PopMatters turns 20 years old this October and we're beginning to celebrate our history by taking you back in time a decade ago. Obama was in the White House and the musical times were very good indeed. Revisit 2009 through its best albums.
60. Jonsi and Alex - Riceboy Sleeps [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
59. Converge - Axe to Fall [Epitaph]
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
58. The Dead Weather - Horehound [Third Man]
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
57. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns [Astralwerks]
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
56. jj - jj n°2 [Sincerely Yours]
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
55. The Fiery Furnaces - I'm Going Away [Thrill Jockey]
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
54. Mount Eerie - Wind's Poem [P.W. Elverum & Sun]
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
53. Falty DL - Love Is a Liability [Planet Mu]
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
52. Sunset Rubdown - Dragonslayer [Jagjaguwar]
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
51. Woods - Songs of Shame [Woodsist]
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
50. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down - Know Better Learn Faster [Kill Rock Stars]
She'll probably never shake the Chan Marshall comparison, but Thao Nguyen's vocals are distinctly her own. On Know Better Learn Faster, they pour out of her body with an Animal (the Muppet)-like compulsion that makes every "ooh" and "la" sound not like popular music tropes contrived and refined over decades, but like completely natural phenomena. The album covers fairly unique emotional ground. She's not weathered, she's not despondent; she's a pinball of energy redirected by encounters with sex and sadness and confusion. The unusual juxtaposition of melancholy with jaunty guitars and danceable rock music (after all, sad people dance, too) doesn't seem dissonant or hackneyed or even really all that unusual -- instead it seems inevitable, the recorded product of a causal chain that links today with Know Better Learn Faster and the big bang and all of history. - Tyler Gould
49. Jay Reatard - Watch Me Fall [Matador]
Jay Reatard has mastered the art of being cool without really giving a damn. Haters labeled Watch Me Fall as something of a departure from his trademark, ragged, snot-nosed garage-punk. True, it's a little slicker in its production than previous Reatard releases, but what shines through on Watch Me Fall is the undeniable quality of the songwriting. For every person who claims that a producer leaves his fingerprints all over a record, Reatard stepped up and seemed to say, "Nah, that's not what I'm going to have you remember."
Reatard didn't so much go out on a limb with his second solo full-length, as he expanded the sonic limits of the garage-punk genre with a brash yet terribly catchy efficiency. Having released dozens of releases under various monikers, Jay Reatard's Watch Me Fall is proof of how a genre like garage-punk, often believed to be simplistic and stagnant, can evolve with daring charisma. It's also proof of how hard this dude continues to rock while making it look so damn easy. - Joshua Kloke
48. Why? - Eskimo Snow [Anticon]
Tempting as it might be to label Eskimo Snow Yoni Wolf's most personal outing as due to the intimate nature of the music, it would be selling short the fact that all four Why? albums to date have thrived on their author's uniquely uneasy juncture of confessional candor and irreverent wordplay. Likewise, calling it the band's sonically prettiest release ignores Wolf's unfailing knack for infusing his amorphous mishmash of skewed raps and woozy, Pavement-esque indie-rock with moments of undeniable folk-pop grace -- even at his music's most willfully obtuse. Initially hyped as the band's least hip-hop-infused collection, and then somewhat blindly deemed minor Why? on the grounds that its ten tracks are leftovers from 2008's knottier and more expansive Alopecia, Eskimo Snow rather stands in seamless continuity with its innovative predecessors by coming from exactly the same wellspring of seeming contradictions. At once startlingly plaintive ("All my words for sadness, like Eskimo snow", completes the line that lends the album its title) and hilariously, surreally profane in a way that no other current songwriter is even attempting, let alone equaling. If Eskimo Snow proves anything at all, it is that Yoni Wolf is simply on one hell of a roll. - Jer Fairall
47. Alela Diane - To Be Still [Rough Trade]
Alela Diane's record is loaded with simple descriptions of nature: brambles, mud, dark waters, snakeskin, wind, snowmelt, last year's antlers, lapping waves, knotty pine, dirt ditch, ocean, canyon, flatlands, silt, river mouths, creeks, rain, stones, trees, etc. In Hemingwayesque prose, she sings the stories of walking life's paths. There is something beautiful in her voice that lets us know the eminence of the ordinary. What is common is what is special. The sounds of wood and wire (fiddle and guitar) remind us of the rhythms and patterns that surround us, if we can be still enough to simply observe. Being still; quieting the noise inside so that we can pay attention to the world within us and around us is the secret. Diane's music transports us away from the social and political nonsense to remind us of our shared humanity and place in the world. That just might be the highest function of art. - Steven Horowitz
46. Meshell Ndegeocello - Devil's Halo [Downtown]
Though it is quite fashionable to say that Meshell Ndegeocello defies genre classification -- and I think she does -- her music is so wonderfully animated by the spirit of the blues, so much so that if I had to call her anything it would be "modern blues woman". On Devil's Halo, Ndegeocello blues has never been more compelling. From the funky melancholy "Slaughter" to her weirdly romantic cover of Ready for the World's "Love You Down" to the guitar-driven lament "Crying in Your Beer", Ndegeocello runs the bad ol' blues through her uniquely 21st century consciousness and comes up with the most emotional potent and beautiful work of her career. - Tyler Lewis
45. HEALTH - Get Color [Lovepump United]
We critics wanted to love HEALTH in 2007 (some of us even claimed we did). We were all well aware that the LA scene didn't have much longevity, but here was an exciting act, one that had potential to go past "fun noise punk" and into something more. Now, they've hit that something more. Although HEALTH's debut isn't unlistenable by any means, it takes a certain state of mind to approach its well-ordered chaos. Here, the group retains its taste for interesting sounds (see "Death+") but now uses them to build interesting songs. Get Color still isn't full of pop songs -- "Die Slow" is the closest they come and that won't be cracking the Billboard charts -- but at least they've managed to channel their unique style through something a little less erratic. And when that leads to songs as good as "We Are Water", what more do we need? - Matthew Collins
44. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast [Fat Possum]
"When one has spent too much time alone," to quote the startlingly plaintive "Effigy", I imagine one ends up a bit like Andrew Bird. The Illinois native has done just that since leaving Bowl of Fire behind in 2003; and from it he has honed a wonderfully singular and admittedly introverted blend of violin- and whistling-inflected folk. Noble Beast, with its formless interludes and bulky track lengths, may well be his most expansive work yet, buoyed as usual by eccentric wordplay ("from proto-Sanskrit Minoans to porto-centric Lisboans", anyone?) and dense, inspired melodicism.
