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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.


Pete Yorn in Seattle

For most of the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on vacation, hence the lack of blogging. For 8 of those days, I visited Seattle and Portland. That trip, and observations/thoughts stemming from it, will be the subject of a few upcoming blog posts.

Officially, I had three objectives when planning a summer vacation. First, it had to be relatively cheap. Second, it had to be somewhere I’d never visited before. Third, it had to involve watching major league baseball in person.

Seattle met all three criteria. The Portland side-trip came later once I realized it cost about $60 round-trip to travel on Amtrak between the two cities. Also, once I’d investigated Seattle, and narrowed down a date range, a fourth objective was added to the list: I had to get tickets to one of Pete Yorn’s concerts at The Showbox in Seattle. I ended up attending his show this past Wednesday.

Pete Yorn performs "Black" at the Showbox in Seattle. August 19, 2009.For those of you who have never listened to Yorn, do yourself a favour and get your hands on his albums as soon as possible. I will even lend you my copies if you’re too broke or too cheap to spend $15-20/disc, or too lazy to torrent them. Yorn is one of my absolute favourite artists, and I had never seen him perform live before.

I discovered his music early in 2002, not long after his debut album ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ was released. I heard his first single, “Life on a Chain”, on a compilation/mix CD whose origins I have since forgotten. Hearing that inspired me to track down the full album. Upon acquiring it, it quickly became a favourite.

His follow-up album, ‘Day I Forgot’, is solid, with a few stellar tracks – “Crystal Village”, “Long Way Down”, and “All at Once”. He followed a couple of years later in 2006 with ‘Nightcrawler’. I was initially unimpressed, and didn’t listen to it much for the first couple of years after it was released. In general, I listened to Yorn less during this period than I had for the previous few years.

This spring, I got word that he was releasing a follow-up album, titled ‘Back & Fourth’, and listened to the first single, ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, which was available online. I enjoyed it, and between it and conversing with fellow Yorn fan Andy Grabia, I started to listen to his music again more and more. I even gave ‘Nightcrawler’ another chance, and it grew on me. In particular, “Alive” and “Ice Age” are strong tracks.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

‘Back & Fourth’ was released in June, and really impressed me. Many of the songs have a rich sound, and it comes closest to recapturing the earnestness and energy that make ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ such a strong record.

Now, having missed him open for Crowded House in Edmonton a couple of years back, there was no way I was going to miss him if I had a chance while in Seattle.

The Show
The concert was held at the Showbox at the Market, a small Seattle club. Amazingly, Wednesday night’s all-ages show I attended wasn’t full, and there were signs that Thursday’s 21+ show was doing worse. Given that the Showbox is a small venue, and ticket prices were reasonable (I paid $22 plus service charges), there is no reason Pete shouldn’t have filled the place at least one of the nights. The crowd at the all-ages show was pretty mixed, especially age-wise. I was initially worried that the grown-ups would go to the Thursday show, and Wednesday night would be a crowd consisting of me and a bunch of 16 year old emo kids. That was far from the case; the bulk of the crowd looked to be in their mid-late 20s; there were even a couple of grey-haired guys standing near the stage. I ended up about 10 feet away, dead centre from the stage. Best spot I’ve had for a show in a long time, maybe ever.

Opening Acts
JD King was the first opener. Along with his band, The Coachmen, he played a traditional rock style, with a heavy country influence. I’m fairly ambivalent about his music. I would describe it as “okay”. It doesn’t really inspire feelings, positive or negative, in me.

Next up was singer/songwriter Zee Avi. Avi, from Malaysia, plays guitar and ukelele, accompanied by a bass player, drummer, and keyboard player. Avi plays an upbeat, pop-folk style, not unlike artists such as Feist or Sarah Harmer. Her music is very catchy; I wouldn’t be shocked to see her pop up in an iPod commercial or Starbucks promotion sometime soon. If you like the aforementioned two artists, make sure you check out her music. She played for about 30 minutes, going through songs off her new album such as “Honeybee” (which she noted is her favourite song), and “Bitter Heart”, the first single from the album, before ending her set with a great ukelele-driven cover of “I Fought the Law”.

Pete Yorn Set

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete came out accompanied by a five-piece band (guitarist, bass player, drummer, keyboards, mandolin/assorted). Pete himself played guitar, along with harmonica on a few songs.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

He opened with “Black” off of ‘Musicforthemorningafter’, my pick for his best song. Following that, he went right into “Shotgun”, off of his latest album. Pete then switched to an acoustic guitar, and introduced “Life on a Chain”. He was very good at interacting with the crowd, providing a context and backstory to many of the songs. Following this number, he played “Paradise Cove”, “Murray”, and “Burrito”, the last one with just himself on acoustic guitar accompanied by piano. The rest of the set was as follows: “The Man”, “Crystal Village”, “For Us”, “Social Development Dance”, “Closet”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” (New Order cover), “Don’t Wanna Cry”, and “Strange Condition”. A short break ensued, then Pete and his band came out for a three-song encore: “Last Summer”, “On Your Side”, and “For Nancy (‘Cos it Already Is)”, a song which, in his own words, has saved his life many times.

If you’ve read this far into the post, you won’t be surprised to read me say that I enjoyed it immensely. This was definitely one of my favourite concerts I’ve been to.

Some things I enjoyed:
– The aforementioned crowd interaction. I always like to learn more about the background of songs
– The ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ cover. I like hearing things at a concert that I can’t on an album.
– The exhaustive merchandise stand. Lots to choose from in terms of T-shirt designs, and he had all his albums available on CD, and at least ‘Back and Fourth’ on vinyl. I picked up a t-shirt which you’ll probably see me wearing around sometime soon.
– He played songs from all of his albums. Some artists tend to predominantly play their most recent stuff, which I feel is an attempt to get you to buy their latest CD. The best strategy, in my opinion, is to play your best stuff. If people enjoy your set, they’ll buy your music and merch.
– Further to that point, here is the count of songs from each album he played: ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ – 7; ‘Day I Forgot’ – 2; ‘Nightcrawler’ – 2; ‘Back & Fourth’ – 5, plus the New Order cover.

Pete Yorn in Seattle

Pete Yorn in Seattle

This show lived up to my expectations, and then some. I’m looking forward to the next time I can catch Pete Yorn in concert. It was worth the trip.