This list represents the strongest 25 albums we heard in 2009 from bands based in the Northwest. We approximated the Northwest as Vancouver to the North, Eugene to the South, Boise to the East, and the Olympic Peninsula West. Even though we snuck in a few Portland bands and a Vancouver band, this is largely a list of Seattle releases. We did our best to feature the vast array of the Seattle Sound in 2009, though there’s no denying some genres fared better than others–genres that you might be surprised by, genres we were surprised by. If there was any doubt left, 2009 proved Seattle isn’t just a rock town.
2009 was an incredible year for local music in Seattle. There’ve been some unnecessary put-downs of Seattle’s musical output in 2009, because the scene didn’t spawn a new Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, or Death Cab for Cutie, and the biggest local record label didn’t sign a single Seattle band. That’s “the industry” and Sub Pop’s loss, not ours. Just because the rest of the world isn’t blasting The Maldives or Macklemore yet (or even if they never do) it doesn’t reflect poorly on the scene or the talented folks who call Seattle home. From our front row vantage point, Seattle had an embarrassment of riches in the local music department.
The local hip hop scene bubbled with excitement and slowly-but-surely burgeoned into a topic on everyone’s lips, thanks to the energy of head-turning acts like They Live!, Champagne Champagne, Fresh Espresso, Macklemore, as well as the notorious antics of Mad Rad. Across town from Pike St., Ballard Avenue continued to cultivate a tight-knit community of Americana and rockin’ country bands where pedal steel and fiddle were the instruments du jour. The Maldives, The Moondoggies, Sera Cahoone, Zoe Muth and so many others inhabited both the stages and the bars at the Conor Byrne, the Sunset Tavern, Hatties Hat, and the now 15-year-old environs of the Tractor Tavern, feeding a spirit of collaboration and verve. King Cobra, a rock club which opened up in 2008 in the wake of the Crocodile Cafe’s closing, shut its doors after barely a year of rough business–just in time for a newly revamped Crocodile (without the Cafe in the name) to reclaim its place in March as one of the premier venues in Seattle to see live local music.
While Seattle didn’t spawn a new Fleet Foxes sized success in 2009, we certainly won’t be surprised if a few of the many bands on this list find national attention come 2010. No matter what, we’ll look back on 2009 with warm nostalgia as a vibrant year of local music, when we saw these bands play in living rooms and local bars: the year Seattle knew the words before everyone else could sing along.
25. Zebra by Karl Blau (K Records)
Psychedelic shape-shifter Karl Blau creates an utterly Northwest soundscape that identifies strongly with the output of the Haight-Ashbury facilitated psych movement, as well as the more modern creative likes of Grizzly Bear. “Waiting for the Wind” reminds me of Esquivel’s avant, arty piano, while “Welcome in NW” sounds like it was banged out of an actual sixties basement, fueled by homegrown psilocybins. “‘Tha Ole Moon Smile” makes me do a “Is this a Sixto Rodriguez cut I haven’t heard?” double-take every time. Each new song turns in a completely different direction. By the end you’re left dazed, trying to decipher where you started and what just happened. What happened was Blau presented a reverent journey into musical history through a warped and hazy Technicolor filter. [Josh]
24. From Slaveships to Spaceships by Khingz (self-released)
Much like D. Black’s record this year, Khingz’ From Slaveships to Spaceships finds an MC ignoring hip-hop’s self-imposed strictures about toughness and content, and succeeding through sheer force of purpose and humor. Even though MC Khalil Equiano left town for a while and now lives in British Columbia with his significant other, he obviously loves his hometown scene and returned to the Northwest with this new album in tow, showcasing a rapid-fire rhyming style and spitting dense, wordy verses filled with references to science fiction and his former life on Seattle’s Southside. This is another record distinguished by its brazen autobiographical nature and the surety of the conclusions that follow. “Intellect is a weapon,” he says in “Escape Society.” “You’re at war, please respect it, your struggle is a blessing, embrace, don’t deflect it.” Hip-hop was once widely known as a vehicle for imparting social understanding, and Khingz’ latest is his contribution toward seeing it return once more to that primary function. [Josh]
