Top Ten Album Releases of the Year
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The year 2009 in music will always be remembered for the shocking death of Michael Jackson. It's also being called by some the year of the Gaga, that is Lady Gaga and her synthesis of pop, performance and fashion. But there was a lot of other stuff going on in the music world during the past year, much of it innovative, independent, original and very listenable. Long-time San Diego music host Chris Cantore is out with his list of the top albums of 2009. Chris Cantore is the host of LegitRadio.com and runs an interactive agency specializing in San Diego music and lifestyle. Chris, welcome to These Days.
CHRIS CANTORE (Radio Host, LegitRadio.com): Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure being back.
CAVANAUGH: It’s good to have you here. Tell us, is it your take that this was a good year in music?
CANTORE: I wouldn’t say it was a banner year in music. I mean, there were certainly solid releases and what have you but the last couple of years it’s been challenging for the music industry as a whole. Sales are down. Labels are hurting. File sharing is up. In the digital age, it’s really hard for a lot of these artists, labels, the business to monetize or figure out the best ways to kind of track sales and revenue compared to previous models. So there’s wonderful art being produced but for the industry as a whole, not a banner year.
CAVANAUGH: So are we missing out on some good music because it just is not getting to us?
CANTORE: Absolutely. I would definitely say that. I think when it comes to pop music, it certainly gets proper representation via to TV, commercial radio, American Idol, what have you, even TV commercials, but a lot of the best art is getting produced on more of an independent level and being promoted independently, and that’s the stuff that excites me the most.
CAVANAUGH: So, Chris, we’re going to talk about your top ten favorite record releases during the year. It’s not a pop music list as you were just telling us because we hear enough of that as far as you’re concerned.
CAVANAUGH: How would you characterize this list?
CANTORE: I would definitely say it leans more towards indy rock and more of independent releases because, again, I cite the fact that I really do believe the best art, musically, does get produced these days—unintended—on a more independent level. But there are some big releases on the list as well as some jazz and hip-hop as well.
CAVANAUGH: Now I talked a little bit about the, you know, your ten best albums of 2009. Is it relevant to talk about albums at all anymore? It seems like most people buy singles now, they don’t really go for the whole, you know…
CANTORE: Yeah, digital 99 cent downloads…
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
CANTORE: …on iTunes or what have you. The singles market definitely dominates the industry right now but I truly believe that vinyl is making a comeback…
CANTORE: …which will make for a stronger case when it comes to full albums. A special nod to some, M Theory here in town, Lou’s Records, these independent shops have actually seen growth the last couple of years with vinyl sales.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. I didn’t know that. Okay, let’s move on to your actual picks.
CAVANAUGH: And the first one is the album by the band Grizzly Bear. Tell us about Grizzly Bear.
CANTORE: Yeah, they’re a—love this band—a Brooklyn-based indy rock outfit formed in the early 2000s. They’re categorized as psychedelic folk rock, one of the few non-electronic acts on the Warp Records label. And they’ve really, this last year – 2009 has been a tremendous year for the band, several appearances on Letterman, sold out club tour, the whole deal.
CAVANAUGH: And they got a big boost from Thom Yorke of Radiohead. What did he say about them?
CANTORE: Yeah, that’s correct. Actually, the first time I saw Grizzly Bear, they opened for Radiohead in 2008. And onstage, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead both cited Grizzly Bear as their favorite band. And here in the States, they’ve also been – some critics have called them the American Radiohead.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow. You know, just a divergence for a minute. One of their songs was featured in the Twilight New Moon soundtrack.
CAVANAUGH: Okay? Now this soundtrack has actually gone platinum and features a lot of indy rock acts: Death Cab for Cutie, Muse, The Killers. What does the inclusion on this soundtrack mean for a band like Grizzly Bear?
