I gave the RFT's freelancers very simple guidelines when assigning the following year-in-music pieces: In 300 words, tell readers what music you liked in 2009. The following responses — which range from top-ten lists to a mash note to Taylor Swift, from concert recollections to a grouping of albums — ref lect the increasingly fragmented nature of the music industry. In a year when many critics I know struggled to come up with ten full new albums they liked, older material became more than just comfort food — it represented stability in the face of overhyped baby bands and half-baked live shows. Still, no matter how many times people want to decry the death of the music industry, one thing's certain: A good song will eventually f ind an audience, no matter how long it takes — or how it's discovered.
— Annie Zaleski, Music Editor
Kings of Leon, Only by the Night. In late November 2008, having just bombed my second post-college interview, I wandered into Vintage Vinyl to ease the pain. I slipped on headphones, and at the first sinister groove of "Crawl," my very professional briefcase hit the floor. I already liked KOL, but from start to finish, this album sounded like a calculated takeover designed to make willing conquests of us all. With tracks that sounded simultaneously intimate and enormous, for better or worse, this album turned these dirty Southern garage rockers into the next arena rock stars. And oh yeah — I got the job.
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You. This year saw Americana/roots-inspired music fiddling and harmonizing its way to mainstream popularity, led by the Avett Brothers. After releasing several albums and gaining a reputation for raucous live shows, the band released its Rick Rubin-produced major-label debut in September. Tearing apart tradition from the inside — this is the sound for this country right now. I'm a believer.
Geniuses front two supergroups of the future, the Dead Weather (Horehound) and Monsters of Folk (a self-titled album). Jack White helms the former act, while Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James split frontman duties in the latter. Each man's creative powers seem limitless — and at this point, we're just waiting for the next interesting thing they'll do.
Girl Talk and MGMT are so 2008. This year, smart hipsters danced to the lush, DIY electronica of Passion Pit (Manners), the smooth-as-French-silk fun of Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix), the versatile, underappreciated Canadian band Metric (Fantasies) and the spare, just-shy-of-annoying luster of Matt & Kim (Grand).
You can't hide from the diametrically opposed pop phenomena Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. One celebrates wholesome, earnest girl power; the other tests the limits of superficiality. But neither is the prepackaged poptart of yesteryear: Both Swift's winsome shrewdness and Gaga's wacky exploration of celebrity reflect sincere individual viewpoints. Stay tuned for 2010, when these sparkly songwriting forces will do bloody cosmic battle for teenage souls everywhere.
— Katie Moulton
Return of the Real
Has balance returned to hip-hop? Judging by the music that's been coming out for the past twelve months, it appears that there is hope! 2009 lacked a major release on the scale of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which may have given the underground an opportunity to make a comeback.
One of the year's most anticipated rap albums was Slaughterhouse's self-titled debut. The underground supergroup favors hard-edged lyricism and slick wordplay over catchy hooks and club music. Joe Budden (who also released Padded Room earlier this year) and Royce da 5'9" are the standouts, but Joell Ortiz and Crooked I hold their own as well.
KRS-One and Buckshot also collaborated to release Survival Skills. Featuring artists such as Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli and Smif-N-Wessun, the album recaptures that gritty East Coast style of the '90s. I was definitely impressed with their beat selection, and KRS tries to keep the preachiness to a minimum. (We all know how he gets!)
Probably my favorite album from this year is Mos Def's most recent offering, The Ecstatic. Much of the production was handled by Madlib and his brother Oh No from Stones Throw Records, giving it an "indie" and almost experimental atmosphere. It works well: Middle Eastern-tinged flourishes and disco-era samples saturate the music, while Mos returns to a more conscience-driven style of rap than he chose to use on True Magic. This vintage style is similar (in some ways) to Q-Tip's The Renaissance, which came out last December. (In fact, both albums are up for the Grammy Award for "Best Rap Album.")
Honorable mentions: Eminem's Relapse was not quite a return to his former glory, but it does feature the same kind of over-the-top subjects and punch lines that made him a household name. Method Man & Redman's Blackout 2 is worth checking out if you're a fan, and Wale's Attention Deficit shows the Washington, D.C. up-and-comer has promise.
— Calvin Cox
Live and Loud
If 2009 was considered something of a down year when it came to new album releases, several quality concert tours — many of which actually made stops in St. Louis — might have compensated. With blogosphere oversaturation and the record industry falling further into disarray every year, it feels as though live concert tours might be the one refuge left for the music lover in search of something tangible and believable.
Matthew Sweet brought just such a show with him when he made a June stop at Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. He and his backing band, which included members of power-pop act the Velvet Crush, brought the intensity and volume as they crunched their way through a set of highlights from Sweet's twenty-plus-year career. Cuts such as "Divine Intervention" and "I've Been Waiting" from his 1991 breakout album Girlfriend sounded fresh and energetic as the spotlight shone on his sugary vocal melodies and thick, rhythm-guitar crunch.
