What We Listened to in 2009

Even if the music came from 1956, 1995, or … the future!

As much fun as it is to write (and Tweet about) the best albums of the year, I’m sure every artist on our year-end list would trade that distinction for a spot on a handful of our readers’ lists of “Albums from 2009 that I’m still listening to in 2010, 2012, and 2025.”

What I’ve always found more revealing—and definitive—than a person’s favorite records of the year is what they’re actually still listening to. Sure, Neko Case’s Middle Cyclone and Fresh Espresso’s Glamour aren’t on our year-end list this season. But the true test of any album’s worth is how history receives it. With that in mind, here’s a look at bands, albums, and songs a few of our contributors kept in high rotation this year, whether they were released in 2009 or not. —Chris Kornelis

Chris Kornelis Music editor

Cave Singers,“Beach House” (2009). This song from Welcome Joy is a lesson in patience and restraint. The Cave Singers layer it on, starting with the rhythmic lead of the guitar, then a few drums, a verse, more percussion, and a chorus. Then they repeat this layering and building, each time introducing you to another understated piece of this opus.

Laura Veirs, July Flame (out Jan. 12, 2010). This effortless record is stunning on all fronts, as much an alt-country record as it is a pop/singer-songwriter vehicle of the highest caliber. July Flame is as much a triumph for Veirs as it is for My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, a welcome addition on several tracks. We’re accustomed to James being the loudest voice in the room. We’re not used to him being accessorized so tastefully.

David Byrne and Brian Eno, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today (2008). I have a hard time taking David Byrne seriously. He could sing about butchering fowl and I’d still feel as if I were in on some colossal joke. Don’t ask me why, but “Strange Overtones” and the lyrics “Put on your socks and mittens/It’s getting colder tonight” begs me to do just the opposite. It’s a goofy melody that could only be executed by someone with nothing left to prove. It’s as good a reason as any to greet the morning with a little light between the sheets.

The Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin’ (1961), Cookin’ (1956), Relaxin’ (1957), Workin’ (1959). Over two days in 1956, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland, and Paul Chambers recorded four albums for Prestige Records, so that Davis could fulfill his contract and subsequently get out of it. What they accomplished was an assault on impossibility. The chemistry is perfect, the between-song banter insightful, and if there’s ever a need to say “necessity is the root of innovation,” there’s proof right here.

Hannah Levin SW‘s “Rocket Queen” columnist and host of KEXP’s “Audioasis” and “Seek and Destroy”

David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (2009). From the perspective of someone who’s proud to be a theologian’s daughter, but also endlessly vexed by the conflicts surrounding faith, Bazan’s open-ended meditation on his personal struggles with the subject was as refreshing and profound as it was brave and addictively uplifting.

The Dutchess and the Duke, Sunset, Sunrise (2009). Conceived in part while frontman Jesse Lortz’s son was gestating, and released while many parties in the band were enduring breakups and the deaths of loved ones, the most impressive thing about SS was that its authors not only bested their 2008 debut, but gave themselves a blueprint for survival. Sophomore success story of the year, hands down.

Visqueen, Message to Garcia (2009). The songs on Visqueen’s third album took root during the many years that bandleader Rachel Flotard cared for her dying father, and came to bittersweet fruitition shortly after he left this mortal coil. Rarely do protracted obituaries sound this elegantly catchy.

Loveland, The Beautiful Truth (2009). The death of Loveland leader John Spalding in November 2008 was a particularly brutal blow for a widespread network of musicians in Seattle and beyond. That his peers so quickly raised the funds to release this album in early 2009 was a respectful and ambitious tribute that matched the lofty dreams Spalding explored in his songs.

Rodriguez, Coming From Reality (2009). An album that was originally the opening score for a promising romance in my life ended up also being the cue for its shocking and sudden end credits. However, instead of sounding tainted or melancholy, it now just sounds like a damn fine piece of surprisingly humorous, gorgeously rendered pop-folk psychedelia by a gifted, underappreciated artist. Transcending transference is often the hallmark of good art, apparently.

ZZ Top, the entire back catalog (yes, even Afterburner). My motto for surviving 2009 and making 2010 kick-ass: When all else fails, turn to Billy Gibbons.

Sara Brickner Clubs editor

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers, Self-titled (2009). Zoe Muth’s voice smacks of one of my all-time favorite country stars, Emmylou Harris. Her songwriting relies on traditional, time-tested country fare; there’s an ageless quality to her songs that make her sound more like an obscure vintage artist whose music got swept up and buried in the sands of time than a Seattle-born songwriter in her late 20s.

