Generally, I would make a list of a nice round number of albums, but after a lot of consideration, I'm going to do 23 albums and not 25. There were a lot of albums that were good filler for the year, but don't really need to be on any list of "favorites." The Magnetic Fields album was decent, the Bauhaus album wasn't an embarrassment, The Vivian Girls have some awesome tracks here and there but mainly sound like a Jesus & Mary Chain Hoedown, and Byrne & Eno sound like a couple of old dudes making an album old dudes want to listen to. So they didn't make the cut. As always, my exposure to new music in any given year is far from exhaustive, so I will not call this a "best of," but merely my list of my 23 favorite albums of the year, as it stands on the eve of 2009.
23) TV on the Radio – Dear Science
This is a very cautious entry on my list. I put off listening to this album because I’d heard a lot of less-than-stellar things about it, and I don’t think I’ve fully digested it. Every new TV on the Radio album is hard to critique right away, because it’s never anything like what they did before it. Return to Cookie Mountain was rough, distorted, and almost aggressive in tone. Dear Science is about as polished as it can get. The harmonies are carefully smoothed, the synth sounds are pristine, the guitars are heavily reverbed, the strings (!) swoon melodramatically… I could imagine Enya doing a cover version of “Family Tree.” But there are some times when they bust out some attitude. It’s never that simple to give a capsule description of a TVOTR album. While it initially turned me off, Dear Science still makes the list because it’s too much of something not to live and grow with for a while.
22) Melvins – Nude with Boots
This is far from my favorite Melvins album, but man, I do love the Melvins.
21) Torche – Meanderthal
I have serious misgivings about this album. There are parts of it that, in my opinion, veer dangerously towards territory populated by those bands of 21-year-old dudes who wear a lot of eyeliner. But there are far more parts of it that are really awesome heavy metal, and for that I will cast a cautious blind eye to the parts that make me want to turn it off.
20) Silver Jews – Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea
This is the album that finally put me over the edge into liking the Silver Jews, thanks in no small part to the ridiculous fun of “Aloysius, Bluegrass Drummer” and “Party Barge.” It ain’t perfect or anywhere close to it, but there are times when it fits my ear quite well.
19) Cheap Time – Cheap Time
Exactly what you expect from In the Red Records. Loud, fast garage rock that you can’t get out of your head. Nothing fancy.
18) Ladytron – Velocifero
I haven’t enjoyed a Ladytron album since 604, although I’ll grant that I haven’t been paying a whole lot of attention since the stinker that was Light & Magic. More to the point, given everything else I’ve been listening to, I have no idea why I still like Ladytron at all. I can’t make any sense of it. I really like this album though. Weird.
17) Raveonettes – Lust Lust Lust
The Raveonettes are an EP band through and through. A lot of the songs on here have boring melodies over the stiffest rhythms you can get. So it’s a testament to the strength of the other half of the album that it’s on here. The good tracks are atmospheric in all the right ways, they swagger, they breathe, and they’re not afraid to pound obscene amounts of noise into your ear when you’re not expecting it just to prove a point. Listen to this on one of those summer nights when it’s so hot and humid that water vapor is condensing on your skin.
16) Metallica – Death Magnetic
I still miss Cliff Burton, and I can’t tell whether or not he’d approve of this album. But after where Metallica’s been, this is more than just a step up. This is like five days undergoing gradual decompression so you don’t get the bends kind of a step up.
15) Gnarls Barkley – The Odd Couple
Just because this isn’t as much of a party album as its predecessor doesn’t mean it’s not as good. Listen with your head and your heart before you listen to it with your hips. It’s actually better than its predecessor.
14) Witch – Paralyzed
You can’t call Witch anything new, because they’re not. You can’t call them a revival, because what they do hasn’t gone anywhere. Black Sabbath, The Melvins, Sleep… stoned-ass metal with huge riffs and an assload of ass-kicking. “Paralyzed” has some digression into garage- and punk-influenced tracks (“1000 mph”) and the production isn’t crisp in the slightest. Which is good.
