Cool stuff you should hear (and see) from this past year.

Summerfest crowd at main stage
Crowd at Free Press Summerfest 2009. Photo by J. Hart.
Things have been a bit rough in these parts in the nearly two years since I wrote the intro to the last one of these "top ten-ish" things we did. For those who somehow manage to ignore the news, the Houston/Galveston area got a ferocious smackdown from the asshole hurricane named Ike (who managed to pretty much ruin the name among folks down here; apologies, all you "Ikes" out there), and while we were still reeling from that, folks like yours truly still without power, the world economy -- and the US economy, by extension -- had the audacity to upstage us by taking a leap off the roof of a tall building without a parachute. Fucking economy, man, always trying to hog the limelight... And while the lights are now back on in H-town, things are still looking bleak for a lot of people around here.
The funny thing is that the thing I missed the most while we were without power, running only what we could plug into a generator I kept bike-locked to the inside frame of the garage (and having to occasionally wait in insanely long lines for gas or, in one Mad Max-esque episode, drive an hour-and-a-half down 59 to find a gas station where we could fill our gascans), was music. Everything was silent, eerily silent. No bumping bass from cars cruising down the main road, even. One of the neighbors was kind enough to host the rest of the 'hood for a revolving party in his driveway every night during the outage, and he somehow had music occasionally, but mostly, the only sound that cut through the nights was the headache-inducing roar of several dozen generators all running at once.
I know it seems paltry, maybe even idiotic, to include "music" on a List of Things You Need to Survive, but honestly, for me, it needs to be on that list. I know I'm lucky as hell to even have the luxury, but hey, there it is. The next time a hurricane approaches, I'm buying a cheap-ass boombox and a metric ton of D batteries, and we're having ourselves nonstop music madness 'til the neighbors finally get pissed off and call the cops. Because, in the face of everything, whether I'm wondering if we'll be able to turn on the lights tonight or just trying to deal with the day-to-day insanity of home-owning and child-raising, music keeps me sane. I need it.
And, of course, I'm guessing I'm not the only one. For all those out there who need music to keep their shit together, well, here's what our hardworking crew of volunteers here at SCR (well, some of 'em, anyway) would humbly recommend as the best damn stuff we heard -- or saw, in some cases -- this past year. You may not like some of it, you probably won't like all of it, but hopefully you'll find something in there to grab onto for the next time, say, a hurricane's bearing down on your home. Enjoy.
JEREMY HART (aka Tha Boss):

Wow. When I started compiling this list, I had no idea it was going to be quite this painful. It's been a weird year for me, musically, mostly because I've gotten piles and piles and piles of CDs and downloads and DVDs and what-have-you, and I haven't been able to devote the kind of focused attention I generally like to on a fair chunk of those piles. Family stuff is partly the reason -- I'm now a proud papa two times over, this time of little Dylan, who's amazing and awesome and probably deserves (along with his big sister) the number 1 spot on this list, just because -- but it's also just due to the sheer volume of all of it.
I feel bad, honestly, because I feel like I've neglected a lot of releases that are potentially pretty mind-blowing. But what I have gotten to hear has been pretty incredible, a lot of it. As a result, it's been a major struggle --involving some soul-searching -- to pare down this list. Such a struggle, in fact, that, as the observant may have already noticed, I gave up trying for a top-ten and settled on a top-17, almost as I did the last time around with these lists. (I'm The Boss, so I can do these things.) Even with that, though, it was a hard fight, and I still feel my soul wilt a bit when I look at the extensive-ish list of Honorable Mentions. To anybody on that list: trust me, there are near-miniscule differences between y'all and the top sixteen. Many, many shades of gray here, folks.
I don't mean to sound all bleak and negative about this year, not at all; I just feel guilty about not posting a top-30 list, instead of a top-17. As I noted above, there were some awesome albums and EPs released this year, so many that, hell, I didn't even bother seriously checking out a lot of the year's "big" releases. I'd rather listen to the stuff on these lists any day, which is especially cool considering the number of H-town releases (about half of the top 17, in fact). Here's hoping 2010 continues the trend.
Anyway, here's what I liked this year:
The ironic thing about this album, really, is that I never actually got it. I was supposed to, and had been eagerly anticipating sinking my teeth (er, ears) into the followup to P.O.S.'s good-but-bleak 2006 release, Audition; I received the envelope, opened it, and...nothing. Then I noticed that some unkind soul had cut a neat slit up the side of the thing, just big enough to remove, say, a CD. Apparently some USPS employee somewhere between the Twin Cities and H-town loves Rhymesayers so damn much they just had to have the album for themselves; thanks, asshat.
Anyway, thanks to Andrew at East West, I was able to get a hold of a digital copy of Never Better, and holy fuck, am I glad I did. How is it this shit isn't booming from every car stereo I pass? I just don't get it; forget Jay-Z, forget Eminem, forget Kanye, forget 50 Cent (no, please, I'm serious), P.O.S.'s mashing-up of raw punk-rock energy, bitterly disillusioned post-2000 politics, snarky indie-kid sensibility, metallic guitars, and breakneck beats -- my hands go crazy on the steering wheel every time either "Drumroll" or "Purexed" play -- is the best damn thing I've heard all year, hip-hop-wise or otherwise.
I loved Audition, definitely, but it had some serious "eh" moments to go along with the moments of brilliance. Never Better, on the other hand, has absolutely zero throwaway tracks; if I step away from the disc for a while before re-listening, each one makes me go, "oh, yeah -- I'd forgotten how awesome that one was!" It's intricately crafted and ridiculously dense with sound, to the point that I hear/discover something new on every listen, and the fast, sharp-tongued lyrics ring true every time. "Me and Joe like real shit." Yes, indeed.
I know, I know -- the whole post-emo, nu-alternarock thing is done, it's over, replaced by irony-laced electro-pop, and blah, blah, blah. I don't give a fuck, because 2009 saw one of the few truly excellent post-emo albums I've ever come across, and for extra-special bonus points, it came out of my own backyard. On See the Light Inside You, the last place you look ditched their past screamo tendencies for the most part and stepped forward, fists raised and with their hearts on their collective sleeve, to rehabilitate the much-trampled-upon emo-rock thing I and a lot of other people (including these guys, apparently) grew up on. The guitars roar and blaze before suddenly shifting to a soft, gentle melody, the voices swoop and soar, with the best two-dudes duo vocals I've heard since Braid was a going concern, the drums thunder like the heartbeat of some celestial being, and the lyrics dig deep and come back up with hands full of bitterness, resignation, righteous fury, and, at the end of it all, hope for the future. I'm sure that sounds pretentious all get-out, but truly, I don't care, because the last place you look have created an album that holds up better than 99% of what I've listened to this year. Ten years from now, I predict that I'll still be listening to this.
