50 Favorite Albums of 2009
List of my fifty favorite albums from 2009.
Here they are: my favorite albums of the year. It’s been a tradition of mine since 2003 but it’s the first time I’ve posted it in this particular blog. Formerly I housed them in my LiveJournal (seriously, who has one anymore???) but usually link it to the normal social networking spots. I created this list a little earlier than usual. I usually wait until the last few days of the year to post this list in case there are any more that sneak in at the end. But I think at this point there isn’t enough time for me to fall in love with an album as much as I have any of these. I might do some last minute edits if something comes up, but for the most part, I consider this list complete.
This year was exceptionally strong for new music. There were a lot more albums that didn’t make this list that I thought were mediocre. Usually I make a list of 10-20 albums, but this year there were just so many I fell in love with. It really is a great time for new music, and anyone who thinks otherwise has their head in the sand. I created a playlist linked below containing some standout tracks of the year, but I advise just getting the full albums, especially the top 10 or so.
Playlist containing various tracks from these albums.
50. Sing Fang Bous – Clangour
49. Nosaj Thing – Drift
48. Malajube – Labyrinthes
47. The Lonely Island – Incredibad
46. Telefon Tel Aviv – Immolate Yourself
45. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
44. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
43. Isis – Wavering Radiant
42. Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
41. Discovery – LP
40. Blakroc – Blakroc
39. Wavves – Wavves
38. Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem
37. The Love Language – The Love Language
36. Memory Tapes – Seek Magic
35. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
33. Do Make Say Think – Other Truths
33. WHY? – Eskimo Snow
32. Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
31. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children
30. Brother Ali – Us
29. Black Moth Super Rainbow – Eating Us
28. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, pt. II
27. Islands – Vapours
26. The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
25. Röyksopp – Junior
24. Nurses – Apples Acre
23. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy
22. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
21. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
Like all noise, I have to be in the mood for Fuck Buttons. But this album isn’t noise. It’s not techno. It’s not post-rock. It’s a unintentional blending of all these things. The album is challenging and epic. It almost reminds me of Explosions in the Sky in that it’s so dramatic you find it hard to find times in your life where it’s worth listening to. After all, making a sandwich doesn’t need a cinematic soundtrack. But when you do find those times in your life when you’re a mess and there are no more words left, there are albums like this that speak with more clarity than you ever could. The second half of “Olympians” is some of the best music of the year, summing up the staggering mix of hope and fear one has following the news of the past decade.
20. Dizzee Rascal – Tongue N’ Cheek
I still love hip-hop. A few years ago it returned to me as a genre I love. It’s ironic because I used to listen to it as a kid but felt embarrassed like any typical suburban white kid who finds himself getting into rap. Today, I still follow it and while I don’t feel like this year was a great year for hip-hop, there were some solid hits. Obviously Raekwon’s new album seems like it should be rated better than this. True, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx pt. II is probably a better album in general, but it feels so stretched out like a movie that keeps going and the tracks just blend together uninterestingly for me. Tongue N’ Cheek knows the power of brevity. Each song stands out as well-defined. Dizzee Rascal’s flow is relentless and fully entertaining. The dance-inspired beats keep the album moving along and make it so enjoyable for car rides home from work and computer chair bouncing.
19. Bear in Heaven – Beast Rest Forth Mouth
When I first heard Bear in Heaven, the first thing I wanted to do was make an Animal Collective reference. But the more I listened, the more I realized that they do have their own distinct style. Their palette is mostly somber, drenched with darkly layered synthesizers and distortions. “Lovesick Teenagers” is by far my favorite track, an anthem for young lovers that feel like they could live forever. But there’s always that lingering doubt eating away. There’s an unspoken darkness in a relationship like this where everything appears to be right so something must be wrong. Bear in Heaven have managed to extrapolate such emotions into song form in a way that no one else could do. The album is weaker in its second half, but I can’t dismiss how amazing its first half is.
18. Y▲CHT – See Mystery Lights
I think what helps me appreciate this album even more is that I saw them live this year–I saw their crazy dances and the zany images crafted specifically for the occasion on a projection screen. It strengthens the strange occult images already surrounding the album. It’s not a theme I’d usually find myself attracted to, but they flip the stereotypical dark occult images around and make them fun and facetious. Contrast is their goal, and this is even found in their repertoire of graphics with a frequent use of black and white contrast.
