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The 50 Best Songs of 2009

As part of PopMatters’ 20th anniversary, we are revisiting classic features. Travel back in time a decade ago to 2009, when indie rock was in its full ascendency,and hear the songs that soundtracked the era.

50. Akron/Family – “River”

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

49. 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

48. 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

47. Superchunk – “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

46. 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

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45. Mastodon – “Oblivion”

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

44. Jupiter One – “Volcano”

“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

43. 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

42. 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

41. 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

40. Sic Alps – “L Mansion”

Following in the great tradition of psychedelic American and UK garage bands of the late ’60s, Mike Donovan and Matthew Hartman’s Sic Alps project has helped to reinvigorate the dying rock aesthetic more than a thousand Jet albums ever could. For this 7-inch, the band added one Ty Segall to become a proper power trio, and embracing their new sense of power, the single boasts some of the finest swagger and raunchy riffs ever captured through a collection of broken mics and amps. It is a far cry from much of their early “wall of noise” output, based a on more traditional rock form, but it cements their place as the reigning kings of fiercely independent fuzz, while the Donovan cover on the B-side acknowledges their trajectory. – Alan Ranta

39. Drake – “Best I Ever Had”

Although Degrassi: The Next Generation may seem like an usual place to find emerging hip-hop talent, few would’ve guessed that Aubrey Drake Graham would be exactly what the rap world needs right now. With the humorous and sly “Best I Ever Had”, Drake walks over his verses with the swagger of mentor Lil’ Wayne and the everyman charm of pre-Heartbreak Kanye, resulting in a delightfully profane jam for the ladies that every guy wishes they had written themselves. Ace. – Evan Sawdey

38. Brother Ali – “Fresh Air”

The first single from Brother Ali’s fantastic Us, “Fresh Air” is a modest, understated representation of the album on which it resides. Ali, sounding as upbeat as ever, spits positive lyrics about how much he “loves the life [he] live[s]”. It’s no secret that he is best known for his storytelling on more serious topics. But this track, which celebrates the little things in life, is exactly what he and his listeners needed: A breath of “Fresh Air”. – Andrew Martin

37. Thom Yorke – “All for the Best”

Thom Yorke’s cover of Miracle Legion’s song “All for the Best” is not only the stand out track from Ciao My Shining Star: The Songs of Mark Mulcahy, but perhaps one of the best Yorke has ever done. Put together after the sudden death of Miracle Legion frontman Mulcahy’s wife Melissa, Yorke’s haunting, electro-tinged, rendition of the 1987 song soars, simultaneously being reborn while desperately searching for meaning after life with a cherished one has ended. – Louis Battaglia

36. The Airborne Toxic Event – “Sometime Around Midnight”

Confessional songwriting, lyrical storytelling, passionate amplification. In “Sometime Around Midnight”, the Airborne Toxic Event’s Mikel Jollett smashes all of these staid elements together like so many loose-leaves of unfinished poems. Indie rock convention tells us that it’s worthy of mockery to be quite so earnest, let alone to implicate one’s listeners with the second-person. But the song is relentless in its take-no-emotional-prisoners approach, the gradually-surging sonic maelstrom reflecting the lovelorn perturbation that consumes its protagonist. But there’s a deeper dissatisfaction here, too; “Irony,” Jollett seems to be asking, “what has it ever done for me?” – Ross Langager

35. HEALTH – “Die Slow”

Two years makes a world of difference. HEALTH’s 2007 debut was a raucous, wild noise-fest. And a great one. But, as good bands do, HEALTH has evolved and adapted, without losing what made them great in the first place. “Die Slow” is the band scaled back, with a much more deliberate, purposeful sound. Jacob Duzsik’s vocals are still as haunting as in 2007, but feature a more distinct sense of melody. The song builds and builds, but the expected explosion is missing. If “Die Slow” is any indication, HEALTH is much more than a one-trick pony — they’re a band with a untold potential. – Jason Cook

