The year in music
You'll find my 10 favorite albums of 2009 in related content, but here's a broader recap of some highlights - dubious and otherwise - in a curious year in music.
BEST RETURN (Bronze):
Southern rockers Drivin' N' Cryin' hadn't released an album in seven years - and hadn't played above the Mason-Dixon line since 1997 – so fans finally got some long overdue DNC action. One of the best shows of the year.
BEST RETURN (Silver):
He hasn't been gone, per se, but this was the year that R&B/soul wildman Barrence Whitfield finally emerged to play the local club circuit again with a new band, the Monkey Hips, in tow. Welcome back, Barrence. We had no idea just how much we needed you again.
BEST RETURN (Gold):
Drugs and other drama behind them, the biggest band to ever come out of Vermont - and possibly New England - got back to what it does best: tour, tour and tour some more. In case you've been living under a rock, that would be Phish, dude. A solid new album ("Joy") and many highly regarded shows later, they're back.
BEST RETURN (Platinum):
Leonard Cohen's February show at New York's Beacon Theater - the old master's first U.S. show in 15 years - is something I'll carry with me forever. By all accounts, most of his shows this year have been just as transcendent. There's even an impressive live document, "Live in London," to mark the return to regular touring.
HEADBANGING IS GOOD FOR YOU:
There were more metal bands having great years this year than it seems possible to remember. Killswitch Engage ("Killswitch Engage"), Shadows Fall ("Retribution"), Isis ("Wavering Radiant") and Revere's The Red Chord ("Fed Through the Teeth Machine") all helped round out a list topped by Mastodon's mighty "Crack the Skye."
FURTHER EVIDENCE THE FAIRER SEX IS TOUGHER:
Florence and the Machine, Ida Maria, Neko Case, Ciara, Lady Gaga, Lily Allen, the Screaming Females, Rihanna, the Gossip's Beth Ditto ... well, hey, that's a collection of grrl rockers, spitfires and head-crackers I wouldn't take lightly.
BEST JUST CAN'T DENY IT:
Like Lil' Wayne in 2008, Lady Gaga was everywhere in 2009. You can't deny her - or the appeal of her bizarrely affecting, club-stoking hits - so why even try.
On top of its long-delayed album and a much-rumored internal power struggle, Aerosmith couldn't go 10 minutes this year without something happening to the tour or something happening to suggest a full-on breakup wasn't far off. Are Steven Tyler and Joe Perry happy together again? It's going to take more than toothy smiles and buddy-buddy photo ops to prove it.
BEST MUSIC AUTOBIOGRAPHY:
It'd be nice to have segued out of that last category and say that Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer's "Hit Hard" was the best first-person rock tell-all I read this year. But then came the Big Man - specifically, E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, as if you didn't know - and his raw, yet insightful "Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales." Thanks, big man, for a good read.
BEST MUSIC BIOGRAPHY:
Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout outdid pretty much everybody this year - music book or biography - with "Pops: A Life of Louie Armstrong." So essential that to say it's "essential" reading for music lovers is understating it.
BEST MUSIC ANTHOLOGY:
If you're a junkie for great music writing, you owe it to yourself to pick up "Blues & Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer." Lovingly edited and assembled by Anthony DeCurtis - himself of no small renown - the anthology does much to highlight Palmer's curiosity and enthusiasm as well as his scholarship. Palmer died in 1997 at age 52, and you're only left to wonder what he had left in the tank.
BEST SIDE PROJECT:
Guitarist Luther Dickinson joined the Black Crowes in 2008, which leaves less time for this main group, the blues-rocking North Mississippi Allstars. No matter, said his bandmates Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew, who formed, recorded with and toured behind one hell of a rocking, raunchy side project called Hill Country Revue.
The album they yielded doesn't suggest a finished product by any means, but Them Crooked Vultures - guitarist Josh Homme, drummer Dave Grohl and Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones - were nothing if not invigorating. Monster riffs and burly rhythms, and the best part is having Grohl back behind the kit again. Boy, can the guy hit hard.
BEST QUIET ASCENT:
His devoted fans will nod their heads and say "of course," but has anyone else noticed that country-pop star Brad Paisley has put together one of the most impressive catalogs of the entire decade? He added to that with the ace "American Saturday Night" this year.
