Our favorite discs of the last year, in nonjudgmental alphabetical order.
Lists are stupid. Especially when applied to things you truly love. Would you rank your immediate family into a top five? How about your top five internal organs? We feel just as intensely about music—all different kinds of music—but we (and by we I mean Willamette Week) still insist on ranking our favorites every year. So for this year-end special, we've decided to provide you with an unranked sampling of some of our favorite discs (in alphabetical order) of the year. Take 'em or leave 'em, but we love 'em.
Ah Holly Fam'ly, Reservoir
In a music scene flush with fine folk music, nothing stood out in 2009 like Ah Holly Fam'ly's second full-length. Ripe with male-female vocal harmonies; lush, airy arrangements; and leader Jeremy Faulkner's Leonard Cohen-with-a-frog-in-his-throat voice, the octet creates a haunting world inhabited by mermaids, Vikings and bodies of water. MM.
Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
Lo-fi troubadour Bill Callahan has always had a way with words, but never has his prose—or the gorgeously sparse, string- and French horn-laden songs that carry them—been so restrained. Though it's not exactly his breakup record, it's clearly the work of a man who's lost something, and these nine vulnerable songs are more accessible than anything he ever did under the Smog moniker. "I started telling the story/ Without knowing the end," he sings on "Jim Cain." Pretty much sums up 2009 for most of us. MM.
Bobby Birdman, New Moods
This is the album Bobby Birdman was born to make. From the opening notes, the ex-Portland experimental pop maestro eliminates all trace of high-concept wanking in exchange for heartfelt, immediate dance pop that's part Prince, part Frank Sinatra and part Sam Cooke. Birdman has progressed past genre at this point in his career, smashing electronic and acoustic elements into a sea of beat that backs up his smoky, dreamboat vocals. Give it one listen: You'll be hooked. CJ.
Ethan Rose, Oaks
It's a hard story for a native Portlander to resist: A noted sound architect who makes icy soundscapes out of music boxes and laptops retreats to Oaks Park and records an entire album on the ancient, dusty 86-year-old Wurlitzer organ in the skating rink. Oaks sees Rose manipulate and sample the organ into his own unique, twinkling productions, evoking nostalgia for a childhood spent at a decaying theme park. MM.
When a band calls itself something as un-Googleable as Girls and similarly names its debut simply Album, wary listeners could be forgiven for assuming its music is generic. Girls' inspirations are well-worn; however, the band's candid lyrics and lo-fi aesthetic combine with those reedy Elvis Costello vocals, dreamy Beach Boys melodies and '50s-style proto-rock ballads to offer spacey, affecting pop singles that are unique. RR.
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
It has made everybody's Best of 2009 lists, but there remains a misconception about Grizzly Bear's chamber-pop masterpiece Veckatimest: that it is an album of relentless quietude. It is, in fact, an exercise in hushed dynamism. Moments of lush, gentle beauty are punctuated by soft explosions that are just as gorgeous—see the cascade of guitars at the end of "Fine for Now," with chords bursting like a waterfall crashing against rocks. MS.
Heaven & Hell, The Devil You Know
Black Sabbath is back, but Sharon Osbourne won't let it use the name. The lineup that relaunched the Sabs in the early '80s features Ronnie James Dio on lead vocals, and even in his wizened, 67-year-old state, he can sing figure eights around Ozzy. This album is a well-produced collection of doom-metal tunes—classy, heavy and exactly what one would hope Iommi could pull out of his sleeve at this late stage of his career. NC.
Incredible Yacht Control, self-titled
Bret Vogel started Incredible Yacht Control as a breather from his rock band, Crosstide, and it wound up being just as compelling as his full-time gig. Incredible Yacht Control's debut full-length (still available from the band's website as a free download) is a masterfully lo-fi bedroom-pop album that brings the Replacements, John Lennon and Guided by Voices. CJ.
Lovers, I Am the West
If I had to put numbers on these things, this would be my top local release of the year. Here we find Lovers' Carolyn Berk poetically purging her relationship baggage in the form of sweet pop hooks and synth-pop beats. Lovers is a band to watch, and Berk establishes herself here as one of Portland's finest songwriters. CJ.
