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.
October 13, 2009
Warner Bros. Records
Victim of Loudness War? Yes
Throughout the course of their now twenty-five year career, The Flaming Lips have never failed to keep the surprises coming. Whether it be their shift away from psychedelic punk with 1992’s Hit to Death In the Future Head, their more commercial leanings with 1993’s Transmissions From the Satellite Heart or the sprawling audio experiment that was 1997’s Zaireeka, the band always has a new trick up its sleeve and it more often than not proves to be a winner. The band’s artistic success culminated with the 1999 masterwork, The Soft Bulletin, a loose concept album that was equal parts beautiful and dark and set the bar amazingly high for any releases to follow it. Fortunately, the band rose to the task, submitting Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots in 2002, an album that closely rivaled its predecessor in both commercial and creative victory.
The Flaming Lips found themselves in an interesting position with regards to the follow-up to their 2006 release, At War With the Mystics. While its content was on par with the two records that came before it, Mystics sadly failed to make much of an imprint with the general public, reluctantly going Gold but making far less of an impression as its predecessors. Thus, The Flaming Lips were in the unique place where a musical reinvention was practically begging to be had. Enter their latest release, Embryonic, an album that is just as creative yet far more haunting than anything the band has released to date.
Embryonic opens with “Convinced of the Hex,” a track that eerily drags along before winding up in an anthemic chant that proves undeniably catchy in spite of itself. In just under four minutes, the track effectively sets the tone for the record, a dark, chilling soundscape that almost fights your enjoyment of it. Take “Aquarius Sabotage,” for example: never before have ear-splittingly distorted guitars and over-modulated vocals joined together to create such a seductive track. It’s a sound that shouldn’t be appealing, yet somehow is.
That’s not to say that the entirety of Embryonic is nerve-testing noise. On the contrary, Wayne Coyne and Co. insert enough melodic pleasure into the proceedings to effectively counter the aural assault found in the other tracks. “Evil,” is a prime example of such quiet moments, with its gently synthesizer tones and wonderfully subdued vocals combining to create a sound that is anything but what its title suggests. The same goes for the gently-lilting “If,” which is perhaps the best entry into the Flaming Lips catalog since the brilliant “Do You Realize??” nearly a decade ago.
The simple fact remains that if you weren’t on board with The Flaming Lips up until now, Embryonic isn’t going to change your mind. Despite its complete stylistic turnaround, the music contained here isn’t interested in attracting new listeners. Rather, it seeks to give those who have stuck around for the last few decades something new to deal with. After all, that’s the whole point of the Flaming Lips – they never let you (or themselves, for that matter) get too comfortable with their sound. So sit back and watch the planets with one of the few acts left that stills dares to be original, inspired and off-center in such a mainstream musical climate.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Embryonic, please click here.
The Flaming Lips – The Soft Bulletin
May 17, 1999
Warner Bros. Records
Victim of Loudness War? No
In June of 1999, all bets were off as to which release would receive the honor of being regarded as the best album of the year. The remaining six months would have no chance of producing a fine a record as The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, a lush and vibrant soundscape that was as subtle as it was bombastic. As impressive a feat as that was at the time, it is perhaps more of a testament to the album’s strength that few others have been released since by any artist that have come close to matching its near-perfection. Sure, masterminds such as Radiohead, Neil Young and Wilco have all come extremely close, but none have been able to top Wayne Coyne and Co’s hour of pure magic.
The album opens with “Race For the Prize,” which roars with thunderous drums and captivates with swirling synthesizers. Steven Drozd’s work on this track is that of inspiration, making you want to play the drums much the same way Keith Moon could when he really let loose. It’s a performance quality that he maintains throughout the record, never once faltering in his position of backbone to the varied set of songs. This can be seen on the other album standouts, most notably “Waiting For a Superman” and “Buggin,” both which steam along with the same intensity as “Race For the Prize.”
The Soft Bulletin should also be recognized for its quieter moments, which mirror the more rambunctious ones in number. The seamless combination of “What Is the Light?” and the instrumental “The Observer” is pure brilliance, the soundtrack to a relaxed summer evening that you never want to end. Later entry “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” follows along the same trajectory, although this track may also be better utilized for a relaxed summer evening drug trip rather than merely for the evening itself.
The true brilliance of The Soft Bulletin comes in its masked simplicity. Although some of the musical arrangements may appear complex and intricate, they are all tied together with simple lyrical themes. Wayne Coyne, more often than not, seems to be singing for the listener rather than to the listener, allowing for a truly personal experience when spinning the record. “The Spiderbite Song” relates a true concern for a friend; “Waiting For a Superman” addresses the average man’s anxiety over the sheer weight of the world he lives in; “Buggin’” speaks of the sheer joy of love. All of Coyne’s lyrical messages remain remarkable undemanding, which provides a beautiful juxtaposition to the elaborate instrumental tracks.
The bottom line is that ten years removed, The Soft Bulletin is still an undeniably essential listen that belongs in every record collection.
– Ian Rice
To purchase The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin, please click here.