The freedom allows Bird to stretch in opposite directions at once, from cluttered electronic territory ("Not a Robot, but a Ghost") to organic, majestic folk ("The Privateers", "Effigy") -- and with almost unequivocal success. At the center of it all sits "Anonanimal", which pairs gorgeous, overlapping interplay with some of his most tongue-twisting lyrics yet ("the seemingly innocuous plecostomus though posthumus"??). Bird could be forgiven for not changing his act too drastically since 2005's breakthrough. What he has is sincere and real and, most of all, it simply feels right. - Zach Schonfeld
43. K'naan - Troubadour [A&M/Octone]
Somalia-born emcee K'naan successfully avoided the sophomore slump and quieted any doubters on Troubadour. Raising the bar on his debut The Dusty Foot Philosopher (2005), he raps a wiser worldview with a tightened flow, blending Rakim's sophistication with Eminem's wit over an intercontinental, multi-genre tapestry of beats and melodies from African folk ("Dusty Streets") to Southern funk, soul ("I Come Prepared"), and tweeter-rattling crunk ("Does It Really Matter"). He spits journalistic rhymes and delivers uplifting punchlines that entertain and educate, chronicling his experiences of rancor and turmoil from going up in war-torn Somalia. His commentary on the global state of hip-hop is reintroduced and remixed on "If Rap Gets Jealous". The whole album deftly captures the historic Marley vibe of its Tuff Gong recording locale. Most of all, he reps his homeland and raps a message the whole world can nod its head and groove to. - Chris Catania
42. Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown [Reprise]
I didn't think Green Day could do it. But with 21st Century Breakdown, they wrought another arena-sized punk-rock concept album which rivals their previous punk-rock concept-album, the massively successful American Idiot. Molded into three six-song acts, Breakdown traces the complex story of Christian and Gloria in Motor City's post-Bush political landscape. And first single, "Know Your Enemy", was the perfect bait into their world. Wherever you were when you first heard the snares hit, your head quickly synchronized to the beat and your voice then joined the collective in a defiant fight against silence.
Fitting its operatic style, the album covers a gamut of sensations and styles from both frantic moshing and lighter waving in the title song, to the power ballad piano of "Last Night on Earth", to the ragtimey stomp and fierce rock of "¿Viva La Gloria? (Little Girl)" and the smoldering intensity of "21 Guns". Far beyond their Dookie days, Green Day still possess the same core punk ethos and youthful energy, only now with a musical evolution that draws comparisons to The Who. Their growth has built a following of all ages, as the audiences in massive sold-out arenas exemplify. With this album, Green Day reiterates their considerable weight as a voice of the modern age. - Sachyn Mital
41. Bill Callahan - Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle [Drag City]
As the internet continues to pull indie rock's most treasured secrets towards the mainstream, Bill Callahan remains one of the few undiscovered redwoods deeply rooted enough to withstand the undertow. On Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, his 13th full length and second album under his own name, Callahan once again subverts wistful, pretty melodies with just enough brooding weirdness to delight longtime Smog fans while simultaneously keeping the NPR fan-base at bay.
This kind of accessible alienation is hardly unique amid Callahan's oeuvre, but it did reassert Callahan's role as the godfather of calculated melancholy in a year where nostalgia-leaning lo-fi noise ruled the blogosphere. Continuing Callahan's career-long exploration into the human psyche, Eagle grapples with the big questions -- the meaning of dreams, the existence of god, and the potential of love --with Callahan's always assured baritone that, if it never arrives at the answers, at least conveys a comfortable solace in their absence. - Ryan Marr
40. Passion Pit - Manners [Columbia/Frenchkiss]
"Everything's easy when you never have to choose" sings Michael Angelakos in "Fold in Your Hands", a theme that resonates throughout Manners, with its heady mixture of falsetto pop vocals, dancefloor basslines and euphoric, strobe-lit energy. Wearing intentions on their sleeve, Passion Pit weave a musical patchwork, which distills a decade of influences into an album of elegiac indie pop. A less assured band might fail to walk such a precarious tightrope over an ocean of cynicism, but Manners confidently exists within its own insular musicality. So, by the time a children's choir arrives on "Let Your Love Grow Tall", you cannot help but be swept away by the experience, which succeeds where others might fall into saccharine annoyance. Manners brims with electro–tinged paeans to love, longing and an intangible feeling of youth, when anything might be possible, and for Passion Pit, it just might. - Tom Fenwick
39. Warsaw Village Band - Infinity [Barbès]
Infinity is a beautiful, complicated, fast-moving, and intelligent album. On its own it's enough to justify the burst of attention this Polish group received from the English-speaking world in 2004 when it won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for Best Newcomer. Why didn't the burst continue? The musicians' playing is enviable, their capacity for invention, ditto. In this album, their fifth, they bounce a deep Afro-Americana off the higher, fleeter sound of an East European vernacular, a concentrated dark star of opposing forces. The two deep-rooted musics are "different taste[s] from the same dish," one of them suggests. The Polish women's singing yips like a Balkan choir, the Afro-Americana rolls and boils, grounding the quick voices with ballast. Cello strings drawl and shiver. Risks are overcome with flourishes. This is how you formalize and repossess traditional music without taming it. - Deanne Sole
38. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs [Matador]
Only in rock 'n' roll is consistency so damning. But OK, we'll go with it, and add in the observation that Yo La Tengo has been together for 25 years (in their current line-up since 1992). They've been around as long as Bon freakin' Jovi. So why the hell are we still paying attention? I freely admit I haven't always been entirely convinced by their output in the past. They have an annoying tendency towards utter tastefulness which -- gonzo garage rock covers records aside -- has the unfortunate side effect of rendering them positively somnolent in high doses. But they've got the balance right here.
