The top 25 albums of 2009

The top 25 albums of 2009

Unlike our best-music-of-the-decade feature, with which this piece occasionally overlaps, our year-end music coverage reaches out to more writers and is strictly mathematical. Eighteen A.V. Club contributors are each given 100 points to disperse over no more than 15 albums that were released in 2009 (or in one case, late 2008, past last year’s deadline). No album can receive more than 15 points or less than one point from any given contributor. Then we tally, and you hopefully post your favorite albums of 2009 in the comments section. (And hopefully not by starting, “You guys are retarded,” because it’s much harder to take your selections seriously that way.) We mean it, too—we want to know what you loved this year as well. In a separate feature, you’ll find each contributor’s ballot, along with some commentary on favorite albums that didn’t make this list.

 Japandroids
Post-Nothing
(18 points, 2 votes)


The two Vancouverites in Japandroids had tongues firmly in cheek when naming their debut. But the title—Post-Nothing—is bold in ways they might not have realized. It implies something unprecedented and original. It isn’t, and singer-guitarist Brian King and drummer-vocalist David Prowse would scoff at the assertion anyway. That doesn’t take anything away from Post-Nothing’s considerable charm, which strips its fuzzy punk derivations to basics: King’s schizophrenic guitar (generally double-tracked with one overdriven and another clean), Prowse’s drumming, their vocal interplay, and clever lyrics. The black-and-white cover art follows suit, with a simple photo of King and Prowse with the band name and title reversed out against a black background. The eight songs come and go in less than 36 minutes, with little opportunity for Post-Nothing to sag. Propulsive, hooky songs like “Young Hearts Spark Fire” and “Wet Hair” show Japandroids at its best, and help make Post-Nothing one of the year’s most enjoyable albums. (Kyle Ryan)


Antony & The Johnsons
The Crying Light
(18 points, 3 votes)


Antony Hegarty’s angelic, broken voice is so powerful that it tends to dominate any composition, forcing songs to adjust their dynamics to suit what he can do. But judging by Antony & The Johnsons’ third album, The Crying Light, Hegarty hasn’t yet run out of ways to put that operatic quaver to good use. The Crying Light is by no means eclectic; The Johnsons hold to soft, orchestrated piano ballads, each exploring the theme of personal connection to the natural world. But throughout, Hegarty’s voice is framed as fragile and willful by turns, illustrating the tension between the needs of the self and the greater good. The album’s trembling strings, pinging piano, jazzy guitar, and minimal percussion create a welcoming space for Hegarty to explore the stark and the spiritual, making The Crying Light the perfect music for staring at the ceiling and recovering from a rough day. (Noel Murray)


White Rabbits
It’s Frightening
(20 points, 2 votes)


There weren’t any new albums from Spoon, The Walkmen, or Cold War Kids in 2009, which left it to White Rabbits to hold it down for sophisticated, soul-inflected rock. Cheating a little—but also making the smartest decision possible—the New York band recruited Spoon’s Britt Daniel to handle production, and he brought his brutal economy of sound to bear on the Rabbits’ percussive racket. The result is the difference between a blind flail and a practiced uppercut: Now those floor toms, chiming guitars, and bottom-heavy piano chords interlock like firing pistons, and It’s Frightening lands every punch. Spectral backing vocals and the occasional calypso (via Danny Elfman) flourish help the band retain its own darkly dreaming identity, something vocalist Stephen Patterson—who’s still casting a weary, Holden Caulfield-like eye at phony relationships and bristling at the alienation of the big city—has never sounded more assured about. (Sean O’Neal)


Fall Out Boy
Folie À Deux
(20 points, 2 votes)


Has the world finally gotten over Pete Wentz enough to actually hear Fall Out Boy? Because at the end of the decade, bashing the band’s bassist/lyricist/tabloid target seems passé. It’s time to accept Fall Out Boy as a skilled creator of exquisitely catchy, meticulously crafted pop. The band’s transformation from unexceptional emo-punk began on 2007’s Infinity On High, but Folie À Deux is Fall Out Boy’s most successful album yet. The opener, “Disloyal Order Of Water Buffaloes,” may be Fall Out Boy’s best song, but Folie À Deux had a focus its predecessors lacked. Where Infinity On High and 2005’s From Under The Cork Tree fade down the stretch, Folie stays strong until the closing track, “West Coast Smoker,” featuring a surprising cameo by Debbie Harry. (Other unexpected guest stars include Elvis Costello and Lil Wayne.) Folie À Deux may not be enough to silence all of the band’s vocal critics, but it could probably convert a few. (Kyle Ryan)


