Top Albums of 2009
1. Muse- The Resistance
With their breakthrough 2006 hit Black Holes and Revelations it appeared that Muse had also hit their apex with grandiose music making. They’ve somehow managed to eclipse their bombast with 2009’s mighty and triumphant The Resistance. As epic in scope as anything Queen has attempted. Front man Matt Bellamy howls and croons with the hubris and majesty of Freddie Mercury while adding in Brian May champion-worthy guitar solos. Beyond the big orchestral flourishes and fist-pumping choruses are complex multi-part arrangements that suggest an ode to Rush as well. The Resistance plays more like a futuristic sci-fi thriller soundtrack that’s incredibly gripping and visceral. Muse’s gargantuan visionary concepts seem to have no bounds, they keep topping themselves with each release.
Key Tracks: Uprising, Resistance, Undisclosed Desires, United States of Eurasia, Unnatural Selection
2. Bruce Springsteen- Working on a Dream
Bruce goes mining through his past sounds and has struck gold once again. On Working on a Dream Springsteen follows his pop sensibilities in both songwriting and song-craft. The album opens with the epic gunslinger ballad “Outlaw Pete”. At eight minutes long it’s one of the longest songs Springsteen’s ever written and it ranks right up with his best monumentally lengthy tunes. Bruce and the E Street Band let the hatches fly off with the surging optimism with “My Lucky Day”. Some of Bruce’s songs are so great musically you can get the scenery without even hearing the lyrics and this is the case here. There is the sunrise of hope as Roy Bittan’s vibrant bouncing piano gives way to Bruce who’s singing for miles and miles. It’s classic ‘glory days’ E Street Band sound. The song is massive with rich harmonies from Bruce and Steven Van Zandt and just when you need it, as if on cue, Clarence Clemons taps the nerve with a burst of his signature saxophone howl. The title track follows with lush layers of guitar that cool from the burst of “Lucky Day” to a confident stroll down Main Street. Springsteen rolls up his sleeves and presents a reaffirmation of the positive outlook flooding the album “Good Eye” is a gritty blues rocker, which may be the most surprising on the album. It’s the first time on record Bruce has gone for a straight-ahead blues track with a standard 12-bar blues format. Along with its bluesy roots romp it has the rough weathered distortion vocals of Springsteen causing him to sound more like Buddy Guy than Orbison. The original album closer is the most fragile with “The Last Carnival”. The track is used as a moving tribute to fallen comrade ‘Phantom’ Dan Federici, the prominent organist and original member of the E Street Band who had been playing with Bruce for nearly 40 years, died after losing his lengthy battle with melanoma in 2008. Like they do better than any other act, Bruce and the E Street Band pulled together and rose above the tragedy of Federici, strong as ever. The bonus track is well worth the wait entitled “The Wrestler” taken from the Darren Aronofsky film. It seems like when directors ask Bruce to pen a great tune for their movies, he does so effortlessly. The poetry pours from Springsteen like the blood spilled by protagonist Mickey Rourke in the movie who is a pro wrestler past his prime, broken down by disintegrating family relationships, coupled with steroid and drug abuse trying to make a living. The beautiful track consists of only Bruce on acoustic guitar accompanied by piano (also played by Springsteen himself) where he unveils some of his most heartbreaking lyrics like, “I always leave with less than I had before/ Then you’ve seen me/ Bet I can make you smile when the blood it hits floor./ Tell me friend can you ask for anything more?” The broke and beaten protagonist declares that his only faith left is, “In the broken bones and bruises I display.” The track is a truly devastating masterpiece of self-defeating fashion. Like so many of Springsteen’s lost protagonists in his musical canon, this one stands among his best. An elegant finale to Springsteen’s fantastic opus.
