As a preface to this list, I would just like to say that this is not your typical hipster year-end music list: I am not claiming to know anything about music beyond what is pleasing to my personal sensibilities. This list is entirely subjective. I am highlighting the albums, songs and videos that made the strongest impression on me, and detailing my opinions about them.
TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2009
20. Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster
I don’t care what anyone says: I like Lady Gaga. She’s insanely talented (watch her perform a piano-only rendition of “Paparazzi”) and is bringing avante garde performance art to mainstream pop. Certainly she doesn’t write songs as profound as other musicians on this list, but she does create infectiously fun dance songs and she does it well. Sometimes a little musical hedonism is a welcome alternative. This album is the perfect yin to her 2008 album The Fame‘s yang; where The Fame reveled in money and celebrity, The Fame Monster explores the internal ramifications of fame: fear, broken relationships, and self-consciousness, all over a dance beat. Go, Gaga.
Song: Dance In The Dark
19. Fever Ray, Fever Ray
I first came to know Karin Dreijer Andersson’s unique voice (which, stylistically, sounds almost like a female, Scandinavian Bob Dylan) through her singing with The Knife, but she creates a familiar yet distinct sound on Fever Ray. The beats and sounds are dark and eery, full of hollow paranoia-inducing echoes, and the lyrics are beautifully descriptive and nebulous at the same time; Andersson sings “I want to be a forester and run through the moss on high heels” with heart and conviction on “When I Grow Up.” I like The Knife, but I hope Fever Ray sticks around.
Song: When I Grow Up
18. Mountain Man, Mountain Man
One of the most beautiful albums I’ve heard in a long time. I love that a trio of New England females decided to dub themselves Mountain Man. Humor aside, this album is so honest and raw: the instrumentation is minimal, the harmonies are gorgeous, and the voices teeter back and forth between whisper and shrieking, which makes both the silence and the sound equally penetrating.
Song: Animal Tracks
17. Beirut, March of the Zapotec / Realpeople Holland
I enjoyed this album a lot even though it isn’t my favorite from Beirut. The album as a whole is a little perplexing, with such short songs and even shorter wordless musical interludes; the overt European sound of previous albums melds with electronic beats on a few songs, but the sound is still distinctly Beirut. I can appreciate when any musician steps outside the box and tries something new, and even more so when it works well.
Song: La Llorona
16. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
If I could have a legitimate 80’s flashback, I think this album could easily induce it. The scratchy feedback of the guitars and the simple chord progressions scream new wave, but it’s the vocals that give it something extra: male and female voices play off of each other and give the songs life, and the lyrics are incredibly upbeat and optimistic. This is just a feel-good album in its purest form.
Song: Young Adult Friction
15. jj, N° 2
I am always of the mindset that Scandinavians can do no wrong in the music world, and I think jj’s debut album reinforces that. The Swedish dj’s have created a really chill sound that incorporates so many disparate elements, from world music influences to accordians, but does so with seeming ease. Listening to this album makes me want to smoke weed, and music rarely (and by ‘rarely’, i mean ‘never’) has that effect on me. I also think it’s really cool that they can maintain a certain level of mystery despite all the hype they’ve gotten this year; they made it onto Pitchfork’s top albums of the year, and no one really knows anything about them. I’m excited to see how they evolve, and am super-stoked for N° 3 in March.
14. Coconut Records, Davy
I’ve had a crush on Jason Schwartzman ever since I saw him in Rushmore, but this album has elevated him to a new level of attractiveness in my eyes. Schwartzman has dabbled in music (playing drums for Phantom Planet in the early 00’s) but he solidifies his prowess on this album: the songs are light and compressed, but each is quirky and distinct, and many of the songs have a Beatles-esque quality to them. Maybe this is just because he’s been in so many of them, but listening to this album makes me feel like I’m walking through a Wes Anderson movie. And I like that feeling.
