2009 / Music / Top 10

Soundbytes: Top 10 Albums Of 2009

Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear Release Year’s Best Discs

Read The Reviews: Animal Collective | Grizzly Bear | Mastodon | St. Vincent | Phoenix | Dirty Projectors | The Avett Brothers | Raekwon | Girls | Bob Dylan

It’s an obvious bit of analysis to say that few will likely look back with warm and fuzzy nostalgia for much of anything that arrived circa 2009. Bleak, occasionally menacing and ultimately harrowing, 2009 was a year of reckoning for most people — whether you deserved it or not.

As the aftermath of the cascading global economy reverberated through every sector of society, many people’s hopes and aspirations were sublimated to basic instincts like ensuring survival. It was/is a time of pragmatism, when good enough became a mantra of necessity instead of a thrifty ideal.

If the entertainment industry was once seen as the public’s primary refuge during tough times — as it wasdid during the Depression era when it peddled both escapism and grittier, moralistic fare — 2009 offered up few entertainers willing to put forth extra effort to win your few remaining dollars. The music world, already wilting and anemic thanks to the twin calamities of illegal downloading and stiffer competition from other media (chiefly movies and video games), acted just like the band that played as the Titanic sank. (Let’s ignore the declining sales and sagging relevance of our products and ponder what Lady Gaga is wearing next!)

In this instance when the music industry and its dependents are as depressed as it’s (hopefully) ever going to get, you’d think, if we wouldn’t at least be transported to a realm away from layoffs, furloughs and depleted 401Ks. Or, if not that, we’d hear songs to match the grim popular mood. Alas, the standout releases of 2009 weren’t the revelatory pieces of art promising renewal or reform. They also weren’t depressive tales of woe or political anthems. The best records were unflashy, highly personal art projects done without really taking market concerns into account. Most are younger artists or largely unknowns, suggesting that bravery and boldness remain hallmarks of those breaking into the industry while established acts mostly scramble to protect whatever they have.

While these discs won’t galvanize a battered audience to rise to its feet, they do offer some solace and prove creativity endures even in the darkest of times. Perhaps that’s good enough for right now.

Here’s this year’s list, in no particular order.

 Animal Collective “Merriweather Post Pavilion”

After years of Animal Collective flooding every underground-rock fans’ playlists with assorted albums, EPs and solo discs — each threatening momentarily to break the New York combo out of hipper musical circles — they finally delivered upon all that pent-up promise with “Merriweather Post Pavilion.”

Photo: Domino Records

Photo: Domino Records

The album, named for a concert venue in the band members’ native Maryland, found the psychedelic, highly experimental group searching for arena-ready hooks amid the self-indulgent dissonance and settling on the DJ’s tools of the trade to develop these latest labyrinthine compositions. Credit is due as the songs hold true to the collective’s guiding artistic principles of pastiche while allowing something listeners can follow.

Since officially joining forces at the decade’s beginning, the four-member outfit has veered from acid-head freakouts to freak folk to sampler-rich tapestries of colliding sound. With the recent departure of Josh “Deakin” Dibb, the three remaining players found common cause by seemingly building off the dense-layered templates that group member Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) achieved with his marvelous solo effort, “Person Pitch.” The “Merriweather” tracks are assembled with a basic pop melody in mind, with the flurry of studio trickery and oddball sounds all conforming to and complimenting the core idea. As was the case with “Person Pitch,” that melody is typically carried by multi-tracked, Beach Boy-style vocals, juxtaposed with mechanical musical swatches.

The disc’s best tracks are the joyous pop hits that listeners might find if they lived an elite’s life in the cyber-noir world put to celluloid in the ’80s cult classic “Blade Runner.” Elusive New Wave keyboards are collaged with disparate cultural influences to create a new musical aesthetic. “Bluish” is Animal Collective’s attempt at a Motown love song told with a shimmering rhythm and zippering keyboard effects. “Brother Sport” has the group coming to excellent cross purposes as the track’s course veers from a type of tribal chanting only heard in the digital world to a robot rave and vice versa. “My Girls,” meanwhile, ranks as the year’s best single. (Jay-Z’s “Empire State Of Mind” is a close second.)

