Top CDs of 2009 | Mike Rengel

cds_rengel_phoenix.gifSurgeon General’s warning: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix contains as much wake-from-your-early-morning-stupor, get-you-drumming-on-your-steering-wheel pick me up as a quadruple espresso.








I don’t claim to know what the "ten best albums of the year" are. Is it even possible to know such a thing? Art is all kinds of subjective. All I feel qualified to do is step back, look at the Midtown Manhattan-esque tower of top notch tuneage I had the privilege of hearing the past year, and think to myself, "What was I compelled to spin the most?" These are merely the records that got me through 2009, the ones I found most intriguing, listenable, addictive, bolstering, tear jerking, and fortified with rockitude. In no particular order


A Fine Frenzy | Bomb in a Birdcage (Virgin)

After Tori Amos, Regina Spektor and other practitioners of the "quirky lady singer/songwriter" arts so unceremoniously dropped the ball in 2009, where was discerning clientele meant to turn? Look no further than the mighty Alison Sudol. Bomb in a Birdcage kind of fell out of nowhere, being surprisingly far less wispy and precious than her previous work, arriving in confident, wonderfully weird fashion, equally infused with heartbroken whispers and exuberant yelps. It’s an album of sensitive, vulnerable piano and acoustic guitar led ballads, but also of bombastic, precise, upbeat pop epics, flush with Sudol’s soaring voice and almost proggy synth flourishes. Bomb is just as likely to choke you up as to elicit a grin at its beautiful audacity. Possibly the year’s most "alive" record.


Phoenix | Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)

Surgeon General’s warning: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix contains as much wake-from-your-early-morning-stupor, get-you-drumming-on-your-steering-wheel pick me up as a quadruple espresso. It’s arty, stylish French dance pop with a loving heart, overflowing with melodies that rampage around with gleeful abandon, coming at you with songs built on piers of charming exuberance, fat synthesizers, hyperactive guitars and vocals that sound as if they can barely be sung fast enough to keep up with the rate at which the thoughts are being formed. Wolfgang Amadeus even contains built-in anti-burnout mechanisms, being able to dish out slower, gracefully unfolding numbers that still manage to drip with tunefulness and endless Euro-cool. Phoenix make like their album art, dropping pastel, cartoon bombs of futuristic enthusiasm on your uptight New World ass. This is playful, energetic and even wistfully romantic stuff equally made for the gym, for a party, for the contemplative early hours and for chilled out, chemically altered evenings. In short, it’s everything good pop music is capable of being but so infrequently actually is.


Neko Case | Middle Cyclone (Anti-)

Middle Cyclone harnesses forces of nature — wild animals, tornadoes, the ceaseless march of time — to intense effect as metaphors for desire, violence, revenge, submission, heartache, longing and attainment. Neko’s soaring voice is its usual shining star, natch, but the album is also notable for being her strongest set of songs in, well, forever ever. This is where she becomes not just the owner of a voice that can carry you to mountaintops and rip your heart out of your rib cage and shove it firmly in your throat, but also of a matching nuanced, skilled songwriting prowess. Middle Cyclone is utterly irresistible and as soul stirring as the first warm day of spring: it’s simultaneously seductive, aggressive, poetic and sexual, a near perfect blend of alt. country twang and pop immediacy.


Animal Collective | Merriweather Post Pavillion (Domino)

An album as chameleonic as its "Magic Eye manhole cover"-looking sleeve, in which melodic pop songs worthy of Brian Wilson himself attempt to escape an ever-shifting, psychedelic freak show. Video game noises become one with found sound, Afro-Cuban drums, didgeridoos, looped pianos and frayed synths. The vocal tag team of Dave Portner and Noah Lennox send subspace transmissions up, under and through the futuristic marching band mania. Möbius strips of songs, in which the beginning is the end is the beginning all over again, aural quicksand for both fans of the pop ideal and those looking for a reason to tune in, turn on and drop out. I’ve had a tough time this year even imagining a more inventive, astonishingly complex (and often perplexing, but in the best way possible) record. This isn’t just music to appreciate on a theoretical, beard-stroking level; it’ll also get your head nodding and booty moving, and actually get your head to stop thinking for a while.


