The Year in Music: The Best Albums of 2009

The Pines, Tremolo

The Pines, Tremolo

There's a good reason that we chose to feature folk duo the Pines on the cover of this year's music wrap-up, and it's not because they make mighty fine photo subjects—it's because their latest effort, Tremolo, is one of the most delicately arranged and timeless local albums to be released this year. Though David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey trade off singing melodies, it's Ramsey's voice in particular that lives up to Tremolo's title, words wavering on his breath as he sings haunting songs about loneliness, wanderlust, and falling in and out of time with reality. The spirit of the blues is alive and well in the souls of these young Red House songwriters, and though they don't seem to fit into any of the sub-scenes their music would suggest—the West Bank folkies, the hip young old-timey revivalists, the bleeding-heart acoustic guitar-strumming crooners—their accomplished sound commands the respect of all of the above, and more.

Mason Jennings, Blood of Man

Screw whether he's playing acoustic or electric guitar—Mason Jennings's latest album is worth owning because of its gut-wrenching sincerity and unadulterated artistic freedom, the likes of which haven't been present in his work for years. While fans expressed shock at the idea of Jennings "plugging in," the more significant aspect of Blood of Man is the way it veers across the spectrum of human emotions without a shred of self-consciousness, covering loss, joy, agony, love, and anger in equally forthright measures. Whether he's strumming softly on pensive tracks like "Black Wind Blowing," doing his best Jack White rock-out on "Ain't No Friend of Mine," or taking on the war from a parent's perspective in "The Field," Jennings exhibits a refocused dedication to singing on his own terms and with his own voice.

Gary Louris & Mark Olson, Ready for the Flood

Ah, sweet relief. That's the main theme behind Ready for the Flood, the first collaboration between Jayhawks founders Gary Louris and Mark Olson since the early '90s. In contrast to the more rock-driven alt-country of their Jayhawks work, their new album reflects a softer side of their songwriting, giving their chilling, spot-on vocal harmonies plenty of room to blossom over the gentle strums of two acoustic guitars and the eerie whir of a slide guitar.

Red Pens, Reasons

Sit through a few spins of the debut album by the Red Pens and it becomes obvious why this new rock duo won our Picked to Click contest this year by a landslide. Their sound is at least five times larger than their pared-down lineup would suggest, with lead singer and guitarist Howard W. Hamilton III building a wave of fuzzy feedback that seems to compound on itself while Laura Bennett pounds away on her drums. If fate plays out the way it ought to, Reasons will be the record critics dig up years later to find out how, exactly, this band-on-the-rise got their start—a document of the origins of a group that bleeds sincerity and sweats contagious passion.

The Twilight Hours, Stereo Night

If "easy listening" didn't have such negative connotations, it might make a good descriptor for this debut release by longtime collaborators Matt Wilson and John Munson. Simply put, these songs are extremely easy to listen to, a well-calculated joy for the ears, chock full of soaring vocal hooks, catchy melodies, and call-and-response harmonies. Stereo Night is further evidence that these former Trip Shakespeare bandmates were beamed down to this planet for the sole purpose of making music with one another.

Peter Wolf Crier, Inter-Be

Though at first listen it seems that Peter Wolf Crier rest heavily on a Bon Iver influence, repeated spins of Inter-Be suggest a deeper and more interesting concept. Featuring the Wars of 1812's Peter Pisano and Laarks drummer Brian Moen, Peter Wolf Crier's take on lo-fi indie-folk is surprisingly refreshing, contrasting moments of childlike preciousness with somber undertones and the slightest hint of utter, irrefutable despair. This haunting quality, combined with their groundbreaking, intimate house-show album-release parties, make Inter-Be one of the most fascinating releases this year.

Brother Ali, Us

It'd be hard to refute Brother Ali's impact on both the local and national indie hip-hop movements, and Us is another nearly flawless volume in Ali's growing anthology. Ever the reflective truth poet, Ali spends much of Us evaluating his place in life, expressing gratitude for the progress he's made, and encouraging others to follow in his footsteps and become a part of his ever-expanding community. To sweeten the pot, producer Ant's tapestry of gospel and R&B-inspired beats perfectly accentuates the words of the Twin Cities' finest street preacher.

