2009 in Music

This is a very limited list as I have spent a lot time and money in 2009 listening to older music, specifically of the classic jazz, baroque, classical, romantic and modernist variety. As such I have heard far less than normal. I have to say this was a disappointing year for me, as many (though not all) of my old favourites sort of let me down a little.

As usual, I have listened to each of these albums a minimum of three times and normally in the context of that artist’s discography as well. I try to think about their worth relative to music history and not just with reference to what is going on at this specific moment. This list is ridiculously incomplete and in no way represents a true “Best of” list of music from 2009, but merely my rankings of the new albums I heard. Enjoy.

1. Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy: Spirit Moves (9/10)

The more I listen to this the more I want to listen to Lester Bowie. Apparently, one of his bands is the inspiration for this brass+drums combination. The music ranges from funeral jazz to something that could definitely be labeled funky. There’s a pop cover and so much more.

This is the kind of thing that I wish I had been exposed to in my early twenties before I really knew much at all about jazz. It probably would have changed my life. It won’t now, but I will seek out Lester Bowie, and I will perhaps overrate this because it’s just so awesome, even if it is potentially derivative of Mr. Bowie.

1. The Masada Quintet Featuring Joe Lovano Plays Masada Book Two: Stolas: Book of Angels Volume 12 (9/10)

Despite the semi-ridiculousness of the title and concept – a band formed to play a songbook plays part of a songbook, but this is also part of another series name after a book, etc. – I must say I love this. Zorn’s Klezmer Jazz is, for me, one of the more interesting post-free, post-fusion areas of exploration. I can’t say that I have heard the original (or alternate – what have you) versions of these pieces, but these performances work for me.

And though I may be giving the whole thing too much credit – this is hardly the first time we’ve heard something like this – I just can’t help myself.

3. Dave Douglas, Jim McNeely, Frankfurt Radio Big Band: A Single Sky (9/10)

This is pretty close to as good as it gets for orchestrated jazz. Some of the writing for the horn section is not merely outstanding but downright bonkers. The soloists are all pretty great, in addition to Douglas.

The only thing keeping me from giving it high marks is that I know this is not exactly the most mind-blowing idea ever. It’s not like no one’s ever done this before.

Still, the quality is pretty ridiculous and it is stuff like this that makes me want to perhaps exaggerate how great Douglas is as a leader. He can seemingly do almost anything.

4. Olga Konkova: Improvisational Four – Piano Improvisations Inspired by Joni Mitchell (8/10)

I was actually looking for a different Konkova album when I found this. Being a pretty big fan of Joni Mitchell and not remembering why I was looking for Konkova (but generally liking piano jazz), I thought: this should be right up my alley.

Well, it is. Konkova strays way, way out on most of these pieces with my ears only really hearing “Woodstock” and “Both Sides Now” when I’m not looking at the track list. As you know, I like radical covers and I appreciate Konkova using these pieces merely as inspiration and not as constraints.

As for her playing, Konkova is all over the place: she recalls various jazz traditions – I hear a little stride in there somewhere I think, and I also hear Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett – but also goes completely atonal on occasion. She’s the kind of pianist who appears aware of both the past and the present, which is something I really appreciate.

This is, on the whole, everything I like about a jazz album inspired by popular music. Great stuff.

5. The Flaming Lips: Embryonic (8/10)

I have been getting a little annoyed with the Lips lately, particularly Coyne’s repeated claims in the press that they would be getting back to some of their old ways while in reality they were still making the polished pop music of the past decade or so. Well this is a nice change. It is wild and raw in a way they haven’t been since at least the late ’90s. It’s a lot more endearing (for me personally) production-wise. It is definitely a kitchen-sink record, but it seems to work most of the time. I also like how Coyne often doesn’t sound like Coyne at all, which is a neat trick. A definite return to form.

