Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Best of 2009: a rundown


The downfall of lists is that they can be so microscopic – just a nano-view of one person's singular likes and dislikes. So, when doing my 2009 best-of, I wanted to expand it a little, so I badgered a lot of kind, patient and musically savvy people for their picks, too (most of which I played on-air). Not only did they put up with my list-hounding, they also selected a lot of awesome music. What I love about year-end reflecting is that you get to play catch-up on things you missed out on; and the best feeling is when you discover some great thing you knew near-zero about before hectoring someone about their 2009 favourites (cf. HTRK, Do The Robot).


So a mega thank-you to all the bands, bloggers, writers, listeners who were sweet enough to put up with my pestering (especially visual superstars Greedy Hen, who came up with a Top 5 mixtape). I've arranged this in vague order of most-wordy to least, and just to be a list-hog, I've started this with my favourites, accompanied by descriptions where I use way too many heart metaphors.

My 30 favourite Australian songs of the year
1. Close Your Eyes And It All Goes Black (recorded live at FBi) by Kid Sam
I know I'm committing about a million music-fan crimes by doing this. Citing a version of a song that hardly anyone owns. And then to put it at number one! Could you get any more indie-snob than that? But hear me out, I'm singling this out not to high-note my record collection or the fact I'm lucky enough to volunteer at a radio station, but because I sincerely love this version to bits. Not that the original on the album isn't great. It's just that the little differences that unfolded in the FBi studio make the song even more of a punch to the heart … the squeaky strings on the record are replaced by the quietest of strums, so Kieran's lyrics get full and bare spotlight; the cute glockenspiel twinkles are gone, instead Kishore plays the melodica, each note lingering and mood-sinking. I was a million kinds of fortunate to be sitting across the desk when this all happened. Close Your Eyes And It All Goes Black is about things disappearing, and yet the song makes the strongest case for not letting go of it.

Still from Blood videoclip by Greedy Hen

2. Blood by The Middle East
A song which I re-fell in love with many times this year. The part where the band turn up their voices, from hushed tones to loud, rowdy choir – and the song scatters into countless full-flight, wayward harmonies – it's such a stampede-charge to the heart. You can see how it transformed The Middle East from relative unknowns in January to music-festival veterans and best-of-list favourites by December. (And the hand-crafted video clip by Greedy Hen made the song even better.)

3. After All by Jonathan Boulet
If you were being a calendar-killjoy, you'd say that this technically came out in 2008 – and it did, on a hand-printed demo that was dropped into my FBi pigeonhole. But most people probably didn't hear it until it got a re-release this November, so I figure this can sneak in. I still love this track as much as I did when I first heard it last October though – the crazy bolts, snaps and shuffle of percussion filtering through this melody-shot song are actually drawers being slammed, and Jonathan Boulet making little scrapes and knocks on a desk. It's so rare that you would get a demo full of perfect, inventive indie-pop from someone little-known and that lottery-chance of discovering something that good in an anonymous-looking stack of records is about the best thing about being at FBi. (Also, this slot could easily belong to One Who Flys Two Who Dies and the wonderfully unavoidable A Community Service Announcement, both from the same record.)

4. Fox & A Prayer by A Casual End Mile
This was another demo discovery. And being a lazybones, here's what I wrote earlier on the blog: "Sometimes you hear a singer for the first time and your heart forgets itself entirely. Unskipped beats pile up, waiting for you to remember to unpause, but music has a funny way of playing cardiac traffic cop – it takes a while for everything to return to normal. It's rare to single out a moment like that, but when I first pulled A Casual End Mile's demo from the weekly mountain of CDs, it was like that completely. Madelaine Lucas' voice is the kind that rewires your memory. Like Hope Sandoval, her words are quiet and spellbinding, able to make the most unadorned songs sound dreamy. A Casual End Mile is one to keep listening to."

5. The Siren Sings by Red Riders
Sometimes you think you have a band all figured out. And then you hear a song that completely rewrites everything you know. If I wind back a while, I remember playing I Think You're Blind from the first Red Riders EP when I was doing my first all-nighters at FBi (that song = 3am for me), and there was that summer where Slide In Next To Me was almost as ubiquitous as Peter Bjorn & John's Young Folks. So the music-sorting part of my brain defined them as sharp-cut, angular rock and then, when I started zipping through tracks on Drown In Colour for the first time (to work out what to play on my show that night), I was stopped entirely by The Siren Sings. All fogged-out and wistful, there's something so hazy, dark and beautiful about it, and trying to mechanically size up why it works is like trying to make logical sense of a half-remembered dream. The song is all fuzzed out and perfectly in focus at the same time; it has the unstoppable pull of something you don't want to let out of your sight.


