This year I found myself troubled by the extent to which high-profile blogs and music sites seemed to be coming to a critical consensus, their coverage converging on the same 20 or so artists. Happily, whenever I began to despair and wonder "Is there really nothing else out there?" my faith in the continued creative potential of recorded music would be renewed by yet another amazing album coming out of the town I know best—Portland. Here are a few of my personal favorites from 2009:
1. What's Up?—Content Imagination
What's Up? Oh, not much, just making the most forward-thinking instrumental rock album in years—one that creates a musical gumbo in which King Sunny Adé, Zach Hill, Roger McGuinn, and R.O.B. the Gyromite robot can communicate, and that can be enjoyed by listeners who like to count mixed meters, memorize circuitous melodies, consider compression settings, and/or just dance their asses off. That the band recently returned to Sacramento, their headquarters before moving to Portland in '08 (to engineer Dirty Projector's Bitte Orca, no less), and that the band's future is up in the air does nothing to diminish the fact that this album is the finest kind of beast, and my favorite local record of 2009.
2. Alan Singley and Pants Machine—Feelin' Citrus
I can't think of an album this year that was less in step with the fleeting trends of contemporary musical culture than Feelin' Citrus. That it is also one of the most enjoyable, melodically memorable, and open hearted is not so much a condemnation of the reigning sound as a testament to Alan Singley's innate talent and dedication to learning lessons from the less fashionable, Brill-pedigreed pop masters of the past: Songs performed by a large jazz ensemble ring as true as the jams kicked out by the uncuffed Pants Machine, further evidence that Singley might be composing some of Portland's most timeless tunes.
3. Nucular Aminals—self-titled
Statistical analysis of Billboard charts and audience preference has supposedly concluded that two minutes and 42 seconds is the perfect length for a pop song. If that's so, then Nucular Aminals' debut EP makes a strong case that the ideal length for a perfectly imperfect pop song is somewhat less, given that all eight tracks clock in under that mark and do all the wrong things in the right ways. This rough-edged indie-pop quartet appears to have drunk from whatever polluted well imparted definitive off-kilter songsmiths—Frank Black, Daniel Johnston, Stephen Malkmus, Robert Pollard—with the intuition to know exactly when to cut the craft and when to deploy it.
4. Ah Holly Fam'ly—Reservoir
Upon first hearing Reservoir, all of the reservations I had about Ah Holly Fam'ly and their feathery, breeze-borne, idiosyncratic chamber folk simply fell away. From the sweet pizzicato pining of opener "Young Veins" to the trilling "Kashmir"-by-way-of-early-Disney-cartoon-scores of album highpoint "Lucky Peak," this clan uses the eightfold possibilities of their woodwinds, strings, percussion, and male/female vocals not to overwhelm with the graceless force of overeager crescendos and blunt harmonies, but to bewitch with the soft touch of thoughtful arrangements and lightheaded counterpoint. Making delicate, even frail, music that retains a sense of fun, wonder, and emotional range is a difficult feat, but as Reservoir gradually reveals, not an impossible one.
5. YACHT—See Mystery Lights
In evaluating the most fully developed album thus far from the cloud-hosted iBrain of electro-artisans Jona Bechtolt and new-ish bandmate Claire Evans, I am tempted to dismiss all of the extra-musical elements—the pyramid-scheme-as-performance-art conceit, the pseudo-religious aesthetics, the DIY self-actualization messaging—and simply focus on the fact that fully half of See Mystery Lights is cast from pure pop platinum (or silicon, or whatever). Heck, lead single "Psychic City (Voodoo City)," with its lyrics cribbed from an obscure Rich Jensen K Records cassette release from 1987, is the most successful act of musical reappropriation I've ever heard, strong enough to carry an album on its own. But part of what sets See Mystery Lights apart from its predecessors is the way it engages with its own history and context, consequently capturing some of the interactive magic that has been the beloved hallmark of YACHT live shows.