2009's Best Albums

25) Volcano Choir - Unmap
24) Port O'Brien - Threadbare
23) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
22) Girls - Album
21) Le Loup - Family

20) The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
19) The Lonely Forest – We Sing the Body Electric
18) The Antlers – Hospice
17) Owen – New Leaves
16) K’naan – Troubadour

15) Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More
14) The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
13) Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
12) mewithoutYou – It’s all crazy! It’s all false! It’s all a dream! It’s alright.
11) J. Tillman – Year in the Kingdom

10) Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

Hard to believe this Wolf Parade side project is a side-project.

9)Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

It starts as indistinct noise, but out from the empty din emerges a definite melody and, at last, a catchy driving rhythm. These stubborn weirdoes have finally figured out what music is supposed to sound like, and they pretty much got it right.

8) P.O.S. – Never Better

It’s hip-hop, but it’s good. (Smirk.) The beats are innovative, not just solid. And the songs aren’t just literate; they’re about something. It’s a breath of life from a once-legit genre that can’t seem to see past itself anymore.

7) The Dodos – Time to Die

The Dodos offer you the most fun you’ll have dancing to a folk record this year. Think of “Time to Die” as the hypothetical soundtrack to Little Miss Sunshine’s hypothetical sequel.

6) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

At last, the relentlessly intellectual Brooklyn band has divined exactly how catchy its songs should be. Veckatimest is generally subdued, but at times the instruments converge in a welcome crescendo. These swells are like rare conversational input from a smart, quiet friend: just as genuine, and just as much a treat.

5) David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Bazan’s first foray into autobiographical storytelling is the opposite of uplifting. But musically it’s his best album to date, calling Bob Dylan and Radiohead to mind at once. And his lyrics, a born-again skeptic’s meditations on scripture and religious experience, are compelling even if the conclusions make you antsy.

4) Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring

If it were nothing else, this would be a great breakup album. Frontman Charlie Fink’s girlfriend, left him when she left the band. It’s a recipe for a sad album about the experience of feeling sad. But the marvel here is the vast range of emotion the album conveys. The band’s artistic advancement with its sophomore record makes me wonder if Charlie Fink did four years at Juilliard in the single year separating the albums’ release. Regardless, he did all the hard work, and all we have to do is listen.

3) Brand New – Daisy

Brand New’s newest effort may not rival “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me,” but it certainly recalls everything that album did right. Complex, intense instrumentation [check]; brilliant, genuinely poetic lyrics [check]; synthesis of these elements basically unparalleled by any other band [check]. The decision to foreground the hardcore influences was definitely the right call too, and the metallic intensity of “Daisy” more than makes up for its weak, seemingly flippant title.

2) Passion Pit – Manners

I used to hate dance music. I thought MGMT was annoying. That was before I heard Passion Pit. “Moth’s Wings” was my gateway drug, but “Little Secrets” and “Let Your Love Grow Tall” are just as satisfying. I don’t see what the big deal is with “Sleepyhead” or “The Reeling,” but who cares? It’s musically complex and lyrically just inscrutable enough to be intriguing. Two thumbs in the air.

1) Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

This French quartet has perfected power-pop and monumented that perfection on its fourth album. “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” literally couldn’t be better than it is (in my something-other-than-humble opinion). “1901” and “Lisztomania” are undoubtedly the year’s catchiest songs, but “Rome” and “Girlfriend” emerge as contenders on further listens. “Countdown” is seriously cool, and “Love Like a Sunset” goes experimental till our attention is at the breaking point, and then assures us that it was just kidding, turning into 2009’s best song under a minute. Actually, all the songs are very good, and the album earns my best-of-the-year honors for the unabating joy it still gives me from start to finish.


Part 3 - 2009's best songs

Here are my 20 favorite songs from 2009.

20) The xx - "VCR"
19) Wild Light - "New Hampshire"
18) Letting Up Despite Great Faults - "In Steps"
17) Volcano Choir - "Still"
16) Built to Spill - "Aisle 13"
15) J. Tillman - "Howling Light"
14) P.O.S. - "Purexed"
13) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - "Hysteric"
12) Pickwick - "Big Ideas"
11) mewithoutYou - "The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie"
10) Animal Collective - "My Girls"
9) K'naan - "If Rap Gets Jealous"
8) Brand New - "At the Bottom"
7) Bon Iver - "Brackett, WI"
6) Phoenix - "Lisztomania"
5) David Bazan - "Hard to Be"
4) Passion Pit - "Moth's Wings"
3) Phoenix - "1901"
2) Noah and the Whale - "Blue Skies"
1) Bon Iver - "Blood Bank"

That's it...Merry Christmas!


