Noise used to look forward to toting up our favorite albums each December the way we once looked forward to Santa Claus. Then we got an iPod.
Suddenly all that "death of the album" talk Noise refused to listen to (we're stubborn like that) made perfect sense. We cycled new music on and off that infernal device at a fairly regular clip all year, and the more we did, the more we noticed something: Even on the albums we liked the best, only a few songs held our interest enough to slip into heavy rotation, while the rest of them did little more than sit there taking up between three and five megabytes of memory apiece.
There was one notable exception: The Decemberists' The Hazards of Love, an album that is not only far and away the best, most complete record Noise heard all year, but one threatening to make a serious dent in our albums-of-the-decade list. Hazards is heavy, melodic and tells a hell of a story, a fanciful fairy tale about two doomed medieval lovers. Noise never thought the Portland indie-rockers were capable of veering between lilting folk and stampeding hard rock quite so effortlessly — like, say, Led Zeppelin — but that's exactly what happened.
A few other albums came close, too. We had to disqualify two of the 2009 releases we listened to the most, Drive-By Truckers' The Fine Print and Shooter Jennings' Bad Magick. The former is a collection of outtakes, covers and B-sides released to fulfill the Truckers' obligation to New West Records, who opted not to renew the band's contract (they've since signed with ATO). The latter is a best-of, with the only new material not actually new at all — covers of Dire Straits' "Walk of Life" and Hank Williams Jr.'s "Living Proof." Good ones, but still.
Wilco's Wilco (The Album) was a model of consistency and quality, as usual, more mature if not quite as transcendent as previous offerings like A Ghost Is Born. U2's difficult No Line on the Horizon eventually grew on us just like we thought it would, although not quite as much as we would have liked. The Black Crowes' Before the Frost... would have deserved serious consideration had it shown up in our office before last week.
Old salts who did well — just not quite well enough — were Bob Dylan on Together Through Life, Elvis Costello on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Levon Helm on Electric Dirt and Sonic Youth on The Eternal, while newcomers worth keeping an eye on include Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix), Cage the Elephant (Cage the Elephant) and Hockey (Mind Chaos). Yet again, we had as little patience for blurry indie outfits like Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear as we did for hip-hop, so we'll leave them to those better qualified to comment (see Shea Serrano's rap wrap-up at "It Was What It Was").
One more thing: Noise doesn't know if it's because Texas simply refuses to enter the 21st century or what, but this problem did not extend to the many fine albums released by Lone Star artists, from Houston and elsewhere, this year. We'll run those down for you next week.
But ultimately, it kept coming back to the songs. For us, these nine are the ones that floated to the top in 2009.
The Black Crowes, "Houston Don't Dream About Me": This shaggy, Stones-ish ballad about a girl back in Space City drowns its only serious competition this year for Best Houston Song by Non-Houstonians, Bob Dylan's "If You Ever Go to Houston," in White Oak Bayou. Listen closely to the verses: The minor-key guitar flourish at the end of each phrase sounds a lot like the hook to the Geto Boys' "Mind Playin' Tricks on Me." We're not sure if the Crowes did that on purpose, and we don't know how many fans the two groups could possibly have in common, but it is a nice touch.
The Dead Weather, "Treat Me Like Your Mother": Who's got it figured out? Jack White's wedding gift to Meg, in the form of yet another band delaying the next White Stripes record, that's who. Here drummer White pounds out a demonic blues-march as various Raconteurs and Queens of the Stone Age mangle their guitars and keyboards and Kills vocalist Allison Mosshart sneers like a razor blade. We can't figure out if she means incest or matricide when Mosshart commands, "Don't act like you can't act/ Stand up like a man" — it's probably both — but we'll just go ahead and let you ask her. Rumored to be coming to Houston soon... but not soon enough.
Muse, "Uprising": Noise put this on our iPod when the British trio's LP The Resistance came out in September; by early December, "Uprising" was No. 2 on our most-played list. Its combination of ethereal synths, concrete-pillar bass, ear-blowing power chords and conspiracy-clouded lyrics ("Paranoia is in bloom...") hooked us immediately, edging out a haunting title track supposedly based on George Orwell's 1984. "Uprising" also finally broke Muse for good in the States, topping Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks chart for more than three months; Muse plays Toyota Center March 18.
Pearl Jam, "The Fixer": Never mind anyone under 25 who heard "The Fixer" probably thought it was a new Kings of Leon song — it's lean and mean in a way Eddie Vedder's Seattle survivors haven't been since the "Do the Evolution" days... or maybe ever. In a year the band's 1991 breakthrough Ten got the deluxe-reissue treatment, almost always a sure sign an artist is ready for the oldies shelf (see: Nirvana), "The Fixer" proved Pearl Jam is still hungry and vital. Not bad for a Target commercial.
U2, "Moment of Surrender": Although it proved to be, well, "Magnificent" live, look no further for the reason No Line on the Horizon was U2's poorest-selling album since the similarly stadium-sized Pop than the fact that its best song is a melancholy ballad that stretches more than seven minutes. But what a ballad it is. Bono may be revisiting familiar territory, the uneasy alliance between earthy and unearthly love, but he does it with both characteristic humanity and a heretofore-unseen degree of humility (really!). Meanwhile, the Edge's angelic harmonies and Brian Eno's chorale-like keyboards make this song the closest U2 has ever come to touching the face of God — no mean feat for a band whose credits already include "Gloria," "40" and "One."
White Lies, "To Lose My Life": Pale, skinny post-punk Brits singing about love over fuzzy basslines that feel like a ride on the Tube are nothing new, of course, but these London lads do it better than most. Having 2009's most Livejournal-worthy refrain in "Let's grow old together/ And die at the same time" didn't hurt. By year's end, "To Lose My Life" had found a proper home in teasers for the CW's Twilight-lite series The Vampire Diaries.
White Rabbits, "Percussion Gun": More than any other, this song by the Missouri-to-Brooklyn transplants embodies the brave new world Noise is still coming to terms with. We first heard it in a friend's car — we had to ask her who it was at least three separate times who it was before we finally remembered for good — and we never did hear anything else off parent album It's Frightening (even though it was produced by Spoon's Britt Daniel). No matter, because its machine-gun drums, exclamation-point bass and leering lyrics may be the most purely fun three minutes of music we heard all year.
Wilco, "I'll Fight": Jeff Tweedy's band continues to refine both its peculiar business model as a group that makes its living on the road yet whose fans still swamp record stores whenever a new album comes out — ask anyone working at Cactus Music the day Wilco (the Album) was released in June — and its talent for couching uncomfortable sentiments in silky-smooth sounds. Here, Tweedy compares himself to Jesus, vowing to fight (and kill) for his audience as his musical compadres craft a deceptively upbeat organ-based tune that doesn't so much smooth over the lyrics' sharp edges as conceal them in a leather sheath. No other band out there would go to such lengths for its listeners, which is both comforting and a little creepy.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Zero": Karen O and her two cronies leave the Lower East Side for Studio 54 for this New Wave dance-floor gem with hipster-criticizing lyrics that cut deeper than anything Pitchfork could come up with. By simultaneously castigating and embracing the YYYs' fan base, "Zero" set a synth-punk standard nobody in 2009 could live up to: Nobody else in their ZIP code, anywhere else, and — although "Heads Will Roll" and "Skeletons" came relatively close — not even the band itself on the rest of It's Blitz! Chris Gray
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