I apologize in advance if my argument here is less cogent than it could be: I’m under extreme time constraints to crank out this post. That said, this is something I just can’t leave alone.
“The album is dead!” people seem to be lamenting. What people? Well, Nate Anderson at Ars Technica for one, and he comes bearing graphs.
But how useful are these graphs? Not very. As one (or more, actually) of the comments on the article notes, comparing singles to albums (to streams, even!) in terms of units is useless, since an album is typically made up of approximately 10 tracks. Meaning, buying a single vs. buying an album is not the equivalent of buying a Mac instead of a PC, or buying an apple instead of an orange. It’s buying one song instead of buying ten songs. But you’re still buying songs.
So… the chart showing 1,138 million singles, vs. a paltry 76 million albums, sold in 2009 — a harrowing comparison — would more accurately be represented as 1,138 million songs purchased as singles, vs. (approximately) 760 million songs purchased as albums, in 2009. Singles are still more popular than albums are, but the number of songs acquired as singles vs. as parts of albums is less than double.
Or another way to look at it, if you don’t like thinking about songs, is dollars. Most popular singles are selling on iTunes these days for $1.29, vs. $9.99 for albums. So you’re looking at $1,468 million in single sales, vs. $759 million in album sales. Again, about twice as many dollars spent on singles as opposed to albums. Maybe not good news for albums (I don’t know; it would be helpful to see what the trends in singles-vs.-albums sales have been over time), but certainly not the catastrophic disaster the Ars charts suggest.
One aspect of the story that is perhaps worth evaluating is how much of the concept of the album as an art form is being lost here. But again, honestly, the 3-hit-singles-and-7-tracks-of-crap model for pop albums has been around since (based on anecdotal evidence from my mom) at least the 1960s. That doesn’t mean all music follows that model, though, and it doesn’t mean that the fans of longer-form compositions or concept albums aren’t still buying albums.
It seems that everyone has been compiling not just year-in-review but decade-in-review lists lately, and I’ve never seen a bandwagon I didn’t eagerly jump on. So, without further ado (after all, why spend any time in careful reflection upon a full ten years of life?), here we go.
The challenge: sum up, in my opinion, the past decade in (semi-)popular music, in 50 albums, 5 per year. The result: the following list, presented in alphabetical order (since ranking them seemed even more arbitrary and superfluous than listing them in the first place). Enjoy.
Beck: Sea Change (2002)
One-sentence review: Beck gets serious.
Beck: Guero (2005)
One-sentence review: Beck proves he’s still Beck.
Benoît Charest: The Triplets of Belleville (2004)
One-sentence review: It’s as charming, brilliant and unexpected as the film it accompanies.
The Bird and the Bee: The Bird and the Bee (2007)
One-sentence review: The ’60s meet the ’00s at a lounge in the ’70s.
The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future (2009)
One-sentence review: It offers more sweet lounge-electronica delights, this time with more David Lee Roth references.
Coldplay: X&Y (2005)
One-sentence review: The Coldplay album that takes the longest to grow on you also leaves the most lasting impression.
Death Cab for Cutie: Narrow Stairs (2008)
One-sentence review: I finally realized I should have been listening to that band with the stupid name for the entire past decade.
The Decemberists are one of the most idiosyncratic bands recording today, at least among those that have achieved a modicum of success. Despite their mostly rock-oriented instrumentation (drums, electric guitars and bass, Nord synthesizer), the band frequently supplements their sound with antiquated — or at least rarely-used-in-rock — instruments like the accordion, upright bass, banjo, bouzouki. And their lyrical content has typically been somewhat Victorian. They outdid themselves, however, with this year’s release: an hour-long rock opera, the most grandiose and polarizing concept album since Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes in 1973. As with that album, I fall on the side of “getting it.” Whether it’s art that transcends its idiom, or pompous self-indulgence, is a matter for subjective debate, but I think it’s hard to argue with the fact that Colin Meloy and company achieved what they were going for. Even better, they took the show on the road, performing the album in its entirety during this summer’s tour. I got to see the band at Rock the Garden in Minneapolis and loved every minute of it.
A few years ago, it looked as if Porcupine Tree was about to break into the big time. The anachronistic prog band’s fan base has grown steadily over its now 20-year history, but mainstream success (if that’s not an oxymoron) has remained elusive. If 2002’s In Absentia was a tantalizing step towards mass popularity, the band’s subsequent three albums: 2005’s Deadwing, 2007’s Fear of a Blank Planet, and this year’s double album, with the title suite occupying the entire 55 minutes of the first disc, have seen them retreat back into their prog rock niche, while continuing to… you know… progress as a band. I’ve liked each album more than the last, and yet at the same time I can’t help feeling a little disappointed at unrealized potential. This band is so good, I want everyone in the world to hear them. But with each new album it seems more apparent that Steven Wilson has resigned himself to the limited appeal of the band’s core audience. At least he’s staying true to the aesthetic that drew us to his music in the first place.
