2009 in Review: Music

2009 gave us a lot of success from musical projects that looked like surefire failures. The return from a long hiatus of a band with a deceased member? Check. The supergroup consisting of not one, not two, but three rock giants? Check. A collaboration between the Black Keys and the Wu Tang Clan (among others)? Check. Yet another Jack White side project? Check. Each of these projects far exceeded my admittedly low expectations.

But, much as I enjoyed all the above mentioned albums, none of them accomplished anything truly transcendent. Only one album really blew me away in a way that matched pure entertainment value perfectly with originality and depth: The Mountain by Heartless Bastards. I’m shocked I’ve seen virtually no mention of this album as the year ends and everyone and their mother organizes their opinions into top ten lists.

Album titles rarely carry much meaning, but I can’t think of a more appropriate one for the Ohio band’s masterwork than The Mountain. The album feels both immense and wholly natural. It’s a perfect marriage of conflicting themes; an unhurried pace and weighty emotions expressed through minimal production and loose, natural delivery. The album feels longer than it is, and bizarrely, I intend that as a compliment. It’s an epic accomplished in less than 50 minutes.

To get a feel for the album, listen to the slow, twangy slide guitar of the album’s title track. Or the gospel-like lyricism of “Witchypoo.” Or the mandolin/violin duo on the long but well-paced “Had to Go.” The album has plenty of highlights, but it’s best enjoyed all at once. Don’t expect perfection. A few songs, like “Nothing Seems the Same,” tend to sag under their repetitive structure. But these flaws are part of the charm of an organic album that feels neither rushed nor fussed over.

Onward to my top ten songs:

10. Cage the Elephant — No Rest for the Wicked
This was undoubtedly the weirdest song on mainstream rock radio this year, which is largely the reason I appreciate it. It tells the story of a prostitute, a mugger, and a priest who steals from his congregation, all trying to rationalize their actions. The slide guitar and speak-singing recall Beck, while the cast of amoral characters recalls the Cold War Kids’ first album. Imagine if those got together for a drunken jam session. But there’s something infectious about it. It manages to be catchy even while the lyrics don’t quite match the beat. Its sloppiness is part of its appeal.

9. Blakroc — Telling Me Things
It was a pretty dire year for hip-hop. Brother Ali and Wale were pretty good, but their music covered well-trodden ground. Inexplicably, the most original hip-hop album of the year came from the Black Keys, working with producer Damon Dash and a slew of big name MCs, including Mos Def and few Wu-Tang members. The Black Keys’ instrumentals and background vocals lent far more texture and subtle variation than one might expect over songs with otherwise mostly generic verses. The best example of the success of the project is “Telling Me Things.” The drums snap, the guitar echo with reverb, and RZA has some pretty funny lyrics about a former relationship based on ridiculous lies. (“I told her I was a clone/And there was probably three of me.”)

8. Band of Skulls — Cold Fame
Band of Skulls’ debut album Baby Darling Doll Face Honey was a completely unexpected joy from this past year. I only picked it up because it was ridiculously discounted on iTunes, after hearing the single “I Know What I Am” and reading a review that made the band sound interesting, even if the reviewer wasn’t too enthusiastic about it. Though short, the album progresses from catchy garage rock in the spirit of the White Stripes to acoustic ballads touching on the blues. The lead single is incredibly infectious, and would certainly be a candidate for this top ten, if not for the album’s closer “Cold Fame.” It gets off to a slow start, with soft drumming, guitar notes left to ring, and a vocal duet. It builds into a climax over six minutes without changing the volume much, but rather the earnestness of the singers’ voices and the strumming frequency.

