The best music of 2009: The Ballots

The best music of 2009: The Ballots

Our main list of the year’s best albums doesn’t just appear out of thin air. It’s tallied from ballots by a group of writers, each of whom is given 100 points to distribute over their favorites. The maximum number of points a writer can award an album is 15; the minimum is one. Below you’ll find those individual ballots, including commentary on discs that didn’t make the big list, as well as other thoughts on the year’s best music. Your ballots are welcomed/encouraged in the comments.

THE BALLOTS

Christopher Bahn Andy Battaglia Paul Caine
Scott Gordon Marc Hawthorne Jason Heller
Steven Hyden Spencer Kornhaber Genevieve Koski
Chris Martins Michaelangelo Matos Chris Mincher
Noel Murray Josh Modell Sean O'Neal
Keith Phipps Nathan Rabin Vadim Rizov
Kyle Ryan

CHRISTOPHER BAHN


1. Monsters Of Folk, Monsters Of Folk (12)

2. P.O.S., Never Better (11)
Stef Alexander opens his third album with a down-to-earth apology for the three-year gap between Never Better and 2006’s Audition—“sorry I took so long,” he says, before launching into “Let It Rattle.” It’s the only thing the rapper needs to be humble about when it comes to his music. Drawing energy as much from his punk-rock background as his hip-hop side, P.O.S. is as verbally propulsive and nimble here as Savion Glover, the dancer he namechecks on Never Better’s third song. The Twin Cities is not exactly hurting for talent when it comes to underground hip-hop, but here’s a solid sign that P.O.S. will be counted in the highest echelons of that group for a long time to come.

3. Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, Goodnight Oslo (10)

4. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (9)

5. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (9)

6. Brother Ali, Us (9)
That album title isn't chosen idly: Brother Ali’s Us is about celebrating connections and finding sympathy for people in hard circumstances. The original title, Street Preacher, is still plenty apropos too. Ali is a storyteller at heart, and a deeply empathetic one. Us adds new chapters to his continuing autobiography, capturing his joy over his new family and continued personal success, but the most powerful songs here are his stories of people struggling on the margins, from the triptych of troubled teenagers in “Tight Rope” to the legacy of slavery in “The Travelers,” seen with an understanding heart and an unblinking eye.

7. Various Artists, Dark Was The Night (8)

8. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (8)

9. The Decemberists, The Hazards Of Love (6)

10. Metric, Fantasies (6)

11. The Dead Weather, Horehound (5)

12. N.A.S.A., The Spirit Of Apollo (3)

13. Grant Hart, Hot Wax (2)
What was P.O.S. apologizing for? Grant Hart took a full decade to make a new album after 1999’s Good News For Modern Man. The former Hüsker Dü drummer may be operating on his own unhurried timeline these days, but Hot Wax is a welcome reminder that there was another great songwriter in that iconic punk trio besides Bob Mould. Echoing the flight of Icarus alluded to in the album title, the best songs here allow Hart’s imagination to take whimsical flight—and also express his solidarity with the eccentrics of the world, as on “Barbara,” a story about a mischievous imaginary friend that’s reminiscent of the happily kooky woman Hart profiled in Hüsker’s “Books About UFOs.”

14. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (1)

15. Mason Jennings, Blood Of Man (1)
Singer-songwriter Mason Jennings wrote and recorded Blood Of Man largely on his own in a home studio in just a few weeks, playing all the instruments himself. The approach steered him away from the overproduction that’s sometimes been apparent on recent discs, but more importantly, the rougher, rawer sound was accompanied by some of the strongest (and darkest) material he’s written in years.

back to the top


ANDY BATTAGLIA


1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (15)

2. Wildbirds & Peacedrums, The Snake (10)

3. Shackleton, Three EPs (10)

4. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (8)

5. 2562, Unbalance (8)

6. Micachu And The Shapes, Jewellery (6)

7. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (6)

8. Luciano, Tribute To The Sun (5)

9. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (5)

10. Tyondai Braxton, Central Market (5)

11. Memory Tapes, Seek Magic (5)

12. Tune-Yards, Bird-Brains (5)

13. Dixon, Temporary Secretary (5)

14. Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light (5)

15. U2, No Line On The Horizon (2)

back to the top


PAUL CAINE


1. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (15)

2. Grand Archives, Keep In Mind Frankenstein (13)
This album contains some of the most beautiful pop songs I’ve ever heard.

3. John Vanderslice, Romanian Names (12)
More pitch-perfect pop from a John Darnielle associate. Every song on Romanian Names sounds like the work of a veteran studio tinkerer who will stop at nothing to get it right.

4. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (11)

5. Akron/Family, Set ’Em Wild, Set ’Em Free (10)
Expansive psychedelic folk that’s as melodic as it is chaotic.

6. Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs (8)
A decent Yo La Tengo album is better than most bands’ best, and I get the feeling that the New Jersey stalwart’s longevity and stability leads critics to take it for granted. There’s no reason for that.

7. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (6)

8. Black Dice, Repo (5)
It’s not easy listening, but Black Dice’s fearless sonic experimentation should serve as a model for bands content to play uninspired garage-rock. 

9. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us (4)

10. Tyondai Braxton, Central Market (4) 

11. Fanfarlo, Reservoir (3)

12. Oneida, Rated O (3)
One of the original “Brooklyn bands” remains among the most creative. Oneida’s Rated O is a three-album collection encompassing hours of music, most of it blistering noise-rock that’s as indebted to Black Sabbath as it is to, say, Sonic Youth. Few bands innovate like Oneida, and even fewer hew to such an uncompromising musical vision.

13. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (3)
Why didn’t anyone vote for this?

14. Dead Prez & DJ Green Lantern, Pulse Of The People (2)

15. Telefon Tel Aviv, Immolate Yourself (1)
The sudden death of Telefon Tel Aviv member Charlie Cooper—two days after the January release of Immolate Yourself—overshadowed the album itself. But Immolate Yourself, which hangs at the same nexus of pop and electronic music occupied by acts like Junior Boys, is impressive and emotionally affecting, and serves as a fitting tribute to Cooper.

THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
There’s one major omission on my ballot, and it’s not Phoenix, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, or Grizzly Bear. Those bands are fine, but none of their albums particularly drew me in. What I forgot—and I felt pretty bad about this when I realized it—was the Pastels’ and Tenniscoats’ collaborative album, Two Sunsets. It’s a masterpiece of indie-pop from two masters of the genre, and it should’ve been high up in my rankings. Oops. Another omission, this one justified: The Mountain Goats’ latest, The Life Of The World To Come. I’m a John Darnielle fanboy, but I’ve not been impressed with his band’s last three albums. (I loved 2005’s The Sunset Tree, but who didn’t?) I can’t help but think that Darnielle has traded emotional immediacy and dynamic range for lush sonics. Listening to his latest record on headphones is pretty stunning, but the songs themselves don’t make much of an impression. I’d recommend that fans instead pick up the recent collaborative EP by Darnielle and John Vanderslice, Moon Colony Bloodbath. It’s as good as the title suggests, and it’s easy to find online.

back to the top


SCOTT GORDON


1. Converge, Axe To Fall (15)

2. Vic Chesnutt, At The Cut (15)
Most people will remember this year as a great one for young artists, but here’s another reason to be optimistic about music in 2009: People who've been making records for 20 years in two seriously crowded genres (metal and singer-songwriterdom) can still put a furious hunger into it, giving entire generations of followers a standard to live up to. As bleak as Converge's metal-hardcore hybrid and Vic Chesnutt's folk poetry can get, both acts transform negativity into sheer fucking force of will: Kurt Ballou's guitar riff and Jacob Bannon's mid-surgery-wake-up shriek on Axe To Fall's opening song, "Dark Horse," may well be the most volatile, enthusiastic sounds burned onto a CD this year. And even listeners who’ve built up thick skins for Chesnutt's brutal storytelling and morbid sarcasm should keep a hankie on hand for the cosmic hymn “Flirted With You All My Life.”

