Seth’s Top Picks for 2009

December 15, 2009

So here it is.  Being that I have always been:

a huge fan of music, and an obsessive-compulsive music nerd on the order of the characters from “High Fidelity”,

…it has been my habit to do a personal “years best albums” list every year. I always did this just to satisfy my own compulsions and geeky musical analysis-needs, but as more of my peers started using the new-fangled “electronic mail” and enjoying the novelty of the “CC” function, I started receiving the lists of a number of friends who did the same thing.  Back around 2002, I started sending my own list out to my fellow music-nerds and enjoying their feedback.  We all enjoyed a little back-and-forth about our choices, and I always discovered some great new music.

I think it was the following year when I posted my picks as a blog and included the link in my year-end email.  I couldn’t imagine that fans of my music would consider my opinion with much weight, but figured some would find it a novel distraction.

I got an avalanche of emails about it; almost entirely positive and awesome, and decided to do it that way every year.

Until last year.  2008, aside from being a generally stressful time in my own life, was, in my opinion, a generally dreadful year for music.  I remember trying to sort out a list, and marveling that it would be far easier to pick my ten LEAST favorite albums than anything else.  So I scrapped it.

But 2009 has been a return to form in my little corner of the music listening world, and so for whatever it’s worth to you, here’s my Year’s Best Albums List.  As has been the case many times before, many will disagree with my choices, and that’s a beautiful thing.  I can hope only that you know as you read that I listen to music very seriously; I’m that guy who gets incredibly annoyed if, in the middle of a song I like, someone starts talking to me.  Rarely, if ever, have I answered my phone while enjoying a favorite album.  If I find honesty in something, it’s very easy for me to become passionate about it, and so if you see anything that strikes you as odd on this list, ask yourself what you might be missing, and maybe give it a shot. :)

One more thing:

Of course, I myself released a record this year, but of course for the purposes of this list, I… didn’t.  That may seem obvious to many people, but it bears mention.  I remember feeling oddly flattered and exasperated all at the same time back in 2004 when I received a shocking number of messages asking me why I felt that my own album (Conduit) was “not worth including” on my list that year.  First off, I think it’d be incredibly tacky, but for those who need explanation: Simply put, I toot my own horn all the freaking time… this list is about everyone ELSE you should like.  

(If you feel that “Clang & Chime” is a contender in your music library for “best of 2009” however, I certainly won’t stop you from posting your own list! ;)


Here I am already with the disclaimers.  I’m starting my list this year with an Honorable Mention for the reasons that I didn’t post a list last year, and that my absolute favorite record of this year wasn’t actually from 2009.  It was from 2008, but I never heard a note of it until this April.  It is one of the most profoundly moving albums I’ve ever heard, so screw protocol; you all need to spend a few hours of your lives listening to:

ELBOW – “The Seldom Seen Kid”  — This record is epic and jaw-dropping.  It is moving on every level.  Since being turned on to it, I’ve gone and listened through much of Elbow’s back catalog, and while I’ve enjoyed a lot of that, it is glaringly apparent that life acted very strongly on the members of this band, and while they are incredibly talented, they were transformed into something much greater by their experience.

When I first listened to this album, I knew two things about it:
-The band recorded it themselves.
-Guy Garvey, the lead singer, disclosed that the experiences that influenced the songs were his falling head-over-heels in love just as he lost a lifelong friend to an overdose.

The songs take you on an emotional roller-coaster ride that pains me to believe is culled from personal experience, and the music that frames the stories is breathtaking.  Every member of Elbow plays their instrument with awesome skill, taste, and a knack for thinking outside the box, and their grasp of dynamics is just awesome.  The band goes from subtle to flat-out raucous like their lives depend on it…  and then the orchestra comes in.  Original, inspired, honest…  I still can’t listen without hanging on every note and every word.

I was alone in a car for hours when I first listened (and then listened again, and again), and I’m glad I was, because I was crying by the end of it.  When it finished, I just sort of sat there, frozen and weeping quietly.  The joyful songs will make you smile wide, and the songs of mourning will rip you open if you take in what’s being said, but ultimately, most every song on this collection is just a reminder about what it means to love.