The announcement that Sonic Youth would play the free summertime concert series Live on the Levee came as a very pleasant surprise to most music fans in the city. The iconic experimental rockers took the stage at river's edge just before dusk on a perfectly cool and crisp summer evening and blazed through a set heavy on tracks from its latest album, The Eternal. As the sun descended behind the buildings of downtown, big pillowy clouds drifted in behind the open-backed stage, creating a natural backdrop that couldn't have been more perfect for the spacey sonic barrage that the band produced. It goes without saying that fans of live music in St. Louis had nothing to complain about on such a pristine night of outdoor entertainment.
Anyone who was lucky enough to secure a ticket for Leonard Cohen's stop at the Fox Theatre this fall would probably agree that the show transcended expectations. The sheer amount of genuine sincerity and heartfelt charm he displayed was in a league all its own, while the reserved, delicate musicianship of his band and backup singers defined tasteful. The celebrated songwriter's voice has deepened with age into a bone-rattling baritone croon that sends shivers and summons tears — and at 75 years old, Cohen is more spry (and at times even more sensual) than most men half his age.
— Shae Moseley
Bang Your Head
Rocking the fuck out is the new metal. Time was, metal was the new hard stuff that just grabbed you by the throat and made you move — be it moshing, headbanging or playing air drums. However, extreme music's been in a lull. Modern hardcore is pure formula. Nightclub-level metal bands are consumed with bloody-finger guitar shredding and Uzi-fast, double-bass-drum rolls. Technically, it's amazing — awesome, but forgettable. But this is music we're talking about. It should be about songs. What'll turn your head faster than a big sharp hook?
Here are ten badass bands that stopped showing off and instead wrote some memorable material in 2009.
16, Bridges to Burn. Pure stoner-metal misanthropy. Download "Flake," the riff of the year.
Mastodon, Crack the Skye. Splits the difference between metal and prog. Download "Divinations." Killer solo, short and sharp.
Kylesa, Static Tensions. Psychedelic-tinged metal that rocks like hell. Download "Running Red."
Converge, Axe to Fall. Metallic hardcore with intermittent chill tunes. Download "Dark Horse" for thrasheration, "Wretched World" to unwind from it.
Skarhead, Drugs, Money & Sex. The catchiest New York hardcore in years. Download "D.F.F."
Doomriders, Darkness Come Alive. Stoner hardcore that's influenced by Sabbath, Fugazi and Metallica. Download "Knife Wound."
Slayer, World Painted Blood. Thrash gods return to form. Download "Psychopathy Red."
Every Time I Die, New Junk Aesthetic. Hopped up on hardcore and classic rock, ETID delivers literate lyrics and convincing self-loathing. Download "Host Disorder."
Goatwhore, Carving Out the Eyes of God. None of this speedy metal tour-de-force is groundbreaking, but all of it is excellent, especially the breakneck "This Passing into the Power of Demons."
Saviours, Accelerated Living. Bay Area metallions wield thick, crunchy guitar tones like a flamethrower. Download "We Roam."
— D.X. Ferris
Ten Tweets for Ten Post-Acoustic Albums
A.A. Bondy, When the Devil's Loose. American Hearts, Bondy's solo debut, broke from rock. This time he gets reverb soaked and Southern spooky. Mississippi becomes him.
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. Gods of reverb smile upon Neko. But who needs gods? She has guitarist Jon Rauhouse, harmony singer Kelly Hogan and a barn full of pianos.
Slaid Cleaves, Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away. Visions of work, life, nature and the soul being taken away by time sound so sweet covered in the melting toffee of Cleaves' voice.
The Duke & the King, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Simone Felice left his brothers this year. He had his reasons. His crushingly personal vision of loss is almost too much to take — almost.
Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly. The most embarrassingly named of all embarrassingly named indie neo-folkers make a modest, chipper and surprisingly lush racket.
Mark Olson & Gary Louris, Ready for the Flood. The old friends reunite, one still living through a wrecked marriage, the other still as gifted a melody maker as anyone in pop.
Howard Eliott Payne, Bright Light Ballads. Lead singer of Brit band the Stands finds his inner 1964 Dylan via delicate melodies and a lyrical love of life, tunes — and love itself.
Son Volt, American Central Dust. Jay Farrar's acoustic guitar, moving moan, rich lyrics and quietly ambitious band are on a quest to find what lasts. Mission accomplished.
Taken by Trees, East of Eden. Third-world musical tourism gets sublime and glitchy, as Victoria Bergsman and her Pakistani friends prove beauty matters more than politics.
Vandaveer, Divide & Conquer. De-electrified dreams, as sung and played by Mark Charles Heidinger, sometimes of These United States, but mostly of a magically real republic.