The Thermals
Now We Can See
(20 points, 3 votes)


It’s tough to argue with the notion that each Thermals record—Now We Can See is the fourth—sounds pretty much like the last. (“They’ve only got one song,” goes the old saw, “but it’s a really good song.”) Add this one to the stack, because it’s every bit as tunefully unkempt as the others, and Hutch Harris’ lyrics remain a strong selling point, even as the disc’s concept—something about death, maybe?—gets a little murky. The music itself pushes punk energy through classic-sounding melodies: “You Dissolve” could play at an alternate-universe sock-hop. Really, it should be playing in this universe’s sock-hop. (Josh Modell)


Yeah Yeah Yeahs
It’s Blitz
(21 points, 3 votes)


Yeah Yeah Yeahs have made a game of defying expectations. The band never fit into the early-’00s New York movement from which it rose, nor did its artful screech seem the most likely to spawn an inescapable hit. YYYs didn’t seem likely to last, either; the band members never made much of a secret of their volatile internal politics. And after the good-but-familiar sophomore effort, Karen O and co. didn’t seem likely to release an album like It’s Blitz, which brings new-wave bounce and disco flourishes to the band’s forbidding signature sound. It’s a welcome set of dance-floor dread, and it points the way toward even more unpredictable possibilities. (Keith Phipps)


The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
(21 points, 3 votes)


The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart’s self-titled debut sounds like the work of indie-pop obsessives—the kind of crate-digging connoisseurs who search for out-of-print records on tiny labels, frolic in the insular world of colored vinyl, and venerate a canon known to almost no one else. The band certainly knows its history. Resplendent keyboard lines conjure up Rocketship, washes of noise summon Black Tambourine, and guitars jangle like The Pastels. But the real triumph here is how this purist-approved, willfully obscure set of influences fits together in such a forceful way. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart takes all the signifiers of twee-pop—treble fuzz, vocal harmonies, worrying about girls—and transmutes them into something much more substantial and approachable. When singer-guitarist Kip Berman commits to a solo, he tears it up. When his heart finds a match, he titles a song “This Love Is Fucking Right!” And when he and his bandmates record an album, they pack it full of bombast and verve. (Paul Caine)


Lucero
1372 Overton Park
(21 points, 3 votes)


Jumping to a major label may have provided Lucero with the resources to record a “big” rock album, complete with a full horn section and background vocalists, but frontman Ben Nichols hasn’t sacrificed his distinctive vocal growl—or his empathy for the nocturnal frustrations of punks, rednecks, and redneck punks. If anything, 1372 Overton Park has clarified Nichols’ aesthetic and ideals, allowing him the expanded sonic palette to connect Lucero’s music to the tradition of The E Street Band, The Faces, and other forceful roots-rock acts known for their preoccupations with, as Nichols puts it, the “unknown and beautiful.” 1372 Overton Park is full of sonic flourishes, but they really only serve to flesh out songs that, a decade ago, Lucero would’ve rendered as loose sketches. Now the musical detail in Lucero’s songs is as vivid as Nichols’ lyrical detail, and the result is a record that tells stories of everyday romantics with the grandiosity the characters feel, even if they rarely show it. (Noel Murray)


Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
(21 points, 3 votes)


Those waiting around for their generation’s Leonard Cohen would do well to take an application from Bill Callahan. Since he first came up in the lo-fi indie murk of Smog, Callahan has cleared up his vision and sharpened his words to a writerly point where concision and impressionism blur. That’s what happens on Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, and the blur couldn’t be better. With gruff, almost eerie control, Callahan governs a set of stately songs that survey haunted moods and disquieting states, from the capital-D Darkness that floats over “Jim Cain” to a lion walking city streets (in “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”) to a leafless tree that “looked like a brain” (in “All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast”). It’s a heady affair that ends with Callahan repeating, in what sounds like an edit of an endless mantra, “It’s time to put God away.” Maybe, maybe not. Either way, there’s no escaping the question when Callahan lays it out as he does. (Andy Battaglia)


St. Vincent
Actor
(23 points, 3 votes)


St. Vincent’s full-length debut, Marry Me, led to a lot of Kate Bush comparisons—not unwarranted—but she shakes them off with the restless Actor. Not that Bush’s eccentricities and vocal mannerisms have disappeared, but they’re now just one weapon in Annie Clark’s art-pop arsenal. On her second album, she winds laments and fearful pleas in lush, catchy, winningly odd songs. Actor suggests a future in which other artists will someday earn St. Vincent comparisons. (Keith Phipps)


Art Brut
Vs. Satan
(24 points, 3 votes)