CANTORE: That’s a good question. I think it introduces them to the masses, which obviously increases their awareness. As far as Twilight, I would say that awareness is among teenager girls maybe.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
CANTORE: But, again, you know, with the decline of these record labels and TV and what have you, I think that soundtracks have become a huge vehicle to promote artists. You know, with the – outside of traditional media. So they require, you know, as far as a band like Grizzly Bear on a soundtrack like Twilight, it’s a big push where they might not get that push through traditional radio and what have you, I guess is my point. And it also did wonders for a local musician, Anya Marina, as well, the soundtrack.
CAVANAUGH: And teenage girls never hurt a band.
CANTORE: Yeah, right.
CAVANAUGH: The album that you like is their latest. It’s called “Veckatimist.” Let’s hear a track from it. It is – This is “Two Weeks.”
(audio clip of “Two Weeks” from the album “Veckatimist” by Grizzly Bear)
CAVANAUGH: That’s “Two Weeks” by the band Grizzly Bear off their album called “Veckatimist.” It’s one of the picks of Chris Cantore for the best albums of 2009. And, Chris, what do you like about this record?
CANTORE: The lush harmonies, the melodies, the musical landscape they create. Just a tremendous, tremendous endeavor. Honestly, one of my new favorite bands.
CANTORE: Tremendous act. And live, they’re fantastic. They nail it.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on to somebody who’s been around for a while: Neko Case.
CAVANAUGH: She’s a singer/songwriter. She made your list with her new album “Middle Cyclone.” What do you like about this album?
CANTORE: I adore, absolutely adore Neko Case, her vocals specifically, soothing howl, seductive vocals. As far as the record is concerned, her honest songwriting and it’s alt country but has kind of like a punk rock flair to it. Love it. Absolutely adore Neko Case.
CAVANAUGH: Well, some people who listen to Public Radio may be familiar with Neko Case. She’s been on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.
CAVANAUGH: But for those who don’t know her, tell us a little bit about her.
CANTORE: Yeah, she was born in Alexandria, Virginia. Family traveled extensively during her early years before settling down in Tacoma, Washington, where she grew up. At the age of 15, Neko actually moved out on her own and by the time she was 18, was playing drums in a lot of punk rock bands. Eventually, she settled in Vancouver where she attended the Emily Carr Institute of Art & Design and joined another fantastic band up there by the name of The New Pornographers where she was a writer and contributing vocalist.
CAVANAUGH: Her latest album “Middle Cyclone” is the first of her records to read the top ten in the U.S. Let’s hear a song from it. This is “This Tornado Loves You.”
(audio clip from “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Neko Case, the song is “This Tornado Loves You.” The album is “Middle Cyclone.”
CANTORE: Umm, love it.
CAVANAUGH: Chris, she’s one of the few women you have on this list, though. It’s not a big year for female artists?
CANTORE: Well, Lady Gaga, is she…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay, yeah. That’s right.
CANTORE: I don’t know, well, maybe she’s not a fe – I don’t know.
CANTORE: Not necessarily. Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Karen O released a tremendous record. She was also involved in the soundtrack behind “Where The Wild Things Are.” And also Tigan and Sara, another act there, and I loved what Alica Keys did on the Jay-Z track as well. So it’s definitely representation but I always – I’m not afraid and I always back as much female influence in music as possible.
CANTORE: I think it’s very important.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on.
CAVANAUGH: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and their self-named album.
CAVANAUGH: Who is Edward Sharpe?
CANTORE: Interesting. Interesting story and record here. Edward Sharpe is actually an alter ego created by the front man of this band, Alex Ebert. And this happened in the wake, essentially, this alter ego, after he broke up with his girlfriend, moved out of his house, started living on his own, and joined AA. And, according to Ebert – Yeah, this all happened in the wake of Alcoholics Anonymous. According to Ebert, Sharpe was sent down to earth, and I quote here, to kind of heal and save mankind but he kept getting distracted by girls and falling in love.
CAVANAUGH: That’s good.
CANTORE: It’s the influence of women, the power of women, right there.
CAVANAUGH: The power of women right there.
