December 31, 2009

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Brother, Can You Spare a CD?
2009: An angry CD reviewer looks at the year in music
By Eric W. Saeger music@hippopress.com

The first thing that sticks out in my mind about 2009 — and this is from a CD-reviewer perspective, hence insignificant toward any what-was-good-or-bad sense or anything else useful to most folks — is how the American financial meltdown (and it now truly is almost exclusively an American Depression, being as how Europe and China are well into their recoveries) reduced the gross raw tonnage of hard-copy CD releases physically committed to disk.

It’s all about me, I’m saying: CD-reviewing became even more of an unglamorous task in 2009 thanks to fewer albums showing up in my mailbox, all simply because stamps is money. In reality, though, with the continued growth of (unfortunately) easy-to-use electronic workspaces like MySpace Music and Pro Tools (not to mention the hundreds of “watermarked” albums I received electronically, only about 20 of which I ever downloaded), there was again this year way too much music.

Of course, there was some survival of the fittest or whatever. With the economy a smoking crater, bad bands (and good) (mostly good) were dropped from the big record labels, which swiveled their resources elsewhere to concentrate on “sure hits.” One would logically imagine that a reduced number of CDs would have resulted in improved content; more bang for the buck, and so forth, but, you guessed it, the opposite occurred. 

Record companies have always thought people like crummy music, and the kickoff year of Great Depression II gave them a lovely excuse to market to this perceived lack of taste. With risk and creativity completely out of the equation, safely sucky was the order of the day, starring the unholy alliance of hilariously overrated house DJ David Guetta and a Black Eyed Peas too corporate-fattened to notice, all in an album we’ll get back to in a second. Britney tried house, too, and so did the other big names, so naturally, like a bunch of dingbat-drunk, Aéro-clad Caligulas tripping over their own feet at the orgy, house DJs — already a spoiled, worthless lot — put out some of the most careless, putrid garbage in history. Man, did the new Tiesto album suck.

Domo Arigato,
Now Put a Sock in It Already

It was 1983 when the arena-rock band Styx released the “concept album” Kilroy Was Here and promoted its release with a financially disastrous tour. The only song to make a dent in the charts from that album was “Mr. Roboto,” a ditty that grabbed radio listeners through its use of the vocoder, a device that makes vocals sound warbly and robotic. The story takes place “in a future where rock music is outlawed by a fascist and paleoconservative government.” 

Twenty-six years later, we had wide-screen dough-faced corporate-payola “pundit” Glenn Beck employing the fascist tactic of laying blame for our national ills not on the high-rolling Wall Street nimrods who destroyed the middle class, but instead on the people protesting the bailouts to those losers. In the background of all the psychic smog, our “rebel youth” music was awash in vocoder, such as Black Eyed Peas’ new album THE E.N.D., its cover art loosely reminiscent of the robot heads on Kilroy Was Here, though carrying an entirely different message, something about unlimited ringtones for $9.99 a month or whatever it was.

But forget the now rap-less, Fergie-burdened BEP for a second — everyone used vocoder and auto-tune in 2009, didn’t they, as if The Man himself was taunting us all, doing a butt-dance in a Mr. Roboto mask and filming the mirth with his iPhone? How did this happen? Why did it happen?

Well, in a year when the chairman of Goldman Sachs said that God Himself seriously wants him and his gang of studly nerds to be rich (whether or not the bonuses came directly from taxpayer bailout money), how could it not happen? What were you expecting radio to offer as you stood idle for stuff like this, tweeting about your breakfast instead of clogging the streets of Washington in weeks-long protest, the next Never Mind the Bullocks?

Besides, far better to have the toothless “My Humps”-microwaving of “Boom Boom Pow” and not some new jack “Anarchy in the UK” playing in the background — you healthy, nonsmoking 20-somethings need the right kind of music in your buds as you set to working that $300 monthly payment to Blue Cross into your budget in preparation for the coming government-mandated health insurance catastrophe. (You’ll simply have to do without those yummy Ramen noodles, you crazy irresponsible little scamps.)

Ring-a-ling-ling!
The Good News
There was none. Animal Collective showed us what the term “overrated” really means. Jacko died, apparently with no sane person minding the copyrights, which immediately unleashed a Pandora’s Box of get-rich-quick DVDs and CDs that won’t be exhausted until the year 50,000 Years After People. Backstreet Boys made an album. Cookie-cutter death metal was still being recorded, believe it or not.

There were some good albums, though, I’ll admit. So let’s just let the above few paragraphs stand as the last-ever clown-shoed attempt to connect rock ’n’ roll with positive social change (until my next one) and move on to the things that made my ears feel good (or at least made them say “What the heck was that?”). Hey, if God wants only 10 or so guys in this country to have every dime that gets minted, you know, rock on.

Recommended 2009 Albums,
In No Particular Order

Cut Off Your Hands, You & I (Tears For Fears re-done for Generation Z)

Elliott Brood, Mountain Meadows (antebellum riff-rock)

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (CSNY-tinted Radiohead-twee)

Thursday, Common Existence (stubbornly oldschool emo)

Raveonettes, In & Out of Control (“New Raveonettes,” you say? Sold!)

Glasvegas, Glasvegas (“Sort of like Raveonettes,” you say? Sold!)

Shahrokh, Dripping Point (house-laptop guy vs. cello guy)

The Black Lips, 200 Million Thousand (Big Wheel-riding garage apes)

Fever Ray, Fever Ray (Bjork-ish New Age hipster chill)

Cage the Elephant, Cage the Elephant (this year’s Arctic Monkeys in the pub-rock sweepstakes)

Wumpscut, F--kit (Satan-disco one-man-operation reborn)

John Digweed, Bedrock 11 (house comp of the year, like always)

Asobi Seksu, Hush (all together now: “Keep shoegaze alive! Keep shoegaze alive!”)

Umphreys McGee, Mantis (tedious jam band suddenly become the world’s most important prog band)

Rufus Huff, Rufus Huff (old-school Zep-style stuff redone by old pros who know how it’s done, thus naturally overlooked)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz (less sick-chick posturing, stronger songs)

The Eels, Hombre Lobo (this guy being accessible for once, probably by accident)

Oakenfold, Perfecto Vegas (surprisingly normal house mix for this usually metal-loving DJ)

Edmar Castaneda, Entre Cuerdas (Spanish jazz harpist) (as in harp, not harmonica)

Charnett Moffett, Art of Improvisation (jazz-bass clinic)

Infected Mushroom, Legend Of The Black Shawarma (Israeli psy-trance DJ team)

BLK JKS, After Robots (world-tribal-prog)

And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, The Century of Self (BOC-style drinking-bar-metal)

Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk (the next-breed CSNY and pretending not to care)

Baroness, Blue Record (aggro-prog, and why aren’t more bands sounding like this?)

Imaad Wasif, The Voidist (some quality time with Jack White helped this guy immensely)

The Black Hollies, Softly Towards the Light (“Raveonettes-ized Strawberry Alarm Clock,” you say?)

James Moody, Moody 4A (high-class dinner-sax)

Mem, Archaea (self-released genius, Pendulum meets Killers)

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11 (flamenco-metal)