Now, don’t get the wrong idea: This is not a “best of” list — that would indicate that I listened to every album released and compared them, which sounds like it would be exhausting; who has that much time? (Well, yes, Ken Shane, but who else?) Instead, I prefer to offer these up as 2009 albums you might have missed, but that you should definitely acquire before the clock strikes midnight this Dec. 31.
Frank Turner, Poetry of the Deed (Xtra Mile Recordings/Epitaph Records). Like so much good rock and roll, this album is nothing less than a call to arms – for the most part to “pick up your guitars,” but is there a higher cause, really? Turner makes that plea in the ragged “Try This at Home,” one of several songs that sound like they were belted out on a street corner; others have higher production values, but all have a punkish sensibility that’s contagious, and then some. Turner, from London, has more than a little Billy Bragg about him, and even goes straight-on political on the anti-government screed “Sons of Liberty.” But for the most part he’s simply singing uncompromisingly about troubled souls – the suicidal teen in “Richard Devine” gets no last-second reprieve – and about the plight of regular blokes who’ve left youth behind and are trying to find their way in the world. It’s no coincidence that Turner is also known for a killer cover of “Thunder Road” – he’s clearly a kindred spirit to Springsteen, and Poetry of the Deed evokes the vibrancy of some of Bruce’s best work. That 2009 produced such an engaging and unpretentious rock album is almost miraculous; it might even get a few people to pick up their guitars.
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Roman Candle, Oh Tall Tree in the Ear (Carnival Recording/Mag-pie Records). On the track “Why Modern Radio is A-OK,” Roman Candle frontman Skip Matheny makes no bones about the artists who he’s afraid might “break [his] heart” every time he hears them: Neil Young, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Sam Moore all get name-checked, and in Oh Tall Tree In the Ear, we have an album that lives up to the references. Matheny has the timbre of a young Mick Jagger, except funnier and capable of generating more warmth than your average Stones song could ever dream of. I hadn’t heard of Roman Candle before this year, but they seem to have emerged fully formed, with a robust folk-rock presence, lilting melodies and a sure sense of how to move us; with their laid-back introspection, tracks like “I Was a Fool” and “Big Light” are the kinds of songs that makes you want to hug yourself while you’re listening. (I’m just saying.) On “Modern Radio” Matheny sings about when “ten songs on a record sounded like a string of pearls” – that describes Oh Tall Tree perfectly, except this one goes to 11.
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Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (4AD). Where has this band been all my life? They’ve somehow remained just off my radar screen for years, but My Maudlin Career, their fourth album, makes me realize what I’ve been missing. And don’t let the title fool you: Scottish lead singer Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals may be laced with melancholy, but they’re anything but maudlin. They have a Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Glasgow charm that, combined with lush strings and percussion that at times seems right off an early ’60s Beach Boys album, is buoyant and irresistible. The title track has a classic, stirring soul groove that belies its clever lyrics: “You kissed me on the forehead; now this kiss is giving me a concussion,” Campbell sings, evoking imagery worthy of Elvis Costello. And the way she sings “you made me pay” on “The Sweetest Thing” manages to make your heart soar and break at the same time. “I’d trade my mother to hear you sing,” she continues on that track, and I’m starting to feel the same way about her.
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fun., Aim and Ignite (Nettwerk). I’ve basically spent the whole decade waiting to see who would pick up the theatrical quirk-rock mantle carried in the ’90s by the Barenaked Ladies – who, let’s face it, never really took it up wholeheartedly, at least not to Queen or ELO levels. And now along comes fun., with their lack of capitalization and unnecessary period, proving themselves more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as any of those acts, while at the same time being utterly original in their own right. The band is fronted by Nate Ruess, one half of the now-defunct The Format, and if Aim and Ignite is any indication, Ruess was the half enamored of majestic horns, abundant strings and sublime rock harmonies. Songs like “All the Pretty Girls” and “Benson Hedges” have a winning pop-disco bounce, and the operatic “Be Calm” is anything but; it’s exquisite in its baroque frenzy. But fun. is not all style over substance: “The Gambler,” which tells the story of a 30-year marriage, is one of the most surprisingly moving songs of the year. Sure, it’s possible these guys will someday be recording songs for 5-year-olds (er, like Barenaked Ladies) – but for now they’re grown-up, original and, well, fun.
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The Damnwells, One Last Century (self-released). Based on what little I had heard from The Damnwells prior to this album, I thought they might be one of those bands prone to singing about despondency in an empty wind tunnel. (You know the type.) But hearing Century, I couldn’t have been more wrong – their stuff is wistful, sure, but who couldn’t use a little wist in their lives now and again? Alex Dezen’s vocals remind me at times of the Finn brothers during their Crowded House years: bittersweet but with an undertone of hopefulness – and handy with a hook, which doesn’t hurt. There’s some emo crooning to be sure, but on tracks like “Bastard of Midnight” and “Jesus Could Be Right,” there’s an edge, too. And then there’s “Soundtrack,” one of the best songs I heard all year, on which Dezen asks, “Can you shut up long enough to fall in love?” The Damnwells are a band worth shutting up for. (Extra points for distributing the album free on their website. No, really.)
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· The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Songs from Lonely Avenue (Surfdog). If orchestral neo-noir performed by a 17-piece big band and a wailing rockabilly guitar doesn’t sound the least bit interesting to you, this is probably not your album. If it does, though, buy it today and enjoy Setzer’s most consistent collection to date.
· Elvis Costello, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (Hear Music/Universal Records). Costello continues the acoustic treatise on America and Americana he began in 1986’s King of America, to satisfying results. At turns beautiful and angry, and with more of a sense of humor than displayed through much of King, it’s his best disc since 2002’s Cruel Smile.
· M. Ward, Hold Time (Merge Records, 4AD)/Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk (Shangri-La Music, Rough Trade). M. Ward is a wonder: an amazing multi-instrumentalist with an engaging, quirky voice and a firm knowledge that music existed before 1968. His solo album is a delightful mélange of styles, and he elevates the folkie Wilbury charm of Monsters, his collaboration with Jim James from My Morning Jacket and Conor Oberst and Mike Mogis from Bright Eyes.
· Chris Isaak, Mr. Lucky (Wicked Game/Reprise). He’s still lonely, still twangy, and still releasing his love-child-of-Elvis-and-Orbison rock ’n’ roll. But Mr. Lucky is his most solid in years, and it also embraces the sense of humor that makes Isaak such a charming performer.
· Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (ANTI-). Case doesn’t need my help moving albums – Amazon named Cyclone its best album of the year, and continues to price it so low that you can’t afford not to get it. But the poetry of Case’s lyrics and her inimitable vocal style make it a bargain at any price.