The best part of what I do is all the music I get to listen to; the worst part is all the music I have to listen to. And yes, there were plentiful letdowns this year. Sure, you have your Phoenix, your Jay-Z, your Yeah Yeah Yeahs, your Gaga– all huge artists whose work was really really solid. But they, and a few more, were largely in the minority in ’09.
Besides all the boring, trend-chasing releases, there were moments of triumph and originality. These projects, perhaps niche or weird, do show that smarts and musicianship can still prove successful. These artists lacked MTV airplay, features in Rolling Stone, and major radio support, but the actual music, unlike this year’s trite hits, will likely age well in the coming years.
As I sink deeper in age (and curmudgeonism), I find myself sucker-punched by music with one commonality: Soul. Heartfelt songs that get you in the gut can’t be denied. Here are solid releases that, for one reason or for many, struck me hard in ’09.
What came to mind (in no particular order):
My World by Lee Fields & The Expressions (Truth & Soul)
The grittiest, contemporary soul record of the year couldn’t have come any sooner. Lee Fields has been making records for 40 years and it wasn’t until now that, according to him, he’s made “the greatest project I’ve been a part of.” Backed by El Michels Affair and members of the Daptone family, you can actually hear the hardship he sings of. Overall tight musicianship, the classic “Honey Dove,” along with the most aching rendition of the Supremes’ “My World Is Empty Without You” makes this one an easy pick. This made ’09 brighter for soul-fiends I’m sure.
Don’t Throw Me Awayby The Mumlers (Galaxia)
When you hear a song like “Coffin Factory“ you automatically wonder about the guy behind it and how his mind works. In this case, lead singer/songwriter Will Sprott chooses quirky lyrics backed by horns, standup bass, and vintage gear. Sprott’s favorite singer is Bobby Bland, a legendary bluesman from the ’60s and ’70s, and the music here is heavily influenced by funk, blues, and soul. The Mumlers are classified as rock but they encompass more, squeezing all kinds of elements into their songs. Don’t Throw Me Away (and its great title track) is the most soulful rock album of the year. These San Jose natives are on tour so check them out while their show tickets are still affordable.
Forge Your Own Chains by Various Artists (Now-Again)
Compilations are easy because they’re just compiling great songs right? Wrong. For every failed solo or group project released this year, there are terrible comps that revive tracks which should have been left alone. Now-Again, ran by collector, DJ, and writer, Egon, puts out great funk, soul, and left-field releases. But Forge… outdoes itself by concentrating on lost psych-soul, psych-funk, and obscure international tracks from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s filled with so many bangers from so many parts of the world that there’s nothing even close to this in ’09. This is one of those comps that makes you hunt down all the artists and their records–good luck trying.