2009: The Year in Music

I generally avoid doing year-end lists. The main reason for this is that there are few areas where I feel I pay enough attention to comment with authority. I read a lot of books, but I don’t feel I’ve ever read enough from the most recent year to give a “best of” list. I don’t watch nearly enough movies or television or play enough video games to even think of commenting there (though I quite liked the “Star Trek” movie, and enjoy watching “30 Rock” and “How I Met Your Mother”).

That said, if there’s one area I might have some insight into the contemporary scene, it’s music. I listen to a lot of music, and go to a good number of concerts. My listening is heavily slanted towards alt-rock (particularly if it’s acoustic driven, or punk-infused), so perhaps my recommendations will be helpful for some.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of albums from 2009 I recommend. Grouped in roughly descending order, starting with those I think only real fans would like, and ending with those I think everyone should give a listen to. For retrospective value, I’ve also listed the best shows I saw, and would therefore recommend you catch the artist in concert if you can), and a few recommendations from ’08 that I discovered this year.

Looking back on 2009, the year in music:

Best Concerts/Sets I Attended in 2009
6. Matthew Barber at Haven Social Club in Edmonton
5. Joel Plaskett at Edmonton Folk Fest
4. Glen Campbell at Calgary Folk Fest
3. Hey Rosetta! at the Starlite in Edmonton
2. Gaslight Anthem at the Starlite (April), and at Edmonton Events Centre (September)
1. Pete Yorn at the Showbox in Seattle
Honourable Mentions: Amy Millan at the Myer Horowitz in Edmonton, The Decemberists, Sarah Harmer at Calgary Folk Fest, Neko Case, Johnny Flynn, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings at Edmonton Folk Fest.

The Gaslight Anthem
The Gaslight Anthem are a must-see in concert if you ever have the chance. I was privileged to see them twice in 2009.

Best ’08 Albums I Discovered in ’09
Johnny Flynn and The Sussex Wit – A Larum
Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels
Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago

All three are talented folk/acoustic inspired musicians. Good albums to relax or work to.

Still To Be Determined
I generally like Two Hours Traffic and John Mayer, but haven’t yet listened to the albums they released this fall.

I also have never listened to Animal Collective or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who poll high on many year end lists, though people assure me I’d like them so I plan to check them out in the new year.

Shameless Plug for My Friends Who Happen to Also Be Talented Musicians
Sarah Cole‘s piano-driven sound will delight anyone who likes singer-songwriters, or music that’s easy and relaxing to listen to. You can download her debut album, “Waiting for Next Year”, on iTunes.

Also, you’re missing out if you haven’t listened to singer-songwriter Tim Smith‘s 2008 debut, “Between Buildings”. He’s also playing his last show in Edmonton for a while on Saturday, January 9th at the Haven Social Club.


Live Albums Worth a Listen

Pete Yorn – iTunes Live in SoHo
Jack Johnson – En Concert

Albums I Recommend Only if You’re A Fan of the Artist
Bon Iver – Blood Bank (EP)
Dashboard Confessional – Alter the Ending
Jay Z – The Blueprint 3
All Time Low – Nothing Personal
Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson – Breakup
Third Eye Blind – Ursa Major

Just Missed the Cut
Ben Harper and Relentless7 – White Lies for Dark Times
Amy Millan – Masters of the Burial

Both are good albums, but not quite at the same level as those listed below. Harper’s new group sounds just like his old one, which is a good thing. Millan’s album is good from top to bottom, but not quite on par with her solo debut, “Honey from the Tombs”

Honourable Mentions
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies
The XX – XX

These albums likely would have made the proper list, but I don’t feel like I listened to them enough to give them a proper ranking. I discovered Earle in the summer, and listened to his album a few times. It inexplicably fell out of my rotation until a few weeks ago. Earle’s country-inspired music is a delight to listen to. It reminds me of early Ryan Adams, which is one of the biggest compliments I can offer.

The XX is a band I first listened to about a week ago. Through a few listens, their mellow electro-pop style not only holds up, but continues to grow on me.

The Enigma
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimist

If I were doing a “Best Songs of 2009” list, “Two Weeks” would rank near the top. As for the rest of the album, I don’t know what to make of it. On some listens, I really like it, on some listens I find it uninspiring. But it deserves a listen so you can make up your mind.

The Top 10 Albums: 10-4
Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins in Dearland
One of my favourite discoveries of the year. Perkins is hard to describe, but plays soulful, well-written music. This album is always a good listen.

Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream
A good album, but not outstanding. I found it solid top to bottom, but lacking any standout tracks. Definitely worth a listen though.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
An album that grows on me with every listen. I hadn’t listened to Case before I saw her at Folk Fest in August, but she’s quickly becoming one of my favourite songwriters.

The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This album grew on me after my initial ambivalence. Seeing their performance at Calgary Folk Fest, where they played most of the album (and in sequence) made me appreciate it as a concept album, and an entire work. It works really well when listened to as such, not as well when listened to in small pieces.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
I like this album a lot; a mix of uptempo and downtempo songs; not quite as good as “Sky Blue Sky” but at least on par with the good but vastly overrated “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”

Metric – Fantasies
Just a fun, quality album from top to bottom. Emily Haines is one of the most talented contemporary vocalists, and their keyboard-driven sound works on every track of this disc.

Pete Yorn – Back and Fourth
His best album since “Musicforthemorningafter”, having more depth and consistency throughout than his two previous follow-ups. His well-written lyrics and consistent sound produced the album I had the toughest time leaving out of the top tier.

The Top Three
3. Joel Plaskett – Three
For most of the year, I had this as my top album, but it drops to number three (total coincidence given the title) for a couple of reasons. First, there are way too many tracks (27). Because of this, I find that while there are probably 10-12 tracks that would compete with those on the top 2 albums of the year, there’s too much stuff that I find a cut below (like all of disc two except for “New Scotland Blues”. Second, I find that each plays like a distinct work, so the unifying feel to the album is lacking. Nonetheless, it’s still an outstanding, if not great, album – one of four Plaskett released this decade.

Joel Plaskett
Joel Plaskett’s “Three” is one of the best albums of 2009

2. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
More piano than banjo driven, the Avett Brothers depart from their early sound and it pays off in spades. The thoughtful lyrics and tight melodies produce an album that, from beginning to end, is top notch. It’s a must listen for everybody.

1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
My favourite album of the year. There is not a bad song on this album – the guitar/keyboard driven sound produces an album that sounds somewhat different from track to track, but still feels unified as an album. I could try offer more thoughtful analysis, but in a nutshell, it comes down to this: I never get tired of listening to this album. It makes me happy every time. And that’s good enough for an album.

Now on to 2010, where I’m already looking forward to new albums from Vampire Weekend, Spoon, and Matthew Barber in the next two months. Hope it’s just as good as this past year.

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