Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Best Albums of 2009

This year was a pretty good one for music, with some promising debuts and solid albums from reliable favorites. The big surprise for me is that I don't have any hip-hop on this year's list -- I just didn't warm to some of the better hip-hop albums of the year from the likes of Kid Sister and Raekwon. Fortunately, there was plenty of other music to keep me entertained. Below are my 25 favorite albums of the year (note -- you shouldn't have to but you may be prompted to sign-up at to listen to the songs. It's a painless, free process and will allow you one listen of every song here):

25) Thao with The Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster
The fourth album from Thao Nguyen and her backing band is a record about a bad break-up, but it doesn't sound angry. Instead, most of the songs on this disc are bright, raucous fun.
Best tracks: "When We Swarm", "Body"

24) Neon Indian - Psychic Chasms
Some of the best electronica to come out this year, Neon Indian's hazy electro-pop is a trippy, great time. I didn't quite warm to the washed out aesthetic that was in vogue this year, but Neon Indian's melodies manage to shine under the haze.
Best tracks: "Deadbeat Summer", "Psychic Chasms"

23) Metric - Fantasies
As always, this Toronto-based band produces a sound that is somewhere between punk and power pop. On their fourth album, the infectious melodies are more polished -- sometimes a bit too much so -- but Emily Haines' impassioned vocals continue to sting.
Best tracks: "Gimme Sympathy", "Help I'm Alive"

22) Rihanna - Rated R
Rihanna's post-Chris Brown album features none of the bouncy pop hits she is most known for. Instead, this bleak disc is comprised of songs that bristle with anger and hurt, and while she never explicitly discusses her abuse it is clear she is channeling her pain on songs like "Stupid in Love" and "Cold Case Love." The end product, while not entirely consistent, can be fascinating.
Best tracks: "Cold Case Love", "Russian Roulette"

21) Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
Chicagoan Andrew Bird is an entirely unique artist, as his music combines acoustic, plaintive sounds with grand arrangements to produce dazzling chamber pop. If his latest album didn't quite reach the heights of some of his earlier ones, it was still a work of wonder.
Best tracks: "Fitz and Dizzyspells", "Oh No"

20) The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You
I found the Avett Brothers' previous albums to be a bit digressive, but their major label debut is a focused work of beautiful southern folk-rock. The melodies are simple and elegiac, with the brothers' harmonies sounding very elegant.
Best tracks: "I and Love and You", "And it Spread"

19) JJ - JJ n 2
There's something in the water over in Sweden -- that country has a singular ability to produce gorgeous pop music. JJ is the latest Swedish export to boast lush melodies and beautiful vocal arrangements and this 26 minute album is a delight from beginning to end.
Best tracks: "From Africa to Malaga", "My Love"

18) Brad Paisley - American Saturday Night
Country has had its fair share of female crossover stars, but few men. Hopefully that will change with Paisley, who writes effortless songs that exude charm and likability. It's the only album to feature a full-fledged Obama anthem, "Welcome to the Future".
Best tracks: "Everybody's Here", "The Pants"

17) Lily Allen - It's Not Me It's You
Lily Allen writes breezy songs that are as cheeky and annoyed as they are catchy. Her second album features some of the best hooks of the year, coupled with some very funny, pissy lyrics. It's a perfect mix of sweet and sour.
Best tracks: "The Fear", "Everyone's at It", "Fuck You

16) St. Vincent - Actor
I was a big fan of Annie Clark's (Aka St. Vincent) first album, so it's no surprise I was charmed by her follow-up. Her melodies get even more gorgeous on Actor, filled as they are with orchestral strings, affected vocals, and quirky percussion. She's a very inventive musician.
Best tracks: "The Strangers", "Actor Out of Work"

15) Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There Are Mountains

One of the best debuts of the year, Cymbals Eat Guitars evoke bands from Beulah to My Bloody Valentine on this album without ever sounding derivative. It's an album about malaise that sounds anything but disengaged.
Best tracks: "And the Hazy Sea", "Share"

14) Ida Maria - Fortress Around My Heart
Yet another Scandinavian pop gem, this time from Norway. Ida Maria's debut album was released in Europe last year to wide acclaim but only got a proper release here this year. It's an energetic thrill-ride, full of vital, very catchy pop songs.
Best tracks: "Oh My God", "Louie", "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked"

13) The Rural Alberta Advantage - Hometowns
A very enjoyable slice of folk rock, this debut from Canadian band RAA couples vibrant melodies with lead singer Nils Edenloff's emotive vocals to produce songs that sound both raw and urgent.
Best tracks: "The Ballad of The RAA", The Deadroads"

12) Florence and the Machine - Lungs
This British band's debut generated quite a bit of hype in England and it turns out the buzz was entirely deserved. Singer Florence Welch belts these irresistibly catchy melodies with an almost religious fervor. Consider me a convert.
Best tracks:
"Dog Days Are Over", "You've Got the Love"

11) Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer
Spencer Krug's second best band (after Wolf Parade) put out another excellent album this year, one more accessible and rollicking than any of the band's earlier works. Track "You Go On Ahead" is probably my favorite song of the year.
Best tracks: "You Go On Ahead", "Idiot Heart"

10) Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz
Karen O and her New York band trade their garage rock roots for a more disco-oriented, new-wave sound and the results are addictive. Karen O's typically primal screeching may be more subdued, but the irrepressible ferocity is still in full force.
Best tracks: "Heads Will Roll", "Skeletons"

9) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimist
Brooklyn-based Grizzly Bear released this very well-crafted album to deserved acclaim this year, as their intricate melodies featured an impressive combination of technically brilliant instrumentation, gorgeous choral harmonies, and a fair bit of genre eclecticism. If the album is slightly lower on my list than it is on others, it's because their experimentation can sometimes leave me cold -- but even in those cases I'm in awe of their talent.
Best tracks:
"Two Weeks", "Southern Point"

8) Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
I have soft spot for Phil Spector-esque female pop, and no one is doing that kind of music better than Scottish band Camera Obscura. Like their fellow countrymen Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura make beautiful, lush melodies that expertly veer from delicate and heartbreaking to euphoric and cheerful. My Maudlin Career, their fourth album, is their best yet.
Best tracks: "French Navy", "James"

7) Passion Pit - Manners
Passion Pit's debut EP, released last year, featured my favorite song of 2008 in "Sleepyhead". Needless to say, my expectations for their full length LP were sky high but the band had no trouble meeting them, as Manners boasted a number of wondrous dance tunes and dazzling beats.
Best tracks: "Sleepyhead", "Moth's Wings"

6) The XX - XX
The best debut of a year that featured a number of good ones, The XX write romantic, melancholic music that feels startlingly intimate. The two lead vocalsts, one male and one female, sing as though they are a perfectly in-sync couple, quietly sharing their feelings with one another. Fortunately, we get to listen in.
Best tracks: "Crystalised", "VCR", "Heart Skipped a Beat"

5) Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
Neko Case's voice has always sounded like a force of nature so it makes sense that one of the best albums of her long career would find her conjuring up images of tornadoes and vicious animals. If the voice is feral, the melodies themselves are beautifully orchestrated and well-grounded alt-country tracks.
Best tracks: "I'm an Animal", "People Got a Lotta Nerve", "This Tornado Loves You"

4) Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
No band does a better job of collecting such a swirling array of different noises, instruments, and voices and turning them into an utterly original pop confection than Animal Collective. The inventiveness on display in this album is astonishing, particularly on "Summertime Clothes" and "My Girls", two of the best tracks to come out this year.
Best tracks: "Summertime Clothes", "My Girls"

3) The Handsome Furs - Face Control
This album is not going to appear on any other critics' lists and I understand why: lead man Dan Boeckner (who, with Spencer Krug of Sunset Rubdown, also helms Wolf Parade) and his bandmate/wife Alexei Perry produce pretty conventional, straightforward rock-and-roll music. But Boeckner's music, while uninventive, is utterly thrilling -- this album is a rip-roaring experience from beginning to end. My friend Sam likes to argue that Boeckner and Krug are the Outkast of indie music -- Krug, like Andre 3000, gets all the critical plaudits since his constant experimentation can produce some incredible sounds. Boeckner, on the other hand, is just like Big Boi, less concerned with the experiments than with providing consistently engaging entertainment. Face Control is the embodiment of that virtue, a great rock album that keeps your heart pumping all the way through.
Best tracks: "Evangeline", "Radio Kaliningrad", "I'm Confused"

2) Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I've been a Phoenix fan since 2003, back when their fantastic single "If I Ever Feel Better" made its mark (see my songs of the decade list). This is the first time, though, when the band has put together an album chock full of exciting dance-rock singles, from opening track "Lizstomania" to the finale "Armistice". Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a breakthrough album from a band that always made such an achievement seem inevitable.
Best tracks: "1901", "Lizstomania", "Lasso

1) The Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
When I first heard the The Dirty Projectors, I admired the artistry in their music but cooled to the pretension. I then saw them perform live and was blown away by the band's musicianship and their creativity, both of which are on display in this magnificent album. Lead man Dave Longstreth shares more vocal duties with his female bandmates and the band is better for it -- for once, all his musical experiments become both accessible and fascinating. I've heard this album described as everything from pop to prog rock to R&B, which gives a sense of all the ideas being played with on Bitte Orca. It may not be a record for everyone, but for me it was the best album of the year.
Best tracks: "Stillness is the Move", "Two Doves", "Cannibal Resource"

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