Muruch’s Top 15 Albums of 2009

It’s that time of year again! Following are my Top 15 Albums of 2009. As usual, I tried to balance the order of the list between what I personally perceive as artistic merit (quality of songwriting, vocals, and instrumentation) and basic listenability (how many times I played the album throughout the year). I’ve included some new commentary and brief quotes from the original reviews. Click on the album titles to read the full reviews, purchase the albums, and in some cases download mp3s…

Muruch’s Top 15 Albums of 2009

15. Joshua James: Build Me This

…all dusty roads and sunsets buoyed by rock guitar and drum crashes that eventually give way to sprawling piano and mournful strings” – As his previous release did on 2008’s list, Joshua’s album pushed its way onto this list at the last minute. I suppose it’s the subtlety of his music that prevents it from being more prominent in my memory, but it wasn’t until I listened to the album again that I remembered its excellence.

14. Rykarda Parasol: For Blood and Wine

…noirish rock sound with lyrics that alternate between whiskey-splashed cabaret and blood-soaked Gothic poetry” – I haven’t had much time to get to know this new release, but it’s already a favorite. I hope more people pay attention to Rykarda’s unique talent.

13. Sharon Isbin: Journey to the New World

… elegant, Medieval chamber-folk instrumentals and haunting traditional vocal pieces ” – This was a surprise. My enjoyment of instrumental music has grown tremendously this year, but I usually place a higher value on vocals. But this lovely album has been one that I’ve returned to and enjoyed many times over the year.

12. Maura O’Connell: Naked With Friends

…Maura O’Connell’s unparalleled vocal power is beautifully displayed in her impressive new album” – This one was sabotaged by the amount of emotion Maura’s voice rips out of me. It’s a gorgeous album from beginning to end, I just have to be in a particular mood to listen to it.

11. Luminescent Orchestrii: Neptune’s Daughter

…filled to the brim with the kind of warped traditional Eastern European music that made me love Luminescent Orchestrii in the first place” – I really expected this to be #1 when I first reviewed it and the stand out tracks are absolutely stunning, but overall I don’t listen to it nearly as much as the albums below.

10. White Lies: To Lose My Life

…dark, catchy synth-rock with a slight retro Goth feel…think “Blue Monday” by New Order” – This ominously infectious little album worked its way up the list throughout the year. The title track in particular is one that echoes in my head long after the music has stopped.

9. The Decemberists: Hazards of Love

…The Decemberists transformed themselves into the hard rock progeny of Led Zeppelin for portions of the album” – This magnificent concept album may be #1 when it comes to artistic merit, but it lacks the overall listenability of others on the list. Still, it’s one of the more impressive projects of the year.

8. Morrissey: Years of Refusal

…finally puts his pipes to good use over soaring rock arrangements” – I loved this album when I first reviewed it and put it on heavy rotation last winter, but hadn’t listened to it much since then. Playing it again made me wonder why I neglected it for so long. If albums have personalities, it has the strongest of the year.

7. Sonos: Sonosings

…whether humming in such hushed tones or belting to the rafters as in latter tracks, there’s an elegance to each note the sextet sings” – This was another release that faded in my memory until I dug it out again and rediscovered how wonderful it is. Now I love it even more than I did when I reviewed it. The duet with Sara Bareilles on “Gravity” is very moving, and their a cappella cover of “White Winter Hymnal” is one of the loveliest recordings I’ve ever heard.

6. Muse: The Resistance

…Integrating classical and opera music into their theatrical electro-rock sound, Muse have created one of the most exciting song cycles I’ve ever heard” – The brilliance and complexity of Muse’s album still surprises me every time I listen to it. Not only do I love this album, but it’s the one that everyone I know immediately asks about when I play it.

5. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears: Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is

…the kind of guttural, robust, bluesy soul of James Brown and Screaming Jay Hawkins” – I’ve played this countless times and it’s probably the most fun listen of the year.

4. Gaba Kulka: Hat, Meet Rabbit

…marries foreboding metal guitar and militant drums to pretty piano and angelic backing vocals, reminding us of Gaba’s fondness for Iron Maiden” – The Top 4 albums on this list are pretty much interchangeable. This is probably the most unusual and creative album on my list. I’ve known Gaba for almost a decade now, and I was happy to see her popularity in Poland skyrocket this year. I think she’s going to be a huge international star someday.

