Every year I scour back through my iTunes purchases, my CDs, streams, bookmarks, and websites to wrap up my thoughts about the year in music.  The daily mix of music drives our work, gives me an outlet to play guitar, and motivates us on a daily basis as the soundtrack to our lives.  Some songs stick with me, but usually its an entire album or artist that makes the list.  If I like one track, I’ll like them all in general.  So here’s my roundup for 2009, guaranteed to entertain, challenge, or just fire you up to roll down the windows and drive VERY fast.

These are in no favorite order…

Them Crooked Vultures

This is my album of the year, I think.  Dave Grohl, Josh Homme, and John Paul Jones.  These guys have collectively played in some or (if not THE) most influential bands in history.  Led Zeppelin’s bass player, Nirvana/Foo Fighters drummer, and Queens of the Stone Age’s guitarist/vocalist make for a timeless set of rock swagger, all in one neat, hard-driving package.  It grabs you from the beginning, but like fine wine, is even better when allowed to breathe.  All hail TCV!

Alice In Chains • Black Gives Way to Blue

I know, I know…Layne Staley’s dead. RIP Layne.  But the new singer, William DuVall, kicks some butt in his own way, adds a second guitar to the mix where necessary, and sounds enough like Layne to make it work without being a clone.  He’s got his own vocal power, and the harmonies with Jerry Cantrell are pure magic in much the same way as the first few albums.  Surprise “comeback” album of the year for me.  I’m also stoked to have tickets for the National next month when they play.

The Dead Weather • Horehound

Anything Jack White touches is generally really thought-provoking and interesting to listen to, and this debut of Jack as drummer (he’s done everything else, why not?) is pure eclectic awesomeness.  Vocals by the Kills singer Alison Mosshart remind me of early Bauhaus in a gothic/rock kinda way.  Great stuff here, and just challenging enough to keep it interesting, even after playing it most of the year!  Dark, loose, with lots of emotion and a real “played live” feel.

Dave Matthews Band • Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King

I almost bumped this album off the list, not because it doesn’t deserve to be here (it DOES!) but because the name is LAME.  Big Whiskey would have sufficed.  The album is probably my favorite DMB have recorded since Under the Table and Dreaming.  The band members ROCK again, and Tim Reynolds is in the fold as a permanent electric guitarist.  Carter is insanely original on every song, and is constantly filling in the empty spaces with technical fills reminiscent of Omar Hakim or his earlier recordings.  Great to see DMB back and killing it again.

Ben Harper and Relentless7 • White Lies for Dark Times

Ben Harper is the man.  That should be the whole review.  He’s awesome, and so damn creative that he’s not content with The Innocent Criminals, The Blind Boys of Alabama, or solo work, he’s gotta go out and find a new (kickass) band.  Probably more rockin’ than some of his previous work, but poignant songwriting addressing frustrations over Katrina as well as most hot-button political issues.  He addresses personal accountability, love, war, and more…while still managing to ROCK.

Bob Dylan • Together Through Life

It’s amazing to me that Bob Dylan is still getting better with age, especially since he’s been doing this whole music thing for over 50 years.  Insane.  The new album is as Americana as it gets.  Tasteful playing from an amazing backing band that’s been with him for a number of years now.  It reminds me of a mellower version of his collaborations with The Band in the 60’s.  Great disc for a lazy Sunday afternoon or mellow road trip.  And I must admit – I listed to his Christmas album a BUNCH, too!

Closure In Moscow • First Temple

I’m a big progressive rock fan.  I have been since the mid-70’s when Genesis and Yes were pushing the envelope with the studio, length of songs, atmospheric textures, and sheer musicianship that couldn’t be found on the radio…not many stations out there playing 35 minute song suites!  Closure In Moscow are ridiculous players.  Like really good.  Inventive, not afraid to challenge themselves musically or vocally.  If you like Coheed & Cambria or Mars Volta, you’ll love them.