Anders Ponders, Nodes of Overtones

Given his years of cohabitation with members of Unicorn Basement and the Sundowners, and keeping Kitten Forever as his musical kith, one wouldn't expect Anders Mattson's first musical venture to be of such tender, soft-spoken brilliance. But out of that bramble of wild noise comes the Twin Cities' most startling debut. Nodes of Overtones is a jaw-dropping work of musical vision and discipline. Achingly acoustic and handcrafted, the one-man show exhibits a communion of songwriting and musical mastery rarely found in whole bands, let alone single performers. Listen to the album's opener, "The Discus Incident," if you dare—we haven't heard anything this honest and beautiful in years.

Vampire Hands, Hannah in the Mansion

The year 2009 was a big one for our most promising, decorated rock band—it saw the departure of former co-frontman Colin Johnson for snowier, and more academic, climes in Missoula. It saw the band reformat as a three-piece to accommodate his absence. And it saw them release one of their most complete albums to date. A year after Me and You Cherry Red made this very list in 2008, Hannah and the Mansion follows suit. It might not be the quantum leap that Cherry Red was, but it's a fine-tuning of their formula, a tightening of their song craft—a sleeker, more approachable, and infinitely more raw offering that continues the band's psychedelic meanderings into even more heady ground.

P.O.S., Never Better

At what point in a local artist's ascent does Cheapo cease filing their discs in the local section? If his current trajectory holds for just a few minutes more, that hour will be at hand for P.O.S. Accompanied by a raft of locally produced videos, hoisted skyward by soaring expectations after his monumental break-out album, Audition, and launching months and months of prominent touring, Never Better proved to be the most potent boost yet for Mr. Alexander's national currency. A solid continuation of P.O.S.'s raucous, grit-and-gravel punk posture in the hip-hop world, Never Better earned P.O.S. some of his highest marks yet.

Lookbook, Wild at Heart

Turns out there's yet more ore to be mined from '80s nostalgia. But Wild at Heart is no smash-'n'-grab of that bygone decade's remaining stock holdings. Listeners will immediately detect a solid love of the more nuanced steps in the big hits of Martika and Q Lazarus. The two-piece quickly earned major local stature on the strength of their catchy yet haunting take on classic synth pop and on singer Maggie Morrison's remote, pitch-perfect execution on every track of Wild at Heart. The Faint may have fallen, and the well of meaningful salvage may be almost dry for the big-hair decade. But Lookbook's love for its source material is true blue, and it's sincerity that endures.

Michael Yonkers & the Blind Shake, Cold Town/Soft Zodiak

Few artists in the Twin Cities can lay claim to a multi-decade career. Fewer still can be said to have remained relevant through each and every year. And even fewer can say they have recaptured new generations of listeners with brilliant collaborations. That's the kind of singular space Michael Yonkers, an inscrutable craftsman of dissonance and hand-built music-makers, occupies in our musical pantheon. His 2009 album with the Blind Shake is their second tandem release and a complete refinement of the already grand material on Carbohydrates/Hydrocarbons. With the sorry news of Yonkers's retirement, it's a bittersweet swan song for one of our greatest treasures.

Aby Wolf, Sweet Prudence

We became so enamored of Aby Wolf's haunting and mysterious vocal powers that we went ahead an named her "Best Female Vocalist" in the Twin Cities earlier this year, and her debut album is a near-perfect documentation of her remarkable abilities. Whether singing folkier songs like "Give Listen," a cappella numbers such as "Redwood Aisle," or R&B-influenced jams like "What U Waitin' 4," Wolf has established herself as one of the most versatile and flat-out gifted vocal talents to grace our scene—and with her newfound forays into jazz and experimental looping, we can't wait to see what she does next.

Honorable mentions:

Black Blondie, Do You Remember Who You Wanted to Be • City on the Make, Keep This on Fire • Gospel Gossip, the Dreamland and Drift EPs Eyedea & Abilities, By the ThroatNo Bird Sing, No Bird Sing

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