Key Tracks: Outlaw Pete, My Lucky Day, Working on a Dream, This Life, The Last Carnival, The Wrestler
3. Monsters of Folk- Monsters of Folk
If there was anything close to the Traveling Wilburys super group for modern times, it would be Monsters of Folk. Alternative/indie rock all-stars Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward (She & Him), and Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) combine their song crafting talents with along with multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis (Also from Bright Eyes) to make a modern day mash-up classic. An interesting note is the word “folk” in the band’s name. In all actuality, some of the music contained on the album is just about as far away from traditional folk as possible. The opening track “Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)” brings gospel into the 21st century with its trip-hop styling as James, Ward, and Oberst take turns on an open letter to the Lord. “Temazcal” bounces along as if gravity is fleeting with its lunar landscape trotting pace as James’ barnyard owl falsetto sets the back drop. It also showcases that Oberst is one of the greatest songwriters breathing with killer lines like, “Love we made at gunpoint wasn’t love at all.” “Baby Boomer” displays Ward superbly yet subtly stating the disenfranchised sentiments of a generation with lines like, “We don’t agree about September, but we agree on Vietnam.” “Slow Down Jo” is another magnificent track about burning a candle at both ends too fast in the twilight of one’s youth. M.O.F. are in their finest moment however with James’ closer “His Master’s Voice”. Hell it’d have to be a lullaby if James can break down religious deities into adolescence with a line like, “Mohammed rolling dice with Christ at twilight.” With the song being sung so angelically it’s hard to tell whether Mohammed and Christ are on a playground or in the skies above deciding our fates.
Key Tracks: Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.), Temazcal, Baby Boomer, Slow Down Jo, The Sandman the Brakeman and Me, His Master’s Voice
4. Wilco- Wilco (The Album)
It’s fitting that Wilco named their seventh studio album Wilco (The Album). The record serves as a snapshot of the flavors from their previous six. Whether it be the indie rock/Alternative country conglomerates of their early days, the wild turn of the century electronic experimentation, the fuzzed-out barnstorming Crazy Horse guitar attack, or the tuneful sunrise appropriated songs of their latter recordings. All of the little flourishes and brush strokes create a thriving amalgamation of beautiful sonic portraits Wilco painted on their previous albums. It’s easy to get swept up in the tongue and cheek nature of the album’s lead-off track called, what else? “Wilco (The song)”. As the song progresses you become more aware that the track is actually really good. Over a 60’s garage rock groove, it serves as Wilco’s call-to-arms to their legions of fans. Front man Jeff Tweedy gives you a “Sonic shoulder” to cry on as he sings, “Are you under the impression/ This isn’t your life?/ Do you dabble in depression?/ Is someone twisting a knife in your back?/ Are you being attacked?/ Oh, this is a fact that you need to know/ Oh, Wilco… Wilco… Wilco will love you baby.” “One Wing” is a beautiful forlorn sonic sunset ballad with haunting guitar blurb echoes as Tweedy laments, “One wing will never ever fly, dear/ Neither yours nor mine, I fear/ We can only wave goodbye” before giving way to an outro of guitar pyrotechnics from Nels Cline. “Bull Black Nova” is the cleverly disguised murder ballad dressed in the electronics similar to tunes off Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born. Like the spiders from “Kidsmoke”, it creeps across the midnight landscape as Tweedy spins the dark narrative of his freshly murdered girlfriend at his hands now with the dilemma of blood covering everything. There’s plenty more crackling sparking guitar freak outs from the Wilco camp as well in there. Perhaps the most accessible track on the record “I’ll Fight”. If the radio airwaves had the room or the desire to prominently play Wilco like they deserve, this wouldn’t be too bad of a place to start. Whether it’s singing to a solemn lover reaching out to them in the deepest dark waters, or mirroring “Wilco (The Song)” as a vow to their fans, it’s an enduring tale of devotion as Tweedy sings, “I will go, I will go, I will go/ Into the war’s waters, I will wade/ And I will know without remorse/ Or regret the fairness of our trade.” The final track “Everlasting Everything” is yet another tale of the endurance of love similar to the closer of Sky Blue Sky “On and On and On”. A fitting coda of a band continuing to endure and soldier ahead.