Of course, “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” is its most charming track. Anything that draws such consistent Talking Heads comparisons deserves a nod because it’s not a sound that can easily be imitated. And while it was probably an influence, I don’t sense they were trying to rip it off. They’re certainly doing their own thing here, and they’ve set themselves apart from their colleagues in Portland by doing something so stylistically original and consistent that stands alone like an island to anyone willing to travel to it and appreciate the scenery.
17. Atlas Sound – Logos
Deerhunter is another artist that I didn’t get into on my first listen. It was actually last year’s Atlas Sound project (Let the Blind Lead…) which got me to turn around and dive back into their discography for a deeper listen. Bradford Cox now has the indie scene locked in its peripheral vision. He’s no Panda Bear (coincidentally featured on this album) but he is on everyone’s radar as an artist pushing out new and exciting sounds. Obviously the Noah Lennox-featured song “Walkabout” has been an indie hit, creating a perfect amalgamation of familiar melodies and otherworldly timbres. It’s the kind of music that makes you feel like you’re spinning around drunk in another dimension. The track is counterbalanced with the more grounded “Criminals” which still manages to hypnotize. The tracks tend to be hit-or-miss, but when they hit, they’re perfection.
16. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
I think the ostentatious emotion on this album frightens many people away. It really is bursting with hope and cheer and love and loss. These guys are from London, but I swear they’re from Canada. They are really in-tune with the Canadian indie-rock sound (a-la Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene, etc) using trumpet, violin and mandolin throughout the album. I don’t think Fanfarlo bring a whole lot new to the recipe, but they have perfected this sound and are smart songwriters. They know what they’re doing and they do it well, and the album is a testament to that fact.
15. Matt & Kim – Grand
Oh, Matt & Kim. I hope you don’t use the money from that Bacardi commercial to change your music much because you’re doing just fine the way you are. I don’t really care how commercialized “Daylight” became because it’s a great song and I understand fully why so many people have fallen in love with it. But even beyond that song, this album is great. Anyone diving into the album looking for 11 tracks of Daylight might not be totally disappointed: the quality is never quite that high, but it still aspires. There are many more poppy dance melodies to be heard on this album and it grows on you the more you listen. That’s all anyone could ask for.
14. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains
This album is 90s indie rock and post-rock’s illegitimate love child. There’s a certain awkward spontaneity to the album’s sound, perhaps due to the somewhat lo-fi production. That’s what makes the album so powerful, though. It doesn’t feel like something that went through several months of production tweaks. It sounds like the band just fucking played their music as it should sound–imagine that! Some people see the lack of production as a flaw, but I see it as its greatest asset. It is raw and unhinged. In this way it feels youthful yet at the same time mature and confident. It’s rock music the way it was meant to be heard. Being album #14 on this list seems so far from #1; but trust me, it’s not.
13. Lightning Dust – Infinite Light
If this list is missing anything important, it’s folk. I’m into a lot of electronic-oriented music these days and sometimes I forget that I have a soft spot for acoustic-driven songwriting. While this album isn’t traditional folk and is by no means devoid of electronic sounds (in fact, that’s one of its subtle draws) it manages to be much more organic than the rest of this list. It is gorgeous and dark and sprawling. The Knife tap into an unexplored side of the newer, industrial side of the ‘goth’ phenomenon, but Lightning Dust manage to isolate that strange, older Southern Gothic mood. It’s like a musical version of a Flannery O’Conner story. Lyrics like “Always pictured him hungry with a gun in his hands // Dirty boots and a steel frame // Will make it easy for the Devil to stay home in the rain,” help capture this mood so well. Amber Webber’s spine-chilling vocals are a key draw for this album, and how well they fit the music is something so perfect and compelling.
12. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
One of the surprise hits of the year. Wild Beasts feel like an immaculate bridge between 80s post-punk and today’s indie. There are a lot of bands that sound like Wild Beasts, but what makes Wild Beasts stand out is undoubtedly the vocals. Lead vocal duties are alternated between Hayden Thorpe and Tom Flemming, who also provide backing vocals for each other. They are an amazing duo who sound like Anthony Hegarty if he joined Animal Collective. The music fits perfectly for their purposes: hypnotic drumming and lush guitars.
