End of the Year Music Review

It’s almost the end of the year, which means end of year best-of lists. It could also mean worst-of lists, but I’m a pretty nice guy, and besides, you can just turn on your television or radio to get plenty of rotten crap. I can get books and music out of the way quickly: the only books I’ve read that were published this year were highly specialized academic tones that only libraries could afford, and I can only think of four movies that I went to see in theatres: Waltz With Bashir, Up, the new Harry Potter movie, and District 9. The Harry Potter movie was blah, the others were excellent. I think technically Waltz With Bashir was released in Israel in 2008, but I wasn’t able to see it until this year. At any rate, seeing movies in the theatre has never been a huge priority for me: if I really want to see the film, I can wait until it comes out on DVD or the library gets it.

Music is another story. This year was pretty decent music-wise; below are some of my top picks for 2009’s music, live and recorded. As always, my music tastes are pretty eclectic, and I make no pretensions at having selected the best music of the year. In terms of live performances, several stand out. Numero uno was the final Silver Jews concert ever, held in the bowels of Cumberland Caverns, outside of McMinnville, TN; only three hundred tickets were sold. I only managed to snag mine because the coffee house I frequent had purchased a handful for resale. The show was a convergence of awesomeness: hundreds of feet underground in a grand room with a chandelier dangling overhead, it was David Berman’s last show which he played with great heart and verve. At the end he came down and mingled with the crowd; lots of us- myself included- got a picture with him. Then we all trundled out of the cavern to make long drives back to population centers, warm with the afterglow of what has to have been one of the more singular of musical events to have come down the pike in a while.

Other especially excellent live shows this year: a few months ago I had the immense pleasure of seeing Bela Fleck, Zakhir Hussein, and Edgar Meyers play at the Tennessee Theatre. I’d been listening to Fleck for a while, and had recently come across Hussein; Meyers I had not heard. The three together are amazing: it’s hard to describe the sounds produced by these three men. As the cliche goes, you had to be there. Hussein can tear up the tabla like nobody’s business- it was hard to believe that one man, two hands, were making so much music from such seemingly straight-forward instruments. If you’ve the opportunity to see any of these three musicians, you must must take it. You’ll be glad you did.

I also got to see two shows in a row by Grupo Fantasma, which is always really fun. They played in Hattiesburg, MS, at the dear to my heart Thirsty Hippo, on the last day I was down visiting my family; I drove back to Knoxville and saw them play again out on Market Square. At K’ville’s premier (is that the right word?) hipster dive, the Pilot Light, the best show of the year was easily A Hawk and a Hacksaw, who wear touring with a full band, right down to a bouzouki player. You can’t go wrong if your band includes a bouzouki. The show was gorgeous, marred only by the incessant jumping around (think hipster moshing, which is as pathetic and annoying as it sounds) and general obnoxiousness of a cluster of scenester kids at the front. The band stopped playing mid-show and politely- well, pretty politely- asked the obnoxious kids to kindly shut up and stop acting like animals. The band continued the show with instruments unplugged and down in the crowd. Maybe it’s a sign of my ingrained music snobbery and elitism, but the chastising of the obnoxious hipsters warmed my heart…

Not that, mind you, I imagine myself to occupy a position vastly removed from hipster-dom. I’ve got a couple scarfs and sort of trendy hats, and besides, I’ve just listed a Silver Jews concert as the highlight of my live musical experiences of the year. To top it off, I head off my favorite albums of the year with:

Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca: A Pitchfork et al darling, this is a wonderful album even under all the buzz and hype; I’ve listened through it repeated times and continue to enjoy it. Production values are better than previous Dirty Projector projects, which makes for crisp lovely listening. Each track stands out and makes for scintillating, renewable listening pleasure; however, “Stillness is the Move” has to be my favorite, followed by “Two Doves,” an exploration/expansion of parts of the Song of Songs, which is pretty commendable.

The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You: After hearing the title single on Knoxville’s WDVX (best radio station ever, by the way) I went and picked up this wonderful album by the up-and-coming Avett Brothers. It is by turns mournful and exuberant, alternating between gently-paces and rolicking-tempos. There is no smug irony here, but rather well-crafted sincerity and emotional depth.

Bela Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart: Fleck collaborated with a number of African artists, working his awe-inspiring banjo music into a wide range of musical styles and forms, in a collaborative project that works really well, for the most part. On a few tracks Fleck is a little too intrusive, but for the most part, while his own music is in force, it is in a truly effective interweaving with the African musicians. My favorite track, which is fairly straightforward musically, is ‘Jesus is the Only Answer,’ a song by Fleck, Ruth Akello, and the Ateso Jazz Band, that is wonderfully, beautifully joyous, and has garnered many, many plays on my part.

Girls in Trouble: Girls in Trouble: A new band, fronted by Alica Jo Rabins and signed to the ever-wonderful JDub Records, Girls in Trouble draw the subject matter for their songs from the Bible, in a vein similar to the artists discussed here. Who would have thought Biblical exegesis could be a sub-genre of indie music? Rabins and her band mates surround their examinations of Biblical passages- usually involving women of the Bible- with lush instrumentals, including Rabin’s beautiful violin-work, often dividing each song into two or three distinct movements.

Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: Infectious stuff, this. You’ve probably already heard it- I’ve heard at least two tracks off this album used as commercial soundtracks (selling cars, I think?). It’s upbeat, fun music, that doesn’t rot your brain for being fun and infectious. Maybe not the most musically complex and sophisticated album on this list, and the lyrics can be rather odd and nonsensical- but English is a second language for the band, so it’s forgiveable.

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