Song: Any Fun
13. The XX, XX
This album is like the really cool kid in high school that smokes a cigarette behind the gym and doesn’t speak even when spoken to. That kid wasn’t out to impress anyone, and this album has the same aura. The XX combine shared boy-girl vocals, stand-out melodies and a simultaneous fusion of self-assurance and sadness, and it all seems effortless. I also like the way a lot of their songs are structured: with stanzas in which the music fades almost until silence, and then builds back up slowly or makes its reappearance with an easy and understated power.
12. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches
My boyfriend and his best friend are obsessed with David Bazan, and before Curse Your Branches was released in August, they managed to get their hands on a bootleg cassette of the album. I was forced to listen to it (a lot) against my will when I was with them, and with time I learned to appreciate and even like it. Bazan has issues with religion and the idea of God, but his is a distinctly respectful brand of contemplative questioning, as opposed to combative and blatant hatred a la Isaac Brock. Musically, Bazan is no frills, which underscores his existential ponderings; the album concludes as an open-ended and unanswered question, reinforcing Bazan’s assertion in the opening track that “it’s hard to be a decent human being.”
Song: Hard To Be
11. St. Vincent, Actor
Annie Clark has come a long way since her last album: she’s ditched the cutesy softness that made her a novelty, and embraced a fuller and more diverse sound that has turned her into an artist. I find it amazing that this album began as a songwriting exercise in which Clark watched her favorite films and tried to score certain scenes, and that it took on an identity of its own. Clark’s lilting and liquid voice is a brilliant contrast to the pairing of gnarly guitars and woodwinds, with some synthesizers thrown in for good measure.
Song: Actor Out Of Work
10. Kings of Convenience, Declaration of Dependence
The beauty of this album is in its simplicity. The Norwegian duo has perfected their brand of whispery harmonies and subtle finger-picking, and this album proves their consistency in creating calm, understated music. I have always been a fan of the way they propose contradictions with earnest sincerity; look at their previous album titles (Quiet Is The New Loud, Riot on An Empty Street). But somehow they generally manage to make it profound: in “Freedom And Its Owner,” they sing “Freedom, freedom never greater than its owner / freedom is the mastery of the known.” And that feels like truth.
Song: Me In You
9. El Perro Del Mar, Love Is Not Pop
With only seven songs, this album could more easily be classified as a mini-album, but I loved it enough to give it full-album status on this list. Sarah Assbring’s voice is at once beautiful (it reminds me of another of my favorite Swedes, Lykke Li), heartbreaking and despondent. All of these songs pack a melancholy punch, layering subtle piano, mechanical drum beats and ethereal vocals to create a lovely seven-song portrait of longing and hopeful despondence.
Song: Change of Heart
8. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Neko Case is an amazing lyricist: she is so incredibly descriptive, and somehow manages to combine profundity and cunning wit in the same song. Her alt-country instrumentals play second fiddle to Case’s voice, a tender and robust entity in its own right, and one that knows no bounds. A woman I used to nanny for described Case’s sound as “Patsy Cline on heroin,” which I always thought was a very apt assessment; her voice lilts and undulates delicately like Cline’s, but she also has an edge that makes her mysterious and slightly menacing. And I mean that as a compliment.
Song: I’m An Animal
7. The Fiery Furnaces, I’m Going Away
I was never really impressed by the Fiery Furnaces before this album, but the scratchy guitars and straightforward piano and rollicking melodies on this album are irresistible. There is so much frenetic energy between the instruments and vocals, and Eleanor Friedberger’s fast-talk-singing gives the Fiery Furnaces’ songs an almost jazzy quality, often verging on scatting. The lyrics are pretty linear, and provide a perfect balance to the frantic sounds and disparate energies at play within the songs.