BEST GUILTY PLEASURE:
TV's "Glee." The way those sparkly kids burst into song – the dorkiness of it all - is so indelible and fun you could just explode with giddy amusement every time they light into Journey, or Van Halen, or Lily Allen, or the Police, or, or, or. Given "Glee's" success – the cast's versions of popular songs are awfully popular on iTunes – how long before we get a full-blown tour?
BEST WHY THE HELL NOT:
Bob Dylan's "Christmas In the Heart." Something to mock and be weirded out by? Sure thing. But then you hear it - and you hear the reverence craggy old Zimmy brings to songs like "Little Drummer Boy" and "The First Noel" - and what's that? You're ... smiling.
BEST BAND NAME:
Give it up for Glasgow indie rockers We Were Promised Jetpacks! Damn right we were.
BEST I DON'T NEED NO STINKING FORMER BAND:
Jason Isbell left the Drive By Truckers in 2007, and two albums later with his new band the 400 Unit, he's delivering R&B-flavored country rock as good as anything he's ever done. This year's self-titled album was one of 2009's best.
BEST BUT DIDN'T THEY SOUND GREAT:
The Truckers' B-sides and rarities collection, "The Fine Print," was loads of fun, drawing on select covers and Truckers obscurities from the band's many eras.
BEST RECORD LABEL:
Bloodshot Records is a Chicago-based indie shop specializing in what it calls "insurgent country." That means some of the best upstart and veteran talent in roots-rock, Americana and country, including bands like the Bottle Rockets, Ha Ha Tonka and Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, supreme talents like the Dex Romweber Duo and Wayne "The Train" Hancock, and older hands like Alejandro Escovedo, Old 97's and Exene Cervenka.
BEST ANY PUBLICITY IS GOOD PUBLICITY:
Adam Lambert. He made headlines for his outlandish singing, and then for losing "American Idol." Then he made headlines for his outlandish dance moves at the "American Music Awards" in November - and got himself booted from "Good Morning America" because of them. Hey, his name's in the news, and his singing's a force of nature. Anyone hear from Ruben Studdard lately?
Most album reissues are little more than gussied-up packaging designed to make you buy the same album you already have for perceived value-add. But this year's 40th anniversary reissue of the Rolling Stones' "Get Yer Ya-Yas's Out" has ya-ya's to spare. Three discs and a DVD complete with unreleased songs from the Stones, a behind-the-scenes, and material from the shows' opening acts, a fiery BB King and a blazing Ike and Tina Turner. Last, for the geeks: the original Rolling Stones review by legendary rock scribe Lester Bangs.
MVP YOU HEAR A LOT ABOUT:
Guitarist and belter Warren Haynes toured with the reconstituted Dead this spring in between the 40th anniversary Beacon Theater run and 40th anniversary summer tour with the Allman Brothers Band. He also toured the States and Europe behind a new Gov't Mule album and has another project, supposedly of New Orleans-style R&B and funk music, in the can. Then there's his annual charity festival, the Christmas Jam, planning for a Mule-hosted festival in Jamaica this January, and ... well, what have you done this year?
MVP YOU DON'T:
Los Lobos' David Hidalgo keeps up a grueling tour schedule with both the long-running Lobos and his many side projects. He also finds time to lend his virtuoso skills to Mexican bands like Los Cenzontles, and no less than Bob Dylan, for whom he played accordion on two albums this year.
BEST CLASSY MOVE:
Beyonce giving shell-shocked Taylor Swift her moment at the mic at the VMAs following Kanye West's admittedly classless stealing of the spotlight to protest Swift's win.
COOLEST COLLABORATION (Gold):
Booker T. Jones' "Potato Hole" had the Drive By Truckers as a backup band and a guest appearance from Neil Young. Smokin', and so slippery.
COOLEST COLLABORATION (Silver):
Them Crooked Vultures. It wasn't amazing, but good enough that we want to hear more.
COOLEST COLLABORATION (Bronze):
The Black Keys and some of the most recognizable names in hip hop - Mos Def, Q-Tip, Raekwon, Ludacris and others - kicked down a project called Blakroc. You can thank producer Damon Dash, who saw the potential and called the Keys, for something so curiously fun.
BEST TRUTH IN ADVERTISING:
The Very Best scale new heights in hip-hop, dance music and Western pop with something that combines all of those with Malawian traditional music. Their first full-length album, "Warm Heart of Africa," is the album all your music snob pals will wish they had heard - and talked up - first.
