Friday, December 25, 2009

two thousand and nine retrospective

I hope you know how difficult this was for me.

But I'm sure you do.
For all the albums that tickled my fancy and my eardrums but aren't listed in the Top Ten below...I still love you.

Let's get ready for '010! The Binary Year.

Mumford and Sons- Sigh No More
There are no words that possess this album like this album has possessed me. The young Londoners released this debut album to extreme excitement in Europe, and due to that resounding, well earned success Sigh No More is slated to be released in the United States in 2010. And it should be well received here; at least by those with a deep yearning for wisdom set to deft banjo rolls and explosive, building choruses.
Sigh No More holds me on a knife's edge, steadying my wobbling knees until it releases its grip on me and sends me flying. I lose all control. I kick up dust, I shiver, I feel what they want me to feel. Mumford and Sons strip me to the bone and warm my marrow, refusing to accept a cool exterior for human experience. The confidence that is birthed from the soaring vocals, and galloping strings is built upon this strange and wonderful knowledge that they are wading through the shit show, and just need to tell it.
This is the kind of music to which hip head bobbing would be a disgrace, and an ironic tribute to exactly what the album shirks. Because it's talking about the big things, not the cosmetic problems, but all the gargantuan questions that envelop and consume. Grace? God? Risk? Love? Is it all right to just want to scream down the road and into the blank?
This album goes from being as cathartic and exhausting as weeping, to as exhilarating and jubilant as kissing someone who makes your insides wriggle with raw giddiness for the first time.

The Cave- Mumford and Sons

(If the breakaway end of this song doesn't move you to blindly dance and blow away in a fit of absolute lightness and ecstasy...just don't judge me for how I react.)

The XX- The XX

So I wrote about The XX and their self-titled debut a while back, featuring the sensual track VCR. I suppose what you should know about The XX is that they can create fullness using confined beats and only lush vocals. And with that, The XX has managed to put together an all-together remarkable and unflappable album.
Their sleek, new wave pop entrances me with its hypnotic whispers, and surreal landscapes spun as much out of silence as it is sound. Each track suggests long glances held with more meaning than words can give, backed by swirling electropop beats that cause my shoulders to sway embarrassingly of their own accord.
What really gets me is the classic blend of Romy and Oliver's voices; so unnervingly real and tangible in a mass of electronic influence. They tease, they play, and they swim their way behind my eyes. I swear to you...I've had dreams set to this album.
Bet you're excited they'll be rolling around with Hot Chip in April!

Heart Skipped a Beat- The XX

Gregory Alan Isakov- This Empty Northern Hemisphere

Gregory Alan Isakov knows just how to keep me. I had never heard of this Boulderite, despite my love of local music, until his album release party in May. I attended with a friend, and was stuck to the already sticky floor of the theater by the depth of the music coursing over me. I skittered out to the merchandise table during a quick break to buy an album, desperate to hold in my hands a small piece of plastic that could make my heart expand to capacity in a room full of strangers.
Isakov contains within his music the sounds for a hazy, thoughtful day. It's both lonely and close; a companion for hot pavement (Virginia May), or for when the only living things around you are the sky, the grass, and your thumping heart (Dandelion Wine). He makes characters that are relatable to the best and worst parts of me, and his bucolic voice sketches breathing, tangible pictures of lives full of meaning and all encompassing moments. It definitely doesn't hurt that on This Empty Northern Hemisphere Brandi Carlile lent her smoky vocals to counterbalance and dip below or soar above Gregory's own sauntering melodies.
I've noticed that Gregory Alan Isakov is inordinantly drawn to both the moon and the sea. Especially the cyclical relationship between the two. It's easy to find this to be the silver thread running through the vibrant tapestry of this album. His banjo, guitar, violin, and even his lyrics communicate a love for the tides; the coming and going of things and people and life. He does all this with such skill that this album has been played more than any other during 2009.

