The Hurst Fifteen: Favorite Recordings of 2009
2009 was weird. We buried the King of Pop, watched the Roots take over late-night TV, and endured a Creed reunion. Songwriters stopped writing about George Bush and started writing about Barack Obama, and critics began scratching out lists of their favorite recordings of the decade. (Stay tuned!) Some other stuff happened, too. And here I am, with an album of old New Orleans standards, a flamenco-metal explosion, a full disc of animal-themed stand-up comedy, and– I never thought it would really happen– a new U2 album. These are the fifteen recordings that moved me, made me think, made me laugh, made me play air guitar, made me appreciate music more and more over the last twelve months– my very favorite albums of the year.
15. Jarvis Cocker
The Woody Allen of rock spins his neuroses and midlife insecurities into glam-tinted, garage-stomping rock and roll gold. This is a rock album about sex, and a sex album that actually rocks, with unbridled frustration and raw libido spilling over into full-band mayhem. Cocker writes with such incredible precision that he often sounds more like one of the great British humorists than any rock singer I can think of; “I never said I was deep,” he claims here, but, whether he’s telling a story or simply rattling off self-deprecations puns, there’s wit and sophistication to these lusty jams and carnal ballads.
14. Arctic Monkeys
Clearly, they’ve memorized the rock and roll playbook. First, there was the heavily-hyped debut. Then, the quickly-released, banged-out-on-the-road follow-up. And now: The difficult third album. And by difficult, I mean totally rad. The Arctics get dark and get weird, but not even a coat of Josh Homme’s desert mystique can gloss over the nervous energy and cavernous thump of their rock instincts. Things get plenty twisted, especially in the lyrics department, but what lingers is the thrill of knowing that, the more comfortable they become in their own skin, the more it seems like their imaginations are limitless.
13. Rodrigo y Gabriela
I’m so excited to include this one on my list, because I’ve never celebrated an album anything like this one– probably because I’ve never heard an album anything like this one. These two acoustic pickers shred like they’re still heavy metal thrashers, but with complexity and sophistication that boggle the mind. But where most acoustic guitar albums are mere showcases for technical prowess, this one’s less about technique and more about raw imagination. Each of these eleven songs is an homage to another artist– ranging from their knotty Santana tribute to their spacey Pink Floyd ringer– but the album ultimately stands as a monument to the duo’s own limitless possibilities. The whole thing is so vibrant and full of life, it’s impossible not to get swept along with it.
12. Frank Turner
Poetry of the Deed
An album that does what it says. Turner’s lyrics celebrate music-making that’s gritty, down to earth, devoid of pretense and rich in passion, and the music backs him up, jumping from homespun folk songs to pint-hoisting pub rock with earnest abandon. The whole album is vivid proof of its central thesis: “There’s no such thing as rock stars/ There’s just people making music.” Turner may never be a rock star, but he is the real deal, and this one’s a delight from start to finish.
11. Mos Def
It’s the comeback of the year, in which the prodigal MC puts his acting career on hold long enough to stake out a new identity as hip-hop’s global goodwill ambassador on this, a spirited, spiritual, and optimistic record for the age of Obama. It’s streetwise and philosophical at the same time; when Mos pledges to put “peace before anything/ God before everything,” it’s both a manifesto and a statement of reality. The record tackles timely issues in a way that’s personal and intimate, and it’s marked as much be its little quirks and funny asides as it is its pan-cultural zest and big-picture vision. Warm and weird and oddly addictive, this is a hip-hop album for now, and for all time.
10. Tom Waits
Glitter and Doom Live
Drawing mostly from his ANTI- albums, hitting high points from Bone Machine and a few scattered oldies, and avoiding the obvious selections altogether, Glitter and Doom plays like a strange, surprising primer on the strange, surprising music of Tom Waits; and yet, the arrangements are so wonderfully unpredictable that it ultimately stands not only as a superb anthology, but also an essential Waits album in its own right. Hear it for the voice, hear it for the songs– or hear it for “Tom’s Tales,” an entire extra disc of stage banter and stand-up comedy which is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
09. Buddy and Julie Miller
Written in Chalk
Never mind that it’s full of break-up songs, or that Buddy and Julie sing separately on most tracks: This is no Rumors-style tabloid pop. It’s profound and complex, mapping the intersections between sin and suffering, pain and joy, country and soul,; it starts with a paean to innocence and ends with a sad hymn about man’s depravity. In between, there are a lot of sad songs, but also some grace notes of pure joy– particularly in “Gasoline and Matches,” the year’s most open-hearted and flirtatious ode to marital intimacy. It adds up to something that transcends labels, and, once again, it proves that they can call it a Buddy album, they can call it a Julie album, they can call it just about anything– with the Millers involved, the results are never anything less than stirring, and, in this case, revelatory.
08. Paul Burch
Still Your Man
I’ve learned, since first reviewing this record, that the lady Burch is dancing with on the album cover is, in fact, the artist’s own wife. That feels about right: Burch is a man curiously uninterested in the irony and affectation of the age, instead trading in an open-hearted sincerity that dates back to the days when country, blues, folk, and soul music were all still considered “pop.” That kind of sincerity never goes out of style, and when it’s paired with inspired songwriting– as it is here– it’s about as good as music gets. These are songs of love and devotion that take on romance from a variety of different angles– there are folk songs that could pass for old minstrel numbers, parlor songs that could have played on the radio before the war, simmering R&B platters that could have been staples for Sam Cooke– but they’re all united by music that swings with joy and a heart that brims with unvarnished optimism.
