Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2009

This has been a year of ever increasing changes in the indie music community. Growth, new talent, loss, opportunity, and the internal morphing of the bands themselves have contributed to an expanding scene that, standing on the sidelines, still appears filled with tremendous energy, dedication and innovation. And the level of talent continues to amaze me.

The music blogging world, of which I have become a part, is just as fluid as the music scene itself. The blogs of people who came into the scene around the same time I did, early in 2008, are growing and shrinking and reinventing themselves. I particularly think of Mouse of Classical Geek Theatre and Travis of Web In Front as sources of my inspiration, and Bronson of BuzzbandsLA continues to feed me historical context. I was also given the golden opportunity of joining the staff of Joe Fielder's Radio Free Silver Lake now that it has become a multi-writer enterprise.

I don't even know for sure how many albums I got this year, but I know I had to whittle this list down from about 40 that I considered. It involved local bands, national bands and international bands. I dump them all onto one list. In my mind, the little homemade self release that only gets heard by 200 people is just as valid as any international best seller. They're all part of our collective aural history now.

Once again I can say I had the immense pleasure of hearing all these albums performed live, often more than once. I think that has as much to say about living in Los Angeles as it does my own personal musical taste. Or it's just the happy collision of two worlds. Seven in the list are local bands and I'm glad about that. This is a reworking of the list that appeared at Radio Free Silver Lake on December 11th with the significant addition of a twelfth entry, making my top ten an even dozen.

Top Ten Albums (in order)

1. his Orchestra - Field Guide To the Wilds

his Orchestra have had a powerful hold on me ever since I saw half of their set last May at Spaceland where they were opening for Wooden Birds. I picked up this CD that night, plopping it into my CD player the next day it immediately became an instant compulsion. This was an easy choice as number one because, just as with last year's number one: Amen Namo by Amnion, I played it more than any other record this year, and for a months and months. It's like the perfect indie pop album; catchy melodies, full, rich orchestrations, intelligent lyrics and a real obvious joy at the creation of this music. Appropriately named his Orchestra, they are indeed a small orchestra with obvious classical training, headed by a gifted songwriter, Douglas, who conducts his army of musicians as tightly as a classical conductor. The crisp, structured compositions are fleshed out by an impressive array of instruments that on first hearing sound like sunny indie pop, but repeated listenings reveal layer after layer of surprising depth and seriousness. There isn't a bad song in the collection and one, in particular, "Interesting End of the Day", would be a perfect song...were it not so short. (Or is that why it's perfect?) In coming years, if I ever need to remind myself why I love this genre of music so much, I'll put on this CD. It's already a touchstone for me.

2. Red Cortez - Hands To the Wall (EP)

This EP earns it's spot near the top of my list because the initial 4-song release contains four of the best single songs released this year and any one alone could qualify as year's best song. It shows just what Red Cortez is capable of and why everyone is paying attention. I was especially pleased with this release because their previous recordings as The Weather Underground only hinted at the power and passion of their live act. Leading off with "In The Fall", which puts Harley's vocals out front and at the proper level, revealing a very powerful voice, you could introduce people to the band with this CD and they would all say, "Ahh yes, this is great". The whole band appears to be at a performance peak that continues through "World At Rest", "Laughing Streetcar" (love that title) and "All The Difference". The subsequent five song edition entitled Hands To The Wall includes "Fell On The Floor", another fine song. The second this CD ends I play it again. This band's live shows this year were electrifying and I love the fact this recording is as great as they are live. I wasn't sure the explosive talent of Red Cortez could be captured on disc, so now that we know, just imagine a full length by these guys.

3. The Happy Hollows - Spells

This white hot blast of musical energy is the near perfect representation of the band's live show. The dizzying blend of styles and influences that shape this band's unique sound is on display for all to hear. A lot of local bands, whose live shows are amorphous, spontaneous blasts of talent and energy, surprised me with their faithfulness to their live act, yet at the same time, bringing the discipline necessary to the recording medium. And The Happy Hollows did it maybe better than anyone. From Sarah Negahdari's vocals and virtuoso guitar playing, to Charlie Mahoney's thundering bass and Chris Hernandez' frantic drumming, everything you love about them live is here. And none of it sounds canned or 'by-the-numbers'. Even after repeated listenings it stays fresh. Production values are top notch and the addition of Charlene Huang's violin adds unexpected poignancy to a couple of numbers. This band's spectacular year has culminated in a signing with Autumn Tone records.