Part 2 - 2009's Best Movies


- Disclaimer
- 6 2009 movies I missed (and can’t wait to get my hands on)
- 3 2009 movies I hated
- And my top 10 for the year

Ok, so I’m definitely not a film critic. But I watch movies that don’t get huge releases along with those that do, and I try to think critically about them. Also I just like movies a lot. And this was a great year for film in a way that I don’t really think it was for music. So without further ado…

2009’s best movies I haven’t seen:

A Serious Man
[Update: This is a pretty good movie. Super weird, and probably my least favorite by the Coens, but Kyle's blog had some interesting reflections on it that I hope I'll get around to linking to.]
The Road
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
[A pretty interesting twist on the romantic comedy genre, but only because the DFW stories were first. The film parrots the dialogues word for word, and that's a good thing, but it loses touch when it tries to resolve everything at the end. Still it's a better film than Star Trek.]
35 Shots of Rum
Sherlock Holmes

[Update: Not bad, but it's just an action movie. Guy Ritchie could have made something special if he'd stuck with the mystery genre; but if there's no way for a viewer to unravel the mystery till extra information is revealed at the climax, it doesn't really qualify. A better example of the genre is Christopher Nolan's The Prestige.]
District 9
[Update: I loved this movie. I'd probably put it at #7, just behind the Hurt Locker, but I'm not going to mess with the formatting.]

2009’s worst movies I have seen:

3) The Men Who Stare at Goats
This movie is never really entertaining, but for the first 30 minutes the audience at least gets to wonder favorably how the movie is going to become interesting. It just never does. The only remotely funny element is the brash idiocy with which the ‘psychics’ approach their task, but we never see a satisfying resolution of this. Snoo-zers.

2) Extract
The only bigger clusterfuck than what happens to Jason Bateman’s food-coloring factory is the movie itself. I mean, holy shit; the jokes have nothing to do with the plot, the characters are obnoxious, tacked-on stereotypes, and it’s just plain not funny ever.

1) Ninja Assassin
I feel less inclined to explain why it’s bad than to explain why in hell I went to see it. It wasn’t my idea (I swear) but I can’t pretend anyone made me do it. Really though, it’s unspeakably bad; the story relies on cinematic sadism, subtle but definitely present racism, and pretty blatant sexism. And the one-liners passed off as dialog are worse than what videogames get away with.

2009’s top 10 movies:

NOTE: There shouldn’t be any spoilers in my explanations (except #2 and #4).

10) Star Trek
Serious ‘trekkies’ are the only people who don’t seem to agree that this movie is exactly what it needed to be. Yes, captain Kirk is exactly like Han Solo, and the whole movie feels more like Star Wars than Star Trek. That's why normal people like us can bear to watch it.

9) In the Loop
Sort of like the British “Office,” if it were set in the Prime Minister's foreign policy office. In fact, almost exactly like that. Raucously funny with well-developed characters and a good-enough plot that never stands in the way of the jokes.

8) An Education
The year’s best romantic-comedy-drama. It’s about a high school girl who falls for an older man because he takes her to concerts and art auctions. The direction feels heavy-handed at times, but only because the performances are so good. Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay. (!)

7) Up
This may be the most emotionally serious Pixar film, at least for the first 30 minutes or so. The rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to the introduction, but it’s great entertainment throughout, and not just for kids. Extra points for all the old man jokes.

6) The Hurt Locker
Probably the best war movie since Saving Private Ryan (maybe since apocalypse now). It handles the Middle-East conflict with such maturity, neither condemning nor glorifying it. It’s paced like an action flick, but the drama never comes easily and the emotions are never cheap. It’s not a casual movie but it’s damn good.

5) Where the Wild Things Are
The amazing thing about Spike Jonze’s 100 minute adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s 40 page picture-book is how little he actually invented to expand the story. All but a very few characters and plot-devices draw directly from the themes of juvenile disobedience, domestic angst, and dubious parenting already present in the book. The film’s only weak elements are those that seem farthest from the book (the whole part about KW and the mute owls definitely should have been cut). The director’s respect for the source material (my favorite picture-book as a kid) is wholly transparent.

4) Avatar
Call it a guilty pleasure but I really liked this movie. I mostly agree with the criticisms leveled at it, (that it’s an expensive lights-show hiding a weak and predictable story, or that it’s a cross between Fern Gully and Pocahontas that gets mired in polemic). But nonetheless I sincerely enjoyed the three-hour experience of watching things play out 10 minutes after I guessed they would happen. Seriously. I’m sure the visual effects had a lot to do with that, but I’m not usually suckered in by 3D jungles and space-ships unless there’s a decent story being told. Avatar gets enough things right to be worth seeing. And except for a few crippling issues in plot development I think it could have been pretty great.

