Up on the Sun is counting down the days until the unveiling of music editor Martin Cizmar's personal Best of 2009 list with some other lists from Phoenix New Times' stable of excellent freelancers. Today we bring you a list from Michael Lopez, a New Times contributor, and regular blogger at Up on the Sun. Unlike a lot of critics who like to spring obscure surprises on readers with their year-end lists, Michael is doing it the honest way. He's previously written about almost every act on his list -- and reviewed shows by several of them -- so you know it's music he's actually lived with and enjoyed in 2009.
Shout Out Out Out Out
10. Shout Out Out Out -- Reintegration Time
When one thinks of Edmonton, Alberta, they don't usually consider it a hotbed of musical talent. That is not to say that Canada has been absent from the music scene in the past decade. They have provided us with some of the better new bands of the 2000s -- Arcade Fire, Fiest, Metric, Fucked Up, Nickelback. Yet indie funk band/!!!-connoisseurs Shout Out Out Out Out made their name in 2009 with Reintegration Time -- their opus of indescribable electronic indie rock/funk/spazz-time jams. I go immediately to the track "Coming Home" when I think of the album -- it starts off perfectly with a funky, bloated synth cascading into the band's trademark drumming style, a metronomic reminder of this album's immense potential. Driving Reintegration Time home is the song "Remind Me In Dark Times," a slow builder that brilliantly describes just what is Shout Out Out Out Out's unique sound -- at times abrasive, sometimes even a bit too out there, yet absolutely unique and unparalleled in 2009.
Portland, by way of Alaska, indie stalwarts Portugal. The Man lay it all out in their first track from their 2009 effort The Satanic Satanist "People Say." The song has a delightful country twang, jumping right into the chorus a mere 30 seconds into the song. It's a testament to your band when people pick up your latest effort and have a hard time really hearing what it is that endeared them to the band in the first place. It shows an incredible maturity, and Portugal. The Man's stellar fourth album does just this. Maybe it's how brilliantly and effortlessly "People Say" blends into "Work All Day," maybe it's how goddamn outstanding an effort "Do You" is for the cohesiveness of the album. The track's haunting pianos complement John Gourley's yearning chorus, showing just how complete and satisfying The Satanic Satanist is in the ever growing sea of bland, uninspired American indie rock.
I honestly do not know how to describe the feeling I get when I put on Wild Beasts' second full-length Two Dancers. I am wholeheartedly addicted to it -- the dual vocal styling of Hayden Thorpe's fucking angelic falsetto and Tom Flemming's played-down, brute-force tenderness are unlike any British band I have ever heard, and I've heard my fair share. I took one listen of "Hooting & Howling" to completely hook me on what it was this band was laying out for me. Granted, hearing Thorpe's vocals on the track catapulted the band into an atmosphere not usually reserved for indie rock, but the cascading guitars and haunting melodies on the track are what really place the band into such a special place. "We Still Got The Taste Dancing On Our Tongues" is an odd offering, I will admit that, but it is brimming with undeniable charm. "Two Dancers," the album's standout track, perfectly showcases the sophistication and ingenuity of Two Dancers. It is that rare song that feels so simple -- yet contains a staggering complexity. It is rare to hear a band, with their second album, hit such a mature, seasoned stride, yet Wild Beasts make it sound so completely effortless.
Thanks in large part to bands like Daft Punk and Justice, French electronic music is quite a force in today's music scene. Pascal Arbez, the man known as Vitalic, etched his impressive spot in the electronic music scene with 2005's OK Cowboy, a critically acclaimed effort. Never one to spread himself thin, Arbez finally returned in 2009 with his sophomore album Flashmob. The tone of the album is set right from the get-go with the opener "See The Sea (Red)." Staccato synths, light and airy, are met with a rumbling fuzz, waiting for Arbez to kick in your chest with a completely solid bass-line. The song is a tease -- the perfect kind -- for what follows: "One Above One" features a subdued lyric set over Homework-era synths and it is a complete dance-floor jam. "Terminateur Benelux" has the album's most complete arrangement, while "Allan Dellon" shows Arbez's softer side. The song is still completely addicting to listen to, an easy catalyst for losing one's self in brilliant electronic music -- and that's really what Flashmob is all about. It is a fast-paced, toned-down and club-thumping effort of brilliant electronic music. Let's just hope Arbez doesn't take another 4 years to offer up his latest creation.