Popular Songs rocks, it sways, it drones and sighs in just the right measure. Twenty-five years on and they've absolutely mastered the rock 'n' roll longplayer. How many acts hit their stride 25 years into a career? Well, there's Neil Young, there's... OK, you got me. It's these guys and Neil Young for the career derby (Bob Dylan's entry was rejected as incomplete after it was discovered that he mysteriously neglected to record any good music during the '80s). Is it their best? That's one for the trainspotters to decide. When you're this good for this long, that's kind of academic, yes? Gimme another 25 just like this, thanks. - Tim O'Neil
37. Baroness - Blue Record [Relapse]
All eyes of the metal world were on Baroness to see whether or not they'd be able to come through with a worthy follow-up to 2007's highly acclaimed Red Album. Interestingly, what listeners got wasn't a huge stylistic stretch from Red. Far from the kind of audacious curveballs that Mastodon continually throws our way, Blue Record faithfully stayed the course, but the gigantic difference between the two companion pieces is that the new one is much more well-rounded, more musically rich, more refined. The big, riff-oriented gallopers are still there, as "A Horse Called Golgotha", "The Sweetest Curse", and "The Gnashing" attest, but the more diverse tunes are what tie the entire album together, not to mention help attract curious listeners who don't ordinarily listen to heavy music, such as "Jake Leg", "O'er Hell and Hide", and the terrific one-two punch of the Moody Blues-esque "Steel That Sleeps the Eye" and Fugazi tones of "Swollen and Halo". - Adrien Begrand
36. Jarvis Cocker - Further Complications [Rough Trade]
Some men enter middle age gracefully and purposefully, while others have crises that end in divorce and malaise. At age 46, former Pulp ringleader Jarvis Cocker has seen both sides. Following the warm and mature 2006 solo debut Jarvis, Cocker enlisted producer Steve Albini and headed to the workshop with his band to craft a rougher and more stripped-down sound. The itchy and perverse Further Complications is the end result of that effort. Subverting his role as Britpop elder statesman, Cocker gets back to shades he hasn't explored since the depraved urban glamour of Pulp's This Is Hardcore. He pairs his usual witty one-liners with Albini's no-nonsense approach to recording, creating an atmosphere of gritty sexuality. Cocker pens some of his strongest songs in the reflective "Leftovers", the pounding "Fuckingsong", and the biting title track which has him asking, "If your parents didn't screw you up / why not do it yourself?" Consistently engrossing, Further Complications begs the question: when you're having this much fun, who needs a reunion? - Cyrus Fard
35. Japandroids - Post-Nothing [Polyvinyl]
The formula is simple: one guitar, one set of drums and two vocalizers. This was the summer of Japandroids, and as esoteric, bloated and self-important indie rock swelled around me (I'm looking at you Animal Collective), I fell in love with these two guys from Canada, carrying the flag for sex, drugs and rock and roll. Post Nothing is eight tracks of sweat, adolescent garage riffs and infectious pop melodies, and anyone with a pulse is invited to join the party. Japandroids sing about sunshine girls and French kissing French girls before last call, with the immediacy of Hüsker Dü and the reckless spirit of the Stooges. As the ball drops on 2010, I hope that somewhere, in some garage or leaky basement, kids will take note that sometimes less is more, to stop worrying and just have fun. "I don't wanna worry bout dying / I just wanna worry bout those sunshine girls." You're goddamn right. - Drew Fortune
34. Dinosaur Jr. - Farm [DescriptionJagjaguwar]
While many of this year's indie heroes (viz. Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective) gathered their kudos by finding beauty in obvious places like vocal harmonies and atmospherics, the indie vets of Dinosaur Jr. continued their successful post-reunion comeback with Farm, a record that reminded listeners that there's still plenty of beauty in a wall of Marshall stacks and a pair of ratty Chuck Taylors. On Farm, guitarist J Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow and drummer Murph put their two primary strengths -- sheer volume and a near-paralytic capacity for introspection -- on full display.
Whether it's the meaty, beaty one-two opening punch of "Pieces" and "I Want You to Know", the are-you-sure-it's-not-1991? single "Over It" or the epic, swirling, eight-minute masterpiece "I Don't Want to Go There", the trio prove that, over the course of their 20-plus-year career, they've mastered the art of picking at emotional wounds until they bleed, then cauterizing them with sheets of guitar noise. Maybe it's not the indie scene's go-to mode of catharsis it once was, but, hey, it's a lot more fun to air guitar to than, say, Veckatimest. To that end, Farm's biggest contribution to 2009, here in the twilight of the guitar-god era, is to remind us that the phrase "indie rock" used to equally stress both words. - Stephen Haag
33. Khaled - Liberté [Wrasse]
Liberté, the first studio album for five years from Khaled, Algeria's "king of raï", was a masterpiece of retrospection and innovation. Khaled chose to revisit some songs he had originally recorded in the '80s, teaming up once more with Martin Meissonnier, his first producer. The pair, together with a cast of highly skilled musicians, brought to the album a range of acoustic and electric instrumentation, live performance and studio precision. Standout tracks included "Raikoum", a remake of an early hit, which mixed accordion, brass, and backing vocals in what could only be described as ecstatic, life-affirming soul music.
Elsewhere, on "Gnaoui", desert blues tonalities took pride of place, while on "Rabbi", Egyptian-style strings added appropriate drama. Most evocative of all was Khaled's voice, one of the great sounds of world music, heard to intensely moving effect here on the eight-minute "Zabana". With Liberté, Khaled claimed a freedom from musical straightjackets and from the endless debates which have hounded raï vis-à-vis its relationship with tradition. In doing so, he produced some of the finest music of his career. - Richard Elliott
32. Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free [Dead Oceans]
You'd think that after the departure of key player Ryan Vanderhoof, the three remaining members of Akron/Family would take some time off and possibly retool their sound, instead of switching record labels and releasing one of the strongest albums of their already-stellar career. While Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free doesn't deviate much from the traditional AkAk sound -- intense group singalongs, spiraling guitar crescendos, off-kilter metaphors, and piano breakdowns are still the band's bread and butter -- the group has rarely sounded so rambunctious.
From the noise-squall of "MBF" to the horn-assisted majesty of the single "River" to the keyboard-laced faux-dub "Many Ghosts", this is, in many ways, the single best distillation of the Akron/Family sound: a record that bowls you over right from the get-go and then reveals new layers and subtleties with each subsequent listen. Freakouts have rarely sounded so good. - Evan Sawdey
31. Pearl Jam - Backspacer [Monkeywrench]
Coming on the heels of their wonderful self-titled eighth album, Backspacer further emphasizes Pearl Jam's growth and relevance as a band as they end their relationship with their major label and offer up their first self-release. Backspacer reteams the band with producer Brendan O'Brien and their partnership makes for one of the band's leanest and most energetic releases.
