Because of the commercial importance of the holiday season, every publication under the sun releases its list of the year's top albums no later than mid-December. Every year that means that records that dropped late in the year get ignored or underrated. This year it was even worse, because since it was 2009 every publication under the sun also had to release lists of the best records of the entire decade. I got the impression that, by mid-October, people were too busy with their rankings to listen to music. My number-seven record came out in early November, and nobody rated it on their year-end lists, though that's no surprise because that band never gets any respect. My number-four record came out on December 22, by which point everybody's lists had long gone to press. Maybe it's pointless to submit a best-of list at the end of January, but then again I'm slow. This stuff is hard to figure out for me. How can you really compare Veckatimest to The Blueprint 3, or Crack the Skye with Brand New Eyes? These records are very different not just in terms of genre, instrumentation, attitude, and production, but with respect to the artists' abilities and intentions, and the method and content of their communication. Every year brings so much new, challenging, and divergent music that I figure woodshedding for a month about what moved me and what didn't and why is the least I can do, even if the result is that the conversation has already moved on by the time I get around to weighing in. It's not like people really care; I'm not Tom Breihan or anybody important.
Speaking of the ubiquitous best-of-the-decade lists, a couple people have asked me to put together a ranking of my favorite records of the aughts. I'll try to get around to it soon, but I didn't see how I could tackle that project until I'd figured out 2009. With my glacial pace these days, the overview-of-the-00s post is sure to arrive some time in 2014. In the meantime, you'll have to be content with this discussion of the immediate past. As usual, much of the form of my ballot was taken from Tris McCall's annual Critics Poll, which is still going strong over at Tris's spiffily redesigned website. (To be honest I sort of miss the green-and-black Commodore 64 visuals of the old site, but everybody's gotta grow up sometime.)
Okay—away we go:
Best album 2. Neko Case Middle Cyclone 3. Freddie Gibbs The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs 4. Lil B 6 Kiss 5. Why? Eskimo Snow 6. Girls Album 7. Say Anything Say Anything 8. Jamie T. Kings & Queens 9. Baroness Blue Record 10. The Fiery Furnaces I’m Going Away 11. G-Side Huntsville International 21. i-EL The Prelude 31. Camera Obscura My Maudlin Career Best opener Album that started the strongest Album that finished the strongest Best closer Album I listened to the most this year Worst album I bought this year Crappy record I listened to a lot anyway Great song from a crappy record Lousy song from a good record Album that should have been longer Album that should have been shorter Most up-and-down record Least up-and-down record Album that wore out its welcome the fastest Album that turned out to be better than I initially thought it was Album that felt most like an obligation to get through Most welcome surprise Rookie of the year Comeback player of the year Bust of the year Record from which I expected too much Best reissue Best album title Good album with a bad title Album title that most accurately reflects the spirit of the music Worst album title Best album cover Good album with a bad cover Worst album cover Best song title Best liner notes Best packaging Best art Best single 2. Pill “Trap Goin Ham” 3. Esser “Headlock” 4. Lil B “I’m God” 5. i-EL f. Von Pea & Donwill “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die” 6. Clipse f. Cam’ron & Pharrell “Popular Demand (Popeyes)” 7. Bon Iver “Blood Bank” 8. Big Boi f. George Clinton & Too $hort “Fo Yo Sorrows” 9. Waka Flocka Flame “O Let’s Do It” 10. YACHT “The Afterlife” 11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart “Young Adult Friction” Song of the year Best songwriting Hook of the year Worst song of the year Most annoying song of the year Most overplayed song Song that would drive me craziest on infinite repeat Song I feel cheapest about liking Song I don’t feel at all cheap about liking Song I like better than I ought to
My favorite elpee of the year is easy to describe but hard to do justice to. It’s a folk album made by a bunch of Scots; if you want to compare it to Fairport, you wouldn’t be too far off. But Fairport was rarely this weird. Not even the Incredible String Band was usually this weird. It’s a breakup record; as I read them, seven of the nine songs are lost-love complaints, one is an inspirational shout of defiance, and the other is acid philosophy. But even singing about heartbreak they refuse to play it straight. The lyrics are ornate and peculiar and full of metaphorical surprises. They have two singers: a warbly soprano who sometimes overstays her welcome, and a tenor whose total commitment to the task more than overcomes his thin and technically mediocre pipes. Their melodies seem like traditional folk, but they’re off kilter and hard to sing. The harmonies find intervals most sensible people shun. Despite that, each of the songs is beautiful, but each is beautiful in a way that’s distinct from the others. Sometimes they rock; more often they purr along quietly; occasionally they careen down the road like a jalopy shedding its quarter panels, deliberately steering for the ditch.
Neko is perpetually disappointed by the lameness and inanity of the men around her; she can’t live with them, and she knows she shouldn’t shoot them, though sometimes she feels she has to. Her bloodlust is so acute it leads to overkill (and mixed metaphors): see the poor bastard in “Polar Nettles” whose “smoking remains” are found “filleted on the marble stairs.” When a nervous suitor steps up to the plate with a vow of commitment, her response is “the next time you say ‘forever’ I will punch you in your face.” She has a weakness for dissolute machismo, dudes who woo her with lines like “I love girls in white leather jackets.” But they can’t stay the pace either. Her frustration and melancholy are so powerful that she can frame them only in world-historical terms. “I want the pharoahs,” she confides, “but there’s only men.” Even in the throes of passion all she can muster is “I love you this hour, this hour today, and heaven will smell like the airport,” which does not really constitute letting her guard down. But you know she’s just as disappointed in herself and hardly blind to her blind spots. “I do my best,” she admits, “but I’m made of mistakes.” On the title song she sort of apologizes: “Can’t give up acting tough/It’s all that I’m made of/Can’t scrape together quite enough/To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” In case that didn’t make the point quite finely enough, this confession is followed by a spiraling melody from a child’s music box. If you dive in headfirst, the wordy and beautiful poetry and the constant barrage of circular emotional artillery fire is disorienting. But even if lyrics aren’t your bag, there’s also the well-established vocal chops; and beyond that, Neko’s songwriting is sharper than ever. She’s long since thrown off the alt-country tag; while some of these songs are rootsy, they really don’t sound like anybody else. She doesn’t repeat herself; each song is distinct. She doesn’t do verse-chorus-verse, and she isn’t afraid to abort a tune quickly once she’s made her essential point. This a tremendously accomplished pop record from a compelling and idiosyncratic voice in contemporary music.
Hip-hop has always been about local scenes. Virtually every prominent rapper ever first grabbed our attention by telling us about specific shit happening on his particular block, and every locality that’s ever dominated the national hip-hop conversation—New York, LA, Miami, Atlanta, Houston—has done so by revealing its streets and bricks and barbed wire to the country through its lyrics, sometimes in more detail than the country wants to see. There are more local scenes than ever these days; it turns out everybody has a story to tell. Gibbs is from Gary, Indiana, and I think his album opener “GI Pride” is the best song about a city since, what, “New York, New York”? It’s not a showtune, but its beat borrows “Flashdance (What a Feeling!)” and its chorus references The Music Man, so it strolls with confidence right down the main drag of American popular music. In three verses, the emcee describes his city, clues you in to its history, detours into his family and personal background, generations of people making it in hard times but mostly not making it in hard times. He tutors you about the different characteristics of Gary’s various neighborhoods. The chorus is gigantic and catchy and will haunt your dreams. Miseducation is notionally a mixtape because it’s independent and basically given away for free, but there is no reason to classify this differently from an official “album.” Only a few of the beats are jacked, and anyway who cares—the important thing is it all feels deliberate and considered and of one piece. Rock musicians cover each other all the time, or at least steal entire chord structures, so why can’t an emcee freestyle over a much beloved backing track? When you have Freddie’s dexterity on the mic, you want to measure yourself against the best history has to offer. He certainly doesn’t disgrace himself. Granted, he has the advantage of 15 additional years of technique to deploy, but Gibbs destroys the “Flamboyant” beat with a ferocity I can’t really see Big L approaching. To me, the most impressive thing about him is how effortlessly he balances street-rap credibility with lyricism. It’s not an easy thing to do and even if you can pull it off people will hate you for it and say you’re pandering to bloggers or backpackers or some other derided fan constituency. I just figure the guy has range.
