A Slice of Fried Gold

Top Albums of 2009 (So far...)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

One of the themes that I revisit most often is music, and one of the most consistent methods of introducing subject matters is via ranked lists based entirely off my opinion. Because of that, it should be unsurprising to readers of this blog that half way through the year I'm going to release a mid-year "best albums of 2009" list. I really just cannot resist the temptations.

So without further ado, here are my favorite albums of 2009 so far, one for each month so far and with the top dog getting special treatment, predictably. Also, if interested in purchasing any of these albums, all of the band names/album titles link to where you can purchase them on Amazon.

1) The Thermals - Now We Can See

I've written up my review on this album already (see that here), so in lieu of being redundant in restating why I love this driving yet thoughtful, poppy but lyrical, and altogether fun album, I figured I would do something out. Instead, I will subject you to my first interview for my blog, as I did an email interview with the Thermals lead singer Hutch Harris. Thanks to Hutch for doing this, and man, I'm kind of awkward with questions.

1. When compared to your other albums, you could say Now We Can See has a much cleaner sound in terms of production and instruments. Was this just the natural progression of your sound, or was it a deliberate change for this album in particular?

1a. Each record we make is cleaner/more produced than the previous one. This is indeed a conscious decision, although you could also say its also a natural progression.

2. A lot of interpretations of Now We Can See perceive the album
as being focused primarily on death. Personally, I take it as what a person learns from death and how to proceed from there, as if it’s The Thermals Guide to Better Living (I’d read that magazine). With that said, what were your intentions with this album?

2a. The intention is usually the same. To make a smart, interesting record that's also a lot of fun. This record focuses on life from the point of view of the dead. I'd say its The Thermals Guide to Better Dying.

3. Since you’ve come together, you’ve released albums on two very influential indie labels, but you still maintain a pretty DIY feel. With a pretty major web following, stellar live shows, and experience producing your own albums, I feel like you would be an ideal candidate to release an album in a similar way to how Radiohead released In Rainbows. Is that a direction you could see yourself heading in?

3a. I would maybe release some material for free on the web, and though I appreciated what Radiohead did with In Rainbows, I don't totally agree with the business model. I dont think the customer should ever decide what the cost of goods should be. I like making a product, pricing it, then it's up to the consumer whether they want to buy or steal it.

4. As I said before, your live shows are an incredibly good time, and it definitely helps that you and Kathy seem to genuinely enjoy live performances. What do you think the key to a great performance is for you?

For that matter, what’s the best show you’ve been to?

4a. For kathy and I, there's no faking it. If we are genuinely excited to be playing a show, we perform as such. Audience reaction is always key for us as well. The more people respond, the better show we put on.

One of the best shows I ever saw was Fugazi, Shellac and Blonde Redhead in Chicago, 1998.

5. If you could play a show with any three other bands, whether they are still together or not (or even alive), who would they be and why?

5a. Probably Weezer, Green Day, and the Breeders. Because I love those bands and they all have double e's in their names.

6. Is there a better post show snack on the planet than Voodoo Donuts?

Love Voodoo Donuts! But never post show. I crave salt after we play, not sugar.

7. When are you coming to Alaska?

Uh, someday... we've tried to in the past but it fell through. Really hope to one day!

2) Beirut - March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland

Alright, so technically speaking this is not an album. It is a double EP, but that isn't a big deal to me. Beirut is my favorite artist right now, and this double EP provides variations on the same formula that makes me appreciate Zach Condon and his unique musical stylings a little more.

The strangest thing about this album is the instrumentation has altered almost completely, leaving the Eastern European influenced Gulag Orkestar and the Romania by way of Nice flair of the Flying Club Cup behind but not forgotten, as it is still Condon's sound but explored through new prisms - namely funereal sounding instrumentation from the heart of Mexico and the new to you (but not to Condon) electronic side of his soul. Still captured are the wobbly and delightful vocals and the stunning melodies throughout, but it is as if Condon is preparing us for a move in the direction of the darker sides of his music, as this collection is less light than previous releases.

You could make the argument that this album is where it is at on my list because of my complete and utter obsession with Beirut lately, but I object: perhaps my obsession with Beirut is because he makes really freaking awesome albums.

Which this is, even if it is darker and different.

See my original review here.

3) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Pop music is dead. Long live pop music.

I lead with that for one reason: popular music in my mind is at its lowest point, with very few radio hits capturing my ear lately (I'd admit it too - I've admitted on this blog an affinity for the occasional Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson track). However, the genre of pop music that quite often has little to do with what is actually popular is quite alive indeed, as Phoenix is still out there making poppy gems like this album.

This album is light, spry, and toe tappingly delightful. It's as if the members of Phoenix took it upon themself to make radio ready hits that are full of layers of vocal splendor and the jigsaw puzzle piece instrumentation that fits together oh so well, just to prove that you can make pop music that doesn't have to be cookie cutter and something that you've heard over and over. For that reason, I feel as if you owe it to the world to click that link above and buy this album. Honestly. Buy this album.

See my original review here.

4) Passion Pit - Manners

Within minutes of starting up this album for the first time, I texted my friend Erik (who had raved about this well before I listened to it) with this: "It's like Passion Pit made this album just for me! Why did you not tell me this?!" I generally don't respond to music with the immediate reaction to chastise friends and rave about it from the rooftops, but this album made me do just that.

