Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tosho's Top Ten Albums of 2009

#10 - Mos Def - The Extacic
Mos Def's 4th studio album dropped like a funky bomb onto the charts this year and while I am not a huge fan of his previous works, I found this album to be a delightful mix of older rap styles yet also showing a large amount of growth in the 36 year old hip hop artists career. This album is a gem that features several diverse musical styles, including Soul, Afrobeat, Jazz, Latin, and a generous helping of funky Groove beats. He’s out to show fans and non fans alike that he is still a universal ghetto advocate with unwavering respect and admiration for the streets of his hometown Brooklyn and the tradition of hip-hop itself. There’s still some classic Malcolm X speeches, Arabic prayers, and some Spanish style grooves, but injecting some new flavor in the record is production from indie luminaries J Dilla, Madlib, Oh No and the Neptune’s Chad Hugo as well as guest spots from the legendary, longtime collaborator Talib Kweil, West Coast neo-soul experimentalist Georgia Muldrow, and samples of legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti (one of my faves in the genre of world music).
This album was a refreshing amount of funk in a relatively lack luster 2009.

#9 -
The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love
The fifth album by Portland rockers The Decemberists merges further into the realm of heavy lyric based progressive rock sort of reminiscent of an acoustic Queensryche and is a classic style rock opera at heart. All the songs contribute to a unified narrative, similar to the use of recurring stories in 'The Crane Wife'. Songwriter Colin Meloy stated he originally intended the album to be a musical play. The plot features a woman named Margaret (voiced by Stark) who falls in love with a shape-shifting Forrest dweller named William (voiced by Meloy). A jealous forest queen and William's mother (voiced by Worden), the villainous Rake (also voiced by Meloy) and an ensemble of recurring characters bring conflict to the album's overall story arc. Its modest and mellow and easy to enjoy without any gross overproduction common to many so called rock operas. The album, while heavily story driven has still got enough going on musically that they could still pull it all off in a live setting. With guest vocals by Jim James (one of my fave artists at the moment), this album definitely wormed its way into my heart and made the top ten and is probably my fave of all their works so far.

#8 - Neil Young - Fork in the road
This album is getting back to the basics for Neil and is the first album of his I have really enjoyed since 2003's 'Greendale'. The theme this time around was inspired by Neil's car that was rebuilt to run on alternative energy . This album has a straight forward and honest feel to it. If rock music was a journalistic news program, this album would have been Neil's angry editorial. The subject matter of this fine rant? That, though not quite as boldly signposted as in his 'Living With War', it is still announced pretty plainly. I thought this use of a bit more subtlety makes for a more interesting listening experience as I thought 'Living with war' was a little over the top. The subject on this new album is the recession here in North America and it’s a topic Young chooses to address using one of his most consuming passions, an everyman metaphor: the love of cars. I was really glad when I heard this album because while it was not a fave in terms of Neils work, it was a step up from the majority of the stuff he has done in the last few years (see Chrome Dreams 2, or Prairie Wind). It was also way better then a lot of the stuff that has been released by the majority of artists this year. Neil is proving once again that the greats from the classic rock era still have something to offer and many thanks to them for that because they are still out there keeping rock alive, at least for the moment.

#7 - Rancid -
Let the Dominoes Fall
It's no secret that Punk Rock has been sucking serious ass for quite a while now. Rancid are one of the only bands in existence right now that I would actually qualify as 'Punk Revivalists' The boys released this dynamite record (their 7th and their first in six years) in June of 2009. This album is what I love about a classic punk record. It is stuffed full of 3 chord awesomeness and the energy of a side street biker brawl. It gets you moving and up out of your seat ready for mischief. You get the feeling that something off the wall is coming, sort of like your trapped in an early 90's generation x' movie. The simple minimalistic guitar chords, and the power punk drum beats are totally late 70's classic punk style that a thousand albums could be spawned from. The main driving focus here remains the teeth-shattering street punk bombast that has been the group’s calling card for over 15 years. There are plenty of musical and stylistic left turns on this album that will surprise longtime fans while enticing new listeners to harbor a new appreciation for Rancid. 'Let the Dominoes Fall' definitely deserves a warm welcome in a year that had such wishy washy wannabe post 9/11 Punk.

#6 - Mason Jennings - Blood of Man
On his 8th and best album to date, Jennings begins to delve much darker. This is something I have been hoping he would try out for a while. 'Blood of Man' draws forth haunting tales of madness, addiction and loss, accompanied perfectly with warm, gritty electric guitar riffs and raw, powerful vocals. This wonderful addition to his previous works was conceived, written and recorded over the span of a few short weeks and really gives off that raw unpolished feel that helps make it a classic. It comes across as very genuine and straight from the heart which makes it easy to listen to. A great album for putting on on a rainy Sunday and curling up with a book or a cup of hot chocolate. I really liked this quote from Mason about this album: ''I wrote about how hard it is to be 34 and be a parent and sane and married and true and positive and yourself and a man and funny and a decent person and a not decent person and human and in love. I turned the music up so loud so often that my ears rang every night. I wrote about death, of course. I wrote about life. I wrote about pain and addiction. And I let it flow and left it raw. I worked fast and I let my heart lead. What you have is exactly the music I listen to in my van and the way I have given it to my friends on CD-Rs. My hope is that it can help where help is needed. Music saved my life and I am so grateful for it. Thank you for listening. Rock.''
Fair enough Mason, its a great album and thank you for writing it.

