Tuesday, December 29, 2009

THE RUB Presents: The Top 10 Records of 2009

Putting together a "Best Records of the Year" list in these overloaded digital times is beginning to really chap my ass, I don't mind telling you. Since the systematic domino fall that is the demise of the recording industry - and subsequently that of those stores that specialize in selling physical recordings - the digital, DIY age has ushered in wave after wave of obscure bands and solo artists. The static, white noise din is almost deafening.

Scan Myspace.com's music pages (if you can get that site's overloaded and under-powered servers to open, that is), and you will find obscure little bands shoulder-to-shoulder with their heroes, vying for that scant bit of attention that, if ever received, fades just as quickly. The days of latching-on to an artist or band that commanded your attention and kept it for a while seem to be fading.

This isn't to say that music is becoming completely disposable. Not at all. We're simply living in a time where good music (and yes, a lot of it is exceptionally good, if not great) is suffering from an embarrassment of riches. We're on overload here, people. There is now too much music in the world.

"Boo-hoo", right?


As a record collector and a music critic, it has become a habit to list (inflict) my annual "Top 10 Records of the Year" online, and this year is no different. Compiling this list wasn't as difficult as it has been in year's past, since, quite frankly, I was a bit underwhelmed by the records 2009 had to offer. The Shins are off regrouping, Beach House's new album doesn't come out until next year (same with Spoon), and Lilys seem to be taken with touring more than recording*. Ha-rumph.

Here then is THE RUB's list of the "Top 10 records of 2009." Let the disagreements with my choices begin! (Yes, these really are my choices.)

(All records listed below are in LP format, unless noted otherwise.)

1. Dennis Diken & Bell Sound
Late Music
Cryptovision Records

To call Late Music aggressively power-pop-ish is an understatement. There is no corner, crevice or cove on this album that isn't illuminated by blinding white melodies, harmonies and hooks. In these troubled times, Dennis Diken (he of Smithereens drumming and Shangri La's producing fame) and Bell Sound's album is something of a shiny, happy, Smile-inspired elixir. Just try singing along to "So Hard To Say Goodbye" or "Let Your Loved One Sleep" without a smile on your face or a care in this (damaged) world of ours. Ya can't, so don't even try! Easily, breezily one of the best power-pop albums since Big Star's #1 Record, and, quite frankly, the best album of 2009.

2. The Clientele
Bonfires On the Heath
Merge Records

Bonfires On the Heath is a return to form for this soft-spoken British band after the pop-rivets that were Strange Geometry and God Save The Clientele. Everything that made you fall in love with The Clientele upon first hearing them on Suburban Lights and The Violet Hour is in here: Alasdair Mclean's hushed vocals, AM melodies borrowed from a hazy summer day, the hip-shaking pop flourishes, the over-all dream-like serenity, etc. It's all there, painstakingly put back into place. If anything, Bonfires On the Heath is one of 2009's most underrated recordings. You've slept on this album; wake up, already!

3. White Denim
Downtown Music, LLC

When is the last time you heard record that was actually fun to listen to? Fits, by the Texas trailer-punkers White Denim, is such a rollicking good time, you will have a considerable amount of difficulty sitting/standing still. Mash-up equal parts Talking Heads, !!! and The Minutemen, and the gooey, infectious result dripping through your fingers would be this album. "Say What You Want" is pure garage rock karate on grease-coated cement, while "All Consolation" is the sound of 100 hammers flying toward one very unlucky Pokemon character, and "Regina Holding Hands", with its beautiful aural chorus, is simply mesmerizing amid all the controlled chaos of this record (nab the iTunes "expanded" version of this album and treat yourself to a second 11-song "disc" featuring White Denim's most ass-bustin' ditty: "Shake, Shake Shake.") Tis fun, you'll see.

4. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Contonou
Echos Hypnotique, Vol.2 -From the Vaults of Albarika Store (1969-1979)
Analog Africa

There seems to be no shortage of obscure, undiscovered albums "...from the vaults" seeing a more appreciated light-of-day these days. Enter the Afro-beat sounds of Orchestre Poly Rythmo deContonou. Four years in the making, Analog Africa (a label that has been compiling and re-releasing some of the best afro-beat gems as of late - seemingly by the metric ton) gives us the sequel to the more lo-fi recordings found on Echos Hypnotique Volume 1. The production level on Echos Hypnotique Volume 2, which come from EMI Studios master tapes recorded in Lagos in the late 60's and early 70's, sound absolutely superb here. This is apparent from the first opening bars of "Se Ba Ho", to the James Brown-inspired funk of "Malin Kpon O", and album closer "Minkou E So Non Moin." And damn if this songs won't put some strut in your butt. Essential, pretty much.