4. Le Loup - Family

I had so appreciated The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations' Millennium General Assembly by Le Loup yet I still could not contain my joy at their new CD Family (released on September 22) by Hardly Art. Quirky, inventive, resourceful, this odd blend of various styles from around the world is beautifully realized. The elaborate vocal intricacies of this band are beyond parallel, from early Gregorian chants to tribal African vocal patterns and ordinary (hardly) three part harmonies, they seem to get their inspiration from any source available. The album also represents a real step forward for the songwriting, now that all members are contributing, Sam Simkoff's compositions are more focused and structured. The lyrics are intelligent, thoughtful and wonderfully cryptic. And on top of that, their live performances, like at The Echo last October, are explosions of music and dance. Their infectious set showed off a pride in the material and a love of performance few groups can equal. If you can get through this album without dancing around the room, you have no pulse. I wish they came around more often.

5. Silversun Pickups - Swoon

Oddly enough, I thought this album was a disappointment when I first heard it. I found the repeated use of the dropped beat a bit of a gimmick. But something kept me going back to it and gradually the songs took hold of me. In fact, I think it represents a step forward in their songwriting because the music seems more varied and sophisticated than on Carnivas. Embellished with some atmospheric ambient noises and nice orchestral flourishes, the production sounds even more ambitious. Brian Aubert's vocals are more powerful and assured than ever. Again traversing the darker edges of life, they take an unflinching look at what their fame has brought them. The sacrifices as well as the rewards. The lyrics are probing and honest, and very smart. The driving, propulsive energy in the music keeps it constantly swimming forward, like a shark. There's a 3 dimensional quality to the music, as if you're hearing it from deep in a well. I finally got to hear them perform it live this summer at Gibson Amphitheatre, and they brought all the passion and energy the music deserves to an electrifying performance that, unfortunately was ruined by over-zealous and unruly fans with an unseemly penchant for texting during the performance. Still, Swoon qualifies as an album of the year.

6. Telegraph Canyon - The Tide and the Current

This has got to be one of the most self assured and confident albums by a new band I've ever heard. So accomplished are all the elements that there's not one wasted note on the entire album. Solid and evocative songwriting is wedded to extraordinary gifts as singers, musicians and performers. This band is the real deal and all parts are in place for this enterprise to take hold in a huge way. A solid roots music background has obviously fueled this Texas band, aided by the current Southwestern indie rock/alt country sound. Telegraph Canyon adds their own twist to the genre with lush orchestrations and rich instrumentation, all impressively displayed whenever I've seen them live. Chris Johnson's vocals are of such strength and character, he sounds like a voice from another era, or a voice you think you've always known. The songs are all solid and quite remarkable. I played "Shake Your Fist" and "A Light In The Field" over and over and over again all summer long. In fact, I would say "A Light In The Field" could be considered one of the best songs of the year.

7. Fol Chen - Part 1: John Shade Your Fortune's

This first full length album from the talented, genre-defying circus of a band, Fol Chen, is a terrific introduction to their live act, as the songs are faithfully recreated with all the studio flourishes this top production provides. The surprise is the quiet, introspective songs they don't perform live, which reveal different sides to this band that I was real pleased to learn about. I love the "John Shade" song and long to hear it live. Dense, swirling compositions has been a key element of this band ever since I saw their first concert at a "Let's Independent!" a couple of years ago, and they only continue to grow and mature. Beautifully produced, this CD has some of the best sound of any release I've heard this year. I also have the pleasure of knowing what great people this band is made of and I predict 2010 will promise great movement for this band. As a live act this band is always a surprise, trying out new variations of favorite songs... and they have charisma to spare.

8. Blitzen Trapper - Black River Killer (EP)

Blitzen Trapper's Furr had an easy position on my best list last year, and Black River Killer feels like extra recordings and outtakes from that album so it's inclusion is unavoidable this year, even though it only gives us six new songs. But every one of those six is a catchy attention getter that I couldn't get out of my mind. Another band from the fertile Northwest, their music is as instantly classic sounding as the way The New Pornographers or Calexico or The National are. There's just a solid songwriting skill that's undeniable. Watching the songs performed live at an El Rey show a couple of months ago only confirmed my suspicion that these are some of the finest songs this band has yet written. That was the best of the three times I've seen them. It's just perfect Americana folk-indie rock with thoughtful, intelligent lyrics, skilled playing and addictive melodies.