Luck-One & Dekk, Beautiful Music
The breakout local hip-hop act of the year, Luck-One, spits wise about history, hip-hop and fighting through adversity on Beautiful Music. Young fella is a talent on the microphone with a backstory with plenty of drama, and he's making a huge splash in Portland. Could he be the chosen one—the MC that puts Portland on the national radar? Let's see what happens in 2010. CJ.
Can't stand the new wave of anti-poetic, Auto-Tune R&B? Max is your man. BLACKsummers'night proves that (at least until D'Angelo straightens out) Maxwell is still the king of the sex jam, one hell of a singer and, as always, a formidable songsmith. CJ.
Micachu and the Shapes, Jewellery
Using a host of unconventional instruments—including a homespun guitar dubbed a "chu" and a vacuum cleaner—young English songwriter Mica Levi created one of the weirdest and best bedroom experimental pop records of the year. Filled with Levi's bratty, brash London slang and a suitable ADD production from electronic wizard Matthew Herbert, Jewellery is a wild and fun romp from one of the U.K.'s most promising acts. MM.
Nurses, Apple's Acre
"Avant-pop," by its very name, is a genre that suggests a certain amount of musical sophistication. But the second effort by Portland newcomers Nurses sounds like it was made by 7-year-olds who found random instruments in their baby-sitter's basement: plinking toy pianos, whistled melodies and a singer who has the voice of Christopher Robin with a sinus infection. MS.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Riding on the incredible one-two opening punch of "Lisztomania" and "1901" (the year's two best singles), Phoenix's breakout record finally pushed the French band into the hearts of people on this side of the pond. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix showcases a cocky, stylish band, seamlessly mixing its influences (the Strokes, French house, the Sartorialist blog) into pure pop bliss. MM.
Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
To craft the best hip-hop album of the year, Raekwon didn't call in friends—he rallied the fuckin' Clan. With appearances by Ghostface, Method Man, GZA—hell, even Big Baby Jesus makes a posthumous appearance—Cuban Linx II could rank among Wu-Tang's best. Raekwon's powerful and honest voice proves he still ain't nuthin' to fuck with. APK.
Rollerball, Two Feathers
The 15th Rollerball album is another fully realized document of the group's current quartet lineup. Perfect three-minute, piano-driven rock gems are casually stretched to twice their length with atmospheric intros and outros that explore the outer reaches of stomp-box pedal worship and Dr. Sample abuse. NC.
St. Frankie Lee, Let's Get It On
Stacked 11 songs high with kinky murder ballads, Let's Get It On is loaded with everything from banjo to saw to harmonica, yet never sounds bloated. Leaders (and real-life lovers) Chelsea Campbell and Derrick Martin's perfectly flawed, endearing croons come off with a demonic Cash-Carter dynamic, infusing an antiquated sound with fresh blood. APK.
Why?, Eskimo Snow
Everyone's favorite nasally undercover MC goes off on death and mummies to kick off Eskimo Snow, another fine offering from Why? And while Yoni Wolf's post-hip-hop verbal gymnastics are impressive, it's his band and Eskimo Snow's spacious, delicate production that really shines on this one. CJ.
World's Greatest Ghosts, No Magic
Nothing is as satisfying as your favorite band fulfilling its potential. On No Magic, World's Greatest Ghosts captures the sugar-rush energy of its live shows in a tight, compact record that's all hits and no filler. Seriously, the thing just sounds so fucking good, from the serpentine, interlocking riffs of "Phantastes" to the synths that hover like clouds over "Put Yr Boots On." MM.
YACHT, See Mystery Lights
YACHT's summery, buoyant masterpiece, See Mystery Lights, is a hedonistic collage of pop sounds as otherworldly as the mystical Marfa, Texas, "ghost lights" that inspired it. The album exhibits the sexy, deadpan aesthetic of the band's new label and influences that range from decades-old K Records tapes to recent T-Pain singles and seminal reggae hooks. RR.