34. Antony & The Johnsons – “Another World”

Death and loss is not new subject matter in pop music, and on paper “Another World” may not seem like much. Gentle piano, droning siren noises and Antony’s quivering vocals listing off items his character will miss (among them bees, things that grow and sound) when they no longer have a world to belong to. “I’m gonna miss the snow / I’m gonna miss the bees,” he sings. But in Hegarty’s more than capable hands, the song has the power to bring to mind any lost loved one, and give them a voice. I haven’t heard a song so easily optimistic, bittersweet and insightful in quite a while. – David Amidon

33. U2 – “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”

No Line on the Horizon may have lacked the hall-of-fame singles of previous U2 efforts, but here’s one transcendent enough to stand with the band’s biggest, grandest anthems. It’s a shimmering rocker emblematic of the best of ’00s U2: the Edge’s sparkle-chime guitar trickery, Larry Mullen’s skitter-shuffle drums, Adam Clayton’s undulating bass figure, and Bono’s soaring celebration of the right to be ridiculous, shouting out to the beauties and idiots who get a shot at changing the world. The song builds into a mountain of light with all four members going for broke before floating down to a gentle release. Whew, that was crazy. – Steve Leftridge

32. The Antlers – “Two”

While “Two” will certainly stand on its own as a seminal indie-pop track, the beauty of the song can only fully emerge when heard within the proper context that is Hospice. With a lullaby delivery, singer Peter Silberman transforms psychological scars into gut-wrenching lyrics, expressing profound pain via a hushed whisper that swells into an impassioned moan, making every single hair on your neck stand up every single time you listen, mesmerized to the climatic chapter of the Antler’s Hospice. – Louis Battaglia

31. Raekwon – “House of Flying Daggers (feat. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah, and Method Man)”

It shouldn’t be a question as to whether or not Raekwon’s long-awaited sequel to his 1995 solo debut Only Built for Cuban Linx is the hip-hop album of 2009. But if you need a reminder as to why look no further than this masterful cipher featuring four of the Wu Tang’s most visceral sword slingers. Atop a menacing beat from the late, great J. Dilla, Inspectah Deck, Ghostface Killah and Method Man help Rae update their group’s classic posse cut “Clan in Da Front” with everything you expect from a classic Wu banger: Kung-fu samples, fine food references and Meth cracking melons like Dutchmasters. – Ron Hart

30. Julian Casablancas – “11th Dimension”

It’s a little ironic that the knock-out single off of Julian Casablancas’ solo debut Phrazes of the Young, an album that was supposed to find Casablancas breaking out of his Strokes-constricted shell, sounds so much like the Strokes. Not that anyone’s complaining. Without a proper release from the band since 2006, “11th Dimension” finally updates the Strokes’ proven formula for blissfully catchy garage-rock in a post-Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix world where keyboards, Daft Punk-inspired beats and hyper-processed production work are the going currency. – Ryan Marr

29. The Decemberists – “The Rake’s Song”

In a shrewd move, Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy made the ugliest, most reprehensible narrative on their rock opera The Hazards of Love the album’s catchiest song. It’s built on a simple acoustic guitar riff and an instant sing-along refrain that consists of the word “alright” repeated three times. A buzzing, fuzzed-out bass adds intensity to that refrain while an armada of drums pounds out a powerful backbeat as more and more voices join the chorus. All the while, Meloy, in character as the villainous Rake, sings gleefully about how he grew annoyed with, then murdered his three children after his wife died in childbirth. It’s a little unsettling how fun the band makes killing children sound, and yet you can’t help but join in the chorus. – Chris Conaton

28. Grizzly Bear – “While You Wait for the Others”

Laying claim to stand-out status on an album as masterful as Veckatimest is no easy feat. “While You Wait for the Others” however, was the moment when the most meticulously crafted 45 minutes of music of year threatened to bubble over. The most visceral song yet from a thoroughly self-possessed group of nice young men, this is bro’s in arms, Grizzly Bear style, as Daniel Rossen finds back-up from his bandmates in apparently cutting loose of some heartbreaking hussy. Being Grizzly Bear, it is all excruciatingly polite (I can’t imagine anyone this side of the 19th century has ended a relationship with the words, “I’ll ask you kindly to make you way home”). However, being Grizzly Bear, it also boasts plenty of the verdant vocal harmonies that titivate all corners the band’s third album, yet taken to a whole new level of gorgeousness. Even better though, those harmonies are here just one subplot in a song chock full of buoyant pop melodies and dramatic flourishes of guitar. – Chris Baynes