(I’ve since discovered that the band re-recorded the whole record in 2009, live, in its entirety, at Abbey Road Studios.  Holy crap.  I’ve got to buy that CD.)

(sure; there are numbers, but any album here could easily move up or down a couple notches depending on my mood)

1. U2 – “No Line On The Horizon” —
I didn’t think U2’s last album (the one with the really long title from 2004) was even close to their best work.  It seemed to me like they might have finally hit a slump they couldn’t recover from… like maybe they were going to start fading out and relying on their back-catalog of greatness.  Hallelujah, that is NOT the case.

This is a radiant record, and more than that, it is a statement: it is the biggest band in the world saying that they will not rest on their laurels just because they can.  This album is a challenge.  The arm-waving stupor of old songs like “Elevation” is absent here — you need to pay ATTENTION to these songs, and they are so worth it if you do.  Though they made a career on three or four classic-yet-predictable chord changes, here they favor new and progressive songwriting that STILL SOUNDS LIKE U2.  They’re taking risks instead of recycling a formula, and it’s captivating.

From the sound of it, they have boldly eschewed the studio shortcuts available to everyone these days.  Bono hits an occasional weak note… everyone’s singing raw, gospel-style backing vocals, and there’s no auto tune.  Edge’s guitar tone is startlingly raw, and random pick noises and slides abound; Adam actually flubs a bassline during one of Edge’s guitar solos, and they kept the take…  hell, Edge is TAKING guitar solos now…  WTF??  This is not to say anything bad; it’s all wonderfully energetic and passionately performed; preserving the humanity of the performances actually magnifies the greatness of the record.  Case in point: the instrumental break before the final chorus of “I Know I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” is one of the most joyful-sounding moments in pop music history.

Thematically, Bono seems to have stepped back into a more sober valence… he’s not playful on this record; he’s back in the pulpit (literally in a few cases, but for the most part the preaching remains secular), and it suits him like nothing else.  I’m not sure, but in spots I’d swear it sounds like he’s singing these songs to his own children; there’s that much authority, and that much intimacy.  This is their most powerful offering in years; a totally worthy album that gets better and more profound with each listen.

2. Imogen Heap – “Ellipse” —
She’s taken the world by storm with this album, and rightly so…  it’s completely refreshing.  I first saw her name in 1998.  I was pounding the pavement of Manhattan with an old bandmate; we were talking our way into record label offices and giving our demo to the A&R reps, and in the office of Almo Sounds there was a big picture of the cover for her first album, “iMegaphone”.  Of the two phrases on that cover (“iMegaphone” and “Imogen Heap”), I remember wondering which was the band name and which was the title.
Heap was one of many victims of the record industry bloodbath that occurred in the early half of the decade, and I didn’t hear of her again until the song “Let Go” (from her side project, Frou Frou) made it to the Garden State movie soundtrack.  Then she vanished from my radar again until this year, when the internet basically insisted that I had no business using it if I didn’t give her another listen.

“Ellipse” is a gorgeous record, and Heap is a force of nature.  Her blend of electronic and acoustic instruments is one of the most seamless around, and the journey is largely ethereal, with intermittent bouts of hypnotic looping and eruptions of jagged square wave noise to propel you along, but the centerpiece of her work is always her sensational voice (she’s got to have at least three and a half octaves of power, and she’s a genius at stacking her synth-y backing harmonies) and the way she delivers lyrics that…   that at many times just could not be poetic unless they’re rolling off her tongue… and then, magically, they’re perfect.  Such a slick backdrop for such stark honesty is something I haven’t seen much of since the Animators disbanded.

