Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pyramids: Pyramids With Nadja

Artist: Pyramids
Album: Pyramids with Nadja
Date Released: October 27, 2009
Genre: metal, post-metal, alt-metal, experimental, avant-garde metal, ambient, minimalism
Rating: 8.4
Pyramids with Nadja (streaming audio available) is a massive collaborative effort between Pyramids, Nadja and a number of other musicians. All members of Pyramids (f. coloccia, m. dean, m. kraig, r. loren, d. william) and Nadja (Aidan Baker & Leah Buckereff) perform on all four tracks on the record.

In addition to this, Pyramids with Nadja also features Simon Raymonde of Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil (performs bass on track one and four), Albin Julius of Der Blutharsch (performs vocals on track four), Chris Simpson of Mineral (performs vocals on track two), Colin Marston of Dysrhythmia and Behold the Arctopus (co-produced/engineered track one) and James Plotkin of Khanate, Khlyst, O.L.D. Phantomsmasher (mixed and mastered the entire album).

As the number of contributors would suggest, the music on Pyramids with Nadja is a remarkable integration of diverse sonic influences, a palate that includes ambient, industrial, shoe-gaze, and experimental/minimalist metal. While Pyramids and Nadja dominate the album, there's no question that this is a product of many musical minds.

The album itself consists of four long-play tracks that weave in and out of the listener's conscious awareness. Pyramids with Nadja is about slowly morphing texture, mood, and walls of soundscapes; it's a very 'visual' album in this sense. Remarkably, despite the minimalism and atmospheric bliss-outs, the album contains a definite melodic quality. Without a doubt, this is one of the most original and remarkable albums of the year.

New feature: Sort by genres

By popular demand I have added the ability to sort all genres listed on the Best Albums of 2009 site. It's located in the right-hand sidebar just below the list of rankings. Thanks to Lucas for setting this up. Enjoy!

Loney, Dear: Dear John

Artist: Loney, Dear
Album: Dear John
Date Released: January 27, 2009
Genre: alt-rock, indie-rock, indie-pop
Rating: 8.0
Loney, Dear is the pseudonym of Swedish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Emil Svanängen. Dear John is Loney, Dear's third full-length album and the follow-up to his critically acclaimed Loney, Noir (2007).

On Dear John, Svanängen often treads perilously close to music that could be considered quite glossy and flowery, but his richly detailed arrangements and gorgeous soundscapes never allow the music to reach that point. Svanängen manages to darken these tracks with delicate moments of minimalism, his (almost uncomfortably) intimate vocal delivery, and plenty of minors and fifths.

Take the track, "Under a Silent Sea." Svanängen starts off with an unassuming acoustic guitar, but the arrangement slowly builds into one of the most powerful and dramatic tracks put out this year by any artist. The comparisons to Sufjan Stevens are not out of place.

Dear John is a difficult album to categorize and its charms aren't immediately recognizable. Stick with this album, though -- it's a real beauty.

Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures

Artist: Them Crooked Vultures
Album: Them Crooked Vultures
Date Released: November 17, 2009
Genre: rock, hard rock
Rating: 7.7
There's been a lot of hype surrounding the release of Them Crooked Vultures -- and for good reason: the band is a supergroup consisting of John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) [I can't help sing to myself at this point, "These are a few of my favorite things..."].

The band is clearly dominated by its guiding force, that being Homme, who performs all vocal and rhythm/lead guitar duties; the album often feels like it could easily double as a QOTSA effort, but that's not to diminish the contributions of the other two band members. John Paul Jones's rhythmic structures and bass progressions bring late-era Zeppelin to mind, while Grohl continues to show why he's one of the most talented and coveted drummers in the business.

Them Crooked Vultures is raw, nasty and heavy -- exactly what you'd want and expect from these particular guys. Track highlights include "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I", "Elephants", "Scumbag Blues" and "Interlude with Ludes."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Latest adjustments to rankings

I've made some adjustments to the rankings:


Not done yet

We're quickly approaching the end of the year, but I've still got a bunch of albums that need to be reviewed; the BAo09 list is far from complete, so stay tuned for more.

Also, I'll be posting the best albums of the decade sometime in mid-December so watch out for that. And finally, I'll also be posting a list of decent albums from this year that failed to make the cut.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Very Best: Warm Heart of Africa

Artist: The Very Best
Album: Warm Heart of Africa
Date Released: October 6, 2009
Genre: international, world music, African traditions, Afro-beat
Rating: 8.4
Esau Mwamwaya is a singer from Lilongwe, Malawi who is best known for his collaboration, The Very Best, with the British DJ/production duo Radioclit. Together, the music of The Very Best is an Afro-Western mix of dance, hiphop, pop and the traditional music of Malawi.