More than any other group with the exception of fellow New Yorkers TV on the Radio, Animal Collective has committed itself to discover an entirely new genre of music while blending it with pop smarts. “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is the finest product of this vision and the combo’s greatest calling card to their weird universe of sounds.

While Animal Collective’s much-anticipated set at this summer’s Lollapalooza festival proved disappointing, the group’s profile has never been higher. Yet another EP they released before the year’s end signals they aren’t quite done evolving yet. We’ll see how many fans will hang on from here.

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Grizzly Bear “Veckatimest”

Listening to “Veckatimest,” it’s not difficult to ascertain what attracted such disparate famous names as Jay-Zand Radiohead to hail Grizzly Bear in recent months. Of course, these songs are modern feats of low-fi magic, but there are also clear musical markers in certain tracks that harkens back to their own tunes. It’s a tribute to Grizzly Bear’s unacknowledged musical elasticity.

The four-man, Brooklyn-based group operates in rock’s equivalent of the Left Bank, where screwy ideas about composition and sound are welcome and only hemmed in by snarky accusations of selling out. To embrace mainstream hip-hop production techniques, as Grizzly Bear does on “Two Weeks,” is a ballsy move. That these lads get away with it so that few of their indie-rock adherents barely notice is even more extraordinary and a tribute to their cleverness.

Sharp ears can pick out the ingredients to Grizzly Bear’s sublimating sonic stew. When Jay-Z heard the choir-boy, staccato piano refrain that is the basis of “Two Weeks,” which could have been nicked from Kanye’s studio cache of samples, he likely earmarked it for future use. One song later, we can hear singer Ed Droste channel his inner Thom Yorke on “All We Ask,” mooning in digitized glory as if he had escaped from Radiohead’s “Amnesiac” album.

Picking these antecedents out make the song richer than their fey, slightly English exterior, but they’re only parts of the greater whole. The band takes a patient approach in revealing each song and is coy about displaying the beauty of the songs. “Ready, Able” unfurls itself as fluttering keyboards, quietly jutting electric guitars and Droste sings as if his slight voice is lost amid the soft, climaxing swirl of instruments. “Fine For Now” is a shy gem of choral majesty featuring Droste and other vocalist Daniel Rossen. Spurred on by some laidback jazz drumming, the song only flowers for brief moments when the pairs’ voices lure us into a crescendo of chiming guitars and drum bashes. The wait is always worth it.

To be honest, “Veckatimest” isn’t a pop album and isn’t guaranteed to get Grizzly Bear into the big stages around the world. The group’s attitude is too introverted, their reserve too prominent for command the kind of stages that a Jay-Z or Radiohead prowl. The band’s wallflower music shies from attention even as though it’s the most extraordinary thing in the room.

One can guess that some OF Grizzly Bear’s superstar pals might be a little envious and willing to trade spots for awhile.

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Mastodon “Crack The Skye”

Unlike most stereotypical metal bands who are usually only interested in proving how loud and evil they are by battering listeners with badass riffage, the Georgia thrash-metal gods in Mastodon instead want to tell a story each time their amplifiers roar. Sure, these boys can crush your ear drums and melt your face with lightning-fast solos, but these songs have an intellectual purpose beyond meathead machismo.

To their further credit, Mastodon knows every progressive metal masterwork needs a central theme and they’ve concocted a brilliantly complicated, New Age-tinged concept on their latest disc, “Crack The Skye.” The album builds on the layered melodies and mood shifts the band employed on their breakthrough, 2006’s “Blood Mountain,” but distills all of the lyrical and musical complexity to just a half a dozen tracks. What the theme of “Crack The Skye” really means is an entirely different question. Ultimately, it’s more about the journey through the — ahem — undiscovered correlations of mysticism, metaphysics, astral projection, space exploration and arcane history than where these guys finally drop their patient fans off. There’s a lot of reading happening onboard the tour bus.

The music shows smarts, too. Taking cues from influences like old-school Metallica, Slayer and the unlikely Hawkwind, Mastodon’s songs are music blown out to cinematic proportions. “Ghost Of Karelia” applies the lessons of the David Lean school of filmmaking to produce a metal symphony. The cut rockets forward with a propulsive drumbeat and interlocking guitar pattern. As the intensity builds, creepy guitar countermelodies set the music spinning in unexpected directions and signal the next sonic metamorphosis. Drums crash, vocals growl and the thundering guitars balloon up to sound like behemoths marauding down your street. Just as quickly, the song speeds into a thrash-fest, but then slows into rumbling earthquake. It’s thrilling and exhausting. This is one of the album’s shorter songs.