If you read this e-zine/blog thing at all regularly, then you'll most likely already realize that The Eastern Sea (and Sea-master Matthew Hines) can truly do no wrong, in my eyes. They hit that perfect, perfect mark between smart, sharp-edged lyricism and almost-emo fragile beauty, and whether they do it live, tent revival-style, or in more subdued recorded fashion, it's an awesome thing to behold. EP #2 follows on pretty closely from the brilliant EP #1, but it actually allows the band to stretch out somewhat, particularly with tense, bitterly trapped-sounding high point "The Sea," a song that sounds like an Americanized version of Radiohead's "Karma Police" but carves its own stark little musical niche, and with "The Name," which holds high a cheery, fuzzed-out torch and ranks as one of the band's most "rock" songs. I swear, every thing I hear by this band just makes me want more.
Hymns From Rhodesia, at its core, is an album that sounds like it fell through a hole in time to land here in the present day. Which explains kind of why I'm always, always at a loss when trying to accurately describe what listenlisten sounds like -- it just doesn't have many references in modern music, instead looking backwards both instrument-wise and theme-wise. The whole thing's bleak and layered and thoughtful, a somber, almost elegaic meditation on war, death, faith, and life itself, unspooling over understated country/folk/gospel sounds. And it's utterly mesmerizing, like seeing the subjects of an old Civil War-era tintype come to life and begin acting out a tragic scene. Admittedly, the historicity's a little inconsistent -- "A Little" seems to be about bombing raids in WWII -- and the album's title has little to do with the songs themselves, but still, the atmosphere of the whole is incredible.
For the life of me, I cannot comprehend how this album didn't show up on the dozen or so best-of lists I've read (so far, anyway). Because, to put it simply, The House on the Causeway is flat-out phenomenal. British duo Reigns (who refer to themselves as "Operatives A & B") splice together stark electronica, moody post-rock, and brittle folk to make this incredibly bleak, dark, foreboding sound that blends all three parent genres nearly seamlessly and comes off like some alt-universe supergroup comprised of Underworld's Karl Hyde, Slint-era Brian McMahan, The Beta Band's Steve Mason, and dubstepper Burial. The disc's worth purchasing solely on the basis of the stellar track "Everything Beyond These Walls Has Been Razed" (which ranks up there as one of the top five songs I heard in 2009, all by itself), but Causeway as a whole is a wonderfully murky, atmospheric set of story-songs (even the instrumentals, like the fragile "Mirrors At Night," feel like they have a story behind them), with "Bad Slate" and "The Black Cramp" close to the top of the pile. Then, of course, there's the melancholy sailor-lost-at-sea tale of "Mab Crease" -- when the title character finally finds the mirror on the beach, the song very nearly cracks the sky open to let light in, and my jaw drops.
This one's a bit of a fudge, I'll admit; I can't honestly remember whether it came out at the tail-tail-end of 2008 or at the very beginning of 2009. But hell, the vinyl definitely didn't come out 'til '09, so I'm going with that, especially since I really, really freaking love this album. I stuck it back in the player the other day, after a long while away, and was blown away once again by how incredible it is. It's literally the best damn power-pop album I've heard in, oh, five years or so. There's not a bad song on here, just track after track of squalling guitars, insanely catchy melodies, and smart, self-aware songwriting that practically stands in reverence of the late-'70s/early-'80s breed of punkish pop the band holds most dear. And best of all, underneath all the leather and raw guitar fuzz lurks a surprisingly subtle, sensitive, romantic heart; on tracks like "Aliens" or "Why Can't I?," Something Fierce come off like a self-conscious, kinda-awkward, lovelorn teenager trapped in the body of a punk rocker. Think Joe Jackson all wrapped up in electrical wire, fronting some kind of Ramones/Stiff Little Fingers supergroup while somebody keeps hitting the button to shock the shit out of him, and you'll be somewhere close.
Okay, yeah, so this one squints at the dateline, too -- the EP itself says it's copyright 2008, but the "official" release date I've seen was in January of 2009, so I'm going to squint and say it falls on the '09 side of the calendar line, if only so I can enthuse yet again about how mind-blowingly great these guys are. Which is complicated a bit by the fact that, well, American Fangs are somewhat hard to describe. They don't fit into any neat, sectioned-off subgenre boxes, instead managing to encompass the modern rock thing as a whole while dragging in elements of metal, hardcore, grunge, and whatever else they've found lying around. The result is raw, smart, streetwise rock that comes off like the Foo Fighters as channeled by a bunch of metalheads from the Texas 'burbs, cocky and badass and fucking daring you to have a problem with it. I know I first heard it right around the start of 2009, but "Le Kick" still stands as one of the best songs of '09, period. My fondest wish for 2010 is for this band to explode and suddenly get played everywhere.
Confessional time: back when we did these list things for 2006, I stuck Killswitch Engage's As Daylight Dies on the list, and dammit, it really didn't deserve the spot. And yeah, I kinda knew it. The more I've listened to it in the two years since, the less and less I've come to like the disc, sadly -- it just languishes in the monumental shadow of the band's so-far magnum opus, 2004's The End of Heartache, which I'd come to figure was a high-water mark the KE gang wouldn't ever come near to hitting. Thankfully, 2009's Killswitch Engage (the band's second self-titled full-length, btw) proves me wrong. The disc is a non-stop barrage of disillusioned, melodic, heart-on-sleeve emo-headbanger anthems 'til at least the halfway point, and while it's nothing particularly new for the band, it's extremely well-done, with tracks like "Never Again," "Starting Over," and "The Return" measuring up nicely to the best of anything the band's done to this point. This time, I promise, Killswitch belongs on this list.
A relative latecomer to this list, mostly because my sweet, goodhearted wife gifted it to me at Christmas this year. But holy freaking crap is it good -- I'm tempted to call it a better set from comedian Patton Oswalt, honestly, than 2007's Werewolves and Lollipops (although probably not better than Feelin' Kinda Patton). I really am probably the guy's perfect target market -- mid-30s, nerdy, awkward, comic book-/music-/sci-fi-/irony-loving, etc. -- so saying that I'm a fan is a bit on the redundant side, but with My Weakness Is Strong, Oswalt hits a special mark for me, in that he's about to become a dad. The way he addresses that and the ways in which he's having to change his life and his worldview make the whole thing not just a tear-inducing comedy album but a sweet, almost contemplative exercise (I know, I know; calling anything that talks this much about fucking, orgies, and drugs "sweet" is a little insane, but still), chronicling a guy with somewhat arrested development's stumble-stagger into adult- and parenthood. Which is a pretty impressive feat for an hour's worth of jokes, if you ask me.
The first time I heard Benjamin Wesley's debut EP, Geschichte, I really had no idea what kind of a box I could possibly put the guy in; the music is (mostly) gentle and pretty, often with a cool, late-night groove to it and melodies that make me think of stuff like The Darling Buds, The Secret Stars, or Paul Simon, if those folks were being interpreted with a knowing smirk by an effortlessly talented, scratchy-voiced coffeehouse singer. The song are bright without being cheery, laid-back to the point of hypnosis, and somehow, maybe just by feel alone, ineffably cool. The one comparison I really can't get away from, truthfully, is to the late Jeff Buckley -- not because the two singer/songwriters sound similar (they really don't), but because both seem to grab hold of their own personal vision of what they're doing and couldn't give a shit if anybody else gets it. And yes, because they are (er, were, in Buckley's case) both freaking brilliant at what they do.
