Hello everybody. Andrew Casillas here again, with the second part of my 3-part “Best of 2009” piece. The last part, my top 10 singles of the year, will be posted next week as soon as its published in it’s alt-weekly counterpart. But don’t worry, Carlos and the guys will be back before then with some new stuff. Saludos! [I’ve also included an SOT (“stand-out track”) that you should seek out if you think you might be interested in the album being blurbed. And this time, I’d added links for both this post AND the previous post, so you can hear the songs that I’ve shouted out. The vast majority of these albums are also available for streaming in-full on Lala, so please, enjoy!]
10. Miranda Lambert – Revolution: What’s amazing about Revolution isn’t how Miranda Lambert was able to avoid a disappointing follow-up to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (the second best Country album of the decade), but rather how much the new album illuminated the previous one. For example, while “White Liar” may not be as hummable “Gunpowder & Lead,” the former trades shock and violence for candidness and wound-exposure to plumb emotional depths that the latter couldn’t touch. Even the down-tempo songs provide a similar effect; “Dead Flowers” and “Desperation” may cover similar moods, but the Revolution track sounds like the work of a woman, rather than the ruminations of a young adult. And then there are brutal and powerful tracks like “Me and Your Cigarettes” that are worthy of 10,000 word essays in themselves. Revolution may have more dead weight than Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is why it doesn’t quite reach the previous album’s level, but it’s more than enough to place Lambert in the upper echelon of musicians working today.
SOT: "Me and Your Cigarettes" LALA
09. Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care: I don’t really know much about the duo of Junior Boys on a personal level, but I’ll admit this: they’ve got balls. Who else would have the gall to use the word “Dull” in the title of their most straightforward and subtle album? Saying that, yeah, it’s a bit dull—if you’re the type that couldn’t be bothered with nuance. While, on first listen, “Parallel Lines” and “Work” seem to drudge with languor, careful listens reveal gradual shifts in tempo and restraint worthy of the finest minimal techno or Kompakt Total compilation. Then there are the party starters “Bits & Pieces” and “Hazel,” which can be quite excellent for dancing in the dark (and I ain’t referring to what Springsteen was talking about, knawhaimean?). Oh, and I can’t leave out “Dull to Pause,” if only because I’ve been screaming for a banjo-centered electronic beat for years, and FINALLY! I can die now…
SOT: “Dull to Pause” LALA
08. Buddy & Julie Miller – Written in Chalk: Again, who? Well, if you’d been paying attention to independent Country-rock for the past 20 years (Gawd, what is wrong with you?!), you’d know the following: Buddy Miller is a great guitarist. His wife Julie is a dynamic singer-songwriter. They’ve made a few notable records separately, and this is the second album that they’ve collaborated on. And it’s fantastic. Recorded in their Nashville home, the album is a hodgepodge of basically every Country subgenre: country-rock, country-soul, country-blues, country-lite jazz, etc. There's an ebb-and-flow to this record, almost as if this were a 12-song suite. The lyrics and guitar work is boozy and triumphant, even when the tempo slows down. It's obvious that these two play so well off of each other that they know precisely how much power and depth to give each track. Of particular note is Julie Miller's soft expression as she sings, revealing a sense of agony and uncertainty, even when she's trying to be humorous—then again, I subscribe to the theory that women should sing everything.
SOT: “Gasoline & Matches” LALA
07. The-Dream – Love vs. Money: In 15 years, there will be a great discussion of utmost importance. It will exhaust the mediums of debate and cross all lines of decorum. That debate can be summarized thusly: Who had the better career: R. Kelly or the-Dream? And Love vs. Money will be Prosecution’s Exhibit A, because for all of Kelly’s singles-awesomeness, he was never able to create an album as consistent and glorious as what Terius Nash created in 2009. Love vs. Money is one of those albums where everything is saturated but nothing is subject to overkill. Sex, money, synthesizer, booty-beats, pick up lines alternately clever (“circle the stars and bring you one back”) and straightforwardly disgusting/hilarious (“can we fuck now?”), everything just seems to work in spite of logic. The-Dream even out-R. Kelly’s R. Kelly on one track, telling a girl he’s “all up on you like a monster truck.” I think even Kells would agree, the-Dream has him beat on that one. R&B album of the year, easy.
SOT: “Mr. Yeah” LALA
06. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!: On first listen, I sort of dismissed It’s Blitz! for, among other things, making Karen O sound “too much like Gwen Stefani.” Then I realized that it sounded like what would be labeled “alternative pop”—the type of music exemplified by the Killers or MGMT, two bands who get on my nerves (though “Time to Pretend” is admittedly awesome). Then I realized that my hatred of all things Brandon Flowers shouldn’t be a deterrent and began to recognize that this production aesthetic wasn’t some detour for Yeah Yeah Yeahs—it was their destiny. The aggression giving way to dancefloor bliss, the melodrama leading to genuineness, the use of obtuse arrangements to assert idiosyncratic euphoria—this is what this band does best! The fact that this is the best album from one of the best bands of this decade goes to show you that you should always steer away from prejudice. That’s not to say that I’m going to give Hot Fuss another chance, mind you…
SOT: “Soft Shock” LALA
05. Matias Aguayo – Ay Ay Ay: A couple of years ago, I spent a sweat-filled, drunken night in Juarez, Chihuahua (this was before CNN wasn’t filing reports called “DANGER ON THE BORDER” every night). I don’t recall much about it, but I remember the vibrancy of the city streets as all the clubs let out and people made their way to diners, after-parties, or the United States. Ay Ay Ay seemingly creates that experience. For 11 charming and breathless tracks, Matias Aguayo deconstructs minimal techno into a schizophrenic street party of his own creation. I say “breathless” because the majority of the album’s sound is literally sampled from Aguayo’s own vocal sound effects, yet he surrounds these hums and pops with enough ear candy that you can’t help but start shaking in your seat. From boombox hums conveying the feeling of a roller-rink party (“Rollerskate”) to the sluggish, reflective hangover of “Koro Koro,” to the predatory coos of “Ritmo Juarez,” these are songs about those late nights that can quickly turn into early mornings. Or as you probably know them as, the greatest nights of your life.
