Wednesday, January 06, 2010

SR's Best Albums of 2009


Scarcity of Tanks, No Endowments
Julian Lynch, Orange You Glad
Atlas Sound, Logos
Intelligence, Fake Surfers
OOIOO, Armonico Hewa
Eat Skull, Wild and Inside
Woods, Songs of Shame
Nothing People, Late Night
Black Dice, Repo
Mount Eerie, Wind's Poem
Subway, Subway II
The Strange Boys, And Girls Club
Memory Tapes, Seek Magic
The Hunches, Exit Dreams
Lotus Plaza, The Floodlight Collective
Atom, Liedgut
Tim Hecker, An Imaginary Country
Wet Hair, Dream
CFCF, Continent
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t: A lot has been said about the Pains of Being Pure At Heart's self titled debut this year, but what stood out to me the most was its boldness and simplicity-- in essence, it came off as a well crafted and joyous break from a lot of the trends we've seen throughout the past decade, even if such effect was unintentional. Listening to highlights such as "Come Saturday" and "Tenure Itch" felt like a triumphant call to former indie pop nerds and people who were conscious of underground music before the Strokes (or even Nirvana) to once again embrace a simple guitar pop record that took influences from C86 and Shoegaze but also recalled what one might refer to as "college rock," a term used to describe the more pop oriented, pre-grunge underground music played on college radio stations in the mid and late 80's. Although there have been plenty of fashionable groups that have borrowed from C86 over the past few years, the Pains record actually felt more like an artifact of that time than any other, and the fact that it also inspired flashbacks to Lewis Largent and early Teenage Fanclub videos only made the fantastic songwriting feel that much more important, because in the end, this record truly does measure up to many of the best records that were actually released during the era from which Pains took inspiration in the first place, and it was quite refreshing to hear a collection of songs that almost ignored the last ten years all together. Genre exercise? Perhaps a bit, but it was nice to be reminded of the extraordinary rush that "indie pop" has mostly failed to provide for the better part of a decade.

Black Meteoric Star, s/t: DFA's Gavin Russom seems to have spent the past several years tragically flying under a lot of peoples' radars, and although his Black Meteoric Star project probably won't elevate him into the realm of hipster electro superstar, it certainly cemented his reputation as one of the more tasteful and talented electronic producers to have emerged in the past decade. Like a strange mixture between Tangerine Dream, Manuel Gottsching and Acid House, Russom utilizes exclusively analogue equipment here to create a record that overwhelms the listener with the woozy wobbles of the Roland 303 while using repetition and compositional simplicity to allude to early electronic music, resulting in a highly psychedelic yet tangible dance music experience that serves as a very effective reminder of why people like Steve Aoki need to be ignored for eternity.

Dam-Funk, Toeachizown: Although it might seem a bit ridiculous to refer to an artist that spends time remixing Animal Collective tracks as "Gangsta" or "G-Funk," much of what you've read about Dam-Funk's stunning epic of a synth funk record is absolutely true, and it turns out that its one of the most pleasantly surprising full lengths of 2009. Damon Riddick, aka Dam-Funk, has created a sort of retro-future funk adventure that feels epic in both length (two discs roughly one hour a piece) and content. Riddick has been running a very popular DJ night in LA for a while now, and the record comes off as the perfect soundtrack for cruising around that city late at night with a blunt and not a care in the world, taking cues from 80's synth funk, Prince, early 90's west coast hip hop production, early IDM and contemporary hip bedroom dance pop (as evidenced by his collaborations with Nite Jewel) to create an astonishingly refreshing sound that soars with a keen knack for nasty funk hooks but still feels intimate and relaxed, simultaneously reminiscent of both the inherent isolation and the indifferent, almost vacant sense of calm and satisfaction that seems to pervade Los Angeles at all times.

Tyvek, s/t: Although not everyone seems to agree with me, it felt almost impossible to listen to Tyvek's self titled debut full length without thinking of early Pavement (and by extension, Swell Maps and the Fall), and it was a good thing indeed-- with all of the sub-par lo-fi and chillwave and shitgaze material that's been grabbing so many blogspot headlines over the past couple of years, it's fantastic to hear a slacker punk rock record that actually pulls off this kind of inherently tossed off brilliance without any sense that the group is forcing it or trying to appear is if they aren't trying. Tyvek's mostly nervous, choppy art-punk is certainly full of its own kind of urgency and tension, but the delivery is gloriously amateurish and self aware, and on their first full length, the band sounds as if they're having a lot of fun deciding whether or not to give a shit about anything, and its hard not to identify with their nihilistic plight.

