As ever, these are “favorite” rather than “best.” This year more than any other, I had trouble ranking my favorites…so I decided not to try. The Clientele made my record of the year, but there are so many close runners-up that I’m just going to count all of them as my second favorite. Especially the first four after the Clientele.
1. The Clientele, Bonfires on the Heath
As I’ve noted, oh, thirty or forty times here, the Clientele’s 2005 record, Strange Geometry, is not only my Record of the Decade, but one of my top 3 or 4 records of all time, so I mean no disrespect to this latest effort when I say that it isn’t a patch on Strange Geometry; it’s still a wonderful record, and one song, “Never Anyone But You,” is unequivocally my song of the year. Alasdair has hinted at this being the Clientele’s last record, which, obviously, I desperately hope isn’t true.
–Malcolm Middleton, Waxing Gibbous
I’ve kind of given up on anyone but John Wendland ever sharing my affection for Malcolm, Scotland’s second-favorite arch-miserablist, but that’s okay. This year’s effort, which apparently may be his last for a while, is every bit as dark and funny and melodic and lovable as its predecessors.
–Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career
Some years ago, I bought Camera Obscura’s first album unheard, after someone or other recommended them to me, and I thought it was boring. This is now completely unimaginable to me, as I have come to think that they are, if anything, underrated, despite being popular (in an indie way); their songwriting and Tracyanne’s singing are really very close to perfect. This is a gorgeous record, start to finish.
–Son Volt, American Central Dust
Yes, it’s a return to form, or more precisely (since I don’t think they ever actually fell off their form), something of a return to the sound of the ’90s version of Son Volt. Which makes it even stranger that my chief reaction to this record when I first got it was to go listen to Okemah and the Melody of Riot over and over again. It turns out that even though the overall sound of this record is immediately appealing, the individual songs need a little bit of time to distinguish themselves. I eventually fell in love with the record, though. (But I still think Okemah is slightly better, she said in a small voice.)
There are some really great sung-by-Chuck-Cleaver songs on this record, more than on its predecessor Left for Dead. I’m not sure if I think that’s a good thing or not, because Lisa Walker is my favorite thing about the band, and more Lisa is better. But either way, this is an excellent record, very nearly as good as Left for Dead (which is my fave).
–Reigning Sound, Love and Curses
People who like Reigning Sound are apparently a little underwhelmed by this record, and I guess I can see why: it’s kind of unvarying in tempo, and it doesn’t have any total knockout songs the way RS’s best records do. But it’s still pretty fucking great. Greg Cartwright can do no wrong, pretty much.
–Greg Cartwright, Live at the Circle A
See above comment re. Mr. Cartwright. Also, I am on a quest to own as many versions of “Drowning,” arguably his best song, as is humanly possible, and this adds to my total.
–Patty Loveless, Mountain Soul II
The fact that it’s not as good as the first Mountain Soul kept me, somewhat irrationally, from warming up to this one for a while. That was stupid. Mountain Soul was a mind-bogglingly great record; that this one is merely superb shouldn’t be counted against it.
–Ashley Monroe, Satisfied
A lovely bluegrass-y country record, on which every song is good. People who know my tastes kept recommending this record to me, and I kept forgetting to follow up on the recommendation. I’m very glad I finally remembered to. Ms. Monroe, who is only 23, is tremendously talented, and I look forward to following her career.
–Stuart Moxham, Cars in the Grass
Stuart Moxham was the songwriter/brains behind Young Marble Giants, and shortly after their breakup, he had a band (mostly just him) called the Gist, who recorded one of my favorite songs ever. I lost track of him after that, but earlier this year, while scouring the Internetz to try to find a copy of said favorite song, I discovered that he’d continued to make records on and off through the ’90s and ’00s. His stuff isn’t as full of blips and bloops as YMG were, but it still sounds much the same–spare, sweet, melancholy, gentle but a little edgy. I’m a fan.
–Ha Ha Tonka, Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South
Ha Ha Tonka are a genuinely original band, which can’t be said about many “alt-country” acts (and certainly not many Bloodshoot Records artists). Their debut was a total surprise to me; this one doesn’t have that same shock of the new, but I looked forward to it coming out for a long time and was glad that it was worth the wait. Brian Roberts is a remarkable singer—I don’t think I’d like the band quite as much if it weren’t for his vocals, which remind me how few truly great young male singers there seem to be these days.
