Every year I put together a list of my favorite albums of the year. This year is no different. Here are the top 25 albums that caught and held my attention in 2009!
First, a few miscellaneous picks that we’re actual LPs:
Dark Was the Night – VA
I can’t compile a list of the best music of 2009 without mentioning Dark Was the Night. Released to benefit the Red Hot Organization’s efforts to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, this compilation is amazing. It features exclusive songs from some of indie-rocks biggest names including Bon Iver, Grizzly Bear, The National, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens, etc. It’s like an Indie-Rock Hall of Fame! This is a must-have for any music fan and it’s for a good cause!
Key Tracks: Lenin by Arcade Fire, You Are the Blood by Sufjan Stevens
Bon Iver – Blood Bank
The best EP I listened to this year was this one. Bon Iver’s smash hit For Emma, Forever Ago left people wondering if Justin Vernon would be able to sustain the momentum. Listening to this EP proves the band is viable beyond one album. The songs are decidedly warmer in tone and offer a change of scenery from the now-famous cabin in the Wisconsin woods. Just another great set of songs from a very talented musician.
Key Tracks: Blood Bank, Beach Baby
Clint Mansell – Moon
My favorite soundtrack of the year is by one of my favorite film composers: Clint Mansell. Clint often contributes his music to the films of Darren Aronofsky, which usually call for dark and pensive compositions. Moon, directed by Duncan Jones, was made for similar tones. Mansell weaves uncomfortable strings through the score and they serve to highlight the crisis the film’s protagonist is facing. I can’t delve into the plot of the film, so just go see it and experience the interplay between story and score and you’ll understand why Mansell is a master of his craft.
And now, the proper list:
25. Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
Charlotte has has quite a year. She starred in a brutal film called “Antichrist” and also released this lovely album in collaboration with Beck (US release isn’t until January, but the album has already dropped in Europe). Her last album, “555”, was recorded with the help of AIR and sounded much like that band. Similarly, Beck’s influence is all over this record, but Charlotte’s alluring vocals are always center stage. This album probably won’t be her last impression from 2009, but it deserves to be praised.
Key Tracks: Heaven Can Wait, Le Chat du Café des Artistes
24. Paper Route – Absence
Paper Route hail from Nashville, but you’d never know from listening to their album. While Nashville is known for gospel and country, the boys from Paper Route play indie-synthpop. I kind of view this album as the album MuteMath wish they had made (Side note: MuteMath’s “Armistace” was one of my most disappointing records of the year). The band moves from punchy, dancy pop songs to slow-burning, meditative numbers with ease. “No Sudden Revelations” is meant to be a musical portrait of being baptized and it’s absolutely brilliant. They’re a band on the rise.
Key Tracks: Wish, No Sudden Revelations
23. Waterdeep – In the Middle of It
Don and Lori Chaffer moved from Kansas City to Nashville this year to get more into the action of the recording industry. It didn’t take long for them to knock out a new album after settling in. In recent years, Waterdeep has evolved from a collaborative, live sound into studio wizardry. With less touring due to family, the Chaffers have focused their energy into developing their craft in a recording studio and this album really shows their skill. Reverb, synths, layered vocals and the trademark ocean-deep lyrics make for an incredible journey of an album. Waterdeep is still one of my all time favorite bands and this album proves they haven’t lost a single step.
Key Tracks: Tools in the Garage, Easy Baby
22. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
The buzz for Fanfarlo began back in 2006. The band began giving away singles at their shows and when they released their first LP this year, they sold digital copies on their site for $1. Their crowd-friendly approach extends into their music as well. The band at times boasts 6 members and their music has the feel of a gentler Arcade Fire. Big arrangements featuring a large collection of instruments highlight the joyous compositions. Their live shows have been gaining more and more press this year and this is beginning to look like a band that is ready to break through.