Art Brut’s one-band battle for purity and cheeky, sincere obsessiveness continues on album three, with Eddie Argos singing the praises of returning to old tastes (“DC Comics And Chocolate Milkshake”), discovering new parts of the past (“The Replacements”), and public transportation (“The Passenger”) in the direct voice of the most charming fellow hanging out at last call. “Cool your warm jets, Brian Eno,” goes a line from the lo-fi celebration “Slap Dash For No Cash,” and Argos makes it sound like the only way to rock. (Keith Phipps)


Future Of The Left
Travels With Myself And Another
(25 points, 2 votes)


No band sneers as well as Future Of The Left, and just like the outfit that spawned it—Mclusky—this one is destined for cult worship. But why not more? There’s plenty to love on Travels With Myself And Another, even as it pummels. There’s sheer glee in “Arming Eritrea” and “Land Of My Formers,” and listening to “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” is like watching a great black comedy boiled down to song form. A band that can make nastiness this much fun—and catchy, and occasionally even danceable, in a herky-jerky way—is a rare commodity that should be cherished, even if the word “cherished” would get you thrown out of FOTL’s clubhouse. (Josh Modell)


Raekwon
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II
(25 points, 3 votes)


For years, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II was hip-hop’s answer to Chinese Democracy—a buzzed-about, troubled project whose prospects of actually being released seemed to grow dimmer by the day. The famously finicky Dr. Dre surprised no one by cutting Raekwon from his Aftermath label, leaving him with just a pair of beats as souvenirs of his stint. Raekwon shocked the world by delivering a Cuban Linx sequel worthy of the original. It’s a dense, ambitious opus rich in novelistic detail, atmospheric production from legends like J Dilla and Pete Rock, and plenty of showcases for Raekwon and Ghostface’s vaunted chemistry. With a running time north of 70 minutes, Linx sometimes feels like too much of a good thing, but hip-hop heads hungry for a return to Wu-Tang’s mid-’90s golden age aren’t complaining. (Nathan Rabin)


Jay-Z
The Blueprint 3
(29 points, 4 votes)


Jay-Z’s post-retirement comeback found its feet with the third entry in his Blueprint series. So never mind the so-so Kingdom Come and the pretty-good-but-not-all-time-great American Gangster. This is the sound of Jay-Z refusing to be unnerved by any stumbles. In fact, it’s the sort of album someone makes when he has nothing left to prove. It’s short on assertions of street cred or attempts to echo what’s making noise on the charts, and long on cocky, anthemic versemaking. After this album, it’s once again every other rapper’s job to keep up. (Keith Phipps)


The Antlers
Hospice
(33 points, 3 votes)


When we first meet Peter Silberman, his voice is a tiny, quavering mumble hidden beneath the snowy piano chords of “Kettering.” By “Epilogue,” though, he’s at the front of the mix, shrieking out in the midst of a nightmare. There’s a transformation on Hospice, but it isn’t an easy one. The album’s two plots—one about a cancer patient’s caretaker, and another about a man trying to save a lover from self-destruction—bleed together. The central story, though, is of people hating themselves for failing to fix the unfixable. The words kick the gut, but so does the music: Blanketed in trembling white noise, and tent-poled by a few impressively hummable anthems, Hospice approximates the sound of people sifting through their own memories, wallowing in the mournful stuff, but trying to concentrate on the happy moments. By the end of the album, it’s clear that the narrators’ shame isn’t warranted—after all, “some patients can’t be saved”—but that’s little comfort. Loss is tough to accept, Hospice says, but the inescapability of guilt might just be tougher. (Spencer Kornhaber)

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Andrew Bird
Noble Beast
(33 points, 5 votes)


There’s no one else out there making music like Andrew Bird, who combines handmade acoustic sounds—and, of course, whistling—with technological advances unthinkable before this decade. But as unusual as Bird’s means of production are, they wouldn’t matter if the end results weren’t so bewitching. Bird’s world is so eccentric and inviting that it may take a few listens to pick up on the fact that he’s singing about kittens with pleurisy, and other potential crises waiting just below the surface of the everyday. (Keith Phipps)


Brother Ali
Us
(34 points, 4 votes)