The film does a few things really well: most of the storytelling happens visually, so even though the dialog is sparse and second-rate, the protagonists and their relationships are all surprisingly dynamic and well-developed. The story’s pacing is painstaking and virtuosic. And while Sam Worthington definitely won’t win best-actor, the performances are all at least decent.

Avatar’s only serious weakness is story, and the big problem there lies with the antagonists: Stephen Lang is plenty fearsome and Giovanni Ribisi is ignorant-and-in-charge, but neither of them is remotely convincing as a human being. "Unobtainum" needs a new name that isn’t a joke ; and a scene where it’s being mined or any explanation of what it’s actually used for would do wonders for the film’s moral impact. The conflict becomes so detached from its impetus that there’s no moral ambiguity at all. So what we get is a na├»ve polemic, so awkwardly earnest and conspicuously unfair that the epic story is scaled-down to jab American imperialism in the ribs. The only polarizing issue Avatar manages to raise is whether or not it sucks.

So it’s kind of like a less nuanced Dances with Wolves. But I still really liked it.

3) Fantastic Mr. Fox
Another superb adaptation of a children’s book--Wes Anderson gives Dahl’s weird fable the Royal Tenenbaums treatment. Mr. Fox is cast as the former thief looking for one last big score, struggling to love his wife and son, to consider the welfare of his neighbors, and generally to do anything selfless. It’s stylistic and lyrical and hilarious. It occasionally reminds us of Wallace and Grommet, but that’s not so bad. Anyone who uses the word "clustercuss" is all right in my book. See it if you haven’t.

2) Inglourious Basterds
I am not a Tarantino fan. I hate Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. But I loved this movie. It’s pitch-perfect in representing German, French, and American WWII culture, and it has the year’s best social commentary in any medium. Tarantino skewers the Allies for their unforgiving wrath, and the Germans for all the obvious stuff. But he doesn’t stop there: the movie puts a stake in the heart of the whole culture of violence behind his grindhouse style of filmmaking. It’s a revenge thriller that identifies the revenge-impulse as a cinematic phenomenon. So even as the film’s conclusion lets cinema win out over history in a fire fueled by celluloid, it pauses to recognize that all this vengeance hasn’t solved anything. The characters are hilarious, at once lovable and loathsome, and they’re believable too (or believable enough). Since the film centers on themes of human dignity and the inhumanity of revenge that’s pretty darn important.

1) The Brothers Bloom
The writer/director of 2005’s Brick is now the writer/director of the best con man movie since The Sting (1973). Adrian Brody and Mark Ruffalo play Bloom and Stephen and Rachel Weisz plays the eccentric love-interest. The characters are all well-drawn and unique. The plot is more complicated than you’ll realize the first time you watch it, and the dialog is supremely clever. Most importantly, though, it’s just really, really entertaining. The film deftly evokes a broad range of varying emotions, in turns hilarious, thrilling, sad, and uplifting. And it never forces those feelings on the audience; it earns them. Ultimately it’s a spectacularly fun way to spend two hours, and it means something. What more could we ask for?

Well there’s that. Bring on the Twilight jokes…


The Best[s] of 2009 - Part 1

An overture to the coming lists of best music, movies and more, (but mostly music,) including:

- Great 2008 albums absent from my list last year
- 2009’s 10 best collections of songs that weren’t really albums
- Miscellaneous awards and a few bitch-slaps
- List of coming attractions
- The part where I explain that I don’t just make lists to prove I am cool.

Great 2008 albums I missed till this year.... For shame.

(In alphabetical order):

Army Navy – S/T
Blind Pilot – Three Rounds and a Sound
Chad Vangaalen – Soft Airplane
Cold War Kids – Loyalty to Loyalty
Coldplay –Prospekt’s March EP
Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs (Interesting story there…)
The Dodos – Visiter
Elbow – The Seldom Seen Kid
Jon Hopkins – Insides
M83 – Saturdays = Youth
MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
Right away Great Captain – The Bitter End
Sun Kil Moon – April
Unwed Sailor – Little Wars
Wintersleep – Welcome to the Night Sky

2009’s 10 best EPs samplers b-sides, etc:

10) Modest Mouse – No One's First and You're Next
Start with: Guilty Cocker Spaniels

9) Death Cab for Cutie – The Open Door EP
Start with: A Diamond and a Tether

8) Twilight New Moon OST
Start with: “Roslyn” (Bon Iver ft. St. Vincent); “Slow Life” (Grizzly Bear)

7) Horse Feathers – Cascades 7”
It’s only 2 songs.

