Music: Best Music of the Year

I have a love/hate relationship with all of those “end of the year best of” lists. Sure, I’ve found a few great albums that way, but more often than not, I’ve ended up wasting $16.99, an hour of my life and precious real estate inside my CD cabinet or hard drive. I bet your experience is similar. 

I think the problem with best of lists comes down to trust. Is the critic objective? Can he possibly be? And should you give her your trust? There’s really no way to know, because critics never show their cards. They don’t tell you what kind of music is their own bias. 

So, before sharing some of my favourite records of the year, let me break the official music critic code of conduct and tell you what kind of music I like. At best, it’ll help you decide whether to invest in any of the music I loved this year. At worst, it’s a vain attempt to insulate myself against the inevitable cries of “how could you recommend that record.” 

I’m not a professional music critic. I’m a curious guy who loves music and who is forever optimistic that the best music has yet to be made. I like almost all types of music, but trend toward rock, folk, country, the alternative brands of all the above, as well as reggae, gospel and soul. I value melody over everything else. So, I’m a Beatles over the Stones kind of guy. And a Chet Baker over Charlie Parker kind of guy. Finally, I look for soul and emotion in the music I listen to. This means that I tend to shy away from light hearted music, dance music, and silly songs. I want to go deep into the songs I love. 

So, having laid bare my personal music manifesto, such as it is, here are my favourites from 2009. Each of these records moved, amazed, dazzled or surprised me in some way. 

ONElowanthem.jpgThe Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin  
I found the Low Anthem on a music listening post in my local big box music store, which is a humbling reminder that even someone committed to finding new music sometimes needs blind luck to stumble upon greatness. Oh My God, Charlie Darwin is a rollicking, roller coaster of a record that had me shaking my head with every audacious turn. From the angelic, falsetto opener “Charlie Darwin” the record builds organically, the voices getting deeper, the largely acoustic instruments getting a little louder with every song. By track four, “The Horizon is a Beltway,” The Low Anthem sounds like Tom Waits at full wail backed by a country/punk jug band. But fear not, the angelic voices return and the gloriously shambolic music inspires right to the end. I’ve come back to this record more often than any other I bought this year. 

The Swell Season – Strict Joy  
The Swell Season is the first proper album from Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, stars of the low budget, improbable hit movie Once, from 2007. They’re also the duo who won the Academy Award that year for the song “Falling Slowly” from the same film. Hanson and Irglova and their new band are now called The Swell Season, and Strict Joy is an ambitious departure from the sound that made them popular. Raw, ramshackle folk is replaced by gorgeous orchestration and thoughtful, universally strong song writing. Also welcome is the maturation of Irglova’s voice. Often tentative on the Once soundtrack, here it’s assured and strong. Hansard’s vocals have been dialled down a bit, allowing for some beautiful interplay between the two. 

THREEX.jpgThe xx – The xx 
As we cycle through revivals of every era from the 60s to the 90s, the pattern is always the same. The revival starts with what was cool about the decade then inevitably slips into parody of the most awful trends. I feel we’re at this tipping point with the current revival in 80s music and fashion. (Skinny jeans and ties? Sure. But does anyone really need shoulder pads and pastels? I don’t think so). Just when 80s revivalists like Interpol and the Editors seem to be running out of steam, here comes the xx to save the day. This impossibly young British duo has created a mini masterwork of stripped down, clean, soulful electronic music that will take you back to 79-80. Despite the restrained production and laid back feel, there’s real heft and emotion to this music. If the early 80s wasn’t your decade, then give this a pass. But if you have fond memories of Joy Division, New Order and the Human League, then the xx is the real deal. 

FOURAntony.jpegAntony & the Johnsons – The Crying Light 
If you haven’t heard Antony Hegerty’s voice or the music he makes with his band, the Johnsons, nothing I’m about to tell you will adequately prepare you for the experience, because Antony & the Johnsons sound like nothing you’ve ever heard. Antony’s voice hits you first. It’s a powerful, gorgeous falsetto that takes a moment to compute (“this is not a rock singer” your brain protests), but then reveals layer upon layer of emotion and depth. What about the music, you ask? Exquisitely beautiful. Quiet and powerful. Restrained but full of emotion. This is art music, to be sure. And it’s the kind of music to be heard in concert halls not smoky clubs. It’s also lovely headphone music for those rare moments you get all to yourself, when you want to inject some beauty into your day. 

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The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You 

The Avett Brothers are a recent, but glorious find. This young country/folk trio from North Carolina, made up of two brothers and a cousin, benefit from the deft touch of Rick Rubin on their newest release. What does the man who resurrected Johnny Cash’s career do for this relatively unknown group? Nothing and everything. Rubin leaves these gorgeous melodies relatively untouched, adding just a few strings here, some Hammond B3 organ there and incredibly warm and inviting production throughout. But in the process, Rubin reveals a group firing on all cylinders; writing beautiful country songs, soft alt rockers, and affecting folk rock. Listening to I and Love and You reminded me of my first few listens to Coldplay’s Parachutes so many years ago. Not because the two bands sound the same, but because the possibility of world domination can be heard in both records. Without a doubt, my favourite album of the year. 

Honourable mentions: 
Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter – I’ve expressed my love of all things Richard Hawley in a previous piece for Truelove’s Gutter is vintage Hawley – gorgeous, lush, alternative crooning at its best. It’s also wildly romantic in a non-sappy way. And that’s quite an accomplishment. 

Elvis Presley – From Elvis in Memphis – I’m not a huge Elvis fan, but this 2009 remaster of two of Elvis’ best post-’68 Comeback records is worth every penny. Back in Memphis is revelation of energetic, powerful blue eyed soul. It’s also mostly devoid of iconic Elvis tunes, which is a great gift. It allowed me to hear Elvis with fresh ears. Turns out the guy really could sing! 

The Beatles – By now anyone who is interested in the Beatles likely owns one of the new remastered box sets. Little can be said about the Beatles or the quality of these sets that hasn’t been said before. Bottom line is “yes” they are worth owning, even if you already own all the Beatles on CD. No one in the history of pop music created more brilliance in just sevenyears. Having it all together, sounding as it should, finally, is just too good to pass up. Invest, it’s worth it. 

— John Thibodeau