Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Of '09

I know, I know... It's been quite some time. Life and all that, I suppose. I have decided to do my yearly duty at the very least and share with you what, in my opinion, are the most noteworthy albums in this year of incredible albums. Try these on for size:

50. Noah and the Whale - The First Days of Spring
A great, but ultimately inconsistent album. This still marks an enormous leap forward for this London band. They have grown from a very average twee-pop band to this (sometimes overly) emotional folk troupe. The album includes choirs and orchestras that move it along nicely (except for the ridiculously out of place "Love of An Orchestra") Charlie Fink delivers his words in a melancholy that would make Dean Wareham jealous, especially in standout, "My Broken Heart."

49. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone - Vs. Children
Owen Ashworth's solo output has gotten progressively more hi-fi in his recent albums. Well still often recording instruments under a fog of fuzz, Vs. Children is definitely a full studio album. In this case, it's helpful Ashworth's vocals and lyrics now have room to shine over drums, pianos, organs, and yes, occasionally the thrift store Casiotone synthesizer.

48. Delorean - Ayrton Senna EP
Yet another great bit of french electro. This is the kind of music that Summers are made of. All in all Delorean write songs; full, rich songs with lyrics and a great voice. It's fun music that feels like sunlight and blue skies.

47. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
A great, but ultimately over-hyped album. Still, Phoenix knows how to write some great pop music. Just try not singing along to the chorus of "Lisztomania" or avoid shouting "Hey Hey Hey Hey Hey" in the chorus of "1901"

46. Deerhunter - Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP
It's been a prolific year for Bradford Cox...Ok, let's be honest, it's been a prolific decade. What's amazing is how good all of it is. On this new EP, Deerhunter introduces some new sounds into it's repertoire. It's still lo-fi, the vocals are still mixed very low, but they really explore the studio on this EP and if this is a sign of things to come, we should all be very excited.

45. Micachu and the Shapes - Jewellery
Let's be honest here: Mica Levi is an odd one. Fortunately for us, it's the odd ones that are often the most creative. This is definitely true of the new Micachu album. This is an album full of zany and smashing, but ultimately poppy tunes.

44. N.A.S.A. - The Spirit of Apollo
This long-rumored album finally saw the light of day this year. N.A.S.A. is a collective of LA DJs. The beats they make on the album are ultimately disappointing, what really shines through on this album are the guest spots. Where else can you find MIA, Santogold, Nick Zinner, and Spank Rock on a single track? Or better yet, Tom Waits with Kool Keith? What's better, is most of the time they actually make it work together.

43. Real Estate - S/T
In full disclosure, I didn't really care much for this band until I saw them open for Love Is All whilst in New Jersey this past Summer. What love sparked this Summer at their concert grew into a flame with the release of their first full-length album. Equal parts lo-fi, psychadelia and pop, this album is another great album of Summer time jams.

42. We Were Promised Jetpacks - These Four walls
My roommate continually gets mad at me for saying this, but at heart, We Were Promised Jetpacks are an emo band. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Adam Thompson sings with the conviction of a pre-pubescent high school kid, and there's no question he means it. They do seem to be in a bit of a rush to get through all the songs on the album, but learning to slow down comes with age.

41. Doves - Kingdom Of Rust
It took them almost 10 years and 4 albums, but Doves have finally released their masterwork. It's the right mix of studio shine, musical experimentation, and Doves own brand of deadpan delivery. The albums title track is a solid rockabilly send-up that really sets up the tone for the album, and the rest of the album does not disappoint.

40. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
Bill Callahan has his Smog moniker, but luckily he hasn't lost his wry wit or wisdom. His voice is still second to none. He still knows how to deliver a hilariously dry and surprising swear. This may be his strongest work since 'Dongs Of Sevotion'. It includes lush string arrangements that only add to his beautiful music.

39. St. Vincent - Actor
Annie Clark, in the past few years, has become somewhat of an indie rock heart throb. It seems in Actor, she knows this. Sonically, Actor is a far more dense and developed album than Marry me. More often than not, this is a good thing. She really uses the studio to support her a lot more. Lyrically, she has grown enormously. Actor is not nearly as autobiographical as her previous work. It deals a lot in metaphors and it works well. The themes would work great as a companion piece to Okkervil River's Stage Names/Stand-Ins albums.