3. P.O.S., Never Better (15)

4. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (15)

5. Polvo, In Prism (10)
If the math-rockers in Polvo could go back to the 1993 album Today’s Active Lifestyles and smear all of its high points together—say, the instrumental calm of “My Kimono” and the mystic riff-tangles that guitarists Ash Bowie and Dave Brylawski spew all over every other track—it'd have something like In Prism, a rare reunion album that combines the heady old days with the benefit of hindsight. In fact, In Prism’s eight tracks are often more full and satisfying than the band’s ’90s work. That’s partially because most of them run long, but also because of how effectively they meld Polvo’s instrumental M.O. with lyrics about the basic joys and thrills of being alive.

6. Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light (5)

7. Brother Ali, Us (5)

8. Vieux Farka Touré, Fondo (5)

9. Wye Oak, The Knot (5)

10. Dumate, We Have The Technology (5)

11. El Valiente, Daceton (5)

back to the top


MARC HAWTHORNE


1. Deastro, Moondagger (15)
The second album from electro-organic pop wunderkind Randolph Chabot opens with big indie-rock hooks and never lets up. 

2. Discovery, LP (15)
The best electro-pop side-project supergroup duo since The Postal Service and Electronic features Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij making computer love and giving Michael Jackson his best tribute in the form of a magical cover (recorded before the King Of Pop’s death) of “I Want You Back.”

3. Mew, No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away / No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away (15)
This Danish trio is making a habit of designing complete album experiences unlike any other band out there.

4. Wallpaper, Doodoo Face (10)
This horribly named album (leader Ricky Reed, a.k.a. the sexy, hilarious alter-ego of Facing New York frontman Eric Frederic, explains: “When something’s hella funky ... it makes you do a doodoo face, like something stinks.”) features some of the catchiest electro-R&B laid out this year.

5. Miike Snow, Miike Snow (10)
There’s nobody named Miike here, just an American and a pair of Swedes making sharp electro-pop that fits just as comfortably in an indie-rock club as it does on Gossip Girl.

6. Girls, Album (10)
Any mention of Girls leader Christopher Owens will always be preceded by the messed-up tale of his childhood in the Children Of God cult, but the dreamy psych-pop he makes with Chet “JR” White is even more interesting than his backstory. 

7. Glasvegas, Glasvegas (10)
Another bad name worth overlooking: These Scottish greasers tip their hats to Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound while making the most of their distortion pedals.

8. Owl City, Ocean Eyes (5)
Countless bands have attempted to rip off The Postal Service since Give Up came out in 2003, but Owl City’s Adam Young is the first person to do it so blatantly—vocals and all—that it’s scary. Sure, it’s a cheesier version of the real thing, but with dreams of another Gibbard/Tamborello joint fading with each passing year, we’ll take what we can get.

9. Julian Casablancas, Phrazes For The Young (5)
Julian Casablancas’ inspired solo debut is the best Strokes record since Is This It (albeit with longer songs), proving that it’s time to officially move on.

10. Tegan And Sara, Sainthood (5)
Sainthood isn’t nearly as great as 2007’s The Con, but Tegan And Sara’s sixth studio album still contains enough skewed pop (and those great otherworldly vocals) to make each spin a new adventure.

back to the top


JASON HELLER


I’d be lying if I pretended otherwise: For the most part, I think the music of the ’00s sucked butt. At the start of this decade, I was still in my twenties and still in rabid love with music in all its forms. While I never gave up on the punk and hardcore I cut my teeth on, I was voraciously consuming everything from jazz to funk to metal to krautrock to country to your run-of-the-mill indie rock (and everything in between). But something happened over the past 10 years. I guess I just got old. Shit started sounding lame, tired, lame, empty, and lame. The old stuff still appealed to me—as long as it wasn’t ghoulishly exhumed and blown out of proportion, like, say, post-punk or Afrobeat—but much of the vaunted new indie-type stuff of the ’00s landed like wet shit in my ear canal. Or maybe, just maybe, this decade really did kind of suck (as any arbitrarily settled-upon period of 10 years is wont to do). In any case, 2009 was the ’00s’ last chance to redeem itself in my eyes (as if it gave a shit what I thought about it)—and what do you know, it almost kind of pulled through. Here’s to a kick-ass, rejuvenating 2010 and beyond. Lord knows we need it. Or at least I sure as fuck do.

1. Celeste, Misanthrope(s) (15)
Siphoning fuel from black metal, post-rock, old-school screamo (like Unwound and Rorschach), and whatever the hell you’d classify Wolves In The Throne Room as, the French outfit Celeste sculpted a bleak, thorny masterpiece in the form of Misanthrope(s). As nasty and unfriendly as its name, the disc is more than just a palate-cleanser. It’s a skull-scourer.

2. Dark Meat, Truce Opium (12)
I totally slept on this when I first heard it, but I’m glad it snuck up on me and bit me in the ass before the year was out. Like the MC5 leading Canned Heat over a cliff, Georgia’s freak-rock ensemble whips up a dizzying pot of deep-fried, horn-spiked Americana that doesn’t forsake songcraft for sorcery. I’ve just about had it with the whole sepia-toned, earth-spirit horseshit that passed for psychedelic folk in the ’00s, but Dark Meat amps it up and shakes the nonsense loose.

3. Lightning Bolt, Earthly Delights (12)
The winner of 2009’s Nobel Prize For Noise, Lightning Bolt’s Earthly Delights is an album that should be force-fed to every world leader in an attempt to convince them of the absurdity of the perpetuation of the human race. Then maybe we can all nuke each other and get it over with.

4. Lewd Acts, Black Eye Blues (10)
Few things in the world make me happier than misery—especially when it comes in a 42-second tidbit of brutality like Lewd Act’s “You Don’t Need Me,” one of the prickliest tracks off of Black Eye Blues. Leaner than a package of vegan lunchmeat, this band of hardcore miscreants strains Black Flag’s grinding, nihilistic My War through a mouthful of broken teeth. The result makes my black heart writhe.

5. Isis, Wavering Radiant (10)
Taking Isis for granted is easy. Since its 2000 debut, Celestial, the band has either vastly improved upon (Oceanic) or coasted on (In The Absence Of Truth) its post-metallic omnipotence. But Wavering Radiant snuck in under the radar with its relatively compact playing time and gorgeous prog workouts like “Ghost Key”—one of the moodiest, most epic songs the group has ever written.

6. The King Khan And BBQ Show, Invisible Girl (8)
Smart and stupid. Raw and refined. The duo of King Khan and BBQ traffic in paradox—even while making albums like Invisible Girl, a seamless, timeless collection of anthems about busted hearts and aberrant genitalia that wallows in vintage R&B, doo-wop, punk rock, and whatever they had for lunch. There may be a better garage-rock duo that rose to eminence this decade, but for the life of me I can’t think of one.

7. Converge, Axe To Fall (8)
Wielding hard-rock force and a blown-out low end, Converge unleashed Axe To Fall, one of the most go-for-broke and least technical albums of its career. Or at least it seems less technical on first listen: Look closer, and there’s still a surgeon’s hand gripping the chainsaw. 

8. Sonic Youth, The Eternal (5)
Sonic Youth is a rock ’n’ roll band again. Fuck yes.

9. Sunn O))), Monoliths & Dimensions (3)
Alice Coltrane may be the Yoko Ono to John’s John, but thankfully that didn’t stop Sunn O))) from harnessing the orchestral awesomeness of that maligned jazz goddess—not to mention steeping its cosmic drone in oceans of detuned guitars and magmatic feedback. Celestial and stupefying.

