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Top Twenty Albums of 2009

Top Twenty Albums of 2009

My long-overdue best of 2009 list is now up. You can sample these twenty fine records with links (YouTube and mp3) for songs from each album, or download the two-CD Recidivistic Best of 2009 mix, which, surprisingly enough, features songs from each of these albums.

The top five became clear to me by early November. Six through twelve were in consideration most of the year. Beyond that, it was a crapshoot. I considered including albums from Boston Spaceships, Constants, Do Make Say Think, J Dilla, Mission of Burma, A Place to Bury Strangers, Ring, Cicada (opted for Heroes of the Kingdom—more on that decision soon), We Were Promised Jetpacks, and Wye Oak, all of whom could have easily made it. There is a handful of great recommendations I’ve barely processed (including Floodwatchmusic’s number one, Blut Aus Nord), which may very well top a number of these albums in the near future. If I’ve learned anything about list-making, it’s that the finished product is always temporary. These are the twenty albums I’d recommend first if someone asked me today.

I’m still planning on doing a top albums of the 2000s list, but given the frequency with which my views change as I track down more great albums, it may be a while.

Future of the Left Concert, T.T. the Bear’s (Bonus Haul: Curses)

One thing I love about T.T. the Bear’s: they post set times on the calendar page of their web site. Seven or eight years ago I would’ve been to the venue early, ready to get my money’s worth and see every band, but as I approach 30, I just want to see the band I care about and go home. Sure, I’ll see the occasional opener, since it’s easy enough to listen to a minute of an unknown opener’s song on MySpace and decide if they’re worth an hour of my time, but I’ve stood through enough excruciatingly boring/derivative/awful bands in my life to gladly accept any way out of that situation. Hell, for this show I didn’t even have to stay out too late, since New Zealand garage rockers the Datsuns headlined, and I was all too happy missing out on their set. Crotchety old man night!

As I mentioned in my review of Future of the Left’s Travels with Myself or Another, I’m regrettably late to the Andy Falkous party, which means that he’s going to spear my back with his headstock, bellow some foul things about immediate family members, and use my name as evidence in a future song. Not that I’d mind any of that, since Mclusky and Future of the Left are founded upon an intoxicating combination of dark humor and impending violence, and the latter’s tendency to use real names in their songs might earn me indie rock infamy.

Future of the Left’s set initially stumbled due to sound issues during personal favorite “Arming Eritrea,” but they soon plowed through an excellent set of songs from both LPs. “Land of My Formers” was a particular highlight, but the periodic bursts of incoherent noise coming from Falco’s mouth can make any song memorable.

A brief anecdote about the crowd: to little surprise, a Future of the Left show is a total sausage party, even devolving into a mosh pit later in the set. Yet the highlight came from one of the few ladies in attendance. A couple was standing near me, and it was painfully obvious that he’d probably said something like “Hey you’ll love this band! They’re right up your alley!” knowing full well they’re not or “But I went to see the Great Lake Swimmers with you!” resulting in his girlfriend being dragged along. Her pouting faces culminated in a great under-the-breath comment: after Andy Falkous made another humorous, likely insulting aside between songs, she scoffed, “You know, not everything is funny when you have an accent!” It’s too bad she didn’t say it loud enough for Falkous to hear, or perhaps good for her boyfriend, whose shame would’ve filled T.T.’s.

106. Future of the Left – Curses LP – Too Pure, 2007 – $15

Future of the Left's Curses

As great as Travels with Myself and Another is, I suspect that part of the critical fondness for it stems from sleeping on Curses, a great album on its own accord. Switching from the departed Mclusky to his new group, Future of the Left, Andy Falkous must’ve suffered through brand development and recognition issues. “You mean there are keyboards now? And the name is different?” Beyond those betrayals, the differences between Mclusky and FOTL are relatively minor: drummer Jack Eggleston remains, but former Jarcrew bassist Kelson Mathia takes over for Jonathan Chapple, who formed Shooting at Unarmed Men. The songs are cleaner and tighter. That’s about it. If you enjoyed the snotty indie punk of Mclusky and Falkous’s sense of humor, you’re bound to like Future of the Left.

