2009 mostly sucked. Okay there, I said it.
Don't even get me started on Obama. After spending my first full year as one of America's newly massive underclass of unemployed professionals, you can count me as one of the millions still waiting for all that hope and change we voted for based on the promises of his 2008 candidacy. But anyway, back to music…
Let's see, what happened this year? Oh yeah, Adam Lambert happened. Next.
Taylor Swift also happened, and in a big way too, prompting Kanye West to throw a nationally televised fit like only Kanye West can. Jack White started yet another band. Kings Of Leon had a breakout year. The Beatles gave us their Remasters; and Neil Young finally delivered his Archives.
Eminem came back with a vengeance. Pearl Jam made their best new album in years. Lady GaGa officially took her place as Madonna for the new millennium — or at least as the new Britney Spears of the week. The Black Eyed Peas found a new beginning with The E.N.D..
Meanwhile, music sales overall continued their nosedive into the depths of oblivion, even as artists continued to explore other avenues of revenue. With no more record stores out there to speak of, bands tried everything from offering their music for free online (Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan is the latest to use the Radiohead model) to striking exclusivity deals with major retail chains like Walmart and Best Buy.
Meanwhile, for indie bands willing to go the needle-in-a-haystack route, there was always the instant access afforded from MySpace and the like. It seems anyone can become a breakout success these days — as long as the masses can actually find you.
And if you still don't believe that the new digital music economy is simply the old corporate model with a new set of clothes, just try applying for a job at one of these "progressive" portals of the new musical commerce. Otherwise, go ahead and keep buying into the hype that all of this is good for music. When the internet actually does produce the next Dylan or Radiohead, I'll be sure to pony up on that beer I owe you.
Concert ticket prices continued to escalate and to price many fans out of the market altogether, even as Live Nation and Ticketmaster pushed forward with plans for a merger that would amount to a monopoly of the concert business.
Fortunately, when Ticketmaster managed to screw a number of Springsteen fans out of seats (by instead directing them to a ticket broker they none-too-coincidentally held a stake in), Boss fans responded by getting a few members of congress involved. There may be light at the end of the ticket tunnel yet. But speaking of Bruce…
The year began with new releases from three of rock's biggest guns in Springsteen, U2, and Dylan, and on varying levels all three albums were disappointments.
In the case of Springsteen's Working On A Dream, the letdown was a fairly major one coming off of 2007's Magic and the amazing string of shows with the E Street Band that followed. While WOAD does have its fair share of decent songs ("Life Itself," "My Lucky Day"), the album in no way lives up to its inexplicable #2 ranking on the just-out best of '09 list from Rolling Stone. Talk about sucking up to the Boss…
Even stranger though is the #1 ranking for U2's No Line On The Horizon. Again, this is a decent album with a handful of really great songs ("Magnificent," "Breathe," "Cedars Of Lebanon"). But there is nothing as instantly memorable as the blast of "Vertigo" or the anthemic feel of "Beautiful Day" here. Unlike Springsteen's WOAD though, U2's No Line does tend to grow on you with repeated listens.
Dylan's Together Through Life is mostly saved by the songs "Forgetful Heart" and "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'." It too is a decent, but not quite great album — particularly coming as it does after an album of the decade contender like Modern Times.
Anyway, all three of these albums nevertheless made my top ten list, mainly because there was precious little else out there to fill it this year. I can't remember a year when filling a top ten list was so tough.
How do we put a shine on a mostly sucky year? Only by giving it our best, mostly sucky try I suppose. With that said, the following should in no way be considered scientific. If I were to go for rock critic mode here and try to pick out the stuff that "mattered" most in 2009, this list would be crowded with the Lady GaGas and the Adam Lamberts of the world — and albums I have no interest in, or any intention of seeking out to hear. Instead, consider the following a sample of what your Rockologist listened to most in 2009.
