Thursday, 4 February 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 3: Musical discoveries (ii)]

I'll continue my summary of 2009 with more of my musical discoveries of the year.

Morrissey - Vauxhall and I

I already had a few Morrissey albums before this one -- Your arsenal from 1992, and the more recent You are the quarry from 2004. Your arsenal in particular is a very solid album that has grown in stature for me over time. I did some research and a lot of fans picked this follow-up album from 1994 as one of his best albums, so I decided to pick it up.

It's a much more subdued effort than the glammy Your arsenal; an immaculately produced album with just the right amount of sonic eclecticism to keep it interesting over repeated listens. Opener Now my heart is full gives Morrissey a chance to show off his amazing vocals; Why don't you find out for yourself is one of his most melodic moments; Lifeguard sleeping, girl drowning is a fantastic mood piece; epic closer Speedway is one of finest songs he has ever released, up there with some of the best songs by The Smiths.

A classy effort all around.

The National - Boxer

This was one of the most critically acclaimed albums from 2007, which was a great year for music. I came to the party a bit late on this album, finally picking it up in 2009. I had a fear that it was going to be one of those albums which didn't live up to its hype, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.

It's a pretty subdued album overall, with only a few songs (Mistaken for strangers, Squalor Victoria) which rock out a bit more. Most of the songs are a vehicle for the baritone vocal pipes of frontman Matt Berninger, who sounds not unlike Nick Cave. But the real star of the show is drummer Bryan Devendorf who lays down some amazing drum patterns which are pushed high up in the mix for maximum impact.

This album has a fantastic drunk-at-3am vibe to it; the lyrics are personal, the vocal delivery is fatigued and the backing instrumentation is generally restrained but not afraid to up the tempo when needed. Highlights include lovely opener Fake empire, ultra-catchy Brainy and lovely ballads Green gloves, Start a war and Racing like a pro.

An album which didn't hit me until about the 5th or 6th listen; this is a grower in the true sense of the word.

Fred Neil - Bleecker & MacDougal

Fred Neil is best known for writing the classic Everybody's talkin', a song which was made famous by Harry Nilsson when it was included on the soundtrack to the classic film Midnight cowboy. I picked up a 2-for-1 CD that included the albums Tear down the walls (a collaboration with Vince Martin) and Bleecker & MacDougal, Neil's 2nd solo album. While Tear down the walls has its moments, it's also quite dated in parts (mainly due to Martin's vocals). Bleecker is definitely the pick of the two albums.

Fred Neil has an amazing baritone voice not unlike Johnny Cash, and this album is an incredible amalgamation of folk, blues, country and rock which has very little filler on it. Almost every song has something to say, and it's all done with integrity and lots of heart. The highlight is probably Other side of this life, which has become a bit of a folk standard since this album was released.

This is very soulful music from a very talented songwriter, singer and performer.

Pearl Jam - Ten

Talk about coming to the party late -- about 18 years too late! Of course I already knew a lot of songs on this 1991 album, mainly through radio play but also because my brother was a big fan at the time and I was constantly exposed to this music in my teen years. I had a few of their other albums (Vs and No code) but I finally decided to pick up their debut album.

A lot of people criticise the production on this album as a bit dated, but I for one love it. Yeah, there's a bit of reverb on Eddie Vedder's voice which makes it sound a bit late-80s, but I love the wide open feel to this album; certainly a far cry from much of today's rock music which is over-compressed and too loud. That doesn't mean this album isn't powerful; quite the contrary. Turn the volume up and it rocks!

This album has more than its fair share of classics: Even flow, Alive and Jeremy being the most well-known. Then there's gorgeous ballad Black which I always knew but didn't quite realise how amazing it was until I bought the album. What elevates this album to make this list is some of the lesser-known tracks, the hidden gems if you will. In particular, the anthemic Garden, moody Oceans and epic closer Release all do a lot for me.

I don' t think Pearl Jam will ever top this amazing debut.

Pet Shop Boys - Very

I feel like I have to preface this review by saying it's a "guilty pleasure", and not the type of music I normally listen to. But why do I need to do that?

I already had their fantastic compilation Discography, and liked it so much that I decided to get one of their albums. Reviews told me that this album from 1993 is considered by many to be their finest effort, and it also had no overlap with Discography (which was released in 1991). This made it a very attractive purchase.

If I had to describe this album to the uninitiated, I would label it a perfect pop album which finds the ideal intersection of dance-ability and melancholy. From the moment the opening synth riff of Can you forgive her? kicks off the album, you know you're in for something special. The melodies never cease, with the AIDS lament Dreaming of the queen and the (erm) theatrical sound of The theatre adding just the right amount of emotional depth to stop the album becoming too sickly.

