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Friday, January 01, 2010

The Nicsperiment's Nine Best Albums of 2009

I have listened to a lot of music this year, and most of the stuff I have been told is the best has seemed kind of silly. Animal Collective, who easily received the most nods for album of the year, is wearing no clothes. Excluding My Girls, their music sounds like one bass note, one drum being hit, and a bunch of disjointed voices badly singing over each other in a way that makes no aural sense. I'm not simply going to say I don't get it. I am going to say it isn't good and everyone is just acting like it is because they are scared to not like it. I listened to Grizzly Bear and woke up three days later. I tried out the Dirty Projectors, but the scratching chalkboard in my ears was too much to handle.
Anyway, here is the music I enjoyed most this year:

9. Project 86-Picket Fence Cartel-Project 86 purposely keep it simple on their 7th record, not attempting to outdo their previous masterpiece of an album, Rival Factions. Project drops almost all of the keyboards and the entirety of the glossy production. Instead they punch out heavy, dirty metal songs, take out any complicated elements and just go for the gut. The lyrics follow suit, eschewing vocalist Andrew Schwab's usual literary depth for straightforward declarations of faith. This makes the album a refreshing change of pace, but also makes it slightly alienating to those expecting a little more under the surface. Project gave a warning beforehand that this would be the sound they would focus on, and thankfully, as with all they attempt, they do it well. You can still punch a hole through your window to this, you just might not be thinking about it when you go to bed that night.
Listen to the whole album

8. Isis-Wavering Radiant-Isis' Egyptian mythology obsessed lyrics, labyrinthine Metal grooves, screams, and rising, beautiful vocals go through slight changes here. A little of the fat (if metal can have fat) is sheared off, and the beauty is more accented. Isis still sound like the music you would hear in an underwater, torch-lit tomb, only now they don't make you wait around all day for the best parts.
Listen to the whole album

7. The Mars Volta-Octahedron-After creating an album that never took a breath, The Mars Volta return with the complete opposite. Guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez actually hits only one note at a time, and vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala spends more time singing beautifully than shrieking. Miraculously, this sound works for them. Track after track sounds otherworldly beautiful, vocals soothing instead of menacing, guitar tones soft and steady instead of violently noodling. The band still takes some time to rock out, but even these moments are more tempered. Most shocking of all, the lyrics to opening ballad Since We've Been Wrong actually make sense, a lament to a relationship that has seen better days. There are your usual worms committing suicide lyrics, but just the fact that Bixler-Zavala can now write a song that makes sense adds a new dimension to the band. I wouldn't want The Mars Volta to stay chilled out-their signature sound is just too much fun to abandon-but for now this will do just fine.
Listen to select tracks from the album

6. Bruce Springsteen-Working on a Dream-Poor Bruce. He gets all happy and reflective on enjoying life, and all anyone can focus on is what he isn't doing. This definitely isn't Born to Run, but all the Beach Boys crap people are saying about Animal Collective truthfully applies to this album. Bruce revels in harmonies, found sounds, and gentle rhythms. Unlike previous album Magic, Working on a Dream never gets bogged down in overslick production, always feeling light, airy and fun, and avoiding the mid-tempo doldrums Magic fell into. Even ballad The Wrestler (written for the film of the same name) has an "I'll get em next time" feel that works against its somber side. This is just pleasant music, not wallpaper pleasant, but summer breeze by cool water pleasant.
Listen to select tracks from the album

5. The Chariot-Wars and Rumors of Wars-The Chariot is a divisive band. Some think they just create noise, while others think they corral violent noise into art. I am in the latter camp, and I think they corral it better than ever on Wars and Rumors of Wars. Frontman Josh Scogin's voice has grown into a fearsome, throat-shredding howl, and as usual (and as it should be), it is The Chariot's most formidable weapon here. The difference with Wars is The Chariot refines its song structures, actually repeats some "choruses", and most impressively, doesn't shy away from beauty. On 4th track, Impress, The Chariot fall into a beautiful groove 30 seconds in, hold it for a minute, then drop everything to slowly alternate between two solitary guitar notes. These lovely notes ring out alone for a full minute, perhaps proving that in all this chaos it's worthwhile to stop and focus on the simple things.
Listen to the whole album

