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The Best Music of 2009

Our critics recommend the year's best in folk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, rock, R&B, and more — both here and abroad.



Big Star, Keep an Eye on the Sky

Rarely has a band that produced such a small amount of music merited such accolades. But, c'mon, it's friggin' Big Star. The band had all the hallmarks of a vintage Behind the Music episode — manic-depressive founding member who dies tragically young, a brilliant former teen-idol-turned-music-sophisticate, and enough marketing mismanagement to guarantee the band cult status. But given how masterfully Chris Bell, Alex Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens turned elements of British Invasion rawness and Southern pop soul into the quintessential brand of power-pop only makes you wonder why it took so long for this four-CD set to appear. #1 Record, Radio City, and 3rd/Sister Lovers are all here in their entirety along with a glut of previously unreleased material. There's even a kickass 1973 live show included that should be a primer for any band that's ever had to play before an indifferent crowd. Taken together, it's the kind of pop manna that's great to relive or even better to discover the first time 'round. (Ardent/Rhino)

New York Dolls, 'Cause I Sez So

Reunions are always a dicey risk and that seemed to be the case when the New York Dolls reconvened in 2006 with the disappointing One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This, a record whose rambling title was far more interesting than its contents. Turns out the second time is the charm as this project looked toward the future by reuniting with past producer Todd Rundgren. This musical do-over finds the band coming across as mature musicians comfortable in their musical skins with any thoughts of engaging angst and attitude wisely being left to likes of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance. The Dolls instead continue to embrace their love of girl groups and Bo Diddley while mixing in elements of the blues, spaghetti westerns, Middle Eastern riffs, and a reggae reworking of their classic "Trash" that somehow all comes together perfectly. (Atco)

Rodrigo y Gabriela, 11:11

Dichotomy, thy name is Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero. Then again, what would you expect from a pair of street musicians who play classical guitars while drawing inspiration from Slayer and Paco De Lucia? The duo's latest all-acoustic instrumental opus finds them moving away from merely serving up unique covers of Led Zeppelin and Metallica. Instead, they play originals that give a nod to Jimi Hendrix, giving it up to Dominican jazz pianist Michael Camilo and using some Middle Eastern-flavored arrangements to pay homage to the late Pantera guitarist, Dimebag Darrell. It's definitely a trip worth taking for the musically adventurous. (ATO)

Ben Harper & the Relentless7, White Lies for Dark Times

Creatively restless is one way to define Ben Harper. He's gone from being viewed as merely being an alt-folkie embraced by the jam-band masses to getting down in a gospel way with the Blind Boys of Alabama, cutting rock-solid reggae tunes and wielding a slide guitar in a way that'll have you swear this guy is Taj Mahal's illegitimate son. Always looking to get out of his comfort zone, Harper put aside his regular sidemen, the Innocent Criminals, and hooked up with Texas trio the Relentless7. The result is more aggressive songs that embrace everything from Slim Harpo-flavored shuffles and simmering funk, to a blending of the Buzzcocks and Jimi Hendrix Experience that works in spite of itself. If this is the kind of deception we can expect according to the album title, who needs the truth? (Virgin)

PT Walkley, Mr. Macy Wakes Alone

Most people west of New York City may have never heard of Long Island native PT Walkley, but the multi-instrumentalist has opened for Coldplay at Madison Square Garden and won a Conan O'Brien College Band Search contest a number of years back. With this ambitious concept album based on a trio of characters that include a Manhattan trust-fund kid, her evil record company executive pop, and aspiring songwriter Calvin the Crooner, Walkley has turned out a highly enjoyable collection of sturdy songs. Throwing in everything from pedal steel, strings, and theremin to the standard guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter churns out an intriguing blend of sounds. Turn-of-the-century vaudeville, Dixieland, baroque Bowiesque pop, and mid-era Kinks immediately spring to mind. Mr. Macy Wakes Alone is that rare instance where the term concept album is actually an asset. (Frisbie)

The Black Crowes, Before the Frost...