I think I'm genetically programmed to automatically like any band that sings with a Scottish accent, so take that into account when reading my views on this Glasgow-by-way-of-Edinburgh quartet. That said, this is another album that I can't believe I haven't seen on anybody else's top-ten lists as of yet; with These Four Walls, We Were Promised Jetpacks (which is the best band name I've heard in a while) craft a near-perfect chunk of hazy, warm-sounding, melancholy-yet-rough indie-pop that's almost impossible not to sing along with (in your best faux-Scots accent, of course). I keep hearing comparisons to Frightened Rabbit, but I heard more of a twitchy/jittery variant on Idlewild's sound, particularly on "It's Thunder and It's Lightning" and the stellar "Ships With Holes Will Sink," where singer Adam Thomson's voice has this great desperate sound to it. Either way, this is one of the sleepers of '09, in my book.
The Scale The Summit guys deserve mention here, if for nothing else, for fully converting me to love of the whole instro-metal thing. Mostly because they do it with such an innocent, unpretentious, ease -- they just play, without any set agenda or guitar-god aspirations, and it's really, truly beautiful stuff. As metal goes, it's surprisingly bright, in spite of its heaviness, with a sound that's equal parts Pelican and Ah Via Musicom-era Eric Johnson, plus a bit of Joe Satriani's skyward reach. Guitarists Chris Letchford and Travis Levrier playing smooth-edged, complex chunks of sound that spiral out in different directions but somehow fit together like pieces of the same puzzle. I could listen to the shifting, crunching central riff of "Great Plains" for weeks and weeks on end, I swear, and still feel that sense of awe and wonderment each time. These guys make me not only never want to play guitar again but instead take it out on the patio and burn it in effigy.
This one surprised even me; it was originally released only on cassette back in the early part of '09, but I didn't get to hear it 'til considerably later on, stumbling across a second-printing CD-R version with a handmade cover; I've regretted not looking harder for that first tape ever since. But hey, at least I've got one now, right? Sadly, that's more than most folks are likely to be able to say, particularly outside the Houston metro area. Which is a shame, because both Muhammad Ali (spelled variously as one word, with an "i" instead of an "a," and with random capitalization) and Black Congress are fine, fine bands -- the latter is kind of an amalgam of Unsane, The Jesus Lizard, and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, all of which are cool by me, and the former, my fave of the two, harkens back to folks like Mudhoney, Drive Like Jehu, and early Afghan Whigs, with an awesomely noisy-yet-melodic sound. In my perfect world, both bands will put out facepunching full-lengths of their own and rule the world, but sadly, it's a lot more likely that they'll both implode before that happens. Damn.
It's funny, but while Seattle duo The Dutchess & the Duke haven't been around all that long, with only two releases under their belt so far, it feels like I've loved this band forever. It may be because the bleak, dark retro-'60s sounds they mine are part of my pop-cultural subconscious, from years of classic-rock radio and having my dad's music forced on me from an early age. I'm finding that I don't mind, though, because Sunset/Sunrise is a gem of an album -- this time out they've retooled a bit to create that murky, slit-your-wrists vibe they do so well. While She's the Dutchess, He's the Duke was essentially a hybrid of "Paint It Black"-era Stones and The Animals, Sunset/Sunrise casts a wider net, bringing in gentle pianos, strings, and more baroque arrangements, evoking The Byrds, The Velvet Underground, Nancy Sinatra, and The Mamas & the Papas, all at once, like some twisted, gone-awry version of '60s/'70s California folk-rock. And while listening at length may make you want to end it all, it's wonderful, nevertheless.
I declared a while back that Ghost Mountain's debut album got dropped down from another planet, and honestly, a few months spent away from it haven't changed that view one bit. Siamese Sailboats is like what aliens might come up with after digesting an eclectic diet of Flaming Lips-inspired psychedelic pop, backpacker indie-hip-hop, anything Laurie Anderson ever did, and several years' worth of suburban high-school surveillance tapes. It's joyful and self-deprecating and weirdly catchy in spite of its strangeness, like a less-addled cLOUDDEAD or (ex-cLOUDDEAD member) Why? or MC Paul Barman on a whole lot of psychedelic substances. And yes, it really, truly does work, especially on tracks like "Good Heart," which I could listen to all freaking day long.
An interesting thing happened with The Literary Greats' Ocean, Meet The Valley, at least for yours truly. I dove into it eagerly, hoping to hit that same high I got from the band's self-titled debut (which is still one of the best damn albums I've heard in the last few years), and what I got was...something a little different. I was a bit disappointed, I'll admit, hearing the Greats' more rockin' sound and wishing I could step backwards in time to "Listen to the Band" or "Thunder Cloud to Peru." It wasn't quite the same band, it felt like. I kept the CD in the car, though, and popped it in from time to time, and then one day I realized I was singing cheerily along with "Dreadnought," which I'd thought was one of the weaker songs -- and I knew all the words. Without me even noticing, singer/guitarist/songwriter Brandon Elam's stellar songs had wormed their way into my head, unfolding a little more each time I listened. No, this isn't The Literary Greats Pt. II, not really, but that's okay, because this "new" Greats can still craft some amazing music.
Okay, so I thought this would end up higher on this list; I really did. The more I listen to Art Brut's Art Brut vs. Satan, though, the more I find myself missing the rawer, punkier sound of Bang Bang Rock & Roll and It's a Bit Complicated -- set side-by-side with those albums, only "What A Rush" really channels that old fury, the rest sounding a heck of a lot more polished and mid-tempo, at least to my ears.
That said, I do like the album quite a bit, even now. Because at the end of the day -- and apologies to the band, who're a talented bunch in their own right but sound somewhat declawed here -- Art Brut is basically Eddie Argos + A Backing Band, and whatever the sonic wallpaper that gets stuck behind him, it's Argos, his mostly-deadpan delivery, and his geek-love tone poetry lyrics that take center stage. And those things are all in perfect form on this album, thankfully, particularly on album highlights like "The Passenger," "Am I Normal?," "Mysterious Bruises," and the stellar, stellar "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake," which makes me shake my head in wonderment and then want to join Argos at the malt shop. (Do they still have those in England? Did they ever?)



MARC HIRSH: 2009 Retrospelunker
Five albums:
In a year when it seemed like all the buzz went to the Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, St. Vincent's Actor seems a bit like the one that got away. It also fell victim to the curse of the followup that improves on its predecessor in almost every way only to be swept under the rug since reviewers have already exhausted all their praise in raving about the debut. (See also: Jenny Lewis's Acid Tongue, Franz Ferdinand's You Could Have It So Much Better, and three entries below.) Now, that may seem peculiar in reference to an album that reached #12 in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll, but the numbers themselves reveal that Actor had just over half the support enjoyed by Veckatimest. It's a baffling response to an album that's not only cockeyed and wildly inventive but thoroughly listenable and charming. Like Kate Bush during her 1980s peak, Annie Clark never sounds like she's in anything less than complete control of her music, stretching the compositional boundaries of what a song can be while still acknowledging what songs always were. As per the album's title, she's also theatrically-minded like Bush, but even with a song like "Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood" that fiercely maintains its equilibrium, there is a deep emotionalism at its core, if you can only figure out which fractal angle offers the best way in.