For as much as I love this record, I take exception to the whole “groundbreaking” label that many are trying to stick on it.  Heap is wonderful; she’s gifted, she’s astute, she’s utterly musical.  But she didn’t invent this.  She takes a great many pages out of the book of one P. Gabriel.  Many of her layered arrangements (down to the synth sounds) and octave-jumping vocal licks are right off of Gabriel’s “Security” album (the one with “I Have The Touch” and “Shock The Monkey”).  That said, in an age where you can’t help but sound like your influences, what a breath of fresh air to hear someone succeed who HAS these influences! 

For once, the Grammys have a chance at getting it right.

3. Petteri Sariola – “Phases” —
The thing that impresses most people about Sariola is his guitar playing.  We don’t like to bestow honors like “changed the course of history” while people are still alive, much less only twenty-four, but the fact is he’s done just that.  He has mastered, expanded on, and codified a way of playing virtuosic guitar parts while beating out complex rhythms on the instrument at the same time.  Other players have done something close, a little bit on occasion, maybe as a quick parlor trick, but nobody has ever done it like he can.

It’s another thing that he employs this history-changing technique he invented to play interesting music and then SINGS over the top of it with fervor, passion, and wit.  Now you’re talking about something that will intimidate the powers-that-be… they will feel threatened by someone who can do so much, and to protect their feelings of inadequacy, they will actually seek to bury public knowledge of such a musician.  (Think that stuff doesn’t actually happen?  Consider that most people who write professionally about music are amateur or failed musicians themselves.)

But… the wildest thing… consider this: to change the way the guitar is played, to be able to sing so well while you do it, but then to release your body of work to the world; to try to make people feel what you’re feeling…  while you’re writing and singing in ANOTHER LANGUAGE… and then to do it WELL; to succeed in that endeavor?? That’s the most mind-blowing thing about this young prodigy. His lyrics belie his age and his voice is almost entirely devoid of any accent, but Petteri Sariola is from Finland, and he hasn’t even been on the planet long enough to get a decent rate on a rental car.

Where Sariola’s first album (“Silence!”) did the job of establishing him as a whirlwind wunderkind, here Sariola isn’t out to hit you over the head with the fact that he can play a lot of notes.  Every track, though deceptively intricate, hits the listener with musicality first.  These are songs anyone could listen to whether they understand the power behind them or not.  Whereas most progressive instrumentalists make records that require a musician to ‘translate’ how good it is to the common listener, “Phases” stands as a great record by anyone’s standards.  This kid is going to own all of us.

4. The Swell Season – “Strict Joy” —
Who could do this?  Who could have the guts to start a romance with a musical collaborator, then restate that romance in front of the whole world via a hit movie… then as the world waits for the glorious music you’ll make together… you do the unthinkable: after a few years, you can’t take the pressure, and you break up; you divorce, really.  Unceremoniously.  And you write about it candidly and scathingly.  But then to stay together musically, singing these songs with each other, really TO EACH OTHER, every night?  I’m awed by the sheer action, to say nothing of the songs themselves.

These songs are, actually, every bit as intense and beautiful as the ones on the “Once” soundtrack that propelled Glen and Marketa to stardom, and it makes sense: many of the songs from “Once” were about their individual relationships from before they met.  Now they’re about the one they’ve just shared.  The first record had imagery galore, but it almost didn’t need it because we had a MOVIE to recall as we listened.  “Strict Joy” doesn’t need any imagery to be the saddest movie you’ve seen in a long, long time, but it’s there in spades, and it is devastating.

It starts with Glen expressing restlessness, and you’re on his side for a couple tracks until he lets on that he’s a bit of a shit.  Then Marketa has her say, and you’re sure they’ve both been shit, and you want them to reconcile.  By the time their dual wailing in the outro of “High Horses” gives way to the sarcastic annoyance of “The Verb”, it’s like being the third person in the room while your two best friends call it quits.  

Unapologetic heartbreak from start to finish, and more to the point: fantastic medicine.

5. Peter Mulvey – “Letters From A Flying Machine” —
Though he’s been doing his thing far longer, I’ve only been listening to this man for about a half a decade, and I feel cheated.  I wonder… how much better a songwriter would I be if I’d been exposed to his music sooner?  He is an artist who’s always trying new and different approaches, and by that he is absolutely the most non-traditional of the ‘traditional folk’ genre that has embraced him, which is one of the reasons I enjoy him so much.