27. Matt & Kim – “Daylight”

As good as some of the songs on Matt & Kim’s debut were, none of them prepared you for “Daylight”. And I’m not just talking about the way the drums skitter and thump, or the increasingly complex keyboard arrangement (although those and the newly lush production are great too). It’s more about the way the lyrics and even the feel of the song evokes a whole world of young adult aimlessness and romance, one we may have to leave eventually but we’ll always miss. – Ian Mathers

26. Weezer – “(If You’re Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To”

This single from Weezer (2009 model), with its summery, puppy-love romance built on trips to Best Buy, dinners with parents, and Titanic viewings, has been compared to teen pop, along with the rest of their arrested-development Raditude album. But “I Want You To” owes its crazy infectiousness to a power-pop tradition far richer than the Jonas Brothers: the jangly acoustic riff sounds a bit like the Jam’s “Town Called Malice”, while the sing-along chorus explodes into Cheap Trick territory. Even the lyrics, with their last-verse flash forward to the couple in the future, less ecstatically in love but still clinging to the titular phrase, has a sneaky, bittersweet twinge of adulthood. The band may not make Blue Album caliber full-lengths anymore, but make no mistake, this song is classic Weezer. – Jesse Hassenger

25. Deer Tick – “Smith Hill”

“I could drink myself to death tonight / Or stand and give a toast / To those who made it out alive / It’s you I’ll miss the most” — if that doesn’t sound anthemic, I don’t know what does. From an unassuming intro of lightly strummed guitar and introspective lyrics, “Smith Hill” blossoms into an epic portrait of a relationship at a crossroads. Building and building, telling its tale with fragmentary lyrics that don’t reveal the whole story, “Smith Hill” is emotionally raw and powerful. – Andrew Gilstrap

24. Dizzee Rascal and Armand Van Helden – “Bonkers”

From its woozy, siren-like opening, “Bonkers” is a three-minute musical firecracker, which finally confirmed Dizzee Rascal as a mainstream pop star. Layers of kinetic house, a bassline like heavy artillery, throwaway lyrical hooks and choppy sound effects, create the aural equivalent of a hyperactive teenager in a dancefloor riot. The result is not as transient as the lyrics suggest, creating an instantly anthemic song, so feverishly catchy, it should be approached with pandemic levels of caution. – Tom Fenwick

23. Destroyer – “Bay of Pigs”

In a song structured essentially as straight European disco, Daniel Bejar manages to create the culmination of Destroyer’s music over the last 15 years: getting drunk, singing plenty of “la la las”, and recollecting various failed flings and broken hearts. The song’s 13 minutes are both lighthearted and tragic. It sounds like Bejar calling you up drunk at 2 am, rambling about how good it used to be. At the same time, few lyrics come closer to explaining human isolation better than that opening line: “So listen, I’ve been drinking.” – Michael Miller

22. The Flaming Lips – “Convinced of the Hex”

Before the shockingly excellent Embryonic arrived, “Convinced of the Hex” was presented in advance as an appetizer/challenge. It was claustrophobic, bass-driven and crackling with energy. Gone was the schmaltz of yore. The Flaming Lips weren’t returning to any roots here… they were completely recasting themselves. On first listen, “Convinced of the Hex” may have sounded like a chaotic mind-fuck, but, by the fifth listen, it was lodged in your brain and its voodoo groove owned your hips. – Ben Schumer

21. Animal Collective – “Brother Sport”

When “Brother Sport” leaked last November, it quickly became the world’s first taste of Merriweather Post Pavilion. And what a first impression it was: glitchy repetition, tape-loop sensibilities — these are a few of Noah Lennox’s favorite things. It should be no surprise, then, that the track singlehandedly ushered in the first truly post-Person Pitch Animal Collective album. From the tension-and-release synth build-ups to the infectiously layered vocal chants, “Brother Sport” sounds like it could be a number one radio hit on Mars. And for all I know, it is. – Zach Schonfeld

