Top CDs of 2009 | Kevin Renick

cd_renick_lips.gif2009 finds the Lips exploring fresh sonic terrain by wandering way, way off the well-worn trail.

1. The Flaming Lips | Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

I haven’t chosen a Flaming Lips CD as Album of the Year since 1999, when The Soft Bulletin blew me and plenty of other music reviewers away. But here’s another decade closer 10 years later that boots all expectations right out the window and finds the Lips exploring fresh sonic terrain by wandering way, way off the well-worn trail. There’s Pink Floydian instrumental passages, weird, snaky soundscapes shrouded in shadow (and yet with eyes wide open), and a handful of haunting actual songs, like "Evil." This is head trippin’ music, with Wayne Coyne and Co. losing themselves in the wonder of a scenic, but often risky journey along the edge of some imposing chasm.

2. Wilco | Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

Wilco has about as great a track record as any of my favorite bands of the past 15 years or so, and this is their fourth straight album to make my "Ten Best" list. It might not be as showy or creatively volatile as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born, but it’s a relaxed, mature album that finds leader Jeff Tweedy in great voice and the band in total sync with him every step of the way. The sound of a band firing on all cylinders and not feeling a need to prove anything is palpable here, and "You Never Know" is one of the catchiest, most ear-friendly tunes of the year.

3. Low Low Low La La La Love Love Love | Feels, Feathers, Bog and Bees (Other Electricities)

Their name may be a bit unwieldy for casual conversations with friends, but this U.K. "bedroom folk" quintet is worthy of bringing to the attention of anyone who likes gorgeous, introspective acoustic music. Actually, this isn’t just acoustic — there are some electric instruments and moments of intense aural zing here — but the tight harmonies and homey atmosphere put this in the basic realm populated by artists such as Bon Iver, Iron & Wine and Belle & Sebastian. Like its striking, misty-meadow cover photo, the album evokes some damp, rather bleak landscape outside, while inside a nearby shelter, the timeless warmth and companionship of friends and loved ones comparing notes about life over drinks and music holds sway. Blissful, melancholy, soul-stirring, harmonious and ultimately haunting…

4. Helvetia | Helvetia’s Junk Shop (The Static Cult Label)

God, am I impressed by this Seattle band. This is their fourth record, and I’ve loved every one of them. The wizardly vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jason Albertini has one of my favorite aesthetics in rock; he sings soothingly without drawing attention, plays guitar to render texture and mood hypnotically rather than to impress, and somehow manages to make records that are both surprising and consistent, with an ambiguous, drifty undercurrent that always repays multiple listens. Perfect song titles like "Leading Towards an End," "Find Your Feet," "Down in That Hollow" and "Gravity Eye" are affixed to equally perfect tracks that sometimes rock, but mostly roll through the landscape of possibilities in your mind, and the one you’re probably driving through. Wonderful, underrated stuff, and my favorite car stereo album of the year.

5. Fever Ray | Fever Ray (Mute)

Sweden’s Karin Dreijer Andersson has already proven herself a critical sensation in The Knife, the spooked electronica group she shares with her brother. On her first solo album under the odd name Fever Ray, Andersson continues to serve up skewed, unsettling slabs of skittering pop music that’s hard to pin down or categorize. This is an original voice at work, and Andersson’s dark soundscapes invite you to leave your aural comfort zone and revel in mystery. Hardly comparable to anything else, really.

6. Sonic Youth | The Eternal (Matador)

They could well have just titled this record This Is Sonic Youth, as it’s a pure distillation of the noise-rock band’s guitar-heavy, sometimes frenetic, sometimes melodic sound. Everyone knows that each time out, maestros Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon are going to spearhead a distinctive sound that is either more on the sonic squall side of things or more melodic and song-centric. The Eternal finds a midpoint in clear-eyed fashion, with "Antennae," "Poison Arrow," "Anti-Orgasm" and "Walking Blue" among the many standout tracks. No great deviation from formula, just an uber-cool American band being themselves, with more indie attitude perhaps than usual. (This record is their first for the Matador label.)

7. U2 | No Line on the Horizon (Island/Universal)

There’s plenty of haters these days when it comes to the Irish foursome who are still perched at the top of the rock heap, but no other band that has been around so long is still making such interesting, powerful records. Bono and Co. pour all the spiritual contemplation and communal grace they possess into the beautiful "Moment of Surrender," and other trademark songs such as "Magnificent," "Unknown Caller," "Breathe" and the melancholy "Cedars of Lebanon" show a vigorous band hard at work, still caring about the art of songcraft and their hallowed place in the rock pantheon.

8. Yo La Tengo | Popular Songs (Matador)

Maybe Yo La Tengo are incapable of making a bad album |when you’ve been around this long (the band is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and this is their 16th album), you probably know what you’re doing. But it’s still surprising how diverse this band can be…is it really the same band on the Motown-style quickie "If It’s True" and the ferociously experimental 16-minute "And the Glitter Is Gone"? Being diverse comes naturally to Ira and Georgia, and so does a pure love of record-making. The sequence of songs from track seven ("I’m On My Way") to track 10 ("More Stars Than There Are in Heaven") comprise one of the most blissfully enjoyable stretches on any YLT record, and if you add the two lengthy closers, that’s roughly 50 minutes of top-notch music. And that’s not even counting the first six songs! Impressive, surely.

9. Monsters of Folk | Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La)

An epic vibe celebrating the joy and power of songwriting permeates this amazing disc. You wouldn’t necessarily expect two members of Bright Eyes (Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis), Yim Yames from My Morning Jacket and the great M. Ward from, well, the M. Ward universe, to come up with such a spirited, passionate series of backwoods meditations like this. But a yearning, collaborative spirit infuses this record with power and harmony, and it’s a stellar showcase of lyrical and melodic prowess.

10. Bat for Lashes | Two Suns (Astralwerks)

Oh, Natasha Khan, how you make me dream and swoon and stare into the distance and want to kill myself and then want to live, and summon up the nerve to tell that beautiful woman over there I’d like to know her better, and to force myself to finish my novel, and to climb a tree, and to call all my friends and tell them how important they are, and to go for a long walk in the forest and then come home and write a song about it. You sing the ultimate of "Siren Songs," my dear Natasha, and you epitomize the "Travelling Woman," and your eerie voice cuts like "Glass" and I sure hope you don’t "Sleep Alone," my lovely lady, because you are a visionary, boundary-stretching artist, and you haunt your listeners, and you deserve to find happiness and "Peace of Mind." Now I’m off to lose myself in "The Big Sleep" while hopefully enjoying a dream about "Good Love" or stumbling into the coolest bar in the most picturesque town, where somebody like you might smile and sit down and talk with me for a spell. A spell. A spell. Yes, you have cast…a spell.


Reissues of the Year:

1. The Beatles | everything remastered at last! (EMI)

2. Neil Young | Archives Vol. 1: 1963-1972 (box set) (Reprise)

3. Kraftwerk | The Catalogue (Box Set) (Astralwerks)

4. U2 | The Unforgettable Fire (Super Deluxe Edition 2 CD+DVD) (box set) (Island)

5. Big Star | Keep an Eye on the Sky (box set) (Rhino)


Kevin Renick


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