#11. Yeah Yeahs Yeahs — It’s Blitz!
Both It’s Blitz! and my #10 pick below are similar in that their creators left behind their trademark buzzsaw guitar sound in favor of one that’s smoother, sleeker, more sophisticated. The aural equivalent of exchanging a leather jacket for a silk suit. The rough edges have been sanded away, and there’s more breathing room to explore the possibilities of the voice. There seems to be no escape from the throbbing synthetic influence of dance music in 2009, but if the electronic pulse of the discotheque is wielded with the amount of taste and confidence heard on It’s Blitz!, there’s no reason even the most Luddite classic-rock purist shouldn’t love it.
#10. Julian Casablancas — Phrazes For The Young
Strokes frontman Casablancas (mostly) leaves behind the heavily-processed sneer that was the voice of his former band in favor of a more open, natural singing style. The strength of the melodies and the complexity of the arrangements — all by Casablancas himself — tips us off as to who the driving wheel of the Strokes’ songwriting really was. Other band members’ solo albums are certainly pleasant enough, but don’t give many hints of the powerhouse talent on display here. Much ink has been spilled (as with It’s Blitz!) over the use of synthesizers in place of guitars, and its Tokyo nightclub vibe, but rest assured Casablancas does vary up the styles and our friend the guitar is still very much in evidence. It’s not as good as I hope the next Strokes album will be (this fall, maybe? please?), but it’ll do for now.
#9. M. Ward — Hold Time
Some fine, fine music has been made by just a guy or girl with a guitar. But what can be captivating at a coffeehouse or camp-out, or on a spunky debut album can begin to sound dull and repetitive over the course of several albums. Most recording artists know this, and by their third or fourth album, have begun to hang a little production flesh on their folk troubador bones. Hold Time is a sterling example. Ward’s already-strong songwriting is carried even higher by a funky, retro production style that’s part Pet Sounds, part T. Rex. And guest appearances from Ward’s “She & Him” partner Zooey Deschanel, Lucinda Williams, and Grandaddy‘s Jason Lytle are icing on the cake.
#8. Deer Tick — Born On Flag Day
It’s not a very original statement to say that what passes for country music these days isn’t really country — it’s braindead, glossy pop, with a fiddle thrown in as an afterthought — so I’ll just acknowledge the truth of the statement and move on. If you want the real deal, you have to dig deeper. As hacky Nashville producers and song-pluggers began slowly killing mainstream country music over thirty years ago, a disenchanted musical response has always been bubbling angrily away, from the “outlaw” movement of the 70’s, through cowpunk bands like Jason & The Scorchers in the 80’s, to the earnest alt-country acts of the 90’s. In the 00’s, shitty Nashville country is more prevalent than ever, but the disgruntled, reactionary response by artists who know what true, soulful country should sound like is getting harder and harder to find.
The best country album this year was made by a band called Deer Tick from Providence, Rhode Island, which is kind of sad. It proves that the Deep South — the region that gave birth to every genre of music that I care about — is now almost completely culturally bankrupt. Deer Tick’s sound hearkens back to a time when that wasn’t the case. When they play stright country, it’s right from the Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell style book. When they play rock, it’s Chuck Berry’s chugging, countrified R&B they use as their template. (“Straight Into A Storm” could be a lost Berry B-side.) A touch of folk introspection rounds out the package.
#7. Dan Auerbach — Keep It Hid
That the solo album of one-half of The Black Keys sounds pretty much like The Black Keys is no surprise. Nor is it a surprise how good it is, as The Black Keys’ brand of gritty, lo-fi blues has been a staple on my playlists since their debut four albums and most of a decade ago. The main difference is Auerbach’s bluesy moans and reverb-drenched guitar are stripped of bandmate Patrick Carnahan’s clattering garage-band drumming, and his tentative attempts to strecth out (the excellent acoustic opener “Trouble Weighs A Ton,” for example) are given the necessary space.
#6. Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit — Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
Three brilliant but moody songwriter-guitarists in The Drive-By Truckers was one too many, so Isbell was cashiered after a five-year stint, and immediately put out his impressive first solo record, Sirens Of The Ditch, which earned a spot on the Holy Bee’s 2007 list. With a new backing band on board, Isbell continues to hone his fiery bar-room sound and continues to develop as a lyricist. Isbell’s songs consist mainly of finely-drawn character studies or drown-my-sorrows honky tonk weepers, sometimes with a subtle undercurrent of political or social conscience. All of which are hallmarks of the best Drive-By Truckers material, by the way, but Isbell and the mighty 400 are doing it almost completely below the radar.