If you’re one of those people who thinks Twitter is making idiots of the world, you'll want nothing to do with Brandon McCartney. But it was always inevitable that our prevailing social media, which are used disproportionately by the young, who in turn are the ones who make and listen to pop music, would insinuate themselves into the form and content of that music. Of course these new forms are infecting the old ones. That's always been the way it works. Songwriting often aspires to replicate the conventions of poetry; sometimes a song can be so sufficiently vivid and fully realized that you could compare it to a great short story. Rock critics describe a well-observed internal-monologue lyric as “novelistic” or an imagistic one as “cinematic.” People even used to make rock operas, or so they called them. Well, 6 Kiss is impossible to imagine or understand without taking into account how the Internet shapes modern communication. When B takes his time—writing his rhymes before he gets in the booth, working out a hook or chorus, maybe adding a sped-up, highly-EQ’d sample to the beat—that’s like a blog post. Sometimes he has one or two ideas but nothing concrete and mostly is just spitting the first thing to come into his mind, which as often as not is half-nonsense, and the beat is basically just a cloud of synthesizer symbolizing the foam emanating from B’s brain. That’s like a Twitter feed. But sometimes he comes to the mic completely cold, and it’s like a yet-to-be-invented but theoretically perfect social media, one that relays your thoughts directly onto a global billboard the second you think them. On those songs, B is in sort of a brain-emesis Tourette’s fugue state, repeating jabbered macho unpleasantries over beats even uglier than the MySpace user interface. These are totally not the best songs on the record, but they’re still thrilling because the emcee is willing to risk being so completely off-putting. It’s all first-thought-best-thought, and once he hits the send button it’s gone and forgotten, and he’s on to the next one. It’s a remarkable thing to rummage around inside another person’s head.
The best-sequenced record of the year. It starts softly and modestly before lurching into gear, and finishes by floating to earth like a feather in still air. Inside are some real fireworks. Because it’s structured as a true arc, when you’re done with it you really feel it’s taken you from Point A to Point B, even though it’s just ten songs and 35 minutes. You could bitch about how short it is, and it is short, but that’s not very productive; why don’t you just press play and listen to it again?
You can’t argue too hard against a record with this many memorable songs on it. It’s all very basic stuff—chord progressions excavated from the Chess Records catalog and early SoCal surf-pop—but it’s executed so well and distinctively. “Hellhole Ratrace,” the advance track, is utterly elemental and heartbroken and charming and we’ll discuss it more later. “Lauren Marie” is maybe even better, a heart-slaughtering lost-love slow burn; “Morning Light,” an actual rock and roll song and a total anomaly on the record, is orthodox shoegaze (i.e., the first Lush EP). “Summertime” is an ear worm worthy of sleepaway-camp campfires; “Headache” is a delicate little egg of a song. “Lust for Life” was the song all the sensitive kids were making out to this year; “Darling” rests your head on the pillow as gently as any album-closer could. Some of the other numbers may feel like throwaways, but they’re all memorably weird and different from one another and fully committed to their purpose. Christopher Owens’s songs have no narrative thrust or descriptive specificity; they aim for the urgent and the universal, which in some ways is harder. Although Owens is always present in his tunes, sometimes excessively emoting all over the place, he understands that you write anthems by leaving space in the song for the audience to climb inside. If you can’t stand his vocal tone, the inspiration for which must be the high-lonesome adenoidal chirp of the Nic Cage character in Peggy Sue Got Married, fair enough. I find it pretty adorable. The production matches it beautifully: everything is reverbed out the wazoo, and the mix is trebly—like really trebly, like approaching Raw Power levels of trebly. I was awfully tempted to rank this even higher.
Max Bemis has become a Christian—a real Christian, the kind that believes in Satan and Hell. If you’ve ever listened to the boy’s lyrics, his conversion was about as surprising as Tim Lincecum getting caught with reefer. My Irish Catholic grandmother always used to say that the converts were the worst—the most enthusiastic, rule-bound, and judgmental, they made everyone else feel lousy. But I think Bemis, for all the Jack Chickery he displays in screaming about lakes of fire and “the end of your test” and being “down with J.C.,” has turned to Christianity because he genuinely hopes, and maybe even believes, it will help him be a better and happier person. I’m certainly in no position to tell him he’s wrong. His need for salvation has been plain for years; the first three Say Anything albums were primarily about how his certainty that he’s terrible and unworthy of love makes him sad and crazy. His newfound Christianity fits like a glove, because the premise of most devotional music is that humans are worthless anyway. I’m really not trying to make fun here. I don’t know if “Cemetery” is the best Christian-rock song of all time, but it’s the best one I’ve ever heard, a spiritual testimony sincere and powerful enough that even a philistine such as I must respect it. What’s most entertaining is watching how Bemis uses his full arsenal of songwriting and arranging tricks in service of his faith. Say Anything’s music has always been full of oversexed desperation, but when Bemis croaks “meet me in the back room!” on "She Won't Follow You" and promises once you get there to tell you everything, everything, it turns out he just wants to share the Good News. Max has always loved to judge others—you can’t blame that one on the old-time religion—so at first “Do Better,” with its cute little pizzicato strings, sounds like “Admit It!!!” or “No Soul,” another attack on some douchebag third party. Only it turns out Max is giving himself a little motivational speech and meticulously outlining all his flaws in the process. The opener “Fed to Death” is just a minute-and-a-half long, but it’s as skillfully constructed as anything you’ll hear. The first verse is a parable about “a man from Allentown who fed his son to death.” It's a little secular allegory, or so you think. The lyrics concern familiar Bemis obsessions: the abandonment of the young by the old, the bombardment of young minds and bodies with emotional garbage and unhealthy temptations, the way the overconsumption of that garbage and overindulgence in those temptations makes us break down physically and mentally. This is Bemis describing the problem as he sees it. But the second and last verse makes clear that this is testimony, not just a song; it’s a polemic about “a man from Nazareth,” and obviously Max is not talking about towns in Pennsylvania anymore. He’s showing his hole card on the record’s very first song, summoning the angry, righteous Jesus, the one who interceded in stonings and battled usury with moral and physical force. This is Bemis describing the solution, at least as he sees it today. Maybe he’ll stick with the Christianity, maybe not. Bob Dylan didn’t, but then again who knows what’s up with that guy.
English smartass whose dance-rock is effortlessly informed by hip-hop in a way that white American songwriters lack the critical distance to attempt, Jamie Treays mainly writes about penurious and grimy UK council-flat dystopia and his unsuccessful efforts to make time with the young ladies who live there. He’s probably not actually as much of a yobbo as he makes himself out to be, but he is a very talented kid. I just got this record in mid-January, so forgive me if I just express my appreciation in generalities by noting that I really like all eleven of these songs.
