Amidst the bland mainstream scene that has unfortunately dominated the 2000s, the decade’s final year has been one of significant musical surprise. 2009 gave listeners some truly amazing records, ones that belong in each and every record collection out there. This is The Record Review’s list of the best albums of 2009, arranged in no particular order. If you’re still looking for that last minute holiday gift, either for yourself or somebody else, picking up one of these gems would certainly be a fine idea.
Before we get this thing rolling, The Record Review would just like to thank each and every one of its readers for dropping by over the last year. Have a happy holiday season and we’ll see you next year.
Okay, ready? Without further delay, The Record Review’s Best of 2009:
The Black Crowes – Before the Frost…Until the Freeze (Silver Arrow) Fresh off the road from the support tour for their 2008 release Warpaint, the Black Crowes hunkered down at Levon Helm’s studio in upstate New York, invited a couple hundred of their closest fans and recorded a double album of new material that is equal parts rock, country, bluegrass and folk and all add up to one staggeringly good showing for the veteran band. Highlights include: “Good Morning Captain,” “Been a Long Time (Waiting On Love),” “Shady Grove,” “What Is Home,” “Shine Along,” “Greenhorn” and “So Many Times” Buy Now
The Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros) Always keeping things inspired and interesting, The Flaming Lips topped even themselves with their twelfth studio release. Reaching back into their neo-psychedelic past, Wayne Coyne and Co. turn in a collection of songs that are as haunting as there are melodic. Easily the band’s best album since 2002’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Highlights include: “Evil,” “If,” “I Can Be a Frog” and “Watching the Planets” Buy Now
Neil Young – Dreamin’ Man Live 1992 (Reprise) A collection of live performances of Harvest Moon songs culled from Young’s 1992 tour, Dreamin’ Man proves to be a truly unique recording and the best release to date in the artist’s “Archive Series.” Gone is all the lush instrumentation and gentle backing vocals, leaving only Young, an acoustic guitar and the occasional piano and harmonica to handle the expressing. Highlights include: “Harvest Moon,” “You and Me,” “Such a Woman” and “War of Man” Buy Now
Phish – Joy (JEMP Records) After a five-year hiatus, Phish returns in spite of their previous claim that they would not and turn in one of the best albums in their catalog. Joy finds the band as spry and invigorated as on 1988’s Junta but with a little more wisdom sprinkled into the mix. One of the year’s biggest surprises, given the lackluster nature of their last effort, 2004’s Undermind. If Phish remain together and continue to make albums, this will be a tough one to top. Highlights include: “Backwards Down the Number Line,” “Kill Devil Falls,” “Time Turns Elastic” and “Ocelot” Buy Now
Wilco – Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch) After Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’s hard to imagine Wilco could release an album that would have as much impact. Wilco (The Album) comes mighty close, in not approach but in quality. Merging together all the various stylistic avenues they’ve ventured down over the last decade and a half, Wilco turns in a collection of songs that are equal parts catchy and creative. The input of Jay Bennett is still sorely missed, but this is the best the band has done since his departure. Highlights include: “Wilco (The Song),” “Bull Black Nova,” “I’ll Fight” and “You Never Know” Buy Now
John Frusciante – The Empyrean (Record Collection) Perhaps the most prolific artist of the last twenty years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist releases his eighth solo album in as many years and it proves to be amongst the best (no small feat considering the high-watermark made by 2001’s To Record Only Water For Ten Days). Featuring a slue of guest musicians, The Empyrean is expectedly eclectic and always impressive. One can only hope that Frusciante has been recording more material of this caliber while The Peppers have been on hiatus. Highlights include: “Song to the Siren,” “Unreachable,” “Enough of Me” and “After the Ending” Buy Now
Van Morrison – Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Listen to the Lion Records) In honor of the 40th anniversary of his classic Astral Weeks record, Van Morrison performed said album in its entirety for two nights at the renown Hollywood Bowl. Just as with its studio counterpart, Hollywood Bowl is thoroughly mesmerizing and shows that Van Morrison is still an essential in-concert experience. Staying true to the original record, Morrison also opted not to flesh out the remaining running time with additional material. Highlights include: “Beside You,” “Slim Slow Slider,” “The Way Young Lovers Do” and “Sweet Thing” Buy Now
Arctic Monkeys – Humbug (Domino/EMI) Surviving all the hype surrounding them with their previous album, Arctic Monkeys quietly turned in Humbug in late August, resulting in the surprise success of the year. Going against a somewhat popular belief, Humbug shows that Arctic Monkeys are a band that surpasses most of its colleagues in terms of songwriting and performance ability. Every track here is essential to the others, making this one of the only real albums releases this year. Highlights include: “My Propeller,” “Potion Approaching,” “Dance Little Liar” and “Secret Door” Buy Now
Bob Dylan – Together Through Life (Columbia) On his 33rd album, Bob Dylan still manages to keep things interesting. His voice is still profoundly unique, his words still flow with poetic wonder and his music remains impressively perfect without ever showing a hint of sterility. What else is there to say? This is just another fine example of Dylan doing his thing. Here’s to the hope that he continues the trend well into the next decade. Or two. Highlights include: “Beyond Here Lies Nothin,” “My Wife’s Home Town,” “Jolene” and “This Dream of You” Buy Now
Jason Isbell – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Lightning Rod Records) His second album after amicably leaving Drive-By Truckers in 2007, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is perhaps the year’s most melodic record, brimming with beautiful sounds and masterful lyrics. Quietly appearing in February, the album is a prime example of how to expertly merge country, rock and even pop elements to come up with a near masterpiece. Highlights include: “Seven-Mile Island,” “Sunstroke,” “Cigarettes and Wine” and “Streetlights” Buy Now
Truth & Salvage Co – The Truth & Salvage Co. EP (Silver Arrow) Released as a sampler of their forthcoming album (due out March 2010) and distributed primarily at live dates on the Black Crowes tour their served as opening act for, The Truth & Salvage Co. EP shows the Atlanta natives to be extremely adept at crafting melodic, heartfelt songs that echo all the best elements of their influences without stealing from them. If this EP is anything to go by, the full-length album is going to be an early contender for next year’s list. Highlights: “Call Back” and “Jump the Ship” Buy Now
To purchase any of the above titles, please click the “Buy Now” link within each summary.
