Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Favorite Records Of 2009

I'm an ardent defender of pop music. A good record is a good record and it shouldn't matter who made it. I've been known to get a little stupid in defense of a good pop tune. I love the Pet Shop Boys because they make great records. Pre-breakdown Britney had some very catchy singles, too. When was the last time you really listened to "Back For Good" by Take That? Absolutely gorgeous. And once a year, I feel I have to profess my love for the Backstreet Boys "I Want It That Way." But before I get to my favorite records of 2009, I want to go on record as saying that there is nothing worse, nothing more offensive than the popularity and success of Lady Gaga. She gets my vote for worst EVERYTHING of 2009! Worst movie of 2009? Lady Gaga. Worst restaurant? Lady Gaga. Worst airline? You ga-got it. LADY GAGA.

Lady Gaga makes Tiffany look like Ethel Waters.

I'm through.

And now--


(in alphabetical order)


The best review I can give Benson's 4th solo album is that I played this record more than any other record this year. The first week it was in my possession, it basically served as the soundtrack to my day. Brendan Benson serves up some pop perfection on a dozen songs, with not so subtle nods to the British Invasion, Motown, and New Wave. Hook after hook, harmony upon harmony, "My Old, Familiar Friend" consistently satisfies. Check out "Feel A Whole Lot Better" and "Garbage Day" and you'll be hooked.


The uneven studio output of the Brothers Robinson has given us the great, "Shake Your Money Maker," "The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion," and "By Your Side" and the horrible "Lions" and Warpaint." But I have seen The Black Crowes multiple times on every tour since their first and they have never disappointed me. So it was a good idea to record their new album, "Before The Frost..." in front of a small, live audience at Levon Helm's Woodstock Barn, where the magic has finally been captured. This is what the boys do best; Faces-inspired rockers, The Band-inspired ballads, and the southern soul Chris & Rich Robinson were born to play. "...Until The Freeze, the bonus download disc doesn't fare as well. But it's got enough on it to keep everyone happy.

I hope we all know the story by now. Early on in Miss Cash's career, her very famous dad gave her a list of 100 essential songs. "The List" features 12 of them, or at least what Rosanne recalls being on the list. The new book "Always Been There: Rosanne Cash, The List, and The Spirit Of Southern Music" explains, among many other things, that the "list" was safely misplaced (my words). No matter. Both the book, and the CD are two of my favorite things of the year. What Rosanne Cash and producer/husband John Leventhal bring to this collection is not just another standard reading of country standards. Instead, every song here, no matter how many times you think you've heard it, (songs like "Sea Of Heartbreak," "Take These Chains," and "Long Black Veil,") has been reinvented, not so much to damage the legend, but just enough to let Rosanne Cash shine.


My first introduction to Alex McMurray was a song called "Bad Apples" by his band Royal Fingerbowl. I couldn't believe my ears. There was nothing like it. A truly kick-ass stomp of a song and certainly one of the nastiest ever written. I have been a fan of Alex's ever since and 10 years later, he has released one of the best records of the year. As Threadhead Records' Chris Joseph stated, "McMurray is the make believe stepchild of Tom Waits and Randy Newman." I'd like to add that "Cannonball" is the perfect combination of love, humor, pathos, and insanity. And back in the good old days, this record would have been an FM radio staple and Alex McMurray would be selling out 500 seaters across the country. You should get lost in this record.

It's been a long time since Pearl Jam put something out, that to my ears, had anything remotely exciting as the material on their first two albums which are now over 15 years old. "Backspacer" is not only that record, I will go on record as saying it is the best record of their career. Clocking in at a cool 38 minutes, "Backspacer" has so much melody and so much energy, not since the classic records of the 60s and 70s has a record packed such a consistent wallop. And Eddie Vedder has come a long way as a singer and songwriter. Must be from hanging out with Pete Townshend, Neil Young, and Neil Finn because all three of them show up in spirit on this wonderful record. 2 best moments- "Just Breathe" and "Speed Of Sound," beautiful ballads that belie the grungy past of this now legendary band.


Legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield has enlisted some of New Orleans' finest, including George Porter Jr., Jon Cleary, and John Boutte, as well as the great, underrated Ricky Fataar on drums, for a new spin on traditional Gospel music. I loved this record right out of the box. It's not traditional nor does it stray very far from the spirit or meaning of the repertoire. What these seasoned players accomplish is fresh, exciting, uplifiting and soulful.