11. fun. – Aim and Ignite
It can be frustrating to keep up with this much music because I still know there are so many great albums out there that have gone under my radar, and this one almost did. This one was brought to my attention only several weeks ago and while at first it just seemed like some Queen wannabes, I quickly becams fond of the songwriting and its melodies. The band is a project of Nate Ruess formerly of The Format (a band I was never a big fan of). “fun.” is true to its name and is totally unashamed of all its cheery indie perkiness. They are songs that get stuck in your head and songs that you sing along with alone in your car and make you forget that you’re unintentionally single. It reminds you to be calm, oh yes. Be calm. I think the standout track for me is “I Wanna Be The One” due to its inescapable melody.
10. Former Ghosts – Fleurs
The album has vocals from Jamie Stewart from Xiu Xiu and its synth-driven pulsating rhythms are like a dagger of nostalgia cutting your heart into tiny little fucking pieces to be thrown into the air like confetti for a wonderfully terrible parade.
9. The Antlers – Hospice
This album is fucking depressing. It’s deep and personal on a level that few artists have ever dared to go because it digs up emotions that no one wants to encounter even in fleeting memory. The album dances around darkness using both ambiguity and direct images related to cancer and hospital beds and losing the battle and things that make people cringe with fear and sadness. There is some universality to this because almost everyone knows someone who’s been taken by cancer.
All of that aside, though, the music is ethereal and dark–fitting to the themes. Truly, I haven’t listened to this album as much as I should have because of how it makes me feel. You could argue that this crosses the line and defeats the purpose of ‘good’ music if I can barely bring myself to listen to it. But I appreciate the album because it dares to be this despondent. And it really is good.
8. jj – jj n° 2
This Swedish album is beautiful–right from its opening track, “Things Will Never Be The Same.” The album’s only weakness is how short it is, clocking in around the 30 minute mark. But as they say, quality not quantity, right? I really wish there was more though. Why can’t there be more music like this in general? It’s nothing totally out of left field, yet there are few songs today like “Are You Still In Valda?” totally unattached from contemporary expectations. It’s a track that wouldn’t have been out of place on an 80s dream pop album. jj simply makes the music they love. There is an honest and open childlike heart felt throughout this album. It feels nostalgic to me. It kicks up the same feelings I get replaying console RPGs like the Final Fantasy or Lunar series. Nostalgia for my youth is so intertwined with fantasy, and this album accentuates those emotions with delicacy. But still, I’m an adult, and I must move on. Things will never be the same.
7. Passion Pit – Manners
There are some albums that take me a while to warm up to but end up being among my favorites. This album had sort of the opposite effect, though it’s far from an album I came to dislike. I still think it’s an exceptional album, but it’s not quite as enticing as its first listen when I thought it was undoubtedly the album of the year. The album’s double-edged strength and drawback is its consistency. Every song is great and none are bad, yet no songs stand out as striking (with the exception of perhaps Seaweed Song). Nonetheless, it’s easily one of the best of the year and the current epitome of indie/electro/dance.
6. Dan Deacon – Bromst
This album feels right at #6. There are times when I questioned whether it was the best album of the year, and times when I thought it didn’t even belong in the top 10. I have to be in the mood for it, but when I am, it’s amazing. The album’s main issue is its inconsistency–there are tracks that are among some of the best I’ve heard all year and some that are pretty boring. One such great track is “Build Voice” which is true to its name and builds up an excellent crescendo Dan Deacon straddles the fence of dissonance and harmony with dexterity. Another is “Snookered”: I don’t have a “best songs” of the year, but if I did, it might be this. It represents a style I truly love: a song that sounds unique, yet is listenable, melodic, and addictive like a pop song. The timbre is something that cannot be described, only heard. That’s usually the best kind.
5. The xx – xx
There are few artists that manage to use the ‘space’ of sound well. So many tend to flood your ears with as much as possible and make the hooks oh-so-clear (like Passion Pit). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it’s refreshing when artists manage to hook you at the other end of the spectrum. Some people might think it’s weird to compare The xx to Vampire Weekend, but they are both artists that master the space of music: there is plenty of room to breathe. Their music is simple and they know how to use quiet moments to their advantage so much so that they become part of the music. This is a technique which encapsulates mature, intelligent, calculated, professional songwriting. Just listen to a song like “Crystalised” and you’ll know what I mean.