SOT: “Rollerskate” LALA
04. St. Vincent – Actor: One look at Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, and you get the feeling that you know everything about her. She looks like one of your grandmother’s dolls, and dresses like the world’s most fashionable mannequin. She looks like the type of girl that everyone wanted to date, but was too smart to actually approach. I could go on and on, but there’s certainly one thing that that picture could never prepare you for: the girl can fucking shred. On Actor, Clark juxtaposes her skillful, and at-times brutal, guitar work with orchestral flourishes worthy of classic Disney movies. You’d be forgiven for thinking this approach to be awfully coy, but you’d also be mistaken; this is a complicated and contemplative rumination on modern love. Almost every song conveys the sense that something sensual, frantic, or gruesome is approaching, or may be already here. Luckily, Actor is buoyed by such fine songwriting that these dark feelings end up sounding beautiful. (And for what it’s worth, “The Party” also contains my favorite lyric of the year: “I sit transfixed by a hole in your t-shirt/I’ve said much too much in the trying to speak up”)
SOT: “The Strangers” LALA
03. The Field – Yesterday & Today: The Field is the pseudonym of Swedish DJ Axel Willner, who doesn’t just mix tracks together like a typical techno producer. He actually mixes tracks with live instrumentation, recording it live as if it were one great, intimate performance. Yesterday & Today, his second album, is a marvelous example of this technique. Criminally mislabeled as “minimal techno,” there’s hardly anything minimal about this: these are hazy, sprawling, elaborate tracks reminiscent of shoegaze or dream pop. For the layman, think My Bloody Valentine with no guitars but the same sheen; or Sigur Rós without the gibberish lyrics or indie chords. Some would complain that this sort of music is meandering and seems too tied to a formula to withstand more than a cursory listen, but this is where you’d be wrong. There’s an ambiance to each track, which acts as the foundation by which little nuggets are casually dropped and processed through, providing numerous avenues for the listener to explore. And it’s this aspect of the album that makes it so striking: you can hear the fun and abandon and delight being taken in this music, and as we all know, joy is infectious.
SOT: “Sequenced” LALA
02. Juan Son – Mermaid Sashimi: Formally of the highly-popular Mexican indie band Porter, Juan Son’s debut album is a concept album about (stay with me here) a human who finds himself transformed into a sea creature by a mermaid, all the while teasing an octopus, commenting on the politics of the underwater world, and, um, travelling through time. Hey, I didn’t say that it was the most realistic story—but you have to admit, it sounds a HELL of a lot better than Avatar, right? Regardless of how well that concept sold you, you won’t be able to deny the music’s brilliance. Encompassing styles ranging from electro-pop, post-punk and New Wave to Broadway jazz, IDM, and ambient, this is an album rich in equal parts pop goodness and avant-garde WTF?-ability. That being said, this album is simply gorgeous. There’s a tendency in the post-Arcade Fire world to make every song sound like the end of the world, mistaking catharsis for bombast. Mermaid Sashimi has a similar element of drama and ruin, but it’s not crying that the sky is falling; it’s setting its feet to the ground, and daring you to follow it into the sea. I suggest that you do what the album says.
SOT: “Mermaid Sashimi” LALA
01. Natalia Lafourcade – Hu Hu Hu: As a (part-time, typically unpaid) music critic, I have to listen to a lot of music in attempting to keep up with what’s “going on.” And most of that stuff is pretty routine, uninteresting, or downright awful. But every once in a while, you get to hear something so unique, so special, and so stunning that you want to shout about its greatness to every person who will hear you. So I’ll go into all caps when I say that Hu Hu Hu is one of the FINEST POP ALBUMS…EVER. The product of Mexican songstress Natalia Lafourcade, Hu Hu Hu bridges the borders between art-rock, indie rock, and pure pop to create a world where kaleidoscopic grandeur and reflective emotionalism can share the same stage without conflict. Lyrically, each song is an introspection of a character’s journey through post-adolescent confusion and longing into self-discovery, but that’s not to say that the album is heavy-handed or precociously coy. Instead, the lyrics provide shades of realistic grays and blues to the instrumentation’s vibrant colors and shapes. Yet it’s this vibrancy that stands out most on Hu Hu Hu. From mid-period Beatles-aping jaunts through your endorphins (“Cursis Melodías”) to glockenspiel-filled tales of disappointment (“No Viniste”) to wall of sound rock escapism (“Let’s Get Out,” “Look Outside”) to seemingly Sesame Street-inspired mood pieces (“Niño Hojas,” “Hora de Compartir”) to two singles that include virtually everything including the kitchen sink (“Ella es Bonita,” “Azul”), this isn’t so much an album of pop songs, but a quasi-play celebrating the power and possibilities of musical expression. Albums like this are the reason that we listen to music—because of the slight possibility that you’ll hear something that you’ve never heard before, or transcends what you’d think was possible, or that you’ll simply want to hear over and over again. Thankfully, Hu Hu Hu is here to reaffirm that belief at least for another year.
SOT: “Cursis Melodías” LALA