Face Control is a great sophomore album in every traditional way: it improves upon, without greatly altering, the sonic blueprint of the Handsome Furs’ debut, the hooks are sharper and the band has more swagger. The very happily married duo of Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry even make devotion and monogamy look like the sexiest damn thing every time they’re on stage. Face Control might as well be 2009’s greatest PSA for marriage. The band offers a novel, and seemingly incongruous, concept—Bruce Springsteen fronting New Order—and makes it feel like a natural and inevitable union. Any union that produces songs as blisteringly infectious as “Radio Kaliningrad” and “All We Want, Baby, Is Everything” is holy in my book. Ben Schumer
PJ Harvey & John Parish
A Woman A Man Walked By
PJ Harvey is an artist of such relentless and reinvented genius that her epic work often misses even the microscopic eye of year-end lists. Some would argue that A Woman a Man Walked By merely continues the narrative of Harvey and Parish’s collaborations (namely begun by Dance Hall at Louse Point), but Harvey’s lyrical and vocal explorations prove this release to be an exaltation, not a de-escalation of the Medea-like pathos that infused her previous releases. In fact, A Woman a Man Walked By displays clear debts to other Harvey albums—the single and leading track, “Black-Hearted Love” is a rocker cut from Uh Huh Her‘s cloth, and the starkly stunning The Soldiers owes a clear debt to the haunting White Chalk. As Harvey croaks, croons, snarls, claps, and even counts down her way through this album, she keeps proving why she’ll never be a woman walked by. Erin Lyndal Martin
When Truelove’s Gutter was released last September, critics remarked on the dramatic shift in Richard Hawley’s signature sound. The truth, however, is that all of Hawley’s trademarks are found within the album, from lush orchestration to the local imagery of his native Sheffield, England to that gorgeous, brooding baritone. What Hawley did do, however, was slow down the tempo of his songs, creating spaces and atmospheres in them that were smothered under instrumentation in his previous work. The result is songs that are both haunting and challenging: just when you wonder if you can get into them, they have gotten into you—just like the lost loves the album chronicles. More importantly, Truelove’s Gutter challenges the notion that the best songs are those that are three minutes long and full of immediately catchy hooks. As Hawley proves, artists can defy conventions that are thrust upon them and still create undeniably captivating music. Michael Franco
Everyone knows the Band’s drummer, but could anyone have predicted he would be this good pushing 70, and after overcoming throat cancer to boot? On Electric Dirt, Helm gives us a tour through the music of the South, playing blues, folk, rock and more. That would be accomplishment enough. But he gives us something else, too, something exceedingly rare in popular music: an album that not only has a powerful effect on the emotions, but that affects an entire gamut of them. Backed by a beefy New Orleans horn section, he turns in a rambunctious version of “Kingfish” that does for Randy Newman’s original something like what Ike and Tina Turner did for “Proud Mary” and he makes death sound fun in the gospel shout of “When I Go Away”. Then he breaks your heart with “Golden Bird”, a direct descendant of Harry Smith’s anthology, and “Growing Trade”, which sings of an impoverished farmer forced to survive by switching his crop to marijuana. Jaw dropping. John Wesley Williams
I’ve installed a number of programs on my computer that track everything I do, an array of applications that clunkily monitor my every move like the detective in a dime-store novel. One of them recently coughed out a set of statistics that listed the songs I played most frequently in 2009 and, unsurprisingly, every slot on that list was a track from Robyn Hitchcock’s Goodnight Oslo. Goodnight Oslo, Hitchcock’s second with the Venus 3, features ten genre-hopping tracks that range from Big Star-ish power pop to Ennio Morricone twang, while never skimping on the deft wordplay that Hitchcock is known for. The album is loosely concerned with the theme of authenticity, from those who have it (the driving swagger of “What You Is”) to a scathing, if catchy, critique of those who don’t (the Hollies-soaked singalong “Saturday Groovers”).
Despite a career that has seen him front three different bands in four different decades, Hitchcock has resisted the urge to reinvent himself, to change his name to a symbol, to grow a soul patch or to crash his car into countless stationary objects. Instead, he’s consistently compiled an unmatched catalog of songs that aren’t afraid to lift the rocks and explore what’s teeming below the surface of our lives. “It doesn’t matter what you was / It’s what you is / And what you is / Is what you are,” Hitchcock repeats in the album’s opening chorus. What Robyn Hitchcock is, was, and undoubtedly will be is an artist whose eye for the uncommon and occasional knee-buckling turns of phrase will never disappoint. Go ahead and add Goodnight Oslo to your iTunes library… even if you’ll never count how many times you play it. Jelisa Castrodale
Drummer Jaime Thompson, the ying to singer Nick Diamonds’ yang, returned to the collaborative fold for one of the best records of 2009. Following the band’s universally loved 2006 debut that spawned the whole indie-calypso-ska-whatever revival thing, Thompson left the band. Diamonds proceeded to grab the reins, hire a slew of instrumentalists, record the daunting, proggy Arm’s Way, and alienate some fans in the process. With the release of the economically sexy and acid-tongued Vapours, it’s now clear that Thompson is the perfect foil for Diamonds. There’s not a lame track on the album and Diamonds even manages to make Auto-Tune sound great on “Heartbeat”. And if Michael Cera is down, why aren’t you? Haters take notice: Islands are forever. Craig Carson
The Blueprint 3
In 1988, NWA’s “Something Like That” laid out a rap blueprint, one that Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter follows for The Blueprint 3: you either rap about “the place to be” (“Empire State of Mind”), who you are (Jay-Z’s the king of self-congratulatory rap), what you’ve got (“Off That”), or about a “sucker MC” (“D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”). Decide for yourself whether it’s the best hip-hop album of 2009. Just don’t underestimate The Blueprint 3‘s impact, as a representative for Over 35 rap or as the pinnacle of hip-hop for the upwardly mobile. Jay-Z gets text messages from President Obama. That’s crazy, right? Don’t fight the power, enjoy the power. Meanwhile, you can listen to the “new Sinatra” spin his charismatic yarns. Like the third part of any trilogy, The Blueprint 3 doesn’t outdo the original, but it’s got beats galore, tons of guests, and a host so self-assured you’ll believe he’s forever young. Quentin B. Huff
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