When you put the pieces together, it's not really that random. Bun E. Carlos and James Iha made their names in legendary Chicago arena-rock bands. Iha and Adam Schlesinger have played on a bunch of each others' albums and own a studio together. Schlesinger has been kicking around a collaboration with Taylor Hanson since the height of Hansonmania. And Hanson's clear, high, and powerful voice bears more than a little resemblance to that of Carlos's associate Robin Zander. So really, everybody just needed to hold hands at the same time and jump. That's how it happened. How did it result in an utterly perfect power-pop album? Hell, nobody ever knows how that happens.
A double album so big and unwieldy that it's nearly impossible to swallow all at once, yet so finely wrought that you could drop the needle just about anywhere and hit gold. Despite its liberal borrowing from Hendrix, Love, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, among others, make no mistake: from start to finish, Communion is psychedelic pop, not rock. Even with six-and-a-half-minute opener "Babel On," which could easily be renamed "I Am Indeed Experienced, Thank You For Asking," the songs average less than four minutes apiece. On a song-by-song basis, there's simply no room for bloat, whether it's in the drily upbeat and rustic "Flipside" or the meat-and-potatoes "Thrill Me," which bites the same Sly-and-the-Family-Stones rhythm section on which Primal Scream built "Rocks." If Communion is flawed because of its length, then at least The Soundtrack Of Our Lives get there honestly: not by self-indulgence but by productivity.
The difference between the erstwhile Virgil Caine's most recent album and its immediate predecessor, 2007's Dirt Farmer, is right there in the titles. With a voice that's greatly recovered from the reduced creak that followed his treatment from throat cancer, Helm plugs in once more and lets it rip. Most of us won't get the chance to witness him tearing the roof off the barn during his increasingly legendary Midnight Rambles. With Electric Dirt, Helm invites us to throw one of our own.
Folks in Houston got Moji, who was brought up from the audience to sing with the stars of Once and who took over the show before collapsing into an ecstatic heap of fangirl gushiness. Everyone else had to make do with Strict Joy, which easily met (and possibly exceeded) the expectations laid at the feet of two singers who had the fortune/misfortune of making a movie that people genuinely and deeply loved. There are points where it sags -- "Feeling The Pull" is passion replaced with franticness, and if I want what "Fantasy Man" is giving me, I'll put on Eisley -- but with the hypnotic "I Have Loved You Wrong," the Caledonian-folk-fueled "Love That Conquers," and especially the perfect build of "The Rain" picking up the slack, the whole of Strict Joy averages higher than most albums ever peak.

Five songs:
There were two Kelly Clarkson albums released this year. Demi Lovato's was the superior one. Not that "I Do Not Hook Up" didn't sound great gushing out of the radio. Just that this sounded even better.
Tired of coming late to the party and having to express their appreciation for whichever inescapable pop single was dominating the airwaves and the public's hearts and minds at any given moment by putting their own stamp on a cover (as has been the case with "Umbrella," "Crazy In Love," "Since U Been Gone" and others), an artsy indie band decides to get ahead of the curve for once and write their own. That the slinky R&B jam the Dirty Projectors came up with was too twitchy and cerebral to break out in any substantial way was of no consequence. At least somebody's being forward-thinking.
In which two second-generation antipodean pop musicians wave their freak flags high, then loop it and add more flags. Finn's dad may be most famous for leading the relatively staid Crowded House, but it was into Split Enz that he was born, and it comes through in every angular grunt and off-center beat.
Get me a little agitated and I'd argue that with the consistency, curiosity, fearlessness, quality and depth of her material (coupled with her actual, reasonably unflagging popularity), Pink was the premier pop star of the past decade. "So What" was a marvel of unflinching defiance that acknowledged multiple interpretations of her situation, including the one that she was completely full of shit. (I maintain that few pop moves from the last ten years have been as ballsy as her inviting her very real, very estranged husband into the video to roll his eyes at her claims of moral victory and stare her down as an equal.) But that was so 2008. Beating out the harrowing "Sober" in last year's singles derby was "Please Don't Leave Me," which in its unadorned vulnerability isn't just the anti-"Torn," it's up there with the desperate John Lennon of "Don't Let Me Down" and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." I defy you to think of a single other major pop artist who is willing to make a statement so straightforward and clear and fraught with emotional risk. Pink doesn't frill things up, doesn't sugarcoat her message with niceties, doesn't want anything to get in the way of exactly what she wants to say, no matter how unflattering: Please don't leave me. Please don't leave me.
Artificial Fire is a wonderful album without a bad track, marred only by a liberal sprinkling of ordinary ones. So why didn't it make the album list, when Communion did? Mostly because "heft" isn't central to Mandell's entire concept, since she doesn't have one. What she has is an uncommon penchant for writing excellent songs, few more excellent than "It Wasn't The Time (It Was The Color)," a rumination on nostalgia that understands the non-linear way memory works. As Mandell tiptoes through a series of chromatic triggers, moments long gone unfurl in discrete, impressionistic pops. She doesn't romanticize them to the point of wishing for their return, but it's clear that she treasures them for both the illusion of closeness and the reality of their distance.

One Better Late Than Never:
I have a better excuse than usual for not picking up on this one until now: it's been out of print for years. (Though it's not like I didn't have a turntable, I suppose.) Putting the "hard" back in hard funk, Davis leads a terrifyingly visceral band with a guitar/bass sound so sharply focused that it comes across as a burnished scrape. She matches her backing snarl for snarl, asserting her independence at every turn and dismissing anyone who would tame her with extreme prejudice. As a staunch believer in her right to express herself in full (whether sexually in "Nasty Gal" or artistically in "Dedicated To The Press," which turn out to be two sides of the same coin), Davis comes out with guns blazing and never stops firing right up until "The Lone Ranger" creeps to a close...at which point, her recording career effectively ends. (She'd cut some additional material afterwards, but it would be decades before it saw the light of day.) That makes Nasty Gal her last autonomous gasp, with a vision pure enough to remain jaw-dropping even as it finally, unbelievably, makes its way to CD just in time for the medium to ride off into the sunset.
Mos Def is back in full force. He raps about things that are rarely subjects of rap songs, especially in "Worker's Comp," where he captures the thrill and the desperation of a woman having an affair with her boss. He also has lots of good beats, from the RZA-esque "Wahid" to the jazzy double bass bounce of "Quiet Dog Bite Hard" to the massive electro of "Life in Marvellous Times." His best album since Black on Both Sides.
