The best of both's worlds
Our two music critics break down 2009, genre by genre.
BD: The retro-soul shtick has been done to death, but Mayer Hawthorne nailed it on A Strange Arrangement. Unlike a studied Motown re-creation, the homemade LP crackled with the secret charm of a dusty, forgotten LP.
ASK: If you’re talking real R&B, give it up for Maxwell’s BLACKsummers’night. It’s the opposite of Hawthorne in many ways: The emotional crooner’s shrugged off neo-soul excess and focused on his own organic and decidedly contemporary sound.
BD: I’m a sucker for Keri Hilson’s In a Perfect World…. Timbaland’s productions had fallen off hard, but these dense, detailed tracks redeemed him. The weight-lifting beat maker just needs a muse. But I truly adored Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ It’s Blitz!, a glittering, sweet, introspective and smart peak for the New York cool kids.
ASK: Micachu’s dope. Jewellery weaved a whacked-out fusion of electro, grime, pop and whatever else. The songs have a lo-fi charm like a glued-together collage, and Micachu’s voice is lovely, coming from a classical background yet able to translate that in a non-academic way.
ASK: P.O.S. travels in hardcore circles and doesn’t get nearly enough respect. Production-wise, Never Better does really different shit, flipping raw rock materials into futuristic funk. Anyone who cuts a killer rap cover of Pearl Jam is genius.
BD: Last year, mix-tapes trumped “official” releases, and the king of ’08, Wale, once again bettered household-name rappers (Jay-Z) without being utterly inane and redundant. Attention Deficit’s the record people want Kanye to make.
ASK: The Steve Lehman Octet’s Travail, Transformation, and Flow is academically informed, yet fun, dynamic and urgent. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s percolating percussion lifts Lehman’s spiralling saxophone figures into brilliant postbop abstractions.
BD: My tastes sway more to the chill end of the spectrum; pianist Stefano Bollani’s Stone in the Water was deep muscle massage. The drums whisper, the snare a constant, warm hiss. The Italian modernist stretches tropicalia tunes and European postbop into slow, gorgeous meditations.
Rock & roll
ASK: In terms of heavy, dark shit this year, it’s all about Georgia. Mastodon (Crack the Skye) and Baroness (Blue Record) made the best metal—metal that people who aren’t into metal will enjoy. It’s not all Cookie Monster vocals and buzz-saw guitars but melodic and often psychedelic. Which is kinda how metal started anyway.
BD: Power-trio White Denim definitely pushed the envelope. Fits induces a palpable rush and rumbles like nothing else today—soulfully, too. It’s catnip for commoners crushing cans into their foreheads to ZZ Top and brainiacs scratching their chins over weird art-punk.
BD: Though pigeonholed as world music, the Saharan nomads of Tinariwen arguably crafted the rock album of the year. Imidiwan is an acid-blues behemoth, recorded in the desert. Close your eyes as Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s scorching lead guitar echoes off adobe walls, and you’re sitting in the sand with the robed, history-rich radicals.
ASK: Similarly, Group Doueh’s terrific Treeg Salaam rips through raw, blistering electric-guitar jams. Five epic freak-outs taped on cheap cassettes in the early ’90s, it’s the garage rock of Africa—crazy, intense and trance-like.
BD: Somehow, despite making frankly awful records, Bob Dylan still gets a free pass. It’s time to jump ship. The Felice Brothers, farm punks from upstate New York, led by a guy with a reedy rasp, undeniably mirror Dylan. But the classic stuff. For all its put-on folkisms, Yonder Is the Clock spins rich, painterly narratives.
ASK: A.A. Bondy (who’s married to Clare Felice, coincidentally) shook off a grungey past for a life as an acoustic troubadour on the spare and sublime When the Devil’s Loose. In the year of the vampire, no Hollywood or HBO series came close to the sad beauty of “Oh the Vampyre.” Let’s hope Twilight fans don’t get their pimple-greasy fingers on it.