Music Matters

If I were to look back at my life and choose the one thing that has mattered the most and defined me as a person, without question it would be music. I’m not sure when it started but somehow, imagined or real, I have this vague but powerful image of myself as a child riffling through the records housed in an antique armoire belonging to my parents and stumbling upon the curious cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I asked my father to drop the needle on the record, and within moments my life changed. The scratchy, groove worn melodies began to flow from the old speakers right into the rest of my life. I was transfixed, or so I imagine it to have been.

Ever since that day, music was the one thing I could always depend on. Music is a drug, any drug you need it to be at any given time: Prozac, ecstasy, aspirin, vicodin, dopamine, or caffeine. Despite the fact that taken in the right doses it is often habit forming, music is not a pill. Those familiar sounds carry with it memories, the times and places all but forgotten, triggered by a few notes or choruses. It transports you back to great loves, crippling breakups, perfect summer nights, endless road trips, or the birth of a child. There is nothing in this world that even comes close to the associative power carried in song.

Beginning with REM’s “Chronic Town,” the mournful optimism of anything by the The Smiths, Nick Drake’s gorgeous “Bryter Layter,” Jeff Buckley’s heroic “Grace,” Neutral Milk Hotel’s astonishing “In the Aeroplane Over The Sea,” Midlake’s soulful “The Trials of Van Occupanther,” to the blissful eponymous Fleet Foxes debut, these are a few of the records that comprise the soundtrack of my life. Everyone has one but most people they don’t play theirs enough.

The first thing I did after getting my drivers license, was drive 30 miles to Cleveland to a record store that was light years better than the one in my small Ohio town, or the chain store in the nearby mall. This was a ritual that continued until recently when I finally relented and began to embrace that infinite record store in the sky. These trips were literally journeys towards self-discovery. The vinyl and CD fruits of each of these voyages changed my life a little bit every time.

There are also those incredibly transcendent moments when you find yourself standing before a stage of musicians who are so completely in the moment, so at ease with each other and the crowd before them. If I were religious, I suppose these moments would be those moments. You are somehow transported to a different, better place, at least for a short period.

My eldest child has been sick for years. When I look back at how I have dealt with the helplessness that I have felt there are only two things that helped me get through it: the smile he wears so effortlessly and music. I have no idea what else I would turn to in its place. Somehow the two together have helped me see life in a different way than I could have possibly expected.

But music is also a game. For some it is the game of “I discovered that band first.” This is ammunition of hours and hours of spirited debate. For others it is the game of trying to figure out another person, and steering them towards that perfect record that they didn’t know existed. There is no better feeling than turning someone on to that album that might change his or her life, or at least brighten a day. The best part of the game of music is that it never ends. Every day there is another great band or album to discover. For every current artist there is a new record or tour to look forward to someday.

And so, after four decades of trying to fit a passion into a profession, TastemakerX will launch, beta warts and all. It’s a game about music, for anybody who cares about music, or wishes that he or she still had time to stay tuned in like they did when they were young. If I were a doctor at the top of the list of daily musts, along with fruits and vegetables, I’d prescribe at least one uninterrupted song a day or one album a week listened to front to back, away from the internet, just the music playing. It doesn’t matter what you choose, music is a kind of food for your soul. Just listen intently, voraciously and to as much as you can.

The Bestest 2011– Tunage

If you look hard enough, any year can turn out to be a great one for music. Long gone are the days when commercial radio called the shots, when proximity to a killer record store or access to a suitable tastemaker could serve as an excuse for embracing mediocrity. Spotify is finally stateside. Record stores hardly exist anymore. Pandora is available in some cars. Satellite radio has XMU. You can hear KCRW’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on your phone. You can listen to your iPod over Bluetooth on a Jambox. You can push your 500+ gig collection to anywhere over Sonos. Coachella, Pitchfork, Austin City Limits Festival, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Outside Lands … so many festivals, so little time. There is simply no excuse not to take advantage of turning on to something truly life affirming. 2011 was another year steeped in brilliant, resurgent, rootsy Americana indie rock. There was also the emergence of some incredible new female voices, and a healthy dose of chill wave electronica. In the end music can make the world go round, so plug in, life is too quiet without it.

