Adam's Fabulous Fifteen Most Listened-To of 2009


Jan 1 2010, 8h46

Welcome friends old and new to my 4th annual unveiling of my 15 most listened to albums. If you're new to the festivities, let me quickly recap my philosophy and see how it applies to this list. I take a daily tally of all the albums I listen to completely, something I've done since New Year's Day of 2001. Then, at the end of the calendar year, I count up all the times I listened to the discs released that year. The disc that I listened to the most is the #1 album, the next highest gets #2, and so on and so forth. So now we're all on the same page, let's get to the list proper. Each year I like there to be a nice mix of old standbys and new artists, and from a glance it seems like established acts got a sizable majority this year. But a lot of old favorites of mine released stuff this year, and quite a few didn't claw their way up. So out of the 60-odd 2009 CDs that passed through my ears the past 365 days, here are the fifteen I kept going back to.

15. Modern Skirts -- All Of Us In Our Night

One of the few totally new artists on the countdown. I found it at the library of all places, and after bringing it home was taken aback at the band's wide breadth of sounds and influences. In hindsight, I tend to be a sucker in general for bands from Athens, GA, but these guys bring the bills no matter where they play the rent. (Although having an R.E.M. member sing backup on one song shows they at least respect those that came before them.)

14. The Sleepover Disaster -- Hover

Another heretofore unknown band, The Big Takeover's Jack Rabid raved about an advance of this at the tail end of 2008. The Disaster's modus operandi is to combine parts of the great showgaze bands of the '90s -- the roar of Catherine Wheel, the song dynamics of Glide and the guitar texture of Moose. Even at its commercial peak, the shoegaze scene never really got on, but if shoegaze somehow becomes the next "in" sound, The Sleepover Disaster seem poised to be at the forefront.

13. Joe Pernice -- It Feels So Good When I Stop

The leader of the hibernating Pernice Brothers took an extended hiatus to pen a novel about loss, love, music and Massachusetts. But Joe found an intriguing angle to plug his book and give his sizable fan base something to listen to. The protagonist of It Feels So Good... is a music nerd who uses certain songs to frame events of his life. So in the self-proclaimed "soundtrack to the novel," Joe puts his own spin on some of the songs mentioned, as well as narrating a few snippets of the book. Although there are a few indie-rock touchstones (Sebadoh and Plush) Joe also goes back to older material like Todd Rundgren and even Del Shannon. You don't have to like the book to dig the CD (or vice versa) but both are prime examples of Pernice's distinctive style and voice.

12. Johan -- 4

All great things must come to an end, and apparently 4 is the final release from the Dutch power-pop warlords of Johan. Prolific they were not (4 albums in 13 years) but every album was stuffed to bursting with sturdy pop hooks and sing-along choruses. While 4 saw a more experimental side to Johan -- Alone Again almost sounds adrift in the ocean -- they still brought the pop goods both uptempo (Over) and moody (Something About You). Although they never got a fair shake here in the States, anyone jonesing for top 40-ready pop-rock would do well to seek these guys out.

11. Liam Finn + Eliza Jane -- Champagne In Seashells EP

Proof that's there a lot more to Mr. Liam than his bloodline and a great debut, here he collaborates with old friend and tour mate Eliza Jane. There's a very breezy and fun vibe (even though the lead-off track is called Plane Crash) and certain parts will get stuck in your head for days. (I'm still trying to extract "I don't say these things just to anybody" from the cranium.) Per Liam himself, Eliza Jane, Liam and a few others may form a band called Having a Baby, but regardless as to what name or guise his next slew of songs arrive in, I will eagerly await it.

10. The Kingsbury Manx -- Ascenseur Ouevert!

Apart from their self-titled debut, The Kingsbury Manx have released a steady stream of LPs without a lot of critical praise and plaudits. They seem to have tempered their lysergic surge since then, but the Manx still have a way to translate a great song from front porch to local stage. Ascenseur Ouvert! (Elevator Open in French, apparently) is their mellowest yet, with only “These Three Things” hinting at their more trippy, exotic side. But they can still make these lovable, hummable little ditties as comfortable as an old, beloved sweater.