10. Bruce Springsteen – Working On A Dream
Born To Run is a five star album. Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a five star album. WOAD is not a five star album. But in 2009, three and a half stars is good enough to make the cut. "Outlaw Pete" still sounds way too much like that KISS song though.
9. Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
The trilogy that began with Time Out Of Mind, continued with Love & Theft, and culminated with the brilliant Modern Times officially came to an end here. There are some great songs, though, especially the darkly beautiful "Forgetful Heart." But overall this is the spottiest Dylan album in quite awhile. God bless his heart though, Dylan showed us he still has a great sense of humor with his Christmas In The Heart collection.
8. Pearl Jam – Backspacer
Short, but sweet. Pearl Jam's best in a decade or more is short in length, but long on punchy songs like "The Fixer" and poignant ballads like the album closer "The End." Reuniting with producer Brendan O'Brien also gave PJ their first chart-topper since their grunge heyday back in the nineties.
7. U2 – No Line On The Horizon
After nearly leaving this one off the list, I gave it another spin in the interest of a second chance for one of my favorite groups of all time. As a result, this comes off the shelf where its been gathering dust for months and moves back into regular rotation at K-Glen. Spotty for sure — but redeemed by the power of "Breathe," the uplift of "Magnificent," and the beauty of "Cedars Of Lebanon."
6. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
It's not the instant classic that American Idiot was, but George W. Bush is also no longer our president. You have to admire the way that Green Day turns three simple punk-rock chords into such big operatic arena-rock statements the way they do. Hardly anybody else does this anymore.
5. PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman, A Man Walked By
PJ is all over the place here, and in this case that is definitely a good thing. At equal turns haunting and personal ("The Chair", "April"), and then raw and brutal ("Black Hearted Love," "Pig Will Not"), A Woman, A Man Walked By marries the minimalist punk of early Harvey albums like Rid Of Me with the starker shades of darkness and light found on last year's brilliant White Chalk.
4. Engineers – Three Fact Fader
This was a late 2009 entry that surprisingly has found its way into my top five. Three Fact Fader has rarely left my CD player for long since the day I got it. Call it a transcendental joyride without the Maharishi, or a little like falling deep down the rabbit hole without the drugs. But if you've ever loved shoegaze bands like Ride or My Bloody Valentine, this one's got your name written all over it.
3. The Dead Weather – Horehound
Another new band from Jack White — just what the world needs, right? In this case, the answer turns out to be a resounding yes. Jack himself mostly takes a backseat here behind the drumkit, leaving the guitar to Queens Of The Stone Age member Dean Fertita and the majority of the vocals to the Kills' Alison Mosshart. Comparisons to White's other bands — particularly the Raconteurs — are probably inevitable. But the Dead Weather carve a bluesy, dirty, and ultimately very satisfying identity of their own on Horehound.
2. Wilco – Wilco: The Album
Although "Wilco (The Song)" got the most notice, the rest of the songs on this album by Jeff Tweedy, Nels Cline, and the Wilco boys are every bit as good. Cline grates the strings to a metronomic beat straight out of Kraftwerk territory on the "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" soundalike "Bull Black Nova." But on "You Never Know," Wilco manage to wed vintage George Harrison with T. Rex glam-rock for what was, in my opinion, the best power-pop song of 2009.
1. Porcupine Tree – The Incident
The Incident is the two-disc masterpiece where Porcupine Tree mastermind Steven Wilson finally put it all together. The first disc is devoted entirely to the 55-minute epic, "The Incident," a concept piece that combines both the spacey prog of PT's early albums with the metallic grind of their more recent work. It also borrows liberally from Pink Floyd on the "Time Flies" segment, but it sounds more like an homage than a rip-off. The second disc features four songs that sound like they should have been on another album altogether, but are no less beautiful than the main event itself — particularly the haunting "Black Dahlia." Somewhere in an alternate reality, Steven Wilson and PT are the biggest band in the world.