24 November 2009
Music Snob Journal#5: Favourite Albums of 2009... and then some
Originally I wanted to name only 10 of my favourite albums from 2009, but then I thought about it and... well... fuck it... who cares if there's 10 or 12 or 25 or 74... any number would've been arbitrary... as if 10 has any special significance. Pfft...

Anyway... these are albums that released in 2009 that I think are mucho fantastico. Granted, not all of them are "fireworks extravaganza" kind of albums. But I loved listening to them all... some made me feel jubilant, some threw me into a ditch of glitter-sprinkled mud, and some creeped me out... in a good way.

Yes, the albums I chose are kinda predictable. But I can't help it... I am drawn to certain musicians and certain music.

And... alas... even though I wasn't planning on it... I ended up choosing 10 albums... LOL...
A drum roll please...


Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

First time I heard Animal Collective was in 2007 when I was still living in my old place in Brickfields. It was their Sung Tongs album which I'm very fond of. "Leaf House" from that album is just a crazy song. It's an amazing piece of work, and not so much because of the technique but the spirit and the aesthetics of it. I had no idea what they were singing about because it was jumbled up... and somehow the clarity of words is not really the point with AC. To me, their sound is like sonic lasagna that's alive, with its layers actively melting into one another. And I love that quality about their music. It's the madness in the method, the post-neo-hippie-ness of it all. But I'm not a hardcore fan. I liked the Feels album, but not so much Strawberry Jam which evoked for me an overpowering stench of psychedelia rock... I mean I don't mind Captain Beefheart but we've been down that road before. Hmm... but anyway, along came Merriweather Post Pavilion... which for me, is AC's masterwork. And I know why. This album is just overflowing with joy. The songs are unabashed. The spirits soar. Clapping hands punch the clouds. It's like September 11 never happened. Which is why this album is amazing. Because 9/11 did happen. And where so many of so-called important statement bands like Radiohead and Portishead draw their best work from the confusion of what I call the eternal recession, AC just decided to attack that darkness with this visceral album of tribal rave. It just sounds so alive and unfettered, a big fat raspberry to all those boring hipsters who just sit and stare at the party like Fuck Buttons just died. But this music is not pop. And it's far from AC's more experimental stuff. It's closest probably to Panda Bear's Person Pitch album, just faster and with beats. And it's so gratifying to listen to a band that I worship hesitantly come up with such a bold and sweeping statement... that just invites you to jump and throw paint around the place, wear feathers in your hair, make funny hand waving gestures... love love love, especially on the track "My Girls" which is my favourite song of 2009. What an album!


Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

It's no secret that I have a major musical crush on Grizzly Bear. Their second album Yellow House was a beautiful paean to majestic hush, full of swoon and creaking furniture. So I was really looking forward to their second album, which doesn't disappoint. I still don't understand what Veckatimest means... I'm not sure if it's meant to carry any meaning or just one of those made-up words. I'm sure Google has the answer. Veckatimest is different to Yellow House, just as Yellow House was different to their debut Horn Of Plenty. If anything, V is less washy than YH, busier, more percussive, a bit more muscular, and has something to prove... whereas YH was content to be amorphous and shadowy. But V is also more song-based than YH... and the standout track "Two Weeks" is just amazing, all pop cliches put through and yet it works. I've yet to wear out this album because it is as intricately arranged and produced, just as YH was. Everytime I listen to it, it's both pleasurable and puts me on edge at the same time. There's just something about it that reminds me of some of the more interesting post-rock stuff like Bark Psychosis and Tortoise. Hmm...

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes' second album took me by surprise. I liked some songs from the debut Fur & Gold, but couldn't stomach the whole because it was somehow lacking in personality. For a moment there, she was just another goth pop chick with a few interesting ideas, but ultimately a bit too derivative of Bjork, Kate Bush and PJ. But Two Suns, from it's opening track "Glass" (my fave song on the set, together with "Daniel" and "Moon & Moon") is more consistently engaging throughout. I love the rather overwritten and romantic lyrics; it has a certain naivete about it, but it works because she's young, and she's experiencing adult heartbreak for the first time and she's allowed her songs and her words to open up, unlike on the first album. The overall impression is sultry spacious goth pop with a new romantic heart -- and more impressively she manages to breathe new life into this genre after it had been shat on by the likes of Evanescence. It's also very melodic and her singing has really improved. At certain moments, the approach gets a bit cloying, but on the whole, it's definitely swoonworthy.


