Cook's Corner: 2009 Year In Review

By: Dennis Cook

I listened to a lot of music this year, approximately two new albums per day, give or take. Some might call this 'heroic,' others 'ludicrous,' and others still 'grotesque.' But, all this listening isn't some sort of record geek machismo; it's an honest-to-god drive to find the best, coolest, most enriching music that can be found... and then share what truffles I've sniffed out with y'all. Of the 120 full album reviews I penned this year for JamBase, only a tiny few were negative and that's not because I'm easy. Instead, my primary goal is to sing enthusiastically about the great things I come across, and in many respects, this is the site's overarching editorial philosophy in a nutshell. We choose not to swing at everything, often passing on much that the mainstream and dominant indie rock outlets cover in favor of artists we think rate just as highly (or higher) than many bands getting oodles of press.

There are some notable absences from my 2009 picks, releases that have been popping up on almost every year-end-roundup – the latest from The Avett Brothers, Wilco, Animal Collective, The Low Anthem, Monsters of Folk. This is not because I did not hear these albums – I worked hard to "get" each but found them all wanting in some crucial way. I feel the albums highlighted here excel beyond these widely celebrated releases in some way, be it artistically, technically, just plain entertainment value or for other less easily phrased reasons. One unifying factor in all the Cook's Corner choices is how each release succeeds as an album, not just a conglomeration of random tracks. As music continues to shatter into easily digestible bits that we carry around in our pocket, I think there's real value in celebrating thoughtfully composed song cycles whose constituent parts add up to works with real power to inform and elevate our lives. Music can be a skeleton key for unlocking the universe, starting with our own lil' cosmos. Here then is a big, jangling ring of possible tumbler turners for your consideration.

Cook's Corner Top 25 Albums of 2009

Akron/Family: Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free
A clarion call for truth, beauty and an expanded sense of the universe. This is music that touches earth and sky, interior and exterior worlds, and does so with an exuberance and musical fortitude that's simply breathtaking. Akron/Family truly believes in music's power to shape a better, more engaged world, and Set 'Em Wild… finds them channeling ancestors as diverse as Woody Guthrie and Jerry Garcia, all of whom they do proud. (album review)

The Black Crowes: Before The Frost…Until The Freeze
The long-lived rockers' first double album - captured live in front of hardcore fans at Levon Helm's Barn in Woodstock - found them more creatively switched-on and varied than anything previous in their catalogue. This is the full plumage of one of the great bands of our time on proud display. (album review)

Neal Casal: Roots And Wings
A sterling addition to the California rock canon that can proudly take its place next to Jackson Browne's Late For The Sky and Gene Clark's No Other. As lead guitarist and harmony foil in Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Casal is fantastic; on his own, in service to his own tender, painfully honest muse he is simply stunning. Put directly, Neal Casal is one of the finest singer-songwriters to emerge in the past 20 years or more. Sleep on his work to your own detriment. (album review)

Clutch: Strange Cousins From The West
Tough, uncompromising hard rock with a fathoms deep connection to real blues. Clutch has steadily refined their mayhem and grind into a diamond-tipped drill into the meat of things, snarling with righteous conviction and smiling, fists clenched and a wicked glint in their eye, ready for all comers. (album review)

Mike Dillon's Go-Go Jungle: Rock Star Bench Press
Possibly THE sleeper of '09. Mike D, Go-Go Ray and JJ Jungle redeem the lazy shorthand "punk-jazz" by channeling the best parts of both genres and then refashioning them into ontological handgrenades that splinter preconceptions and social malaise. Bonus props for covering Jane's Addiction and The Minutemen. (album review)

Gov't Mule: By A Thread
Very quietly, as far as the mainstream is concerned, Gov't Mule has evolved into a devastating rock 'n' roll juggernaut, and this is their finest studio hour yet. Powered by the tightest, most interesting songs Warren Haynes has ever penned, this melds the original spirit of the Mule with the expansive surge of recent years into an addictively listenable whole. (feature article)

Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
Likely 2009's most misspelled word, Veckatimest defies simple explication. Though surely rock, there's something celestial and cavernously vast about this set. Where so much today is easily parsed, Grizzly Bear has crafted music that retains its mystery no matter how many times one plumbs its depths. (album review)

Lucero: 1372 Overton Park
A long promising band has made their first masterpiece, an album worthy of all the Springsteen and Replacements comparisons they've accrued in the past 11 years. Ben Nichols has fully grown into his cheese-gratered, tough guy voice, and his tales have the sort of flesh and reality one associates with the Drive-By Truckers or even Steely Dan in Lucero's love of n'er-do-wells wracked by longing and the weight of misdeeds. This is a cold shower and cup of hot, mean coffee for blue collar souls, and lord knows we could use it right about now in America.

