Posted by: Jeff | December 31, 2009

Top 30 Albums of 2009

My musical taste and knowledge is anything but universal (were there any good country albums this year? I’ll never know), but I do buy a lot of albums.  These were my favorites from 2009, a great year for artist albums.  As usual, this list is both objective and definitive.  I’ve included links to each album’s page on Lala.com, where you can preview (and buy) the full album.

30. Bon Iver – Bloodbank EP (Jagjaguwar)

This short EP highlights everything to love about Justin Vernon in 17 minutes: chilly vocal harmonies on “Blood Bank”, introspective and endearing earnestness on “Beach Baby”, variation between loud and soft on “Babys”, and subtle experimentation on “Woods”.  On the last track, Vernon – a singer-songwriter – uses autotune, something that seems designed for rap but sounds much better here.  The brief EP acts as a bridge between Bon Iver’s fantastic 2007 album For Emma, Forever Ago and Vernon’s side project, Volcano Choir.  Great for a cold winter day.

Track Recommendation: “Beach Baby”

Listen to the album.

29. Miike Snow – Miike Snow (Downtown)

This Swedish duo was the team behind Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, so one would expect that their standalone album might be filled with similar club-oriented offerings.  Yet the majority of the tracks on this debut album are piano-driven ballads with some flickering guitar and light drum machine work.  “Sylvia”, “Plastic Jungle”, and “In Search Of” offer some rousing electropop, but they feel out of place on an otherwise melancholy album.  “Burial” and “Animal” were born for radio play but stride a very thick line between the dance and acoustic styles on the rest of the album.

Track Recommendation: “Animal”

Listen to the album.

28. Karen O and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are OST (DGC/Interscope)

Who wasn’t excited when it was announced Yeah Yeah Yeahs front-woman Karen O would be scoring the Spike Jonze adaptation of this classic kid’s book?  Nobody is a bigger kid on stage, at least, so it seemed a perfect fit.  And the release only confirmed it.  Karen O and her posse of like-minded musicians create a wonderful set of soundscapes that capture the whimsy, adventure, and yes, fear that Max experiences.  “All is Love” earned the Grammy nomination, but “Igloo”, “Rumpus”, and “Hideaway” better capture the spirit of the film.

Track Recommendation: “Worried Shoes”

Listen to the album.

27. Band of Skulls – Baby Darling Doll Face (Shangri-La/Artist First)

This is a band out of Britain that sounds a little bit like all of Jack White’s various side projects all on one record.  There’s a bluesy rock number a la The Raconteurs (“I Know What I Am”), a garage rock scattershot of guitar and White Stripes-esque vocals by a male lead (“Death By Diamonds and Pearls”), with a few grittier numbers with female lead Emma Richardson (“Blood”) – a dead ringer for The Dead Weather’s Alison Mossheart.  Ultimately this leads the album sounding somewhat scattered and the band unfocused, but the good news is that whatever direction they choose for the next album ought to be good.

Track Recommendation: “I Know What I Am”

Listen to the album.

26. Atlas Sound – Logos (kranky)

When he isn’t leading the band Deerhunter or helping Karen O release her wild things, Bradford Cox is Atlas Sound, an indie project that channels a darker, more acoustic Animal Collective.  Logos is a lo-fi record with atmospheric guitar, looping synths, and filtered vocals from Cox and guests Noah Lennox (of Animal Collective) and Laetitia Sadier, whose high tones are a perfect counter to the bass groove of “Quick Canal”.   The guest appearances are the real highlights, but overall Logos provides a quirky and enjoyable listening experience.

Track Recommendation: “Walkabout” (ft. Noah Lennox)

Listen to the album.

25. Volcano Choir – Unmap (Jagjaguwar)

Justin Vernon’s side project with label mates Collections of Colonies of Bees is definitely an experimental endeavor, the result of a second hermitage at a cabin in the woods.  Unlike the first, which produced Bon Iver’s heartfelt and ascetic For Emma, Forever Ago (2007), this second trip produced Unmap, a record full of strange sounds, delicate vocal harmonies, and disjarring jabs of piano (“Mbira in the Morass”).  At times gothic ambient (“Youlagy”) and at others more plaintively acoustic (“Husks and Shells”, Volcano Choir flexes some subdued musical range.

