THIS IS A VERY LONG POST ABOUT MUSIC.
It’s almost 2010, and so: top 25 albums of 2009, in rough reverse order (#1 is at the bottom!) based on a combination of objective quality and subjective belovedness, according to me:
25. Booker T. — Potato Hole. His first album in years and years without the MG’s, instead here he’s backed by the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young on lead guitar. Unbelievably out of this word musicianship — from Booker on both his customary Hammond and his less-customary guitar.
24. Joey Kneiser — The All-Night Bedroom Revival. An absolute tour de force of songwriting from Glossary front man Kneiser. If I’d gotten this earlier in the year, it would probably have ended up in the top ten, and if this is where his songwriting has gone, pencil Glossary’s February 2010 release Feral Fire into your top ten for next year.
23. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit — Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. I loved this, and then I hated this, and then it grew on me again late in the year. I think the songwriting is a little more subtle and hard to parse out than Jason usually is, and the sound isn’t quite cohesive, but there are some beauties here. And the reference to “The Range War” — a cover of which appears on Patterson’s solo disc, noted below — in “The Last Song I Will Write” just stopped me cold the first time I noticed it, 6 months after the album came out.
22. Great Lake Swimmers — Lost Channels. One of those intricate, intimate indie rock albums that I seem to have been so obsessed with this year.
21. Hoots & Hellmouth — The Holy Open Secret. I came back to this album over and over again; I kept discovering new tracks to fall in love with every time.
20. Bowerbirds — Upper Air. This album makes me really, really sad. But it’s also really, really gorgeous.
19. M. Ward — Hold Time. Unique and unusual indie pop, well-cut by good guests and great covers.
18. Mike Doughty — Sad Man Happy Man. What a lovely fusion of his solo style and the best, most interesting bits of Soul Coughing.
17. Patterson Hood — Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs). Songs I already knew and adored, reimagined in the studio into sad, cruel, beautiful, lo-fi rock and roll. The a cappella cover of “The Range War” that was the CD bonus track might very well contain the single most heart-stoppingly gorgeous musical moment of 2009.
16. A.A. Bondy — When The Devil’s Loose. Ex-Verbena frontman’s second solo effort; he strips it down a little more from traces of Verbena’s noisy Southern bar rock that were present in American Hearts, and it’s just exquisite.
15. Mason Jennings — Blood of Man. Mason put a new album out this year. You thought it wouldn’t make my list? There’s not much I can say about Mason that I haven’t said before, and it isn’t worth repeating. The way I love Mason, unconditionally and without conscious thought, isn’t rational or sane, but he’s Mason. He’s the way my heart’s sounded for ten years now. Of course this album’s on my list. (Also it’s fucking fantastic, but still.)
14. Justin Townes Earle — Midnight at the Movies. Better than his Daddy’s album. (Although I still prefer JTE live to recorded, ultimately.) A dude who truly, truly has earned the right to use both those names of his on his own merits.
13. The Roadside Graves — My Son’s Home. Should this album be too long and too complex and therefore a flop? Yes. But it’s not, it’s a looping, thoughtfully epic story, and the opening track is what my heart sounds like a lot of the time.
12. Langhorne Slim — Be Set Free. This album is so beautifully sad it hurts me.
11. Megafaun — Gather Form & Fly. Is this a better album than spot #11 on this list? Yes, yes, it is. But — and I say this with the caveat that I adore these boys, flat out adore them as humans and as musicians — they have a tendency towards making noise simply for the sake of the making of noise. It drives me batty, because sometimes I wish they’d just leave a killer track killer, instead of descending into a cacophony of, well, noise at the end of it. Sometimes I just want to hear them play a song, not a piece of art. And that’s why this is this low: because I’m a sonically illiterate jerk, not because it’s not amazing.
10. The Ginger Envelope — Invitation Air. Every time I listen to this album, I think that the only word for it is stunning. It’s absolutely mind-blowingly gorgeous, sweet Southern indie rock with the pedal steel singing out over top of everything. I am the only person on the planet who loves this album like this.
9. Molina & Johnson — self-titled. I waited most of the year for this album, and it’s just as wild, sad, and beautiful as I hoped it would be.
8. Red Collar — Pilgrim. I see them described by blogs all the time as Fugazi meets Bruce Springsteen — and apparently frontman Jay Kutchma was the one who coined that descriptor originally — but mostly I just think this might be the best pure rock and roll album released this year. These guys should be famous and while I appreciate that I can still see them play in half-full dive bars, it kills me that they’re not on the cover of Rolling Stone.
7. Micah Schnabel — When the Stage Lights Go Dim. Micah is one of the single best songwriters working today, and it’s a goddamn crying shame that more people don’t know about him, and about his band Two Cow Garage, because fuck me but he can turn a phrase.
6. The Duke & the King — Nothing Gold Can Stay. The debut album by ex-Felice Brothers’ Simone Felice. (Well, Simone isn’t an ex-Felice. He remains a Felice. He’s just not playing in the Felice Brothers anymore.) Beauty out of heartbreak.
5. The Low Anthem — Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. I hid inside this album for a while this fall. It was the perfect eerie, intimately sad place to do it.
4. Magnolia Electric Co. — Josephine. The day this album came out, Molina & company played Chapel Hill. After the first 30 seconds of listening to it at 9:17 pm, I very nearly put on real pants, grabbed twenty bucks from my savings account, and headed out to the show. (I didn’t. I was too tired for real pants.) That’s how good this album is.
3. The Avett Brothers — I And Love And You. I worried that their major label debut would polish out the best of them, but instead it polished it up. The first time I listened to it, the moment where the drums first come in on “January Wedding,” I hiccuped and burst into tears and cried straight through the rest of it, that’s how beautiful this album is. This album is astonishing and breathtaking.
2. Lucero — 1372 Overton Park. Lucero took their drunk and dirty country rock sound and their major label debut money and fused it together with a traditional Memphis soul sound, and it’s fucking transcendent. And it’s probably the only major label record this year with a love song to a comic book character on it.
1. Ha Ha Tonka — Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South. Not only do they have great album titles — their debut was Buckle in the Bible Belt — and not only do they record on the default record label of my soul, but this was head and shoulders above everything else released this year. This album is exquisite — intricate, overwhelming, gorgeous, and not a note wasted or missed.
If I listed all the albums I loved or enjoyed this year that didn’t make this list, we’d be here all night. This was a damn, damn good year for music.