1. Yob – The Great Cessation
Yob was one of the first bands I discovered when I got back into metal. Their combination of epic build and sustained release is like a snapping wire in a vacuum, the tension building until it breaks and then carries that momentum indefinitely. Listening to this changes my state of mind. It isn’t a meditative cleansing like Grandeur Of Hair, but a kind of heightened awareness; a releasing of constraints that keep things distant. I swear I have a better understanding of the world and its possibilities afterward. Also, it does a damn good job of freeing me of whatever hangups I was fretting about before putting it on, thus living up to it’s title. All this justification of purpose should not downplay just how amazing this album sounds. Scheidt’s vocals have never been better, from his clean soaring lines to his growls of multitrack menace; the band has never sounded as together, the moments of space amidst the tumult natural and effective. This is doom with feeling, as odd as that sounds.
2. The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come
Confession time; I’ve always enjoyed John Darnielle and company live, but none of the previous albums has held me all the way through. It isn’t that they aren’t quite good (particularly The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed), but something about them seemed a bit too much. I chalk a lot of this up to production, as a two hour show filled with those songs never seemed too long. Here, Darnielle and engineer Scott Solter have captured something in the studio that immediately grabbed me and held me straight through the album. It isn’t an easy listen; lyrically, it can be as harrowing as much of the earlier work (“Matthew 25: 21” is gut-wrenching, and to follow it with the cheerful resignation of “Deuteronomy 2: 10” is a 1-2 punch like few others), but the sound – the sound! – is amazing. “Hebrews 11: 14” is the single best sounding piece of recorded music I heard this year. The punch of those drums; John’s voice warm and forward, the resonance like a small apartment living room; the fluttering orchestration from Owen Pallett (if the swell at the 50 second mark doesn’t give you goosebumps you’re dead), the piano ANNOUNCING itself before stepping back; the whole effect is the aural equivalent of a time-lapsed spring dawn. [Editor’s note: I wrote this up, completely forgetting the last bit I posted here was basically the same thing; decided to leave it as is for the laughs]
3. Willie Nelson & Asleep At The Wheel – Willie And The Wheel
The equation was simple: Willie Nelson + Asleep at the Wheel x Bob Wills tunes = a blast. Is it the best thing the artists have done. No. Is it amongst the best of Texas Swing? No. But does everyone involved, including the listener, have a good time? Hell yes! If you’re not in the mood for this, it’ll put you in the place to enjoy it, and if you’re in the mood for it nothing is better.
4. Bloody Panda – Summon
I can’t explain my attraction to doom metal. I just love slow, lumbering, low-end focused stuff. If I was to be unkind, I could say it’s a form of self-love as I fit all those descriptors, but there’s more to it than that. I find it cathartic in a way I don’t find death, grind or black metal. I was always a nodder more than a mosher, even at punk shows I’d close my eyes and try to just be enveloped by the sound (this led to me getting kicked in the head more than once because I wasn’t paying attention). Bloody Panda marries doom to an art metal aesthetic I really like. Unlike the Yob, which I find transformative, Summon is all about the sound. I love listening to it, and the more I play it the more my love grows. The mix is good, with vocalist Yoshiko Ohara nestled – nay, enveloped – within a wash of guitars, organs and pounding drums. The DVD that comes with the album is an abstract, discomforting video for centerpiece “Miserere”, and really should be seen. It has STATEMENT written on it in big, arty capitals, and the combination of music and visuals is one of 2009’s singular achievements.
5. Madder Mortem – Eight Ways
If you had told me at the beginning of the year that I would like a female-fronted prog-metal band with a singer that even vaguely reminded me of Grace Slick I would have puked on your shoes. Yet, here it is. I hate Grace Slick to the point of actively avoiding her voice for at least fifteen years (I’m sure my idea of what she sounds like is in no way related to the reality); whether Agnete M. Kirkevaag vocally resembles her is kind of beside the point. I freely admit to favoring male vocals over female, especially in metal (which makes no sense – most of my favorite metal vocalists are so because they have a range more associated with women than men), but Agnete intrigued me from the first note. I like the tone of her voice; her shrieks don’t sound particularly shrill, which is not always the case, and her “normal” singing voice is smooth but not overly sweet and definitely not cloying. There is a touch of Faith No More in their sound, which I will always count as a huge plus. Marrying that to a mix of 21st century melodic death metal and 70s Judas Priest, but coming out with something more than the sum of its parts, Madder Mortem were the big surprise of 2009.