Although the album has more of a pop influence than their previous releases, it kicks off with three rockers that showcase the band at what they do best. "Gonna See My Friend", "Got Some", and "The Fixer" are fast and immediate and speak to the band's renewed sense of focus. "Just Breathe" has moments that are reminiscent of Vedder's recent work on the Into the Wild soundtrack, but its chorus reveals a hopefulness that leads to one of the loveliest songs the band has recorded. "Unthought Known" and "Speed of Sound" both utilize a rare piano that adds a freshness to the songs that still feels very true to the band and their sound. Plus, the use of backing and double-tracked vocals adds another layer to the production that fills out the album. "The End", the album's appropriately titled closer, is one of those quiet gems that Pearl Jam has been doing so well for years.
Backspacer, clocking in at just over 35-minutes, stands as one of Pearl Jam's most satisfying releases and a great signal of what to expect from a group that continues to put out music this relevant and honest after almost 20 years together. - Jessica Suarez
30. Real Estate - Real Estate [Woodsist]
"Beach pop" was 2009's "post-punk revival", that omnipresent, vague genre tag that found itself attached to every buzzworthy band of the year. Although the "movement" seemed focused on a particular aesthetic (namely, the wobbly synths of Washed Out/Neon Indian), Real Estate are lovable because there's so little pretense to them. Their arrangements might be complex, but the production is pleasantly novelty-free and the melodies are straightforward: lazy, hazy, sunny jams; "September with Pete" two months earlier. That Real Estate can be compared to Woods as easily as the Drums, then, is what makes the album such a grower. It isn't one of those three-month love affair albums, dusted off in June and filed away in August; it's a "summer" album that lasts all year. Given that the saccharine Psychic Chasms is already getting old, it's likely to be one of the few "beach pop" albums that you'll be spinning next year, too. - Matthew Collins
If you go over to Dan Deacon's website, you can download the electronic musician's back-catalogue -- seven albums of dense sound collage from his days as a graduate composition student at Purchase. Wikipedia describes one: "'Goose on the Loose' is a 60-minute piece of Wavetek 180 signal generator being processed through a Digitech Whammy Pedal and a Line 6 Loop/Delay pedal." If that means anything, it means: every populist gesture in Deacon's chaotic, inclusive music is deliberate. That wasn't necessarily clear on his 2007 debut, Spiderman of the Rings, but Bromst leaves no doubt -- here's an artist with a deft touch, a knack for delightful catchphrase and, by the way, an impressive knowledge of the electroacoustic tradition.
His songs don't sound like Steve Reich or Philip Glass, but they evolve out of them. The real triumph is that "Snookered" and "Surprise Stefani" pack in as much human warmth and emotion as any folkie balladeer can do. Live, the songs breathe the same hyperkinetic spirit we love about "Wham City" or "Crystal Cat". It turns out that despite recording with real instruments and mining occasional contemplation, this Everyman MFA hasn't sacrificed anything at all. Dan Raper
An absolute monster of an album from a hip-hop heavyweight, Brother Ali's Us is sheer perfection. And he does most of it through the eyes of others -- a first for this talented MC. He relays tales with sincerity from a slave's ocean-crossing journey ("The Travelers"), an in-the-closet teen ("Tight Rope"), and nearly every lost soul in between. But it's not all doom and gloom. The album's first single, "Fresh Air", is an upbeat celebration while "[email protected]" features Ali's spitting bravado like a man possessed. Although his trademark soulful voice has always commanded our attention, it's never resonated quite like this since his classic debut, Shadows on the Sun. Ant, Ali's teammate behind the boards, also considerably stepped up his game, here. Opting for live instruments over sampled records, Us goes beyond beats and loops. This isn't just another hip-hop record. It's a timeless piece of perfection. - Andrew Martin
Buddy and Julie Miller, whether together or separately, have never made a bad album and Written in Chalk certainly doesn't break that streak. With styles ranging from slowburning torch songs to straight country to even a little gutbucket blues, Chalk makes it easy to see why Buddy Miller's one of Nashville's most in-demand guitarists, and it further proves that Julie Miller does heartbreak and ache better than just about anyone. Very well-used guest vocalists like Robert Plant, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Regina & Ann McCrary add nice texture to Chalk's songs, but this is clearly a Miller affair, and they're both obviously at the top of their game. With illness taking Julie off the road and with Buddy undergoing triple bypass surgery, 2009 is a year where the reliable, rock-solid excellence of a Buddy & Julie Miller album is suddenly a very fragile thing to be treasured. - Andrew Gilstrap
Of course the follow-up to St. Vincent's 2007 debut, Marry Me, would be called Actor. After all, St. Vincent is the brainchild of New-York-via-Texas chanteuse and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, and her unmistakable dramatic flair justifies the title, from the album cover's wide-eyed pixie stare to her visceral guitar solos. Moreover, Actor's inspiration came from watching Disney films on mute. In the process, she adds layers to her sound by delving into a study of contrast. Innovative drum patterns, stately melodies, and elegant harmonies keep company with a whirlwind of dystopia, dissonance, and distortion. Even Clark's lyrics, communicated through her intimate vocals, illuminate these tensions: beauty in the grotesque, ugliness lurking beneath beauty, and the irony of the familiar. The opposites aren't meant to mesh. Instead, Actor, like theatrical actors, straddles two worlds -- the real and the fictional -- and hopes to find the balance between detachment and immersion. - Quentin Huff
25. The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love [Capitol]
The words "rock opera" seem to bring about equal amounts of admiration and scorn. "Pretentious" is the word that comes up most often these days, which makes penning one an especially risky prospect for The Decemberists, a band that's already been accused of being too clever by half. Add in the subject matter: a shape-shifting creature, a jealous forest queen, and a "rake" prone to infanticide -- all set to heavy, prog-y guitar music -- and you've got a surefire way to alienate fans attracted to the twee sounds of Victorian organ-grinding.