Track Recommendation: “Island, IS”

Listen to the album.

24. Silversun Pickups – Swoon (Dangerbird)

2006’s “Lazy Eye” was a big statement, balancing delicate treble guitar with a melodic bassline and subtle vocals to perfect effect.  Swoon sees the Pickups do more than copy the successful formula, adding a string section and turning up the tempo to create a more aggressive album.  The comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins continue unabated and the lyrics are a bit too introspective at times, but the instrumental atmospheres are rich and textured, giving the album a full sound that rewards repeated listens.

Track Recommendation: Growing Old Is Getting Old

Listen to the album.

23. Little Boots – Illuminations EP (Elektra Records)

For Little Boots, who spent time in a jazz trio and a punk band before focusing her attention on her genre of choice, pop is an art and not an escape.  Her first EP packs a lot of punch.  As she puts it, these are “three-and-a-half-minute power pop nuggets with character.”  “Stuck on Repeat” sounds like Kylie Minogue at her lyrical best over an electro riff produced for Lady Gaga.  Talk about mixing your sweets with your salty.  If this is the future of pop, I’m on board.  The only reason this is listed so low is I only have the five song EP and not her whole album (not available in the US on iTunes).

Track Recommendation: “Stuck on Repeat”

Listen to the album.

22. The Raveonettes – In and Out of Control (VICE Music)

After 2008’s dark and sinister Lust Lust Lust, In and Out of Control sounds like a return to the doo-wop pop shop stuff of earlier Raveonettes releases.  That is, until you listen to the lyrics.  Sharin Foo coos sweetly over songs like “Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)”, “Suicide”, and “Oh, I Buried You Today”.  This album is all about dissonance – in and out of control, indeed.  Foo and Sune Rose Wagner harmonize well as usual, and the shoegazer guitars are loud and fuzzy as ever, making it infectious even when uncomfortable.

Track Recommendation: “Last Dance”

Listen to the album.

21. Delorean – Ayrton Senna EP (Fool House)

If this were a full-length album, it might have made a run at the top of this list.  But as an EP, the top 20 doesn’t seem right.  This is, however, escapist pop at its finest, with piano hooks, groovy basslines, and lyrics that memorialize both objects and places of affection.  The Spaniards of Delorean nod toward the dance-punk of DFA, but seem rooted squarely in the world of bubbly pop.  With infectious choruses that simply repeat the adage, “I like the time I spend with you girl, with you girl, yeah,” this Barcelona quartet sounds more MGMT than LCD.

Track Recommendation: “Deli

Listen to their earlier 2007 album (EP not on Lala).

20. Franz Ferdinand – Tonight (Domino)

Tonight is a bit of a departure for rockers Franz Ferdinand – they still maintain the same energy, but explore a newfound fascination with synthesizers that permeates many of the tracks on the album and culminates in the insane synth inferno of “Lucid Dreams.”  Frontman Alex Kapranos calls the album an ode to the night, and with the way that tracks morph from ballad into electro-rock stomper (“Bite Hard”) or restrained rock-pop to raucous rock frenzy (“What She Came For”), this sounds like a fun night indeed, capped by the subdued lullaby of “Katherine Kiss Me.”

Track Recommendation: “Ulysses”

Listen to the album.

19. Annie – Don’t Stop (Smalltown Supersound)

When you think Scandinavian pop, you typically think of Sweden and Sally Shapiro, but Annie is putting Norway on the map.  Annie’s voice seems small and delicate at times, but delivered over heavy grooves like “Bad Times” or “Loco” (played by Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos), she’s a giant.  Annie never bellows – she coos – yet on tracks like “I Don’t Like Your Band” she exudes confidence without getting in anybody’s face.  As good as this album is, it could have been even better – 2008’s leaked “I Know UR Girlfiend Hates Me” was cut to keep the album fresh.  Too bad.

Track Recommendation: “Songs Remind Me Of You”

Listen to the album.

18. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns (Astral Works/Parlaphone)

Natasha Khan has a haunting voice that hits you from the beginning of “Glass”, the first track on Two Suns.  The track is built on propulsive drums and low ominous synths that suggest something supernaturally ominous.  “Sleep Alone” is a slow-motion disco number that makes the supernatural more explicit, lamenting a failed attempt to conjure a lover with a spell.  The rest of the album explores genres and soundscapes, but is all bound together by Khan’s arresting vocals that hearken a time long past.

Track Recommendation: “Daniel”

Listen to the album.

17. St. Vincent – Actor (4AD)

Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, has a knack for orchestral arrangements and chamber pop.  The irony is that though the arrangements feel comfortable and appealing, most songs relate Clark’s frustration with boredom and domestic life.  Actor is inherently about slipping in and out of roles, and the depth of emotion in tracks like “The Strangers” and “Actor Out of Work” is only gleaned from attentive listening.  Clark is a master of beautiful composition and subtle story-telling.

Track Recommendation: “Save Me From What I Want”

Listen to the album.

16. The Juan MacLean – The Future Will Come (DFA)

Disco is still alive and well in 2009.  Try listening to the first track – “The Simple Life” – without tapping your toes.  It can’t – and shouldn’t – be done.  DFA is home to the dance-punk movement, but unlike LCD Soundsystem and Hercules and Love Affair, The Juan MacLean fully embraces the dance side, with several tracks over eight minutes (like the excellent “Happy House”).  Nancy Whang’s vocals are largely unprocessed – think disco meets garage band – and the liberal use of piano recalls the eighties house scene without being overtly retro.

Track Recommendation: “One Day”

Listen to the album.

15. Girls – Girls (True Panther)

The story of this band is unexpected, not least of all because there aren’t actually any female members.  The story involves a religious cult, prostitution, death and abandonment, followed by an act of kindness and ultimate redemption.  So it may be surprising that their debut album is good.  But it is quite good – stylistically the nearest comparison might be Elvis Costello meets The Beach Boys – a surfer album for the post-surf generation.  Despite the sunny disposition, there’s a lot of raw emotion in this album, which makes it one of the most impactful of the year.

Track Recommendation: “Laura”

Listen to the album.

14. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career (4AD)

This album may have been released in 2009, but it has that timeless feel that could lead one to believe it was released decades ago.  The orchestral arrangements are delightful and Tracyanne Campbell’s voice sounds both naive and weathered, lamenting over lost loves with a degree of lovelorn familiarity.  Full of observational sarcasm (“so you want to be a writer? Fantastic!” on “Swans”) and dry Scottish wit, My Maudlin Career is… well… maudlin.  This is quality chamberpop, to be enjoyed with a glass of wine on a rainy weekend.

Track Recommendation: “French Navy”

Listen to the album.

13. JJ – JJ No 2 (Secretly Canadian Records)

You’d never guess this band was Swedish, with the use of marimba, African percussion, and classical strings prevalent throughout the album’s brief 28 minutes.  There’s a touch of Air here, but the songs are more lasting, more touching than their French counterparts’. That is, with the exception of “Ecstasy”, which is a trippy cover of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” that doesn’t feel quite at home with the rest of the album.  Then again, what does?  There seems to be some continuity here, but with two vocalists and a dozen musical genres encapsulated in just 9 songs it’s either a mirage or a sign that the world is smaller than we realize.

Track Recommendation: “From Africa to Malaga”

Listen to the album.

12. yksopp – Junior (Astralwerks)

Röyksopp is best known for providing background music for the Geico caveman, but the Norwegian duo has been crafting taut electropop for some time.  Even without companion Senior (pushed back to 2010), Junior is an impressive album. With a few guest appearances from Karen Dreijer Andersson, Robyn and Lykke Li backed by riveting synth work, Junior is effusively youthful and full of energy.  The irreverent motif of ageless robots looking for love is also humorous, and provides a platform for some of Robyn and Lykke Li’s best work to date.

Track Recommendation: “The Girl and the Robot” (ft. Robyn) and “Miss It So Much” (ft. Lykke Li)

Listen to the album.

11.The Antlers – Hospice (Frenchkiss)

Everytime I listen to “Bear” I ask myself the same question: Is that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” I hear?  Each track on this album seems cloaked in the gently familiar, with soft sounds backdropping hesitant and unintrusive lyrics at the start.  And then the realization hits that these are no lullabies – frontman Peter Silberman described Hospice as a meditation on the guilt and duty involved with caring for a young cancer victim.  It’s the stuff of meaningful introspection and soul-searching, and probably the most non-ironic release by a Brooklyn band ever – especially for one that continually references Sylvia Plath.