13) Nachtmystium – Assassins: Black Meddle Pt. 1
Part of me thinks heavy metal is really awesome, and part of me thinks it’s really silly. Nachtmystium is sort of the meeting point. Nachtmystium (silly name) is driven by a man who sometimes calls himself Azentrius (silly) and sings in Standard Growling Metal Voice (silly) and coats the whole double-kick-drum (awesome) and hard-riffing (awesome) with electronic overtones and samples (could go either way). The songs are frequently deliberative, which is usually suicide for metal bands, and the heavy post-production gives it a mood that kind of matches the soundtrack for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But frankly, “Azentrius” is too good at doing what he does to pass it over for what would seem ridiculous in lesser hands. The guitar solos are spot-on, the moods are communicated well without being overbearing and are frequently punctuated by bite-the-curb-motherfucker ragers. All the songs are great on their own, and they’re blended together to make a really enjoyable album.
12) Nick Cave – Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!
After 30 years, Nick Cave still hasn’t jumped the shark. The Grinderman project gave him a lot of musical focus to bring back to the Bad Seeds, where he could add all of the usual garnish and return to his more recognizable lyrical fixations.
11) Jay Reatard – Singles ‘08
The more of a phenomenon Jay Reatard gets to be, the more ready I get to get off the bandwagon, in no small part because it means I keep getting to hear stories about how much of a dick he is personally. But as long as he keeps writing pop songs like this, I can’t get off the wagon yet.
10) Eddy Current Suppression Ring – Primary Colours
This is the most groove-oriented garage band I’ve ever heard. They jump on a riff, get in their happy place, and they run with it until the song needs to be over. It’s a very simple formula, done several times over, without ever getting boring.
9) Fabulous Diamonds – Fabulous Diamonds
I don’t know how to describe this album. I think that John Coltrane, Martin Rev, and Steve Reich would all enjoy it. It isn’t rock and roll, it isn’t nearly as abrasive as most people think when they hear “experimental,” and you pretty much just have to hear it to know whether you’re going to like it or not. It is beautiful in a very cold way. It is very spacious. It’s like watching Dr. Zhivago after downing a slightly-larger-than-recommended dose of Robitussin.
8) Evangelicals – The Evening Descends
It’s a shame that the first notable band to come out of Oklahoma City since the Flaming Lips feels the need to sound exactly like the Flaming Lips. Nevertheless, there’s not a bad minute on this record, and it’s got more theatricality and vigor than the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev have shown in some time.
7) Clinic – Do It!
Clinic simplifies their usual post-punk-meets-psych formula by taking out most of the post-punk. This time the melodica gets joined by fuzzier guitars than ever and all the harpsichord and necessary 60’s accoutrements. Clinic never do anything new, but they always do it well.
6) Lair of the Minotaur – War Metal Battle Master
Barbarian rock. This shit is brutal. BRUTAL. Sometimes, it's okay to say "fuck nuance."
5) Al Green – Lay it Down
This is Al Green doing the classic Al Green formula. It doesn’t sound like a comeback record, it just sounds like an Al Green record from his prime. What more do you want?
4) Evangelista – Hello Voyager
Most musicians get more sedate, predictable, and bland as they get older. Carla Bozulich keeps pushing the envelope harder and harder. Hello Voyager is definitely more scattered than its predecessor, but I can’t judge them too harshly just because they ruined the grading curve before.
3) Portishead – Third
Every year, there’s an album by an established band that I listen to out of morbid curiosity and end up really loving. This year, Portishead gets the crown. They managed to leave trip-hop in the 90’s (wise choice) and construct something massive and minimalist and new and exquisitely crafted.
2) Cheveu – Cheveu
Part Brainiac, part Fall, part Butthole Surfers, completely self-contained and inspired. Cheveu have the influences of great weirdos past, and all of the curiosity for experimentation that made them great to begin with. This was very close to being #1, and even as I post this, I'm regretting it a little bit.
1) Boris – Smile
It’s hard for Boris to go wrong in my eyes. With every successive album, they keep improving their mix of psychedelic rock and metal. Their range seems infinite. The addition of Ghost guitarist Michio Kurihara seems to have brought a lot of Ghost-like qualities to the band, but it has only enhanced their idea of who they are as a band, rather than distorting it. It’s a rare and magnificent occasion when music can take you not just out of your own body and surroundings, but out of the physical world in general and into a truly spiritual place where the only thing you can manage is to be grateful for the glorious sounds around you.
Happy New Year, everybody. A change is gonna come.