6. Scarlet Sometimes by The Kritzlers
7. Food Chain #2 by Dragging Pianos
8. Rescue by Black Cab
9. Old Faces by The Motifs
10. Absolute Truth by Shady Lane
11. Tiny Ants by Jane Woody & Angel Eyes
12. Listen Lovers by Castratii
13. Burden by Wolf & Cub
14. Colorado by Pivot
15. We Don't Believe It by Super Wild Horses
16. Beaches by Bridezilla
17. Kids by Sherlock's Daughter
18. Pool Party 2009 by Shazam
19. Kitten Gloves by Denim Owl
20. Mountain by Love of Diagrams
21. Greenwich Meantime by Galactic Empire
22. Mr Light by Royal Chord
23. Remember Me by Tame Impala
24. Betsy Remastered by Robert Luke
25. Time Means Nothing At All by Lisa Mitchell
26. Destination Part 1 by Damn Arms
27. Stranger Than Fiction by City of Satellites
28. Decide What You Want by The Morning Night
29. One Day (Clubfeet Remodel) by The Transients
30. Tables by Peach

My favourite Australian album of the year
Nowhere Forever by Love of Diagrams: hazed-out guitars at full-blast, with melody fracturing and out of each song. This is the album that converted me to the band (the previous two were a little too clean-edged for me), proving that getting pissed-off is the best kind of muse. Nowhere Forever is the album made after Matador rudely dropped the band from the label's roster, and the screw-you defiance of this record has translated into something urgent, entrancing – even kind of dazed-out and beautiful.

Honourable Mentions
Here We Go Down The Rabbit Hole by Shady Lane; Drown In Colour by Red Riders; The Good Fight by Royal Chord; The First Dance by Bridezilla; Marry Me Tonight by HTRK; Machine Is My Animal by City of Satellites. And, even though it came out last year (but then got a second life in 2009 on Rice Is Nice), The Sound of Trees Falling On People by Seekae.

My favourite Australian EP of the year
Dream Pocket by Denim Owl: this record's goofiness aims to distract you from how lush and gorgeous it is. Lucky that trick doesn't work, these songs are indie-pop sophistication gone undercover. Janita Foley can sing the silliest lyrics – and with that voice, all is forgiven.
Honourable Mentions
The Motifs; Sherlock's Daughter; Dragging Pianos.

My favourite demo of the year
Demo 1 & 2 by A Casual End Mile: Even the lo-fi nature of her very first demo couldn't disguise how hyper-talented Madelaine Lucas is. She played live while cursed with a cold in October, and she still sounded husky and enchanting. 2010 can only herald better things for her.
Honourable Mentions
The Kritzlers; No Art.


1. Dance Alone by The Twerps
The Twerps' self-titled EP (which is actually long enough to be an
album) is total bliss. It's D.I.Y calamity jams in its purest funnest form; messy slapstick garage-pop, humorously insightful lyrical gold. Basically whenever we listen to it, we want to hunt them down and be their best friends forever. BFFs!!!

2. Gold Canary by Cloud Control
We air-punch almost everyday just knowing that we get to work with Cloud Control so much. Gold Canary, the second single from their upcoming album (due for release early 2010!!! Wooohooo!) has the usual hauntingly beautiful vocal harmonies, nostalgic jangly guitars and organ that define the Cloud Control sound, but this one also has … wait for it … a winding African vibe! Seriously, who saw that coming?! It sends us straight to Graceland. I won't even mention how many iTunes playcounts it has had in the Greedy Hen studio. It's pure joy.

And what is most definitely the icing on the cake is that it will soon be available on a sweet looking 7" vinyl, too. Yes way! Did I mention we're enthusiastic nerds?

Jack Ladder photo by Will Reichelt, willreichelt.com

3. Case Closed by Jack Ladder (the version found on the Counterfeits EP)
OK, so it has come to our attention that Jack Ladder has evolved. Jack Ladder is the new Nick Cave, and the new Tom Waits, and the new howling preacher man, and the new Suicide … Basically, he gets compared to a lot of old things, but no one's mistaking those deep rich vocals and stage swagger for anyone else.

The Counterfeits EP is a re-working of five tracks from his recent soulful album Love Is Gone. It scratches the surface of what the recent live performances have been like and gives us a hint at things to come. His stage presence is electric, his lyrics are intelligent – basically what he's doing is exciting. We're excited!

4. Mirror Ball by Crayon Fields
A perfect twee pop song, this is what cardigans are made of, it's the colour of blushing cheeks. This song kills us! Seriously kills us! Ecstatic fumbling love, awkward lustful longing, we're spellbound. "I look at you and suddenly I'm a virgin in a dance hall", "can't tell if everyone's on heat or sunstroked" – my God! It's almost too much.

