Year in Review: John Metzger's Top Studio Albums of 2009

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2009, Volume 16, #12

Written by John Metzger

Mon December 14, 2009, 06:30 AM CST

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U2 - No Line on the Horizon

1) U2 - No Line on the Horizon

U2 recently expressed its dismay over the middling sales of its recent album No Line on the Horizon. Apparently, after all this time, the band still isnít satisfied with the knowledge that it created another truly great effort. When No Line on the Horizon was issued back in March, U2 immediately began dropping hints that it already was thinking about a sequel. Alas, if the market isnít there, the outfit is likely to take a break to reconsider its options. In other words, there likely wonít be a Zooropa-style encore to No Line on the Horizonís Achtung Baby-like shuffling of the deck. To help pay for the over-the-top theatrics of its current stage show, U2 rapidly assembled another round of tour dates for next summer. Time will tell, however, if the band decides to abandon its push for the acceptance of No Line on the Horizon in favor of performing a few more nuggets from its back catalogue, though one can only hope that this isnít the case.

No Line on the Horizon might take some time to embrace, but itís worth making the effort. To its credit, U2 left a few easy entry points scattered throughout the album, but ultimately, the outfit is now paying the price for its past transgressions. In truth, the real problem plaguing U2 is, perhaps, one of overexposure. Whenever it has something to offer the masses, the group never fails to show up just about everywhere. At times, U2 seems to be trying so hard that it feels as if the band is just going to ram its songs down the worldís collective throat.

U2ís decision to affix its image to an iPod marketing campaign a few years ago may have been the final straw. Vertigo was a terrific tune that lost its soul to the act of selling a technological fad. By the time that U2 began performing Get On Your Boots on every television program imaginable, the damage was already done. Many people simply tuned the song out. The result is that No Line on the Horizon was dismissed before it even had a chance to arrive. Itís a shame, too, because in creating the endeavor, U2 once again stole a page from The Beatlesí play book by crafting a new sound from the shattered wreckage of its familiar formula.

Radiohead and Wilco are the only bands working today that truly seem to be challenging U2 on its terms. Because they came late to the game, however, neither of them has a track record that is nearly as long. Therefore, it simply is too soon to tell if they have the durability to remain as astoundingly vital when they are as old as U2.

Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

2) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

There has been some debate over how autobiographical Neko Caseís latest outing Middle Cyclone really is. Many outsiders have claimed that itís her most personal album to date, while Case has stated that any resemblance to her own life is purely a coincidence. The truth likely lies somewhere in between these perspectives. Itís difficult to imagine that Caseís own philosophies and lyrics donít infiltrate the stories that she tells. By contrast, she clearly follows an ambitious, artistic path when it comes to writing material. A similar statement could be made about her arrangements, which swirl around her words, filling them to life. Perhaps the most important thing about Middle Cyclone, though, is that itís easy to embrace simply because there is so much to admire. The outing might not be a huge departure from its predecessor, but Case clearly has demonstrated that when she showed immense growth, maturity, and poise on Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, it wasnít a fluke.

John Fogerty - The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again

3) John Fogerty - The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again

In 1970, when he began to work on Pendulum, John Fogerty was consciously trying to find a way of broadening Creedence Clearwater Revivalís approach. Although his ideas were good, his gambit ultimately wasnít as successful as it should have been because his band was falling apart at the seams. Since his re-emergence in the 1990s, Fogerty has spent his time making peace with his past and reacquainting himself with his back catalogue. Save for a song here and there ó most notably the Elvis Costello-inspired Radar and the Ramones-imbued Sheís Got Baggage ó he mostly has adhered to his tried-and-true script.

In its own, strange way, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again, Fogertyís latest project, finds him moving forward for the first time in years. The effort may have been constructed from the bits and pieces of his past. Yet, by covering songs written by his peers and influences, Fogerty explores a number of interesting avenues that shed light on his canon in a completely natural fashion. In other words, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again is a fun album with some serious side effects, and its aftershocks likely will reverberate through Fogertyís work for years to come.

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

4) Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

Thereís no denying the fact that American Idiot was a terrific album. Nevertheless, with its confidence bolstered, Green Day seriously raised the stakes on its latest endeavor 21st Century Breakdown. In fact, the groupís latest opus is so strong that it makes its predecessor look like a warm-up act. As strange as it may seem, 21st Century Breakdown took shape while Green Day was in the midst of adapting American Idiot for the stage. Although the albumís narrative arc is less clearly defined, its songs seem to be even better suited to being translated into a musical theater piece. Providing the quick thrill of an adrenaline rush, 21st Century Breakdown strikes hard and fast. Its melodies are sharply conceived, and its lyrics address some of the underlying issues of the crumbling American empire. With its past two efforts, Green Day has gained a new lease on life. While the odds of achieving the same level of success with a third conceptual effort arenít very good, it would be crazy at this point to bet against this zany trio from Oakland.