BEST YOU DON'T NEED VOWELS TO ROCK:
Talk about a force to be reckoned with: South Africa's BLK JKS are an experimental rock outfit that combines reggae, jazz, prog-rock and various African styles into a sound that's unique - and most genre-crashing - in a rock band since TV On the Radio.
BEST NEW JAMES BROWN:
Black Joe Lewis. See below.
I'll take Levon Helm tackling the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" on his strong recent album, "Electric Dirt." Talk about something that works so well: a folksy Dead song that seems tailor made for The Band, and Helm adds his band's Crescent City-style horn lines to go along with his still-potent vocals.
HMM, NOT SO MUCH:
Norah Jones' new "The Fall" alleged that the sultry singer was shifting from jazz to more of a rock direction, and she signed up pals like Ryan Adams, Okkervil River's Will Sheff and guitarist Smokey Hormel. Everything on it sounds dull and forced. Why can't Jones bring the same sense of fun and laid-back humor to her own albums that she does with side projects like The Little Willies?
BEST HONKY TONK WOMAN:
Eilen Jewell had one of the year's great Americana releases in "Sea of Tears."
BEST EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN:
Can it be? According to Nielsen Soundscan, sales of vinyl records are up 35 percent, year-over-year, in 2009, and are at their highest point ever since Nielsen began tracking latter-day vinyl sales in 1991. Maybe there's hope for the plummeting CD in a later life, but CDs just don't have that certain romance of vinyl, do they?
BEST HEY THERE DELILAH:
We'll name for this award that sad-sack, emo-riffic pop song that's so catchy it's impossible not to like it in spite of its utter wimpiness. Owl City's "Fireflies" - that remarkably twee bit of dreamy-eyed sweetness - is that song.
BEST WHOPPER FOR YOUR FAVORITE JAZZBO:
Got a few hunnit bucks to drop? Go for "The Complete Columbia Album Collection" of Miles Davis, which includes - gulp - 70 CDs and one DVD, and is available through Amazon.com for $364.98. This beast has a cross-section of all the Miles album output straight from 1957 to 1985, a never-before released live recording from the Isle of Wight in 1970, and a concert DVD of his Herbie Hancock-Wayne Shorter quintet from 1967.
BEST CHEAPO FOR YOUR FAVORITE COUNTRY LOVER:
Check out "Nowhere to Run: The Little Darlin' Years 1966-1970," a collection of Johnny Paycheck sides. They'll love it - if only for a song called "(Pardon Me) I've Got Someone to Kill" - and it's a steal at $19.99.
BEST BOXED SET, PERIOD:The Richard Thompson four-discer "Walking On a Wire (1968-2009)" goes wide and deep, drawing on cuts from more than 30 of Thompson's albums, Fairport Convention and otherwise. Boy is Thompson accomplished, as a songwriter and guitarist above all.
When legendary producer Jim Dickinson died in August, his son Luther - guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars and the Black Crowes - put together an acoustic session with some of Dickinson's old pals. The yield was "Onward and Upward" a collection of country blues and gospel songs that sound rough, immediate and in the moment.
What, this one? Well, that's very kind of you. But take a listen to Rosanne Cash's "The List" - a guest-heavy album culled from what her dad, Johnny, gave her of what he felt were the 100 greatest country and American songs ever - and know that that's a list worth reading.
BEST TRENDY ROLLING STONES OBSCURITY:
The "Exile on Main Street" deep cut "Ventilator Blues," covered as part of broader Stones tributes by both Phish and Gov't Mule on Halloween.
BEST MUSIC STORY:
How about that Susan Boyle, eh? Become a YouTube sensation after singing - singing the crap, that is - out of a tune from "Les Miserables," have a breakdown after losing the Britain's Got Talent competition that made you famous, and then - wait for it - release an album that sold more copies in its first week than any other in 2009? Wow. (It's also the biggest first-week seller by a debut album since 1993.)
BEST PLEASE PICK A BAND ALREADY:
He blew up with the White Stripes, then launched the Raconteurs, and this year, Jack White had another crackling triumph alongside Kills frontwoman Alison Mosshart called The Dead Weather. Oh, and he still found time to appear in "It Might Get Loud," the documentary about guitar playing starring him, U2's The Edge and Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page.
