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.
Neil Young’s recent roll-out of his “Archive Series” has been a treasure trove of recordings from the man’s vault, featuring live and studio recordings that have either never seen the light of day at all or have never been released with such painstaking quality in mind. So far, fans have gotten the legendary performance from Massey Hall in 1971, a smoking set by Young and Crazy Horse from the Fillmore in 1970, some early recordings from 1968 and a mammoth boxed set spanning 1963-1972. But no release in the series thus far matches the quality and exuberance of the latest release in the project, the live acoustic, Dreamin’ Man Live 1992.
Recorded on tour in 1992, Dreamin’ Man captures Neil Young when he’s perhaps at his finest: alone. The album’s ten tracks (which mirror his 1992 studio release, Harvest Moon, in content but not running order) solely feature Young on each performance, using a guitar, harmonica or piano to accompany his stark-yet-alluring vocals. Gone are the lush, low-key colorations found on the album versions of the same songs, replaced by an intimate air that make already perfect songs that much more so. At the very least, it’s proof that Neil Young doesn’t need bells and whistles to make his music sound good – it can stand on its own just fine.
Dreamin’ Man opens with its title track, a beautiful tune that is given a new luster in this minimalist approach. The song gives way to “Such a Woman,” reduced to Young and his piano relating a simple message of love. Next up is “One of These Days,” a track that was amazing in its studio form and comes off quite well in this setting as Young recalls his past with gentle strums and heartfelt lyrics. It’s a poignant moment that stands out amongst the many others that surround it throughout the album’s hour.
Dreamin’ Man earns its accolades beginning with the next song, the absolutely magical “Harvest Moon.” The original version of this song is one that feels as though it was recorded beneath the very feature it is titled after, with a light acoustic guitar accompanied by brushed percussion, a stand-up bass and lilting backing vocals. Here as before, it is just Young and his guitar/harmonica combo and the listener is still treated to a song that sounds as though it was recorded sitting in front of a barn as opposed to a theater full of people. The subtle harmonics that once blended into the background are now brought forward, giving Young’s admittedly off-kilter vocal style that much more of a chance to shine through the mix.
“Harvest Moon” is quickly followed by “You and Me,” a move that reverses their order from the original studio album. Here, the songs belong together, as the stripped down version of “Harvest Moon” merges quite will with the already bare bones “You and Me,” another simple yet thoroughly moving song of love. They are a pair of songs that you never want to end, but luckily when they do Young has more than enough to stave off disappointment.
Dreamin’ Man is rounded out by “War of Man,” a haunting tale of the ongoing battle between man and the natural environment. On paper, that sounds as though it would be somewhat of a soapbox step-up for Young, but he manages to convey his point without getting too preachy. Instead, it’s a powerful closing to a truly beautiful collection of recordings from one of the most endeared periods in Young’s vast career. If the remainder of the “Archive Series” includes releases as undeniably strong as this, listeners will be in for one hell of a treat.
– Ian Rice
To purchase a copy of Dreamin’ Man Live 1992, please click here.