That Moon Song- Gregory Alan Isakov (feat. Brandi Carlile)

Woods- Songs of Shame
I was taken aback by the lo-fi wunderkinds lurking out in the musical oasis of 2009. Standing out from the crowd for this listener, though, was Woods' recent gift to us all, Songs of Shame. The stumbling, fuzzy guitars, and earnest drifting harmonies bring together some of Woods' greatest qualities into a surprisingly neat package.
Songs of Shame has some real shining moments, with at once carefree and substantial sensibilities.
Their psychedelic, bare bones '09 release left me feeling dazed in an absolutely welcome way. Woods is genius at taking such technicolor, hallucinatory folk and making it accessible for your average...well...your average Jane strolling down the street having to maintain a somewhat respectable air about her.
It's a patchwork quilt with impeccable stitching. It's sepia toned, whimsical, and made with curious perfection. By far one of the most unpretentious and imaginative albums I heard in the past year.

Rain On- Woods

Roman Candle- Oh Tall Tree in the Ear

I have been waiting to write about this Chapel Hill based collective of brilliance. And while I mean brilliance in the technical sense, as in I am sure they are incredibly intelligent, what comes to mind more readily is the blinding brilliance that exudes from this album. It's a white hot star, and if you let it into your ears, you won't be able to see anything except through the light it provides.
And it's a truly fun time to let this album enter your life. From start to finish, this album (the name inspired by Rilke), delivers unabashed fist pumping rock coupled with fathoms-deep lyrics that require several spins to truly get. Try walking down a road and listening to this album. Eden Was a Garden will get you looking at the clouds as your previously socially acceptable steps turn into little hop/skips, and your fingers begin drumming in your pockets. It will only continue from there. Big Light is a serious contender for Most Wonderful, and A Heartbeat makes me desperately want to compose a silly, romantic mix for somebody now.
Roman Candle has managed to craft an album that I can not, no matter how hard (and it hasn't been very) I try, stop playing. It calls me back with the assurance that through steady rhythm guitar, some glockenspiel laced intros, and totally truthful poetry, I will feel the same delight every damn time.

Eden Was a Garden- Roman Candle

Fruit Bats- Ruminant Band

So, uh, we're all aware that The Shins and Vetiver are two pop collectives that don't fail to sparkle for us, yes? Good then, because Eric D. Johnson of both the aforementioned bands finally paid attention to his four year waylaid lovechild, Fruit Bats. And Ruminant Band was a great way to re-enter my heart. Interestingly enough, Johnson, now a full-time member of The Shins, admitted to really letting the Fruit Bats as a band take the reigns on Ruminant Band, rather than making it as much of a Johnson based project. The sound that the collaboration created is a frolicking, sometimes downright groovy, dance through some major keyed, majorly great tracks.
Fruit Bats has a gift for visual lyrics and visual musicianship. Every guitar lick draws out the bed of mustard seed, or the heart of the primitive man. Ruminant Band harkens back to chamber-pop through smooth vocal blends, with quiet observation like the best Americana, and with fearless electric guitar bubbling and boiling up from behind some key songs. Sometimes reminding me of Neil Young, sometimes making me want to ask Robin Pecknold flat out if he was a Fruit Bats fan...this album touches the soft part of my soul, tenderly strolling along with the little kid version of myself, helping me figure out what it means to be on my own, to lay in the sun, and to be a growing, wacky human being in this shaky, vibrant world.

The Ruminant Band- Fruit Bats

The Very Best- Warm Heart of Africa
Are you thinking...Kathleen...a Malawian singer and a DJ really teamed up to create a musical fusion so profoundly good that it makes your head go all dizzy and light like the tracks they laid down?