BEST CULT BAND I FINALLY GET:
I realize I'm late to the party on this, but I attended my first Sunn O))) show - more like Sunn O ))) experience - this year. The American band incorporates elements of metal with noise rock, ambience and droning, and live, the result is something primal and brutally exhilarating - so loud as to be ear-shattering and so mysterious as to be inscrutable. I was exhilarated, I can tell you that. Definitely not for everyone, and it's its devotees prefer it that way.
If you're a soul and R&B fiend, you'll take to Daptone Gold – a compilation of rarities and new tracks from the best artists on Brooklyn's soul-revivalist Daptone label - like catnip. Simply killer cuts from Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, the Budos Band, Antibalas, the Menahan Street Band, Lee Fields, Naomi Shelton and others.
BEST INDIE ROCK HOTBED:
Providence, R.I., has been churning out great bands for years. Thanks to the triumphs of the Low Anthem ("Oh My God, Charlie Darwin"), Deer Tick ("Born On Flag Day") and others, Rhode Island's capital city is firmly affixed on the map of hipster cool.
BEST NEEDS A NEW ALBUM, STAT:
Soul and R&B belter Andrea Gillis has loads of material and packed-out-the-doors regular shows. Another album is said to be in the works, and good thing: Her last was five years ago.
BEST, AH THAT'S WHERE THEY WENT:
The once-promising darlings of the indie rock world, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, have been kind of, sort of on hiatus (right? guys?) for a while. While they sort it out, Robbie Guertin and Tyler Sargent have plugged back in with Brooklyn art rockers Uninhabitable Mansions, and frontman Alec Ounsworth dropped a strong solo album, "Mo' Beauty."
BEST PRACTICED HANDS:
How about U2's "No Line on the Horizon" and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's "Workin' On a Dream." Neither was among their best, and both were overpraised, but both felt vigorous, immediate and just right for the era.
BEST LOOKIN' GOOD AT 40:
As their 40th anniversary tour proved, The Allman Brothers Band still packs a wallop.
BEST NEW MILEY CYRUS:
If you hear your daughters screaming and can get a word in edgewise, they've either been watching too much "Twilight," or they've caught the Justin Bieber bug. All of 15 years old, he has already established himself as a force of nature for the tween set. Don't be surprised, mom and dad, when you're being flooded with requests for tickets. What, Miley Cyrus, you say? She's 17 now. An elder stateswoman.
SONG OF THE YEAR:
U2's "No Line on the Horizon" wasn't the defining U2 document I'd hoped for, nor the masterpiece many anointed it as. But "Moment of Surrender" is as grand a statement as U2's made this decade – an emotional wallop that, in the live setting especially, soared.
BEST CONNOISSEUR'S HIP HOP ALBUM:
How about that Scott Mescudi, aka Kid Cudi, who makes things go beep, makes them mellow and makes them get deep under your skin on "Man on the Moon: The End of the Day," which features collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and Ratatat and narration from Common. If this spaced-out, grandiose, curiously weird album is a sign of hip-hop ambition in the next decade, count me in.
BEST STILL THE KING:
Jay-Z's "The Blueprint 3" isn't on par with his original "Blueprint" (2001), but few hip-hop releases in the past decade were. Instead, Jay dials up the big-name collaborators and stacked producers and wages war between the boasting, cocksure Jay of the past and the more coolly efficient Jay of what sounds like the future. Lots to like about this one.
BEST CLUB BANGER:
It has to be a little cheesy, a little boneheaded and more fun than you'd have just shaking your butt to any old garden-variety club song with a beat. Pitbull's "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)" kept dance floors sweaty all year. And I can't find the words to describe it without being disrespectful, but the David Guetta-Akon collabo "Sexy Bitch" is pretty fun, too.
PLEASE, NO MORE:
Look, I like the Black-Eyed Peas, OK? They've been fun for years and behind all their dopey posturing is a deep well of talent, especially from Will.i.am. But "I Gotta Feeling" is like chugging - no, snorting - an entire can of Red Bull, and you're left with sort of sticky, un-hyped-up feeling of overstimulated mess. That's not the case, however, with "Boom Boom Pow," which "Feeling" replaced on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 midway through the year. "Boom Boom" had the goods.
Artists who have had a year like Rihanna - and the sketchy, sad circumstances around what happened with her and Chris Brown - might have hung it up, hibernated and said, "I'll be back next year." Instead comes "Rated R," a show of force and a mark of real growth from the R&B club favorite. This one grew on me even more over time, too, and it ranks with the curious singer's best.
The Patriot Ledger