But The Hazards of Love may be the most Decemberisty album yet. The band has always been one of ambition and ideas, and Hazards brings both in spades. The narrative thread isn't a plot-point-by-plot-point story, but rather a unifying set of characters and moods that give the album the feeling of cohesion—exciting at first, then ominously dangerous, and then, ultimately, mournful. What's most impressive about The Hazards of Love, though, is that this rock opera actually does rock. It's amped up, plugged in, and easily more energized than any song about a chimbley sweep could possibly be. When songs like "The Wanting Comes in Waves" swells to its climax, it's easy to forget about the themes, the characters, and the plot machinations and just get into a pretty kickass rock song. - Marisa LaScala
At the beginning of this decade, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy must have struck a Faustian pact with the devil. Years of acrimony followed, as Tweedy battled his record company, feuded with his band mates, and nearly self-destructed from drug addiction. Yet what remains over the last ten years is the remarkable Wilco catalog, including the seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and the Grammy-winning A Ghost Is Born. On Wilco (The Album), Tweedy seems to have come to terms with himself, his muse now focused on low-key gems, from the playful title track to his bittersweet duet with Feist in "You and I". The throwback '70s pop of "You Never Know" would have fit perfectly on Todd Rundgren's classic Something/Anything? Yet Tweedy still has one foot firmly planted in the present. When he sings, "There's nothing left here, the country has disappeared", we've finally reached the end of the Bush era, the lyric reminiscent of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's alienation and dislocation. Wilco (The Album) at times sounds like a band anthology, yet these seemingly disparate songs somehow come together in the end, resulting in one of the simpler pleasures of 2009. - John Grassi
As a metaphorical theme revolving around illness gently develops across this album, Hospice presents itself via a small, refined set of musical themes that overlap and blend like clouds on an overcast day. With ambient brushstrokes swaying slowly back and forth from track to track, the Antler's Hospice gracefully unfolds like a brief but profound poem. A strain of melancholy permeates throughout Hospice like an infection, with but a few brief disarming moments appearing, as in the sardonic "Bear", that only manage to hint at something resembling happiness.
Recalling the Album Leaf's In a Safe Place, along with the quieter moments of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Antlers are not afraid of silence, nor the quieter aspects of life. In fact, Peter Silberman's high-pitched delivery is so hushed that the bulk of his intriguing lyrics are indiscernible. But when Silberman's voice does rise above its whisper at several select moments, such as "Sylvia", "Two", and "Wake", the effect is as devastating as anything Elliot Smith ever attempted. - Louis Battaglia
Someone must have stopped the world, for Maxwell returned in 2009 after a six-year hiatus. In that time, many R&B crooners have alternately bloomed and dried on the vine, but BLACKsummers'night proves that Maxwell's nectar remains the most succulent. The rougher edges of his voice seep through his otherwise sensuous, soulful tenor on his fourth studio album. Each of the nine tracks is a study in how Maxwell can make the most of his surroundings. "Love You", one of the singer's most visceral proclamations, sounds like the band cooked up a groove in a jam session and Maxwell just spoke from his heart. Apparently the first of a trilogy, BLACKsummer'snight is a stunning statement of where Maxwell has arrived more than a decade into a career that undoubtedly has a few more surprises in store. - Christian John Wikane
Like the Boredoms' Vision Creation Newsun before it, the pulse of Fuck Buttons is constantly elevated on Tarot Sport. It is alert and stalking. The epileptic tremolo and rhythmic pounce of "Space Mountain", to take one example, races like a cheetah chasing down a gazelle. Yet unlike much noise music, which is how Fuck Buttons have been branded as in the past, Andy Weatherall's sound on the album is not ultimately about the inevitable violence of the kill, but about the hunt itself. Thus, the entire album reads like a perpetual anti-climax, a progressive delight in the tantric momentum of the act, the fluid dance of bodies synchronizing to the speed of the universe.
The album's title suggests an interplay of chance and fate, pre-scripture and the struggle to overcome it. Perhaps, it was an eagerness to break out of their own script that caused them to make the giant leap from the near-formlessness of 2008's Street Horrsing into the guided brute physicality of Tarot Sport. In 2009, "tribal" is a quick standby, but Fuck Buttons take more from this term than the soma and the face paint.
Tarot Sport is an album deeply in touch with the dynamism of its surroundings, which is why the best part of the album is not the massive sound it compiles again and again as if it were tapping into an intrinsic tension inscribed on the waveform of every note. It's the subtlety and beauty of the small noises that build that gigantic sound that stands out amidst the ear-shattering din. - Timothy Gabriele
20. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - The Pains of Being Pure at Heart [Slumberland]
What makes the self-titled debut from the Pains of Being Pure at Heart so exceptional is, paradoxically, that it sounds so much like albums by so many other bands. On this album, the Pains take threads from a dozen or more indie rock predecessors, including the Cure, Rocketship, Heavenly, and Superchunk, and expertly weave them into a flower-print sundress of early indie nostalgia (match with black leggings and Doc Martin's for maximum effect) that proved to be one of 2009's most enjoyable releases. It's territory that isn't mined often enough by indie bands, and it's hard to know why, when you hear the all the joy, disaffection, and goofy enthusiasm the Pains pack into every song.
The album has more than its share of instant classics, tracks that come down from the Platonic Heaven of teenagerdom on cascading synth lines and clouds of echoing guitars; "A Teenager in Love" and "Young Adult Friction", in particular. The former is a Cure-aping strum-and-shimmy about teenage obsession powered by a relentless snare and a keyboard line as delicate as a crystal chandelier. The latter, with boy-girl vocals and a beat the doesn't ever come up for air, is a guaranteed four minutes of giggling and jumping whenever and wherever it's played. It's an album that's precision engineered to plunge into the heart of wallflowers everywhere, peel them off the wall, and let them have a little fun. - Chris Chafin
19. Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses - Roadhouse Sun [Lost Highway]
In an era of contrived images and generic production values, an old school album of down-to-Earth rock 'n' roll stands out. Roadhouse Sun stands tall in such a manner, with West Texas troubadour Ryan Bingham's gritty vocals and honest songwriting recalling a fading era. Ex-Black Crowes guitarist Marc Ford produces and helps Bingham deliver an album that pays homage to roots rock pioneers such as the Rolling Stones, the Band and vintage Bob Dylan, while still forging new ground.
