Thursday, December 31, 2009

the year in sound

It's difficult to cast a dismissive hand over an entire year. Alas, 2009 was not one of the best years on record. Turmoil, tumult and tests seemed to appear around every corner. Thankfully, two trips to London and a solid schedule of live shows allowed for numerous bright spots and diversions. As usual, the ever unfolding soundtrack to the year managed to keep me sane throughout.

Typically, I pull together my year's top albums at the very last moment. Always trying to squeeze it in while maneuvering through life's year end slalom course. And there's always a dollop of procrastination folded in for good measure. You'll note that I don't rank my favorite longplayers numerically. It's a floating group of amazing albums. Ones that reveal deeper layers upon each listen. It's nearly impossible for me to put them in any superlative order. As a result, I list them alphabetically.

I'm sure there will be comments. Please submit them on the back of a cocktail napkin. Without further adieu...

a-ha - "Foot Of The Mountain"

If a-ha is telling the truth, then this, their ninth studio effort, is their swan song. And they're going out on a high note. Memorable, melancholy melodies, powerful lyrics and Morten's soaring vocals combine to full effect as these Norwegian titans deliver an album rich in textures and substance. Icy electronics, long absent from their soundscapes, make a noticeable and welcome return.

Fave raves: "The Bandstand", "Riding The Crest", "Foot Of The Mountain", "Shadowside", "Nothing Is Keeping You Here"

Lily Allen - "It's Not Me, It's You"

Lyrical wit for someone so young is a rarity these days. But Lily Allen is a stroppy lass with brain and the melodies to soften the sarcasm. With her sophomore effort, she moves on from precocious teen to acerbic, observational adult.

Although her antics and foul mouth get her the column inches, she's able to back it up with killer tunes and lyrical precision. It was only a matter of time before someone penned a song brazenly called "Fuck You" with the combination of brutal wit and a melody seemingly plucked from a schoolyard playground. Robbie Williams is gagging somewhere wishing he thought of it first.

Greg Kurtin's production is reverential without being retro and edgy enough without being brash. A stellar collection bristling with energy and attitude.

Fave raves: "The Fear", "Not Fair", "22", "Fuck You", "Who'd Have Known"

Annie - "Don't Stop"

From the Burundi drum, schoolyard chant, cheerleading intro to the cinematic chanson of "Bad Times", the Giorgio Morroder inspired "Songs Remind Me Of You" and the Saint Etienne-esque sounds of "When The Night" and "Heaven And Hell", it's clear that Annie's mission is to deliver a broad palette of pop flavors.

Current production maestros, Xenomania, along with the electro splashings of Richard X and up-and-coming twiddler, Paul Epworth fresh from his gig with Florence And The Machine, pack the album, full of freshness considering much of it was tangled up in a tug of war with Universal for the better part of two years.

If you purchase the bonus EP edition you get five additional songs including the taunting, whip cracking "I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me" and the dreamy, summer soundscape of "Anthonio", two that should have been massive hits if there was any justice in this world.

Fave raves: "My Love Is Better", "Songs Remind Me Of You", "The Breakfast Song", "I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me", "Anthonio"

Dame Shirley Bassey - "The Performance"

Ten years on from her last album of original material, DSB has released one of the albums of her career as she becomes the vocal vehicle for some of today's classic songsmiths. Pet Shop Boys, Gary Barlow, Manic Street Preachers, Richard Hawley and Rufus Wainwright deliver poignant vignettes perfectly suited to a venerable singer of Ms. Bassey's stature. I can only hope I look as fabulous at 72 years of age as she does.

Initially, I had no interest in this album after DSB's most recent, dismal effort where she covered Pink's "Let's Get The Party Started". It was the complete antithesis of "The Performance".

On her latest, she trills and bellows through the highs and lows of a woman well lived. With David Arnold behind the boards, he dresses her voice in gorgeous soundscapes and uses her talent as an expressive instrument within the arrangements.

Fave raves: "Almost There", "As God Is My Witness", "The Girl From Tiger Bay", "No Good About Goodbye", "The Performance Of My Life"

The Duckworth Lewis Method - "The Duckworth Lewis Method"

Essentially, this is the latest album from The Divine Comedy. It's dripping in 60s, English psychedelia which is not quite what one would expect from Neil Hannon's hand. With the addition of Thomas Walsh from Pugwash as his sidekick and creative collaborator, they created a concept album full of jaunty, whistle worthy numbers about ye olde English tradition of cricket. Thoroughly enjoyable and a magnificent stop gap before the next album proper from The Divine Comedy.

Fave raves: "The Age Of Revolution", "The Sweet Spot", "Meeting On The Boundary", "Meeting Mr. Miandad", "The Nightwatchman"

Paloma Faith - "Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?"