It all ends with their amazing cover of Go West by The Village People. How can you go wrong?

Prince - Dirty mind

The Prince albums I had before this one were the critically acclaimed ones: Purple rain and Sign 'o' the times. This album is nowhere near as high profile as the aforementioned albums, but it gets a lot of love from those who know it. Which makes it a bit of a "cult classic" when all is said and done; just my type of album.

This was Prince's 3rd album, released in October 1980. Like Michael Jackson's Off the wall album released a year earlier, it found the perfect fusion of funk, pop, rock and dance that allowed him to appeal to a wider audience. When it was released, it was described by Rolling Stone as being "one of the most radical 180-degree turns in pop history". They were referring to the change in sound from his previous album, the more commercial Prince.

For an album released in 1980, this album still sounds amazingly fresh. Unlike a lot of albums released at the time, this wasn't overly embellished with dated synth sounds which would have aged it must faster than it has. The title track in particular is minimalistic funk. When you were mine is a classic pop song, which was later covered by Cyndi Lauper. Then there was the controversial Head and Sister, whose lyrical themes dealt with oral sex and incest respectively.

There isn't a wasted note on this 30-minute album; put it on and get the party started.

Josh Rouse - Nashville

Josh Rouse is one of those unsung heroes of indie-country-pop. He releases quality albums every few years to little commercial success, but he still has a loyal fanbase awaiting his next release. Nashville, from 2005, is considered by many to be his finest release to date.

This is a great album of emotional honesty with just the right amount of musical diversity to keep it interesting. The triptych of It's the nighttime, Winter in the Hamptons and Streetlights is one of the greatest opening runs of recent memory. Later highlights include the emotional My love is gone and the gloriously epic Sad eyes.

While there's nothing particularly innovative here, Josh Rouse does this sort of music better than anyone else in recent memory.

Sigur Ros - Ágætis byrjun

An album which has been on my list for a long time, and I finally picked it up in 2009. In fact, by sheer coincidence I picked it up in the same week that Stephen said he was going to cover it in the next episode of the Classic Albums Podcast.

I already had their album ( ), which is an amazing soundscape, but one which I feels tails off a bit towards the end. Its predecessor Ágætis byrjun is remarkably consistent all the way through, and it's one of the greatest musical achievements of the past decade.

I recall Stephen describing this album as "glacial beauty" (sorry if I misquoted you here Stephen, but I definitely remember the word 'glacial' being used). This is a better description than I can come up with, so I'll borrow that from him. This is an album of epic, experimental, adventurous, progressive music which sounds like it was made by people from a different planet, all sung in a fictional language called Hopelandic (because no other language could do the music justice).

The album is of a piece and it's difficult to single out tracks, but special mention needs to go to the cinematic Sven-G-Englar, stunningly beautiful Starálfur and haunting Hjartaõ Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm).

If you are in any way becoming jaded with modern music, buy this album and be blown away.

Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend

I already had a Matthew Sweet album before this one -- 100% fun (1995), which I have always considered to be a great mid-90s pop album. His third album Girlfriend (1991) is often mentioned by critics as his best album and one of the defining albums of power pop, so of course I had to pick it up.

It took me a long time to warm to this album; while some tracks jumped out at me on the first few listens (I've been waiting in particular), it seemed to be a bit all over the shop musically and I didn't feel like I had anything to grasp on to. That it opens with Divine intervention, a five-and-a-half minute rock song with a weaker melody than most of the other tracks, didn't help its case either.

Eventually the charms of this album started to reveal themselves, both from a melodic and lyrical point of view. Underneath the power-pop exterior, there's quite a few dark lyrical themes here; the album also has an emotional arc throughout the track listing, ranging from the initial infatuation at the start of a relationship (I've been waiting), to the final break up (Nothing lasts). In between are just over a dozen pop gems with just the right amount of darkness and shade to cut through the (sorry) Sweet-ness of it all.

Highlights are the folky Winona, the gloriously catchy Looking at the sun, the mid-album darkness of Thought I knew you, You don't love me and I wanted to tell you, and the stunningly intimate Your sweet voice.

This is an incredible album from an artist at the top of his game.


  1. Be honest Jeremy, you only bought the Prince album for the cover didn't you???

    I have the album "Dressed Up Like Nebraska" by Josh Rouse, as recommended by SomeMeatPete. Its not a bad little album, you might like that one too.

  2. "King Jeremy the wicked" good to hear you finally got on board this one. PS. 1991 ... you're so old!

  3. @Wally - my hidden shame! I think there's a lot of people who'd be put off by that cover, which is a shame, because it's a great album.

    @Jez - yes I am old! In fact I wear an onion on my belt (which was the style at the time).


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