Off Key Online

Off Key presents the Best of 2009

In Uncategorized on May 16, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I realise this is about five months past its date of publication, but the poignant commentary still holds true…

 20: Atlas Sound – “Logos” (Japanese version) (4AD):
In 2008, the demos for Bradford Cox’s second solo outing as Atlas Sound leaked onto the internet, causing the enigmatic Deerhunter frontman to throw an unbelievable hissy fit and nearly putting the kibosh on the album’s release. Fortunately for the world, the record, “Logos,” did indeed come out this year and is surprisingly better than the demos that preceded it, not to mention the project’s first album, 2007’s “Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel.” As an added bonus, the Japanese release contains four additional songs from the demo sessions tacked on at the tail end, allowing the record to rise to mesospheric heights.
Key tracks: “Walkabout,” “Quick Canal,” “Difference BT”

19: The Raveonettes – “In And Out Of Control” (Vice):
Let’s face it: The Raveonettes’ latest release, “In And Out Of Control,” isn’t their best album. However, it does contain some of the band’s best songs, displaying their special brand of heart-breaking/warming pseudo-pop and super-violence sung in the sweetest, most reverb-laden way possible. Overall, it’s another sensational Raves record, with them going back to what they did best on 2005’s “Pretty In Black” and records previous and mixing it with what they learned on 2007’s “Lust Lust Lust” and its succeeding EPs.
Key tracks: “Bang!,” “Last Dance,” “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed),” “Suicide”

18: Julian Plenti – “Julian Plenti is… Skyscraper” (Matador):
This album is… great. But it’s no Interpol. Then again, Paul Banks (a.k.a. Julian Plenti) knows this. The songs on “Skyscraper,” his first solo outing, are miles more upbeat than anything found on his now-ridiculously-famous main project’s records. Essentially, he did what every noteworthy frontman starting a solo career should do: recorded an album that doesn’t stray too far from their original band’s sound, but altered the tone and the lyrics to reflect something new and fresh. In 2002, Banks sang “New York cares”; seven years later, this is him caring back.
Key tracks: “Only If You Run,” “Games For Days,” “Unwind”

17: God Help The Girl – “God Help The Girl” (Matador):
What an odd album this is. It’s essentially Stuart Murdoch’s excuse for not making another Belle And Sebastian record by making another Belle And Sebastian record, just without him fronting it (though he does on three songs). As he put it, “God Help The Girl” is the soundtrack and storyline to a film of the same name that he has yet to shoot. Overblown as that sounds, the concept actually works to a satisfying degree throughout the course of the record. Its girl-fronted, ‘60s-pop pastiche paired with the twee nature of Belle And Sebastian’s players produces something so sweet a diabetic passerby would likely have a conniption fit.
Key tracks: “Musician, Please Take Heed,” “I Just Want Your Jeans,” “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie”

16: Yo La Tengo – “Popular Songs” (Matador):
There’s a lot one can say about a band whose last proper album was called “I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass.” Released in 2006 and meandering through genres galore, it begs the question, how can they follow that up? With “Popular Songs,” that’s how. While the record of three years past was overall jovially jumpy, 2009’s release is covered by a sheen of severity meandering through a smattering of ‘60s pop and ‘90s shoegazer. In other words, it’s pure Yo La Tengo, just as you like it, down to the last three songs of 9, 11, and 16 minutes in length.
Key tracks: “By Two’s,” “Nothing To Hide,” “If It’s True”

15: Engineers – “Three Fact Fader” (Echo/Kscope):
This time last year, no one knew whether UK-based Engineers would ever put out a second album. Since the release of their critically-acclaimed self-titled debut in 2005, a handful of new songs made their way onto the band’s MySpace account, serving some hope as to a sequel. Thankfully, that follow-up came into fruition in the spring with “Three Fact Fader,” a collection of 13 monumental songs that complement the first album to fantastic effect. Though not breaking any new ground sonically, this latest release nonetheless proves that Engineers can still build something that stands the test of time.
Key tracks: “Clean Coloured Wire,” “Sometimes I Realise,” “Song For Andy”

14: Brakes – “Touchdown” (FatCat):
Culling members of British Sea Power, The Electric Soft Parade and The Tenderfoot, Brakes (or BrakesBrakesBrakes in the U.S.) have been making some of the more interesting, albeit spiky, indie rock of the last four years. Despite the laudatory nature of their first two albums, the band’s latest LP, “Touchdown,” is their best yet. Gone are the under-30-minute tracklistings, replaced by more complete songwriting and a delivery reminiscent of the band’s separate parts. Overall, let’s hope that Brakes don’t stop, because they really score with “Touchdown.”
Key tracks: “Don’t Take Me To Space (Man),” “Crush On You,” “Oh! Forever,” “Why Tell The Truth (When It’s Easier To Lie)?”