Jay-Z continues to dominate everything and everyone with the new Blueprint 3. He continues to write killer tunes -- "New York State of Mind" is one of the best songs of his career, but there are plenty of other good songs here, from "On To The Next One," where he ingeniously incorporates the title into the beat itself, to "A Star Is Born," with a beautifully melancholic horn riff. Even if it's not one of his best albums, it's still quite a feat, continuing to be artistically viable this late in his career. Especially in hip-hop, where long careers are such a rarity, the fact that he still continues in his craft makes it all even more impressive.
Not the old Zooid, a variation on the old group. But once again, a change of direction and compositional strategies, with more angular melodies than Threadgill usually writes. He recruited another fine band -- Liberty Ellman is the MVP here, contributing many fasinatingly off-kilter solos throughout, there're some fine duets between Jose Davila and Stomu Takeisku on tuba and bass guitar, and Elliot Kavee on drums provides a perfectly warped free-jazz grove underneath. Best of all, a record without a single vocal.
Neko Case just keeps getting better and better. Her blend of energetic folk-rock is her own, strong and brave even in the difficult circumstances her songs relate. She adds unusual sounds to the mix, including melting keyboard sounds, saw, and odd time signatures. "Middle Cyclone," in particular, is one of the most off-kilter but strikingly beautiful songs, despite its rhythmic complexity. The album is full of plenty other lovely songs, from "This Tornado Loves You," with its perfect harmony arrangement and stop-time breaks, to "Vengeance is Sleeping," a slower bllad with pretty xylophone accents. A real breakthrough for Neko Case.
Chuck Cleaver's band Wussy has a very different sound from the Ass Ponys. It's much more noise-oriented, a bit like My Bloody Valentine, but with some YLT-style vocals courtesy of his wife Lisa Walker. Songwriting is a collaboration between the two, which gives the songs a very different feel from Ass Ponys -- darker and rougher and combative, but also more majestic and anthemic at the same time. Considering that Cleaver is known for writing some of the weirdest songs ever, it's impressive that he's equally skilled at writing straightforward songs about regular relationships, as he does here. The dark energy of the band matches the darkness in the lyrics, but even while singing the part that goes, "This will not end well," their singing tells you something different.
Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble continues to evolve with each album. Now 14 people strong, it sounds more like a small orchestra than a regular jazz-oriented group. The group finds fascinating ways to take regular acoustic instruments (including a traditional Japanese mouth organ) and make them sound like and blend with the completely electronic textures generated by the other members. In another new step, Parker used processing to manipulate each piece after recording, which is not at all new for popular music, but is generally not done with jazz groups. The Moment's Energy is another fascinating chapter of this great group's evolution.
Full Blast is Peter Brötzmann's new punk rock group, the most modern-sounding project he's been part part of. Usually, Brötzmann totally overwhelms the drummers he plays with, but in this time Michael Wertmuller is a perfect match, playing heavy metal blasts as if he's being attacked with a loud jackhammer, rounded out by an electric bass player, Marino Pliakas, who winds sinewy riffs around both of them. Full Blast is the group Brötzmann was born to lead.
Sounds a lot like his other albums -- he sticks to the Wu sound pretty closely, which is to be expected when recruiting a who's who of '90s producers. But that's not a bad thing, especially since he got a lot of cool beats from them, from "Sonny's Missing," with its tense keyboard riff, to "Black Mozart" and its metal guitar chords to "Gihad," with its anthemic vocal chorus. He raps mostly about drug dealers, his favorite topic, but with a ferocity that puts him above a lot of other gangstas. A lot of his recent records haven't been that hot, but revisiting his roots seems to do this rapper good.
What Big Black might sound like translated into jazz. This record is total insanity, screaming electronics complemented by almost atonal energy jazz. Finally a project that puts Paul Nilssen-Love's ridiculously powerful drumming to good use. Lasse Marhaug sets his electronics to stun, and Ken Vandermark and Paul Nilssen-Love barely escape with their lives. A soundtrack for a thorough beating.
My Education blend pastoral-sounding violin in with epic rock anthems. Their songs cross pastoral Dirty Three ideas with a more lyrical Mono and turn them into their own dynamic sound. They have a great head for melodies, which range from thrilling rock numbers to more subdued ballads. "Briches Blanket" is a slower, hymnlike number featuring a beautiful slide guitar part and a beautfiul counter melody from the violin, building up into a massive anthemic bridge and then settling down into something sleepier again. "This Old House" is a louder rock number that opens with a wash of ambient sound, supporting a picked melody that's sort of a less minimal Mono, and builds into a quietly beautiful chorus section. A strikingly beautiful record.
Masterful songs written by a songwriter barely out of his teens but steeped in the American folk idioms (bluegrass, ragtime, honky-tonk) of men four times his age. His narratives about the joy and sorrow of family, home and youthful romance match perfectly to his prodigious guitar and piano playing. If he continues to produce this sort of recorded output, Ellis stands poised to join Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver as a Texas country treasure.
Two Baytown teenagers completely duck the Houston rage for rowdy rock music, taking cues instead from cLOUDDEAD, Why?, and other sideways-looking rappers to produce an EP that stands completely on its own. Tracks like "The Atomic Brain" and "Trees" compress the euphoria of youth into streams of adolescent insight, harmonized by beats dipping deeply into some hidden psychedelic well.
The caretakers of Chicago post-rock returned from a four-year recording hiatus with an album that finally taps into the unreconstructed funkiness of their live shows. Acid house, dancehall reggae, and the tropes of unfettered prog pushed playfully against the more introspective elements of Tortoise's palette, inviting them to put down the encyclopedia and shake a leg.
Even more so than their excellent full-length Watersports, this 12" single represents a band picking up on the punk/funk/reggae strands left dangling by PIL and The Pop Group almost 30 years ago. Flipping their shrieking, sauntering "Echonoecho" into the deep dread of dub on the B-side, Mi Ami delight with the prospect of dressing punk's rotting corpse in the threads of entire other worlds of sound.
Representative of an entire stack of 12"s culled in the past year, the strong reggae influence on these tracks (coupled with the utterly crippling wobble of their basslines) anchor at least one facet of dubstep in a healthy dialogue with other realms of Bass Music. No hint of retrofitted Garage or syncretic collusion with House music here, just a patois-tinged come-on and an annihilating low end.

An evening of total exuberance that showcased the formidable power to be harnessed in Kenyan benga and American gospel/R&B.
Despite playing in freezing rain at Austin's Fun Fun Fun Fest, Coalesce proved it possible for hardcore bands to become heavier and more chaotic with age, not less. Guitarist Jes Steiniger was especially mesmerizing, appearing for all the world to be hitting the strings at random yet eliciting riff after riff of near-atonal virtuosity while convulsing and waving his arms like some epileptic seer.
In a year full of high-caliber free improv shows, this trio between Chicago drummer Franky Rosaly and Houston trombonist Dave Dove and saxophonist Jason Jackson distinguished itself not only for the sheer intensity and commitment of the players to exploring all the margins, but the preternatural communication that seemed to exist between the three -- all the more amazing, as they had never performed together before.
