The Best of 2009, Part 1: The Mainstream

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by Pico

It’s the middle of January, which can only mean we’re about a month late on those year-end lists. Oooops.

This past year, I’ve listened to perhaps a little less of the rock, pop and r&b records than in 2008, but the selections for my favorites were easier to make. Not sure why, but either a record hit the sweet spot square on or it didn’t. Two of them stood out so far above the others, it became near impossible to decide which one would get the top prize. Since I’m not gonna weenie out and split the trophy, only one got the distinction in the end.

This is just Part 1. Part 2 will cover blues ‘n’ roots. Part 3 is fusion jazz, Part 4 looks at mainstream jazz and the concluding Part 5 picks the best whack jazz records. Last year I explained the rules like this: “Each article will have it’s own ‘MVP’, or best CD (and best song) of the batch, followed by a non-ranked and non-ordered list of other recommended records of the genre. I’ll even provide links to our reviews to these records so you can get the whole Something Else lowdown on them.” That seemed to work OK last time, so we’ll work it like that this year, too.

Hand over the envelope, here are the winnahs:

Best CD Of The Batch: The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

This album breaks two rules…sort of. First of all, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin was originally released in 2008, and secondly, it’s a very rootsy album, which would seem to put this into the Blues ‘n’ Roots category. But the album didn’t gain wide release until 2009 and the eclecticism defies putting it alongside other roots albums. Instead, The Low Anthem meshes together old instruments and old ideas and makes something that sounds not old but timeless. It also didn’t hurt that the record was immaculately recorded and the vocals, especially lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller are sublime and the musicianship might be not flashy but it’s executed precisely.

Handcrafted music gets a lot of points around here. Handcrafted and original puts it at the top of the heap.

Best Song Of The Batch: Brian Blade “Mercy Angel”

The last two years this honor went to an uplifting, life-affirming ditty, and so it goes again to another such tune this year. I guess I’m a just sucker for feel-good songs. This one’s got a bit of a melancholy vibe to it, but combined with Blade’s earnest vocal rendering (along with Kelly Jones’ smooth harmony) and lyrics reflective on Blade’s own youth and the comfort of a unspecified friend or lover, something that many can find some connection to. The cherry on top of this sundae is a sublimely soulful guitar solo by uber producer Daniel Lanois. Heh, maybe it wasn’t entirely the “uplifting” thing that made me pick “Mercy Angel” as the best song after all.

Best Of The Rest:

Brian BladeMama Rosa
: On some days, this record is my pick of the ’09 litter. A world-class jazz drummer becomes a world-class singer-songwriter.
Bob DylanTogether Through Life: Dylan is charming, unpretentious and focused. And David Hidalgo’s palliative accordion is oddly effective compliment.
Gov’t MuleBy A Thread: A phenomenal blues-rock band that has yet to find the ceiling of their potential.
Porcupine Tree The Incident: A phenomenal prog-rock band that has yet to find the ceiling of their potential.
Rickie Lee JonesBalm In Gilead: Maybe, just maybe, the best singer-songwriter “Jones” in 2009 wasn’t Norah.
Diane BirchBible Belt: A fresh face on the scene who evokes many of the great female singers and composers of rock, soul and folk.
SomiIf The Rains Comes First: Neo-soul with a heavy slab of Africa and a little dash of jazz…and it’s never been done better than this.
ManassasPieces: Stephen Stills’ short-lived 1971-1972 band should have lived a lot longer, as this “odds and ends” collection proves.
Michael OlatujaSpeak: He helped to make Somi’s record a success, but Olatuja didn’t do so bad for himself, either.
Levon HelmElectric Dirt: We’re now two records into Helm’s amazing comeback. The homespun spirit of The Band is alive and well.
Wilco (The Album)
: This album has ended up on everyone’s list. Everyone is right about this one.
TortoiseBeacons Of Ancestorship: It’s not really fusion, it’s “post rock” I’m told, so I’ll put it here. Whatever it is, it’s vocal-less music that’s groovy and just a little off-kilter.
Nicki GonzalezMoron Love: Gonzalez brings a lot of experience and attitude to hard-edged rock for the first time, and ends up looking like a seasoned pro.

Next: Blues ‘n’ Roots…

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron

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