Top 5 Albums of 2009

A few weeks ago I announced the contenders for this year’s best albums, and now here are the winners. Keep an eye open for a “Top 5 Albums of the Decade” post coming soon as well.

5. The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love

The Decemberists: The Hazards of LoveThe 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.

4. Porcupine Tree: The Incident

Porcupine Tree: The IncidentA 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.

3. The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future

The Bird and the Bee: Ray Guns Are Not Just the FutureThis 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.

2. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear: VeckatimestAmong 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.

1. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus PhoenixPerhaps 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.)

Rolling Stone album reviewers are idiots

Rolling StoneYeah, I know. Big news. But I was just reminded of it again.

I was listening to one of my favorite new albums, Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future by The Bird and the Bee. In particular, I was listening to the song “Witch,” a song that is extremely evocative of the music of classic James Bond movies (and not just because I’ve been watching Moonraker on my iPhone over the past couple of nights). So I decided to google “The Bird and the Bee” Witch “James Bond” to see if anyone had discussed this correlation.

The first result back was the Rolling Stone review of the album, which I was disappointed to see had only received a 2-star rating. The review is scornfully dismissive of the blatant influence of Burt Bacharach, bossa nova and the Bee Gees. So imagine my surprise when I read Rolling Stone’s 3-and-a-half-star review of their first album, which mentioned, in a far more appreciative tone, the blatant influence of Burt Bacharach, bossa nova and the Beach Boys.

Granted, the Beach Boys are probably a more enduringly worthy influence than the Bee Gees. But I happen to really like “How Deep Is Your Love” (which The Bird and the Bee covered on an EP a couple years ago and which, I have read, but I hasten to note I would not know from personal experience, was also included in the Sex and the City movie soundtrack), and I doubt that the influence of the Beach Boys vs. the influence of the Bee Gees would, on its own, make a star-and-a-half difference in the quality of the two albums.

I have not actually heard The Bird and the Bee’s first album (yet), but if their second is only a 2-star effort, then the first must be a 3-and-a-half-star masterpiece beyond anything in the known world of music.

The real problem here is that musical tastes are highly subjective, even among music reviewers who work for the same publication. But although the reviewers in Rolling Stone get a byline, RS still presents a monolithic face as the voice of popular music criticism, and as such it would be nice if they could maintain a little continuity in their treatment of individual artists from one album to the next, at least to the extent that the star ratings should not be applied as subjectively as the commentary within the reviews themselves… or, the star ratings should never be presented out of context without noting the name of the reviewer who assigned an album its rating.

For example:
Rolling Stone reviews, accordingly amended