6. Wilco: Ashes of American Flags (8/10)

This isn’t really an album-proper, but what is that anyway? The free download that comes with the movie / tour-video is just as good as their earlier live album, Kicking Television. In ways, it’s better. The band sounds even better this time around, if only because there are a few more pieces tailored towards this version of the band (from Sky Blue Sky). But the main drawback is that the material that isn’t from the past album is often the material from the past live album. There’s too much of an overlap. I don’t know what Wilco’s set is usually like [I found out!] but unless it is the same each night, I wish the filmmakers could have picked a few different songs to keep lessen the overlap. The one other nitpick is that the mix isn’t the greatest. But given that it was meant to be a movie, it’s really asking a little too much, I figure.

7. Simard and Fabi: Dvorak, Poulenc, Grieg (8/10)

This is an interesting recording that takes three well known sonatas (two violin sonatas, one of which at least is among the greatest of the twentieth century, and one flute) adapted for vibraphone.

Read the remainder of the review.

8. St. Vincent: Actor (8/10)

I first saw her on ACL and I was pretty impressed. I am less impressed by this if only because it’s missing the feedback. Maybe she was performing songs from her debut, or maybe it’s the same thing as with many bands, they are rawer and cooler live. In any case, the songs are good and the arrangements are creative and varied. I like it.

9. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca (8/10)

I don’t know Dirty Projectors. I’m not even sure where I heard about them. Anyway, I wrote down the name and here we are.

In the little I’ve read since first listening to this album I must say I’m considerably more intrigued. Apparently this is the band (or, really, the artist) gone commercial. That this album is less weird than previous albums makes me very interested in said previous albums.

There is a little too much in the way of “pop” for me to love this. But I can’t help but respect and admire it. I do feel that the songs contributed by the band’s mastermind are stronger than the other material, too, so that’s another reason to seek out the old stuff.

But as far as “art pop” goes (or even “avant pop” though I have no idea what that means) this is pretty much what one wants.

10. Do Make Say Think: Other Truths (8/10)

This is the absolute closest Do Make Say Think have come to sounding like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In the past, the influence was there but it was subtle. This time, especially on “Make,” it is considerably more apparent.

This is both a good thing – GY!BE are probably the best Canadian rock band of the 21st century so if you are going to steal from someone… – and a bad thing – DMST were very much their own thing in the past, and on the past two albums in particular. All this is to say that DMST have embarked upon a slightly different direction, which is welcome but which would be even more welcome if it wasn’t so clearly indebted to their label-mates.

11. Steve Earle: Townes (8/10)

I can’t say that I am much of a fan of Earle at this point, as most of his stuff I’ve heard I’ve found underwhelming. And I can’t say I am much of a fan of Van Zandt either; the only album of his I’ve ever heard was horribly – perhaps even offensively – over-produced making it hard to really listen to the songs themselves.

But this seems to be a match made in heaven. Van Zandt appears to be a much stronger songwriter than Earle himself – though this could be because this is a sort of Earle-curated Greatest Hits of Van Zandt’s songs – and for me I finally get to hear Van Zandt songs with appropriate arrangements.

I can’t rate it any higher though, because I have never heard the originals and cannot in any claim Earle’s versions of these songs as definitive. Because of that I really can’t know whether or not this is as good as it sounds to me. It’s likely that there’s a glaring hole in my listening habits around Van Zandt’s oeuvre and if I was more familiar with his work I might judge this differently.

That being said, this is great stuff.

12. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest (7/10)

On my initial listen I felt like these were some kind of less artsy fartsy Wolf Parade, not that this is accurate at all (or that I even know Wolf Parade).

But on further listens what I hear is something very symptomatic of the late aughts: a band with a good sense of melody – not necessarily good songs, that’s not the same – who have elevated arrangements and production to the status of Gospel. That kind of thing sometimes bugs me, especially with music that is overtly hooky. (I prefer finer things: grit, dynamics, aggression, good songs, the destruction of or redefinition of conventions, etc.)

