2009: My year in music
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Odd numbered years, for whatever reason, are always turbulent for me. There hasn’t been one since middle school that’s gone smoothly for me. It’s not necessarily all bad, either, but there are a good deal of ups and downs, and I certainly had some high highs and very low lows this year.
Music wasn’t much different. I found myself, through either indifference or laziness, not being turned on by as much new stuff as would be typical. I didn’t understand the fuss over a few critically acclaimed bands (I’m looking at you, Animal Collective), and more than a few established acts I like turned in lackluster efforts. But for all those lows, there were some real highs that will make this year, though different, eclectic and worthwhile. Here’s what I turned on (and what turned me on) in 2009:
FAVORITE ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Flaming Lips — Embryonic: As I suspected when I wrote the original review of this album, this turned out to be my favorite of the year. Where so many other bands are content to keep their focus on working within a comfort zone, the Lips have gloriously thrown any sort of rule book out the window and chased the epic weird. Embryonic is admittedly experimental and even self indulgent, but the bizarrely beautiful sounds created push the band and their art to a new level. They seemed to have topped out with The Soft Bulletin upon its release in 1999, but each subsequent record has taken their music to new and exciting places. That they keep doing it is a feat in itself. Speaking of the new and exciting...
MOST FUN ALBUM OF THE YEAR
The Flaming Lips and Stardeath and the White Dwarfs (with Henry Rollins and Peaches) — The Dark Side of the Moon: The Lips had done a set on KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” in August where they performed Pink Floyd’s “Eclipse” and hinted at this special, iTunes-only release. The version performed there was fairly straight forward and fun, but it was a clever put-on. This track-for-track tribute to Floyd’s masterpiece is beyond weird. It takes the guts of the album and throws them in a party full of wacko electronic beats, fuzzed-out bass, and Henry Rollins cackling like a mad man. It’s a complete deconstruction of one of the best-known rock records in the world, but a loving one. It just has to be heard to be believed, I guess.
SOME OTHER BITS I LIKED
Them Crooked Vultures — Them Crooked Vultures: Joshua Homme, John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl? Surprise! This rocks harder than anything I’ve heard in a long, long time. Check out the 2:42 marker of “Nobody Loves Me & Neither Do I.” You’ll think a bomb has gone off in your headphones.
Dan Auerbach — Keep It Hid: The frontman of the Black Keys keeps his groove going with full, complete look at his vision, one loaded with soul and blues and just enough rock and funk.
Radiohead and Thom Yorke’s singles: Radiohead released two singles via the internets, “These Are My Twisted Words,” a minimalist continuation of their work on In Rainbows, and “Harry Patch (In Memory Of),” a beautiful, haunting tribute to Europe’s last survivor of the Great War. Yorke, on his own, put out a 12” of “Feeling Pulled Apart by Horses” and “The Hollow Earth,” and ... well, writing about how great they are is hard to do sometimes. I recommend just tracking all of these down and thanking me later.
Sonic Youth — The Eternal: They’re getting to the point where you can almost always say this, but this album is truly one of their better efforts. It has an edge that hasn’t been seen since 1992‘s Dirty, but couched in the mature jams of 2004’s Sonic Nurse. Seeing this record live (twice!) was a treat I won’t soon forget.
Cage the Elephant — Cage the Elephant: This Memphis band has learned well the lessons of Jack White, and have crafted a rude and rocking debut that the masses have seemingly enjoyed, too. I’m interested to see where they go from here.
FAVORITE ARCHIVAL RELEASE
The Beatles — Stereo Box Set: This wasn’t even close. The care that went into cleaning up the most daunting catalogue in pop music was unprecedented, and the results ... here’s how I’ll best state it. I recently visited friends in Arizona, and while we were relaxing out by a fire in their backyard, they brought out an old CD/cassette boom box. Playing some of these remastered tracks — “I Am the Walrus,” “Come Together,” “Help!,” “Nowhere Man,” “Blue Jay Way,” etc. — through my iPod via a car cassette adapter, with the sound dropping out now and then, they were still blown away by the clarity and the newly revealed nuances present in the music. It honestly feels like hearing them for the first time.
Other archival releases I enjoyed: Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — The Live Anthology; Big Star — Keep an Eye on the Sky; Pearl Jam — Ten (Super Deluxe Edition); Nirvana — Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition); The Clash — Live at Shea Stadium.
Pearl Jam — Backspacer: This isn’t even in doubt. I was far too nice to this album when I wrote my initial review — this record is useless. There is no reason to own this. It is lifeless, boring and glossed over to conceal their obvious lack of effort and, dare I ask, contempt for the audience? The first to be completely independently released by the band, this record was made not with an affirming grasp of freedom but with the bottom line in mind. Mass produced, peddled to middle America and, worst of all, the songs are dashed off, forgettable and, occasionally, terrible. “Got Some,” the only song I’ll still profess to like on Backspacer, would have been no better than the 10th best song on any previous Pearl Jam record. What a disaster.
REST IN PEACE...
Them Crooked Vultures — House of Blues, Boston, Oct. 11: Even just on pure historical value, this might’ve won. This was a pulverizing night of rock music, with the newly minted band blasting their way through their new songs. No encores, no pandering, just straight rock in an intimate setting. I was blown away halfway through their first song, “Elephants.” Just pure power, really. I won't say it was the best concert I’ve ever seen, but I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Other fantastic shows: Two nights of Sonic Youth — Wilbur Theatre, Boston, Nov. 22 and 23; Wilco — Lowell, Mass., July 11; The Flaming Lips — Bank of America Pavilion, Boston, Aug. 30; Eagles of Death Metal — Martini Ranch, Scottsdale, Ariz., Feb. 9.
Foghat — The Big E, West Springfield, Mass. Sept. 19: Just seeing Foghat anywhere would’ve been funny enough. I’m not typically in the habit of seeing these nostalgia, live-only bands, so watching them keep the audience interested at a gigantic fair for an hour before they played “Slow Ride” was a trip. After playing 10 minutes of a slow blues number where the singer says “Driiiivin’ wheeeeeeel” 45 times, Mr. Foghat tells the audience, “That was a little number called ‘Drivin’ Wheel!’” Halfway through the set, he asks, “Hey, do you guys like Guitar Hero?! Well we got a number from Guitar Hero coming up in a bit...” Lots of unnecessary slide guitar solos, lots of bass solos, one original member left in the band, and I was in the bathroom when they finally played “Slow Ride.” Perfect.
Oh, where to go with this one. Was it diving face-first into Pearl Jam’s Ten box set when it arrived in the mail? Watching Wilco in the pouring rain in Lowell? Or hearing how amazing “Something” sounded when I first popped the remastered Abbey Road into the car stereo?
I’ll go a different direction, because I have a hard time limiting myself to any one moment. I’ve had a lot of adventures in cars this year, but my favorite is a recent one. I was cruising back home on Route 25 the other night, and an old favorite, “Drowned” by Pete Townshend, was playing. And I just let the music flow over on this clear, chilly night, with the lights zipping past, and my favorite musician who was never a Beatle stammering and flourishing on his acoustic guitar, singing a song with which I've always had a special connection. It was extremely nice, and felt special. It was special. That’s how I’m going to remember 2009, and that’s what I’ll take with me into 2010.
Dec. 29, 2009