The Thinking Man's Take On: Album Of The Year 2009 Showdown, I

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Well it’s 2009 already – check that – it’s well into 2009 already.Wow time flies.Seems like just yesterday we were drooling over the upcoming Animal Collective release and pondering who would win a GRAMMY.How far we’ve come.

Scarcely have Panda Bear, Avey Tare, and Geologist settled into their throne overlooking the rest of 2009’s releases than has buzz begun to build for their overthrow.Can’t a group get a break?They released a phenomenal album on January 20th, and here we are, February 10th, talking about possible superiors.

Luis pointed out to me that there has been a fair amount of hype around the latest release from Ohio natives Heartless Bastards.And by “fair amount of hype,” I mean that there have been huge calls.Massive calls.Album of the year calls.Calls that, obviously, must be addressed.

Is “The Mountain” the album of the year?Does it best “Merriweather Post Pavilion”?There’s only one way to find out – the first, but probably not last, ALBUM OF THE YEAR SHOWDOWN.

In the Red Corner, standing at 11 tracks, 54 minutes, reigning champ, king of the ring, Animal Collective with Merriweather Post Pavilion.

In the Blue Corner, standing also at 11 tracks but a slimmer 50 minutes, the challenger, upstart up-and-comers, Heartless Bastards with The Mountain.

Should be quite a fight…

Let’s start with the Challenger.Full disclosure, I had not heard much of the Heartless Bastards prior to the last week, so I have been scrambling to make up lost time with this threesome.Some background – they come to us courtesy of Fat Possum Records, home of the Black Keys, Wavves, Andrew Bird, and The Fiery Furnaces.Pretty attractive bedmates.

The Mountain is the third effort from Heartless Bastards, and it’s a doozy – after a few spins, I find myself bopping around the apartment, whistling alternate melodies, and singing along with Erika Wennerstrom’s fantastic voice.I’m completely and pleasantly surprised.At first glance I was incredulous that this album could even be mentioned in the same sentence as Album of the Year – the opener seems like standard guitar-based rock, albeit very good guitar-based rock, and I wasn’t really grabbed by the lyrics or melody.But view the opening title track as an introduction, and things start to come into a little clearer focus.Heartless Bastards are more at ease in their 2-3 minute songs, jaunty treks that don’t get too confused in themselves.The punch and run approach looks good on them.

So they gain speed quickly, and keep it up nicely.

But what’s this at Track 5?Over 7 minutes long?Full of banjo and violin?Be still my beating heart, they’ve pulled a switcheroo on me, and it’s fantastic.Erika Wennerstrom really starts to show off her chops here, and glad I am for it.Her voice is the centerpiece of this trio, and when the instrumentation thins, her singing really stands out.“Had To Go” is probably the most impressive song on this record.

But the catchiest is yet to come, and the Heartless Bastards still have some tricks up their sleeve.“Be So Happy” is one of my favorite new songs, and I just can’t get enough.What a great track.And “So Quiet” nearly matches it, again slowing down and thinning out to showcase Erika’s pipes.This track is haunting and beautiful – really reminds me of an artist called Ramona Cordova who made a fantastic album in 2006 and is apparently coming out with new stuff soon (check out his first album, “The Boy Who Floated Freely” for free download here) . Great song from the Heartless Bastards.

The producer on this record is Mike McCarthy, best known for his work with Spoon in the past.His touch works nicely, allowing space on some tracks while letting others get wrapped up in the fun of just rocking out.A well balanced collection of songs that really surprised me, in a great way.Wennestrom is like a female Nathan Willet (lead singer of the Cold War Kids), ripping through boppers and belting out ballads with reckless abandon that helps the songs take flight.The Mountain is one of the most enjoyable albums I’ve heard in this young year.

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Unfortunately for the Heartless Bastards, I’m a tough sell.Especially when it comes to Animal Collective.Especially especially when it comes to Animal Collective and Merriweather Post Pavilion.

The Mountain is a good record, I’ll agree with that.But Merriweather Post Pavilion is a flat out amazing album.You can immerse yourself in it from start to finish, letting one song bleed into the next without realizing your brain is being rocked.54 minutes tick by quickly, and when it’s over you’re ready to start it up again.All this while retaining magnificent songs that stand up on their own.My Girls is probably the song of the year.Unless Brother Sport is more your style.Or, like me, you’ve become obsessed with Lion in a Coma.Or Bluish, or Almost Frightened, or maybe even Summertime Clothes.What about opener In the Flowers?

I won’t rehash the whole Animal Collective album here, because it’s been done all over the world many many times.Let’s just let it be said that this album does everything that a great album should – it changes every time I listen to it, revealing new facets and quirks.It molds to fit my mood, whether I’m falling asleep, writing, running, or playing it in the background.It’s accessible but not superficial, upbeat but not unrealistic.

The Decision:TKO in favor of Animal Collective, after a long fight.It was a test of endurance, and despite some great bursts of energy from the challenger, The Champ lives to fight another day.I’d strongly recommend you check out Heartless Bastards – especially “Had To Go,” “So Quiet,” and “Be So Happy”.Give it some listens and let Erika Wennerstrom woo you firmly.But after that fling, don’t forget to give some love to Merriweather Post Pavilion.Because that album isn’t just good, it’s genius.

Chris Barth writes a weekly Thinking Man feature here at Pretty Much Amazing.  You can read his more succinct daily entries at his blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.