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Andrew’s Top Albums of ’09

December 23, 2009

My ability to find new music this year was stifled a tad by my move away from Halifax in mid-February to Central Newfoundland. Even with the endless means for discovery presented by the Internet, there are considerable benefits to living in an urban setting when it comes to finding music – like shows other than two guys playing country western covers at a bar in a hotel.

That said, I did manage to hear a lot of new music this year. This is what sticks with me:

1. Sunn 0))) – Monoliths and Dimensions (Southern Lord)

From the moment I first heard the latest effort from drone metal champions Sunn 0))), I thought it was going to be difficult to hear a better album in 2009. I was right.

I’d heard other recordings of theirs before listening to Monoliths and Dimensions, and had an appreciation for their intensely heavy, slow-building sludge, but this record took me to a whole new level of appreciation regarding the band.

For starters, it might seem odd to call a Sunn 0))) album beautiful, but it feels apt here. As a whole, Monoliths and Dimensions is extremely well paced and impeccably arranged, opening with an epic grinder of a track, “Agartha,” that plays up their ability to overwhelm a listener with power.

From there, the group breaks out lots of surprises, including a choir, eerie strings, and even an affecting trombone solo from former Sun Ra and Herbie Hancock collaborator Julian Priester on the album’s gorgeous final number – the Alice Coltrane-inspired “Alice” (appropriately, given the track’s inspiration, it also features harp).

I literally listened to this record every night going to bed. That said, it’s ultimately an album meant to be played really loud – and a laptop doesn’t do it full justice, stripping Monoliths and Dimensions of its heavy bass tones.

2. Chain and the Gang – Down with Liberty … Up with Chains (K Records)

Indie-rock renaissance man Ian Svenonius (see Nation of Ulysses, Make-Up, Weird War, his book “The Psychic Soviet,” and Vice-TV’s “Soft Focus”) has continued to gain admirers over the last two decades through his unique presence – not to forget the fact he’s also a dominating front man. Any band he’s in can’t help but become an Ian Svenonius outfit.

His last group, Weird War, may have been his most professional and workmanlike yet, rocking assuredly for three groovy albums. In a way, the band’s musical chops almost overshadowed Ian’s stellar work with the mic and pen.

Chain and the Gang marks a return to the looser vibe of the Make-Up, and was recorded with Calvin Johnson and a variety of other K Records cronies. The loose and playful musical backings give Svenonius a chance to really put himself out there, and that he does, with some of his sharpest songs of the decade.

Seeing them in Montreal performing new material only increased the Make-Up parallel for me, and I look forward to hearing what the band comes up with next.

3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

The most widely hyped band of the last few years continues to merit attention with another new record that slightly tweaks what came before it to create something new – if not as world changing as some might make Animal Collective’s music out to be.

Merriweather Post Pavilion is a strong collection of hook-filled pop songs with beautiful vocal harmonies, warm electronic surroundings, and a general aura of wooziness.

4. Trembling Bells – Carbeth (Honest Jon’s)

Appreciating this fantastic semi-throwback album of baroque British folk-rock with a slight modern edge will likely hinge on whether you can listen to the voice of singer, Lavinia Blackwall. It’s a powerful one, to be sure, and definitely not for everybody’s tastes.

If, like me, you’re down with it, then you’re in for a treat, because this is a really nice record that sounds like an amalgamation of the best 60s groups like Fairport Convention and Incredible String Band, but with a bit of extra 21st century teeth.

5. Taken by Trees – East of Eden (Rough Trade)

Swedish singer Victoria Bergsman recorded this album in Pakistan, and the result takes on some otherworldly qualities. Mostly though, it’s just a compelling collection of indie-pop songs buoyed by engaging arrangements and exotic instrumentation.

6. Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

Just when I thought this band was going to hit the coasting button, they’ve comeback strong with their trippiest record in years. The Krautrock grooves buzz, the guitars crawl and scrape, the bass is fuzzy, and keys add their expected layer of glossy sheen. There’s no clear singles on hear, but that’s fine by me.

7. Cold Cave – Love Comes Close (Heartworm/Matador [reissue])

Another heavy “it” band who’s RadioShack commercial may get some folks down on them. Me, I can handle hearing them on Monday Night Football commercial breaks instead of whatever dreck is used for Mary Kay commercials convincing rich dudes to buy their wives diamonds. Simple stated, this alternately dark and hopeful record is really catchy, with multiple tracks that can get stuck in your head for good reasons.

8. The Ether – Paint the Walls in Blood (Snapped in Half)

Halifax’s most notorious trio gets a bad wrap from a lot of folks there for being a bit too confrontational with their live performances. This is a shame, because their music is stellar, and they released two great albums this year (the other one is Die Rococo! Die! On Campaign for Infinity). Trashy, minimal, and punk rock.

9. Shearing Pinx – Weaponry (Divorce)

Canada’s masters of dis-jointed, chaotic-yet-precise noise rock continue their prolific streak with a great new full length record.

10. Inca Ore – Silver Sea Surfer School (Not Not Fun)

A late-year discovery, Inca Ore create beautiful and dreamy dronescapes on Silver Sea Surfer. A great record to zone-out to, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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