CANTORE: I need to be in music.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Alex Ebert, before he discovered Edward Sharpe, used to front a punk band called I’m A Robot. But this is a very different band.
CANTORE: Oh, one hundred percent. Absolutely. I’m A Robot, as you mentioned, they were certainly indy punk, more dance oriented. And this is a Laurel Canyon ensemble band, and they’re rooted in sixties, seventies folk rock. They definitely have kind of a, pardon the expression, but hippie mentality. Big ensemble cast and it’s a party when they perform.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that goes to their live shows.
CAVANAUGH: They’re really getting a lot of attention for them. And what do you mean by ‘a party?’
CANTORE: They have 12 people on stage…
CANTORE: …literally, and whether they’re playing the Belly Up, recently performed at the Belly Up, they have a dozen people onstage, not afraid to incorporate the audience. They jump in the crowd, pass out tambourines. It’s an amazing time.
CAVANAUGH: Now I was wrong. This album actually does have its own name. It’s called “Up From Below.”
CAVANAUGH: Is this their first album?
CANTORE: Yes, and it’s getting tons of attention right now. Absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a track from it. This is a tune called “Home.”
(audio clip from “Home” by Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros)
CAVANAUGH: That’s a track called “Home” from the album “Up From Below” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. We got a little preview there of a tune coming up.
CAVANAUGH: We’re going to play it next. But I just want to mention that all of the acts we talked about Neko Case, Edward Sharpe and Grizzly Bear have played San Diego this year.
CAVANAUGH: Did you see all these shows, Chris?
CANTORE: Yeah, absolutely, all the above. And the Edward Sharpe show, as I mentioned earlier, was at the Belly Up, Grizzly Bear also at the Belly Up. San Diego has been producing, over the last year or so, some incredible music and live music and entertainment on a Casbah, Belly Up club level, if you will. There’s tremendous acts coming through town on a daily basis, honestly.
CAVANAUGH: Talking about live shows—and we’re moving on in your top ten list now.
CAVANAUGH: There was, over the weekend, a band that played for the 949 Holiday Hootenanny, the band is called Phoenix. And apparently it was quite a remarkable live performance. Did you go to the show?
CANTORE: Absolutely. Have some…
CAVANAUGH: How was it?
CANTORE: …dear friends over there, and you hit it on the head. Tremendous live act, Phoenix. They actually turned the entire RIMAC Arena over at UCSD into one giant dance party.
CAVANAUGH: And I heard there was some crowd surfing?
CANTORE: Yeah, absolutely. But that’s standard at a dance party. And I wasn’t the one doing the surfing because I weigh about 250 pounds.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about Phoenix. What’s their story?
CANTORE: Grammy nominated French alternative rock band, strong ‘80s influence, started during their childhood in Versailles. And same culture that produced late ‘90s acts that are still relevant today like Air and Daft Punk. And this last year, 2009, has been a banner year for Phoenix.
CAVANAUGH: What do you like about the album? It’s called “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.”
CANTORE: Yeah, I would even say it’s probably my favorite record of 2009 and what I like most about it is that it’s not only commercially viable but it’s been able to maintain the artistic integrity. You know, that’s still in place while being commercial. Like the song “1901” was featured in a car commercial but it’s still an amazing record, and it still resonates with people who might not be on a commercial tip, if you will, just motivated by commercial music. It still satisfies and maintains that indy credibility, if you will.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a track from it. This is “Lisztomania.”
(audio clip of “Lisztomania” by Phoenix)
CAVANAUGH: We could’ve gone a lot longer with that one.
CANTORE: Great pop record, isn’t it?
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it really is.
CANTORE: That’s a pop record right there.
CAVANAUGH: It really is.
CANTORE: And you see, as I was saying earlier, commercially viable…
CANTORE: …but the artistic integrity is in place, and that’s a challenging combo to pull off for an artist.
CAVANAUGH: That’s “Lisztomania.” The album is “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” and the band is Phoenix. It’s – These people are French?
CANTORE: Oui, oui.
