The Top 20 Albums of 2009

Honorable mentions: Noisettes “Wild Young Hearts”, Grizzly Bear “Veckatimest”, The Horrors “Primary Colours”, The Flaming Lips “Embryonic”, Atlas Sound “Logos”, Arctic Monkeys “Humbug”, M. Ward “Hold Time”, Yeah Yeah Yeahs “It’s Blitz!”, The Maccabees “Wall of Arms”, Fruit Bats “The Ruminant Band”, Tegan & Sara “Sainthood”, A.C. Newman “Get Guilty”, Passion Pit “Manners”, Regina Spektor “Far”, Sonic Youth “The Eternal”, Mastodon “Crack the Skye”, Circulatory System “Signal Morning”, Japandroids “Post-Nothing”, Lake “Let’s Build a Roof”, Manic Street Preachers “Journal for Plague Lovers”.

20. Future of the LeftTravels with Myself and Another

The most exciting punk rock band to emerge for quite some time, Future of the Left take the heavy, sludgy rhythm section assault of bands like The Jesus Lizard and combine it with their completely original, conversational lyrical delivery. Many of the lyrics on Travels sound as if they are referencing some obscure movies or short stories, but they are actually just the demented musings of Andy “Falco” Falkous. For instance, one person’s shame involving their family’s usage of plastic silverware is documented in “Stand by Your Manatee”. It’s the kind of stuff you would normally think is too weird to be fiction.

19. PolvoIn Prism

I never really listened to this band when they were active in the nineties, but this album caught my attention. After listening to it a couple times, I felt like it was the crazy, freak-ass guitar record I had been waiting for since Chavez’s Ride the Fader changed my life back in high school. Though it’s not on par with that record, In Prism is certainly some kickass rock and roll. The opening riff of “Right the Relation” makes me want to jump up and punch out the ceiling every time it comes on (to be specific, it has a lot of really cool “bendies”), and there are moments like that all over the record. My excitement led me to check out some older Polvo stuff, and I could only listen to it as the works that led up to In Prism. I may be biased, but this may be Polvo’s best record.

18. Jay ReatardWatch Me Fall

After releasing a bunch of “limited edition” singles only to re-release all the songs on CD a year later, it’s no wonder 2009 saw a bit of a Jay Reatard backlash. I mean, people were really pissed after spending all their money on these 7” singles when the same songs were eventually made available in one easy-to-use package. When you think about it, it’s kind of a scammy business plan. However, I was not one of the unfortunate fans duped into this deal—in fact, Reatard was still pretty under my radar at that point, though I had purchased one of his records (Blood Visions). So, maybe I was one of the few people who didn’t roll their eyes at Watch Me Fall when it came out. It’s not an amazing album by any means, but it’s a good rock album, and it got a lot of play from me this year.

17. Sunset RubdownDragonslayer

The songs on Dragonslayer are sprawling, and for the most part deviate from any common formula. This makes for an unpredictable and at times a frustrating experience, but the album’s real rewards come in the chemistry of Sunset Rubdown as a band. The production sounds very live and in-the-room, giving it all an off-the-cuff spontaneity that makes it sound like a record I have been waiting to hear for awhile—just a raw and honest representation of a pretty stellar rock band. Also, it’s one of the best guitar albums of the year. Some of those lead licks are insane.

16. White RabbitsIt’s Frightening

Especially when compared to the White Rabbits’ debut Fort Nightly, Britt Daniel’s production gives It’s Frightening more than just a little bit of a Spoon feel. It’s still undeniably a White Rabbits album—their pummeling drums/piano/guitar combo is taken to new and glorious highs on this record, the latter two often tracked together playing the same part, which gives all the riffs very heavy and metallic textures. But Daniel’s approach to recording the album—which seemingly involved leaving all available tracks open, as well as lots of tape tricks—definitely gives it the dark, experimental air of a Spoon project. With these powers combined, however, the end product is a unique one.

15. Das PopDas Pop

Unabashed, insanely catchy pop from Belgium—count me in! It contains some of my favorite songs of the year, like “Underground”, “Wings”, “Saturday Night Pt. 1”, “The Last Thing”, and “September”. Unfortunately, a lot of the songs are forgettable, or downright bad. If Das Pop could have come up with three more amazing tunes to throw on here, this album would have made it to the top five. The songs try to combine power pop song structures and ideas with disco-influenced production, so one can understand how it could be a hit-or-miss affair. When it hits, though, it’s a pretty freakin’ good time.

14. Stardeath & White DwarfsThe Birth

“Smokin’ Pot Makes Me Not Want to Kill Myself” could wind up being the anthem for a new generation of rocker kids. “It’s not in our mind, and we’re not wasting each other’s time,” sings Dennis Coyne (yes, he is the nephew of Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips). It’s really more of an acoustic stoner jam than a rock song, but considering the fact that rock music is being re-interpreted by several new crops of forward thinking artists, Stardeath’s interpretation of the “rock anthem” could wind up working as well as anyone else’s. “Age of the Freak” could be a song like that as well. When Coyne sings “Love has always been your greatest fear,” there’s something that feels so dead-on about that statement.

