Artwork by Ilan Schraer.
Yes, finally! Last year was full of great music, but these twenty five records (and handful of honorable mentions) represent the best of 2009 in my ears. Feel free to post what moved you in the previous year or what you can’t believe didn’t make this list in the comments.
25. Phaseone – Thanks But No Thanks
24. Lil’ Wayne – No Ceilings
23. Fever Sleeves – Soft Pipes, Play On
22. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy
21. Tyondai Braxton – Central Station
20. Nero’s Day at Disneyland – From Rotting Fantasylands
19. Here We Go Magic – Here We Go Magic
18. Atlas Sound – Logos
17. Dâm-Funk – Toeachizown
16. Taken By Trees – East of Eden
15. The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
14. The-Dream – Love vs. Money
13. Volcano Choir – Unmap
12. Girls – Album
11. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
10. WHY? – Eskimo Snow
True to basically every WHY? record to date, Eskimo Snow was an album that slowly grew on me with each successive listen. Traversing the greatest span of any thus far — from genuine uncertainty to my tenth favorite of last year — this recent effort fits perfectly in the continuing thematic arc of Yoni Wolf’s on-record persona. His dark, self-deprecating, yet often humorous musings drip with a solemn acceptance not found on previous works, his typically sarcastic resistance diminished into resignation. Eskimo Snow‘s relative gloom is at once propelled and balanced by its open production and rich compositions; its melancholic melodies may pull at heart strings, but here WHY?’s rippling, interlocking arpeggios of guitar, piano, and vibraphone soar within an impressive breadth of space, instilling the subtlest sense of hope against the odds that Wolf lays out quite explicitly: “I wish I could feel close to somebody but I don’t feel nothin’ / Now they say I need to quit doing all this random ffffff— / Now I think my upstairs neighbor hears me masturbatin’ / And there’s other one’s peepin’ through the slits in my curtains / And I never got a name for my shady compulsion / ‘Cause I messed up and kissed my shrink in a Jersey City hotel room… / …and I know sayin’ all this in public should make me feel funny / But ya gotta yell somethin’ out you’d never tell nobody.” I’m not sure if it’s helping him at all, but Wolf’s catharsis is decidedly our gain.
9. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
It seems to be an increasingly remarkable occurrence, in our current era, when an artist is able to construct an identity that stands in stark contrast to those of his or her contemporaries. New York singer, composer, theatrical and visual artist Antony Hegarty should certainly be counted as one of a shrinking number of such artists. His latest album, The Crying Light, is another devastating work, every piece crafted with staggering grace and care. In this mournful exploration of birth, life, death, nature, identity and the complex interplay between these forces, Antony and his chamber orchestra infuse his arrangements with overwhelming emotion, relying on sparse instrumentation that yields implausibly rich textures and soundscapes. Beyond compositional strength, the emotional depth of The Crying Light is bolstered by Antony’s otherworldly vocal performance. At once capable of controlled, trembling warbles, pained croons, and magnificent, chill-inducing caterwauls, his distinctive voice perfects the expressive realization of this record – what other way is there to convey the crushing tragedy of a song like “Another World”? “I need another world, this one’s nearly gone / Still have too many dreams, never seen the light / I need another world, a place where I can go” could never sound more sad or beautiful. [Originally published in Treble’s Top 50 Albums of 2009]
8. jj – jj n°2
Though Joakin and Elin have finally been officially revealed to the world as the starry-eyed individuals behind jj, there’s still very little information out there about these Swedish popsters. Some wonderfully melodramatic interviews have cropped up — one in English, one translated from Italian mag PIG — but don’t look for a website, blog (to speak of), MySpace, Facebook page, or twitter account to help shed light on this playfully mysterious duo. Though with the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves, there may be little more for jj to share with those who have already adsorbed the hazy, summery pop gems they dropped in 2009. A brief, tropical swirl of balearic and folk tinged pop, their debut record jj n° 2 fits in perfectly as the chilled-out flipside to the breezy electronica of labelmates The Tough Alliance and Air France. Released on July 1st, it follows both A New Chance and No Way Down as Sincerely Yours’ latest stake on continued dominance of the “summer jam”. And with tracks as irresistible as the sunny and uplifting “From Africa to Málaga”, the drugged-out and euphoric “Lollipop”-remake “Ecstasy”, and the buoyant “Masterplan”, jj n° 2 may be the most convincing one yet. [An edit from Overlooked Records (Pt. 1)]
7. St. Vincent – Actor
Brooklyn’s indie sweetheart Annie Clark has two excellent records under her belt as St. Vincent. Last year’s effort, the dynamic and affecting Actor, is a masterful blend of woozy chamber-pop, driving guitar-rock, and honeyed, jazz standard-tinged croons. For this album, which is even stronger and more refined than her last, Annie shifted through a myriad of roles as songwriter as she immersed herself in some of her favorite films and crafted her own soundtracks to particularly striking moments using her computer. Her initial MIDI compositions are fleshed out here into full-bodied songs, featuring a vibrant swell of woodwinds, strings, synthesizers, and guitars. At once cinematic, intimate, dramatic, and whimsical, Actor is a cool and confident work that both demonstrates Annie Clark’s growth as an artist and whets the appetite for what St. Vincent will give us next.
6. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II
Album sequels can be a tricky business, especially when an artist sets up an upcoming record as a sequel to a work held to be the best in their discography, let alone one of the greatest hip-hop records ever made. Results have included some modern classics like Tha Carter III and unexpected comebacks like Stillmatic, but there’s been plenty more disappointments (I’m looking at you Blueprint 2 and 3) along the way. Even against these odds, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II finds Raekwon comfortably reprising his role as ice-cold kingpin and cinematic storyteller, crafting an opus worthy of sharing the name of the original classic. These bleak tales thoroughly detail intersecting lives caught up in inner city drug trade and its associated fallouts with the same grit and vivid hood slang poetry that permeates the greatest Wu-Tang records. Intense, disturbing, grimy, eloquent, and inimitable, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is easily one of the best hip-hop albums of the last few years. [From Overlooked Records (Pt. 1)]
Download: Raekwon – House of Flying Daggers (Feat. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface & Method Man)
Buy: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is available from Amazon, Insound, or Rhapsody.
5. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
“ZOMG!1!! The Ecstatic over OB4CL2!!11??!?!” Yeah hip-hop heads, I said it. Both could be considered return-to-form records, but for some reason I found The Ecstatic a bit more satisfying than its excellent counterpart in ’09 rap-dominance. In fact, I’d probably agree that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II is the better album, objectively. Maybe I just have higher expectations for Raekwon, or maybe I simply didn’t think Mos Def had another record like this in him. While there’s no doubt that the significant amount of stellar Stones Throw production is a big help to The Ecstatic‘s overall dopeness, everything on this record sounds inspired — even “No Hay Nada Mas”, over-the-top accent or no. Mos Def’s flow is fierce and agile as he rides beats of all sorts of sounds and textures, flipping between quick, rapid-fire rhyme assaults, smooth, distinctive sung passages, and cool, swagger-full verses that recall all the things that made this MC so exciting in the first place, all the while pushing into refreshing new territory.
4. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
Taking some time away from her work with her brother Olof in The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson revealed her own solo material as Fever Ray and toured pretty extensively in 2009. Her self-titled debut was a phenomenal record, but was propelled beyond even that by a particular fascination with merging the realms of sound and vision. On top of the incredible stage and costume design that visual artist Andreas Nilsson brings to the live performances of both The Knife and now Fever Ray, half of the songs from this album were further brought to life with often-brilliant music videos, directed by Nilsson and other collaborators. Of course, this approach wouldn’t be as effective were the music not so well suited for expansion and embellishment. Devoid of any accompanying visual components, the dense electronica of Fever Ray itself inspires a torrent of emotion and dark imagery. Andersson’s languid vocals, at times distorted through pitch-shifted dementia, pierce cold soundscapes of blips, bleeps, bass thumps, synth loops, and ominous ambience with cryptic meditations (“Uncover our heads and reveal our souls / We were hungry before we were born”) and devastating lyrical gloom (“If I had a heart I could love you / If I had a voice I would sing”). The resulting opus is one of the most engrossing musical experiences of the previous decade, a fully crafted piece of art in the age of blogability.
3. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
What was it about 2009 that made so many bands crank out their most impressive work to date? Was it some supernatural confluence of creative energies or just plain luck? Dirty Projectors may or may not be able to help answer that question, but their excellent debut for Domino Records, Bitte Orca, was undoubtedly one of the many monumental musical achievements of the year. Mastermind and frontman Dave Longstreth has traveled one of the more obtuse and challenging paths in indie music this decade, one that has both drawn some into a cult-like reverence and repelled others, but never before has his work rewarded listeners so fully. An album that comfortably straddles the lines between art, pop, technical prowess, and accessible songwriting, Bitte Orca takes the ideas explored on the Dirty Projectors’ 2007 record Rise Above and pushes them to their logical and more realized conclusion. Here the emphasis falls decisively on the inspired interplay between Longstreth’s intricate, Jùjú-influenced guitar work and the stunning vocal harmonies of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. From the bright, fractured pop of “Temecula Sunrise”, to the R&B-like groove of “Stillness is the Move”, to the massive, layered anthem “Useful Chamber”, Bitte Orca is a complex listen that accomplishes a whole lot in just nine songs, reconciling its numerous parts in a manner that is refreshingly comprehensive and original. [Originally published in Treble’s Top 50 Albums of 2009]
2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
The third full-length from Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear is no doubt their most successful to date. Even with an early, widely circulated leak, Veckatimest still ended up becoming one of a number of impressive indie showings on the Billboard charts, selling 33,000 copies its first week and debuting at #8. More importantly, this record also happens to be Grizzly Bear’s most captivating and fully developed, its lush, orchestral psych-pop elevated and completed by the skilled production of bassist Chris Taylor. Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen again trade songwriting and lead vocal duties to great effect, imparting their own unique flourishes to Veckatimest‘s swirl and swell of catchy and distinctive guitar work, hook-laden keyboards, elaborate and affecting vocal harmonies, and haunting choral passages. Further reinforced by subtle and stirring string arrangements from New York wonder-boy composer Nico Muhly, as well as some excellent backup work from Beach House‘s Victoria Legrand and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, this complex, emotive, and finely-tuned work ascends to the realm of greatness with no shortage of effort. But treading where others would come off as overwrought, Droste and Rossen’s rich and immaculate compositions are simply constructed with precise prowess, vision, and care.
1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
What’s left to say about Merriweather Post Pavilion? Perhaps the most anticipated, discussed, hyped, acclaimed, loved, and hated-on record of 2009, this album — like so many in their discography — found Animal Collective reinventing themselves as they climbed into impossible-to-foresee, but ultimately logical, new territory. Without fourth member Deakin for Merriweather, the threesome of Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Geologist continued A.C.’s increasingly pop-driven trajectory into a world of melodic, low-end heavy electronics, massive vocal harmonies, considerably less abrasive songcraft, and unbelievably dense production with the help of recording engineer Ben Allen (P. Diddy, Christina Aguilera, Gnarls Barkley). And while there are some touchstones as far as influence is concerned (Beach Boys, house music), good luck coming up with any meaningful direct comparisons to Animal Collective’s sound on this landmark recording or otherwise. This is a largely unexplored sonic expanse, yet A.C. seem to feel incredibly comfortable and confident — maybe more than they ever have — in making the most enjoyable experimental music you’ve ever heard.
Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):
Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Clues – Clues [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone! [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Gentle Friendly – Ride Slow [Website] [Buy]
Japandroids – Post-Nothing [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Javelin – Jamz n Jemz [Website]
Lotus Plaza – The Floodlight Collective [Buy] [Original Post]
Phaseone – White Collar Crime [Website] [Free Download] [Original Post]
Real Estate – Real Estate [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Kurt Vile – God Is Saying This to You… [Website] [Buy]
Wallpaper – Doo Doo Face [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Wavves – Wavvves [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]
Yoñlu – A Society in Which No Tear Is Shed Is Inconceivably Mediocre [Website] [Buy] [Original Post]