Key Tracks: The Walls are Coming Down, I’m a Pilot
21. The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
When a band’s lead vocalist has an accent, you often don’t pick up on it until you hear them speak rather than sing. That is not the case with James Graham, lead vocalist for The Twilight Sad. His thick Scottish brogue shines as he aggressively rolls his “R”s on each line. The band adeptly navigates the volume swells of the songs and creates immense walls of sound that arrest the ears. The lyrics are dark and sad, written soon after a close member of Graham’s family passed away. All these elements coalesce to form a well-contained album that feels as though it could burst at any moment.
Key Tracks: Reflection of the Television, Seven Years of Letters
20. Sleeping at Last – Storyboards
Sleeping at Last downsized to a two-member band in late 2008. The duo then endeavored to record the band’s fourth studio LP with a slightly different pallet of sounds. The result was “Storyboards”, an album unlike anything else the band has recorded thus far. Straying from the indie-emo sounds of their early records, the band enlisted an orchestra to fill the soundscape of Storyboards. The beautiful and fragile arrangements are the perfect stage for the vivid poetry of the lyrics. This is an absolutely gorgeous album.
Key Tracks: Porcelain, Clockwork
19. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
If you became a fan of The Flaming Lips after “Yoshimi…” you figured the band was a quirky orchestral pop group. Exploration into their back catalog would reveal that their roots were in acid rock and experimentation. On this, their 12th studio album, Wayne Coyne takes the band back to those addled days with a double disc set of songs. Jittery guitars, distorted vocals and processed drums take over for the airy synths and Coyne sounds right at home in the mess. The Lips have climbed back into the womb that birthed the band in the first place and it sounds great.
Key Tracks: Watching the Planets, Evil
18. The xx – xx
London-based band The xx is composed of musicians barely into their 20s who play music best listened to when the sun goes down. Wispy vocal lines sketch out late-night conversations between lovers and the guitars, keys and drums play the pulses and emotions. The album as a whole is a singular entity whose mood is unwavering. The band supposedly recorded the album in a garage, mostly at night, and that aesthetic shines through quite well. The album has already garnered much praise and found its way onto many year end lists. Could this be the best new band of the year?
Key Tracks: Crystalised, Shelter
17. St. Vincent – Actor
Annie Clark takes her 2nd album under the St. Vincent moniker in a much darker direction than the 1st. Here, the music seems to be straining against the bridle as Annie somehow keeps everything in order. As the title suggests, Clark plays many characters during the course of the album as her songs spin stories of love and danger. The guitar work is incredible here – throbbing and thrashing yet melodic and smooth. There were many good albums from female artists or female fronted bands this year, but no female carried as much of the weight on their album as Annie Clark did on this one.
Key Tracks: Black Rainbow, Marrow
16. Grizzly Bear – Vekatimest
Grizzly Bear’s 2006 album “Yellow House” put them on the map. Their 2009 album redrew the borders. Vekatimest is the first album the band has released that was conceived and written collaboratively. The result is a set of songs that is decidedly more experimental than their last. The instrumentation is robust and the density make the record a joy to listen to with headphones on. This is a band that obviously decided to see how far they could push their art and came up with a brilliant record. It’s finding its way onto a lot of top ten lists.
Key Tracks: Two Weeks, While You Wait for the Others
15. 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
Mew definitely wins the award for longest album title of the year! Fresh off the success of their last album, Mew recorded this album using the full capabilities of their studio. The result is a great, if uneven album. Mew’s indie-arena rock sound is unlike any other out there right now. Their epic arrangements are paired with the soaring vocals of frontman Jonas Bjerre. The rhythms seem to be constantly in flux as the band pulls the listener to and fro within their currents. While their last two albums felt very cohesive, I feel like this one is slightly lacking in that department.
Key Tracks: Repeaterbeater, Hawaii Dream
14. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Stevens has basically been AWOL from the musical world since 2005. In that period he’s spent time touring, guesting on friends’ albums, writing articles and being enigmatic. In 2007 he announced that he would be writing and performing a piece of music based on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. It turned out to be a wordless, neo-classical piece of music accompanied by a movie and hula hoop dancers. This year, Stevens finally released a recording of the piece in a multimedia set complete with a DVD of the movie he shot. It’s a lovely piece that evokes old movies about the big city and the triumph of industry. Is this the future of Sufjan Steven’s musical aspirations?
Key Tracks: the entire piece
13. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
This band has been almost universally praised as extremely talented, but the band members themselves were not satisfied with where they were artistically. With “It’s Blitz!”, YYYs moved their signature guitars to the back of the mix and promoted the synthesizer. The result was a dynamic dance record that caught everyone by surprise. Karen O’s vocals are just as great as before, only now she’s chirping over throbbing bass lines and bouncing keyboards. It’s not all “Shake it, like a ladder to the sun” however, Karen O opens up a little with lines like “Flow sweetly, hang heavy. You suddenly complete me”. It’s a diverse record that will just add to the praise for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Key Tracks: Zero, Hysteric
12. Metric – Fantasies
It’s been four years since the last Metric album, during which time Emily Haines released a very good solo record which many speculated could mean the end of Metric. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Metric stormed back this year, releasing an album that is great from start to finish. The songs boast huge hooks and dance-able beats that arrest the ears of the listener. Haines’ vocals are plaintive one minute and insistent the next while the punchy guitar moves everything along. “Help, I’m Alive” is one of the best songs I’ve heard in a long time. “Hard to be soft, tough to be tender”. So good! Seriously, you never have to skip a song on this record!
Key Tracks: Help, I’m Alive; Sick Muse
11. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Part of me can’t believe this band is actually making an appearance on my year-end list. I have pretty much hated every album I’ve heard from Animal Collective up until now. I found them scattered, pretentious, unfocused and grating. This album is almost the exact opposite. The band has settled on a more solid ground musically. MPP is a psychedelic masterpiece that calls to mind the beauty of The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”. The overlapping harmonies, the joyous percussion, the perfectly executing samples – they all add up to a very enjoyable album! “My Girls” might just be the song of the year!
Key Tracks: My Girls, Bluish
10. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Natasha Khan is the performer behind Bat for Lashes. Her background in visual arts is part of what makes her music so sonically striking. She is adept at crafting music and lyrics that pull the listener into a hazy dream where they are presented with stories about characters in crisis. This album deals with concepts of duality, including the duality between Khan and her fictional alter-ego Pearl. The gallery of instruments that Khan uses is pretty amazing, as is her lilting voice. If you haven’t heard this band yet, you owe it to yourself to give them a listen.
Key Tracks: Daniel, Sleep Alone
9. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast/Useless Creatures
Andrew Bird plays indie-rock that sounds like Classical music. His violin work, guitar strums and unparalleled whistling ability all serve as the perfect foundation for lyrics that are bursting with clever wordplay. At first blush, this album may sound like another nondescript entry into the catalog, but repeated listening reveals more depth than was first apparent. The pallet of timbres is so diverse it can take a few listens to process all of it! The album was accompanied by a limited release of instrumental tracks that really showcase the musical chops that Bird possesses. It’s worth seeking out as well!
Key Tracks: Effigy, The Privateers
8. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
After recording the last album, “Sky, Blue Sky”, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy was quoted as saying he wasn’t really liking any of the older Wilco stuff right then and was anxious to record a new direction. The band ended up in Auckland, New Zealand for some recording sessions instead of their traditional loft in Chicago, but Tweedy must have settled on a new angle and not a new plane, which is a good call. This album is more upbeat than the band has been of late, though it has it’s own dark corners. It also features a duet with Leslie Feist that sounds great! The title and lead track are playfully self-referential and the band sounds like they’re playing for fun. To quote the opener, “Do you dabble in depression? … Wilco will love you, baby.”
Key Tracks: Wilco (The Song), You and I
7. Passion Pit – Manners
Passion Pit started out as a one-man project band. Today they are one of the most buzzed about indie bands out there. Their first hit “Sleepyhead” is sneaking into commercials and TV shows all over the place. Their first LP builds on the success of their early songs by crafting a fuller, more tour-worthy sound. It’s an electro-pop record that isn’t afraid to be sugary. Michael Angelakos’ sky-high vocals may not be for everyone, but the melodies and the beats are as crowd-pleasing as you could ask for. This was another great summer record that is getting play even in these winter months.