“Our speaker today is a soldier in the war for love,” Public Enemy’s Chuck D proclaims in the opening track to Us, Brother Ali’s third full-length for powerhouse Midwestern hip-hop label Rhymesayers. That introduction segues into a track called “The Preacher,” which is later followed by moralistic tales concerning subjects like an ostracized immigrant (“Tight Rope”), a leprous plantation worker (“Breakin’ Dawn”), and a molestation victim (“Babygirl”). It sounds like the stuff of self-righteous sermonizing, but Brother Ali’s deft, empathetic handling of his subjects renders his songs approachable and poignant in equal measure, earning the Twin Cities MC his oft-employed “conscientious” designation. That isn’t to say that Brother Ali spends all of Us wallowing; in fact, it’s his most upbeat album yet, also taking time to revel in the pleasures that arrived in the wake of 2007’s also-excellent The Undisputed Truth, both great (his “street preacher” legitimacy, celebrated in the title track) and small (newfound domestic bliss, on “Fresh Air”). Underneath it all, Ant’s gospel, blues, and R&B-laced beats provide an apt, catchy framework for Brother Ali’s hip-hop homily. (Genevieve Koski)


Converge
Axe To Fall
(38 points, 3 votes)


Few albums from 2009 can begin to touch the stunning opening salvo of Axe To Fall, the seventh full-length from Boston’s long-running progressive hardcore/punk/metal/noise outfit Converge. The progression of “Dark Horse,” “Reap What You Sow,” “Axe To Fall,” and “Effigy” is a relentless tour through the sound Converge practically created, all blistering tempos and mind-boggling musicianship. (Two to note in particular: Kurt Ballou’s riff in “Dark Horse” and Ben Koller’s manic drumming in “Reap.”) But Converge isn’t interested in pulverizing listeners from start to finish: Since 2001’s Jane Doe, the band has grown more progressive in exploring mood and atmosphere. “Worms Will Feed/Rats Will Feast” puts the brakes on the initial assault, “Cruel Bloom” is only a couple of degrees removed from Tom Waits, and “Wretched World” stews in a foreboding mix of swirling guitars and synths. As a whole, Axe To Fall shows Converge at the top of its game—Jane Doe, the band’s other acknowledged classic, now has some company. (Kyle Ryan)


P.O.S.
Never Better
(39 points, 4 votes)


P.O.S. is both an MC and a punk-rocker, so it’s no surprise that he’s constantly off on a tear: “Them rappers got the itis / catch me bumpin’ Isis in a crisis.” When the Minneapolis rapper is at his best, even the most righteous lyricists can’t match P.O.S.’ sense for songs as a whole: It’s rare that a beat and a verse merely work well together on a P.O.S. record, or that a P.O.S. tune sounds like a common hip-hop workout. Never Better feels complete and dense to an almost intimidating degree: The hypnotic vocal sample and hardcore-kid manifesto of “The Basics (Alright)” seem made for each other, as do the hyper rock scribbles and rapid-fire spitting of “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty).” Even more so than 2006’s great Audition, Never Better proves that P.O.S. is the complete package: an excellent rapper, producer, and songwriter who doesn’t have to choose between the old-school and the novel, because he’s got too many ideas of his own. P.O.S. is evolving independent hip-hop into a genre that isn’t just about self-righteous belting, but about building life as fiercely as you examine it. (Scott Gordon)


Neko Case
Middle Cyclone
(42 points, 5 votes)


Until 2006’s Fox Confessor Brings The Flood, the attention paid to Neko Case tended to focus on her soaring voice—for good reason—but that record and its successor, Middle Cyclone, prove her skill as a songwriter, arranger, and interpreter. Fox Confessor was a great artistic leap forward, and Middle Cyclone plays like its sibling—it doesn’t leap ahead so much as take another step. It also feels more focused; where Fox Confessor willfully bucked traditional songwriting composition (who needs a chorus?), Middle Cyclone has more grounding, like the catchy repetition in the chorus of “People Got A Lotta Nerve” and thudding percussion of “I’m An Animal.” Case remains devoted to her flighty muse, whether it steers her toward a song that’s literally about a tornado loving a person (the fantastic opener “This Tornado Loves You”) or employing an orchestra of used pianos she found on Craigslist. What she creates makes her one of today’s most idiosyncratic but enthralling artists. And the album cover—Case brandishing a sword atop an old muscle car—just kicks ass. (Kyle Ryan)


Dirty Projectors
Bitte Orca
(49 points, 5 votes)


