Review: Ten best CDs of 2009
Each end-of-year it’s the same thing: Were there even 10 albums that really made an impact on me? And then I start going through my stacks and notes and memories. Friends share lists of their favorites of the year. I glance at other magazines, newspapers and websites. And here’s what happens: gobs of albums fighting for space on my list.Here’s what rocked me. And if this seems late, please accept that I was re-listening to every CD that crossed my desk, every download plopped into my in-box these past 12 months. No particular order to these – are we splitting hairs here?Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” – Yes, this album is named for the Maryland amphitheater where the members of Baltimore-bred Animal Collective saw many a Grateful Dead show. But “Merriweather Post Pavilion” isn’t a throwback (apart from the Beach Boys influence). A collage of psychedelic sound, this is more like the sound of the late ’00s, strange, lavish and beautiful.Van Morrison, “Astral Weeks Live at the Hollywood Bowl” – Van revisits his 1968 classic “Astral Weeks” (No. 19 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest albums) and manages to refreshen the material with a broader instrumental palette and looser atmosphere.Chuck Prophet, “Let Freedom Ring!” – Underappreciated Californian goes down to Mexico and returns with a collection of raw but easy-to-take rockers. “You and Me Baby (Holding On)” is a marvelous expression of the crap that swirls around us, and the effort it takes to keep your head above water. And maybe even dream a little.Wilco, “Wilco (The Album)” – The band that titled a documentary film “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” has had a change of heart. “Wilco (The Album)” opens with “Wilco (The Song),” in which Jeff Tweedy promises “This is a fact that you need to know: Wilco will love you baby.” And they do: This band has released one album after another that reassures us of another fact that we need to know: Rock ‘n’ roll can still matter.Sam Bush, “Circles Around Me” – The stylistically wandering string man ditches the reggae, jazz, etc. and gets down to acoustic picking with his band and guests Del McCoury, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas. It’s the best thing he’s done under his own name.Rain Machine, “Rain Machine” – Kyp Malone, singer-guitarist of the mighty TV on the Radio, goes solo here. It’s highly reminiscent of TVOR – long, shifting funk grooves, ominous lyrics – but that’s OK. TV on the Radio has left itself plenty of sonic space to explore.The Swell Season, “Strict Joy” – It is a joy to see that the Swell Season (Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova), which skyrocketed to fame thanks to the movie “Once,” didn’t make a quick return to Earth. The opening song “Low Rising” is every bit as bracing as their Oscar-winner, “Falling Slowly.”Joe Henry, “Blood From Stars” – Henry has experimentation in his veins. So when takes on the guise on a bluesman, it’s not quite like any blues you’ve heard before. “All Blues Hail Mary” is a captivating take on a New Orleans marching band from the perspective of a Southern California modernist.Amadou & Mariam, “Welcome to Mali” – The blind couple from Mali takes African music for a spin through Paris, urban clubs, and techno. The opening track, “Sabali,” produced by Damon Alburn of the electro group Gorillaz, is spine-tingling, and makes you wish Alburn had stuck around for the whole session. But the rest is still a welcome look at modern African sounds.Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” – The singer gets playful and expansive here, reaching out to fellow musicians from the Band’s Garth Hudson to M. Ward to create a broad landscape for her alt-country songs that can be stormy or funny.Derek Trucks Band, “Already Free” – An extraordinary guitarist, Trucks has gotten better in the studio with each album. If he makes any more of a leap in soulfulness, he’ll be up there with Marvin Gaye and Donnie Hathaway.Noah and the Whale, “The First Days of Spring” – A bit of Neil Young – both the folk side, and with Crazy Horse. An orchestral influence, a spot of choral singing. Give it all a shot of British mopiness. If you can imagine it. And a bunch more fine ones – “Monsters of Folk”; Colin Linden, “From the Water”; The Band of Heathens, “One Foot in the Ether”; Leonard Cohen, “Live in London”; Bla Fleck, “Tales From the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 3: Africa Sessions”; Ben Kweller, “Changing Horses”; K’Naan, “Troubadour”; and Dawes, “North Hills.”Also, Levon Helm, “Electric Dirt”; Andrew Bird, “Noble Beast”; Yo La Tengo, “Popular Songs”; Felice Brothers, “Yonder Is the Clock”; Dan Auerbach, “Keep It Hid”; Low Anthem, “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”; Grizzly Bear, “Veckatimest”; Phish, “Joy”; Maxwell, “BLACKsummers’night”; M. Ward, “Hold Time”; Gov’t Mule, “By a Thread”; and Sara Watkins, “Sara Watkins”email@example.com
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Oral family history provides context that textbooks lack. Tying personal experience to collective events renders them relevant. Most of us have family oral history going back only a few generations, but that spans more history than you might think.