Happy New Year, and all that. Hope yours went well–I worked, then had a snifter of the bourbon I received from my brother for Christmas (A.H. Hirsch) and then headed home. I’m never much of one for drinking on “amateur nights” like New Year’s Eve or St. Patrick’s Day. Too many idiots. Happy to be home. At any rate, it’s now 2009, and I’m out of excuses for procrastinating the rest of my favorite records of 2009. Here’s 12 through 6!
12. Cobra Verde, Haven’t Slept All Year.
If you were gonna buy just one Cobra Verde album….well, this wouldn’t be the one to buy (Easy Listening from 2003 is just a staggeringly good album, and would be the one); thing is, these geezers from Cleveland know how to do the rock. Describing the CV sound in a nutshell isn’t easy, because they effortlessly jump from guitar rock genre to guitar rock genre, so they’ll do a glam rock song, then go right into an alt-country ballad and then swing into a bull-in-a-china shop punk song. Imagine if The Dictators were covering the Replacements trying to cover an FM-radio playlist from 1981, and that’s sort of what Cobra Verde sort of sounds like.
At the center of the gloriously raucous Cobra Verde universe is John Petkovic, who writes about rock music a lot and who has been using his wonderfully limited voice to front various Ohio bands for over two decades. The band’s sound is one informed by an immersion in all things throughout rock history, effortlessly blended into a sound that sounds like only Cobra Verde–where other bands who try to tour through various rock genres always sound like tourists, Petkovic and company sound like they belong; when they do a metal song, they sound like metal gods (albeit metal gods from the golden age of metal). When they do punk they sound like they could be opening for the Dead Boys circa 1978. When they do alt-country, they’re like some lost Gibson Brothers relic from 1989.
The only real problem with CV is that they’re not exactly prolific. This is their first album of original material since 2003, which is about right on their career pace. Haven’t Slept All Year lacks some of the joyful charm of its predecessor, the aforementioned Easy Listening, too. While tracks on the previous album sounded as if they were the result of happily drunken rehearsals and emerged effortlessly, the songs here sound more…well…forced. Sure, tunes like “Riot In The Foodcourt”, “Wildweed” or “Free Ride” are as good as any Cobra Verde song, promising tunes like “I Could Go To Hell For You” and “Together Alone” just don’t work as well as they could due to some interesting production foibles. Thing is, this is a Cobra Verde album. You listen to these guys alongside almost any other record in your collection and they just make damn near everyone else sound like frauds and posers. Petkovic and his merry band of rockers sweat and bleed rock and roll and that never fails to come across, and that feeling alone sits this album in the top 20.
11. The December Sound, S/T (“The Silver Album”)
With My Bloody Valentine reuniting for live shows and bands with fuzzed-out guitars and whispery vocals popping up all over the music landscape over the last two years, I think it’s safe to say that shoegaze is back. Problem is, everyone wants to play their own version of Isn’t Anything or Loveless–seems as if precious few bands want to try to imagine where Kevin Shields would’ve (or should’ve) taken MBV after 1991…
…but Boston’s wonderful The December Sound are interested in not just being influenced by MBV or Medicine, but also in taking that influence and doing something with it beyond just sounding like rote imitators. They’re not afraid to build a song like “Never” off the same aggressive drum beats that The Butthole Surfers used in their unlikely cover of “American Woman”, and they’ll use weirdly looped piano (in a nod to electronica cross-pollination) to gloriously unsettling effect on songs like “Drone Refusenik” and “Painkiller”.
All that might be enough for most bands, but The December Sound just keep pulling out interesting and fascinating stops. The beats behind “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” have an undeniable hip-hop vibe. “12″, on the other hand, dispenses with any pretense of being a conventional “song” and instead takes you down a rabbit hole where The Jesus & Mary Chain smash headlong into Aphex Twin. “Maker” is Stiff Little Fingers as covered by Swervedriver, imagined through some kind of crazy hallucinogenics. Of course there are some beautiful moments scattered throughout the chaos, like the gorgeously noisy “Il Forte”. What really makes the whole “Silver Album” work so damn well is that at its heart, this is a record built on a foundation of tremendous songwriting and inspiration. The craftsmanship and care around how every second of this record will sound is incredibly apparent, and more than anything else it is what lifts this above the tide of so many recently-emerging similarly-inclined artists. As such, you can sit and marvel over the glorious melodic hook of a song like “No Heaven Like Hell”…or you can flip on the blacklight, put on the headphones and crank this sucker to eleven; either way it works. This is a band to keep an eye on; they’re doing something better than anyone else, and realize I’ve “penalized” this disc about 4 spots for having come out in December 2007 in limited supply and only hitting mass availability relatively recently.
Listen to the whole thing right here! (Check out “No Heaven Like Hell”, “Drone Refusenik”, “Painkiller”, and “Kill Me (Before I Kill You)” especially.)
10. The Kaiser Chiefs, Off With Their Heads
A cardinal sin, this–I’ve gone ahead and rated the KC’s a full four years after most English hipsters would tell you they were last relevant, but that’s music for you. Hooking up with superhot producer Mark Ronson (Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse) pretty much told you that these Leeds lads cared not a whit for any remaining shred of indie cred; having been there and done all that and then some, the Kaiser Chiefs were ready to come sit at the grown-up’s table.