They’re from Savannah, but they grew up in Virginia, and that explains a lot; they’re known and marketed as a metal outfit, but half the time to me they sound like a D.C. punk band. A really good one, too, with two superior guitar players and much focused aggression and a tremendous ear for odd and compelling melodies. “Jake Leg” ends with the band cranking up the guitar harmonies and plunging head-first into a maze of interlocking riffs, but the actual song part of the song sounds just like Jawbox. The fucking pounding “Swollen and Halo” represents an alternate universe where Fugazi were huge potheads. Much of the D.C. vibe is brung by drummer Allen Blickle (his real name!), who sounds an awful lot like Brendan Canty, with his snare sound that is literally “meaty”—it sounds like a guy thwacking a ribeye with a pool cue. Like Fugazi or Soulside or Rites of Spring, they have an ear for and a real commitment to dynamics. Blue Record is full of mood swings, instrumental bridges that work as emotional transitions, starting off pretty and acoustic and over time clenching into an angry fist. Truly this is the sort of record the shaveheads and the longhairs can get behind equally; the songwriting may be punk, but the ornamentation is entirely metal. They thrash; there’s even a little, but not much, of the contemporary Headbanger's Ball Cookie Monster vocal style; they ease between time signatures; I already mentioned the guitar harmonies. Maybe best of all, since they’re southern, they have no fear of boogie—dig the reinforced .38 Special gallop “The Gnashing.” Are you going to ask about the lyrics? Well, metal is different, you know. I can’t make heads or tails of them as narrative or position paper or even poetry, but as a collection of impressions rolled at you like boulders from the lip of a cliff, they get the job done.
We take them for granted. I’m Going Away was their least showy record ever, but still it was another step forward. Every time out they successfully execute the new tricks they’ve been practicing. On Widow City they learned to rock; here, especially on “Lost at Sea,” they offer a gorgeous contentment that used to be beyond their reach.
12. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
13. Ghostface Killah Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City
14. Mastodon Crack the Skye
15. Paramore Brand New Eyes
16. Dirty Projectors Bitte Orca
17. DJ Quik & Kurupt BlaQKout
18. Metric Fantasies
19. Myka 9 1969
20. Willie Isz Georgiavania
22. UGK UGK 4 Life
23. Future of the Left Travels with Myself and Another
24. Blaq Poet Tha Blaqprint
25. YACHT See Mystery Lights
26. Doom Born Like This
27. Kid Cudi Man on the Moon: The End of Day
28. Two Tongues Two Tongues
29. Z-Ro Cocaine
30. Espers III
32. The High Strung Ode to the Inverse of the Dude
33. Tris McCall Let the Night Fall
34. Grizzly Bear Veckatimest
35. Wild Beasts Two Dancers
36. A.C. Newman Get Guilty
37. God Help the Girl God Help the Girl
38. Sam Roberts Love at the End of the World
39. Gucci Mane Murder Was the Case
40. Tori Amos Abnormally Attracted to Sin
“GI Pride.” No contest.
6 Kiss. Really the entire first half, all the way through “Myspace,” is tremendous. While I’m on the subject, “Myspace” also contains my favorite throwaway boast of the year: “fell asleep in first class, eatin’ chicken on planes.” Jamie T.’s Kings & Queens was no slouch in this category either. The first four songs are little powder kegs.
G-Side’s Huntsville International, with the awesomely moving “Rising Sun” followed by the chill piece “So Wonderful.” Am I crazy or is there more great hip-hop coming out of Alabama these days than all five boroughs combined? Block Beataz have a legit claim on Producer of the Year honors, and ST and Yung Clova are two of the least cliché-bound and most album-oriented young emcees working. They rap some about selling drugs, but for the most part they reject, sometimes overtly, the pretense that they’re crack kingpins who rap only to kill time while they wait for the re-up. Why shouldn’t rappers be proud to be rappers? Second place goes to I’m Going Away.
“The Last Baron,” Mastodon’s thirteen-minute prog metal arc. It starts off slow and spooky, borrowing and improving on the melody from the Gabriel-era Genesis chestnut “The Return of the Giant Hogweed.” By itself, that was enough to captivate a prog-nerd like me. But this is not your father’s Mastodon; even when they bring a shit-ton of thrash throughout the long middle section, the melody is always front and center and compulsively shoutable. Elsewhere, I thought Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career was a little predictable and indistinct, but a lot of the tunes were awfully good, and closer “Honey in the Sun” was the best of the bunch. Tracyanne Campbell is not entirely comfortable turning that frown upside down—the song is basically about being dragged kicking and screaming into happiness, wishing all the while that her heart was “as cold as the morning dew”—but the rest of us will find it hard not to smile.
Middle Cyclone or Miseducation, take your pick. Probably Middle Cyclone only because it came out so early in the year.
Working on a Dream. More on this in a minute, but Bruce is just operating on muscle memory here; this record has the same ersatz spirit as his Super Bowl halftime show, which was the most insincere expropriation of rock-god mythology in service of commerce I’ve ever seen. It was like Jon Bon Jovi had killed and skinned the Boss and was wearing his face as a mask. This would never have happened if Clarence Clemons was still alive. I don’t expect Springsteen to muster the lyrical particularity of, say, Darkness on the Edge of Town anymore. Bruce doesn’t live in that town these days; I’m not sure he even visits over the holidays. But this record was almost written in an entirely different language.
Cursive’s Mama, I’m Swollen. It’s not like I doubt Tim Kasher’s sincerity. I’m sure he means every needy and despondent moan. Still, it always feels like he’s making a meal of it, like a fouled soccer player flopping around trying to draw a yellow card. Or in this case some pity sex from the brunette near the soundboard working on her fourth Long Island Iced Tea.
“Should Have Taken Acid with You” is a pretty little slice of ambient nostalgia and about the only sign of life on Neon Indian’s Psychic Chasms. Thomas Dolby is cool and all, but I am not sure he should be exerting this much influence over contemporary music. I am too much of a fanboy to call Ian Hunter’s Man Overboard “crappy,” but it was definitely uneven. Whatever—the title track is still grade-A romantic-tragic Hunter and worth the price of admission by itself. It’s a love letter to alcoholism, and although you don’t necessarily need to be a 70-year-old English guy with 40+ years in the business to pull that sort of thing off, it lends a certain credibility. “Reality this, reality that,” he moans, “I been there once and I ain’t goin’ back.” What makes Ian drink? Well, he’s pretty vague about it, and anyway the explanation is probably not that interesting. At the very end, Ian appears to claim that there’s a woman to blame, but honestly one senses he knows it’s his own damn fault.
“Hard As Hell,” the Akon spotlight joint on UGK 4 Life. What’s worse than Akon? If you said “nothing,” nice effort, but no. The answer is “Akon singing about his dong.” Admittedly that’s sort of a trick question, since Akon hardly ever sings about anything else. The guy is just death every time he comes on my radio.
I just made fun of this viewpoint, but the answer really is Eskimo Snow. It’s just hard not to want a couple more tunes, or maybe just one additional epic down the stretch, as a counterweight to the first half’s one-two of “Against Me” and “Even the Good Wood Gone.” But it’s still all good; even if the man on the mic is maybe starting to repeat himself a little, the band continues to expand its musical horizons with great success. “Against Me” has the poppiest chorus they’ve ever shown us, even moreso than “Fatalist Palmistry.” It’s odd-boy pop, so we’re not talking about hit singles here, but as odd-boy pop goes it approaches the level of excellence achieved by Wire’s “Outdoor Miner” or “Map Ref. 41° N 93° W.” Then on the chorus of “Good Wood” they turn into Drive-By Truckers, with a smoky electric piano and a dewy, weeping steel guitar. Yoni Wolf is singing “No flash photography,” which implies that, for all his demonstrable strangeness, he is, in fact, preparing himself for imminent pop stardom. This was a very good year for the concise pop record—besides Eskimo Snow, you had your Kings & Queens, your Bitte Orca, your Pains of Being Pure at Heart, your BlaQKout, your Brand New Eyes. Even the good records that had a little more sprawl, like most of my top ten, didn’t really feel long.