20. Girls – “Hellhole Ratrace”

Girls’ hallmark single epitomizes the way they take simple sentiments and blow them up to colorful, swooning big-screen proportions. Here they reach that epic scale surreptitiously. Lead singer Christopher Owens sings about how alone he is, then fixates on the notion that he doesn’t want to cry, he wants to dance, and takes it as a mantra. Shimmering electric guitars rise up and open the song to a Red River-type landscape view, and the whole feeling changes. Sullen becomes joyous and the song becomes their most monumental. – Dave Heaton

19. Japandroids – “Young Hearts Spark Fire”

“Young Hearts Spark Fire” was most people’s introduction to Vancouver’s Japandroids, and it made quite an impression. Recalling Hüsker Dü at their caterwauling prime, the duo takes a maximalist approach to being a two-piece and aims straight for your heart. Many hearts were won over by the song’s mantra of “We used to dream / Now we worry about dying / I don’t wanna worry about dying”, which feels like a rallying cry for resisting the onset of adulthood. – Ben Schumer

18. Mos Def – “Casa Bey”

This fiery track does more than simply wrap-up Mos Def’s wonderful The Ecstatic. It features one of his finest deliveries — try not to drop your jaw at his flow — and a strong, reinforced message to never give up. Lyricism and flow aside, “Casa Bey” is one of his finest moments musically. Mos and in-house producer Preservation sample Banda Black Rio’s “Casa Forte” perfectly. And once those jazzy horns and drums fade, it melts into a sublime, piano-laden dreamscape with Mos crooning softly. – Andrew Martin

17. Lady Gaga – “Paparazzi”

The strongest element, by a mile, is that Gaga reboots the title every time it comes up in the chorus — “Papa-paparazzi”. By that point the melodic implications are so strong that you know exactly which notes the last two syllables will consist of even before she sings them; both would be perfectly harmonious with the C minor backdrop, but then there’s that stutter, which unexpectedly pushes them back such that they instead land on top of the subsequent A flat major. Surprise! They fit just fine with that chord too. (If this doesn’t work for you, that whole Electra complex angle is also still available as a backup.) – Vijith Assar

16. Speech Debelle – “Searching”

Songs about struggling are nothing new, which is why 2009 Mercury Prize-winner Speech Debelle deserves that much more credit for “Searching”. It starts out disarmingly simple, with a jazzy guitar and Debelle masterfully setting the scene: “2 AM in my hostel bed / my eyes them red / my belly ain’t fed.” The deceptively upbeat music suggests that Debelle is interested more in understanding than resignation. “When life hits your with issues / makes you wanna cry and wet tissues,” she exclaims, seemingly aware that this is normal, and these sad times will pass, but they are no less worthy of saving for something so heartfelt. – David Abravanel

15. Kid Cudi – “Day ‘n’ Night”

On “Day ‘n’ Night”, Kid Cudi’s minimalist ode to stoner self-reflection and isolation, Cudi achieves what has been seemingly impossible for Kanye West and other hipster hip-hoppers: a completely unique song that defies categorization without sounding contrived, pretentious, or just plain bad. In a sentence, Cudi’s jam is the “It Was a Good Day” for the backpacker millennial generation. Though everyone loves the Crookers’ remix, for my money, the “remix” with Jim Jones flips the song from hipster cool to hood chic with ease. – Tyler Lewis

14. Fever Ray – “If I Had a Heart”

A gripping foray into dark ambient music and accompanied by a video that matches the grimness of the music step for step, the first track from Karin Dreijer Andersson’s solo debut is extraordinarily subtle, as a pulsating modal drone underscores a simple keyboard melody. For all its simplicity, though, you won’t come across a more harrowing single from 2009, Dreijer Andersson’s disembodied, pitch-shifted voice sounding alternately desperate, naïve, lustful, and at times pure evil. – Adrien Begrand

13. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel”