Key Tracks: Wilco (The Song), One Wing, Bull Black Nova, You Never Know, I’ll Fight
5. U2- No Line on the Horizon
Think of this as U2’s Achtung Baby. All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb were great albums that didn’t really challenge the band to explore new territories. Bono had stated that the two previous had been U2 “Reapplying as the greatest rock band in the world status.” No Line on the Horizon blends the classic celestial reach of their previous blueprints with new sonic terrain. U2 come down from their heavenly perches and pursue arenas of electronica, Indian, and gospel music to name a few. U2 haven’t been strangers to beginning albums in fantastic trilogies of songs. U2 burst out of the sea’s swell fists and hearts first with the marching title track. There’s the bombast massive thrust of “Magnificent” that has the classic U2 chiming as The Edge paints the canvas with a sustained note solo sunset solo. Then there’s their stop-the-clocks tune in “Moment of Surrender”. It’s a pulsating epic that’s arguably their most heart-wrenching ballad since “One”. Bono’s operatic delivery makes lines like “Even on our wedding day/ We set ourselves on fire.” seem that much more devastating and beautiful all at once. “Get on Your Boots” makes you envision busting down the door to an insurgents’ base only to find a Discotheque with neon camouflage with soldier firing lasers out of their guns. Bono stated that some of the songs on the album could even be seen as hymns for the future as is the case with two of their subdued numbers in “White as Snow” and “Cedars of Lebanon”. As if being recited from a future U2 hymnal itself, Bono and crew aim for transcendence with their gospel songs for a new century. Always one to twist the screw, Bono closes the album with “Lebanon” with the lines, “Choose your enemies carefully ‘cos they will define you/ Make them interesting ‘cos in some ways they will mind you/ They’re not there in the beginning but when your story ends/ Gonna last with you longer than your friends.”
Key Tracks: No Line on the Horizon, Magnificent, Moment of Surrender, Breathe, Cedars of Lebanon
6. Bob Dylan- Together Through Life
“Some people they tell me I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice.” Dylan sings on the track “I Feel A Change Comin’ On” off his latest album Together Through Life. A line that couldn’t be more appropriate for Dylan’s voice these days. His once nasally croon has given way to a ravaged tobacco scarred rocks and gravel bark that sounds like it has been receding further into the pits of hell for the past two decades now. Dylan’s venomous growl however has suited his recent albums and recordings well. It certainly hasn’t diminished his ever brimming brilliance and genius that has percolated throughout his last three studio albums Time Out Of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times as well as his latest fantastic bootleg collection Tell Tale Signs. Dylan is in the midst of his third or fourth career renaissance now. He’s been on an improbable, some would say impossible creative roll for the past 12 years now, and Together Through Life suggests that he isn’t letting the foot off that pedal in the foreseeable future. The main difference this record has from his last two though is the addition of the accordion played by Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. Played on every song, it feels right at home with Dylan and the rest of his band. The addition of the accordion gives the whole album a distinct feel that sounds like Dylan and company strolled down South of the border to a Tequila parlor in Juárez and set up shop as the bar’s band for the night. Nowhere is this more prevalent than on the fiery samba opener for the record “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’”. A centerpiece of the album is the decidedly breezy “If You Ever Go to Houston”. A beautiful catchy waltz of accordion sets the backdrop as Dylan follows his muse through the South, specifically the cities of Texas. Dylan almost seems jubilant in the album’s closer “It’s All Good” with his defiant rasp as he kicks into the roadhouse romp singing, “Throw on the dust, pile on the dust!” From there, Dylan’s world, like so many others of his as we know them is once again unraveling rapidly. Just as sure as “Big politicians tellin’ lies/ Restaurant kitchen all full of flies” it’s also a fact that “Wives are leaving their husbands, they’re beginnin’ to roam/ They leave the party, and they never get home.” In a land where “A teacup of water is enough to drown,” Dylan seems to bask and revel in the turbulence even letting out maniacal cackles under his breath as a “Cold blooded killer” stalks the town. Many would have predicted Bob was in the twilight of his career over twenty years ago, but with the recent surge of incredible material, the now 68 year-old road worn nomadic bard still has the sand to keep up with and topple competition to his perch. It’s hard to say when this old drifter will finally slow down, but for the moment he still has some stories to tell and tricks up his sleeve.
