My Black Friday tradition continues. Anything on this list is worth your shopping time if you’re looking for that perfect stocking stuffer.
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
The heart and soul of The Gaslight Anthem continued to amaze in 2009. He led his band on a barnstorming world tour that saw them go from playing tiny clubs to festivals in front of thousands, converting new fans with every chorus. The ultimate moment of the year came this summer, when none other than Fallon’s hero, Bruce Springsteen, joined them onstage a couple times for “The ’59 Sound,” then returned the favor by letting Fallon sing with E Street on “No Surrender.”
I saw Fallon and TGA three times in three different cities this year; each show was good, and the first and third were downright special. Fallon seems to be handling all the newfound fame and notoriety with grace, humility, and a good head on his shoulders.
Case in point: In January, Fallon put three new solo songs on his personal MySpace page: “The Blues, Mary,” “Tin Pan Alley,” and “Italian Lightning.” Later in the year, though, he decided to take the page down so it wouldn’t be a distraction from the band or look like he was already trying to go out on his own.
The fact he could simply set these songs by the side and move on is rather stunning proof of his abilities. The guy has yet to make a misstep—or write a song I don’t like, as you’ll soon see.
Dave Matthews Band
Florence + The Machine
The Hold Steady
Murder by Death
Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
“Red of Tooth and Claw,” Murder by Death
For the longest time, I thought Murder by Death’s latest album, “Red of Tooth and Claw,” came out this year, when it’s actually been out since March 2008. Regardless, no album made a stronger impact on me this year than this dark, epic wonder. Led by singer/guitarist Adam Turla, MBD make cowboy songs for the modern era, tales of violence, revenge, and riding the open road. Turla’s voice is like a mixture of Johnny Cash and those dudes from Seven Mary Three and Squirrel Nut Zippers—and it takes a man who can summon that type of gravitas to sing a line like “I’ll be the axe that clears the forest” and make it work.
The not-so-secret weapon is, of course, Sarah Balliet and her eviscerating electric cello, which gives Murder by Death their Old West sound and turns the music into something special. This is cinematic work; I tend not to listen to “Red of Tooth and Claw” in pieces, but instead feel compelled to push play on opener “Comin’ Home” and just let it run its course through one big experience. It’d be easier to name the songs I don’t care for (there are only two) than the highlights, but “Fuego!,” “Ash,” and “’52 Ford” are some of the best of the bunch.
Basically, “Red of Tooth and Claw” sounded like nothing else I heard in 2009, and it was the album I consistently returned to throughout the year whenever I needed a jolt of energy. So what if it didn’t come out in 2009? These songs sound a hundred years old, anyway.
"Keep It Hid," Dan Auerbach
“Lungs,” Florence + The Machine
“You Grab Your Jacket” EP, Cincinnati Rail Tie
“Backspacer,” Pearl Jam
"Changing Horses," Ben Kweller
“Daisy,” Brand New
“Mean Everything to Nothing,” Manchester Orchestra
"Swoon," Silversun Pickups
“Tonight,” Franz Ferdinand
“Wilco (the album),” Wilco
SONGS OF THE YEAR
“The Blues, Mary,” Brian Fallon
Fallon makes no effort to hide his influences, so I can only assume “The Blues, Mary” is his take on Springsteen’s “Nebraska” period (with a little Tom Waits thrown in around the edges). This stark, unforgettable track hooked me from the first strum of those jangly chords. His voice here has a depth and maturity previously unheard in any Gaslight song, yet the melody is as accessible as we’ve come to expect from his writing for the band. The atmosphere is just perfect—quietly, urgently moving, just like “Nebraska.” Throw in Fallon singing “Amazing Grace” in the background as the song winds to a close, and you have the makeup for one of my two favorite songs of the year.
“Look on the Bright Side,” Cincinnati Rail Tie
“Look on the Bright Side” is the flipside to “The Blues, Mary.” Fallon wrote this uptempo number back in 2004 as another solo project he called Cincinnati Rail Tie. It’s one of four songs on the “You Grab Your Jacket” EP he recorded in a friend’s basement, but it only came to light this year. “Look on the Bright Side” is as good a pop/rock song as you’ll hear—it kinda has the feel and sound of Pearl Jam’s “Unplugged” performance, only much lighter in tone. Fallon’s lyrics are simple but powerful, encouraging a depressed friend to take a little time to mourn and to heal, but “don’t waste all of your tears,” and move on to start enjoying life again. It’s a song of empathy, but not pity. And it’s catchy as you’ll ever find.
29 MORE …
“1930,” The Gaslight Anthem (from 2007’s “Sink or Swim”)
Sometimes songs strike you in new ways, and such was the case with this monster from Gaslight’s debut album, which I heard live at the 9:30 Club last month. The last 45 seconds of this track, starting after the bridge, is one of my favorite moments on any record, ever.