6. Animal Collective -- Merriweather Post Pavilion
It didn't take long for Baltimore indie freaks Animal Collective to offer up one of 2009's best albums. Their eighth studio album Merriweather Post Pavilion was released less than a week into the new year, and it had already garnered some serious consideration for the year's best. Bolstered by the unbelievably complex, incredibly catchy track "My Girls," MPP became an easy target amongst indie fans. Sure, the band has reached a legendary status among those same fans, but there is a clear reason they have become such a force these days. Their charismatic shucking of any and all convention in their music has endeared themselves greatly to the hordes of music fans sick of what slowly became American indie rock. They want something different, and Animal Collective has consistently been providing those skewed sensibilities. Tracks like "Summertime Clothes," with its all-over-the-map lyrics and throbbing backbeat, and "Bluish," with it's Duran Duran circa "Come Undone" instrumentals, show just how polished Animal Collective have become with their eighth album. The band has created a certain mystique throughout their career, and MPP shows just how they crushed the weight of expectations placed on them by fans and critics alike.
2009 saw a couple of new musical fads, one of them being lo-fi/chill-wave. No one did this genre better than Vega's Alan Palomo and his side-project Neon Indian. Lo-fi is such a simple concept, yet Palomo really turns the genre on its ear with his sophisticated, stuck in the 1980s sound. His "Deadbeat Summer" is one of 2009's perfect songs -- a song that seems so effortless, yet is so fucking fun to listen to over and over. It has the perfect mix of synthpop and lo-fi brilliance, coming to a head with Palomo's subdued, borderline-nonchalant singing style. Psychic Chasms strings together an impressive group of songs in an otherwise unimpressive genre. Chill-wave/lo-fi is usually a one-person effort, done rather hastily with less-than-stellar recording equipment, and this is exactly the case with Neon Indian. However, it is Palomo's talent that pushes Psychic Chasms heads and shoulders above anyone else in the genre. True, Palomo has had his time to hone his craft while recording as Vega, but if I want to sit through an entire lo-fi album, I want someone who knows what the fuck they are doing. Alan Palomo knows what the fuck he is doing, and Neon Indian will live as his one testament to that statement.
I remember remarking, upon hearing Actor for the first time, that "Annie Clark consistently releases music worthy of consideration with the year's best." Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, proved this assertion without a doubt with her second album Actor. The lead single "The Strangers" proved just how Clark sees contemporary music -- the track is replete with Clark's jazz-era vocals and fleeting woodwinds, a subtle tease for the crunchy rock guitars that Clark unleashes in the latter half of the song. That was always what endeared me to Clark in the first place -- she balanced this dichotomy of sweet, sugary sounding vocals and crashing guitars and drums. Her vocals are nothing short of brilliant, and her musical arrangements are mind-bogglingly complex. It is the two-song arc of "The Party" and "Just The Same But Brand New" that showcase how brilliant a musical mind Annie Clark really is. Both songs feature innocuous vocals and slow, toned-down tempos. Both songs, however, reach a crescendo of collapsing drums, violins suffused with ease and Clark's eery humming. I remember driving through Twentynine Palms late Sunday night after a long, final day at Coachella en route to my hotel when I reached the 2:45 mark of "The Party." I was absolutely blown away by what I was hearing and almost had to pull over to take in what was happening to me. I haven't had such a reaction to a song since, and that just shows me how powerful and moving a musician Annie Clark truly is.