While a slew of bands cranked up the distortion and the feedback and hollered over the whole sloppy mess this year, Bat for Lashes set up camp, both musically and vocally, in another stratosphere. Blending drama, nostalgia and strings in an alternate universe, “Daniel” became the pulsing microcosm of the ethereal atmosphere that Natasha Khan cultivated over an entire album on Two Suns. A breath of fresh air from the ironic posturing of most indie rock, “Daniel” bled urgency from every soaring note of Khan’s soprano while striking the rare balance between tender affection and epic ambition. – Ryan Marr

12. Atlas Sound feat Noah Lennox – “Walkabout”

Contrary to popular belief, Animal Collective do not sound like the Beach Boys. However, put Noah Lennox, aka Panda Bear, in front of a winsome and anodyne hook from a 1960s nugget (the Dovers’ “What Am I Going to Do?”) and you may have a case. Yet Lennox’s track with Bradley Cox (also of Deerhunter) is not a simple retro retread. Rather, it’s a disembodied narrative about the impenetrability of the rear view mirror, which is represented here by the sunny innocence of that wonderful little loop. The opaque clusters of reverberation elsewhere make the substance of youth seem like an oneiric Elysium, but the track also warns against the hagiography of nostalgia. “Forget the thing you left behind / Through looking back you may go blind.” – Timothy Gabriele

11. Basement Jaxx – “Raindrops”

Basement Jaxx always have a knack for making great singles, but few would’ve guessed that the Jaxx’s big “comeback” track would be something as ear-busting as “Raindrops”, a sweet little dance song that just so happens to drip raw sexuality from each and every verse before launching into a chorus made entirely out of bass-synths-as-neutron-bombs. It’s been awhile since everyone’s favorite UK house duo have made something this visceral, which is only part of the reason that this song sounds as fresh on its first listen as it does on its hundredth. For those who may have had doubts before, fret not: the Jaxx are back, and they’re kicking ass. – Evan Sawdey

10. Miranda Lambert – “Dead Flowers”

It takes a lot of sand to pinch a title from a famous Stones tune, but we already knew Lambert was one ballsy gal. However, “Dead Flowers” isn’t one of her crazy-girl-with-a-gun songs; she’s lamenting some no-good sumbitch, yes, but this time she’s more heartbroken than pissed. The song is steeped in pop formulas — a quiet, pulsing intro and a somber verse that swells to a big, round chorus — but the soaring beauty of the melody, the slick-but-not-saccharine arrangement, and Miranda’s scintillating vocal wallop when she kicks it up an octave keep country music’s hottest winning streak alive and well. – Steve Leftridge

9. Jay-Z – “Empire State of Mind” (feat. Alicia Keys)

It took him 11 studio albums to get there, but with “Empire State of Mind”, Jay-Z finally has his own Billboard Hot 100 number one single. It’s fitting that this would be the song to achieve the feat, considering it’s a meaningful ode to New York City with worldwide crossover appeal. Featuring a killer hook sung by Alicia Keys and an uplifting piano sample from the Moments, “Empire State of Mind” is the true highlight of The Blueprint 3, and the ideal hip-hop anthem of 2009. – Cyrus Fard

8. Neko Case – “People Got a Lotta Nerve”

It all comes to an end in a hail of gunfire, and pauses to detail a dismemberment-by-sea-mammal (communicated with a “told ya so” shrug) along the way, but make no mistake that “People Got a Lotta Nerve” is Neko Case’s Big Pop Moment. The classic-R.E.M. guitar jangle is a none-too-subtle hint, but the dead giveaway is in that “I’m a man-man-man-man-man-man eater” chorus. A metaphorical hook indelible enough to have served Hall and Oates and Nelly Furtado quite well before her, Neko finally turns its sexual voraciousness literally violent and in doing so becomes a winking meta-commentary on pop music’s indulgence in its bottomless carnal appetites. That the song itself is so lushly, seductively pretty is what makes it so dangerous. – Jer Fairall

7. Girls – “Lust for Life”

The age of the two-and-a-half-minute pop single is not over. “Lust for Life” takes staple elements of early rock and pre-rock vocal pop and revitalizes them within the context of timeless themes. Christopher Owens’ purposely erratic singing embodies the restlessness of youth while he romanticizes the same. Beyond the surface images of wine and beach bonfires, it’s about starting over, love as a means of rebirth. The hope in that vision is eternal, and perhaps doomed. Near the end is a wonderfully melancholy harmonica solo, the voice of eternal disappointment. – Dave Heaton