Doves – Kingdom Of Rust

I'm not really a fan of Brit rock so much but I have a soft spot for Doves... I've been a fan of Doves since their second album The Last Broadcast. I think it's because of the sadness in their music. Even on their most euphoric tracks like "There Goes The Fear" on the aforementioned album, there's the tiniest thread of melancholy that runs through it that breaks my heart. And four albums on, they don't disappoint. Kingdom Of Rust is up there with the rest of the band's output but it's no easy rehash. I don't know how they do it, but each new album from Doves manages to deliver tensions that earlier albums only hint at. In Kingdom Of Rust there's a real sense of restlessness... that Some Cities touched on for a bit, but Some Cities was more about a certain kind of hopelessness, of being stuck. KOR is more about propulsion, borne out of desperation, a kind of a final bid to capture the exuberance that made The Last Broadcast so great. Some people might say that they didn't try hard enough but I don't think they're retreading. I love this album because it just proves what an amazing band Doves is. They're not particularly experimental nor visionary... and they're certainly not witty... in fact, their music is almost workmanlike in its ambitions; working class rhythms, but with sweeping majesty, and romantic yearnings to boot. The title track I love to death -- it's like Ennio Morricone meets... Doves! I really wouldn't be surprised if Doves can't follow up this album. To me they're like polar bears trying to fight against the slush. What would be left after a kingdom of rust?


Junior Boys – Begone Dull Care

It's true. Junior Boys' third album is not as instantly accessible as Last Exit or So This Is Goodbye. But that doesn't mean it's not good. In fact, it's excellent... because it doesn't rely on obvious hooks or instant gratification. The songs, there are only eight of them on this album but almost all are five-minute-plus affairs, build up gradually over midtempo beats, blue-eyed soul, sardonic lyrics... the whole thing is so stoic at first... and a bit forbidding -- like a cold bed. But in terms of exploring android soul, Junior Boys do it so much better than Daft Punk's showy offerings. There's more subtlety here, and the lines blur between what is robotic and what is human. Not that Jeremy Greenspan's sexy understated voice sounds inhuman but coupled with the smooth Kraftwerkian soundscapes and you-broke-my-heart-first sentiments that at times choke the album with an almost tyrannical sense of polish, this -- all neon lights, tungsten yellows, glass and metal buildings, wet city streets -- was the overlooked dancefloor homage to the unsatisfied soul of 2009.


Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

While it's not a total departure from his previous album Armchair Apocrypha, it took me a while to able to appreciate Noble Beast fully... just because it's very layered and intricate. It's also less immediate, but not because it's less melodic... on the contrary, the album is made up of songs that reveal themselves slowly. The first song that got me was definitely "Not A Robot, But A Ghost" (definitely the highlight of the album). In between, there's sunny melodies, wonderful vocal harmonies, Andrew's violin arabesques and haunting whistling. Maybe it's because his lyrics are rather cryptic and self-deprecatng. It's not the sort of thing that lends itself to easy listening... although... it's quite pleasant. Cause it's you know kinda folky. And I love folk with a touch of something different and proggy. But I love this album because out of all the albums I've heard all year, this sounds closest to the kind of music that I myself would love to be putting out there. So yeah, Andrew Bird is definitely an influence and a musical hero. If only I could whistle like him...


Boy In Static – Candy Cigarette

When I first listened to San Francisco band Boy In Static at Johnny and Winnie's new pad, I didn't know anything about them. But I knew it was good music... I'm surprised I didn't hear anything about it online anywhere. I guess good music sometimes takes a while to register for most. Then I read up about them online and found out that they were signed to The Notwist's label. Ah... that explains the similarities. But Boy In Static is definitely no copycat band. I love the Postal Service-ish vibe of the album... and at times, BIS do it better. The interplay between violin lines and electronic beats, the summery melodies, the vocal harmonies and bittersweet lyrics. It's like an album of growing pains, of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. But not puerile... but affecting. And fun at the same time. And that's good... because Xiu Xiu can get a bit intense at times...

Fever Ray – Fever Ray

This is the dark electropop masterpiece of the year. Swampy. Moody. Buzzy. And features The Knife's excellent vocalist Karin Dreijer. Enuf said.


Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz

When YYY released their second album Show Your Bones, I was kinda disappointed. Not just because it didn't have anything that sounded like "Maps" on it, but also that the band sounded rather bored. I only liked "Gold Lion" and "Cheated Hearts" from that album. So I was kinda hesitant about It's Blitz. I like the band's energy but wasn't sure if I could stomach another disappointment... until I heard "Zero" that is! This is for me the dance album of the year! I don't know how they did it, but YYY managed to recapture the exuberance of their first album, by leaving much of their rawness behind and embracing a bigger sound. "Zero" is just an awesome track... followed by "Heads Will Roll", "Soft Shock" and "Skeleton".... my ears just couldn't believe it. How did they do this? Songs so simple, arrangements that make sense, and yet surprising at the same time. It must be Karen O's voice... it's such a special voice. I'm just cut because tickets sold out for their gig in Singapore... LOL... what to do? must be fate. I guess I just have to listen to this album again and again...

