This award, for the album of the year that was most surprisingly but pleasingly delicate, goes to:
Trees Outside the Academy
Sonic Youth is one of the few bands that I legitimately idolize that I think I can still approach with some objectivity. Their albums on SST are on a plane that few, if any, other bands have ever approached. I will even forgive Dirty and Goo for being as trendy as they were at the time because they're just good albums: certainly a lot better than your average grunge band. But the years since have been far less interesting. I can freely accept that pretty much all of their albums going back to Experimental Jet Set have been pretty dull and predictable, sounding more like they're trying to write songs that sound like Sonic Youth than they are writing songs that they like. Every album they release these days is getting called a "return to form" and none of them are. And while I like their experimental SYR recordings, I've also got my fair share of Thurston Moore collaboration albums that are so far beyond listenable it's not even funny.
And that's why Trees Outside the Academy is so remarkable. Thurston isn't returning to form or defying form, he's creating a whole new form for himself that is exciting and interesting and vibrant. Yes, he's still got that lethargic, barely-in-tune moaning-the-words thing going on, and he's still got some feedback thrown in here and there. "American Coffin" sounds like someone who has listened to a fair amount of 20th century avant-garde "classical" music. But a good portion of the album is played on an acoustic guitar. His core backing band is Steve Shelley and the violin player from the Charalambides. The best way I can describe it is that it's the most conventional songwriting I've ever heard him play, but that he's a surprisingly good balladeer. "Honest James" gives me this little twinge of heartache every time I hear it, and I haven't even bothered to sit down with the lyric sheet. The entire record seems alarmingly intimate, up to and including the final track, "Thurston @ 13," which features a 13-year-old Moore attempting some poetry.
Trees Outside the Academy seems a fitting name for something that seems so organic, so natural and unadorned as this album. I was expecting a Psychic Hearts or another SYR sort of record, but I got something far more interesting, and far more beautiful. If only all of my disappointed expectations turned out this well . . .