4. U2-No Line on the Horizon-For years U2 have said No Line on the Horizon would be extremely experimental, but it is far more traditional than we were led to believe. That said, NLOTH is a lovely album. Starting out with the mysterious title track, U2 quickly moves back into arena rock territory with Magnificent, but they still do this better than anyone. Third track, Moment of Surrender, ascends to a plane U2 has never been before, a gospel song from space better than anything U2 has released in 18 years. The rest of the album rotates through the unfamiliar and the familiar, always enjoyable except for atrocious centerpiece Get on Your Boots, which no one likes except maybe U2. The funny thing is, the rest of the album is so lovely, Boots actually gets lifted to a better place by its surrounding material. This is a great way for a great band to end the decade.
Listen to the whole album

3. He is Legend-It Hates You-He is Legend always seemed a little afraid to be themselves, first late to the metalcore party, second late to the southern metal bandwagon. Third album It Hates You finds He is Legend in a place of confidence, making their own music, and what music this is. The only thing I can compare this to is mid-90s Stone Temple Pilotsesque rock on even more drugs, lots more drugs, especially steroids and acid. Vocalist Shuyler Croom's already impressive croon is accented on several songs by haunting female vocalist Bibis Ellison, taking the songs to a whole new level. Best of all, the album is long, 12 songs with several seven minute jams that will have you pounding your steering wheel as you drive your car into outer space.
Listen to the whole album

2. The Appleseed Cast-Sagarmatha-The Appleseed Cast have always included instrumental tracks on their albums (excluding Two Conversations, which as the title states, is verbally focused). Always having success in this field, Applessed Cast have run with it and crafted an album that only uses words as accents. The Cast almost seem like they have something to prove, outdoing just about every instrumental rock album of the decade. The music is incredible, but it is vocalist/guitarist Christopher Crisci's brief use of voice that sets Sagarmatha apart: the way it rises up from nowhere in the final two minutes of eight minute opener As the Little Things Go, the way it only lays the foundation at the opening of second track A Bright Light before the music rockets away. Only fourth track, The Summer Before, contains vocals throughout, a short and sweet pop gem that centers the rest of the album. Someday this band will be appreciated.
Listen to select tracks from the album

1. Jars of Clay-The Long Fall Back to Earth-The only sentence that will mention Jars of Clay's debut album is this one. There. Excluding If I Left the Zoo, Jars of Clay have shown growth and maturity with each subsequent release. Each has been great, but with Long Fall Jars has finally combined the consistent quality of their songwriting with a cohesion that has been intangibly missing. Each track explores different aspects of human relationships. Opener Weapons sounds like Coldplay with a soul, pleading for peace with a friend or lover. The speaker in Closer desires intimacy. Headphones is sung from the perspective of a boy who shuts the world out with his IPod, missing out on the chance of a relationship with a girl (sung by Katie Herzig) because he can't summon the will to escape his own private world. There Might Be a Light hopes for forgiveness. The Long Fall Back to Earth makes all other albums this year pale by comparison. Animal Collective. That stuff isn't actually music. Grizzly Bear. Snore… The Dirty Projectors. Are. Terrible. Jars of Clay's combination of songwriting, lyrics, musicianship, and compilation are second to none. It almost doesn't seem fair.
Listen to the whole album...NOW!!!

Also of note:

As Cities Burn-Hell or High Water-This is a great album from start to finish, nine songs of refreshing rock and roll from the now defunct band. This is about as good a swan song as you can get because it is too short, which I guess is a good way to leave your audience wanting more.
Listen to the whole album + awesome bonus track

Relient K-Forget and Not Slow Down-This is a solid album. Singer/songwriter Matt Thiessen is coming at this from an organic perspective of recovery, and there are some very good songs here, but as usual, there are a few that are weaker than the others, and knock this album, once again, from my "Top Nine" to my "Also of note".
Listen to the whole album

Asobi Seksu-Hush-Asobi Seksu has made a very pretty album. Unfortunately, that is the best thing I can say about it. It is good, but doesn't reach the ecstatic head-rush glory of its predecessor, Citrus, though Hush is still an enjoyable album.
Listen to the whole album

