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Top 9 of ‘09: Best Albums

It’s twenty-ten! Last year, my own resolutions revolved mostly around getting this website off the ground and running. This year, given my lack of posts in November and December (a hiatus for a few weeks became habit-forming), I’m resolving to more consistently post the weekly update, and try and institute some subtle changes to the site, among them an integrated GTS Twitter account, a sidebar tweak (some third party ads should crop up, but I promise they won’t be intrusive), a monthly music playlist, and an easier interface for posted MP3s.

Before we get to new business, however, I have a series of end of year recap posts planned for music, theatre, and comedy. As befitting the year that just ended, they’re kept to 9 (though some, like this post, will also have the same number of “honourable mentions”). First up on deck:

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Best Albums (LPs) of 2009

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#9. Josh Reichmann Oracle BandCrazy Power

Josh Reichmann Oracle Band - Crazy Power

Best track: “Fractal Web

If Toronto had an equivalent to NYC’s The Strokes in the 2000s, both in sound and local buzz, it was Tangiers; the rock and post-punk band garnered considerable local acclaim for their 3 strong albums and energetic live shows from 2002-2005. When Tangiers dissolved in 2006, lead singer Reichmann experimented with a few different projects and sounds, releasing a debut solo album in ‘07 under the moniker Jewish Legend. The album showed a lot of promise, though it was a little too out there and dark to appeal to a wide segment of T.O.’s music fans. Crazy Power, however, while still venturing into all sorts of odd musical genres, is poppy and upbeat where previous effort Telepathy Now! was obtuse and challenging (continuing the Strokes comparison, their lead singer Julian Casablancas almost made this list for his own solo album this year, but we’re getting off topic). Anyway, Reichmann seems to have really hit his stride, and the album evokes all sorts of soul and funk comparisons, most notably to Prince. Songs like “Shivering Black” and “Sea at Night” are full of falsetto flourishes, calypso beats, and all manner of interesting instrumentation. Live, the Oracle Band is still a bit chaotic, but that’s A-OK by me – my favourite album of last year, Miracle Fortress’s Five Roses, took a while to bring to life on stage, too.

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#8. Dan ManganNice, Nice, Very Nice

Dan Mangan - Nice, Nice, Very Nice

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Best Track: “Robots

Mangan’s already received a lot of praise for his finely crafted debut album this year, including being awarded the XM Verge Award for Artist of the Year (an award that came as a shock to many who expected the award would go to a harder edged rock band), and Two CBC Radio 3 Bucky Awards, for Best Vocals and Best Song of the year. He ended the year on a high note, too, being named Best New Artist of the Year by iTunes Canada. Word spread quickly amongst the tight knit Canadian blogosphere and music community in 2009 about his exceptional stage craft skills and approachable persona; I’ve been at several live shows and in-stores, and Mangan always puts an effort in to turn new fans into friends after his set is over. While “N, N, VN” isn’t a re-invention of the wheel, it’s a album of exceptionally pleasant and straight-forward singer-songwriter tunes, and Mangan displays wit and charm throughout, including having had a hand in producing the terrific 80’s gang fight homage video for lead single “Robots”.

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For the rest of the list, including a cornucopia of videos and MP3s, click “more”…

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7. Evening Hymns - Spirit Guides

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Evening Hymns - Spirit Guide

Best Track: “Broken Rifle

Jonas Bonnetta, like Josh Reichmann, laid one musical identity aside for a new one this year; but in Bonnetta’s case, he dropped his own name in favour of Evening Hymns, a project that recruited over 17 musicians to enhance his own strumming and vocals (many of them label mates from the Out of This Spark collective), including members of Forest City Lovers, Ohbijou, The Wooden Sky, and The D’Urbervilles. His previous work was quiet and soulful, and while there’s still plenty of that sort of melancholy beauty on this new project, it’s the rocking numbers and complex orchestrations that elevate this album to best-of territory. Influential Canuck music blog Herohill posted a glowing review of Spirit Guides earlier this year (including another standout album track, “Dead Deer“), lamenting the fact that there were so few posts about Bonnetta’s music on-line; I think this album will correct that oversight soon enough. Below, you’ll find a full set from Jonas, courtesy of Late Night In the Bedroom; I would particularly recommend the epic set closer “Mountain Song” from 16:50-27:00, and the sparse version of “Dead Deer” from 6:00-11:00.

