This has been one of the most difficult years to rank the best overlooked CDs. It’s not for lack of quality. In fact, it seems with each succeeding year, more CDs that deserve strong consideration for this list cross my desk.
And 2009 brought dozens of worthy albums from across all genres that unfortunately seemed to fly under the radar of most media outlets and record buyers — an understandable situation in an age when technology has made it possible for virtually anyone to make a CD, post songs on the Internet and gain the attention of concert-goers and the media.
In the end, I settled on these CDs as the best albums of 2009 that deserved far more attention than they received.
The Hard Lessons: “Arms Forest” (QK) — Hailing from the fertile Detroit music scene, the Hard Lessons have built a reputation as one of the city’s finest exports over a series of EPs and a full-length CD. But “Arms Forest” is where the group, led by Augie Visocchi and Korin Louise Visocchi, has made spectacular good on its earlier promise. “Arms Forest” is anchored by several hard-hitting rock tunes that also deliver a strong punch of melody, including “Sound the Silent Alarm,” “The Arms Forest” and “Tired Straits (Nothing but Time).” But this is hardly a one-trick CD. For instance, “Talk It Over” is an epic ballad built around a powerhouse vocal from Korin Louise Visocchi, while “Wedding Ring” is a ghostly and elegant ballad. The stellar quality and ambitious range of “Arms Forest” puts it in a class with 2009’s very best albums. Too bad the CD escaped the notice of radio and most of the music media. The Hard Lessons should be stars.
The Dear Hunter: “Act III: Life and Death” (Triple Crown) — Green Day and the Decemberists got most of the ink this year for doing concept albums. But the Dear Hunter’s “Act III: Life and Death” showed a similar command of the art of the pop opera. This CD, the third in a trilogy of theme albums by the group led by Casey Crescenzo, takes the music in a particularly grand direction. “Act III’s” songs have strong pop hooks, but this is nevertheless a CD that has its share of complexity. That means “Act III” may take a few spins to reveal all its virtues. But the patient listener will be rewarded with a rich album that becomes more addictive with time.
Band of Skulls: “Baby Darling Doll Face Honey” (You Ar Here/Shangri-La) — Wolfmother may be getting famous by being the best Led Zeppelin cover band not playing Led Zeppelin songs. But when it comes to making music that borrows from sources such as the mighty Zep or Black Sabbath (not to mention the raw blues that influenced those groups) without sounding like an imitation of Zep and Sab, Band of Skulls should be opening more eyes than more-celebrated counterparts such as Wolfmother.
Von Bondies: “Love, Hate and Then There’s You” (Majordomo Records) — Until now, the Von Bondies have been best known because of a 2003 fight frontman Jason Stollsteimer had with Jack White of the White Stripes. And after failing to live up to the hype that preceded its 2004 debut, “Pawn Shoppe Heart,” and going through personnel changes, the future of the Von Bondies looked pretty cloudy. But on “Love, Hate and Then There’s You,” the Von Bondies deliver a stirring guitar-centric collection of garage pop. Now it’s obvious why the Von Bondies were touted as the next great band from Detroit.
Wild Light: “Adult Nights” (Star Time International) — A band name like Wild Light suggests a frenzied style of rock music. Instead, “Adult Nights” reveals a band that plays sharply crafted pop that generally falls into midtempo territory. There’s nothing wrong with that because of the quality of the songwriting. With songs like the shimmering (and lyrically stinging) opener, “California on My Mind,” the elegant “Canyon City” and the driving piano pop of “My Father Was a Horse,” this CD draws you in with seductive beauty and just enough grit to give “Adult Nights” an alluring undertow.
The Verbs: “Trip” (Jay-Vee) — “Trip” has enough name-brand credentials to have been a fairly high-profile fall release. The group features Steve Jordan, the respected producer and drummer for the likes of the John Mayer Trio and Keith Richards’ X-pensive Winos, along with his wife, Meegan Voss (of the Antoinettes), who proves to be a first-rate songwriter. The CD is typified by taut, fast-paced and extremely hooky pop-rock songs such as “World’s a Mess” and “Hey Hey Uh-Huh.” Such songs make this a trip any fan of finely crafted pop-rock will want to take.
The Disciplines: “Smoking Kills” (Second Motion); Chuck Prophet: “Let Freedom Ring!” (Yep Roc); Animal Collective: “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (Domino); the Krayolas: “Long Leaf Pine” (Box Records); White Rabbits: “It’s Frightening” (TBD Records); Howling Bells: “Radio Wars” (Netttwerk); Girl in a Coma: “Trio B.C.” (Blackheart); Phoenix: “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (Glassnote); Camera Obscura: “My Maudlin Career” (4AD); David Bazan: “Curse Your Branches” (Barsuk); Alternate Routes: “A Sucker’s Dream” (Vanguard Records); Elvis Perkins in Dearland: “Elvis Perkins in Dearland” (XL); the Pains of Being Pure at Heart: “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” (Slumberland); Ali Hoffman: “This Side of Morning” (Wing Court).
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