38. Elvis Perkins in Dearland - S/T
This is Elvis Perkins second solo album, but his first with his backing band, or at least the first where he lists them on the CD sleeve. It is an important distinction to make. It seems Dearland keeps Elvis's eccentricities in check and bring out his songwriting and voice so much better than with just his acoustic guitar. "Doomsday" was the lead single but it's "Shampoo" that really shows Elvis at his finest songwriting. The album as a whole is a gorgeous work shows a singer/songwriter at his peak.

37. Passion Pit - Manners
Passion Pit is an American band who bravely play a style of music that has been long dominated by French Musicians. They are a very divisive band; and what makes them so divisive is what makes them truly American and also truly great: they're obnoxious. No bones about it, they are. But, in the case of Passion Pit, that obnoxiousness makes for some fun party music. There is no pretense at all coming from lead singer Michael Angelakos. It makes for great dance party music. To steal an offensive phrase, "F*** art, let's dance!"

36. The Love Language - S/T
I'll be honest, when I first saw the cover of The Love Language's album, I was really hoping for a great girl-fronted band. While I was let down to find that the lead singer was, in fact, male; I was not let down by the album. In a year of lo-fi pop music, mostly out of New York, North Carolina's Love Language really stands out.

35. Atlas Sound - Logos
Remember me previously raving about Bradford Cox's prolific year? Here he is again, this time in his solo, Atlas Sound form. The cover of this album is what really makes this album great. Not the cover itself, but what it represents. The cover is a picture of cox's own caved-in chest, and the album really lays into his own frailties. The album contains one of my favorite pairings of the year: Bradford Cox with Panda Bear. But I wouldn't call that track a standout, the album as a whole is just that great.

34. Jarvis Cocker - Further Complications
I was going to make a bad pun about Jarvis' last name, and the themes of this album, but I'll let it slide. There's no way I can compete with the puns on the song "Leftovers" (He says he loves you like a sister, well I guess that's relative). Suffice it to say that Further Complications is an album about sex. Now, I never would have guessed that this king of brittpop would have worked well with producer Steve Albini, but given the themes of this album, the raw production just works...all too well.

33. Mos Def - The Ecstatic
It seems that no matter what Mos Def is doing, he's either really up, or really down. In his acting career, he followed up "Be Kind Rewind" with "Next Day Air". Now, I didn't see "Next Day Air" but I feel I can make a fair judgment on it's lack of quality based on previews. After his excellent Black On Both Sides album, he came out with two less than stellar albums and most people, myself included, wrote him off. I was wrong. The Ecstatic is a work that at very least matches the genius of BOBS. It is one of the finest hip hop albums of the year.

32. The xx - xx
The xx is a rare case where a blog band lives up to its hype. They seemed to spring out of nowhere. The album is really about sex, but it's about sex intellectually. It broaches the topic with a maturity far beyond what the age of the band would indicate. The music matches the lyrics, with slinky bass lines and hushed beats. The real key to the music though, is the back and forth male/female vocals. The band has already lost a member, but let's hope this band won't follow the pattern of hype bands and self-implode.

31. Mew - No More Stories Are Told Today...
Okay, so that's not the full title of the album, but what do you expect when the full title of the album is an 8 line poem? The album marks a step in a different direction for Mew. The album is much more of a pop record than previous outings. Not to say that this isn't distinctly a Mew record. The first song, "New Terrain" has vocals played in reverse whilst the music is forwards, and the rhythm is dead on. Elsewhere, on tracks like "Hawaii" and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy", are where the pop sensibilities really shine through. It is a distinctly Mew album that old fans will love, and will probably garner some new ones.

30. Tinariwen - Imidiwan: Companions
Tinariwen, and Tuareg music in generally, has seen a drastic rise in popularity in the past few years. It's no secret as to why; catchy hooks, great beats, and amazing guitar work. Tinariwen encompasses all those things perfectly. On their newest album, they've really upped the ante with higher production values while maintaining the lower fi charm that makes this band what they are. Ibrahim's voice really shines through, especially on tracks like "Imidiwan Afrik Tendam" Just try not locking yourself into the groove of this album.

29. Wale - Attention Deficit
It's not an easy feat to land a spot on the MTV VMAs and rope in Lady Gaga for a guest spot all before your first proper album, but Wale has achieved it. One reason why: he's that good. Wale is a smart, socially conscious rapper, but he also has a great mind for pop music. The producers chosen for the album are surprising and great. 2 tracks were produced by TV on the Radio's Andrew Sitek and they prove to be some of the best on the album. Also be sure to check out Lady Gaga's hook on "Chillin."