#5 - Tom Waits - Glitter and Doom (live)
This album is an instant classic and if you haven't had a chance to listen to it you should do so at once. I have heard from a few different people that have seen Tom Waits live, that this album is as close to the real deal as you can get. Tom is one of that rarest breed of artists who occupies a place that is truly unique in all of music. His career is now into its fourth decade and just as strong as ever. With that unmistakable voice, Waits adopts numerous variations of the down-on-his-luck vagabond drifter persona that he brings to life with his songs in a way few others can match. He brings it all to life perfectly on this record. The songs fit together so well and are faves from all over the last thirty years. His career has seen him take on the role of everything from carnival barker to bohemian beat-poet, to seedy piano-bar lounge singer. This live album comes from Waits' sold out 2008 tour across the states that gathered massive critical acclaim and saw Waits playing in cities he has never played before (you can hear him clearly enjoying himself). The songs, which come from all over the tour, are handpicked by Waits himself and lend a personal feel to the selection of the tracks. This is a great album to check out if you have never really given Waits much of a chance before as it is a very listener friendly album. I highly recommend it to fans of Toms, or anyone who is looking to get into a fantastic and very rare type of musician.

#4 - Levon Helm - Electric Dirt
Following on the heels of his 2007 grammy winning comeback album 'Dirt Farmer', Levon has brought the same crew back for this wonderful followup record. While this album doesn’t stray far from its predecessor’s template, it continues to recapture the voice and persona that animated The Band landmarks like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. The musical palette, however, is wider this time round, emphasizing the breadth of Helm’s interests rather than the stuff of his roots. This album has a bit of urgency to it, possibly having to do with Helm's battle with (and victory over) throat cancer. This album bounces out of the starting gate declaring that it's time to party! Overall, Helm’s recent work embraces the past alongside the present in a way that is inviting, joyous, and thoroughly satisfying. It proves once again that there have been few vocalists in the past 50 years of popular music who project such a natural authority as Levon Helm.

#3 - The Tragically Hip - We Are The Same
OK, I seriously enjoyed this album. This is a moodier, quieter and prettier affair than usual, with slower, more passionate songs, more acoustic guitars and plenty of grooves. The album as a whole has a more outdoors feel to it. It's like the sort of Hip Album you would hear the boys turn out around a campfire one mid summer night in Ontario. This album might have turned off a few Hip purists out there by being a bit of a departure from earlier work but if you want early hip go toss on 'Road Apples' or 'Day For Night' and rock on, but if you want to see a fantastic band that is not afraid to progress and show growth you will dig this record. In many ways it reminds me of the 'Phantom Power' album with its mellow grooves and easy, natural feel. The boys are still a bunch of proud Canadians with songs like the last recluse' that contain the lyrics
"Who are you. the last recluse? Who are you the last Canadian goose"
While some might put this album down, I think that after 26 years together, 11 studio albums and a reputation as one of the best live shows ever, it is a true sign of greatness that the Tragically Hip’s 12th album sounds as fresh, strong and relevant as anything they’ve ever done.

#2 - Bob Dylan - Together Through Life
Dylan, who turned 68 in May of '09, has never sounded as ravaged, pissed off and lusty, all at once, as he does on 'Together Through Life'. I usually describe this album to friends as carrying on from 'Modern Times' but showing that Dylan wasn't afraid to get a bit more down and dirty with it. Bob and his crew stopped by my area on their 'Modern Times' tour and in my opinion he is at the top of his game right now. There is an unmistakeably grim magnetism coursing through these 10 new songs and most of it is captured in Dylan's vividly battered vocals. Above everything this is a record about love, its absence and its remembrance. It all comes through brilliantly in such a way that I instantly fell in love with this album. 'Together Through Life' was generally hailed as one of the best records Dylan has released in years (should I mention it's his 46th?). The warmth of this album is uncanny. It is as if you are curled up in front of a fireplace in a rocking chair listening to him play you these songs that he had just written. A feeling of roughness plays through the record, as if many of the tracks were first takes that just worked so well they left them at that. Dylan's throat has never been anyone's idea of clear and soaring. But he has always stated that as a young folk singer, he strained to sound older and more sorely tested than he was, as if he had known the hard times of the Great Depression firsthand. He's finally there, with an authentically pitted instrument ideally suited to the devastated settings of these songs and the rusted farm-shed production present in this phenomenal album.

#1 - Monsters of Folk-
Monsters of Folk
In a year that saw me gradually listening to more and more folk rock sounds, this album was both a great surprise and a much needed album. When I heard that My Morning Jacket's front man Jim James was releasing an album with long time friends Connor Oberst and Mike Mogis, I was sufficiently stoked to say the least. I did some checking and found it interesting that the band was formed in 2004 when the members were on tour with their respective bands and solo projects. After playing together both on-stage and backstage, they started working together on various material. Due to the members' main projects, Monsters of Folk did not wrap up their first album until 2009. It was WELL worth the wait! Of all the so called 'Super Groups' that are springing up lately (Chickenfoot and Them Crooked Vultures to name a few), Monsters of Folk are really the only one that could be called super. So well favoured was this album that they were referred to by certain critics as this generations 'Traveling Wilburys' (although they sort of sound a bit more reminiscent of CSNY). After the first listen, the only flaw that I could see was that Jim James had only brought 5 songs to the mix here, but after another listen that turned into a plus because this album has helped me get into the work of Connor Oberst who brings some of my fave tracks to this album (Ahead of the curve in particular). Everyone shines on this record, although James, whose lead vocals open and close the set, beams brightest. The eclecticism of his latest 'My Morning Jacket' sounds are brought into sharper focus by the company of his new bandmates. I am hoping this is the start of much more to come for the Monsters. This album shows off the talents of these four men at the top of their respective games but creates something here that is greater then the sum of their individual parts.

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