Wednesday, January 13, 2010

2009, According To My Ears

So I get in this car accident last March – and not the kind of fender-bender that freaked me out when I was 17, either. Lost in my thoughts-about-nothing, I t-boned some old dude I should have easily seen coming. I was fine, but my Camry was totaled. Its successor is a black Honda Accord, perfect in all ways but one – its CD player.

Seriously, this thing was a record company’s dream. With no auxiliary input and no tape deck, my iPod was out of the question. Burned CDs spun forever on the first track before getting spit back out. If I was listening to music, it would come with liner notes.

Blessing in disguise. For the first time in longer than I care to admit, I actually bought CDs, and listened to them as cohesive works of art, rather than a grab-bag of singles to wheel through with my iPod. 2009 was a good year for music and Rob Kunzig, peaking during my summer hustles to and from Washington, D.C., where my social life lives. We’d roll down the windows, let the heat flood the car and thump the driver’s side door in time to Mos Def’s The Ecstatic.

Thanks, car, for that introductory anecdote! Without further ado, my picks for 2009 in music.

In no particular order:


Wilco (The Album)

Wilco’s spent considerable time and energy reminding us of their roots. Before 2002’s breakthrough Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco produced rangy, extroverted alt-country; just see “Can’t Stand It,” the opener from Summerteeth.

Wilco (The Album) asserts with confidence that the band that made A Ghost Is Born – an intelligent record, but cold and often abrasive – is capable of producing elegant, sophisticated music with a pop sensibility. Single “Wilco (The Song)” is a shaggy romp, wooing fans with a chorus of “Wilco will love you, baby.” The tongue-in-cheek could be taken as condescending, but it’s followed by 10 songs that present themselves with refreshing brevity. Wilco won’t challenge you, but they will love you; I’m more than okay with that.

Check out: “One Wing,” “You Never Know,” “Country Disappeared,” “I’ll fight

1242969180Rhett Miller

Rhett Miller

Aww, Rhett Miller. I just want to pinch his cheeks and give him some hard candy. Seriously, the Old 97s front man has enough sweet sincerity to make him seem like the world’s precocious grandson, perpetually and insufferably cute. When he isn’t making soccer moms swoon, he’s making devilishly good pop. Like his previous solo outings, Rhett Miller is smart, well-groomed and infinitely sing-alongable.

Just listen to “Like Love.” I could parse this into at least three pop riffs, which, branded with the winking visage of some professedly-virginal pop star, would sell millions. But mawkish Miller seems happy mooning at the pretty, bookish girl across the room – see “I Need To Know Where I Stand.”

Look, Miller won’t make you believe in God, or shave your head and join a commune. What he will do is make you tap your foot, sing in the shower, and make you want direly to hold someone’s hand. And blush, of course.

Check out: “Nobody Says I Love You Anymore,” “Lashes,” “Caroline,” “If It’s Not Love

mos-def-the-ecstatic Mos Def

The Ecstatic

I have white-guilt issues with hip-hop. Whenever I listen to The Roots, Kanye, or Talib Kweli, I can’t help but think: Do you really like this, or is your shy little head-bob a sign of forced open-mindedness? I’m pretty sure this is all due to that Roots concert I attended years ago – wasn’t a black dude in the room.

I digress. The Ecstatic is my favorite album of the year. Critics hail it as the first proper follow-up to Black On Both Sides, which may be true – I haven’t bothered to listen to anything in between – but who cares? The Ecstatic wade me thump my steering wheel and (clumsily) blurt its lyrics, even while stopped at traffic lights. It has an off-the-cuff brilliance, but carefully premeditated undertones. Check the Middle Eastern flavors on “Supermagic,” “Auditorium” and “Embassy.” Unlike John Vanderslice, whose music tends to preach on the war on terror, Mos Def takes a sidelong glance at contemporary events. He opts for ambiance instead of commentary – The Ecstatic is an album of, not about, the post-9/11 world.

Check out: “Quiet Dog,” “Life in Marvelous Times,” “Twilight Speedball

grizzlybear-veckatimest-300x300 (1) Grizzly Bear


When an ex-girlfriend says you’ll “like” a band or song, you generally expect it to somehow reflect poorly on you. When she said I’d like “Two Weeks,” the single off Veckatimest, she was pretty much dead on – Grizzly Bear is a quartet of well-groomed, articulate gentlemen with a penchant for catchy melodies and intelligent arrangements. Think Vampire Weekend, but more baroque.

“Ready, Able” shifts from a tense plea for reconciliation to a swooning halftime waltz. Against a shimmering backdrop of strings, frontman Ed Droste croons with such skill you’ll swear you heard him in a speakeasy – you know, in your past life as Nick Charles. Or was that just me?

Some blast bands like Grizzly Bear and Vampire Weekend for being a bit too prim, too tucked away, and too elitist (Veckatimest is a small island on Cape Cod). I don’t care where they earned their degrees in comparative literature – you’ve never heard anything quite like Grizzly Bear. So unbutton your oxford (but not too much), recline with your vodka cranberry and look disaffected. Life’s countless bores and inconveniences must simply be endured; Grizz helps.

Check out: “Two Weeks,” “Ready, Able,” “While You Wait For The Others,” “Cheerleader

Things Others Won’t Stop Talking About But I’ve Never Really Listened To

Animal Collective

Merriweather Pavillion

People won’t stop talking about it. I like “My Girls.” But how much of that is my desperate (futile) quest for self-validation? It’s Pitchfork’s album of the year.

Dirty Projectors

Bitte Orca

The title means “Please Whale” in German. Whatever. “Stillness is the Move” is the catchiest fucking song I’ve ever heard.