Best Albums of 2009

I had a conversation with Jon the other night that proved both expansive and rambling. By its end we had touched on the ethics of album packaging, the impetus on the music industry to creatively find a way out of their current problems, the merits of the album as artifact and sequencing in the age of the mp3. Among other things.

I took the position that there is something about a physical artifact that has helped me in the past to bond more deeply with albums as cohesive works of art than the faceless and now ubiquitous currency of computer files we now move in, files as easily disposed of as they are acquired. I bemoan what I see as the impending death of the album.

That being said, I’m as much a singles man as I’ve ever been. They’re different animals, songs and collections of songs. The former offer instant gratification and a different kind of repeat listening experience. The latter require time and finesse. It’s hard work sequencing an album, and intentional. To make a group of songs that flow and cohere into something larger than the sum of its parts requires a different kind of zen, a sensibility which rewards patience in the way the manic maker of playlists can’t fully appreciate. Which, while thinking of it, is why most greatest hits albums suck balls, save the rare exception like The Eagles Greatest Hits: Volume I.

In any event, here are the records from the last year that I think are worth your time. They’ve enriched my life.

Ben Bishop
14 December, 2009
Seattle

^^^

2009 was a year that held incredible promise. New albums by Third Eye Blind, Mutemath, John Mayer and Converge were all dropping. (N.B. – Though I sense the eyes of the Laurel Daileys of the world rolling as I type, a post on my belief in the non-existence of guilty pleasure will have to wait for another day.) Sadly, 3EB and Mayer both disappointed and for whatever reason I still have not gotten around to giving Mutemath a fair hearing. Ah, the crippling power of expectation. Many’s the venture hamstrung by unfulfilled hope.

Happily, as often happens, other works rose to fill the void.

4. Washed Out – Life of Leisure EP

Dreambeat? Chill-wave? Glo-fi? If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year to free associate using these words as my starting point I’d have been more likely to respond with something about masturbatory dreams or possibly surfing than music. As it turns out there is a burgeoning crop of artists making a kind of pop music that melts down indie rock aesthetics to combine them with synths and fuzz tones that sound vaguely as though they’ve been pulled from some 1984 cassette mix of bands I’d never heard of because I wasn’t culturally sentient until 1994, and then only by means of an extremely generous understanding of the term which would grandfather in an affinity for the catalogues of DC Talk, Petra, and (oh good grief) the Supertones.

Ernest Greene has a great story. Several months ahead of his marriage he moved back in to his parents’ home in a Georgia peach orchard in order to save money and look for jobs. At night, after they went to bed and he had finished with the day’s labours, Greene would retire to his studio and work on what would become the Life of Leisure EP. Eventually what had been just a fun project started getting all kinds of hype and offers to tour began to come his way, to which he’s basically responded, “Eh, no thanks. Maybe if this had been five years ago. But I’m getting married. I don’t want to go on tour.” Now that’s a love supreme.

Life of Leisure is accessible and cohesive and has a sound. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s why I liked it so much. The sound is that of a past I want to understand, interpreted in today’s pop language by a fellow child of the era of Madonna, Ronald Reagan, the Berlin Wall, NKOTB, and, for a couple years, Keith Green. The dreamy chorus to “New Theory” constitutes the pinnacle of late night driving music. You know the moment. You find yourself on some barren interstate at 2 in the morning. You’re heading home from the bar, or perhaps across state lines toward the one you love. You’re in your twenties and you don’t know if you’re going to make good on the promise of your life. Then this song comes on. You still don’t know, but you feel better for a moment.

3. Converge – Axe To Fall

I wrote extensively about this record in an earlier post and will therefore keep this brief. I love this band, I love their take on heavy music which is so rare in that they combine real, professional musicianship with ingenuity and unbridled, visceral energy. They’ve gotten better with age, and how many bands do that?

2. M. Ward – Hold Time

This was the soundtrack in our apartment for a solid month when it came out. Matt Ward has such a distinctive sound, clearly a big selling point for me this year. The songs on here are so often intelligent and playful at the same time. “Rave On” exemplifies this perfectly.

What’s more, Ward is so consistent. Part of what sucked about CDs, cassettes and records, which Jon pointed out in our conversation about the merits of the mp3, is that you often had to wade through significant amounts of B material to get to the few A+ tracks on any record. The thing with Hold Time is, you don’t have to, because it’s all good.

1. Tiny Vipers – Life On Earth

Trying to understand someone you’ve never met through their music is difficult and poses real dangers. Given what I know of my self and the darkness and light I contain, the visitations of evil and joy I’ve experienced and never shared with anyone, I would never pretend to know anyone else completely, let alone someone as removed from me as the musicians I’ve been moved by over the years like Dan Weyandt or Ted Bond or Gillian Welch or Aaron Weiss. At the same time it seems reasonable to think that something meaningful can be gleaned from the art someone shares with the public. That’s kind of the point.

I’ve read several interviews with Jesy Fortino. I think I have thus far escaped the delusion of believing that I know much of who she is on an intimate level, despite the intimacy of what she reveals at times during said interviews and also, on a more spiritual level, through her music. But those interviews have stuck with me nonetheless and I can’t help wondering about her life. I sense the intimations of suffering when I don’t hear them outright. Shitty jobs, interpersonal difficulties, the broad sadness that I can almost feel in my bones, as a resident of Seattle, when I think of the endless fog, rain and clouds that so often enshroud Issaquah and all of the Puget Sound basin between the Cascades and Elliott Bay. It’d be hard to hear any beautiful, quiet girl talk about taking LSD and wandering in the woods outside town. Try listening to her profound album afterwards.

Even if you’d never heard Fortino speak and knew nothing about her background, her music speaks for itself. It conjures the dark, wet forest, the feeling of mysticism and ritual, but does so in a way that upends many of the stereotypes associated with freakfolk. In fact I hesitate to even use the word folk at all, because despite the fact that it’s just her and her guitar creating the sonic landscapes of the record, Fortino is at times almost closer aesthetically to something like drone metal, a kind of experimental music that brings in chanting and noise. The closest comparison I can think of, and it seems fitting, would be Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance.

Even moreso than Chasny, the bulk of Fortino’s material are songs recognizable as songs, peppered with a few sound pieces that stretch the boundaries. Within those songs lie the genre-defying idiosyncracies that stole my heart. The rhythmic, stripped picking of a lax indie guitarist are there, yet moving in intelligent and nuanced chord structures and paired with a voice so strange it’s been described as chocolate. Husky and rolling, most of the time Fortino’s voice stays in a sonorous mid-range that serves her contemplative lyrics. But then every once in a while, as at the end of “Dreamer” she steps up into a higher range where her voice molts and transforms into a clear and incandescent thing, sometimes breaking at the end of a line in a vaguely Sarah McLachlan kind of way, yet so unique in its context as to almost defy comparison.

Her lyrics themselves weave and turn, sometimes seeming to refer to autobiographical material only to spin off into metaphor and opaque questioning. Indeed, a gentle and persistent questioning seems to fill the album, held with an open-handedness one part resignation and one part curiosity, the marriage of bleak realism and the imaginative power of hope. “Life on Earth” is that rare work of art which, while undeniably dark, is not shadowed with the darkness of animate evil or hopelessness, but rather a real treatment of life’s coldness, still tempered in moments with a hard-earned glimpse of light.

I guess in the end I sum it up like this: in its beauty and its pain Jesy Fortino’s is the only album that made me cry this year.

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