This album is basically an 8-song EP with 4 spoken-word interludes and a self-described ‘coda’ to finish things off.  Of the songs, five were co-written with friends of Mulvey’s.  This isn’t to say he needed help; his solo contributions are as fine as anything he’s done, but the collaborations definitely throw some new ingredients into the stew, and we get to hear Mulvey stretch out in directions hitherto unexplored — “What’s Keeping Erica” sounds like a Bavarian drinking song; we get a straight up blues stomp on “Dynamite Bill”, and “On a Wing and a Prayer” has sections that make me think Mulvey may have found the McCartney to his Lennon in rising star Tim Fagan.

The spoken word pieces are truly where the heart of this record is, though.  Mulvey is renown for his between-song-banter and stories, and he has immortalized a few of those stories here… in the guise of spoken letters to his nieces and nephews, which he reads over subtle instrumental backing…  and plane noise.  As a frequent flyer who has used the quiet hours in the sky to do a lot of writing, this really resonates with me, and the stories told in these interludes are every bit as great as the songs they introduce.

6. Butterfly Boucher – “Scary Fragile” —
A few years back (03? 04?) this fantastic songwriter released her debut album “Flutterby”, and I shouted her praises from the rooftops.  The record was simply spectacular.  So of course her label didn’t know how to promote her, and she got dropped.  After a few years in limbo, she did the sensible thing and went completely indie, and finally got to release the follow-up.  It was absolutely worth the wait.

Where her first record was the sound of an artist using the studio as an instrument — arranging sounds without considering how to reproduce them in a live setting — “Scary Fragile” is the sound of that artist after she’s been on the road with a crackerjack band for a few years.  It’s still her unmistakable style; her flair for playful dissonance everywhere she can sneak it in, bombastic beats, wry tales of betrayal and frustration, and all delivered with her incredibly pure, powerful voice.  Oh, and two stark torch songs to tie it all together.  This one’s a winner, people.  Check her OUT.

7. Pearl Jam – “Backspacer” —
Hey!  Remember PEARL JAM?  That band that had the world in the palm of it’s five five-five-against-one 20 years ago?  Yeah; THEM.  When was the last time you could listen to one of their records from start-to-finish and go “YEAH.”  …?

….?       Anyone?

Me too.  Until now.  “Backspacer” is a total return-to-form.  I couldn’t believe it.  This band rocks.  Hard.  And then they get introspective… and it’s intense and meaningful and almost… intimate.  And Eddie does NOT sound like he’s trying to rip off Neil Young anymore.  They’ve got a little bit of everything they do well here, and all eleven tracks happen in under forty minutes; it’s a quick, very gratifying trip, which makes it easy to do over and over again.  

No joke; this is up there with “Vs.” and “Ten”.  After three listens you’ll be singing all the words to at least five of the tunes; you’ll have the rest after a week.  These are anthems; glorious rock anthems.  Welcome back, gentlemen.  You rule.

8. Erin McKeown – “Hundreds Of Lions” —
This woman is a fantastic dichotomy.  She  has the most beautiful, lilting voice… almost clarinet-like in its purity, and on her previous efforts she demonstrated masterful delivery of everything from Belly-style indie rock to Billie Holiday-style swing, but the modern folk world is where she cut her teeth.  She won’t be held down to any particular genre, and now that she’s on Righteous Babe records, she’s exploring sonic juxtaposition like never before.

The whole record is upbeat and generally fun, employing layers of live rock instruments, electronic loops, brass bands, chamber orchestras, and McKeown’s fantastic vocals. You just have to hear her, and if you get it, you get it.  Be prepared for delightful shocks though…  the album isn’t ninety seconds in before that pretty, lilting voice is sweetly intoning, “Was it love? Was it travel? Was it true? Was it tragic? We fucked all but in name…”, and most every song thereafter deals in some way with love, yearning, and longing, with clever wordplay reminding you every so often that this is a proud lady who loves the ladies, and who is not squeamish about the details of desire.