Cracker • Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey

Just plain old GREAT songwriting.  David Lowry is a casual friend around town, but his influence on regional music is hard to measure.  This album stands alongside their best work and holds up very well.  You’ll find yourself humming melodies and vocal lines after the first listen.  Infectious and well-done local Richmond music for the masses.  The show at the National in Richmond last year was a highlight of my concert year.  Great classics mixed with modern, mature songwriting.

Dirty Projectors • Bitte Orca

File this under “experimental” – these guys are what Frank Zappa would write and produce if he were in a modern indie band.   The music is challenging and unconventional, but listenable at the same time.  An acquired taste that’s more interesting every time you hear it.  They collaborate with David Byrne and Bjork, if that tells you anything about the lack of conventional boundaries that make up the sound of Dirty Projectors.

Dream Theater • Black Clouds & Silver Linings

This double CD set rips your jugular out from the first :30 and keeps it up for its entirety.  In some ways excessive in arrangement and orchestration, but you’d expect that from Dream Theater.  Another fantastic band that consistently sells out wherever they play based on sheer talent alone (radio is certainly not going to play these 15 minute+ songs).  A must-have for any heavy/progressive fan…but then again all Dream Theater music is.  One of the most talented bands on the planet.

Drivin’ N Cryin’ • The Great American Bubble Factory

One of my favorite songwriters, Kevn Kinney, back with his seminal band Drivin’ N Cryin’ for their first disc in 13 years or so.  Fantastic American storyteller who finds himself rocking again with some old friends.  This is one of the most under-appreciated artists in America who always plays like he’s at Madison Square Garden, whether playing for 2,000 or 20 people.  And I’ve seen both.

Go see them if you get the chance.  You can thank me later.

Fu Manchu • Signs of Infinite Power

My favorite driving CD of the year.  Put this on and set cruise control quickly before you get a ticket.  Guaranteed to make your head bob, your booty bounce, and your heart rate to race.  Think Black Sabbath for skaters/surfers, this band helped define the whole “stoner rock” scene along with Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age.  The riffs are heavy and overdriven, the music slamming.  Get it and put some earplugs in if you’re too old.

Heaven & Hell • The Devil You Know

This is Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, the same lineup that recorded “Heaven & Hell” in 1981.  The metalhead in me loves this.  Trudging, heavy, and melodic stories of dragons, evil, and emotion, these songs showcase the vocals and playing of Ronnie and Tony Iommi beautifully.  It sounds old-school, yet modern at the same time.  It stayed in my CD player in my Pathfinder for almost a month.  Always a sign of a great CD!  Sabbath fans – GET IT.

Rodrigo y Gabriela • 11:11

Latin flamenco craziness played by fans of Pantera and Metallica, these two musicians from Mexico City have been in my playlists for a few years now.  The new album cements their status as GODS of their genre, along with Al Dimeola and more conventional artists.  What makes these guys different is their ability to get thousands at Bonnarroo off their butts and dancing with devil horns flying at the same time.  A truly cultural anomaly that deserves your attention.  Musically untouchable if you enjoy acoustic music.

The Mars Volta • Octahedron

These guys are NUTS.  In the most experimental band performing today, each of these members gets an overly ambitious amount of room to move around and make noise that somehow manages to work together.  Mix some Zappa with some Led Zeppelin with Slayer, then add LOTS of LSD (literally, they’re big proponents)…shake well and pour into a cup of absinthe and somehow turn that up to 11.  Voila!  Not for the squeemish, some of their stuff requires multiple listens with headphones for full effect and appreciation.  Get it.

Mastodon • Crack the Skye

These guys pick up where the Melvins, Ozzy, and Thin Lizzy left off, Mastodon’s innovative, lyrically astute blend of progressive metal, grindcore, and hardcore has positioned them as the melodic alternative to other heavy acts like Lamb of God.  Heavy, grooving, and haunting at the same time, the band has added an additional layer of melodic vocals to the new album that make it even more accessible without selling out! I recommend this CD for great driving tunes!