At first, everyone labeled poor Paloma as an Amy Winehouse retread hack. Slowly, as each track was revealed, it became evident that she has a deep, emotional connection to her work. She proves she has the gift of lyric interpretation and delivers every line with gusto. Her thick, husky, bluesy voice perfectly fits alongside the slightly torchy song selection.

A solid, confident, towering skyscraper of a debut. And it all came wrapped in splendidly, art deco inspired artwork.

Fave raves: "Stone Cold Sober", "Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?", "New York", "Stargazer", "Play On"

Frankmusik - "Complete Me"

The 80s influences are there. All proudly worn on the end of his sleeve. Howard Jones, Nik Kershaw, Scritti Politti. Thank goodness for his mother's record collection!

Unfortunately, "Complete Me" did not set the charts on fire despite critical acclaim. The label took too long to set up the album. The first single didn't get the massive push it deserved. And it didn't help that the artist was a bit prickly at the most inconvenient times.

With his vocal strength, killer songwriting acumen and arsenal of production wizardry, Vincent Frank, for it is he who is Frankmusik, delivered a debut which packed emotional punch. The lyrics about the cycle of a relationship came off sounding confident and defiant rather than needy and whining. Magnificent!

Fave raves: "Better Off As Two", "Confusion Girl", "3 Little Words", "Wonder Woman", "Vacant Heart"

Chris Isaak - "Mr. Lucky"

A return to form. With his guitar strapped to his back and James Dean, chiseled, good looks, Mr. Isaak released "Mr. Lucky", his ninth studio album in a career that dates back to his 1984 debut.

His latest collection of original songs delivers all the Chris Isaak hallmarks. There's languid tales of heartbreak and rollicking, good time, boozy, honky tonks. His voice flows effortlessly between velvety croon, expressive bravado and bawdy, rock n' roll aggression. Each song has its own character delivered in a way that's handled with the grace of an artist who combines his accomplished acting experience with his musical versatility.

The duets with Michelle Branch and Trisha Yearwood are beautifully dressed in chiming guitars, dripped in reverb and give a good tug at the heartstrings. All of his influences get the opportunity to shine from Roy Orbison to The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Glen Campbell.

Fave raves: "We Let Her Down", "You Don't Cry Like I Do", "We've Got Tomorrow", "Mr. Lonely Man", "We Lost Our Way",

Howard Jones - "Ordinary Heroes"

More traditional sounds and a stripped back affair from HoJo rather than the following the synthy, electro sounds he explored on previous album, "Revolution Of The Heart". "Ordinary Heroes" is an album showing his superior strengths as a singer/songwriter. With only ten songs included, Howard doesn't overstay his welcome return.

His plaintive voice still soothes. All the earworm hooks are there. His optimism is still unflinching. Everyman themes abound. From the James Taylor-esque intro of "Straight Ahead" through to the Kleenex happy strains of "Soon You'll Go", it's perfect music for Sunday mornings or travels down long, open roads. He even manages to make heartache sound joyous. A true gift.

Fave raves: "Straight Ahead", "Someone You Need", "Ordinary Heroes", "You Knew Us So Well", "Soon You'll Go"

Lady Gaga - "The Fame Monster"

It's official. Lady Gaga is the next big thing and there's no sign of her star fading anytime soon. Hot on the heels of her debut, she released "The Fame Monster", eight, towering, pop songs.

Clearly, the lady has been listening to lots of European records. Spot the references - ABBA, Boney M, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell. "Dance In The Dark" even cleverly lifts and twists the synth riff from Depeche Mode's "Strangelove". "Alejandro" sounds like Lady Gaga dug out her Ace Of Base CDs.

Taking her main visual cues from Madonna and Grace Jones is an inspired combination of icons which guarantees she'll polarize opinions, enthrall her followers and assure there will be plenty of blogsploitation, today's version of water cooler chat.

All in all, a superior, sophomore effort that shows the growth of an artist. The one to watch in 2010 and beyond.

Fave raves: "Bad Romance", "Alejandro", "Speechless", "Dance In The Dark", "So Happy I Could Die"

Owl City - "Ocean Eyes"

The comparisons to The Postal Service and rave era Lightning Seeds are impossible to avoid. But rather than aping their styles, Adam Young, for it is he that is Owl City, has crafted cunningly clever tunes with equal parts insidiously catchy hooks and quirky lyrics.

His sweet and sleepy vocals are just the right side of saccharine. And "Fireflies" is the most unexpected #1 single to top the US charts in the last decade.

Look out for a deluxe, 2 CD version of "Ocean Eyes" in January. It will include seven addition tracks including the slap happy "Hot Air Balloon" and the effervescent "Strawberry Avalanche".

Fave raves: "Cave In", "Umbrella Beach", "Dental Care", "Fireflies", "Vanilla Twilight"

Pet Shop Boys - "Yes"

There are not many groups that can achieve a high water mark 25 years into their career. But that's exactly what Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have achieved with their tenth longplayer.

