Best of 2009: We Traded Soul for Style

(Cover design: Jonathan Hahn)

1. Quiet Dog–Mos Def (The Ecstatic)
2. Dull to Pause–Junior Boys (Begone Dull Care)
3. Which Song–Max Tundra (Parallax Error Beheads You)
4. Not a Robot, but a Ghost–Andrew Bird (Noble Beast)
5. Temecula Sunrise–Dirty Projectors (Bitte Orca)
6. Eat Your Heart–Micachu & the Shapes (Jewellery)
7. Rudie Fails–White Rabbits (It’s Frightening)
8. Middle Cyclone–Neko Case (Middle Cyclone)
9. The Sleeping Beauty–American Music Club (The Golden Age)
10. While You Wait for the Others–Grizzly Bear, feat. Michael McDonald (B-side)
11. Hard to Find a Friend–Baby Teeth (Hustle Beach)
12. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)–The Decemberists (The Hazards of Love)
13. Save Me from What I Want–St. Vincent (Actor)
14. Crazy/Forever–Japandroids (Post-Nothing)
15. 1901–Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix)
16. Brother Sport–Animal Collective (Merriweather Post Pavilion)

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Though I’m going to go on and on in the following paragraphs about the minutiae of what I loved most in these individual songs and how they colored specific moments in my life this year, I’m struck oddly mute now that it’s time to make a statement about the whole enchilada. At the root of it all, to be honest, after the overwhelming angst of ’08, I basically just wanted to make you guys a kickass mix this time around. What else could I possibly say to top the simple truth of that aspiration?

Well, of course, in my attempt to eschew narrative as I was assembling this comp, I’ve only ended up more emphatically tracing the outline of the journey I’ve been on in the past 12 months: sugar-rush highs crash down into contemplative lows, everything swirling together into a general impression of ’09 that I hope holds up beat by beat but will also end up being greater than the sum of its parts.

But, now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I feel like I”m finally getting the hang of how to make it work most effectively. Am I talking about the mix or the year? Take your pick. The whole point of these things has always been to blur that line a little bit, hopefully for the benefit of us both. Truthfully, there’s almost nothing I look forward to more than the chance to design this little musical and emotional excursion for you at the end of each year.

But, enough with the boo-hooing! Screw the self-conscious navel gazing! Let’s party like it’s 1999, a decade after the fact.


1. Quiet Dog–Mos Def
Mighty Mos returns! This simple, stunning track reminds us, in the era of auto-tune and overcooked soul samples, of hip-hop’s barest essentials: voice and beat. It, of course, helps that both of the elements here are killer: handclaps that crunch like celery, drums that rumble like they’re perched on a polar ice cap so that they can use the length of the planet to resonate, and Mos’s endlessly appealing mischievous playfulness. Dude whispers his way out of this track–what a testament to his bottomless well of charisma!

2. Dull to Pause–Junior Boys
Any album that sets itself up to be an exploration of the place where the act of cinematic creation and the act of seduction share language and become momentarily synonymous was bound to interest me at least in passing, but I never expected to fall quite as hard as I did for Begone Dull Care. It’s immaculately wrought from front to back, its cool cynicism coming on like our era’s answer to Steely Dan in their heyday. The amoral licentiousness of Jeremy Greenspan’s whispery croon is mottled with just enough pillowy charm that it fools me into believing that the creepy, Hitchcockian possessiveness of the lyric “I don’t want to share you / so don’t say good night” is actually kinda sexy.

3. Which Song–Max Tundra
I missed Parallax Error Beheads You upon its official release at the end of ’08, which was probably for the best since it afforded me plenty of time in the usually musically barren beginning of the year to really drown myself in its pleasures. Even though it’s arguably of a piece with the rest of the spazzypants stuff I got heavily addicted to this spring (which you’ll read more about soon in re: Micachu), I hesitate to diminish the brilliance of what Max Tundra’s done here by reducing its appeal to “hey, that shit’s crazy!” I mean, it is crazy, but it’s also funny and cutting and thoughtful and positively overflowing with hooks and deeply satisfying melodic invention. The always casually brilliant Mike Barthel compared this album to a Magic Eye image, noting that you have to wait for your brain to relax into it and assemble the different sonic chunks before you can hear the shape behind all the squiggles. But unlike a Magic Eye picture whose scribbles can be ignored or cast off as mere obfuscation of the thing you’re really looking at, there’s no there here–the scribbles turn out to be the essence of everything that’s enjoyable about this music in the first place.