1) The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (Sub Pop)

The greatness of some bands is immediately apparent. A few chords, a few harmonies, and you are hooked emotionally with melodies tattooed on your mind for the balance of the day or week. I have been listening to this masterpiece for almost a year now since its release in January of 2011, a year in which I have seen them four times, each a bit better than the time before. Like the love child of Mumford and the Fleet Foxes, The Head and the Heart is both pop enough to eventually become a massive hit, but with enough indie cred for tastemakers to keep coming back for the follow up, hopefully for a long time . The band is a five piece band, three of whom trade equally compelling vocals.

This record is part of the new Americana rock movement that emphasizes 70’s harmonizing, acoustic guitar, piano, strings, and thematic preoccupations with nature and love. I don’t listen to commercial radio, so I have little idea how big this band has gotten over the past half year, but it is hard to imagine that this isn’t a record for the ages for those into folk, pop, jam, or indie rock. The production is warm and earthy, while the songwriting both harkens back and is very modern in a dusty respectful way with soaring melodies and chorus’ that build into rainbows of joy. This is a very special record indeed.

2) WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain (LYF)

There are few artists who growl as beautifully as Ellery Roberts from WU LYF.  In fact Tom Waits, “The Pogues”, Shane McGowen, and Captain Beefheart might be the only ones. But WU LYF, a self-produced Manchester band, hits you immediately like an emotional ton of bricks, although you are left a bit uneasy trying to get your balance right. Musically, things seem familiar enough, big distant sounding percussion which builds little by little with every song, sparse keyboard sounds emerging now and then, with a kind of bright melodic guitar line holding it all together. Hard to place, familiar, but really like nothing you have heard before.

But back to the vocals. I’m still unsure whether to try to focus hard enough to understand the gruff emotive howls, or just let it go and let the words pour over me like a beautiful but indistinct instrument. On “Dirt,” my vote for the signature track, you get this euphoric and transcendent musical groove swirling, and every once in a while you catch a lyric or two that you can understand, but then, as quickly as you caught it, it disappears. That is the beauty of WU LYF who flirt dangerously close with the traditional but then mess with it just enough to make it too weird for those not willing to let go. On “Concrete Gold” you latch onto a familiar enough sounding guitar, but realize that so much is happening behind the surface you can’t resist getting sucked in. So is life (or LYF).

3) Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (Domino)

Some artists are born to rock while others will it into existence. Some do both. At 21 Laura Marling is a student of rock history taking equal parts Fairport Convention, PJ Harvey, and Cat Power, and blending them into some of the starkest, sultriest folk rock in decades. She has the dusty weathered voice of a wounded angel, and the sensibility of Led Zeppelin, often beginning with a few gentle strums before erupting into cacophony of hard driving rock.

On the transcendent “The Beast” and “Salinas”, you are tricked into expecting something hushed and acoustic, but quickly drawn into something dark and beautiful. In an age where Adele and Gaga rule the airwaves, Marling seems satisfied with channeling the blues and transforming it into something altogether bigger, badder, and ultimately better.

4) Bon Iver – Bon Iver (Jagjaguar)

I am a total sucker for sparse emotive indie folk. Heartbreaking mythology now a few years behind Bon Iver’s debut “For Emma,” Justin Vernon’s follow-up is a much thicker, schmaltzier masterpiece. A self-confessed lover of Bruce Hornsby and all things almost beyond ironically cool, “Bon Iver” is a richly textured road through small towns like “Calgary” and “Perth.”

Like his most supergroup side project Gayngs (whose 2010 full length is, in some ways, even better) this record is a silky smooth affair, gliding on the confident calm of Vernon’s occasional falsetto. In some ways this album suffered from over play, stuck in my car CD player for months, but it is rare to hear a song as simultaneously moving and cool as “Holocene.” It is hard not to be rooting for and hoping that this is the beginning of a long and lush career.

5) elbow - build a rocket boys (XL)

Tragically for most people, elbow seems like a new band, but in truth they have been around for a dozen years cranking out moody crescendo-bending music. I have always loved brit pop, starting with the Manchester Factory records, the ethereal bliss of 4AD in its prime, and through the historic Creation records. So it is no surprise that the only still viable keepers of this flame, elbow, with “build a rocket boys” has reawakened such a wonderful nerve. As easy as it is to fall in love with the recorded songs, to see this band live, complete with a singer whose angelic, soaring almost operatic voice defies his physical likeness to Ricky Gervais, is to truly understand them. At the Austin City Limits festival this year after the longest draught in Texas history, a few songs worth of much needed and beautiful rain fell from the sky as this band had the crowd swaying hands up and fingers approximating the fall from above. A beautiful moment.