The album’s 10-minute whoopers, “The Last Baron” and “The Czar: 1 Usurper, II Escape, III Martyr, IV Spiral,” are the record’s real miracles chiefly because they’re able to attract and maintain our attention even though pop-music history has trained us to check out after four minutes. In the best sense, the songs set headbangers up, plow them down and then prop them up for the next track. The episodic nature of the music sucks the audience deeper into the convoluted story with swift, rib-cracking drumming and chugging guitar zingers. Again, trying to make heads or tails of any of it is useless. New converts should simply let themselves get carried away.


Their story might be confusing and overly broad in scale, but “Crack The Skye” is worth the investment.

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St. Vincent “Actor”

Don’t underestimate St. Vincent on first introductions because of her voice. It isn’t a horrendous instrument by any means, but its breathy quality implies weakness to the casual listener. There are thousands of female artists whose slight voices mirror their creative skills. Overlook first impressions though and people will see St. Vincent isn’t one of these.

St. Vincent, the nome de rock of ex-Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens sidewoman Annie Clark, is the Rocky Balboa of this year’s elite. Her second solo release, “Actor,” was so remarkable because no other record in 2009 reached beyond expectations and scored successfully song after courageous song. Clark might sound a little like fellow indie-rock chanteuse Leslie Feist, but “Actor” established she is a unique musical force.

Like its title, the record is filled with musical roles that Clark introduces and seemingly embraces and then tosses off for the next cut. “Save Me From What I Want” is a Sarah McLachlan piano crooner with a funky rhythm section pulsating to keep the good times going. For “The Bed,” Clark is a ballad singer wowing us with her range to a string section’s accompaniment. And who’d expect the turn she makes when the robotronic Parliament-Funkadelic workout that would come serrating out of the speakers on “Marrow.” Begging for help in an android’s monotone, Clark sounds like Princess Leia having too much fun at a Studio 54 jam onboard the mothership.

The seductive lyrics and nightclub piano work of “The Party” might suggest a more romantic turn of events after the celebrating is over, but the inferences that escape her lips take an increasingly darker turn. “I’d pay any price to keep my conscience clean,” she sings. She never comes right out and says anything and that’s what leaves things in a delightful gray area. There’s little ambiguity about her intentions in the twisted pop of “Black Rainbow.” Keyboards gently pound out the rhythm as sagging, digitized strings accent Clark’s dispassionate singing, conjuring a cold world of suburban nightmares. “Here it’s nighttime all the time,” she states flatly.

“Actor” proves that expectations are always a false indicator when it comes to Clark’s songwriting and musicianship. Few might have thought an ex-sidewoman would have this kind of range or the artist’s heart to want to push out beyond indie rock conventions.

“Actor” issues a formidable challenge. It demands that this is a voice we should be listening to.

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Phoenix “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”

With “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix,” Phoenix has produced one of the few truly age-transcending rock albums of 2009. The record revives hope that there are a few holdouts who don’t think the four-piece rock band is a creatively-spent vehicle for music-making and this disc backs up their stubbornness.

The quartet, which many would like to be the French answer to the Strokes, combine downtown New York mathematical post-punk with electro-clash flourishes and 4/4 dance beats. The group first got noticed in North America after 2004’s “Alphabetical,” but it was “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” that would sweep the band onto “Saturday Night Live” and the late-night talk show circuit throughout the course of the year.

It’s easy to see why many have latched onto this album. It’s stocked with catchy potential singles. These are the modern-day soundtracks for the scene’s tastemakers and smart metrosexuals. And yet, their European background and connection with fellow French music mavericks Air and Daft Punk shield them from hipster suspicion that this is some Parisian scheme for a modern-day Abba. As such, listeners can tune in guilt free to the locomotive grooves and discotheque glamour of these tracks.