CAVANAUGH: It’s amazing.
CANTORE: My favorite export. Love them.
CAVANAUGH: French people not known for their rock bands.
CANTORE: Right, well, absolutely, but they’ve – As I said earlier, a banner year for the band. And the States have certainly welcomed the band Phoenix.
CAVANAUGH: We are talking about the best music releases of the year according to Chris Cantore. He’s released his list of the top albums of 2009, and we will continue talking about them. We have to take a short break. When we return, a lot more music right here on These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. And it’s a ‘best of’ show, the best music releases of the year 2009 according to my guest, Chris Cantore, host of LegitRadio.com. And he runs an interactive agency specializing in San Diego music and lifestyle. We’re going down the list – or are we going in order? In any kind of order?
CANTORE: Not necessarily. No.
CANTORE: It’s kind of an eclectic mix. We’ll be getting into some hip-hop and some jazz here as well.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, let’s move on then to The Crooked – Them Crooked Vultures is the name of a new – I guess it’s a supergroup. They’ve just released a new album a couple of weeks ago…
CAVANAUGH: …but it got on your list anyway. Tell us who’s in this group and how they got together.
CANTORE: Yeah, it’s an amazing collaboration here. And usually when it comes down to – when it involves supergroups, it’s kind of – the music sometimes doesn’t match the hype, if you will. But in this particular instance, it’s a supergroup that, pardon the pun, is actually pretty super. You’ve got Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana on drums and also doing background vocals, you have Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age leading the band on guitar and also handling the lead vocals, and then on bass the legendary John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.
CAVANAUGH: Now what makes this collaboration work, do you think?
CANTORE: It’s a great question. And to be honest with you, I really think it’s because Dave Grohl and Josh both attended the school of Led Zeppelin and…
CANTORE: …they idolize and worship John Paul Jones. John agreed to do the project, and they’re just tickled...
CAVANAUGH: To be…
CANTORE: …just to be – Excited to be part of it, working with John Paul Jones.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a track from the album. It’s – The album is also called “Them Crooked Vultures.” This is “New Fang.”
(audio clip from “New Fang” by Them Crooked Vultures)
CAVANAUGH: Them Crooked Vultures with their tune “New Fang.” And this is not just a studio band. They’re on tour now.
CANTORE: Oh, yeah. They’re playing live shows and slaying – slaying audiences worldwide right now. They’ve been rumored, the project, since 2005, became a reality this year when they started recording, actually, their record at Dave Grohl’s house. At his house, produced the record, then started doing these club shows and now they’re hitting and 2010 will be a huge year for the band. They’ll do some big venues.
CAVANAUGH: Them Crooked Vultures also on Chris Cantore’s list. Now since we wanted you to pick a favorite hip-hop and jazz album, we’re just going to list the rest of your top ten list…
CAVANAUGH: …so the people out there are going to have to find this music and play it, okay? What rounds out your top ten list?
CANTORE: We have Mastodon with “Crack the Skye,” which is wonderful Prague progressive metal, fantastic live band. Animal Collective with “Merriweather Post Pavilion,” tremendous experimental psychedelic pop band. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs with “It’s Blitz!,” and Band of Skulls with “Baby Darling Face Honey (sic).” Both tremendous records. And also the XX, hands down my new favorite act – one of my new favorite acts of 2009.
CAVANAUGH: Huge this year.
CANTORE: Oh, the XX, love the record, seductive record, and fantastic, fantastic band. Out of the UK.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Well, let’s move on to your pick in hip-hop. There’s been some chatter, by the way, that hip-hop is waning in its influence on pop culture, that it’s not what it used to be. Do you think that’s true?
CAVANAUGH: Oh, why is that?
CANTORE: Absolutely. And I think it’s the same with traditional rock ‘n roll, if you will.
CANTORE: I believe it’s because hip-hop’s not dangerous anymore.
CANTORE: It’s become predictable and safe in many ways. And I believe that’s the same thing with rock ‘n roll. And until – I think that’s what influences pop culture as a whole when you have that level of danger associated and affiliated with the art.