The ten songs here all tend to build from lush and fragile to full flung explorations of sound and emotion, most notably the opening track “the birds” and “with love” that begin innocently enough before exploding into something other-worldly. In the end whether you have been tracking this band from the beginnings as serious, perhaps moderately pretentious yet immature art rockers, yet still serious and fully formed musicians, or you just drop in on them this time around, they are something to behold.

6) Girls – Father, Son and Holy Ghost (Matador)

Full disclosure, I am an unabashed zealot for Girls. Their debut record and follow-up EP topped my lists for the past two years. This time out, the band travels even darker and deeper into themselves than their previous two brightly lit trips to paradise lost. As in previous efforts, they alternate between long brooding epics like the incredible “Vomit” and “Forgiveness” and lighthearted Beach Boys meets Elvis Costello ditties like “Honey Bunny” and “Alex.”

Christopher Owens, the principal songwriter and guitarists, is a true morbid savant. He is a musician whose troubled upbringing has made him both wiser than his young soul should be, but also still innocent enough to make you really care. Whether or not he becomes the next Brian Wilson or Lou Reed, the music of Girls is a real treasure, worthy of patient honest reflection.

7) PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (Universal Island)

Of all the female rockers to emerge from the early 90’s, only PJ Harvey is  still down her own dark dirty road, still hungry and creative. In many ways she is like a soul mate to Tom Waits, never at a loss for words or emotion, complete with raucous percussion, and embracing experience and translating it into words, accompanied for the first time in a decade, and creating genuinely accessible bliss.

Tunes like “This Glorious Land” and “The Words That Maketh Murder” are infectious grooves, while she lets down her grizzled guard on ballads like “On Battleship Hill” and “Hanging on a Wire” making it easy to jump aboard and bathe in light. Some records have the power to rip you out of a moment and transport you to a wildly different place. “Let England Shake” is very special and proof that youth isn’t wasted on the young.

8) Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)

Almost four years ago, even before their first EP “Sun Giant” was released, I stood before a bunch of bearded hippies at the Bowery Ballroom, transfixed by their lush nostalgic confidence as they buzzlessly opened for Blitzen Trapper. Nothing they have done since that night has been anything less than perfect. Their CSN harmonies and their mid-70’s meandering California spirit is such an authentic relic of a bygone era, even among a sea of more popular revisionists like Mumford, that the years that have passed since the debut have passed way too slowly.

The dozen songs on “Helplessness Blues” are about what you would expect – earthy epics that tend to rise and fall around the sublime vocals of still only 25 year-old Robin Pecknold. Already something of a studio perfectionist, they recorded these songs, scrapped and rerecorded them a handful of times between Woodstock, Seattle and parts in between. From the stunning title track whose chorus “If I had an orchard I’d work till I’m sore” mixes just the right amount of Johnny Appleseed pioneer spirit with earnest longing, to the bouncy slow build of “Grown Ocean” and the lush “Lorelai,” this album covers a tremendous amount of ground very carefully. Like Wilco before them, the Fleet Foxes seem destined to make a long career of trying to understand who we are and who we wish to become. There is much to love here, and I’m guessing many will grow to love it more with each passing year.

9) Real Estate – Days (Domino)

Some music fights its way into your psyche while others merely roll over you like waves of joy and calm. Real Estate is the latter, a convertible on a summer day with music playing while the breeze blows through your hair. The band is kindred spirits to fellow New Jerseyites The Feelies (“It’s Real”) but with a hint of the jangly poppiness of Luna or early REM (“Easy”).

“Days” is equal parts tranquility and infectious guitar bliss. There is a certain effortless precision that spills from Real Estate songs, like a peaceful homage to the simplicity of youth and a peaceful suburban childhood. This is a record that asks very little of the listener but gives so much.

10) A Band of Bees – Every Step’s A Yes (ATO)

I will start by saying A Band of Bees is easily my favorite band from the Isle of Wight. Despite owning all of their prior efforts, I had pretty much forgotten about them until recently when this record surfaced in the “recommended” section of some forgotten mp3 blog. The resulting find is one of the best records of the year, with perhaps the best song in a decade – the “Astral Weeks” caliber “Really Need Love Now” which just keeps building on the refrain. The sixteen songs on “Every Step’s A Yes” is like a long stroll back through time with a bunch of different flavors of psychedelia from Byrd’s era entries like “Silver Line” to the string infused lullaby “Tired of Loving” to the Velvets homage “Change Can Happen.”