5. Blood The Middle East
This year, we spent many many hours cutting out paper trees and watercolouring skies, for an epic hand-made stop motion film clip for one of our most favourite bands, The Middle East. The song is called Blood, and we still get goosebumps from its mighty whistling solos – it's a powerfully climatic joy to behold. It's one of our favourite songs of 2009, in fact the whole EP just breaks our hearts every listen.

Still from Blood videoclip by Greedy Hen

Favourite Album: Crayon Fields - All The Pleasures Of The World. I know it's fey as hell and massively twee, but it's such a nice change from all the bombast and bravado of so much music these days. I love how it's charmingly gawky, while still being beautifully and confidently melodious.

Single: Royal Headache are one of the best new Sydney bands I've heard in ages, their songs Eloise and Honey Joy are awesome.

Demo: Bearhug. I love the way these guys sound. It reminds me of late '80s/early '90s indie rock (when 'indie' still meant something). Sloppy and sonic, like Pavement without a sense of humour.

Al Grigg, Red Riders

Hurt Me by The Jezabels (from She's So Hard)
This sounds ridiculous probably, but I find this song thrilling. Most times it ends, I have to immediately skip back to the beginning to experience that initial rollercoaster drop of the chugga-chugga-chugga Fleetwood Mac guitar dropping into the mix once more. The lyrics concern gender roles and masochism and some other things, but (and I know I’m usually a lyrics man) I find their meaning superfluous to the enjoyment of this song – because this song is about feeling. And my God, when Hayley sings, “Whole cities light up, but nothing can compare to you baby!”, I feel it like you wouldn’t believe.
Shag, presenter of Thursday & Friday Arvos on FBi

Marry Me Tonight by HTRK

I think this record might've been finished in 2006, that's how long it'd been waiting around for a release. Probably leaked early last year or so, but not many folks noticed. I guess it's been a couple of years since HTRK left our shores too. First moving to Berlin, then London (I think) and they've barely batted an eyelid or flashed flesh Australia's way since. Still, I feel like I gots to fly the flag with this record.

Anyway, the music … high-class sleaze, drug-den haze, unsavoury sorts exploiting whoever/whatever – that kind of thing. Impeccably (and I really mean it, the production/arrangements are flawless), crafted noise/atmospherics, grinding bass/drum machine, sexy/detatched and minimal vox. God it's all SO HOT. So messed up.

Special mention to … Dream Pocket by Denim Owl and self-titled releases by Psuche and Darren Sylvester.

Alex Nosek, ii & Oblako Lodka

Bridezilla photo by Will Reichelt, willreichelt.com

It's really hard to single out a single release for 2009 – artists that have really stood out for me include Cabins, Seekae, and the unreleased garage band demos of Desire The Horse. But as far as releases go, it would have to be the Tren Brothers/Bridezilla split 7".

Split releases, and particularly vinyl, don't seem to be as common here as in the US/UK, but this one is special for more reasons than just that. I am a big Mick Harvey fan, and the artwork is always a beautiful touch to the Tren Brothers' records. I loved the Bridezilla track the first time I heard it in its demo form – it's both strong and gentle, sad and hopefully, and so very melodic. I think this release really showcases original Australian music, in its past and present forms.
A Casual End Mile

Over The Stones, Under the Stars by Ned Collette + Wirewalker
I have been living overseas this year and even with the wide availability of music online, I still feel very disconnected from both the Melbourne and Sydney scenes. There are a bunch of bands playing regular shows that I have not heard yet. So this is a necessarily provisional selection – but what choice would not be? I like the tenacity and ruggedness of this album. There's also a lot of anger and resignation and disappointment in it. But Ned's music has always sounded consistent to me. There's something rewardingly unfashionable about it – it's not fickle or faddish, although it never repeats itself either. I guess you'd call that "honesty" – which is not so fashionable …
Ben Gook, music writer & musician

Without having to think about it too hard, I think the Australian release of the year is By The Throat by Ben Frost. An amazing follow-up to his brilliant Theory of Machines album from a few years back, and even though he's an expat he's still as Aussie as you'd like.
Peter Hollo, presenter of Utility Fog on FBi

My favourite song of 2009 is The Quest For Love Aboard the Belafonte from Love On The Second Stair by Telafonica. The whole song just sails along, so dreamy and hopeful. Amazing vocal performance, the whole thing is full of little bits and pieces of gold.
Jonathan Boulet