This wasn't going to make the Top Ten, but not for the right reasons. I am pretty sure I trashed a good portion of this record when it was first released. Plus, "Outlaw Pete" continues to confound me. (I really hate it.) But not giving this record the credit it deserves simply because it's not the record you want out of Bruce is also wrong. Repeated listens begat repeated listens. That is exactly what good music should do. With each play I discovered something more amazing. It's a big and bold pop record, which yes, at times, gets a bit bogged down in its own production. But the pastiche pieces that evoke everyone from The Byrds to The Beach Boys to Phil Spector and back, are from the heart, even if Bruce isn't writing about state troopers and ex-cons. Start with track 2 and just forget "Meeting Across The River" for 45 minutes. "Working On A Dream," released by anyone else, would be on a lot of Top Ten lists.


Producer Joe Henry, and some of the greatest names in jazz including Don Byron, Nicholas Payton, Marc Ribot, Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman help New Orleans' legend Allen Toussaint interpret some of the greatest music ever written. Songs such as "West End Blues," "Dear Old Southland," "St. James Infirmary" and "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" stay melodically true to the originals, but are given something special thanks to the stellar line-up involved. This is a beautiful piece of work and a record that finally gets to show the amazing piano playing of its leader, Allen Toussaint.


Sheryl Crow, Norah Jones, Shelby Lynne, and most recently Duffy have all had success channeling Dusty Springfield. But as good as these ladies are, no one has nailed it like newcomer Kristina Train. Every song is a stunning heartbreaker, with Miss Train's soulful voice wrapping around some of the most memorable melodies of the year. "Spilt Milk" is a winner, top to bottom.


Don't hate him because he is Bono. You'd just be denying yourself one of the best records of U2's career and one of the best of 2009. This band gets better and better. Songs like the first single "Get On Your Boots" and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy" are relentlessly catchy, while Bono, The Edge, Adam and Larry continue to seep into your soul with big and beautful ballads like "Moment Of Surrender." Great, great stuff from a great, great band.



Elvis sticks his toe into some CBGB (country, bluegrass and blues- BUT YOU KNEW THAT) with great success.


Almost 30 years after one of the greatest debuts in music, Crenshaw returns with his strongest work in years.


Levon's voice and Levon's drumming--enough said.

At 70, Ian Hunter continues to make relevant music. Beautiful, understated, and completely Ian.


No one does country honk and heartbreak like Buddy & Julie. This is the best work of their very solid career.

Son of Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen, oddly sounds more like Robin Zander, on this smart debut filled with influence from John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, and of course, Cheap Trick.


Two of New Orleans' best, team-up for some down home swing and soul...and blues...and jazz...and...well... if you know anything about these two artists, you'll agree, this is the album you wanted them to make.

Conceived by Neil Finn and brought to reality with the help of Wilco, members of Radiohead, Eddie Vedder, K.T. Tunstall and Tim Finn, this is the result of two weeks of recording, living, hanging, eating drinking and sharing, with proceeds going to Oxfam. Truly a band effort.


Welsh keyboardist and long time Nick Lowe sideman Watkins serves up his own brand of Cajun honky tonk. One of the most original records of the year.


Chicago's finest is back with their most accessible and melodic album in ages.

And that's the lot. Tomorrow, the music continues...in a big way.


Unknown said...

good stuff. there's little to argue about. love the NOLA stuff.

Michael Giltz said...

We have a fair amount of overlap on our lists. But U2 is NOT getting better and better. Even if you like their new album, obviously their best work was long ago (in the studio at least). They may scale the heights again, but when they get there, they find the remains of the camp from the LAST time they were there. And re: Springsteen, I never buy the "if this were released by anyone else..." argument. That's the sort of thing R.E.M. and others always angrily said when their latest indifferent album wasn't received rapturously and they couldn't understand why and decided it was because they'd made great albums in the past. No, if Working On A Dream were released under another name or by someone else, it just wouldn't get any attention. And I love your modest dream for Alex McMurray: in a better world he'd be selling out 500 seaters! Not arenas? I love realistic fantasies. Alphabetical is wimpy. Which is your favorite? Thanks for the list.

Ken D said...

Wow, a year-end list I can read without going "Huh, who?" throughout... I actually own several of your picks!

Personally, I'd put Brendan Benson in with the runners-up and promote Wilco and Levon Helm to the top tier. Two more favorites for me this year were the debut by The Low Anthem and Willie Nile's "Land of a Thousand Guitars."
I was a bit disappointed in Marshall Crenshaw's album, maybe because of too high expectations. I'll give it some more listens. But Bruce? Hmmm, OK if you say so...