6. Joe Henry – Blood From Stars
I’ll buy anything Joe Henry records. With that out of the way, this is the second best thing he’s ever done (the best is Tiny Voices, which was #9 in my best of the decade list). Like Tiny Voices, this sounds like a band and not a group of musicians; the playing is loose, feel over lockstep precision (his last album, Civilians, is very fine but a little too perfect). His voice is passionate and strong, but again, like the band it’s not afraid to slip now and again if the point is made. Tiny Voices was an after-hours album, the audience for it secondary to its importance to the musicians. This sounds like the next afternoon’s set; a tired band who pushed too hard, flew too close to the sun, now knowing that the audience will be there if they’re a little safer, a little less adventurous. That it is safely within the band’s wheelhouse doesn’t make it less enjoyable. I love me some metaphor, straight up or mangled.
7. Ancestors – Of Sound Mind
I hate jam bands. Aimless noodling is like elective dental surgery – sure it takes skill to perform but why would I want to be on the receiving end? This Ancestor’s record comes perilously close to jamming on numerous occasions, but doesn’t cross that fine line. Maybe it is the space-rock vibe that saves them, as I have a patience for early 70s Floyd and Hawkwind I don’t have for the Grateful Dead and their dirty descendants. Of Sound Mind is a “heavy rock” album, not really metal but not too far away (there is definitely some Deep Purple and Sabbath and general 70s British blooze in the mix); it’s epic (four 13 minute plus songs with interludes of 1 to 6 minutes in between); it has mediocre vocals and sweet organs. “Mother Animal” reminds me of Julian Cope’s “Safesurfer”, so maybe there’s a touch of psychedelic krautrock too. I can’t explain the heady stew, but if any of that descriptor checks off boxes in the like column for you I’d give it a try. One of the best covers of the year as well, and it looks outstanding in gatefold vinyl. Makes me wish I had a record player.
8. Gay Witch Abortion – Maverick
From the best cover to the worst named band of 2009. This Minneapolis-based drum and guitar duo do something other, more famous, duos fail to do; they rock hard and fast. No blues riffs and clumsy thudding here – this is mix of punk, hardcore, and metal, honed to razor sharpness. I do wish it was instrumental – when the guitarist does sing it just detracts from the magic these two are weaving. I have a knee-jerk reaction to most bands with such minimal instrumentation (I have no use for the White Stripes or Black Keys, for example), especially – as an untalented ex-bass player – one with no low end. This two manage to allay those fears through sheer ferocity and downright awesomeness. Good luck finding this in a store (neither of my local indie shops could get it). It is much easier to order directly from the label.
9. Tinariwen – Imidiwan: Companions
Much as Joe Henry’s Blood From Stars was a laid back variation on a prior masterwork, Imidiwan: Companions is the laid back followup to the intensely direct Aman Iman: Water Is Life. Like that prior work, my friend Jay told me they had a new album, and once again, I love the sound of it. I haven’t read the lyric translations, so they may be just as bleak and impassioned as before; however, the feel of the record is much more relaxed. Perhaps the success of the last gave the band a little breathing room for the first time in their roughly twenty year career. Maybe the West has softened them, as the saying goes. Regardless of the reason, Imidiwan: Companions doesn’t stir my soul the way the prior record did; it just kind of tucks it in and nuzzles for comfort. Oh yeah, that metaphor is a mess. Deal. Just listen and enjoy the music.
10. Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus Three – Goodnight Oslo
It had to be on here somewhere. Let me start by saying this is Robyn’s best work this decade. Let me continue by quoting everything I said about it on ILX:
“The new Venus 3 album, Goodnight Oslo hits next month. As expected, it is out in the wild already. On first listen – Wow! The difference between this and Olé! Tarantula is bigger than expected; whereas Olé! sounded like Hitchcock songs with some new backing, Oslo sounds much more organic and cohesive. These songs sound like they were written with the band in mind. The production is also notable; there is a 70s feel to much of it, with some great horn parts, female backing vocals, and general AM radio vibe. Not that I wasn’t going to get this day of release, but I’m psyched. More thoughts after I’ve heard it more than once.” – 1/30/09
“Out today! CD sounds better than the leaked MP3s. Digging it immensely – P4k wrong as per usual. Popmatters review was much better.” – 2/17/09
“Hey- have more people listened to Goodnight Oslo? One of the best albums of his career, and a high point in a mediocre year.” – 8/5/09
11. The Goslings & Warmth – Heaven Of Animals
More from The Goslings, perhaps all we’ll get for a while, if friends with connections are telling me the truth. It isn’t the mind-melter of Grandeur of Hair, but that’s a good thing; you can’t visit that record to often if you want to keep your brain intact. This collaboration with Warmth is comprised of tracks both old and new, but in no way does this feel like a piecemeal collection of disparate parts; its dark and heavy, scary in places, soothing but cold in others. I think that last bit is what I keyed on – there are moments where this feels like hypothermia (ironic given the collaborator); jolts of sharp pain followed by the creeping comfort of numbness, before the pain shoots back closer, brighter, sharper, then the blanket of numbness takes it away. A wonderful addition to their top-notch catalog.
[Nothing on youtube, but hear a cut on The Goslings Myspace page]
12. Wardruna – Runaljod – Gap Var Ginnunga
This album is only being talked about in metal circles because several band members are/were in some big deal black metal bands; however, beyond an appreciation of classic Nordic folktales and mythology, there is nothing metal about this album at all. It’s atmospheric folk music, made with traditional instruments (bone flutes, goatskin drums, etc.) recorded outdoors to better attune with the spirituality of the land and language. Artsy-fartsy in conception but utterly sincere in execution, I find it soothing and inspiring and quite moving. This is the second album on the list introduced to me (in an indirect way) by Glenn McDonald; his championing of Wardruna and Madder Mortem on ILX’s Rolling Metal thread intrigued me, and here’s a chance to thank him yet again. Thanks Glenn, and keep ’em coming.
13. Mayyors – Deads
I’ve been a longtime fan of the Butthole Surfers, and have been disappointed either slightly or greatly by artists that have periodically been compared to them. Mayyors may be compared to the Buttholes and other bands once lumped under the apt moniker of “pigfuck”, but their brand of noise and mayhem is, as the cliché goes, all their own. They swing and groove, an ass-shaking rhythm section carrying their cacophony forward into crazy tribal skronk. If they ever put out recordings in editions larger than my readership I’d love to own some of it. As it is, my crappy mp3s of their latest 12″ will have to do.
14. Sula Bassana – The Night
I’ve previously mentioned my love of early 70s Hawkwind and Pink Floyd; if you take those bands and filter them through a bit of motorik style krautrock you might just get this latest album by Sula Bassana. It’s a one man band, that man being Dave Schmidt (with a vocal assist from singer Stefan Koglek of Colour Haze on the title track), and here he’s captured that psychedelic space rock thing like a bug in amber. The Night seems older than it is, a lost recording from those halcyon days of cheap weed, strong acid and (I’m assuming) rampant body odor. I think if he had the audacity to title it Space Meddle it would have been on more people’s radar.
[There are a couple of tracks from The Night up on their myspace page, but nothing on youtube.]
15. Zu – Carboniferous
This Italian three-piece (bass, drums and saxophone) signed to Ipecac records, toned down the skronk, upped the fuzz metal din, and blew my little mind. I’d heard them a few times before Carboniferous, and though I respected the racket I didn’t think they could supplant or even supplement the jazz/improv noise I already liked. But their subtle shifts here (greater sense of structure and groove first and foremost among them) struck a fine middle ground. They’ve supplanted the sublime Noxagt as my alternate instrumentation metal of choice (Noxagt loosing their violist and replacing him with a guitarist made them just another power trio). Label head Mike Patton contributes vocals to a few tracks and I have to say they’re the weakest thing on here, which, given my love for all things Pattonesque, is quite a statement; they just kick so much ass without him he seems superfluous.