crucible” – The only reason this is low is due to a tighter regional focus since she went solo from the Third Road Home project. Trinity maintains her crisp songwriting and beautiful voice, and the songs are worth it. Let’s hope the vocal chord nodes that popped up recently go away soon, she deserves to be heard by more people.

118. Immaculate Machine, “High on Jackson Hill” – Kathryn Calder’s side project from New Pornographers has gone through four or five albums, and this one tries to be more laid back, which makes it less pressured to be pop-perfect, but more uncertain of directions. Maybe I should listen to it more.

119. Beirut, “Zapoteca” – Does this deserve to be treated as two separate EPs, or as one full-length album? There are two discs with two decidedly different states of mind, and I’m not sure how to treat them. In any event, Zach Condon certainly is changing Beirut from outing to outing, but sometimes it feels like Jeff Mangum fooling around with Eastern European field recordings, as in, what’s the point? Where’s the center of gravity?

120. Lily Allen, “It’s Not Me, It’s You” – I love Lily Allen’s pop sensibility, and she looks better in a sailor suit than anyone. The problem is, Lily was sassy and tough for her first album, and now she’s fallen into the role of teen pop-princess pretty utterly. The world has enough of them, Lily, we need more grit, guts, and guns.

121. Eels, “Hombre Lobo” – Mark E. makes some albums like “Flashing Lights” that are absolutely on target and breathtaking. Then he makes others like “Shootenanny” and the current effort that are pleasant to listen to, but don’t break any new ground. It’s Eels, you’ll want it for the library, but not a lot to get excited about.

122. Mars Volta, “Octahedron” – I keep hoping to get back the feel of earlier Mars Volta, and some people still swear by them, but they seem to be to continue to display the worst tendencies of progressive rock.

123. Soundtrack of Our Lives, “Communion” – And speaking of over-production in prog-rock/classic-rock, SooL try for greatness on this double-album, but maybe the problem is that they try too hard.

124. Mason Jennings, “Blood of Man” – I give Mason credit for always trying new things, but the electronic and rhythm elements of this album didn’t win me over. Bonus Edition Handicap: “The Independent” EP has some fairly good material on it.

125. The Fray (second album) – With the first going so gonzo and Isaac Slade inheriting a castle, you knew the sophomore album had to be a rerun of the first. “You Found Me” and “Never Say Never” are OK works, but the band needs to find a new center.

126. Black Dice, “Repo” – Black Dice is a band I place a lot of faith in, for balancing experimentalism and dance. So when they fall utterly into the dance camp, and do so unconvincingly, I have to rank them down for that. Too bad.

127. Discovery (s/t) – There are people who think that this supergroup of Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot members is the most exciting event of 2009. Not me. A couple moments of merit, but a lot of average stuff.

128. Jet, “Shaka Rock” – After taking a lot of crap for their second album, it’s a pleasant surprise to learn that Jet has actually made a decent hard-pop album for their third.

129. Mission of Burma, “Sound Speed Light” – I love Roger Miller and MoB, and I loved their return album last year. This one, though, sounds too forced to be a classic punk retro album.

130. Fuck Buttons, “Tarot Sport” – Hey, these guys are supposed to be progressive experimental instrumentalist yada yada. This sounds like stuff I could find at most dance halls, which makes it OK to listen to, but a step down from the last album.

131. Glasvegas – The future of Glasgow? Well…..mildly interesting at times, but there are many more Scottish bands with greater talents.

Special Albums (Live, Compilations, Splits, CD-Rs, MP3, etc.)

1. The Shadow Ring, “Life Review (1993-2003)” – This year, the specials category included a play by Pere Ubu, a stunning live set from Leonard Cohen, three book-music combos, and tons of other goodies. Yet this compilation of The Shadow Ring’s strange ten-year history beat them all. Graham Lambkin and friends created the ultimate in ‘difficult music’, combining spoken-word poetry and something akin to kabuki music. Not for everyone, certainly, but something not to be missed.

2. Pere Ubu, “Long Live Pere Ubu” – It took the band, Pere Ubu, nearly 35 years to produce the Alfred Jarry Ubu plays, but what a job David Thomas did. This is only an audio soundtrack of the “Bring Me the Head of Pere Ubu” plays, and we have to start clamoring for a full DVD.

3. Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, “One False Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac at Big Sur” – You could say that Farrar and Gibbard copied what Wilco and Billy Bragg did with the Woody Guthrie archives, except that Farrar was dealing with prose, not rhyming couplets. The result is fantastic. Bonus Edition Handicap: Go ahead and get the CD/DVD combo, since you need to see the movie to grasp the full extent of the music, and the movie features clips from the likes of Patti Smith, Dar Williams, Tom Waits, and Robert Hunter.