Bingham's songwriting and killer backing band have a crisp sound, varying from the upbeat rock of "Dylan's Hard Rain" and swinging stomp of "Hey Hey Hurray" to the mournful blues of "Snake Eyes" and melodic majesty of "Bluebird". Flourishes of mandolin, harmonica, dobro and lap steel guitar accent the songs in superb fashion. But it's the distinctive flavor of Bingham's old soul voice that makes these songs really stand out. When the former rodeo cowboy sings about how he "might of took a few wrong turns" and has "spent my time with the whiskey" in "Country Roads", you can tell it's coming from an authentic place. - Greg Schwartz
18. The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come [4AD]
If anyone was going to make a Biblical album my religious and atheistic friends could both appreciate it was going to be John Darnielle; lo and behold, he's succeeded. It's not that the Biblical theme/source material is somehow misleading (one of the reasons Darnielle is such a good fit is that he takes the book seriously), it's just that Darnielle appreciates the beauty, terror and humanity of the Bible in a non-dogmatic way, and so these songs are more about the perils and wonders of being alive and human than any particular doctrine. The result is a masterclass in both why the non-faithful might want to pay some attention to the Good Book and why (some of) the faithful ought to loosen up about it. Darnielle is not without questions for God, but he's also not reluctant to ask "Lord, send me a mechanic / If I'm not beyond repair." - Ian Mathers
17. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career [4AD]
We're still associating Camera Obscura with scenes out of an old movie. My Maudlin Career positions us on a comfortable living room rug, poring over a breakup letter that should've landed in the trash long ago. And though the guitars chime and floor toms rumble as reliably well as they do on Let's Get Out of This Country, the quintet's fourth album feels like the start of a new, grown-up relationship, perpetual heartache and all. Sunnier outings "French Navy" and "You Told a Lie" help soften downers like "Careless Love", where Lesley Gore-styled, gloomy subject matter necessitates dense over-orchestration. Camera Obscura steers through lovesickness and stolen new kisses with the same authoritative dexterity, and for its thoughtful song arrangements and finicky medley of '60s pop, country, and plain ol' mournful folk moods, My Maudlin Career's charm is immediate and irrefutable. - Dominic Umile
16. Fever Ray - Fever Ray [Mute]
Not only did the new solo project by Karin Dreijer Andersson prove to be a complete departure from the Knife's past work, but compared to the more insistent, accessible sounds of Deep Cuts and Silent Shout Fever Ray was darker, enigmatic, subtle, and in the end, just plain better. With each minimal track stripped right down to its core, the arrangements subtly channeling the early '80s tones of the Cure and Kate Bush as well as modern dark ambient music, Dreijer Andersson puts her vocals at the forefront. The songs are often filtered and pitch-shifted to the point where the album feels schizophrenic, from the innocent "When I Grow Up", to the aching desolation of "Keep the Streets Empty for Me", to the unsettling combination of dread and unadulterated lust on "If I Had a Heart". Alternately chilly and warm, wistful and foreboding, expansive and claustrophobic, Fever Ray's peculiarity and bleak magnificence holds us in its thrall. - Adrien Begrand
15. Mos Def - The Ecstatic [Downtown]
Mos Def stormed onto the hip-hop scene in the late '90s, but as his acting career took off in the following decade many fans agreed that his music career suffered in the meantime. After 2006's True Magic, it seemed reasonable to question if Mos Def would ever regain his creative spark. Leading to this album's release, Mos revealed his strong affinity for Madvillainy and MF DOOM, and just weeks later we received The Ecstatic complete with production from Madlib (and brother Oh No, among others) and abstract, chorus-less rhyme construction that immediately reminds listeners of the aforementioned masked MC.
The Ecstatic revived not only Mos Def, but in many ways the original spirit of hip-hop in which dope MCs inspire others to work harder on their craft. Spiced up with a dash of the eclecticism Mos Def has become known for since his debut, The Ecstatic is certainly his most focused effort since those early days and, true to its title, happily celebrates a creative energy unique to hip-hop. - David Amidon
14. Goran Bregović - Alkohol [Wrasse]
A little town of some 20,000 souls in Serbia houses an annual festival of brass band music every August that draws more than seven times the normal village population. For good reason too, as Guca is the pre-eminent meeting ground for the luminaries of Balkan and gypsy brass band music who duke it out in fevered performances to claim the mantle of top band. This is a setting the Sarajevo-born former rock star Goran Bregović knows intimately, as he has guided his Wedding and Funeral Band through many foot stomping performances on that stage. A huge musical figure in the Balkans and Central/Eastern Europe, Bregović's music hasn't made it to North American shores until this year with Alkohol, the exception being the music he has composed over the years for Borat and some films of Emir Kusturica.
Alkohol was recorded in 2007 at the Guca festival and features many highlights from Bregović's library including the frenetic "Gas Gas" and the soulful "Ruzica (Rose)" (previously recorded with Polish star Kayah). Balkan music has regained attention stateside in recent years with the popularity of indie bands such as Beirut and A Hawk and a Hacksaw joyfully adopting this music, but Alkohol is the real deal, created by a Bosnian of Serbian and Croatian background who works with former Yugoslavs of all stripes and choirs of Bulgarian singers. Celebrating the multiculturalism of a highly troubled part of the world with both a strong beat and large heart makes this music instantly classic and timeless. As Bregović told the Cleveland Plain Dealer this year, "Yugoslavia is the intersection of so many worlds: Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim. With music, I don't have to represent anyone except myself -- because I speak the first language of the world, the one everyone understands: music."- Sarah Zupko
13. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic [Warner Bros.]
In a way, Embryonic is the album a displaced generation of long-time fans secretly hoped, but never really expected, the Lips to make. That is to say, it's gnarled. It's ugly. And it's a thinly veiled refutation of damn near everything that's made this band a national treasure these past few years -- the studio-manicured symphonic pop, the adorable "Yoshimi" singalongs, the Kraft salad dressing commercials. Maybe the animal costume shtick got tired. Or maybe Wayne just got bored.
Whatever the reason, Embryonic is here, and it's glorious -- a dark, seething, psych-rock masterpiece, careening recklessly between stomp-box fuzz-metal ("Worm Mountain"), hypnotic Krautrock tributes ("Convinced of the Hex"), and Bitches Brew-style space jazz ("Scorpio Sword"). There are sugary melodies to be found, of course -- but only if you sift beneath the Daft Punk-style vocoder ("The Impulse") or roaring noise blasts ("Watching the Planets"). I'll freely admit this is a confusing, messy beast of a record, with more in common with 1990's In a Priest Driven Ambulance than "Do You Realize??" Because really, that's what makes it so refreshing. - Zach Schonfeld
12. The xx - xx [Rough Trade]
When exhausted keyboardist Baria Qureshi ducked out of the band midway through their European tour, it was the first and thus far only signifier that the xx were anything other than preternaturally self-assured. As rare as it is, however, to discover such poise, grace and general gorgeousness contained within the unaffected stylings of a group of 20-year-olds, maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by the peculiar case of xx itself. Because the album -- perhaps the finest, most revelatory debut 2009 has seen -- isn't about studied architectural complexities; it trades on the general feeling more than the concrete. It's all moods and tensions, it's empty space and the suggestion of what could fill it.