There is a lushness in the production here that is truly a relic of another era. This is a record for music heads, though, for all of the joy I take in hearing musical influences from Van to The Fairport Convention, this album is a sleepy, subtle orchestral journey into the past, refreshed just slightly for modern times. With its shimmering strings, woodwinds, harps, this is not merely a collection of songs but more a fully realized albums in an age that has all but forgotten what this means. Fortunately we live in a headphone world, so grab some good ones and bliss out for 75 minutes transported back to somewhere you probably haven’t ever been. [Read more…]

The New Pornographers – Together (Matador)

TogetherFor five records now, indie rock’s most shameless optimists have been pushing the same wonderful pop boulder up and down a most lovely hill. To the unexposed, the Pornographers are one of the rocks most accomplished super groups featuring leader A.C. Newman, of early Zumpano fame, Neko Case the great alt-country goddess, and Dan Behar from the lesser known but incredibly accomplished Destroyer. Together the band creates infectious pop classics, where vocal duties alternate between the angelic Neko, the boyish A.C., and the warbling Behar, with almost “Glee-like” harmonizing throughout.

It is rare for band to make it this far into a career without a record that even remotely resembles a miss. Almost every song on “Together” has the potential to get under your skin, and with “Moves” an anthemic opener, “Crash Years” which already seems like logical soundtrack music, and the ten other addictive epics. Mass success or not, this is a band who has made me smile for years, and “Together” although not in any way groundbreaking is perfect just the way it is.

Midlake – The Courage of Others (Bella Union)

Product DetailsIt took me a month to listen to and process the latest Midlake record before I felt qualified to speak objectively about “The Courage of Others.” I would have to go back to Buckley’s stunning “Grace” fifteen years ago to find another record as important to me as Midlake’s predecessor “The Trials of Van Occupanther.” That record was immediately captivating both musically and emotionally, lifting the best bits from Fleetwood Mac-  a band I never really considered as deeply as perhaps I should have, and combined it with the indie folk I have grown older gravitating towards.

It is rare that I read the reviews of others before attempting my own, but in the case of Midlake my three years of eagerness for the follow-up to left me in some ways too biased to resist the urge. What I found was a massively polarizing reaction to a record that I took longer to fall for than I would have expected. “Courage” is in some ways as satisfying as I could have hoped for, but also perhaps more somber and precious than it needed to be. That said, with every listen, and I have found myself doing so more and more often, I am increasingly drawn into this reflective and emotive masterpiece.

They have grown closer to new influences this time around, but they tend to go further back than Fleetwood Mac, settling into the mid-sixties Brit folk of The Fairport Convention, than they do west coast Americana. Vocalist Tim Smith, has a voice a pure and urgent as anyone making music today, and like previous efforts is bathed in impeccable production. Songs like “Rulers, Ruling All Things” and “Winter Dies” represent the closest approximation to singles or pop songs, but to describe them as such would be to miss the point – this record is takes some getting used to. There is much emotional acclimation, but below the surface where initially there seems pretension, there is joy and hope. The songs build to a triumphant crescendo, and in the end with headphones this is an epic voyage that is both uplifting and contemplative. Just surrender yourself to something truly special, and use the music to help express emotions often to hard articulate.

The Bestest 2009 – Tunage

The business of music seems to be forever spiraling towards something that seems like a bottom, despite the fact the black hole is still largely out of site. This doesn’t keep artists and fans from uniting in that universal bliss flowing from the discovery of a wonderful song at the perfect time to make everything better. The older I get, the less time I seem to have for pure undistracted, music listening, but the more important it is to find and fall for a handful of great records. 120K miles on airplanes was my salvation this year, a time for quiet contemplation and the place, flying above the clouds with my headphones on, where I logged my best listening. These were the records that made this year so colorful.  

1)   Girls – Album (Matador)
 Inevitably every year I fall hard for a record that manages to further reinvent that hazy, melodic Brian Wilson mid-60’s California feeling. This year the debut from San Francisco’s “Girls” rips that page up, and then reassembles it into a glorious, grungy scrapbook of freedom and loss. The band is primarily the brainchild of Christopher Owens who, as a child, survived  itinerant drifting as part of a bizarre cult only to run away from home and then to reemerge years later as the author of one of the most emotive and uplifting albums of the times. There is a beautifully ragged, druggy, innocence dripping from every note

But “Album” is an adventure in texture. It lives somewhere between rock and pop, psychedelic and lo-fi, happy and sad. A song like “Hellhole Ratrace,” my vote for the finest song of 2009, is an epic meditation on “love and affection” that starts innocently enough with a gentle guitar that builds into a wall of emotion cycling through a few repeated choruses for seven blissful minutes. Other songs stay closer to the Wilson ethos of the instruments,  just kind of echoing the crashing of waves on the Pacific and the wind through the palms, e.g. “Headache.” This album is a wonderfully warm place to escape to and dream.