Warm Heart of Africa is the follow-up to their excellent 2008 debut, Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best. And the album is aptly titled: the music is upbeat, fun and extremely catchy. But most of all it sounds extremely fresh. There's no one right now mixing African, dance and pop traditions to the same effect as these guys. And when you add guest appearances from M.I.A. and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend it's instant win.

Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II

Artist: Raekwon
Album: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II
Date Released: September 8, 2009
Genre: east coast rap, hardcore rap, gangsta rap
Rating: 8.7
Corey Woods, better known by the stage name Raekwon, is an American rapper and a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. He released his solo debut, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx..., back in 1995, and has continued recording solo and with the Wu-Tang Clan since then. This year, Raekwon released the much anticipated sequel to his critically acclaimed debut with Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Pt. II.

Like the original, the album follows a crime-laced cinematic approach. Lyrically, the concept follows the story of a mafioso crime boss and is told primarily from the third person perspective. It is combined with carefully placed skits weaved into the beginnings and ends of songs. The lyrics are raw, honest and very explicit -- not for the feint of heart.

The album is laced with incredible talent, both from the production and performance side of things. Featured members include RZA, Ghostface Killah, Jadakiss, Cappadonna, Pete Rock, the Alchemist, and even Dr. Dre. Raekwon also weaves in some incredible samples, including Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" on "Kiss the Ring," Odetta's "Hit or Miss" on "Penitentiary," and Styx's "Castle Walls," on "Surgical Gloves."

The only word that seems to do Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...Pt. II justice is epic. The performances are spectacular and the production is remarkably creative, diverse and tight. Definitely the not-to-be-missed rap album of the year.

Lightning Dust: Infinite Light

Artist: Lightning Dust
Album: Infinite Light
Date Released: August 4, 2009
Genre: indie rock, alternative rock, indie folk, acid folk, sadcore
Rating: 8.1

Lightning Dust, a Canadian indie rock band from Vancouver, British Columbia, is a side project of Amber Webber and Joshua Wells, both members of Black Mountain. But unlike Black Mountain, Lightning Dust has a sound that's softer and more melodic. As Wells has noted, the band arose from a desire to "do something that was sparse and minimal, and with a lot of space around it." Webber, who performs vocal duties, described the band as an opportunity to "explore her goth side."

And it's clear from the opening track, "Antonia Jane," that this is not a Black Mountain album -- far from.

Infinite Light is a lyrical, gentle and atmospheric album. It's also very sad and dark -- a mood that's punctuated by some spacey sonic elements, and of course, Webber's lyrics and vocals. Indeed, Infinite Light is an acid-folk tour de force for Webber's singing and she clearly takes center stage. Her warbly and somber delivery is an indelible part of the Lightning Dust sound, a style that's reminiscent of a much more subdued Grace Slick.

Another solid release from a very talented and prolific duo.

Bear in Heaven: Beast Rest Forth Mouth

Artist: Bear in Heaven
Album: Beast Rest Forth Mouth
Date Released: October 13, 2009
Genre: indie rock, neo-psychedelia, progressive rock, alternative rock
Rating: 7.9

Beast Rest Forth Mouth is the sophomore release from Brooklyn's Bear in Heaven, a band that incorporates influences from prog, psychedelia, electronica and krautrock. Thanks to bands like Mew and Muse, prog-rock is no longer a dirty word -- but as far as Bear in Heaven goes they're much more like the former than the latter. Where Muse wears its pretension like a badge, Mew and Bear in Heaven take a more subdued and ethereal approach to their music.

Beast Rest Forth Mouth is a prime example. It's an album of steady and hypnotic beats, synthy and spacey rhythmic sequences and dreamy vocals. The tracks are paced and have a shoegaze element to them at times, while frequently coloured with power-chords and some very heavy synth pulses.

Sonically, the album is gorgeous from start to finish; but stronger tracks and a clearer commitment to melody would have propelled this album from good to great. Track highlights include "Beast in Peace," "You Do You," and "Lovesick Teenagers."

Slayer: World Painted Blood

Artist: Slayer
Album: World Painted Blood
Date Released: November 3, 2009
Genre: metal, thrash metal, speed metal
Rating: 7.7

Hey, no one's more surprised than me that Slayer has made the BAo09 list -- but credit where credit is due. These beloved metal veterans have put it all together this year on World Painted Blood, the follow-up to their rather meh Christ Illusion. This album has all the Slayer hallmarks: headbanging rhythms, ear-splitting riffs, bone-chilling leads and a merciless percussive attack. Combined with one of the best vocal performances from Tom Araya in years and you have what is a very solid metal album.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

White Rabbits: It's Frightening

Artist: White Rabbits
Album: It's Frightening
Date Released: May 19, 2009
Genre: alt-rock, indie-rock
Rating: 7.2

It's Frightening is the sophomore release from White Rabbits, a sextet featuring two drummers and a piano player. Hailing from Columbus, MO, the White Rabbits refer to their music as "honky tonk calypso" -- a sound that isn't too far removed from other bands like The Walkmen and Spoon. In fact, for It's Frightening, the band recruited Spoon's Britt Daniel to produce.