Key Tracks: Beyond Here Lies Nothin’, My Wife’s Home Town, If You Ever Go to Houston, Jolene, It’s All Good
7. Wolfmother- Cosmic Egg
After their superb 2006 debut, Wolfmother imploded before they even got started and front man Andrew Stockdale’s visions of riding a wave to Valhalla looked to be dead in the water. A few years later however, Stockdale has kept the band name and found an entirely new crew to back him. Their sophomore effort proves that Stockdale was the brainchild of Wolfmother all along. Continuing to sound like a band swept out of time by the mighty hands of the (thunder) Gods, Wolfmother would’ve fit in much more comfortably with their proto hard rock brethren of the early 70’s. Standing arm in arm with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin would’ve seemed to have suited them better. Instead we are lucky enough to have them now at their dawn. Their new album Cosmic Egg blends the seismic riffs of Sabbath with the feral howling of Zeppelin in perfect harmony. There’s the Sabbath-like opener “California Queen” that veers with ferocious tempo changes. No more is there immediacy felt than on the title track with its venomous gallop, Wolfmother seem like Rock and Roll pirates or marauders coming to pillage and set fire to the empires of the Nickelbacks of the world, gunning them down in cold blood as they ascend the charts. “Cosmonaut” has the ominous opening rumble of The Who’s “I Can See for Miles” before giving way to Stockdale’s banshee worthy wail. Even the ballads have enough meaty riffs to make Chef Boyardee cream his smock, there’s nowhere to hide! This album will make you want to throw on your favorite denim jacket, grab your favorite bong, climb the nearest water tower in your town and blasting these tunes all the way to Valhalla!
Key Tracks: California Queen, Sundial, In the Morning, Cosmic Egg, Cosmonaut, Pilgrim
8. Green Day- 21st Century Breakdown
Green Day reached stratospheric levels of sophistication that they themselves might not have even though possible on their 2004 opus American Idiot. No longer were they just the loveable punk outcast slackers behind albums like Kerplunk or Dookie. They had larger stake invested in their future, lashing out at the inadequacies of the Bush administration and a plausible desolate America. It was a Rock opera of sorts that aimed high towards Rock operas ala The Who’s Tommy or Quadrophenia. So when it came time to create a follow up to Idiot in similar vein, the expectations were stacked against them. Getting one Rock opera over with a mainstream audience in music these days is hard enough; two would be nearly unheard of. Green Day annihilated expectations once more with 21st Century Breakdown. It could easily be mistaken as a direct sequel to Idiot but with an even more grandiose spectrum. The narratives follow two young lovers as they try to make it through an America tilted on edge. With times troublesome and chaotic, the march is towards the future and not looking back. Many Rock operas have failed in the past because they get bogged down in their own complexities and the songs sink, unable to float on their own. This is not the cast with 21st as each album cut has the ability to stand on its own while weaving their own individual fibers into album’s core as a whole. The album’s title track is stocked full of anthemic heroics as the multi-part track begins “Born into Nixon, I was raised in hell” as singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s narrative teeters between himself and America’s as a whole till the conclusion in all Queen pomp and circumstance fallout glory as he encourages the nation, “Oh Dream, America Dream/ I can’t even sleep/ From the light’s early dawn. / Oh Scream, America scream/Believe what you see/ From heroes and cons?” “Know Your Enemy” showcases Green Day still has the ability rev up to their speed freak punk when needed while songs like “¡Viva La Gloria!” and “Before the Lobotomy” show Green Day’s musical maturity able to effortlessly blend their new grandiose virtues with their adolescent ferocity that still suits them as well. The album continues its balancing act with songs like “East Jesus Nowhere” which is the heaviest the band has ever sounded with its militant romp, with lucid the “Restless Heart Syndrome” sounding like a nugget John Lennon left off one of his solo albums. “21 Guns” is perhaps the most epic of all tunes on the album and shows how far Green Day has exploded beyond their wildest dreams. The future looks upward and outward for the once tight knit punk outfit.