2)   Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (Warp)

Up until now I have been more a passive ‘admirer’ than a genuine fan of this sprawling, often too precious “orchestral rock” band. And like so many of the incredible new bands that have invaded and settled in Brooklyn, Grizzly Bear is something completely different. To start you will hear four completely different vocalists, each with their own distinctive style alternating between breathy and hushed to melodic and operatic.

 The best songs on “Veckatimist” (‘Two Weeks, ‘Southern Point’) just seem to soar in a very different way than most of the other great records this year. Somewhere between jazz, the kind of choral music you might hear in a church, and a few rock tunes that really tap into an addictive groove exists one of the most sophisticated and diverse albums in years, further proof that the idea of an album has not yet fully succumbed to the current trend of individual songs without context.

3)   Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)
 To say Dirty Projectors is an acquired taste would be both a probable understatement and disrespectful to the band. This is the kind of music that only happens when a kid from Yale with a big vocabulary, great taste in music and a broad musical education decides to devote his life to indie rock. The result is mash-up of well appointed classical strings, unusual choral and vocal timings, synth-based electronic beats, and incredibly diverse guitar lines. This is art rock for those with a pop sensibility.
“Bitte Orca” is one part Jeff Buckley, one part ’77 era Talking Heads.

Any attempt to describe what happens over the course of the album’s nine songs could be seen as misleading but I’ll try. The record is broadly dance music, but nothing I would know how to dance to, but then something way more precious and chamber music-like best relegated to a drawing room, and then vocal gymnastics not really definable at all. The only real thread for me is that all directions initiated within these songs lead to and start from somewhere I can comfortably call brilliant.  

4)   The xx – xx (Rough Trade)
 It is how hard for me to gage how accessible this record really is given that it took me exactly one listen to recognize and then fall for the incredible craft and beauty of these eleven songs. Usually music this patient and precious takes a while to appreciate given the quiet nuances hidden below the surface, but for me it was immediate. The music stretches across a few genres but lands squarely in none of them. There is a bit of 4AD era shoegaze (lush, pale saints, etc.) some mellow electronica (Zero7, Portishead) and then something more straightforward and poppy.

 The fact that this is a debut album by four English 20 year-olds (this is the first album I have ever loved where the artists were exactly half my age) adds to the story but there is nothing novel about the music. The songs are largely built on melodic vocal exchanges between the two childhood friends who started the band, layered over pristine beats and loops that tend to neatly soak up  the hushed lyrics like red wine by a paper towel. There wasn’t a sexier, more consistently perfect album released this year. I can wait to hear what they are doing when they are 40.

5)   The Clientele – Bonfires On The Heath (Merge)
 I have long been a wild fan of the soulful, retro pop of The Clientele, but for the most part their five earlier records were all so subtle and precious that broad appeal was always doomed at conception. But this time around the ten songs are all carved from an upbeat, jangly totem, adorned with strings, brass and toe tapping guitar rhythms.

 Although their music is oddly distinctive, perhaps it’s best described as a throwback to the mid- career albums of bands like Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout, but set more in the 60’s of swinging London, something way cooler and less poppy than those. The Clientele have a specific quality mostly driven by the cleanest, crispest guitar lines accompanied by just the right amount of brass.  Somehow their music always displays a kind of James Bond suaveness, where the guy always gets the girl and the bad guys are seen running exhaustedly after a moving train far out of reach. The mood they set, complete with the hushed vocals and introspective lyrics, creates a feeling foreshadowed by the album’s title that is warm and wonderful.  

6)   Lisa Hannigan – See Saw (Rough Trade)
There wasn’t a lusher, brighter jazz-folk record for me this year than Lisa Hannigan’s “See Saw.”  It’s important to clarify that this is not a precious acoustic folk record, this is a rich string and percussion driven almost cabaret experience rooted in a kind Fairport Convention musicality. These songs are often relentlessly compelling (e.g., “I Don’t Know”), the kind of song that actually brings chills for no apparent reason, until eventually someone finds this and pegs to a TV where its innocence is lost forever.