Tea Cozies, Hot Probs (2009). The first Tea Cozies song I ever heard was “Corner Store Girls,” a sunny song about adolescence that quickly became my summertime cruising jam. It reminded me of “Underwater Heartbeat” by Saturday Looks Good to Me, another of my favorite summer songs. Like a summer dress, these songs are so light and airy they might just float away. It’s the Tea Cozies’ darker, moodier stuff that sticks to the ribs, which is why the last track on Hot Probs, a haunting song about the apocalypse called “Behind the Glass Eye,” soon replaced “Corner Store Girls” as my favorite song on the album. After months of repeated listens, it’s become one of my favorite songs released by anyone in 2009.

Throw Me the Statue, Creaturesque (2009). I have to admit it took me some time to decide how I felt about Throw Me the Statue. While I really liked TMTS’ first album, Moonbeams, when I saw the band at the 2008 Capitol Hill Block Party I was bored out of my mind and could not comprehend why Neumos was so packed with people, most of whom looked as uninterested as I felt. Then I heard Creaturesque, and all doubts flew from my mind.

Unlike the dingus who reviewed the album for Pitchfork, I found Creaturesque an improvement upon Moonbeams. I vastly preferred its cheerful, more upbeat tone, which is why the album lived in my car stereo all summer, well after I’d committed the entire thing to memory. This winter I’ve picked it back up, hoping the record’s warm glow can conjure those hot, halcyon days, if only to make putting on six layers of clothing every morning slightly more bearable.

Brian J. Barr Contributor and former music editor

Various Artists, Last Kind Words 1926–1953 (2006). A vinyl-only compilation of pre- and postwar blues packaged in handmade DIY glory by Portland’s Mississippi Records. There are familiar tunes here by Geechie Wiley and Robert Wilkins, but Mississippi puts the blood and mystery back into the blues. No liner notes, no nothing. Just two sides of crackly, hissy songs from the old weird America.

Vetiver, Tight Knit (2009). Never was a fan of Vetiver’s previous albums, but this one…man, it caught me off guard. It has all those mellow stoner elements of The Notorious Byrd Brothers and picks up where Beachwood Sparks left off, only Vetiver’s not pining for a bygone era. Vocals as hazy as the fog at Big Sur, rhythms that flow like waves along the shore.

TAD, God’s Balls (1989). Found this one on vinyl in Chicago for $6. “I’M JUST A PORK CHOP, BABY, THAT’S ALL I’LL EVER BE!” Fuck. Yes.

Neil Young, Fork in the Road (2009). There is sensitive, acoustic Neil. There is lumbering rocker Neil. Then there’s nerdy weirdo Neil who makes records like Fork in the Road. A lumpy mess that tells the story of Neil’s attempt to build an electric car, FITR has confounded critics and fair-weather fans. But to Neil obsessives like me, it ranks alongside Human Highway, Everybody’s Rockin’, and Greendale. “There’s a bailout comin’, but it’s not for you…”

Cave Singers, Welcome Joy (2009). Like all great folk artists, the Cave Singers take you to familiar places—a campground at twilight, an open road in the afternoon, a party with a girl some years ago. Ragged, raw, beautiful.

Bishop Perry Tillis, In Times Like These…(2009). Another Mississippi release, this one culled from the cassette recordings of a blind black preacher from Samson, Alabama. Tillis played truly ragged electric gospel, channeled the voices of his dead relatives, and took on the persona of a woman named Rosa, whom he claimed was his guardian angel. Zora Neal Hurston said only white people become ghosts. Tillis is proof that the South is filled with restless spirits.

Gavin Borchert Editorial operations manager with more degrees than you’ve got

Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari, orchestral works (2009). Wolf-Ferrari (1876–1948) composed operas in a light, comic vein; he outlived his time and spent his last years as something like a Visconti character, turning out elegant, nostalgic, forgotten music in his Venetian villa. He holds the distinction of writing perhaps the loveliest bassoon concerto ever, his Suite-Concertino; on a Chandos disc, it’s surrounded by bubbling suites and overtures from his operas.

Quatuor Alcan, Glenn Gould & Ernest Macmillan: String Quartets (2009). As a pianist, Gould gave transcendent, ecstatic performances of contrapuntally complex works; the single-movement, half-hour string quartet he wrote in 1956, in a style somewhere between Berg and Strauss, can be described in the same terms. The Quatuor Alcan plays this dense, rapturously beautiful piece (on ATMA Classique) alongside two handsome, Elgarian pieces by Gould’s fellow Canadian Ernest Macmillan.

Samuel Jones, Tuba Concerto; Symphony No. 3, “Palo Duro Canyon” (2009). One of the most enthusiastic receptions I’ve ever heard for a new piece in Benaroya Hall greeted the 2005 premiere of Jones’ Tuba Concerto. Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony play it on a Naxos disc with Jones’ vast, picturesque Third Symphony. Like the bassoon, the tuba’s an instrument usually exploited for its humor potential, but Jones and soloist Christopher Olka bring out its ability to sing and scamper.

