Thursday, May 20, 2021

Countdown to 30: My Favorite Album From 2009


I narrowed this year down to only five albums that were really on top for me. I graduated High School in 2009 and started my first year of college. Especially once I was on my own with a lot more free time, music became essential to my survival. I started to realize around this time that the people around me respected what I had to say and valued my opinions on music. Those people didn't include the occasional chauvinists in record stores, but it included a great deal more than I expected. Obviously I cared a great deal about music, but I'd never really expected others to recognize this as a valuable trait. I started making mix CDs without an IP attached to them. I made them for my sister, my mom, the boy I was developing an unhealthy crush on...

My point is, I was paying a lot more attention to music starting in 2009, and as such, I have picked five excellent albums in my opinion. 

English indie band the xx released their debut album xx in 2009. The album's electronic beats were composed by Jamie Smith on his computer before being mixed by producer Rodaidh McDonald. Romy Madley Croft provides sparse, reverb-heavy guitar and a smoky voice, while Oliver Sim joins her with more reverb on his bass and a calm, clear male voice. The xx were also strongly influenced by R&B. The result is an album with beats and bass, no samples, and no hip-hop. It's a strange combination of sounds that work very well together. 

xx is a masterpiece with stellar composition and production. Reviewers are still very positive about the album and often rank it high in lists of top albums of the 2010s. I still have this apparently crazy belief that "VCR" sounds like "Heroes" by David Bowie, and I love that song along with other obvious choices like "Crystalized," "Islands" and "Intro."

Tegan and Sara released their follow-up to The Con, Sainthood. Sainthood was again produced by Chris Walla this time along with Howard Redekopp. For the first time, Tegan and Sara co-wrote the songs on the album, rather than writing them separately, cowriting a couple of songs with AFI's Hunter Burgan. Sainthood represented the beginning of Tegan and Sara's use of  '80s sounds. On this album they use more alternative influences rather than the pop sounds found on Heartthrob. Obviously The Cure is an influence, seeing as there is a song on the album called "The Cure," the intro to which sounds a wee bit similar to The Cure's "Lovesong." Tegan and Sara's "The Cure" is titled based on the subject matter of the song as well, however. Tegan Quin developed the premise based on recognizing the similarities between her own addiction to romantic love and the drug addiction in her neighborhood. The song "Hell" is also about the bad neighborhood she lived in, but as she says "they're really just metaphors for love."

The title of Sainthood is taken from a Leonard Cohen song, "Came So Far For Beauty." The line in question is "I practiced all my sainthood / I gave to one and all / But the rumors of my virtue / They moved her not at all." Most of the songs on the album revolve around changing yourself for someone or trying to seem like the best version of yourself to attract someone. Tegan and Sara frequently explore themes of love in their music, but each time a little bit differently. Sainthood is more positive than The Con, but still broaches dark subjects such as divorce and the topics I've already mentioned. It sounds very different from the albums either side of it in chronology.

Lily Allen's It's Not Me, It's You was cowritten and produced by Greg Kurstin. I mentioned Greg Kurstin back when I was talking about Allen's 2006 album Alright, Still and he's going to come up again. Kurstin and Allen created Allen's second album with a new polish. Allen's lyrics are more political and cautionary than her first album. The opening track, "Everyone's At It" is a reminder of the burgeoning drug crisis. "The Fear" is about consumerism and the rat race to be richer and better looking than everyone else. Similarly, "22" is about the way society commodifies female youth and physical attractiveness. "F*** You" takes stabs at American president at the time, George W. Bush for his homophobia and public gaffes. In "Him," Lily Allen takes a stab at her own version of "One of Us" by Joan Osborne. 

It's Not Me also includes many songs about relationships, but rarely in the typical love song fashion. The closest to a love song is "Who'd Have Known," which is much more specific than a typical love song, describing friends-turned-lovers who are shy and awkward as they fall in love, who didn't expect to get together or for it to turn out so well. The closing track, "He Wasn't There" is about a relationship that went through a rough patch but was able to be repaired after forgiveness and growth from both parties. On the other end of the relationship spectrum is "Not Fair" about a man who treats her well but is self-centered in the bedroom and "I Could Say" about a woman who is finding a great deal of peace after her breakup and refuses to romanticize it. "Never Gonna Happen" is about a woman who is kind of taking advantage of a man (although she has told him many times that she doesn't love him). Then there is "Back to the Start," an apology song for Allen's half-sister who she resented and treated unfairly when they were teens. Finally, "Chinese" is a love letter to Allen's mother and describes her craving for the simplicity of spending time with her. 

I adore the variety of subjects Allen wrote about on It's Not Me, It's You- and I didn't really even explore how great the musicality and production are. It's my favorite Lily Allen album to date.

