As 2009 slips safely into memory, a handful of memorable nights gleam from the agreeable blur: the coda of Steve Bernstein's springtime collaboration with Fight the Big Bull in the jewel box confines of Cous Cous; the Low Anthem's outsized versatility in an almost empty Canal Club. Brian Jones' annual Musicircus swelled to fill the maze of the Visual Arts Center. And baritone sax player Glenn Wilson proved how good local jazz can be in a rare homecoming appearance at the Camel on Halloween eve. He returns on Dec. 27, so it's perhaps not so rare, but still impressively musical.
In recordings there were no-lose choices between innovation and tradition: Neko Case's perfectly surreal “Middle Cyclone” (Anti) v. Rosanne Cash's heartfelt Americana “The List” (Manhattan Records); saxophonist Rudresh Manathappa's South Asian supergroup the Indo-Pak Coalition (“Apti” on Innova) vs. Christian McBride's mainstream Inside Straight (“Kind of Brown” on Mack Avenue). Dave Douglas' Brass Fantasy's “Spirit Moves” (Greenleaf) sets a high standard for interplay for local horn and percussion ensembles such as the No BS Brass Band. And finally, 16 years after a masterful set of Beethoven piano sonatas, classical keyboardist Richard Goode released “Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos” (Nonesuch).
In local recordings, Ilad's “Here/There” was heard everywhere as hip, atmospheric filler between “All Things Considered” news stories. Miramar quietly championed the almost-forgotten, anti-romantic beauty of Puerto Rican bolero. Bungalo 6 took a polished pop shot with “Radio Ready” and Ombak's “Framing the Void” boiled down the local sound to its sinewy essentials — aided again by the ubiquitous Brian Jones, whose varied projects continue to be key supports of the local scene.
Best live shows: Dengue Fever, Chicha Libre and Bio Ritmo at Plaza Bowl (April 18): I like diverse bills and this one didn't have a weak link — from Cambodian psych rock to Peruvian surf music to our own new-school salsa legends. The only thing missing was a Sadaam Hussein look-alike spraying the insides of bowling shoes.
Gogol Bordello at the National (Oct. 28): Relentless gypsy rockers Gogol Bordello could win best show of the year every time they play, simply because nobody gets a large crowd more pumped up through sheer, unbridled energy. Their graying Ukrainian fiddler, Sergey, even wears a Slayer T-shirt: Catch 'em if you missed them on New Year's Eve at the newly opened Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville.
Will Oldham at Frye's Beach Club, Charlottesville (May 25): It was a packed and sweaty room with one bulky fan spinning, but Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham) mesmerized; his bewitching warble was backed by an exotic country and western band that included indie rock star drummer, Jim White, of the Dirty Three.
Best CDs: Death “For The World To See” (Drag City): This unreleased 1974 gem features an African-American rock group from Detroit that comes off like a combo of the Bad Brains and Thin Lizzy. In other words, it makes much of today's rock sound like Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Players animatronic band.
Animal Collective “Merriweather Post Pavilion” (Domino): Hard to argue with the expansive trajectory of A.C., which keeps pushing its own boundaries of kaleidoscopic synth pop while remaining unpredictable and sporadically catchy in a weird, bed-ridden, Brian Wilson way.
Tune-Yards “Bird-Brains” (4ad records): Canadian singer songwriter Merrill Garbus created this loopy, mind-blowing album using a ukulele and random field recordings made with a digital voice recorder and shareware; at times, it sounds like wiry African music through the hallucinatory prism of malaria medication, other times it's as beautiful as a bird song.
Best Concerts: Grammy winners eighth blackbird, whose music transcends notions of genre, is a local treasure. The ensemble commissions and premiers new work all while touring the country, coaching University of Richmond students, giving solo recitals and keeping its sense of humor. On Sept. 16 the sextet did unmentionable things to the innards of a piano during a concert of six new pieces by composers such as Marc Mellitts and Mark-Anthony Turnage.
I'm happy to declare the Chamber Music Society's Winter Baroque festival the most satisfying series of the year. Bathed in the light of candelabras, cellist James Wilson and some of the finest musicians in the world weaved tapestries that reminded us of a time when the world was lighted only by fire.
