Favorite Music of 2009

Why do we make lists? Many artists would claim that such labeling and number-assigning is contrary to a spirit of true artistic open-mindedness. Perhaps. But the insane volume that the gushing torrent of music (which, indeed, I often download in torrents…hooray obvious pun) has grown to in 2009 seems to command, for me at least, an end-of-year reflection in which I can decide which albums have, and will continue to, really stick with me. This is the first year that I made a serious attempt throughout the year to keep up with a significant number of current releases; I changed my strategy greatly throughout the year, and I still often question the validity of this approach, because it prevents me from spending nearly as much time with any album as I would in earlier eras during which access to music was not so limitless. This meant that it was harder to determine the albums at the very top of my list, as I did not allow myself to listen to any album as often as I did, say, the albums by Bon Iver and Fleet Foxes last year. And it also meant that other albums I might’ve warmed up to over repeated listens, but did not make a great impression the first or second time, fell by the wayside.

So view this all as a disclaimer for this list’s lack of definitiveness. Many albums I’ve only listened to in the past couple of weeks since they’ve appeared on various year-end lists, and their position would certainly be in flux over time. And there’s probably great ones that I haven’t listened to yet that would appear if I remade this list in a year (last year, Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and Alejandro Escovedo’s Real Animal were examples of that trend). But here’s what I’ve got for now: a summary of my favorite listening in the strange year of music that was 2009. 25 fantastic albums, with way too many honorable mentions. If I feel up to it, I may tack my favorite songs on at the end as well. Happy new year, and may 2010 bring as many musical surprises as did 2009.

1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest: Like I said, my top three here are all a league beyond the rest, and are really somewhat interchangeable. It seems, looking at other year-end lists, that these are sort of the “Big Three” of the year (excluding, perhaps, the Dirty Projectors album); they are responsible for my three favorite songs of the year (see “Key Tracks”), and they are all albums that offer a totally refreshing take on pop. Grizzly Bear’s take is a sinewy and baroque one, and Veckatimest offers moments of pure beauty rarely found in the masculine, sex & violence, rock-based canon of that thing we call “pop music”.
Key Track: “Two Weeks”

2. Animal Collective—Merriweather Post Pavilion: I don’t think I can say it better than Mark Richardson in his review for Pitchfork (yeah, I’m referencing a Pitchfork article, sue me. It’s a damn good piece of writing): “What they’ve constructed here is a new kind of electronic pop– one which is machine-generated and revels in technology but is also deeply human, never drawing too much attention to its digital nature.” MPP is pure joy.
Key Track: “My Girls” (one of the best songs I’ve ever heard, seriously)

3. Phoenix—Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: Of these top three, Phoenix’s take on pop is the most traditional, but here they have distilled and refined this form down to it’s glossiest, most polished essence. I’ve always liked Phoenix, but this album really surprised me. “French Invasion”? Maybe the next decade has one in store for us.
Key Track: “1901”

4. Passion Pit—Manners: I sometimes almost want to think of Passion Pit as a guilty pleasure for the totally shameless way they exploit candy-coated melodies and the brightest of synths to shoot straight for the pleasure center of the brain. But in the end, I simply had more fun while listening to this album than any other this year.
Key Track: “To Kingdom Come”

5. Delta Spirit—Ode to Sunshine: Delta Spirit is one of those bands, like The Snake The Cross The Crown, that doesn’t do anything particularly amazing or innovative, but simply plays the type of rambly, folksy rock that I instantly jive with. Their debut is packed with energetic barnburners like “Trashcan”, “People, Turn Around”, “Children”, and “House Built for Two” that I just kept coming back to over and over.
Key Track: “Trashcan”

6. The Antlers—Hospice: Saddest friggin album of all time? It’s up there. Main man Peter Silberman has crafted a majestic and deeply affecting set of songs about death and loss with Hospice. Only when he reuses the melody from “Atrophy” to wail away on album closer “Epilogue” do you realize what a harrowing journey this album has taken you through.
Key Track: “Kettering”

