On the heels of such sad news yesterday, I've decided it's time to start into a joyous celebration of music that rolls around at the tail end of each year. Yes, today we unfurl the first five of our yearly top twenty. Look for the rest in the upcoming days.
20. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
The honeypiped redhead's spring 2009 release was satisfying. Not expectation-shattering or revolutionary, but very strong. It's like Derek Jeter batting .300. Not MVP numbers, but it's the sort of reliable performance we've come to expect from Case. As with most of her stuff, Middle Cyclone speaks to her emfatuation with nature and man's interactions (least subtley conveyed on her ill-advised rendition of "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth"). Neko's peerless vocals are worth the price of admission though. Oh, and also the cover art.
19. Holopaw - Oh Glory, Oh Wilderness
It's a shame this one came out so late in the year, because it just hasn't had the time to sink in. The unsettling calm of their first album has crystalized into fuller arrangements, but they still retain that wintery aesthetic mostly conveyed through John Orth's thin, trembling vocals. While it'll be difficult for this disc to unseat the self-titled debut in my mind, it's another strong effort from a severely underrated band.
18. Pearl Jam - Backspacer
The best quality of Pearl Jam's newest disc is brevity. Eddie Vedder takes less than forty minutes to convey his point over eleven songs. Amazingly, Vedder's voice hasn't a forfeited a shred of intensity since Ten, in my opinion. Look no further than single, "The Fixer". The triumphal chorus is vintage Pearl Jam, reminiscent of Vs.-era up-tempo rock mesmorization, a la "Rearviewmirror". Tinged with a few contemplative pieces amidst the usual rock melee, Pearl Jam reminds us that they're a band willing to come to terms with their age...but not quite yet.
17. The Avett Brothers - I & Love & You
Oh, I & Love & You. What could have been. Devoted readers will remember my midway through the year awards, when I deemed the Avetts' major label debut "Most Likely to Crack My top 3". Sadly, it didn't make quite that significant a dent. Not without its brilliant moments ("Laundry Room," "Head Full of Doubt"), it lacks the room-full-of-guitars-and-beers stamp that seems so vital to their appeal. Lyrically, Scott and Seth make no bones about their progression and are aware of the backlash that might ensue (re: the high-speed, cringeworthy rap on 'Slight Figure of Speech'.) I guess my beef is that it's all just so damned serious! One of my favorite qualities of the Avetts is their "aw-shucks" approach to songwriting, being both poignant and loose. For I&L&Y, they seemed to abandon the latter and amp up the former. Still, they're talented guys and the music is still pretty darned good. I just hope they run far, far away from Rick Rubin.
16. Wilco - Wilco (The Album)
It's tough to see Wilco's albums sliding on my year-end list, but there was just a bit too much adult-contempo shmaltz for the album to be cohesive. It seems for every string of two or three songs that were vintage Wilco ("The Deeper Down", "One Wing", "Bull Black Nova"), the band would turn around and play a few head-scratchingly ordinary throwaways. I found the single "You Never Know" to be especially middle-of-the-road. Funny how three or four misses can undo an albumsworth of quality tracks. I almost forget about quality entries like "I'll Fight" and "Country Disappeared", two stellar tracks that if stripped down a bit wouldn't seem out of place on A Ghost Is Born.