“All Is Love,” Karen O & The Kids (from 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are” soundtrack)
“Where the Wild Things Are” is a deceptively haunting movie, and this song evokes that same emotion. It’s supposed to be upbeat and joyful, but there’s a hint of despair and desperation underneath. Karen O and her child choir here sound like a juvenile version of The Arcade Fire—and I mean that as a compliment.
“Breathe,” U2 (from 2009’s “No Line on the Horizon,” as performed 9.29.09 at FedEx Field)
The most exciting track on U2’s most exciting album in more than a decade. From the thunderous drum intro through the final soaring vocal, this is U2 firing on all cylinders, each member of the band attacking the track in their own ferocious way, especially Bono with that new staccato delivery. I love the way it careens back and forth like the band can barely keep the song under control. It contains all the hallmarks of their greatness but sounds completely fresh at the same time. Brilliant.
“Channel,” Joe Henry (from 2009’s “Blood from Stars”)
I don’t know (yet) if Joe Henry is really for me, but this churning, slow-burning epic is darkly beautiful, with its somber piano and big cymbal crashes.
“Comin’ Home,” Murder by Death (from 2008’s “Red of Tooth and Claw”)
How to pick just one song from this fabulous, menacing album? First impressions are the most important, and “Comin’ Home” makes a perfect introduction. Modern-day cowboy music at its best, with bonus points for being featured in the “Inglorious Basterds” trailer.
“Demon Eyes,” The Answer (from 2009’s “Everyday Demons”)
This Irish throwback to AC/DC heavy metal is a wonderful blast from the past. The album wears out pretty quick, but “Demon Eyes” demands playback at maximum volume.
“Full Moon,” The Black Ghosts (from 2008’s “The Black Ghosts”/2008’s “Twilight” soundtrack)
Say what you want about “Twilight” (I really liked the movie), the soundtrack is outstanding. This is the first of two entries from that disc on this list. The first time I heard it I instantly flashed back to my first listen to Jars of Clay’s “Flood.” Same vibe, same great results. Sometimes songs and movies just seem made for each other, and this is one of those times. A strong contender for Song of the Year.
“Garden,” Pearl Jam (from 2009’s “Ten—Remix”)
The new Brendan O’Brien mix of Pearl Jam’s debut album was full of new highlights, but “Garden” stood out the most. A throwaway track on the original, O’Brien removed the sludge and allowed this song to soar.
“Girl from the North Country,” Rosanne Cash (from 2009’s “The List”)
I’m still getting to know Cash’s sublime new album—comprised of songs from her father’s list of the 100 greatest songs ever written—but this Dylan cover is an early standout. Her silky-smooth voice glides effortlessly over these famous lines.
“Goodbye,” P.O.S. (from 2009’s “Never Better”)
My favorite song from P.O.S.’s literate latest—complete with soul singer.
“Hurricane Drunk,” Florence + The Machine (from 2009’s “Lungs”)
Florence Welch’s debut album is a stunning concoction of styles, from blues to rock to pop. “Hurricane Drunk” is from the latter category, and it gives Lilly Allen et. al. a run for their money. Outstanding album.
“Jungleland,” Bruce Springsteen (from 1975’s “Born to Run,” as performed live at Verizon Center 11.2.09)
Covered this in depth in my concert review earlier this month. Nothing else to add, other than, you know, I love this song.
“Just Breathe,” Eddie Vedder (from 2009’s “Backspacer,” as performed live at The Spectrum, 10.31.09)
Sure, “Pearl Jam” may be on the CD sleeve, but this is an all-Eddie track, straight out of his “Into the Wild” sessions. It’s also the best song on the album and Vedder’s most accessible, pure love song to date. The idiots who make out to “Better Man” should switch to this one, instead. Only drawback is it sounds like Ed had a cold when he recorded it. Otherwise, wonderful, strings and all.
“Lille,” Lisa Hannigan (from 2008’s “Sea Sew”)
An endearing traditional Irish folk song tucked away at the end of Hannigan’s infectious debut album. Calling her Ireland’s version of Feist is too simplistic, but you get the idea.
“Low Rising,” The Swell Season (from 2009’s “Strict Joy”)
The wonderful duo from “Once” is back with a new album of originals, and they get right at the great stuff with this album-opener, a bluesy affair that evokes Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins” with a Kings of Leon-style electric guitar solo in the middle. This song will make you want to watch the movie all over again.
“O…Saya,” AR Rahman & M.I.A. (from 2008’s “Slumdog Millionaire” soundtrack)
This is the scene that told me right away I was going to enjoy “Slumdog.” The movie is good; this song is great.