4. Leonard Cohen, “Live in London” – This double-CD set captures the essence of Cohen’s astonishing three-hour shows in his live tour. His band is tight beyond measure, and my only gripe is that the set list is fairly rigid because of the complexity of arrangements. Still, I saw him at Red Rocks and got at least two songs not on this set. If you missed him in his 2008-09 tour, it was a tragedy to do so, but this recording will help alleviate that mistake.

5. Post-Alarmist (s/t) – Several experimental musicians, including Inca Ore and Ghosts to Falco, were in a collaborative group in Portland early in the 2000s called Alarmist. This is not so much a reunion as it is all four members getting back together and contributing examples of what they’re up to now. This is different from any supergroup concept out there.

6. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Grand Tour of Tunisia” – Sunburned graced us with the usual huge pile of releases in 2009, but this one stood out as a double-LP and CD that captured the essence of a live show. The CD musings on UAV warfare in Afghanistan are astonishing, and the LP packaging is beyond most of what passes for LP art these days.

7. Starving Weirdos, “Path of Lightning” – And then there’s this astonishing and not-fully-explained double-LP release from SW, which might be live, might be studio, but is phenomenal in any event.

8. Sunny Day Real Estate, “Live at 9:30” (NPR podcast series) – Of any of the NPR or NYCtaper live shows available for download this year, this one proved the most essential. If you’ve seen the revitalized SDRE or saw them on Jimmy Fallon, you know why. This live show never lets up, beginning to end.

9. Hands To, “Flatline” – Jeph Jerman is back in his alias of Hands To, and he graces us with an LP that must be seen and held to be believed. Some 20 artists were commissioned to draw and paint on the cover, inside cover, label, surface of vinyl, etc., while Jerman assembled sounds that he thought captured the life essence of friends and acquaintances who had died. Sort of appropriate that the LP was released around the time of Jim Carroll’s death. All the people who died, died….

10. Mountain Goats, “Live in NYC, Dec. 1-2, 2009” – Nearly three hours of music, concentrating on the new album, at www.nyctaper.com. Some overlap to be sure, but so many great songs and full-on production that it’s worth it to hear all of both shows.

11. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, “Live at Bowery Ballroom, Dec. 6, 2009” – Nothing but a radical EP from the Republican Convention has emerged from Ted Leo for a couple years, but this set gives hints of what’s to come. Some songs, like “One Polaroid a Day”, are just awe-inspiring.

12. Graham Lambkin, “Dumb Answer to Miracles” -- If you want to get a comprehensive sense of where the Shadow Ring founder and hubby of art-terrorist Adris Hoyos is at, this book/CD collects poetry, essays, sounds, and the bulk of “Tomb of Speed” in one place. Beautiful.

13. Dave Nuss, “Original Innocence” – If you’re wondering why the No-Neck releases this year were historical recordings from the 1990s, it’s because NNCK founder Nuss has been working on a Christian rock opera. Seriously. And it’s very, very good.

14. Tom Carter, “The Dance from Which All Dances Come”

15. Zaika (Tom Carter and Marcia Bassett), “Big Jar” – These two releases rank higher than Tom’s work with Robert Horton and Friday Group because they seem more complete and hence more essential. Both indicate his importance as an individual guitarist and improvisational session artist.

16. Magik Markers, “Shame Mask” – In addition to the commercial release, MM released two CDRs in 2009, of the type they love. This one ranked higher than the BT live set, because it is intended to be a set of “Balf Quarry” outtakes, and includes a long track of Elisa engaged in primal and sensual howling that must be heard to be believed.

17. Iron and Wine, “Around the Well” – A stunning double-CD of Sam Beam’s various B-sides, rarities, and covers of songs like “Love Vigilantes.” The second CD ends with the incredible 10-minute song “The Trapeze Swinger”, which alone is worth the price of the double CD.

18. Tim Buckley, “Live at the Folklore Center, 1967” – It’s astonishing to think that this live set, recorded prior to the release of “Goodbye and Hello”, remained undiscovered for so long. What can I say except that it’s well-engineered for its time, and essential in so many ways.

