Strangers Almanac: Best of 2009 – All That and Then Some

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Well, we did it again.  Despite a loud constituency of music fans out there who abhor these end of the year lists for their arrogance, their subjectivity, their self-indulgent ways, we came up with a short list of our favorites from the year.  And we have to make one thing clear: these best-of-the-year lists should be more accurately called “the-best-of-what-we-know” lists.  Mathematically, we have only dabbled in a fraction of the music released this year even though we spend hour upon hour searching for new musical discoveries every week instead of going to bed at a reasonable hour, or washing our socks, or God forbid, emptying the dishwasher.  When it comes to finding new artists and bands, we honestly think these lists come in mighty handy.  We like them for ourselves, so, if only in an attempt to assist you in uncovering your next favorite song, band, or album, we proudly present the Strangers Almanac Best of 2009.  If we left something off, and you’re just dying to give us a piece of your mind, please shoot us an e-mail at strangers.almanac@yahoo.com.  Or better yet, become our friend on Facebook and put it out there for the public.  We hoped you enjoyed your 2009, friends.  Here’s to an even better 2010.

 

Top 20 Songs by a Strangers Almanac Artist (Past, Present, or Future):

 

Bonfires” – Rickie Lee Jones (Balm in Gilead


On this hushed acoustic ballad, Jones proves that a broken heart still bites, whether it’s the first or the fiftieth.

Changing My Mind” – Bob Schneider (Lovely Creatures)
With a little help from Patty Griffin, Schneider gives us his ruminations on regret, and he even offers a werewolf a beer.

Clean It Up” – Annie Stela (Hard City)
Clean breaks and fast paces don’t sit so well with Ms. Stela, who shows off all of her talents on this upbeat piano-pop gem.

Hard To Break” – Michael McDermott with Kate York (Hey La Hey)
This song was so close to the heart that McDermott couldn’t bear to sing it himself; thankfully, York does the job just fine.

If You Ever Get Famous” – The Duke and The King (Nothing Gold Can Stay)
Simone Felice and Robert Burke deliver a meditative warning against the pitfalls of fame on this folk stunner.

Lose Americans” – Cameron McGill and What Army (Warm Songs for Cold Shoulders)
Politically charged yet delicately written, McGill’s bluesy number fights for American soldiers with no apologies.

Mama’s Eyes” – Justin Townes Earle (Midnight at the Movies)
On this country confessional, Steve’s son exposes the complex nature of family life in a way identifiable to all of us. 


 

My Will is Good” – Port O’Brien (Threadbare)
A gaggle of instruments, including some addictive humming, create the best mid-tempo “pump up jam” ever penned.

No Turning Back” – Son Volt (American Central Dust)
Jay Farrar and Co. take us back to the old days of Trace, offering up a healthy dose of biting Americana.

One Wing” – Wilco (Wilco (The Album))
One wing may not get us off the ground, but this track from Wilco gains enough speed to fly away in seconds flat.

Sleep All Summer” – St. Vincent and The National (SCORE! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Covers!)
With its subdued brass backing and wonderfully sleepy cadence, this Crooked Fingers’ cover is dreamy escapism at its best. 

Sleeping In the Car” – Solomon’s Seal (The Sea, The Sea)
Windshield wipers never sounded so good on this track from Simon Petty, who just wants to be in love.

Succeed 101” – Jason Karaban
This infectious sing-along by Karaban will have you smiling and thinking of new ways to succeed in no time.

The Changeling” – A.C. Newman (Get Guilty)
A cheerful beat, jangly percussion, and a fervent chorus make us want to belt this one out at the top of our lungs.

The Rain”- The Swell Season (Strict Joy)
Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová fiercely rebel against conventional romance on this complex Strict Joy standout.

To Ohio” – The Low Anthem (Oh My God, Charlie Darwin)
This somber roadtripper, stacked with lush harmonies, beautifully mourns a lost love.

When You Find Me” – Joshua Radin and Maria Taylor  (Adam Soundtrack)
A gorgeous, violin-backed duet confirms that magic does exist when the right people finally find each other.

Who Stole the Soul?” – William Elliott Whitmore (Animals in the Dark)
When Whitmore is great, he’s timeless, and this track gives us all the soul we need to keep dreaming.

Worth Keeping” – Jill Andrews (Jill Andrews)
Andrews proves she’s doing just fine in her post-Everybodyfields career, thanks to this ballad that finds her voice hitting magical levels.

Your Museum” – Matthew Ryan (Dear Lover)
Ryan escapes the darkest parts of his past on this Irish-influenced track, while Molly Thomas’ violin adds an extra spark of soul.

