The new year is almost here, and with it comes a maelstrom of “End of the Year Lists.” Here on Ex-Spectator, I’ll be rolling out a few “End of the Year”/”End of the Decade” lists. Today’s list: The Best Albums of 2009.
As I’ve mentioned previously, there are a lot of pitfalls for “best of” lists. I’d considering tossing the idea away if there wasn’t a little bit of fun that goes along with constructing such a list. This really is a collection of some of my favorite releases this year: It’s more than a “rank and file” of “importance,” but a selection of musical memories from the past twelve months.
This isn’t a rulebook for people to follow. If anything, I hope I can point people towards a band or two they hadn’t heard, or hadn’t considered listening to before reading this list. Because a large part of the joy of music journalism is helping people discover new bands and musicians and fall in love with these songs and records. It’s not about authority. It’s about twenty-five great albums that came out this year. These records gave me so much this past year, and I only hope my words and recommendations can give something back.
So, without further ado, here is my list of the best records of 2009:
It was a sad day in L.A. when Mika Miko announced they would break up. The mostly all-girl quintet was at the heart of the burgeoning post-punk scene that produced some of the hottest indie bands to name drop, including No Age and HEALTH. And so We Be Xuxa became the band’s unofficial swan song, and with every listen brings to mind the thought of another underrated group with enough passion it could force the world to fall to its knees at the hands of some fantastic, fun punk ditties. The songs are short and sweet, and the band is sorely missed.
Besides releasing some of the best free albums of the year, Deastro produced this little gem of electronic-cum-indie rock. Whereas the for-free tunes the group released seemed to reside in the bedroom pop stasis that made frontman Randolph Chabot into the songwriter he is today, Moondagger has the sheen of an act that’s been given all the time and money in the world to put together an album… Or at least a little more time and money than Chabot had in his bedroom. Songs like “Toxic Crusaders” and “Vermillion Plaza” are given a bit of depth with help from a kaleidoscope of instruments and, yes, a full band. Though the album sags a bit under some of Chabot’s less well-scripted lyrics, Moondagger displays a strong voice good enough to save itself from the duller moments of the album.
Just as the Sunny Day Real Estate reunion rumors began to heat up, Jeremy Enigk released his best solo album since his ’96 debut, Return of the Frog Queen. The SDRE frontman ditched the glossy production that bogged down 2006’s World Waits for a handful of tracks that sound as mesmerizing as the songs he made when he sat down with just an acoustic guitar and a small orchestra. Add in a couple of Sunny Day fans giving some heavy instrumental backup and a new muse in the guise of Spain, and Enigk came out with a winning album.
It’s experimental! It’s techno! It’s all over the place! It’s Fuck Buttons doing what they do best – mixing things up. The duo decided to ditch the caterwauling screams and (some of) the ambience of last year’s Tarot Sport for a streamlined and potentially pop-friendly sound. Sure, a song like “Olympians” defies the attention span of pop listeners, but with its subtle changes in tone and melody at the halfway point, it’s one great knockout in an album of surprises.
The xx brought R&B sensuality back into the hipster lexicon this year, and all without an ironic smirk or any pretentious pitfalls. And yet, despite the ingenious combination of buttery singing and minimalist compositions, a large portion of the album seems to flow in one ear and out the other without really making an impression. The group’s method of communication is entrancing, but the album lacks any direct hit. Fortunately, the singles “Basic Space” and “Crystalised” are strong enough to carry the album and band to the end of the album.
It’d be hard for many bands to make an album as strong and satisfying as Say Anything’s 2004 album …is a Real Boy, never mind having to follow up such a tremendous record. The group may have tried to cover too much with 2007’s In Defense of the Genre, but the group seems a bit more focused on Say Anything. Frontman Max Bemis is in fine lyrical form, twisting words around, openly criticizing his methods of communication and producing one of the best potshots at Kings of Leon. Though some residue of overzealousness from In Defense have wound up in the band’s ideal to imbue their brand of emo with every other genre known to pop, and Bemis’s newfound appreciation for Jesus gets a little worn out, the band is still as spry and heartfelt as they were when they were “real boys.”
On Think About Life’s self-titled 2006 debut, the band seemed stuck between their efforts to bridge the gaps between abrasiveness and forlorn pop. They manage to do just that on Family, as the Montreal act has produced an album that lasts from tracks one through 10. Though their feedback-laced sound is all but washed away, it exists in their charmingly offbeat instrumentation. Fortunately, their efforts have coalesced into a solid collection of forlorn alterna-pop just waiting to burst on the indie-friendly airwaves.
These days, “maturity” is hardly ever paired with the word “emo,” though its original definition was applied to musicians who composed songs that dealt with the maturation process. Owen’s Mike Kinsella is one of those musicians. As much as he would like to shed that term, it’s an excellent descriptor for Owen’s newest album. A stripped down collection of thoroughly mature songs, these little tunes are emotionally gravitating tales of being an adult with a wife and a child and all the thoughts and moments that happen during that period of life.