But there is enough going on in this record that I don’t really notice the dominance of the vocal harmonies that everyone else is focusing on, and I don’t really focus (too much) on the fact that I think most of these songs would be pretty boring and unmoving if they were played on solo guitar or piano with a couple voices.

This is where we’re at with indie pop, neo-psychedelia etc: production (and/or arrangement) is far more important than anything else. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, but sometimes it isn’t. This is a band that pulls it off. They aren’t quite as unconventional as their contemporaries – Dirty Projectors, for example – but they are still quite creative.

13. Them Crooked Vultures (7/10)

This is better than the last QOTSA record. On the other hand it’s not as good as their best albums. This is better than the Foo F3ghters, as far as I know, but I wouldn’t know, since I’ve never really given them (him) a chance. On the other hand it’s not up to the standard of Jones’ two awesome solo albums. They are more musically varied and are often harder – as much as that may be…um…hard to believe – than this one. As I often must with QOTSA, I sort of fault the production. This isn’t the best mixed album I’ve ever heard, and I figured that has a lot to do with Homme as a co-producer. Many of the QOTSA albums are oddly mixed as well. That being said, it isn’t as flat as it sounded at first. And once I got over how clean it was – and really, what was I expecting from these three, anyway? – I got to like it. Maybe they’ve eliminated the unpolished bits, but as an instrumental band these guys are pretty fucking great. It takes a few listens to realize that, because they’re a little too precise. Overall, they do sound a little too much like QOTSA, and not enough like Jones’ awesome solo music. (Did I say that already? Oops.) But that’s okay. I’d rather listen to this than Era Vulgeris.

14. Dinosaur Jr: Farm (7/10)

I love this record. It’s everything I hoped it would be.

I have a somewhat irrational fear of reunions and particular a fear of reunions that last. There seems to me something inherently wrong with rock music being performed by old(er) people, especially when those old(er) people are trying to recapture their lost youth. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older now too, or whether it’s something more complicated, but the reunions of all the great ’80s and ’90s bands seem far less offensive to me than the reunions of ’60s and ’70s band which occurred (recurred?) in the ’80s and ’90s.

But I was still very worried about this and Beyond (and I haven’t heard the latter, so I’m still worried about it). But this is vintage Dinosaur Jr., and vintage Mascis in terms of both songs and playing – though he does seem a little tamer, if only because what wasn’t tame in 1989 is perhaps a little more tame in 2009 – and so it is great.

The problem is that this record was made in 2009, and yet it is still vintage Dinosaur Jr. They haven’t evolved much at all. So as much as I like it, I cannot tell you that it is great. It is good, yes, but we have been down this road many times before. I am comforted by the familiarity, but I am not changed or challenged by it.

15. Sunn O))): Monoliths and Dimensions (7/10)

I don’t know why people use the term “metal” when talking about this band. It’s kind of inappropriate. I mean, just because there’s a little distortion on the guitar (okay, a lot of distortion), doesn’t mean anything. It’s funny, as this music reminds me of some other music that the hipper-than-thou set condemned outright as being “music made for musicians” or whatever. It’s funny how fast things change. This is interesting stuff, but it’s one of those albums that takes time to figure out. I don’t know whether I like it or not. I know that it isn’t bad, but I don’t know whether it’s my thing or not. I suspect it will take much more than three listens to figure that out.

16. Wilco (the Album) (7/10)

For nearly every album, Wilco, whoever that may be from one release the other, have consistently changed their sound in an admirable way: they managed to sound different but the same. That is some kind of feat that only great bands can pull off. But here it sounds like they’re in a holding pattern for perhaps the first time since their debut. Not to be reductive, but in some ways this sounds like Sky Blue Sky without the guitar solos. That’s unfair (the songs are good) and inaccurate – there’s definitely far more studio tricks going on here than the last album – but that was my initial reaction. They have set the bar very, very high, and I don’t think this quite measures up. It’s not bad by any means. It’s just not their best by a long shot. The other thing is that I detect obvious influences in this: George Harrison in one song, and early Radiohead in another. And Television, of course. In the same song as the Radiohead. That’s sort of annoying. I can’t say I noticed on other albums – they were better disguised.