Yes, I do love synth-y dance music, especially when it’s as smart and edgy as this. I keep meaning to go back and get Metric’s other records. This is their fourth, but I had never heard of them until this year, when a guy I follow on Twitter mentioned them and linked to an MP3. I don’t know what made me click the link—my Twitter network is mostly professional contacts, and the fact that we work in the same field is definitely not a guarantee that we’ll share other tastes. (Especially since most of them are substantially younger than me, and for some reason a lot of them seem to like industrial metal.) But I did, and it was love at first listen.
–The Morning After Girls, Alone.
I had given up on the Morning After Girls ever releasing a new record; I think their last one came out in 1992 or something. (Oh, all right, it was 2005. Practically the same thing.) So I was pretty much jumping for joy when I heard this was coming out. I’m not going to say it was worth the wait, because that would suggest that taking four years between records is somehow acceptable, but I’ll grant that it didn’t disappoint. Their sound hasn’t changed, but it’s evolved, and it’s still great: atmospheric, quietly noisy, miasmic, totally satisfying.
–The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, s/t
Unapologetically shoegazy, and very lovable, the Pains are among my favorite new bands of the late ’00s, despite having an excruciatingly bad name. (It doesn’t matter if it’s ironic, as I’m sure it is. It’s still a terrible name.) I’m pretty unapologetically shoegazy myself, at least some of the time, and this ticks pretty much all the boxes.
–Lou Barlow, Goodnight Unknown
I’m a fan of most, though not all, of Lou’s non-Sebadoh projects, but this might be the best non-Sebadoh and non-Dinosaur Jr. record he’s ever done. (Hard to say; the second Folk Implosion record is also really great.) It’s less self-consciously lo-fi than some of the solo and Sentridoh stuff, and his songwriting is really strong. If you love Lou when he’s being all sensitive-guy-Lou, you’ll love this.
–Sam Phillips, Hypnotists in Paris (EP)
Like a handful of other songwriters with cult-sized audiences, Sam has started selling new music directly to fans on her Website. I think it’s a really smart business decision, and as a fan, it makes me really happy because it means a lot less time between new releases from Sam (who has traditionally had long lags between records). And if it’s all as good as this EP, I’ll be really really really happy.
–Vivian Girls, Everything Goes Wrong
I can think of ten reasons off the top of my head that someone could argue that the Vivian Girls aren’t really ready to be on anyone’s best-of list. Among others: their songs all sound the same, and it’s kind of a thin little song to begin with; they’re not going to wow anyone with their vocal and instrumental talents, and they seem to record in a toilet in a subway station. But fuck all that. They hit a sweet spot between early ’80s Brit-post-punk, ’60s girl group, and ’90s lo-fi that just totally works for me. Besides, their playing and songwriting have improved quite a bit since their first record, and the recording quality is more than a little bit better on this one too.
–Arctic Monkeys, Humbug
This is pretty different sonically from the first two, but it still has everything that makes the Arctic Monkeys great: their combination of sarcasm, wit, and lack of pretense, and their talent for writing songs that are nicely reminiscent of a lot of the pantheon of great British punk/post-punk but still entirely original. I don’t listen to them all that often, but when I do, I’m always struck by what a seriously great band they are, one that actually deserves the success and attention that they’ve had.
A few that I wish I liked better:
–Rosanne Cash, The List
–Obits, I Blame You
–Dinosaur Jr., The Farm
And some that I just haven’t spent enough time with yet:
–The High Strung, Ode to the Inverse of the Dude
–The Swell Season, Strict Joy
–Dallas Wayne, I’ll Take the Fifth
–The Tripwires, House to House
–Alela Diane, To Be Still
–Dave Rawlings Machine, A Friend of a Friend
–Echo and the Bunnymen, The Fountain (noteworthy for its very existence, really, and even more so for the fact that it’s really quite good)
I’ll be putting together a comp including songs from many of these releases, as I did last year. Watch this space.
Oh, and one other thing so I don’t forget: I was playing DJ for a while this evening and put on “Truth #2,” a wonderful Patty Griffin song from the Dixie Chicks’ masterpiece, Home. I realized that it came out this decade and that I had forgotten about it in sketching out my best of the decade list. It would be inexcusable to leave it off the final list (which I hope to tackle over the weekend), so I’m mentioning it here to prevent that from happening.
Happy New Year. (And good riddance to 2009, which was kind of a crap year.)