6. Phoenix – “1901”

It’s three minutes and 18 seconds long and moves at a steady rate of 144 BPM. The beats loudly tick-tick-tick-tick like the hands of a gigantic beefed-up watch. Within the fast-forwarded Robert Altman narrative, two people build a material life together and wait for it to crack, a woman lunges toward her last drink of the night in the 20 seconds before the bar shuts down, and Phoenix vocalist Thomas Mars pines for months of tranquility while falling into something that may keep him on the edge forever. And you — the witness to the French dance-rock band’s triumphant return — are falling in along with him, hurtling through time and space by a gale that doesn’t let you look back.

More than anything on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, “1901” infuses the group’s romanticism with the immediacy they’d never quite achieved, using time as a motif to convey the urgency of a generation. Yet there’s an enlivening aspect to the panic, the exhilarating sense of being caught in the instant between now and never. When is now? According to Mars, it’s 1901 — a year not one of us has likely ever seen. That feels about right; the song has the markings of an ultra-current, party-ready pop single, but Phoenix make it sound timeless. – M.R. Newmark

5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Zero”

Who would’ve guessed that a thundering New Wave homage would’ve resulted in one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs greatest singles to date? With Nick Zinner’s stutter-rific guitars merging with warm key pads and one helluva synth breakdown, Karen O has found a whole new playground for her expertly cryptic kiss-offs to run free, and the result is a club-ready sugar rush laced with the slightest hint of venom, making us all feel like a mad man on the run, too. – Evan Sawdey

4. The Avett Brothers – “I and Love and You”

The Avett Brothers revealed their major-label reboot with this album-opening, lead-single, title cut. It showcases every grand facet of the Bros’ new phase: piano-based Americana, high-lonesome harmonies, sweeping strings, and pensive lyrics. Each brother—first Scott, then Seth—takes a verse, and the song builds to an epic chorus that details the temperature of the human heart in flux (and the healing balm of Brooklyn). The refrain, “You don’t know the shape I’m in” and the song’s rustic heartland balladry suggest that the ghost of Richard Manuel oversaw the proceedings. At decade’s end, country-rock has new champions. The proof? This and great and song. – Steve Leftridge

3. Grizzly Bear – “Two Weeks”

“Knife” showed us they had pop in them, but it took a peppy piano riff for Grizzly Bear to explode into the mainstream. And explode they did, literally bursting-with-life in their Patrick Daughters-directed video. As Ed Droste Twittered the minutiae of his everyday life, his music turned more and more outwards, content to dwell in the bright light of day rather than hide in closets and beneath creaky floorboards of remote holiday houses. “Two Weeks” is the culmination — a gorgeous, addictive, celebratory song that luxuriates in its own beautiful melodic lines. This is an almost perfect pop song — and it’s not even the best on Veckatimest. – Dan Raper

2. Dirty Projectors – “Stillness Is the Move”

So, late ’90s urban R&B meets West African influenced indie rock. What? This song’s joy is in its contradictions: At once a catchier pop song than anything to grace top 40 radio this year, but also a druggy, psychedelic vision quest: “Where did time begin?” singer Amber Coffman shouts in the bridge. Few musical moments of 2009 have been as sublime as Coffman sounding exactly like Mariah Carey when she belts: “After all that we’ve been THROUGH!” – Michael Miller

1. Animal Collective – “My Girls”

Animal Collective are on record for being confused by comparisons to the Beach Boys. But it’s tough to listen to Panda Bear’s earnest, layered harmonies on “My Girls” without thinking of a certain clan of Wilsons. The song unfolded in several movements, all held together by a sequencer from another universe. The defining moment, though, was the chanted refrain: “…I just want / four walls and adobe slats / For my girls.” Cue emphatic “whoo!”, timpani, and euphoria. Panda Bear’s lyrics revealed that, far more than just an exercise in brilliant arrangement, the song was a heartfelt, touching ode to contentment and domesticity. In other words, an adult symphony to God. – John Bergstrom