It's safe to say that the Black Crowes are hitting quite the creatively rich groove now that brothers Chris and Rich Robinson are maintaining the truce that resulted in last year's stellar comeback album Warpaint. With the follow-up, the Crowes decamped before a live audience at Levon Helm's barn in upstate New York, where they cut two albums-worth of material (with the second half, ...Until the Freeze, available as a free download only). The result is an unfettered string of rootsy fare that displays a focused degree of musical range that was always hinted at on prior albums. Everything from saucy, Little Feat-like shuffles and chiming country ballads to the kind of swaggering and swinging Seventies rock replete with rollicking piano and biting slide guitar. There's even a stab at funky disco replete with wah-wah guitar and Mellotron. (Trust me, it really works.) (Silver Arrow)

U2, No Line on the Horizon

Success certainly bears its own set of crosses and U2 is living proof of that. Whether it's embracing its popularity and getting labeled sellouts or putting unorthodox twists on the creative process and getting labeled pretentious wannabes, the "biggest band in the world" endures its share of slings on a daily basis. So it goes with the band's first album in five years, a project that had its share of missteps including aborted recording sessions with producer Rick Rubin. In going back to collaborative comfort blankets Steve Lillywhite, Brian Eno, and Daniel Lanois, U2 came away with a collection of songs that benefits from a sense of restraint applied by the band. And while the wrong-step lead single "Get on Your Boots" might not reflect that, other songs like the fervent "Moment of Surrender" and ruminative Sigur-Ros-like closer "Cedars of Lebanon" suggest otherwise. The ratio of hits to misses ensures that U2 is still capable of generating enough twists to keep its place in music's hierarchy intact. (Island)

Rancid, Let the Dominoes Fall

Green Day may lock down the commercial numbers, but Rancid continues to come closest to carrying on the legacy of the Clash. The East Bay quartet's return after a six-year break yields a plethora of indignant leftism and raging fervor all wrapped up in a musical package that reaches far beyond two-minute punk anthems. Chugging psychobilly, sprightly dub, and even some double-time two-tone ska that finds Booker T. Jones playing the role of Jackie Mittoo are some of the musical colors Rancid uses for its musical canvas. Capping it off is a definitive streak of hometown nostalgia as the boys sing about Alcatraz, earthquakes, and falling freeways, all while continuing to be uncompromising while refusing to be hidebound by any one genre. (Epitaph)

John Fogerty, The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again

When John Fogerty emerged from the wreckage of Creedence Clearwater Revival as a solo act in 1973, it was under the guise of the Blue Ridge Rangers, a one-man project that found him delving into traditional country music. Quite the radical feat given how little enamored Nashville and the counter-culture were of each other at the time. Fogerty's return to his Blue Ridge Ranger persona found him expanding his band to include quintessential alt-country sideman Buddy Miller, pedal steel master Greg Leisz and returning former John Mellencamp time keeper Kenny Aronoff. The Berkeley native doesn't disappoint, joyously digging into gems by Buck Owens, John Prine, and John Denver along with rockabilly stalwart Gene Simmons. A duet with Bruce Springsteen on the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" even avoids sounding remotely gratuitous. (Verve Forecast)

Chris Isaak, Mr. Lucky

It's hard not to end up liking Chris Isaak despite the fact that the guy seems to have it all — good looks, charm, and a solid-enough music career that's earned him work in film and television. But then you listen to an album like this, his first in seven years, and all of a sudden, you end up not hating on the guy as much. As retro as Isaak may tend to get, the breezy way he sings and plays pulls you in whether he's getting all Les Paul with a ditty like "Take My Heart," giving the Bakersfield by way of New Orleans treatment to the loping gem "We've Got Tomorrow," or pouring his heart out amid the noirish ambience of "Cheater's Town," makes you forget all the Roy Orbison comparisons. He even gets a pass on duets with Trisha Yearwood and Michelle Branch that appear to be marketing maneuvers but end up being far better than that. (Wicked Game/Reprise)