7. Girls—Album: I initially wrote off Girls. Dumb name, tons of hype, annoyingly persistent backstory. Then I listened to their debut on a long drive. Then I listened to it again, immediately. Then again on the way back. And these sunny, retro-California pop gems get better every time.
Key Track: “Hellhole Ratrace”

8. Foreign Born—Person to Person: Foreign Born’s second album arrived in time to act as one of the key soundtracks to my summer. And it did a damn good job of it—their global sound and songwriter Lewis Pesacov’s spiraling West African guitar conjure images of gleaming beaches and cicada-thick evenings the world over.
Key Track: “That Old Sun” (this beast falls just behind the My Girls/Two Weeks/1901 cerberus among my favorite songs of the year)

9. The Flaming Lips—Embryonic: Being only a casual fan of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi and a recent convert to Clouds Taste Metallic, Wayne Coyne & Co.’s most recent effort stands as my favorite by the group. I find their twisted, churning musical approach on Embryonic to best suit Coyne’s lyrics, which dwell greatly on good/evil, mortality, and the basic human right to act like a fucking weirdo once in a while.
Key Track: “Convinced of the Hex”

10. The Decemberists—The Hazards of Love: Another semi-guilty pleasure, in a way? In this rock opera, the ever-trustworthy Decemberists shamelessly indulge all of their nerdiest tendencies. The format allows them to fly their prog nerd, drama nerd, and folk-tale-nerd flags proudly. All that’s missing is the usual sea shanty or two. I must admit, seeing this album live helped boost it a bit, especially since My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden sings the shit out of every song she appears on, most notably the howling “Repaid”
Key Track: “The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”

11. Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca: One of the biggest success stories of the year, Dirty Projectors’ popularity proved just how willing people can be to listen to some music-geek weirdness, especially when it’s so well integrated with magical pop nuggets like the guitar lick on “No Intention” or the chorus of “Stillness Is The Move”. But for me it’s still all about “Temecula Sunrise”, whose chorus is a transcendent blend of starburst harmonies; swaggering, rickety meters and Dave Longstreth’s signature guitar playing.
Key Track: “Temecula Sunrise”

12. Fuck Buttons—Tarot Sport: Canyons of electronic noise and martial drum patters transform at post-rock paces on Fuck Buttons’ instantly compelling second album. Though their sound could hardly be more different from the Dirty Projectors, this year’s albums by these two artists are similar in that they exist at the perfect meeting point between co-opted pop elements and left-field experimentation.
Key Track: “Surf Solar”

13. Wye Oak—The Knot: Wye Oak create an awful lot of noise and atmosphere for just two people. While this fact is often pointed out when speaking of this Baltimore band with two albums under its belt, what is mentioned less often is how Jenn Wasner’s voice can make these transitions between their quieter moments and the louder, fuzzier ones so stunning and beautiful.
Key Track: “Take It In”

14. Dan Deacon—Bromst: Spiderman of the Rings was fun and all, but I found its sugar-addled songs a bit hard to digest in anything more than a small dose. Enter Bromst, which filters Deacon’s training in composition through his uniquely hyperactive style to create a greatly more mature work that sits somewhere between the minimalist stylings of Reich & Glass, and Saturday morning cartoons.
Key Track: “Snookered”

15. The xx—xx: Of all the buzzwords surrounding this young British group’s debut, “negative space” sticks with me the most. One can almost hear, or even see, the dark presences of notes or beats left out in the space between their sparse arrangements and the perfect pairing of Romy Madley-Croft’s and Oliver Sim’s voices.
Key Track:“Infinity”

16. The Field—Yesterday and Today: The Field’s Axel Willner made some interesting choices in following up 2007’s otherworldly From Here We Go Sublime. The title track and “The More That I Do” resemble his earlier minimalist work, but “I Have The Moon, You Have The Internet” begins with a fade-in that gives Dan Deacon’s “Build Voice” a run for its money, and “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes” is a Beck cover (!!!) that introduces vocals to the mix. “Leave It” is one of his most repetitive (and best) tracks; it gestures towards rave territory with its glorious baseline. And “Sequenced” is a 15-minute shapeshifting masterpiece, only 10 minutes of which could be contained on Youtube in the link below.
Key Track: “Sequenced”

