2009: Otis Hart
I once had a film professor in college who asked us to write the titles of the 10 best films of all time on one side of a piece of paper. On the other side, he had us list our 10 favorite films to actually watch. The first task felt like a pop quiz – Citizen Kane or Casablanca at the top? And where to slot the first international film? – while the flip side was, well, flippant. The Princess Bride, The Jerk, This is Spinal Tap, and the latest dorm craze The Big Lebowski came to mind, since I’d enjoyed each one multiple times.
You might’ve already guessed where this is going. Teach was pulling a fast one. All the consternation that went into assembling Side A was for naught. The correct list, he said, of the “best” films of all time was actually facedown on the table. The “best” and our favorites were one and the same.
My first thought was, “You keep using this word ‘best.’ I do not think it means what you think it means.” The Dude’s character was better than Charlie Kane? “Big Bottom” more memorable than “As Time Goes By”? “I was born a poor black child” over “Rosebud”?
I left class confused, which, of course, was the point. Teach was making us question the status quo and think about how and why we value art. His method was disingenuous – even borderline irresponsible (god forbid anyone leaves a college-level course believing that Billy Madison was better than anything by Billy Wilder) – but it got the job done. I’ve second-guessed myself, and others, ever since.
This life lesson came to mind when I began assessing my favorite records of 2009. When I sat down 10 years ago and anxiously rattled off the best films, I was quoting consensus. When I named my favorites, I picked the ones I watched the most.
Thanks to the Internet, neither of those categories holds the same sort of sway over me now. The fragmentation of the music “press” means that there’s less agreement on what’s the best. And the sheer amount of music … well, actually, the desire to hear the sheer amount of music being made limited the amount of time I had to spend with each record. So when I looked back on my “play count” this year, the ones I considered my favorites rarely had more than two or three spins.
I went back and listened to all of the albums I set aside as “special” before making the list below, to ensure my memory had my back. And in most cases, it did. But it seems as if listening to music in this new age is almost like going to the movies, or an art installation, where you experience the presentation one time, digest it, and move on to the next, while keeping mental notes for later. Obviously, this conveyer belt approach initially results in tenuous connections, which is why, as an editor of a daily operation, I love the deep breath of December, when the music industry takes a break and I get a chance to see which albums have taken root.
So here are my favorite 20 records of 2009, based neither on consensus nor spins – just the feelings that bubbled up while listening to them.
(Oh, and there’s about 280 more where these came from – an internal poll of the Dusted staff resulted in more than 300 different nominations. The leading vote-getter received just seven nods, which is why we choose to not name an album of the year or assemble an overall list. An album that less than a quarter of the staff endorsed shouldn’t reflect the publication as a whole.)
OK, on with it.
Why?: A Ways Away is simply an idyllic indie-folk album that feels like the warmth returning to your hands after a walk in the wintertime. O’Neil is a seasoned veteran, getting her start on Rodan’s Rusty way back in 1994, and this is solo album No. 5. Given the ephemeral nature of today’s music scene, that number makes me smile.
Why?: Things are Not All Right is the most well-crafted garage-punk record of the year and a breath of fresh hi-fi air in a genre that’s overcome with intentionally poor production. The thirtysomething husband-and-wife duo of Bill and Lisa Roe hold down day jobs in Chicago, just had their first kid, and have really good taste in music. Things sound pretty all right to me.
Why?: Because Oneida are one of the few bands operating today that constantly chart new territory, genre be damned. This three-disc opus, smelted together from African-electro, ‘70s riff rock, noise pastiche and upbeat incantations, is (intentionally) too much to handle at once, but don’t let that stop you from trying. Admitting defeat is part of initiation at the House of O.
Why?: Ryan Sambol’s voice takes home the year’s award for “Best Acquired Taste.” Somewhere between a whine and a warning, he leads this scrappy band from Austin through a variety of tempos and temperaments that stayed true to rock’s roots in country and R&B.