9. ilyAIMY – “A Gift For St. Cecilia” —
Rob Hinkal and Heather Lloyd have been on the indie scene as long as I have, and whether they are performing as an acoustic duo or with their full Maryland-based ensemble, they bring incredible energy to every stage they hit.  Many artists struggle with bringing their live show energy to a tracked recording made in a studio.  ilyAIMY records almost entirely live, and they have a history of the opposite problem; in the past, I’ve wished they’d have cleaned up a few things for posterity instead of going for the whole “integrity of the moment”.

Not so here.  With this album, they have turned a corner.  Hell, they’ve lapped the block a few times.  The energy hardly ever compromises the execution of over a dozen tracks, most of which are just stellar.  Their reputation is based largely on their ability to play folk at hyperspeed whilst spitting out serious multi-syllabic slam poetry in perfect harmony.  They do that here better than they ever have (“Protest Song” and “Loosen” are just ass-kicking), but where this album stunned me is throughout the middle, where ilyAIMY isn’t trying to win over a loud bar… both Hinkal and Lloyd sing some of the most passionate and poetic ballads of the year (and considering the company they’re keeping here, that is saying something). Lloyd’s “No Blue Left” and “Ask For Me” match Hinkal’s “Trouble” and “Baliset”; each is a perfectly captured moment.  They deserve to be on this list even without those though, because the chorus in “Oklahoma Revival”, featuring a rare, contrapuntal double-lead from the two vocalists, is on par with the best work of any other act I’ve mentioned.  Watch this group.

10. Bleu – “A Watched Pot” —
Yet another alternative pop master who experienced trouble with the state of the record industry, Bleu was a big favorite of mine a few years back when his major label debut, “Redhead”, rocked my world.  This follow-up was apparently supposed to be released right on the heels of that album, but he left the label, presumably in part because they may not have wanted to release a song called “I Won’t Fuck You Over This Time”.

If that’s true, it just means the label didn’t truly get the wry, sardonic, massively self-deprecating sense of humor Bleu pours into every lyric.  He’s one of my favorite pop lyricists ever, and I’d kill to have his voice…  it’s one of the best ever.  He uses that voice to its full capability all over this underdog release, because it sounds like he’s had a hell of a time, and he’s getting it allll out.  The songs, whether reminiscing, pleading, asserting, enjoying, or lamenting, all seem to deal with facets of the same theme:  Commitment, and all the issues surrounding it.  When it comes to that, we could all use a little sadisticly catchy pop-rock, and Bleu always brings it in spades.


Gabe Dixon Band – “The Gabe Dixon Band” —
If I had posted anything a year ago, it definitely would have included a big, sappy gush about this record.  I’ve been a superfan of GDB for over a decade… they put their first indie disc out back in ’99…  and they just announced that they’re now on hiatus “indefinitely” as a band.  That is bad news, because they just kept getting more fantastic.  Dixon is one of the freshest voices out there, and has gotten his music into all kinds of TV shows and movies.  If you could hear him right now, you’d go, “Oh yeah!  I’ve heard that tune; good stuff — I just didn’t know who it WAS…”   He’s never been able to claim his rightful place as Generation Y’s pop-piano-hero (yes, he writes better tunes than Jamie Cullum, who I also like), because he’s been a perpetual victim of lousy major label marketing.  His music lives on though, so do yourself a favor and pick up this record.

Joel Ackerson – “The Affirmation Sessions” —
Here’s what I blogged when he released this incredible album last year:
You may know my friend Joel Ackerson from the years we spent touring together. You may know him because he makes a guest appearance or two on the new DVD. You may not know him at all, but you need to change that, because Joel just released a new album that makes the hair on my arms stand straight up and makes me want to take long drives to nowhere just so I can listen to the whole thing in one sitting. Remember when people made albums that could hold your attention from beginning-to-end? My friend Joel Ackerson just put out a masterpiece, and I’m proud to have played a small part in its creation.
I belted out harmony vocals on one song, I bowed my double bass on another song, and I co-produced a third song, so if you need to know my connection with the project to accept my recommendation, there you go… but if you just want to hear a great full-length album like nobody seems to make anymore, check out “The Affirmation Sessions”.  And know my friend Joel Ackerson.

