Deep sound nine

A quick look back at the year in music, 2009

Hopefully, by the time you read this, you’ll be finished with all your holiday shopping. If you need last-minute gift ideas for someone who likes music, you might find a few here. This is as much a gift guide as a year in music wrap-up. It was a great year for music—much better than last year—both locally and nationally. Much of the big music news was in reissues. The Beatles remasters topped a lot of Christmas wish lists, and there were also very cool Nirvana, Neil Young and Nick Cave reissues. And those are just the coolest reissues beginning with the letter N. (And if you think that Neil Young should be filed under Y, then you’re still living in the 20th century—iTunes files him under N, so should we.)

There was a lot of good new music that came out this year as well. I’m going to count down my 10 favorite albums of the year, and then give some shout-outs to a few top-notch local releases.

The top 10 albums of 2009.

These are the 10 best new albums I’ve heard this year. Bear in mind these are just my current personal favorites, and there’s no doubt I’ll hear some other great 2009 releases in the next year or two—stuff that should be on this list. You can never hear it all, and I’m sure that many readers have favorites that aren’t here. But I’m pretty obsessive about music, so I don’t feel like this list is under-researched. If nothing else, just consider this a recommended listening guide from your friendly neighborhood music nerd.

10. Polvo: In Prism

This was an especially good year for fans of epic guitars. Dinosaur Jr., Built to Spill and Mission of Burma all put out excellent releases. And, like I mentioned earlier, foot-stomping guitar maestro Neil Young put out a ton of stuff, including a gargantuan vault box set called Archives, Vol. 1. But In Prism might’ve been the new guitar wizardry album I cranked most often this year.

9. Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs

This album, like the album to follow on this list, is by a band I’ve been deeply devoted to since my mid-teens. It’s hard to be objective about a band that cracked holes in your skull when you were 17. Yo La Tengo has been putting out great records since I was still wearing short pants. So does this new record offer anything new? It’s still the classic Yo La Tengo mix of fuzzy pop and deep-sea shoegaze, but there’s a strong soul influence in many of the best songs—“If It’s True” borrows liberally from the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)”—a previously subtle influence brought to the forefront.

8. Sonic Youth: The Eternal

The key to a good Sonic Youth record is when the band finds the right balance between cool sounds and well-crafted songs. The albums that focus on exploring the outer limits of noise don’t usually need to be heard more than once (see the largely unlistenable Goodbye 20th Century), and some of the albums with more commercial songs are fairly mediocre (see the mostly boring Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star). This album comes correct: good songs with crunchy guitars that rock.

7. Sunn O))): Monoliths & Dimensions

It’s just pronounced “Sun.” The “O)))” is silent, which is good because if it were meant to be pronounced it would probably be some sort of ridiculously heavy drone. That’s what these guys specialize in: ridiculously heavy drones—long, low, distorted guitar tones—accompanied, on this album anyway, by a surprising diversity of sounds and textures: chiming bells, throat singing, trombone fanfares and a women’s choir. The overall effect on the listener is a sort of religious trance. I listened to this record a couple of weeks ago while walking to work on one of those foggy mornings after a heavy snow dump. It was like traveling back in time to some pagan wilderness. This album achieves, to paraphrase Woody Allen, total heaviosity.

6. Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3

“Empire State of Mind” was the closest thing this year had to a “Hey Ya!” or “Crazy” or “SexyBack,” a totally ubiquitous pop song that still sounds good even after hearing it a thousand times in restaurants, bars, and coming from passing cars. The rest of the album is pretty damned good, too.

5. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest

This is like some great lost Beach Boys album circa 1968, but with meticulously detailed 21st century production. It’s psychedelic chamber pop of the highest order, with soaring choirboy harmonies and arrangements as polished and accessible as they are weird and jaw-dropping.

4. Death: For the Whole World to See

This isn’t a record by the influential metal band with the same name. It’s a potent blast of mid 1970s Detroit proto-punk. It was recorded in 1975 but wasn’t released until this year. It’s ragged but precise, and great fun if you like garage rock. Jack White is among the voices singing this record’s praises.

3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!

It’s a little more synthesizer-heavy and dance floor-oriented than previous Yeah Yeah Yeahs records, but the band uses dancey post-punk to explore a surprising range of emotions, from the body-moving ecstasy of “Heads Will Roll” to the delicate nostalgia of “Skeletons.” Karen O has always been an exciting frontwoman, but she’s lost some of her hipster affectations and matured into a great singer. For further proof, check out her work on the soundtrack of Where the Wild Things Are.

2. Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. 2

This sequel to the acclaimed rapper’s 1995 album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is easily my favorite hip-hop record of the year. It kicked off a major Wu-Tang obsession in my house. The album is centered on Rae’s street tough narratives over plenty of great, gritty beats, but many of the highlights come from guest rappers, like fellow Wu-Tangers Method Man and Ghostface Killah.

1. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

This record is a whole world of sound unto itself. It’s a sustained series of gorgeous experiences.

2009 was a good year for Reno music as well: Eclectic folksters Buster Blue put out the immaculately titled This Beard Grows for Freedom. Weirdo rockers Short Hair released We Buy from the Children and local anthem machine My Flag is on Fire put out an excellent split single with Colorado bands Oblio Duo & The Archers. Fans of acoustic pop are advised to check out Amber Scala’s And So it Begins. This smattering of selections is just the tip of the iceberg; there are more bands in Northern Nevada cranking out more quality recordings than ever before. Many of these local releases are available at Discology in downtown Reno, or directly from the bands via Myspace, Facebook or iTunes.

One album that deserves special mention is Hope for the Holidays, a charity album organized by local producer Tom Gordon to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. The album balances local artists, like songbirds Kate Cotter and Grace Hutchinson, with national bands like Weezer and Creedence Clearwater Revisited.

If you’ve got other albums to recommend—national releases or, most especially, local stuff—you know where to find me. If you release an album in 2010, feel free to send me a review copy—this is how we generate much of our music coverage.