6) Owen – The Seaside EP
Start with: Heads Will Ache

5) Karen O. and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are OST
Start with: Igloo, Cliffs

4) Pickwick – 2009 Demo
Start with: Big Ideas, Zero Gravity Sleeping Bag

3) Dark was the Night
Start with: Disc 1.

2) Iron & Wine – Around The Well
Start with: The Trapeze Swinger

1) Bon Iver – Blood Bank EP
Start with: Any track except “Woods,” unless there’s something wrong with you :)

Pleasant surprises:

Best Post-Rock album:

The Appleseed Cast –Sagarmatha
Runner up: We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls (They also win best new band name and most Scottish.)

The “Hey, this kind of sounds like music” award:

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
It’s the most (the only, if you ask me,) intelligible Animal Collective album to date. Now that I can sort of tell what the hell I’m listening to, I like it.

Best album cover:

Weezer – Raditude
Sure, it’s the only redeeming quality of an awful CD, but the perfectly-timed shot of that leaping, smiling dog is definitely rad.

Best use of the word Fuck in a song:

“California on my Mind” by Wild Light, from Adult Nights
Just listen to it, man.

One Hit Wonder:

“VCR” by The xx, from xx
Runner Up: “In Steps” by Letting Up Despite Great Faults

Best Side-Project:

Volcano Choir – Unmap
Actually, Sunset Rubdown probably made the year’s best side-project album. Handsome Furs is also up there. But Justin Vernon’s collaboration with fellow WI band Collections of Colonies of Bees is dang good and deserves recognition for more than just its awesome remix of “Woods.”

Best album that didn’t make my top 20 list:

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
The melodies and guitar tone are great, and about half the songs are soid. But I just couldn’t get into the other half, so the album feels inconsistent to me.

Best Concert I saw this year:

Bon Iver at Sasquatch
Runners up: Explosions in the Sky at Sasquatch; Band of Horses at the Knitting Factory


Worst album cover:

The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
Seriously, what were they thinking? It’s like a cross between Hamlet and the fat squaw from Disney’s Peter Pan.

Worst Album that might have had potential:

Weezer – Raditude
Here’s the thing, I can’t really argue with the few loyal defenders of Weezer who claim that we can’t judge them for making immature music that doesn’t sound like Pinkerton or the Blue Album. Let’s face it, the target market for Raditude is young teens, and the album probably stacks up pretty well against this year’s releases from Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers.

The “Too happy for their own good” award:

mewithoutYou – It’s all crazy! It’s all false! It’s all a dream! Its alright.
This is the album I was most excited for this year. mewithoutYou’s last album, the 2006 masterpiece Brother Sister is definitely the most obscure pick on my “Best of the Decade” list and I put it at number 3. The band is still unique, but all the existential angst that carried the last album is absent from this one, and instead of breakups and doubt the songs are about beetles and grape-nuts.

Best album Whitworth University couldn’t pay me to listen to:

The Flaming Lips – “Embryonic”
Okay, I get that they're supposed to be weird or whatever, but I totally outsourced this review. Katie wrote a pretty positive one, but she had a telling line that explains pretty well why I can’t get into the band. She said something like, The album betrays what can only be called “blatant disregard for the listener.” The Flaming Lips are like a lazy boyfriend, but I won’t make you dump him if you don’t want to.

Coming Attractions:

Dec. 23: Overture
Dec. 24: 2009’s 10 best movies
Dec. 25: 2009’s 20 best songs
Dec. 26: Best books of the decade, 2000-2009
Dec. 27: 2009’s 20 best albums

Why me?
One of the jobs I get to put on my resume after this year is “College Radio Music Director.” I don’t exactly think that makes me an authority figure on what’s good music and what’s not, and I don’t have a Pitchfork complex. But I’ve listened to a whole lot of new music this year and it’s great, and I want you to check it out if you haven’t yet. Think of the rankings of my lists not as an authoritative categorization of aesthetic merit, but as the order in which I would recommend the items to…umm…myself.


Best of the Decade: Top 10 Albums

Popular music has witnessed some amazing developments over the last decade. But if advances in genre conventions and recording quality hadn’t translated into a whole lot of brilliantly composed records, we'd have another decade of '80s music and nobody would care. Sure, Napster and iTunes and radio stations killed the CD just like CDs killed vinyl, but we’re witnesses to how stubbornly the album has stuck around at its own funeral. So here are some of my favorites from the last 10 years:

10. Andrew Bird - “Armchair Apocrypha” (2007)
The vocal melodies on Andrew Bird’s greatest album are whistled as often as they’re sung. The singer-songwriter hides a smile while he utters surprisingly eloquent philosophical musings peppered with history and theology, and the folk-rock instrumentals are relentlessly chill.