17. The Mars Volta: Octahedron (7/10)

I read an interview with them where they described this as an acoustic album. It’s a funny time we live in when an acoustic album features digital programming. Nitpicking aside, this is a decent, albeit softer, effort. However, something about it feels slight. The Bedlam in Goliath was such a tough act to follow it’s easy to understand how they couldn’t really follow it up. Everything about this one is less interesting. And by focusing mostly on ballads and atmosphere they have almost completely removed the punch of their previous efforts. At least it’s different, though.

18. Augusta Read Thomas: Aureole (7/10)

This is a vigorous orchestral piece apparently adapted from a violin piece (which I have trouble believing, given how it sounds). My assumption is that it’s not a solo piece, but maybe a trio or something. Anyway, this is full of the great stuff that comes from “modern creative” but, at this point, I’ve heard a lot like it and can’t say it blows me away.

19. Ben Harper and Relentless7: White Lies for Dark Times (7/10)

I have long struggled with Harper. When I arrived at University at the beginning of this century, I don’t know what I was expecting, but what I found was that there was a remarkable amount of commonality in the “underground” music that was cool. In fact, looking back it seems really odd to me that it was so uniform. (I guess that has a lot to do with going to a school in a very small town.) Harper was one of the people I was supposed to like – everyone else seemed to like him – while I was obsessing over prog rock and anything weird I could find. I was always sort of confused as to why someone like him was considered so “hip,” for lack of a better word.

Read the full review.

20. Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (7/10)

Despite the tossed-off nature of this record, Dylan seems to still be pursuing the same sort of project he has been pursuing since his “renaissance” began earlier last decade. The music is a little different here – as someone pointed out it sounds a little like Doug Sahm – and the whole thing seems less momentous, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It should just be pleasant but Dylan’s lyrics are, as usual, well above average, and the backing band is great too.

Like it more than I think I should.

21. MadLove: White with Foam (7/10)

This sounds like a veteran member of the avant-rock / jazz scene turning to mainstream rock and having a little fun. That’s exactly what it is. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s nothing to write home about either. I can’t help but think this would have been better if the songs had been better because, after all, that’s what differentiates good straight ahead rock from the rest. This isn’t exactly straight ahead. I mean we’re unlikely to hear too many other alternative rock bands playing in these varying times. But it’s a little to straightforward to lack great songs, and it does lack great songs. I really wanted to like this one. I always look forward to new stuff from any Bungle member.

This is merely decent.

22. Converge: Axe to Fall (7/10)

Part of me wants to like this more than No Heroes, but part of me doesn’t. There are way more metal clichés – the guitar leads in particular – and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. It gives us a reference point, but not a great reference point. I must give them at least some recognition for actually having some passable singing on the one ballad this time – unlike on You Fail Me, where it is terrible. Part of me thinks it’s stronger, and part of me thinks it’s more of the same (I still like that). I will stick with the latter.

23. Sister Suvi: Colour (7/10)

What I wrote at the time: Mostly, I like this. A couple of the choruses are kind of ridiculous. But otherwise this is pretty decent.

Yes, a very lazy ‘review’. This has all the things I like about the rootsy Canadian indie rock of the second half of the 2000s, but also has some too obvious attempts at immediate accessibility (and I’m not sure whether they are joking or not when they sing “I am the hottest mother fucker in this room.”).

