"I believe in growing old with grace": A backwards best-of
I never thought I'd be able to write about music for a living, and for kind of fucked-up reasons that defeat the fun part of being a music critic. (In a more realistic parallel universe somewhere, I'm actually sitting next to a police scanner at a newspaper office and probably about to be laid-off.) I didn't actively ignore or push away new music before this was my job, but still, I could've been perfectly happy sticking with 20 or so of my reliable favorite records, maybe picking up on a few new things per year via my friends. If I like something released after The Who's Quadrophenia (OK, let's make it London Calling), chances are it's won me over entirely in spite of myself. And that's true of dozens of things I love to death right now, including Ted Leo, all of metal, and all of hip-hop. In a sense, this attitude leveled the playing field at first: Every album that landed on my desk simply had about as much of a chance as, oh, your average Scientology recruiter, until proven otherwise. I'm actually a great deal more open and sympathetic than that now, but it's taken some brute force, and still does.
My backwards instincts always surge during year-end-list season, when I try to filter out what I'm supposed to like (ha!) from what I just do like. This is only my fourth time doing a best-of ballot, and I still get to feeling insecure about it. For one thing, when I walk into a record store, I'm much more likely to buy something a little older than a supposedly exciting (or even actually exciting!) new release. When it comes time to pick the year's best, the new stuff isn't competing with other new stuff so much as it is competing with my well-established old favorites, and, more importantly, newly established old favorites. Which means that my official year-end ballot alone represents only a fraction of the music that mattered to me in 2009. So I offer to you this parallel/bizarro best-of list, pairing my 2009 favorites with the non-2009 records I came to love this year.
1. Converge, Axe To Fall / Iron Maiden, Powerslave
Axe To Fall's place at the top of my list reflects not only how much that album's power shocks me every time I put it on—if you threw it down a bottomless pit, it'd claw its way back up in record time—but also how much more time I've spent listening to metal this past year than in any other. And it's one department in which I feel confident saying I've been pretty well-rounded. I'll spare you a list of everything else I've tried out and liked (except Cynic's Focus and Death's Human), but it all falls somewhere between Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson's mutant-opera wailing about war and dragons at one pole, and Jacob Bannon's direct-from-the-synapses distress cries. Oddly enough, I still can't stand Maiden's "Rime Of The Ancient Mariner" and I'm pleasantly confused by the Tom Waits-like "Cruel Bloom" stuck at the end of Axe To Fall. Beyond that, both albums made me appreciate, more than ever, how much artistry and challenging technicality goes into the act of destroying my fucking face.
2. Vic Chesnutt, At The Cut / Billy Bragg And Wilco, Mermaid Avenue
I've always had this way of thinking of my favorite artists as these isolated, well-identified monuments, which of course isn't realistic at all. Something always tells me to think of collaborative records as too one-off and frivolous to match anything a given songwriter or band can produce off in its own little head space. A few collaborative records this year chipped away at that ill-founded little theory of mine by bringing out the best in everyone involved. At The Cut pairs Georgia songwriter Vic Chesnutt with the creepy-crawly strings of Montreal's A Silver Mount Zion, and Guy Picciotto from Fugazi oversees it all. Like this bunch's first album together, North Star Deserter, it brings out such violence and despair in Chesnutt's songwriting, but on the other hand, a couple of his tunes force the Zion crew to create something more pretty and sympathetic. And hey, at least everyone involved in that record was alive at the time of recording. On 1998's Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco dug up a bunch of old Woody Guthrie lyrics. Bragg, who I'd previously thought of as a dour political preacher, becomes incredibly, loveably playful on "Ingrid Bergman," in which Guthrie imagines knocking up the famous actress. It's the only pre-Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Wilco thing I've really listened to, and it's got one of the all-time greatest Jeff Tweedy moments: His vocal on "California Stars."
3. P.O.S., Never Better / Die Kreuzen, Die Kreuzen / October File
I've developed kind of a complex about not knowing enough about punk-rock after The Clash. At least one of my higher-ups here at The A.V. Club, Kyle, is a walking hardcore/post-punk library, and, as I suddenly realized this year, our former Milwaukee editor was also the former bass player for Die Kreuzen. (And yes, I was one of those people who put the Fucked Up album in his 2008 best-of ballot despite not knowing a ton of hardcore punk, and I still feel totally fucking fine about it.) I'll never be able to tie the convenient double-reissue of Die Kreuzen's first two albums to, say, the experience of seeing them at a Milwaukee basement show. I was an infant in Florida at the time, so Dan Kubinski's epic screech and Brian Egeness' scrunched-up guitar chords might as well be a couple of long-range missiles from a country I've never heard of. Sure, it sounds a bit like what I generally know to be the hardcore-punk sound, but the more I listen to it, the more it refuses to sit still in that category. And the more work Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. (who also has ties to the hardcore scene and a good punk band, Building Better Bombs) puts out, the more it comes defiantly into its own, and also somehow gives us the sense that he understands hip-hop's roots a lot better than a lot of these meatheads who shriek at you about "the REAL hip hop."
4. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer / Unwound, Leaves Turn Inside You
Sometimes the best hooks come from the bands you expect to be the most difficult and obtuse. I was hoping to get my nerdy-pop fix at the beginning of the year from New Pornographers leader A.C. Newman's second solo album, Get Guilty, and when Sunset Rubdown's Dragonslayer came out, I figured I'd enjoy it maybe once or twice and then set it aside. Newman's album turned out to feel almost like something he could have tossed off in his sleep (which is more of a compliment than it probably sounds like), and his fellow Canadian Spencer Krug's band grew into a worthy New Pornos rival. Not necessarily skimping on his love of noisy tangents or polishing up his unstable, yelping vocal style, Krug jams multiple dimensions of catchiness into each of Dragonslayer's eight tracks. "Black Swan" is at once one of the weirdest and most fun songs I've heard this year, and I could say that also for "Off This Century," from Unwound's final album from 2001. Whether Unwound should've made this a double-album, self-produced it, or started it off with a two-minute keyboard drone is certainly up for debate. With both of these bands, the weird little obstacles and the direct, hummable stuff all seem to come from the same chaotic well. Also, there's no convenient way to mention Quicksand's Manic Compression in this article, but it's pretty damn catchy for an album whose guitars sound like finely honed black-market rebar.
5. Polvo, In Prism / Polvo, Today's Active Lifestyles
Here's an older, re-united band competing against its younger self, and, I think, winning. Not that Polvo's earlier album doesn't fry me alive in guitar-dorkery, because it does, but In Prism better integrates guitar-part-writing with overall songwriting.
6. Antony And The Johnsons, The Crying Light / Aphex Twin, Selected Ambient Works 85-92
I can't think of two things I was less pre-disposed to like (a year ago, at least) than mournful chamber-soul ballads and piles of analog synth. But I was pre-disposed to thinking that curiosity, individuality, and sincerity are dying out in music, especially of the flashy-trendy-new kind. Together, Antony's yearning for "Another World" and Aphex Twin's sampling the "We Are The Music Makers" line from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory were like some combination vision-quest and day-spa for my emotional receptors. And yeah, I'm aware that putting Antony on your year-end list is painfully trendy, but the music itself is anything but. It's a bold rejection of mildness, irony, pandering, technical dumbing-down, and everything about music that made me roll my eyes this year. "Kissed by kindness," indeed.
7-8. Brother Ali, Us, Vieux Farka Touré, Fondo
Here's where my reasons for writing this post start to break down a bit. I certainly listened to old-school hip-hop records that predate Brother Ali's Us this year, and even tried out some West African music beyond Vieux Farka Touré's second album. I certainly don't ignore those genres, but I didn't have a good idea of what I really wanted from either until I heard Us' live gospel-soul instrumentation and Brother Ali's most crisp and powerful vocal performance yet, or how well Farka Touré's guitar work honors his father Ali Farka Touré's legacy, while elegantly spiraling out of that shadow.
9. Wye Oak, The Knot / Dirty Three And Low, In The Fishtank 7 EP
The standard description of Wye Oak's music usually adds up to a nice way of saying "a blend of super-typical indie-rock sounds," and what's more, people who like this couple's music say almost the same thing. Fair enough, but I wouldn't want to see this spirited band lumped in with so much of the juvenile wimpiness that's out there. Even during The Knot's weak points, Jenn Wasner and Andy Stack try at once to soothe the injuries of growing the hell up already, but can't help picking at the scabs a little bit too. It's right there in song titles like "Talking About Money" and "Take It In"—you can make pretty, comforting music without denying that adult life is kicking your ass a little. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low know a bit about that: They're married and have kids, but have been making a living off their music for years. Low's one-off collaboration with Australia's Dirty Three (part of a Dutch label's collaborative series) might be just a vinyl curio compared to either band's actual albums. The two groups recorded these six tracks (including a kick-ass cover of Neil Young's "Down By The River") in kind of a rush as both bands pulled into Amsterdam for a 1999 music festival. Yet it preserves so much of what I love about both, from Mimi Parker's hypnotized croon to Warren Ellis' free-range violin. In that, it's also a fine example of grace under distress.
10-11. Dumate, We Have The Technology, El Valiente, Daceton
I can't really offer a logical argument about why two Madison acts—one a hip-hop band, the other instrumental-rock—made my ranking. I usually keep my national and local best-of lists separate, because they technically run on different sites. All other considerations aside, these albums simply popped into my head when I asked myself: If my apartment was on fire, which music from this year would I grab? (Yes, I literally do have to ask myself that, because it's the only alternative to the bullshit neuroses I'd otherwise put myself through at year-end-time.) I don't have a good older parallel for either of these, but I've come to realize that your relatively unheard-of local bands (if they offer enough diversity and don't just meekly follow cues from better-known artists) can add just as much to your musical base as anything else. I also feel lucky in that I don't have to think of the local bands I like as just "pretty good for just local bands." Instead, a lot of them have actually kept me curious about certain genres, changed my mind about some things, and informed my standards.