Manchester Orchestra: Mean Everything To Nothing
Manchester Orchestra's mixture of hooky chops and angried-up bite stirs memories of Nirvana, though there's a swoon to this that soothes the belly wound bleeding. Strident enough in places to appeal to the emo kids, this has enough classic rock heft to lure in old long hairs like me. It takes a few spins to really feel the full measure of this one but when it finally hits you it's a Mike Tyson style haymaker. (show review)

The Mars Volta: Octahedron
After multiple releases where blinding speed and obfuscated lyrical outpour dominated, The Mars Volta showed that they're equally brilliant when they slow down. Taken together with El Grupo Nuevo De Omar Rodriguez Lopez and Xeonphanes and 2009 has blown the doors out for what's possible from the dizzyingly creative Mr. Lopez. Octahedron is oceanic, vast, dark waters that never reveal all that's lurking below the surface, yet one feels compelled to keep diving in again and again anyway.

Mastodon: Crack The Skye
The finest hard rock concept album in the past five, possibly ten years, a work that begs comparisons to Metallica or even Pink Floyd's best efforts. The level of catharsis contained in these tracks is gigantic, pushed along by the finest harmonies in metal today and real finesse with shifting moods and tempos. Mastodon comes at you with an intensity and seriousness that's compelling rather than off-putting, and thus is able to reach listeners outside metal's inner sphere. Anyone who has lost someone they love dearly will find terrific emotional resonance with Crack The Skye, and perhaps, like the band - who spent the better part of 2009 playing the album in its entirety live - one may find their scars have healed a bit after spending time with this one.

Ian McLagan & The Bump Band: Never Say Never
With the heartbreaking inspiration of his wife's passing, the Small Faces/Faces keyboardist has made the solo album of his career. Grief and loss are dealt with honestly but not super-seriously, and the light bounce to some tunes seems hard won and all the more satisfying because of it. Ghosts linger close here, but it's the sort of haunting that raises the goose bumps of first kisses and long, happy nights nestled against the one we love. (album review)

Megafaun: Gather, Form & Fly
A warm sigh that exhales particulate beauty. Megafaun produces a wild array of sounds for a trio, yet each is anchored to a deep curiosity about what makes people and music tick. Quality black cloud pop, acoustic exploration and full-on experimental clatter mingle in this release and none seems a strange bedfellow with Megafaun doing the matchmaking. (album review), (show review)

The Mother Hips: Pacific Dust
I'll just come right out and say it: The Mother Hips are the perfect classic rock band. Two amazing songwriters and four top-flight musicians, and everything just sounds fuckin' great on this latest salvo. If one loves The Beatles and anything else of that well-crafted, crazy talented ilk then you really should nestle between these Hips, especially today when the quartet has every last element dialed in. (feature article)

The Mumlers: Don't Throw Me Away
Only two albums in and San Jose, CA's The Mumlers are well on their way to being a Great American Music band, where multiple strains in the U.S.'s vast sonic tapestry get woven into terribly winning, smartly etched tunes. Will Sprott writes and sings 'em with the sharp eye and prematurely weathered pipes of vintage Tom Waits and Randy Newman, though he seems decidedly less premeditatedly cool than either. The kid is just a natural and he's got boffo collaborators that make the whole shebang swing. Don't blink and miss this band, please. (album review)

Porcupine Tree: The Incident
With each release in recent years Porcupine Tree has grown into the rare modern equivalent to the great U.K. rock boom of the late '60s through the mid '70s, where Deep Purple, Yes, Pink Floyd and other much-emulated Brits experienced their heyday. The Incident continues the Tree's evolution, melding the melodic grace and widescreen vision of their forebears with contemporary metal's density and electronica's penchant for subtle shading and fragmented congruencies. When combined with the band's beautifully constructed, sensory pricking live show, this song cycle shines even brighter, a testament to the material and the gifted craftsmen behind it. (feature article)

Richmond Fontaine: We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River
With zero fanfare, Richmond Fontaine may have produced the most fully realized album of their lengthy, woefully under-appreciated career. Combining the heaviness and crunch of their early work with the bruised hope of Post To Wire, their latest is further proof that this Portland, Oregon group is one of the finest American rock units of the past two decades, every bit the equal of The Hold Steady, Wilco and other more press-pimped bands. Bandleader Willy Vlautin breathes life into characters with dirt under their nails and skeletons in their closets. They drink and worry too much and quietly long for some long shot that's gonna pull them out of the muck. And held up in the right light, they look a lot like you and me. The portraits drawn on We Used To Think The Freeway… are like glorious black & white films subtitled with the pithy insight of a great short story writer, and the whole band plays with an eloquence and confidence that only comes from years & years of carving out one's own identity with steadfast conviction. This is armor and solace for the hard times ahead of most of us, and a poignant reminder that tough going can sometimes produce work of resonant truth and compassionate humanity.