4. Not a Robot, but a Ghost–Andrew Bird
For as much as I love Andrew Bird, he’s kind of like the musical equivalent of Michel Gondry–so intimidatingly brilliant and creative that his output can get a bit samey if he’s not challenged by an equally brilliant collaborator. For my money, any time he lets Martin Dosh really pull out all the stops, the results always soar. (I’m sure this is why I prefer Armchair Apocrypha, which Dosh’s fingerprints are all over, to Bird’s other solo albums thus far.) The keening in his voice here is all the more potent with the beats bolstering the angst in such an sharply visceral way.

5. Temecula Sunrise–Dirty Projectors
My computer died for about a month right in the middle of this summer, and one of the last new releases I’d synched onto my iPod before it happened was Bitte Orca. Much like the experience of being isolated with DCFC’s Narrow Stairs in the deserts of New Mexico last year, being forced to focus my attention on this album for an extended period of time was, in a sense, an amazing relief. Without the option of swapping in and out a bunch of other music, I enjoyed the luxury of really getting to know this one deeply. Sure didn’t hurt that it’s eminently deserving of sustained attention, full of all the intense drama and philosophy and catharsis I’m always looking for in an album. The angular and inventive guitar solo here floors me every time. Unlike most guitar solos plopped into your average indie rock song, it’s not just a bracketed section of sound called [guitar solo]; it’s something curious and rich and inviting and every bit as compelling as the vocals surrounding it. (Also, music theory nerds, please e-mail me if you can figure out the time signature this song is written in. It’s had me stumped for months.)

6. Eat Your Heart–Micachu & the Shapes
For at least the first half of the year, I just surrendered to the fact that something in me wanted to listen to the spazziest music possible all the time. Call it the yang to last year’s Bon Iver-dominated yin or whatever, but I wanted to feel assaulted by noise so abrasive it constantly courted pure annoyance. Dan Deacon’s Bromst did a respectable job, but no album sugared me up as immediately or intensely as Micachu’s Jewellry. The herky-jerky time signatures, broken toy instruments (and vacuum cleaners!), and her guttural drawl all hit this weird pleasure center somewhere in my occipital lobe and just blissed me out with totally overwhelming insanity.

7. Rudie Fails–White Rabbits
Considering how wholly uninterested I am in White Rabbits as a band, they sure have a way of writing songs that capture my imagination to the point of obsession. (I’ll spare you the Alice in Wonderland free association here.) Of course, getting Britt Daniel to produce this recent batch of songs was a pretty surefire way of grabbing my attention and guaranteeing at least a modicum of affection. “Percussion Gun” was an early favorite from It’s Frightening (o ye of the awesome front cover), but something about the balance of looseness and ferocity here gave “Rudie Fails” legs I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. But dude–That piano! All that empty space! The vocal howl! Even if it’s just Spoon Jr., I’m OK with that.

8. Middle Cyclone–Neko Case
Guys, this is the song she named her entire album after. Who else would have the balls to write something this emotionally naked and then so confidently direct everyone’s attention to it? This song made me sad before I even got sad again this year. Neko sings truth.

9. The Sleeping Beauty–American Music Club
Consider this the equivalent of me waving my arms in the air, jumping up and down, and shooting off air horns to draw everyone’s attention to the wonderful and unjustly slept-on American Music Club album The Golden Age. Though it was released early in ’08, it came to my attention this summer and sank its hooks into me immediately with its West Coast-gothic vibe. There were long stretches of time when it was really the only album I could stand to listen to. I could extol the virtues of pretty much any of its songs–though my special faves would include “All My Love,” “All the Lost Souls Welcome You to San Francisco,” and “The Dance”–but the autumnal regret and muted fatalism of “The Sleeping Beauty” just fit like a glass slipper (to mix my fairy tale metaphors) here. If there’s any album cited on this mix that I would go out of my way to advise you to check out in full, it’s this one.

10. While You Wait for the Others–Grizzly Bear, feat. Michael McDonald
Did you not believe me last year? Do you remain unconvinced of the stratospheric excellence of this song? I believe Mr. Michael McDonald might have a thing or two to say about the matter. Guys, I’m sorry, I know it’s kind of obnoxious to run the same song two years in a row, but when Grizzly Bear released this B-side, it was like they were daring me to do it. I couldn’t not take the bait. This song’s still fresher than fresh a year and a half after I first heard the live recording of it. I would wear the essence of those cymbal crashes as a perfume if I could find a way to bottle it.

