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CD Reviews:
2009's Top Albums

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Sunday, December 27, 2009

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2009 was the year the Beatles came back, in a big way, by remastering their catalog and becoming Rock Band avatars.

It was the year Michael Jackson came back by, well, dying and — as happens in these cases — setting off a nostalgic fascination with his catalog.

And it was the year Taylor Swift told the country and pop worlds that “You Belong to Me,” gobbling up awards and topping the most important year-end charts.

Those Big Stories, of course, had little to do with what were actually the best albums of the year, an eclectic batch that ranged from arty eclecticism to politically conscious rap, prog-metal even a brand-new “supergroup.” Here’s a look at a dozen of 2009’s finest releases, in alphabetical order, with a few runners-up taked onto the end for good measure...

Animal Collective “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (Domino): The Brooklyn-by-way-of-Baltimore avant music troupe focuses as much on tunes as tones on its eighth studio album — a welcome development that the group achieves without sacrificing the arty idiosyncrasies that makes this an aural thrill ride.

Rosanne Cash, “The List” (Manhattan): When she was a teenager, the late Johnny Cash gave his daughter a list of 100 essential country songs. Six years after his death — and her own recovery from brain surgery — she started working her way through them with a transcendent first dozen, getting help from Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Rufus Wainwright and, of course, her husband and producer John Leventhal.

Deastro, “Moondagger” (Ghostly International): Detroit’s Randy Chabot makes a successful transition from solo electronic/dance artist to bandleader and tunesmith, mixing warmth and synthesized chill amidst beats that keep his club cred intact.

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, “Brother’s Ke(Shanachie): Nothing this year came close to sounding as phat and funky as the Greyboy Allstar leader and saxophonist’s latest solo album. Keep a second pair of shoes nearby ‘cause you’ll wear out the first pair dancing to these 11 tracks.

K’naan, “Troubadour” (A&M/Octone): Somali-Canadian rappers is probably a category of one, but after hearing the socio-political heft of Keinan Abdi Warsame’s second studio album — whose featured guests include Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, Maroon5’s Adam Levine, Damian Marley and Mos Def — more would probably be superfluous.

Miranda Lambert, “Revolution” (Columbia Nashville): The country spitfire is in the same blood ‘n’ guts mode as she was on 2007’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” combining ‘tude and tunes — that would be well-written and well-performed tunes — into a package that provides a welcome counter to milquetoast mass-pleasers like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood.

Mastodon, “Crack the Skye” (Reprise): The art-metal concept album of the year, a roller coaster of sound and fury whose plot is so amusingly thick it probably only makes sense after you`ve been headbanging for while.

Brian Setzer Orchestra, “Songs From Lonely Avenue” (Surfdog): The former Stray Cat goes film noir on his big band’s latest release, working with octogenarian arranger Frank Comstock and treating us to some fiery guitar licks and imaginative story songs.

Them Crooked Vultures, “Them Crooked Vultures” (Interscope): We are rightfully wary of rock ‘n’ roll “supergroups,” but this well-credentialed collaboration — John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss) — delivers the goods on 13 ambitiously arranged and ferociously performed tracks, which range from the modest punch of the first single, “New Fang,” to cascading epics such as “Elephants,” “Spinning in Daffodils” and “Warsaw or the First Breath You Take After You Give Up.”

U2 “No Line on the Horizon” (Interscope): U2 will always have to measure up to its formidable past, but its first release in five years keeps the bar high with songs that are stately (“Magnificent,” “Moment of Surrender”), sweeping (the title track, “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”) and, in the first single “Get On Your Boots,” just plain goofy.

Wilco, “Wilco (the album)” (Nonesuch): Closing an eventful and accomplished decade of sweeping creative growth, Jeff Tweedy and company turn in a modest gem that doesn’t reinvent Wilco’s wheel but consolidates so many of the virtues we’ve heard on the group’s previous albums.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “It’s Blitz!” (DGC/Interscope): The New York trio brought in the synths as well as a more direct song sensibility that keeps things fierce but makes the YYYs inherent artiness more accessible.

The Next Ten:

Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, “Great American Bubble Factory” (Vintage Earth Music); Eminem, “Relapse” (Shady/Aftermath/Interscope); Five Finger Death Punch, “War is the Answer” (Prospect Park/Spinefarm); Green Day, “21st Century Breakdown” (Reprise); Mayer Hawthorne, “A Strange Arrangement” (Stones Throw); Jay-Z, “The Blueprint 3” (Roc Nation); Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (Loyauts/Glassnote); Street Sweeper Social Club, “Street Sweeper Social Club” (SSSC/Warner ILG); The Swell Season “Strict Joy” (Anti-); Various Artists, “Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration” (Vector/EMI Gospel)

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