Richard Hawley’s Truelove’s Gutter, which is the longest eight-song record of all time. Well, okay, I haven’t verified that claim empirically, but it feels like the longest eight-song record of all time. I do feel Rich could have varied the tempos just a touch; each track is about 35 bpm and may cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure. You definitely want a defibrillator, or at least some insulin, nearby before spinning the set-closing “Don’t You Cry.” Another record that was really too long was Only Built for Cuban Linx … Part II by Raekwon. You have to understand, he’d been living with some of those beats and verses for like seven years—he wasn’t about to leave them off.
Kid Cudi’s debut. But it wasn’t like some songs were bad and some were good. It’s that all the songs, or nearly all of them, had cool production and neat melodies but this callow douchebag on the mic, babbling about weed and mushrooms. Either that or letting you know how much he likes to get his dick sucked. (Newsflash, pal: that distinguishes you from basically nobody.) Cudi is probably his patron Kanye West minus the vision, but there’s enough excitingly left-field shit on Man on the Moon that he certainly deserves another chance.
Middle Cyclone, easily. Each song ranks with the artist’s best work. Another contender was Blaq Poet’s Blaqprint. Like Andrew Nosnitsky said, he’s a one-trick pony, but that’s okay because his one trick is busting heads open.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz. The singles were good, but for some reason I just didn’t have any patience for the schtick this time.
Ghostdini Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. It didn’t hit me until like three weeks ago that it’s actually really, really good. It’s marketed as Ghost’s R&B album, but who's kidding whom here? Tony Starks takes pains to explain that “this ain’t no R&B dick, this hood.” It’s really Ghost using hip-hop to draw out all the implications of his favorite R&B songs. Those smooth 70s classics were full of straight-up fucking, cheating, getting cheated on, but they were never actually explicit. Back then there were lines that just weren’t crossed. Well, that ship sailed long ago, and Ghost’s whole deal is explicitness. No detail is too subtle to examine from multiple angles. “Stapleton Sex” may be ridiculous, but it has the courage and utter lack of shame to narrate what actually happened in the room after Marvin persuaded his lady to get it on. That may not be your cup of tea, but we ought to recognize: Ghost is the rare major-label rapper who actually gets records released on the semi-regular, and he is never afraid to do weird, alienating shit. He has a much better-developed sense of craft, of course, but his brain-to-mouth flow is just as pure as Lil B’s. Another excellent album I wasn’t sure about at first was The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. It took me a few weeks to machete my way through the production.
The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll buy Colin Meloy’s next album. Then again, I think I said that after The Crane Wife. But what’s the upside at this point? The Hazards of Love is a genuine, Board-certified rock opera, and Meloy gets an E for “effort” and T for “nice try,” but his undeniable thoughtfulness does not translate into compelling entertainment. It hasn’t for three records now. Another contender in this category was the xx’s debut, which a ton of people whose musical taste I respect told me was really good. I don’t dislike them at all, but I do find them fairly boring. It’s not like they’re bad in any particular respect, but I can’t figure out what they do well. Their songs aren’t notably well-constructed or memorable. Their melodies don’t stick in your head. The riffs don’t make you shake your ass. The arrangements are minimalist but flat; the instrumentalists don’t overwhelm with creativity. They are skilled at setting a particular mood, I will give you that.
The development of Lil B. It’s not that everything he does is excellent, or even tolerable. A lot of his act willfully pushes the reasonable bounds of human patience. But he’s a real artist, and how many rappers even consider allowing themselves that type of freedom?
Trembling Bells. Carbeth came with a promo sticker on the cover with blurbs from various semi-prominent indie musicians. I ordered it online, so by the time I saw the sticker I already owned it and didn’t need to be sold. But I still enjoyed the quote from Will Oldham that said “Trembling Bells? More like Trembling Balls!” I can dig it.
Khujo Goodie. In some senses, the obvious comparison to Willie Isz is Gnarls Barkley; both are duos consisting of a youngish producer and a former member of Goodie Mob who likes to sing. But Willie Isz doesn’t really sound anything like Gnarls Barkley, with the forced pop feel appeal and Danger Mouse’s Technicolor soul samples and Cee-Lo’s too-much-Jif-on-the-roof-of-my-mouth vocal tone. Producer Jneiro Jarel shoots his movies in grainy black-and-white, and then there’s Khujo, spitting and growling and moaning all over the tracks like his canine namesake. The guy was always my favorite Goodie Mob member, and I’m happy to see him enjoying the patronage of talented youngsters.
Mission of Burma’s The Sound the Speed the Light. They really didn’t have it this time out. I’m hoping they rebound, but most of the record reminds me of Trent Green at the bitter end in Miami: stumbling around the backfield all flinchy, waiting for the killing blow.
For Against’s Never Been. It’s a transitional record and fine on its own merits. Not enough riffs, not enough melodies, but I’m still glad to have it. Usually they take about six years between records, so maybe they rushed into this one.
Ill Wind’s Flashes, which I’ve never owned before because I’m not a cratedigger or willing to pony up $80 on eBay for the vinyl. Not to give any succor to Sox and Pats fans who have finally gotten their comeuppance after ruling the roost for the past decade, but I think Boston might be the most underrated American rock city. Apart from the outstanding punk and indie stuff from the late 70s and early 80s, the town also gave us a ton of great psych in the late 60s—Ill Wind and the Beacon Street Union especially. It’s also nice to have the first two Feelies records back in print, and Jawbox’s great For Your Own Special Sweetheart, but I already had those on CD. The Ill Wind record had never seen a digital release before.
Future of the Left’s Travels with Myself and Another.
Tori Amos’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Do you ever get the feeling it would be hard to be Tori’s friend?
Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career, but not in a good way. I’m just guessing here, but it seems like Tracyanne Campbell is a little bit at war with herself. She knows she has a certain act; people have come to expect her to bring the sad. She admits she’s fighting it on the title song. She doesn’t want to feel compelled to be melancholy for a living; she knows it’s an unhelpful limitation.
Working on a Dream. You know those Internet apps that tell you what your name would be if you were in the Wu-Tang Clan or if Sarah Palin was your mom? I know; they’re a lot of fun. If there were a Bruce Springsteen Title Generator app on a website somewhere—who knows, maybe there is one—it couldn’t generate a more perfectly vacuous title than Working on a Dream. I guess it’s nice that Bruce finally rediscovered the importance of pop melodies and radio hits, but this record suggests he thinks the defining characteristic of pop songs is simple-mindedness. I don’t know why he holds this belief; he himself has contributed many counterexamples over his career. Not too long ago, Bruce completed a solid decade without writing a single melody, but as boring as his 90s output might have been at least it was never simple-minded. Most of Working on a Dream—and here I mean the title song, “My Lucky Day,” “This Life,” and other, similar bullshit—is like freeze-dried Bruce, high-fructose corn Bruce, Bruce with all the valuable nutrients removed. And when he tries a little harder, it gets even worse. “Outlaw Pete” was billed as Springsteen’s attempt to recapture the spirit of “Incident on 57th Street” and all those other early, epic romantic compositions, but those songs sidestepped schlock and bathos only because their lyrics situated them in a specific and identifiable place (even if that place was imaginary). Those songs were informed by history and tradition and other songwriters, Dylan for sure, but they were unburdened by cliché. “Outlaw Pete” is like a cliché hoagie—shopworn imagery piled sky-high and slathered in vinegar. You could excuse it by saying the artist is a victim of his own success, that his innovations have become industry standards over time, but come on; the truth is the song doesn't work on any level. Then there’s the song about the hot checkout girl at the supermarket whom Bruce can’t (or at least shouldn’t) fuck because he’s a world-famous 60-year-old rock superstar and she’s not. The narrator’s riveting yearning is paired with a sub-Spector kitchen sink arrangement that erupts all over your face like a cheese fountain. I sort of like the minimalist blues “Good Eye,” but not that much, and anyway that’s just one song.