11. Hard to Find a Friend–Baby Teeth
There are plenty of great bands working in Chicago right now, but Abraham Levitan is in an altogether more rarified group–dude is a straight-up great songwriter. He’s got a seemingly effortless way with with melodies that are easy-on-the-ears yet deceptively complex and with vivid lyrics that trip pleasantly off the tongue while telling poignantly humorous (and humorously poignant) Everyman stories. Add to that potent mix the band‘s utterly winning on-stage charisma and stealth chops (Peter Andreadis–subtlest drummer I’ve heard in ages and the band’s secret weapon), and they’re like a time bomb of rock just waiting to explode out of the Midwest. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

12. The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)–The Decemberists
It’s Tuesday, so that must mean it’s time to hate on the Decemberists. Or, wait–is it backlash-to-the-backlash day? I can’t keep that shit straight anymore. Lucky for everyone who’s turned a blind eye to the hype cycle, Colin Meloy just keeps on writing impeccable songs like this one. Though I initially dismissed it as a mere pretender to “Wicked Little Town”‘s throne, I eventually opened my ears enough to hear the actual song I was listening to, instead of just my perception of it. And when I finally heard it, it became one of those tracks I almost couldn’t listen to on the train for fear of bursting into tears any time it so much as came up on shuffle. The romantic complexity laced with foreboding in the lyrics coupled with the featherweight bombast of the arrangement makes this one of the roundest songs I’ve heard all year.

13. Save Me from What I Want–St. Vincent
Though I ultimately found Actor too wearying an album to garner much repeat play, this track immediately jumped out at me. It keeps Annie Clark’s more outre instrumental affectations in check while letting her extremely nuanced vocals shine with subtle shades of humor, exasperation, and ennui. Plus, the transition from the Decemberists to this is secretly my favorite segue on the comp, both sonically and thematically.

14. Crazy/Forever–Japandroids
Japandroids’ Post-Nothing was definitely, surprisingly, one of my favorite albums this year, thanks to its perfect combination of heart-on-sleeviness and go-for-broke sonic force. I love any band that can make me feel like I’m 16 again (except with actual good taste in cool music this time). They get extra bonus points for being stereotypically dorkily polite Canadians live in concert.

15. 1901–Phoenix
Though I loved Alphabetical when it came out in ’04, I kind of lost track of Phoenix for a while there. In my brain, I tend to file them in the same drawer as Sloan: un-show-offy professionals who have a way with a killer hook, whose recorded output is so consistent that their albums sometimes, weirdly, seem redundant. Put it another way–they’re like a well-made TV show like House or 30 Rock that you can just pop into and out of, episode by episode, without getting lost in the season’s major narrative arc. A piece of easily accessible art that didn’t make me work to crack it open, “1901” goes down smooth every time, like a bourbon vanilla milkshake.

16. Brother Sport–Animal Collective
Perhaps the apotheosis of this year’s obsession with all things annoying-but-catchy. There were a few weeks during that hideous late February/early March time of year when I would blast this song straight into my ears first thing in the morning as I let my light therapy box sear my retinas from its perch next to the bed. (What, do you have a better suggestion for not turning homicidal at the end of a grueling Chicago winter?) The counterpoint between the Saturday morning cartoon sonics and Panda Bear’s harmonies stacked as wide as the Lake Michigan shoreline is somehow so stupid, so fucking funny, that it’s perfect–transcendent even. Likewise his spur to “OH-pen up your, OH-pen up your, OH-pen up your throat a luttul” shifts from being phonemic soup at first to then resonating as a spiritually valid mantra for creative self-agency. I loved “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” as much as anyone, but the pinata-like explosion of Muppetty affability and wisdom here at the end of the album will always mark “Brother Sport” as the defining track of Merriweather Post Pavilion for me.


Honorable mentions this year go to Short Punks in Love’s “Olivia,” Metric’s “Help I’m Alive,” A.C. Newman’s “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer,” the xx’s “Basic Space,” the Clientele’s “Harvest Time,” Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” Franz Ferdinand’s “No You Girls,” Anni Rossi’s “Machine,” Passion Pit’s “The Reeling,” Arctic Monkeys’ “Cornerstone,” and the Duckworth Lewis Method’s “Jiggery Pokery.”

Thanks as always to anyone who recommended anything to me this year, indulged my enthusiasms, came out to a concert or festival with me, or made any kind of joyful noise that touched my life. Special thanks to JH for working with me again on the beautiful packaging that will come with the actual burned copies of the CDs.