13. ChildrenHard Times Hanging at the End of the World

The best metal album of the year, hands down. I know Mastodon’s Crack the Skye was a pretty important metal album this year, and I’m not denying the greatness of that record. But for me, metal is best when it walks the thin line between itself and punk rock. I like my metal raw and under-produced, blasted out live in the studio, with very little frills or processors or anything of that nature, and so much metal of today REEKS of that shit. That’s why this album was such a breath of fresh air for me this year. Every song on Hard Times is an epic guitar freak out (with the exception of the title track, which is an acoustic segue), as relentless as the music of the Fucking Champs, but with VOCALS!

12. The AntlersHospice

My mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, but fortunately she is in remission now. I think when I first tried to listen to this album, however, she was still undergoing treatment, and I wasn’t ready for it. I mean, in any case, a concept album about someone dying of bone cancer is not one that a lot of people are going to breeze through. But if you can open your mind to experiencing Hospice, it will be worth it. Initially, there’s just so much about it that’s unsettling as hell—lyrically, you have the bone cancer and the dying, and musically, you have the sonic equivalent of that, I guess. There are a lot of grating electronic noises and things of that sort, not to mention an overall feeling of hopelessness. But underneath it all are some really terrific songs, like the childlike “Bear” and the mysteriously wordy “Two”.

11. WilcoWilco (The Album)

People are starting to discredit Wilco, and that makes me sad. Maybe they aren’t making Yankees and Summerteeths anymore, but they are still one of the five best bands on the planet. Furthermore, Wilco (The Album) is the best thing they have done since Yankee, if only because of the tragic epic that is “Bull Black Nova”. “This can’t be undone,” sings Jeff Tweedy, and even though the song is about a guy who kills his girlfriend, this line kind of sums up Tweedy’s attitude about his music these days. He’s not trying to one-up himself anymore—with this incarnation of Wilco, it’s all about finding a common ground between the group’s members, and figuring out a way to play to everyone’s strengths. That’s kind of what you have to do when you have a band of people as talented as the musicians in Wilco, and I think they are doing just fine.

10. Kurt VileChildish Prodigy

He’s kind of like Elliott Smith meets Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, with a little Bruce Springsteen thrown in for good measure. But Kurt Vile’s debut full-length album, Childish Prodigy, represents all these sides at once, and thus becomes unlike most albums released this year. It’s kind of like painting—when you mix all the colors together, you get just kind of an ambiguous gray. The songs feel fragmented and tossed off, but have a relentless rock spirit to them. The opening track, “Hunchback”, is raunchy and bluesy without being too obvious about it, and there is enough of a unique swagger to it that keeps it light years away from anything cheesy. But Vile’s solo songs are usually the standouts—on the addictive “Overnite Religion”, or the eerily beautiful “Blackberry Song”, reverb and loop effects are used to add glorious textures. They just kind of wash over you, and that’s always fun.

9. Julian CasablancasPhrazes for the Young

Casablancas goes even further into new wave territory with his debut solo album, but with how good 5 of the 8 songs are, I still trust him. “Left and Right in the Dark” may boast some Flock of Seagulls-style guitar delay, and “11th Dimension” may be pretty damn synth-heavy, but these songs have two of the best choruses of the year easily. “Forgive them, even if they are not sorry” (from “11th Dimension”) is one of my favorite lyrics of the year. Despite whatever production he decided to utilize for these songs, Casablancas is obviously still in top form as a songwriter. The one-two-punch of a closer that are “Glass” and “Tourist” round out one of the most impressive solo debuts of some time, the latter featuring some sweet guitar lines that emphasize an overall feeling of agoraphobia.

8. GirlsAlbum

Every year, there are a batch of albums that get hyped to the point of us wanting to choke on our own puke. We were fortunate in 2009, though, that many of these records were actually really great. Album was one of those. It was that perfect late-summer record for me, a time when I could smell fall coming and everything was transitioning over to that time of year. Album kind of mapped that transition out for me musically, in the way that the record starts out as one thing and shifts into a completely new thing, only to end up as an even more different third thing. It’s like taking a lo-fi, heartbroken tour of the last 50 years of music, all while in the comfort of your neighbor’s basement. Everyone talks about how awesome “Hellhole Ratrace” is, and I’m going to join in—it’s fucking awesome, an epic ode to the short time we have on this planet that is at once sad, yet also sounds anything but hopeless.

7. It Hugs BackInside Your Guitar

An album that deserved way more praise than it got, Inside Your guitar is about as subtle and unflashy of a rock record as one is bound to find. It didn’t get a lot of attention this year, and from the first listen, it’s easy to see why—the vocals are almost literally whispered, and everything from the production to the playing is incredibly low key. But many of the songs are downright masterful—“Work Day”, for example, should have been a big single, with its instantly hooky guitar riff. Most of these songs are simply too subtle to be bound for radio play, however. There have a shoegaze quality, but also a sense of playfulness—kind of like musical Vicodin.