10. Marked Men, Ghosts (3)
These Denton-based underdogs have always delivered, and after a three-year hiatus Marked Men give us Ghosts, yet another onslaught of scratchy, catchy pop-punk. Marinated in bubblegum and rolled in broken beer bottles, the Men capture that sheer adrenaline rush of oncoming headlights and/or a hand down the front of your pants. 

11. Pissed Jeans, King Of Jeans (3)

12. Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (3)

13. Russian Circles, Geneva (2)

14. Box Elders, Alice And Friends (2)

15. Cloak/Dagger, Lost Art (2)

AND LASTLY
It sure felt good cranking the remastered edition of Nirvana’s Bleach on my iPod. It’s perfect music to unload trucks in subfreezing weather to. 

back to the top


STEVEN HYDEN


1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (15)

2. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (14)

3. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (13)

4. Megafaun, Gather, Form & Fly (12)

5. Patterson Hood, Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs) (11)

6. The Felice Brothers, Yonder Is The Clock (10)

7. Bowerbirds, Upper Air (5)

8. Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan (5)

9. Thee Oh Sees, Help (5)

10. A.A. Bondy, When The Devil’s Loose (5)

11. Sam Roberts, Love At The End Of The World (1)

12. Heartless Bastards, The Mountain (1)

13. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (1)

14. J. Dilla, Jay Stay Paid (1)

15. Magnolia Electric Co. Josephine (1)

10 GREAT SONGS FROM VERY GOOD ALBUMS THAT DIDN’T MAKE MY LIST

  1. Jay Reatard, “I’m Watching You” (from Watch Me Fall)
  2. The Avett Brothers, “Ten Thousand Words” (from I And Love And You)
  3. Yo La Tengo, “Periodically Double Or Triple” (from Popular Songs)
  4. The King Khan And BBQ Show, “Animal Party” (from Invisible Girl)
  5. Vetiver, “At Forest Edge” (from Tight Knit)
  6. Kurt Vile, “Dead Alive” (from Childish Prodigy)
  7. Telekinesis!, “Imaginary Friend” (from Telekinesis!)
  8. Bob Dylan, “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’” (from Together Through Life)
  9. Girls, “Lust For Life” (from Album)
  10. Them Crooked Vultures, “Scumbag Blues” (from Them Crooked Vultures)

back to the top


SPENCER KORNHABER


1. The Antlers, Hospice (15)

2. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (10)

3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (10)

4. Girls, Album (7)
Argue all you want that Album is total hype, that the songs are half-cooked and that it all amounts to pastiche. All I really care about is Chris Owens’ affected, nasal croon, which—especially on the one-two of “Lust For Life” and “Laura”—made for the most satisfying drive-time singalong of the year. Best moment: “Touch mee, I'm right heeEEEr-ah.”

5. Art Brut, Art Brut Vs. Satan (7)

6. Wavves, Wavvves (7)
It’s too bad that Nathan Williams turned out to be a jerk on the touring circuit, but that doesn’t change how impressive Wavvves is. The rockers absolutely scorch, the sluggish jam pieces transport you to back to a certain period of burnt-out teenagehood, and the album’s lo-fi ugliness disappears after just a couple of listens, leaving you largely with babbled, honeyed melodies.

7. Japandroids, Post-Nothing (7)

8. A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Ashes Grammar (7)
This would-be chill-out album is almost too good, stuffed with moments that lure you from “chilled out” to “in awe.”

9. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (5)

10. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (5)

11. Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms (5)

12. Pissed Jeans, King Of Jeans (5)
Sludge rock about going bald can never be bad.

13. Fever Ray, Fever Ray (5)
“If I Had A Heart” is a masterpiece, and the rest of the album has been underappreciated for the way it documents how the mind can turn the world into a surrealist painting if you let it. 

14. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (5)

back to the top


GENEVIEVE KOSKI


1. Brother Ali, Us (10)

2. Florence + The Machine, Lungs (10)

3. Noisettes, Wild Young Hearts (10)

4. Dan Deacon, Bromst (7)

5. Lucero, 1372 Overton Park (7)

6. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3 (7)

7. Matt And Kim, Grand (7)

8. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (7)

9. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (7)

10. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (5)

11. Fall Out Boy, Folie À Deux (5)

12. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown (5)

13. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (5)

14. Bat For Lashes, Two Suns (4)

15. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, S/T (4)


RUNNERS UP

Miranda Lambert, Revolution
She still falls victim to the overly glossed trappings of mainstream pop-country a bit too often, but on her third album, Miranda Lambert proves there’s still life in the genre—and that she’s one of the best songwriters out there doing it. Key tracks: “Me And Your Cigarettes,” “Dead Flowers,” “Heart Like Mine.” 

The Bird And The Bee, Ray Guns Are Not Just The Future
The Bird And The Bee continues to be bright and bubbly almost to the point of inconsequence, but that effervescence is grounded by Inara George’s gorgeous, understated vocal prowess. Key tracks: “My Love,” “Birthday,” “Love Letter To Japan.”

Ida Maria, Fortress Round My Heart
Her pop-punk sound and lyrics—which focus on drunken hook-ups and morning-after regret—ensure that Ida Maria’s name will always appear next to adjectives like “spunky” and “plucky,” but her raspy howl and ladyballs-to-the-wall exuberance make her debut album a lot more substantial than some girly lark. Key tracks: “Oh My God,” “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked,” “Queen Of The World.” 

The Dead Weather, Horehound
While not as immediately catchy as some of Jack White’s other projects, The Dead Weather’s debut gradually reveals itself as a full-bodied, vigorous take on skuzzy psych-blues, thanks mostly to Alison Mosshart’s swaggering vocal performance. Key tracks: “Hang You From The Heavens,” “I Cut Like A Buffalo,” “So Far From Your Weapon.” 

St. Vincent, Actor

back to the top


CHRIS MARTINS


1. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (10)

2. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (10)

3. Fever Ray, Fever Ray (8)
Granted, so much of what makes albums by The Knife spectacular is the persistent thump that drives those spooky Swedish tunes onward, but it was nice to revel in all that black atmosphere without feeling the need to dance, head-nod, or effuse to friends. Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo album is less a revelation and more a deeply private feeling committed to song. Ten songs, actually, half of which have been released as singles (it’s not like the record doesn’t have a pulse), each of which explores some dank, cobwebbed corner of Andersson’s fractured, pagan-populated landscape.

4. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (8)

5. DM Stith, Heavy Ghost (8)
Perhaps more ghostly still was the debut LP from DM Stith, an immensely talented multi-instrumentalist with an impeccable ear for texture and mood. Though he’s signed to Sufjan Stevens’ label (Asthmatic Kitty) and frequently collaborates with the Soof, dude’s far from a musician’s musician, and rather than use his powers for the sake of creating showy bursts of orchestral grandeur, he lurks in the shadows, and calls from them with a voice that sounds like Nina Simone at times. Deeply spiritual and deeply felt by any who took the time to ingest it, Heavy Ghost was a lost gem of 2009.

6. Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms (8)
So there’s a musical movement called “chillwave” now, but before the groaning commences, consider the sound itself: Imagine the blissful synthery of the ’80s and the lo-fi fuzz of the early-’90s committed to a cassette tape that was subsequently warped by the sun. There are a handful of hugely promising ambassadors of the sound—Washed Out, Memory Tapes, Best Coast—but Neon Indian rose to the top of the pack with the exceptional Psychic Chasms, a record whose expansive psychedelic sound and burbling beats carry the promise of endless summer.