CANTORE: And I think that’s what’s missing.
CAVANAUGH: Well, you have your favorite hip-hop album of the year is by Mos Def.
CAVANAUGH: He’s a musician/actor/performer. Is he dangerous? What do you like about Mos Def?
CANTORE: I wouldn’t say dangerous. I like the fact that he started as an underground artist, has crossed all genres, including Broadway. Loved his work with Blackstar. He keeps it real with traditional hip-hop values and incorporates obscure samples into his work as well.
CAVANAUGH: And the album that he has is called “Ecstatic (sic).”
CAVANAUGH: It’s being praised for having out of the crate samples. What does that mean?
CANTORE: That’s kind of like a modernized term for crate digging or rifling through vinyl. It features several diverse musical styles. This particular record includes soul, afro beat, jazz, funk, Latin music, and they kind of categorized it as out of the crate sampling.
CAVANAUGH: Do you think that that’s going to keep hip-hop artists going is to like widen what they can do?
CANTORE: Go back to the roots.
CANTORE: Go back to the roots. And that’s what he does with a lot of the stuff, traditional hip-hop values. Not the dangerous side I was talking about earlier but he stays true to traditional hip-hop and I love that about Mos Def.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear a track from “Ecstatic.” This is “Casa Bay.”
(audio clip from “Casa Bay” from the album “The Ecstatic” by Mos Def)
CAVANAUGH: That’s the track “Casa Bay” from the album “Ecstatic” by artist Mos Def. Chris, who else makes an appearance on this album?
CANTORE: Slick Rick and most notably, though, Talib Kweli. Collaborating once again with Talib, worked together with Talib in Blackstar, and I would say that’s the best combination right there. It’s fantastic. It’s a really solid record, tight hip-hop.
CAVANAUGH: Were there any runners-up for your hip-hop? Was this overall not a very good year for hip-hop?
CANTORE: I’d probably be the wrong person to ask when it comes to just the entire genre as a whole. But I’ll tell you, and I mentioned it earlier, I absolutely love that Jay-Z, Alicia Keys track, “The Empire State of Mind.”
CAVANAUGH: Right, right.
CANTORE: That right there, I don’t – that’s as – When I saw that performance recently, I think it was on the American Music Awards, I was watching, I was like, oh, man, I love Alicia Keys.
CANTORE: And Jay-Z, everything that guy touches, gold.
CAVANAUGH: Well, it was funny, we were talking about Alicia Keys because we’re moving on to an artist that was kind of discovered by the same radio station…
CAVANAUGH: …that hit on Alicia Keys.
CAVANAUGH: This is your pick for one of the best jazz albums of the year. It’s called “One Only Thrill (sic),” by an artist named Melody Gardot.
CAVANAUGH: She has an amazing story. Tell us about her.
CANTORE: Yeah, she’s an American jazz singer/writer/musician based in Philadelphia. She has a classic style influenced by Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, Judy Garland, bigtime, Duke Ellington. And the amazing story, she’s 24 or 25 now, mid-twenties, and when she was 19, she was struck by a car, while she was riding her bicycle. Basically, she was going through an intersection and the car blew a red light, essentially, and hit her and she was hospitalized for a month, a solid month, suffered serious head and spinal injuries, and she began writing music, literally, from her hospital bed. And today she suffers from memory loss and has a sensitivity to sights, to light and sounds as well. So when she performs, a lot of times she’s wearing sunglasses because the studio lights can be a little invasive and what have you.
CAVANAUGH: And she’s become very, very, very spiritual because of this.
CANTORE: Umm-hmm. She’s a Buddhist.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and she’s also not into possessions.
CAVANAUGH: She lives out of suitcases, I hear.
CANTORE: Absolutely. Absolutely. And she’s also just recently started speaking and does a lot of engagements, become an activid – advocate regarding music and using music as therapy.
CAVANAUGH: That’s an…
CANTORE: It’s a real interesting story.