#5. The Avett Brothers — I And Love And You
Famous for their raucous live shows featuring fleet fingerpicking and a slew of rural-music influences (folk, bluegrass, country) that informed their style but never defined it, The Avett Brothers throw us a slight curve by creating an album of mellow (if sometimes spooky or anguished) piano ballads. They have not abandoned their stringed instruments — far from it. Acoustic guitar, banjo, and cello/violin provide the frills and flourishes, but keyboards are the melodic bedrock here. If Elton John had been born in the piney hills of Carolina instead of somewhere in England, he might have sounded something like this.
#4. Pink Mountaintops — Outside Love
Sister group to the harder-edged Black Mountain (represented on the 2008 list), Pink Mountaintps is the more experimental of the two Canadian collectives headed by Stephen McBean. I generally like a firm footing in my music, and am suspicious of a band trying to coast too far on atmospherics, but Pink Mountaintops’ ponderous, echoing, fuzzed-out sound is indeed all about atmosphere. However, it has such keenly-felt yearning (especially in the heartbreakers “While We Were Dreaming” and “And I Thank You”) in the vocals — delivered by McBean & friends in clusters of two or three, or in Wall of Sound choral unison — that its sandal-gazing self-indulgence is forgiven and the album ends up charming and captivating.
#3. The Dead Weather — Horehound
Another Jack White side project — alongside The Raconteurs — and another winner. White is not the main voice here, however, turning over the majority of the vocal chores to Alison Mosshart of The Kills. If The White Stripes bring a taste of noisy dissonance to standard blues forms, The Dead Weather deconstruct the formula even more. Horehound is a cacaphony of buzzes, drones, and howls, created by Mosshart’s feral vocals, Dean Fertita’s primitive-sounding organ, and White’s drumkit bashing. It seems on the verge of spiraling into a complete noise-rock clusterfuck, but clings to a grim level of listenability with the tenacity of a gutter-rat, its traditionalist heart beating strong under all the scuzz.
#2. Franz Ferdinand — Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Franz’s first album was a “typical” buzz-band debut — about four hot-shit singles and some pretty good filler. Their second album also followed the usual pattern — written and recorded too soon after the smash debut, and desperately attempting to force-grow some artistic development and sonic expansion. This can result in the dreaded “sophomore slump,” but in Franz’s case, it worked, and the second album was even better than the first.
Reputation firmly established, Franz Ferdinand took their sweet time with their third album. Tonight can be heard as a loose concept album chronicling a Saturday night in the life of a typical British lad: going to a Franz Ferdinand concert (hence the album title, and a trying-to-sound-like-ourselves cheeky rewrite of their biggest hit “Take Me Out” entitled “No You Girls”), meeting and becoming infatuated with a girl, going to an after-hours dance club (represented by the hypnotic techno throb of the eight-minute “Lucid Dreams”), and parting ways with the girl as the sun rises. Or it can be heard as simply a great pop album, with catchy choruses, dashes of electronica, and cool percussion, including exuberant cymbal crashes in just the right places.
#1. The Black Crowes — Before The Frost…Until The Freeze
I grow tired of defending The Black Crowes, mostly because their detractors are so often correct. They hold a special place for me because of the fierceness of their Stones/Faces-influenced first two albums. What of it? Some bands coast for decades on the strength of one album, releasing nothing but half-baked shit forever after (*cough*Violent Femmes*cough*), yet their fans are not mocked and derided the way Crowes fans are outside of the hippie/jam-band community. So yes, the Crowes spent most of the 90’s riding the beads ‘n’ beards pothead circuit, putting out a series of increasingly incoherent and mediocre albums, and then hanging it up in 2002 for a hiatus during which they were not really missed. But when they re-emerged in 2008, they were a different — much better — band.
Different, certainly, from the young gunslingers of their first two albums, but aging has suited them. Age has deepened their grasp of fundamental blues and R&B motifs, which they seemed to forget during the worst of their wretched jam-band era. Age has polished their songwriting, and most of all, age has improved their playing. I mean, these guys play well. It’s not just a few chords and a rack of effects pedals that seems to pass for guitar-playing these days (yes, by some on this very list.) Long-time guitarist Rich Robinson is joined by new guitarist Luther Dickinson, who also plays with the North Mississippi Allstars, and together they form a team whose prowess lies not just in flashy soloing — though they can certainly do that — but in perfect rhythm and feel. “Body music” as it is called by Crowes hero Keith Richards.
Recorded live (with most of the crowd noise edited out, a la Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps) at Levon Helm’s “Midnight Ramble” barn in upstate New York, the Crowes’ already formidable six-man lineup is augmented by an additional percussionist and a banjo/fiddle/pedal steel specialist in a grand display of instrumental virtuosity.
There were two versions of this set released: a standard length album (Before The Frost) and an expanded double-length with a different running order (Before The Frost…Until The Freeze). The extra tracks are for the most part quieter and quirkier, leaning more toward country-folk than blues-rock. This #1 ranking would apply to either one, but I prefer the more experimental longer version, which is also the only one available on vinyl. I don’t know how long the band can continue at this level, but my faith in them has been somewhat restored.