The Pains of Being Pure at Heart | s/t (Slumberland)

"Hey, you got the Field Mice in my Jesus and Mary Chain!" "You got Kevin Shields in my House of Love!" No matter the favored perspective in this ridiculous scenario, a winner is you. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s debut LP is a joyous ode to all things great and affirming about indie rock. It’s draped in guitars that alternately chime and fuzz over, and the way Kip Bergman’s charmingly alien warble meshes with Peggy Wang’s wispy counterpoint is a small but affirming touch. There’s not a thing about this first album that’s fancy, hardly anything that could be construed as mega innovative; but that’s not a slam, it’s a compliment. It’s rare when a band bursts onto the scene in this way, sans pretense, gimmick-free and toting a boat load of impeccably formed, threeminute singalong ready indie rock gems.


Manic Street Preachers | Journal for Plague Lovers (Columbia)

It’s been nearly 15 long post-Richey Edwards years for the Manics. Despite a steady stream of better-than-average tracks and 2007’s uniformly enjoyable (if not nakedly classicist) Send Away the Tigers, it’d been a largely directionless period for the band. Cue, then, 2009, and the sudden appearance of Journal for Plague Lovers, the by-now-declared-dead Richey’s bequeathed final words and lyrics, set to music by the remaining trio. My initial thoughts were of possible poor taste, or even of uncharacteristic gimmickry. But the reality of Journal just makes perfect sense: These are 14 precise, uncompromising, rocking, harrowing, even occasionally strangely tender slabs of punky agit-prop mixed with the group’s eternal propensity for stadium hard rock, all forming the spine for Richey’s ever-dense inner world. Muscular post-punk riffs, gymnastic vocal melodies, and even a touch of a string section here and there breathe life into Richey’s bleak and blackly humorous sketches of minds on the brink of keeping it all together. The beauty of the Manics’ creation it that it’s a non-calculated revival; the disc comes off like something the band felt like they had to do, them spitting their hearts out in the best way they know how. I won’t lie; this LP is one tough nut to crack, but the music’s inherent passion and intelligence, combined with the band’s now veteran craft, makes for not only their best record since 1996’s sublime Everything Must Go, but one of their two or three most vital albums period. It’s rock music as cleansing purge, as a mourning celebration of a strange, intriguing life.

Elizabeth & the Catapult | Taller Children (Verve Forecast)

Elizabeth Zinman and her Catapult just sound as if they relish the opportunity to try and do it all. Here they’re weaving Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles-style guitar and woozy Mellotron into flapper-friendly jazz; next time you look they’re fusing the poise and incisiveness of Leonard Cohen and spiking it with 1940s-style brass band exuberance and, oddly, beats that could’ve come straight out of a Beck song. Elsewhere, they envelop you with sparse, strong but sensitive Joni Mitchell-style jazz-folk ballads and a grinning Sunday-morning pace. The highly capable Catapult are a true asset and an indispensable component of the album’s appeal: They’re equally adept at crafting pure modern alt-pop or even at switching to effortlessly upbeat, concertinacolored country rock. The album is a model of restraint, skilled at staying concise and calm on even the most dramatic songs, retaining a classy, pleading vibe in what other artists would tend to turn into over-the-top, maudlin, wannabe showstoppers. The truest star of this show is Zinman’s voice: Alternately plain spoken and sorrowful and jazzy, it’s acrobatic yet never showy, and the ideal medium for melodies that cascade with the natural ease of a flame between campfire logs.

