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Top Ten 2009 Albums to Play for Your Parents

December 8, 2009

There comes a time in your life where you run out of time to pay attention to all of the different things that were so interesting in your youth. Very often, this time comes right around the time you have children. Thus, most parents have tastes in music frozen in time around the arrival of their bundles of joy. They’re often, but not always, unwilling to appreciate any new developments in music. Unfortunately, the new developments in music that they are receptive to are the most unchallenging (this is why American Idol is popular–it’s basically mass participation karaoke).

For my baby boomer parents, while some touchstones include early Zeppelin, early the Who, mid-period Beatles (specifically the McCartney songs), most of their go-to tunes can be graciously described as “easy listening”. My dad likes classic rock but doesn’t like that it now includes early U2 and Van Halen. For my mom, it’s either schlocky R&B/Motown with any edge carefully buffed out or Billy Joel and his ilk. I have some of their old records and can testify that they used to have good taste in music (Mom’s Steely Dan got sold before my time, but Dad handed down some ELP and Jethro Tull). Your parents are probably similar–the most recent cds they own are probably an American Idol alum like Kelly Clarkson or a soundtrack for a movie targeted directly at their demographic. Now, while not all parents are in this boat (Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon’s kid is the luckiest alive in this regard), most of them probably have similar touchstones of their frozen music taste. Here are ten albums released in 2009 which will pass through their Music Defense Shield and might have them open their mind a bit.


Richard Swift – Atlantic Ocean

This album is best if your parents ever liked seventies high-art pop songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, and ELO. It’s got some synth, but it’s mostly played the way synth was played in the seventies: as a funky keyboard. There’s a lot of perfect pop songwriting, with piano and falsetto. Come to think of it, this album might work really well during a late party where a board game is being played with some intensity, but everyone has had a bit to drink. Also, watch out–there’s some swears–nothing severe but you might want to know.

Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk
There’s a lot going on in this album. It features the frontmen of My Morning Jacket (Jim James, who released an album of hushed George Harrison covers as Yim Yames this year–Parent Approved) and Bright Eyes (warbly-voiced Conor Oberst) as well as singer-songwriter (and Zooey Deschanel collaborator) M. Ward (who also released a Parent Approved album this year called Hold Time) and Bright Eyes producer/guitarist Mike Mogis. The best approximation is southern rock like CCR and the Allman Brothers (without the all the guitar fireworks), though there’s some Neil Young and some Prince thrown in for good measure. There are a couple of clunkers on this album (thanks, Conor!) but it’s mostly hushed folk mixed with nice rocking songs complete with guitar solos, and a couple of funky butt-rock songs. Monsters of Folk will work best in a loud setting, either a talkative car or a boisterous party.

The Decemberists – Hazards of Love
This is a slightly risky inclusion on the list, but I think it is a worthwhile one. What we have here is a full-on rock opera, with a specific story and structure and everything. The Decemberists have finally taken that literary nerd rock they love and fully integrated with the Led Zeppelin sound. (Don’t think they go together? What about Misty Mountain Hop? The song’s about hobbitses, precious.) Your dad will love the monster Zep (or Sabbath or Rush, whatever his touchstone is) riffs, your mom will love the quiet duets about love. If your mom’s like mine and was a singer in a past life and is always complaining that all the lady singing she hears you listen to is all whispery and not nearly strong enough, then Shara Worden (as the Forest Queen–see what I mean about rock opera?–and also from the band My Brightest Diamond, which is quite a bit more challenging than this) will knock her off her feet. This is probably best as car trip music, provided you’re driving. Plus you can mention their lighthearted feud with Stephen Colbert as either serious or joking depending on their political leanings.

Music Go Music – Expressions
Everybody likes Abba. Everybody likes the Top Gun soundtrack. Everyone likes a little bit of Yes. Especially your parents. Rock on!

Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Every baby boomer has a soft spot for Simon and Garfunkel. Some might prefer Paul Simon’s solo work, but the duo have a classic pop-folk sound which is still relevant and popular. Great for quiet evenings, it boasts syncopated acoustic finger-picking and great singing in harmony, featuring Erlend Øye’s butter-smooth vocals. Just, uh, maybe don’t mention that they’re Swedish?

Cotton Jones – Paranoid Cocoon
A blues- (but not blooz-) soaked folk album, this might remind your parents of their hippie days, before it was commodified and sold back to them in a high-priced special edition. It’s got a great hazy Sixties feel, with warm organ and lazily strummed vintage guitar. It’s sure to warm an afternoon and it’ll go just as well with tea as with wine.

Helado Negro – Awe Owe
This is perfect music to play for your abuela and your tias while they whip up their famous batch of tamales (make sure to save me some). Sure to be a hit with anyone who owns an album by someone named Gilberto, Roberto Carlos Lange takes the traditional Latin touchstones and mixes in some ambient atmospherics. This works perfectly as background music–the more “challenging” sounds fade into the background, but the samba and other elements jump out when the time is right.

Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Have your parents ventured into the wasteland that is country music? My dad spent a morning at a country station talking up one of his clients, and later mentioned to me that country music is great! I assured him that most of the time, country music is actually the opposite of great. Neko Case is one of the fantastic exceptions. She writes incredibly solid, twangy pop songs with singable choruses and vital lyrics which tell vivid stories. They’re often sad, even, keeping in line with the classic country stereotype.

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information 3
Do your parents like jazz and funk music? Do they listen to jazz and funk music that is antiseptic and overproduced to the point that it’s practically elevator music? Here is their antidote. This is another great quiet evening soundtrack, perfect for listening while your yearly game of Monopoly rages ever onward.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Okay, let’s be honest. This album, while definitely one of the best of the year, is pretty difficult. But it’s worth it. Your parents may be unsure at first, so why not start with the single version of While You Wait for the Others featuring every baby boomers’ favorite crooner, Michael McDonald? They use mostly conventional instruments, and write gorgeous pop songs. Don’t call them experimental, just call them a pop rock band. This album might be the most difficult connection to make, with little to connect to Approved music. But just let the songs sink in over dinner and hope for the best. The payoff will be worth it.


For best exposure, play these subtly in the background while driving with them or enjoying a meal. Don’t jump on your parents when they ask who it is. Give the name, and maybe mention them in conjunction to an artist on their Approved List. For best results, shuffle with a complementary Approved album or two–you’ll likely get a “sounds like you finally have good taste in music” backhanded compliment. Let it slide.

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