I’d like to hear more from The xx in the future, but I have a feeling that this was a one-of-a-kind recording session like Antena’s “Camino del Sol” where everything came together so perfectly and things won’t ever fall into place quite so well again. But I think that’s part of this album’s appeal; it feels like something that could only happen once in a lifetime. Do yourself a favor and listen to it. The album’s only weakness is its slightly less-interesting second half.
4. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
These indie rockers don’t need to grab into a bag of stylistic gimmicks to make the catchiest album of the year (although they do take advantage of today’s hip norms). Phoenix don’t hold any doubt about what they want to be. The songwriting is feels so self-assured that it’s carelessly confident and fun. I think this is why even though they’re nothing totally unique they still stand out as fresh. Favorites include the lighthearted kickstart of “Lisztomania” (which is probably found its way on more iPods than any other track of the genre this year next to My Girls); the electro-indie commercial-spot-landing “1901”; the desperate yearnings of “Lasso”; the more somber yet climactic “Rome”; and the dense and 100% aurally-satisfying “Countdown.” All of the other tracks are only slightly less appealing. The only weak spot is the predominantly instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” though I appreciate the experiment.
3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
First off, there’s no doubt that this is the most widely-lauded album of the year, and it deserves every bit of the acclaim. It will remain a consistent milestone longafter the following two albums on this list have faded from widespread appeal. But I’m not a music critic, nor do I want to be. If I were making a list of the “Best” albums of 2009, I would be hard-pressed not to consider this for #1. I must admit that I didn’t listen to this album as much as I should have. Most of my listens were early on in the year when it came out. I think it’s partially because of how much good music came out this year that I was surprised by.
Perhaps I didn’t listen to it so much because the quality of MPP didn’t surprise me, and I always knew it would be there on a rainy day for something good to listen to. Nonetheless, standout tracks like “Summertime Clothes,” “Bluish,” and of course “My Girls,” and “Brothersport” finally got the mainstream turning its head at what these guys are up to. This tended to piss a lot of hipsters off who thought AC was their own secret indie savior, but hell, I thought they were getting popular when “Feels” came out so go figure.
I sometimes find myself trying to explain to others (and myself) why this album is so great. The album really did set the tone stylistically for the year and everything else similar released was compared to it. AC always remain a step ahead of everyone. It’s rare that an album can come out that perfectly bridges the deep left-field of the alternative and pop mainstream. The songwriting is so refined and the layers are delicately crafted. The album isn’t supposed to sound like something sonically unique as much as it is supposed to sound close to home yet at the same time so far away. It’s not my favorite AC album but it’s certainly strong and I appreciate their continued explorations of music and its infinite boundaries while somehow keeping it listenable. They are the avant-garde in the most true sense of the word. They aren’t their own experimental microcosm; they are leading the way for new music.
2. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
The Knife is one of my favorite artists, so it’s unsurprising that Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo project would be a favorite. It took a while for me to get into the album, though–it’s the epitome of an album that is an acquired taste. There are some catchy tunes for sure like “Seven” and “Triangle Walks,” but slower tracks like “Keep The Streets Empty For Me” have subtle hooks that stretch out but somehow manage to be the album’s most hypnotic. What always amazes me about both The Knife and Fever Ray is that the electronic palette used is not all that unfamiliar, yet they manage such a distinct style. Fever Ray explores more Eastern [hemisphere] sounds than The Knife, and it’s delightful in all its despair.
Andersson has captured something special on this album. Call it a mood or a style or a color. She’s refined her sound into something rich and dark. She explores every avenue of this territory unafraid. There’s strength in the face of the darkness found here. Perhaps even respect and admiration for it. It plays with it and experiments with it. Nonetheless, all the while it maintains pop sensibilities. The songs are re-listenable almost ad infinitum. Rarely are strange experimentation, compelling themes, and sweet listenability married in such a seamless way.
1. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
It’s been a chuckle that my favorite album of 2009–a year containing some of the most amazing albums I’ve heard this decade–is called Dragonslayer. Seriously. It sounds like it’d be from some terrible power metal band rocking out about goblins and magic (not that I didn’t enjoy such a thing in high school). While there are certainly some fantasy themes in Dragonslayer, it’s more often juxtaposed with contemporary images. For example, you wouldn’t expect to hear these the lines: “He’d like to move to Nashville // to master the guitar // where he would live a single day the way I live a single year,” followed by the lines: “Covered his body in mud // went hunting for the sun // then went swimming in the lake of holy water.”This recurrent juxtaposition is a great hook for me. Yes, many artists use fantastical or ambiguous poetic imagery to discuss real life topics through metaphor. There is plenty of that in Dragonslayer, but the effortless blending of the mundane and the fantastic is what makes it brilliant. I can appreciate this crossover all too well as I live life with fantasy just a few thoughts away. I’m always in daydream, even in the most mundane situations. I draw parallels to science fiction and similar literature because of their interconnection with the human condition. It’s powerful to me that Spencer Krug (creator/songwriter of Sunset Rubdown) has decided to make this parallel personal, emotional, and (most distinctively) direct rather than hidden.What started as a Wolf Parade (a band I think is “OK”) sideproject for Krug has now become much larger than its beginnings. I enjoy some previous Sunset Rubdown work, but it’s far too inconsistent to laud altogether. Dragonslayer is the opposite. There are few albums I consider perfect start to finish, and Dragonslayeris one of them. There’s not a song that isn’t amazing. However, not all of them amazed me when I first heard them. Songs “Paper Lace” and “Dragon’s Lair” for example I once considered its weakest tracks have now–months after getting into the album–started to get stuck in my head.”Silver Moons” gives me a 70s prog-rock vibe. It’s not a genre I’ve been into much lately, but it used to be one of my favorites as a teen. It’s a little nostalgic. That track followed by “Idiot Heart” which reminds me thematically of Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” due to the obvious name similarity, but it has a crescendo that destroys me in the best way possible. The climax hits at the very end along with “I hope that you die // wearing a decent pair of shoes // you got a lotta lotta walkin’ to do // where you’re goin’ to.” It gives me chills down my spine, and they’re not the only lines to do so on the album.
“Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh” is a much more indie-familiar song with slower tempo but enough to make me want to move. Its rhythmic hooks are addictive; when I stop listening to the song it’s like I just stepped out of the ocean and it feels like waves are still coming. “Black Swan” starts slow but when it comes into fruition it’s a true gem and its lyrics are some of the most fun on the album. “You Go On Ahead” returns to a more indie-esque sound with a subtle synthesizer keeping everything in check. Once again with both a powerful crescendo and lyrics that knock me over like I’m on stilts in a hurricane. “Nightingale December Song” is an acoustic-driven epic with immaculate layering and cryptic imagery.
I love albums that reward re-listens and get better and better the more you listen. Some of my favorite albums have been like that, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout” and The Fiery Furnaces’ “Blueberry Boat.” Those albums, like Dragonslayer, didn’t really grab me at first. It took a while for them to “click” — but when it did, it was oh so worth the time. Dragonslayer also had incredible competition this year in contrast to the past couple years which I found lacking. I remember when Merriweather Post Pavilion came out early on, and then Bromst. I thought the decision for my favorite album of ’09 would be tough. But, at the end, this was a no-brainer. Dragonslayer fucking destroys. In recent years I’ve fallen away from more traditional sounding rock in favor of electronica/electro-indie, hip-hop, experimental, etc. Dragonslayer returns me to my roots while keeping me grounded in the things I like today. It was time for a bigger kind of kill.
Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish I Were An Eagle
This album stands out so much that it feels totally out of place in my list. I think it’s because it doesn’t even feel like a 2009 album. It feels old and new at the same time. I was never a big fan of (Smog) though there are some standout tracks in his discography. It’s great that he finally got it right with this album, creating a strong and consistently good album while maintaining his lo-fi style. It feels wrong to stick this in the list with a number next to it, trying to compare it to other albums when it’s really just its own thing. It’s an eagle flying above everything else, but not because it is trying to be better than it. It flies above and alone simply because that’s what it does.
Dirty Projectors – Bitter Orca
I tried to get into this album. I really did. It’s a shame because I can tell it’s good, it just hasn’t hit me yet I think. Maybe next year.