— Roy Kasten
Our Song: In Defense of Taylor Swift
My favorite thing in 2009 has been teenage country cutie Taylor Swift. Normally my music radar sweeps shamefully closer to the underground, but it only took one encounter for me to fall in love with Swift's undeniably hooky, magnetically charged songs.
Swift was hired by Sony/ATV at age fourteen as a staff songwriter, and since then her accomplishments and accolades have just kept on multiplying. The willowy powerhouse with blond tendrils has become the hottest thing to hit country music since Garth Brooks. True, the majority of Swift's songs are hardly "traditional" country: Except for the occasional fiddle or lilt in her singing, she almost exclusively plays pop songs. And although her image is that of a young Faith Hill or Shania Twain, her talent is on par with classic artists such as Lucinda, Reba and Dolly.
Her stadium tours sell out months in advance, and she's been nominated (and won) pretty much every music award possible. But don't hate the playa, children. Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's bad. (See: Nirvana, the Beatles.) Homegirl's self-titled debut is the longest-charting record of this decade, and to date she's sold more than 10 million albums. (Swifty even outsold Michael Jackson this year. Dang.) Songs such as "You Belong With Me," "White Horse," "Love Story," "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Our Song" are freakin' scary-good. Not good for a country star. Not good for a girl. Not good for someone her age. Just plain good.
Swift is also at least partially responsible for the greatest pop-culture moment of 2009: the Kanye West Interruption Incident from the MTV Video Music Awards. This misdirected outburst of attention-whoring introduced Taylor to a whole new group of fans she wouldn't have reached otherwise. Miss Swift's composure, grace and subsequent roof-blowing song performance was more than enough to silence any haters. Oh, snap. Don't mess with her; I think she's in it for the long haul.
— Jaime Lees
Two albums from early 2009 never became stale. The first is Face Control by Handsome Furs, the husband-wife duo of Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade fame) and Alexei Perry. A unique blend of Perry's Adderall-jittered synths and keyboards, Boeckner's fuzzed-out guitar and yelped cryptic refrains, the songs are simple, catchy, haunting and flat-out brilliant. The other record with staying power is It's Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The trio's sonic evolution has been incomparable: It's effortlessly shifted from the riotous wails and jarring art-punk riffs of early material to Blitz!'s finely honed mix of dance-friendly burners and sprawling epics. Karen O and company also put on one of the year's best live shows at the Pageant in June.
Other standouts included Phoenix and the oh-so-sweet but all-too-brief spurt of pop brilliance that is Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the croaky-throated folk poetry of Welcome Joy by Seattle's Cave Singers and the sexy, soft-spoken understatements of London's the xx and its self-titled debut. Missouri boys made good White Rabbits also deserve heaps of praise for It's Frightening and the aptly titled mind-blower "Percussion Gun."
In hip-hop the best efforts were from Wu-Tang alums. Raekwon had the pitch-perfect Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II, and the sequel to his 1995 classic exceeded the hype with a filthy, fire-spitting array of dope-slingin' anthems. [Editor's note: [A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Freddie Gibbs ruled the underground with a pair of killer mixtapes, and K'naan gets props for Troubadour, in which the Somalia native tells American rappers about the lawless, war-torn streets of Mogadishu and what it really means to come up hard.
— Keegan Hamilton
In a year with no blockbuster, era-defining masterpiece album or paradigm-smashing new musical movement, I felt mercifully free to just find records I liked. I spent a lot of 2009 immersed in reissues — such as Where the Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-1968, another vital collection of psychedelic proto-punk obscurities from Rhino Records, or the Woody Guthrie four-disc set, My Dusty Road, where newly discovered archival recordings give the legend a new vibrancy and intimacy.
But even during this lackluster year, I didn't live exclusively in the past. My personal sonic comfort food — mod-ish, punky, British guitar-pop — has started to taste a little stale after the recent glut of that stuff. The Cribs' Ignore the Ignorant would have set me on fire a few years ago, but now all I can muster is a "nice job" as I move on to the next album queued up in my playlist. Sometimes that album was the Thermals' Now We Can See, the catchiest meditation on death and dying ever waxed. Sometimes it was Art Brut's Art Brut vs. Satan, where the brilliant British quartet continued its witty dissections of topics such as "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake." Sometimes it was the updated, AM-radio pop of Girls' Album or the sturdy, should-be-FM-standards riffs of Friendly Foes' Born Radical and the Shazam's Meteor.
Funny, though, how my favorite album of the year offered no comfort at all. On Travels With Myself and Another, Future of the Left spumes abrasive, contorted ugly-punk that's equally anthemic and unsettling, spastic and controlled — and funny as all hell. When all that rock classicism started to feel a little too familiar, "Throwing Bricks At Trains" and "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You" reminded me that time is still moving forward.