Twice in her career, on Furnace Room Lullaby and then Blacklisted, Neko Case was pictured on her album covers having been run over by a truck. On the front of Middle Cyclone, she’s crouched on the hood of a muscle car wielding a sword. Maybe that signifies that she’s finally taken control, though the record’s contents would suggest otherwise. The cover of 6 Kiss, with its garish and hilarious day-glo graffiti cartoon, is pretty fantastic as well. This is Glam Rap, a kid from El Cerrito letting loose his inner Marc Bolan. He knows he’s “the only goon nigga in these tiny pants,” but that’s just B; it’s not his problem if you can’t deal.
I don’t like The Pains’ black-and-white mimeograph cover, but it complements the music so obviously that I can’t really slam it. I’ll vote for the High Strung’s Ode to the Inverse of the Dude. Doesn’t really seem like they tried very hard with that one.
Working on a Dream achieves big-time wretchedness in this category too, with poor Bruce’s version of the Christie Brinkley painting from the front of River of Dreams. Another old-school major-label vanity case who always has to be on her album covers, Tori Amos, made me guffaw with the jacket of Midwinter Graces, which pictures Amos as an avenging faerie-angel who swoops down from the icy night sky with a hymnal full of Christmas carols inspired by feminist and queer theory and high-end weed. But nothing could have prepared me for Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin, which is basically visual Ipecac. Remember, this fellow is one of the five top hip-hop producers of the post-Dre era. He wrote and played basically every note of music on everything Cash Money Records released for a decade or thereabouts, and it’s no coincidence the label came to dominate the game during that stretch. Half a decade ago, on his way out the door after his falling-out with Bryan Williams, the Label Owner Who Raps, Mannie made a really awesome, visionary, genuinely funny solo album aptly titled The Mind of Mannie Fresh. He has never really followed that up, or even tried to, and now in 2009 we finally get a new record put out under his name. It consists of twelve tracks, of which Mannie had no involvement in six. The sleeve evinces the same kind of quarter-assed effort. The bad PhotoShop of a plaintive Mannie flanked by muscle cars recalls the sort of shit the heschers at my high school drew on the backs of their notebooks during chem lab when they weren’t sketching dudes in plate armor brawling with fire swords. It really looks like an ad for a fire sale at the local used-car lot. Mannie is pricing those cars to move, Jack. What can he do to put you in his lazy-ass hip-hop product today?
I can’t break the tie between Joe Pernice’s instrumental throwaway “Black Smoke (No Pope)” and Richard Hawley’s “Remorse Code,” which took me a little by surprise. Rich is not an ironist; his sensibility is usually 100% pre-Holden Caulfield. There was also “Suburban Beverage” by Real Estate. If somebody made a movie about my high school in the late 80s, Suburban Beverage would be a pretty good title.
I don’t think any of the records I bought this year had liner notes, unless you count comps of previously-released music, which I kinda don’t.
The yellow-and-teal day-glo booklet that came with Soundway Records’ Ghana Special: Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Ghanaian Blues—1968-81.
Ms. Indigo Sweats’s drawings in the booklet of Eskimo Snow, in particular the poster for Szmyler’s Fuckhause. I’ve never been to a fuckhause—I’m way too square for that type of scene—but I’ve heard Szmyler’s is a good one.
1. Girls “Hellhole Ratrace”
It’s a profoundly traditional song: just voice and guitar, four Beach Boys chords, a lot a lot of reverb, and a plaintive lyric so innocent it could’ve made the radio in 1962. But we can tell it’s modern because it deliberately undermines itself at critical points. It’s got the crescendo and repetition we all remember from the rock anthems of our youth, but the beat refuses to come over the top in triumph, staying sluggish and portly throughout all seven minutes. All of which combines to makes it timeless, and it’s really hard 40 years after Abbey Road to write something timeless in a rock motif.
Like most quality art, this song works on different levels. One is the hip-hop version of a workplace comedy, which means it takes place in a wacky crack dealership instead of a nutty small-claims court or a zany modeling agency. Another is as a good-humored but ultimately defiant story of upward social mobility through illegal acts, the North Georgia Crack Slangers Local No. 255 Rally and Fight Song. Or maybe you just dig the beat, with that plucked violin sample neatly dividing each bar into eight identical segments.
Heather was the one who discovered Esser and this song in particular. She played it constantly for about a month. It would be two-thirty in the morning and I would be getting ready for bed and she’d be sitting at the computer watching the “Headlock” video on YouTube. Later, when the video was removed from YouTube after the label asserted its copyright, she’d be watching the “Headlock” video on the official Esser website. At some point it gained a stranglehold on my consciousness. This would be my karaoke go-to if any karaoke bar could be counted on to have it available and if I ever did karaoke. The languid Essex accent and behind-the-beat flow could not possibly summon a greater quantity of ennui. Reportedly, the song does not represent the submissive end of an abusive relationship; it's a complaint about how miserable and stultifying it is to be stuck in a small provincial town when it’s all happening in the big city. But it works either way, and either way Ben Esser needs a helping hand to bring him to the fainting couch. “I’ve got a problem,” he moans, “it’s called living.” The whole song is like that. The first verse starts with “Stamp me in the carpet like a piece of dirt,” and the second ups the ante with “Bury me in sand like a knackered stallion,” which is probably simile of the year. But that groove! Usually pure hopelessness is not this invigorating. This is the music the gods loaded on Sisyphus’s iPod just before they issued him his boulder and sent him to the mountain.
I doubt anyone saw this coming when they first encountered Lil B leading off “Vans” by barely articulating rhymes about the dope boys and girls on his block. I am too old to work hard to figure out what B is talking about with his concept of the “based lifestyle”—to me it sounds like a marijuana-focused self-actualization program, like Scientology but with high-end cannabis vaporizers instead of e-meters. You probably know that Scientology promotes this concept of being “clear,” and if you pay them thousands of dollars you can take various tests using their proprietary machines that eventually proclaim you “clear.” Of course, in Scientology, “clear” means “free of the influences of the tormented lost souls of aliens kidnapped to our galaxy, brought to movie theaters located in active volcanoes, then blown up with atomic bombs.” Lil B is much less contrived; to him, “based” just means the elimination of the brain-mouth barrier. This is the best sort of casual, the most inspired flavor of off-the-cuff. That climax—“Somebody tell the earth I’m the best now/Somebody tell the ocean I’m the best out/Somebody tell the trees I’m here now”—is genuinely energizing. It reminds me of Neil Young’s “Motion Pictures,” with that dismissive lyric, “I hear the mountains are doing fine.” It’s the sound of a young person glorying in the power of his own mind.
Tanya Morgan’s Brooklynati was pretty boring, but you should still pay attention to these guys. They have a shitload of talent; if they can just abandon the pretense of being the conscience of the rap game, I really believe they can make great records. No one paid this single or Ilyas’s outstanding The Prelude LP any attention because they assume the Tanyas are just humorless revivalists, but this was my jam, and about the most fun I had all year.
This beat and hook are so incredible that the rest of it is 1000% beside the point. They could loop a dude puking over this track and it would still rule.