New York State's godfathers of noise music made their Texas debut at the Frenetic Theater in November. Mangling two saxophones and a guitar through the sheer hellish miasma of effects pedals and feedback, they pinned the entire theater (including a front row made up entirely of Houston noise scene royalty) to their seats. Witnessing two men in their mid-50s blowing squalls into each others' bells for 20 minutes with a third performing vivisection on his guitar in the background should remove all doubt that one should ever outgrow playing "too loud."
I spent the entire summer watching Little Joe Washington every Tuesday, playing his guitar with every part of his body (and occasionally the furniture), always staying somewhere in the vicinity of an actual tune, while nimbly leading his band from juke-joint jumpers to slow-burn numbers with little more than a stomp of his snakeskin boot. Though he is surely not aware of it, Little Joe serves as the perfect midpoint between the rattlecage roar of Houston noise and the open-hearted ache of the best of Houston blues and folk music, encapsulating my year in music more perfectly than I could have ever hoped.
PRESTON PAYNE (Eater of Psychedelisandwiches):
This has honestly been one of the best years of the decade. Below you'll find some highlights of this year that I consider to be one of the best years of the decade. You may disagree with some of these highlights of the year that I consider to be one of the best years of the decade. My hope is that you will not disagree with any of these highlights of the year that I consider to be one of the best years of the decade. That is soon to be decided though, and it may not be the case. In that case, I hope you are still happy.
When: October 17-18, 2009.
Where: Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, CA.
First Day Highlights: Murs, Passion Pit, Dan Deacon, Brazilian Girls, MSTRKRFT, Girl Talk, MGMT. With the refreshing hip-hop of Murs, the falsetto-y indie dance pop of Passion Pit, the interactive schizophrenic euphoria of Dan Deacon and his posse of keyboardists and drummers, the perkiness/sexiness of Brazilian Girls, island-shaking beats of MSTRKRFT and Girl Talk, and the young psych-stars in MGMT, the first day was quite electronic and dance-y. It was fun.
Second Day Highlights: Sleepy Sun, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, Grizzly Bear, Vetiver, Beirut, The Walkmen, Yo La Tengo, The Decemberists, The Flaming Lips. The second day was a psychedelic masterpiece, and everyone was very verrrrryyyy relaxed until The Flaming Lips started their freak-out session, at which point the island turned into a deranged carnival. Sleepy Sun's riffs spooked the hell out of the dark clouds that initially threatened the day. Eventually, this is what happened.
This album begins with some intergalactic noises that immediately warp you through space-time into the world of Animal Collective's loopy psychedelectroland. It is a good land. There is no boredom there, only hope and laughter. Ingredients: great, deranged Beach Boys' melodies on acid, a plethora of trippy synths, tribal beats, psychedelically placed syncopation, and that sustainable floaty feeling that Animal Collective is always able to achieve with their music. Their sound may change (and here it is definitely more electronic and accessible to newcomers), but this band consistently delivers top notch tunes. Fall Be Kind, their recent EP, followed shortly and is another hit. Definitely sparser, these slower tunes follow in the footsteps of Merriweather Post Pavilion. They could have been B-sides, or maybe it's just their way of sending you off with a party favor. Of note, the song "What Would I Want? Sky" contains the first-ever licensed sample of a Grateful Dead song.
Another floaty album, Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest improves upon their debut and sophomore releases (which were also fantastic and ethereal) in a number of ways. The songs feel more structured and contain more recognizable -- although complex -- melodies. Grizzly Bear is very adept at sustaining atmospherics that invite the listener to dig deeper and inch closer to the intangible beauty in their quiet strumming, soft-loud (but not too loud) tempo changes, and entrancing vocal harmonies -- even when things start to get spooky sounding. This collection of new songs is a roller coaster of musical influences and emotional lows and peaks perfect for listening to while sitting in a chair positioned on a sunny hill in the middle of a desert waiting for others to join you. You will experience total awareness there.
4. Sleepy Sun, Embrace (ATP) (and Sleepy Sun, Live iTunes Session)
This is the debut album from San Francisco heavy psych-rockers Sleepy Sun. Talk about spooky-awesome. Male and female vocals alternate in either heavy-riff, groovy-bass tunes or softer, trippy, folk-tinged melodies and at times create a very haunting effect. The drums beat and the total sound paces in a steady and composed yet threatening manner, the band exploding when they need to and softening when the time is right, as if they were the sun incarnate. The guitar work on Embrace is very impressive. It's not very often we hear people using the guitar as an actual voice on records today, but Sleepy Sun is definitely an exception. These guys put on my favorite concert that I've ever attended, at the Orange Show in the fall of 2009. They were extremely magnetic and really created one of those rare experiences in life when your jaw and eyes are as wide open as possible. I think I was drooling and stuttering, too, but that may have been because my eardrums were delightfully shattered. Every sound this group emits is a shot through the heart of what has come to be considered "rock" as heard on mainstream radio. Sleepy Sun reminds us of the glory days of psychedelic rock and roll and craft a fresh and mystical niche in the genre that is their own. I cannot wait for their next album.
Freak folk, what I consider a subset to indie-rock, has really taken off. Members of the genre Dirty Projectors produce some complex tunes that are not always decipherable, yet expertly crafted. Sound effects are in heavy use, but they don't cloud the crispness of the instruments or vocals. The female backing vocals provide the perfect support to the unique voice of Dave Longstreth, working in tandem to challenge your mind's perception of normality. A very happy album indeed, Bitte Orca contains sounds from '70s psych-rock (of note, some Zeppelin-sounding and gypsy-like guitar work) and meshes them with the signature loopy loops of freak folk, sudden launches into the chorus, offbeat drum syncopation, and male/female harmonized vocals. The guitar work exhibited within is further evidence that solos are not a lost art.
Electronic mastermind Dan Deacon has always delivered schizophrenia-infused listening and dancing material. There must be something about 2009, a year when great artists made more accessible but still groundbreaking and experimental albums that stayed true to their nature. #2, #3, and #5 are also examples thus far. Bromst is Dan Deacon's most accessible release to date, building upon his smash hit Spiderman of the Rings, with more epic-sounding songs similar to "Wham City" that contain catchy repetitive refrains spread over drum buildups and crazy electro freakouts. Yes, his squirrel friend is still around but has toned down how many nuts he eats.
This album is proof that groovy, heavy rock and roll is not dead but is in fact very much alive, if handled by the right hands. Here we have: Josh Homme on vocals and guitar -- chief component, singer, and guitarist of Queens of the Stone Age and Desert Sessions and previous member of Kyuss; Dave Grohl on DRUMS -- drummer on Songs for the Deaf, drummer/organizer of Probot, vocals and guitar for Foo Fighters, drummer for Nirvana; and John Paul Jones on bass -- the bassist for Led Zeppelin. Damn...there is so much landmark history and musical experience bottled up into this new band that really is essentially a Queens of the Stone Age album. Everything came to fruition because of Homme's friendship with Grohl, Homme's jesting idea to contact John Paul Jones, and Grohl's ultimate success in asking JPJ to play bass, as well as mutual respect/gelling between the three artists. This album is not included in the top 10 list because of its star players, though, it's included because it is fucking awesome and packs a punch that will leave you feeling very, very sexy. Just make sure you use that energy wisely...don't do anything illegal.