6. Dinosaur JrFarm

Maybe Dinosaur Jr is simply repeating history. Since reforming, they have released one pretty good record (2007’s Beyond), one stellar record (this one), and there are already rumors floating around about tensions resurfacing within the band on tour. Think about it—DJ’s first album, 1985’s Dinosaur, was pretty good; their next album, 1987’s You’re Living All Over Me, was stellar; and by that time, they had already started throwing guitars at each other onstage. If this pattern continues, we can expect one more classic record from this lineup (per 1988’s Bug). If Dinosaur Jr implode before any of this, at least they will have left Farm in their wake, an album chock full of the glorious sound of seasoned rockers refusing to go out whimpering. As a songwriter, Mascis has developed a formula he does not stray from too often, but even that 90’s slacker persona he has cultivated and perfected over the years can’t hide how committed he is to this batch of songs. He even sounds invested in Lou Barlow’s songs, perhaps because Mascis realized they would be two of the album’s best. Here’s hoping that made him guffaw a little.

5. St. VincentActor

Meet Annie Clark, my biggest head-trip crush since Bjork. Aside from being really, really hot, she also happened to make one of my top 5 favorite albums of the year, so that just makes it even more aaaahhhh, you know? Actor took some time to grow on me, though—it’s at times really beautiful, but it’s also got some really weird patches to it, parts that made me kind of wince for a little while. The end of “Black Rainbow”, for instance, is this huge orchestral build-up that’s all diminished and goes on for a really long time, and it always made me kind of uncomfortable. But once I realized how great the rest of the song was, everything came together nicely. Songs like “Save Me from What I Want”, “Actor out of Work” and “Laughing with a Mouth of Blood” were great enough to grab me right off the bat. Each of these songs you can just groove to, or rock the fuck out to, depending on your mood. It’s no surprise that Clark was influenced by Woody Allen and Disney films while making this record, because there are equal amounts of bright orchestral whimsy and human darkness to Actor.

4. Throw Me the StatueCreaturesque

Compared to a lot of other albums on this list, Creaturesque sounds somewhat sloppy—everything from the production and execution of the songs to their sequencing just seems a little…off. But over time, I have come to believe the record was born out of necessity—maybe the band had a bunch of songs they really liked, but they were very different from each other, so they had to be inventive about putting it together as an album. I don’t know what really happened or anything, but whatever they did, it really worked. Creaturesque is appropriately titled because it is its own beast—hard to understand, and impossible to tame. It really picks up towards the middle, around when the pulse-quickening “Cannibal Rays” hits with its driving, linear drum pattern and sunburst synths. But through repeat listens, this whole album has become air-guitar-worthy in my heart.

3. Yo La TengoPopular Songs

This is the best album Yo La Tengo has put out in over a decade, and that is saying a hell of a lot when you look at their recent output—yes, I am aware of this. I have been listening to this band for a really long time, as many of their fans have, and I am still confident in my decision. It seems as if Yo La Tengo continue to understand music making more and more, yet continue to understand life and love less and less. Such is the plight of a music geek, I suppose, and there are three of them in this band. But when you think about it, it the world of rock and roll, this is a perfect formula for greatness—your musical chops develop, while your life chops deteriorate. You would be a constant song factory! This is not just any band, though, and considering how well the album represents their storied career, Popular Songs is an album only Yo La Tengo could make.

2. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion

I think this album has helped me to keep an open mind whenever I listen to things now. Initially, it sounded like something I wouldn’t usually like, but for some reason, I could not stop listening to it. I had heard other Animal Collective albums, and was really surprised by how melodic MPP was in comparison to those. I’m a sucker for a good melody, so that could be why I like it so much. I also just really dig how AC figured out how to work their pop sensibilities into their experimentation—it gives more structure to everything, and they have managed to retain their charming weirdness. Merriweather’s opener, “In the Flowers”, is one of my top 3 favorite songs of the year. In the “Then we could be dancing” section, where the house-beat bass drum fades in over that shuffle rhythm—THAT is an amazing moment. It’s a totally original way to use something familiar, and it was especially awesome to hear that and like it in a time when the dance thing just seems so overdone. It seems that the goal of this record is to breathe new life into everything it touches, and more often than not, it succeeds.

1. PhoenixWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Though it eventually stretched its reach into the mainstream and has become the sort of record heard in gas stations and supermarkets, this is definitely the album of the year for me. Perhaps it is because of the fact that, despite that it has become that kind of record, I’m still not really sick of it. In fact, I am very happy at how much momentum the record is gaining. It’s a really good sign that the pendulum of popular music may finally be swinging in our direction, something I have been waiting to happen for a very long time. And it makes sense why so many people like this record—it’s pretty much flawless. The first two songs—“Lisztomania” and “1901”—are the best singles of the year, tight and neatly assembled little packages of pop that explode from the stereo with glorious guitar patterns and driving rhythms. From there, Wolfgang doesn’t let up, but it does take the listener to unexpected places. The tension-building sound collage of “Love like a Sunset” gives way to the propelling drum and guitar duels of “Lasso”, one of the album’s best songs. It all rounds out with “Armistice”, which seems to be a reprise of every idea presented on the album while simultaneously acting as a cliffhanger for what is to come. After hanging around for all these years and putting out some downright compelling music, 2009 proved to be Phoenix’s year to shine, and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix was the catalyst.

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