This is more like it. It’s got a little urgency; it actually seems to be about something. Admittedly, not sure what, but it seems like something important; taking your girlfriend to terminate a pregnancy, maybe? It’s not just the songwriting that’s cranked up compared to For Emma, Forever Ago, it’s also the aggression. For starters, there’s a, whattayacall, drumbeat. Also the Neil Young imitation on the fadeout. The other songs on the EP are nothing special, but this is good enough that it makes me wonder if maybe everyone had Justin Vernon pegged wrong. Maybe he’s just not an album artist; maybe he’s a singles artist.
We all know the contemporary music industry is a flaming 58-car failure pileup, but if you’re looking for objective proof consider the fact Antwan Patton cannot get Sir Luscious Left Foot released. I am no historian, but I seem to recall the guy being a part of a rap duo that sold tens of millions of records, won multiple Grammies, etc. You’d think there’d be a market in place to appreciate a solo project from the guy. And I am no hip-hop blogger up on the latest extracurriculars from “the game,” but even I haven’t been able to avoid stumbling into multiple tracks from Sir Luscious Left Foot over the past two years. And everything I’ve heard has been very good or great. “Fo Yo Sorrows” wasn’t even the most notable and popular Big Boi track of the year—that would be “Shine Blockas,” his duet with Gucci. Just release the fucking thing already. People will buy it. “Sorrows” starts with George Clinton’s terrifying—like, seriously terrifying—old-basehead croak, so dissapated that you want to call him an ambulance. He vomits some baloney about dope before ruefully letting you know that later on your girlie will be giving him head. That’s the chorus, you understand, so obviously the tune was destined for the Hot 100. Short Dogg turns in the shortest guest shot of the year, almost as Usain Bolt-fast as ODB on “9 Milli Bros,” but ODB had been dead a couple years by that point. None of that matters, anyway; it’s Patton’s show, and he remains the most effortlessly likable, personally credible emcee in the bidness.
Weed carriers need love too. They’re just like the rest of us whores; they want their fifteen minutes of fame, as long as they don’t have to work too hard for it. Waka is here mainly because of his thoughtful and generous patron Radric Davis, who has much juice with tastemaking bloggers, if not the Georgia Department of Corrections. Waka also has the most ridiculous handle in pop music since Engelbert Humperdinck, but full marks to him for making the most of his opportunity. My brain throws a rod every time he announces his presence at the beginning of a song—“Waka! Flocka! Waka! Flocka! Wakaflockaflaaaaaaame!” But that’s kind of the point. This rivals “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die” for sheer dumb singability.
Desmond Dekker’s rotting corpse called; he wants his hook back. Sorry, that was disrespectful. This is a terrific song. I’m not making an argument for it as sophisticated political discourse—the New Situationism—or anything. Maybe in this day and age it does no good even to have songs with lyrics like “All that you have is not what you own,” when the only reaction is well-meaning people nodding in solemn agreement before hopping in their Volkswagen Touareg and heading over to Sur La Table to pick up a Le Creuset 5½ quart cast-iron oven, then grabbing the new Harper’s at Borders, before finishing up by swinging by Whole Foods for some seven-dollar potatoes.
12. UGK “Da Game Been Good to Me”
13. Big Boi f. Gucci Mane “Shine Blockas”
14. Lil Boosie f. Pimp C “Life of Crime”
15. Dirty Projectors “Stillness Is the Move”
16. Phish “Backwards Down the Number Line”
17. Lady Gaga “Bad Romance”
18. Metric “Help I’m Alive”
19. Z-Ro “Doing Just Fine”
20. The Leftovers “Telephone Operator”
“Willows of Carbeth” by Trembling Bells. Nothing else was close. Lavinia Blackwall’s voice can be tough to take sometimes, but on the straightest and by far best song on Carbeth, she puts you in the ground. Her lover has left her for someone else and she couldn’t feel lousier. “All the songs I knew couldn’t help me now,” she sings. She is telling you she is inconsolable even by music. If you’re the sort of person who thinks of certain songs as your dearest friends, if music has dragged you through your most wretched moments to the tentative sun on the other side, then you can understand the magnitude of her loss. “No more singing love songs, they’re strangers to me now”: that’s as chilling a statement of pure despair as I can imagine.
Alex Neilson of Trembling Bells. He writes brilliantly in the folk-rock idiom, but it’s more than that; his weird, adventurous melodic sensibilities allow him to explore the full range of that idiom effortlessly. He can make traditional music that sounds like Sandy Denny or Karen Dalton or the Incredible String Band or Robert Wyatt, only really it’s so torqued-up and modernized that it mostly sounds like Alex Neilson. And Neilson is a drummer, and a very good one, so he’s as playful rhythmically as he is melodically. There are other contenders too. Max Bemis from Say Anything mostly kept his election-year pledge to put at least one and often more than one bridge in every song he writes. I don’t know how the boys in Why? write their songs, but they also deserve a mention. I always enjoy it when someone writes a song that hasn’t been written before, and if you feel the same you’ll probably dig Why? okay.
The hook of the year every year is the saxophone from Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” But the least resistible hook of these particular past twelve months was the chorus of “Popular Demand.”
Eminem’s “We Made You.” First, Em, who is already the most consistently annoying emcee of all time, hits you with his most creatively awful style yet—half Rasta, half Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. Second, his mighty flow is unleashed in service of a series of cruel and unclever swipes at low-hanging celebrity fruit like Kim Kardashian, Britney Spears, and Sarah Palin, all of whom I’m not sure Em realizes he’s got much more in common with than he does any of us. Third, whoever came up with the vocal hook needs to go back to drawing board. It’s sad, it’s mean-spirited; there’s nothing good about it. I also want to say a word to Bon Jovi, for their “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” which at first I thought was a grammatical correction of the old Goffin/King song from The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Sadly, no. Anyway, the song is harmless geezer music; it’s the title that kills me. Guys, you’re not fooling anybody. You were totally born to follow. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. You still sold a lot of records. You had a pistol for action; you went in and out of love; on a steel horse you rode; now you have boats and wine cellars. You don’t need to pretend you were innovators.
Anything by that smug jerkweed on the FreeCreditReport.com ads. Man, I hate that guy.
“Best I Ever Had” was the most overplayed song released in 2009, but fucking “Don’t Stop Believin’” continues to drag its suppurating corpse onto soundtracks and TV shows and karaoke machines and Rock Band and it has to fucking stop. I don’t get the Journey revisionism. “Wheel in the Sky” is okay and I have grown to appreciate “Lights” since moving to the Bay Area, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Okay, fine—“Lovin’, Touchin’, Squeezin’” also makes the cut; don’t tell anybody I said that.
Das Racist, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”
Cam’ron’s “I Hate My Job.”
I like all the Lady Gaga singles at least a little. I understand the Madonna comparisons, but Gaga actually has a sense of humor. She seems more like the new Bette Midler.
BG’s “My Hood.” There’s not much to it, but I still had to talk myself out of putting it in my top 20 singles.
