Best Records of 2009 (So Far)

With mega-anticipated releases still to come this year (David Gray’s Draw the Line, the Monsters of Folk) I’d hesitate to say the followingrecords are the end-all and be-all of the best of 09, but it’s been a REALLY good year for music.  Here are some of my highlights of the year:

Wilco – Wilco (The Album) – I can’t shut up about this record, and it’s the tops so far for me.  Wilco is a band that I admittedly never “got” for a long long time, despite the Yankee hype and the fact that the band tops EVERYONE’S list; celebs, music critics, Joe Radio-Listener… but they’ve grown on me.  A LOT.  And now they’re in my top 5 favourite bands EVER as well.  And while this year’s (kind of) self-titled release isn’t as exciting or experimental as their previous, the tender moments are all Tweedy, the racuous moments are all Nels Cline, the album is alllll Wilco still, even without the addictions/angst/experimentation.  What a great record this is.  The highlights: Feist’s perfectly-placed cameo on the album’s best track, “You & I”, the lyrically-brilliant “Our Country Disappeared”, the blood-spattered rocker, “Bull Black Nova” (the latter not something I’d typically enjoy from Wilco, but there’s just something about it).

Third Eye Blind – Ursa Major – While Third Eye Blind might be a one-hit-wonder lame-o 90’s staple to some, they’re a ‘life band’ for me, I’m sorry to say, and this is their best record EVER.  While some of the songs are less memorable/catchy than the band’s singles from the good ol’ school days, the album in its entirety is lyrically, thematically and melodically genius and Stephan Jenkins should be super uber-proud that he chanelled all his energies, good and bad, romantic and political, sexual and depressed, into this masterpiece.  The highlights: the whiny, albeit clever “Why Can’t You Be”, the poignant, politcally-fueled “About to Break”, and oh-so-charming/adorably pathetic and sad “One in Ten”.  But the whole album is really catchy with GREAT spit-fire lyrics from Jenkins.  I wish this record was more of a hit, as it’s well-deserved.

Rhett Miller – Rhett Miller – Miller works both alone, and with his cohorts in Old 97s but whatever milieu he’s working in, he is EPIC, almost all the time.  This album… GOD, what a record.  It is hyper-romantic, has indie grit/cred with a great mainstream pop sound in both melody and production, and Miller’s voice soars with reberverating awkwardness that’s almost naive, despite how badass he actually is.  Listening to his early records and the Old 97s records from back in the day, it’s worth noting how much Miller has matured in sound and lyrics; for some artists (such as Ryan Adams), maturation works against them but I love the new Rhett Miller.  This record is classic; seriously.  CLASSIC.  The highlights: summer lovin’ will happen so fast with “Bonfire” (“meet me by the bonfire, underneath the north star and the sicamores/tell me that you love me, I’ll tell you what I will do forevermore/close your eyes and see what this could mean to you and me”.. awwww), and “Haphazardly”, Miller’s desperate “don’t leave me” plea (one of his best ones ever, in fact).  Trust me, this record is MAJOR.

Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP – The January release is perfectly appropriate for this collection of four songs that are SO January, there really isn’t another time to listen to this EP.  Bon Iver is always brilliant; his “For Emma” release is kind of the “O” of the last couple of years; an indie masterpiece that surely bodes REALLY REALLY REALLY well for Justin Vernon.  And oddly enough, this EP is almost EVEN better, if that’s even possible, than “For Emma”.  In four songs, Bon Iver captures the sad imaginations of his listeners with romantic, eerie songs that are kind of creepy and spidery like veins of frost on a window.  There’s so much passion, angst, loneliness and isolation packed into these few tunes, listening to them all is kind of challenging.  DAYUMM though.  I love this release a lot.  Like, a LOT a lot.  The highlights: there aren’t any.  Every song is a highlight, actually.  “Woods” is a super-heart stopping acapella auto-tune stunner, “Blood Bank” will hit you where it hurts, wherever on your body that will be, “Beach Baby” is the most aching two minutes of your life, and “Babys” is sky-high crazy piano madness, slowed and evened out halfway through by Vernon’s silver bells voice; the song itself is like the Tell-Tale heart.  Holy shit.

Vetiver – Tight Knit – the first time I heard this record, I just went, “wow…..” and that pretty much sums up how I feel about it.  For a REAL Vetiver experience though, try hearing this on vinyl.  It’s a double-gasp moment.  It’s a perfect springtime record that makes you nostalgic for things that have probably never happened to you, like slow-dancing in a field or riding a ferris wheel with the boy of your dreams when you were 16 years old.  There’s something middle-American about the record, without the corporate country cheeseball crap that is consciously middle-America.  The highlights: you can really really drift away with the opener, “Rolling Sea”, and conversely, you can have a lot of fun with the catchy pop ditty, “Everyday” (the video for the latter is EPIC too; if you’ve ever spent time at a karaoke bar, you will laugh a LOT).

Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band – Like the Shins and other contemporaries, Fruit Bats are truly truly quirk-tastic indie dahlings.  And despite ever-changing lineups and some drama, their sound doesn’t suffer ever.  This release is too cute and too fun, and has that ever-so-lovable lo-fi indie record sound that reminds me a) how much I like having liner notes with lyrics so I can actually understand what’s being said and b) how production makes alllll the difference (in this case, in a good way).  The highlights: “Singing Joy to the World” is an oddball song about a hookup following a Three Dog Night concert at the fairground.  Not TOO many artists can throw a term like “making out” into a song successfully; Fruit Bats however, CAN.  Other highlights are the alt-country flavoured “The Blessed Breeze”, and the piano-driven, retro-rific “Feather Bed”, which could have come straight from 1970s radio, am OR fm.

Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms – Patrick Watson’s music is really not accessible and extremely challenging to the ears at first glance; there is something intimidating about an artist who uses things like slide whistles and an organ and makes a lot of odd drum noises on records.  Yet, seeing him live REALLY opened up the door into his music for me (if you have the opportunity to see his live show, it’s JAW-DROPPING).  This record is pretty, kooky, intense, brooding, a BIT cheeky (but only a tiny bit), and the melodies are catchy once you really dig into them in a very real way.  It’s a good record and a surprise.  The highlights: the record’s best is DEFINITELY “Big Bird in a Small Cage”; it’s one of the most perfect songs ever.  Also, check out “Beijing”‘; I’ve never been to Bejing, or China, and don’t plan to, really — but somehow, this song captures the vibe of how I imagine that city to be, EXACTLY.

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