Song: Charmaine Champagne
6. Bat For Lashes, Two Suns
Natasha Khan is an anachronism if ever I saw one: her whispery yet powerful voice sounds almost mythical, and the subjects of her songs (knights, battles, wizardry) harken back to centuries of yore. The combination of tribal drums, synthesizers and piano is hypnotic, and somehow manages to sound antiquated and modern simultaneously. It’s rare to be able to say that I’ve never heard anything that sounds like the music in question, but I can say it without hesitation about Bat For Lashes. Theirs is one of the most unique sounds around: powerful, vulnerable, a folklore frozen in song.
5. Wilco, The Album
I’ve heard mixed reviews about this album, but I loved it. Yes, it’s different from Wilco’s previous albums, but I think that indicates a doffing of expectations more than a lack of effort. I imagine Jeff Tweedy sitting all the guys down and saying “Okay, here’s what I’m thinking: we should hang up our serious hats and just have fun making this album.” And I think that sentiment comes through in their songs; “Wilco (The Song)” is incredibly clever, assuring the listener that when everything is going bad, they will be “a sonic shoulder for you to cry/ Wilco will love you, baby.” And even amid the fun, there are still profoundly beautiful songs like “One Wing” and “Country Disappeared.”
Song: One Wing
4. Jay-Z, The Blueprint III
The reason I love Jay-Z, aside from his mad skills on the mic, is because he’s smart, and I think this is his smartest album yet. This album is revolutionary for mainstream rap music: Hova is politically and culturally aware; he is gracious in response to the support of his fans; he wants to preserve the sanctity of rap by killing auto-tone; instead of dissing his fellow rappers, he praises them, and encourages them to commit to raising the standards of rap. With beats from Timbaland and Kanye, and features from established artists (Alicia Keys, Rihanna) and newcomers (Kid Cudi, Drake) alike, this album is a treasure-trove of the best that rap has to offer, and with a fresh ideology to boot.
Song: On To The Next One (featuring Swizz Beats)
3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
By far my most anticipated album of the year and, for what it’s worth, the only album that I actually paid for in 2009. In a year of great music, Grizzly Bear did not disappoint: they delivered a bulkier and more structured sound whilst still maintaining their airy and organic jam-sesh sound a la Yellow House. But beyond making genuinely enjoyable music that is pleasing to indie sensibilities, the members of Grizzly Bear are just incredibly gifted musicians; their richly gorgeous songs are not a fluke or a flash in the pan, and I think this album solidifies that. And not to brag, but they’re also really amazing live.
Song: Ready, Able
2. Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light
This album is just beautiful. For me, it’s not one of those albums that I can put on while I’m studying or cleaning that can serve as background noise; it captivates, to where I can focus on nothing else. Antony has such a soulful voice, and each song rises from simple piano and voice to operatic with full orchestral sounds, and falls back down to a murmur. It’s just an emotional listening experience, in a good way.
1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Merriweather Post Pavilion was one of the first albums released in 2009, and it set the tone for the rest of the excellent music made throughout the year. In comparison with Animal Collective’s previous albums that embody a disjointed and intentionally strange experimental vibe, Merriweather Post Pavilion assaults the ears with a plethora of sounds that are wholly listenable, and pleasant at that; and maybe it’s just me, but I hear traces of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys in their intricate harmonies and thumping drums. Aside from being my favorite album of the year, Merriweather Post Pavilion is one of my favorite albums of all time: something I look forward to listening to for years to come, something that will be good and constant in my ever-evolving life, something that I can’t wait to play for my children someday.
Song: Lion in a Coma
Florence + The Machine, Lungs
If there could have been a 21st spot on my list, Florence + The Machine would have been it. I fell in love with them over a year ago when I heard their raw, stripped down cover of Cold War Kids’ “Hospital Beds”; Florence has a powerhouse voice. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Iron & Wine, Around The Well
Iron & Wine never disappoints; predictably, this 2-disc album is full of musical gems. And hearing the gorgeous Postal Service cover “Such Great Heights” at the end of disc 1 took me right back to my junior year of high school (in a good way).