Todd Snider: The Excitement Plan
"I'm broke as the Ten Commandments, and sometimes I'm harder to follow." If there's a funnier, more insightful singer-songwriter than Todd Snider kicking around I've not encountered him or her. There's an off-handed dexterity and never-see-it-coming emotional wallop to The Excitement Plan, which strips things down to the bright basics and lets Snider pick and croon with ol' pros Greg Leisz, Don Was and Jim Keltner. Todd is right at home in their company, spinning tales of LSD fueled no-hitters and the pitfalls of psychotherapy. This was my comfort zone and never fail fallback album of '09, waiting for me when the world started getting on my last nerve. It made me dance when I thought I was out of jigs, and it made me acutely aware of my own bullshit on more than a few occasions. Not many records make us better people but this one does. (album review)

The Staxx Brothers: We Are The Blaxstonz
All things can be funky when the strings are manipulated by master funkateers like The Staxx Brothers. The sophomore slab from these Seattle freakazoids is the perfect mixture of grime and polish, where they slap you high five while simultaneously exposing the seamy side of our collective underbelly. Street and book smart, this crew romps with purpose, creating impossible to get out of your head nuggets like "1992," "Westsound Union" and "Game Recognize Game." With wafts of country and hard rock, they groove gloriously on their path towards a fab new soul mythology. (show review)

Southeast Engine: From the Forest to the Sea
Spirituality and the discontent of modern man are tough nuts to crack, but Southeast Engine leaves both wonderfully shattered here. This is as urgent, heartfelt and musically electric as anything being dished up by My Morning Jacket and Grizzly Bear, and like those kindred spirits, Southeast Engine moves with sincerity and utter conviction. You can feel how much this music means to them and that translates into a great emotional journey for the listener. One feels their toes slowly sink into hallowed ground as they move through the scorched earth scattered throughout From the Forest to the Sea - truly a work inspired by and perfect for the times we live in. (album review)

Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures
This pummels you like a sparking furnace, flames licking at your skin, perspiration running over your lips, the beast in your gut awakened and anxious to eat, rut and otherwise live. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters), John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) didn't have to try this hard. They could have farted out a party record or done variations on blues scales and it would have likely met with moist praise. However, they've fashioned a rugged, hard to penetrate, decidedly heavy rock album that finds them at the top of their respective games. For all the "New Zeppelin" buzz flying around them, this is really its own thing, largely defined by Homme's razor sharp, unpredictable lyrics (mayhap the best in the mainstream since Beck's Midnite Vultures) and lascivious, unpredictable guitar and vocals. Jones is a total monster super-player here, too, and Grohl surprises with the range of his stick work and ability to keep up with the Zep vet's free-ranging, worldly chops. Every time I put this on I feel like pounding mescal and getting into trouble somewhere off the grid.

Themselves: Crownsdown
I want to rub this in the noses of every critic out there singing Kanye's praises as a hip hop innovator. Jel and Doseone are so far beyond anything that loudmouth egotist is ever likely to produce, and the slamming, brain- bonking proof of that rests here. Adept at slogans that linger and impenetrable, rapid-fire word storms, Themselves offers hope that hip hop, as an art form, still has a future despite the bleak, money grubbing, socially bankrupt mainstream. (album review)

These United States: Everything Touches Everything
Simply put, These United States give me hope and make me caper like there's a decent tomorrow around the corner. They're like the roots rock cousin to Akron/Family's genre-wilding, and the greater focus and leaner character of Everything Touches Everything only moves their many virtues to the fore. Instead of choosing to be distant and cool, they've chosen to enfold us in a bear hug and whisper small truths into our ear as we relax into the welcome heat of them. The last bit of the liner notes I penned for this album read: "We are no longer prisoners of the past, and the future is ours to make or break. Roll up your sleeves, grab a tambourine and a shovel and join the revival." Genuinely inspirational stuff from a band that only seems to get better and better.

Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship
Many have tried but no one else really sounds like Tortoise, and they've put a few more miles between them and the competition with this imaginative release. These Chicago boys have done a lot for instrumental music, expanding the vocabulary for those who wish to tell stories with no words. Beacons confirms their leadership spot in this rarified field with reenergized flair. (album review)

U2: No Line On The Horizon
Easily the most cohesive, thoughtful album this seemingly-never-ending powerhouse has released since Achtung Baby (1991). Nothing like a couple of wars, worldwide environmental and hunger concerns, and a rapidly changing social milieu to fire up this bunch. Absolutely no one tackles stadium size ideas better than U2, and this is as fine a bunch of cross-cultural, people unifying songs as they've ever produced. They also sound like they're having a bit of fun, and The Edge keeps coming up with sumptuous new guitar tones. No Line On The Horizon has a flow and feel right up there with U2's mid-80s heyday, yet somehow manages to be resolutely modern. There's a reason they're the biggest band on the planet. (album review)

And The Rest…

Top 10 Debut Albums of 2009

To my ears, this is the graduating class for this past year - artists one would be wise to keep tabs on because they're likely to be making amazing music in the years ahead based on the evidence of their respective opening salvos.

