It boggles the mind that this blog has lasted three summers (starting in spring of 07), and is thereby affording me the pleasure of drawing up my third Midway Through the Year Awards. Without further ado!
Albums of the Year
5. The Decemberists - Hazards of Love
...and gaining. I was a bit cold towards this album at first. The D's strength, to me, was an album's worth of quirky tales, and the lack of irony is what made it acceptable. Despite the costumes and decorative lyrics, the band's MO wasn't to fill some sort of antique-indie niche. It was to deliver a compendium of short stories based on a common theme. The Crane Wife flirted with an overarching concept, but even it only boasted two songs that related directly to the album. The Hazards of Love, in the age of iTunes and unabashed song-shuffling, is a bold release. It is a linear movement of operatic levels, but with just enough attention to hooks and other pop touchstones to make it sink in with this attention span-challenged generation. And album closer "Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)" is one of the most staggering ballads Meloy has to his name. And for a guy who's written "I Was Meant for the Stage," "The Engine Driver," and "Grace Cathedral Hill," that's high praise.
4. Mark Kozelek - Lost Verses Live
Kozelek has never shied away from live releases. With his own Caldo Verde label enabling, he's released no less than five offerings of his live work. And while it seems redundant at times, this most recent collection is, perhaps, the most enjoyable (although the version of "Cruiser" on Little Drummer Boy is the finest live Kozelek moment on record.) Kozelek's voice has become one of the wonders of the modern music world; gone are the days of his Red House Painter's delivery, when he pushed out his lyrics with a touch of angst and a manner of overannunciation characterizes alt-90s singers. He's embraced a delicate and solemn richness that balances pitch-perfection with an almost unfair amount of emotion. A fine example of this would be one of the two covers the album offers; Steven Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." The version will make your chest tight and your throat grow a lump. But the album also shows, via mid-song banter, a side of Kozelek that Little Drummer Boy glossed over; a playfulness that we're glad exists in a man who's written some pretty dark stuff.
3. Red Cortez - Hands to the Wall EP
Followers will recall my recent post about these boys from California who opened for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Isle of Palms. Happy to report that the replay value of their EP is absolutely stellar. Each song is oozing with energy and textured by uncomplex instrumentation that's befitting of barebones rockers like Red Cortez. Stoic opener "In the Fall" is satisfying and melodic, and paves the way for a slate of more to-the-point rockers. "Fell On the Floor" is a pulsing, unstoppable romp that, one day, will have a thousand hipsters pogoing at the Bowery. By the time affirming closer "All the Difference" reaches its end, I find myself pounding my fists and chanting "Bring on the LP!" In a planet full of hundreds of thousands of bands striving for success, Red Cortez has already positioned themselves as a contender.
2. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
By the time I first spun Veckatimest, it'd been made explicitly clear to me that this was a brilliant album. I guess my real surprise came when I realized just how brilliant it was. It's an album that demands attention and patience, an album that slowly reveals itself in repeat listens. It's almost cinematic the way it plays with silence and atmosphere, and it suggests light and dark through both word and sound. "Two Weeks" is one of the more perfect indie-pop singles I've ever heard, nicely built around a standard verse/chorus/verse/chorus structure, and washed in Brian Wilson's harmonic influence. "All We Ask" is a personal favorite, with a chorus that rises out of the song like a glowing mist. Veckatimest closes with a suite of 3 incredible songs, the massive "While You Wait for the Others", the impassioned "I Live With You", and finally "Foreground," featuring a foreboding and immaculate vocal performance by Ed Droste that cradles the soon-to-be classic to rest.
1. Felice Brothers - Yonder is the Clock
From what I can tell, this is the Brothers' 4th proper release (since 2006!), and while I haven't heard the first, I will comfortably assert that only now have they reached their stride. It's not that Yonder Is the Clock is all that different from their other stuff -- it's still old-timey folk rock that's being sung by people born during the Reagan administration. But something has clearly clicked; perhaps a brand of confidence they've developed over a few years of unapologetic emulation, or a growing awareness of contemporary trends; or perhaps they, like the Decemberists, have ditched the irony. They're ignoring the fact that 20-somethings singing about Depression Era antics seems a bit silly. There's no time to be vulnerable when you're taking a risk like that. Perhaps that's the secret buried within rolling opener "The Big Surprise," one of their most impressive all-around compositions as a band. Ian Felice's voice, more gravelly and less Dylanesque than ever, is where it needs to be; neither mimicking his influences nor paving any awkward new territory. He tears through "Penn Station" and "Run Chicken Run", and downshifts for stirring ballads "Katie Dear" and "Boy From Lawrence County." 2008's self-titled effort allowed them 16 songs worth of folk cliche banner-waving, they've managed to shelve their derivative tendencies, stripping themselves of that cover-band-plays-originals label, and are focusing their efforts developing and refining that yesterday vis-a-vis today style; something they did immensely well on Yonder Is the Clock.