In symphonic music, concertgoers were astonished by the increasingly refined performances coming out of the Virginia Commonwealth University music department. Audience members witnessed a jaw-droppingly bravura rendering of the Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 on Oct. 13. The headstrong students of the VCU Orchestra showed more than occasional splashes of brilliance, knit together by the baton of visionary young conductor Daniel Myssyk. Not quite unbridled, Myssyk knows when to release the throttle and when to apply the brake. Exuberant, forward-looking — you can't buy or sell passion like this. Ah, youth.
As its era of homelessness came to close, the Richmond Symphony and Chorus pulled out all the stops with a performance of Verdi's “Requiem” March 15. One of Mark Russell Smith's last performances here, he blew the roof off of the First Baptist Church.
Best CDs: Cecilia Bartoli “Sacrificium” (Decca): A resplendent look back at the incredibly weird era of the castrati. Child prodigy Bartoli has made good on her early promise and continues to draw listeners toward ever-more obscure areas of the vast choral repertoire. The CD's provocative cover art invites us to contemplate how notions of gender, commerce, art and suffering conspire — disturbingly — to create a rare kind of beauty.
David Lang “The Little Match Girl” (Harmonia Mundi): I first heard Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lang's “The Little Match Girl Passion” on National Public Radio. I had to pull my car over when I could no longer suppress my sobs. Minimalist, genre-defying and heart-rending, this Yale professor's choral pavane for a fictional child dying of the cold proves that classical music is not dead. It is even classical.
The Dead Weather, “Horehound” (WEA/Reprise)
One damn sexy rock 'n' roll record. Thank you, Jack White.
The Xx, “XX” (Xl recordings)
Dreamy, synth-laden cuts by sad kids from England make the heart flutter.
Neko Case, “Middle Cyclone” (Anti-)
Can you really go wrong with high priestess of alternative country? I think not.
Heartless Bastards, “The Mountain” (Fat Possum)
This trio kicks up a rootsy rumpus with serious chops.
M. Ward, “Hold Time” (Merge)
With fuzzy guitars and ridiculously well written songs, Ward could have been the fifth Beatle.
Brandi Carlile, “Give Up The Ghost” (Sony)
Methinks Ms. Carlile might be in love. A nice change of pace and a solid set of songs.
The Noisettes, “Wild Young Hearts” (Mercury)
We'll forgive these pop-punk, soul rockers for selling out to Mazda and iPod because they're that good.
Sonic Youth, “The Eternal” (Matador)
Rock = Sonic Youth. Period.
Lady Gaga at Landmark Theater (Sept. 28):
Over the top frocks and contagious pop never sounded so good.
Heartless Bastards at the National (July 23):
Poor Jenny Lewis got served by her opening act. The Heartless Bastards blazed through one of the most searing, blues-infused rock sets I've ever seen.
Brandi Carlile at Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens (May 14):
The only thing more heavenly than hearing Belinda belt out heartbreakers live is hearing her under a canopy of stars surrounded by lush gardens. Sigh.
The Sounds at the Norva (Sept. 22):
Who doesn't dig amped new wave by way of a pantless woman and her pretty boy band?
Samantha Crain at Mojos (Mar.12):
Looking slightly hobbitish, this odd little folkie wowed PBR chuggers and Philly lovers alike.
Kings of Leon at Old Dominion University (April 27):
Worthy of global hype, the Kings showed off the skinniest jeans you've ever seen and a big rock sound.
These are my favorite Richmond shows from 2009. There are countless others that either I missed or you enjoyed more, but these made me smile the most.
Richmond Engine #3, A Tribute to Primus at Cary Street Cafe on Jan. 9. I really did stand in front of the stage to stare at the bass player.
Mouthbreather, the Catalyst and Snack Truck at the Czar on Jan. 30. Last year, it was Human Smoke's cover of Nirvana. This year, it was the Catalyst and Mouthbreather both doing Nirvana songs and the always epic Snack Truck.