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

I loved Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. At the time it was released, I thought it was a worthy contender, if a bit goofy, to Radiohead's Kid A. Here was an institution band following up an opus with an electromash album. And although it didn't change the world of rock like Kid A, it had its moments. But not so At War With The Mystics... which was unfocused and a bit too deliberately goofed. I lost interest in the Lips after that... until I read good reviews about Embryonic, their so-called psychedelic latest album, supposedly their most experimental record since Zaireeka.... I haven't heard that one so I can't comment. But you know, I love Bardo Pond and Tortoise... so how experimental can this be? Pleasantly. I was surprised by the textures, the looseness of the songs, the new energy in Coyne's voice, and the coherence-within-the-incoherence of it. I found myself listening to this in a pleasant haze of exuberance. But most importantly, it makes me want to listen to it more, which is probably my one single most important criterion for choosing it as one of my faves of the year.

Other noteworthy albums of 2009

Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light
'Twas a wonderful album although it doesn't quite measure up to I Am A Bird Now. But stunning songs and performances nevertheless.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus
It's fun.

Micachu & The Shapes - Jewellery
Strange, inscrutable. I love the idea and spirit of it.

Karen O & The Kids - Where The Wild Things Are OST
Very nice.

Dangermouse & Sparklehorse - Dark Night Of The Soul
Nice moody stuff but a bit uneven in some places. I love the tracks with James Mercer and Wayne Coyne.

Seeland - Tommorrow Today
Love it.

Mew - No More Stories Are Told Today
They get better and better.

David Sylvian - Manafon
Blemish, part deux.

La Roux - La Roux

Maxwell - BLACKSummer'sNight
Good return to form.

The xx - The xx

.... I'm sure there are more. I could only digest so many albums in a year... and sorry Whitney, you didn't make the list though I love the "Million Dollar Bill" single... much better than that Mariah crap.

And I really don't know what to make of Lady GaGa.

Another thing: Beyonce, please stop screaming into the mic.

Albums I couldn’t stop listening to that weren’t released in 2009

Judy Garland – At Carnegie Hall
A beautiful boy introduced this to me and I have to say it's one of the best live albums I've ever heard. Judy is nothing short of amazing. And everytime I play this, I'm reminded of wonderful memories I had with that boy.

Milton Nascimento – Travessia
Whoever hasn't heard of Milton must. This is his debut, a mixture of samba, bossa and folk, made magic with Milton's soulful voice.

Various Artistes – Cabaret OST
It's been a while. The boy I fell in love with reintroduced me to the world of movie musicals. And I was reminded of this. Bought the DVD in Singapore and watched it eight times. Although My Fair Lady is still my favourite, Cabaret is definitely up there.

Astrud Gilberto – A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness
Slight of voice, dubious of talent, but enchanting nevertheless... I listened to a lot of bossa this year. Including Antonio Carlos Jobim's Stone Flower and Joao Gilberto's compilations. Astrud makes it inanely repeatable.

Dorothy Ashby – The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby
The find of the year! I read about Ashby the jazz harpist online while looking for stuff about Alice Coltrane (who is one of my musical heroes). More groove and R&B based, Dorothy is just as revelatory!

Portishead – Third
I can't get enough of this band. How did they do it? I love "Hunter" and "The Rip". And of course, "Machine Gun".

Michael Jackson – Thriller
Just a week before his death, I was listening to this on my headphones and thought to myself, what an amazing pop album! I was so shocked by MJ's death. I'm not a big fan... but I grew up with this music. He is definitely a touchstone.

Chaka Khan – Naughty
I missed Chaka when she came to KL this year. But it's okay. I have this classic to listen to. If you haven't heard "Papillon (Hot Butterfly)", you are missing out!

Ryuichi Sakamoto – 1996
I've been obsessed with this album since more than a decade ago. I'm still listening to it... I can't stop. Ryuichi is a genius!

The Beatles – Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
I got suckered into buying the remastered versions of Sgt Pepper's and Revolver - my two favourite Beatles albums. I'm still mulling whether to get Magical Mystery Tour (because of "Strawberry Fields Forever"). Maybe I should just get it... LOL. Looks and feels so nice... of course it sounds fab, it's The Beatles.