13: The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – “The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart”/“Higher Than The Stars” EP (Slumberland):
No band in 2009 was as prolific as The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, who over the course of the year experienced the pains of releasing a debut album, three singles, and several versions of a very well-received EP. It is with respect to that EP, titled “Higher Than The Stars,” that the band really shines. While their self-titled album is a top-notch affair, purveying an outstanding set of 10 songs that linger somewhere between twee and ‘80s pop, the EP is a great deal catchier, with the title song quite possibly being the single of the year.
Key tracks: “Young Adult Friction,” “A Teenager In Love,” “Higher Than The Stars”

12: Idlewild – “Post Electric Blues” (Cooking Vinyl):
There’s a fine line between “selling out” and “buying in,” not to mention “going back to the well” and “keeping one’s artistic integrity.” All of the above apply to Idlewild’s latest album, but all to good effect. “Post Electric Blues” harkens back to the sound of 2002’s “The Remote Part,” which turned the band from introspective, punk-rock influenced Scotsmen into stars of the UK mainstream, albeit for a few years. Their new songs retain the luster of mainstream production, but also the inward-looking lyrical content for which the band has come to be known. Following on 2007’s overly-rocking “Make Another World,” it’s good to hear Idlewild return to form.
Key tracks: “Younger Than America,” “(The Night Will) Bring You Back To Life,” “Circles In Stars”

11: The Horrors – “Primary Colours” (Japanese version) (XL):
Very few bands can pull off the about-face The Horrors did with this year’s “Primary Colours.” Moving vastly away from their (cheesy) goth-punk appearance on their first album, “Strange House,” the band reinvented themselves with a Joy Division-esque opacity. “Primary Colours” follows suit with a sound both inherently dark and profusely catchy, topped by the 8-minute sonic epic “Sea Within A Sea.” Also, just to kick it up a notch, the Japanese version of the record contains the irrepressible “You Could Never Tell” and the original recording of “Whole New Way,” the band’s most recent single.
Key tracks: “Who Can Say,” “Sea Within A Sea,” “You Could Never Tell”

10: We Were Promised Jetpacks – “These Four Walls” (FatCat):
At first glance, it’s hard to tell whether a band called We Were Promised Jetpacks would get off the ground. After all, they have no jetpacks. Joking aside, their debut album, “These Four Walls,” occupies a similar space as FatCat label-mates and fellow Scotsmen Frightened Rabbit’s “The Midnight Organ Fight,” the #4 album on last year’s “best of” list. Both records deal with the subject of romance, but “These Four Walls” gives a more loudly forceful performance, seemingly pining over someone unattainable as opposed to looking over the wreckage of a just-ended relationship. While they may have been promised jetpacks, a debut this good keeps these newcomers on the up-and-up.
Key tracks: “It’s Thunder And It’s Lightning,” “Conductor,” “Quiet Little Voices”

9: The xx – “xx” (Young Turks):
Aside from being the most poignantly named buzz-band this year, The xx also managed to release the quintessential romantic album of 2009, or at the very least the one to which most people conceivably conceived. Coincidentally titled “xx,” the record is a low-key affair filled with minimal instrumentation, whispering vocals, and tender, from-the-heart lyrics, all centered on the duetting lead singers’ belief that they are the only people in one another’s universe. The end result is both truly heartwarming and sentimentally thought-provoking. This year, “xx” marks the spot.
Key tracks: “VCR,” “Crystalised,” “Islands”

8: A Place To Bury Strangers – “Exploding Head” (Mute):
In the 2007 film “Hot Fuzz,” Nick Frost’s character asks, “is it true that there’s a point on a man’s head where if you shoot it, it will blow up?” Well, there may or may not be, but A Place To Bury Strangers’ “Exploding Head” would certainly be the soundtrack to that. Clearly influenced by the harder, noise-driven aspects of The Jesus And Mary Chain, the album is as extraordinarily loud and in-your-face as A Place To Bury Strangers’ self-titled debut, yet with a greater importance placed on the melody. The ensuing wall of sound is so great that strangers to the band can’t help but be buried in it.
Key tracks: “In Your Heart,” “Keep Slipping Away,” “Exploding Head,” “I Lived My Life To Stand In The Shadow Of Your Heart”

7: Art Brut – “Art Brut Vs. Satan” (Downtown):
Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos loves to write about the mundanities of life in the most tongue-in-cheek way possible. So far, he’s covered forming a band, blaming lateness on trains, and seeing his girlfriend naked (twice). So it’s with great pleasure that he and his band don’t change the formula for their third outing, the epically-titled “Art Brut Vs. Satan.” Obviously, Art Brut wins, but this comes in part from longer songs and production by Pixies’ Frank Black. Covering such topics as the benefits of public transportation and being covered in bruises after a night of dancing, “Art Brut Vs. Satan” is a classic record many years ahead of its time.
Key tracks: “DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake,” “Slap Dash For No Cash,” “Mysterious Bruises”