Muse • The Resistance

American audiences are late-comers for this band, who have already conquered Europe and most of the world in terms of chart success and sales.  My theory is that we’re WAY to short-sited to take in music with this much ambition and arrangement.  These guys are a modern Queen – not afraid to orchestrate, layer, and harmonize while rocking you with some of the best stadium-ready guitar riffs around.  And they do it as a 3-piece!  I saw them a few times this year and was blown away with their tight musicianship.

Porcupine Tree • The Incident

Steven Wilson’s progressive rock monster of a band, like Muse is also under-appreciated in America, yet incredibly talented.  I try to explain these guys as:  the mellowness of Pink Floyd, the power of Rush, the dynamics of Smashing Pumpkins, and the raw talent of Dream Theater.  Something like that.  They’re another great headphones band, especially if you’re not afraid of unconventional, longer works of music.  One of my favorite bands.

RX Bandits • Mandala

I absolutely love these guys for their quirky, tight arrangements.  If the Police were playing today (not as the old guys, the young kickass guys) this is what they’d sound like.  Frantic, yet clean guitars, mix with intricate drumming and pulsing rhythms that aren’t afraid of being unconventional and challenging.  Good stuff.  Some people think these guys are punk or emo.  I think this is melodic, pumped rock without boundaries of genre.

Street Sweeper Social Club

Tom Morello’s post-Rage band, alongside Boots Riley have created a new brand of bouncy, aggressive, funky, groove-oriented protest music.  Always political, you must give these guys full credit for standing for their values and ethical standards.  But beyond the politics, this is just fun window-rolled-down rock to crank up in the car.  These guys were an intense opening act for NIN/Jane’s Addiction this summer, it was just too bad more people didn’t show up early to take them in.  Their loss, my gain.

Umphrey’s McGee • Mantis

These guys are my favorite “musician’s band” as my friend Jeff would say.  Each member of Umphrey’s McGee is a master at what he does, and you simply won’t find another band in the jam/jazz/improvisational genre that can blaze like these guys (with the exception of Phish when they’re playing and ON).  I consider them progressive rock, but they could easily slip into jam/experimental music.  They met in college and are highly educated musicians, speaking in terms of their playing and training, Umphrey’s always puts on a two-set, uniquely different show each night.  You simply never know what you’ll hear, but you can be sure it WILL blow you away.

Wolfmother • Cosmic Egg

If you want to channel Led Zeppelin in 2009, you’d pick this CD up, insert it in player of choice, and do some damage to your hearing with a fat grin on your face.  Pure, unadulterated rock, this version of Wolfmother has been remade from the first (read between the lines:  Andrew fired the rest of the band and started over for the most part).   If you have a convertible, go put the top down, put some Electric shades on, and really piss off your neighbors as you peel out of the driveway.  YEAH!  Great website, too.

DON’T BUY THIS ONE!  Chris Cornell • Scream

And last but not least the WORST album of 2009 must have been the Chris Cornell solo album produced by Timbaland.  Yep, I said Timbaland.  Truly horrific stuff here.  Don’t buy it.  I mean, really.  I’m a BIG Chris Cornell/Soundgarden fan, and I think this is atrocious.  I wish he had officially released the Live in Sweden acoustic show from last year.  If you can dig up a copy online to check out, look that one up.  Stay away from the mega-mix, dance-floor ready Scream album….it’s a stinker.

In closing, I spent an hour or so looking back at 2009’s releases.  I think we had a great year for music – there were many records that didn’t quite make it on this list, mainly due to my lazyness, not the quality of the recording!  Some other great releases included Dinosaur Jr, 3, The XX, U2, Dan Auerbach, Transatlantic (yea!!!), Tori Amos, Silversun Pickups, Manchester Orchestra, Rocco DeLuca, Rancid, Pearl Jam, Phish, Marillion, Jet, Lemonheads, Elvis Costello, as well as remasters of Radiohead and many more. It was a good year!

If you haven’t signed up for the blog via email, add yourself with the Feedburner subscription box in the upper left corner, and thanks again f0r reading The Rocket Ride!