7. Alice in Chains — A Looking in View
Replacing a dead member and returning after a decade-long hiatus sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Alice in Chains fared much better than anyone could have guessed. It worked for several reasons. One, Jerry Cantrell was probably more of a creative force musically than the late Layne Staley. Two, while new vocalist William DuVall doesn’t have the same rawness Staley brought to the band, he’s talented enough on his own and doesn’t sound like a weak impersonation. Three, the new lineup toured for four years before recording an album, taking real effort to establish a new dynamic instead of assuming the old one would remain. Four, the music sounds more like it’s picking up where it left off, rather than trying to recapture the glory days. “A Looking in View” definitely has a late AIC feel to it — heavily distorted metal guitar work under harmonious vocals that runs just a tiny bit too long. It’s an expertly made look back at a sound that’s been mostly absent since the mid ’90s.

6. White Rabbits — Salesman (Tramp Life)
White Rabbits’ It’s Frightening was produced by Spoon’s Britt Daniel, and it showcases the same effectively layered simplicity that has become Spoon’s signature sound. This is by no means a insult — more Spoon is always a good thing. Since nearly every song on the album is at about the same level of quality, I could’ve just as easily highlighted the Clash-referencing “Rudie Fails” or the piano-pounding “Midnight and I.” I chose “Salesman (Tramp Life)” because it’s one of the least spare and perhaps the least Spoon-like. Multiple guitars, distinct bass, and overlayed vocals are juggled expertly, creating a nice subtle escalation without sounding dense. This song’s the one that will make me return to this band in the future, no matter who’s producing.

5. Heartless Bastards — Out at Sea
Tough to pick a “best” track off the awesome and sprawling The Mountain, but “Out at Sea” manages to be the song I return to  most often. And who could resist it? The guitar chugs out a few grungy chords while the drums add plenty of flourishes to a catchy and simple beat. Erika Wennerstrom’s vocals are effectively soulful, as always. On an album full of epic and sprawling tracks, the most consistently enjoyable track is this single-worthy dose of barroom rock.

4. The Dead Weather — 30 Feet Tall
In the documentary It Might Get Loud, Jimmy Page compares the escalation in “Stairway to Heaven” to the buildup and climax of sex. There’s a short list of songs that work that same structure truly masterfully, Metallica’s “One” and Lynrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” are obvious choices, but I’d also include Radiohead’s “There There” and Tool’s “Lateralus” (the latter having multiple mini-climaxes over it’s nearly 10-minute running time). After this year I have to add “30 Feet Tall” to that list. Easily the best song from the supergroup, it features a pair of explosive guitar solos from Dean Fertita, Alison Mosshart wailing like a rocker and crooning like a lounge singer, and Jack White impressively drumming on his original instrument of choice.

3. Rodrigo y Gabriela — Buster Voodoo

The guitar-playing duo from Mexico has a truly distinct sound, not very concisely described as acoustic Latin metal instrumental. It was a bold move to ever-so slightly tamper with that for their second studio album, and a massive surprise that it paid off so well. Each song on the album is dedicated to a different artist that inspires the duo — in the case of “Buster Voodoo,” Jimi Hendrix. It’s easy to hear the comparison. While the soloing in the middle still sounds distinctly Latin, the low notes of the main riff (and later, the understated use of the wah pedal) offer homage to Hendrix’s rhythmic crunch.

2. Them Crooked Vultures — Scumbag Blues
Them Crooked Vultures boasts one of the most impressive pedigrees of any supergroup I’ve ever heard: Josh Homme, Dave Grohl, and John Paul Jones. Tackling both lead guitar and vocals, Homme is clearly the dominant force, but Grohl and Jones add layers of depth and polish to his addictive hard rock riffs. The best example of this is “Scumbag Blues,” which nails the same perfect power trio blend perfected in the ’60s by Cream. In fact, the main riff sounds a bit like something Clapton would have written, and Homme  sounds a bit like Jack Bruce during the verse.

1. The Thermals — Now We Can See
Sometimes all it takes to write a great song is your classic three-piece band, a handful of major chords, and a hook you’ll be singing along to on your first listen (oh-way-oh-oooh-oh-ohhh). The end result is deceptively simple, but worth so much more than the sum of its parts. This is one of those songs that’ll slap a smile on your face no matter how many times you hear it.

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