There’s no better yardstick for measuring the artistic leaps and bounds of the past decade than with an evolutionary chart of “New York buzz bands” spanning The Strokes to Dirty Projectors. We kicked off the decade stoked on purist, backward-looking rock ’n’ roll; we ended it debating 3/2 time signatures and throwing around heretofore-alien terms like “kwassa kwassa picking” and “vocal hocketing.” And even though the current obsession with overintellectualizing pop music will inevitably give way to another minimalist revolt, Bitte Orca proves that just because an album is slightly pretentious in its construction doesn’t mean it has to be joyless. Sometimes it can be a ragged, fascinating mess even when it’s planned to an inhuman degree, and sometimes genre mash-ups that resemble the Icarus-like overreaching of music-comp majors (“We’ll start with West African-inspired guitar patterns, Timbaland beats, and cut-up harmonies that sound like live Steve Reich remixes, then make them into an R&B song!”) become visceral, throw-your-hands-in-the-air moments on record. Apparently we’ve learned a lot this decade. (Sean O’Neal)


Sunset Rubdown
Dragonslayer
(51 points, 4 votes)


Dragonslayer might mark the point at which Sunset Rubdown replaces Wolf Parade as Spencer Krug’s main band. The amount of thought and effort put into the album—the track list says there are only eight songs, but there are at least twice as many terrific melodic morsels bundled up inside each one—belies Sunset Rubdown’s “side project” status. As good as Wolf Parade is, when did it last produce a song as great as “Idiot Heart,” which starts with a rampaging rush of tightly strummed guitars, marching-band drums, and jingling bells, and only grows more powerful from there? Dragonslayer is loaded with songs just as awesome and unpredictable—”Apollo And The Buffalo And Anna Anna Anna Oh!” sounds like glam-rock Beatles, “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)” moves along on a slithery reggae rhythm, and “Nightingale/December Song” kicks up a pulsating dance-rock groove before transitioning to a rousing psych-rock dirge. Krug’s miniaturist prog-rock epics have never been more accessible or endlessly listenable—like a David Lynch movie, Dragonslayer operates on its own peculiar sense of alluringly sensual dream logic, pulling listeners forward one hiccupping vocal and gleaming synth riff at a time. (Steven Hyden)


Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
(62 points, 6 votes)


Animal Collective‘s evolution over the past decade has been slow and systematic, and part of the wonder of Merriweather Post Pavilion is how it works as both a logical next step and an outright aberration. Its sound is huge—a swelling, strobing mass of noises and voices scaled way up from anything in Animal Collective’s past. But its feeling is suitably small—an intimate, internal sense of questing that fits well within a discography full of monastic moans and folksy campfire jams. Most impressive is how seamless the sounds and the subjects mesh in songs like “My Girls” and “Summertime Clothes,” which lean heavily on electronic swirling while foregrounding the increasingly striking vocals of Panda Bear and Avey Tare. Both function as splatter-happy songs that could work just as well a cappella, and the same goes for a superabundant pop marvel like “Brother Sport,” which keeps growing aurally over time. The guys in Animal Collective clearly learned the ways of excess, but they also learned how and when to excise little bits for big effect. (Andy Battaglia)


Grizzly Bear
Veckatimest
(62 points, 7 votes)


Pretty much since rock ’n’ roll was invented, beauty has been sorely underrated in music. Too much of it, and you’re accused of being sappy or soporific; combine it with careful, deliberative composition, and you have no balls. So there’s no way Grizzly Bear’s patiently crafted Veckatimest could ever connect with people who demand a little danger from their music: It’s made by guys whose traditionalist trappings—choirboy harmonies, an appreciation for Tin Pan Alley pastiche artists like Van Dyke Parks, the ability to play their instruments well—just seem airless and fuddy-duddy compared to all the dick-swingers going for the gusto out there. But for those who have outgrown the idea that beauty equals blandness, Veckatimest is the musical equivalent of a pre-Raphaelite painting, full of concise construction, bold lines, and vivid colors that leave no room for sloppiness, but harboring an air of elusive mystery that makes it worth returning to over and over. And “I Live With You” kicks ass, actually. (Sean O’Neal)


Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(81 points, 10 votes)


It’s been heartening to watch how rapidly Phoenix has risen from “cool band that not enough people listen to” to “consensus favorite.” Over the course of its first four albums, the French dance-rock group established a cut-and-paste methodology, overlaid with a breathy warmth provided by Thomas Mars’ foregrounded lead vocals and a lattice of analog instrumentation steeped in second-generation soul-jazz. Guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai stagger rockabilly jangle and New Order tautness, creating a well-cushioned space for Mars to grapple with the ways nostalgia and lust can cohere into the same frustration. Phoenix first brought all its components together properly on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, serving up 10 compositionally similar but collectively daring pop-art constructions. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix lowers the accessibility threshold for the band’s music considerably, offering 10 easy-to-like tracks that keep the rhythms brisk and the melodies catchy, with such casual confidence that they sound like they’ve been part of our shared musical heritage for decades. (Noel Murray)

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