The Best 60 Albums of 2009

PopMatters presents our 60 best albums of 2009, highlighted by a bevy of American indie rock juggernauts, the return of a hip-hop master, and a couple of the finest voices on the planet.

PopMatters presents our 60 best albums of 2009, highlighted by a bevy of American indie rock juggernauts, the return of a hip-hop master, and a couple of the finest voices on the planet. Most entries have media to sample the records in the form of video and music streams. U.S. readers can listen to most of these albums in full and Lala has also set up a special page where you can purchase the MP3s for the majority of our top picks.


Artist: Jonsi and Alex

Album: Riceboy Sleeps

Label: Beggars/XL


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Jonsi and Alex
Riceboy Sleeps

If there was an award for the most starkly beautiful record of 2009, it would be difficult for anything to touch Riceboy Sleeps, the collaboration between Jón Pór Bergisson of Sigur Rós and his partner, Alex Somers, of Parachutes. The beauty on the record may only be possible as the product of a young couple in love. Don’t pay attention and Riceboy Sleeps's perfection can pass you by as the pair strip Sigur Rós' rock-based structure and Parachutes' pop sensibilities back for more free, less structured orchestral compositions of time and space. The record is like listening to the soundtrack of a beautiful dream or memory as it strikes a perfect harmony between ambiance and awe-inspiring crescendos, with the washing choral textures of the Kópavogsdætur Choir overlaid with rich touches of ambient echo, all weaved with the lush strings of long-serving Rós collaborators Amiina. At times introspective, often breathtaking, and executed with meticulous perfection, to the patient listener Riceboy Sleeps is a masterpiece of generative ambiance. Rob McCallum


Artist: Converge

Album: Axe to Fall

Label: Epitaph


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Axe to Fall

More than eight years after its release, Jane Doe arguably still stands as the finest metal record of the decade. So it would have been understandable had the members of Converge chosen to spend the last few years resting on their laurels. Instead, the Boston four-piece continued to push themselves, breaking down barriers between hardcore and metal and rewriting the rules of heavy music in the process. Bookending the decade with their strongest album since Jane Doe, Converge again summon elemental forces on Axe to Fall. It's all here: the crushing riffs, the thunderous blast beats, the guitar acrobatics, the breakneck tempos, Jacob Bannon's impassioned, hoarse barks. And yet there's more: a Tom Waits-esque saloon ballad, an autumnal, slow burning post-rock number, an attention to texture and detail previously unseen. Even as the band explores slower tempos, two decades in, the sonic maelstrom known as Converge shows no signs of slowing down. Mehan Jayasuriya


Artist: The Dead Weather

Album: Horehound

Label: Third Man


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The Dead Weather

Though he is a sideman in the Dead Weather, Jack White's fingerprints are all over Horehound, their debut album cements his position as one of the last true badasses of rock 'n' roll. He and singer Alison Mosshart (on loan from the Kills) conjure up the swagger, menace, and attitude of old-school blues, free of the clichés and processed slickness that plagues the genre these days. The Dead Weather is not a blues band in the conventional sense, but the skuzzy grind of songs like "Hang You from the Heavens" and "Treat Me Like Your Mother" has its origins in the swamps that first birthed this music. The more traditional closing track, "Will There Be Enough Water?", drives the connection home. The Dead Weather's music is new and forward-looking, but steeped in the finest traditions of rock. As such, it's some of the best of 2009. David Gassmann


Artist: Bat for Lashes

Album: Two Suns

Label: Astralwerks


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Bat for Lashes
Two Suns

Whether intentional or not, with Two Suns Natasha Khan, the enormously talented woman behind Bat for Lashes, has paid the ultimate homage to one of her English foremothers: Kate Bush. The excellent album, Khan's second Bat for Lashes release, features all the hallmarks that made Bush a global pop sensation: minor key piano chords; moody, reverbed, electronic textures; sweeping strings; emotionally wrought lyrics that ooze imagery; and finally, that voice, with its haunting, trembling, epic-ness. And while it may be Khan's similarity to Bush that draws you in, it's Khan's superb songwriting and arranging and her extraordinary ability to convey intense emotion that stays with you. The world that Khan paints on Two Suns is a frightful place, filled with foreboding, death, and alienation, but with Bat for Lashes as your guide, it's a world you won't want to leave anytime soon. Grab a coffin, lie back, and enjoy. Michael Kabran


Artist: jj

Album: jj n°2

Label: Sincerely Yours


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jj n°2

Sweden’s elusive jj are theoretically on the cusp of revelation, having announced in November that they’ll be touring the United States with fellow lowercase letters, the xx. They haven’t been anonymous for very long, and there was never the sense that they treated their secrecy like a big deal. ‘You know who we are?’ they might have asked us if they were into speaking on record, ‘Cool, that’s fine.’ Their ostensible attitude toward their personas mirrored the feel of their music: fluid, incidental, naturally occurring, and A-OK. Amongst a host of albums selling summer love this year, jj’s full-length debut was the very best at emulating a tropical breeze, rolling lazily across the landscape and cleansing the body. Yet if jj n°2 sounds innocuous through and through, the music is far more intricate and advanced than I thought, at first. Examining it under scrutiny reveals startling levels of musicianship in the vocal harmonies of “From Africa to Málaga” and the exotic instrumental passages of “Intermezzo”, and it probably required hundreds of takes to get the reverb just right. But the point isn’t to scrutinize it, the point is to enjoy it, and jj worked sedulously to ensure that we can. For the price of a CD, they’ve offered us a paid vacation to the beaches of our fantasies. I must remember to thank them when they finally reach my shores. Mike Newmark