Key Tracks: 21st Century Breakdown, ¡Viva La Gloria!, Before the Lobotomy, East Jesus Nowhere, Restless Heart Syndrome, 21 Guns
9. Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The French band Phoenix exploded onto the international scene in 2009 with their near uncategorized Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. You can be the most rock-steady person on the planet, and you’ll be helpless under Phoenix’s power on this album as they’ve made one of the catchiest albums in years. With its fusion of pulsating rhythms, revving guitars and electronic backdrops it’s hard to even get past the first three irresistible tracks on the record. “Lisztomania” gets the LP dance party started and toe-taps into “1901”. A song that really put the band on the map used in several TV shows and even a Cadillac commercial! Besides that it’s actually a great song with its fuzzed out guitars a bopping drum propulsion. “Fences” dresses up in all its dance floor glide appeal. The song feels as though you’re on an escalator through the clouds as front man Thomas Mars serenades you into syrupy fluorescent coma. A much welcomed coma! The instrumental “Love like a Sunset pt. I” sounds like a winding subterranean ride before emerging to take flight into orbit on a voyage to the sun in “… pt. II” “Lasso” has the band careening all over a turnpike with pummeling beats while “Countdown” showcases Phoenix putting on their best arena-ready masks. Phoenix has been around for awhile, for most people it probably seems like this is their debut. If that’s the case, the verdict is still the same; this band is just getting started.
Key Tracks: Lisztomania, 1901, Fences, Lasso, Countdown
10. Alberta Cross- Broken Side of Time
Alberta Cross may have more of an arena-friendly sound than they’d like to admit to. On their debut LP Broken Side of Time, Alberta Cross have some of the heavy churning crunch of what populates “hard rock” radio stations. What sets them apart is front man Petter Ericson Stake’s quavering falsetto at times reminiscent of early Neil Young as well as his careful ability as a wordsmith. When the album’s opener “Song 3Three Blues” hits his voice sounds so vulnerable that you’d swear it was going to crack and shatter like porcelain. However as the album rolls on, his voice seems to gain confidence as the band’s sound also opens its heart to the biggest arenas with the furthest seats from the stage in songs like “ATX” and “Taking Control”. The latter sounding like something My Morning Jacket wishes they hadn’t left off their one of their albums. “Old Man Chicago” showcases the band’s tavern-side charm before moving to the menacing title track with its pummeling guitars and drums before giving way to the delicate chorus as Stake croons, “Wound yourself, we come out of the war/ You know we grew up, in a broken side of time.” The album has its anthemic moments in other areas such as “Leave Us and Forgive Us” which can even teeter at times towards the U2 side of the scale before giving way to the beautifully haunted, “Ghost of the City Life”. A fragile lamentable howl of Stake’s combined with a gorgeous pedal steel guitar make for an alluring album closer that may stand out even more so than it’s anthemic numbers because of its intimacy. If they do as good of a job mixing reaching for the rafters and our hearts as this in the future, there’s no limit to what they may accomplish.
Key Tracks: Song 3Three Blues, Taking Control, Old Man Chicago, Ghost of the City Life
11. Dawes- North Hills
Dawes seems like a band misplaced in time. Growing up in North Hills, California it’s no surprise that the band set out to make music that sounded like it came from the neighboring musically historical Laurel Canyon several decades ago(Stomping grounds where legends like Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young all made career breakthroughs). The result was an overwhelming success with an album aptly entitled, North Hills. The opening track “That Western Skyline” could easily be an album cut from The Band with its creaking lovelorn countryside journey across their visible Americana. Elements of Crosby, Stills, & Nash can be heard with rich harmonies all over the record. Dawes however really hit their stride with a possible glimpse of their bright future with the anthemic “When My Time Comes”. Singer/Songwriter Taylor Goldsmith proves to be a worthy wordsmith as well with lines like, “So I pointed my fingers, and shouted few quotes I knew/ As if something that’s written should be taken as true/ But every path I have taken and conclusion I drew/ Would put truth back under the knife.” With their beautiful blend of country and folk this may just be their launch pad.
Key Tracks: That Western Skyline, When My Time Comes, God Rest My Soul, Take Me Out Of the City