Combine these parts and you have Passion Pit's Manners: pulsing synth, catchy androgynous vocals (along with perfect background vocals), soaring choruses, and the need to perpetually tap your toes. Within one listen (!) I was singing along to the choruses. I didn't even know I could rememeber vocals that quickly! It perplexes me (I'm even having problems not singing along as I just sit here typing this, my coffee shop neighbors would probably judge me so I do not).

Combine that with what may be the best opening four tracks of the year ("Little Secrets" is my favorite, but they are all fantastic) and you have another pop gem, although this one with a much more niche audience than the one Phoenix provides. If the world was a bit more adventurous, you would hear this group on the radio over whoever the current flavor of the week.

Check out some tracks here, namely "the Reeling" and "Moth's Wings" (and for good measure, Erik's favorite track "Sleepyhead).

5) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

This is another one I do not want to beat into the ground, as this album came out with so much hype and so much press that it was virtually inescapable for the month of January. Originally, when it came out, I was listening to it near constantly and couldn't get enough of it. Eventually I tired a bit on the latter half of the album, but still quite like it. It's still one of the most brilliantly textured albums I've ever heard, with layer upon layer creating brilliant tracks. I've just ended up not liking it as much as I originally had thought I did.

But it does have a freaking awesome first four tracks: "In the Flowers," "My Girls," and "Summertime Clothes" are three of probably my favorite twenty tracks of the year so far. But three tracks do not make an album.

See my (in hindsight, overly complimentary) review here.

6) The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

The last spot on this list was a tough choice, as I've quite enjoyed a lot of albums this year. So with regards to Antony and the Johnson's the Crying Light, Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You, White Rabbit's It's Frightening, and Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, I present my sixth and unlikeliest favorite album of the year: the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self titled debut.

The weirdest thing is, this album didn't even hook me until last week. I was at work and I was having a weird day, and one random track came on and completely hooked me with its gothic 80's pop feel. I looked at who it was, and I was shocked. I have to admit, after a quick listen and seeing what Pitchfork said about them (they used my least favorite musical catchphrase in their review - lo-fi!!!), I judged this group perhaps a bit hastily. I thought I saw Pitchfork's new Black Kids (circa EP, not album) and distanced myself quite quickly indeed.

On further listens though, I find myself to be enamored with the dreamy vocals, simplistic yet fitting instrumentation, and the contradictory gothic lightness to the album. It's like I'm listening to a lo-fi Echo and the Bunnymen track with 20 years of musical influence added in (which may or may not be the single weirdest compliment I've ever written). Nothing about this album really leaps out and grabs me right off the bat, but there is a lot to love here if you really give it a listen.

Check them out for yourself here.


Erik said...

If I had to pick six so far I would pick these:

1. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

2. Fever Ray - Fever Ray

3. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

4. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career

5. Dan Deacon - Bromst

6. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

I think that the same thing happened to me that happened to you with regards to Merriweather Post Pavillion. If anything it made me go back and realize that I like their album Strawberry Jam more.

Bill Callahan is awesome, his music sets my mood to calm and happy immediately. His lyrics are so playful and metaphorical I can't help but love them.

Fever Ray I love because I love The Knife and this is more of that only different. Her music is best in moderation though, otherwise I get too depressed.

Phoenix blows me away with how they layer everything so well in perfect pop bliss. This is pop on crack with real talent behind it. Although, I still stand by the fact you could use the album to score a romantic comedy with utmost perfection. Check it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtRQsCgYmtc

Camera Obscura I love because of the great retro feel and again the awesome musicianship that the band has. I found this album right after getting off of a huge She and Him binge and I think it was the perfect transition.

Nothing gets me into a more frantic crunch time state at work like Bromst does. Talk about some wild stuff.

I was hesitant to put Dirty Projectors on my list because it's so soon after first hearing it, but I'm impulsive. This album jumped out at me because of how much it reminds me of Talking Heads, and I love me some Heads. Some of the songs are so unique I can't get over the style. I can easily see this being my number one at the end of the year.

Erik said...

Not new music, but have you ever listened to Spiritualized? Andy hooked me up with their live album at the Royal Albert Concert Hall a few months ago and it basically is bliss. I don't know if their sound is quite your style, but listening to them really does borderline on a religious feeling experience, the same effect Arcade Fire has on me. I just begin to feel really good, but in a different way than most music, kind of blissful.

David Harper said...

Dude, I totally posted that Listzomania video on my original review of Phoenix! Of course I've seen it!

I've recently started to like Bromst quite a bit more, but a lot of my listening time is at work where I really can't listen to it. I know that may sound ridiculous to you, but his stuff is pretty out there. I was listening to it on the way in from the Valley last week and was really digging it though. Dirty Projectors is somewhat similar, as its so out there I can't really listen at work. Eventually, I'll get around to giving it more solid spins.

Camera Obscura though is something I've faded on pretty quickly, mostly because I find the lead singers vocals so steady and unchanging I find myself not paying attention...ever. I like the instrumentation quite a bit, but it is a bit plain for me.

I haven't listened to Fever Ray (yet, can't find it!) and hadn't heard of Bill Callahan besides the one time you mentioned it in passing.

Haven't listened to much Spirtualized besides a few random tracks. Perhaps I will check them out!

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