The Decade’s Best, Numero Ocho

15. Rhett Miller – Rhett Miller. Isn’t it funny that many of the records on my decade’s best list are from 2009.  It’s either because 2009 was a particularly good year for albums, or else a year I paid more attention and expanded my horizons in terms of the music I explored.  Rhett Miller, Miller’s solo self-titled third album, is definitely one of those great 2009 records.  And it’s funny because I always liked Rhett Miller and Old 97’s, but I was never enamoured with either project, until hearing this record.  It’s mostly gentle folk/pop with a bouncy, jingle-jangle edge but then a song like Happy Birthday, Don’t Die kicks shit into high gear out of nowhere.  Haphazardly is my favourite song, as I can fully realize what Miller means when he says “this is what the world feels like without you in it”.  But hearing him cry out “I am my own worst enemy” in the most non-cliche way that line can be cried out is also a priceless moment on Rhett Miller.  Add to that a little bouncy acoustic love song at the end of an already-romantic record.  It’s true, Rhett: sometimes the only thing you have is a song.  But if that song is as good as any track on this album, what more do you need?

14. Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk. 2009 again?  Yup.  Buddy and Julie Miller have been around for years and years, pedalling their steel since the outlaw days.  Julie Miller is currently in poor health and finds it difficult to perform (and I wish her all the best) and Buddy Miller has recently been touring with Emmylou Harris but together, the couple team made a record so incredibly heartfelt and beaten-down, it’s altogether impossible to describe how I felt the first time I heard it.  Chalk is I think, the best song of the year; it swells painfully and conjures up images of landscape and lost loves in the way that only REAL country does.  Patty Griffin’s unmistakable backing vocals lend a softness to Buddy Miller’s tattered timbre and the combination of weepy piano, driving acoustic strumming and a steady rain-on-a-tin roof drum beat all come to a head when Miller sings solo, “all our words are written down in chalk/out in the rain on the sidewalk.”  It stills me, the song.  Julie Miller has her own shining moments on this forefront of this album too (though she penned most of the songs); for instance, Don’t Say Goodbye is the soul of a mature woman songwriter with little girl innocence.  Julie Miller’s vocals are childlike and sweet, and throughout the song she sounds like she is going to lay down and cry for hours after she’s done singing; when Griffin cuts in towards the end of the song, the two women’s voices weave together and the strength is astounding.  Ellis County is another unforgettable song which yearns for simple days when loved ones were still alive and being poor was unimportant.  Anyone who thinks they’ve heard country music –nail-biting tearjerker my-dog-died-my-girl-left country – without having ever heard this — is wrong.  It bleeds and cries authenticity and raw emotion.

13. Elliott Smith – New Moon. Alright – so technically, this album contains all material created and produced in the 90s, long before Smith’s tragic passing in 2003.  But because it was only released to the public in its most produced form in 2007, to me, it still counts as a record from this decade.  New Moon is a double disc of hidden gems that cannot be found on Smith’s previous official releases.  The collection includes an early version of the Oscar-nominated Miss Misery (though, the later version is much better) but that is hardly the best track on New Moon; an early Heatmeiser track, New Monkey features Smith as angry as he’s ever been musically, singing about “the millions of fans ignoring the band” and being “busy making something from nothing” – despite the underlying frustration and angry misery that clearly ooze out of New Monkey, Smith’s silvery voice is still as downtrodden and soft as ever, making the song an interesting dichotomy, a side of Smith rarely seen until his unfortunate drugged out end-of-career live material.  The self-deprecation continues in Whatever (Folk Song in C) in which Smith asks, “what are you doing hanging out with me?” An eerie moment here is Smith singing, “oh man, what a plan, suicide/it’s just not that much different from my own affair” in Georgia Georgia.  The album’s lone cover is of Big Star’s Thirteen; what a classic that song is, perhaps one of the greatest songs about music and nostalgia ever written.  And Smith adding his sad, sweet touch to it is truly something to be cherished.  Elliott Smith has an amazing and criminally underrated body of work, and even after his death, the world’s discovery of even more fantastic songs reminds me yet again of his talent and genius.  It’s so sad he’s not still around today – the music scene could really use someone like him.

12. Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. “I am an American aquarium-drinker/I assassin down the avenue” are the opening lines on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot; it’s like showing up for a blind date and the guy is wearing some kind of vinyl balaclava.  What the hell does that even mean? !  Is making the word ‘assassin’ a verb genius or total disregard for the confines of grammar and the English language?  Thought-provoking, maddening questions begin with that opening line and certainly don’t stop there at all.  Do we agree with the statement, “Our love is all of God’s money”?  Does Tweedy even agree with that statement, or is he being ironic?  Why is there that long strand of digital noise closing out Poor Places?  What’s a cute pop song like Heavy Metal Drummer even doing on this record at all?  All of the aforementioned questions can only be stabbed at, and because of them, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot DEMANDS repeated listenings, just so you can soak it all in; the beautiful piano-driven Reservations; the charming violin and religious lyricism of Jesus, Etc.; the thread throughout the album of radio dials and feedback; the up-tempo blessings of Pot Kettle Black, I’m the Man Who Loves You and Heavy Metal Drummer… this record is important to everyone because of what it did for art and independence, and what it and proved to stodgy record executives who thought it was too “weird” to be introduced to the public.  But I love it because it’s an irresistible indie pop classic.  Every song is a comeback.

11. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago. I have this theory that heartbreak, sadness and turmoil create the best art; I always have.  Optimists will protest this argument by saying that a strong product is created by satisfaction, happiness and hard work; and I will show them For Emma, Forever Ago as the very DEFINTION of heartbreak art; Justin Vernon lived in a cabin in the woods, full of despair and emotional destruction and during that time, he made this bloody, bold, dark, gloomy masterpiece.  Skinny Love is pretty much the best song of 2008, and came into my life at just the right time.  I also love the organ-infused Wisconsin, an ode to Vernon’s physical and mental place in his life with a eulogy of a melody accompanying hopeless observations like “that was Wisconsin/that was yesterday”, “love is love’s critique” and “I have nothing that I can keep”.  Blindsided – if anyone could relate to that in 2008 it was most certainly me.  The wintery atmosphere surrounding this record is perfect – you can almost see your own breath, hear the snapping of dead brittle branches and smell fresh snow when you’re listening to it.  Its barren landscape is endlessly powerful and in itself, tells a compelling story of lost love and hopelessness.  This is one of the best breakup records I’ve ever heard.

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