Artist: The Fiery Furnaces

Album: I'm Going Away

Label: Thrill Jockey


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The Fiery Furnaces
I'm Going Away

Just about every record the Fiery Furnaces have released since their one-two punch of the sprawling Blueberry Boat (2004) followed by the grandma-fronted Rehearsing My Choir (2005) has been tagged as their most accessible work since their debut. For better or for worse, this was rarely true; despite some poppy moments, their records sprawled, dithered, and squealed with noodly keyboard digressions or rapid tempo changes. With I'm Going Away though, siblings Eleanor and Matthew Friedberger have actually done it: they've made a record as accessible as their first, and arguably a better one. This is no mainstreaming concession. I'm Going Away maintains the Friedbergers' idiosyncrasies -- Eleanor's occasionally Dylanesque phrasing, Matthew's shifting melodies, the repetition that turns the lyrics into surreal mantras -- but the songs are catchier and more concise. You're free to savor the beautiful, strange details: the lovely vocal melody that sneaks into "Drive to Dallas", the guitar line that soars into "The End is Near", or the way Eleanor practically interrupts herself on the chorus of "Keep Me in the Dark". The song titles hint at finality, but the record's craft signals another new beginning. Jesse Hassenger


Artist: Mount Eerie

Album: Wind's Poem

Label: P.W. Elverum & Sun


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Mount Eerie
Wind's Poem

The introspective lyrics and rough, yet complex, sonic textures of Phil Elverum's Microphones output reached an unparalleled peak with The Glow Pt. 2 in 2001. Now several years and releases into his Mount Eerie incarnation, Elverum has delivered another such defining moment with Wind's Poem. From a generic starting point of black metal, Elverum combines the despair and spiritual isolation of that musical realm with his own rustic aesthetic. Rather than coming across as a compromised mashup of seemingly incompatible styles, the fusion that permeates Wind's Poem serves to expand both Elverum's songwriting and the very boundaries of black metal. An achievement of serious literary and musical depth, Wind's Poem is the story and sound of man's relationship to nature and all of the "ancient questions" therein. For those willing to take the journey, this Manichean mission is full of mystery and often overwhelming, yet satisfying and purifying to degrees unprecedented within the genre. Thomas Britt


Artist: Falty DL

Album: Love Is a Liability

Label: Planet Mu


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Falty DL
Love Is a Liability

After around four and a half minutes of its adjourning production, the last few buzzing synth lines of Love Is a Liability finally splinter and disintegrate. By then, New York City producer Falty DL has been all over the place, exploring UK garage, dubstep, and bleary-eyed, post-midnight broken beat. Love is his ornate debut LP, a missive so rife with rhythm experiments and left-field style shifts that it captivates wholly, but doesn't overwhelm. Sullen melodies and siren keyboard squelches streak across Falty's "Winter Sole" at a convulsive pace -- minutes later, "To New York" calls from another planet system entirely, with oily grooves, snaps, and frenetic pitch shifts. And those vocal cutups... whoa, man. For something of a newcomer (albeit a busy one), Falty DL exhibits an artful sampling proficiency over all of Love Is a Liability. Those who like their beat-driven evening records peppered with gorgeous, resonant verse fragments shouldn't pass this one up. Dominic Umile


Artist: Sunset Rubdown

Album: Dragonslayer

Label: Jagjaguwar


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Sunset Rubdown

At this point in the indie rock timeline, I hope we can all agree that Sunset Rubdown is not a "side-project". Given the fact that Sunset Rubdown has four albums and an EP to its name as well as an enviable consistence of quality, you could make an argument that Wolf Parade is starting to seem like the “side-project". Trivial tags aside, Spencer Krug is just a guy bursting with so many ideas that he needs an absurd number of avenues to present them all, and Sunset Rubdown has always been the most direct route to Krug’s heart and mind. Dragonslayer may not be the band’s best album, but it’s certainly its most easily digestible. It boasts sharper production, a much-needed low-end (courtesy of new member Marc Nicol) and clocks in with a lean eight tracks. Spencer Krug (in all his various guises) may always be something of an acquired taste, but to his fans, there are few things more compelling than his glam-prog sound-world inhabited by dragons and Greek gods. Ben Schumer


Artist: Woods

Album: Songs of Shame

Label: Woodsist


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Songs of Shame

Brooklyn has been synonymous with the lo-fi boom in 2009, and this treasure from Woods is one of its greatest exports. The record quickly establishes that something quite special is going on amidst all the tape-hiss with its scuzzy, guitar-driven, psyched out folk music. The trio share in Stephen Malkmus' lazy sounding perfection masterfully blending a hybrid of influences that possess a kind of futuristic nostalgia. Echoes of a youthful Neil Young can be heard across the record and the cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash's 'Military Madness' is a masterstroke. One minute a melodic freak-folk affair, the next a psychedelic jam, the album continually reinvents itself without sounding at any stage schizophrenic, creating its own brand of free-folk in the process. With a distinct penchant for infectious melody, the only real ever present aspect throughout Songs of Shame is that it's one of those records that develops each time the LP is played, the sign of a truly great album. Rob McCallum


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