‘Nuff said. :)

Andrew Bird – “Noble Beast” —
It’s inevitable that I’m going to overlook some seriously great stuff, and of course I did.  One such example is this double record by an amazing talent who I’ve actually seen live twice.  Bird released this album back in January, which is never, in my experience, a good time to release anything (I tried it twice, remember?  No; you don’t.  That’s my point.) …and this fell off my radar after only one listen at a friend’s house.  I recall loving what I heard, though, and so maybe this collection will make my “oops” list for 2010.

Amber Rubarth – “Good Mystery” —
I’ve known Amber for what seems like ages now, and by all rights I SHOULD be telling you all about this record, but the truth is I’ve only heard three tracks off it so far, and so in my world, it truly lives up to its title. :)  
Amber made this album in the very same studio where I recorded most of mine; we released them within weeks of each other; heck, we even fan-sourced funding to release the albums in similar ways (I had 69 fans pay $50 each at the beginning of the process; she had 281 fans pay $20 at the end).  Right when we put them out, we were each concentrating on our own records.  By the time she came to Reno a few weeks back, I barely had time to see her at all, and alas, haven’t gotten a physical copy yet.
She’s on fire though; she’s making waves in the music world wherever she goes, and I have every confidence that her new material stands up to her catalog, so go check her out if you haven’t already!


“Battle Studies” – John Mayer.
A great many surprised people made a great many surprised comments when this album came out a few weeks ago.  The general consensus seemed to be that Mayer has gone soft/lost his edge/blah blah.  He hasn’t.  He cast his pearls before us for years…  he gave us beautiful insight with brilliant wordplay and awesome music…  and we gave him Grammy after Grammy.  For “Daughters”.  For that frigging “Say What You Need To Say”-song.  For “Waiting On The frigging World To Change”.  For “Your Body is a frigging Wonderland”.  
We’ve been asking him for this; practically begging him for it.  He’s simply obliging by making an entire record of lame schlock and standing there smugly, waiting for us to realize it’s our fault.  No use complaining; the joke is on us — he gets paid regardless.

No Ani record!
For the first time since 2000, Ani DiFranco did not keep up her
superhuman pace of releasing (at least) one album per year. Well, give her a break.  She’s a mom now, and good for her for taking some time to embrace that.  Besides, after her 2000 hiatus, she came back in 2001 with the legendary double-album “Reveling Reckoning”, which in my opinion is one of the best albums of all time, so who knows how she’ll mark the start of her third decade in ’10.

People think a “five dollar footlong” at Subway is a great deal
, and gladly pay it for that crappy bit of over-sauced blandness that takes ten minutes to not enjoy and promptly forget about…  meanwhile, artists are made to feel that they are “old-fashioned” and “greedy” for selling their life’s work; very often for the same piddly amount as said footlong with chips and a drink.  

An album can give you years of enjoyment; can make your life better; can make you think; can make you FEEL.  Please don’t read this and then go download these albums for free.  There’s no risk; I’ve weeded out the crap for you.  My picks are good.  Pay for them.  They’re worth it.  Value depends on demand, which demands that you care.

Happy New Year,

Seth Horan :)



  1. Excellent list. I remember you buying that Elbow CD at Vintage Vinyl. I bought it the following month.

    I’ll have to check out these others. You’ve got good taste!!

  2. Hey there. I found you via twitter and WOW. I’m impressed and appreciate the thoroughness in this listing of your Top Ten. I’m going to print this out and keep it for my next trip to iTunes, too, as I’m always looking for new music to listen to. Keep on strutin your stuff…

  3. Yes. yes. yes. yes. yes. agree. agree. agree. excited. excited. love this list. missed this list.

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