Part II of my Top 20 Albums of 2009
10. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At The Movies
Justin Townes Earle’s second album cemented his star-studded name as star in his own right and won the top spot in the first ever Bird List – by a landslide. Justin, like some of the best out there, has a difficult time translating his live show allure to a studio CD, but Midnight At The Movies does a damn good job trying. His rollicking, ‘Hillbilly Music’ (tracks like ‘Walk Out’ and ‘John Henry’) are where he grabs your attention, but it’s the slower, more personal songs (‘Mama’s Eyes’, ‘Someday I’ll Be Forgiven’) that truly separate JTE from other folk-country acts out there.
Justin Townes Earle – They Killed John Henry
9. Sea Wolf – White Water, While Bloom
Alex Brown Church and the folks behind him, better known as Sea Wolf, are probably one the most accessible bands I promote here. I have to admit that they had a little advantage making my top 10 due to the fact that I didn’t discover their 2007 release Leaves In The River until last year, and wanted to make up for not mentioning it in my inaugural posts. This year with White Water, White Bloom, Sea Wolf continued to make listener-friendly indie-rock paved with inspiring string pieces, powerful rhythm sections, and soaring vocals.
Sea Wolf – Dew In The Grass
8. Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers – Songs In The Night
Samantha Crain broke into the folk scene last year with a superb EP. Don’t let the fact that her debut full-length was released early this year and the hype surrounding her may have since slowed lead you astray. This is one killer album. Songs In The Night contains very mature writing and even better music created by The Midnight Shivers. It’s got a perfect mix of tempos – sing-along folk-rockers, contemplative acoustic ballads, and even a couple electric grooves. If I could pick a poster-band for the sound I want out of my Americana, this is it.
Samantha Crain & The Midnight Shivers – Devils In Boston
7. Middle Distance Runner – The Sun & Earth
Engine Room Recordings, 10.20.2009
Every year so far, I’ve had at least one album that made my list for one simple reason – it rocks. This year’s album that always seems to get my head bobbin’ is Middle Distance Runner’s The Sun & Earth. I stumbled across the D.C. band earlier this year thanks to a couple mind-numbing singles/EPs they released. I grabbed the full album released in October, delighted to see those tracks on it, and even more thrilled to enjoy the rest of the disc. It’s one of those albums that you seem to not remember tracks names simply because it’s 45 minutes of pulsating Rock n Roll intertwined with moments of acoustic bliss of that all melds together in you brain – in a good way.
Middle Distance Runner – Round Here
6. Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
I was skeptical of Dan Auerbach breaking from his bandmate to strike out on a solo mission. But I was a fool. Dan brought his funk-filled guitar licks to the studio, polished them off just a tad, and ultimately brought everything to his solo debut that The Black Keys were missing. Keep It Hid has the feel of an artist who knew the exact sound they wanted. Plus, who knew this blues-rocker could slow it down and give us a handful of touching down-tempo ditties to compliment his unique, blistering electric sound.
Dan Auerbach – When The Night Comes
5. Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
I had Outer South, the second album bearing Conor Oberst’s name and the first bearing The Mystic Valley Band, in my library for a while this year before I really gave it a listen. I don’t know what held me back – maybe I was overwhelmed by the amount of tracks on it and the fact that Conor participated in another release this year – but as soon as I listened once through, I knew it was a top 5 album. This year will mark the 3rd year in a row that Conor Oberst has placed an album in the top 5 here at This Mornin’. Last year, I made the claim that his self-titled album solidified his place as the Best American Songwriter under 30, and with this release I stand by that claim – though he only has 2 more months to hold the title. He will then have wait 5 years in a distant second place until Ryan Adams turns 40.
Outer South doesn’t necessarily show us anything particularly new about Conor – his songs continue to be energetic – only slowing when necessary – well-written, and most noticeably perfectly delivered. Conor has a knack for isolating a line apart from the music behind it with the effect of heightening the importance of that lyric like no one else. What sets this album apart from Oberst’s earlier work is his band. Although The Mystic Valley Band played on Conor Oberst, that album was more about Conor. On Outer South, he lends prime real estate to his bandmates letting them take 7 of the 16 tracks, including tracks as early as 3 and 4. The songs that Nick Freitas, Taylor Hollingworth, and Jason Boesel wrote and provide lead vocals for aren’t my favorite off the album, but they ain’t bad, either. Hollingsworth may have the standout non-Oberst song with his Replacements-esque ‘Air Mattress.’ Outer South is yet another disc from the Omaha alt-rocker that doesn’t have a single skippable track.