CAVANAUGH: It really – it’s tremendously interesting. And the music on this album, “One Only Thrill (sic),” is just – What do you like about it? Tell us why you picked it.
CANTORE: I like it’s in addition to being traditional, I like its dark piano jazz style. It’s a very sultry record, and she also does a wonderful job of incorporating samba, Brazilian music, which Gardot considers major influences as well.
CAVANAUGH: This is a track from Melody Gardot’s album “One Only Thrill (sic),” and it’s called “Your Heart Is As Black As Night.”
(audio clip of “Your Heart Is As Black As Night” from “My One and Only Thrill” album by Melody Gardot)
CAVANAUGH: That’s Melody Gardot singing “Your Heart Is As Black As Night.” That’s off her album “One Only Thrill (sic).” It really is, I mean, so pure and…
CANTORE: Beautiful record.
CAVANAUGH: …so classic.
CANTORE: Absolutely. Absolutely. She does a cover of “Over The Rainbow,” Judy Garland, on the record as well. It’s fantastic.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Chris, how difficult is it for you to pick favorites. I mean, you must hear an awful lot of music throughout a year.
CAVANAUGH: Does that little signal go off in your mind when you’re hearing it like in March or April? Or is it something you really have to sit down and go through at the end of the year?
CANTORE: I think just so – It’s a good question. I think just it’s the amount of music that will cross through or come through your headphones or what have you, or over your computer, and it’s the albums that really just resonate, that you find yourself – it’s more of an organic, grassroots approach, to be honest with you, and it’s the ones that you keep revisiting, opposed to the ones that one listen, two listens, and they’re forgotten. It’s the ones that keep coming back, it’s the ones that you notice it resonates and you watch – Like for example, even with my wife or I have two kids at home. I can play that Phoenix record, my wife sings along…
CANTORE: …and my kids are tapping their feet in the back of the car, and I’m like, hey, that’s a hit. That’s a winner right there. And, again, it’s something that I’m attracted to or something that resonates within me. Just – It really has to connect. There’s definitely an emotional connection involved when it comes to music with me, and that dates back to me being a kid and growing up on my parents’ vinyl collection, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors. There’s always a very emotional connection involved.
CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Let -- You know, we’ve been talking about these artists who are not local bands. Let’s talk a minute or two about local bands.
CAVANAUGH: Any San Diego bands really breaking out this year for you?
CANTORE: Switchfoot, and they’ve been around for a while now, going on well over a decade. They released a tremendous record, “Hello Hurricane,” just this fall. Anya Marina, who was a deejay personality here in town, segged over into the music industry, relocated up to Los Angeles. Talked about her earlier with her involvement with the Twilight soundtrack. She’s had a fantastic year as well. That’s a San Diego-based talent. Transfer, another band just released a record. They’re going to be playing South by Southwest in Austin, I know, this spring, in 2010. They just released a great record. And Brian Karscig, of Louis XIV fame. Brian just started his own project called The Nervous Wreckords and they just did a tour this past fall with The Killers and played, I think – And this is a local band that just started here in town and their first gig was playing for like 25,000 people. They played a Casbah show…
CANTORE: …in front of 125 then they went out to like Red Rocks and performed in front of tens of thousands.
CAVANAUGH: Talk about trial by fire.
CANTORE: Yeah, right.
CAVANAUGH: That’s amazing.
CANTORE: Oh, absolutely. And I think they had like two weeks to prepare for the tour with The Killers. So, yeah, there’s some really exciting stuff happening out there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know that you can find Chris Cantore’s top ten list on his website, ChrisCantore.com. And I want to thank you so much.
CANTORE: Oh, I had a blast.
CAVANAUGH: It was fun.
CANTORE: It was you. No, you’re fantastic. You’re doing a great job here, and I love coming by These Days.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much. Thank you, Chris Cantore. And thanks for listening. Anyone want to find out more, go to KPBS.org/TheseDays. And thank you for listening. You’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.