The first two songs on “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” — “Lisztomania” and “1901”– are the disc’s best and certainly open the record with a powerful combination of dance-funk. “Lisztomania” initially seems like it will be a quick listen, but its seamless melodic segue ways make a richer slice of pop than it’s four-minute running time. It combines plunky guitar interplay with foot-tapping drumbeat and singer Thomas Mars’ soft, wavering vocals. Mars only gets more endearing with “1901,” when he and the group perfect their retro-New Wave vision. (Think of the Ramones’ simpleton pop but with a Euro-trash feel.) Guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai expertly and alternately play with and off of each other. Their singer’s voice gorgeously lies atop of the unrelenting rhythm, urging them on and always inviting listeners into the party.

If you fear that this record is all about the club scene in an era of budget-tightening, the twin tracks at the album’s center are proof that Phoenix’s formula isn’t just useful for developing super-obvious hits. “Love Like A Sunset, Part 1” quickly expands from an intro into a full Pink Floyd-inspired, multi-segment soundscape. The track’s midway point, punctuated by oscillating guitar feedback, signals that familiar dance beat is taking listeners into a new direction. This changes again when the increasingly frenetic guitarwork builds until dissipating before an acoustic melody. Mars, silent for all of the track, finally appears shortly after the six-minute mark. “Where it starts it ends,” he coos, leaving us with a bit of an enigma. Luckily, “Love Like A Sunset, Part 2” has no pretense and returns listeners to normalcy. It’s a straight love song excellently crammed into a bullet train of guitar hooks and drum fills. “Forever is a long time to have lost your way,” Mars sings to his belittled, confused love. He and the band, however, cart no confusion. They know exactly where they’re going on this song and how they’re getting there. Listeners can enjoy the ride.

Phoenix succeeds in reviving rock music by reemphasizing the music’s dance-party roots. The band and their fans understand that the beat forgives all sins and can make crunchier guitar licks more palatable to a mass audience when partnered with a sweeping rhythm. The jams on “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” pick listeners up and keep them moving. That’s what great rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to do.

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Dirty Projectors “Bitte Orca”

A century ago, Brooklyn was one of many enclaves in the New York area that welcomed all those tired, poor and “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” They’re still coming these days, but now, thanks to bohemian gentrification, these modern immigrants have dreams of indie-rock success in Gotham’s biggest arts colony.

Dirty Projectors might now be part of the borough’s art-rock invasion, but “Bitte Orca” makes obvious these guys are surely welcome exports. Led by frontman Dave Longstreth, the quartet has many points of attack. There are all kinds of skittish rhythms and digital chirps and claps, the African-inspired vocalizations featuring Longstreth and tight supporting harmonies from Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian and finally, a free-spirited tact to structure. All leaves the music squarely in the art-rock mold, but also keeps listeners on their toes track to track.

These songs aren’t direct statements. They’re musical haiku, fleeting from melodic segment to an interlude to enthralling guitar non-sequitur. There’s the impressively quick folk-guitar runs of “Temecula Sunrise” that eventually give way to a helter skelter drum beat that grows into a bashing power-pop chorus. Coffman and Deradoorian get to lead their own track by using an army of vocal overdubs to people the scattershot beauty of “Stillness Is The Move.” On “Cannibal Resource,” Longstreth uses some skronk-y guitar and the pixie-ish union of Coffman and Deradoorian’s voices to keep listeners away from the chorus until the moment is right to strike.

Despite the post-punk aesthetics, there’s a more worldly and sophisticated mind at work here. There’s an undercurrent of folk music in the guitar playing and the arrangements that while covered up by keyboard and off-kilter rhythms, suggest some study. And then there are cuts like “Remade Horizon,” which uses the group’s vocalists in a layered, exotic style straight from the heart of Africa. It would make Paul Simon proud. (Take that Vampire Weekend!)

Longstreth might be more clever than some kind of savant, but he proves merging music with artistic sensitivities has nothing to do with aping the Velvet Underground or the Stooges. It’s forging a new path among the remnants of history.

In a borough overloaded with artistic aspirations, “Bitte Orca” fulfills all promises and some. It’s an artistic immigrant’s dream come true.

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The Avett Brothers “I And Love And You”

North Carolinians the Avett Brothers know well the tools of the trade. The quartet, which over nearly a dozen releases has a doctoral thesis in the unkempt merger of Americana song forms — bluegrasss, blues, country, folk and rock ‘n’ roll — using the same instruments and structures that everyone from George Jones, Bill Monroe and Gram Parsons had in their rhinestoned back pocket. And yet with “I And Love And You,” the band has found something truly of themselves.