— Jason Toon
If 2009 had an overarching thread, stylistic zeitgeist or defining moment, I must have missed it. You'll have to forgive me: I spent most of the year with a gray, wizened 75-year-old poet from Canada. Leonard Cohen certainly had the comeback of the year, spending much of 2009 on his first tour in fifteen years, including a momentous appearance at the Fox Theatre in November. With the well-tempered moves of a stage actor and the bottomless baritone voice that has aged to perfection, Cohen and his ace backing band spent three hours poring through his peerless songbook. The tour could have been merely a career-closing curtain call; instead, it showed how vital the skipping, grinning Cohen remains at this late stage in his life and how deep his immaculately crafted lyrics have sunk into the psyches of his fans.
If you missed Cohen in concert (or if you saw it and need to relive some of the magic), pick up the two-disc set Live in London. Much like the tour, this set from July 2008 gave Cohen a chance to not only revisit his 40-year career but to salvage some of his best songs from the mid-'80s, many of which suffer from cold, overly synthesized studio production. In concert, however, songs such as "Democracy," "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Closing Time" take on organic warmth, thanks to ten onstage musicians. Their talents help turn many of these recordings into definitive versions. Think of Live as an alternate greatest-hits package from a singer who was always more interested in opening hearts than he was moving units.
— Christian Schaeffer
Jazz and blues survived last century's Great Depression handily enough, and here in St. Louis both genres seem to be weathering the Great Recession of Aught-Nine reasonably well.
Our not-for-profit jazz presenters, such as Jazz St. Louis, the Sheldon and the Touhill Performing Arts Center, have done some belt-tightening but so far have managed to avoid major programming cutbacks. As a result, in 2009 local audiences heard top jazz acts ranging from the Dave Holland Quintet and the Blue Note 7 to saxophonist Sonny Rollins, bassist Christian McBride's new band Inside Straight and singer Kurt Elling.
The year also saw the launch of two new jazz clubs. The St. Louis Jazz Café downtown got off to a promising start in March but closed just four months later amid rumors of undercapitalization and a lease dispute. Meanwhile, Dorothy and Robert Edwards opened Robbie's House of Jazz in the Webster Groves space formerly occupied by Cookie's. It presented a mix of local musicians, St. Louis area expats such as Ronald Carter, Kelvyn Bell and Ronnie Burrage, and visitors including Bobby Watson and Kahil El'Zabar. Pianist Peter Martin also announced that he'll curate and perform in a new jazz series at the Sheldon, starting in February with a concert featuring singer Dianne Reeves.
On the blues scene, the clubs in the "South Broadway triangle" — BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups, Beale on Broadway and the Broadway Oyster Bar — continued to do good business by presenting local and touring blues talent. Kevin Belford's book, Devil at the Confluence, prompted fans, critics and historians to reassess St. Louis' place in the history of blues music, while Ruby Sain, widow of saxophonist, producer and songwriter Oliver Sain, launched a not-for-profit effort to convert her late husband's Archway Studios into a blues and soul museum, music school and performance venue.
— Dean C. Minderman
Michael Jackson's passing was tragically symbolic. From his Motown childhood through his disco adolescence, all the way to his animal-morphing adulthood, Jackson's life constantly represented American popular music. As worldwide record sales dwindled on this side of the millennium, so did Jackson's health. Then, on June 25, pop music's heart stopped beating.
Now, this isn't to say that catchy hooks, solid beats and moonwalks have disappeared from human existence. But nobody represented the balance of monumental success and artistic viability like MJ did. Hannah Montana will never sell 104 million copies of a record (much less release one as stellar as Thriller). Even Radiohead won't ever write anything as universal as "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough."
With the King of Pop unseated, pop music seems almost anarchistic. In fact, it's unrecognizable from how it was one decade ago — to anyone who picked a favorite Backstreet Boy or to those who dug through crates to find Neutral Milk Hotel's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Most of the world's songs are stolen. Bloggers have as much say in trends as major label executives. Every collegiate garage band and Fruity Looping bedroom artist has as much of a chance for a spot on a movie or television soundtrack as the sure-fire hit paraders of yesteryear. Postmodernism has become a reality rather than a concept. Disney launches rock stars as easily as they build amusement parks. Wilco licensed an entire album to Volkswagen. Animal Collective wrote a hip-hop record. Dirty Projectors debuted a new song on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon after a David Duchovny interview. In the wake of a new decade, we are unaware of what highs or lows lay ahead of us. But the playing field has never been this level.
— Ryan Wasoba
Correction published 12/18/09: In the original version of this story, we erroneously stated that rapper Method Man's album 4:21...The Day After came out this year. In fact, the album was released in 2006. The above version reflects the corrected text.