6: The Big Pink – “A Brief History Of Love” (4AD):
No debut this year could equate to the sheer magnitude encompassed by The Big Pink’s “A Brief History Of Love.” Channeling the dark sounds of mid-to-late ‘80s music from the 4AD label, the band built an album that is as its title suggests. However, instead of heralding all the wonderful things about love, they take a melancholic stance, choosing to recall a love lost and the thoughts, feelings and actions surrounding its demise. The album, played with electro-rock fervor and filled with bleeding-heart vocals, is what some movie announcers would call a tour-de-force thrill ride, and one that certainly warrants a sequel.
Key tracks: “At War With The Sun,” “Velvet,” “A Brief History Of Love”

5: Jarvis Cocker – “Further Complications.” (Rough Trade):
What more can be said about Jarvis Cocker that hasn’t already been said? Simply based on his time fronting Pulp, the man is a genius the likes of which has rarely been seen in this or any generation. With his second solo outing, the very aptly titled “Further Complications.,” Cocker’s sauciness lives on with even greater moral perversion. The Scott Walker-esque orchestral elements that pervaded 2006’s “The Jarvis Cocker Record” are gone, replaced by guitar-driven songs about society’s lackadaisicality and sexing-up girls half his 46 years, one of which is a cute paleontologist. Warped as that may sound, there’s something comforting in knowing he still wants to take you home and give you children (yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah).
Key tracks: “Further Complications.,” “Angela,” “Leftovers,” “I Never Said I Was Deep”

4: St. Vincent – “Actor” (iTunes version) (4AD):
When an artist like Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) releases a debut as stunning as 2007’s “Marry Me,” it’s pretty much a given they are in for a sophomore slump. However, more stunningly, just the opposite occurred with “Actor,” this year’s follow-up. The record dispenses with the classical progression afforded to much of Clark’s debut, and replaces it with an otherworldly oddness more associated with 4AD label-mates Blonde Redhead. As a result, her indelible voice, laden with subtle effects and reverb, is far more prominent. Also, with the addition of fan favorite “Oh My God” onto the iTunes version’s tracklist, “Actor” ends with the same chord progression with which it starts, thus making it a nigh-perfectly constructed album. Contrary to the words of St. Vincent’s indie mega-hit, “Marrow,” she doesn’t need any h-e-l-p.
Key tracks: “The Strangers,” “Save Me From What I Want,” “Marrow,” “Oh My God”

3: Camera Obscura – “My Maudlin Career” (4AD):
At the start of the decade, Camera Obscura were but protégés to the twee indie-pop machine that is Belle And Sebastian, a fact they did their best to live down. But after four outstanding albums, they’ve finally made a name for themselves, with the latest LP, “My Maudlin Career,” showcasing the band’s breathtaking mastery of twee-infused indie. While their last album, “Let’s Get Out Of This Country,” set them apart among an ocean of similar acts, this year’s effort gives them a far grander presence, bordering on classic even, based upon orchestration and harmonies reminiscent of ‘60s girl-pop.
Key tracks: “The Sweetest Thing,” “Away With Murder,” “Honey In The Sun”

2: Doves – “Kingdom Of Rust” (Heavenly):
Some bands just need time off in the wake of a bad record, and Doves are no exception. Though 2005’s “Some Cities” wasn’t necessarily bad, it was the sound of a band being pushed to match the success of a preceding album (in their case, 2002’s stellar “The Last Broadcast”) and coming across sounding uninspiredly the same. Fast forward four years and one month later and the band returned, reinvigorated, with “Kingdom Of Rust,” their finest work to date. An 11-song effort (12 in Japan), the record is so riff- and melody-laden, not to mention so lyrically gorgeous, that every song could conceivably be a single. Whatever accolades may be thrown towards this album, it’s just good to see Doves soaring once more.
Key tracks: “The Outsiders,” “10:03,” “The Greatest Denier,” “Compulsion”

1: Manic Street Preachers – “Journal For Plague Lovers” (Columbia):
Manic Street Preachers’ ninth studio album is a true labor of love. Recorded from a notebook of lyrics left behind by former guitarist Richey Edwards before his disappearance almost 15 years ago, the brilliantly titled “Journal For Plague Lovers” serves as a memorial to his vivacious spirit and his moving words. Additionally, to the extreme delight of fans, the album is essentially the sequel to 1994’s shockingly beautiful and vitriolic “The Holy Bible,” widely regarded as the band’s, and Edwards’, finest hour. Even the same artist is used for both records’ covers. This time around though, the caustic observances are given a more upbeat delivery, ending with what could be the most positive suicide note ever. The remaining three band members play through each song with a fervor not heard from them in years, at the same time honoring Edwards’ lyrics as they were written page for page. Though his whereabouts are still unknown, “Journal For Plague Lovers” seems to imply that wherever Richey is, he’s smiling.
Key tracks: “Jackie Collins Existential Question Time,” “She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach,” “Marlon J.D.,” “Virginia State Epileptic Colony”

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