Thursday, December 17, 2009

Frank Phosphate's Best Albums of 2009

Welcome to the very first part of our year end coverage. Below you'll find Frank Phosphate's thoughts on his favorite records of the year, and within the next few days you'll see mine and DL's lists as well, followed by several all local features, including the local 2009 album reviews post we promised. Again, if you want us to review your record as part of our year end coverage, please email with a download link and clearly label the name of the artist and album, preferably in the subject line of the email. Please do this before the end of the week. Thanks. (SR)

Honorable mentions - Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career, Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms, Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Ashes Grammar, Lilly Allen - It's Not Me, It's You, Destroyer - Bay of Pigs, Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs, Prefab Sprout - Let's Change the World with Music, Inglorious Basterds OST, Leonard Cohen - Live in London

Notable reissues - The Vaselines - Enter The Vaselines, Big Star - Keep An Eye On The Sky, Dolly Parton - Dolly, Damon & Naomi - The Sub Pop Years, Brian Eno and David Byrne - My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, Harmonia and Eno 76- Tracks and Traces

Limits of Control - OST: Boris and Sun O)))) are not artists I particularly stay up with, but their music was a perfect match for Jarmush's dadaist romp. I really liked the movie but everyone else seemed to hate it. The majority of the criticism, from both peers and journalist alike, claimed it was slow, boring and pointless. The exact words that pop into my head when I think of Boris and Sun O))). When people complain about the pretentious artiness of the movie, I imagine sitting them down and explaining-- "This isn't a movie about philosophy nor does it have anything near a complex plot. It is not driven by plot, but rather by brief character interactions and imagery which isn't something done very often in Western cinema. There is nothing to 'figure out' in the storytelling. Just sit back and try to approach it like listening to a piece of Jazz or Classical music." Now if anyone sat me down with a similar line concerning Boris I would punch them in the face, so is the polarizing nature of art. Anyhow, the soundtrack reminds me of the movie and I like that. There are some surprise ethnic tinged tracks thrown through out to break up the monotony a bit. Just like the movie, this soundtrack is a slow journey and can loose your attention if you don't watch out, but the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts.

McAlmont and Nyman, The Glare: I have been a big of Nyman's score work for awhile so I was very excited to hear about this unusual project which is essentially soul music done Micheal Nyman style, words and vocals courtesy of David McAlmont. The album is built around McAlmont lyrics which are all first person narratives inspired by news headlines. These struggles of desperate and all too familiar people work in stark contrast to the lofty avant-garde classicism of Nyman's music. The idea of Nyman's signature staccato serving as the backbone for a socially progressive soul might seem a bit daunting, and upon first listen it can be a lot to wrap your head around. As far as the sound, the best analogy I can come up with would be Prince doing the soundtrack for a Peter Greenaway movie. Much like the films of Greenaway, repeated viewings reveal the beauty in the space between two conflicting ideas. The interaction between voice and song is similar to Antony and The Johnsons, though a lot easier to stomach due to McAlmont's third person perspective on his downtrodden subjects. One of the more challenging and by turn more innovative releases of the year. Exciting stuff. Plus I read they hooked up on Facebook, how about that?

Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: While not quite as consistent as 2007's It's Never Been Like That, Phoenix still delivered one of the most polished and fun records of the year. Phoenix seem to exist in an universe un-daunted by musical trends or fashions. Some tracks work much better than others, but the ones that stand out do so with a Cadillac grade bullet.

Yoko Ono and Plastic Ono Band, Between my Head and the Sky: Funny how the freshest sounding album of the year comes from someone is 77 years old. Ono assembled this new incarnation of The Plastic Ono Band with members of Corneilus, Cibbo Mato and her son Sean Lennon. Under Yoko's tutelage, the band creates an album that we have come to expect from the iconic screecher-- namely, the unexpected. I was also surprised at how accessible this album is. Of course Yoko wears her avant-garde ideals on her sleeve, both musically and socially, but the results here are more therapeutic and less jaw clinchingly forward thinking. If I had to rank my choices, and thankfully I don't, this would be my number one.

Keith Canisus, Waves: Shoegazer album of the year. Big time Coceatu Twins vibe throughout but more Heaven or Las Vegas than Treasure. If you know what that means then you know this is worth checking out.

Cold Cave, Cremations/Love Comes Close: I bought the single "Painted Nails" on a whim-- very rarely will I pass up a record with a topless woman on the cover. Very caustic, very dark, reminiscent of something you might catch at House of Tinnitus but with a pop sensibility that recalls Nine Inch Nails or Depeche Mode. "Painted Nails," along with other early demos and live recordings were featured on the release Cremations. There is a creativity in the recordings that has long been missing in the genre, like since the 80's. Love Comes Close, the full length LP re-released through Matador, shows their progression into less experimental and harsh realms and streamlined, albeit very dark, synth-pop territory. This initially pissed me off but I shrugged my shoulders and came to terms with the fact that it is still an awesome album. The band utilizes a diverse array of synth/gothic influences to create distinct nuggets of modulated sorrow. Very dark, but less tongue in cheek than you might expect. Side B opener "The Trees Grew Emotions and Died" is my favorite track of the year.

The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath: There are certain bands that you can count on to release a solid album every season, and The Clientele is one of them. God Save the Clientele saw the band moving away from the hazy lofi pop of previous releases and into more polished and produced territory, some say to a fault. Bonfire does a great job of retaining the maturity of the band as performers but recalling back to those rainy fall nights of the early E.Ps.