7. Tiny Vipers, Life On Earth (8)
Darker than just about anything else released this year, Tiny Vipers’ Life On Earth deserves its own genre: “Black folk” or “minimal Dust Bowl blues” would do, considering how incredibly spare but immensely moving the songs on this album are. The title track is 10 minutes long, allowing time for Jesy Fortino’s labyrinthine guitar to work itself into a proper downward spiral, carrying her words ever deeper into some gaping human abyss. To wit, a lyrical excerpt: “All hail the darkness, it is ours.” Recommended listening is loud and with a handle of Jack all to yourself.

8. Themselves, theFREEhoudini / CrownsDown (8)
Another year, another set of brilliant Anticon records misunderstood by the press—consider it a sign that these guys are still on the right track. After leaving the prog-steeped, pop-rap Subtle sextet behind, vocalist Doseone and beatmaker Jel returned to their long-running Themselves project . This pair of releases marked a couple of other returns as well: TheFREEhoudini mixtape is the first record to wrangle every one of Anticon’s founding members, alongside such crucial contemporaries as Aesop Rock, Slug, and Busdriver, no less. CrownsDown, on the other hand, is relatively guest-free, finding the duo consulting its favorite old-school rap records to successfully forge its own classic. 

9. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (7)

10. Double Dagger, More (5)
Leave it to a couple of graphic designers from Baltimore (and their drummer) to perfectly nail the post-punk aesthetic, to simultaneously push the sound into the coming decade and maintain a classicism that rises above current trends and fringes. More isn’t experimental, atmospheric, or psychedelic—it’s just great.

11. Wallpaper, Doodoo Face (5)
A masterfully cunning mix of pop-culture satire and loving tribute, Wallpaper’s Doodoo Face puts the noogie on radio rap and club music, forging intricate rhythmic thumpers from the remains of P-Funk and hyphy even while the AutoTuned lyrics portray a troubled, unfulfilled existence for protagonist/singer Ricky Reed. It’s funny, funky, and excellent on many levels.

12. WHY?, Eskimo Snow (5)
Released only a year after the band’s superb, Alopecia, WHY?’s Eskimo Snow captures a more sober group whose lush Americana-steeped instrumentation aptly backs up the death-obsessed poetry of singer Yoni Wolf. It’s an impressive near-180 from the rap rhythms and dry wit of this album’s predecessor—and even more impressive knowing both records were recorded at exactly the same time.

13. Fool’s Gold, Fool’s Gold (5)
Summer came and summer went, but that didn’t stop L.A. Afrobeat collective Fool’s Gold from making one of this year’s boldest, brightest albums and dropping it in the fall. The group has ties to Foreign Born, We Are Scientists, Glasser, Cass McCombs, and Edward Sharpe, but its take on Eritrean funk is remarkably authentic, even as singer Luke Top wails in Hebrew.

14. Bowerbirds, Upper Air (5)
Perhaps people just weren’t looking for acoustic beauty this year—that’s the only explanation for Bowerbirds’ second LP not making more year-end lists. Upper Air is an intimate album about love recorded by a loving couple and colored by the lush fruits of their labor: gorgeous boy-girl harmonies, rich swells of accordion, drum-backed jangle, and an overall wistfulness that never sours.

back to the top


MICHAELANGELO MATOS


1. DJ Koze, Reincarnations: The Remix Chapter 2001-2009 (15)

2. Art Brut, Art Brut Vs. Satan (7)

3. DJ Quik & Kurupt, BlaQKout (6)

4. Tanya Morgan, Brooklynati (6)
Brooklyn MC Von Pea and Cincinnati rappers Donwill and Ilyas rap about everyday life—on “Plan B,” reconciling responsibility with artistic dreams; on “Bang & Boogie,” sitting around watching Dobie Gillis—with the eye for detail, laconic humor, and determined realism of De La Soul, their clearest predecessors. But Brooklynati, named for the group’s combined hometowns, moved beyond mere Native Tongues homage; it’s an album that can hang with that period’s best, thanks to warm, lived-in production and casually slung rhymes that, put together, sneak up on you and stay in your head, especially on “Never Enough (Crazy Love),” a love song about being “too old for chasing,” and romantic enough to extol it anyway. 

5. Various Artists, 5 Years Of Hyperdub (6)

6. A-Trak, FabricLive 45 (6)

7. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us (6)

8. Bloody Mary, Black Pearl (6)

9. Syran Mbenza & Ensemble Rumba Kongo, Immortal Franco: Africa’s Unrivalled Guitar Legend (6)
With the second volume of Sterns’ epochal Francophonic compilation out this year, as well as Franco’s appearance in the concert documentary Soul Power, it’s beyond question that the late Congolese bandleader was one of the real giants of 20th-century music. What this rich and endlessly lovely tribute disc proves is just how adaptable his songbook remains. No slouch on the six-string himself, three-decade veteran Syran Mbenza and his band wind their way through 11 classic songs, plus a Mbenza-penned homage, and the results are bright and bountiful, a perfect summer-day album that just gets lovelier as it goes. 

10. Sonic Youth, The Eternal (6)

11. The Glimmers Presents Disko Drunkards (6)

12. The Juan MacLean, The Future Will Come (6)

13. Dâm-Funk, Toeachizown (6)
Damon Riddick was a session player for Westside Connection, but he’s rejected L.A. rap’s “keep it real” ethos in favor of one of his own: “Keep it fantasy.” Toeachizown, a two-and-a-half-hour double CD (or five-LP) set, sprawls a lot, but in isolation every track works, and a surprisingly large amount of it sticks. The sound—deliberately blurry synth-funk heavily doused in circa-1982 water—has a dreamily romantic aspect that makes it perfect for immersion, and on “Brookside Park” he constructs one of the most beautiful tracks of the year, not least for its heaving drum programming. For his next move, he’s collaborating with fellow Angeleno Nite Jewel—can’t wait to hear it. 

14. Micachu And The Shapes, Jewellery (6)

15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (6)

THE YEAR OF THE SYNTH
Many of the most invigorating tracks of 2009 were the ones with the most obvious throwback sound. No, not the retro-R&B of Amy Winehouse, Daptone Records, and the like, though lots of that was fun too. I’m talking about the plastic-sounding synths that permeated everything from R&B to dubstep to indie-rock. Here’s a mix-CD, 77 minutes long, that I made of some favorites from this year. 

  • Walter Jones, “Living Without Your Love” (DFA)
  • Dâm-Funk, “Brookside Park” (Stones Throw)
  • 2000f And JKamata, “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (Hyperdub)
  • Lone, “Joy Reel” (Werk)
  • Joy Orbison, “Hyph Mngo” (Hotflush)
  • Joker & Ginz, “Purple City” (Kapsize)
  • Silkie, “Purple Love” (Deep Medi)
  • Zomby, “Godzilla” (Werk)
  • Animal Collective, “Summertime Clothes (Dâm-Funk Remix)” (Domino)
  • The Juan MacLean, “One Day” (DFA)
  • Annie, “I Don’t Like Your Band” (Smalltown Supersound)
  • Julian Casablancas, “11th Dimension” (RCA)
  • Lily Allen, “The Fear (Stonebridge Clean Radio Mix)” (Capitol)
  • Simian Mobile Disco ft. Beth Ditto, “Cruel Intentions (Joker Remix)” (Wichita)
  • Keri Hilson, “Slow Dance” (Interscope)
  • The-Dream, “Kelly's 12 Play” (Def Jam)

back to the top


CHRIS MINCHER


1. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (15)

2. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (14)

3. The Antlers, Hospice (13)

4. Passion Pit, Manners (12)
A cartoonishly contorted falsetto, synth overload, an occasional children’s choir—sounds like just another silly flash-in-the-pan electro-pop novelty. But what makes Passion Pit so much more is the intelligence and introspection that grounds the music’s sparkling and bubbling and bouncing; what makes Manners so much more is its relentless, front-to-back parade of unbelievably addictive hooks. On its first album, Passion Pit undertakes the extremely difficult task of layering a dizzyingly exuberant luster atop lyrics of reflection and insecurity, resulting in songs that feel so fragile they could shatter at any moment. The band’s success is certainly not without great effort: The perfectionism in the production is immediately apparent. As such, live drums and occasional horns and, yes, the singing kids reinforce the album’s underlying humanism, which never detracts from the fun of the sparkly, shimmering exterior. In the end, Manners is as catchy as the best electronic dance-rock gets, as trippy as the best psychedelia gets, as colorful as the best club music gets, and, most importantly, as quaint and heartfelt as the best indie rock gets.

5. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (11)

6. Atlas Sound, Logos (9)
Bradford Cox’s debut as Atlas Sound was a beguiling experience; in his stew of laptop experiments, brief promises of captivating hooks would bubble to the surface, sending listeners on a fruitless treasure hunt to find more. While not a bounty of pop delights by any measure, Logos fulfills Cox’s earlier promises. Granted, listeners still have to do some work, but the effort is not unlike taking a lazy afternoon rifling through a great-grandparent’s attic: The clutter soon becomes a window to another world, from which engrossing and arousing discoveries are unearthed. In this way, spending time with Logos reveals hazy vignettes of Cox’s blurry dreamworld. It’s an odd album in many ways, but in an easygoing manner, not disquieting or detached like some of his previous work. Indeed, with a little help from Noah Lennox and Laetitia Sadier, Logos is often a bright, inviting album, playful and harmless enough to have been in the British Invasion. Crudely polished, Logos is a tempting, mysterious trek across a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic landscape, and there’s no telling what you’ll see along the way.

7. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (7)
Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career is an unusual addition to the list of great breakup albums of all time, one that finds its emotion in small pieces of sadness that drift through time likes leaves on a breeze. Singer and songwriter Tracyanne Campbell reminisces about relationship failure with resignation and helplessness that seems ultimately universal, and the songs’ atmospheric, airy treatment seem to highlight the inescapable loneliness of life. Indeed, the seamless storytelling through multiple genres—including country-rock and R&B—only call to attention the endless formats in which countless others have plaintively addressed these melancholy truisms. But My Maudlin Career draws its power precisely by not being depressing: With delightful melodies lightly fluttering from track to track, the album gets the point across both through quiet orchestral ballads and feisty, horn-driven faster numbers. With an impeccably layered production, My Maudlin Career is affecting precisely because the fundamental disappointment that Campbell confronts is ever-present through whatever moods might dominate in the moment. And that’s the saddest thing about breakups.

8. Super Furry Animals, Dark Days/Light Years (7)
On album number nine, Super Furry Animals sound every bit as dedicated, energized, and—most importantly—rebellious as most musicians first exploring their craft. Dark Days/Light Years is a bizarrely untamed effort, an album less about the individual songs than the urgent, freewheeling atmosphere that sucks you in. A team effort, each member of the band seems to have been granted a free pass to do whatever it is they wanted to, with the rest of the group throwing themselves into it with gusto. Needless to say, this is a very fun album: A relentless, supercharged vivacity manifests itself in everything from throbbing electro beats to droning guitars to warm psychedelia to frenetic prog-rock. With so much sheer activity, Dark Days/Light Years never loses your attention as it bounces along without pause through disparate styles and vocalists, a circus of songs in which the next act is always anyone’s guess. It’s the kind of album that requires a band to be both carefree and totally committed, in turn a testament to the kind of band Super Furry Animals is. 

9. Dan Deacon, Bromst (6)
Some of the most exciting works of experimental musicians are albums that build a bridge between whatever bizarre niche they’ve perfected and something agreeably common in all music. Dan Deacon’s methods on his sophomore effort are every bit as unorthodox as they’ve always been, but this time around he’s less interested in noise that sparks up the dancefloor and more interested in noise that sparks emotions. The repetition, reverb, and splicing are all there, but so are affecting harmonies and compelling choruses; it’s fun without being childish, hectic without being arbitrary. In sum, Bromst is controlled creativity, giving Deacon the ability to aim his astounding production abilities with precision. With an eye for balance, Deacon threads highs and lows, fast and slow, exertion with reflection. The attention to all these other deserving musical dimensions results in mini-epics of majestic electronica; what’s lost in urgency is more than made up for in depth. On Bromst, Deacon puts his immense talents to familiar use again, but is clearly putting more thought into them. 

10. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (6) 
It’s a clichéd parenting technique at this point: Find your kids smoking, force ’em to smoke an entire pack in one sitting and see what they think then. Embryonic is like that. Trying to decipher its maelstrom of music and ideas is a pointless enterprise: On some level, no part of the album is meant to be considered independently, and The Flaming Lips make it almost impossible to do so. It’s an intentional overload, a Big Bang of musical concepts that leaves the band’s future development wide open. As a listener, too, the intense disorientation of Embryonic can act as a sort of reset button; by the end of it, one ceases to categorize, and simply accepts, the sounds that come, whether bubbling, swollen bass riffs, squishy atonal guitars, glittering keyboards, or other instrumentation almost blurred beyond recognition. It’s tempting to think of Embryonic as a near-improvised, unedited free-for-all, but it’s not. Rather, in ricocheting uncontrollably between sounds and emotions—along with lulls in the storm, in which the band unveils some of the most welcomingly serene moments in its career—Embryonic is a musical explosion that forces the listener to abandon a lot of assumptions, not all of them about The Flaming Lips. 

back to the top


JOSH MODELL


1. Future Of The Left, Travels With Myself And Another (15)

2. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (15)

3. Drake, So Far Gone (the mixtape) (15)
Hooky hip-hop authority Lil Wayne rhymed this about Drake: “We poppin’ champagne bottles but we never shook / and we gon’ be alright if we put Drake on every hook.” For much of this year, it seemed like the Canadian rapper/singer was on every hook, at least on urban radio—and all without an album or, for most of the year, even a record deal. The Wayne couplet is from Birdman’s “Money To Blow,” but Drake was also ubiquitous via his own “Successful” (with Trey Songz), “Best I Ever Had,” and “Forever,” which features high-wattage guests Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Eminem. Again: He’s got no album out, just a truncated seven-song version of So Far Gone, this killer 17-song mixtape. It’s definitely worth finding the full version, which features not only the hits, but also a song built around a Peter Bjorn & John track, another around Lykke Li’s “Little Bit,” and another around Santigold’s “Unstoppable.” It’s mainstream rap of the strangest, most unpredictable sort—kind of like The College Dropout was. He nails the vibe on “Ignant Shit”: “Me doin’ the shows gettin’ everyone nervous / ’cause them hipsters gon’ have to get along with them hood niggas.” Sometimes the next thing sounds perfectly familiar at first. 

4. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (8)

5. The Thermals, Now We Can See (8)

6. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (7)

7. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle (6)

8. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3 (5)

9. David Bazan, Curse Your Branches (3)

10. Clem Snide, Hungry Bird (3)
Clem Snide’s long-gestating Hungry Bird, released after the band had broken up (sorta) and then reformed, can be frustratingly uneven, but its highs are among the best of Eef Barzelay’s career: “Born A Man” in particular captures everything that’s great about his songwriting—gentleness, mirth, and cynicism.

11. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (3)

12. We Were Promised Jetpacks, These Four Walls (3)

13. Dinosaur Jr. , Farm (3)

14. St. Vincent, Actor (3)

15. Black Moth Super Rainbow, Eating Us (3)


GREAT SONGS FROM ALBUMS THAT DIDN’T MAKE MY TOP 15

  • Benjy Ferree, “Tired Of Being Good”
  • Electric Six, “Body Shot”
  • Brakes, “Worry About It Later”
  • Alec Ounsworth, “Modern Girl (…With Scissors)”
  • Animal Collective, “Summertime Clothes”
  • Atlas Sound (with Noah Lennox), “Walkabout”
  • Pearl Jam, “Got Some”
  • Modest Mouse, “Satellite Skin”
  • Fabolous (feat. The-Dream), “Throw It In The Bag”
  • R. Kelly, “Echo”
  • Trey Songz (feat. Drake), “I Invented Sex”
  • Usher, “Papers”
  • Built To Spill, “Aisle 13”
  • The Dead Weather, “Treat Me Like Your Mother”
  • Cash Cash, “Party In Your Bedroom”
  • Julian Plenti, “Only If You Run”
  • Islands, “Heartbeat”
  • White Rabbits, “Percussion Gun”
  • Fol Chen, “Cable TV”
  • Doves, “Winter Hill”

back to the top


NOEL MURRAY


1. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (10)

2. Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall (9)
Jay Reatard has been pumping out great music as such a fevered clip over the past several years that he’s become difficult to keep up with—let alone fully appreciate. But Watch Me Fall, Reatard’s second official solo album, is one jaw-droppingly good record. Extending the new wave influence that began creeping in on his last set of singles, Reatard rips through a set of songs that stagger his usual bash-away approach with little melodic interludes, raising a racket that sounds like a garage-rock Graham Parker with a sweeter sensibility and a fouler mouth.

3. Reigning Sound, Love And Curses (9)
It’s not every band that can deliver a stirring cover of The Glass Sun’s little-known rager “Stick Up For Me” and then surround it with original songs every bit as awesome. But then not every band is as consistently on-point as Greg Cartwright’s Reigning Sound, which doesn’t come together and make records nearly often enough (but makes it count when it does).

4. Wye Oak, The Knot (9)
Though the Baltimore duo Wye Oak bears some surface similarities to indie-rock legends Yo La Tengo and Spinanes—primarily in the band’s dual preoccupations with guitar drone and choppy rhythms—The Knot presents a twosome who are wholly comfortable with themselves, and willing to venture out on their own to explore the way sounds can evoke complex moods. The songs on The Knot are about the pains of coupling and uncoupling, and with just a well-placed slide guitar over a skittering drum pattern, Wye Oak are able to get across the particular mix of pleasure and disappointment that defines so much romance.

5. Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light (8)

6. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty (8)
As a solo artist, A.C. Newman’s music is less boisterous and giddy than The New Pornographers’, but the statelier approach has its advantages—chief among them being the pronounced emphasis on Newman’s lyrics, with their oblique invitations to shadowy realms and the ashes of golden ages in decline.

7. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (7)

8. The Decemberists, The Hazards Of Love (7)
Even some longstanding Decemberists fans didn’t know what to make of The Hazards Of Love, an hour-long song-suite about a pregnant lady whose quest to find her shape-shifting lover is waylaid when she’s attacked by a forest queen and an unconscionable rake. Yes, the album is odd, and the way one song flows into the next makes it difficult to extricate the more accessible rock songs from the more far-out parts. But those accessible rock songs are there, and they’re some of the catchiest, most forceful music The Decemberists have ever recorded. Who else could perform a stomping anthem about regret-free child murder and make it a kick to sing along with?

9. Meshell Ndegeocello, Devil’s Halo (7)
One of the most unexpected pleasures of the year, Meshell Ndegeocello’s eighth LP applies what she’s learned from a decade’s worth of experimental R&B to a concise, engaging album, propelled by prog-pop rhythms and lightened with airy melodies. Picture early-’80s King Crimson fronted by Joan Armatrading. Reciting beat poetry. In a spaceship. Something like that.

10. Lucero, 1372 Overton Park (6)

11. We Were Promised Jetpacks, These Four Walls (6)
The Scottish scene continues to produce creative youngsters who love room-filling electric guitar, walloping percussion, and vocalists who switch easily from talking casually to screaming passionately about something that happened to them some time ago. Fans of The Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit will likely find We Were Promised Jetpacks awfully familiar. That doesn’t make These Four Walls any less thrilling.

12. Dinosaur Jr., Farm (5)
You can’t call it a comeback, because Dinosaur Jr. already did the reunion thing quite well on 2007’s Beyond. But Farm is an album good enough to sit on a shelf between Bug and You’re Living All Over Me. It’s louder than a rusty combine, and stocked with memorable riffs and deep sentiment. If Lou Barlow had stuck around for Green Mind, that album would’ve sounded a lot like this one. (And that album’s already pretty great.)

13. Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs (4)
The title isn’t entirely truth-in-advertising; America’s longstanding favorite indie-rock trio end Popular Songs with three lengthy jams, and the nine songs that precede them are hardly chartburners-in-waiting either. But those nine songs sure are easy to like: catchy and gentle, with a more pronounced folk-rock and ’60s soul influence than usual, as well as better-integrated, more fluid song-to-song transitions.

14. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, Tell ’Em What Your Name Is! (3)
Here’s the grittier side of the retro R&B revival—less Apollo Theater than Texas roadhouse. In just 30 minutes, Black Joe Lewis and his fellow funky Austinites run through ten taut, explosive songs, full of equal measures of wit and swagger. Easily the most fun record of the year.

15. The Thermals, Now We Can See (2)


FIFTEEN GREAT SONGS FROM ALBUMS THAT DIDN’T MAKE MY TOP 15 ALBUMS LIST

The Avett Brothers, “I And Love And You”
The best Avett Brothers songs feel like they were written 30 years ago, perhaps during one of those songwriter get-togethers when Guy Clark, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt would pass a guitar and an intoxicant around. From the “Brooklyn, Brooklyn” chorus to the kicker line “three words that became hard to say,” “I And Love And You” is an instant classic.

Neko Case, “This Tornado Loves You”
I confess that I cooled on Middle Cyclone a little after my initial enthusiasm, but I’ve never grown tired of “This Tornado Loves You,” a quintessential Case number that puts her powerful pipes to work on a disjointed song structure and a set of lyrics about embracing the unpredictability of fate.

The Clientele, “Bonfires On The Heath”
At this point, The Clientele doesn’t seem inclined to radically change its sound—a suspicion I confirmed when I interviewed bandleader Alaisdar MacLean recently—but somehow the group keeps applying a fragile, wistful sound to songs as absolutely perfect as “Bonfires On The Heath,” which should come packaged with a singed leaf and a wool jumper.

Marshall Crenshaw, “Passing Through”
Marshall Crenshaw may never record a truly great album again, but he’s still capable of songs as strong as those from his early-’80s heyday, as is the case with this poppy mid-tempo track about reconnecting with old companions and recognizing how fleeting life and love can be.

Cursive, “I Couldn’t Love You”
Despite the Mellotron accents, “I Couldn’t Love You” is classic Tim Kasher, from the title sentiment (which can be read as “we’re through” or “my heart overflows,” depending on how you read the “any more” that Kasher sticks onto the end) to the bellowing vocals and escalating noise. This is passion, purely expressed.

Destroyer, “Bay Of Pigs”
Got 13 minutes to kill? Let Dan Bejar lead you through a slow-building space-disco epic, which starts in a void then steps back nostalgically through the last happy days before the apocalypse, getting more beat-happy with every memory.

Green Day, “Know Your Enemy”
For all of Green Day’s efforts to be taken seriously as rock ’n’ roll artists—writing and recording formidable, relevant concept albums—the band is still best and rocking out the kind of memorable three-minute singles that make everything else around it on the radio sound flat, uninspired, and pointless.