I will be the first to admit that I was late to The Invisible party. I hadn't heard about the band until they were nominated for the 2009 Mercury Prize, an award they regretfully did not win. The Invisible has since won iTunes' Album of the Year award and yet they still manage to fly under most people's radars -- hell, they were under mine for quite some time. The Invisible is lead by lead singer Dave Okumu's absolutely unmistakable vocals. His soft, astoundingly haunting vocals are the strength of the album, hands down. His vocal talent is one that comes along very sparingly, and the band's mastery of matching their arrangements with Okumu's vocals produces one of the freshest, mature debuts I have heard in a long, long time. The album's second track, "Constant," is a perfect tempo-setter for an album that finds itself with multiple identities. It shows just how hard hitting the band can be -- how truly loud they can sound -- with Okumu's inherently soft-spoken singing style. "London Girl" showcases the upbeat, funky side of The Invisible, yet the song cannot escape from Okumu's vocals, which I find to be the perfect compliment to just about anything in this world (can you tell I love the way he sings yet?). "Monster's Waltz" perfectly ties in Okumu's vocals, the ingenious musical arrangements of the band and producer Matthew Herbert's amazing talents for making some of the most creative music available -- The Invisible is the first of two albums produced by Herbert on my list. I have heard this said about The Invisible, and -- as simple as it sounds -- I agree wholeheartedly, "The Invisible don't sound like anyone else."
What can be said about a band who has so many passionate fans and such widespread critical praise? Not much, really, but when a band is as accomplished as Brooklyn's Grizzly Bear, there is no such thing as too much. The band was branded as one of the best American indie rock bands in recent memory when they released their debut album Horn of Plenty in 2004. Five years later and that sentiment hasn't changed a bit with the release of their third full-length Veckatimest. Some bands would simply rest on their laurels and bask in the glory of such critical acclaim. I've seen it happen before, and it is absolutely disheartening. Some bands, on the other hand, challenge themselves and vow to consistently produce incredible music, showing their maturity and how their sound has evolved. Grizzly Bear are the epitome of the latter. The band is hardly flying under anyone's radar, yet their music is consistently amongst the decade's best. If I didn't know any better, I would label "Two Weeks" as 2009's best song. It does so, so many things right -- it is pure pop music suffused with indie rock, an unfairly catchy song that has absolutely stellar vocals. Listening to Grizzly Bear's music is like watching a skilled painter turn a canvas into a priceless work of art or a gifted athlete lead their team to a world championship. They are pure brilliance -- the closest anyone came in 2009. It is remarkable that a band like this comes along every 20 years, yet Grizzly Bear's time is right now and they are doing everything to make sure everyone knows just how amazing a band they really are.
What makes an album so special, for me, is the short amount of time after having first heard it that I can truly take a step back and be amazed. I knew from the first listen that Jewellery was my favorite album this year, and music-savant Mica Levi made it as easy as it could be for me. Her experimental pop music is unlike anything I have heard since I first listened to Death From Above 1979's debut album back in late 2004. Her avant-garde sensibility is incredibly refreshing, and her relentless avoidance of convention is what endears me to her music. Jewellery is an album that spends its entirety outside of the realm of conventional pop music. Levi is a genius, an unparalleled genius in the year 2009. A song like "Golden Phone" is brimming with pop potential, yet it is layered with experimental synths and other added instrumentals that drench the song with undeniable charm. Jewellery, like The Invisible before it, was produced by Matthew Herbert, a solid statement of just how brilliant a mind he truly is. I can feel safe by saying that Jewellery is the best album ever -- ever -- to feature the vacuum as an instrument. As odd as that sounds, Levi makes it sound seamless, like its actually built for instrumentation and not for cleaning. Micachu & The Shapes' debut effort isn't spectacularly weird in the way that it is off-putting -- granted, there are a few songs that can be head-scratchers -- but Levi offsets that by offering a song like "Calculator" that samples/borrows an idea from the song "Tequila" and makes it its own. Jewellery is an album that can be listened front to back without skipping that slow, boring song or that song that is obvious filler, and that idea is too far and few between these days with the heaps and heaps of shitty music flooding the market. It is comforting to know there are people like Mica Levi who practice their craft and expand their mind to create some of the best music this year -- if not this decade.
If you were wondering, my favorite song from 2009 comes from Montreal electronic/dance musician Tiga. His song "Shoes" is the most perfect, innocuous song I heard all year. The lyrics are fucking fantastic, the cheekiness is full blown, and the song is just fun. There isn't much to think about when listening to it -- it's painfully simple -- yet Tiga takes the thing and turns it into a mini-opus to the female form.