Thanks again, Sal, for sharing your wisdom.

Sal Nunziato said...

I won't being to argue with you, MGILTZ, over when U2 was better. I feel I am in the minority here. I "prefer" "Achtung Baby," "All That You Can't Leave Behind," "How To Dismantle..." and "No Line On The Horizon" far more than any earlier records. I think they are getting better.

As for Working On A Dream, Bruce didn't start that argument. I did. Any Bruce fan I know who dismisses WOAD, does so with the same contemptuous snorting excuse. No one liked "Tom Joad" when it came out. Or "The Rising." Or "Magic." Makes little sense. Good to great songs, great performances. What's missing? The shady characters from Asbury Park?

Chris Swartout said...

Love that you have Geraint Watkins in there. I saw his old band, the Balham Alligators probably a dozen times in pubs all over London the summer/fall I lived there in 1985. Stumbled across them and became like groupies. Saw him with Nick at Wetlands a number of years ago. He always seemed like a NOLA musician who somehow came out of the womb in the UK.

Funny about the U2. You are the 2nd person to rave about it. I tried, but got terribly sleepy when I heard. I'll give it another listen, but only because Sal said so!

I like the Kristina Train too. the 7 Worlds Collide is a nice hodge podge. Plenty of lovely nuggets.

Oh, and by the way Sal, I meant to give you props for putting "She Will Have Her Way" on the download the other day. Simply one of the finest pop songs I have ever heard.

I'm with you on the Bruce. His farts are better than most peoples masterpieces.

cmealha said...

Before your list, I tried getting my own list together and I found there aren't that many albums I really liked. I seem to have less and less patience for filler and cherry-pick the tracks I like.
The one album we both agree on is Kristina Milk. A phenomenal album and the comparison to Dusty Springfield is not an overstatement.
After that, I'm less enthusiatsic. Certainly Brendan Benson deserves it. Bruce's album was ok for me. It was more consistent than the last but the highs weren't as high. Also, like the Geraint Watkins album.
I was initially disappointed with the U2 album except for 'Boots' After that everything seemed like a let down.
I hate Pearl Jam and always will unless they become a cover band.
Marshall Crenshaw and Ian Hunter should probably be in the top 10 but that's mostly due to sentiment although both were good efforts.
There's plenty of good music out there but I question if there are many good albums especially after looking at your 70's list the other day.
More than anything I'll use your list to listen to some of the stuff I haven't gotten a chance to listen to this year. There's nothing better than discovering great new music.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Sal. I agree with you about U2 getting better generally. I just found this to be the first CD that doesn't grab me at all ( I like, but am not blown away by Moment Of Surrender and Boots )Achtung Baby, ATYCLB, HTDAAB ( fuck typing those long titles )were just records I thought were stronger, but as Neil , Dylan, and Bruce have shown NO ONE with that massive a body of work is only as good as their last record.
As for the Bruce record, I agree with your post. Though overall I may rank the record lower than you do, it's not for any of the reasons cited. I don't want it to be more like any of his other records, I just don't care for a few too many of the songs ( Kingdom, Tomorrow Never Knows, Good Eye, Outlaw Pete ) to rank it that highly. I still do enjoy the rest of the record.
Also have to say that I, for one, loved Ghost Of Tom Joad and the Rising from the day they came out. I agree with the concept of "if anyone else had released this record" and I don't measure artists only against their classic work, but also against what I know them to be still capable of, like the Wrestler, for instance.
The more I think about it , Wilco might be my favorite of the year.

Meanstreets said...

On this subject Burning Wood, I would like to add...." that I have nothing to add "............

daddy-o said...

I just discovered your blog yesterday, and am loving it! I'm a big fan of NOLA (15 JF for me over the years, plus a mission trip post-Katrina) and a long-time Bruce fan, so methinks your site could quickly become a favorite destination for me. I enjoyed your Best of list very much. Here's what I enjoyed the most this year:

Top Tier
Cheap Trick - The Latest
Blue Rodeo - The Things We Left Behind
Zachary Richard - Last Kiss
Band of Heathens - One Foot in the Ether
The Bottle Rockets - Lean Forward
Van Morrison - Astral Weeks Live
Cheap Trick - Sgt Peppers Live
Booker T Jones - Potato Hole

Next Tier
Ruthie Foster - TRUTH According to Ruthie Foster
Michael McDermott - Hey La Hey
Lyle Lovett - Natural Forces
Gov't Mule - By a Thread
Allen Toussaint - Bright Mississippi
Buddy & Julie Miller - Written in Chalk
Gary Louris & Mark Olson - Ready For the Flood

I still need to get the Sanchez/Boutte disc, and that will probably make the list too. I ordered the Glen David Andrews disc and am looking forward to that. And I finally found a copy of Snoooks Eaglin's last disc (w/ Jon Cleary & AMG)that didnt cost $150 on Amazon or eBay - - it is a very fun listen.