Skeletal and understated to the end, this is minimalist music with a beating heart, the reverb-sodden guitar, furtive basslines and sultry vocal interplay seem so unselfish as to be unitary. It seems trite to reduce it all to a particular time, place or mood, but such is the somnambulant, conversational intimacy of Romy Croft and Oliver Sim's exchanges that xx feels like a window into late-night, whispered sweet nothings of two lovers, post-love. It's customary to gesture to standout tracks in a précis such as this, but with xx it would be an arbitrary motion; this is such a complete work of neat, sparse and gratifying precision that it practically yearns -- and undoubtedly deserves -- to be swallowed whole. - Chris Baynes
11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz! [Interscope]
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always had a way with a pop hook, something that was evident when "Maps" turned into the indie-ballad of choice 'lo those many years ago. Although initially dismissed as hyped-up squall-rockers, each subsequent YYY's album has shown the band growing and expanding in ways that most have never thought possible, resulting in their most dramatic about-face of all: It's Blitz!, the sound of the YYY's at their poppiest. Although calls of the group being "sell-outs" have been heard far and wide, Karen O and co. don't seem to really mind that much, especially when "selling out" results in songs as hauntingly beautiful as the prom-ready "Hysteric" and the keyboard-accented slow-throb of "Soft Shock", covering deeper emotional terrain than Show Your Bones while exerting only half the effort.
Yet when the group wants to rock, they do so without hesitation. Nick Zinner's furious synth break on "Zero" winds up turning a simple New Wave pastiche into something far more visceral than your typical '80s-indebted club song imitation. Throw in a heaven-scraping anthem (in the form of "Skeletons") and the most wryly seductive track Karen O has ever cooed ("Dragon Queen"), and you wind up with another expectations-busting, head-spinning trip with one of the most important bands working today. Get your leather on, indeed. - Evan Sawdey
10. Miranda Lambert - Revolution [Columbia]
Out of the gate, the singles on Revolution failed to burn up the charts, raising some eyebrows as to whether Lambert's follow-up to 2007's critical pants-wetter, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, was set to disappoint. Forget it. The thing is, each song on Revolution sounds like a single, as Lambert shows everybody up -- modern pop-rockers, mainstream country sirens, and indie-roots folkers alike. Lambert, a vocal powerhouse, makes it look easy, cramming more great hooks and melodies onto a single platter than on any other since, well, her last album. However, this is no retread. Revolution showcases a broader, edgier sonic wallop, from sheeny rockers like "Maintain the Pain" to the pedal-steel-and-organ loops in the soaring "Love Song". The wild-gal image is still here in songs like "Sin for a Sin" and "Heart Like Mine", but the songs are stronger and the jokes are smarter than ever. And when she keeps it country, as on "Airstream Song", her excellent ode to getting off the grid, Lambert represents dreamers and tramps just like you. Only prettier. -Steve Leftridge
9. Girls - Album [Matador]
Set aside the fickle love-hate permutations of the blog hype cycle and the singer's childhood stories, and you've got a vital debut LP that stands on its own. Girls shuffle through pop-cultural archetypes of youth in an exciting way that's very "pop" – an instant-gratification manifestation of human desires and fears, played with panache. Freedom, infatuation, and self-doubt are boiled down to simple terms. It's all one big playful romantic fantasy soaked in red wine, sunshine and the sound of music. Everything Girls does seems at its core to be about music itself. The deep-purple dreams of long-ago crooners join with Jesus and Mary Chain-esque hot-rod fuzz rides, Beach Boys harmonies, and twee-pop sensitivity. Singer Christopher Owens twists his voice for effect, studying what it will do to us. Album is a tribute to music's capacity to make us feel like anything is possible, like life will be better. Everybody sing along: "Man I felt like I could lay down and die / then I found my life in a song." - Dave Heaton
8. Mastodon - Crack the Skye [Reprise]
Mastodon's latest album, Crack the Skye, is a truly rare beast: a record that encapsulates all of the best aspects of a given style, but that transcends genre and remains accessible to neophytes, all while avoiding the middle of the road. On songs like "Oblivion" or "Divinations", Mastodon achieve the incredible feat of writing music of baffling complexity, switching between different knuckle-busting riffs every 30 seconds or so, but still remaining essentially melodic and approachable. Lest metalheads be dissuaded by the presence of clean vocals (as opposed to guttural screaming), hooks, and a banjo, I should also point out that Crack the Skye is incredibly heavy, and boasts two multi-movement epics, each over ten minutes long. Ambitious, with pummeling beats, catchy choruses, and gnarly solos -- what else could you want? - David Gassmann
7. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Part II [Ice H2O]
In 2009, while Jay-Z looked to Grizzly Bear to inspire hip-hop, Raekwon took matters into his own hands, and crafted his second sprawling classic. With he and Ghostface once again pushing each other to new heights, the Chef's low growl flows all over the map. From frustration over poverty, to heartbreak over personal loss, to crime boss bravado, Raekwon covers each corner of this album's huge globe with cutting rhymes and deep understanding. He yanks in nearly every rapper under the sun to help out, too.
Never mind the usual Wu suspects -- although Ghostface and Method Man are MVPs here -- the real strength of the album comes in how the likes of Busta Rhymes, Jadakiss, and Beanie Sigel -- all rappers who have underachieved recently -- each go off. Everyone here is at the top of their game, leading by example and calling out to the rest of mainstream hip-hop to respond in kind. And with beats by the likes of the RZA and Marley Marl laying the stark foundation to Raekwon's brilliant, epic vision, really no other hip-hop album stood a chance up again Only Built 4 Cuban Linx... Part II. - Matt Fiander
6. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone [Anti-]
Middle Cyclone has all the hallmarks of previous Case albums, yet it also manages to expand her sonic range. Her songwriting is still as idiosyncratic as ever (succinct tracks with no easy refrains, songs about animals), but by now she knows how to best show off her tremendous voice. She's never had a single as catchy as the jangly "People Got a Lotta Nerve", but album opener "This Tornado Loves You" runs a close second. And yet the former is about brutal animal attacks, while the latter talks about a tornado leaving a path of destruction through three counties.
