By Chris Moore:
Welcome to The Weekend Review in a different time slot, as the first part of a Chris Moore Monday two-fer. This week, I took a look – and a listen – back at all of the great and, well, not so great rock music of 2009. While I plan to release many mini-articles and lists over the next couple weeks, this seemed like a topic of enough substance for a full Weekend Review report. So, without further ado, here are the top ten rock albums of 2009…
My Old, Familiar Friend – Brendan Benson:
Better known this decade as “the other singer/guitarist” in the Raconteurs, Brendan Benson released a power pop gem this year in My Old, Familiar Friend. Track after track, this album harkens back to some of the best, Byrds-iest sounds of the sixties. This is not to say that it is overly derivative, but it is certainly a throw-back and will be a blast for any fan of tight, poppy classic rock songs. And “A Whole Lot Better” is a nod to “Feel A Whole Lot Better,” right?
Keep It Hid – Dan Auerbach:
Even though I initially rated this as a “Maybe Not” in my one-sentence review back in February, I have found this album to have a lot of staying power. I remember thinking that this album might not wear well, that it would lose its initial luster upon too many listens. And yet I’ve found just the opposite to be true. Although Auerbach may be working solidly within a certain genre and sound, he stretches a considerable amount within that classification, incorporating a range of instruments – most notably acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and keyboards. The songs range from gritty blues to soothing acoustic ballads to scorching rock numbers and back again several times before the album is over. “Trouble Weighs a Ton” and “Goin’ Home” are fitting bookends for an album that deals largely in the distortion-drenched currency of the rock guitar soloist. “My Last Mistake” channels the Jimi Hendrix Experience. “Heartbroken, In Disrepair” and “Mean Monsoon” make you wish you could play like this. In the end, this is only Auerbach’s first solo effort, and it certainly doesn’t show.
Working on a Dream – Bruce Springsteen:
I will be the first to admit that Bruce Springsteen is an over-hyped artist, particularly by such popular rags as Rolling Stone, and yet the man can still produce an album. Or, rather, Springsteen and his band. You know, the E Street Band. You may have heard of them. Working on a Dream is thematically and sonically interwoven from start to finish and offers up some very interesting tracks to balance out the more formulaic ones. “Queen of the Supermarket” is a classic story in song, written and sung as only Springsteen ever could. “Outlaw Pete” provides an unusual but fitting opening for the album. “What Love Can Do” is the track that would have attracted the interest of rock music fans back in the days when rock ruled the radio waves. “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Life Itself” are as beautiful as “The Last Carnival” and bonus track “The Wrestler” are bittersweet. This provides proof positive that even this far into the game, the Boss is still progressing, maturing, and making great music.
Horehound – The Dead Weather:
Better known to many as Jack White’s second side project, the Dead Weather have found a niche all their own, experimenting with the odd, the abstract, and the obscure. If the Raconteurs provide a channel for White’s more mainstream rock leanings, then the Dead Weather more than satisfy the other end of that spectrum of musical desire. From start to finish, you can’t quite be certain what they will throw at you next – “they,” of course, meaning lead singer Alison Mosshart, guitarist Dean Fertita, bassist Jack Lawrence, and drummer (that’s right, drummer!) Jack White. “I Cut Like a Buffalo” is great metaphor and great rock. Others, like “Hang You From the Heavens” and “Treat Me Like Your Mother,” are best described as infectious. “New Pony” is the musical equivalent of finding a decimated muscle car in a junk yard, rotting away, and rebuilding it to shine with the best of the modern sports cars. The first half of this album is admittedly stronger than the second half, but this is a debut effort, after all.
Secret, Profane, & Sugarcane – Elvis Costello:
There couldn’t be an album more out of touch with the sounds and textures of modern music, and yet so inherently attuned to the emotions and undertones of that same aforementioned modern music. As I mentioned earlier this year, these tracks sound like they could have come straight off of American folk music figure Harry Smith’s shelf. Finally, I repeat, this is an acoustic album that sounds original and truly acoustic. So many acoustic records of late have been helmed by otherwise successful rock artists looking for a way to stir up their recording process. This feels more authentic than that. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is wonderfully humorous, less subtle than it is chauvinistic. “Hidden Shame” and “Complicated Shadows” are so fun that you’ll quickly forget that they’re scaled-back numbers, while there is no ignoring the stark sadness in “I Dreamed of My Old Lover,” “How Deep is the Red,” and “Red Cotton.”