9. Death Cab for Cutie - “Transatlanticism” (2001)
Death Cab is “Transatlanticism.” This is a defining record, against which all the band’s subsequent efforts have been measured. That’s because the album has it all: obvious radio favorites like “Title and Registration” and "The Sound of Settling," along with less catchy but equally compelling tracks like “The New Year” and “Tiny Vessels;” and of course there's the understated but nonetheless epic ballad “Transatlanticism.” The bar is set high.

8. Modest Mouse - “We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank” (2007)
Unlike most fans, I think Modest Mouse has gotten better with every album. Their newest still has some of the rough edges that made their old material unique, but it’s smooth in places too. If you ask me, that’s what makes songs like “Florida,” “Spitting Venom” and “Little Motel” so compelling.

7. The Arcade Fire - “Funeral” (2004)
“Funeral” has been so persistently imitated since its release six years ago that it’s easy to forget how utterly original it was. So remember back to those days, when you had no idea what “orchestral indie-pop” meant because nobody had invented it yet, and listen to “Funeral” with virgin ears. It’s way better than all the pretenders riding its coattails.

6. Brand New - “The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me” (2006)
The music rises and falls like a vessel in troubled water as Brand New’s Jesse Lacey struggles between belief and doubt, hope and despair. It’s intense at times, beautiful at others. And it’s brilliant. After the line about the crucifixion in the bridge of “Jesus Christ,” there’s a three-measure pause before the song picks back up. Enough said.

5. Sigur Ros - “Takk” (2005)
There might be other music as beautiful as the songs on “Takk.” But I doubt it.

4. Radiohead - “Kid A” (2000)
Remember the Y2K scare? Ridiculous, sure, but there was something about that fear of the new millennium that tapped into a deeper anxiety; a fearfulness of what the digital age will mean for privacy and individuality. Radiohead got it, and listening to “Kid A” is like reading a dystopia novel. The journey from “Everything in Its Right Place” to “Morning Bell” is a deeply complex tale of alienation from oneself and others. The album led a revolution in electro-rock, pioneering new instrumentation and unconventional song-structures, and breathed new life into a tired genre. And it's completely listenable from beginning to end.

3. mewithoutYou - “Brother Sister” (2006)
This concept-album about turning to God after a breakup is probably the greatest lyrical triumph on the list. Frontman Aaron Weiss condenses complicated existential theology to indelible metaphors and effortless aphorisms. The clever instrumentation layered behind Weiss’s distinct vocals give mewithoutYou a unique and unmistakable sound.

2. Bon Iver - “For Emma, Forever Ago” (2008)

Justin Vernon’s 2008 opus is at least as good as the story behind it. He spent the winter of 2007 in the woods in Wisconsin, trying to work through the breakup of his band and his last relationship. There he recorded the nine tracks he would title “For Emma, Forever Ago” when a record company informed him that his demos were good enough to stand in for studio recordings. The record’s sound varies more than it gets credit for. There are typical folk tunes, and Bon Iver is compared fairly enough to Elliot Smith and Iron and Wine. But the four-on-the-floor beat in “Lump Sum” and “Blindsided” steps beyond the genre, and experimental touches like moments of auto-tuning in “The Wolves” make us wonder if we’re really in familiar territory. The one constant of the album is Vernon’s haunting and totally unique voice, a well of unabating emotion that doesn't sound like anything you've heard before. The result is a minimalistic album as elusive as it is spare, and it’s just about perfect.

1. Sufjan Stevens - “Illinois” (2005)
The second installment in Stevens’ attempt at orchestral indie-folk albums for each of the 50 states looks like it will be his last, as the songwriter keeps pursuing other projects than writing songs. I think that’s okay; “Illinois” delivers so completely on Stevens’ goals for the whole project that episodes like “Kansas” and “South Dakota” would just be redundant. The album is a series of disparate anecdotes with little in common except geography, masterfully crafted into a thematic progression that builds enough momentum to transcend the gaps between its subjects. From lyrical folk-ballads like “Casimir Pulaski Day” and “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” to instrumental tracks like “Out of Egypt, Into the Great Laugh of Mankind,” the songs are packed not just with beautiful melodies but with meaning. The record juxtaposes references to Abraham Lincoln and to Stevens’ own childhood, blurring the lines between present and past, personal and universal. Stevens has put his finger on what it is to be an American, and he does it so subtly and intangibly that the album offers hope for a generation of Americans disenchanted with their country. Listening to “Illinois” makes being American mean something good, and that’s no small feat.