Biggest Disappointment-Dredg-The Pariah, The Parrot, The Delusion-No album could live up to the badness of this album's title. Unfortunately, the previous statement turns out to be false. The band that crafted the masterpiece El Cielo has sunk so low that only a third of this album is even listenable, only 1.5 songs even enjoyable. It is that bad. Why? I am just going to go out on a limb and say it is the drugs. Dredg have made no secret recently that they have been taking a lot of them. The last time I saw them live they actually invited the audience to do drugs with them from the stage. They weren't kidding. Maybe my sobriety is the impediment to enjoying this album. Maybe if I took drugs regularly, this album wouldn't sound like music composed by four randomly chosen frat guys with no previous songwriting experience. Yes, it is that bad. I am sorry to judge you, Dredg. You have given me so much previous enjoyment, but to my ears now, you have gone off the deep. I guess if I would just drop a few tabs of acid and snort a little coke, The Pariah, The Parrot, The Hell I am going to actually say the name of this album again would sound pretty good. Also, I will change my name to Hermunculous B Hippopotamus the Third. That would make sense.
Look at this picture of a penguin farting


didlake said...

I randomly found your blog and was pleased to see your response to Jars of Clays - especially your "one line" about their first album. I will have to disagree, however, about calling "If I Left the Zoo" an "immature" album. As I've pondered that album in the catalog of Jars of Clay's musical growth, I see it as being the hing-pin where the band started swinging toward a deeper sense of song writing.

"Jars of Clay" and "Much Afraid" were both quite similar in their approach to music, though one shocked their acoustic fans pretty heavily. "If I Left the Zoo" is their projection of where they were going to go as a band, and go there they did.

Personally, I think their deepest track of all time comes off that album: "River Constantine."


Nicholas said...

Good point. While I don't particularly like it, "If I Left the Zoo" certainly is not immature, and I was incorrect in implying it to be so. I can see what you are saying about it being a hinge-pin. Even the title speaks of them stepping out to something bigger. I try to give it another chance every couple of years. Maybe it's about time.

Anonymous said...

worms committing suicide



Nicholas said...

Actual Mars Volta lyrics from this album:
Vanished to 5th dementia/
Cables of ringworms
have hung themselves/
Of this I ate.../
Communion shaped/
Serpent rays in prism tail rainbows escape
-Halo of Nembutals

Neal said...

I was particularly please with U2's latest release as well. How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was okay, but it was far too... how do I describe this? "Pop rock U2." Or something like that. I didn't feel like they really tried with it, and it felt too much like a softer, more radio friendly version of All That You Can't Leave Behind (the album before Atomic Bomb).

I'd actually put this one up there with all the albums on the stretch from War to Achtung Baby (even Pop, which I like as well), as all those albums are strong and have depth to them.

Nicholas said...

Definitely. I knock HTDAAB in my top bands of the decade post a little further down. I mean, it is still U2, but I feel like it is the most calculated sounding thing they've done, almost like they recorded every track as a possible IPod commercial. There are a few great tracks (Yahweh for instance), but it is easily my least favorite album by them...except for Rattle and Hum.
Though I love NLOTH, I don't know if I like it as much as the albums from their War-Achtung Baby stretch. Those are my favorite of anything. It's going to have to burrow in for a while.

Neal said...

Probably the biggest thing that holds back "No Line" is the lyrics. Bono does well with some of them, but others... I dunno, it's like they were drinking too much Guiness while writing them, or something.

Biggest thing I miss about the album is they lyricism that characterizes most of their work, really. I dunno if Bono was too busy "trying to save the world" to work as much as usual on them, or what. "Pop" has great lyrics, as does "All That You Can't Leave Behind," so that's why I'm left wondering what's happened. Heh.

Still "No Line," has their most unique music since Pop and Achtung Baby, I would say. That's what drew me to it when I listened to demos... very unlike "All That" and "Atomic" (yet still U2, of course)

I should comment on someone else. I loved the first album from Jars, of course (heard them live opening for Michael W. Smith... they were the only good part the whole night, heh), but can't quite go with the rest. Dunno if they're too gentle for me, or what.

husker666 said...

Obviously Animal Collective where going to recieve a lot of flak this year for being so popular on year end lists! To maintain your critical cred you must smash them, of course they are bass led that is the nature of such music.

Nicholas said...

The sad thing to me is that Animal Collective is really not receiving much flak at all. Check their collective (haha) reviews on Metacritic. Just about everybody loves them.
They are definitely bass led, too. Usually by the same note. Over and over again. Animal Collective sucks. I don't care what everybody says. Everybody is wrong. It is almost worth maintaining this blog solely to take a dump on their terrible music.

Nicholas said...

The emperor has no clothes I say.

Nicholas said...