I have to admit nothing flew put instantly as an ultimate favourite for the year. But if I have to pick, Rainbow Kraut by John Steel Singers was pretty fun, with an infectious energy that lingers between the ears long after you've listened to it.
Alison, Glebe, FBi listener

Top 10
Aleks and the Ramps – Midnight Believer
The Dead Sea – The Dead Sea
AFXJim – Blackout Music
Brian Campeau – Mostly Winter, Sometimes Spring
Ghosts of Television – Forsaken Empire
Parades – Hunters EP
Broken Chip – Pow Wow 7
Ben Frost – By the Throat
Curse ov Dialect – Crisis Tales
Mr Maps – Mimicry of Lines and Light
Greg Stone, Underlapper

Kid Sam: album of the year. (Runner-up: Fergus Brown.)

I loved Fergus the minute I heard it, but Kid Sam crept up on me. The first time I saw them, I was so surprised to know so many songs (I'm AWFUL at matching band names to songs. I just don't hear back-announces when I'm at FBi), but it still took months for me to get into the album somehow. Then suddenly, it was kind of all I was listening to. It has the rare quality of making both being happy and sad better.

New Artist (tied): Home Is Where The Home Studio Is by The Desks. This just killed me, when I was about to collapse during Save FBi, this appeared on the Local Fidelity compilation; Winter People - I loved My Town, but the rest of the EP is just brilliant.
Julia Thomas, Marketing Manager, FBi

When Heavy Profession by St. Helens came out, I was suggesting it was album of the year full stop, local or otherwise. I dig the mood of the album, Jarrod's voice is very affecting and I've always liked his songs and his singing. The biggest hook for me is the chorus of the opener Don't Laugh, when he goes "Oh" and the guitar starts to pick a melody. I only need to hear it once and that bit is stuck in my head for days. It makes me feel funny on the inside.
Miniature Submarines

Sarah Blasko photo by Will Reichelt, willreichelt.com

2009 favourites
Bird On A Wire from As Day Follows Night by Sarah Blasko
Playground from Some People Have Real Problems by Sia
Recordings of Middle East by The Middle East -
King Hokum by C.W.Stoneking
Water and the Flame by Daniel Merriweather feat. Adele
The 13 by Polo Club
Sleeping On Your Style by Thundamentals
Jane Tyrell, The Herd/Firekites

My 2009 fave was called Last Days by Sydney rapper/producer called Fame. Surely Australia's first online mixtape 'leak', Last Days is perfection. You'll feel i) deeper ii) tougher and iii) happier for having downloaded it.

A Mouthful Of Gold EP by Ghoul
Definitely one of the most original and exciting releases to come out of Australia, let alone Sydney. Can't wait for the album.
John Hussell, Seekae

I'm going to go with Heavy Profession by St. Helens as I don't think it got the attention in 2009 that it deserved. I'm not sure if it was my favourite Australian album of the year but it's got this loose, vaguely claustrophobic vibe that I really dig.
Sean, A Reminder

FBi listeners tweet about their fave local releases of the year

Some short-and-sweet picks

Pick of 2009: Gold Canary by Cloud Control (with an honourable mention going to Super Wild Horses for their debut 7").
Dan Pash, Leader Cheetah

Street Bananas by Blank Realm – criminally overlooked kosmiche psych-drone from Brisbane, with an album on Digitalis.
Stuart Buchanan, presenter of New Weird Australia on FBi

My favourite Australian album of 2009 was Easy/House Music by Mum Smokes.
Steve Phillips, Sensory Projects

Here We Go Down The Black Hole by Shady Lane
This album is beautiful and heartbreaking.
Conrad from Richard In Your Mind

First Names by Do The Robot
Ambrose Nock, Apricot Rail

The 13 by Polo Club. Also, any of Aoi's demos from this year.
Brendan Webb, Baddums/ex-Sandpit

Favourite single: Silver Line by Faux Pas
Alexandra Savvides, presenter of Saturday Overhang on FBi

The Sound of Trees Falling on People by Seekae
This record is just an elegantly made album packed with soothing, ambient sounds – as if it’s almost soft to touch. Simply beautiful.
Ro, Those Walls Your Ears.


Mr.Miles said...

ah! Such amazing work Lee Tran! Everything on this page is amazing.

I will have to take your loop-hole and say Seekae's album has been my fav this year. Over the past 12 months last.fm tells me i've clocked up about 1600 plays, making them my second highest played artist and leaving them wedged between Radiohead and The National- pretty good company methinks :)

Philippe said...

Ah Lee Tran, you are the list collator extraordinaire. I can't really decide on what my best album / track is of this year. I think I may needa bit more of a think of it, although I think I might be cheating as I only really got exposed to more music in the latter half of this year.