9. J. Tillman - Year In the Kingdom

This was one of my favorite finds this year. Though I'd met and chatted with Joshua a few times at Fleet Foxes shows where he plays drums, I had no idea the extraordinarily gifted singer/songwriter he is in his own right. The discovery was a revelation. These are some of the most heartfelt and moving songs I heard all year and played with amazing virtuosity by his own band. Also remarkable is the fact he released another full length CD this year, Vacilando Territory Blues, which actually also deserves to be on this list too. Another product of the Northwest, J. Tillman shares an affinity for nature with other musicians of the area which extends into Canada to include bands like Great Lake Swimmers whose writing this most reminds me of. Sharply attuned to the rugged geography surrounding him, he filters life's emotions through that prism and sees everything in it's relationship to it's place in the natural world. One thing I must add is that live, the music displays a power and sweep only hinted at in the recording that replaces some of the lush orchestrations of the CD with a passionate, sometimes ferocious, stage performance.

10. The Stevenson Ranch Davidians - Life and Death

After about a year hiatus, The Stevenson Ranch Davidians suddenly reemerged on the scene in October with this new CD. I was really into this band a couple of years ago and devoured the last CD, Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Anxiously awaiting this CD, Life and Death didn't disappoint. They are among a group of L.A. bands that appeal to the ever-present '60's flower-child that still lives within me, with their distant, vaguely anachronistic , pre-digital age music (see The French Semester... and Seasons often work this territory). I enjoy the utterly unpretentious lyrics and the simple, classic forward thrust of the melodies coupled with Dwayne's plaintive, world-weary vocals. It's a very simple formula, but they execute it with creativity and intelligence.

11. The French Semester - Good Friends Only I Could See

One of the earliest releases of the year (in January) and easily the record that got me through the cold winter months. This CD seems to come from a different time and era. It has a perfect, space-agey sixties feel to it that is so strong it could be a long lost recording from that era unearthed by a later civilization. I saw the band at Silver Lake Lounge, got the CD and was blown away by the surfy '60's jangle they recreate so beautifully. All the more astonishing as the band hails from all over the world and yet make the perfect sunny California sound. But it's the fresh and innovative songs that keeps The French Semester from being a nostalgia trip and very much of the current local scene. Like The Stevenson Ranch Davidians, they mine territory close to my heart, and they do it so well I followed them around most of the year.
This year has also brought about personnel changes that keep the band evolving and developing and I will willingly follow wherever they lead.

12. 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

This is a recent addition since this list appeared at Radio Free Silver Lake as this album was a delayed starter for me. Mew really impressed me when I saw them three times during 2006 with their grandiose, symphonic combination of arena rock and pensive ballads, but I really hadn't paid much attention lately. When they came back to town earlier in the fall I got this new CD, No More Stories Are Told Today... and didn't immediately get into it. Even after the tremendous show at The Troubadour in September I still preferred their previous CD And The Glass Handed Kites. I was so blown away by that show that I got a ticket when they announced a show at The Fonda this month and recommitted to listening to this new CD. And it grew and it grew until all I wanted to hear were these new songs. I'm still in the obsession cycle with this album, playing it more than once a day. Songs like "Cartoon and Macrame Wounds" and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy" are so rich and strong, vocally and instrumentally they make me swoon. Seeing them live is mandatory as they always play among the most professional and inspiring sets by any band I've ever seen.

Honorable Mention:

I have to make this quick or I will never publish this list until 2010...(these were all strong contenders for the above dozen)

Manhattan Murder Mystery - Manhattan Murder Mystery (EP)
This is another local band I didn't believe could capture their unique live sound on disc, but they did and they even enhanced it with inspired performances of some of their audience favorites. Rough, raw and full of life.

Iron And Wine - Norfolk 6/20/05
This CD was a giveaway at the Hollywood Cemetery show and it's my favorite recording by this band. 18 songs and all of them among the best Sam Beam has written., beautifully performed both acoustic and with full band from a concert in 2005.

