Top Ten Albums of 2009

I deliberately put the word “albums” in the title of this post. I know nobody listens to albums any more, but I grew up in the days when buying a record was a special event. So I refuse to give up on the idea of albums – songs that are deliberately sequenced by the artist, recorded over a specific period of time, and are meant to be listened to as a whole. That said, it’s time to go through the list! (And check out my earlier post detailing discs that didn’t quite make the cut.)

#10: Transatlantic - The Whirlwind

Spock’s Beard  put down some amazing progressive music 10 or so years ago. At the same time Transatlantic was cranking out high quality progressive epics. It was a “supergroup” comprised of the Beard’s Neal Morse,  Marillion’s Pete Trewavas, Dream Theater’s Mike Portnoy, and the Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt. They were both poised to really hit big a few years ago, but the main songwriter of both groups, Neal Morse, left to pursue a solo career. His debut album, Testimony, was not bad. ? is very, very good, but I couldn’t get into Sola Scriptura. Lifeline was a nice return to form, but not an instant classic the way the first five Beard and the first two Transatlantic cds were. When news came out that Transatlantic were reforming, I had high hopes. My opinion on their latest album is that it sounds a lot like another Neal Morse solo set. While I buy everything the guy releases, I have to admit that a certain “sameness” is creeping into his compositions. That said, anything these guys do is head and shoulders above what most groups aspire to. So this made my Top Ten. Highly recommended if you like classic Yes, Led Zeppelin, Gentle Giant, etc.

#9: Tinted Windows

Another “supergroup”, especially if you are a powerpop aficionado. Tinted Windows are: Taylor Hanson (from Hanson, lead vocals), James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins, guitar), Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, bass) and Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick, drums). No pretenses here, just flat out fun rock. Compulsively catchy songs that make me think what would happen if the Raspberries and the Ramones had children and they got together to record some songs. This was the soundtrack to my summer.

#8: Porcupine Tree: The Incident

Steven Wilson, who is for all intents and purposes Porcupine Tree, is my current favorite recording artist. He manages to meld elements of Pink Floyd, The Beatles, King Crimson, ELP, and miscellaneous other classic rock bands into something wholly original and beautiful. He is also prolific as all get out, and it is a challenge to keep up with all of his projects (my favorite side project is Blackfield). The best place for news on Steven’s work is The Seaweed Farm.

Anyway, it’s big news at my house when Porcupine Tree has a new album out.  So why is this one in the bottom half of my top ten? Well, I can’t put my finger on it, but this is the first PT album where there isn’t a single song that really grabs me and won’t let go. Maybe Steven went into the studio too soon after his Insurgentes solo disc (further up the list!), but I have to admit this isn’t up to Porcupine Tree’s usual high standards. If you’ve never heard anything by them, I recommend you start with In Absentia.

#7: Bleu: A Watched Pot

I love this guy’s music! He channels mid-70’s ELO and Cheap Trick to come up with fantastic tunes that put a big smile on your face. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, and you shouldn’t either. Just enjoy his songs.

#6: Owl City: Ocean Eyes

I liked Owl City before Owl City was cool. I enjoyed his first two discs, Of June and Maybe I’m Dreaming quite a lot. Adam Young started out recording songs in his basement. When I played them in the car and my 15 year old daughter asked who it was, I knew he could hit it big (my daughter is an extremely discriminating music connoisseur). On the day this was released I went to my local indie record shop to buy it, and all I got were blank stares. The next thing I know, the cd is all over Target. Good for Mr. Young! The best way to describe this is Death Cab For Cutie with synthesizers (LOTS of synthesizers). Ear candy for sure, but it’s addictive.

#5: Kent: Röd

Kent is a group from Sweden that, when they released their first cd in 1995, owed a huge stylistic debt to Radiohead (but in the mid-90’s what self-respecting “alternative” band didn’t owe something to Radiohead?). As they matured, they just got better and better. Isola, their excellent third album, was released in an English version, but not much buzz happened. I discovered them while browsing in a used cd store, and Du & Jag Döden was playing in the background (FWIW: the title means “You & I Death, and the actual disc is solid black. I’ve never seen a cd that wasn’t silver on the playing side.) I was floored with how good it was, even though I couldn’t understand a word of what Joakim Berg was singing.  Since then, I’ve tried to pick up everything they’ve released, which isn’t always easy, because they have pretty much written off the US market. Every few months I Google “Kent Sweden music” to see if anything new is out. They just released their latest album, Röd, and it is a stunner. It has a dubious start with a short dirge-like hymn sung raggedly by what sounds like a small group of churchgoers, but Kent soon hit their stride on the second track, “Taxmannen” – a brilliant slab of relentless electronica. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, making for a beautiful listening experience. Kent recorded most of the album at Berlin’s Hansa Studios – the same location where Bowie’s Low and Heroes, as well as Depeche  Mode’s Some Great Reward were made, so it has a fine pedigree. Kent has moved steadily away from guitar-based music into more electronic explorations, but Berg remains one of the most talented tunesmiths in any language. It’s hard to explain, but even though I have no idea what the songs are about, they are incredibly moving to listen to. The only reason this isn’t higher on my list is because it was released so late in the year (Dec. 1), and I haven’t had time to fully appreciate it yet.

#4: Riverside: Anno Domini High Definition

Continuing on our multicultural rock excursion, next up is Riverside. These guys are from Poland, and they play excellent melodic hard rock (this time in English). This one is in the vein of late-80’s to mid 90’s Rush, with keyboards more prominent than on their previous efforts. I highly recommend this disc if you like Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, O.S.I., or Transatlantic. A bit heavier than those, but still an extremely enjoyable listening experience.

#3: Simple Minds: Graffiti Soul

We’re in the Top 3 now! I have always liked Simple Minds, going back to the mid-80’s. They’ve undergone some stylistic permutations over the years, but Jim Kerr’s vocals and Charlie Burchill’s guitar have remained distinctively their own. It’s unfortunate that they are barely noticed here in the US, but this album is amazing. Every song is a gem, and I can’t stop listening to it. Get it while you can.

#2: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives: Communion

TSOOL is from Sweden (what is it about Sweden, that their bands are making such good music?) and it’s as if they went through time warp in 1972 to land in 2009. They genuflect at the altar of The Who, The Kinks, Lou Reed, Spirit, Led Zep, and other rock gods of the late 60’s – early 70’s. Their latest album (their 5th by my count) is a blast of pure rock and pop pleasure. Did I mention you get 2 discs of music for the price of 1? I like the statement that makes: in this age of disposal one-off pop “hits” these guys put out an extravagant 24-track masterpiece (one song for each hour of the day).

#1: Steven Wilson: Insurgentes

And the #1 cd of 2009 is… Steven Wilson’s solo opus Insurgentes. I preordered this in November of 2008, received a link to download an mp3 version, and I burned a cd from that to listen to until the official release in 2009. It is a stunning work that incorporates Beatlesque tunes, white noise, Crimsoid thrashing, and Steven’s own inimitable sense of melody. I have listened to this disc more than anything else this year. I will listen to it for years to come. Make sure you get the cd/dvd version for the 5.1 surround sound mix (it’s not any more expensive than a single cd).