Passion Pit, Manners
While Passion Pit has done as much as (if not more than) Bon Iver to sensationalize male falsetto, and their electronically-engineered music is infectiously danceable, they lose points for nonsensical lyrics that aim to sound deep, but mostly just come off as pretentious.
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The Frenchies that comprise Phoenix undeniably had a runaway indie hit album, and I definitely enjoyed it, but I was obsessed with it like my hipster queen former roommate who blasted it in our living room EVERY SINGLE DAY during the summer.
M. Ward, Hold Time
After a banner 2008 with She & Him, M. Ward returns to his solo work with songs that are characteristically tender and meditative, and uncharacteristically romantic and full of Biblical imagery. The title track may very well end up being the song I dance to at my wedding.
Regina Spektor, Far
I was so excited for Regina Spektor’s new album, and so disappointed when I finally heard it. Spektor’s quirkiness is what initially made me a fan of her music: her lyrics, piano-playing and vocal mannerisms were all so beautifully idiosyncratic, and it made her stand out. All of Spektor’s quirkiness has been groomed and smoothed over on Far, her first album on a big label, so that her songs resemble the radio-friendly dribble of a pop automaton who doesn’t write her own songs or music, but just does as she’s told. This is album is completely uninspired, and sounds nothing like the Spektor I know.
Rihanna, Rated R
Poor Rihanna had a rough year, but if Rated R is any indication of what 2010 will hold for, she doesn’t have much to look forward to. I read an article in which Rihanna said something along the lines of “anyone can make a hit, but it takes an artist to make an album”; I think she might have it backward. I don’t hear a single hit on this album, just songs that are musically dark and a girl who is trying to project an image of bad-assery and hardness (as evidenced in the song “Hard”) that doesn’t suit her. Hopefully this is just a phase induced by public sympathy over the fact that she was beaten unconscious by her then-boyfriend, and she will return to what she does so well: making infinitely catchy pop songs with an edge.
Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
This album is okay. It’s disappointing in the sense that Yim Yames (of My Morning Jacket), Conor Oberst (of Bright Eyes) and M. Ward failed to create a new sound that is unique to Monsters of Folk, but simply recycled their own individual sounds to create an amalgamation of songs that have no coherent thread as an album. “Man Named Truth” sounds like a Bright Eyes song that Ward and Yames happen to sing on; “Goodway” sounds like an M. Ward song that Oberst and Yames happen to sing on; and so on.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!
In my opinion, YYY just didn’t live up to the hype. Adding disco elements to one’s music is nothing new or innovative, and while I do admit that “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” are truly fantastic songs, the rest of the album was very mediocre. Where is the fire of Fever To Tell? Nowhere in my line of sight. SPIN ranked It’s Blitz! #2 on their year-end list, which confirms what I have long suspected: that they are no longer a reputable music magazine.
Karen O and The Kids, “Where The Wild Things Are” Soundtrack
This was Karen O’s best effort of 2009. I think it was a perfect undertaking for an artist of her sensibilities: she got to be wild and shriek like only she can do, but she also got to collaborate with The Kids to bring a tender childlike quality to the songs. The soundtrack fit perfectly with the film and, in my mind, outshone the film.
Song: All is Love
Dark Was The Night
I can’t even describe how much I love this compilation. It says a lot, I think, that Sufjan was willing to come out of the cave he’s been hiding in to write a new song specifically for this compilation. And the duets are to die for: Feist and Ben Gibbard! Dirty Projectors and David Byrne! Conor Oberst and Gillian Welsh! Ahhh, the pure unadulterated beauty.
Songs: Sufjan Stevens – You Are The Blood, Feist & Ben Gibbard – Train Song
SONG OF THE YEAR
Dirty Projectors – Stillness Is The Move
VIDEO OF THE YEAR
The Dead Weather, “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
MOST ANTICIPATED ALBUMS OF 2010:
Beach House, Teen Dreams
Vampire Weekend, Contra
She & Him, Volume Two
jj, N° 3
Charlotte Gainsbourg & Beck, IRM