(One thing I’ve learned during the last three years is how hard it is to keep in touch with what is going on in the pop world. I used to make fun of friends who had lost touch of rock ‘n’ roll as they aged, but I realize the reason I was able to keep in touch was because I had 24 hours a day to monitor the scene.
(Without that luxury, I focused mainly this year on old favorites and then tried to use reviews and the advice of friends to find new favorites. In reading reviews, I wasn’t just looking for glowing words, but for artists who seemed to be sharing the qualities I respect most about pop and rock musicians.)
The year’s best album
U2, “No Line on the Horizon” (Interscope) 2009 – Much of the strength of U2 is that it doesn’t look back musically. Where so many bands lean on signature sounds and themes, U2 is determined to open new doors. The music and themes in “No Line” continue to move forward, combining overwhelming seriousness and joy. The music is as personal as a prayer and as majestic as midnight mass as U2 explores complexities of the heart and soul in ways that are increasingly revealing.
Returnees (Artists who were on Top 10 lists from previous years. The list is alphabetical.)
Amadou & Mariam, “Welcome to Mali” (Because/Nonesuch) – This couple from Mali continues to make music that feels as pure and cleansing as an ocean breeze. It’s pretty much irresistible.
Roseanne Cash, “The List” (Manhattan) – With husband-producer/arranger John Leventhal, Rosanne gives us intimate, wonderfully tailored renditions of country tunes recommended to her years ago by her celebrated dad—songs by such varied artists as Bob Dylan (“Girl From the North Country”) to Jimmie Rodgers (“Miss the Mississippi and You”). Enchanting.
The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (Third Man) --I was already a fan of Alison Mosshart from her work with the Kills, a much underappreciated British duo, and it was easy to see why Jack White would want to work with her. She and the band combine here raw desire and torment in ways that cast a spell that feels equal parts Howlin’ Wolf and P.J. Harvey. White may step from guitar to drums (his first musical love), but his vision remains front and center.
Bob Dylan, “Together Through Life” (Columbia) – This tuneful delight continues the winning streak that Dylan has been on since his dramatic return to form with “Time Out of Mind.” One of the reasons these albums have been so rewarding is they carry the sound of a man having fun with music.
Kris Kristofferson, “Closer to the Bone” (New West) – Even if you didn’t know anything about “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help It Make It through the Night” and the other great songs Kristofferson has written over the years, this new album would convince you that you were in the hands of a wonderful songwriter—someone able to capture intimate emotions with remarkable openness and truth.
Monsters of Folk, “Monsters of Folk” (Shangri-La) – Here Conor Oberst teams with some talented pals (Jim Jarvis, M. Ward and Mike Mogis) in a series of inspired tunes about searching for love, faith or, maybe, just some sanity in a time when society’s values are in transition.
The First Timers (on one of my “best of” lists):
Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion” (Domino) and Dirty Projectors, “Bitte Orga” (Domino) – In the broadest of terms, these two bands, along with Arcade Fire and others, are trying to rethink the sonic boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll in the smart, passionate way Talking Heads did in the 1970s and 1980s. The Collective, the more aggressive of the two groups, deals most impressively with the instrumental textures, bouncing off influences ranging from psychedelic to punk in the process. Dave Longstreth, the visionary behind the Projectors, finds the most stimulation in the human voice, which give the Projectors’ sound a more ethereal edge.
Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” (American) – The best parts in
this Rick Rubin-produced album remind you of the richness and depth of the Band’s softest moments. The title song’s opening lines invite you on a journey that touches on the kind of youthful awakening that has been at the heart of best bands, from the Band to Bright Eyes: “Load the car and write your note / Grab your bag and grab your coat / tell the ones that need to know/ We are headed north.
The xx’s “The xx” (Young Turks) . There’s something quite magical in this dreamy, but penetrating and sharp debut album from a London group that has spent time listening to lots of marvelous influences, from the Velvet Underground to New Order to Radiohead (to cite the most obvious), and then gone on to give us a sound that doesn’t owe allegiance to any one of them. This is a group whose whispery mix of male and female vocals and icy, yet seductive instrumental touches demand that you pay attention or it can all slip by. But they not only reward your interest, but make you look eagerly for more. My favorite song is “VCR,” which makes more convincing and original use of the Velvets’ sound than anything the Strokes ever gave us: “When I go out on the pier, gonna die and have no fear / Because you, you just know, you just do.”