1 Dan Deacon – Build Voice
2 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Zero
3 Animal Collective – My Girls
4 Windmill – Big Boom
5 PJ Harvey & John Parish – Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen
6 The Books feat Jose Gonzalez – Cello Song
7 The Low Anthem – To Ohio
8 Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
9 Florence & The Machine – Dog Days Are Over
10 Ekkehard Ehlers – Plays John Cassavetes, Part 2 (excerpt)
11 Volcano Choir – Island, IS
12 The Decemberists – The Rake’s Song
13 The Duckworth Lewis Method – Jiggery Pokery
14 Chew Lips – Solo
15 Fever Ray – When I Grow Up
16 Califone – Funeral Singers
17 Doves – 10:03
18 Fuck Buttons – The Lisbon Maru
19 Jonsi & Alex – Happiness
1 Yo La Tengo – Here To Fall
2 Liars – Plaster Casts Of Everything
3 Sleigh Bells – Crown On The Ground
4 Wavves – So Bored
5 Califone – Salt
6 The Very Best – Mfumu
7 Animal Collective – What Would I Want? Sky
8 Thom Yorke – All For The Best
9 The Mountain Goats – In The Craters Of The Moon
10 Blue Roses – I Am Leaving
11 Lambchop – It’s Not Alright
12 The Low Anthem – Ticket Taker
13 Fever Ray – Dry And Dusty
14 Jack Penate – Tonight’s Today
15 Doves – Compulsion
16 Marissa Nadler – River Of Dirt
17 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Hysteric
18 Mumford & Sons – The Cave
19 The Decemberists – The Wanting Comes In Waves (reprise)
20 The Duckworth Lewis Method – The End Of The Over
21 Justin Vernon & Aaron Dessner – Big Red Machine
‘If the strain proves too much / Give up right away’
In all the years I’ve done this, the soundtrack to 2009 stands out as a bit of an meta oddity. As much as the 40 individual picks across the two discs are a summation of what I was listening to through that year, the 40 as a whole bring back some very strange memories – of a trip to America that started as an excuse to see some old friends and ended with my life heading in a very different direction. I put the CDs together during the trip, listened to it on a particularly memorable three-hour solo journey from Athens, Georgia to Charlotte, North Carolina and gave it out to a number of friends who I haven’t seen since and are unlikely to again.
So synonymous are the songs with the December trip that it’s an altogether more fun experience thinking back to how I discovered the songs in the first place. The way I was discovering music was slowly shifting again – thanks to the appearance of a brilliant new streaming service from Sweden, Spotify. In the years since, Spotify has become my number one source for music. Perhaps I’ve become over-reliant on it – as I write, I went into a record shop for the first time in about a year. At the point when I made this, independent record shops were still where I bought the majority of my music – Rough Trade in west London being my staple, where I picked up gems like ‘Build Voice’ by Dan Deacon, which opens the soundtrack with an interminable slow build before launching a full-band assault unlike any of his previous records. His gig at London’s ULU that summer was one of the best I’ve ever been to.
I sometimes forget that I took an altogether more fun trip to the US in May – three weeks by myself, on an enormous road trip taking both Camp Mason and Camp Thunderbird, and visiting old friends up and down the east coast along way. Many of the early songs on disc one date from that trip, such as the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s synthy ‘Zero’ – a track I can’t recommend enough for its punch-the-air, jack-it-up-loud-in-the-car bad-ass-ness – and ‘My Girls’ by Animal Collective, the single that gave that band their commercial breakthrough. I was lucky to see them twice that year – like Radiohead and Doves in years gone by, Animal Collective seemed a band designed to my exact tastes at the particular time I discovered them. Other songs from my three-week early-summer road trip included PJ Harvey & John Parrish’s collaboration ‘Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen’ and Fever Ray’s nocturnal ‘When I Grow Up’.
But one song sticks out above all others from that trip, and it came from a surprising source – a charity compilation that was actually any good. The Red Hot organisation have good form in this regard, and a previous collection of Noel Coward covers contributed a couple of songs to the 1998 soundtrack. But Dark Was The Night captured a specific subset of indie music that I was giving a lot of time to – the ‘NPR-ready’ crowd, as Pitchfork put it – and collected a load of new original songs by well-regarded bands as well as a handful of covers. One of those covers was that of ‘Cello Song’ by Nick Drake, reimagined by The Books and Jose Gonzalez with an electronic makeover. Given my Camp Thunderbird experience was a decade previous by that point, it was nice to create a new memory there – on my visit to my old haunt I took a stroll round the grounds and ‘Cello Song’ suited the moment well, a peaceful reminiscence of old times spent round Lake Wylie. It was one of three songs that Dark Was The Night contributed to the 2009 soundtrack.
