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Music Musings: Top 10 Albums of 2009

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I have reviewed music for blogcritics.org and other cultural based web-sites, and I even here and there send out (not that I have strong demand, mind you) music and film review snippets on my Facebook page and on my own website.

This year, I decided to put together a top 10 music list. Now, I both loathe top 10 lists (or top 20 or 50) and I also love them. There’s simply too much good music floating around — and, sadly, you can’t listen to everything. Still, these lists are harmless fun, and I read almost every one I come across. I’ve seen a lot of top 10s for 2009 as well, and for the first time in memory the lists seem to vary widely. Usually there are three or four of the same albums that are on everyone’s list. Not so this year: there seems to be no great overlap in the various top music lists for 2009.

And I think that’s a good thing. I hope it means that a larger variety of music than in years past is making its way to the top of the bin, so to speak.

So, here you go: yet another top 10 list of music from 2009, irrespective of genre. Other than position one, they are not ranked, just listed. Take it for what it’s worth: the musings of an amateur critic.

Number 10 – The Eels, Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire. Eels songwriter “E” is working a concept here, where the album’s protagonist, so to speak, is revealing both the dark and tender sides of the human soul. To say much more than that over complicates what is a superbly assembled group of songs that are loud and brash and road-house bluesy (think Black Keys).

But Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire is also tender and revealing, and at times throws off a near whimsical pop sound or feel (think, believe it or not, flashes of Camera Obscura). Certain songs will devastate, e.g., “That Look You Give that Guy.” Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire is a fine album, and worth the purchase.

Number 9 - Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. For one thing, you have to love the cover art alone (Case atop a Mercury Cyclone, sword in hand, looking for something or someone to eviscerate). The record itself puts to rest — if there were any doubts — that Neko Case falls safely in the lineage of Patsy Cline in that she can wrest ever ounce of emotion — tender or tough — out of anything she sings. The overall feel of Middle Cyclone is twang-pop, and it can be both lush and ragged, always at the perfect moment. Whether vexed or relaxed, Case is brilliant here. Also: check out her work with The New Pornographers.

Number 8 – Norah Jones: The Fall. Some would call this an “un-cool” pick, given her commercial success. Cool or not, I don’t care. Jones’ The Fall really is a break from the lush and hazy jazz/pop phrasings and arrangements of her work to date. I mean, the woman can sing: and can wrap her vocals around country as easily as jazz or pop. She roughs it up a bit, here. Norah Jones roughing it up is, of course, still smooth and seemingly effortless. It’s not effortless, of course. Jones is a hard worker, and The Fall is either a transitional album or simply a display of Jones’ expansive talent. Either way it works. Plus, best single of the year: “Chasing Pirates.”

Number 7 - Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!, Lead singer Karen O gives her feral howl a break here, and, as when she’s done so in the past (e.g., “Turn Into”), you realize the band is versatile and highly accomplished. There’s room for them to breathe and show off a bit. It’s Blitz! is the band’s most accessible work to date, but it’s still edgy when it needs to be. Karen O is a force of nature, but she does not always have to demonstrate it to us. Here, she does not, and the result is spectacular. This is post-punk rock-pop produced with a jagged knife sensibility. Karen O, thankfully, never misses her marks.

Number 6 – Raekwon: Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II.  This release is a sequel to the “original” 1995 release. There are no new revelations here, and this is a rap record (not going to use “hip-hop”) that will satisfy the souls of all those old school fans of blustering, in-your-face-east-coast aggressive and self-aggrandizing “rap sheet” music (my term for it; see Biggie Smalls). The beats are brutal and the in-your-face lyrics take no prisoners. Long live Wu-Tang.

Number 5 – Miranda Lambert: Revolution. Lambert knows how to burn the house down; she’s proved that many times, notably in what is to date still her best song, “Kerosene.” On Revolution she turns the amp down a bit, and her whirligig emotional abandonment is held in check here; at first listen you’re not sure if it’s a canny move or a major derailing. Turns out it’s the former, because the more you listen the more you  realize that Lambert still has plenty of bite left in her — only now she’s able to add more sweetness here and there, and even that sweetness has a kind of spooky edginess to it. It’s all wrong that someone as talented and bold as Lambert gets very little recognition from her country cousins in Nashville. Her music seems to come from a stove-heated shack in the hills somewhere.

Number 4 - Wale:  Attention Deficit. While he has been around for awhile, and is especially well known in his DC ‘hood, he has now — mix tape after mix tape — broken from the herd and in to the hip-hop mainstream with  Attention Deficit. Wale sounds a bit like Lupe Fiasco, a compliment. Wale wants us to stand at attention, and to pay attention. He brings a force and clarity to hip-hop that’s been missing for some time now. And he has a conscience — much to his credit.

Number 3 – Wilco: Wilco (The Album). “Country Disappeared,” one of the best songs on Wilco’s latest release, is Wilco-beautiful, but it’s far from the truth. Wilco (The Album) is not as experimental as works past; neither was Sky Blue Sky, the predecessor to this new release. But country shows signs of emerging in a way that we have not heard since A.M. Now, I’m a Wilco fan, and Jeff Tweedy is a genius. Here his genius is not so restless.

He holds himself in check, and the band’s straight-ahead rhythms and melodies are allowed greater exhibition than on records past. Good Wilco, a redundancy, is hard to beat. Great Wilco, and The Album is great, is simply unbeatable. Wilco (The Album) is one of the very best releases of the year.

Number 2 - The Noisettes: Wild Young Hearts. Sadly, there seem to be fewer and fewer groups like The Noisettes. They embrace all genres, whether they handle them all well is perhaps another story. But they try. And in their trying there is bliss. Their sound is at least these: Motown soul; 70’s funk, girl-group, jazz, electronica, dance hall grind, and disco (“Don’t Upset the Rhythm”). The music is wildly joyous and unpretentious. It is heavy rotation stuff.

Ta-Da!

Number 1 – Mos Def: The Ecstatic. I could say a lot about this album, but just buy it instead. Intelligent, dance worthy hip-hop with a conscience — and with an odd (for hip-hop) melodic strain running through every infectious beat.

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