2. Neko Case Middle Cyclone
3. Freddie Gibbs The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs
4. Lil B 6 Kiss
5. Why? Eskimo Snow
6. Girls Album
7. Say Anything Say Anything
8. Jamie T. Kings & Queens
9. Baroness Blue Record
10. The Fiery Furnaces I’m Going Away
11. G-Side Huntsville International
21. i-EL The Prelude
31. Camera Obscura My Maudlin Career
Album that started the strongest
Album that finished the strongest
Album I listened to the most this year
Worst album I bought this year
Crappy record I listened to a lot anyway
Great song from a crappy record
Lousy song from a good record
Album that should have been longer
Album that should have been shorter
Most up-and-down record
Least up-and-down record
Album that wore out its welcome the fastest
Album that turned out to be better than I initially thought it was
Album that felt most like an obligation to get through
Most welcome surprise
Rookie of the year
Comeback player of the year
Bust of the year
Record from which I expected too much
Best album title
Good album with a bad title
Album title that most accurately reflects the spirit of the music
Worst album title
Best album cover
Good album with a bad cover
Worst album cover
Best song title
Best liner notes
2. Pill “Trap Goin Ham”
3. Esser “Headlock”
4. Lil B “I’m God”
5. i-EL f. Von Pea & Donwill “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die”
6. Clipse f. Cam’ron & Pharrell “Popular Demand (Popeyes)”
7. Bon Iver “Blood Bank”
8. Big Boi f. George Clinton & Too $hort “Fo Yo Sorrows”
9. Waka Flocka Flame “O Let’s Do It”
10. YACHT “The Afterlife”
11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart “Young Adult Friction”
Song of the year
Hook of the year
Worst song of the year
Most annoying song of the year
Most overplayed song
Song that would drive me craziest on infinite repeat
Song I feel cheapest about liking
Song I don’t feel at all cheap about liking
Song I like better than I ought to
Song that got stuck in my head the most this year
The chorus of “Headlock.” Slick Rick’s hook on “We Will Rob You,” from Cuban Linx II, spent a lot of time there as well.
Ghostface Killah’s “Guest House.” Ghost, who is the victim of infidelity more often than anyone in hip-hop, again suffers the misfortune of his trifling woman screwing around behind his back. As always with this most precise emcee, the devil is in the details. He’s pacing in his mansion in his paisley robes; his girl won’t answer her cell; he has glass pianos in his living room and Portuguese drapes hanging from the ceiling; Raekwon the Chef is chilling on the couch, watching BBC and eating a salad. As cuckold-rock goes, this is even better than “The Rain” by Oran “Juice” Jones.
Probably “Telephone Operator” by the Leftovers, which is like Elvis Costello without quite so many brains. They can’t quite mimic “No Action” because they have a minimal capacity for angst and no literary pretensions, but they do attempt a telecommunications metaphor.
Best purist rock and roll song
Girls’ “Morning Light.”
Most enjoyable musical moment of the year
The interjected “For reaalll?” on the chorus of “Trap Goin Ham,” narrowly beating out the “Woo-hahh!” on the chorus of “Real Hip-Hop Don’t Die.” I’m a simple guy who enjoys repetition.
It’s a two-man conversation between the hyper-orthodox Freddie Gibbs, a tremendously skillful emcee who has wriggled into the lyricism/street cred sweet spot, and Lil B, who is fucking crazy. You surely remember the Boyz II Men debut single “Motownphilly.” A terrific song, with the hook “Boyz II Men are goin’ off/Not too hard and not too soft.” My friend Tom Snow used to point out that Boyz II Men were the first act he was aware of to precisely describe their marketing strategy in the chorus of their debut single. Not too hard, like Bell Biv Devoe (who were not remotely hard), but also not too soft, like Another Bad Creation (who, being eight years old, could be excused for being soft). Gibbs isn’t quite that studied, but he comes hard enough to have persona-based street-rap credibility, while also displaying enough rhythmic agility and lyrical versatility to appeal to intellectuals (who normally only half-listen). I am a big Gibbs fan, but for all his unimpeachable technique I’m not sure we know who he is yet. Lil B, on the other hand, has crafted probably the most definable (and polarizing) personality of anyone in hip-hop. If I have to choose, I pick B, but I admit my bias is always for the fuck-it-we’re-making-art-here guys, the ones who actively open themselves to ridicule. B brought the world a lot of garbage this year, but when your goal is releasing new music at the speed of a Twitter feed, you will produce your fair share of bullshit. The significant thing is that even the bullshit reveals a definable point of view. Best-case scenario: a whole new thing. Worst case: Kool Keith, and Kool Keith made several very good records. Elsewhere, I think we need to admit that Clipse’s new one suffered from a pretty lightweight performance from Pusha. Malice is doing the heavy lifting on that record. What else? Well, the most ubiquitous rappers of 2009 were Boosie and Gucci; they were also, besides Gibbs, the emcees who received the most Internets-based love. Both of them, particularly Gucci, spread themselves pretty thin, which I guess is inevitable in a day and age where your every audible comment can be recorded and released worldwide within minutes if that's how you want to play it. Quality control often suffers; Boosie’s official Superbad release was okay, but his Thug Passion mixtape was plainly better. There aren't enough hours in my day to keep up with everything Gucci puts out, but I thought his Murder Was the Case mixtape was tighter and more consistent than his official release The State vs. Radric Davis, though Radric Davis was pretty good with great moments (e.g., “Classical,” Gucci’s final answer to anyone who still considers him a stupid or sloppy or non-lyrical emcee). I don’t know what this means, other than we really should abandon once and for all the mixtape-label release dichotomy. I never understood the logic of segregating one from the other; if I can’t rank mixtapes in my top ten, that’s giving an inefficient capitalist construct veto power over a shit-ton of art that’s out there waiting to be appreciated, or at least ranked—both, I hope. Sometimes artists make art for themselves and their friends; sometimes they work on spec for a patron. But it’s the end product that counts.
Mastodon. Those guys are the truth.
Best instrumental solo
Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, on Bitte Orca’s high point “Temecula Sunrise.”
Best synth player
Emily Haines of Metric.
Best piano/organ player
Tori Amos returned to the piano, more or less, after yielding most of American Doll Posse to glammed-up six-strings, and she’s still the most striking and assertive pianist working in popular music today. Well, I guess her music isn’t actually all that popular, at least not in the Lady Antebellum sense, but you know what I mean.
My favorite lead player was Greg Weeks of Espers. That buzzy, live-wire sound brings the mystery and ominousness and helps you forgive the band’s sometimes vague and obscure songwriting. John Baizley and Pete Adams of Baroness were my favorite guitar tandem.
Alex Neilson of Trembling Bells. The reason why, more or less, is jazz. Neilson is extremely loose, swinging like a madman even on the folkiest numbers. He frequently tries and executes thrillingly freaky rhythmic concepts and is never afraid to sacrifice himself for the sake of the song. I usually vote for Mastodon's Brann Dailor in this category, and he was great again this year. So was Allen Blickle from Baroness.
Best backing vocals
Whoever’s not singing lead for Dirty Projectors on any given song, usually Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian.
Best use of a non-traditional instrument
Once again I got nothing in this category.
John Congleton, for Blue Record and St. Vincent’s Actor, which I thought was only okay but still sonically gorgeous. The guy has been on a hot streak; last year he also helmed Black Mountain’s rock leviathan In the Future. My favorite hip-hop producer was the evergreen DJ Quik, whose BlaQKout could not really have been any more fun. The greatest delta between an awesome beat and a useless vocal was “On to the Next One” from The Blueprint 3, which wasted Swizz Beatz’s captivating work on Jay-Z, who has entered the Get Off My Lawn phase of his career.
The guys from Woodsist Records. I’m no audiophile, but “Hey, what if we made the entire studio into a bong?" is not what I’m looking for.
Why? (That’s the answer, not an ontological inquiry.)
Over the course of a full album, Neko Case, who is a poet and knows it. “You know,” Neko explains patiently, “they call them killer whales. But you seemed surprised when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank.” Obama Administration, are you listening? BREAKING: YOU CANNOT TRUST MITCH MCCONNELL. MUST CREDIT SAUSAGE MAHONEY. One of my favorite lines of the year was Case’s too: her description of how the most important things get taken for granted, or maybe how thoughtless certainty can inhibit the solving of obvious problems: “It was so clear to me that it was almost invisible.” I wish my other favorite line of the year didn’t appeal to me so much. G-Side opened their closer “So Wonderful” with “My president is black/But we still in Iraq,” and if that doesn’t sum up the great Obama comedown of 2009 I don’t know what could.