9. Polvo -- In Prism

I typically don't put a lot of enthusiasm into reunion albums, especially if the period of re-banding lasts for ten plus years. But slant-rock icons Polvo seemed to have used their extended hiatus to give their sound more muscle and their vocals more purpose. Far from being the soundtrack to a mid-life crisis, In Prism (nice Radiohead- baiting titles, guys) shows that Polvo may have the goods for a career renaissance, if they keep writing winners like Right the Relation and Beggars Bowl.

8. The Twilight Sad -- Forget the Night Ahead

After such a notable debut (2007's Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters), this Scottish troupe had a lot to live up to the second time around. Would the band attempt to expand on their sonic maelstrom, or adopt a quieter, less bristling approach? As it turns out, Forget the Night Ahead offered songs that were a little more straight-forward rock without sacrificing the volume and intensity. While the end result may not offer as many repeat listens, there are more than enough great songs (I Became a Prostitute and The Neighbors Can't Breathe) to keep these guys on my radar. But after two plus albums, it's safe to assume lyricist/lead singer James Graham either has a wildly morbid imagination or had an extremely crappy childhood.

7. Grizzly Bear -- Veckatimest

I'm not sure why I have purposely ignored these guys up until now, but it may have had something to do their name. I guess I've developed a knee-jerk aversion to indie bands named after animals just because there are roughly a kajillion of them. The other aspect to Grizzly Bear that doesn't quite jibe with me before giving their music a thorough listen was them being described as psychedelic. Veckatimest is a jaw-droppingly great album, true, and there are many beguiling and odd noises that emanate from it, but “psychedelic” brings to mind large amounts of drugs, unfocused studio wankery and noodly guitar jams. What surges out of the speakers when Veckatimest plays is almost chamber music: austerely performed and meticulously constructed. You get the feeling Grizzly Bear put a lot of time into each song, and even the parts that are meant to sound “off-the-cuff” were never in danger of going off the rails completely. (Example: penultimate track I Live With You has a very 'live in the studio' feel to it – you can clearly hear a stray noise and someone being shushed on the second verse. But such an approach adds a degree of tension and edge between the building verses and the climax of the choruses.) Also, points to taking one of their album songs and re-cutting it with blue-eyed soul kingpin Michael McDonald singing lead.

6. Antony & the Johnsons -- The Crying Light

Every year, I seem to have an album that sneaks up on me, whose sheer number of repeat plays surprises me. This year, I would say it's this one. Not that The Crying Light is a subtle or understated work, but there was never really a fixed time where I kept playing and replaying it, unlike some other albums on this list. But every time I did choose to give it a listen, it weaved its spell on me. Naturally, "getting" Antony Hegardy's vocal delivery is key to appreciating the whole package, but once you get used to his unique style, you see how well it accompanies the elegant, tragic music. I really dug their 2005 breakthrough I Am A Bird Now but thought all the high-profile guest singers diluted its power. Here, it's Antony taking center stage, and he takes full advantage, bemoaning mortality in Another World and devotion in the title track.

5. Mos Def -- The Ecstatic

Mos's last full-length TRUE MAGIC was released at the twilight of 2006, with no liner notes or even artwork (those who purchased it got a see-through jewel case and a disc.) Not many fully embraced the scattershot styles, which ran the gamut between bitter Katrina rants, somber break-up laments and an Up With People style attempt at a sing-along. If anything, The Ecstatic is even more fragmented, both in subjects and in the musical outlook (lots of Middle Eastern/Indian backings) but yet, The Ecstatic is easily his sharpest set of rhymes since Black On Both Sides. There are a few notable guests, like his Black Star partner Talib Kweli and Slick Rick, but it's Mos who gives these songs life. Whether giving a cinematic flashback to his childhood (Life In Marvelous Times) weighing the pros and cons of substance abuse (Twilight Speedball) or admiring the works of Nature without claiming them as your own (Roses) the passion and feeling of his lines are obvious.