Great Lake Swimmers - Lost Channels
Latest album by the golden throated troubadour Tony Dekker is filled with the same beautiful dark melancholy compositions that he confidently delivers, further confirming his reputation as a highly gifted songwriter.

Vetiver - Tight Knit
The most solid, cohesive album yet by this member of the freak-folk movement that he performed splendidly at the Eagle Rock Center For the Performing Arts last April.

The Faraway Places - Out of the Rain, the Thunder and the Lightning
Another terrific band with a strong writing style and an assured and positive stage energy.
More in the tradition of the pop songsters of the '60's than the jangle rock of other bands, there's a refreshing crispness and directness of intent in their music that's very wlecome.

Grizzly Bear - Veckatemist
Though not quite at the level of Yellow House, this is nonetheless a compelling chapter in this bands evolving sound. Big, sweeping song structures that resemble architecture as much as music, involve the heart as well as the intellect.

Great Northern - Remind Me Where The Light Is
Great Northern came roaring back to life with this aggressive, forceful and very beautiful album. They gave a compelling live performance of the material at Silver Lake Lounge last March.

Sea Wolf - White Winter
Great sophomore album by this popular band shows confidence and growth both as a band and as writers.

J. Tillman - Vacilando Territory Blues
This other J. Tillman release of the year was as good as Year In The Kingdom, but only one could make the cut. More songs by one of my favorite voices in music today.

Last but not least...

Jefferson Airplane - The Woodstock Experience
This recording, released to coincide with the famous concert's 40th Anniversary, was a revelation to me, because I'd alway been told their performance was sloppy. Imagine my surprise to hear a sharp, powerfully played and sung set with some of my favorite Airplane songs and Grace Slick sounding astonishingly pitch-perfect in spite of the circumstances. The vocal duels with Marty Balin are very special indeed. I heard they had been up all night, were on acid, and exhausted when they played at 7 AM in the morning, but you'd never know it by this incredibly professional performance. It's why they were my favorite band. And, in fact, Rolling Stone finally gave one of their albums a good review!

Coming next... my favorite shows and sets of the year.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Sudden Surprise Show December 26th

For those of us stuck in Los Angeles, alone and friendless over the holiday, a special treat came on my radar yesterday.

A show at the Echoplex the night after Christmas with Avi Buffalo, about to become the next break out band, Wait.Think.Fast, Angus Kahn, Moses Campbell and Barrio Tiger promises to be a super Christmas present for those of us lucky enough to attend. I got a ticket the minute I heard about it and look forward to spending an evening with friends that are like family.

Avi Buffalo will be heading off to New York for a couple of shows in January and there are no other shows scheduled for them in December in L.A. so catch them while you can on December 26 for only $8.

(photos by Doug Kresse from the Avi Buffalo show at The Knitting Factory August 12, 2009, thank you Doug and have a great holiday)


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mew at the Henry Fonda - Dec. 14, 2009

An odd thing happened in the days leading up to this show. I had purchased the latest Mew album, 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, before their last show at the Troubadour in September. But it is not immediately accessible and it wasn't until I went back to it to prepare for the show at the Fonda that I perked up and realized, "This is really, really good". As much as I loved And The Glass Handed Kites, and thought it may be the ultimate Mew record, I found myself becoming increasingly obsessed with some cuts from No More Stories..., to the point that I wanted to hear them performed more than my former favorite Mew songs. I think this is a testament to the growth and extreme talent this band shows off effortlessly. And I think, on the strength of Monday's performance, they're only going to get better.

What a stunning show. I arrived after the first band had played and was surprised at the size of the crowd. It looked sold out to me. Being The Fonda, I still managed to get up close, and over on the side, which I prefer it it's super crowded, also to be able to see the singers around their microphones. And the crowd was one of the best audiences I've encountered at a big show. Courteous, attentive, worshipful (when called for) and a pleasure to be among. In contrast to the Troubadour show, now the audience knows the new material and greeted it with rapturous applause.

They didn't even play my favorite song from the new album, "Cartoons and Macrame Wounds", but I was still completely satisfied. Opening with "Hawaii" with it's shifting tempos and salsa rhythms which break away into their trademark thunder, the impossibly complex vocal patterns sent the crowd soaring from the very start. The developing density and complexity of the sophisticated songwriting is easily evident in "Vaccine" and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy" The lyrics belie the fact that English is not their native language in their intelligence and poetry.