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6. Yeah Yeah YeahsIt’s Blitz!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

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Best Track: “Zero

While Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase weren’t exactly accused of suffering from the “sophomore slump” when 2007’s Show Your Bones dropped, the reaction was lukewarm in comparison to the frenzy their 2003 debut album Fever to Tell generated. So many critics can be forgiven for insinuating that It’s Blitz! is a “return to form” for the NYC art punk trio. Blitz is still very obviously a YYYs album; Nick still gets the guitar licks in, and Karen still employs a wide variety of coos and growls in her inimitable delivery. But the dance floor influence that’s crept in (very much evident in tunes like “Soft Shock” and “Dragon Queen”) is a strong step forward for YYYs and their sound, and it translates well on stage, too; when I saw them at Bluesfest in Ottawa, the crowd was too busy writhing and screaming along with Karen to all the new tunes to bother to shout out requests for “the old tunes”. Here they are in their Letterman appearance, where Karen reduces Paul Shaffer to a simpering fanboy by the end of their performance.

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5. The BalconiesS/T

The Balconies - The Balconies

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Best Track: “Serious Bedtime

The last band to make the cut, and by just a couple of days, too; I finally got my hands on this little pop gem when it was gifted to me on Boxing Day (my birthday) by Ottawa DJ James at CHUO, and fell instantly in love. I’d heard people big-up-ing The Balconies for a while now, like T.O. blogger Historyjen, and they’d ranked in the top ten on I(Heart)Music’s Best Bands in Canada poll, but I’d only heard a couple of tracks (all of which were good). This whole album is chockful of potential rock-pop singles (“Lulu“, “Battle Royale“, “Elephant Lamp“), and picking just one song to represent the band was harder for this album than most on this list; I eventually settled on “Serious Bedtime” mostly because it features an almost equal “division of labour” in vocals between Jacquie Neville (Guitar), Stephen Neville (Bass), and Liam Jaeger (Drums). Expect to hear a lot more buzz about this band in 2010 and beyond; this is a remarkably self-assured debut album.
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4. Real EstateS/T

Real Estate - Real Estate

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Best Track: “Beach Comber

T.O. indie scene photog extraordinaire BramptonBoi (Garry Tsaconas) gets the credit for turning me onto these guys back in April, but it took a while before I was willing to share them with anyone else; the recordings available online were poor, and I wanted to wait until I could get my hands on something people wouldn’t dismiss as “amateur sounding”. Lo-fi beach bum jam outs by way of New Jersey, Real Estate as a band were slow growers in 2009; fuzzy sounding EPs and CD-Rs trickled out, than a 7 inch, until finally the band tied it all together, releasing a sublimely beautiful self-titled album that upped the recording quality, without losing any of the loose charm that had music bloggers enamoured of them. There’s echoes of Pavement in there (if you know me, you know that’s a proven way to worm into my musical heart), but also a fair bit of the Dead, too – check out this live video of “Suburban Beverage“, and especially how they kick it out in the last minute and a half. For a shorter video taste, below you’ll find “Fake Blues”, another single of worth.

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3. GirlsAlbum

Girls - Album

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Best Track: “Lust For Life

Pitchfork already did a pretty bang-up job of summarizing lead singer Christopher Owen’s remarkable life pre-Girls in their review of “Album”, so I ‘m not going to go into great detail about his childhood cult escape, or how he went from being a Texas “gutter punk” to a fixture of the San Fran alt scene here (though if you want to hear more from the remarkable candid Owens, you can read this interview). I’m also not going to try too hard to list out the many many influences that can be heard on Album, as the album jumps from sad sack but poppy Costello-like tune (“Laura”), to fuzzed out Beach Boys from hell (“Big Bad Mean Motherf**ker“), to epic and melancholy ballad (“Hellhole Ratrace“). Through it all, Owen’s voice and thematic throughline of love and loss hold it all together. If I had to pick a recent comparison, it’d be to Joel Gibbs of The Hidden Cameras (who released a terrific fifth album this year, BTW); Owens has that self same sweeping vision for his work, and judging from the official video of “Lust For Life” posted below (and even more so from the extremely NSFW version you can find HERE), he’s also, like Gibbs, managed to build up a large assortment of compatriots in San Fran’s alternative and gay scene to help him bring that vision to life.