But despite the incredible skill of the band, this group is mostly about the vocals and songwriting of the Irish Hannigan, who started her career with Damian Rice. She has one of those powerful but effortless voices that transports her songs to a place somewhere between other-worldly and suitable for framing. This is a record for adults, and specifically those with really good taste.  

7)   Jack Penate – Everything is New (Beggars Banquest/XL)
If John Hughes were still alive and making movies about teenagers in the 80’s, there’s no doubt that Jack Penate would be a frequent soundtrack contributor. His music is pure throwback to the best British new wave music of that period: think The Cure, New Order, Stone Roses. He infuses every song with that kind of edgy optimism and bounce that much of the pop new wave movement did so well.

Not unlike the Strokes unpacking trunk loads of old vinyl from the Buzzcocks, Gang of Four, and others from that period, Penate is a truly amazing songwriter who often does a better job with this material than his original inspirations. Songs like “Be The One” and “Tonight’s Today” are every bit as addictive as “Boy’s Don’t Cry” or Pretty In Pink.” More than almost any of my favorites from this year, each of the nine songs on the aptly titled “Everything is New” is a keeper in the classic sense. It’s hard not to love this record.

8)   David Bazan – Curse Your Branches (Merge)
David Bazan has been writing songs for eons under the name of Pedro The Lion, his largely acoustic indie folk alter ego. I have always liked this music, but on “Curse Your Branches” he has created something entirely different and beautiful. I’m not sure that you could argue that there is anything revolutionary going on here, but I’m not sure that matters.

By way of  benchmark, I guess you might hear echoes of American Music Club in the sense that this is largely a low key rock band with a stylish mix of keyboards and guitars, which largely just set the stage for Bazan’s vocals, what everything centered around. His songs are delivered in deep broad strokes and rely less on catchy choruses and more on linear storytelling than on refrains. For a record that seems less groundbreaking than many, there is something strangely seductive here.

9)   Dinosaur Jr. – Farm (Anti-)
It’s been fifteen years since I last included a Dinosaur Jr. record on this list. I have never fallen out of love with the grungy early SST records and the later considerably more polished Warner Brothers records; in fact they still best satisfy my occasional urge for loud, but melodic post-punk noise. More than almost any band of it’s kind, Husker Du being a close second, Dinosaur Jr. always managed to hold tightly onto clean, clear melodies despite the pounding drumlines and throbbing guitars.

On the second reunion record pairing J. Mascis and Lou Barlow since their ugly split in the late 80’s when J. signed the band to a major label and Lou left to form Sebadoh, it is as if no time has passed. They still have an incredible knack for a pop song, with Mascis’ muffled but comfortable vocals landing like an old friend on Barlow’s mordantly optimistic musical sensibilities. In the event you don’t believe me try playing “Plans” very loudly through headphones with your eyes closed and you’ll be transported directly to 1992 before Nirvana broke it all open.

10)   The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World To Come (4AD)
The Mountain Goats latest record is their17th in less than fifteen years. The music of John Darnielle whose nasal  warbling vocals, hyper-literate lyrics and hugely prolific output has always been distinctive, if not always perfect. But this time out, despite a much more accessible overall feeling, the songs are  extremely fragile and occasionally almost uncomfortably intimate.

The Mountain Goats have always told stories about the downtrodden, forgotten and suffering. But in telling some basic lessons, Darnielle looks to the bible for inspiration with each song title a different passage illustrating a specific aspect of human kind. Although broadly inconsistent , “The Life” features some of the catchiest most optimistic songs of his brief career (see “Genesis 3:23”). Perhaps The Mountain Goats is an acquired taste, but for passive admirers, this is a breakthrough, or at least it was for me.  

11)   Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (Matador)
Twenty-five years and 15 proper albums later, I have been riding this train from the very beginning (a $3 radio station copy of “New Wave Hot Dogs” purchased on Coventry Rd. in Cleveland). More than almost any band I know, it seems like Yo La Tengo has been very gently evolving its sound, moving positively in the upper right direction, without any of the very specific defining moments that have signaled change for bigger bands (Dylan going electric, U2 or Radiohead going electronic). For me this is part of their rustic charm: familiarity without redundancy or misstep.

