Maybe I’m mad late on these last two lists, but it’s never a bad time to catch up on the music you may have missed last year. So let’s get to it. Here are my favorite EPs from 2009, LPs comin’ at ya next.
5. Julianna Barwick – Florine
Julianna Barwick is a solo artist without many contemporary reference points. Some lazy writers have uttered the unconscionable “Enya”, but the vocal-centric haze of Florine is only debased by those kinds of offhand references. Maybe you could identify some tenuous threads to the atmospheric dream pop of Cocteau Twins or the patient drone of Grouper, but Barwick probably has a more convincing connection to Gothic choral music. Her stunning 2009 EP features a synthesizer-assisted choir of her own design, her impressive voice overlaid on top of itself in interlocking, dreamlike loops until the resulting canvas of noises subtly transforms, washing over the listener in mesmerizing waves. Florine is a surreal experience, a vaporous work that imparts you with a feeling of hazy, calm contentedness. And presumably, it’s unlike many of the records you’ve heard this year, this decade, or beyond.
4. Big Spider’s Back – Warped
Easily one of best breakthrough artists to come out of the chillwave scene, Big Spider’s Back redefined and transcended such a genre labeling last year with his latest exceptional EP. Brimming with richly textured, pulsating layers of sound, Warped may have been solely crafted by Seattle’s Yair Rubinstein with familiar and modest means — delayed guitars, ethereal synth, hypnotic sample-work — but this effort climbs to sonic heights that elude many of his supposed peers. Yair strikes a superb balance between spaced-out soundscaping and catchy, centered songcraft, staking claim to his own distinct niche amongst commonly traversed ground in 2009. Take a listen to the lush, surging sampledelic gem “Perfect Machine” down below and all will become clear. [Original Post]
3. Destroyer – Bay of Pigs
Over the course of a decade and a half, Dan Bejar has built a lengthy, satisfying discography from his bombastic, glam-and-folk-tinged rock epics. And despite his bold decision to feature extensive MIDI sequencing on 2004’s Your Blues, last year’s two track EP Bay of Pigs easily represents the most significant departure within that impressive catalog. Handily delivering on early descriptions as “Destroyer‘s first foray into the ambient disco market”, the title track is a pulsating, slow-building beast that wallows in spacey, cresendoing waves before bursting into slightly more familiar territory — though Bejar’s guitars remain a decidedly scant feature amongst its repeat-worthy thirteen-and-a-half minutes. And those familiar Destroyer tools don’t make so much as an appearance on “Ravers”, which cheekily renames and remakes buoyant Trouble in Dreams standout “Rivers” as pure electronic dirge. I get the feeling that this isn’t a permanent paradigm shift for Bejar, but nonetheless these gems combine for a surprisingly successful new approach and a great EP.
Buy: Stream and buy the whole EP over at Merge Records.
2. Bon Iver – Blood Bank
In two short years, Justin Vernon went from pretty obscure Wisconsin folk-rocker to a soon-to-be ubiquitous figure in indie music who’s work as Bon Iver has been heavily lauded by critics and listeners alike. This now hometown hero was included in last year’s big benefit comp, invited to help soundtrack a tween vampire blockbuster and was even covered by prog-rock icon Peter Gabriel for his Scratch My Back / I’ll Scratch Yours project. His latest, a follow-up EP to his breakthrough album For Emma, Forever Ago, is a fittingly meditative opus, full of Vernon’s distinct falsetto and patient, tender songcraft. “Blood Bank”, originally recorded for his Bon Iver debut, and “Beach Baby” set the emotional tone in more familiar terms before he pushes through new minimalist spaces, closing the EP with the Reich-like “Babys” and the stunning auto-tune acapella “Woods”. Those latter tracks turned out to be a nice prelude to the stellar Volcano Choir record, Vernon’s loop-heavy, experimental-pop project with Collections of Colonies of Bees, but actually witnessing his evolution of styles over Blood Bank‘s four songs makes for an even more satisfying listen. [Original Post]
1. Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind
In a career full of forward progression — artistically, critically, and in terms of their growing fan base — 2009 was undoubtedly a big year for Animal Collective. Releasing a record as anticipated and well-received as Merriweather Post Pavilion would be a monumental achievement in itself, but for a band this prolific apparently it wasn’t enough. Before the year was over, Animal Collective had released an EP of new material that some were comfortable in proclaiming as better than the impossibly excellent MPP. I’m not one of those people, but I will say that, for me, Fall Be Kind decisively ascended above much of the music released in 2009, EP or otherwise. The production is perhaps even more impressive than that of the dense Merriweather; the tones and textures here are denser still and impressively dynamic, pushing into piercing, austere extremes at one moment and glowing with diffuse warmth at others, always working in perfect tandem with it’s meticulous constructed songs. And then, of course, there’s the songs themselves. From the seemingly magic forest-soundtracking pan-flute of “Graze”, to the Grateful Dead-sampling transcendence of “What Would I Want? Sky”, all the way through the towering, hypnotic, and undeniably Panda Bear-penned “I Think I Can”, Fall Be Kind is simply one of the finest works in Animal Collective’s discography.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Beirut/Realpeople – March of the Zapotec/Holland