Regina Spektor released Far in 2009. It is her most playful album in my opinion. Spektor enlisted multiple producers as she said that she felt as though making an album was like taking a class and she wanted to have multiple teachers. Those "teachers" were Jeff Lynne (ELO. Also previously mentioned in reference to 2002's Brainwashed), David Kahne who produced her previous album, Begin to Hope (as well as First Impressions of Earth by The Strokes, Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full, and several Bangles projects), Mike Elizondo, the producer of her future album What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (he has also worked with Kelly Clarkson, Switchfoot, Eminem, Eric Clapton, Eric Hutchinson, and The Regrettes just to name a few), and Jacknife Lee (who has worked on Taylor Swift's Red, Weezer Red Album and Raditude, Bloc Party, The Cars, and R.E.M.). Spektor decided to try to enlist Lynne after learning he was the producer for Tom Petty's Highway Companion

Since she is someone who began their career with some unusual music, it wasn't strange to hear Spektor singing about romanticizing the life of someone whose wallet she finds in "Wallet" (sidenote: how unfortunate that her plan would no longer work so well as there are no longer many Blockbuster stores to look up someone's number on). Spektor shows a knack for vague, haunting lyrics in "Genius Next Door." She typically refuses to explain her lyrics which she explains by saying: "I don't want to destroy someone's relationship with my songs by talking about them - why limit something that could be so limitless?" The best information I've seen about the plot of the song comes from an Entertainment Weekly article: "a little science fiction story in a song. Like a Twilight Zone episode."

There seems to be a common thread of faith throughout the album. "Genius Next Door" references that "atheists were praying full of sarcasm," "Blue Lips" begins with "He stumbled into faith and though/God this is all there is" and mentions "all the gods in all the worlds." "Laughing With" is the most in-depth exploration of this topic, a reminder of how much more seriously people take faith when they are in desperate times. Spektor herself noticed this theme, although she didn't intend it. She told Spin: "When I was done with this record I was like, 'Whoa, I have a lot of stuff here that's just about, like, religion.' Which is amazing. It wasn't planned, but it's one of those concepts that my mind is just fascinated with, and I'm always mulling over."

Every song on the album has something to offer, whether it be twee and cute or deeply meaningful- even if you don't exactly know what meaning she intended.

Finally, we have reached my album of the year for 2009, Aim and Ignite by fun. Aim and Ignite is the first of two albums by fun., released just a year after The Format announced a hiatus and frontman Nate Ruess got together with Andrew Dost and Jack Antonoff. The songs still credit Sam Means as a songwriter, possibly because they are unfinished Format songs. 

"Be Calm" kicks off the album with what is almost a mantra for the narrator, who is going through a lot. The track features trumpet, accordion, cello, violin, viola, and calliope (played by Roger Joseph Manning Jr., formerly of Jellyfish). The infinitely singable "Benson Hedges," like many songs associated with Ruess, is very hard to parse the meaning of. 

"All the Pretty Girls" is a little bit easier to understand, and acts as the lead single for the album. "All the Pretty Girls" seems to describe a situation in which a breakup occurs for whatever reason and the man finds himself unable to forget about the woman he was with, constantly bringing up his ex with potential new women, disappointed in the way these women don't understand the things he brings up. It harkens back to The Format's "She Doesn't Get It." The affection seems to me to grow until by the end of the song, he doesn't believe anyone else will possibly be able to replace his former lover as they have a connection to one another and a history.

Much like Spektor's lyrics, the songs on this album all have multiple possible meanings. "I Wanna Be the One," for example, is either about: a) the birth of Sam Means' first child b) the birth of Nate Ruess' niece c) the relationship between Ruess and girlfriend Rachel Antonoff, sister of Jack Antonoff and a vocalist on the album. 

fun. at Slim's in San Francisco, 5-14-2010
My favorite track on the album is "Light a Roman Candle With Me" from which comes the title of the album. "Candle" is the most romantic song on the album, and probably the easiest to interpret. The narrator wants to take a chance on love with someone because they will seemingly make a great couple, and even if they don't, they'll never know unless they try.

"The Gambler" was originally written for The Format, and was so-named because the original melody sounded like the Kenny Rogers song of the same name. I'd love to hear that original demo. "The Gambler" is another adorable song, describing a perfect love story, a couple who have been together for 30+ years, have raised a family together, and are still madly in love. It reminds me of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's "Our House." The consensus seems to be that Ruess wrote "The Gambler" about his parents. 

The final track, "Take Your Time Coming Home" became the band's closer for live shows even after Some Nights was released. It's a perfect closer for a show, and a good one for this album. Though still a little obtuse, the lyrics of this final track are some of the best on the album.

Toward the end of 2009 when I visited
the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time.
I got into The Format when my friend Zack introduced them to me. I listened to their albums and bemoaned the fact that they had broken up before I got into them. Sometime toward the end of 2009, I was Skyping with my sister, listening to The Format songs on Youtube when "All the Pretty Girls" came up in the recommended videos. I clicked it and realized the guy sounded just like Nate Ruess...because it was Nate Ruess.

I wrote a short story for one of my classes based on "All the Pretty Girls." I then got lucky enough to see fun. live in support of Aim and Ignite. It was at Slim's San Francisco, the same tiny venue I saw Tally Hall open for Rooney. While I waited in line, I heard them warming up with "Dog Problems," which they did play later. It was a fantastic show, putting fun. right near the top of my list of favorite bands to see live. 

The album itself will always hold a special place in my heart because it's a great pop album with indie sensibilities. 

Okay, let's see what it looks like on that leaderboard. 

Join me tomorrow for my favorite album from 2010.

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