Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Ten (or so) Best Albums of 2009

Note: this is also available on my other blog if you're offended by the word "douche" or human cheetahs.

I'm not a huge fan of "top" lists at the end of a year, or the end of a decade, mostly because they seem completely mandatory and cliched at this point. Still, I will admit that such lists are a good jumping off for talking about stuff that you should be indulging in, so they have their uses. I indulge mostly in music, so it seems a top ten list of the best album of 2009 is something I ought to give a try, and anyway it beats a top ten list of cheap wines. It would be more accurate to call this list my ten favorite albums of 2009 because though I listen to a lot of music, I don't listen to everything and I'm prone to missing completely notable albums here and there. Still, I think I've covered most of the bases and I'm not sure anybody can argue with me too much. Also, these are in no particular order because though I'm willing to eliminate some from "top" consideration, I most certainly am not going to rank albums that I consider on par with each other. Also, there's a bunch of honorable mentions because it's stuff you really ought to listen to, though maybe not as great as the ten I've listed here. So here you go:

1) Metric, "Fantasies." Despite what I just wrote seconds ago, I will go ahead and rank this as the best album of the year. Not just my favorite, but best period, and yes I'm willing to argue with you about it in comments. Metric has been around for awhile now, but it seems like with this album they've finally found a fusion of pop, rock and indie sensibility that has produced some pretty catchy and likable tunes. Also, it doesn't hurt their ranking that I am completely in love with lead singer Emily Haines. Here's the video for the track "Gimme Sympathy" which is not my favorite song from the album, but which is my favorite video by the band (really, all videos should just be of whatever band playing in an interesting setting.)

2) The XX, "xx." Garnering this much critical acclaim is pretty impressive for a first studio album by a band full of recent high school grads. I think I like it so much because I tend to favor minimalistic approaches to pop music (with exceptions, as you'll see) and I'm impressed that anybody can do so much with such spare instrumentation. Here's the video for the song "Crystallized." Again, not my favorite song but I think it gives you a pretty good idea of what they're up to. Tell me you're not impressed by this group of punk kids, I dare you.

3) Wild Beasts, "Two Dancers." Critically acclaimed, but I get the impression that is one of those albums where you're either going to really like it, or really hate it. I don't know how otherwise is possible when you have a lead singer who unabashedly engages in such an abrasive falsetto, and the song lyrics are both so artful and crude. But again, I don't know how you can't praise a band that does so much with so little instrumentation. Here's the video for "Hooting and Howling", which is one of my favorite tracks off of their album.

4) Antony and the Johnsons, "The Crying Light." This is a beautiful album. I don't know how else to say it. Antony Hegarty writes songs about all sorts of difficult subjects, but has this incredible knack for taking subjects that seem strange, unusual or sad and making them see unique, wonderful and desirable. And speaking of falsettos...but I don't know how anyone can't think his voice is amazing after they listen for a bit. Here's the completely gorgeous video for "Epilepsy is Dancing."

5) Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone." Neko Case is known for her amazing voice, which can probably be characterized as "brassy" when she really lets go, but which can also be amazingly tender. She's also a fantastic song writer. Her previous album "Fox Cofessor Brings the Flood" was good, but I was put off by her tendency to use unconventional song structure to ill effect. That is not at all a problem on this album. Here's the video for "People Got Alot of Nerve."

6) Alice in Chains, "Black Gives Way to Blue." I wrote a lot more about this album on my music blog, so here I'll just say this is a pretty good return for a band that hasn't released an album in fourteen years. I haven't actually figured out yet which track is my favorite, so will go with the first one off the album, "All Secrets Known." Well done guys, and welcome back.

7) Miike Snow, "Miike Snow." If this is what happens when you pair a relatively unknown lead singer with a great voice with a pair of songwriters from Sweden who've written hits for pop divas like Britney Spears, Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Jennifer Lopez, then that sort of thing really ought to happen more often. This is a nearly perfect combination of piano, electronica, and songwriting. Also, knowing that they're capable of making music like this, I'm less embarrassed to admit to kind of liking "Toxic." Here's my favorite track (and probably one of my favorite songs of the year) "Silvia."