Her evocative, aching singing is still best served by melancholy love songs like "The Next Time You Say Forever" and "Vengeance is Sleeping", and also by gothic country tunes. "Prison Girls" may be the creepiest thing she's written, with its unsettling, unrelenting yet spare minor key guitar lines. Plus the album cover has her riding on the hood of a Mercury Cougar and wielding a sword. That cover is the badass cherry on top of a great album that makes Middle Cyclone the total package. - Chris Conaton
5. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Glassnote/Loyauté]
With the tightly wound pop of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix takes their place alongside Air and Daft Punk on the short list of French musicians with worldwide approval. While Air arguably peaked in the late '90s and Daft Punk has receded from view for the moment, Phoenix has risen to take their place as the preeminent Gallic musical force for the 2010s. With the unstoppable "Lisztomania" and a bevy of other gems, the entire album stands up to repeated spins with a polished majesty. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a credit to persistence and dedication to craft, especially with the knowledge that the band has been together since childhood and worked on album centerpiece "Love Like a Sunset" for two solid years. To wit, it's a rare feat in pop music that inclusion of a song in an American car commercial run ad nauseum doesn't dull the impact of the sharp songwriting and emotional bounce found on a song like "1901". Such is the power of well-crafted pop. - Craig Carson
4. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca [Domino]
At this point on the indie rock timeline, you might rightfully call the Dirty Projectors overexposed. A quick listen to Bitte Orca, however, will explain why the band continues to command attention. From the off-kilter R&B of "Stillness is the Move" to the crashing dynamics and Jùjú meets post-hardcore guitars of "Temecula Sunrise", Bitte Orca is undeniable, a perpetually restless, endlessly challenging, deeply satisfying work of pop songcraft. Back in June, when I asked lead Projector Dave Longstreth what it felt like to have graduated to the indie rock big leagues, he laughed and told me that the band was still crashing on friends' floors while on the road. A headlining tour, gigs with the Roots and David Byrne, Letterman and Fallon performances and a slew of accolades later and it's clear that that's probably no longer the case. And yet, Solange's largely faithful cover of "Stillness Is the Move" might just be the sweetest validation for Longstreth. Some fringe songwriters bend to suit the tastes of the mainstream. Dave Longstreth made the mainstream bend to suit his. - Mehan Jayasuriya
3. The Avett Brothers - I and Love and You [American/Columbia]
With Rick Rubin at the knobs, these North Carolina alt-folkgrass boys jettisoned their manic mountain-punk, traded in the banjo for the piano, and broadened their sound into a series of lush, epical ballads. Some old fans grumbled over the new slickness, but the record marks a major leap forward in songcraft and musicianship, as Scott and Seth Avett cut their chests open and ten thousand words swarm around their doubt-filled heads. Amid swirling organs, cellos, pianos, and acoustic guitars, the brothers wrap their voices around a pile of cosmically gorgeous songs, and for the first time, the Avett Brothers create exquisitely arranged masterpieces worthy of their rigorous, sincere lyrics of love, family, and manhood.
The band still knows how to rock, as on the winning pop blast of "Kick Drum Heart", but the record gets seriously timeless on delicacies like "Laundry Room" and "Ill With Want", full of knee-weakening close harmonies and elegant instrumentation. Through their evolution, the Avetts stretch out but recall the abiding sounds of an ambrosial yesteryear, feeling at once deep-rooted and wholly original. - Steve Leftridge
2. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest [Warp]
If the swirling, distant echoes of sound that brought Yellow House to such a beautifully dissonant conclusion left a few doors open for Grizzly Bear's subsequent growth -- the ending chants of "what now?" seem to infer that the band is just as confounded as the rest of us -- nothing could have prepared their fanbase for the cataclysmic leap that is Veckatimest. It would be easy -- maybe a little too easy -- to assign weight to their assertive, ever-expanding command of the studio and all of the can't-go-back-home-again sentiments that cling to its use, yet after absorbing these 12 songs, the emotional core takes utter reign over everything that encircles it and cuts right through to the audience's heart.
What evokes such a tender, striking reaction to Veckatimest is in the unhurried essence in which Grizzly Bear approaches life's struggles, their cerebral proclivity never sacrificing their humanity. The orchestral flourishes that flutter up and enshroud their gorgeous melodies are less an artifice of sound and more an extension of their doubts and uncertainties. And that's really what this record is: a soundtrack to youth's fleeting optimism, and the fears it breeds when the dust settles.
By taking those heartful concerns and building them into this grand statement, Grizzly Bear not only face artistic and intellectual hardships with a strong backbone, they hold a mirror up to a scene's worth of wound-lickers in their towering, majestic arrangements. The emotions explored are universal in their scope, but there are no blanketed generalizations here, no instances of insular navel-gazing; the band's crystal-eyed documentations of time-worn subjects in pop music are fresh thanks in part to the dichotomy between their fearlessness and their vulnerability, and the ways in which they display those feelings with such a sense of self-discovery.
Sure, it helps that these songs are constructed with such sneakingly adhesive melodies, with a coating of such enveloping beauty, yet its aural audacity is ultimately vicarious to what's inside of them. After hearing Veckatimest, it's hard not to wish all of life's adversities came packaged in oscillating choirboy harmonies. - Anthony Lombardi
1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion [Domino]
As the prolific Animal Collective prepare to leave 2009 with the release of a new collection of songs, the hotly anticipated Fall Be Kind EP, it's appropriate to remember how they entered the year, with the release of Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album, named after a favorite concert venue, was their most well-received to date, garnering "album of the year" plaudits before January had even got under way. Particular love was thrown at "My Girls", and rightly so -- a lot of love had clearly gone into it. Here was a track that showed a more adventurous approach to harmony singing than the recently-lauded work of Fleet Foxes. The Animals' sonic environment was harsher than that of the Foxes, mixing ghostly technostalgia with machinic malfunction and uncanny loops, overlaid with those wonderful harmonies and yearning solo vocals.
Avey Tare and Panda Bear had given us many of these elements before, but never in such a broadly appealing package. Here was an album that non-fans could embrace and that anyone could get pleasantly lost in, only to wander out of its magical forests in awe of what Animal Collective had done and wonder what they would do next. - Richard Elliott
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