28. Fool's Gold - S/T
Fool's Gold plays the kind of music that inspired bands like Vampire Weekend. What's funny about it is that yes, it is afropop, but most of the album is sung in Luke Top's native Hebrew. It's an album who's hooks create a demand for multiple repeat listens, and possibly even a late night dance party or two.

27. Karen O & The Kids - Where The Wild Things Are OST
Unfortunately for Spike Jonez, the soundtrack is the best part about his adaptation of the beloved childrens book. The mood of the album, much like the movie, is mostly melancholy, but unlike in the movie, it really works. Karen O assembles an indie rock super group for this soundtrack including members of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Deerhunter, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. The album front to back does not feel like a soundtrack, more like a cohesive album. The real standout however, is not an original, its the cover of Daniel Johnston's "Worried Shoes".

26. Jay-Z - The Blueprint III
Considering this album part of Jay-Z's stellar Blueprint series may be a bit of a stretch, but it doesn't mean it's not a great album. It's interesting to note that this is the first Jay album that does not feature Jay-Z on the cover. Lyrically, the album contains some of his weakest themes. The point I want to make is, since when did lyrical content have anything to do with great pop? If Jay-Z wants to keep up the black Sinatra vibe, making pop records is not a bad way to do it.

25. The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come
The Life of the World To Come may be John Darnielle's heaviest album to date. An impressive feat considering having written albums about inconsolable loneliness and abusive stepfathers. Darnielle describes this album as "Lessons I learned from the Bible." But don't be fooled, it's not a religious album by any means. In "Matthew 25:21," The verse is about entering into the rest of the Lord, and the song is a heart-wrenching take on losing a loved one. The final song may also be the best on the album, and the most heartbreaking. Do yourself a favor and read the verses along with the song.

24. Future of the Left - Travels With Myself and Another
Andy Falkous just seems to get angrier and angrier. From the opening shouts "C'mon Rick, I'm not a prize!" to the last "Lapsed Catholics are the worst!", the album is all piss and vinegar. The music matches the lyrics, it is pure, angry rock and roll, and that is a beautiful thing. Sometimes the best music is the music that strips everything back and just goes for it.

23. Morrissey - Years of Refusal
Will someone please explain to me what exactly is happening on the cover of this album? It's beside the point, I just don't understand it. Morrissey's recent love of boxing culture has finally found it's way into his music. In all honesty, this is a pop-rock album, power chords and all. But don't worry, Morrissey is still the pope of mope. The entire album is about his many, many break-ups, his loneliness, and his depression medication.

22. Various Artists - Dark Was The Night
It's a rare occasion that a charity compilation works this well. One of the best parts about this compilation is the artists it brings together. Grizzly Bear with Feist, Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch, and especially Dirty Projectors with David Byrne. These two discs of indie rock all-stars contain mostly great, mostly new tracks. Where Dark Was The Night really shines through, however, is in its sequencing. Where so many compilations fall flat like a prepubescent mixtape, Dark Was The Night shows actual care and thought, and flows extremely well.

21. Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light
It hardly seems possible, but Antony Hegarty just keeps getting better. The themes on Crying Light may not be as difficult as on I Am A Bird Now, but they are far more relate-able. Front to back, the album deals with the transitions from birth to death and how those to events relate to other worlds beyond ours. This theme is no better encapsulated than on "Kiss My Name". "I'm only a child, Born upon a grave, Dancing through the stations". Musically Antony and his Johnsons have grown enormously as well. The orchestration is rich without being overbearing. Antony has created an absolutely gorgeous work of music, one that should be counted among the classics.

20. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - Up From Below
I will admit it, I bought the Ima Robot album when it came out. I even enjoyed it for about a month. I now consider that a dirty little skid mark on the generally impeccably white underwear of my music tastes. That's why I was shocked to find out long after I decided I loved Edward Sharpe, that he was the lead singer of Ima Robot. Fortunately, there are no similarities between the two bands. Instead, they've made an album of jangly folk-pop that would fit just as well in the 60's as it would in today's indie landscape.

19. Franz Nicolay - Major General
I've said it before, but it bears repeating; bands are usually better than the sum of there parts. That's why I'm generally leery about solo albums. Especially when the solo album is not even that of the lead singer, but the piano player for the band. Here though is a happy exception to a rule. Sure, the album is inconsistent, but just try not to fall victim to the pull of songs like "Note on a Subway Wall" Or rock out to the extremely Springsteen-esque "This World is an Open Door"

18. The Very Best - Warm Heart Of Africa
Everyone at this point knows the story of Esau Mwamawaya meeting Radioclit, so I'll leave it out. What's important here, is that they make really good music together. Esau strongly holds to his African roots while making more accessible to the indie pop generation. He even works with indie pop's most recent poster boy, Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend). The Architecture in Helsinki sampling mixtape favorite, Kamphopo re-emerges here as well, with a choir of African children to sweeten the deal.

17. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport
This is one of those follow-up albums that make the bands previous efforts irrelevant. Now that's not to say the previous album was not amazing, but this one is absurdly good. They still play the same compressed, mean electronic music, but this time the album somehow has a more accessible feel. Just listen to the 10 plus minute opus "Surf Solar" and try not to be a fan.

16. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!
In a surprising move, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have dropped the guitars and picked up synths. While odd, it's proven a good move for a maturing band. Sure, we all miss Zinner's guitar noodling, but when it's traded for the sounds on rave-ups like "Heads Will Roll" or the lush balladry of "Little Shadow" it's a fair trade. Karen O has calmed her vocal acrobatics and what's left behind is a gorgeous but still uniquely Karen O voice.

15. The Thermals - Now We Can See
The Thermals seem to hold the Midas Touch of pop-punk. Every album is just absolute gold. Here on their fourth studio album, they continue to build on their great formula. Hi-fi enough to be listenable, but lo-fi enough to still hold on to some grit. Politically charged but not heavy handed. The Thermals dig a little deeper on this outing spending a lot of time on the topic of mortality. But it's still packed with enough hooks to keep you singing along for weeks...and weeks.

14. Fever Ray - S/T
Fever Ray is one half of the musical maestros The Knife. Karin, here, has decided to branch out on her own. Luckily, she is the voice half of The Knife, so what we have here sounds nearly like a new Knife album. Nearly because, who knew this was possible, it's more dark and brooding than any previous Knife ventures. The synths are still there. As are the beats. and Karin's voice is as shape-shifting as ever. The slowed tempos really allow for Karin to shine through the music and it's created an album of beautiful darkness.

13. Girls - Album
San Franciso's Girls album starts out with lead singer Christopher Owens shouting "Oh how I wish I had a boyfriend" in a strange falsetto. This however, is not any reflection on the singer or the band. It's sung from the point of view of an ex-lover of his. His voice is very evocative, and it reminds you of every geek that ever recorded music, all at once.As a whole the album is equal rambunctious and precocious, probably due to Christopher's cult upbringing (not a joke). Still, the album feels like the city it was recorded in; sunny but somehow dirty and grimy at the same time.

12. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - S/T
2 years from the time they released their EP, The Pains finally put out their debut album (and another EP in the same year). Someone asked me to describe their sound the other day and I told them it was The Jesus and Mary Chain with more of a pop sensibility. And really, there is no better description than that. They have the shoegaze down with their amped up and over-loaded guitars and the hushed vocals they'd fit right in among the best of the early 90's gazers. But with song titles like "A Teenager in Love" and "This Love is Fucking Right" any twee label would be happy to have them. What it really comes down to though, is that it just works...well.

11. YACHT - See Mystery Lights
In a previous post about "what your favorite indie band says about you" it mentioned something to the effect of being likely to join a cult. If you've ever watched an interview with Jonah and Claire, you'll realize that's absolutely true. Nonetheless, the album is nothing I'd consider cultish. It's fun pop and dance music. This is Yacht's first work with Claire Evans doing vocals, and its proved to be a wise pick-up. Just listen to the joy that's transmitted from her voice in "Psychic City (Voodoo City)" A track who's lyrics came from a poem on an old K Record.

10. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
Where did this one come from?! I'll admit to never being a huge fan of The Flaming Lips. That's why, when this album came out, I had no intention of getting it. And then I saw that now legendary performance of "Watching the Planets" on Conan. This album is a dense work of fuzz and haze. A psychedelic rock masterpiece with contributions from both MGMT and Karen O (all of Karen O's parts were recorded over the phone). All in all, front to back this is one stellar piece of work that Wayne Coyne has called "unfocused." Wayne, I respectfully disagree, it's your finest work to date.

9. The Antlers - Hospice
It's hard to recommend this album. Not because it's bad, it's not, it's phenomenal. No, it's hard to recommend because the album is so emotionally draining. This is a concept album about love, grief, abuse, pain, and sorrow. And the stories within the album are so relatable and so well written that it's hard not to get wrapped up and brought down with them. Still, the album is beautifully orchestrated and though it's difficult to listen to, it's also extremely rewarding.