 

Top 20 Songs by Artists We Don’t Get to Write About:

 

1901” – Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix)
Fuzzy goodness oozes from the lead single off Phoenix’s latest batch of spirited synth wonders. 

Any Fun” – Coconut Records (Davy)
Because of this golden nugget of pop music done just right, Jason Schwartzman can indeed quit his day job.

Daylight” – Matt and Kim (Grand)
From the opening staccato notes of the piano to the wonderfully carefree lyrics, it’s clear this tune is all about the fun. 

Don’t Haunt This Place” – Rural Alberta Advantage (Hometowns)
Ghostly ex-lovers and a driving drumbeat infuse this prime example of indie rock perfection. Canadian indie rock perfection at that.

From the Hips” – Cursive (Mama, I’m Swollen)
Some call it organized chaos, but when Cursive decides to turn it up, the result is quite a rebel yell.

Ghosts” – Fanfarlo (Reservoir)
London-based Fanfarlo offers up a kaleidoscope of sounds on this lusciously layered track from its debut album.

Half of the Time” – Wheat (White Ink, Black Ink)
This number lyrically captures the Jekyll and Hyde that lives in all of us…and then makes both dudes get down and dance!

Hard Times” – The Bottle Rockets (Lean Forward)
They’re not “broke down,” they’re just out of gas.  Hard times will not do the boys from Festus, Missouri in.

Here to Fall” – Yo La Tengo (Popular Songs)
This atmospheric tune sounds like something from Pink Floyd’s Meddle, mixed with a little bit of Beck.

Home” – Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros (Up from Below)
Who needs more cowbell when you’ve got hall-of-fame worthy whistling in your arsenal of talents?

Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out” – Mayer Hawthorne and The County (A Few Tracks)
Hawthorne’s blue-eyed soul sent us the memo that the throwback trend of the last few years is not quite over. 

Little Bird Courage” – Old Canes (Feral Harmonic)
An outstanding display of drumming and a mariachi band moment culminates in a climatic call and response to cap off this unforgettable song. 

Norway” – Beach House (Teen Dream)
The weather on the track alternates between the lovely fogginess of Victoria Legrand’s voice and the sunshine chorus intermittently allowed to burst through the haze. 

Nothing to Worry About” – Peter Bjorn and John (Living Thing)
Kids on the chorus + a down and dirty beat = thousands proudly standing to proclaim, “That’s my jam!”

Over It” – Dinosaur Jr. (Farm)
When you’re Dinosaur Jr., you have no choice but to rock the night away, even if you’re “over it.”

Prizefighter” – Eels (Hombre Lobo)
If you like it when Mark Everett screams and lets loose, then this rocker is for you.

Radio On” – Red Collar (Pilgrim)
The band from Durham, North Carolina, reminds us that there is always a radio out there playing our favorite song.

The End is Near” – The Fiery Furnaces (I’m Going Away)
With a downright fetching piano riff, never has a song made the apocalypse sound so appealing.

Walking on the Devil’s Backbone” – Ha Ha Tonka (Novel Sounds of the Nouveau South)
This barnburner proves that these four Ozark boys are the next coming of new-school southern rock.

You and All of Us” – Hoots and Hellmouth (The Holy Open Secret)
The stomping nature of Hoots and Hellmouth makes us want to destroy the things that keep us down.

 

Top Ten Strangers Almanac Albums of 2009:

 

Katie’s Pick: Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels (Nettwerk)
I heard “Everything Is Moving So Fast” last spring on a local radio station, and I bought the newest Swimmers’ album on a whim while at an in-store performance for another artist.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, but honestly, I was sucked in to Tony Dekker’s stripped-down soul baring of “Concrete Heart” and “Stealing Tomorrow” and the lush, fully-stocked folk of “Palmistry” and “Pulling On A Line” from first listen.  Lost Channels gives me hope that my next random purchase, after carefully perusing the dusty bins of future indie rock offerings at Vintage Vinyl, will definitely not be in vain.  This discovery left me feeling very rewarded.

Jason’s Pick: Matthew RyanDear Lover (Dear Future Collective)
In a chimerical world, the sun would always shine, scars would always vanish, love would always last, and the perfect girl would always fall directly into your lap.  This is not Matthew Ryan’s world. The vision on this album is real, and the messages aim at the wars you will always fight with that last ounce of hope. We’re all clinging to that same belief that it’s not too late, and that there’s still time to recapture every spark that once fueled our hearts. But, like Bob Dylan once wrote, “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” This album reads like a letter to that source of pain and the steps we must take to move on to find our greater selves.

