Double listening for upcoming "best of the decade" posts has slowed down my 2009 intake, but this year is coming together, helped by one old reliable in new form and two other old reliables hitting new peaks.
Horehound — Dead Weather (Third Man): Jack White is certainly one of the decade's signature musicians, but though his arresting guitar-tunes are a given, the quality and specificity of his songwriting — and songcraft — comes and goes. Befitting the old-fashioned guy that he is, his music has been most interesting when he's in the thrall of a female muse — Meg on the breakout White Blood Cells (he pines for her "pretty voice," but she'll only agree to keep the beat), redhead paramours going and coming on the underrated Get Behind Me Satan, a luminous Loretta Lynn on the White-produced Van Lear Rose. On this worthy side project, White retreats behind the drum kit, lets one of his ladyfriends (the Kills' Alison Mosshart) take the lead, and the result works as music-first not only better than the boy's-club Raconteurs, but also better than even the White Stripes. The songs on Horehound don't quite stick, but the sound — darker and thicker than White's other projects — overcomes: Punk-blues, low-key Led Zep, and — shockingly, considering the source — tinges of rap-rock all collide in a homebrew that swaggers, coos, and pounds in all the right spots. ("Treat Me Like Your Mother," "60 Feet Tall," "Bone House") Grade: A-
The Ecstatic — Mos Def (Downtown): At 16 tracks in 45 minutes with nothing that would qualify as a "skit," this fourth — and best — solo album from the ace rapper and even better movie sideman lacks major songs and has the jerky continuity of a mix tape. This makes it an album that takes time to sink in, but when it does the pleasures are plentiful. Its cover a red-tinted still from Charles Burnett's film Killer of Sheep and its intro a particularly righteous post-Nation of Islam Malcolm X soundbite, The Ecstatic claims black culture at its most audacious, and it earns the company in part by uniting bumpy Brooklyn beats with swirling Middle Eastern soundscapes. Major song emerging from the flow? "Life in Marvelous Times," a childhood remembrance ("The fifth grade was epic … Mr. Schulman, what a prick") that discards nostalgia by clinging fiercely to the fragile present: "And more of less than ever before/It's just too much more for your mind to absorb/It's scary like hell, but there's no doubt/We can't be alive in no time but... NOW!" ("Life in Marvelous Times," "The Embassy," "Supermagic") Grade: A-
American Saturday Night — Brad Paisley (Arista): Brad Paisley will never be considered a major artist by listeners who insist modern country be anachronistic or constipated to be taken seriously; who think marriage, work, and parenting unworthy pop-song subjects; who can't stomach a little schmaltz. But the multi-threat singer/songwriter/guitarist is a master craftsman on a big-time roll, one that stays on the upswing with this career-best seventh album. American Saturday Night is remarkable in part for being everything country music's target demo doesn't seem to be these days: Friendly, optimistic, pluralistic. The third-verse swerve and closing exhortation of "Welcome to the Future" leaves a lump in your throat long after you know what's coming, and it's made more meaningful in the hands of a country-music megastar from Obama-resistant West Virginia. And when that song bumps up against a testimonial to the value of a good marriage while the lead-off cultural diversity anthem is matched by a nimble, lived-in testimonial to the value of a good fishing trip, you start to believe that mainstream country's most skilled musician — his own guitar rarely letting the music flag — might be able to carry his audience along with him on this journey. ("American Saturday Night," "Welcome to the Future," "Then," "The Pants") Grade: A
I can't find an embeddable version of the "Welcome to the Future" video, but it's here.
Here's a short video about Paisley performing at the White House, which I didn't know about until I started looking for the official video. That screen capture is Obama getting teary at the eight-minute mark. God bless America: