10. Red Cortez - Hands to the Wall EP
Who are these indie-rock upstarts from Los Angeles, and why should you care? To the former: Red Cortez is a rock quartet whose genre on Facebook is listed as "Rock/Soul/Punk/Gospel/Other". Their list of influences reads like a hipster Rolodex ("...Billy Bragg, Pabo Neruda, Werner Herzog, Serge Gainsburg, Kurt Vonnegut, Leonard Cohen, Ingmar Bergman...") They've opened for Jason Isbell and Morrissey. Part two: Why should you care? Because they show an immense amount of potential with their iTunes only Hands to the Wall EP. Over five accessible piano-centric rock anthems, the band sounds confident and deliberate. Sweeping opener "In the Fall" puts Harley Precthel's scratchy pipes on impressive display. "Fell On the Floor" is sweaty, viscious club rock that's equal parts Clash and Killers. Close-out track "All the Difference" features a cathartic instrumental stretch, a bombastic finale that leaves your ears sizzling. My hopes are high for these boys. Check them out and see why.
9. Iron & Wine - Around the Well
A compilation of relics, b-sides, and covers, I didn't cull any tracks from Around the Well for my Best of 09 list, since most were written/released in years prior. Many were deserved though, none less than the 9 minute lyrical masterwork "The Trapeze Swinger" that closes disc 2. I think what's so satisfying about this collection is that it encompasses the three LP 'eras' very distinctly: You get the lo-fi basement aesthetic of Creek Drank the Cradle; the studio-warmed folk of Our Endless Numbered Days; and the full-band ambiance of The Shepherd's Dog. All the source material is must-own, of course, and I wouldn't be remiss to speak of this one in similar terms.
8. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
Bitte Orca opens with a few tinsely major chords. Simple enough, right? But these humble beginnings empty into a dense thickett of an album. Listening to Bitte Orca is like watching a Pixar movie. I enjoy the hell out of it, but I get a headache thinking about the amount of foresight, effort, and attention to detail involved in creating such a thing. Bitte Orca demands a lot from the listener--what with its mode-hopping guitarwork, funky time changes and harmonic barrage. This makes it all to easy for skeptics to denounce it as pretentious, overwrought, inaccessible, and so on. And while it may be all of those things at some level, there is also an undeniable aura of relatability. I'll refer you to the piece I wrote in July for more on that, but suffice to say its orbit might be a bit less distant than you think. Finally, songs like "Temecula Sunrise", "Stillness Is the Move", and "Useful Chamber" boast undeniable hooks that at least warrant a closer aural inspection from the educated listener.
7. Girls - Album
There's a lot of fanfare surrounding Girls. Lead singer was raised in a cult. There's a lot of sexual ambiguity about the band as a whole. There's a graphic music video (and I mean that in the penile sense) for the lead single. The band is called Girls but they're, you know, guys. All in all, the storylines swirling around Girls are pretty odd. I beseech you to ignore all that and enjoy a pure guitar/drums/vocals album. As straightforward and unsubtle as the title suggests, Chris Owens and crew have given us an album of California anthems, sunsoaked and glistening like the San Francisco Bay. Owens' slightly crazed vocals and mostly major-key melodies are the perfect touch for "Ratrace Hellhole", "Laura", "Big Bad Mean Motherfucker" and other songs that seem to come from the lips and fingers of a guy who's always smiling but just a little off kilter.
6. Flaming Lips - Embryonic
The statistical breakdown for "Percentage I've Listened to the Last Three Flaming Lips Albums" looks something like this: The Soft Bulletin, 48%. Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, 51.75%. At War With the Mystics, .25%. In other words, I listen to Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi a lot, and At War pretty much never. Onset of a decline or rare miss? 2009 was the year I could finally answer that question, and thankfully, it's a resounding "rare miss". Embryonic wins the Flaming Lips "Comeback Player of the Year" honors. The disc harkens back to the Lips' Satellite Transmissions era sound, trading studio refinement for raw energy that reigns supreme on Embryonic. Not that the Lips step back from the studio hijinks (take, for example, the autotune-washed "The Impulse".) But overwhelmingly, futuristic stadium rock done right.
Check back tomorrow for 2009's tops!