John Adams, Doctor Atomic Symphony (2009). I spotted Seattle Opera director Speight Jenkins at the 2005 premiere of Adams’ opera Doctor Atomic, about the events surrounding the first nuclear-bomb test at Los Alamos; rumor had it he liked it enough to consider staging it here. Until that lightning strikes, there’s the Doctor Atomic Symphony (on Nonesuch)—three excerpts from the opera, ending with an instrumental version of the gripping aria that closes Act 1, sung by Robert Oppenheimer to a John Donne text: anguished, slowly treading baroque-flavored laments interrupted by slashing, tumultuous full-orchestral outbursts.

Paige Richmond Contributor

David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (2009). As early as May, Bazan’s live performances were filled with brand-new songs from his first full-length solo album. The new compositions were inspiring, but they also meant Bazan was back on tour and re-opening his career catalogue. He’s finally playing older beloved Pedro the Lion tracks like “Options” and “Priest and Paramedics” again. It’s as if he’s re-released 2002’s Control, too.

The Lonely Forest, “We Sing in Time” (2009). If a single song can launch a band’s career, then “We Sing in Time” is to The Lonely Forest what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was to Nirvana. Poetic and political, with a sing-along chorus and a sharp guitar hook, it’s the Anacortes band’s ticket to stardom.

Jeremy Enigk, OK Bear (2009). While Sunny Day Real Estate fans were digging out dusty copies of Diary and preparing for the band’s long-awaited reunion tour, Jeremy Enigk released his most nuanced album to date, filled with piano- and acoustic guitar–driven melodies. He finally found his voice as a solo artist, only to be overshadowed by his former band.

Portland Cello Project featuring Thao Nguyen, “Tallymarks” (2009). Thao Nguyen’s “Tallymarks” first appeared on 2005’s Like the Linen, her solo album before joining forces with The Get Down Stay Down. This year, teaming with the Portland Cello Project meant revamping a sad song about a daughter’s heartbreak. The lyrics are finer and more veiled (“You can’t build cathedrals out of finger steeples”), proving that this sultry performer has a broken heart of gold.

Cataldo, Signal Flare (2008). The full-length by Seattle’s Eric Anderson is impossibly catchy in the same way that Belle and Sebastian’s music is. Perfectly poppy melodies, a charming voice, and clever but twisted lyrics. (Anderson’s got a thing for tendons, blood, and trembling, and it’s irresistible.)

Starfucker/Pyramidd, “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second” (2008). You’ve probably heard all about Starfucker’s dirty-name change, but think you’ve never heard the band. You’re wrong. Ever seen the Target pharmacy commercial with that incredibly catchy song? The one that opens with over-strummed guitar chords and turns into an upbeat but kind of lazy melody? Well, that’s Starfucker. Wait, it’s Pyramidd. Oh, whatever—thanks to clever licensing, it was impossible to ignore in 2009.

Bon Iver, “Skinny Love” (2008). Bon Iver’s debut album, For Emma, Forever Ago, was one of the most buzzed-about albums of 2007—when it was self-released by Justin Vernon—and one of the most heralded in 2008, when label Jagjaguwar gave it a proper treatment. If there’s any evidence that Iver’s desperate falsetto and sparse instrumentals are more than just a fad, it was his performance at Sasquatch! in May. Backed by an endless desert landscape and a black sky, For Emma‘s best song was just as powerful as ever.

Kevin Capp Contributor

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (2009). These indie-poppers have a sullen sound to match the low-slung, granite-grey skies of their native Glasgow. Thankfully, lead singer Tracyanne Campbell punctures the cloud cover with rays of near-childish earnestness.

The Crystal Method, Divided by Night (2009). The fourth effort from veteran electronic DJs/producers Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland finds the duo collaborating with so many acts. Working with reggae rapper Matisyahu or jokester MCs LMFAO, Jordan and Kirkland proved they can hold it all together.

Fever Ray, Fever Ray (2009). The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson siphons medieval doom and gloom through 21st-century gadgetry; harrowing and yet strangely satisfying.

Grayskul, Graymaker (2009). Seattle is awash in talented newcomers on some next-level shit. But it’s nice to see that two of the scene’s fixtures, Onry Ozzborn and JFK, can still show the newbies how it’s done. All praise due to producer Maker, who poured light into their dark rhymes.

Simian Mobile Disco, Attack Sustain Decay Release (2007). Yeah, the London dance duo dropped a new album this year. But this one is far more cohesive, and in its own pop-centric way, kinda revolutionary.

