The Best Music of 2009 

Our critics recommend the year's best in folk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, rock, R&B, and more — both here and abroad.

Sarah Bettens, Never Say Goodbye

Bettens became a superstar in Europe with "Not an Addict," a dark pop tune she concocted with her brother Gert for their band Ks Choice in 1992. Since putting K's on hiatus, Bettens has launched a solo career, moved to Tennessee, come out as a lesbian, and reinvented herself as a torch singer. Most of Never Say Goodbye was waxed six years ago on her first acoustic tour, just Bettens on voice and guitar backed by pianist/guitarist Tom Kestens and an occasional bass player. She concentrates on songs from Scream, her first solo album, but also introduces four new tunes and a couple of covers. Her version of "Cry Me a River" is a killer, and reinventing "Not an Addict" as a smoky late-night blues is brilliant. Her world-weary voice and ironic attitude fit her new sound perfectly. (Cocoon)

Hot Club of Cowtown, Wishful Thinking

The Hot Club kicks off its reunion album with a bright and bouncy cover of Bob Will's "Can't Go on This Way" marked by crisp production, Whit Smith's buoyant vocals, and the stellar chops that make this trio — Smith on guitar, fiddler Alana James, and standup bass player Jake Erwin — sound like a full orchestra. James tears things up Grappelli-style on "The Magic Violin" then steps aside for some impressive fretwork from Smith and a jittery bass solo from Erwin. Their original tunes can stand up to the best swing and pop classics of the Forties, and the addition of drummer Damien Llanes allows them to drop even more tricky rhythms into their arrangements. (Gold Strike)

Geoff Muldaur and the Texas Sheiks, Texas Sheiks

Geoff Muldaur's liquid warbling tenor and playful phrasing is immediately recognizable and his love of American vernacular music is evident in everything he's ever played. He was already planning an album of early folk and blues when he heard that his pal Stephen Burton (Kristofferson's long-time accompanist and a notes super-picker) was fighting a losing battle with cancer. He asked Burton to join the sessions on lead guitar, and his loose, funky, virtuosic picking is one of the highlights of this album. The music harks back to Muldaur's days with the Kweskin Jug Band with its relaxed ragtime feel. Berkeley fiddling ace Suzy Thompson and dobro master Cindy Cashdollar complement Muldaur's beautiful vocals and play nicely off of Burton's impressive improvisations. (Tradition & Moderne)

Two Tons of Steel, Not That Lucky

Two Tons of Steel is an Austin-based hard-core country rock band that pays equal attention to both the country and rock sides of the equation. It has a loud, bold sound that could be called heavy metal country. Dennis Fallon's sharp, twang heavy guitar and the over-the-top vocals of singer, songwriter, and front man Kevin Geil steal most of the spotlight, but the rhythm section of Chris Dodd on drums and Chris Rhoades on standup and electric bass provides the earth-shaking beat that sends this dynamite-loaded semi of a band screaming down the highway. Hits include "Hold Over Me," a tough country love song, the rockabilly rave-up of "Cryin' Eyes," the cow punk of "Bad Attitude," and "Bottom of the Bottle," a swinging nod to fellow Texan Bob Wills. (Smith)

Tumbledown, Tumbledown

Tumbledown is the side project of Mike Herrera of the Christian punk band MxPx. He describes this music as punk/folk, although there's just as much country in the mix. Herrera fronts the band with his snarling vocals and acoustic guitar while Jack Parker's electric guitar, Marshall Trotland's standup bass, and the drumming of Harley Trotland provide plenty of blistering punk rock energy. Herrera's scathing protest songs include "Break out of History," a salute to protesters everywhere, and the Western swing of "Movin' On," (not the Hank Snow song), which celebrates life on the road. Herrera's equally adept at mindless revelry — "Let's Drink" sounds like a drunken free-for-all and "Came Here to Fight" is pure aggression, with enough dark humor to keep things from getting too bleak. (End Sounds)

Sonseed, Jesus Is a Friend of Mine

This EP is a reissue of music by Sonseed, a born again Roman Catholic rock band that cut one self-produced album that never went anywhere in 1983. It included "Jesus Is a Friend of Mine," a song that could have been a massive hit if it had ever been distributed. In 2008, a clip of the band playing "Jesus Is a Friend of Mine" resurfaced on YouTube. It was downloaded millions of times within a month of its appearance. This reissue has the band's four original songs from their only album, but "Jesus Is a Friend of Mine" is the reason to own the disc. Its bright up-tempo beat, infuriatingly catchy melody and the exuberant lead vocal of Sal Polichetti are instantly endearing. The song's innocent optimism makes it sound like a children's song, but its driving beat and expression of pure faith give it a timeless, sanctified feel. (ARRCO)

Seth Walker, Leap of Faith

Bluesman Seth Walker may visit Chicago in his music on occasion, but it's more often based on the lighter, more swinging sounds of Texas, the jumpin' jive of Louis Jordan and early Nat "King" Cole, the soulful R&B of Ray Charles, and folkies like Blind Willie McTell, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGee. There's also a big component of classic American songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer in his compositions, which tend to be jaded and cosmopolitan rather than funky and down home. His sharp witty lyrics are crooned with the jazzy phrasing of a young Mose Allison. A top-notch band of Austin players backs him up on the soulful ballad "I Got a Song," the R&B strut of the New Orleans-style "Rewind," and Nick Lowe's country-flavored "Lately I've Let Things Slide." (Hyena)

The Moore Brothers, Aptos

The harmonies of the Moore Brothers are something special. Both have pure high tenors, and when they blend them together into the shimmering vocal lines they use to embroider their striking melodies, they create something beautifully eerie. Once you've heard them sing, you'll never completely escape from the strange, beautiful world they create with their angelic vocals and oddly enigmatic lyrics. On Aptos, they've augmented their barebones folk/pop sound with electric bass and drums, but the music is still minimal, and largely carried by the heartrending melodies and uncanny harmonies. The lyrics are as dark as the harmonies are light, or maybe they're just impenetrable, but the overall effect is always breathtaking, if a bit unsettling. (American Dust)

The Devil Makes Three, Do Wrong Right

The ragtime roots rock of the Devil Makes Three has been jamming Bay Area clubs for the past eight years. The trio plays acoustic instruments and blends early country and old-time music, ragtime, folk, rockabilly, blues, jug band music, and punk into its own instantly identifiable sound. Pete Bernard's vocals sound like they're coming from an old blues 78 as his phrasing dances before and behind the beat. Cooper McBean's banjo and rhythm guitar and Lucia Turnio's bass generate a vigorous pulse that you can feel as much as hear. There's no drummer, but the beat is implied by their fierce rhythms. Do Wrong Right is their third album, full of the grim, stripped-down Americana that's made them one of the most unique acts under the loosely defined folk umbrella. Bernard's new solo album, Straight Line, is also a keeper. (Milan)

Cryptacize, Mythomania

Cryptacize, the Oakland-based trio of Michael Carreira, Chris Cohen, and Nedelle Torrisi, lives up to its name with its unique approach. Cohen plays electric guitar like nobody else you've ever heard. His angular, slightly dissonant approach gives the band's music an off-center feel without straying too far from pop convention. Torrisi's bright, soulful vocals and autoharp strumming add a dreamlike quality to the band's sound while Carreira's inventive percussion always breaks up the beat in unexpected ways. Mythomania isn't quite as experimental as Dig That Treasure, its 2008 debut, but it's still miles away from your typical pop record. (Asthmatic Kitty)

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