Bio Ritmo, RPG, Horsehead and Hot Lava at WRIR's Party for the Rest of Us at the Renaissance Ballroom on Feb. 6. I'm obviously biased, but I never thought I'd see Latin-salsa dynamos Bio Ritmo and rock 'n' roll heavyweights RPG on the same bill.
Japanther at Rumors on Feb. 8. I went on a year-long obsession with Japanther after the punk duo turned Rumors (and me) into a hot, dancing, mess.
Behind Enemy Lines, SSR, Aghast, Morne and Nekrofilth at Kollapse Fest at Alley Katz on Feb. 28. Richmond's annual crust fest. Probably the only show where someone jumped on my back and I was totally OK with it.
Zac Hryciak and the Jungle Beat, Jonathan Vassar and the Speckled Bird, Liza Kate, David Shultz and the Skyline, and Herschel Stratego at Gallery 5 on March 13. I mean, come on, just look at that lineup. I can't can't get their voices out of my head.
Accordion Death Squad, Arabrot, Meat Cleaver and Gangland Buries Its Own at the Czar on March 28. Take an accordion-based acoustic trio, ear-piercing metal from Norway, an aggro-rock band, and an outstanding new post-punk group from Washington and you have one very interesting show.
Dinosaur Jr. at the National on April 30. Don't let the gray mane fool you, J. Mascis is still a monster guitarist.
The Pack AD and the Flying Eyes at The Triple on May 1. Their blues riffs are so down and dirty, the Pack AD should have played sludge metal.
Peelander-Z and Worn in Red at Mojo's on May 6. Human bowling and yes, I would like for you to cook for me a STEAK.
Antlers, Ultra Dolphins and the Brainworms at the Bike Lot on May 17. I love shows at the Bike Lot, especially when one of these three bands is on the bill. This was like a supershow!
Medeski, Martin, & Wood at Lewis Ginter's Groovin' In the Garden on June 4. Watching MMW deliver the jazz-funk reminds you why some musicians are referred to as “artists.”
Jucifer at Nara Sushi on July 12. I think I liked this band because I'm secretly a masochist.
Casy & Brian, Spirit Fingers, Resin Pyramid and Unicorn Basement at Helen's on Aug. 11. Exuberant. And strange. And fun. And electrifying. And strange.
Pink Razors, Tubers, No BS Brass Band, Gull, Torche, Shellshag and Lemuria @ Hadad's Lake at Best Friends Day on Aug. 22. Here's a scene I'll never forget: Crammed next to best friends watching steam rise overtop of Gull and No BS as they kicked out the jams in the midst of a downpour. I also realized why we miss Pink Razors so much.
Julie Karr, David Shultz, Liza Kate, Jonathan Vassar, Gull at Virginia is for Covers at the Camel on Sept. 26. This show featured cover songs from Richmond's finest singer and songwriters to benefit Books on Wheels. I was on the verge of tears after Liza Kate's version of Joy Division's “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and am haunted by Julie Karr's cover of Marilyn Manson's “Tourniquet.” Seriously Julie, you have to record that song!
North Bear @ Richmond Folk Festival on Oct. 10. Traditional Native American drumming, spiritual chanting, and timeless lyrical themes, all composed with a nod to hip-hop. This was truly an uplifting experience.
Social Distortion @ the National on Oct. 20. Does anyone remember the last time Social D was in Richmond? Well worth the wait.
Coald Toast and Cubscout and the Rhinoceros at Monster Mashquerade at the New York Deli on Oct. 23. The code words for this masquerade were “sweet beats.”
Brownbird Rudy Relic, Arise Sweet Donkey and Orb Mellon at a house show on Nov. 20. You haven't seen anyone wail until you've seen Brownbird wail. Plus, I'd been waiting all year to hear Arise Sweet Donkey's gorgeous three-part harmonies.
Fin Fang Foom at Silent Music Revival at Gallery 5 on Dec. 13. Fin Fang Foom's epic post rock amplified the emotional intensity of the 1926 French film “Menilmontante.” It was a stunning combination.
Pop, rock, etc.
Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone" (Anti-)
It looks like the rest of the world is finally catching up to this Virginia-born powerhouse — she's even been nominated for a Grammy, for crying out loud. It's about time that one of our greatest contemporary singers and songwriters was given her due. I can't say for certain that this is a better collection of prime country and melodic pop rock than Neko's “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” from 2006 (one of the best releases of the past decade), but it's damn near perfect anyway. And it contains a Sparks cover. What more could you ask for?
Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion" (Domino)
Somebody was going to get around to a Philip Glass-Brian Wilson synthesis eventually, and thank goodness it was Animal Collective, who took their relentless sound -- repetitive pop symphonies that appear as though they are trapped in a wind storm -- to a whole new place with “MPP.” Pick hit: “My Girls.”
Le Loup, "Family" (Hardly Art)
The second album from this five-piece from the Washington suburbs is a moody, shape-shifting set that utilizes things as varied as samples, banjos and shape-note singing. This was one of the sleepers of the year from a stellar band I predict we will be hearing from again.
Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, "The Dark Night of the Soul"
This much-hyped collaboration between DJ Danger Mouse, filmmaker David Lynch, and Virginia native Mark Linkous is still mired in record company politics and may never be released officially. But you can buy an official photo book that includes a blank CDR. So take the hint and download immediately — this set of brooding ballads and grungy venting (with an all-star cast that includes Black Francis, Iggy Pop, Julian Casablancas and Vic Chestnutt) is beautiful, spooky and altogether wonderful.
Wilco "Wilco (The Album)" (Nonesuch)
The Dodos "Time to Die" (Frenchkiss)
Phoenix “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (Glass Note)
The Clientele “Bonfires on the Heath” (Merge)
Flaming Lips - "Embryonic" (Warner Bros.)
Outrageous Cherry - "Universal Malcontents" (Alive)
Elvis Presley — Elvis 75: Good Rockin' Tonight (RCA-Legacy); The Beatles Box Set (EMI) Want to start assembling an essential rock 'n' roll collection? It got a whole lot easier with these two epic reissue packages of two of rock's defining acts. The Presley four-CD box set is one-stop shopping, a well-mastered and nicely-chosen sweep of a tumultuous career, with all of Elvis' major hits and a shrewd mix of his rarities and hidden gems (plus ace liner notes by Billy Altman). The Beatles box is almost beyond criticism — the Fabs have never sounded so good. But why be so stingy with the "definitive" mono masters?
Various, "The Sound of Wonder" (Finders Keepers) You've heard of Bollywood, now introduce yourself to Lollywood. This excellent CD compiles some incredible '70's film soundtrack music from Pakistan — a mind-blowingly exotic blend of spacy jazz, psychedelia and funk. "The Sound of Wonder" shines a welcome spotlight on the prolific composer and producer M. Ashraf and his collaborations with the amazing vocalist, Naheed Akhtar.
Dukes of Stratosphear, "25 O'Clock" and "Psonic Psunspot" (Ape) Their career in the doldrums, British new wave pioneers XTC reinvented themselves in the mid-80s with these two beautifully-realized paeans to '60s psychedelic music -- each reissued in 2009 with bonus tracks. You'll hear air and feel color with these two releases.
Big Star, "Keep An Eye on the Sky" (Rhino) Expensive for the casual fan, this is one for the faithful. Big Star of Memphis, Tenn., fused grungy Southern white-boy funk with melodic Beatles-Raspberries power pop to little commercial affect during their '70's run, but their discography lived on as a highly-influential source for a couple of generations of musicians. The Big Star oeuvre is still a fertile wellspring of hooks, riffs and killer songs. This four-CD Rhino box unearths a bevy of alternate takes, demos and outtakes, many of them as exciting and (in the case of the alternate take of “O My Soul”) as freaky as the original classics.
Stone Roses — Stone Roses (Silvertone) “The best British album ever,” New Musical Express proclaims. We're not sure about that, but not many UK discs released over the past 20 years have shown as much lasting power as the Roses' shimmering 1989 debut, now remastered with extra tracks and just as bold and memorable as it was two decades ago.