5. Lake
Let's Build A Roof
K Records

If ever there was an album that was made specifically for lazying about on lazy days, doing nothing but the laziest of lazy things, the laziest by far would have to be Let's Build A Roof by the Portland, Ore. trio, Lake. In the opener, "Breathing", Eli Moore's relaxed vocals sound as if the singer has just been roused from his slumber from underneath a freshly collected leaf pile. Fellow vocalist Lindsey Shief follows ethereal suit on "Acorn", a song so languid, it moves like spiritual mist gliding across a still body of deep, dark water. The stand-out track "Madagascar" borrows elements from afro-beat, infused with Lake's minimalist, ambient pace. And for when "rockin'-out" is called for, "Don't Give Up" and "Collapsing Homes." provide all the wiggle space you lazy bastard's will need. For an album that inspires repose and lounging, there is an awful lot of spark and vitality in Lake's still waters.

6. Sic Alps
L. Mansion 7"
Slumberland Records

The San Francisco experimental noise rock duo known as Sic Alps are masters of getting their precision perfect folk-tinged gems stuck in your head. Try as you might, those hard-wired songs ain't coming outta yer noggin once they've passed your ears. For further proof of this brash and opinionated generalization, I submit Sic Alps latest 7" recording for your consideration. Try telling me, that upon hearing it, "L. Mansion" isn't a song with gray matter-delving tentacles. The piano-pounding B-side, "Superlungs (My Supergirl)" is the street-walking cheetah Iggy and the Stooges wished The Weirdness would have been. Hey, it could be worse; you could have Lady Gaga trapped in your head. Think about that, and thank the Sic Alps later.

7. Crystal Stilts
Love Is A Wave/Sugarbaby 7"
Slumberland Records

Is there any Crystal Stilts song that doesn't sound as if it were recorded from the hallway of a haunted mansion? This isn't a slight, mind you; I wouldn't have this spooky band any other way, and really, neither should you. "Love Is A Wave" is one of the bands more spirited recordings, merging their fuzzed-out 60-psych garage with slight carnival atmospherics (those of the much more dignified European variety, I assure you). Boardwalk rocker "Sugarbaby" is the rare exception to the 7" rule; it's equally as great as the A-side. (One a side note: Talk about a comeback! Slumberland Records - Crystal Stilts current label - is really having a banner year with their roster and releases. Welcome back, you Bay Area dream-o-philes!)

8. Desolation Wilderness
New Universe
K Records

Desolation Wilderness are the perfect in-flight band for long, contemplative walks at night. Their music glides like the drifting clock hand shadows creeping along the sidewalk from the headlights of passing cars. New Universe is the perfect gauzy follow-up to 2008's White Light Strobing, yet with a hint more verve. "Boardwalk Theme" bounces like a balloon off church steeples, while "Slow Fade" sound like the perfect companion for a car ride to a beautiful girl's house, and "No Tomorrow (Version)" reminds you just how great that 7" from earlier this year truly really was. If you enjoy night swimming, blast "You Hold A Power Over Me." from the beach. New Universe is a dream sequence come to life.

9. Yo La Tengo
Popular Songs
Matador Records

Yo La Tengo can do no wrong. Sorry, but it's true. You know it. I know it. That guy over there knows it (go ahead, ask him!) With Popular Songs, the Hoboken, NJ trio takes ever element that made their last 9-million records so enjoyable, and condense them into one album. The slow introspection, the squealing guitar solos, the extraction of every ounce of rock-n-roll dynamics out of instruments not built for that, songs that stretch the 10-minute mark: it's all in there. "Here To Fall" is the best opening track of any record produced in 2009 (watch-out for those sharp string arrangements! They'll take your head off.) "Something To Hide" chugs with Beach Boys-esque organs akimbo, while "All Your Secrets" sounds like couples counseling, while the Wyoming skyline looms in the background. Yo La Tengo have a status as indie-rock legends. They've earned it. Popular Songs simply solidifies their standing.

10. Sonny & the Sunsets
Tonight Is Alright
Soft Abuse

I've never indulged in heroin**, but I can imagine that Sonny and the Sunsets' Tonight Is Alright is what doing so would sound like. This entire album comes across like it just rolled off its thrift store plaid couch, fired-up the works, grabbed a guitar, and went for it, cigarette dangling from a dried lower lip and all. "Bad Vibes and Evil Thoughts" could show The Brian Jonestown Massacre how it's really done. The 50's do-wop of "Strange Love" is both comforting and foreboding at the same time. And "Death Cream"? Like the Grateful Dead met Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in an opium bar to sing a song about grandma's medicine cabinet. And I'll just let the title "Loving' On An Older Gal" marinate in your oogie-woogie region for a spell. That being said, Tonight Is Alright also makes for a fantastic record to get drunk by or get kind to. Just don't go horse riding, okay?

See you in 2010!

*Mr. Heasley, please record a new album!

**Please Note: I do not believe - nor do I have absolutely any knowledge which leads me to know for a fact - that any of the members of Sonny and the Sunsets actually have heroin habits. The mention of heroin in this review was for satirical effect only. Having to state that this was done for satirical purposes so that no one would get "the wrong idea", however, kinda ruins the gag (when did we, as a nation, get so uptight and literal?) Tonight Is Alright, nonetheless, is still an outstanding album.

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