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Cabbage Town
Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Air Mattress
4. Deer Tick – Born On Flag Day
Easily my most anticipated release of the year, Deer Tick’s sophomore effort obviously pleased me. But not right at first – if you read my initial reaction, you’ll see I was happy with it, but thought it paled in comparison to 2007’s War Elephant. What I grew to enjoy about the album after some time, however, was everything that sets Born On Flag Day apart from their debut. Aside from John McCauley’s grizzled vocals, this album doesn’t have the same grunge-rock feel of which we were introduced to Deer Tick. In its place as an overlying feeling on the album is a bit of a retro-vibe. Born On Flag Day boasts multiple tracks that sound straight out of a 50’s studio session outtake disc. Both vocally and musically, I’ve heard traces of The Everyly Brothers (when they tried out an electric set), The Animals, Chuck Berry, and even some Beatles when I listen to this album. John manages to get those familiar, classic rock tones from his sea-green Fender Strat, both on this album and in the band’s live show.
3. Bombadil – Tarpits & Canyonlands
I could sit here and regurgitate words that tell you how Bombadil is groundbreaking, brave, and stylistically unclassifiable, but if you’ve ever heard their music, that is all too apparent. The simple fact is, it’s fun to listen to them – and what else do you really need to know? Tarpits and Canyonlands outreaches the band’s last album in terms of accessibility and execution. Here, there are real songs, still liberally arranged with instrumental twists and turns, but in a more focused way. The guys took their time with this recording, and it shows. Most impressively, Tarpits‘ strongest parts may be the more subdued moments. The slow-building opener ‘I Am’ provides a gentle, yet ominous lead-in to an album with peaks and valleys in terms of tempo and activity, but never a dull moment.
2. Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend
I reserved big, comfy spot for this album in my Top 10 as soon as I learned of its release. Don’t get me wrong – I still analyzed the songs, but I already knew what we were getting. For an artist with a resume like Dave Rawlings, over a decade to hone his songwriting chops, and the likes of Gillian Welch and Old Crow Medicine Show ushering him in, A Friend of A Friend was bound to be nothing short of spectacular. The last thing I expected going in was to be most impressed by the strength of Dave’s original songs. ‘Ruby’ immediately shot to the top of my favorite songs list, while ‘Sweet Tooth’ and ‘Bells of Harlem’ are at once fresh and classically timeless. It’s a short and sweet album, with a perfect mix of Dave’s early co-writes, well-chosen covers, and original compositions that will no-doubt stand the test of time. Expect a further in-depth review of this one after I’ve let it simmer a little longer.
1. The Low Anthem - Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Last year, I expressed my thoughts on what I believe makes a great album. Most importantly, that it need be a cohesive, focused, flowing collection of songs, none being superfluous or out of place. The Low Anthem’s Oh My God, Charlie Darwin takes this idea to another level. It’s a beautiful record, start to finish, complete with ballads and rockers, an interlude, and a reprise. It flows seamlessly, taking you through ethereal hymns and turbulent gospel barn-burners. Some may argue that OMGCD was a 2008 release – the Providence-based band self-released the album in September of 2008 and were subsequently picked up by Nonesuch Records. The label then gave the record a proper release (including vinyl) in June of this year. I discovered the band just after this release and was pleased to see that their schedule crossed paths with mine and we would both be in Nashville at the same time – me for The Big Surprise Tour, them for an intimate show at The Basement. Catching a live show of theirs and meeting the band members had a big part in the placement of this album at the top of my list. Read my review.
The Low Anthem’s strongest quality – as a band and especially on this album – is their unmatched instrumentation. Between only Ben Knox Miller, Jeff Prystokwsky, and Jocie Adams, The Low Anthem travels with a trailer-full of gear, all of which gets used on a nightly basis. Their stage progression plays out like a carousel, or literally a game of musical chairs. Most instruments can be played by more than one member, each with their own personal flair. I read a few interviews with the band prior to this write-up (check out this well-written one). In one interview, Miller says they try to push their musical limits by limiting their play on instruments they are comfortable with. He says they walk blindfolded into the instrument room; they “prefer to stumble into beauty.” Another interesting note I picked up on, Miller says that band doesn’t get too caught up in listening to a lot of contemporary music. This is obvious in the end result of their own music – you can’t seem to pick out any specific influence or even compare it to anything else you’ve heard before: completely original music, earthy and natural.
The Low Anthem – Charlie Darwin
The Low Anthem – Horizon Is A Beltway