Key Tracks: Little Secrets, Sleepyhead
6. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
This album is the next logical step in the journey of Colin Meloy and The Decemberists. After the storybook concept album The Crane Wife, it seemed that the band was heading to something even bigger and more conceptual. Hazards is just that. The band utilized two perfect guest vocalists in Becky Stark and Shara Worden. Each vocalist played a character and the album presented a long, complicated rock opera about a young woman falling in love with a shape-shifting forest creature. The band expanded their sound and fully embraced the prog rock scene in crafting a crazy musical ride. Worden’s vocals are a huge boon to the album (as are Stark’s). It’s a daunting album, but a rewarding listen.
Key Tracks: Isn’t It a Lovely Night?, The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid
5. The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
When autumn rolls around, I always find myself drawn to the music of The Clientele. Their music is perfect for the cooler temps and changing colors. Their instruments are always drenched in reverb and singer Alasdair MacLean’s vocals are always hazy and fuzzed – evoking impressionist paintings and misty London mornings. Their 5th full length is a perfect fit into their catalog. The music is perfect and the lyrics are hushed and subtly brilliant. The Clientele are quickly becoming one of my favorite bands.
Key Tracks: Bonfires on the Heath, Share the Night
4. The Temper Trap – Conditions
Here we have the first appearance of a debut album on my list. The Temper Trap are a band from Australia who moved to the UK this year to try to break into that market. They recorded Conditions and promptly began touring the album. Soon, they were a major buzz band and their songs were popping up on TV and film soundtracks. Their music is filled with thumping drums and shimmering guitars behind the soaring vocals of Dougy Mandagi. It’s a unique sound that recalls the dark reverb of 80’s alt-rock while channeling the more modern indie-dance style.
Key Tracks: Sweet Disposition, Love Lost
3. The Swell Season – Strict Joy
I absolutely fell in love with the music of the Swell Season after seeing the film “Once” which starred the two principal members of the band. It was reported that Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova were a couple in real life, which just made the music that much more lovely. Their sophomore album was released along with reports that the couple is no longer romantically involved, only musically. This album, again, seems to mirror the lives of the singers. The songs all seem to talk about that feeling of sadness and regret over a lost love. This is a break-up album made by people who are mature and still, perhaps, in love on some level. It’s refreshing to hear a lyric like “Forgive me Lover, for I have sinned – I have let you go” when the radio plays something like “When you see my face, I hope it gives you hell”. Hopefully this isn’t the last we hear of this amazing collaboration.
Key Tracks: Low Rising, I Have Loved You Wrong
2. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix has been around for a number of years now, but they have never much buzz around them until this year. With the release of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the band found a large audience hungry for their music. They snagged gigs with SNL, The Tonight Show, The Late Show and many other programs and received glowing reviews from pretty much every critic that reviewed their album. The music itself is fun and infectious! Punchy dance-pop that demands movement. I had the album in a regular rotation all summer and into the fall. Just a very fun record!
Key Tracks: 1901, Love Like a Sunset Pt. 1
1. Doves – Kingdom of Rust
The UK has big bands like Coldplay and Radiohead, but they also harbor unsung genius bands like Elbow and Doves. Doves have been around for awhile and it was only a matter of time before they produced their masterpiece. Their fourth LP (their first since 2005) is a lush, epic set of songs about loss and sadness mixed with triumph. The pallet of sounds on this album is staggering. The band put their studio to good use in crafting their anthems to perfection without sounding insincere or detached. The title track, a song about a recently deceased father) is one of my favorite songs of the year. This is a beautiful album that you must listen to!
Key Tracks: Kingdom of Rust, Winter Hill
So there you have it! Another great year of music! Looking ahead, 2010 is already filling up with release dates for albums from some great artists: Vampire Weekend, Spoon, The National, LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers and more! It should be a great start to a new decade of great music!