My album of the year was recorded by The Low Anthem, a folk-rock ensemble from Providence, Rhode Island that brought to mind the sort of homespun music that appears on American radio institution A Prairie Home Companion. Of a far more commercial bent are a pair of songs near the centre of the disc. Given my aversion to Mumford & Sons now, it seems barely believable that I could put not one but two of their songs on a single soundtrack, but before the over-exposure came, I really quite liked them, and the title track from their debut album Sigh No More isn’t quite as offensive as I thought it would be listening back to it. Given their ubiquitiousness now, I wouldn’t be devastated if I never heard them again, mind. Florence & The Machine were another band from that year who had been heavily promoted and sold millions. They’re an odd band to me – they have two songs that I love, and I can’t stand the rest. ‘Dog Days Are Over’ is one of those songs (the other will come up in a couple of soundtracks’ time) and it still sounds great in its multi-parted, stop-start glory now. I just wish that Florence Welsh could add just add a smidgen of subtlety to that foghorn voice of hers that tramples over pretty much all of their recorded output.
A brief interlude from composer Ekkehard Ehlers follows – his track ‘Plays John Cassavetes, Part Two’ is ten minutes of an orchestral loop slowly being manipulated. It was only later I discovered that said loop came from the Beatles’ White Album closer ‘Good Night’ – my ignorance of much of the biggest-selling group in history’s output catching me well and truly out there. Ehlers’ loop is truly mesmerising for its entire length, but necessarily I had to edit it down to two minutes to give just a flavour of it here. After that it’s straight into ‘Island, IS’ by Volcano Choir, a collaboration between Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and fellow Wisconsin band Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and then ‘The Rake’s Song’ by the Decemberists – another band that would be improved greatly by their lead singer adding a bit of subtlety to their voice. Colin Meloy’s bellowing works a treat here, mind, as the central single to the preposterous rock-opera concept album The Hazards Of Love.
A song from a very different concept album follows in the Decemberists’ wake. It’s safe to say there’s never been a strong demand for cricket songs, and after Roy Harper’s recent arrest, the joy of listening to ‘When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease’ is somewhat dimmed. But the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon and Pugwash’s Thomas Walsh thought differently and produced a whole album of cricket-themed songs which transcended its novelty status and was one of the albums of the year in any genre. The highlight was ‘Jiggery Pokery’, a song about Shane Warne’s Ball Of The Century written from the perspective of the batsman who faced it, Mike Gatting. Almost entirely historically accurate (‘out for a buggering duck’ aside), the joys of the song lay in the piano giving the impression of the ball in flight, and that reference to Graham Gooch’s ‘cheese roll’ comment about Gatting. It also gave Hannon the chance to revert his early Noel Coward leanings (of which little remains in recent Divine Comedy recordings) with a slice of pure music hall.
From the music hall to the dancefloor next with a slice of pure pop from Chew Lips. After appearing on the Kitsune Maison compilations (a sort of electronic cousin to the old Fierce Panda compilations which launched a thousand indie bands) I thought that Chew Lips would make it big but they never really took off. ‘Solo’, along with Windmill’s Epcot Center-themed, Beatles-soundalike ‘Big Boom’ and the aforementioned Ekkehard Ehlers piece, were all discovered thanks to Dandelion Radio, the internet radio station formed by John Peel fans.
Two bands that had produced two of the decade’s best songs begin the closing section of disc one – Califone delivered ‘Funeral Singers’ from the album/film project of a similar name, while Doves returned after a long hiatus with ’10:03′. The album it was from, Kingdom Of Rust, was frustratingly inconsistent, but ’10:03′ was pure prime-time Doves through and through – starting as a 3/4 ballad, it shifts several gears out of nowhere and turns into a pounding 4/4 rocker by its close.
And to finish off disc one, there’s two lengthy instrumentals – the colossal, defiant ‘Lisbon Maru’ by Fuck Buttons, and Jonsi & Alex’s ‘Happiness’ (another from Dark Was The Night), an instrumental more heart-wrenching than its title would suggest.
Disc two of the soundtrack begins with distant, ominous noises, before the filmic sweep of Yo La Tengo’s first single from their umpteenth album, Popular Songs. Following that, it’s the full-on sonic assault of the by-then-a-year-old ‘Plaster Casts Of Everything’ by Liars, a band I’d rediscovered in a big way that year. ‘Plaster Casts’, along with ‘Zero’ on the first disc, is another song that sounds absolutely amazing when turned up as loud as the car stereo will go. Sleigh Bells will save you the bother of that – ‘Crown On The Ground’s EQs are deliberately turned up so that everything is distorted and clipped. Disguised beneath all that noise is a brilliant pop song, and the buzz this song created allowed Sleigh Bells to ride the crest of a wave they’ve been on ever since. Nathan Williams, the man behind Wavves, produced a similarly loud album of snotty punk songs which made him a critical darling for a while, at least until he started acting up at music festivals.
