Talk about a drought.
2009 was one of the most overwhelmingly good years in recent memory for a music fan of my rather peculiar taste. Old favorites, new discoveries, a mixing of styles and even some genre surprises. There was nearly enough to make a list of the twenty best, rather than ten, and while 15-20 might've been a little stretched, it wouldn't have been filler for the sake of filler.
So what the hell happened?
I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating the artists who you'll read about below -they've all done great work, and would deserve a place in contention even if this year were flooded with other good releases. It's just that they've stood remarkably alone. There have been a few "good, solid" albums that I've really enjoyed and will continue to listen to that just aren't what I'm looking for in a "best of" wrap-up (Ted Leo... I'm looking at you!), but those listed below are certainly ready to slog it out when December hits, in the supreme year-end roundup.
5. The Dead Weather - Sea Of Cowards
I have this theory about Jack White. He knows that rock stardom is fleeting, and immortality comes only as a martyr or a legend (or both). He's no fool, and he's no con man either, no matter what his Tesla-spouting snake-oil salesman persona might indicate. He's as real-world shrewd as he is eccentric, and ever since he got his foot in the door, he's throwing out everything good he can do... the man just wants a legacy before Boethius's wheel throws him back down to the dirt once again. But none of that's important, really. This is, just like last year's album, a greasy slab of voodoo blues. It's the Exile to the White Stripes' Aftermath. There's really no better or worse, it's just that one's about overall vibe and the other is about songs. Lead singer Alison Mosshart is less enamoured of aping White's vocal style this time around, but the band grinds like The Birthday Party if they were mainlining crude oil. No highlights to pick, because this bastard's one big oozing grease smear.
4. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings - I Learned The Hard Way
Like The Dirtbombs, the Dap-Kings are almost guaranteed a place on my list anytime they grace us with a record. It's not that I'm enough of a fan that I'll accept anything. It's just that they only really do one thing, but they do it better than anyone else. A 60's soul album cut in Brooklyn by a bunch'a youngsters and a force-of-nature soul singer. The songs and production are tight as a drum on this one, but if you liked their previous work, you won't have any surprises. Except maybe for how much you like it despite having heard their book of tricks before. Of course, I still love to watch breakdancers at work, so there are just some performance arts that seem to thrill every time. This is one of them.
3. John & Exene - Singing And Playing
OK, so this one isn't fair, really. I had the good fortune of being woken up to go see John Doe and Exene Cervenka play an acoustic, Storytellers-esque performance to a seated crowd. Apparently, before the tour, they went to a friend's place and recorded this EP of low-key new tunes, covers, and material from their time fronting punk legends X. Not only was the show an absolute thrill, but the CD-R EP that played in the car ride home was the perfect extension of the night. Recorded about two weeks before I purchased it, it's the sound of two people, who love to make music, doing it very well. Get your eBay finger working.
2. Sade - Soldier Of Love
Even if this wasn't a great record, the title track would have at least put it up for consideration. Sade, it should be noted, was music for my mother to listen to up until I heard this track. The soundtrack to hot summer days en route to a mall in Virginia, sandwiched between Phil Collins and The Police. Someone convinced me to give it the single whirl... it was only a click away to stream... so I gave it a shot. Every so often, R&B music seems to capture the times better than rock (which is a uniquely navel-gazing form, for all the alleged social change it's capable of). In the late-90s, it seemed like the robo-funk-hop of Timbaland and the Neptunes perfectly summed up the future-looking, crest-riding, hedonistic party that we were all headed to, intoxicated with our own self-assuredness. It's clearly a different time, and "Soldier Of Love" embraces our own (circa 2010) twisted solipsistic tendencies in an increasingly bleak world. For all the hope that's been bandied about the past couple of years, things have been pretty grim lately... for lack of a better term, it's been a fucked-up decade to become an adult. Wars that can't be won against enemies we can't understand... political unrest and division, society tearing itself apart at at the grey concrete seams. The vocalist's metaphor for emotional war plays out over a jittery, paranoid groove torn from Massive Attack and filtered through recent Prince. Far and away the best thing on a record full of grey, conflicted moods, it's an excellent starter for a day of wrapping yourself up in paranoid bad vibes, because they're the only armor you have.
1. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Speaking of bad vibes... these simians aren't usually dancing the night away. I'll admit, that while the first Gorillaz album was good, I saw it as the Britpop version of Prozzak... a successful but restless pop star has a fun dalliance into assumed cartoon character personae and multimedia experiments, plays some good songs, and then a "let's get back to reality, shall we?". I was wrong. Their second album, Demon Days, was, to my mind, the finest example of "post-millennial, culturally relevant musical cross-pollination" in the last decade. Which is to say it managed to summarize those darkest of days by throwing everything in the mix and sounding contemporary without dating itself. The key to the whole thing is that, well... it still cares. We might be completely fucked, but there's still a chance for redemption. It doesn't offer it, but it lets you know that some of us might make it out of this alive. If Sade was a bad night alone, this is the album for the day after. Guest stars float in and out of the mix over sounds that aren't easily pigeonholed... once again tossing hip-hop, dub, rock, world music, et al, into a musical Cuisinart. Lofty concepts would be interesting enough in print alone, but this is a great album... and doesn't everyone need something to listen to after the end of the world?