23. Life On Earth by Tiny Vipers (Sub Pop Records)
Each time I listen to this record I’m reminded that I should probably mentally prepare myself before taking in a whole Tiny Vipers record, unsure if the tears that will inevitably form in my eyes are due to the inherent sadness being communicated, or if I can attribute it to the effect of the one-of-a-kind voice of Jesy Fortino. Four songs in, “Dreamer” hits the headphones; as she coos, “I’m dying for a way out,” I feel as though I’m vibrating on an inter-dimensional frequency, able to sense every haunting ghost, able to see each person’s natural aura of sadness in hues of deep blue. Even though I know this record isn’t for everyone, and though I can’t guarantee you’ll like this record as much as I did, I can guarantee it will change your perspective. If you let it, Life On Earth will overwhelm you. Whether you like it or not, the remainder of your day after a listen is liable to be heightened emotionally because of it. [Josh]
22. The Way We Live by Erik Blood (self-released)
It’s very possible that Erik Blood went around to every hot studio in London ,yoinked every good idea he heard and used it for himself. If he didn’t, maybe they should be coming to him, because he clearly has lots of good ideas. Early on, the title track, “To Leave America,” and “Home & Walk” all synthesize the best of the expansive guitar and organ Brit-rock sound (think Doves), while later in “Broken Glass” and “Too Early & Too Late” we’re notified Blood also has a handle on turning uncomplicated rhythms into sonically interesting pop songs that also sound modern. My one criticism of the record would be that the material is all over the place, and maybe he should have stuck to a rock record instead of including the final two R&B inspired cuts. But then again, “Better Days” is one of the stronger tracks on the record, fusing soul-ish singing with very rock backing to unexpectedly great results. There is something to be said for being able to do experiment with anything and make it sound not just good, but as good as those who do it best. [Josh]
21. Ali’Yah by D. Black (Sportin’ Life Records)
Though much of the recent focus on Seattle hip-hop has been tied to the so-called “3rd-wave” of party rap, one can’t ignore the continued influence of the second wave and its socially conscious approach to concept and performance. In his second album, Ali’Yah, D. Black does a 180 from his previous effort–a stereotypical rap record where he thought he had to be hard–instead opting to be completely REAL about his choices, his identity, and his mistakes. The record is an indictment of his former gangsta self, and by dropping in “The Return,” “I can’t associate with them fake ones/to add to their fake bullets coming out of fake guns,” he’s no doubt turning his back on old friends and the possibility of success by usual means. Yet one can only come away from this record with the conclusion that D. Black is not only confident in his conviction, but righteous. As I said earlier this year, “the force of his example on this record serves to quash any weak retorts that it’s not so easy to turn your back on the game. Not simply inflammatory words, he’s genuinely attempting to engage a nuanced conversation from the inside.” [Josh]
20. Shouting At A Silent Sky by Shane Tutmarc (self-released)
For almost the entirety of his musical career, Shane Tutmarc has been on a journey through history, beginning with an intense interest in classic pop lyricists before more recently being entranced by the gospel recordings of Elvis and the songs of the South. Billed as his first solo effort as Shane Tutmarc, Shouting At A Silent Skyis also probably the most complete, and therefore satisfying, of his recent records–though the Traveling Mercies records are notable themselves for their raw pre-rock quality. By recruiting a few ringers to form his studio support (local producer Johnny Sangster among them), Shane was able to focus on just being Shane at the mic, and the practiced performer really showed through. If Shane’s music occasionally seems styled from another era, just remember that when they came up with the term ‘Rock n’ Roll’, this is what they were talking about: dirtied up blues and church numbers warning about “Crimes of Passion” and the dangers of “Idle Hands.” [Josh]
Read the rest of Sound on the Sound’s Top 25 Northwest Albums of 2009 after the jump