I love creating these lists but they do stress me out. It’s inevitable that I’ll miss listening to or completely forgetting about certain albums but that’s not necessarily something than can be avoided. The fun in the “best of” lists is that one can be drastically different from another. With the exception of one album below, witness Andy B’s list here and see how different his is from mine. Yes, we debate the accuracy of our lists. And really, that’s the point. My “best of” list is different than his. It will probably be different than yours. And that is the beauty of music.
I found that 2009 was not as prodigious a musical year as 2008. It was difficult placing albums namely because I found that many left less of a mark on my consciousness this year. 2009 had some pretty big expectations following 2008 and in many regards, didn’t quite live up to them. That isn’t to say there wasn’t great music released.
Witness, then, the Top 5 Albums of 2009:
5. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Moody church organs, fat guitar riffs, bold, upright bass rumblings and a driven drum track. A lyrical narrative wherein multiple singers play multiple characters in multiple character arcs.
The Hazards of Love is the story of a stag by day turned, by the Queen of Nature, into a man by night in order for him to lie with the human woman whom he loves. The Decemberists turn a fable of adoration and avarice into a concept album that is truly meant to be played on the stage with actors, a choir and a full orchestra.
Won’t Want for Love is a bold introduction to Margaret, the female love interest as she audaciously declares her love for the stag/man and how nothing will quell this emotion. A barely audible guitar string, heightening in intensity as the song progresses, warns the listener of the follies of desire. A standout track, The Rake’s Song naturally alludes to the sordid history of the antagonist of the nearly sixty minute tale. Here, we learn of this character’s murder of his own children as he was so “shamefully saddled with three little pests.” It’s a three-minute epic of drum-fuelled depravity that begs the listener to sing along. A strange attraction, no?
The Hazards of Love is a wonder marriage of music and story and, given its seventeen tracks, feels too short. There are probably 3 or 4 songs missing before perfection can be obtained, each absent track shedding light on a particular character or situation. Still, meant to be heard from beginning to end, the album is a wonderful thrust forward by a band with a propensity for stage drama. Perhaps more of a wonder was the concern fans had when the Decemberists moved from an independent label to Capital Records a few years ago.
The band has not lost any of their ambition or integrity. If anything, that decision, as heard in The Hazards of Love, has seen them grow as both artists and musicians.
4. Muse – The Resistance
Leave it to Matthew Bellamy, lead architect of Muse, to write fascinating operatic prog-rock songs about dying alien races sent into deep space to repopulate the species and still have said songs allude to relevant, current world events. Yes, in The Resistance, the band’s fifth album, he’s talking about the human race amidst a time of war, dissolving political borders, pandemic and global warming.
Recoded in the northern lake district of Italy, The Resistance undeniably has a distinctly European flavour. Whether it’s the piano-driven, French-infused language of I Belong To You (Mon Coeur S’Ouvre A Ta Voix) or the previously mentioned space opera of Exogenesis: Symphony (parts1 through 3), the band never lose their rock roots. Even with the audacity of employing groovy slap base on Undisclosed Desires, The Resistance is always inviting to the ear, getting stronger with each subsequent listen.
With a song included in the latest Twilight movie and a heavy hitting, guitar, bass and drum live show which penetrates North America in the new year, Muse are set to be a household name. Once half-heartedly shrugged off as Radiohead and Pink Floyd knock-offs, Muse are entrenched in being no more than that which they always wanted: themselves in a perfectly fitted, conspiratorial musical niche wherein they can do whatever it is they want.
3. U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Somewhere in the mid nineteen nineties, I either lost U2 or they lost me. I blame Pop, an album I disliked so much, I simply gave it away to a friend. Of course, the band and their music were always heard – there’s no escaping U2. Still, I hadn’t bought any U2 music since then. I’m not entirely sure why I rushed out to purchase No Line On The Horizon. I can only say that, knowing the band had stalwart producers Eno and Lanois in the camp, it was simply a feeling I had that this album would be different – that I would enjoy it.
That feeling was spot on.
Not their highest selling or most accessible album, here, Bono has found his musical-poet self, seen only fleetingly since 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Musically, the album is a mix between the experimental folk-rock of that recording and the seminal, dance-floor inspired, 1991’s Achtung Baby. Bad is the introduction to Unknown Caller while Even Better Than The Real Thing promises Magnificent; Moment of Surrender is the sequel to So Cruel while I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight completes Pride (In The Name of Love). The musical colours that make up the album are echoed incessantly as one song leads to another: the sounds of a plucked guitar string are echoed in a subsequent song, a bass groove resonates later in the record. The whole is more important than the pieces, the band professes.
Along with The Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby, No Line On The Horizon completes a trilogy three decades in the making.
What an amazing musical journey it has been.
2. Manic Street Preachers – Journal for Plague Lovers
Journal was advertised as the lyrical return of troubled Richey Edwards, the poet-songwriter (and soul) of the band, after having disappeared in 1995 by probably committing suicide. Declared officially dead late last year, his body has yet to be found.
Instead, with Edwards journal of half-formed lyrics and poems in hand, given to his band mates on the eve of his disappearance, the Manics have found their old raison d’être: gritty, political, nihilist, twenty-first century life-picking swagger embraced by stadium-sized rock riffs. Produced by Steve Albini, the album sounds deliciously like Nirvana on one song and Rush on another but thoroughly like Manic Street Preachers throughout. This is the evolution of their magnum opus, The Holy Bible, a grown up, sophisticated and, often, introverted look at human existence.
At once, it’s softer – with a childlike naivety inherent in the lyric “Oh mommy, what’s a sex pistol?” in Jackie Collins Existential Question Time but the cut is far deeper in All is Vanity which promises that “It’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right, it’s a fact of life sunshine” suspiciously sung with enough vitriol to sound like “it’s a fucked up life sunshine.” Make no mistake. Edwards, ever the player with words and sounds knew this when he wrote the poem/lyric.
And those big electric guitars are absolutely amazing. Journal For Plague Lovers is the Manic Street Preachers return to post-punk, anthem-rock glory.
1. Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
The first time I heard anything from this album was when the band, on a late winter promotional tour, played a riveting live version of first single Ulysses on MTV Canada. That one song got my blood pumping, my head nodding and my foot stomping and, nearly twelve months later, those body parts haven’t stopped.
I’m not sure what else there is to say since I said so much about how that song and then the rest of the album made me feel here. Actually, the rest of the album is just as hot as that single. It’s music to listen to before and after a night out at the club. Not to mention while writing or vacuuming or just puttering around the house.
Songs from Tonight: Franz Ferdinand, the band’s third album, were heard en masse in movie trailers and Apple iPod commercials everywhere during 2009. They even hit the niche markets. No one else on this Top 5 list released a dub version of their album this year. Franz Ferdinand did and it sounded pretty good too.
Still, the musical maturity of the band, their confidence and the successful dance-pop/synth experimentation found in this album boils down to simple communicable infection.
And doctor, I don’t want the cure.