“I And Love And You” comes as a bit of A piano-heavy surprise for the Avett Brothers at this stage in their career. The banjo-pop perfection of the group’s 2007 album, “Emotionalism,” found the combo tracing an untapped connection between the music of the Beatles and Merle Travis, signaling they wanted to stretch out. For a unit so tied to the idea of working within a genre, it was an exceptionally brave and successful endeavor. Few then would expect a return to more traditional songwriting rules and that it would steer the Avetts in the right direction. “I And Love And You” decimates all doubts.

The album’s title track, which opens the disc, is as mournful as any sappy country ballad, but this is ANeloquent ode not to Nashville, but to modern-rock’s capital of Brooklyn, N.Y. The brothers’ vocal harmonies, church organs, stark piano chords and mournful violin invite listeners into the record and sweep you off with the emotion of a longed love. “Brooklyn, Brooklyn, take me in,” Seth Avett sings and you’ve not heard wonderfully truer heartache on disc this year. Equally epic is “Ill With Want,” a piano power ballad with these country players’ string work that somehow manages to be more symphonic than gut-bucket blues.

The purist impulses definitely seem more pronounced on “I And Love And You,” but the Avetts don’t completely forsake the pop-music lessons their prior dalliances have taught them. “Kick Drum Heart” is a light piano sing along that could easily find a spot on the next taping of “Sesame Street.” Equally joyous is the Ben Folds piano pop of “It Goes On and On.” The songwriting greats the Avetts admire must be smiling upon them.

“One foot in and one foot back,” Seth Avett sings in the title track and that states the Avetts’ predicament. Like the Wilcos or Jayhawks before them, they can keep their alt-country fan base by just playing to the standard models. And yet, “Emotionalism” and now “I And Love And You” show the brothers and their bandmates seek more than just a parrot’s life. They’re taking the songwriting forms they’ve mastered to create their own contributions to the American songbook.

“I And Love And You” proves an exciting chapter to the canon. What’s next?

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 Raekwon “Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II”

Sequels in the hip-hop world, just as in the movies, usually succeed only in tarnishing whatever goodwill the original engendered. Although it took 15 years for Wu Tang Clan mainstay Raekwon to release “Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II,” this disc thwarts all skepticism. This is no retread like Dr. Dre’s overhyped rebound record, “2001.” This is a street thug’s tale worth the long wait.

Overshadowed by the more flamboyant personalities in the overstuffed Wu Tang Clan, Raekwon quietly earned a rep as one of the group’s leading lyrical minds. So, while RZA produced everyone with a mic, Method Man chased Hollywood dreams and Ol’ Dirty Bastard established his legend as a wild, charismatic talent, Raekwon silently compiled a cache of powerful rhymes that would late come to life on vinyl. When it came time for Raekwon to helm his own solo record, 1995’s “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…,” he shocked the rap community with a fully-formed, East Coast gangsta masterpiece. Raekwon never really capitalized on this vision. The years since his debut saw one disappointing followup disc, a few guest spots on other people’s albums and a string of delays.

When Raekwon decided a return to the underworld of “Cuban Linx” was in order in the early ’00s, he initially saw not his Wu Tang partner RZA, but Dr. Dre as the man who could bring beats to his vision. Raekwon signed up to Dre’s Aftermath imprint and then waited. This isn’t an unfamiliar story with Dre and eventually, it became clear that Raekwon wouldn’t get the producer’s full attention. While the final album does contain two Dre-produced tracks and three by RZA, there’s a surprising number of old-school masters like Pete Rock, EPMD’s Erick Sermon, Marley Marl as well as a couple of young upstarts like the late J Dilla and the Alchemist manning the mixing board. This gives the record a stylistic continuity with past and present attempts to bring a romanticized version of “Scarface” and “The Godfather” to a rap album. The difference with “Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II” is that Raekwon and his producers pull it off.