Honorable Mentions: Iron and Wine, Around the Well; Neko Case, Middle Cyclone; Andrew Bird, Noble Beast; Akron/Family, Set Em Wild, Set Em Free; Son Volt, American Central Dust
Disappointments of the Year:
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band - Outer South
Some things that are deflating to me: The success of the sickening exploit-a-thon that is Jon and Kate Plus 8. The thought that I spend 5/7 of my mornings in an office. And finally, when a talented front man who is the lifeblood of a group lets someone else sing/songwrite. This never ends well. It results in fluff and watered-down albums. And sad as it is, another one bites the dust. After last year's unexpectedly incredible solo debut, Conor gave billing to his touring band and stepped away from the mic for a few songs. Ironically, Conor's voice caused my initial hesitation in appreciating Bright Eyes; now, I want it back. His bandmates' voices are absolutely forgettable, one a Dando sound-alike, and the other just a nasally mess. The latter, though, offers the best and worst non-Conor contributions in closer "Snake Hill" and the annoying "Air Mattress", respectively. Conor's material is generally up to par, especially the haunting ballad "White Shoes" that, to me, is Oberst at his best (not unlike "Lenders in the Temple" from last year's release.) Ultimately, I'll go back to this album semi-consistently, but I'll always be pushing the 'next track' button a few times.
Dishonorable Mentions: M. Ward, Hold Time; Wilco, Wilco (The Album). With both of these, it's not so much that they're bad albums, because neither is. But also, neither is an album that fully displays the capabilities of its author(s). Also, A Positive Rage by the Hold Steady; poor sound quality and does little to replicate what is, by all accounts including my own, an incredible live show.
Best Live Experience:
Undoubtedly this is Old Crow Medicine Show with the Felice Brothers. I'll spare you the rehash, but take a look at my review from February. I should also mention that, what with the criterium being "experience," it's hard to top the rush of being in Washington D.C. and stumbling across a free Flaming Lips concert while exploring the National Mall. Something about the spontenaity made it extra special, even if the show wasn't an all-time favorite, musically.
New to George Award:
This section is relegated to artist who didn't have a fresh release in 2009. This year's winner made it in by just a week or so (and shouldn't have made it in, had I written this post on time!) It's King Khan and the Shrines, based solely on their 2007 release What Is?! Prior exposure to King Khan was limited; I'd basically seen him show up on Pitchfork here and there, and watched a Youtube or something. But it was enough for me to invest $5 into a used copy of the album. The return is huge: It's a disc full of garage rock with a soulful sensibility, lathered in psychadelia and a singer who with a voice that sounds like a sore throat in the making. It's like Spoon meets the Hold Steady meets the Temptations meets Velvet Underground meets Timothy Leary. Looking forward to seeking out the rest of King Khan's stuff.
The "Most Likely to Crack the Top 3 Before 2009 Is Over" Award:
This one is a shoo-in. The Avett Brothers are prepping their first major-label release, and early hype points to it being very, very good. The Avett's have always delievered, even if they've mellowed a bit. The one track I've heard from the forthcoming I and Love and You is the title track. It's a lovely affair, somewhat restrained, a little sad, and very much a product of Rick Rubin's production technique. Certainly doesn't sound like the same raccous gang who moaned "Pretty Girl from Feltre." But I have faith in the Avetts, and I know their songwriting and vocal interplay will rule the day. In fact, I could see my album-of-the-year spot turning into a battle of brothers: Felices vs. Avetts. Unless they both get eaten by Grizzly Bear.
Another year, another slate of fine (and not-so-fine) music. For old times sake:
Midway Through the Year 07 Music Awards
Midway Through the Year 08 Music Awards