Matthew Good | Vancouver (Universal)

Matt Good’s the music world’s version of that pesky, semi-irritating guy who shows up at your local city council meeting week after week, always poking holes in civic master plans or muckraking your corrupt, fourterm mayor’s dirty laundry. On Vancouver, he’s still front row center, coffee in hand, but opts to tackle the political (the gentrification and social inequality creeping into his hometown) via the personal (reflections of 15 years living in the city center), endowing an emotional center to what could have been an annoyingly cranky screed. The record alternates between gritty and symphonic, a melange of sequenced underpinnings, dramatically sweeping orchestration, and inventive sections of double tracked vocals. Nearly every track gets a meticulous, mutli-part arrangement overstuffed with melodies that, at times, sound as if they’re moving sideways, like the torrential rains of West Coast winter storms. And of course, the disc is absolutely full of Good’s magnificent vocals: sneering and soaring, as appropriate.

A.C. Newman | Get Guilty (Matador)

Carl Newman tends to turn his power poppiness up to 11 when he writes for the New Pornographers. It’s an unassailable embodiment of the genre, sure, but it’s like a Krispy Kreme doughnut: it hurts your brain-teeth, it’s almost too much. His solo records, few and far between, surprisingly scale back the chirpiness at the forefront of his "day job," but at the same time retain the gorgeous little turns of phrase, subtle wit and Neil Finn-esque melodies that he does better than almost anyone operating right now. Look no further than the albumopening "There Are Maybe Ten or Twelve," a novelette of post-breakup regret and self-accusation, wrapped up in lurching yet irresistible hooks. Or "The Heartbreak Rides," sounding like the product of a particularly talented high school band practice room run amok. And those are just the first two songs; the whole thing is a value pack of similarly smart, mega tuneful goodness. It’s an embarrassment of riches is what it is, and we all get to share in the windfall.

The Avett Brothers | I and Love and You (American)

Sure, this is the year the brothers got Rick Rubinized. They (mostly) traded banjos for pianos. They got a notch more humorless. But this is still a damn fine, resonant record. The Avetts have a knack for tapping into difficulttoverbalize emotions, using genetically blessed harmonies and simple, yet steel-strong melodies to do their dirty work. I and Love and You feels like the kind of music you’d hear coming from a working man’s basement; this is, at its core, unadorned folk music. It’s not a fetishization, it’s not trying to be something it’s not. Even with the semi-questionable, pretentious essay in the liner notes and the Middle Agesstyle skull and portrait liner artwork (seriouslywhat is that?), you probably won’t hear anywhere else this year a more resonant collection of songs of love, loss, regret and those sudden "clicks" of emotions, of unexpected loss or love-fueled rushes of blood to the head (or areas below).



Honorable Mentions:

The xx | xx (Young Turks)

Wilco | Wilco (the album) (Nonesuch)

The Mary Onettes | Islands (Labrador)

The Twilight Sad | Forget the Night Ahead (Fat Cat)

Kings of Convenience | Declaration of Dependence (Astralwerks)

Jay Farrar & Ben Gibbard | One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Music from Kerouac’s Big Sur (Atlantic/F-Stop)

Old Lights | Every Night Begins the Same (St. Ives)

Girls | Album (True Panther)

Idlewild | Post Electric Blues (Cooking Vinyl)

Discovery | LP (XL)

The Thermals | Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)

Islands | Vapours (Anti-)

The Veils | Sun Gangs (Rough Trade)

The Linemen | Reconsider (s/r)



Special award: Fantastic albums Released in 2008 That I Didn’t Get Around to Discovering Until 2009

Frightened Rabbit | Mignight Organ Fight (Fat Cat)

The Rural Alberta Advantage | Hometowns (s-r / Saddle Creek)

Mystery Jets | Twenty One (679 Recordings)

Glasvegas | s/t (Columbia)

fun. | Aim and Ignite (Nettwerk)

The King Blues | Save the World. Get the Girl (Field Recordings)


Mike Rengel

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