The decade ended a month ago (by our reckoning anyway), and with it came a host of Best of the ‘00s and Best of 2009 lists. We’ve saved the biggest for last, though. Music fanatic Fred Benario makes it his mission each year to listen to as many new albums as possible, and this past year, he approached 1,700 new releases. You can view his loooooong list of the best of the bunch, and find out which Dutch Experimental (4), Cape Verde Female Solo (2) and New Zealand Reggae (2) albums are worth your while.
How many albums did you listen to in 2009? How much time, on average, did you invest in each one?
Fred Benario: I probably listened to 1,700 or so albums in 2009. In order to give some structure to my goal of hearing everything that came out, I decided as a general matter that I had to listen to an album twice before putting it on the list. Bad albums, though, in many cases didn’t get two full listens, and for the most part didn’t make it onto the list, even under a negative heading like “Poor Albums.” So, this is not a list of everything I heard, but rather a list of stuff I heard that is worth hearing.
Do you buy all these albums? If not, how do you get them all?
Benario: I don’t buy any albums anymore. When you only have time to listen to something a couple of times, there doesn’t seem to be much point to owning it (and there’s no reason to clutter up a hard drive or mp3 player with a bunch of albums I don’t have time to listen to). I pay Rhapsody $35/quarter, which gives me instant access to a great deal of music, and also use a number of sites that stream albums at no cost, including one European site, which covers albums not released in the US. I actually download very few albums, so even though I don’t really pay for music much, I’m not one of the people hurting record companies and artists through nonpayment.
How do you keep it all from running together? Are you making notes as you go?
Benario: You bet I keep records as I go! To stay on top of this much information takes organization and discipline, even when you don’t necessarily feel like it. This year I started posting a lot of music links (about a half-dozen a day), on Facebook, so anyone who wants that material can send a friend request.
We once talked about the idea of “quality via quantity”; your sheer volume of listening gives you a unique perspective. What macro-trends did you pick up on in 2009?
Benario: Just like in 2008, there is an enormous amount of unique, creative, exciting music coming from bands in different European countries that most folks in the U.S. never hear about, which is a shame. Remember, folks, everything released in Europe, or anywhere else, is just as easily available for listening and download here as U.S. releases—listen to some of it!
The Netherlands, especially, is very fertile ground for interesting bands. England had a nice handful of post-punk bands, including Editors, Hatcham Social, and The Horrors, and France produced quite a few good dance-rock/synth bands, like Data and Vitelli.
America saw quite a few good alt-country and psych-folk bands, including The Avett Brothers, The Cave Singers, and The Low Anthem.
The single biggest surprise for me was the Alice In Chains album. Besides being my top album of the year, it is also possibly the best album ever released by a band with a replacement singer.
On the downside last year, as in 2008, there was way too much similarity among all the major Best Of lists, almost as if people were scared to step out on a limb by themselves. Everyone should think for themselves, and search out music that hasn’t already been written-up by someone else!
How did 2009 compare to 2008? Is music getting better or worse?
Benario: I would say as a general matter that music is getting better because of the continuing ease of recording and distributing with just a laptop. Putting music on a MySpace page is certainly easier than paying to have a few copies of a single pressed, like back in the old days, and doesn’t involve any distribution issues. Obviously, the more music released and the more you listen to, the more good stuff you hear. Of course, this doesn’t mean anyone is making money off music, but that was also true in the past, when only bands lucky enough to be signed made any money.
I will say that music, especially indie music, is in some kind of fairly uncreative holding pattern, with far fewer albums released this year that really stuck with me.
Do you ever take some time to listen over and over again to your favorites?
Benario: Not as much as I used to, although I post a number of songs on FB everyday. I find listening to new albums by bands I’ve never heard of so stimulating that I don’t listen to many albums more than about three times. Plus, if my goal is to hear as many new releases as possible, every extra repeat listen would reduce the total number of new albums I hear. (I also don’t watch much TV anymore, for the same reason, and unfortunately don’t read as many books, either.)