With the able production hand of the Xenomania team, two pop powerhouses collide and delivered a glittering pop masterpiece. The finest since "Very" nearly 15 years earlier.

Lyrical odes to all things from love to art and politics, PSB concocted album that had the ability to reach beyond their core following.

From beautifully sublime moments like "King Of Rome" to the glam infused stomp of "Pandemonium", late 60s pastiche of "Beautiful People", the Tchaikovsky sampling "All Over The World" and the euphoria of "Did You See Me Coming?", "Yes" stood affirmatively as the best and most consistent pop album of the year.

The plonky shuffle of lead off single, "Love Etc." may have been the most unexpected sounding single lifted from "Yes", but it's PSB's lack of convention that has endeared them to their battalion of dedicated fans.

And the album delivered one of my year's highlights. I had the honor of producing mixes of "Beautiful People". When you're summoned by greatness, you do anything you can to make the project come to fruition.

Fave raves: "Love Etc.", "All Around The World", "Did You See Me Coming?", "Pandemonium", "The Way It Used To Be"

Prefab Sprout - "Let's Change The World With Music"

Most shelved albums get cast aside for many reasons. One of them is usually due to the crapness factor of the music. Then there are the few jewels, seemingly banished to an artist's secret vault, whose legend builds over time among fans. Crazy stories and questions start surfacing about the actual existence of the songs. Shadows of possible tracklistings tantalize the faithful.

Such was the case with "Let's Change The World With Music", initially the follow up to the 1990's expansive "Jordan: The Comeback". Sony's lack of interest in the project subjected it to the oblivion of Paddy McAloon's studio. Thankfully, after a little cajoling, the album surface. A gorgeous, song cycle about music as a religious experience, it sits perfectly among the Prefab Sprout cannon. Paddy's voice singing sweetly over ambitious arrangements with clever turns of phrase around every corner.

The only thing that would have made it more perfect would have been the musical contributions of the remaining Sprouts (Wendy Smith, Martin McAloon and Neil Conti) and production duties from stalwart studio boffin, Thomas Dolby. A boy can dream.

Fave raves: "Ride", "I Love Music", "God Watch Over You", "Music Is A Princess", "Earth, The Story So Far"

Saint Etienne - "Foxbase Beta"

An unusual animal. "Foxbase Beta" is a re-imaging of a classic. Nearly 20 years on from the blissed out, raved up early 90s, Saint Etienne call upon Richard X to reproduce their entire debut album, "Foxbase Alpha". It's an SE fan's wet dream come true.

It's rarely a good idea to tamper with a bonafide, landmark classic such as "Foxbase Alpha". But Richard X has managed to improved upon perfection. From the dubbed out, Balearic bliss of "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" through to the joyful shuffle of "Spring" and the electrofied, girl group sweetness of "She's The One", the return visit to Saint Etienne's debut is an excursion on the version, a lovely side trip down the summer streets of London. As essential as any other longplayer in their twenty year body of work.

Fave raves: "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Carnt Sleep", "Spring", "She's The One", "Nothing Can Divide Us"

Colin Vearncombe - "The Given"

After a long absence, Mr. Vearncombe, aka Black, returns with one of two albums in 2009. The second was "Water On Stone", a longplayer under the Black moniker.

Channelling Scott Walker, Jimmy Webb and Phil Spector with nods toward the Muscle Shoals sound and early 70s, west coast soft rock, "The Given" is a lush and emotionally delivered album full of top notch songsmithery. An artist at the top of his game.

Fave raves: "Naked", "Chapter And Verse", "Breathing Underwater", "No Second Chances", "Misbegotten Child"

Honorable mentions:

"Sounds Of The Universe" - Depeche Mode
"Water On Stone" - Black
"Orpheus In Exile" - Marc Almond
"Ellipse" - Imogen Heap
"It's That Girl Again" - Basia

For those keeping score. My favorite albums of 2008 are:

"Traffic" - ABC
"Rockferry" - Duffy
"Join With Us" - The Feeling
"Seventh Tree" - Goldfrapp
"Tribute To Bobby" - Hucknall
"Open Soul" - Hue And Cry
"More Tales Remixed" - Incognito
"Perfect Symmetry" - Keane
"Hard Candy" - Madonna
"Break Up The Concrete" - The Pretenders
"Love Is The Way" - Eddi Reader
"Melody" - Sharlene Spiteri
"Beautiful Mess" - Swing Out Sister
"22 Dreams" - Paul Weller


  1. I had no idea Vearncombe/Black was still active. I'll have to hunt those down.

  2. HOJO!

    I am waiting for The Divine Comedy for 2010. Let's hope they(he) don't fuck up their solid strong of great records!