Why?: Jazz drummer Tyshawn Sorey draws as much, if not more from modern composer Morton Feldman than from the history of his ascribed genre. Joined by Thomas Morgan (guitar and bass) and Todd Neufeld (guitars), Sorey intersperses song, improv and silence in such a way as to leave you breathless.
Why?: It’s our belated introduction to Detroit’s latest techno mastermind. Omar-S (a.k.a. Alex Smith) has released more than 20 12”s on his own label, FXHE, but until this year, he purposely avoided calling attention to himself. He released this mix of his discography on London’s Fabric Records to reach folks who don’t buy limited edition vinyl. I hope he realizes people don’t buy CDs, either.
Why?: We’re lucky to know Tuareg guitarist Omara Mochtar exists at all, given the nomadic existence of the Kel Tamachek people. Guitars from Agadez Vol. 2 continues the miraculous run of albums from the Saharan interior, joining Tinariwen’s Aman Iman and Group Inerane’s first installment in the Guitars series.
Why?: Kurt Vile plays the trumpet. Seriously though, every list needs a mindfuck, and Blues Control tickles the auditory cortex like few can. While most of the jams here involve some sort of drone, Russ Waterhouse and Lea Cho rarely seem to wander. Direction is good.
Why?: Renaissance (fair) man Ben Chasny’s best bunch of songs yet. His Eastern-soaked folk and gothic baritone sound more out of time than ever. Let them come to you, Ben.
Why?: Not because Jack Rose died tragically on December 5. His take on Appalachian music didn’t need sentimental trappings like mortality to rise above the rest. He was the best guitarist I’ve ever seen with my own eyes.
Why?: The man has picked up the gauntlet from Bill Callahan, who dropped it around the same time he shed his Smog moniker. Andre Ethier’s rock unfurls in no particular hurry (sort of like the Canadian postal service, which took three months to deliver this album), but don’t let it fool you. This man is going places.
Why?: Knight Rider meets Terry Riley. Gavin Russom (of the ambient duo with Delia Gonzalez) creates electronic music designed for moonless nights when it’s just you, your headlights, and those tiny white lines.
Why?: She’s got the best voice in the business and writes anthemic songs without reverting to verse/chorus/verse. Since everyone already loves Neko, I’ll take this opportunity to note that this would be much higher on my list if not for the song “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth,” which might be one of the worst of the year. I heard they tortured the arrested Copenhagen protestors with this on repeat.
Why?: Emptyset was 2009’s biggest surprise. This LP by the techno/dubstep/art installation duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas came out of nowhere, which is another way of saying I wasn’t paying enough attention to the scene in Bristol. Basic Channel fans have been waiting for this next step forward for a long time.
Why?: Because I love it when people analyze the politics that inform musical genres. Terre Thaemlitz tackles the sadness that inspired original NYC house without ever letting the message overshadow the music.
Why?: The Ethio-jazz master Mulatu Astatke recorded with London funk aficionados the Heliocentrics for a week last September. The result: a beat-driven Ethiopiques update for the 21st century.
Why?: This is what happens when you let truly talented rock stars play with synths. Nick Zinner wasn’t late to the party. He just decided to show them how it’s done.
Why?: Lee Fields released his first soul single in 1969. Forty years later, he has his masterpiece. Fields sings with such sincerity and sage, it feels like you’ve never heard anyone sing about love, loss or women before. Amy Winehouse fans, c’mon over. You’ve got some time on your hands.
Why?: It’s the most enjoyable album of the year. Allen Toussaint, Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Marc Ribot, David Piltch, and Jay Bellerose playing New Orleans classics by Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Django Reinhardt, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Billy Strayhorn. At the end of the day, there’s something to be said for being able to play your instruments, and this crew played them better than anyone else in 2009.
Why?: Damon Riddick gets the nod in a nail-biter over Allen Toussaint for the ambition and audacity radiating from every one of these 24 tracks and 140 minutes. The disco love funk only starts showing its circuitry around the two-hour mark, or about 80 minutes after most of the albums on this list would have ended. The fact that every song uses the same basic ingredients – keyboards and drum machine – only proves that Dâm’s skills as a songwriter match his chops as a producer. A landmark release.
By Otis Hart