3. Vienna Teng: Inland Territory

…a breathtaking blend of militant beats and orchestral strings” – I loved this album from the beginning, but it also turned out to be a grower as repeated listens revealed even more layers to its beauty. It is definitely the most beautiful release of the year, but there are two albums I’ve listened to more…

2. Great Northern – Remind Me Where The Light Is

…Ominous instrumentation is barely restrained as Stolte’s sultry croon initially floats in” – If the order of this list was based solely on the number of times I’ve listened to an album this year, Great Northern would’ve been #1 by a landslide since I’ve played the album nearly every day since March. It may not be the innovative recording on this list, but it is certainly the most addictive. Only one man could keep it from the top spot…

1. Kurt Vonnegut & Dave Soldier: Ice-9 Ballads

…I can’t imagine a more perfect score for my favorite novel of all time” – The quote says it all. This album had an edge since it was based on my favorite book (Cat’s Cradle) and featured my favorite author (Vonnegut), but Soldier’s innovative compositions helped push it to the top of the list. If my imagination had a soundtrack, this would be it.

Sonos: SonoSings

Six-piece vocal ensemble Sonos perform a cappella covers of songs by popular indie artists. But this is no bland choir. Thanks to the presence of human beatbox Ben McLain and the innovative way their male and female harmonies are arranged, their covers are often more interesting than the originals. I was introduced to the group last April when they performed live at Mountain Stage. Their debut full-length SonoSings will be released by Verve Records on September 15th.

The album quietly begins with the Bon Iver cover “Re: Stacks.” I think a stronger song may have been a better choice for the opener. But whether humming in such hushed tones or belting to the rafters as in latter tracks, there’s an elegance to each note the sextet sings.

The cool, vibrating rendition of Radiohead’s “Everything In Its Right Place” that follows is more impressive, and Sara Bareilles herself joins Sonos for a rhythmic a capella recording of her song “Gravity.” I personally prefer both of these covers over the originals.

However, the studio version of “Again and Again” (originally by The Bird & The Bee) doesn’t translate as well as it did in their live performance. Sadly, this is somewhat true of the album in general. The fault obviously lies in the smooth production, which dampens the dynamics of the individual vocals. I know from hearing them sing unaccompanied in concert that these six voices need no such help or effects.

Still, the studio polish is only a minor irritation in most cases. The delicately atmospheric takes on Imogen Heap’s “Come Here Boy” and Bjork’s “Joga” are much more successful.

Sonos save their most stunning cover for last. To say their vocals on Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal” are gorgeous and chill-producing may be cliché, but it’s true.

Sonos – Everything In Its Right Place (mp3 expired) *

*mp3 posted for a limited time w/ permission of ThinkPress PR on behalf of Verve Records

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Maura O’Connell: Naked With Friends

Maura O’Connell’s unparalleled vocal power is beautifully displayed in her impressive new album. Naked With Friends is the Irish singer’s humorous way of describing this very serious and poignant work of vocal art. Determined to show that “just a singer” can possess as much talent as any musician, O’Connell recorded this collection of a cappella performances with the help of singers Kate Rusby, Dolly Parton, The Settlers Connection, Jerry Douglas, Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Dugas of The Duhks, Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Clannad’s Moya Brennan, Mary Black, Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott, Paul Brady, Liam Bradley, Declan O’Rourke, and Áine Derrane.

Maura’s haunting a cappella opens “The Bright Blue Rose”. The earthy depths of her voice are so astounding, I wish she were unaccompanied for the duration for the song. But Kate Rusby, Dolly Parton, and The Settlers Connection make for a pretty choir on the song.

Jerry Douglas joins Maura for a gut-trembling performance of the traditional “Mo Sheamuseen”, Crooked Still‘s Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Dugas of The Duhks provide ethereal harmony on the ballad “Arrow”, and Alison Krauss contributes her soft croon to a cover of “Some People’s Lives”.

Tim O’Brien is outshone by O’Connell’s pipes on “The Blacksmith”, but Paul Brady does a fine job of keeping up with her on the traditional “Anach Cuain”. But you really must leave it to Irish gals to sing with each other, such as when Altan’s Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Clannad’s Moya Brennan (formerly known as Máire Brennan), and Mary Black lend their voices to “I Know My Love”.

Maura sings solo on a few tracks, beginning with a rafter shaking take on “Ae Fond Kiss” by Robert Burns. She also delivers a stunning rendition of Joan Armatrading’s “Weakness in Me”, which is one of my favorite songs of all time. The result is one of the most chill-producing vocals I’ve ever heard. Those who have heard the original know it’s difficult to imagine anyone successfully mimicking Armatrading’s heart wrenching delivery, let alone bringing anything fresh to the song. Yet the delicate trill and deep chasm of O’Connell’s voice evokes new facets of emotion from the tune.

Maura O’Connell – The Bright Blue Rose (mp3 link removed) *

*mp3 hosted by & posted w/ permission of Welk Music & Sugar Hill Records

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