The Horse’s Ha, “Asleep In A Waterfall”
Moonlighting members of The Zincs and Freakwater team up for a song that lays late-night jazz rhythms under Euro-folk fiddle and guitar, creating a feeling of being carried away by a slow but unerring current, to a fate at once dark and desirable.

Franz Nicolay, “Jeff Penalty”
Here’s one in honor of all the grinders who keep rock shows going, even when they’re openly mocked by the capricious punks who fill the pit.

Bruce Springsteen, “My Lucky Day”
Working On A Dream was, by and large, a major disappointment, but it did add one new item to the list of great Springsteen arena anthems: this pounding love song, which rages away like a latter-day “Cover Me,” but adds little passing touches of fiddle and sax in the “everyone gets a chance to shine” spirit of latter-day E Street Band shows.

Superchunk, “Learned To Surf”
It’s been way too long since last we heard Chapel Hill’s premier indie-rockers bash out one of their fist-in-the-air crowd-pleasers, but this dusted-off leftover—which would’ve fit right in on On The Mouth—is a pleasant reminder of happier days, and is, one hopes, just an appetizer for a full Superchunk comeback album and tour.

Umphrey’s McGee, “Red Tape”
Always as much a neo-prog act as a jam band, Umphrey’s McGee clarified its dual allegiances on the simultaneously forward-looking and nostalgic Mantis, and on songs like this wild, layered pop number, which sounds like an artifact from the days when bands like Genesis, Rush, and Styx could sneak progressive music into heavy rotation.

Vetiver, “Rolling Sea”
The Avett Brothers have gotten all the attention, but Vetiver arguably put out the better roots-rock record this year with Tight Knit, an eclectic, easygoing set of songs exemplified by opening song “Rolling Sea,” which starts as a simple front-porch sing-along and then picks up momentum until by the end it’s billowing ever-outward.

Wilco, “One Wing”
If only the entirety of Wilco (The Album) could’ve been as assured as its first half, which features unconventional wonders like this unclassifiable song, a disjointed mid-tempo rocker that packs some sweet melody and heartrending sentiment beneath its screechy guitar solos and stop-start rhythms.

Thom Yorke, “All For The Best”
Like a lot of the artists on the Mark Mulcahy tribute album Ciao My Shining Star, Thom Yorke didn’t feel obliged to replicate the jangly folk-rock of Miracle Legion, Polaris, or Mulcahy’s solo albums; instead, he turns what had been a guitar-driven thumper into a skittery electronic soundscape that emphasizes Mulcahy’s original tune and his yearning lyrics almost better than the original.

back to the top


SEAN O’NEAL


1. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (10)

2. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (10)

3. St. Vincent, Actor (10)

4. Future Of The Left, Travels With Myself And Another (10)

5. White Rabbits, It’s Frightening (10)

6. P.O.S., Never Better (5)

7. The Antlers, Hospice (5)

8. Wild Beasts, Two Dancers (5)

9. Raekwon, Only Built For Cuban Linx, Pt. II (5)

10. DM Stith, Heavy Ghost (5)

11. The Horrors, Primary Colours (5)

12. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (5)

13. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (5)

14. BLK JKS, After Robots (5)

15. Micachu And The Shapes, Jewellery (5)


NEAR MISSES

  • Antony And The Johnsons, The Crying Light
  • Atlas Sound, Logos
  • Bat For Lashes, Two Suns
  • Benjy Ferree, Come Back To The Five And Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee
  • Drake, So Far Gone mixtape
  • Fever Ray, Fever Ray
  • Fol Chen, Part 1: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made
  • Gun Outfit, Dim Light
  • Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3
  • Mastodon, Crack The Skye
  • Jack Penate, Everything Is New
  • Sonic Youth, The Eternal
  • The Strange Boys, And Girls Club
  • A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Ashes Grammar
  • Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer
  • Various Artists, Dark Was The Night
  • The Veils, Sun Gangs
  • White Denim, Fits
  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!


GOOD SONGS FROM ALBUMS NOT ON THE LIST

  • A.C. Newman, “Submarines Of Stockholm”
  • Alberta Cross, “ATX”
  • Amazing Baby, “Headdress”
  • Akron/Family, “Everyone Is Guilty”
  • The Big Pink, “Velvet”
  • Black Joe Lewis And The Honeybears, “Bitch, I Love You”
  • Bon Iver And St. Vincent, “Roslyn”
  • Clipse, “Kinda Like A Big Deal”
  • Jarvis Cocker, “Angela”
  • Das Racist, “Combination Pizza Hut And Taco Bell”
  • Deleted Scenes, “Fake IDs”
  • Flight Of The Conchords, “Too Many Dicks On The Dance Floor”
  • Method Man And Redman, “City Lights”
  • N.A.S.A., “Money”
  • The Rural Alberta Advantage, “Frank, AB”
  • Spoon, “Got Nuffin’”
  • Suckers, “Beach Queen”
  • Ume, “The Conductor”
  • Wilco, “Bull Black Nova”


MOST IRRITATING SONG OF THE YEAR, AND POSSIBLY IN THE HISTORY OF MUSIC
Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow”

BEST REISSUE/REDISCOVERY
TIE: Nirvana, Bleach: Deluxe Edition; The Jesus Lizard reissues

HIP-HOP QUOTABLE OF THE YEAR
TIE: “We off that” (Jay-Z, “Off That”); “I’m on a boat, motherfucker” (The Lonely Island, “I’m On A Boat”)

BEST MICHAEL JACKSON TRIBUTE
Toro Y Moi, “Human Nature”

WORST MICHAEL JACKSON TRIBUTE
Everything else.

THE “ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER” AWARD FOR COVER VERSION THAT SHOULD MAKE THE ORIGINAL ARTIST GO, “AWWWW, DANG”
Sufjan Stevens take on Castanets’ “You Are The Blood” 

BEST ARGUMENT YET FOR REPLACING PHYSICAL CDS WITH MP3S
Being able to own the Twilight Saga: New Moon soundtrack without having Robert Pattinson’s face in your record collection.

TREND THAT NEEDS TO DIE ALREADY
Taking stupidly simple pop songs and drenching them in so much distortion and reverb that they sound like they were recorded on a 20-year-old melted Maxell tape, then calling that an “aesthetic.”

THE ROGER MURTAUGH “I’M TOO OLD FOR THIS SHIT” AWARD
Passion Pit, apparently.

back to the top


KEITH PHIPPS


IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER…

Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (10)

Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career (10)

Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3 (10)

Kid Cudi, Man On The Moon (10)

Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (10)

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II (10)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz (10)

The Thermals, Now We Can See (10)

Art Brut, Art Brut Vs. Satan (10)

St. Vincent, Actor (10)


ALSO CONSIDERED

  • A.C. Newman, Get Guilty
  • Amadou & Mariam, Welcome To Mali
  • Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
  • The Antlers, Hospice
  • The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You
  • Bob Dylan, Together Through Life
  • The Clientele, Bonfires On The Heath
  • DOOM, Born Like This
  • Drake, So Far Gone
  • Franz Ferdinand, Tonight
  • Ghostface Killah, Ghostdini Wizard Of Poetry In The Emerald City
  • Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
  • Matt & Kim, Grand
  • Morrissey, Years Of Refusal
  • Mos Def, The Ecstatic
  • The Raveonettes, In And Out Of Control
  • Regina Spektor, Far
  • Sonic Youth, The Eternal
  • Wilco, Wilco (The Album)
  • Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs

back to the top


NATHAN RABIN


IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER…

DOOM, Born Like This (10)

DOOM, Unexpected Guests (10)

Mos Def, The Ecstatic (10)

Tanya Morgan, Brooklynati (10)

Method Man And Redman—Blackout! 2 (10)

The Lonely Island, Incredibad (10)

Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II (10)

R. Kelly, The Demo Tape (10)

Wale, Attention Deficit (10)

Brother Ali, Us (10)

back to the top


VADIM RIZOV


1. The xx, xx (10)
Promising debut albums are a dime a dozen; fully formed ones, without any cracks, are much more rare. It’s entirely possible that xx is the most perfectly realized debut since Is This It, a perfect combination of Young Marble Giants’ sparse aesthetics and early Portishead’s gauzy sexual vibe. The air around the instruments sounds charged with free-floating electrons; you hear everything they’re using and all the space around it. 

2. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (10)

3. White Rabbits, It’s Frightening (10)

4. Ramona Falls, Intuit (10)
Menomena emo-style. This is what fully emotive 15-track clusterfucks sound like in 2009.

5. jj, jj n° 2 (9) 
More bands should be capable of performing nine fully fleshed pop songs in just under 27 minutes. Swedish group jj rips Enya’s keyboards and makes them exciting, then immediately follows that up by rewriting Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” as an ode to ecstasy, which makes total sense. (Wayne himself would almost certainly approve if he could snap out of it long enough to notice.) The first three tracks are as ridiculous a 1-2-3 combo as the opening trifecta on Phoenix’s album.

6. Julian Casablancas, Phrazes For The Young (9)
The important thing to keep in mind is that Casablancas wrote all of Is This It on a piano; for all the talk of The Strokes as garage saviors, his baroque approach to intertwining melodies is most definitely not garage-based. Phrazes is a mess—most of the tracks have at least three parts, at least one of which is unnecessary—but for diehard fans it’s essential, with the peaks as great as any on The Strokes’ proper output. On “4 Chords Of The Apocalypse,” Casablancas accesses his inner soul man over a bluesy churn, then spirals into a fire-breathing chorus out of nowhere—and that’s not even a standout track. “11th Dimension” is as ebullient a single as the band has ever done, faux-Daft Punk solo and all.

7. Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why There Are Mountains (8)
In which ’90s college rock—Built To Spill, Modest Mouse, etc.—finally becomes a genre to be revived and re-explored. 

8. Metric, Fantasies (8)
Metric doesn’t always get it right—Emily Haines’ poetic aspirations can be gruelingly self-regarding and trite, and some songs are stadium anthems going nowhere fast—but there are half a dozen great songs here, some of which (“Gimme Sympathy” in particular) are genuinely cathartic. Metric’s clear aspirations to “Stadium Love” may never be realized, but someday they'll have enough hits to justify the goal.

9. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (6)

10. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (5)

11. Fol Chen, Part I: John Shade, Your Fortune’s Made (5)
Fol Chen claims to adore Prince, which really means they sound like Of Montreal with more moving parts, which was seemingly impossible. 

12. The Rural Alberta Advantage, Hometowns (5)
Hometowns is emo for people who don’t do emo. Proudly Canadian reference points are a bonus.

13. The Dodos, Time To Die (5) 
A rhythm-heavy ensemble adds a vibraphonist, discovers hooks, and hires producer Phil Ek to make the leap to Shins-level pure pleasure. Sometimes they get it, too.


25 GREAT SONGS FROM ALBUMS THAT DIDN’T MAKE THE CUT

  • Black Moth Super Rainbow, “Born An A Day The Sun Didn’t Rise”
  • Canadian Invasion, “Standing On The Shoulders Of The Carcass Of John Mayer”
  • Crayon Fields, “Mirrorball”
  • Jarvis Cocker, “I Never Said I Was Deep”
  • Julie Doiron, “Consolation Prize”
  • Eels, “That Look You Give That Guy”
  • The Fiery Furnaces, “Keep Me In The Dark”
  • The Flaming Lips, “Watching The Planets”
  • Grand Archives, “Oslo Novelist”
  • Grizzly Bear, “Two Weeks”
  • Junior Boys, “The Animator”
  • Ben Kweller, “Hurtin’ You”
  • Liechtenstein, “All At Once”
  • The National, “So Far Around The Bend”/ “Ashamed Of The Story I Told” / “Sleep All Summer” with St. Vincent (three great one-offs—two covers—from what may be America's best working indie-rock band)
  • The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, “Stay Alive”
  • Playboy Tre, “Everybody Lookin’ 4 Something”
  • Radiohead, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of)”
  • Suckers, “Beach Queen”
  • Teriyaki Boyz ft. Cornelius, “5th Element”
  • The Thermals, “Now We Can See”
  • Voxtrot, “Berlin, Without Return”
  • Wye Oak, “Take It In”
  • YACHT, “Psychic City”

GREAT REISSUES
The exhaustive, import-only, delightfully remastered Saint Etienne catalogue—thus far only four albums, but that includes previous Japan-only rarity compilation Continental and a boatload of B-sides just as deserving as the main body of work. As delightful as anything this year, really.

back to the top


KYLE RYAN


1. Fall Out Boy, Folie À Deux (15)

1. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (15)

1. Converge, Axe To Fall, (15)
I’m not sure what this three-way tie for my favorite record of the year says about me, but Josh offered this analysis: “Your top three reflects your various natures: the 14-year-old boy who wants to rock, the 20-year-old boy who wants to rage, and the 40-year-old NPR listener who's still a little horny.” Hey, I’m not 40!

4. Japandroids, Post-Nothing (10)

5. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (9)

6. Lucero, 1372 Overton Park (8)
Lucero’s finest work to date finds the band perfecting what Genevieve calls its “Hold Steady meets Drive-By Truckers” sound. Adding something I didn’t know I wanted is Memphis soul legend Jim Spake, whose horns perfectly complement “What Are You Willing To Lose,” “Sounds Of The City,” “The Devil And Maggie Chascarrillo,” and others. My only complaint: They didn’t record their fantastic interpretation of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss The Bottle.” 

7. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown (8)
I think Genevieve and I were the only advocates for this album, but I think it’s superior to its much-ballyhooed predecessor, American Idiot. Never mind the murky concept behind it: Green Day amasses a collection of excellent, punchy songs with enough layers and hooks to entice repeat listening. 

8. P.O.S., Never Better (8)

9. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3 (7)

10. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (5)


BEYOND MY TOP 10

  • Silversun Pickups, Swoon
  • Metric, Fantasies
  • The Loved Ones, Distractions
  • Matt & Kim, Grand
  • St. Vincent, Actor
  • Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II
  • Future Of The Left, Travels With Myself And Another


IF WE ALLOWED COMEDY ALBUMS, MY TOP 10 WOULD LOOK DIFFERENT

Patton Oswalt, My Weakness Is Strong
Five words: Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement.

Paul F. Tompkins, Freak Wharf
It’s a tribute to Tompkins’ skill as a stand-up that he opens his second album with nearly 15 minutes of unplanned riffing, and that it’s really funny. Also awesome: The cover art and title, which comes from the album’s closing bit about Go Ask Alice

Doug Benson, Unbalanced Load
Benson’s reputation largely rests on his affiliation with (and predilection for) pot, but he’s a skilled stand-up whose best material doesn’t concern weed. “New Orgasm Noise” is hilariously off-putting, and some of the funniest bits are throwaway jokes Benson made up on the spot. 

BEST ALBUM FROM 2008 I DIDN’T DISCOVER UNTIL 2009
Frightened Rabbit, The Midnight Organ Fight

RELATED: EARLY PROGNOSIS FOR BEST ALBUM OF 2010
Frightened Rabbit, The Winter Of Mixed Drinks (or Clipse’s Til The Casket Drops)

back to the top

More Best of