Music/Popular Culture

The Best CDs of 2009, pt. 2: the Platinum LPs

Best-CDs-of-2k9In Part 1 we had a look at some very good 2009 releases, and in other years some of those CDs might have made a run at a Platinum LP. As I said, though, this was maybe the best year for new music since Jimmy Carter was president. So please, give these recipients of the S&R/Lullaby Pit Platinum LP a listen.

The Platinum LPs

Antony & the JohnsonsThe Crying Light
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of in-between where Antony Hegarty is concerned. Listeners either get it or they don’t, and while I’m in the “he’s brilliant” camp, I do understand why some find his music hard to access. In a nutshell, it’s probably some of the most painful stuff I’ve ever heard – pure, distilled essence of anguish at times. That said, it’s also infused with the kind of unearthly beauty one only encounters in those who have known genuine suffering.

Antony’s previous release, 2005’s staggering I Am a Bird Now, earned him break-out acclaim (fueled in part by his appearance on Jools Holland’s show in the UK and the YouTube video of that performance), and now, four years later, we get The Crying Light, an effort that’s even more fully realized, more controlled, and more arresting. There’s nothing quite as liberating as having something that personal validated on the world stage, and the accompanying maturation has produced something that I hope we can respect, even as its rawness makes it uncomfortable to embrace. After all, great art should make us squirm a little…

Brendan BensonMy Old, Familiar Friend
In 1996 Brendan Benson released One Mississippi, a critically acclaimed Power Pop gem. Since it was Power Pop, though, he got no popular props to speak of. Ditto for his two great follow-ups in 2002 and 2005. But in 2006 Benson and Jack White teamed to form The Raconteurs, a critical underachiever that sold pretty well. Because Jack White is, you know, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and Jesus all rolled into one.

So a lot of people are now paying attention to Benson, which is a good thing because My Old, Familiar Friend is a meticulously executed effort. It perhaps lacks the raw edge of his earlier work, and some critics feel like this is his least effective CD to date. I hear the complaint about the extra layer of polish, but for my money Benson is a far more accomplished tunesmith than he used to be (experience and maturity will have that effect) and the result here is a supremely catchy rock & roll record.

Cheap TrickThe Latest
A lot of people probably didn’t realize that Cheap Trick still existed. Radio and the whole music landscape being what it is, that’s not a surprise. But the fact is that the band never stopped recording and touring. Of course, it’s also true that their best work happened within three years of their debut release (Cheap Trick, 1977; In Color, 1977; Heaven Tonight, 1978; Dream Police, 1979; Live at Budokan, 1979). That’s about as much ass-whipping, five-star rock as any band in history has released in such a short amount of time, but after Dream Police things tapered off, and from an airplay perspective they ceased to exist until their 1988 megabomination hit, “The Flame.” Then they ceased to exist all over again.

The point is that Cheap Trick is still very much around, and this year they released what may be their best CD since 1979 (although some will argue that 2006’s Rockford was a tad better). The Latest leads with a rollicking cover of Slade’s “When the Lights Are Out” (in truth, a lot of CT’s best songs through the years have been covers), and then launches into a back-to-basics primer in by god rock & roll. There’s never an experimental moment, but that has always been the point with Cheap Trick, who have made a career out of celebrating the raw energy of youth and music – and it’s remarkable that they can still do that credibly at their ages.

By the way, one of the more surprising and interesting things about The Latest is the extent to which it’s almost an homage to The Beatles (in particluar note the reverent tribute to John Lennon in track 6, “Miracle”).

EditorsIn This Light And On This Evening
Up until recently I’d been arguing that the three most significant bands of the Nu Wave movement were The Killers, Franz Ferdinand and Interpol, with Interpol anchoring the Joy Division leg of the neo-’80s revival. My first exposure to Editors was along the lines of “hey, they sound a lot like Interpol,” but In This Light And On This Evening has me wondering if I might have it backwards. The comparisons to JD are always going to be there as long as lead singer Tom Smith continues to sound so much like Ian Curtis, but on this, their third record, Editors have swerved their sound off in a more luxuriant, synth-based direction. Moody and dramatic, In This Light And On This Evening immerses the listener in a hot-and-cold running stream of emotional urgency.

None of this should be taken as an indictment of Interpol – with luck we’ll get an even better release from them in 2010 – only that the party has been crashed by an incredibly talented band in the midst of stepping up its game in a huge way.

EelsHombre Lobo
Eels release CD. It’s one of the best of the year. In other news, sun rises in east…

We’ve reached the point where it’s impossible to imagine Eels producing something that isn’t platinum level at least, haven’t we? The only real news with Hombre Lobo is the stylistic departure, which sees E augmenting the intimacy of his usual chamber pop approach with raucous, rootsy lone-wolf-howling-at-the-moon moments. Whereas so much of E’s work has been defined by intense thoughtfulness and sensitivity, this disc finds him very deliberately exploring “animal instinct” – cry havoc and let slip the dogs of love, as it were.

So what can I say – like everything else E/Mark Everett has touched in his career, Hombre Lobo is just superb.

Franz FerdinandTonight
The AllMusic Guide calls tonight “a concept album about a debauched night out and the morning after,” and that seems about right. While the CD’s songwriting, construction and production are airtight, Tonight nonetheless has a footloose, freewheeling vibe about it – perhaps not as addled as a debauched night out disc from somebody like Electric Six, but still, this is a party that has taken on a life of its own.