This is perhaps the album that surprised me the most this year. I was not familiar with this band before the improbable hit “Diamond Dave” (yes, it’s about David Lee Roth) became a staple on The Current. This band’s unique retro-futuristic sound carries immense appeal. Equal parts ’60s lounge music and modern-day electronica, with Inara George’s beautifully delicate vocals deftly concealing the twisted humor of most of the songs’ lyrics, this is the band to bring prog rock dinosaurs who are stuck in their Yes / Steely Dan / National Health rut up to date with the exciting things that are happening in popular music today. Sure, there are no tracks on this album that stand out quite as much as “Fucking Boyfriend” from the band’s self-titled debut, but the hilariously ironic “Polite Dance Song” and the mysterious, James Bond-esque “Witch” come pretty close.
Among this year’s contenders, probably no album took longer for me to learn to appreciate than Grizzly Bear’s lo-fi masterpiece. But once I stopped trying to impose my own expectations on this album and just gave in, met it on its own terms, a wonderful, strange world opened up before me. This is not easy listening, to be sure, but it’s wonderfully crafted, and the hazy, distant production shrouds meticulous arrangements. The result is a darker, more challenging counterpart to last year’s debut by Fleet Foxes. This album probably won’t appeal to everyone, but the broad critical acclaim it has received is not unwarranted.
Perhaps an easy choice. French pop-rock band Phoenix has been around for most of the decade, but they seem to have just really hit it big in the States this year, with an appearance on SNL and constant exposure of the track “1901” in Cadillac commercials. That probably screams sellout, but if so, it’s the weirdest-sounding sellout in years. Adventurous, experimental deep cuts, like the two-part “Love Like a Sunset” show that the band isn’t just on auto-pilot. The album’s production is absolute perfection — crisp and up-front without sounding distorted (even though the loudness wars are in effect here), the arrangements are inventive despite fairly straightforward rock instrumentation, the vocals are distinctive, and every track on the album is catchy. Despite its short run time of just over 36 minutes, this album is worth listening to on repeat.
Plus, as someone who’s always felt Mozart’s music is vastly overrated, I get some twisted pleasure out of the fact that searching for “Wolfgang Amadeus” on Amazon now brings up Phoenix before Mozart. Blasphemy! (Or not.)
I know I’m getting ahead of myself announcing contenders for this year’s top albums. After all, in some past years I haven’t even gotten around to this until July of the following year. There may be a few more best-of-the-year quality albums coming in the remaining two-and-a-half months of 2009, in which case I’ll post a hyphen-heavy-contenders-addendum follow-up entry.
But I was inspired to write this today as I fired up TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, an album I granted honorable mention in last year’s list since I hadn’t actually heard it at that point. I did eventually buy it this summer, and it is definitely good enough to have made the list last year.
And so, on that note, I present the year-to-date contenders for my Top 5 Albums of 2009. And once again, I’m presenting the current top four contenders (since I can’t decided on a fifth at this point) in bold. Last year, all of the preliminary contenders made the final list. Will that hold true this year as well? Time will tell.
Air: Love 2
The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future
Crystal Method: Divided by Night
The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love
Dream Theater: Black Clouds & Silver Linings
El Grupo Nuevo de Omar Rodriguez Lopez: Cryptomnesia
The Flaming Lips: Embryonic
Green Day: 21st Century Breakdown
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
Heartless Bastards: The Mountain
Hypnotic Brass Ensemble: Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
Jet: Shaka Rock
Dylan Leeds: Bit by Bit
The Mars Volta: Octahedron
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship
U2: No Line on the Horizon
Umphrey’s McGee: Mantis
Various Artists: Kind of Bloop
Zero 7: Yeah Ghost
For the first time, there are a couple of unsigned indies in the list here: Dylan Leeds and Pomplamoose. The Dylan Leeds album is excellent, certainly worthy of consideration alongside any commercial release this year. It’s available on Joshua Wentz’s Sidedown Audio boutique label. And Pomplamoose… well, I’ve already discussed them here. Their album is available on iTunes and elsewhere.
Last year in my contenders post I also provided some fun (?) statistics about the list. Let’s do it again!
22: albums in the list (last year: 28)
14: artists I had heard of before 2009 (last year: 18)
13: artists I already owned music from before 2009 (last year: 13)
4: purchased on CD (last year: 14)
4: purchased on iTunes (last year: 3 2/3)
14: purchased on Amazon MP3 (last year: 10 1/3)
2: unsigned independent artists (last year: 0)
Update: Oops, there are three indies in here. How could I forget about Kind of Bloop?
