Alright, so this is it. The last year of the decade. As these albums are still very fresh on my mind compared to things released ten years ago, I will be treating this as my proper year-end list for 2009 (a tradition that I've done for the previous two years of this blog's existence). I considered a post summing up the decade with an absolute 'best of the best' sort of post, but why bother. What's here is here. Read through my thoughts on the previous years if you'd like to know what I really thought of my mentionable albums. So, without any further delay, here's the rest of it...
The Appleseed Cast — Sagarmatha
Let's just get this out of the way right now: the band's second best album after Low Level Owl and one of the top ten of the decade, without question. I had a difficult experience with this album at first. The drums were EQ'd and mic'd differently. Chris' vocals were mixed in low with extra intent. Why the buttrock guitar tone at the end of 'South Col'? What the hell, guys? Are you trying to isolate me? Yes, they were, in all truthfulness. They were trying to isolate every person who heard this album into an area of coolly passionate, introspective-obsessed, star gazing wonderment. I mean, bottom line here: wow. They captured the dreamy, chaotic feeling of the self-realization of existing as a single organic being among the vastness of a mostly empty universe quite perfectly for the second time on record. It was released a day before my 28th birthday and I have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that it's only been a part of my life for just over a year at this point. It feels timeless. Poorly mixed-in unintelligible vocals or completely instrumental eight minute tracks, three minute pop songs or six-and-a-half minute long multi-movement epics, it was all here and it still is like a brand new instant classic to me. It's like the perfect extension of Low Level Owl, without the laboring-over of moods. And while Low Level Owl is better because of its consideration for such nuances, Sagarmatha is arguably the more crowd pleasing of the two albums because of its brilliant dichotomy of immediately likable riffs with challenging, ever-evolving soundscapes or obtuse production techniques with honest, minimalist presentations. Truly, if they hadn't already made Low Level Owl, this would be a godlike masterpiece for me. But, as it stands, it's merely the second best album by a band that can lay claim to releasing not one, but three of the decade's most progressive and exceptional albums. I know, in text, that seems drab and anti-climactic to state in such a matter-of-fact way, but I can't even articulate it beyond that; they're just that fucking good.
Death Cab for Cutie — The Open Door EP
I had to get it as soon as possible because it was, essentially, outtakes from Narrow Stairs. It was essentially less produced, but equally as high calibre, material. 'My Mirror Speaks' was the highlight for me. Reminded me of the Smiths more than anything else DCFC has yet done. The tone was jubilant, but the words just as bummed as Narrow Stairs. Overall, it was the sort of super satisfying EP that sounded like the logical extension of its preceding full length. The kind of expectedly great little extra credit project that great bands provide their fans with every so often. Really interested to hear their next move.
Doves — Kingdom of Rust/Instrumentals of Rust
Doves returned from their magnum opus with their most confounding and dense work since Lost Souls. I mean, I really struggled with this one for a good few months. Sure, I picked out a few songs like the title track, 'Spellbound' and the seeming New Order nod 'Compulsion', but for the most part, it was a series of seemingly unrelated, purposely dense mazes of songs whose actual tunes and melodies were seemingly playing hide and seek. A couple months after the proper release of the album, in a move that makes me really question the band's motives, they released a completely instrumental version of the album (on digital download only) titled Instrumentals of Rust. At first, I was cynical as hell. I didn't really care for the album in the first place, and furthermore, why would I want to hear the songs without vocals? Well, eventually, because they are one of my favorite bands, I caved and just went for it. And I'm glad I did. Perhaps hearing the album without vocals was what I needed for the tunes to open up completely, because after familiarizing myself with the songs without vocals, I revisited Kingdom of Rust proper and it sounded like a brand new album to me. It felt like a much more cohesive piece of music as an instrumental album, and knowing that, hearing the vocal version again felt a little more unified and the album just came across as a more understandable piece of art. Context was all it took. Not my favorite Doves album, but I actually consider it a good one after hearing the instrumentals, whereas maybe I would've continued being confused by it if I hadn't.
Jon Hassell — Last Night the Moon Came Dropping its Clothes in the Street
I find it a little comedic that Jon Hassell is essentially making the same music he was thirty years ago and yet, his music still sounds like nothing else. I mean, it's funny in an awesome way, but it's also a little telling: Jon Hassell is one of the most undervalued talents in modern music (even by me; this was his first new album I had purchased since Blue Screen, so don't feel bad). Of course, I am familiar with him through his work with David Sylvian, and the more I familiarize myself with his work, the more I realize just how influential he was on one of my musical heroes. That says a lot in and of itself. This album, like I said, is maybe a bit less dissonant than 4th World or Vernal Equinox, but sounds like a completely logical peer of those works. The whole thing supposes background music, but close listens reveal stellar improvisation and still the best modern interpretation and just an all around general grip on what Miles Davis was trying to do with his mid-70's ambient improv funk. The title track here is absolutely mammoth and such sparsely beautiful works recall a post-modern classical ideal filtered through the thought of music as not so much of a popular medium, but something that is not meant to be immediately understood, classified or criticized; it simply exists for pure admiration. Making comparisons with early Durutti Column or mid-period Tangerine Dream seems relevant, but limiting, while simultaneously, it makes contemporary 'mellowed out' music peers like Sigur Ros and the likes seem like sick jokes. It's a very, very good album. I truly don't think I've fully grasped its complete quality yet.