19. Christina Carter, “Seals”
20. Christina Carter, “Of the Gutter”
21. Christina Carter, “Coupled”
22. Christina Carter, “As Human as They Sound” – Christina Carter of Charalambides keeps pushing herself to explore new territory. A few years ago, it was formless voice as a musical instrument. In 2009, she’s experimenting with story-telling, and managing to sound melodic and experimental at the same time. Then again, don’t we expect that from someone who always expands the perceptions and always surprises?

23. Guided by Voices, “Suitcase 3” – I fully anticipated that the third go-round of 100 unreleased songs by GbV on three discs had to be stuffed with nothing but crap. Au contraire. Tons of good songs in this box, including the amazing “There Are Other Worlds,” one of my favorite GbV songs ever. And kudos to Bobby Pollard for going with recession-era packaging and pricing, unlike certain Beatles and Pixies and Neil Youngs I could mention.

24. Various Brazilian Bands, “Don’t Stop Now” – And let’s not forget the astonishing collection of Guided by Voices covers compiled by a series of Brazilian bands no one in the USA has ever heard of. Makes you realize how healthy an independent music scene is in virtually any country, and how big a fan base GbV has outside the English-speaking world.

25. David Rovics, “The Commons” – A live best-of compilation of remarkable songs, with banjo, violin, and backup singers, which feature not only the obvious crowd-pleasers like “St Patrick’s Battalion” and “I’m a Better Anarchist Than You,” but the really moving Rovics songs like “They’re Building a Wall.”

26. The Swell Season, “Live in Seattle” (NPR) – Even if you have the live set from the expanded “Strict Joy”, you will want this one for the cover of Tim Buckley’s “Buzzin’ Fly”, and a new song Marketa just finished after the completion of the new studio album.

27. Regina Spektor, “Live in NYC” (NYCtaper) – A comprehensive and exquisitely-recorded set that focuses on “Far”, but has several earlier songs as well.

28. Starving Weirdos, “Live at the Accident with Tom Carter”
29. Starving Weirdos, “Live in Portland”
30. Starving Weirdos, “Self-Hypnosis” – Three outstanding collections of material, one a drone jam with Tom and Sean, one a second tape live Portland comp after the CDR Portland comp of last year, and the last a re-release on double vinyl of an earlier CD release from Jyrk, with some new material thrown in. We learn that “Self-Hypnosis” was largely recorded at the Humboldt State University racquetball courts, which sort of figures, given Starving Weirdos.

31. Pelt, “A Stone for Angus Maclise” – This semi-bootleg live set is all the new material we get from Pelt this year, and a decent drone doozy it is, though I hear that much is being cooked up at Klang Industries.

32. Bob Mould, “Live at ATP 2008” – Yeproc has graced us with a tight, short set of Mould from All Tomorrow’s Parties, in which he graces us with some “best of” his solo efforts, Sugar, and Husker Du recordings. No matter which Mould is your favorite, there’s something for you here.

33. Susan Cowsill, “Live at Carrollton Station, Vol. 2” – As far as I’m concerned, the Carrollton support society could keep releasing these “Wrapped in Vinyl” compilations forever, since Susan Cowsill covering anyone is superb.

34. Tom Waits, “Glitter and Doom” – Even though you know that no live set could equal the bard-behavior of “Nighthawks at the Diner”, this gives you a sense of what Waits is up to in the 21st century, including a new song about circus freaks. Bonus Edition Handicap: There are plenty of interesting stories and jokes in the spoken-word second disc, “Tom Tales”, but I wonder why they excerpted speaking in such a way. It would have more continuity to offer two discs that mixed songs and stories together as one. Maybe folks don’t have as much patience as they did in “Nighthawks” days.

35. Neil Young, “Archives Vol. 1” – In other years and circumstances, this might have been in the Top Ten. There is new material from the early days, which makes it essential. But Neil had already released two live sets as separate discs that were then included on this box. And he re-released his first four albums as separate digital editions. This seems almost as self-indulgent as The Beatles remasters and The Pixies’ “Minotaur”, which are not listed here because of the lack of new material. Neil will continue to be included because Archives remains necessary.

36. Yellow Swans, “Mort Aux Vaches” – Somehow, I expected a lot of post-mortem YS to be released, but we’ve seen little so far. This CD from Belgium radio has an amazing ceramic 3D cover with a girl and a swan, worth getting for its art value, but the live radio broadcast within is Swans at their most otherworldly scariest, so it might frighten the faint of heart.

37. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “A”
38. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Unrock Live Gig”
39. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Remember It Wet”
40. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “An Ant’s Death”
41. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Silence of Color”
42. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “ Spraycan in Space”
43. Sunburned Hand of the Man, “Cheap Blood” – To say that Sunburned was not quite as prolific as 2008 is not saying much. It’s a wonder that each album is different and each album is interesting, when they release so damned much material. It’s worth pointing to “A”, a semi-official Ecstatic Peace vinyl release, and “Remember It Wet”, a collection of CD and two cassettes that chronicle a 2004 tour. But come on, it’s Sunburned, it’s all good.

44. Starving Weirdos, “Blue Heron” – A release that might be live, might be studio, but it offers a stunningly beautiful LP cover, though the recordings are not quite as unique as the ones above. But almost.

45. Various Artists, “Score! Merge Records Covers” – These are Merge artists covering other artists’ material, full of wonderful gems, though the one track of St. Vincent and The National covering Eric Bachmann’s “Sleep All Summer” is worth the price of the album.

46. Animal Collective, “Crack Box” – This 3-LP set is actually chock full of interesting unreleased material, but I am giving this one demerit points for the crazed Internet markup that put prices of this collection temporarily above $500. I know, this is not the fault of AC, Catsup Plate Records, or Fusetron, but it still soured me on the contents.

47. Steve Earle, “Townes” – Don’t think the ranking on this one means it’s unessential. No one has offered a Townes Van Zandt compilation of covers before, and who better qualified than Steve Earle? A record that had to be made.

48. Tom Carter and Robert Horton, “Campfire”
49. Tom Carter and Friday Group, “Who Wants to Look at a Bunch of Broken Pottery When You Can Haul Ass Down the Freeway?” – Here’s Carter in two more unconventional venues – an outdoor campfire acoustic jam with Horton, and a raucous free-for-all with Friday Group. More of an acquired taste than his standard fare, but that’s what makes Tom Carter a fun musician.

50. Danger Mouse, Sparklehorse, and David Lynch, “Dark Night of the Soul” – Conceptually, this was a great idea, and it’s a shame the record company was so dick-headed about making an official release. But in implementation, this was far more mainstream in pop sounds than I would have expected from Lynch and Danger Mouse.

51. St. Vincent, “Live at 9:30” (NPR) – In some senses, this is even a better venue for listening to Annie than the “Actor” album. Sheer joy.

52. Woody Guthrie, “My Dusty Road” – A long-overdue collection of Guthrie material at its best, complete with suitcase packaging.

53. Circus Devils, “A Riot of Gold Teeth” – A nice fan-club collection of songs from all the Circus Devils albums, including the still-to-come 2010 album “Mother Skinny.” What fun!

54. Flobots (Jonny 5 and Yak), “Onomatopoeia” – A 2001 recording of political rants in Boston and Denver has gotten the re-release it sorely deserves, and it sounds absolutely great.

55. Jayhawks, “Music from the North Country” – A single disc would merely be a best-of collection, the second disc makes it a compilation of rarities, and a special third disc offered only in the BestBuy version makes this the definitive Jayhawks set. This may be the prelude to a Jayhawks reunion – we can only hope.

56. Nellie McKay, “As Normal As Blueberry Pie” – This only is ranked lower than some compilations because it’s a set of Doris Day covers, which makes sense given McKay’s quirkiness, but Doris Day? Actually, Day did some pretty interesting work in the 1940s, and McKay livens it up with her improvisation from Dimension X.

57. Six Organs of Admittance and Joseph Mattson, “Empty the Sun” – A novel and soundtrack collaboration, with Six Organs contributing a lo-fi acoustic set. Still have to read the novel…

58. Death, “For the Whole World to See” – Death was an African-American proto-punk band from Detroit in the early 1970s, who wanted to emulate Iggy and pre-date most 1976-77 punk. But if you didn’t live in Michigan in 1973, you most likely never heard of them until this year, when the demo tapes were finally released.

59. Magik Markers, “Baltimore Trust” – This CDR is a live, roaring set from the era when Leah Quimby played with Elisa and Pete, recalling all those great weird CDRs of years past.

60. Six Organs of Admittance, “RTZ” – This album is a compilation of unusual releases and B-sides from Ben Chasny and company – big fans may have most of the material on these two discs, but there are a few surprises for everyone.

61. No Neck Blues Band, “At 6 a.m. We Become the Police”
62. No Neck Blues Band, “Languid Red Marchetti” – Two beautiful vinyl records that capture vintage NNCK material from the mid-1990s. This is all we’re going to hear from the mighty No Neck this year, with Dave Nuss off composing and all.

63. Green Pajamas, “Hidden Minutes” – The second LP-only collection of Green Pajamas rarities, and this one has plenty of good tracks.