1. Dan Auerbach: Keep It Hid (album review)

2. Dawes: North Hills (album review)

3. Fol Chen: Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune's Made (album review)

4. Here We Go Magic: Here We Go Magic

5. Hiss Golden Messenger: Country Hai East Cotton (album review)

6. James Husband: A Parallax I

7. Lansdale Station: Lansdale Station (album review)

8. Lions In The Street: Lions In The Street (album review)

9. Rain Machine: Rain Machine

10. Elijah and Jo Wilkinson: On Sacred Ground (Mother and Son)

Best Mainstream Album of 2009

Lily Allen: It's Not Me, It's You
The same part of me that morbidly follows the Eurovision competition is inexorably drawn to Ms. Allen. Shaking my tush and singing along to the banjo dappled disco of "Not Fair" or belting out the black opening lines of "The Fear," I find I couldn't give a flying fuck if it's cool to dig her. I just do, warts and all, and she's made a hell of a populist gem. And she's given us the fine flipping-the-bird farewell to George W. Bush and his ilk with "Fuck You," so you should like her, too. (album review)

International Release of 2009
Tinariwen: Imidiwan: Companions (album review)

Best Tribute/Covers Albums of 2009
Phosphorescent: To Willie (album review)
Poor Man's Whiskey: Dark Side of the Moonshine

Archival Releases of 2009
Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds: Mute reissues (album review #1), (album review #2)
Death: …For The Whole World To See (album review)
Chris Darrow: Chris Darrow/Under My Own Disguise (album review)

Best "New" Classic Rock Albums of 2009 (or "The Zeppy Award")
Leroy Justice: The Loho Sessions (album review)
Powder Mill: Do Not Go Gently (album review)

Concept Album of 2009
Mike Keneally: Scambot 1 (album review)

Soul Album of 2009
The Black Seeds: Solid Ground (album review)

Best Live Album of 2009
Thin Lizzy: Still Dangerous (album review)

Best Dance Album of 2009
Gossip: Music For Men (album review)

Best EPs of 2009
Hottub: On Blast! (EP review)
The New Up: Better Off

Best "Best Of" Anthologies of 2009
Blur: Midlife: A Beginner's Guide To Blur
Nick Lowe: Quiet Please...The New Best of Nick Lowe

Surprising Return To Form of 2009
KISS: Sonic Boom

Best Bong Hit 'n' Headphones Album of 2009 (or What Several Species of Small Furry Animals Are Grooving To In A Cave These Days)
The Flaming Lips: Embryonic

25 Songs from 2009 That Will Greatly Enrich Your Life
1. "Gimakiny Akia" by Extra Golden
2. "One String Harp" by Bell X1
3. "Messing With My Head" by Tinted Windows
4. "The Fade" by Megafaun
5. "That Western Skyline" by Dawes
6. "Laughing With" by Regina Spektor
7. "16 & Valencia Roxy Music" by Devendra Banhart
8. "Blue Moon" by Drug Rug
9. "Cocaine & Ashes" by Son Volt
10. "Northern Lights" by Bowerbirds
11. "Calling All Crows" by State Radio
12. "Blanket of Weeds" by Meat Puppets
13. "Crying Lightning" by Arctic Monkeys
14. "'Til My Voice Is Gone" by The Old Ceremony 15. "Goodbye" by The Maldives
16. "The Way You Can Get" by The Gourds
17. "So Slowly" by Early Day Miners
18. "East Jesus Nowhere" by Green Day
19. "Another World" by Antony and the Johnsons
20. "Needle Down" by Super 400
21. "Alice Mae" by Hill Country Revue
22. "Divide & Conquer" by Vandaveer
23. "Hurry For The Sky" by Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3
24. "Leave The Window Open" by Chuck Prophet
25. "Stillness Is The Move" by Dirty Projectors

A Look To The Future…

Covers There Should Be A Moratorium On In 2010
Okay, Michael Jackson is gone. Six months of "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" covers is enough. Really. And be honest, most of the attempts at Michael's catalog were pretty limp by comparison to the Pop King's studio grandeur. The Corner suggests that acts seeking to increase their soul quotient explore the rich catalogs of Donny Hathaway, Funkadelic, The Temptations and Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson for some primo, less-traveled fare.

5 Artists To Watch in 2010

There's something special brewing in this shortlist of really, really talented folks. My gut instinct is these bands are on the verge of major musical breakthroughs, both in the studio and onstage.

1. Flowmotion

2. Everest

3. J. Tillman

4. Hot Buttered Rum

5. Backyard Tire Fire

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[Published on: 1/1/10]

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