“Popular Songs” is another wonderful testament to the extreme breadth of band, weaving between sugary sweet almost kids’ music- worthy tunes like “If It’s True,” to lilting ballads like “I’m On My Way” to their long, spacey wall of sound dreamscapes like “Here To Fall.” On the whole, this is a largely more accessible effort than usual, but this is a compliment. On a side note, in an era where more than half of all marriages end in divorce, watching and listening to the Yo La husband and wife team of Georgia and Ira making art is an inspiration. “Popular Songs” won’t be popular to the unwashed, Taylor Swift loving masses, but to brainy music loving aging hipsters, this is a little slice of heaven.

12)   The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch)  
This is a sleepy, beautiful, chamber folk classic with branches as far reaching as Mark Kozelak, to Uncle Tupelo to Tom Waits. Hailing from the least country music mecca in the country, Rhode Island, this duo has crafted twelve songs that meander easily between the lazy and intimate to the more straight forward brand of alt-country.

 Led by vocalist Ben Knox Miller, there is something easy and unforced that ripples throughout, but it is on the exquisite “To Ohio” that the band carves out its own unique space. It took a few spins for me to really get it, but in the end this one is a solid keeper.

13)   Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti-)

Neko Case is a true force of nature. Her voice is among the most confident and controlled in music. It has been for the past decade as she has continually honed her craft somewhere between country and pop, both as a solo artist and the occasional “soul” behind the super group the New Pornographers. In general my bias for her will always drift towards her pop sensibilities rather than her purer country inclinations, but like Joni Mitchell, who always had a kind of cool groove to her early and middle records, Neko Case carries the songs on her back leading them with her voice, leading the music instead of merely following or conforming to it.

“Middle Cyclone” is another lovely record, but like most of her solo work it is filled with hugely perfect moments (“People Got a Lot of Nerve” and “This Tornado Loves You”) and a few that tend to miss a little. But in the end it is hard for me to name more than a few female vocalists who have combined both the chops and songwriting abilities over the past bunch of years – Beth Orton, Cat Power, PJ Harvey. Neko Case is very much the real deal.

14)   The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You  (Sony)
There was not another album that better alternated between the quiet and sublimely beautiful and the bouncy alt-country swagger than the  Rick Rubin- produced major label debut of The Avett Brothers. This one almost slipped between the cracks for me. Something about the major label and the Rick Rubin stamp made me skeptical, but after a handful of proper listenings (and by that I mean headphones on an airplane), the songs just kind of settle in. There is just the right amount of emotion to make you care without veering into the land of the overstated.

Like Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone,” you probably don’t need me to help direct you to a record like this, but it certainly fits neatly into my list for 2009. I guess there is a thick thread of folk that ran through my favorites this year, but these sweet tongued brother from North Carolina have created a minor  masterpiece accessible to all. In that fuzzy realm that exists between country and folk “I and Love and You” holds its candle high.

15)   Loney, Dear – Dear John (Polyvinyl)

I love the Scandinavian folkies: Kings of Convenience, Sondra Lerche, Jose Gonzalez and Nicoli Dunger. But Loney, Dear’s latest effort transcends the genre and morphs into something quite different and special. Think The Postal Service, but stronger, much more urgent and less shallow-synth sounding. If the older Loney records were sparer, more acoustic seeming, “Dear John” is a gusher of both optimistic energy, much needed some days, and vocal melodies that just tend to find their groove and travel. With this big sound it is a combination of beats and percussion that lift off quietly and then burst like fireworks.

Perhaps I am getting carried away, but to listen to this record with headphones flying over the melting snowcaps of the Northern Sierras,  you can’t help but feel somehow liberated by the songs “Airport Surroundings” and “Everything Turns To You.” Although Loney, Dear is largely the brainchild of Emil Svanangen this record is a fully realized, impeccably orchestrated pop opera.

16)  Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (Merge) Lovely, consistently upbeat Scottish pop.

17)  Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino) Still not a total believer in AC, but this album was certainly a step in my direction.

18)  Wild Beasts – Two Dancers (Domino) Mildly weird, oft-kilter throwback British dance music that makes perfect sense.

19)  Robyn Hitchcock – Goodnight Oslo (YepRoc) Proving that true genius just gets better with age.

20)  Atlas Sound – Logos (Kranky) The uber-prolific Bradford Cox recruits Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox to make a wonderful little jewel.

21)  The Antlers – Hospice  (Frenchkiss) This eerie and affecting album about loneliness and isolation is ironically hopeful.