64. John Doe and The Sadies, “Country Club” – These two musicians were made to play together and made to do country music covers. An overdue idea.

65. Marcia Bassett, “Death Blooming Pleasure” – A quiet year for Marcia, just a solo and a small-release GHQ, but she graces everything she touches.

66. The Oh Sees, “Live in NYC” (NYCtaper) – A nice, straightahead set of the Bay Area rockers.

67. Climax Golden Twins, “Eerie Fragrance” – Like No Neck, CGT’s new work has been its collaboration with A-Frames. This collection comes from 1994, but is a fascinating piece.

68. Pavement, “Brighten the Corners expanded edition” – Now that Pavement has promised us a 2010 reunion, each re-issued album has its own benefits and new material. As we get to later-period Pavement, some might say the new editions are less important than the “Slanted and Enchanted” days, but I disagree. It’s all good.

69. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “Live at CMJ, NYC” -- This brief set will convince you, perhaps more than the studio album, why some people find this band so compelling.

70. Rosie Thomas and Sufjan Stevens, “All the Way from Michigan Not Mars” – An interesting lo-fi exploration of Rosie, primarily, but only available on overpriced vinyl. A good album, but there ought to be a lower-priced CD alternative.

71. Sun City Girls, “Napoleon and Josephine” – The second compilation of singles and B-side material from the now-apparently-defunct-for-good Sun City Girls, the geniuses who started it all.

72. Destroy All Monsters, “Sextet” – This LP captures a long 1975 improv set by DAM, before Niagara joined to give them their female punk sensibility, but while they were in the midst of their otherworldly craziness.

73. Jackie-O Motherfucker, “The Blood of Life” – As I mentioned, this live set captures Tom Greenwood and company largely doing cowboy ballads, which is certainly a fun new direction for Jackie-O, but not as interesting as their jazz-traditionalist-noise mix.

74. Built to Spill, multiple live sets, NYCtaper – There are some fantastic cuts in the eight or ten live sets on this site, almost obsessive enough to suggest a Deadhead. My only complaint is that Doug was having some vocal problems for a couple of the sets, and the band only occasionally captures the tightness of the “You In Reverse” days.

75. Cocker Spaniels, “Sometimes You Gotta Fight” – This is an early demo version of what Sean Padilla hopes to finish in 2010, and captures Sean’s fantastic sense of sincere storytelling. It will be fun to hear the finished product – the rough draft can give a sense of Daniel Johnston meets Casiotones for the Painfully Alone. Sean’s stories are worth hearing again and again.

76. Ashtray Navigations, “Six Imaginary Scenes from the Life of Muhammad Al Aqil”
77. Ashtray Navigations, “How Do Siamese Twins Arrange Their Love Lives?”
78. Ashtray Navigations, “Monocycle Americain”
79. Ashtray Navigations, “Sgt. Pepper’s Mystery Four Twenty Hex Aurora Toilet”
80. Ashtray Navigations, “Sea II” – Phil Todd is as prolific as ever, but this year’s releases, with the exception of “Six Imaginary Scenes”, seem to have less spirit. Ready for Ashtray to get a jump-start kicker.

81. The Hold Steady, “A Positive Rage” – A band that is absolutely wonderful live deserves an absolutely wonderful live set, but this isn’t it. The audio CD is good but not stellar, while the DVD is kind of lame – songs are cut off in favor of interviews we don’t really need.

82. GHQ, “Pale Heat of Summer” – An intriguing live set on a small-release CDR is apparently the only thing we’ll see from the GHQ/Double Leopards/Hototogisu gang in 2009. Here’s hoping for more next year!

83. Bardo Pond, “Peri” – A double album of compiled psychedelic goodies from the Lemur House – none essential, but all a lot of fun for the Bardo fan. I am listing the CD single separately below, because it apparently was distributed separately along with a bundle inside “Peri”.

84. Ray Davies and Dessoff Chamber Choir, “Kinks Choral Concert, Live at Town Hall” (NPR) – Kinks songs performed by a choir? Isn’t this eeeewwwww? Well, no, it’s kind of interesting.

85. Idea Fire Company, “Live Archives Vol. 1 WMVA” – The first in what will apparently be a series from IFCO, this features Graham Lambkin along with Scott and Karla, which makes it even more interesting than the IFCO studio release this year.

86. Six Organs of Admittance/Azul (split) – This LP is a must for Six Organs fans because it’s rare, and because of its beautiful Japan-art cover. But the Six Organs material is more improv, more raw, and not as interesting as the band’s studio release this year.