After indulging in his self-professed Francophile tendencies on 2007’s The Flying Club Cup, Zach Condon returned last year to further explore the music of the world in his characteristic, Balkan-obsessed style. His latest work as Beirut, March of the Zapotec, delves into the sounds of Mexico with help from Banda Jimenez of Teotitlan del Valle, a nineteen-piece funeral band whose surging, breakneck horn section exudes an authentic, gypsy-like command of their instruments. Also included with this EP is a second disc of songs recorded under an early moniker, Realpeople. Holland marks a divergence from Condon’s current grandiose compositions and a return to his roots of bedroom electro-pop, demonstrating that his pure pop sensibilities and warm croons are still moving in dramatically different contexts. [Original Post]
Download: Beirut – La Llorona
Bullion – Young Heartache
In his pursuit of heavy, honeyed, wonky hip-hop, London producer Bullion works those kind of chopped-up, psych-soul samples that one may more immediately associate with the late, great J Dilla (aka Jay Dee). Of course, considering Bullion jumped on the scene with the Dilla-themed Beach Boy’s remix album Pet Sounds: In the Key of Dee, he himself would have no issue with such a comparison. Young Heartache is very much in the same vein of his debut with its beat-heavy reworked fragments of vintage 60s pop, even sampling Carl Wilson’s white-boy soul gem “Long Promised Road” from Surf’s Up. Though this time around, Bullion’s efforts look less to others and are more song-oriented, stretching out his hazy, syncopated loops into their own succinct space. Thus far, I’d say he’s turning out to be a worthy Dilla disciple.
Drake – So Far Gone
It seems that Canadian “it” boy Drake has come about as far as you can come without releasing a full-length record. By building hype through a Myspace page, mixtapes with increasingly impressive feature spots, and later a number one, ultimately Grammy-nominated single (“Best I Ever Had”) that dropped without the support of any major label, this relatively unknown actor-turned-rapper found his name on the lips of nearly all the big decision-makers in the music industry. After a serious bidding war, Drake eventually settled on Lil’ Wayne‘s Young Money Records (with Universal set to handle distribution) and landed an utterly mind-blowing deal, especially in these times — a $2 million advance, a 75-25 split on sales, and complete publishing rights and masters ownership. His first proper release, So Far Gone, distills his mixtape of the same name that was released earlier in 2009 down to five polished, remastered bangers and adds a couple of new tracks. Drake just does what he does; whether singing or rapping or something in between, he deftly walks the line between boastful arrogance and heartfelt introspection like frequent collaborator Kanye West and effortlessly twists wordplay like mentor Lil’ Wayne. Will his debut full-length, due in March of this year, live up to the insane level of hype that’s been swirling around him? This EP may not definitively answer that question, but it’s definitely promising.
No Age – Losing Feeling
Losing Feeling was billed as a shift for Los Angeles lo-fi rockers No Age, as duo Randy Randall and Dean Spunt would join a whole mess of their peers in integrating sample-driven arrangements into their stripped-down, guitar-and-drum outfit. Turns out that their use of the MPC or SP or what-have-you was subtle, to say the least. To me, this just sounds like another solid release from these noisy dream-punks, but then again, they were always on the spacey side of things. Here catchy melodies and driving rhythms float in and out of distorted waves of feedback and fuzz, the hypnotic loops largely lurking in the folds when the songs really get going. Perhaps No Age are saving the big leap forward for their next LP? If they aren’t, Losing Feeling is clue enough that even without a change of scenery, they’re still making good music.
Sleigh Bells – 2HELLWU CD-R
Sleigh Bells features an unlikely pairing — Derek Miller, previously of bro’ed out hardcore band Poison the Well and Alexis Krauss, a former member of a straight-up manufactured teen girl pop group called RubyBlue — but after listening to these abrasive, yet sunny and often dance-ready pop assaults, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched. That’s not to say their sound is grounded explicitly in their pasts, but the spirit of each is felt in Sleigh Bell’s decidedly contemporary blitzes of guitar noise and vocals laced with sugary pop or cool hipster swagger. Think Enon meets Swizz Beatz meets Times New Viking, their party-jams pushed beyond their stylistic and sonic limits and into the red.
Download: Sleigh Bells – Crown on the Ground
Buy: This EP was a tour only release (I’m sure you could find it somewhere…), but look for their official debut to drop later this year.