Katie’s Pick: Ben Kweller – Changing Horses (ATO Records)
I remember Kweller from his “Wasted & Ready” days when a buddy of mine put that song front and center on a “Best of 2002” mix.  Right away, I knew the use of the words “sex” and “spaghetti” in the same line just wasn’t gonna work for me.  Luckily, I rediscovered an older, wiser, more countrified Kweller in 2009.  His songs on Changing Horses feel familiar, earnest, and homegrown, perfect for that roadside bar’s old-fashioned jukebox.  While “Sawdust Man” is a howl at the moon for a spurned lover to come on home, the shot to the heart, “Old Hat” describes throwing one’s – ahem – hat in the ring to let a wronged girl finally shine again.   It’s fun to follow these characters through their relationship ups and downs, and thankfully, this older, wiser Kweller left the pasta out this time around.

Jason’s Pick: Brandi Carlile – Give Up the Ghost (Sony)
At this point in her young career, it’s already time to ask the question: what can’t Carlile do? For a singer-songwriter who has plenty of ways to make my head spin, she’s still setting my world on fire. I’m not sure what I like better—the fierce tone in her voice during “Looking Out,” the longing of “Dying Day” or “That Year,” or the furious emotion of “Before it Breaks.” Thanks to this album, I can love it all at once.

Katie’s Pick: The Low AnthemOh My God, Charlie Darwin (Nonesuch Records)
From his faraway falsetto to his gutsy growl, Ben Knox Miller leads The Low Anthem through the very conceptual, yet fully realized OMG,CD.  Tracks alternate between beautiful, harmony-laden history theses (the title track) to gruff, workingman material (“The Horizon is  a Beltway”).  A fascination with Americana is the glue that ties it all together, namely the freedom of the road.  With the windows down and the volume up, the album’s subject matter seems simultaneously introspective and all-encompassing.  That makes it meaningful to not only The Low Anthem, but to you and me.  I listened to this album all summer long, and it was the perfect choice for the season of endless opportunities.

Jason’s Pick: Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone (ANTI-)
They say the appeal of Neko Case lies in her voice, but I’m not so sure that’s entirely accurate. The redhead from Tacoma can also pen a song, and this album captures her finest hour as a writer. While she’s still obsessed with animals, she also tackles fading summers, pharaohs, and prison girls with eerie charms, and I can’t help but get chills from time to time.  I’m still not sure how many pianos she used on a cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Don’t Forget Me,” but, like almost everything Case does, it works.  Yes, this is a cyclone I can adore.

Katie’s Pick: The Avett BrothersI and Love and You (American Recordings)
A critic for Pitchfork reviewed this album and asked (and I’m paraphrasing here) if the Avett Brothers had ever had a bad day.  It’s true; Scott and Seth Avett make a habit of writing purely sweet and genuinely tender love songs about pretty girls, family ties, and self-actualization.  Sure, if you’re a skeptical lad or lass by nature, you might find listening to the entire Avett catalog a little tedious.  However, at times I find my own cynicism needs to take five, and the Avett Brothers’ have once again provided me an endearing – and highly listenable – solution. 

Jason’s Pick: Steve EarleTownes (New West)
I knew this album would get made some day, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Steve Earle is synonymous with Townes Van Zandt in so many ways, and when I listen to Earle’s take on “Lungs” or “Colorado Girl,” I can’t help but smile. While I would have enjoyed a cover of “If I Needed You,” I’m more than fine with sitting back and soaking in “Poncho and Lefty” one more time.  Thank you, Steve Earle.

Katie’s Pick: The Swell SeasonStrict Joy (ANTI-)
Perhaps it’s not an accident that Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the duo that make up The Swell Season, are looking away from each other on the cover art for Strict Joy.  We all watched them fall in love onscreen and off, and now this album artfully illustrates life after The Breakup.  No amount of tumult in their personal lives can alter what destiny – a romantic notion, I’ll give you that – has decided.  In some capacity, these two are meant to be together, to explore the talents they bring to the table and further inspire in one another.  The rest of us are meant to watch it unfold, hopefully this time and time again.

Jason’s Pick: Michael McDermott – Hey La Hey (Oarfin Records)
At first, only a few of these songs stick out with their greatness. But then you realize that McDermott is speaking from the heart, and it’s hard not to get emotional with him. I may not be able to fully relate to all the heartache and trouble McDermott has found in his life, but I can sense that every word he writes is genuine, and sometimes that’s all it takes to win me over.  If you want to spend some time in deep thought, this album is for you.

 

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