2009: Inspired

by Jason Warburg

It was a strange year out there, with big changes everywhere, in politics, music and even my own little corner of the world.  What cut through the clutter of news about beginnings and endings, of new ideas fighting for space alongside old paradigms in disarray, was some truly amazing new music.  In a year that demanded inspiration, we got it in spades (and hearts and diamonds).  “I still believe you could save me from me,” sang Switchfoot’s Jon Foreman, and like so many of his musical brethren, this was the year he made me believe yet again in the healing powers of rock and roll.


Comeback of the Year

Superdrag – Industry Giants

Plenty of reunions / reformations feel lukewarm, desperate or otherwise unnecessary.  In thorough contrast, Industry Giants found this uber-talented, if often drama-challenged, Tennessee quartet picking up where they’d left off several years before and delivering a set that’s nothing short of incendiary.  Like I said before: “much more than merely a successful reunion disc, this might just be the best album of Superdrag’s acclaimed career.”


Collection of the Year

Jayhawks – Music From The North Country: The Jayhawks Anthology

I’m not generally a big fan of collections, but I couldn’t get this one out of the CD player for weeks.  In combining the highlights of the two halves of the Jayhawks’ evolution – the early partnership of vocalist/guitarists Mark Olson and Gary Louris, followed by Louris’ second-half ascendance to creative focal point of the band – this album creates a story arc that’s both gorgeous and compelling.  Twenty tracks of spot-on harmonies, chiming guitars and wonderful songwriting.


Old Guys Rock Award

Ian Hunter – Man Overboard

At 70 years young, Ian Hunter remains a force of rock and roll nature.  Besides turning out the third in a trilogy of tremendous late-career albums with the wonderful Man Overboard, Hunter also reunited with his septuagenarian comrades in the tremendously influential Mott The Hoople for a set of live shows that not just lived up to, but exceeded every reasonable expectation a fan could harbor.  Retirement, bah.  Fifty years on, this guy is still kicking the Rolling Stones’ wrinkled asses every time he opens his mouth.


Album of the Year (Mainstream)

Switchfoot – Hello Hurricane

Every so often, a band that was already terrific delivers an album that feels like a culmination of everything they’ve ever aspired to.  Building on the perfect power-pop of The Beautiful Letdown, the muscular alt-rock of Nothing Is Sound, and the experimental ambitions of Oh! Gravity., Hello Hurricane is the album fans always knew this band had in them.  Here the San Diego quintet’s grasp equals its huge reach, as they lay their musical hearts and souls bare for an 11-track set that frontman Jon Foreman has described as “the songs we’d want to die singing.”  It doesn’t get any better than that; not in this world.


Indies of the Year

For the second year in row, here are the top five independent albums that crossed my desk -- winners all.


5. Circa – HQ

Ex-Yesmen Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye have made a lot more Yes music in the past three years than the creatively dormant cash machine still milking the touring circuit has.  Teamed with fellow aficionados guitarist Jimmy Haun and drummer Jay Schellen, these guys are making some of the most accessible and entertaining modern prog around, and certainly the most Yes-like new music available anywhere.


4. Michael McDermott – Hey La Hey

It seems that every year now I get knocked sideways by an album I wasn’t expecting; this year it was my “discovery” (only 19 years late, but who’s counting) of singer-songwriter-Springsteen disciple Michael McDermott via his terrific new disc Hey La Hey.  Ten tracks of superb songcraft, richly detailed, beautifully arranged and compellingly performed.


3. Mike Zito – Pearl River

Blues guitarist Zito is making a habit of appearing on these lists, and why wouldn’t he?  Over the past 20 years a lot of talented folks have attempted to travel down the hard blues trail forged by Stevie Ray Vaughan, but nobody’s done it more successfully than Zito, who wrings emotion from every note he plays and effortlessly slides between writing songs that tear at your heart and ones that simply demand you move your feet.


2. Jon Troast – Living Room

I’ll admit, this might be a bit of a sentimental favorite, given that one of the living room concerts during the tour that inspired this album by storytelling troubadour Troast took place in my very own abode. But let’s face it – there simply isn’t enough genuine optimism left in the world that we can go wasting it, and Troast’s spare, beautifully crafted renderings of moments large and small are so artful and engaging that it’s virtually impossible not to be won over by the magic he weaves.


1.  Big Big Train – The Underfall Yard

Simply the most exciting and affecting prog band working today, Big Big Train managed to top 2007’s tremendous The Difference Machine with this magnificent disc, full of epic tales of loss and redemption, decorated with guest shots from luminaries like Nick D’Virgilio (Spock’s Beard), Jem Godfrey (Frost*), Francis Dunnery (It Bites) and Dave Gregory (XTC), and featuring stellar work by the core lineup of Greg Spawton (songwriting/guitars/keys), Andy Poole (production/bass) and newcomer David Longdon (vocals/flute).  The mainstream wags – the same lot who’ve kept Yes out of the quote-unquote Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the last 15 years – might prefer to pigeonhole this into some sort of “Prog Album of the Year” ghetto, but this album is far too impressive for that sort of nonsense.

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