Moon Best of 2009

Music lovers were treated to a year of buoyant, reality-defying creativity this year.

Sure, the music industry remains mired in a digital-rights quicksand, but that doesn't mean recording artists have to be: Breezing past those problems, they're developing inspiring works that speak to what it means to be alive right now on our fragile planet, what it means to be a sensitive soul confronting a sea of indifference, what it means to dream. This year there were way more than ten records that got me thinking. These are the ones I returned to again and again.

Mulato Astatke and Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information Vol. 3 (Strut). This collaboration between Ethiopian keyboardist/vibraphonist/bandleader Mulatu Astatke and the British collective Heliocentrics looms as the year's most inspiring left-field surprise. Even those who know Astatke—whose jazz/funk band of the '60s is well documented on the Ethopiques series, and whose music dominates the soundtrack of Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers—will be amazed by the bouyant music here. As he's done forever, Astatke basically spices up folk song melodies with jazz-influenced Western harmonies, and his creations spur the members of Heliocentrics toward grooves that suggest the exuberant gospel joy of Charles Mingus' Workshop one minute and trance-inducing acid house the next.

Blk Jks: After Robots (Secretly Canadian). Fearless prediction (or wild hope): 2010 is the year alternative rock shakes off its Vampire Weekend delusions, and realizes that the real thing—in the form of an inspired, wickedly accomplished rock band from South Africa—can be so much more relevatory. After Robots, the jaw-droppingly great full-length debut of Blk Jks, should speed this conversion along. Its mystical invocations and thoughts on the de-humanizing effects of technology are propelled forward by spinning, tumbling grooves and frightful splashes of guitar dissonance, the likes of which we haven't heard since King Crimson

Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (Domino). There's lots going on in here—though the ear might first be enchanted by songwriter Dave Longstreth's off-kilter hookcraft, eventually the more agitated instrumental schemes come rattling along to claim some spotlight. Thing is, the clutter factor is high—at times the juxtapositions sound willfully random, the audio equivalent of an overstuffed antiques emporium. Often what's truly interesting about the songs isn't the primary vocal but the two or three contrasting lines that crisscross it, and that's perhaps why this demanding set has been hailed as visionary and derided as unlistenable.

Magos Herrera: Distancia (Sunnyside). Mexican singer Magos Herrera could easily have devoted this record to nothing but interpretations of classic Brazilian and Latin-jazz tunes. Her readings of "Vera Cruz" and "Inutil Paisaje," two songs immortalized by Elis Regina, show not just consummate poise but a deep understanding of tradition and, crucially, a sneaky sense of invention. Tucked alongside those works are another reason to pay attention to Herrera: Her inviting, super-melodic originals. These describe longing for the archetypical faraway lover in poetic, sometimes astoundingly beautiful terms, and that's exactly how she sings them.

Norah Jones: The Fall (Blue Note). It's a quintessential breakup record, laced with forlorn "come back" cries and refrains that chronicle long nights waiting for the reprobate lover to return home. Happily, though, it's not entirely a croony affair: Jones and producer Jacquire King draw on sounds from the modern hitmaker's toolkit (deep subsonic bass, retro electronic keyboards, haywire electric guitars) yet miraculously retain the intimacy of her previous works. This turns out to be an incredibly effective platform, especially for songs that can seem initially slight. Listen long enough and you realize that the texture (and, occasionally, the busted-apart tone) of Jones' voice sits at the core of these miniature torch dramas, which each illuminate distinct stages in a painful unraveling.

Mastodon: Crack The Skye (Reprise). The only trouble with this, the fourth studio effort from the super-inventive Atlanta four-piece, is that from a distance, it just sounds like run-of-the-mill heavy metal. Dig past the usual elements—the fearsome stack of jacked-up serrated-saw guitars, the thudding bass-drum-driven beats—and you discover intricate prog-rock polyrhythms, chopped up into fine weaponlike slivers and then scattered in all directions. You also discover accounts of a out-of-body experience, thoughts on Russian czars and assorted cosmic notions, these delivered by frontman Troy Sanders with none of the doomy braying that has become metal's most unfortunate cliche.

Maxwell: BLACKSummersNight (Columbia). In this New York Times interview to help launch his first record in 8 years, R&B singer Maxwell declares that he's bored with the pop blueprint—tunes that hinge on a simple theme and an endlessly repeating hook phrase. His solution? He starts with less obvious, sometimes threadbare melodies, and then sets out to alter and embellish them as the tune unfolds. That single shift gives these elaborate productions a pronounced sense of adventure—we follow Maxwell through twisting ad-libbed detours as he searches for genuinely new ways to express devotion, awe, etc. He doesn't find new ways every time, but the search is thrilling all the same.

Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown Music). How bad off is hiphop right now? To my ears, it's almost barren creatively, stuck in such a rut that any reasonably solid offering—like this totally competant, occasionally brilliant set from actor/MC Mos Def—gets hailed as some type of  "major statement." The Ecstatic is not that. But it is among a meagre handful of 2009 hiphop records to link exceedingly smart rhyme-saying jujitsu ("Darwin, darlin'") with rhythms that are far more intricate than the typical boom-bap.

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note). The French electro-pop veterans finally deliver the record that some champions have been awaiting forever—a dizzy confection filled with not just one or two catchy lusty pop songs, but a whole delerious album of them. Even when making wacky lunges into faraway realms ("Lisztomania"), Phoenix manage to remain true to the ideal of pop as uplift. Which, these days, is no small thing.

St Vincent: Actor (4AD). This began as just another laptop record. Annie Clark says she turned to programs like Garage Band to break out of old songwriting patterns. Pointing and clicking, she found  weird assymetrical melodies, and in the process discovered a taste for unusual combinations of instruments. Her often unsettling songs, which she finished in an old-fashioned recording studio, feature odd constellations of clarinets and violins as well as truly ear-stretching vocal harmonies.

Honorable Mentions:

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone; Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut; Bill Frisell: Disfarmer; Rosanne Cash: The List; Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk; Keith Jarrett: Testament Paris/London.

Reissues:

Of course not all of the significant developments in music were new releases. There were also great ambitious catalog endeavors. Among them: The remastered Beatles album catalog (tremendous!); Ella Fitzgerald's previously unreleased Twelve Nights in Hollywood from 1961 and 62; the complete Miles Davis catalog on Columbia, a monster set bundled with a terrific live DVD from 1967; Keep an Eye on the Sky, a box collecting the output of the influential and criminally overlooked Memphis pop band Big Star.

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Comments:

#1 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 12/18/2009 7:52

Glad to see your mention of the Dirty Projectors. Last year, you were asking on the blog for suggestions, and I had always meant to suggest the Dirty Projectors’ “Rise Above,” which is actually all covers of Black Flag songs. It’s particularly interesting to me as someone from LA who listened to Black Flag when they first hit the scene.

But, I really dig “Bitte Orca,” and it’s really the album to hear from The Dirty Projectors. The guitar work is also notable!

#2 from tom moon - 12/18/2009 6:08

my confession re Dirty Projectors: it took a long long time to like this album. sorta went on a very fitful journey of first just not grokking it, then sorta approaching it with deep curiosity, then after listening a few times beginning to sorta “get” it.

people talked endlessly about the vocal stuff, which is great, but I’m with you—the guitar playing is on the great inspired side of weird.

hope all is well and happy holidays…

tm

#3 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 12/19/2009 4:36

I was already a big fan of The Dirty Projectors and it still took me several listens to get into “Bitte Orca.”

I wouldn’t say that it’s a super dense album that one can get only after many listens. But, I think I missed where the album is “in the pocket”—maybe I was distracted or the time just wasn’t right the first few listens.

Also, I started seeing positive reviews that described the album in pretty superficial terms (e.g., about the vocals), so that threw me off for a bit too.

But, I really think, once you get “in the pocket” of the album (as you said in your post, the trajectory “isn’t the primary vocal but the two or three contrasting lines that crisscross it), it just comes together in an amazing way and is altogether triumphant in its realization of that place and sound.

Hope all is well and good with you too!

#4 from Michael K. Denny, Minneapolis, MN - 12/20/2009 2:35

For her upbeat elegance and tenderness, The Fall by Norah Jones is a must keep memento from 2009.
I would upgrade Neko Case from honorable mention to full honors for her driving saliving conniving twister of an album, Middle Cyclone.

#5 from Winn Carroll, Birmingham, AL - 12/27/2009 12:34

hey Mr. Moon was wondering if u could check out my blog to help me better critiuqe music! Thank You so much,
Winn
http://winnsmusic.blogspot.com/

#6 from Jace, Michigan - 12/31/2009 10:37

I’ll have to check out the Dirty Projectors, you guys mention that you really like them.  Never heard any of their songs, might have to by a record.

#7 from Sam - 01/04/2010 7:40

Not my favorite list but at least it is different then the masses.

#8 from Kim, Canada - 01/14/2010 10:13

It’s nice to see ‘The List’ mentioned, I haven’t seen it in a single year-end list.  Sure, it wasn’t groundbreaking material but it was one of the loveliest albums I’ve heard in a long time.  After having watched an episode of American Idol last night, I appreciate that there are people out there who still know how to sing a classic song; not as though you’re doing it a favor, but in a way that also affords it humble tribute.

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