Top records of 2009

January 3, 2010

The year started very promising.  I was anticipating releases from some highly revered artists which seldom disappoint.  Once again it was another seller year despite a depressing economy and an industry stuck in an identity crisis.   These are my personal favorites, not the most musically challenging, not the highest selling, and not what I listen to the most,  just the best, at least that’s what I thought…

1.  The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

As you can tell from my previous post I have much respect for this work.  I realize I quickly assume the geek persona by including this in the list and will most likely lose respect of true musicologists by placing it at number one, but its my list, and this was the most creative record I’ve ever heard.  There is little more to be said from what I mentioned when it came out, but having seen the band perform this at Bonnaroo and the Ryman I can easily say the Decemberists will be hard pressed to ever top this album.  This was also the first new record that I bought on vinyl and I continued this trend for every new release that came out this year.

2.  Bob Dylan – Together through Life

As an unashamedly cliché Dylan fan I’m putting this album up there with the other 2 albums that came out this decade.  I would probably place this at number 2 of the trilogy topped by Modern Times.  Like the finest of distilled Whiskey, Dylan truly gets better with time.   This album is really set apart thanks largely to the accordion styling of David Hildago, who later is showcased on Dylan’s Christmas Classic (also released this year but not on the list).  I realize that Dylan’s voice is an acquired taste and at first listen may evoke the listener to wait for someone to cover the song than listen in its purest form, but I find this album to be uncommonly catchy and listener friendly, a trend he has been developing after the painfully awful recordings from 78 – 88.  Here’s hoping for another 10 years of the same.

3. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

This band has been at the brink of breaking for several years.  I’m not sure what they or any of the record labels they were flirting with were waiting for, but things finally clicked with this major label debut.  With a title so bold, only this emotional heartbreak band could pull it off.  The songwriting strays from the back catalog of lost and unrealized love, as Scott most assuredly broke hearts with January Wedding announcing he is no longer holding out for the adoring fan to complete him.  The band also introduces a piano which takes center stage on several key tracks.  With Rick Rubin behind the wheel I tend to think this was the band’s idea.  This takes them to another level of creativity. which may have been trapped by the traditional Appalachian instruments they were most noted for.  This record speaks boldly for what they’ve been through and a nice segue for where they are about to go.

4.  Dave Matthews Band – Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

When I first heard this album I quickly admitted that this was my favorite DMB record.  It certainly is the most creative of the past 10 years, as most will agree it’s the best since BTCS.  However, I still hold to my statement as I find this album gels their entire career.  Tim Reynolds is spotlighted like never before, and even though Jeff Coffin freely replaces Fallen member LeRoy.  Moore is notably the biggest influence of the album.  While several tracks have been outplayed on AAA radio, the album works as a whole and not simply a collection of singles.

5.  Pearl Jam –  Backspacer

Thanks primarily to the limited distribution (Target and indie stores), this album has not had near the publicity as it deserves.  The singles have had repetitive play but they fail to convey the true spirit of the record.  Jumping from the success of their self titled 2006 release, Eddie and Co. have begun a resurgence and progressed the Seattle sound they helped define 20 years earlier.  I find this album a more solid effort with focus on each track and careful to maintain a consistency which prior releases have struggled to capture.  (Unless you’re a true fan, you really could get by on “Rearview Mirror” to filter out Eddie’s ramblings and just get the key tracks you remember from your youth.)  But this album really set’s the band apart and moves them into a broader audience who may have not connected before.

6. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

I really respect two fourths of this band.  1/4 I really don’t know, and 1/4 I just have my doubts about (mostly b/c of the air mattress song).  Anyway this album clicks.  They really come together as a group and no one out shadows the other.  The sound is quite unique compared to the works they have produced individually, and you can tell they took their time to create a work of art and not fulfill a contract.  It’s hard to say where they will go from here.  I think super creative artists need multiple platforms to express themselves, and while it seems they’ve enjoyed the process I don’t see a follow-up release in the near future.  I do see them taking bold moves with their individual careers hopefully inspired from this project.

7.  Neko Case – Middle Cyclone

I had never given Neko a fair chance.  Being titled the queen of alternative country I have no excuse, but with this years release and show at the Ryman I figured now was the time.  I was pleasantly surprised.  The record is so instrumentally full, you immediately feel the warmth of her seductive vocals.  Having missed her show at Bonnaroo I was throughly entertained at her inaugural Ryman performance.  Which was the perfect complement to match the record’s rustic romanticism.

8. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Leaving the Drive by Truckers was the best decision the kid made.  I think he owes a lot to his mentors (and former band mates) but Jason has surpassed them in his writing ability, and this album shows he’s so much more than a singer/songwriter.  The album catapults off his previous release and laughs at the sophomore slump curse.  The band sounds as if they grew up in the same neighborhood.  The lyrics are deep southern poetry as the vocals melt in your ears and leave you begging for more.

9.  Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard – One fast move or I’m gone

Stealing the poetry of Jack Karovac and driving to Big Sur to burn them into songs reminiscent of Gram Parsons, this unlikely couple found each other and have produced a remarkable tribute to their favorite muse.  The album is simply complex.  The music does not get in the way of imagery found in the fleeting skylines and deserted landscapes as the duo drifts across america.  This is the definition of a road trip record, and make sure your keys are out of reach unless you plan on making a crazy escape.

10.  Elvis Costello  – Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane

I struggled with this last one, there are several contenders that wanted this last spot, but I settled on Costello because I’ve never been big fan until this record was released.  I’m a sucker for a good bluegrass song with piercing vocals and this collection was exactly that.  The musicians chosen for this project were handpicked with care.  After a failed attempt to record the “Nashville Sound” in the 1980s, Elvis wanted a second chance.  An epic 2007 performance with Dylan at the Ryman is rumoured to get the ball rolling.  Having hired T. Bone Burnett to pick out the paint, it seems Elvis captured exactly what he set out after.  The album is permanently stained by rolling around with bluegrass legends Douglas, Lauderdale, and Compton. And while Elvis continues to stretch his musical horizons, he has helped create a standard with this timeless release.


  1. Sadly the only album I have from the list is Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King. Nice description.

  2. Post some more, I like your stuff, and I thought it wasn’t vogue to still like Dylan still.

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