24. The Tord Gustavsen Ensemble: Restored, Returned (7/10)

This expanded version of Gustavsen’s band is that much closer to a form of jazz I don’t like. Sometimes I appreciate the space of ECM artists. Other times they sound to be harping on cool cliches (only with more tonal adventurousness, most of the time). Gustavsen walks that line a lot. But fortunately his vocalist is unique enough that she makes the tracks with vocals, a lot less cliche than they would have been. (It’s not that she’s a great singer, she’s got a unique enough take for the style of music.) And Gustavsen is his usual self on the instruments (he appears less adventurous on the vocal tracks).

I suspect the enjoyment deepens with knowledge of the poetry. Nothing wrong with that.

25. Pearl Jam: Backspacer (6/10)

This lacks the immediacy of the eponymous effort, and that shouldn’t be, given the short running time. For some reason this doesn’t grab your attention like the previous album. Also, I find myself noticing Vedder’s lyrics and some of the arrangements in a negative light. Usually I either don’t notice Vedder’s lyrics – as they are usually fine – or I like them. Usually I love the arrangements (though not always, see Yield). But in this case I find a number of lines are really pretty crappy and a number of the arrangements are straight out of the rock cliché book. It’s depressing, especially given how good the last album was. As usual, the more I listen to it, the more it grows on me, and I figure I will eventually like this one as much as some of their other albums. At the moment, I’m not particularly impressed, and I’m really annoyed by the length. However, I should mention that this was actually a great buy as I was entitled to two concert downloads (four CDs worth in total) meaning that I bought five discs for the price of one, so you can’t go wrong with that.

26. Dedicated to You: Kurt Elling sings the Music of Coltrane and Hartman (6/10)

I have never heard the inspiration for this album, so I cannot say that I am the best listener for this tribute. And I am not a fan of vocal jazz.

That being said, the backing arrangements are at least a million times better than most “vocal jazz” arrangements and “Easy to Remember” is well told.

But I am not this project’s audience.

27. John Doe and the Sadies: Country Club (6/10)

I only know Doe from X. Haven’t heard his solo stuff, so I have no idea if this is representative. I do know the Sadies – though not as well as I should since they have pretty much taken over the mantle of Canada’s Band from the Hip.

This music is good, it is actually very good. And the selection of songs is pretty stellar (which makes the genre easier to take). The problem for someone like me is that this album sounds like it should have been recorded in 1970, or maybe even earlier.

The thing the Sadies normally have going for them is that their odd garage-surf-alt country fusion is a fairly unique thing. But bereft of the garage rock and surf, here they are just a traditional country band, something which is less than what they normally are.

Doe does an admirable job of the role of country singer and, as I mentioned, he has some great material to choose from.

But the combination of these things is only revivalism. It is more than competent revivalism, and it is pleasing, but personally I don’t need another traditional country album. I can get that from the people who performed that music the first time out. I can’t help my disappointment.

28. Cuff the Duke: Way Down Here (6/10)

I miss the old Cuff the Duke. The more the band “matures” the more they constrain themselves to fewer styles and the more they sound like Blue Rodeo – fitting given the producer – or the Eagles (and the latter comparison isn’t a compliment). There is a ton of alt country already in the world that sounds like this. I’m not sure that we need more of it. At least I don’t think I do.

29. Bill Frisell: Disfarmer (6/10)

I am getting more and into this idea of a gallery exhibit score – I have heard some absolutely excellent ones where the music was so great it never mattered that I didn’t get a chance to go to the show. And I must say the concept really intrigues me, even when it’s not done right.

I’m not sure whether or not this is done right. Maybe it works well for the show itself. As a listening experience on its own, however, it’s Frisell doing Frisell, at his least energetic and, though I hate to say it, at his safest. Each piece floats by and it doesn’t really matter that I ever heard them in the first place. Some of the melodies are more compelling than others and make an impression, but most are forgotten once they are gone. And honestly most of the pieces here recall some other Frisell record from the past two decades.

It’s just nothing to write home about.

30. Roy Hargrove Big Band: Emergence (5/10)

So Hargrove tackles big band and the results aren’t that different from early in his career, when he was way too in love with tradition. (You might say he was drowning in it.)