Track Recommendation: “Kettering”

Listen to the album.

10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)

Despite all the comparisons to indie bands of yesteryear, I can’t help but hear a lot of Joy Division in this record.  From the bass-as-counter-melody to the post-punk shoegaze-lite guitar work, tracks like “Contender” and “Come Saturday” feel a lot like JD standards such as “Incubation” – granted, there’s no Ian Curtis baritone, and the lyrics of “Young Adult Friction” and “This Love Is F*****g Right!” are hardly brooding, but still.  There’s a similarity in structure.  And needless to say, I like it.

Track Recommendation: “Contender”

Listen to the album.

9. Fever Ray – Fever Ray (Mute Records)

Soundtrack for a frozen and empty urban landscape.  This is a truly eerie album.  Karin Dreijer Andersson, one half of The Knife, uses 2006’s masterful Silent Shout as a jumping-off point for a slowed down journey into psychosis.  The same weird synths are present, but the percussion is subdued and often restrained here.  The sounds aren’t jolting so much as penetrating.  Andersson has a knack for using sound to paint a vivid picture of a frigid alternate reality, and on tracks like “I Had a Heart” and “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” it is frighteningly stark.

Track Recommendation: “When I Grow Up”

Listen to the album.

8. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

One almost needs to defend not naming this indie darling the best album of the year.  I like it, and I think I “get” it, but I just don’t love it.  The looping psychedelic squelches and dubby percussion are innovative, and “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes” are surely among the most important tracks of the decade.  But for every moment of greatness like “Bluish” there is a “meh” track like “Also Frightened” – if that’s not filler, what is it?  The album may be more influential than enjoyable, but it is still worthy of inclusion in any collection.

Track Recommendation: “My Girls”

Listen to the album.

7. The Dead Weather – Horehound (Warner Bros.)

Unlike other so-called super groups, The Dead Weather is better than the sum of its parts.  Alison Mossheart (The Kills) oozes menacing appeal over an aggressive swamp blues backing laid down by Jack White, Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (The Raconteurs).  On “Hang You From the Heavens”, White channels his inner John Bonham as Mossheart makes the evil more explicit, admitting “I’d like to grab you be the hair, and drag you to the devil”.  The Dead Weather are a fully realized sojourn into the world of dirty delta blues, and it’s as delicious as it is devious.

Track Recommendation: “New Pony”

Listen to the album.

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimist (Warp)

Pitch-perfect three-part harmonies.  Flawless production.  This is the album that made Jay-Z pay attention to the Brooklyn indie scene, and for good reason – it is a beautiful record.  “Two Weeks” is as pretty and sunny as pop songs come in an economic downturn, and “While You Wait For The Others” is as close to progressive chamber pop as you’ll find.  The orchestration exquisite and the delivery flawless, and while some tracks seem to meander before finding their way, the album as a whole is a standout.

Track Recommendation: “While You Wait For The Others”

Listen to the album.

5. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca (Domino)

I didn’t know what to make of Bitte Orca the first time I listened to it.  There isn’t much in the way of typical song construction here, with changing time signatures, fluttering guitars and the liberal use of female vocals as instrument (see opener “Cannibal Resource”).  This record is more art than pop, but no less listenable for it.  In fact, unlike many avant garde “concept” albums, Bitte Orca is highly enjoyable.  “Useful Chamber” is an interesting journey through multiple stylines, all centered around a plea shouted at a whale: “bitte orca, orca bitte!”  Art at its catchiest.

Track Recommendation: The groovy percussion, fluttering guitar, soaring strings and soulful spiralling vocals delivered by Amber Coffman on “Stillness is the Move” are simply phenomenal, making this track an absolute highlight.  You likely didn’t hear a better vocal performance in 2009.