4. Broadcast & The Focus Group -- Investigate Witch Cults Of The Radio Age

Most of the time, an entry on my Most Listened-To lists is an unspoken thumbs up to fellow music lovers, an implicit recommendation that, hey, I listened to it a lot, maybe you would, too. I'm a little leery about throwing this self-proclaimed “mini-album” (23 tracks, 48 minutes!) in that lot. Firstly, it's a side project involving of my fave bands who have been on a Olympic-length hiatus; and secondly, they were not quite looking to create a string of pop ditties for teenagers of the world to bop along to. Instead, this is a audio journey guided by Broadcast's beloved antique synths mixed in with any number of found sounds (doors opening and closing, telephones ringing, voices drowning in static.) Witch Cults really manages to summon (bad pun, sorry) an eerie, otherworldly vibe. Considering the vocal numbers are few and far between, this almost could work as a soundtrack to a suspense/horror movie yet to be created.

3. Wilco -- Wilco (The Album)

Wilco's seventh studio album was, at the very least, aptly titled. It's almost like a sampler of the myriad genres Jeff Tweedy and co. have gone through in their 15 year career. Like their earlier, alt-country stuff? Try Solitaire. How about the sonic experimentation of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot? Black Bull Nova will ring a bell. Needing another taste of their laid-back, more mature sound circa 2007's Sky Blue Sky? One Wing will lead the way. Throughout, the band are rock-solid and Tweedy remains a compelling and engaging lyricist. Where Wilco will go from here is anyone's guess, but I know I'll be checking it out.

2. Mew -- No More Stories / Are Told Today / I'm Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I'm Tired / Let's Wash Away.

What I love most about Mew is how they absolutely befuddle me when trying to effuse about them. They're not shy about experimenting with song form and structure, kinda like that Radiohead band. But they also manage to convey a wide-eyed recklessness that comes across as endearing rather than awkward. How else to explain opening track New Terraina trippy number that sounds 80% backwards, but then when you play it backwards, becomes a completely different song? Or Sometimes Life Isn't Easy which brings comparisons to Supertramp and Talk Talk before the first minute is over. Even the most obvious radio number Repeaterbeater, which shuffles along to a jittery disco pulse, is book-ended by a quasi-metal breakdown. No More Stories manages to have it both ways: it's an album that demands and earns repeat listens, but is enjoyable from the very first listen.

1. Phoenix -- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

By my unofficial estimate, this is the third Phoenix CD to land a #1 ranking on my charts. So while it's nice to see the boys from France finally get the worldwide press and the sales they deserve, it is a little sad that they can't be my little secret anymore. Oh well. They've cut down just a tad on the Strokes-style garage attack, and have added a layer of mystique, but throughout they never lose sight of the poppy center. If forced to choose between the two, I still -- ever so slightly -- prefer 2006's It's Never Been Like That. But if Phoenix can keep the winners like Lizstomania and Lasso coming, they'll keep garnering "Best of Year" nods for years of come. Best of all, it sounds great whether blaring out of dancefloor speakers or your MP3 player headphones.

So that's how I saw it. Questions/comments/etc. are always happily considered.


  • pecusita

    I really liked the Antony & the Johnsons album, but when it came down to tallying up my list, it didn't get much recognition! I think the reason may be that it's the kind of music that you need to find yourself in a very specific mood to enjoy it/put it on repeat. I only listened to the Phoenix singles and loved them, then streamed the album several times and nothing really stood out so I didn't actually completed it.

    Jan 4 2010, 22h30
  • rockrobster23

    Maybe it's just me. I found *Witch Cults* very accessible, loaded with little sonic sugar nuggets. But your opinion that it is a little bit forbidding seems to be the consensus.

    Jan 19 2010, 7h02
  • heyadamo

    As far as Witch Cults goes, I can see both ends of the arguments, and I find it a very easy thing to sit through beginning, to end. But if I want to convert a neophyte into the wonderful world of Broadcast, I'd much rather send them away with, say, Work & Non-Work or (gasp) The Future Crayon.

    Fev 7 2010, 8h03
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