Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Underdog Albums of 2009: Part II

[This is Part Two of a Two-Part post. Part One can be found here.]

Today's post continues on where yesterday's left off, highlighting two more of 2009's best records from lesser-known artists.

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Loyauté / Glassnote / V2]

Of the five albums on my "list," this is the one that doesn't quite fit the theme of "underdog albums." Veteran French pop-rock group Phoenix are indeed garnering a good deal of praise for this, their fourth full-length release in their ten-year history; a much blogged about appearance on SNL, an 8.5 from Pitchfork, and a #37 spot on the US Billboard 200 are certainly not indicative of "lesser-known artists." Still, few would have predicted Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would be the album to bring the band the global fame they seemed to be made for.

Back in 2006, after Phoenix released one of my favorite albums of the decade, It's Never Been Like That, I wrote in a year-end retrospective, "It's utterly shocking that French alt-pop band Phoenix hasn't been plastered on billboards, commercialized to no end, and replayed thousands of times on US radio stations." Pitchfork placed that album at #13 on their top 50 of the year, doing their part to boost the group's cred, but still it seemed no one would take them seriously.

What changed? First, they went bigger. Lead single "1901," which rivals their best tracks (and they have some absolute monsters), adds giant electro-flares to their trademark guitar/kick drum rhythms. Second, they finally nailed the consistency/flow thing. While Never got the former right, without a dud in the bunch, it still somehow felt weighed down. Wolfgang, however, is more carefully ordered. Some critics have claimed it's frontloaded, when in fact, the last four tracks, particularly the momentous closer "Armistice," make up a better stretch than the middle chunk. Last, they took an admirable risk with "Love Like a Sunset," a near-eight-minute, two-part behemoth that acts as an album fulcrum, that paid off immensely. Simply, Phoenix may be my favorite singles band of the decade, but this is pretty easily my favorite album of 2009.

Visit Phoenix's official website here.
Watch Phoenix play "Lisztomania" & "1901" live on SNL here.

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit [Lightning Rod]

In 2007, much fuss was made about Jason Isbell's exit from Southern/alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers. Credit Isbell, formerly one of the group's three lead singer/songwriters, for two of the band's best tracks in their final two albums together, "The Day John Henry Died" and "Daylight." As such, I wasn't all that surprised that his debut solo record, 2007's Sirens of the Ditch, was pretty damn tight. "Dress Blues," in particular, which told the story of US Marine Corporal Matthew Conley who died in the Iraq War, was the type of tune that makes grown men cry.

I was surprised, however, to find his 2009 follow-up, named in honor of his new backing band, the 400 Unit, was twice as good. Even casual fans of alt-country -- say, Ryan Adams, Neko Case, earlier Wilco, or My Morning Jacket -- will be drawn to the sound of this album, which is more consistent than the scattered recordings of Sirens allowed for. More importantly, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit manages to do what so many of the Truckers' albums have failed to: remain balanced from start to finish. From the uptempo "Good," to the beautifully simplistic guitar lick in "The Blue," to one of the best closing tracks of the year, "The Last Song I Will Write," this is such a listenable record, I often find myself playing it two or three times in a row.

Visit Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit's official website here.
Listen to the band perform on World Café Live here.


Dave said...

Someday I hope to be able to quote my spot-on authoritative insights from years ago... Great top 5 Adam, I have four new records to listen to and one to bask in.

Peter B said...

thanks for the links adam... I loved the new phoenix album, but hadn't listened to their older work. "It's never been like that" is a great find!