What I loved about the initial collaboration between Esau Mmamwaya and European DJ and producer, Radioclit, is that many thought the mixtape they released last year would the the end. But come on everyone! They call themselves THE VERY BEST. And what could The Very Best do but release an even more amazing LP the next year?? We should not underestimate them. For Warm Heart of Africa, The Very Best welcomed M.I.A and Vampire Weekend's lead singer Ezra Koenig for some guest vocals. The result is a sunny hello, a warm embrace, and the sort of genuinely freeing sound that is so unnerving to buttoned-up, "mature" people. This fusion of African language and music with the electronic movements stirring in the West is so original, and so unmistakably significant, that even if it wasn't brimming with golden talent I would stick it on some sort of list. However, because many of the songs have been spinning in my head of their own accord, Warm Heart of Africa gets a place in the Very Top. For being the Very Best.

Julia- The Very Best

Fanfarlo- Reservoir

I saw this band in November, and was blown away by the sheer electricity they exude live. Even if I hadn't fallen in mad, obsessive, restraining order inducing love with their debut album before the show, I know I would have been just as surprised as I was when they leaped fearlessly into I'm a Pilot, unapologetically flooding the small Denver BBQ/bowling joint with shining, shimmering music.
Fanfarlo descended on my ears like so many welcome raindrops on a blazing afternoon. Refreshing, propulsive, muscle tightening rock that releases the animal instinct to yell along to lines with the strong voice of Simon Balthazar. I mean, you try to watch this video for Harold T. Wilkins without pushing yourself from your chair and punching the air in rhythm. If you are able to refuse that possibility with absolutely no problem...I would schedule an autopsy promptly.
The album is a complete package from first to last track. The diving, twisting vocals of Balthazar coupled with extremely well thought-out mandolin, horns, and deeply affecting percussive thumps creates an atmosphere of instinctive joy. It's an ever shifting collection of highly intelligent music, and I am so excited to see what they have in store for 2010.

Harold T. Wilkins (Or How to Wait for a Very Long Time)- Fanfarlo

The Low Anthem- Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

When you first start listening to this exquisite album by the Rhode Island band, The Low Anthem, you might be tempted to think of it as merely a lovely, delicate thing. Much like a Southern belle contemplating the gently blowing breeze.
This is not me discounting the first couple tracks. In fact, Ben Knox Miller's ability to create a truly haunting falsetto is only matched by his thought provoking words
Who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin?
Fighting for a system built to fail
Spooning water from their broken vessels
As far as I can see there is no land

But then The Low Anthem hits the ground running, and with The Horizon is a Beltway they pound out a Tom Waits inspired, gravel throated floor stomping number that brings the album into perspective. The whole album fits in its wild, unabashed strangeness. Vascillating from chillingly subtle and sweet melodies to raucous and celebratory maelstroms of sound, it all creates a beautiful piece of work that demonstrates a band's ability to be unafraid in having fun with what they do.
The obvious truth to me is that The Low Anthem has more than earned their 2009 success, with a tour with Josh Ritter, and an upcoming stint opening for my most beloved Avett Brothers. I can't wait to catch these guys live, and let them take my clumsily dancing feet wherever their imaginations please.

Charlie Darwin- The Low Anthem

Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest

You're telling me that this is only Grizzly Bear's third full album? Oh. So the fact that it's a tight-knit, dynamic, unstoppable showcase of talent, vision and cohesiveness shouldn't deter me from remembering that this band has only begun to creatively evolve.
Granted, Grizzly Bear has had its fair share of experience without studio time. From touring with Radiohead, Feist, and TV On the Radio, I would say this band is anything but novice. And it shows. Veckatimest covers a wide spectrum of musical range, and displays a genuine enthusiasm for bringing people from psychedelic tie dye swirls all the way to great big breaths of resounding beauty (perhaps inspired by the album's namesake), all with baffling complexity coming from both composition and execution.
Even with the obvious jump in musical skill, Grizzly Bear doesn't lose sight of creating a beautiful procession of coherent songs that creates a complete experience. The richness of this album leaves me feeling sated, and at the same time...craving more sounds that fill and rejuvenate.

Two Weeks- Grizzly Bear

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