17. Mumford & Sons—Sigh No More: This one was a latecomer; I only first listened to it about a week or two ago, in fact. This quartet comes out of the same burgeoning London folk-rock scene that has birthed Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling, and the new incarnation of Noah and the Whale. All these groups partake in rousing harmonies, touches of brass and banjo, and big, epic, climactic moments, and Mumford & Sons are no exception. Like Delta Spirit, Mumford & Sons don’t do anything groundbreaking, but I instantly took to their simple chord structures, passionate vocals and massive crescendos.
Key Track: “Little Lion Man”

18. Maxwell—BLACKsummers’night: This return-from-hiatus by Maxwell arrived at the perfect time to fill a void in my listening habits: my extremely limited knowledge of R&B. Some reviewer called Maxwell a “magician”, and this label has really stuck with me: he knows just where to place every piece of the arrangements to create soulful songs on par with the genre’s greats.
Key Track: “Help Somebody”

19. Fool’s Gold—Fool’s Gold: I was turned onto this group (which shares Lewis Pesacov and other members of Foreign Born) when I saw them play a stellar triple-bill with Local Natives and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros. Their performance was my favorite of the three, and I was instantly hooked on their debut album, especially its first three tracks: the African-tinged “Surprise Hotel”, the Middle Eastern-tinged “Nadine”, and the mellow “Ha Dvash”, which contains one of the best guitar solos I’ve heard in some time.
Key Track: “Ha Dvash”

20. DOOM—Born Like This: This is, most unfortunately, the only rap album that made it onto my top 25; I think this fact deserves a bit of a tangent.

I hate to be one of those people that makes sweeping, generalized statements about the state of a genre or medium, but rap seems to be in a confused and fragmented place at the turn of the decade. Jay-Z himself has mused that it is in its “hair metal phase”; take that as you will. Regardless, it’s hard to argue against the fact that the leading crop of rap albums in 2009 was a strange one. I was mildly pleased with the majorly anticipated/lauded rap releases of the year (Brother Ali, Raekwon, Jay-Z, Clipse), and I had a few of my own less-discussed favorites (P.O.S., Blakroc, Del the Funkee Homosapien & Tame One, Method Man & Redman). And though I love Mos Def, I still fail to see the genius behind The Ecstatic (STOP SINGING, Mos. Stop singing forever). Arguably the most important album (Raek’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2) and the most successful album (Jay’s The Blueprint III) were both sequels, offering formulas that were familiar, however well-delivered. Brother Ali’s Us is good but not particularly innovative, and Clipse’s Til the Casket Drops finds them in weaker form than on 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury.

So I’m just clueless as to who will lead the charge into fresh, unexplored territory, because as far as the current wave of hip-hop up-and-comers goes, other than Wale, I remain thoroughly unimpressed, especially with Kid Cudi and Drake, whose sub-par rapping ability and blog-hype origins do absolutely zero for me. I suppose a new Kanye, The Roots, or non-Rebirth Weezy release would clear all these pessimistic feelings right up, but I felt obliged to expound my theories on why only one rap album would appear on this list.

Anyway, when it comes to Born Like This itself, we find DOOM reascending to the height of his mind-bending MC-villain powers, crafting a raw, apocalyptic album with the astounding “Gazillion Ear” as its inscrutable brain and the appearance of a reading from Bukowski’s “Dinosauria, We” (whose first line is “Born like this”) as its dark heart. As with most of his work, Born is less about individual tracks than about the visionary verses that emerge from the murky beats and the overall effect when one listens to all of these snippets in order.
Key Track: “Gazillion Ear”

21. Megafaun—Gather, Form & Fly: The second album by Justin Vernon’s former bandmates is the second of the three serious latecomers on this list (the third being The Low Anthem’s debut album), but its varied, ramshackle roots music blew me away on first listen. They share an attitude with Woods, though not Woods’ lo-fi aesthetic (which suits me just fine), and their knack for experimentation is reminiscent of Akron/Family.
Key Track: “Solid Ground” (not hugely representative of the album, but awesome nonetheless)

22. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears—Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!: This album kind of crept up on me. At first I thought it was just a raw, Austin-style take on a pretty good imitation of retro blues and soul; then I realized it’s a pretty DAMN good imitation of retro blues and soul. This album is great fun, each song packs a terrific punch, and it’s greatest strength is its brevity.
Key Track: “Boogie”

23. The Low Anthem—Oh My God, Charlie Darwin: After heavenly opener “Charlie Darwin”, The Low Anthem’s debut album alternates between raspy, intimate numbers (“To Ohio”, “Ticket Taker”) that remind me of early Josh Ritter, and shambling, rowdy songs reminiscent of The Felice Brothers (“The Horizon is a Beltway”, “Home I’ll Never Be”) or early Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown (the stunning “Champion Angel”).
Key Track: “Charlie Darwin”

24. Japandroids—Post-Nothing: My only regret when it comes to Japandroids’ debut is that I haven’t listened to it more. Post-Nothing’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics and impassioned playing give it just the right elements to let it ascend from merely decent throwback punk to addictive, affecting pop.
Key Track: “Young Hearts Spark Fire”

25. Bill Callahan—Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle: This album by longtime folk undergrounder Bill Callahan is filled with graceful enigmas, like the line “I started out in search of ordinary things / like how could a wave possibly be?” on leadoff track “Jim Cain”. With lyrics like these, and occasional dour turns in the arrangements, Callahan manages to make folk music that is simultaneously pastoral and moody, pleasant and dark.
Key Track: “Jim Cain”

A Shit Ton Of Honorable Mentions: I just can’t help giving a shoutout to all these great albums that didn’t make my list. So why not just blurt them all out here?

First of all, there’s the rap albums I mentioned in my little rant earlier. Honestly, I should just make a “favorite hip-hop list”, as my problem just seems to be getting these two spheres (though they are not entirely discrete) to jive. So there’s Us by Brother Ali and Never Better by P.O.S. (both from the Rhymesayers label), Blakroc by The Black Keys/many guest rappers, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II by Raekwon and Blackout Vol. 2 by Method Man & Redman (both Wu-sequels), Parallel Uni-verses by Del tha Funkee Homosapien & Tame One, Til the Casket Drops by Clipse, and The Blueprint III by Jay-Z.

Then, [deep breath] how could I forget: Cass McCombs – Catacombs; Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins in Dearland; Real Estate – Real Estate; Vitalic – Flashmob; Volcano Choir – Unmap; Wilco – Wilco (The Album); Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free; Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy; The Dodos – Time to Die; An insane lineup of geniuses – Dark Was the Night; The Juan MacLean – The Future Will Come; The Dutchess and the Duke – Sunset / Sunrise; White Rabbits – It’s Frightening; The Very Best – The Warm Heart of Africa; The Felice Brothers – Yonder is the Clock; The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead; Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures; and Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why Are There Mountains.

As far as favorite songs go, my list would mostly just be a rearrangement of my “Key Tracks”, so let me just mention a few that didn’t appear in those sections:
-Miike Snow’s “Silvia”
-Wilco’s “One Wing” and “Wilco (The Song)”
-Bon Iver’s “Blood Bank” and Volcano Choir’s “Island, IS”
-Four Tet’s “Love Cry”
-Wallpaper’s remix of “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell”
-The Big Pink’s “Dominoes”
-Washed Out’s “Hold Out” (proud to say this is the only appearance of “chillwave” on this list)
-Dananananaykroyd’s “Black Wax”
-Yo La Tengo’s “Here to Fall”
-DJ Quik & Kurupt’s “9x’s out of 10”

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~ by toren on January 4, 2010.

One Response to “Favorite Music of 2009”

  1. […] “Beach Comber,” and “Suburban Beverage”) almost earned it a spot on my Top 25 of 2009. But I don’t think I really “got” what Real Estate is doing until I heard their […]

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