The Black Crowes – Before the Frost…Until the Freeze
August 31, 2009
Silver Arrow Records
Victim of Loudness War? No
The Black Crowes have long been established as one of rock and roll’s pre-eminent live acts. Over the last 20 years, they have pushed boundaries on stages across the world, refusing to play their hits, choosing to instead melt faces with soaring guitar duels, earthy jams, outtakes from album sessions, B-sides to singles, new originals, re-worked originals, or a myriad assortment of well-chosen and expertly executed covers. The unfortunate thing is, like a majority of bands who are vitally potent on stage, that vitality does not always translate onto record.
In the case of the Black Crowes, the studio catalog has been spotty at best. Discounting The Lost Crowes (a rarities collection released in 2006 comprised from unreleased sessions recorded from 1993-1997), the Crowes’ recorded output the past 10 years has ranged from tentative but earnest (last year’s “comeback” Warpaint) to non-cohesive experimentation (2001’s Lions), to a downright awful parody of themselves (1999’s By Your Side). Even a live album (2002’s Live), which should have been the Crowes’ “ace in the hole,” failed to impress, mostly due to conservative song selection light on the jamming which defines their live experience, a sub-par line-up, and a very murky mix (very much a victim of the “Loudness War,” it is almost unlistenable). Continue reading
Marc Ford – Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club
September 23, 2008
Victim of Loudness War? No
At this point in the game, the blues has been given a considerable workout. Aside from being the root of jazz, R&B and bluegrass, the style has had a profound influence on rock music just as much as Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. This is most likely due to its easily accessible format, which is based in a simple chord progression that provides the basis for haunting vocals and gut-wrenching solos to be added over. Thus, in 2008 it would seem nearly impossible to use the blues as a means of creating music that is original and vibrant, given the vast ground it has already covered.
A handful of artists can still breathe life into the blues, though, despite the well-worn path it has tread up until now. Marc Ford is one of the aforementioned artists, as his latest release, Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club (Blues Bureau, 2008) clearly illustrates. Track after track, Ford and his new band (comprised of Southern California’s usual blues suspects) deliver the familiar style with a grace and innovation that reawakens the heart, mind and soul of the listener. Like Eric Clapton before him, Ford’s familiarity with the blues allows him to wander freely in its pastures and prove that there’s still fresh water to be drawn from its well.
The album opens with “Main Drain,” a concise blues-rock number that gets things going nicely before giving way to “Locked Down Tight,” a gritty shuffle that marries guitar and harmonica into a catchy melody that provides the first of many memorable hooks the album has tucked away into its twelve tracks. It is also on this track that Ford turns in the first of many thoroughly-inspired guitar solos, firmly cementing his place next to rock’s best and brightest players. Unlike on his previous effort, 2007’s Weary and Wired, Ford’s lead guitar work seems pushed to the forefront, indicating that above all else, this album is meant to showcase just how lean and mean his chops are.
“Freedom Fighter” is the album’s first entry into the slow blues category, complete with a subdued-yet-powerful vocal performance from Ford. At home on any Gov’t Mule or latter-day Allman Brothers Band record, “Freedom Fighter” is perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the fact that the blues is still alive, well and able to pull on our heartstrings at a moment’s notice. The track also serves as the closest example of what it’s like to witness Ford performing live on stage, a feeling of spontaneity and in-the-moment flow abundantly present throughout.
Ford isn’t the only member of Neptune Blues Club that is given a chance to shine on the record. Keyboardist Mike Malone steps to the forefront several times throughout, “Don’t Get Me Killed” being the first and perhaps the most noteworthy. Distorting his vocals through his harmonica microphone, Malone delivers a killer performance here, reminiscent of but not stolen from some of John Mayall’s best early material. Ford gracefully steps into the background when Malone takes center stage, but his presence is still undoubtedly known. The guitarist alternates between a dirty finger-picked progression and bristling slide guitar work, arguably his best in years.
The album’s best track comes very late in the proceedings in the form of a soul-teased shaker called “Smilin’.” All the best elements of Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and The Isley Brothers come into the mix here and, when mixed with Ford’s guitar and Bill Barrett’s harmonica, gel into eight minutes of pure perfection. This song actually defies the listener not to move to its groove and will no doubt be a staple of any live set performed by Ford from this point on.
The real success of Marc Ford and the Neptune Blues Club can clearly be attributed to the fact that for the first time in his solo career, Ford has finally found a band worthy of his own talent. Whereas in the past the guitarist seemed to be pushing a band that was always a step or two behind up to the speed of his massive talent, here Ford seems to be in the company of musicians that maintain his pace at all times. This in turn seems to push him to deliver his best work, which is presumably why no track on the album falls flat or sounds uninspired. So, although he is known for being one of music’s last true journeymen, after listening to this release we should all hold out hope that Marc Ford sticks with The Neptune Blues Club for a little while. After all, somebody has to keep the blues alive.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Neptune Blues Club, please click here.