Some critics have been taking Wale to town for “selling out.” Yet, a lot of the sounds that emerge from Attention Deficit aren’t the kind of thing one would normally hear on commercial radio (or whatever is left of commercial radio.) It may not be as experimental as some of the material on Wale’s massive mixtape discography, but with D.C.’s go-go sound still present throughout a large part of the album and big, chunky beats blasting throughout, it’s hard to see where the album falters and easy to see the unbearably-high expectations.
There’s been something missing in so many dour acts that have come from the U.K. this past decade: Fun. London trio Micachu & The Shapes make fun sound so natural, you have to wonder why there aren’t droves of British kids making such an irresistible racket. Yet, that’s part of the wonder that makes Jewellery unique. The oft-goofy sounds that punctuate the group’s jittery brand of poppy-punk, combined with Mica Levi’s British coo and smart songwriting make for an album that’ll stick to your head and hard drive.
In the spring of ’08, I was putting on a show with a little band fronted by an NYU student, Peter Silberman. We were both seniors at our respective universities and dealing with our own little projects, situations and changes. A few weeks after the show, I finished off my senior thesis and graduated: Silberman went on to graduate in the winter and produce an album that spring called Hospice. A concept album about two relationships in the life of a hospice worker, every second of the album is bathed in a kind of brutal sincerity and emotional fragility that most people my age would have trouble trying to muster. Though my project rests in the basement of the Brandeis library, it’s nice to see someone who once performed parts of his project for gas money receive such critical commendation for a work that few of Silberman’s peers could muster.
I still remember catching this Scottish sextet at London’s 93 Feet East in ’07, and just being completely taken aback by what appeared before me. I left that night patiently awaiting some recording by a band that had taken their name from a former “SNL” cast member not because of their silly name, but their raucous, full-throttle show. Though it’d be hard to capture the passionate, caterwauling efforts of Dananananaykroyd on vinyl, CD or MP3, Hey Everyone certainly comes close. Veering partway between full-blasted agro-punk and twee-pop, Hey Everyone fulfills every need one might have to let loose, let out a little aggression and enjoy a good pop tune.
There’s got to be something in the water at DFA headquarters. Sure, YACHT were funky before they signed to the New York label, but now the duo’s songs have a bit more polish to them, a bit more of a hook and a whole lot more space to move around. The songs that populate See Mystery Lights benefit from a certain sense of direction and clarity that allow Claire Evans and Jona Bechtolt to really explore where their music can go. And on See Mystery Lights, it went pretty far.
Time isn’t friendly to some bands. “Sickos” introduced the Harlem Shakes to the blogosphere in ’05 and all was right for the band. But by the time they finally released their debut, Technicolor Health, there wasn’t enough room in a music world overpopulated by all the Vampire Weekends, Ra Ra Riots and Tokyo Police Clubs out there. Which is such a shame, because Technicolor Health is one of the best feel-good records made this year. Songs like “Strictly Game” and “Sunlight” flow effortlessly and are packed with slight tinges of punk, funk and indie pop and seem to reach to the heavens in pop passion. Though the Harlem Shakes appear to be forever lost in time – they broke up in September – Technicolor Health will hopefully be saved from the marked down bins of tomorrow.
As much as I try to not judge a book by its cover, I tend to cringe when I hear the word “indie” used more than a few times in a sentence. Perhaps that’s why I stayed away from Phoenix for so long. Or tried to at least. It was next to impossible to ignore the Parisian band this year, as their songs illustrated everything from car commercials to concert halls. And the songs were irresistible to boot. So, by the time I gave Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix a proper listen, I realized I’d already heard half of it and liked it. As for the rest of the album? It’s just as good as what I’d heard all year.
Merriweather Post Pavillion is a lot like cotton candy. It sure is tasty, but it doesn’t really fill you, and you can get a bit sick of it if you play it too often. Still, the Baltimore-bred band has walked away with a solid pop album. “My Girls,” “Summertime Clothes,” and “Brother Sport” certainly are tunes to last through generations: Unfortunately, the rest of the album’s song sort of seep into one another and leave little lasting impression. But, half-brilliant or half-bad, it’s still got some excellent flavor to it.
Stefon Alexander spent the last two P.O.S. albums trying to make his two favorite genres coexist. Though most folks would never cram punk and hip-hop together, P.O.S. managed to do it with originality and flare, and with Never Better he hit the nail on the head. Between sampling Fugazi for a politically flavored rap on “Savion Glover,” the fuzzy punk instrumentation of “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty)” and the emotional gravitating raping and screaming on “Optimist (We Are Not For Them),” Alexander has emerged with an album that challenges the capacities of musicians and listeners of hip-hop and punk. Never Better is a shot across the bow that will make many musicians of all genres tremble at its sheer existence.
Post-Nothing is kryptonite for fans of anthemic rock ‘n’ roll. The eight songs that make up Japandroids’s debut album ache in their belief that rock can save lives, remake kids as heroes and take no prisoners. Post-Nothing is the kind of album that makes old codgers of rock fans believe that, yes, rock is very much alive. And kicking. This Canadian duo has managed to string together a fair number of songs as heartfelt as those tunes people shout along to when they pop on the car stereo, and ones that’ll have people pleading for more to boot.