8) Wilco, "Wilco." I'm a relative newcomer to Wilco, but I don't think you have to like the band (or even ever heard them before) to like this album. These guys can write some pretty catchy and lovely songs, and this album garners the rare distinction (for me) of being one of the ones where I like every track. You can tell this is a band that's been around a while and has perfected the art of songwriting, and who could probably write a great song in their sleep.

9) Dehtklok, "Dethalbum II." I pretty much grew up worshiping bands like Metallica and Megadeth, and though my tastes were greatly expanded by the grunge movement of the early 90s I've never given up my fondness for really loud, really fast metal music. Unfortunately,metal bands have mostly given up on creating really loud, really fast metal music that's any good. To some it may seem a commentary on a sad state of affairs that a comedic cartoon band has produced two of the best metal albums of the last few years, but who cares? It's not like metal music was ever meant to be taken that seriously anyway and if Brandon Small wasn't making this music with a cartoon band, he'd be tearing up a guitar with a real band somewhere anyway. Here's my favorite track, "Volcano." Turn it up to 11 suckers.

10) Mos Def, "The Ecstatic." I don't listen to a lot of hip hop, but I do listen to the good stuff, and Mos Def is definitely the good stuff. I love Mos Def's voice, and his willingness to be blatantly political, though he can be all over the place style-wise. But when he's on, he writes some pretty impressive raps, and I think this is far and away his best album yet. My favorite track from the album is Auditorium, produced with Madlib, who also happens to be the architect (with DOOM) of the genius album "Madvillainy."

Honorable Mentions: (No embedded videos, but follow the links for a listen.)

1. Julian Casablancas, "Phrazes for the Young." I may be partial to this album because I'm a huge Strokes fan, but I think Casablancas has the musical chops. He's sort of all over the place with this album, but what's good about it is pretty good, and so worth a mention.

2. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse, "Dark Night of the Soul." This collaboration between two of my favorite musicians, Danger Mouse and Mark Linkous, features an all-star ensemble with the likes of Julian Casablancas, James Mercer (of The Shins), Iggy Pop, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chesnutt and so on, and also featuring filmmaker David Lynch, who sang on a couple of tracks and provided photos for a book to be included with the album. The album has actually not been released for sale yet thanks to a legal dispute between Danger Mouse and EMI, but you can hear the whole thing at the link to NPR above. Hit or miss; with that many artists I don't think it's possible to produce a coherent album. But the good songs are really good.

3. Phoenix, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." Just some really good pop music. This album hasn't worn well with me, but I couldn't not mention it, given the buzz they've gotten.

4. PJ Harvey and John Parish, "A Woman a Man Walked By." I get the feeling that Harvey got together with Parish (who produced "White Chalk") to record an album she felt like she couldn't record under her name alone. Again it's hit or miss, but it's always interesting. The lead track "Black Hearted Love" may be one of my favorite songs of the year.

5. BEAK>, "BEAK>." If you liked the more psychedelic stuff from Portishead's "Third" (their 2008 album that's so fantastic I want to make it one of my top picks for 2009) then you'll really like BEAK>. It was recorded in less than two weeks and it sounds like it, but that's in no way a bad thing.

6. U2, "No Line on the Horizon." Not my favorite U2 album to be honest, but do they make anything bad? Any album they make deserves a spot on a retrospective list.

7. Great Lake Swimmers, "Lost Channels." This album barely escapes my top ten. If you like some Canadian folk music about simple and beautiful subjects, then this is the band for you. Their best album so far.

So, there you go! I'd love your thoughts, especially if you have recommendations for anything I missed. Now, I'm going to go listen to all of this stuff over again.

UPDATED: Oh hell, I knew I'd forget somebody important. Andrew Bird's fourth studio album "Noble Beast" came out earlier this year. I don't think it's as good as "Armchair Apocrypha" so it doesn't make my top ten list, but Andrew Bird is an enormously talented musician who cranks out one great song after another. Anything he does is worth a listen, even if you're not a huge fan of wildly looped violin like I am.


adam said...

Honestly, I've only listened to one of those albums in full!

Nat-Wu said...

Uh yeah, I've listened to three and heard nothing of the others.

Xanthippas said...

Screw you guys!

adam said...

I've actually been hearing that "Gold Guns Girls" song from Metric on the radio a lot lately.