Alt-psych-pop album of the year for me. These four guys travel cross-country collecting oils from the back of roadside eateries to power their van and their souls. There is so much soul in this album, not in the genre-sense of the word, but in the power the melodies have on your soul. Comparisons to French Kicks and The Walkmen, as far as the overall sound goes, and definitely some hints of psychedelia. The song "Vacationing People" is the perfect start to any embarkation for any quest on this slowly-spinning sphere. All in all, Person to Person is a smile-inducing album, complete with emotional, edgy, and road-ready tunes.
If Robert Plant was a woman who birthed a female baby with father Dan Auerbach, then you would in effect have Erika Wennerstrom, a badass guitarist, singer, and songwriter with an incredible windpipe capable of eye-popping volume and dynamic. Their third album to date, The Mountain is an amazing release for Fat Possum Records, who've signed and put out some of the best and genre-forming blues and blues-rock albums over the decades. Another extremely magnetic band; all musicians are talented, and there's some amazing slide guitar usage. This is another album with a 1970s pure rock and roll feel to it, with maybe some Americana mixed in.
Another electronic pick for 2009, Neon Indian is Alan Palomo and friends out of Austin, TX. Psychic Chasms is recorded as you would have heard it coming from a car tape cassette player in 1987. You probably wouldn't have heard this music, though. One could say it's a sunny mix of Cut Copy, Daft Punk, and MGMT, with outdated synths and laptop beats. An interesting mix of short interludes and fuzzy beat-driven synth tunes, this album is one of the large underground successes of the year. Be sure to check out Alan Palomo's other project VEGA, which replaces the tape recorded effect of the music with the dance floor from 1984.

Let's face it...2009 was pretty insanely incredible. The following are all number 11:

Songs Part Of My Bloodstream Now:
Sleepy Sun, "Sleepy Son (iTunes Live Session)"
Since there are no more pages left on our collective Adam Lambert wall calendars, let's all look back and see what the Top 10 Metal Happenings of 2009 were. At least, according to me.
10) The launch of www.takebackthehorns.com
This Website made its entrance onto the information superhighway this past summer and it bravely tackles an issue that many have ignored. The purpose of this site is to remind people where the \m/ symbol came from and what it stands for. There's nothing more upsetting to a troo metalhead than for them to be watching TV and see someone on American Idol or The Jonas Brothers or someone on the Country Music Awards throw up the hand signal that the honorable Ronnie James Dio had made into metal lore.
None other than Dee Snider is behind the site, and it was his stint (aka "please pay attention to me") on Going Country that he saw John Rich throwing up the horns and knew that this scourge upon our metallic society must be rectified. That, and he would appreciate you paying $20 for a t-shirt. Also check out the gallery of photos of troo metallers and poseurs. The pics are priceless, as are the comments that follow. Hey, it's the least you could do, plus I have yet to make a "we're not going to take it" joke all throughout this.
No, that does not count.
Ozzfest is the festival safe haven for metalheads that one could look forward to each year. Lately, however, the wheels have come off. First, there was the spat between Sharon Osbourne and Iron Maiden, where she and her talentless fat daughter threw eggs at the band and had the sound messed with, much to the dismay of the 18,00 ticket buyers. Then they did a tour where the tickets were free, since the bands weren't paid, and Sharon got a nice chunk of change from various product placements that turned the already ad-heavy show into something out of Minority Report.
The story for the cancelling of this years show was that Ozzy wouldn't be touring until he finished his new album. Curious, since he's played at least a half-dozen times with new guitarist Gus G. The real reason, at least in my opinion, is that Sharon cancelled this year's festivals in the hope that the ill-conceived and horribly executed "Osbournes Variety Show" would take off. Thankfully, it never did, but one thing we've learned over the years is that Sharon Osbourne is more interested in making herself and her talentless, in-rehab-before-they-were-18 kids famous. Since the show flopped, as has everything else they've tried to milk from their father's fame has, at least with no Ozzfest Sharon will not be getting any money from the metal community.
This is the most metal piece of clothing that I've seen that doesn't involve something from the times of King Arthur. It's got a true throwback look; it's a red-sleeved black jersey that features the likeness of UFC fighter Clay Guida if he was somehow cross-pollinated with Iron Maiden icon Eddie. It even features the fighter's name in Maiden lettering. In an extra cool tough, his nickname of "The Carpenter" is written in same font as Killers. Now, having a shirt that takes liberties with a more famous logo is nothing new -- Hell, every alternative band in the '90s did it. Why this one is so good is that it treats the source material with respect and not simply as kitsch. Add in the fact that MMA is rapidly becoming one of the most popular sports and that the corresponding clothing lines themselves have become cultural landmarks. This would've been higher, but Clay lost his fight and he does come out to "The Taste of Ink," by The Used. He should have used Maiden's "Die With Your Boots On"; it fits his fighting style perfectly.
This was the documentary of Iron Maiden's 2008 Somewhere Back in Time tour. The tour was unique in that the band was flown on their own private plane by lead singer Bruce Dickinson, himself a licensed pilot. Take that, John Travolta.
The film was made by Sam Mendes, the same guy that made the tremendous Metal: A Headbanger's Journey. On Flight, he was not on camera, but it maintained the same loose and non-intrusive style. While we're treated to nice profiles of the various band members and do get a glimpse of life of the road, what makes this film special is the highlighting of the power of music throughout the world. It's never more prevalent than when the band is in South America, and you see fans that have waited in line for days and were robbed and brutalized by police just for going to the show. At the end of one show, we see a fan still standing in the arena after most of the audience had left. He's still standing, in reverence of what he saw, and in a moment of pure gratitude, he looks up to the sky and thanks God for what he just witnessed. That scene perfectly represented the unique and unbreakable bond between metal fans and the music.
When legendary bands keep releasing new material, it can be almost disheartening to longtime fans. Usually the new stuff is not even remotely as good as the legendary stuff, and fans start wondering is the band is now just going through the motions -- this is otherwise known as the Paul McCartney theory. With 2006's Christ Illusion being a spotty record at best, the hopes were low for World Painted Blood. Slayer showed, however, that they still have the same intensity and power and twisted evilness that made them what they are. All 11 tracks are nutbusters and could easily fit in the timeline of their early hardcore-influenced stuff. You can search this site and see my full writeup of the album.
If you would've told me 10 years ago that Megadeth would release one of their best records in a decade and no one would buy it, I would've called shenanigans. In reality, however, Endgame came out to rave reviews, and all of those that did buy it fully agreed. Dave Mustaine created a riff-laden album that harkened back to the glory days. His band is a great mixture of youth and experience, with former BLS/White Lion bassist James Lomenzo and new guitar god Chris Broderick joining the lone veteran, drummer Shawn Drover. Endgame was one of the angriest and most pissed-off records of Mustaine's career and quickly made everyone forget about the last couple of suspect releases.