The narrative of this disc is a predictable low-life rising to mafia fame. As played out as this premise is, Raekwon gives an artful spin with tight rhymes, great guest appearances and no-frills throbbing beats. Case in point is the thudding party jam that features the original sing-song MC Slick Rick remerges from the hip-hop oldies circuit to rechristen the hook of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” as “We Will Rob You.” “House Of Flying Daggers” is a veritable Wu Tang reunion as pals Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killa, GZA and Method Man take turns on the mic, announcing that a street war is brewing.

When Raekwon doesn’t have to share the spotlight, his mind turns to the crime lord story he’s building. He verbally sways side to side to the stuttering guitar lick on “Surgical Gloves,” glamorizing the dealer’s life. “Canal Street” is an understated street anthem that announces his past has set him on the path to become the crime boss he’ll rob, kill and sell to become.

When Raekwon’s not telling stories of slinging rock and settling vendettas, there are a few songs that go beyond the gangsta persona. The tribute track to ODB, “Ason Jones,” splices snippets of a wild-eyed interview with the late rapper as Raekwon gives greater context to explain his off-the-wall antics and stubborn attitudes. We hear a little of the MC’s sensitive side that is hidden and yet feeding the ruthlessness of his gangsta tales. He’s seen wrong and he’ll return in kind.

“Only Built for Cuban Linx… Pt. II” isn’t an inspirational story. It’s ugly and gritty and real. Deplore the evil it glamorizes, but don’t say it isn’t true. That’s what the best hip-hop strictly adheres to.

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Girls “Album”

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that San Francisco psychedelic-pop project Girls are the best purveyors of retro since the White Stripes. Equal parts studious rehash and hammy mishmash, the group’s history-revering music is an ingenious hybrid that imbues Brian Wilson’s Beach Boy symphonies with some Elvis Costello punk-pop directness, creating a powerhouse sound. Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson had better watch their back.

Girls’ brain-fried duo of Buddy Holly soundalike Christopher Owens and producer Chet “JR” White, crafted their debut release, “Album,” as if the pair took refined classic-rock song structures and soiled and messed them up a little with some gutter-punk sensibilities to hider their gleam. As such, monster tracks like “Hellhole Ratrace” and “Ghost Mouth” play like top-dollar Phil Spector production numbers recorded at bargain-basement quality. The druggy references in the band’s image and the gnarly sound of some of the songs only give more of an edge to an otherwise overly sleek pop vehicle.

The album’s cuts leap around from well-known benchmark to benchmark — from the demo-ish, late Kinks-inspired folk jam of “God Damned” to the bass-heavy, rolling teen angst of “Summertime” to the Turtles-style Telecaster strumming of “Lust For Life.” The terrific “Big Bad Mean Motherf*****” rocks like a grizzled surf tune fronted by Iggy Pop. Each time, they pick up the basic tenets but contort them in fascinating directions.

Owens as a frontman is a mercurial figure and nearly personifies the role as a singer who is an unreliable narrator. He’s a gender-bender, but also snarling rocker. He sometimes cares little for a performance and other times, holds on too tight. He barely tries to stay in character when he warbles as a heartbroken beach bunny in “Lust For Life.” During the ’50s, chord-chomping “Laura,” his Costello mannerisms emerge and he bellows and cracks during his vocal runs with overwrought, childish intensity. No matter his inconsistencies, his is an exciting new voice and persona that one can easily see maturing to greater achievements.

At a start, it would be hard to imagine Girls could top the simplistic pop might of “Album.” Owens and White have at least proven visionaries don’t just have to dream of something new to innovate. And maybe they can get a little guidance from their elders for their next album.

If Jack White can count Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan among his pals, maybe the guys in Girls will get some pointers from Brian Wilson next time around.

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Bob Dylan “Together Through Life”

As I’ve noted before, the last entry on these lists is always the toughest selection. It’s made even more troublesome when instincts point your ears in a direction divergent from popular opinion. Bob Dylan, of course, has that effect on people.

In his nearly 50-year career, Dylan has amassed a discography bursting with classic records that rank among the greatest in rock history. That said, Bob might be a genius, but he’s certainly not infallible. There are those albums in his catalog that even his most devoted find a hard time curling up next to and defending from all Dylan-phobes. “Down In The Groove,” I’m looking at you.