8. Suckers - EP
It's rare to see an EP this high on a list. Only four tracks. There's one reason: It's really that good. To steal a title from the EP's strongest track, "It Gets Your Body Movin'." This is a psychedelic pop album that borrows equal parts from David Byrne, and Yeasayer but sounds somehow completely unique and original. If this EP, and the few tracks that have spilled out since, are any indicator, this is a band we can expect great things from in the coming years.

7. Dan Deacon - Bromst
It seems odd to use words like "darker" to describe a Dan Deacon album. Because yes, Bromst is a "darker" album than Spiderman of the Rings, but when Deacon's previous effort was such a sunny album as Spiderman, it's hard to be anything but "darker." Still, Bromst is a joyful fun album. But more important than the brightness of the album is the fact that Deacon's training as a classical composer really shines through on this album. Yes, there are a lot of electronic squeaks and skronks on this album, it's the live instrumentation that really make the show. Most impressively, a hacked player piano that plays impossibly fast melodies, all composed by Deacon himself. On first listen this is another fun album by a king of fun, but on deeper listens, the orchestration comes out on full, and it is hard to feel anything but awe.

6. Japandroids - Post-Nothing
Guitarist, drummer, and a wind machine. That's Japandroids. If there's one band that has truly embodied all that punk rock has ever been this year, it's these guys. The album is simple, angry, crunchy, loud, and all too short. Still, there is not one bad track on the entire album. From the rocking opener "The Boys Are Leaving Town" to the love song "Sovereignty" to the emo closer "I Quit Girls" it's hard to find fault with this album, and it's hard to not rock out.

5. Major Lazer - Guns Don't Kill People...Lazers Do
After hearing them collaborate with both Santogold and MIA ("Paper Planes" ring any bells?), when Diplo and Switch announced a collabo album, it was hard not to be excited. Major Lazer plays out like a recent history of Jamaican music. From dancehall to rocksteady to sleng teng, it's all covered here. each track with a different group of collaborators. This is an album that will be played in dancehalls in Jamaica and the states for years. The only low point on the album is Amanda Blank's oversexed verses on "What U Like." However, the next two track more than make up for it with the Summertime dance track (and least Jamaican) "Keep it Goin Louder" and the minimalist Vybz Kartel dancehall track "Pon De Floor". For not being Jamaican, Diplo and Switch somehow have a great grasp on the countries best music.

4. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers
The first, and most obvious thing to notice about Wild Beasts is Hayden Thorpe's effeminate and emotionally evocative falsetto. But once past that, what's left is an enormously powerful art-rock troupe from England. On Two Dancers, Thorpe shares more of the vocal duties with bassist Tom Flemming. Flemming's Falsetto is somehow even more impressive than Thorpe's. Just listen to the vocals on "Hooting & Howling". The album is a phenomenal piece of art rock mixed with pop with a blast of emotional intensity.

3. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
I'm man enough to admit when I was wrong. At the beginning of the year I predicted MPP to be the album of the year. Who could have predicted a year like this though?! That's not to say MPP is not absurdly good. This album combines the previous three Animal Collective albums. The pop of Strawberry Jam, the avant-guarde of Feels, and the folk of Sung Tongs. They've created the perfect mix. The music is at once densely layered and surprisingly simple. Just listen to the 2009 hipster anthem "My Girls" for a prime example. Centered around a simple vocal theme and a building beat. The album is stunning and fun, simple and complex and a classic for years to come.

2. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
It's clear listening to Veckatimest that the three years following Yellow House have been spent meticulously laboring over every note that would end up on the album. All that work really paid off, and created an insanely gorgeous and perfect album. So perfect, in fact, that my mom likes it, not to mention Jay-Z and Michael McDonald. I challenge you to find one more album that has that list of fans. The album is hard to put into words other than amazing. Anything else I can say would be gushing, and this album would deserve it, but for now let's just suffice it to say amazing.

1. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
In one of the best years for indie rock since the mid-90's, it was hard to reach a number one album. However, the decision was made easy by this album. Dirty Projectors have always been a band with more potential than listenable music. This is the album that changes all that. Dave Longstreth has written this album more for a band than himself and it makes a big difference. He switches lead singing duties between himself and 2 amazing female vocalists. On lead single, "Stillness is the Move" Amber Coffman shows off her amazingly powerful voice in the most R&B inluenced son on the album. On "Two Doves", its Angel Deradoorian's turn to show off her beautiful and delicate pipes. Elsewhere in the album, Dave performs his vocal acrobatics better than he ever has before. This is an album that rewards it's listeners with each and every listen with new discoveries and familiar harmonies.