Levon Helm - Electric Dirt

5) Levon Helm - Electric Dirt

Having beaten cancer, Levon Helm has now turned his attention toward surviving in the music business. To help maintain his sanity, he created a wonderful little haven for himself at his home in Woodstock, where he turned his barn into a recording studio and performance space. Over the past few years, he has been inviting friends and family to join him for a series of intimate sing-along showcases. Recently, The Black Crowes paid a visit, which resulted in Before the Frost..., the most organic outing in the groupís canon. Meanwhile, Helm followed Dirt Farmer, his Grammy-nominated set from 2007, with Electric Dirt. Although Dirt Farmer certainly benefitted from the feel-good story of Helmís transcendence over his disease, Electric Dirt simply stands on its own accord as one of the better albums in his canon. In fact, many of its songs ó which range from covers of the Grateful Deadís Tennessee Jed and Randy Newmanís King Fish to Helmís depiction of American agriculture in Growing Trade ó could go toe-to-toe with his legendary output with The Band.

Chris Smither - Time Stands Still

6) Chris Smither - Time Stands Still

Each year, Chris Smither seems to issue another wonderful album that largely goes unnoticed by the masses. Even by his standards, though, Time Stands Still is a gem. Smither doesnít really try to reinvent himself from one outing to the next. Instead, he makes only minor modifications to his softly finger-picked, folk-and-blues style. By tackling songs penned by Bob Dylan and Mark Knopfler, Smither provides newcomers with a good idea of what they can expect. His music is as soul-stirring as it is transfixing. Meanwhile, his lyrics veer toward the philosophical. As Time Stands Still progresses, its intensity builds to a slow boil, despite the fact that Smither never creates a ruckus. Without a doubt, Smither deserves more attention than he generally has received, but at least his avid fans still have regular opportunities to see him perform in the sorts of intimate spaces where his music is best heard.

Phish - Joy

7) Phish - Joy

On Phishís latest set Joy, Trey Anastasio makes peace with himself, his pals, and his groupís devoted followers. The most important thing about the set, though, is that it sounds like Anastasio means exactly what he says. He put his heart and soul into crafting Joy, and with help from longtime lyricist Tom Marshall, he concocted the most focused album of the bandís career. In many ways, the music on Joy encapsulates every aspect of Phishís work, and although all of the moves that Phish makes on the endeavor feel familiar, they never sound stale. The knock against Phish has always been that the ensemble is better on stage than it is in the studio. However, in the wake of Joy, this argument no longer holds much water. One outing probably isnít going to change how non-fans view Phish, but if the collective can find a way of stringing together a series of smartly conceived efforts such as Joy, its bid to enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame likely will have a firmer foothold.

Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream

8) Bruce Springsteen - Working on a Dream

Working on a Dream is a natural extension of everything that Bruce Springsteen has done in his career. Yet, it also is unlike any other album in his canon. Springsteen grew up admiring the work of producer Phil Spector, and over the course of Working on a Dream, he pays tribute to his hero. Heís tried this trick before ó most notably on Born to Runís title track ó but this time, he uses every instrument at his disposal to give each tune on the endeavor a big, full, pop-oriented sound. Springsteen revels in the musical jubilation, melding Beatle-esque tones and Byrds-ian jangle into the mix. The sparse, acoustic ambience of The Wrestler stands in stark contrast to the rest of the affair. This is for good reason, too ó it was added to Working on a Dream at the last minute. Yet, it also nails down the collectionís overriding theme that without perseverance, strong focus, and a defined set of goals, it is impossible to achieve anything in life.

Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

9) Elvis Costello - Secret, Profane & Sugarcane

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane may be a mess of an album, but at least itís a beautifully impassioned one. Its songs were plucked from a variety of projects and pieced together to create the endeavor. Consequently, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane has a strange ebb and flow that sometimes can be a little daunting to approach. Elvis Costello assembled an all-star team of session men to record the material. Framed with acoustic instruments, some of the tracks boast casual, bluegrass-tinged auras, while others embrace his infatuation with classical fare. Somehow Costello managed to pull all of it together to form a loosely knit narrative about life and love. Although he has made better efforts in his career, it is good to know not only that he is always looking for new ways of framing his compositions, but also that, in an age when singles reign, he still views his output from a broader perspective.

Pearl Jam - Backspacer

10) Pearl Jam - Backspacer

Like Bono, Eddie Vedder has a habit of getting distracted by the issues of the day. Although this often is a good thing for the world at large, it can be detrimental to his musical output. Over time, however, Pearl Jam fortunately has become as good as U2 at escaping from this trap. Still, the groupís latest effort Backspacer is somewhat surprising in that it is almost entirely free of political commentary. Instead, Pearl Jam sculpted an economical set of 11 songs that streak past with an insurgent roar. One gets the sense that the outfit didnít spend much time messing around with its material. Throughout Backspacer, the rhythms churn violently, while the guitars buzz like live electrical wires, over the top of which soars Vedderís voice ó pure and easy. The result is music that arguably is as exhilarating as Pearl Jamís concert performances.

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For additional information, please also see our other Best of 2009 Lists.

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Of Further Interest...

The Music Box's 2009 Holiday Gift Guide

Music Box Editor John Metzger's Top Albums of 2008

Douglas Heselgrave's Top Studio Albums of 2008

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