Efterklang, Parades (2007). Although discovered two years too late by this sorry-ass writer, the Danish quartet’s orchestrations and sky-kissing vocals are like the theme from Rocky: They make you feel like you can do anything.

Handsome Boy Modeling School, White People (2004). Forget N.A.S.A.’s The Spirit of Apollo. Dan the Automator and Prince Paul know how to make a hip-hop compilation cohesive—and fun.

Cee-Lo Green, …Is the Soul Machine (2004). Because there’s never a year when the Atlanta-born singer/MC/producer’s cascading rhymes and choir-boy bellowing doesn’t get played. Never.

GZA, Liquid Swords (1995). Hip-hop’s version of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel The Road.

Erika Hobart Editorial coordinator and “Ragin’ Asian” columnist

The Purrs, Amused, Confused & More Bad News (2009). Seattle-based quartet the Purrs got their big break a few years ago when KEXP caught wind of their psychedelic pop-rock and placed it on heavy rotation. The boys have since embarked on several national tours, and this summer completed a woozy Velvet Underground–inspired record heavy with delay loops and reverb. Amused, Confused & More Bad News contains mostly meditations on love and liquor—an ideal focus for a band whose frontman (Jima) often sounds as if he’s knocked back a few too many, which makes these whiskey-drenched melodies all the more engaging.

Starfucker, Jupiter (2009). Just two months ago, this Portland-based electronic band changed its name to Pyramiddd in the hope that dropping the expletive would make them more marketable in the mainstream. Jupiter was the last record they created as Starfucker—and it’s a damn g ood one, containing eight fairly bare-bones tracks recorded on frontman Josh Hodges’ home computer, all utilizing synthesizers, big beats, and hazy vocals. There’s an irony to Starfucker’s music that sets them apart from more famous peers like MGMT and Metric. Hodges’ vocals are aloof on tongue-in-cheek songs like “Boy Toy” and “Medicine,” and the band’s fantastic cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” drips with so much sarcasm that you can easily visualize their sly grins and knowing winks.

Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster (2009). Who is Lady Gaga? She catapulted to international superstardom this year with her danceable pop music, bizarre fashion sense, and theatrical performances. But she remains a subject of fascination to us all—whether that springs from love or hate is of course subjective. On The Fame Monster, the highly anticipated follow-up to her debut album The Fame, the singer examines lust, death, and the dark side of her new-found success. It’s a weirdly wonderful pop album ridden with industrial beats, synthesizers, and cannibalistic lyrics. On the eerie track “Monster,” she repeatedly rasps, “That boy is a monster…he ate my heart and he ate my brain.” That Gaga is a strange creature herself. And she certainly works it to her advantage.

Mike Seely Managing editor and author of 2009’s Seattle’s Best Dive Bars: Drinking & Diving in the Emerald City

James McMurtry, Live in Europe (2009), It Had to Happen (1997), Where’d You Hide the Body (1995). The great Texan James McMurtry released a new album of old material in 2009—in other words, a live album. No matter: Mere mention of its drop date gave me an excuse to delve deeper into McMurtry’s supremely underrated oeuvre, with classics like It Had to Happen and Where’d You Hide the Body? plucked from my home shelves, dusted off, and pressed into regular duty on my ’82 Corolla’s CD player (or as regular as can be pressed in an old car that’s driven rather irregularly). This re-exposure made me surer than ever that McMurtry is the Springsteen of the South.

The Moondoggies, Don’t Be a Stranger (2008); The Maldives, Listen to the Thunder (2009). Locally, two closely connected acts that often collaborate, the Moondoggies and the Maldives, provided the soundtrack to a summer’s worth of road trips. Granted, it took me awhile to fetch the Moondoggies’ much-buzzed-about 2008 LP, Don’t Be a Stranger, but I’ll never think of Twisp and the North Cascades Highway without hearing “Make It Easy” in my head. Music that’s paired perfectly with one’s surroundings is always more memorable. Kathleen Edwards and a drive from Denver to Durango is another such memory, as is the Maldives’ latest album, Listen to the Thunder, and an August jaunt to Hoquiam. Grays Harbor County is as close as Washington comes to a severely depressed Rust Belt region, providing a perfect match for Thunder‘s moodiness. The 10-minute ballad “Walk Away” was the best track—anywhere— I heard all year.

Amy Millan, Masters of the Burial (2009). Fall brought Amy Millan’s sumptuous Masters of the Burial, an album that reconciled the seemingly polarizing viewpoints of Millan’s best-known band, Stars, with her solo work. Stars has always been very electro-friendly and stylistically polymorphous, whereas Millan, left to her own devices, has trended far rootsier. Masters of the Burial somehow melded these tendencies into one tasteful, soothing collection of tracks, with “Old Perfume” the standout.