“Poor Places,” Wilco (from 2002’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”)
Jay Bennett’s untimely death earlier this year sent me diving back into Wilco’s masterpiece to remember the contributions the multi-instrumentalist and producer extraordinaire made to one of my all-time favorite bands and albums. In a testament to that CD's greatness, this foreboding track buried near the back struck me anew. Bennett’s contributions are all over it and are made even more evident in light of Wilco’s new album from this year; it’s OK, but pales in comparison to a track like this.
“Shake Me Like a Monkey,” Dave Matthews Band (from 2009’s “Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King”)
The first track on DMB’s new album screams “WE’RE BACK!!!” This song has more verve than anything the band’s done in more than a decade. Adding the trumpet was a masterstroke. There are more great songs on “GrooGrux,” but this one alone reminded me why I used to call this group one of my favorite bands. An instant DMB classic.
“Stuck Between Stations,” The Hold Steady (from 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America”)
I got to know this band a lot more in 2009. I’m still not a huge fan, but I understand why so many are. This song, with its huge sound and spitfire lyrics, is Exhibit A.
“Supermassive Black Hole,” Muse (from 2006’s “Black Holes and Revelations”/2008’s “Twilight” soundtrack)
Did Muse hit the jackpot with this song, or what? The coolest track on the “Twilight” soundtrack from the coolest scene in the movie, a combination that turned this British trio into American rock stars overnight. Oh, and the new album is really good, too. Nice timing, there, boys.
“Suspicious Minds,” Elvis Presley (1969)
My attitude toward Elvis has been changing ever since I visited Graceland early last year. I used to think he was the most overrated star in the history of music, mostly because he didn’t write his own songs. But as some of my favorite albums of the decade consist entirely of cover songs, that argument now rings a bit hollow. Elvis may not have written this, his last No. 1 single in the U.S., but the power he brings to it is unbelievable. I had never listened to it much until I saw some random thread on a message board about favorite Presley songs and this one kept coming up. I approached it with fresh ears and fell in love instantly; it’s now my favorite Elvis song, too.
“The Mountain,” Heartless Bastards (from 2009’s “The Mountain”)
A female version of Neil Young. Big, wide, chunky chords grown right out of the earth. Many to choose from on this outstanding new record, but, again, first impressions are hard to beat, and this lead/title track is a great introduction to the band.
“Tin Pan Alley,” Brian Fallon (2009)
Fallon goes country in another amazing solo turn released via MySpace early this year. This guy has yet to write a song I don’t like. Most, like this one, I tend to love.
“Too Shy to Scream,” AFI (from 2009’s “Crash Love”)
This song is all about the drumbeat, which almost sounds like … hip hop? Surely not. Whatever it is, the backbeat for “Too Shy to Scream” is a new twist on the tried-and-true AFI formula, and it works to spectacular effect. It also signals a back-to-basics shift for the band, moving away from the industrial themes of the last record in favor of the tone from 2003’s “Sing the Sorrow.” Either way they go, I’m fine with it, and “Crash Love” is a fine follow up to “Decemberunderground.”
“Trusty Chords,” Hot Water Music (from 2002’s “Caution,” as performed live at the 9:30 Club by The Gaslight Anthem, 10.22.09)
Hot Water Music was one of those bands I just flat-out missed during their heyday. So, thank you, Brian Fallon & Co. for bringing them up. This was an inspired cover choice, and TGA pulled it off masterfully.
“Two Angels,” The Jayhawks (from 1989’s “Blue Earth”/2009’s “Music From the North Country: A Jayhawks Anthology”)
Speaking of bands I missed, this alt-country outfit helped me out by releasing a massive triple-disc retrospective. It’s so much music at one time, I’m still digesting it all. But I knew right from the first few seconds of the first song on the first disc, “Two Angels,” that I was in for a great experience.
“Wherefore Art Thou, Elvis?”, The Gaslight Anthem (from 2008’s “Senor and the Queen” EP, as performed live at the 9:30 Club 10.22.09)
Lost in last year’s flood of “The ’59 Sound” was Gaslight’s other masterpiece, a four-song EP of perfection called “Senor and the Queen,” one of my favorite 11 minutes, 29 seconds of music this decade. The best of the bunch is this track that builds and builds upon itself, adding layers until it all explodes in the final 45 seconds. If I had to pick my top three TGA songs, this would be one of them.
“(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher,” Jackie Wilson (as performed by Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band at Verizon Center 11.2.09)
One of the best concert moments of my life.
“Zero,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs (from 2009’s “It’s Blitz!)
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs sure threw us a curveball with this one, huh? Though it’s dance-hall trappings made me do a double-take on first listen, “Zero” is pure energy, which is what we’ve come to expect from YYYs. This song, to me, sounds like the NYC trio’s take on early Madonna (think “Material Girl”). It’s their most radio-friendly track since “Maps”—and one of their best.