Two weeks after I’d published the thing, I was already revising my list of Top 10 albums of 2009. Two additions, two deletions. That adds up to 10, right? And not a one that you can dance to. I guess I’m the last guy you’d invite to your party. Unless you want to talk about broken hearts, murder, vultures and truckloads of marijuana.
1, Neko Case. Middle Cyclone. The CD cover shows the flame-haired Case, in a short black skirt and brandishing what looks like Braveheart’s sword, poised like the ornament on the hood of a 1968 Mercury Cougar. I find this amazingly arousing: I used to own a ’68 Cougar! Not coincidentally, Case has emerged as indie-rock’s queen of smoldering smarts, a big-voiced chanteuse wrapped in lush arrangements. Nature metaphors leap from the lyrics, delivered by Case’s melancholy siren. Is she a spurned lover, or really a tornado in love, when she howls “Carved your name across three counties, ground it with bloody hides, their broken necks will line the ditch till you stop it, stop it, stop this madness….”
2, Joe Henry. Blood From Stars. A shambling, dark, uneasy record, built on cacophanies of instruments that sound as though they’re tumbling out of an old suitcase. It’s a sense of timelessness that’s run out of time, similar to Ry Cooder’s amazing Chavez Ravine and My Name is Buddy. Everyone’s uneasy here: “Somebody used my mouth, and laughed out loud.” When Henry sings of love’s chaotic impulses as “From wondrous to strange,” he may as well be singing about this beautiful album.
3, Tom Waits. Glitter and Doom Live. Waits doesn’t make it easy for you. This superb collection of live tracks is the work of a gyroscope-askew genius piloting his like-minded band into an uncontrolled spiral to the ocean. The stomping, clanging rhythms are a circus from hell. It sounds like some weird ceremony that you’ve stumbled on in the dark woods, and aren’t supposed to see. Some of Waits’ famous stage banter is included on a 35-minute second disc of odd factoids and off-kilter stories. “We’re all gonna be dirt on the ground,” he rasps, yet songs like “Fannon Street” can be unexpectedly sweet. It includes a long dissertation on vultures, which studies have shown, Waits notes, are most often injured while dining. “That’s kind of sad,” he says, “to be hit by a car while you’re eating.” You’ll also learn that there are more insects in one square mile than people on the earth, the moon smells like fireworks, you can make 14 omelets out of an ostrich egg and Spam is actually embalmed meat.
4, Vic Chesnutt. Skitter on Take-Off. I don’t know if Chesnutt is a genius, as some have claimed. But he does turn accidents to just the right angle so they catch the best light. “You were a beautiful pig,” Chesnutt croons unevenly, yet poignantly on “Feast in the Time of Plague.” His voice is sad, tending to drift to a drone, and is tuned to frequencies best left to serious students of literary eccentricity. On “My New Life,” he sings in the range of a musical saw. Here, everyone is “just another flighty human being.” Jonathan Richman, who produced this record with his longtime drummer, Tommy Larkin, can relate. Chesnutt’s portrait of Dick Cheney is brilliant, but it’s Chesnutt’s weirdness that illuminates. When he sings of “A feral cat went dashing to a dumpster there, which displaced a big brown rat that went fleeing with a comical flair,” before explaining: “We are trapped but we are free to go through the motions and be just as happy as we can be.” That’s kind of genius, isn’t it? Very sad, but not unexpected: Chesnutt overdosed on muscle relaxants and died the next day, on Christmas Day, just four days after I published this list.
5, Rosanne Cash. The List. Perhaps a bit irritated by his then 18-year-old daughter’s lack of awareness of her heritage, Johnny Cash wrote a list of the 100 essential songs of country music and gave it to her. She’s picked a dozen, and much will be made of duets with Bruce Springsteen on “Sea of Heartbreak,” Elvis Costello on “Heartaches by the Number,” Jeff Tweedy on “Long Black Veil” and Rufus Wainwright on “Silver Wings.” But honestly, sections of “Sea of Heartbreak” here sound a lot like the Boss’ “I’m on Fire.” The truth is she really doesn’t need them, as you hear Cash turn “Miss the Mississippi and You” into beautiful swing jazz, or when she pauses for a sweet violin solo on “Take These Chains From My Heart.” This is such a great idea, so respectfully executed, I’d like to hear a box set with all 100.
6, Vijay Iyer Trio. Historicity. Here is piano turned inside out. Most of these songs are covers — including “Gulang” by the Sri Lankan dance-club hit-maker M.I.A. — that Iyer decomposes into jazz. The Bernstein/Sondheim ballad “Somewhere” in particular sounds as though he’s taken the notes in hand and cast them into a brook, to be carried downstream by the clear water in any order that nature calls for. But this beautiful music is no accident. This is smart stuff by a 38-year-old pianist who is playing like the future of jazz piano. The son of Indian immigrants, I was surprised to recently learn that Iyer was born and raised here in Rochester.
7, Orenda Fink. Ask the Night. In Orenda Fink, the Nick Drake of Omaha, Neb., we have what I imagine Southern gothic novelist Eudora Welty would sound like if she were elegantly backed by mandolin, banjo, accordion and pump organ. Spookiness oozes from acoustic guitars, and nature portends certain doom: “When the water rises, they start to look for high ground, just like me when you come around,” Fink sings delicately on “High Ground.” Words such as, “Ask the night what it stole from you and, can it be returned?” can stand on their own. Yet in the stunning “The Mural” — with Fink lying on her bed, dreaming of rising up into the mural on her ceiling — it is the lush antiquarian crescendo, most notably musical saw, that succeeds in carrying Fink to that goal. A great record.
8, Pink Martini. Splendor in the Grass. I’d categorize this cabaret orchestra’s influences as the world with a martini in hand. Some of these pieces may seem lighthearted, especially “Sing,” which comes to us via the Carpenters and Sesame Street. But this is actually a smart, worldly album; the Portland, Ore., group’s singer, China Forbes, sings in five languages on this record (She’s sung in 12 over the group’s four records). Pianist and arranger Thomas Lauderdale’s ear is tuned from classical to ’60s French pop. Even when Pink Martini writes originals, they sound like charmingly vintage cocktail compositions. And re-introducing the late, eccentric jazz Viking Moondog through his “New Amsterdam” makes Splendor in the Grass doubly worthy.
9, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. A Stranger Here. Right from the start, and the cat-house piano of “Rising High Water Blues,” this old compadre of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie leans into each song with world-weary legitimacy. Sometimes the voice falters, but never the man on these 10 ancient blues songs. It sounds like bones rattling on the Reverend Gary Davis’ “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” Producer Joe Henry has done what Rick Rubin did for the later stages of the careers of Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond: Just turn on the microphones. It’s amazing how, when you leave these old legends alone and just let ’em play, they always seem to deliver the goods.
10, Ryan Bingham. Roadhouse Sun. What is it about life that can make a 28-year-old cowboy dude sound like he’s a ripped-up old soul? Ridin’ the rodeo circuit, living on your own since you were in your mid-teens, hanging out at your uncle’s saloon listening to the juke box must be what does it. “I’m a homeless man with my thumb in the wind,” Bingham sings on the audaciously titled “Dylan’s Hard Rain,” his voice so rough you want to hand him a glass of ice tea to clear the dust from his parched throat. Like a guy sitting at the bar, Bingham wonders, What’s religion doing in Congress? Then he spins a pro-pot stimulus plan: “On the border in Tijuana, people are growin’ truckloads of marijuana, maybe some day our friends will be American farmers.”