The end result is undeniably Spoonesque and not nearly as fresh as their beloved debut, Fort Nightly, but it's a solid album nonetheless. The infectious and upbeat rhythms work beautifully with the ever-important White Rabbits piano, but this time around the band has refined their sound by adding the dynamism of improved guitar and vocal arrangements.

It's Frightening may not capture the spontaneity of their debut, but White Rabbits are quickly maturing as a band whose primary focus is in producing expertly arranged and well written songs. Track highlights include "Percussion Gun," "Rudie Fails," "They Done Wrong/We Done Wrong" and the Radiohead inspired "The Salesman (Tramp Life)."

Alice in Chains: Black Gives Way to Blue

Artist: Alice in Chains
Album: Black Gives Way to Blue
Date Released: September 29, 2009
Genre: hard rock, grunge, alternative metal
Rating: 8.0

With Black Gives Way to Blue, Alice in Chains wins the most surprising album of the year award.

It's fair to say that expectations were justifiability low given that it's been 14 years since their last album and seven years since the untimely death of vocalist Layne Staley. Moreover, given the recent surplus of over-the-hill bands trying -- and mostly failing -- to recapture former glory, it would be easy to dismiss this as another self-serving money-grabbing effort.

But not so fast. Black Gives Way to Blue is a very good album. Jerry Cantrell and company have introduced William DuVall to the team, and while he doesn't have that wounded-animal quality that Staley had, his vocal presence is nonetheless impressive and completely aligned with the band's characteristic gloomy sound. With DuVall onboard, Cantrell can once again arrange those gorgeous harmonies that were an integral part of their sound from a decade ago.

And the songs are great. Right from the opener, "All Secrets Known," the band plays goose-bump inducing grunge that picks up right where they left off. Other track highlights include "Check My Brain," "Your Decision," and "Acid Bubble."

Call me sentimental, but it's great to see this band back together again and sounding so damn good.

Om: God is Good

Artist: Om
Album: God is Good
Date Released: March 2009
Genre: stoner metal, minimalist metal, psychedelic rock, post-metal
Rating: 7.1

Om is a duo formed in 2003 by the rhythm section of the disbanded stoner doom metal band Sleep. God is Good is their fourth studio album and was recorded at Electrical Audio by Steve Albini. It's the first studio album by Om to feature the new drummer Emil Amos of Grails.

Om's music is slow and droning and at times similar in structure to Tibetan chanting. On God is Good, the album's four tracks feature the drawn-out wailings of sitar, tamboura, steady tappings of the ride cymbal and mantra-like vocal stylings. The arrangements are sparse and spacious. There is no rushing here; the band takes their time to express meditative and heavy music. Fans of Sun O))) and Earth will feel right at home with Om.

Nile: Those Whom the Gods Detest

Artist: Nile
Album: Those Whom the Gods Detest
Date Released: November 3, 2009
Genre: death metal
Rating: 7.5

Death metal veterans Nile have long been known for their high-speed and frenetic metal attack, but they are also renowned for their Discovery Channelesque attention to historical detail. In a genre laden with Satanic references to the point of nausea, Nile have gone against the grain by incorporating ancient Egyptian themes to heavy metal, along with Egyptian scales, modes and other Middle Eastern ear candy.

Their latest album, Those Whom the Gods Detest, is no exception. More than ever, Nile have seamlessly integrated these otherworldly elements into their music while remaining one of the heaviest and most brutal death metal bands in the business. As always, the band's talent as performers bleeds through the deathiness and growly vocals; Those Whom the Gods Detest features some fantastic guitar solos and relentless drum blasts.

Death metal fans will be pleased with this effort.

Porcupine Tree: The Incident

Artist: Porcupine Tree
Album: The Incident
Date Released: September 15, 2009
Genre: progressive rock, hard rock
Rating: 7.4

Porcupine Tree's The Incident is by no means their best work, but as many PT fans will acknowledge, they're still light-years ahead of most bands working in the prog genre. Though the songs often feel hurried and not fully realized, Steve Wilson's magical studio touches and his ability to weave gorgeous melodies from thin air contribute to a very listenable and hooky 2-CD album.

The Incident's tracks are at times overly sentimental and derivative ("Time Flies" borrows a little too heavily from Pink Floyd's Animals for my liking), but it's hard to not get caught up in the thought provoking lyrics and the teasingly infrequent but infectious chugga-chugga guitar riffing. Track highlights include "Black Dahlia," "The Incident," "Octane Twisted," and "Circle of Manias."