So, yeah, if you’re looking for echoes of The Jam in their sound like the olden days, well they can be heard, sure…a bit, anyway. But you’re just as likely to hear them engage a healthy love for XTC (imagine Franz Ferdinand re-interpreting English Settlement), or to hear singer Ricky Wilson take his limited football chant voice and put it to service channeling Roland Orzabal (“Tomato In The Sun” is the greatest Tears For Fears song that band never recorded). Riding herd over everything is Ronson’s production, throwing around blipping keyboard washes and swoony, odd strings here and there, and using jaggedy, Gang Of Four guitars to take a sound that is unmistakeably the Kaiser Chiefs, but also which sounds rather new and fresh for them.
Look, here’s the deal. You know how us old geezers will talk your damn ear off about how great the Gang Of Four’s Entertainment was? Yeah. What we don’t mention is that two or three or four albums of that jaggedy guitar/society sucks/you’re not living your life right treacle just gets to be a fuckin’ drag (someone put that in a note for Interpol, Bloc Party, and Franzy, willya?) The neat trick the Kaiser Chiefs pull off here is making Off With Their Heads sound fizzy and effervescent and fun…while leaving the wry social commentary and nimble lyrics perfectly intact. In other words, the whole thing stands as a wonderful testament to the strength of the band’s songwriting genius. Have a seat Oasis. The Kaiser Chiefs are the best “‘uge” britpop band in the UK now.
9. Adrian Whitehead, One Small Stepping Man
The blogstory accompanying the release of this debut from this Melbourne, AU fella (hey, two discs from Melbourne in my top 20…just noticed!) mentions that the leadoff track, “Caitlin’s ’60′s Pop Song” was originally a song Adrian Whitehead made up on the spur of the moment at one of those post-funeral family gatherings (grampa died, I think) for his downcast niece. An anecdote like that already puts me 80% of the way to liking this disc; that the song itself is a glorious slab of McCartney-esque pop takes the ball right over the goal line.
One thing that sucks about Brendan Benson being a Raconteur is that we seem to have lost someone able to really put the craftsmanship behind a good classicist pop album. Oh sure, there are more folks trying to work that overplowed field than you can shake a stick at, but I’m talking about people who know how to write interesting songs that flow with verses, choruses, and bridges–songwriters who know how to not only do a middle eight, but also know when they can get away with two of those in the same song. With nothing new from Benson for 2008, and with Sloan having an off-album this year, Adrian Whitehead steps right up to fill the void.
The crazy thing about Small Stepping Man isn’t the wonderful songcraft Whitehead displays; you’ll get around to noticing that when you can’t get the hook from “Better Man” out of your head for a week. No, the crazy thing is how interesting he makes this album–this is a relentlessly creative-sounding and interesting disc that sounds as if it cost about a gajillion dollars to produce, what with strings, keys, piano, guitars of all sorts wandering around in the mix over a very tight rhythm section. Of special note is the subdued “Elle”, which Whitehead builds to a magnificent climax over what is, essentially a one-note piano melody (okay, the cello that comes in is pretty magnificent, too).
So here’s the deal–you could go put Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend album on for the thousandth time…but maybe you ought to give this Aussie bloke a spin instead. This is one of the most hauntingly lovely, rainy-day pop albums to come out in years. Don’t miss it.
8. Beck, Modern Guilt
You’ve gotta have some kind of pity for ol’ Beck Hansen. Seems like every year he puts out an interesting album enjoyable on a multitude of levels…and because it isn’t Odelay or Sea Change, he never seems to get any respect at the end of the year when folks talk about the best discs to come out over the preceding 12 months.
So yeah. If Modern Guilt isn’t Beck’s best album, it’s close enough to put it in the sort of rarefied air that few other artists ever get to. Teaming up this time with Danger Mouse as a producer, 2008 finds Beck heading back to more moody, brooding sounds, which is sort of a surprise if that pairing suggested non-stop mashup hijinx to you. Oh sure, there’s plenty of weird genre cross-pollination happening here, but when the Brian Wilson airy vocals of “Chemtrails” yield over to an almost gauzy Moody Blues chorus and over-aggressive drums…you may not notice that those things shouldn’t work, because they work so well together. You might miss the prairie fiddle sample wending through “Walls” careening electronic rhythms, but again, it’s a nifty little detail that’s waiting there for you to discover.
If Modern Guilt has a fault, it’s that while there’s a uniform excellence to these subdued downtempo songs that you’ll find yourself wishing for a little bit of an uplift here and there (“Gamma Ray” gives it a good try). Still, by the time we get to the album’s final track (and hey, kudos to Beck for realizing that his albums always have about 20 minutes of filler and keeping the running time of this one to a brisk 36 minutes), the sprawling and wonderfully morose “Volcano”, we’re finding Beck finally at a position where maybe he can springboard into a position where he’s mentioned in the first wave of the most important and intriguing music artists of our time.