07. The Flaming Lips
It’s 2009’s most audacious makeover, in which our fearless freaks swap their warm electronic tones and left-of-center pop hooks in favor of On the Corner clatter and spacey keyboards lifted from an old Herbie Hancock LP. This is the most gonzo music they’ve ever done, and the edgiest to come out of indie rock in forever, but, because it’s the Flaming Lips, it’s also smart and full of layers. Wayne Coyne still has his mind on ethics and philosophy, which is, in a way, fitting for this kind of collegiate free jazz. Anything goes, including recruiting Karen O to cut some strange animal noises. Not even Miles Davis would have thought of that one.
06. Allen Toussaint
The Bright Mississippi
If you think the idea of an album of old standards celebrating the city of New Orleans sounds like a museum piece, you obviously haven’t heard The Bright Mississippi. Joe Henry pulled together his usual studio pros to back the piano vet, who tackles jazz with the same smooth sophistication he’s long brought to funk and R&B music. The results are singularly joyful and liberating: No album released in 2009 elevates my spirits quite like this one. It’s unpredictable, improvisational, and deeply beautiful– and, impure though it may be, it’s the best jazz album of the year.
05. Fire in My Bones: Raw + Rare + Otherworldly African-American Gospel
It’s a compilation that contains multitudes: It’s a testament to the sheer breadth, vision, and creative spark of postwar black gospel. Fire in My Bones is a remarkable collection of songs united, often, by nothing more than creed– basement funk, field recorded sing-alongs, and congregational ravers blur the line of where the church infiltrated the culture and the culture infiltrated the church. Theologically, it’s a feast of songs about the power of the Almighty– a topic that’s comforting and sometimes terrifying. As a collection, this is quite simply essential.
No Line on the Horizon
Destined from the word “go” to be misunderstood, U2’s long labored-over opus is neither a classicist rock record nor a return to their 90s experimentation; it is, rather, a layered synthesis of everywhere the band has been, and everything they can’t leave behind. Less daring but more sophisticated than Pop, it’s a left-field fusion of rock and soul, pop and electronica; of muted colors and brilliant euphoria. It may not have lit the charts on fire quite like the last two records, but that’s only because it’s a more difficult and complicated work: When else has U2 so intermingled arena-shaking rockers like “Magnificent” with songs as somber as the hymn-like “White as Snow,” or followed super-serious epics like “Moment of Surrender” with the flashy pyrotechnics or “Get on Your Boots?” But what makes it a triumph is that it all sticks: Every left turn ultimately leads back to the album’s main path, which is as thematically and musically intricate as any U2 album yet, and nearly devotional in its spiritual fervor and theological richness.
03. Jimi Tenor and Tony Allen
Of all the musicians I listened to this year, none sounded like they were having more fun than Jimi Tenor and Tony Allen. They’re two kids in a candy store: Tenor jumps from analog synth to flute to saxaphone, mulling over Richard Dawkins quotes and singing about everything from British immigration policy to kinky dancefloor sex, all with a mad scientist’s gleam in his eye and an ADD kid’s refusal to sit still for more than a second at a time. Allen just bangs the hell out of his drum kit. He’s in the groove, from the first moment to the last, keeping Tenor’s wildest flights of fancy grounded in the beat, ensuring that this– the weirdest, most addictively fun record of the year– never flies too far off the rails.
02. Richard Hawley
Modern life is rubbish, and Richard Hawley is fighting back. Truelove’s Gutter is a sweet escape into beauty and serenity, but it isn’t a white flag: Hawley writes as a man who’s been beaten down by the noise and temptation of living in the 21st century, desperately clinging to his resolute belief in love’s power and romance’s allure. I could write page after page of superlatives extolling the deceptive simplicity of these compositions, or the sheer power of Hawley’s melodies, but at its core this is simply an album of exquisite sadness– the kind that leaves the listener not depressed, but awestruck. This is a soundtrack for fighting to retain one’s soul amidst the cling and clatter of technology and unchecked ambition, an album that finds peace in the midst of chaos. Hawley’s dark night of the soul is a thing of rare enchantment, an album that doesn’t invite quiet contemplation so much as it single-handedly cultivates it.
01. Joe Henry
Blood from Stars
Sounding at once like a more-perfect version of the sort of album Henry made with Scar and a late-night, minor-key cousin to Dylan’s Love & Theft, Blood from Stars unearths an almost vanished history of America and brings it crashing into the present in brilliant color. Ghosts of the past linger here not as reminiscences, but as those wily spirits that are ever-lurking just below the surface of things: We hear them in the romantic whimsy of the parlor crooner, in the electric mayhem of the blues, in the controlled chaos of jazz, in the strange and wonderful poetry of folk music. Henry bookends this album with gospel-fired spirituals, and in between there’s politics and love and God, dark and alluring alleys marked by flamenco guitars and cantankerous raves. It’s an album where darkness and depth are one and the same, and somewhere in the shadows there lies great and unnerving truth– for any listener bold enough to seek it.