Keep rockin, and thanks for an excellent blog!

big bad wolf said...

nice list, sal. about working on a dream, i think you got it right that it's very underrated. i think it has one song that doesn't work at all, but it's different than your pick. i hate queen of the supermarker. it's like mary queen of arkansas without the excuse of being 23. outlaw pete is weird, stupid, and disconcertingly quotes "i was made for loving you," but, for me, it only comes in next to last on the album

Sal Nunziato said...


I think "Queen Of The Supermarket" had the potential to be one the all time great Bruce songs...if it was called "Queen Of The Jersey Shore" or "The Girl From The Traler Park." Musically, it's got everything. Unfortunately, the word "supermarket" should not be allowed in any lyric. Same goes for supermarket references. That's what kills it for me.

big bad wolf said...

sal, i agree. it's the words to queen of the supermarket that make me wince repeatedly. i don't like wincing and listening, especially when i am listening to someone i really like.

Meanstreets said...

Overexposed, commercialized, tired bands such as U2, Bruce Springsteen & Pearl Jam should never be on anyones' Annual Top Ten Best CD list, "ix nay " to them... If you sell over " x " amount of CD,s I don't even acknowledge the band's existence. Maybe those who do should widen their listening habits....

Thus, Meanstreets has put the " kibosh " on Burning Woods' list....

And has replaced the above with :
a )Dave Rawlings Machine - Friend of a Friend
b) James Hand - Shadow on the Ground
c ) Hank Williams - Revealed, The Unreleased Recordings, Vol II

Sal Nunziato said...

Meanstreets, I've been polite and respectful because we go way back. But even you have to be tired of your tongue-in-cheek routine, if it is still tongue-in-cheek. I'm starting to wonder what brings you to Burning Wood at all.

Voting for James Hand because he sold 22 CDs worldwide is even more offensive than voting for someone who is wildly popular. Even you must respect Irving Berlin who once said, "Popular music is popular because people like it."

Most of us U2 and Bruce fans respect Hank Williams. What's your problem?

(Oh..and thanks for the Christmas card. That was really thoughtful and sweet.)

Meanstreets said...

OK, let's try to vary our music listening habits by viewing a documentary tomorrow ( Sat. ) on TCM @ 2PM, about the great " Johnny Mercer " ( That Old Back Magic, Moon River, Too Marvelous For Words, just to name a few songs )

Yes, it's show music, so what, right Sal ?

" Americana " brother...........

Sal Nunziato said...

I love Johnny Mercer. But unfortunately, I've scheduled a 2PM listening of "Born To Run."

(I kid.)

Meanstreets said...

E gads Sal, have a beer.....relax, you will have to shovel tomorrow, snow, not top ten music....

Sal Nunziato said...

Dude, what did I say that made you say "relax?" Thought I was having fun.

Meanstreets said...


And I will make a $$$ contribution to " Burning Wood " before years end.....even though lately, Meanstreets throws " nickels round' like manhole covers ".....

And I urge other readers to do the same....Sal does a great job with this site, and he does his best, which is what's so discouraging....

Good nite Sal....

Sal Nunziato said...


Meanstreets said...

I have been reading many year end music magazines &, if you can believe it, " best of the decade " lists are included....Within a few of these lists, Ryan Adams' " Heartbreaker " is listed.
I have seen him live, never been a big fan...what are your thoughts about this CD ?....

Sal Nunziato said...

I like Ryan Adams. I don't love him. But I do LOVE "Heartbreaker." I think it's his best album and since you're a fan of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, it is essential for you.

Flora said...

I for one agree about the U2 - but only because it's a throwback record. When I first heard "Magnificent" it was late at night and this gorgeous thing comes on the radio and I thought wow, did I miss something of theirs back in '84? Imagine my surprise when I found out it was brand new! In my mind it's up there with my favorite "New Year's Day" because it sounds like it's from the same album. The annoying "Get On Yer Boots" aside, I really like this because it does NOT sound like it came out this year.

Rosanne Cash - no need to say any more, the lady is her own legend now.

Anonymous said...

U2 no line on the horizon second to only achtung baby alex mcmurray is great