What’s curious for me – and has been since I first discovered FF – is that the whole seems so much more than the sum of the parts. When you dissect their CDs, you get a fairly straightforward art-punk/neo-New Wave dance band prone to snapshots of urban dramatis personae. While this is certainly sufficient, as muses go, there’s a way their songs and albums get put together that makes it all more significant than it ought to be, like a beautiful woman whose face is comprised of individual elements that aren’t all that pretty on their own. If that makes sense.

GossipMusic for Men
I’ll admit it up front – this is an unlikely selection to the Platinum list, which tends to reserved for more “serious” efforts, those that aspire, at least a little, to art instead of mere entertainment. Every once in awhile, though, we trip across a record that transcends its humble ambitions. Music for Men is just such a record. Basically, Gossip seems intent on making you dance, end of story. Beth Ditto’s lyrics pay a lot of attention to predictable themes – love, relationships, etc. – but they’re delivered with enough self-awareness that they never devolve into the schlock we norrmally associate with dance pop. On the contrary – there’s so much tongue-in-cheek sass and strut to the performance that the whole thing comes off as rather clever.

Meanwhile the music manages to reference everything from ’70s soul to Paula Abdul-style ’80s hit radio disco to Motown girl group to Salt-n-Pepa to early B-52s. They close the disc with “Spare Me From The Mold,” which is as obvious and reverent a “Rock Lobster” send-up as you’re ever likely to hear. Which is fitting – Gossip is the best indie dance party band to come along since The B-52s.

Imogen HeapEllipse
Over the past few years we’ve seen Imogen Heap establish a solo presence, then step out into a group project (Frou Frou), then deliver a breakout solo effort (driven in large part by the use of one of her songs in a TV show – because TV is the new radio, I suppose). Given her tendency to never do the same thing twice in a row, we didn’t know exactly what to expect of Ellipse. Which is good, because what we got is a CD that’s not really like anything she’s produced before.

Heap spent some time traveling (she recorded Ellipse in a number of locations around the world) and the experience seems to have challenged her natural gift for conjuring complex tapestries of sound that transmit tone and emotion. All music aims to cultivate mood, of course, but there are very few popular artists who can match Heap’s intuitive knack for communicating through instrumentation, arrangement and production.

Ellipse doesn’t contain any single moments that match “Hide and Seek” (the vocoder-laced a capella high spot from Speak for Yourself), but it’s arguably more ambitious, more even, more mature and more completely realized. The CD is also a testament to Heap’s vision and restraint – a lot of artists might have been tempted to return to the well whence sprung “Hide and Seek,” but doing so would have marked her as a gimmick-monger and done significant damage to her credibility.

PhoenixWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix made a lot of best of lists this year, including landing at #1 on The Onion‘s coveted AV Club list. It’s easy to see why, too – the sound is fresh, upbeat, crisp, infectious and accessible, deftly balancing a rhythmic sparseness that recalls late-’70s New Wave with instrumental textures more akin to the best of ’80s technopop.

Between Phoenix and M83 (as well as aggressive, if less successful bands like The Teenagers), we might do well to keep an ear on the French indie pop scene.

U2No Line On The Horizon
As U2 was preparing to release How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, Bono (apparently under the delusion that it was a great album) noted that “very good is the enemy of great.” Clearly U2 continues to shoot for greatness, but in truth it’s been a lot of years (18 and counting) since they fully and unequivocally achieved it. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb was pretty good and All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) was very good, but the last time they delivered unabashed greatness was in 1991 with Achtung, Baby! It pains me to say this about my favorite band of all time, but as Neal Stephenson says in Anathem, you can’t believe a thing simply because you wish it were true.

So with each new U2 CD we wait anxiously, wondering if this will be the moment where they jack out another five-star masterpiece. In 2009…well, it wasn’t Achtung, Baby! but it was perhaps their best since. The problem we have with U2 – really, with any band that has established itself as one of the best – is that it’s incredibly hard to evaluate them in a vacuum. How would we regard this CD if we didn’t have all those epic classics establishing a context that can’t be ignored? If we’d never heard of U2 before, would we think No Line On The Horizon is better than we do in light of the band’s history?

Maybe there’s no good way to know, although we have every reason to believe that a band’s greatness does, in later years, become something of an albatross. After all, you can’t raise the bar for everyone else without raising it for yourself, as well.

In any case, U2 aims high on No Line…, aims to be “Magnificent,” if you will. And they come very close. If they don’t quite shoot the moon it’s perhaps because they’re trying to do so much. In one moment they’re trying to embrace the whole world, and in the next they’re questing after a sort of intimacy. In one song they dally (as they have in recent years) with techno, and in the next they’re a garage band.

All in all, No Line… is U2’s most ambitious effort in years, and I’m inclined to give it a solid thumbs-up. Since we live in an age that celebrates the utter lack of ambition, U2’s aspirations are refreshing and essential. If we’re going to evaluate them in light of their own record of epic achievements, it’s only fair that we also take into account the contemporary landscape, littered as it is with so many small successes….

Next: the Super-Platinum LPs…

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