Well here we are again: Hargrove’s big band touches on numerous previous jazz big bands. And the whole thing is really conventional. And just when you think this is how it will play out, he throws in the Latin thing. And maybe you think “Aha!” something different, only Gillespie did this stuff 60 years ago… And obviously Hargrove is no Gillespie (though he does an okay Miles impersonation).

Some of the band writing is really stellar, but honestly there are so many other older bands you could listen to instead. It’s hard to understand why anyone would make a deal about this. It would have been pretty good had it been made in the sixties or something.

Not ranked: London Symphony Orchestra, Colin Davis: Symphonies Nos 1-7; Kullervo by Sibelius (10/10)

Sibelius’ symphonies range from really over-the-top late 19th century folk-inspired stuff to the kind of subtle innovation this unsophisticated listener might associate with Mahler. Read the rest of the review.

Not ranked: Ellington at Newport 1956 (9/10)

Though Ellington is one of the most famous leaders in jazz, and probably the greatest composer in the music’s history, this is the first set I have ever heard (deliberately) by his band. The reason for that is simply because I got into jazz through Miles Davis, whose entire career has been played in the post-Big Band world. The little inquiry I’ve made into earlier jazz has been into Dixieland.

Read the full review.

Not ranked: Jack Liebeck et al.: Violin Concerto, Sonata and Sonatina by Dvorak (8/10)

This is a good summary of Dvorak’s violin music. Read the rest of this review.

Symphony No. 9 (2009) by Hans Werner Henze, performed by Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, conducted by Marek Janowski (8/10)

Like Beethoven’s 9th and Mahler’s 8th, Henze’s 9th symphony is a choral symphony. And much like his eighth, it’s highly programmatic – even more so this time. I am, at this stage of my life, a real sucker for choral symphonies, for reasons I cannot quite articulate.

Henze’s 9th remains in the more traditional mode of his other later symphonies, and I cannot help but wonder if he adopted the choral mode in part of a conscious tribute to Beethoven, perhaps thinking his 9th would be his last. (It wasn’t, but there’s that infamous theory that composers always die after completing their 9th.)

I once again find myself torn. This is a rather traditional work – albeit one fully aware of the radical music of the 20th century – for 1997, but I can’t help but like it. Henze’s Neo-Romanticism is the most progressive kind of Neo-Romanticism, if such a thing can be said. It’s certainly more appropriate to 1897 than 1997 at times, but Henze hasn’t completely abandoned his youthful daring and bravado.

I find myself liking it despite my brain saying “This is really rather conservative!”

Not Ranked: Lagos Ensemble: Kagel: String Quartet No. 4; Keuris: String Quartet No. 1 (8/10)

Read the review.

Not Ranked: Ruffini, Morino, Pratico, Lazzarini, Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia et al.: Lakme, by Leo Delibes (7/10)

This is one of the “great” French operas. And right there we have a problem, at least for a music snob like me. French opera (with a few notable exceptions) feels like the forerunner of pop-music. They are so “big tune” oriented. They are easy to like more often than musically interesting. And I find myself feeling towards Lakme as I feel towards Carmen: meh. It’s fine and all, but it’s hardly changing what I think about French opera (like Debussy does, for e

Not Ranked: Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Marek Janowski: Symphonies 7-8 by H.W. Henze (7/10)

This set pairs two of Henze’s later symphonies, from a time which he had embarked on a more conservative path. Though the performances are excellent (as far as I know), I find these symphonies to be less interesting than his earlier work.

Read the full review.

Not ranked: Ray Charles: Genius: the Ultimate Collection (7/10)

Ray Charles was a very important musician in the history of soul music but you don’t really get that here. Instead you get many of his hits, some of which are in an altogether different genre (which is fine). But it’s really hard to tell he’s a great innovator from this selection. He sounds rather old-timey actually. Certainly it does a poor job of living up to its title. I’m sure there are better compilations out there.