Of course they performed the crowd pleasers from Glass...Kites including the amazing opening song, "Circulation of the Wolf'", which they seamed to "Special", and "The Zookeeper's Boy. It's also a pleasure to watch Jonas Bjerre (seen above) sing with absolutely no nonsense. It seems so easy for him and his otherwordly demeanor only adds to the effectiveness. And to see how the band's four singers work together to ensure a perfect blending of voices , at just the right level. It's sublime to see and to hear.

Yes, they did make the Fonda vibrate as few bands can do, and, indeed the music can be overwhelmingly powerful, but it never, for an instant stops being supremely beautiful. Maybe some of the most beautiul music I've ever heard. With the addition of an extraordinary lightshow and film projections that are hypnotic and bizarre, even occasionally disturbing (the fiddle-playing cats come to mind, with their blinking eyes) the whole evening took on the feeling of grand theatre.


(Thanks to Kmetron for the great shots from Mew's show in Brussels)

Monday, December 14, 2009

Heads Up

Saturday, December 19, is a night fraught with terrible choices. My first desire was for the X/Calexico Christmas show at The Wiltern, which I heard about months ago but, owing to finances, failed to get a ticket for. I have seen Calexico a few times and they're one of my favorite live band, but, and this may get me drummed out of the music community, I've never seen X live, and this would have been my chance were it not for Elaine Layabout.

The 3rd Annual Christmas Sweater Festival also takes place on this night. Last year's event at Echoplex was so well attended and fun that this year they've moved to the far swankier environment of El Rey.

Like last year they also have a stellar local line up with The Deadly Syndrome, The Pity Party, Eskimohunter, Castledoor and more and is likely to lure many an Eastsider to the Wilshire district. I love all the bands but am especially disappointed to miss Eskimohunter, who so impressed me at the Abbot Kinney Street Festival this September that I've been chasing them down to see another show ever since. Damn!

As you can see, The Monolators, are playing an instore at Origami Vinyl at 7, so one could, theoretically, attend this, then fly over to Pehrspace for...

This is where I'll be to hear my good friends, Cave Country, woo the hoedown audience with a set of their beautifully composed and sung alt country. What I'm really looking forward to is the set by Tenlons Fort. He performed a solo acoustic set last November 5th at The Echo at one o'clock in the morning that I haven't been able to shake off yet. It was one of my favorite sets of the year and the brilliance of the songwriting was matched by the performance itself, a highlight being when Nate Cole of Castledoor joined him onstage for a stunning duet on a memorable song called "You Won't Be With Me". Also on the bill are The Mystery Lights and Tomorrow's Tulips and since Elaine has yet to disappoint me, I'm sure they are worth checking out. Did I mention Elaine and the Layabouts will be playing a set too? Count me in!


Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Wish I could attend this show tonight. As a follower of The French Semester (photo below by Olivia Hemaratanatorn) for the last year, and with their previous CD Good Friends Only I Could See vying for a position on my 10 Best list, I look forward to the Forces Afield EP featuring their newest line up. And Seasons, too. I've probably seen them more than any other band this year and they have yet to disappoint me with a lackluster set. They never give less than 100%. With The Monthlies and The Spires on the bill, this makes for one of the week's top shows. And it's presented by my friends at ISGOODMUSIC.

I have to work tonight and much of my spare time is spent concocting all these end-of-the-year lists, so I'll not be out a lot this week. I'm part of the Radio Free Silver Lake compilation committee, so that will appear first. I'll be posting my Feed Your Head 10 Best lists closer to the end of the year. And I was invited to take part in the Deli Magazine poll of the best break-out bands from L.A. to look for next year.

When I first started writing this blog a year and a half ago, I couldn't have imagined I would be in a position to participate in this sort of thing...and I can't believe how much fun it is. It's been a year of big changes.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

All Things Friday

Friday night is crazy with choices. Maybe Castledoor at The Echo, The Airborne Toxic Event storming Walt Disney Concert Hall (what a perfect setting for their brand of grand orchestral rock), Slang Chickens and Pocahaunted at Gallery 1018, Cinematic Sunrise at The Troubadour, Big Whup and Cobra Lilies at Echo Curio. I may just solve the whole thing by heading over to the Klaws/Mountain show in Santa Monica, see above.