87. Inca Ore, “Phoning It In” – An unusual, necessarily lo-fi recording from a series in which experimental artists phone in to a radio show. Eva gives us some vocal and found-sound samples appropriate to the environment.

88. Coldplay, “Left Right Left Right” – This tour-only live set, which was offered free as a download on their web site for a couple days, doesn’t offer any new material, but some decent live versions of La Vida/Prospekt’s March material, worth it if you want some live Coldplay.

89. The Feelies, “Live in NYC” (NYCtaper) – This set has so many interesting covers and best-of tracks, it would appear to be a keeper, but the sound quality is not the best, which is a shame.

90. Boston Spaceships, “Licking Stamps and Drinking Shitty Coffee” – the color-vinyl manufacturing and cool cover of this pseudo-bootleg live set make it worthwhile to own, but like many great GbV bootlegs of the 1990s, the mixed-down vocals make it less than essential, even though the guitars are clean and crisp.

91. Dirty Projectors, “Live in NYC” – This set is quiet, mixed-down, yet decent, but it highlights the problems I have with Dirty Projectors. The rhythms are unique and the female vocals are beautiful, but it seems devoid of emotion.

92. The Pixies, “Live Concert Series” – As much as I’m down on Frank Black for over-monetizing everything on the tour, these limited CDs of the cities where they performed “Doolittle” are as worthwhile as the old Pearl Jam live discs.

93. Neil Young, “Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92” – We all try to forgive Neil his foibles, but everyone from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork has bitched, with good reason, at the release of an archival live set, out of chronological order, of a 1992 acoustic rehash of songs from Harvest Moon. Huh?

94. Sufjan Stevens, “BQE” – I’m including this on my list because I like Sufjan Stevens and want to support him, but this exploration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway fails to work on several levels. I don’t mind Sufjan doing an instrumental soundtrack album, and he seems to want to channel Philip Glass, but he’s not even as interesting as Glass here. This is largely a waste of Stevens’ precious time.


Singles and EPs



1. Modest Mouse, “No One’s First and You’re Last” -- A comprehensive series of outtakes that is almost full-length in size, yet intended to work as a unified CD or a set of singles (you can also pick them up as four separate 45 rpm records). Pundits who think this is second-rate Modest Mouse fail to recognize that this should be viewed as an Ugly Casanova release. UC was Isaac’s Modest Mouse side project with acoustic and brass-influenced songs, and this fantastic EP fits right in with that consciousness.

2. Bon Iver, “Blood Bank” – An eerie, four-song EP that might just be more essential than Justin Vernon’s debut outing as Bon Iver, “For Emma, Forever Ago.” Essential.

3. Terra Naomi, “Go Quietly” – The YouTube diva gave us three separate EPs (!) this year (the other two are below), disproving the critics who called her a flash in the pan after “Say It’s Possible” and the Wembley performance. All of Terra’s work is top-notch, but this EP stands out as some of the best women’s songwriting and performance out there today.

4. The Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice, “Moon Colony Bloodbath” – A concept EP that still confuses me with its concepts. What I know is that both Darnielle and Vanderslice contribute some of their best work.

5. Paul Baribeau, “Demo Tape” – How do you follow up a quirky masterpiece like “Grand Ledge”? By releasing four new songs on a literal cassette tape release. It’s Baribeau, of course it’s great.

6. Magik Markers/Sic Alps split EP – A tour 12” record featuring material from Elisa and company, along with the duo of Mike Donovan and Matt Hartman playing fuzzed psychedelia.

7. Breeders, “Fate to Fatal” – Love those Deal sisters but getting tired of The Pixies’ tour machine? Then pick up this 12” vinyl record of some of the most primitive and interesting Breeders music to date.

8. AFCGT (s/t) – Before there was the AFCGT full-length, there was this red 10” record of A-Frames and Climax Golden Twins playing as one band. A glorious mess, indeed.

9. Kleenex Girl Wonder, “Heartless” – For a proper introduction to “Mrs. Equitone”, one only need to pick up this 45 rpm record with red cutout felt artwork to achieve nirvana.

10. Andrew Jackson Jihad/Cobra Skulls split covers single – How cool can this possibly get? AJJ play a cover of the Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Two-Headed Boy” with a parody of the Aeroplane album cover, while CS plays “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with a parody of Dylan’s “Bringing it all Back Home” cover. Plus, the single is manufactured in mixed black and white vinyl that looks like a two-toned cookie.

