Two-thousand-and-nine, in music, has come and gone. The “X Best Albums of the Year” lists have been tabulated, written, criticized, and discussed; the Pitchforks and Metacritics and the like have moved on, and so, by extension, have we. We have ceased listing and begun listening to music again.
But first, some reflection. Maybe 2009 will go down as the year of the animal—the Grizzly Bear, the Phoenix, but above all, the Animal Collective, rulers of the indie jungle. To me, though, it feels like a year of consensus, a year in which critical opinion centered so unanimously on “Merriweather Post Pavilion”—admittedly with good reason—as to bring about an almost unprecedented lack of diversity in year-end choices.
And so one final list becomes necessary, and here it is: a rundown of five wonderful albums that have been unfairly forgotten, ignored, or lost amidst the year-end madness.
5. Mountains — “Choral” [Thrill Jockey]
Mountains is Brendon Anderegg and Koen Holtkamp, two Chicago art students who create some of the most dynamic, rich, and simply accessible drone pieces I’ve ever heard. “Sculpting sound,” their label calls it, and “Choral” is the latest result, built a predominantly live palette of acoustic guitars, keyboards, and voices that build, float, and soar.
4. Laura Barrett — “Victory Garden” [Paper Bag]
Anyone whose MySpace-listed influences include XTC, Harry Nilsson, and Devo is alright by me. What’s more, she covered Weird Al on her debut EP. But Laura Barrett will be compared to none of the above; her clearest reference point will always be Joanna Newsom, which is understandable—both artists share a childlike voice, an unusual instrumental palette (Newsom has the harp, Barrett sports a kalimba), inimitably clever lyrics, and an overall mystical post-freak-folk sensibility. But it’s also limiting. “Victory Garden” is very much its own work; Barrett describes her songs as a “blend of prog-folk, dystopic-stage-musical, acoustic-glitch” about “amorphous terror, planned obsolescence, and mind-body dualism,” and I can’t top that. True, it can be whimsical to a fault, but it also has the eclectic melodicism and sincere warmth to warrant each of Barrett’s indulgences—particularly when she experiments with more varied arrangements, as on “Chidya,” “The Sharper Side,” and “Rien à Declarer.”
3. Polvo — “In Prism” [Merge]
First, some history: in the 90s noise-rock sweepstakes, Chapel Hill’s Polvo were once every bit the equal of Shellac and the Jesus Lizard, even if they never carried the name recognition. They broke up in 1998, never to return—until now. “In Prism,” their reunion offering, often trades their signature noise assault for dreamier, more subdued explorations, and it pays off—especially on the gorgeous “Lucía” and “A Link in the Chain.” Most reunion efforts seem content to rehash a band’s past glories. “In Prism” is the rare exception with something new to say.
2. WHY?—“Eskimo Snow” [Anticon]
When I interviewed WHY?’s Yoni Wolf for The Argus in September, I had listened to “Eskimo Snow” only three times. I wish it had been more; with its warm, twisted folk, caustic delivery, and potent one-liners, this record deserves far more attention. Because this is not “Alopecia” Part Two, despite having been recorded at the same time. “Eskimo Snow” is more intimate, more subtle, and maybe more lasting. Critical opinion will tell you it’s Wolf’s least hip hop-flavored offering yet. How odd, then, that these feel like the songs he’s always been meaning to write.
1. Micachu and the Shapes — “Jewellery” [Rough Trade]
Five things you should know about the London-based Micachu and her debut, “Jewellery”:
Her loud, cocky talk-sing delivery can be eerily reminiscent of M.I.A. Don’t be fooled.
She is classically trained and has even written for the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Don’t be fooled.
She makes her own instruments—including vacuum cleaners, broken bottles, and a bowed instrument apparently made from a CD rack. And it shows, too, in the album’s frantically cluttered, made-for-headphones lo-fi soundscapes. Dig it.
Her obviously brief attention span manifests itself in Guided by Voices-style song lengths. She manages to use this to her advantage, too; Jewllery’s songs come and go in childlike bursts of sincere inspiration, never outstaying their welcome or dulling their impact.
On the first listen you’ll find it annoying as fuck. By the fifth, you’ll be hooked. This is pop music at its catchiest, weirdest, and most irresistible.