So that was 2009, and what has it done? I differ from a fair number of the cognoscenti in that I refuse to dismiss each passing year as yet another in a long line of musical disappointments. Some years do offer more and some better than others, but every year offers something worthwhile and 2009 is no different.
What is different is this year I'm not crowing a #1 album of the year. I heard several great records this year and spent a lot of time with several. I'm just not able to decide on one record to put at the top of my list. Believe me, I tried. I started making a case for one of the albums I didn't choose every time I thought I'd solved the riddle, so instead I'm submitting my Top 10 Albums of 2009 as a group. I'm presenting them alphabetically with a few words of praise for each of them.
If you're curious, you can revisit my Top 10 of 2008 before digging in to the cream of this year's crop. Let the disagreements begin:
Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
Brendan Benson – My Old Familiar Friend
Howling Bells – Radio Wars
Mark Knopfler – Get Lucky
Barrett Martin – Zenga
Nick Moss & The Flip Tops – Live at Chan's: Combo Platter No. 2
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – The Live Anthology
R.E.M. – Live at The Olympia
Switchfoot – Hello Hurricane
U2 – No Line On The Horizon
Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid: I didn't spend as much time with this record as I probably should have. Yet every time I listened to this solo debut from The Black Keys' frontman, I marveled at how great the best of its moments are. Auerbach's understanding of deep blues, garage, and rock are on full display. "When The Night Comes" is lovely and "Heartbroken, In Disrepair" has a monster groove.
Brendan Benson – My Old Familiar Friend: It's sprawling, messy, and sometimes maddeningly uneven but Brendan Benson's first solo album in four years has moments of power-pop perfection. "Eyes On The Horizon" rates among the best melodies I heard all year. "Garbage Day" mixes Motown and ELO. The highlights of this record are very, very worth your time.
Howling Bells – Radio Wars: Juanita Stein's purr is one of my happiest discoveries of the year and I'm ecstatic they got U.S. distribution for their marvelous sophomore album, Radio Wars. There are so many fine songs on this record. You have the mysterious "Cities Burning Down" and the Tears For Fears-esque "Let's Be Kids Again." The undisputed highlight is the impossibly gorgeous "Nightingale." Chris Martin encouraged everyone to download that track and I second the recommendation.
Mark Knopfler – Get Lucky: I proclaimed this a contender for Album of The Year in September upon its release and I'm pleased to announce I was right. I don't think he'll ever get the acclaim he's earned for the fine work he's done with and since Dire Straits but it won't be because I didn't try. Expert craftsmanship and mature, understated storytelling put this among the finest things he's ever done and the best 2009 had to offer. "Monteleone" is wonderfully affecting and "Can't Beat The House" rocks on its own terms.
Barrett Martin – Zenga: Type the word 'Zenga' in the search engine of your choice (I'm sorry but I'm old school and vehemently object to turning "Google" into a verb) and odds are you'll find 1,000 entries written by me. I can think of few albums I've followed more closely from creation to release and beyond. As I wrote in my initial review, Zenga is an album about journeys for me, and I'm still taking them. I don't "understand" jazz, but I feel this.
Nick Moss & The Flip Tops – Live at Chan's: Combo Platter No. 2: This is the album that dispels the notion of too much of a good thing. You could argue Live at Chan's was so good you don't want to mess with perfection but like the first two Godfather movies it doesn't matter which is better; you have to have them both. The inclusion of Chicago blues legend Lurrie Bell adds grit and glory to the evening. This is Chicago blues at its finest! If Moss & Co. return to Chan's for a third installment, it's going to beat the hell out of Godfather III. Bet that. Download "Spareribs & Chopsticks" and delight in Moss' epic leads and Bob Carter's brilliantly understated drum fills.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers – The Live Anthology: This feels like cheating in selecting a massive package like this with so many goodies recorded over a 30-year period, but as 2009 ends and 2010 begins I know I'll still be mining this fertile ground. The Live Anthology doesn't feel like a souvenir or spring cleaning. The music sounds and feels vital, simultaneously timeless and immediate. I'd pay $100 for it again tomorrow.
R.E.M. – Live at The Olympia: So let's dispense with the "cheating" all at once. This is less egregious than Petty because these live performances were taken from a brief residency in Dublin, but it does function as something of a compilation. What makes this so great is it's not a greatest hits collection but rather a rarities and fan favorites compilation, performed live by an energized band with a deeper catalog than many of their contemporaries.
Switchfoot – Hello Hurricane: It's the New Kid in Town. The main reason I didn't crown this #1 is because it came out so late in the year and I wanted to be sure I wasn't getting carried away with a rush of euphoria at year's end. That may be the only reason I didn't crown it #1 because this is a powerful record filled with great songs and important ideas. They spent two years making the record and it was time well spent. There are some great singles on Hello Hurricane, but this is an album in every sense. Tracks are sequenced to strengthen the themes explored.
U2 – No Line On The Horizon: This one takes me by surprise a bit. I feel as though I like this album more and less than it deserves, and that doesn't seem like it should be possible. There are moments that really, really work, that are incredible and powerful and profound ("Magnifient" and "Cedars of Lebanon" among them). There are moments that are loud and sonically engaging. Unfortunately that doesn't describe the entire album. There are some disposable, bullshit moments as well.