Listen to the album.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz! (DGC/Interscope)

Known mostly for raucus post-punk belters, the news that the YYY’s new album includes liberal usage of synths worried some.  And for no reason.  The band traded in raw for slick production and a shiny veneer, but their heart is evident throughout the record.  Karen O growls and shrieks through “Zero” with the same energy and verve, but the softer side made visible on rare tracks like “Maps” is more pronounced here (“Skeletons”, “Soft Shock”), with Karen O even cooing over acoustic guitar (“Little Shadow”, “Hysteric”).

Track Recommendation: “Zero” garnered the critical acclaim, but “Heads Will Roll” probably best encapsulates the album as a whole.  With a solid rhythm section, gritty guitars, soaring synths and a varied pace that allows Karen O to both dance around with gleeful abandon and breakdown and get downright soothing, this is a track that showcases the range of the band.  And if you’re new to the YYY and want to check out this album: yes, the bonus edition with acoustic versions is most definitely worth it.

Listen to the album.

3. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast (Fat Possum)

Andrew Bird is a masterful musician, and this is his most refined album.  Full of sweeping violin arrangements and chirpy whistling melodies, the album feels borne out of another time and place, when non-synthetic sounds were unavailable and emotion was conveyed through timbre and vocal inflection.  From the building shuffle of “Nomenclature” to the plucky violin and handclap percussion of “Masterswarm”, Bird experiments with sonic improvisation.  The lyrics too, are playful and full of wordplay – making lines like “I see a sea anemone, the enemy” sound thoughtful and beautiful.

Track Recommendation: “Natural Disaster” blends a touching acoustic guitar melody with a hushed violin that emerges over the course of the song to provide a beautiful backdrop for Bird’s meandering vocals – at times his most beautifully restrained and others his most silly (a wolf with a lung disease?).  It’s a song that sounds equally perfect with a glass of wine or in church.

Listen to the album.

2. The xx – xx (Young Turks)

This is a sparse album, little more than an understated bass line, tinny drum machine, and minimalist guitar melody. The call-and-response interplay of male and female lead vocalists fills the space, and though it isn’t exactly pretty, it is certainly rich.  There are no real standouts on the album, a testament to its consistency rather than any shortcoming.  Tracks like “Infinity” and “Heart Skipped a Beat” show a surprising amount of emotional depth for their sparse composition.  It’s hard to believe these guys are only 20.

Track Recommendation: “Basic Space” incorporates many of the elements found throughout the album.  After trading verses, vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim come together for the chorus to implore one another “don’t look away when there’s nothing there”.  The instrumentation features a guitar riff reminiscent of Interpol and a synthesized drum syncopation, and the expansive empty space in between is roamed by the two voices sparring with one another.

Listen to the album.

1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)

Phoenix incorporates their country’s largest export (French electro) into taut compositions that forego anything extraneous to propel ever forward. Take “Rome”, which builds to a frenetic finish, filling entire rooms with layers of sound.  This isn’t rock, but it isn’t delicate bubblegum either.  Many of the highs are merely fleeting, left truncated in the expulsion of excess (“1901”), but Phoenix does allow one deviation from pop craftsmanship by offering the epic “Love Like A Sunset”, a masterpiece of tension and release that demonstrates this band has punch as well as flair.

Track Recommendation: “Lisztomania” is the obvious critic favorite on the album, and the most radio-friendly single after “1901”.  But on “Countdown“, vocalist Thomas Mars shows a lot of range, presiding over crescendos and decrescendos of  propulsive drums toward the inevitable finale, the pronouncement that “true and everlasting didn’t last that long” – bubblegum with a tinge of melancholy: pop music with its eye on explaining contemporary society.

Listen to the album.

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Responses

  1. not bad. St. Vincent is great.

    2.342

    jeremyshingles.wordpress.com/current-discography-of-michaelmatician

  2. […] probably recognize many of these artists from my list of the most prolific in the past decade and best albums of the past year.  With the exception of Massive Attack (seven years since the last album, guys?) […]

  3. […] have to admit that my excitement for the second opener, jj, was nearly as high as for the headliner.  jj has released three albums in the short span of a year, and the second, […]

  4. […] this Norwegian electronic duo announced a melancholy companion piece to 2009′s peppy Junior (#12 album of 2009), excitement seemed inevitable.  An instrumental release that treads no new territory, however, […]

  5. […] To see the 2009 Top 30, click here. […]


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