Califone are a bit quieter but I love the attitude of ‘Salt’, a song that sounds like it was recorded with them all drunk and with a mouthful of chewing tobacco. Off the back of that, the Europop intro to the next song sounds jarring, but get past that and you have one of the most joyous things you’ll hear for a while – The Very Best was a collaboration between a Malawian singer and Radioclit, a French/German production duo based in London. It’s followed by the Grateful Dead-sampling ‘What Would I Want? Sky’ from Animal Collective’s year-ending EP, Fall Be Kind. It was their year; Merriweather Post Pavilion was among the best albums of 2009, yet some of the songs on the EP of supposed cast-offs actually surpassed the LP. Just when it appeared they could do no wrong, 2012’s Centipede Hz was a mess – but given their constant upward trajectory until then, they can be forgiven a misstep.
Next up is ‘All For The Best’, a Miracle Legion cover by Thom Yorke. It was from a charity album of Miracle Legion covers for a good cause, though ‘All For The Best’ is by far the highlight – taking the original, fairly prosaic song, Yorke gives it a total makeover, with skittering electronics, fuzz guitar solos and ingenious drum fills – as well as backing vocals from Thom’s less lauded brother Andy, lead singer of 90s also-rans The Unbelievable Truth. It’s clear the song meant a lot to the brothers growing up and they do it proud here.
‘In The Craters Of The Moon’ is from the previous year’s Mountain Goats album. For some reason, Mountain Goats songs take a little while to settle in my consciousness, hence me constantly including them as wildcards, but this song travelled everywhere during some pretty dark times during the summer, and at year’s end, when it became clear that things were about to suddenly change in my life, this seemed the natural first song to play. In researching for these soundtracks I’ve found a Jeffrey Lewis-penned comic book where John Darnielle gives descriptions of the songs he’s written – for ‘Craters’, he talks of a group of characters who have reached a sense of comfort with their dread while waiting for an unspecified disaster. As a result, the song seems even more apt. It’s followed up by ‘I Am Leaving’, the beautiful moving-on song by Laura Groves, aka Blue Roses. There is something about the vocals on this song that get me every single time – as does Marissa Nadler’s candle-in-the-wind voice on ‘River Of Dirt’, from the underappreciated Little Hells LP.
Lambchop’s ‘It’s Not Alright’, a decade-old masterpiece from their What Another Man Spills album, was a very late inclusion, so much so that some people I gave this to have a completely different song here. It had been a favourite of mine for ages, but I developed a special connection for it again in the light of what was happening at the time. The Low Anthem’s ‘Ticket Taker’ had the same effect on me that Lambchop did when I first heard them – bringing to mind dusty porches late at night in the American South. Talking of night-time, I find it impossible to listen to Fever Ray at any other time – the Knife side-project seems ready-made for after-hours driving. I’m not quite sure how I came across Jack Penate’s ‘Tonight’s Today’ – I’ve liked pretty much nothing by him before or since, but he slips quite nicely into the running order here, alongside Doves’ ‘Compulsion’, featuring the year’s dirtiest bassline.
The home straight of the soundtrack begins with further proof of Karen O’s way with a tender pop song, with ‘Hysteric’ the equal of early hit ‘Maps’ in my opinion. ‘The Cave’ is the song that first made me hear of Mumford & Sons – the song has since died a death by a thousand ITV Sport promos. The Decemberists’ ‘The Wanting Comes In Waves’ is a glorious thing, though it’s tangled up in a medley with an inferior song on The Hazards Of Love, so I’ve included its short reprise only, which in its spiralling madness sets up the final double-punch well.
The two tracks that end the soundtrack to 2009 are also the songs that also have come to represent the end of that period of my life. ‘The End Of The Over’ is the song that closes the eponymous Duckworth Lewis Method album, and as that fades to dust with a ‘Day In The Life’-style endless piano chord, all that remains is little more than a single piano C key being banged repeatedly. I have no idea what ‘Big Red Machine’ is about, but its stark instrumentation makes for a moving piece, not least when Justin Vernon’s falsetto gives way to the baritone of the National’s Aaron Dessner. It’s the highlight of the Dark Was The Night compilation that Dessner produced, and in a very tight field, it’s my song of the year.
And as the studio door shuts at the end, so does the decade of the 2000s, whatever you choose to call it. As of midnight on New Year’s Eve, I was starting everything again from scratch.