Wilco (the album) – Wilco:
Few bands could pull off a song like “Wilco (the song),” but Wilco are not like other bands. They’ve been everywhere – alt-country, folk rock, experimental music, alternative rock, jam-mentality work – and now they’ve arrived at a wonderfully entertaining conglomeration of many of their styles from the past fifteen years. The aforementioned track is sincere and explores the true power and potential for healing that music provides. “Country Disappeared” takes a bleaker view of things, while “Solitaire,” “I’ll Fight, and “You Never Know” take a more positive angle. And, of course, “Deeper Down” and “Bull Black Nova” hint at the experimental possibilities that await us on future Wilco recordings…
Humbug – The Arctic Monkeys:
Humbug, for me, is one of the best albums of the year by a band that has stirred up much controversy over their excellence or lack thereof, depending on who you ask. This should be a breakout album, a set of songs with the potential to unite – if only fleetingly – the sensibilities of fans of classic rock, punk rock, and more modern rock. I was certainly surprised at how much I enjoyed this release, and it’s so wonderfully sequenced with sounds layered in all the right ways to keep you coming back to the individual tracks as well as the album as a whole. “My Propeller” sets the tone for the record wonderfully. “Cornerstone” is, well, the cornerstone for this release – it’s a witty, subversive little track that I can’t get enough of. “Crying Lightning” and “Dance Little Liar” are driving, quirky, and catchy gems. “Fire and The Thud” is a highpoint at the midpoint. Although I would never have guessed it before this year, I will now be awaiting the next Arctic Monkeys release with excitement.
The Ruminant Band – The Fruit Bats:
The Fruit Bats put out a little disc called Spelled in Bones a few years ago. I had it recommended to me, so I listened and even liked several of the songs. After a few listens, though, I got tired of it. It faded. But there was something about the sound of the Fruit Bats that I found fantastic, and I felt like I saw more potential in them than they had managed to make good on. I expected the same here, but what I found in The Ruminant Band was a quirky, catchy, lyrically provocative, and instrumentally exciting record. I can find no better way to say it: this is one of absolute favorite little albums of the year! The title track is straightforward, but fun. “Tegucigalpa” is less straightforward and more heartfelt. “Singing Joy to the World” is the best acoustic song to be released in a good long time. “Primitive Man” is one of those great songs that you can entirely lose yourself in as you listen. This is a home run for the Fruit Bats, one I didn’t see coming and yet couldn’t be more excited about.
Backspacer – Pearl Jam:
Let me start off by noting that this is simply not Pearl Jam’s best material. Moving past that, let me continue by saying this is one of Pearl Jam’s most cohesive efforts since their debut Ten. Track after track, this is a Vedder-led attack of tight, finely chiseled rock songs with some real gems. As the title implies, the thematic common-ground throughout the record is that of assessing the issues at hand and erasing obstacles, bad blood, and just about everything that stands in the path to peace, independence, and self-confidence. “Got Some” is one of their best efforts ever, which is really saying something. “The Fixer” and “Supersonic” are perfect tours-de-force and redefine what great Pearl Jam tracks may sound like in the coming years. “Just Breathe” is the closest they’ve gotten to a love song, as Vedder put it in an interview. At every turn, Backspacer pleases and at just about a half hour in length, this is an album, that can be played over and over again.
21st Century Breakdown – Green Day:
Up until the number one band on this list released their masterpiece, I thought that this would be the top album of the year for sure. Instead, it suffers a minor bump down to the second position. Regardless, Green Day has followed up American Idiot – which was hailed as their masterpiece – with an even better album. They have really stretched out for this record, painting no less interesting a story than they did on their previous album. The packaging is like a storybook, and the disc follows suit. From beginning to end, 21st Century Breakdown tears it up and lays it out slowly in equal measure – and sometimes in the same song. By the end of the album, the tone-setting title track has been followed up by what is one of the best concept albums in perhaps a decade. “East Jesus Nowhere” and “Horseshoes and Handgrenades” are driving, unstoppably angry scorchers. “21 Guns” and “Restless Heart Syndrome” are more subtle, beautiful tracks. “21st Century Breakdown,” “Peacemaker,” “American Eulogy,” “See the Light,” and just about every other track on the album contributes in a similar but significant way to the overall theme of the whole. Then there is “Know Your Enemy;” the decision to promote this is proof positive that boneheaded rock really does still sell.
Forget and Not Slow Down – Relient K:
This has been a year of unexpected releases, not the least of which were noted below in Elvis Costello’s acoustic release, the Arctic Monkeys’ masterful album, and the Fruit Bats’ brilliant record. It is fitting, then, that Relient K should score the number one album of the year with a release – not unlike The Ruminant Band – that I expected to like, not love. And yet I love this album. Forget and Not Slow Down is one of the most entertaining, energetic, and thoughtful post-breakup albums that I’ve had the pleasure to hear. In many ways – and this is practically sacrilege – I would place this album in the company of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks and Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full, to name a couple. It is certainly more focused as an artistic expression than an album like Ben Folds’ Way to Normal could ever be. Matthew Thiessen isolated himself from society to work on this album, and the result is clear: the best Relient K album to date. To be fair, I wasn’t a fan from the start, but it appears that I’ve become a huge fan just as the band has faded into the background, this outstanding record being ignored by just about all critics this year. What have they missed? They’ve missed “Part of It,” a somber and catchy song at the same time – a difficult combination to pull off. They’ve missed “Therapy,” a song that I wish I could have available on many a similar drive through the country. They’ve missed the beauty of “Savannah” and the bitter, bile-fueled “Sahara,” the blending of the tracks made possible by the intros and the outros, and a powerful pairing in the final two tracks. Simply put, this is the year’s best album.