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.)

December(ists) in March

The Hazards of LoveI’m having a serious Decemberists fest this week, having just purchased their new song cycle/rock opera/concept album/tour de force, The Hazards of Love, a week early thanks to iTunes. On Tuesday I debated buying it now or waiting for the CD, and now I can’t imagine not having bought it.

It’s one of those albums that just seems so perfect, so essential, that I already can’t imagine the musical world without it, and I can scarcely even imagine wanting to listen to anything else. The last time I felt this way about an album was… well, let’s see: when I first heard The Decemberists’ last album, The Crane Wife. (And I even have documented evidence to prove it.)

Well, I loved The Crane Wife, but The Hazards of Love blows it out of the water. If The Crane Wife was the best album since OK Computer, then Hazards has to be the best album since… oh, I don’t know, let’s go for the obvious comparison: The Dark Side of the Moon. I’m not sure if, in this era, an album can possibly leave the kind of indelible impression on our musical culture that Pink Floyd’s masterpiece did in 1973, but you can’t fault The Decemberists for being born a generation too late.

The band performed the new album in its entirety on Wednesday night at SXSW, and it was broadcast live on a handful of NPR stations around the country, including The Current here in Minneapolis. I didn’t get to hear it live, but no matter — you can download the whole thing for free on the All Songs Considered podcast.

Listening to the live version, two things struck me: one specific moment and one general observation. The specific moment is some d-bag in the audience, in the middle of the show, calling for “Valerie Plame.” Sure, that’s a great song, but they’re right in the middle of a freakin’ song cycle, idiot! The general observation: the band’s prog-loving keyboardist, Jenny Conlee, cranked the synths to 11 in concert. Sweet.

Clever song lyric of the day

OK, this is not something I do (or plan to start doing) every day, but well, just ignore that title and read on.

I’m listening to one of my favorite songs (“Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect”) by one of my favorite bands (The Decemberists) and I had to marvel once again at one of my favorite “clever” lyrics among Colin Meloy’s vast body of clever lyrics:

But the angles and the corners
Even though my work is unparalleled
They never seemed to meet

I love the double meaning of the word “unparalleled” here. Brilliant.