That is, if they heard it. The only reason for the disappointing sales is that fans are fed up with Mustaine's antics. In the past, he has gotten Rotting Christ kicked off a festival because they offended his newly-found Christian beliefs. When he guest-hosted Headbangers Ball on the weekend of Dimebag's death, he used to opportunity to get himself over. He has a knack for still whining about being kicked out of Metallica over 20 years ago and now writers have to agree not to bring it up. This fall, Dave physically threatened a female reporter for bringing Metallica up, even though he was the one that brought it up. Add in the constant right-wing rhetoric that has filled his endless Internet postings, and fans have walked away. The last part is curious, because Megadeth has always had a political slant to them, but political anger from an up-and-coming band and political anger from a millionaire are two separate things. The tour with Slayer could help reach out to many disaffected fans [Ed. Note: Um. Whoops.], but his feud with Slayer's Kerry King may have turned them permanently.
The idea of listening to another two-man metal band seems very unappealing. That band "ideal" seems best suited for The White Stripes or The Dresden Dolls. (Quick aside, why do two-man bands all have a "the" at the beginning?) Anywho, Colorado's Cobalt have made a remarkable piece of art with its release, Gin. They've combined the dark, heavy, frantic sounds of black metal with the jam-band aspects of the better-known dual-person groups. What comes out is a very seductive and frightening, nihilistic mishmash. With tracks averaging seven minutes, Gin allows the listener to be seduced by its madness like a Fulci movie. The extreme vocals may be offputting for some, but it helps to emphasize the power in the music when they're used. When they're not used, it underscores the change in mood and helps to pull you in. In a recent issue of Decibel, one multi-instrumentalist described how Gin is a great driving record. He said that his unit would listen to it while driving their Humvee while on duty in Iraq. A more perfect metaphor for this album could not be found than finding solace in a war zone.
It would've been easy for Mastodon to take the easy way out and release an album of rock radio-friendly songs and cash in on the success of their last two albums. Add in the fact that guitarist Brent Hinds had a nearly debilitating accident, and Crack The Skye had "stinker" written all over it. The Atlanta quartet, however, turned in one of the most creative albums of the year, one that will be one of those releases that people will rediscover years from now. Containing only seven tracks -- only one of them clocking in under five minutes -- the length allows the music to be the showcase along with the lyrical concept revolving around time travel and Russian monk Rasputin. Gone are the screaming vocals, replaced with Hinds' near-breathless style taking most of those duties. They interlace in instrumental passages that take twists and turns that keep the listener wanting more. Skye is the creative masterpiece worthy of the "pants down, one-handed prose" national music writers usually save for Radiohead.
Unlike #3, Lamb of God was coming off a very disappointing release in 2006's Sacrament, and many were wondering if the band was all hype. With the release of Wrath, the band showed that they were for real and will lay waste to al those that oppose them. From start to finish, Wrath is a near-masterpiece. It's brutal and fast and technical and catchy, creating a unique mix that normally does not work in concert with the others. Vocalist Randy Blythe spits anger and venom in every lyric, and it's never more evident than on "Contractor"; the ode to Blackwater Security is such a pissed-off homage that the security firm may want to hire more mercenaries. There's a section after the breakdown in the song that is arguably the heaviest thing ever recorded. If you put this in your CD player, it will ensure that nothing else will ever get listened to for the next month. That and it will increase sales of Icy Hot and heating pads for all the 'banging done to it.
When I first read that there was going to be a movie on '80s metal pioneers Anvil, I assumed that they were really popular in Canada and never broke through the US market. A musical equivalent of Corner Gas, if you will. What we got, though, was one of the most enduring and emotional tales, of two bandmates who have been best friends since high school and now, in their 40s, are still trying to make it. On the movie poster there's a quote from some reviewer that referred to this as a "real-life Spinal Tap." I think that phrase is more of an attempt to be dismissive of the band and their genre, because while there are several unintentionally comedic elements, like playing to a room of five people, the most memorable moments are incredibly emotional and very real. There's a scene in the recoding studio when things are not going well and, after borrowing thousands of dollars from his sister, singer/guitarist Lips Kudlow almost buckled under the pressure; you can see his resolve to continue fight with the his desire to quit. The film is a testament to two things: the guys' never-ending friendship and the fact that even though there have been bumps in the road, sometimes really big bumps, they never gave up.
An unintended side effect of this movie, by the way, is that now there are many upset wives and girlfriends who had significant others that were ready to put down their instruments but are now reinvigorated, full of vigor and desire, thanks to Anvil. That fact alone is more metal than '87 Hetfield.
Top 10 (in no particular order):
Honestly, the other hip hop albums on this list are better; however, The Warm Up has managed to keep itself in my music rotation. Maybe it's the covers of Talib Kweli's "Just to Get By" and Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents," or maybe it's the fact the album is strangely easy to listen to. Whatever the case, he has my attention, and I'm looking forward to his first real album.
A monumental album from the highly influential Seattle quartet. The album still sounds fresh and can differentiate itself from almost any other CD, despite being over 15 years old.
Mos Def finally came through and produced an album worthy to succeed Black on Both Sides. Rap fans have waited far too long for this album and are well rewarded for their patience.
Tons of talent from top to bottom produced a rock/rap collaboration that actually works. It's a shame that we had to suffer through Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashups and Papa Roach in order for someone to actually think about how to best blend the two genres of music.
One of the best debut albums I've ever heard. It's a shame that artists like the overexposed Drake and incredibly annoying Asher Roth get more play time than Fashawn. It's only a matter of time, however, before Fashawn's lyrical superiority shines through, and he takes his place as one of the truly excellent emcees.
A huge departure from Vernon's usual Bon Iver sound, Volcano Choir hauntingly beautiful. If you're patient enough and calm enough to endure the slow pacing, you'll be rewarded. Songs like "Still" and "Island, IS" are enough to put this album on my top 10.
Lo-fi goodness minus the pretention. Gone from the lo-fi sound is the typical strung-out, fake baritone singer and the annoyingly scrappy guitar. In their place are beautiful vocal harmonies and wonderfully crafted melodies.
Although I'm not the biggest Lips fan, I found this album hugely impressive and a real creative masterpiece. You almost feel like you understand what they were trying to do in Embryonic, but when it's all done, you're not quite sure what you've heard. All you know is that you want to hear it again.
What's with all these rereleases? Albums like For Your Special Sweetheart and Diary are rereleased, reminding us of how rock used to sound before it became a bit too gutless and a bit too soft.
The final album from the much loved and much respected UGK. They help put Houston on the map, and that alone warrants a place on my list. It's also a pretty damn good album, as well.

Honorable Mention:
Yes, it came out in 2008, but it's managed to stay in my playlist. "Blue Ridge Mountain" is just one of those songs I can't seem to shake.
They finally got it through their 'fros to actually edit and think about what they're playing rather than just record and master whatever they come up with. It's tighter and more organized, and thus their most polished album since Deloused in the Comatorium.
A supergroup that isn't filled with a bunch of 1980s hair metal hacks. It really does sound like a blend of Led Zeppelin, Foo Fighters, and Queens of the Stone Age, but there's not much to dislike about that combination.