Royksopp, Junior: Without a doubt the best electro-pop album of the year. The Norwegian duo have totally abandoned the electro-chill of their brilliant debut and have elected to build on the unapologetic post modern dance pop of The Understanding, which was good but showed a band trying to find their foothold, something they accomplish here. Even though it is electronic and has the trappings of dance music, this album would fit in better as score to a sci-fi movie than on the dance floor. The album features an array of female vocalist (Lyyke Li, Robyn Karin Dreijer of The Knife) that help bring soul to the synthetic sound the music, and although the soul may be that of a robot, it's a robot that is ready too boogie in a post-modern disco of inequity.

The Pastels/Tenniscoats, Two Sunsets: Not content with reliving the glories of old, The Pastels teamed up with Tenniscoats to make this sparse yet engaging album. This one came totally out of left field for me-- I had actually never Tenniscoats before, which I quickly corrected, and I always like The Pastels even though they are not one of my favorite bands from the C86 era. Even though both bands could fall under the "twee" category, they approach it in very different ways: The Pastels with their guitar based jangle pop and Tenniscoats with their sparse, electronic, Mum like experimentation. On this album, the bands somehow marry these two very different styles together into something new and refreshing. The two have no concern for the conformity of either genre and allow the art to explore and grow into an expectantly fragile but emotionally rich experience. The hazy, childlike mood had the potential of becoming wary, but the pacing is handled with such care that it works from start to finish.

Bricolage, ST: These Pains of Being Pure at Heat label mates share a love for 80's indie pop and are not afraid to show it, but Bricolage's approach is rooted in crisp guitars and vocals similar to Orange Juice or Vic Godard as oppose to Pain's fuzz worship. While it would be easy to cry rehash here, the music is done so well that it just doesn't matter. Plus it's not like this music is attempted too often these days, anyway. One of the things I love about indie-pop is that it has taken shape in so many different forms over the years that it's possible to create fresh sounding music by imploring the wellspring of stylistic choices. Of course this is all music that caters to a niche of people who over analyze things like this, so if you're not in the boat already this probably won't provide anything to lure you in. But for those of us still clinging to our copies of You Can't Hide Your Love Forever, this is a warm and welcomed addition to the cannon. Also Slumberland, Bricolage and Pain's label, have been distributing this kind of music since it began so I think that helps support the idea that this new wave is an extension of the previous and not just an emulation.

God Help the Girl , ST/Stills: While the details of the plot might be sketchy, the album is written around three central female singers and their tales of loneliness, social misfits, un-requited love, taking mushrooms and sensual sponge baths. I have always appreciated the way Murdoch is able to shape a song from begging to end, not relying on a catchy chorus or flash to keep his songs going. All of his songs are shaped from the ground up, painting stories and vignettes that resonate on a level that all sad sack boys and girls can appreciate. Murdoch started GHtG as an outlet for songs he had written intended for women-- Belle and Sebastian has had two female singers, but neither of them have much in the way of vocal range. These new songs writing specifically for women has given his characters a new dimension and frees up the limitations of his muses' voices. The thematic territory here is nothing new, Murdoch's characters are all beautiful losers, but this time they are more realized characters as oppose to the abstract characters of his previous work. Writing aside, the album is filled with some of the lushest strings and melodies heard in awhile, and although I could go on forever, I want to go listen to this album right now. With out question my most listened to releases of the year.

Pains of Being Pure at Heart, ST/Higher Than the Stars: I already made my case for these guys when they made their way through so I'll leave the gushing for Stoned Ranger, cause I have a feeling this one is going to show up on his list. I would also like to say that interviewing Kip was a great experience-- we talked for half an hour off camera about the music we love and it was pretty rad. That's all.

Jim O'Rourke, The Visitor: When I heard that Mr. O'Rourke would be releasing a new solo album I got tingly all over. I was a little upset to find out that it was going to be a one track instrumental album, but luckily it is more of the Bad Timing variety as opposed to Terminal Pharmacy. I think this is a better album than the similarly guitar driven Bad Timing, and there is much more cohesiveness to this recording. The styles range from Fahey style guitar work to AM soft rock that wouldn't seem out of place on the Delilah radio show. All these ideas are loosely strung together in what seem to be almost a classical constructed orchestra piece with one man at the controls. What can't this guy do? Now if only he would get to that movie he said he was planning on directing.

Kings of Convenience, Declaration of Dependence: When Erlend Oye isn't plucking and cooing and one half of Kings of Convenience he is involved in numerous projects where his sunny side gets to show through. Once every few years he sits down with his bandmate and records some pristine folk very much in the vein of Simon and Garfunkel. Their latest is a concept of album of sorts concerning the hellish parallels between relationships and war. KoC have a very direct and earnest brand of songwriting, at the end of the day it's just them and their guitars. I know alot of people who are uncomfortable with this Bookends style of music making, but you should really try to just give yourself into the far stretching sense of melancholy here that must be taken with a grain of salt. Definitely not for everyone but one of my favorites of the year.

Etienne Jaumet, Night Music: Ok you ready for a descriptive sentence? This album is beautifully composed and ecletic electropop with numerous and crunchy synth lines coupled with ominous sci-fi sax and other unconventional surprises. Very similar to early Air. If you try to listen to this in a car with a decent, bass heavy system, you will undoubtedly throw up.


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