Worst lyric of the year
Eugene McGuinness is really not trying very hard on “Fonz” when he says “We said farewell and we synchronized our watches/Arranged for the meeting of our crotches.” He might think he’s trying hard, but he’s not. That line is so much skeevier than the skeeviest R&B come-on. Skeevier even than a Robin Thicke video. Not even Lloyd is that skeevy, even with his shades off. Fuck, even Jeremih’s “Birthday Sex” is less skeevy than that.
I don’t know Ray LaMontagne’s music, but the beard is good to go.
Thing I don’t know but I should
The Phenomenal Handclap Band. I’ve only heard that single a couple of times but it sounds pretty decent.
Most overrated artist
Animal Collective. There’s just nothing there for me to respond to.
Most overrated song
“Lust for Life.” Good tune with a nice humanist lyric, but still like the seventh best song on Album.
Artist that has absolutely no reason for existing
It’s still Har Mar Superstar.
Band that is no longer getting it done and should break up
It’s not Wilco, despite what you might think. Their records are just fine. They’re enjoyable. Sure, maybe you don’t want to listen to them more than three or four times, but what the hell—how many songs do you hear that you want hear again? I’m not here to hate on the artists who deliver the solid B/B+ every time out. The rest of us should do so well. Three years ago I voted for Gomez in this category. Well, they didn’t break up, and in fact released a new record this year. It wasn’t any good, really, but it was better than their previous one, so maybe that gets them a reprieve. Built to Spill, sad to say, is plowing no new ground, but they’re not really a band, exactly, so what would it matter if Doug Martsch started playing with a different rhythm section? Let’s say 30 Seconds from Mars, who should’ve broken up after their first practice session.
Geezer who should give it up altogether
Rakim’s comeback album was pretty pointless.
Most undeservedly hyped debut
I feel bad dumping on them repeatedly, because I really don’t have a particular beef with their record, but given the attention they got I guess it’s the xx again.
Unsexiest person in pop music
Have you seen Nature Boy Ric Flair recently? Sorry, off topic I know, but I wanted to get that in there. The answer is Mariah Carey. I’m not sure what’s going on with her torso, but I want no part of it.
Best live show
I can’t front, it was our old friends Phish at Red Rocks on 7/31/09. It started raining fairly heavily about halfway into the first set, as we’d been warned it might. The band immediately loped into “Water in the Sky.” (Do you get it?) It only got worse from there; by the set-closing “Split Open and Melt,” it was coming down in sheets. The band gets credit for not half-assing the improvisational segment; all around them the crew was sealing the amps and monitors with polyurethane and building small plastic yurts around each of the band members. Eventually they finished up, bowed, and jogged off, leaving all of us to fend for ourselves in the monsoon. It got steadily worse for about twenty minutes; we had to pull up the tarp that our friends had used four hours earlier to save seats in the general-admission craziness, to use for shelter. I was stationed on the front of the tarp, working to hold on when the wind surging up the mountain dipped under it and tried to tear it away into the sky. It wasn’t very much fun. But the rain did slow and then finally stopped about 45 minutes after the band had gone off. The crew came out and dismantled the yurts. The band emerged a few minutes later and were highly motivated. Predictably opening with "Drowned," the Who song, they speedily downshifted into a funky little polyrhythm that segued as if composed into Talking Heads’ “Crosseyed and Painless.” That shot off into a clever and pleasant little jam before spiraling downward into “Joy,” the set’s first Phish original, which Trey Anastasio wrote after his older sister died from cancer. “Joy” has a chorus that by rights should be too cheesy to tolerate but is so fundamental to the band’s appeal to its audience that you have to give them a pass: “We want you to be happy/’Cause this is your song too.” Hate if you must, but hate at your peril. Anyway, the “Joy” breather led into one of the two or three best versions of “Tweezer” that Phish gave us in 2009, not to overstate the significance of that, since 2009 was their first year back from a long time off and obviously they were spending most of their effort finding their footing and working on the fundamentals. As with most ’09 jams, there were only three minutes or so that were really on point, but they were bewitching. The closing sequence was a blizzard of energy: first (a) “Fluffhead,” historically a special treat but all up in the ’09 rotation; into (b) the perpetual-motion machine of “Piper,” into a piano coda that morphed into (c) their cover of “A Day in the Life,” which also had the nostalgia factor for me since I saw the band debut it at the same venue back in 1995. The drenching was no price to pay for 75 minutes of that degree of wall-to-wall heat.
Pill’s “Trap Goin Ham.” Americans almost never have to suffer the indignity of seeing actual poor people on TV. Certainly images of extreme American poverty are basically verboten. I remember how jarring Juvenile’s “Ha” video was back in ’99. While New York, cradle of hip-hop, was wasting its time with Puff and Ma$e, Juve introduced you to his friends inside the ‘Nolia projects. The “Trap Goin Ham” video consists of actual, improvised footage of folks on the streets of Atlanta’s 4th Ward and is a step beyond “Ha,” since it’s not just poor folks dancing around a camera but poor folks waving in polite society’s face what polite society likes to think of as their pathologies. Maybe you find some of the images problematic, but they’re not half as problematic as fucking poverty.
Video they should have made
The Fiery Furnaces’ “Ray Bouvier.” They could shoot it like Double Indemnity or Out of the Past. Eleanor Friedberger is much sexier than Barbara Stanwyck.
2008 record I ignorantly slept on
Too many to count. Frightened Rabbit’s The Midnight Organ Fight deserved basically every awkward white-boy high-five it got and probably would have made my top ten. Lindsey Buckingham’s Gift of Screws was short (just ten songs) but essentially perfect (ten good and memorable songs) and might’ve made the top ten too. Jack’s Mannequin made a really good piano-pop record called The Glass Passenger that’s probably better than Gift of Screws. On the local tip, I failed to notice the self-titled Dizzy Balloon joint and Talking Through Tin Cans by the Morning Benders—both excellent, supremely tuneful pop records. Every year I try so hard and every year I miss so many.
2008 record I unaccountably forgot to rank
Averkiou’s Throwing Sparks. I guess at eight songs and 25 minutes it was just an EP, so I have that excuse. But even so it rated as one of the couple-three best EPs of last year, so one way or another I blew it. This Gainesville, Florida quartet’s sound is awfully 1989: heavy on the fuzzy, melodic rhythm guitar, vocals and bass shoved into the upper register, largely inaccessible drums. The songs are still really memorable, and anyway I come by my love of this stuff honestly. I especially like the song where the band sends its regrets about not moving to Brooklyn like every other bunch of callow young careerists out there. We might never hear from them again as a result; would that the same were true of all those bands from Brooklyn.
2009 record you will probably reevaluate a year from now
Kings & Queens. Like I said, I just picked it up in mid-January. I think if I’d had it for longer I’d probably rank it higher, but of course one never can tell.
Stephan Jenkins Memorial Award for colostomy bag of the year
I guess I have to give it to Chris Brown.
What was up with that Jamie Foxx video where he took Ron Howard with him to the club?
Will still be making good records in 2019
Neko Case. I’m not being cute when I say it seems like she’s really committed to the work.
Best record of 2010
If the shit-hot single “The Server” is any indication, it’ll be E-40’s Revenue Retrievin. We’ll have to wait and see about Joanna Newsom’s triple album Have One on Me; one thing life has taught us is sometimes excessive girth can preclude mobility.