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2. PhoenixWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

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Best Track: “1901

You’d have had to try pretty hard to avoid hearing Phoenix in 2009, what with their songs being used for movie trailers for “Where the Wild Things Are” and “New York, I Love You“, in a Cadillac car commercial, and on every single late night show on television. There’s a very good reason for all this media exposure, though; while the Marseilles-based pop band has been at it for a decade now, and are considered contemporaries of Air and Daft Punk, they took their sweet time honing the perfect pop formula, and they seemed to have found that sweet spot with 2006’s  It’s Never Been Like That. With Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they’ve ruthlessly and efficiently exploited the heck out of their formula. Even the slower tunes on WAP are catchy, and the album standouts – “Lisztomania“, “1901“, “Lasso” – all have you bopping your head along after a few seconds. I really don’t think you could find a more perfect pop album in 2009; after all, what else would make an internet meme subverting all the Brat Pack classic movie music moments so successful? Or, as demonstrated below, how many other bands could strip their song down to such bare essentials and gather a crowd so quickly (including a honeymooning couple on their way to see the Eiffel Tower) as the boys do in the Take Away Show performance below?

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1. Think About LifeFamily

Think About Life - Family

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Best Track: “Having My Baby

For me, these guys had it sewn up midway through the year. The fact that my favourite artist of 2008, Graham Van Pelt (Miracle Fortress) was involved had me predisposed towards them before even hearing the tunes. But even before I got a chance to listen to Family, I saw them live, and … good Lord. You know how at most concerts (in Toronto, at least), 20% of the crowd is up front getting sweaty and wild, and the other 80% stands and watches, enjoying themselves, but passively observing? Well, TAL inverts that formula. People LOSE IT at TAL shows. “If the album is half as good as the live show”, I remember thinking, “this could be the album of the year”. Well, it is, and it is. As with Phoenix, even the slow songs on the album (“Like “The Veldt”) get you grooving, and the upbeat ones, like “Young Hearts”… well, see for yourself (gets going at the 25 second mark).  The beats that Graham (guitar, keyboards) and drummer Greg Napier come up with seem to plug directly into most people’s pleasure centres. Add in the incredible energy and enthusiasm of frontman Martin Cesar, and recent addition Caila Thompson-Hannant as a hypewoman, back-up vocalist, and bassist, and you have a potent mix to get the party started. But don’t take my word for it; watch the video below, a collage of video shot this summer at the Summerworks Music Series. Yes, they are that good, and yes, the album is that good, too…

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9 Honourable Mentions


- Great BloomersSpeak of Trouble


Best Track: “This Ain’t You

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- White RabbitsIt’s Frightening


Best Track: “They Done Wrong – We Done Wrong

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- St. VincentActor


Best Track: “Actor Out of Work

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- Handsome FursFace Control


Best Track: “I’m Confused

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- Timber Timbre - S/T


Best Song: “Lay Down in the Tall Grass

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- Gentleman RegJet Black


Best Track: “You Can’t Get It Back

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- Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone


Best Track: “People Got a Lotta Nerve

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- Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca


Best Track: “Cannibal Resource

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- Fanfarlo - Reservoir


Best Track: “Luna

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Whew! That’s it for albums. I’ll be doing a Top 9 Singles post eventually, as well, so if there’s an artist you felt should have been on this, they might just be “singled” out later. Up next: Best Summerworks Shows of ‘09

(Oh, and one last vid – here’s Julian Casablancas…)

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