Update #2: Just realized I also forgot to mention Wilco (the album) in this list. I had some technical difficulties a couple of weeks ago and I needed to reformat my hard drive without being able to salvage some of the music on there — specifically, CDs I had ripped within the past 3 or 4 months. This was one of the few CDs I had bought in that time. I think it says a lot that it took me 5 days after originally writing this post to even remember it existed. Don’t expect it to make the cut.
Update #3: Here’s a new one: Flight of the Conchords’ I Told You I Was Freaky.
This is probably the most obscure of the five albums in this year’s list, which comes as no surprise to me. Nonetheless, I think it’s worth a listen. I discovered the album when iTunes was featuring it for $5 and I figured, why not?
Musically, it’s an odd mix of bits and pieces of Queen, David Bowie, Yes, Ben Folds and more, both old and new, and yet it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. This concept album is as over-the-top as can be, and then some. But every moment of it is enjoyable, amusing, rocking, and a bit self-mocking. Apparently the band’s live show is equally overblown, in a good way, with elaborate costumes and theatrics.
Probably more entitled to the name “The Mooney Suzuki” than the band that actually goes by that name, this band’s Can influence is apparent and strong, yet they forge their own unique sound in a minimalist electronica/rock style.
The lead-off track, “Knickerbocker,” sounds the most like Can, and more problematically, nearly identical to “Ankle Injuries,” the lead-off track from their previous album, 2006’s Transparent Things. but after the opener things go in a different, but equally interesting, direction.
If you’re not already into them, I recommend this album for (if nothing else) the best finger-snapping performance ever committed to record (“Pickpocket”).
This one’s getting a lot of “best album of the year” hype. Well, from everyone except Pitchfork, but they’re pretentious douches anyway. (Oh snap! I went there! And I even listen to stuff like this.) Exhibit A: Their top 50 of the year features not one but two bands that have “Fuck” in their name. Oh, tee-hee, aren’t we rebellious and unconventional? We’ll bestow pointless accolades on bands that, by their very names, have declared total disinterest in such publicity. But I digress, even if it was worth it to rip on Pitchfork. Now where was I?
Oh yeah, My Morning Jacket has delivered a great album that I have enjoyed listening to in its entirety numerous times over the past few months, after I finally overcame my apprehension, based (regrettably) on Pitchfork’s review, and listened to the album my own damn self.
With a title like this, the John Hughes-esque high school archetypes on the cover, and the vintage early ’80s sound throughout, you’d think M83 had grown up in the age of Atari, but the number in the “band” name refers (as I understand it) to this solo artist’s year of birth.
“Kim and Jessie” is the breakout (get it?) hit here, and you might be inclined to expect the rest of the album to sound the same, but you’d be wrong. That was a bit disappointing to me at first, but I quickly grew to love the synth-heavy, neo-New Wave sounds throughout.
The dense, brooding 4-minute jam that opens the extended version of the hit single from this album, “I Will Possess Your Heart,” is my favorite musical moment of the year. (Even better than the hoedown jam in the opening track of Evil Urges.) But this album doesn’t get first place just for featuring a cool 8-minute jam track about a stalker (told from the stalker’s perspective). Everything about this album is great. The music’s great, the lyrics are great (especially “Your New Twin Sized Bed”), the flow from track to track is brilliant, it’s just a 100% enjoyable album from beginning to end, and like a satisfying meal at a good restaurant, you feel good about enjoying it. (As opposed to the bag of Doritos and White Castle sliders you metaphorically consume with every listening to certain albums.) I have no reservations whatsoever in hailing Narrow Stairs as my album of the year.
Best Album I Haven’t Actually Heard
TV on the Radio: Dear Science As the heading reveals, I haven’t actually heard this album, but I’ve meant to. And everyone else seems to think it’s the best album in, like, forever. Totally.
Best Mainstream Pop Album
Coldplay: Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends I don’t know why I’m always compelled to write out the full title, since no one else seems to do so (or even necessarily know it). Perhaps the full title and its usual truncation is part of the reason I can’t give this album more than honorable mention.
Best Musician’s Musician Album
Joe Satriani: Professor Satchafunkilus and the Musterion of Rock What was that I was saying about album titles? Oh yeah. Well aside from the fact that his greatest fame has probably come from the Coldplay lawsuit, I do think this is one of Satch’s best albums ever, which is to say that the soaring-melodies-and-shredding-guitar-to-cringe-inducing-cheez ratio is much higher than usual. And he doesn’t sing at all (well, not really). But his appeal is too narrow, his music more craft than art, for me to put him in a top 5 list.