The end-of-year list-making ritual has a function: to facilitate a public discussion about which new music mattered the most to us this most recent trip around the sun. To be sure, this unquestionably flawed process stirs passions, raises hackles, and hopefully perks ears in the direction of overlooked great works. For all the debate about best-of lists, a frustrating subset of albums in a given year are typically overlooked and never discussed—because they were never truly released. While Portland certainly birthed its usual impressive brood of fantastic records in 2009—I'll get to those next week—it also produced a frustrating number of great albums that, so far, never really made it out of their makers' hard drives. Here are some of my favorites, and a plea to raise the gates to the various forces preventing their release.
There is nothing more maddening than a musical masterpiece locked away in the underground vault of a major label like some old sled with "Rosebud" painted on it, which is why Screens—the very model of a modern, major, no-filler, perfect bubblegum-electro-punk record—makes me want to tear my hair out. One would have thought that their experience with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot would have cured Warner Bros. of this kind of oblivious wastefulness, but apparently not. When, as starry-eyed kiwi youths, the Mint Chicks signed a three-album deal with venerable New Zealand label Flying Nun, they could not have foreseen Warner Bros. buying it up, leaving their third to languish unreleased in the United States (Valve put it out in New Zealand), but that's what happened. Reputable label Fat Possum nearly came to the rescue but got spooked by the prospect of working with an ungainly giant like Warner. Such an experience would leave a lesser band lifeless, but the Mint Chicks are now free of their obligations to Warner and are recording the follow-up to Screens. I, however, am not so willing to move on and strongly advise you to download Screens, one of the best records of 2009, from iTunes (the one place you can get it).
Wait, did I say that a major label senselessly sitting on a terrific album was the most maddening thing in the world? That's actually the second most maddening thing. The first is a band senselessly sitting on its own terrific album, which is the case with this unreleased alternate-world chart-topper. Sweater!, a collaboration between Anne Adams (AKA Grey Anne) and Paul Alcott of Dat'r, knits together Adams' magnetically unaffected voice and Alcott's disjointed, partyin'-professor beats to yield a strain of electro-pop that sounds like it be-bopped out of the Island of Misfit Toys. Sweater! has played only two shows, giving out 30 CD-Rs of Mockingbirds at the second one, the closest to a release this album has seen.
The only thing that primary Joggers songwriter Ben Whitesides does better than write the most entertaining, sophisticated guitar music this side of 1995 is doubt his own exceptional talents. The two albums that Joggers put out—Solid Guild and With a Cape and a Cane—stand as two of the best of the decade and, based on the few tracks that they completed subsequently and made available for free this year as Unfinished Busyness at joggers.bandcamp.com, they have a third magnum opus in them if only they could beat back their instincts for self-sabotage. It's been nearly five years since their last full album, but it's not over until it's over, and I can't help but hope that if we all clap loud enough this band will wake from its slumber to run again, waving the two-headed-guitar-serpent banner high.
Nice Nice—Extra Wow
And now, the light at the end of the tunnel. I thought this album, then already long-gestating, was coming out in 2008. Then I thought it was coming out in 2009. But now I know: April 6, 2010 on Warp Records. I have heard it, and yes, the title is justified.