Thursday, December 10, 2009

Casual Listening - Best of 2009

Casual Listening

a review of cool new music

by Jeff Pinzino

December 11, 2009

In addition to the year-end special features, check the blog for some additional stocking-stuffers. This week it’s the top ten kids albums by guest reviewer Lee Winkelman, a special guest review of the Bob Dylan Christmas album by Steve McManus, and more greatest misses by Rain Machine and Cedric Watson. Here’s the end-of the year lineup:

Dec 11: The best of 2009

Dec 18: The best of the decade

Dec 25 & Jan 1: No reviews, possibly some special features

Jan 8: Launch of the new

Best Albums of 2009

(All reviews as they originally appeared)

1. Bela Fleck – Throw Down Your Heart (world)

Some albums require more than three sentences to really understand. Today, I have an essay about Bela Fleck's "Throw Down Your Heart" on the Pop Matters website. You can read the full article here.

And then there's the music. To my ears, it's one of the most significant world music releases since Paul Simon's Graceland. Check out the album here. There is also a documentary of Bela Fleck's travels to Africa that's racking up prizes at film festivals. You can find out more about the film and when it may be coming to your town here.

Listen to Bela Fleck “Wairenziante

2. NOMO – Invisible Cities (jazz)

A musical layer cake - the base is Afrobeat (heavy, horn-laden funk) filled with improvisational jazz and iced with bells, gongs, and other creative percussion that give the music a psychedelic sheen. It's a brilliant combination, either for dancing till you drop or a hypnotic journey to another plane.

Listen to NOMO “Invisible Cities

3. Derek Webb – Stockholm Syndrome (rock)

One of the most interesting recordings of the year, in any genre. Meticulously produced, with elegant pop songcraft over heavy drums and electronic samples – if you dug Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” you’ll be equally entranced with Webb’s sonic collage. The album has also become the center of serious controversy, as Webb’s label refused to release it as written due to inappropriate content (namely, he used the s-word in one song, and railed against the pervasive homophobia in conservative Christian circles). Whatever your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), you’ll appreciate this as art with a progressive, righteous vision.

Listen to the song that kicked off the controversy "What Matters More” on myspace.

Then spend the $8 for the uncensored album here. When someone sticks their neck out like he did, it’s important to show your support.

4. Bobby Sanabria conducting the Manhattan Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra – Kenya Revisited Live (Latin)

It doesn’t get any hotter than this. Sanabria is the new millennium apostle of Latin jazz, and he’s enlisted an orchestra to recreate one of the masterpieces of the genre. He’s even got Candido Camero, who played congas on the original recording with Machito 50 years ago. Five minutes listening and you’ll realize why every jazz musician of the day dropped everything they were doing and taught themselves to play this music.

Listen to Bobby Sanabria “Wild Jungle

And for those who are interested, here’s Machito’s original “Wild Jungle

5. (tie)

Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light (vocal)

Quiet songs sung with a beautifully fragile voice with spare accompaniments of piano guitar, and strings. Aching, tender, and not easily forgotten.

Listen to Antony and the Johnsons “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground

Ami Saraiya– Archaeologist (vocal)

I don’t invoke names like Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday lightly, but I also don’t come across voices anywhere near that caliber very often. You’ve just got to hear Ami Saraiya to believe it. She’s able to pull emotional strings across the musical spectrum: her cabaret is romantic, her blues gritty, and her rock downright sinister. The orchestration is exquisite, with occasional strings, muted trumpet, guitar, and heavy doses of accordion. You can’t help but be swept off your feet by this album.

Disclaimer: I know Ami and have followed her work for years. I can assure you no favors were traded in preparing this review. This is legitimately a world-class album.

Listen to Ami Sariaiya’s “Vegas Moon” on MySpace, and order the album at

6. Iron & Wine – Around the Well (folk)

Iron & Wine is an ambassador from the future of American folk music. With impressionistic use of traditional instruments (banjo, steel guitar) and styles (ballads & blues), Iron & Wine unfolds quiet, penetrating lyrical portraits that approach the greatness of the best bards of the ‘60s. This two-disc set of previously (and inexplicably) unreleased work is split between early acoustic home recordings and more recent forays into psychedelia.

Listen to Iron & Wine “Loud as Hope” and “Carried Home

7. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE: The Motion Picture Soundtrack (classical)

Beethoven wrote an ode to joy. Pablo Neruda wrote an ode to his socks. Sufjan Stevens wrote an ode to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. All three pieces make transcendent art out of something that otherwise would go unnoticed. In this case, it’s a multimedia symphony that draws into itself the best of the last century of classical composition and takes it another step. It’s time to start treating this cat as a real American composer.

Listen to Sufjan Stevens “Movement V: Self-Organizing Emergent Patterns

8. Rihanna – Rated R (R&B)

I’m having trouble figuring out which of these is more shocking to me:

1. The best mainstream pop album of the year is about domestic abuse.

2. The most powerful public statement about domestic abuse this year is a mainstream pop album.

While I’m getting over the shock, let me say that the album sounds great. Slower tempos and dancehall inflections give a sense of gravity that’s uncommon for an artist aiming for the top 40. Rihanna portrays herself on this set as hardened. She evokes images of gang fights and Russian roulette not because she has a deathwish, but because she doesn’t. She’s been forced to face her mortality and somehow has to rebuild a life afterwards. Heavy stuff, powerful art.

Listen to Rihanna “Stupid in Love

9. K’Naan – Troubador (rap)

Anyone looking for proof of the global scope of rap music should consider K’Naan exhibit A. Raised in Somalia and relocated to Canada, K’Naan testifies to the redeeming power of hip hop on streets far more dangerous than urban America. With a hopeful vibe and a powerfully spoken message, K’Naan digs this music deeper than all but the most skilled American rappers.

Listen to K’Naan “Dreamer

10. The Dixie Bee-Liners – Susanville (Bluegrass)

A one-hour road trip for the mind, “Susanville” captures the restlessness and discovery of barreling across middle America. The string band sound evokes just enough nostalgia to capture the feel of truck stops and diners without getting too comfortable – after all, it’s the road that calls. These songs carry a sense of velocity, always moving us along to somewhere new.

Listen to The Dixie Bee-Liners “Restless

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