Curses starts off with the grinding, abrasive “The Lord Hates a Coward,” which contains both a choice non-sequitur (“She’s got a lot of pickled onions / Hanging from her thighs”) and a potentially inflammatory chant of “Violence she solved everything.” Single “Manchasm” uses that dreaded keyboard in a tale about Welsh recording studio owner Mark Foley, which changes midway to embrace a vocal round of “Colin is a pussy / A very pretty pussy cat.” “Suddenly It’s a Folk Song” turns a woozy keyboard part into a surprisingly melodic admission that “Suddenly folk songs are part of our future.” “Kept by Bees” thumps along with vocals and drums only for most of its runtime, a minimalistic songwriting trick that sounds a bit like an evil Broadway song. “Adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood” is a highlight of their live set and sounds equally enormous here, starting with a layered “Roll on…” and swooping in for the kill with a Kelson Mathias scream.

Curses isn’t quite as consistent as Travels with Myself and Another—“Fuck the Country Alliance” plods too much, “Team : Seed” would be better off as a b-side, and the aptly titled piano closer “The Contrarian” is more of a temporary amusement—but I’ve gone back to it countless times, so these missteps aren't too damaging. If you enjoy Mclusky Do Dallas or Future of the Left’s Travels, there’s no reason to avoid this album.

The Haul: Future of the Left's Travels with Myself and Another

85. Future of the Left – Travels with Myself and Another LP – 4AD, 2009 – $15

Future of the Left's Travels with Myself and Another

Have MP3 album leaks ruined the excitement of the official release date? Most would say yes, since hearing the music for the first time is more tantalizing than ripping open the packaging to extract its already familiar contents, but my experience with Future of the Left’s sophomore album, Travels with Myself and Another, argues otherwise. I’d only dabbled with Mclusky (a mistake I’ve since rectified) and completely missed Future of the Left’s 2007 excellent debut, Curses, but overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth caused me to check out the early leak of Travels. The sarcastic AC/DC bombast/catharsis of “Arming Eritrea” immediately suggested that this would be one hell of a record, a hypothesis proven accurate over twelve lean, brutal, and funny cuts, and in turn, I kept a close eye on its pending release.

Sure enough, I headed out to Newbury Comics to grab the album on its official release, opting against any other purchases so I could give this fresh wax a few dedicated spins. Hearing the massive rhythm section of “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” blare though another rainy summer day in Boston made the song sound like a two-ton anvil, focusing my attention on previously overlooked backend songs like “Stand by Your Manatee” and the dinosaur rock of “Yin/Post-Yin” pulled the album together as a whole, and hearing the acoustic introduction of “Lapsed Catholics” transition into its throttling electric riff on my home stereo gave the juxtaposition new depth. Reading the lyric sheet was similarly revelatory, cluing me in that “I know my own worth / I’m an adult / I’m an adult,” which was quoted on numerous blogs as a great line, was actually “And then I don’t / And then I don’t.” Whereas I previously anticipated that Travels would rank among my favorite albums of the year, hearing the record in a focused listening environment after making an occasion to pick it up solidified its spot in my top five, if not top overall.

I’ve since caught Future of the Left live twice, picked up a t-shirt and a copy of Curses on LP at the first show, put the 3CD edition of McLuskyism on my shopping list, and scoured eBay for vinyl copies of Mclusky’s Do Dallas and The Difference Between Me and You Is that I’m Not on Fire. I stress all of this rampant consumerism in part because FOTL singer Andy Falkous has been vocal in his disappointment of advance leaks and listeners’ sense of entitlement with regard to free music*, but in my case, Travels’ early leak was my gateway to unfettered Falkous fandom. I can understand being frustrated about an early mix or an unmastered copy of an album being leaked, since that messes with people’s initial impression of an album, but advance leaks are a near certainty for any major release. The key is for the music to match, if not exceed the listener’s expectations, a task Future of the Left blew off the table. If the transition between the old era of release date excitement to the new epoch is essentially “I’m running out to buy this album to find out if it’s as good as I hoped” turning into “I’m running out to buy this album because it’s as good as I hoped,” well, that’s progress. It should encourage artists to make great, consistent albums, not singles backed with filler. If any up-and-comers need an intro course on what makes a great album, I suggest running out and buying Future of the Left’s Travels with Myself and Another.

* I completely agree with Falkous’s hatred of the sense of entitlement among contemporary listeners for purely free music, but people with an “I’ll support the artist” ethic (like myself) still exist in this culture. The filesharing era created a class of listeners liable to brag about how they’ve never purchased a record but “own” thousands of albums on an external hard drive. Perhaps Falkous’s anti-leak rant is one way to address that class’s false sense of entitlement, but my logic is that advanced leaks can help create new fans, like myself, and fighting an unchanging tide might cause more damage than it’s worth (e.g. Metallica and Napster).