And yet, there are, even amongst these alleged artistic failures and apparent muddle-headed missteps, those who are willing to find genius in the legend’s seeming lost periods. It’s a testament to Dylan’s brilliance that each phase has its own fervent adherents. They hail Bible-touting Bob or country-music Bob or protest Bob while reviling the direction he took next. “Together Through Life” is a prime example of an underrated batch of songs worthy of reconsideration and ultimately, rehabilitation.

Coming off a hot streak that began in the late ’90s with “Time Out Of Mind” and by most estimates continued through 2006’s “Modern Times,” Dylan baffled many loyalists by letting his hair down on “Together Through Life.” The looseness of the arrangements, the barely-concealed rewrites of overdone blues forms and the causal (some might say lazy) lyric-writing all suggest Bob was finally slipping. Not so!

Nothing on “Together Through Life” can eclipse the lyrical high points Dylan achieved on “Modern Times,” but the music is a entirely different story. The Bing Crosby ballads and syrupy, big-band bop of a lot of the “Modern Times” tracks seemed better suited to a nursing home Twister contest than Americana’s most-dedicated troubadour. In an interview after the release of “Love And Theft,” Dylan spoke critically of “Time Out Of Mind,” remarking that he never wanted to get caught recording without a lot of uptempo material again. “Modern Times” was a complete failure of this idea.

“Together Through Life” overcorrects the imbalance in this regard, but is still an enjoyable collection. The album isn’t careless, it’s care-free. Dylan, teaming up with ’80s pals like Heartbreakers guitar ace Mike Campbell, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, sets the scene for a freewheeling jam session put to tape. Listeners can detect Dylan’s subtle, musical joie de vivre on “I Feel A Change Comin’ On,” croaking with a smirk as he uses Campbell’s spare guitar bite to poke and Hidalgo’s Tex-Mex-flavored accordion to entice in a silly ode to the girl in the next town. Campbell and Hidalgo again shine in the blues stomp of “Shake Shake Mama,” yielding enough chunky, Howlin’ Wolf-approved licks to give Dylan’s vocals a sharp-edged point to pivot off of. Was the Dada-esque, shack blues of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” all that different?

Although this casual approach to recording means there are a few tracks that don’t quite graduate beyond the joke stage, there are also songs of stature born out here. The funky, Bayou mysteriousness of “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'” is Dylan’s best potential single in ages and could easily find a spot on “Greatest Hits Vol. 4.” In contrast, “This Dreaming Of You” is an unplugged, five-minute epic that slyly draws on all the American musical forms that Dylan has bent, broken and borrowed from for all these years. Dylan might be mixing it up a little, but he can still be intense when the mood demands it.

All of this might be lost on those who only see the flaws visible on “Together Through Life.” The record might leave the Dylan fanbase divided on its merits, but that’s typical. Bob doesn’t seem to mind. As he rasps on the album’s final track: “Whatever’s going down/It’s all good.”

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This year’s honorable mentions, in no particular order, include:

  • White Rabbits “It’s Frightening”
  • Fever Ray “Fever Ray”
  • The xx “XX”
  • Vetiver “Tight Knit”
  • Bill Callahan “Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle”
  • Bat For Lashes “Two Suns”
  • The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart “The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart”
  • The Very Best “Warm Heart Of Africa”
  • The Antlers “Hospice”
  • Neon Indian “Psychic Chasms”
  • Wild Beasts “Two Dancers”
  • F*** Buttons “Tarot Sport”
  • Antony & The Johnsons “The Crying Light”
  • The Dead Weather “Horehound”
  • Akron/Family “Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free”
  • Portugal. The Man “The Satanic Satanists”
  • Micachu And The Shapes “Jewellery”
  • Lady Gaga “The Fame Monster”
  • Real Estate “Real Estate”
  • Black Moth Super Rainbow “Eating Us”
  • Atlas Sound “Logos”
  • Neko Case “Middle Cyclone”
  • The Flaming Lips “Embryonic”
  • Sunset Rubdown “Dragonslayer”
  • Jay-Z “The Blueprint 3”
  • The-Dream “Love vs. Money”
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs “It’s Blitz”
  • Brother Ali “Us”
  • Edward Sharpe And the Magnetic Zeros “Up From Below”
  • Various Artists “Dark Was The Night”
  • Devendra Banhart “What Will We Be”

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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