Bobby Hutcherson — Wise One
All tunes made popular by, or most closely associated with, John Coltrane. As if this weren't a winning enough combo, Bobby brought in guitarist Anthony Wilson (not the same as that Manchester bloke with a similar namesake) and it accented his usual quartet with a wonderful and equally as beautiful tonal quality. The tunes are done justice in the way that Bobby takes the high road and just plays them in the classiest way possible, but without staying too polite or reserved. I mean, just look at the gripping intro to 'Spiritual' for proof that this band was playing these tunes out of pure respect and admiration — not trying to outdo or even recreate what Trane did with them originally. After a couple all-ballads studio albums, this one felt like an album that Bobby could really sink his teeth into, dig in and get passionate about. It shows when listening to the album, as it sounds like his most inspired soloing on record in years. A truly rewarding later period gem from a master that maybe seemed like he had lost the fire. But, as this album shows, he still has as much fire and class as his classic period.
Maxwell — BLACKsummers'night
I still stand by my original review of it. If anything has changed since then, it's only that I've come to an even deeper understanding of the music. After the hype, the built-up expectations, the excitement and the obsessive listening, BLACKsummers'night stands up right next to Embrya as the contender for Maxwell's (so far) masterpiece. Where Embyra was a super cerebral study in obsession, taken to its absolute musical extremes and dabbling into super layered exquisite overproductions, Now and —even more so— BLACKsummers'night are the logical back to basics presentations. Most of BSN has a live-in-studio feeling to it. With such modest presentation and such short running length, it would possibly spell out inevitable disappointment, but in a twisted move, Maxwell presented eight of his best songs ever and a short instrumental outro. Unconcerned with presenting an overworked double extra credit overlong pseudo-masterpiece, he simply took thirty seven minutes to create some of the most heartfelt and passionate music of the decade. And, with a song like 'Help Somebody,' he created an absolute classic for the ages. I have a hard coming to grips with albums as solid as this one. Its length makes it very easily digestible, but the raw emotion and soul-bearing contained within its content makes the grooves and melodies more than just a likable little pastime. Embrya has the edge, simply because it came first, but BLACKsummers'night seems to be the be statement of purpose for a master humbly asserting his mission statement in preparation for the unleashing of his true apex. A manifesto for a masterpiece. Absolutely one of the best of the decade. God, I love this album.
Radiohead — These Are My Twisted Words (single)
Ok, not an album. But it was a confrontational step sideways in the creative evolution of a band that never seems to stop. And it was free! Seriously, have at it. They just want you to hear it. Maybe not quite as good as 'Weird Fishes,' it certainly would have made that second half of In Rainbows better, wouldn't it? Amongst my songs of the decade.
Sonic Youth — The Eternal
Alright, so here it was: the Youth's first 'real' indie label material in over a decade. And guess what? I thought it was a little underwhelming. It sounded like a more garagey version of Rather Ripped to me. Like, they had the same amount of strong melodies to work with, but they just didn't care as much this time, so they turned up the amps and let it fly. I don't know. It's Sonic Youth and it's still good. It just felt a little overlong and, in a completely see-through attempt at reacting at the last album's 'clean' sound, unnecessarily and gratuitously distortionary and loud. Still, good songs. Presentation left something to desired, but I can now look at the Murray Street/Sonic Nurse/Rather Ripped group of albums as somewhat of an epic trilogy of less and less confrontational — but, contradictory, more poignant material. This album feels to me like Sonic Youth being played by the book and while there's good songs ('Antenna,' for instance, rules), they all have that stock Sonic Youth sound that feels like a total regression in 2009. I like it, but I don't. The bonus materials for Matador's 'Buy Early, Get Now' program were definitely fun though.
David Sylvian — Manafon
A complete return to the bleak themes and mostly accapella nature of Blemish. No drums anywhere and stark, minimalist guitar chords struck randomly amidst glitchy white noise and sporadic acoustic bass pluckings. It's been in my life for a good six months by now and the only song that's really managed to strike a chord with me is the album opener 'Small Metal Gods.' Sweet jesus, that song is good. But man, I thought Kingdom of Rust was impenetrable? This album just may as well not even exist, if that's the measuring stick. I've heard the album dozens of times by now, but feel completely unfamiliar with it, if that tells you anything about it. I have no idea how to articulate this music in text. I like it, but I don't know why. I don't understand it, but I feel like I will eventually. It reminds me of other things, but none of those things make immediate sense when I actually compare them to it. A typically boundary pushing, truly challenging work from one of the musicians whom I would consider amongst 'the unimpeachable.' At this point, I can't even say if it's amongst my favorite anything, but I am still absolutely enthralled by it, which counts for something.
Windimoto — Sinister Beauty
Again, a shout for these guys, because they do it from the heart. 'There Are Better Days For Us' counts among my songs of the decade — as a semi-affiliate of the band or not. It just sounds like one of those classic yearning love songs that you'd swear you heard in your dad's record collection. The rest of the album is good, but it is one of those cases where they basically start the record with their best song ever and the rest of the album begs a bit of a deeper listen to fully appreciate. 'Shake it Down' certainly works one of their better grooves to serious success, while elsewhere 'Three Scenes' is an uncharacteristically downtempo spoken word piece that sounds like perhaps the band's most unintentionally poignant piece yet. Overall, a bit more of an involved listen than Travels, but —perhaps in the grand stereotypical tradition— the great, challenging artistic step forward that the second album is supposed to be.
And there it went. The 'ought whatevers' in my ears as a music dork. Hope you dug it.