11. Bill Orcutt, “High Waisted” – Do the collages of Obama mean that Bill is down on our new Presidente? Hell, no, go back to the early Harry Pussy singles, and you’ll learn that Bill has it in for the world. But regardless, Bill Orcutt is back!

12. Death Cab for Cutie, “The Open Door” – Death Cab always does some of its best work on EPs, and this year’s five-song adjunct to “Narrow Stairs” was no exception. Fine songs.

13. Edith Makes a Paper Chain, “Songs for Tripping Down Stairs” – I like this new trend of one or two mildly-spacey-hippie female singers backed with an eclectic brass and string section. Quite a few people do it, but Edith does it best of all, and songwriters Sarah Hope and Hilary Studebaker write some kickass bizarre tunes.

14. Vibracathedral Orchestra/Infinite Light split – Everyone was wondering if VCO would continue or where they might go, once Neil and Bridget both left and Mick led the band. There are three new studio albums coming in January, but this sneak preview single shows a Vibracathedral that is just as powerful, perhaps more melodic, and shimmering in the way there sounds resonate.

15. Lady Gaga, “The Fame Monster” – I call this an EP because that’s how Stefani herself wants it considered, as an adjunct to “The Fame.” Listening to both together gives you a good recap of where she wants to steer this fame machine, but while the full-length had a range of tunes like “Paparazzi”, the new one gets stuck in some disco stereotype retreads from time to time. Still, the song “Bad Romance” is worth the price of admission.

16. The Watson Twins, “Live at Fingerprints” – Can they stand as a duo separate from Jenny Lewis? You’re damned right they can, and this EP should prove the point once and for all.

17. Arctic Monkeys, “Cornerstone” – This 10” record is all new material except for the title track, and all songs fit in with the theme of the new “Humbug” album, in having a very Doors-like feel, particularly Soft Parade/Strange Days era. A very different Arctic Monkeys from a few years ago, and I like it.

18. Tom Waits, “Glitter and Doom Live” – Some non-CD tracks on a 45 rpm record. Need I say more?

19. Terra Naomi, “You for Me”
20. Terra Naomi, (s/t) – An iTunes-only EP and a re-release of an earlier EP round out the year for Naomi, with more than an hour of new music from a damned fine songwriter.

21. Deep Sea Diver, “New Games” – Jessica Dobson is Beck’s lead guitarist, and she tours on her own as Deep Sea Diver, and she kicks such tremendous ass I can’t even begin to tell you.

22. Blitzen Trapper, “War is Placebo”
23. Blitzen Trapper, “Black River Killer” – Two EPs in 2009 for BT, both as interesting as any of their albums.

24. Bonfire Madigan, “Lady Saves” – Madigan Shive has been keeping a low profile in recorded music of late, but she gave us this extended single of folk-punk cello with remixes on clear vinyl, which will hold us off until BMad chooses to commit to more studio sessions.

25. My Morning Jacket, “Celebracion” – One of the better releases that came out of April’s Record Store Day, this collected some interesting MMJ material still waiting to see the light of day.

26. Jack White, “Fly Farm Blues” – A single-sided acoustic Delta blues 45 rpm record, with artwork on the blank side, allowing Jack to do a little noodling outside his Heavy Weather work. Will the White Stripes ever live again?

27. Iron and Wine, “Live in Norfolk” – Another way-cool Record Store Day release, with some very good Sam Beam cuts on vinyl.

28. Bardo Pond, “Game 5 ½” – Is this a standalone EP? Is it an extension of “Peri”? Whatever it is, it’s classic Bardo Pond work.

29. Joe Pernice, “Feels So Good” – I’m counting this as an EP, as it’s a short soundtrack intended as a side project to Joe’s new book. It’s interesting in places, including a great cover of the long-forgotten song “Chevy Van”, but it is not a new Pernice Brothers record.

30. Grizzly Bear, “Live on KCRW” – One of two “Veckatimest” 45-rpm singles, this is the more critical with new material, but both are worth checking out.

31. Morrisey, “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” – Mostly a rehash of tunes from the studio album, but the artwork is the reason to get this single.

32. Spoon, “Got Nuffin’” – I’m always willing to cut Britt Daniel slack ‘til the cows come home, but Spoon is on notice to stun listeners with their new 2010 album. The title cut on this EP is decent enough, but the other two songs are pure throwaway.

33. Spinoza State, “Modern Telecom” – Well, here’s an interesting post-modernist band from Newcastle, with some exciting riffs to show off.

34. Regina Spektor, “Laughing With..” – The tearjerker song about God from her new album is backed with two decent non-album tracks.

35. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “Higher Than the Stars” – This EP is better and tighter than the band’s full-length.

36. Florence and the Machine, “You’ve Got the Love” – The reason you’ll want to seek out the 45 rpm is that it’s the only version with the remix featuring The Xx on backup, currently burning up satellite radio.

37. Zaiph, “Mirror Images” – A cryptic, informationless brief release from Marcia Bassett, in her usual style.

38. Brandi Carlile, “Downpour” – Another Record Store Day release, this one with some live performances and odds and ends that are worth your time.

39. Ben Harper, “Shimmer and Shine” – Yes, there’s a non-LP song, but the real reason you want to own this is that it’s a 10” vinyl record with a way-cool picture of The Relentless Seven.

40. Grizzly Bear, “While You Wait for the Others” – The real reason to buy the single is that the non-album version has a singalong from Michael McDonald, he of dubious Doobie Brothers fame. Or at least that’s what a fool believes.

41. The Pixies, “Doolittle Anniversary Live EP” – Well, at least Frank gave a free gift to those who couldn’t afford The Pixies 20th anniversary tour, and it’s really quite good.

42. Silversun Pickups, “Piku” – For Record Store Day, Silversun released their first EP as a 12” record, a fine little chunk of history.

43. NINJA – The preview tour EP of Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction touring together. No new material, but cool.

44. Electric Illuminati – Ron English’s multimedia troupe, Electric Illuminati, really has to be experienced live, but this EP gives you a taste.

14 comments:

Vic Arpeggio said...

I have to go through this in depth, but having just listened to The XX's record on the drive back from Cincinnati to Toledo today, I totally concur with your take on it. I thought the exact same thing.

Vic Arpeggio said...

I have to go through this in depth, but having just listened to The XX's record on the drive back from Cincinnati to Toledo today, I totally concur with your take on it. I thought the exact same thing.

Ruth said...

Of AC's I've only heard "My Girls" - and I liked it. Love Andrew Bird's "Anonanimal."

I admire your depth and independence always, Loring. What a wealth of musinformation this is.

Loring Wirbel said...

Vic, yeah a lot of people hear the "Isobel meets Interpol" sound in Xx. Eerie, but sweet.

Loring Wirbel said...

Ruth, love "My Girls." And I realize I forgot Animal Collective's single, "Fall Be Kind," which is actually quite good. Every year, I forget something I intended to include...

shoreacres said...

Loring, this is just amazing. I've already passed the link on to a couple of fellows who are far more knowledgeable musically than me, and who certainly are appreciating it more from the get-go.

I'm looking forward to digging around - and the 12 videos you provided are just wonderful. I have a friend in Yorkshire who used to walk out on the craggy moors outside the village where Bella Hardy played at the folk festival - she'd meet her husband to be there. Fun. (Tho' I've forgotten the name of the village now - too much information.)

Happy New Year to you, and many thanks for the work you put into these posts.

Loring Wirbel said...

Thanks, shoreacres, the music list is a labor of love I've been doing since the mid-1990s or so. I always say "this will be the last year" but it's always too much fun to give up.

John G said...

Thanks Loring! I missed a lot of great releases this year and look forward to catching up.

Loring Wirbel said...

Any good Baltimore concerts of late, John?

CraigM said...

Thanks as always for the list, Loring. The XXs didn't grab me at first blush but maybe I'll give them another chance.

Meanwhile, I've got to catch up on Doug Gillard and Gossip ... and get re-acquainted with Elvis! I've enjoyed what I've heard of his 2000s-era stuff but haven't taken a deep dive into his music for a while.

Loring Wirbel said...

Craig, when Elvis's old-timey band with T. Bone Burnett played places like Telluride, they got rave reviews, but a lot of people seemed to ignore the album. Maybe they didn't get the concept behind it. It's like a surrealist 1850s morality play where Barnum gets together with the Hutchinson Family to tell the South why they're doomed. Or something like that.

John G said...

I saw Art Brut, which was fun. I've been listening to The Gossip now, thanks!, and I wish I had seen them, this album really is great. Did you see them?

Jucifer is coming back Jan. 7 too.

Loring Wirbel said...

@ John, about three years ago at Larimer Lounge, Jackie-O (w/Inca Ore) was doing a midnight show, and Gossip was doing an earlier show - Gossip invited all the Jackie fans in for the last half-hour of their set, it was great. Beth hung around, I bought a Gossip/Le Tigre collab 12" from her. But I haven't seen Gossip in the new tour. The album is absolutely kickass.

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