The Best Singles of 2009

by PopMatters Staff

17 December 2009

PopMatters kicks off our annual two-week-long best music of the year feature with the 50 best singles of 2009, highlighted by a trio of American indie rock headliners.



It starts with a simple guitar stutter and a series of shakers, and it ends with whistled melody lines, a slew of woodwinds dancing next to horn sections, and a full-blooded group singalong that makes you think “you and I and the flame make three” is a rallying cry of some sort. You’re just not sure as to what. Akron/Family have always been a magical band, but who would’ve guessed that they could actually cram all of their tricks and charm into a single five-minute bite of pop perfection? Evan Sawdey




Wooden Shjips
“Down by the Sea”

“Down by the Sea” is a trademark ten-minute jam from the San Francisco psychsters, Wooden Shjips. The band echoes the trance rock of the Velvet Underground and as the reverb drenched organ warbles, the rhythm section sticks to it doggedly, stretching out the grooves in an almost programmatic format of repetition that hasn’t been so danceable since the Stooges. Its thick haze bears the blasé of Suicide and is cut by a guitar that wanders throughout, weaving itself in and out of the relentless freak-out before turning into a hypnotic solo, yet the hook never relents in its form of warped intense funk. Rob McCallum




The Mountain Goats
“Genesis 30:3”

“Genesis 30:3” is John Darnielle at both his most direct and most evocative. The titular Bible verse tells of Rachel asking her husband Jacob to have children by one of their servants. In the space of three minutes and 24 seconds, Darnielle builds the song into a triumph of precision, with its stark piano chords buoyed by its soft, revolving rhythm, the occasional rumbling of a floor tom, and a few loaded words that conjure up wonder, hope, sacrifice, and compassion with staggering impact. Tyler Gould




“Crossed Wires”

In Merge Records’ 20th year, there might not be a better document of the label’s lasting sound than “Crossed Wires”. Superchunk, led by Merge owners Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, channel their late ‘80s punk energy and filter it through the melody they mastered on their later records and strike a perfect balance. Nevermind that Mac kicks off the song with his umpteenth brilliant hook, when he shrieks “don’t touch me, I’ve got crossed wires” in the chorus, good luck staying in your seat. This isn’t old dogs with new tricks; this is old dogs showing that new tricks don’t matter when what you’ve been doing for years is this damn vital. Matt Fiander




Richard Swift
“Lady Luck”

That throbbing bassline. Those plunking, watery piano chords. That disarming falsetto. “Lady Luck” makes its introduction modestly enough (if you can call a one-man-band and a dead-on Prince impersonation “modest”), but when crate-digger Richard Swift injects his vocal track with several layers of ghostly, ethereal overdubs, they manage to string this song up into an entirely new stratosphere. Swift’s economical, spartan arrangements, staunch loyalty to analog recording, and the freewheeling, effervescent liberty he takes in borrowing from every era his grubby hands can snatch up a 7” of have resulted in some wonderfully dusty pop nuggets in the past. However, here he’s taken us to another world that’s as inviting as it is strange. It’s hard to say exactly what makes “Lady Luck” single-of-the-year material—who is Lady Luck? who cares?—yet there’s something slightly off-kilter, marginally otherworldly about its sighing, crooning, bouncy saloon spirit that ropes in its listeners and leaves them feeling suspended in time. This invigorating slab of crisp Motown sounds timeless, and maybe that’s the key to unlocking its unlimited endurance. You wouldn’t bat a lash to learn it was dug out of some long-sealed vault from 1968, yet it’s sure to sound just as fresh, just as exhilarating, in 2039 as it does in 2009. It’s a reverential ‘60s throwback that manages to avoid feeling gimmicky. It’s a playful homage to our inimitable youth. It’s a clear-eyed take on nostalgia delivered with a sly smile and a full heart. It’s Richard Swift, people. Anthony Lombardi





One of 2009’s most epic singles and lead tracks, “Oblivion” courageously drills to the depths of human emotion, burrowing through sorrow, guilt and heartache and is inspired by the drummer Brann Dailor’s struggle with the suicide of his sister Skye. And what a powerful cathartic tribute it is as the Atlanta-based metal rockers mix melodies that are heavy and light, thunderous and tender. The swift six-minute mini-symphony is a beautifully epic threshold to an album that grows mightier with each passing note. Chris Catania




Jupiter One

“Volcano” is a great big joyful pop song that instantly gets stuck in your head and has you singing along. The lyrics are a silly narrative that includes super powers, an erupting volcano, and a person warning the heedless town that they’re in danger. The song even has an angry father who tells his daughter’s boyfriend he’s not good enough for her. All this takes place over subdued, swirling music in the verses that bursts into the huge singalong chorus, complete with Beach Boys-esque background harmonies. Not only is it one of the year’s best singles, it might just be the most fun. Chris Conaton




David Byrne & Dirty Projectors
“Knotty Pine”

The various pieces of “Knotty Pine” covered a great deal of space and time in coming together. David Byrne wrote the lyrics in the ‘70s. Dave Longstreth put them to music about 30 years later, and Byrne topped it off with a guitar solo of his own. Fitting it is, then, that the song sounds divorced from time and place. The Projectors’ spritely voices send the song into blissful territory before the first verse is over, and it’s all afterglow from there. Tyler Gould




Jamie Foxx ft. T-Pain
“Blame It”

Before “Blame It”, it would have been pretty hard to make a case for the existence of Jamie Foxx’s music career unless you really have a thing for Ray Charles impressions. But “Blame It” unexpectedly ended up being the first great smash single of 2009, capitalizing on post-New Years buzz by being the best song that no one got to party to. Produced by the previously unknown Christopher “Deep” Henderson, “Blame It” features a slippery beat as fluid as Grey Goose and lyrics that stutter and stumble like someone who’s had one too many. Those connotations made “Blame It” a thinking man’s club song, but the instant classic chorus makes such thoughts seem frivolous. Jordan Sargent




Buddy and Julie Miller
“Gasoline and Matches”

Easily Written in Chalk‘s most charged song, “Gasoline and Matches” hurtles forward on an overcharged riff that’s pure Tom Waits-style stompin’ blues (with a Marc Ribot-like guitar solo sending things totally over the edge) and lyrics that are pure charged attraction. If you like the sound of twangy chemistry in full flight, this is the song for you. Andrew Gilstrap


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