Real Estate, s/t: "Beach Comber," the jaw dropping opener to Real Estate's debut full length, pretty much sells the entire record from the moment it begins-- with a breezy lead guitar line that commands attention with its catchiness while seemingly floating around in a pleasantly warm dream-like head space, the track exemplifies Real Estate's approach to guitar pop and sets the stage for a record that beautifully conveys a sense of sedintary longing for a more pleasant but unattainable past-- the feeling that the party is over, but there's nothing you can or really want to do about it. This sort of topical material has certainly been covered in the past, but Real Estate is undeniably on to something uniquely their own-- although you'll hear bits and pieces of identifiable influences here and there (everything from bossanova to self titled Velvet Underground to the Byrds to Galaxie 500), there isn't one particular sound that comes across as borrowed or overly indebted to anything that has come before it, and the freshness of the group's approach is truly welcome in a year like this. The topics of youthful transgression, endless leisure and suburban disillusionment are all dealt with here in a manner that recognizes the ups and downs in a comfortable yet lonely existence, and Real Estate's true achievement is delivering the kind of emotional depth necessary to explore the aforementioned topics with a gentle, escapist sound that's as easy to enjoy as it is to get lost in.

Matrix Metals, Flamingo Breeze: There are a lot of contradictory pieces of information floating around out there concerning who exactly was involved in the making of this record-- was James Ferraro involved? Is Sam Meringue a collaborator with Ferraro or a pseudonym for Ferraro (its the former, but some people aren't so sure)? Of course none of this is made any easier by the fact that Ferraro once apparently allowed Meringue to release a record under his name, but after a few listens to this mysteriously fuzzy lo-fi dance record, these questions start to become less and less important as the anonymity of its maker(s) sort of turns into an asset for a strange and captivating piece of bedroom dance that doesn't really need a face. Although not extraordinarily different from a lot of the releases that have come from this crowd in the past few years, the Matrix Metals project is a more coherent and beat reliant record than you might expect-- reminiscent of the sound of a worn out early 80's synth funk or disco cassette, Matrix Metals focuses on rhythm and succeeds in the sense that it takes some of the most captivating parts of the Ferraro/Ducktails/Not Not Fun tape culture sound and streamlines them to make them more coherent and even kinda sorta danceable. It's a tough sell for an aesthetic like this, but a successful one none the less. Sure, there isn't an incredible amount of new ground covered here, but Flamingo Breeze is enough of a compositional achievement to be a must have for fans of this scene, and for those interested in delving into the world of Ferraro, Clark and Meringue for the first time, Matrix Metals is a fantastic place to start.

Pictureplane, Dark Rift: Although classic house and tongue in cheek 90's commercial dance influences are anything but novel these days, Pictureplane's Dark Rift sounded like the record I had been waiting for someone to make for a long time now. Rather than coming off as a throwback or an obvious pastiche ready made for the speakers at Urban Outfitters, this music presents itself as a well worn collection of fuzzy memories of dance music's past, working within the structures of Acid House, Dancehall and MTV's The Grind to reference the collective foundations of contemporary dance music as abstractly as one possibly can while still crafting what are essentially pop songs that, in fact, can be danced to. This is undoubtedly a party record, but its a smart one, and its standout tracks constantly bring one thought to mind-- why hasn't anyone thought to do it like this before?

Ga'an, s/t: Chicago's Ga'an sort of came out of nowhere for me this year with a self released record that took inspiration from goth, prog, krautrock and drone and then twisted them all up to make something surprisingly unique and lacking in foundational history. It's been somewhat difficult to acquire a whole lot of useful information about this band for me, but the engaging and dark ride provided by the only recorded material I've heard from them speaks for itself, and if you are able to get your hands on this release, you'll probably agree that its probably only a matter of time before we start finding out a lot more about this group.

Sun Araw, Heavy Deeds: This was certainly one of the head-fuck records of the year for sure, but Sun Araw's latest went far beyond hip stoner fodder, digging deeper into the psychological make up of its creator in order to mine some truly inexplicable but endlessly fascinating ideas that felt bolder and more important than anything Sun Araw had done up to this point. Raw and infectious funk serves as a background structural base for much of the record, with eerie vocal samples dancing around in the foreground as Cameron Stallones constructs massively joyous, loosely structured odes to Gospel, synth driven psyche rock and drugged out paranoia. There's a tangible dark side to all of it, and the contradictory unease and bliss found within these tracks makes them difficult to define and impossible to deny.

Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms: It seems almost pointless to start a discussion about the increasingly rapid buzz to backlash cycle in the MP3 blog world these days, but the criticisms of Neon Indian's self assured debut were mostly so off base (at least in the comments sections of this website), that one can't help but wonder what exactly it was that motivated such harsh words. How did Alan Palomo put this together? What samples did he use? What ideas did he borrow? Has someone done this before? Does he play "real" instruments? Is Palomo even old enough to remember the 80's? I can honestly answer all these questions with "I don't know and I don't give a shit," because Psychic Chasms' primary accomplishment went far beyond stroking nostalgia or being the best "chill-wave" album of the year. Instead, Alan Palomo transcended both his old projects and the ridiculous "genre" that Neon Indian helped birth with a selection of endlessly catchy pop songs that showcased his ability to simply write better music and present it in a more compelling manner than almost anyone attempting anything similar these days. The fact that he also happens to be better at marketing himself and making his music work for him than most people his age certainly isn't something to hold against him, either. Instead, the h8rz should take a time out and realize that this just happened to be Neon Indian's year, and Psychic Chasms did a lot to demonstrate that for once, a blog buzz sensation might have a real chance at having more than one good turn around the hipster marketing cycle.

Kurt Vile, Childish Prodigy: I can't believe I'm about to write a paragraph in support of a record that sometimes reminds me of Bob Seger, but in a decade in which more or less everything has become fair game for reinterpretation in underground pop music, it really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention. Of course there's been quite a buzz brewing in honor of Philadelphia's Vile for more than a year now, and although he's been associated with a lot of the more popular "lo fi" names that you're already familiar with, Kurt Vile approaches his sound with an entire different result in mind. Although alluding to lo fi indie pop and even drone here and there, Vile's shining moments come in the form of salt of the Earth rock songs that are full of nods to Americana, the Boss, Tom Petty and other straight forward rock n roll mainstays while also maintaining the intimacy of a bedroom pop songwriter who might easily be making music only for himself. This low key feel works quite well throughout, and instead of conjuring up images of rock n roll icons, the tracks on Childish Prodigy inspire images of a group of guys in a basement who are themselves recalling iconic American rock and making it their own, and the result is considerably more immediate and endearing than almost any other guitar rock record I've heard in quite a while.

Emeralds, What Happened: These days it seems like drone records are a dime a dozen, and there aren't too many other genres covered on this website that are more prone to sameness and ambiguity when the material is mediocre. Cleveland's Emeralds distinguished themselves from the pack this year by crafting a collection of compositions that are more moving and memorable than most would expect from the kind of band the revels in synth experimentation and counts Brian Eno and Popol Vuh as influences. The beauty lies in the movement of these pieces, which draw from early ambient music and electronic drone as the listener is brought up and down along with the build ups and breakdowns, hanging on every note while never quite knowing what will come next. This kind of music is difficult to describe and the experience of listening to it varies more from person to person than is possible to imagine, but Emeralds are clearly tapping into a sound and a feeling that many of their peers don't seem to be aware of, and the proof reveals itself slowly and unexpectedly, just as a record like this should.

Bibio, Ambivalence Avenue: I'm quite certain that many long time Bibio fans probably reacted to Ambivalence Avenue the same way I did the first time I heard it: "Wait, this is Bibio?" With Ambivalence Avenue, Stephen Wilkinson branched out quite drastically from a stylistic standpoint, moving away but not totally abandoning his Boards of Canada/British Psyche folk roots while exploring everything from lo-fi funk to dance pop all while somehow retaining enough of his signature sound to keep most of his fanbase quite happy. The big changes found on this record could have easily ended up sounding unnatural or forced, but Bibio pulls everything off remarkably well, exploring new territory and sounding extremely comfortable doing it-- this is certainly a breakthrough for an already fascinating project.

Blues Control, Local Flavor: Although its perhaps the most overtly "rock" record to be found in Blues Control's impressive discography (which still isn't really all that straight forward), Local Flavor loses almost none of the uniqueness and mystery found on other Blues Control releases while diving into twisted psyche rock full force with newly developed awareness of strucure. This is clearly the strongest release as of yet from this group, and one of the more conceptually adventurous records to be put out on Siltbreeze in the past few years.

Ganglians, Monster Head Room: Ganglians are a group that seem to have gotten their shit together about as quickly as one could possibly hope-- Monster Head Room was the second record they released this year, and it stood out head and shoulders above their previous material with more fully fleshed out ideas and stronger pop leanings. Throughout the record, Ganglians take on a lot of different inspirations and sounds-- think Beach Boys, Garage Rock, CSNY, Bakersfield, and 60's psyhe pop, but they manage to own it all, with startlingly catchy tracks such as "Voodoo" and "Violent Brave" that might demonstrate a great deal of promise, but primarily satisfy on a much simpler and more enjoyable level.


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