A lot has changed in the five years since Bazan released the last Pedro the Lion album, and thankfully Bazan’s hand at songwriting has gotten stronger. With Curse Your Branches, Bazan has turned his introverted lyricism and woven it into some of his most personal tunes yet. Bazan has always used music as a method to explore his ideological stance on religion and humanity, and with Curse Your Branches it seems that Bazan has made a decision. Sort of. Though it would appear as though Bazan no longer considers himself a Christian, with the songs on Curse Your Branches his faith in trying to overcome personal disillusionment and problems may be stronger than ever. His songwriting certainly is.
The Scottish scene has produced a handful of talented bands before We Were Promised Jetpacks released their debut record this year. Though they may get pigeonholed for sounding a little too much like, say, Frightened Rabbit, the quartet makes all the noise they need to in order to assert their individuality on These Four Walls. More aggressive than Frightened Rabbit, a bit more accessible than The Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks managed to put together an album that’s concisely built from start to finish: It grabs you in beginning with the caustic bridge halfway through “Its Thunder And It’s Lightening” and keeps you listening with baited breath all the way through “An Almighty Thud.” In the middle are an astonishing number of pop-friendly tunes with a strong emotional stasis.
Before I put on a show with The Antlers, the Dirty Projectors breezed through town. Checking in quite a bit late thanks to a gas leak, frontman Dave Longstreth immediately sought out a place to practice. I set him up in the room of a student who lived above the venue (Chum’s) and let him do his thing. When I grabbed him to set up for their set, I found Longstreth on his knees, a handful of sheets with scribbles on them lying in front of him and his fingers casually jumping along the fret of his guitar. The band, then a quartet, would go on to play “Temecula Sunrise” live for the first time at our campus’s tiny coffeehouse. The minute they finished the song, you could see the exasperated look of glee on everyone’s faces onstage. They’d done it: They performed a song that had long outwitted them in practice. All that hard work has paid off with Bitte Orca, a nine-track album filled with immaculately structured songs that seem to burst with a mixture of complexity and pop glee to boot. Hopefully, somewhere out there, Longstreth and co. can recognize that and are smilingly widely.
There’s something frightening about Future of the Left. You have to wonder about the individuals behind such strong-willed, aggressively executed punk rawk. What else are they capable of? Hopefully, all we can hope to see from the trio that is FotL are more albums like Travels with Myself and Another, an excellent collection of adrenaline-pumping, PA-blasting punk that will knock you out if you’re not prepared for it.
Hardly any critic could have thought Brand New would become the band they are today at the beginning of the decade. Whoever signed the band to Interscope probably never considered they would grow anything other than a nice new paycheck after selling off a few singles. Back when emo broke the band was seen as a smart pop-punk brand of the genre stuck in the pack. Sure they were smart, but what could they do? Turns out, a lot. After their tremendous third album, Brand New certainly had a lot riding on their backs, and it paid off in the form of Daisy. The album isn’t as immediately accessible as The Devil And G-d Are Raging Inside Me, but the rewarding repeated replays are worth the effort. Songs like “Gasoline” brim with aggression and intelligence, while the album’s first single “At The Bottom” confronts certain aspects of mortality with a brutal honesty that has long evaded “rock stars” that frequently discuss death. At forty minutes, the one thing you’ll want from the album is simply more of it.
Grizzly Bear had always made a point of balancing ambience with elements of top 40 pop. Though their previous efforts had been heavier on the ambience, the band made a point of giving both sides of their sonic personality equal footing, and the result was one of the best albums by any band this decade. Veckatimest oozes with a certain aural beauty that one would expect to hear in a church, recast over glistening guitar work and some pretty heavenly musical arrangements. On Veckatimest, everything is in its right place for Grizzly Bear and every member of the quartet seems to be perfectly in step with one another. It’s the kind of symbiotic relationship that many bands spend years trying to fabricate, and the kind of relationship that produces an album as beautiful as Veckatimest.
Leave it up to the guy in day-glo clothing that made a song using samples of Woody Woodpecker to pull out the surprise album of the year. But for folks who paid attention to the entirety of Spiderman of the Rings could have heard some real potential in Dan Deacon’s oft-cartoonish electronic songs. And so, with his team of Wham City brethren and a whole lot more to work with than on any previous effort, Deacon emerged with a fully realized, gorgeously crafted album in Bromst. From the faint sounds of the player piano rising up from a space beyond in the album opener, “Build Voice,” to the syncopated, gamelan-flavored ecstatic closing track “Get Older,” Deacon created a vast, intricately composed piece that could satisfy the yearnings of musique concrète auteurs, electronica fans and indie kids alike. He may be pigeonholed as an “odd” musician, but Deacon made an album that has the potential to connect fans of all genres. It doesn’t hurt that the album is the best of the year either.
You can check out the runners up of the year on my other blog. Just remember, when it comes to your favorite record, the choice is yours.