PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

The 10 Best Debut Albums of 2009

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Continuing our celebration of PopMatters' 20th anniversary, we revisit our 10 picks for the best debut albums of 2009. It turns out our selections were prescient as many of these artists have gone on to storied careers. Travel back to 2009 and see them again for the first time.

Debuts are special. Novel, gig, published poem, stage show, exhibition, album -- that first exposure of any artwork will in one sense always cast a happy shadow over its creative descendants. Debuts are special most obviously for their creators, who experience a thrilling surreality quite like no other when they see their hitherto (and often intensely) private labors made public and have total strangers cast a discerning eye, ear, fingertip or nostril (hello, Piero Manzoni) over them. There's an exquisite sort of miraculousness -- something that goes way beyond mere vanity or the modern pursuit of celebrity -- in making something, then finding out people who don't have to care actually do. (It is no coincidence that quite a number of respected cultural artisans have publicly confided that they once felt like they were winging it.) Today, with the peculiar arm's length intimacy of the internet a standard feature of our everyday lives, that sort of disclosure is more forthright than ever before.

Debuts, though, are special too for those on the receiving end. Yes, they bring us fresh sparkle and pep after we've just slogged our way through another creaky-kneed U2 disc, as well as writing another chapter in the deathless quest for the Next Big Thing. But more importantly and more lastingly meaningful, debuts are for most of us a way into a relationship with an artist, and nowhere is this more pertinent than in the emotion-rousing world of music. In this sense, debut albums only realize their true role retroactively. They form the starting point for everything from our connections with our favorite bands, to more general and widespread movements within music. You only have to fleetingly consider the reverence granted to the likes of the Beatles, Bowie, Joy Division and the Smiths to see that it isn't only about the sounds they made and the words they sang. It is also about what they started. Whether you're thinking about bohemianism, post-punk or simply "Veckatimest", foundations are irremovable, interminable, and consequently fascinating.

Now, I'm not for a minute suggesting that the albums in the following list will provoke sprawling, seismic cultural movements that percolate into the forthcoming decades -- that would be silly. Such things are extraordinary, not to mention unpredictable (and, it could be argued, a thing of the past.) But the point is this: the retrospective significance of debut albums makes them, in the present, things of wondrous interest and potentiality. For great debut albums -- well, even more so.

The ten bands and artists below might not have any lasting impact upon music; some of them might not even make another album. It's worth remembering, in the here-and-now, that this is where everyone once began. That said, it's worth considering that great beginnings are not always great just as beginnings. The best debuts are exciting not only for what they promise, but for what they deliver, too. And the very absence of pressure, preconceptions, and expectations means they can be an experience of willful discovery for their makers and their listeners. So think of these ten albums not as what could be, but also what already is: the best debut records of 2009.

Marshall Amp by tookapic (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

10. Japandroids - Post-Nothing [Polyvinyl]

On the face of it, Japandroids are just stragglers in decade's-end flurry of shambling, scantily-staffed lo-fi rock bands. Lo-fi is all about appearances. It's caring about appearing not to care and it's the defiant turn of the head away from consumerism that proves consumerism has gotten you. Japandroids, by contrast, are about sweating out a hell of a racket with your buddy, and little more. Post-Nothing is catchy as anything and furiously fast; the type of record that is fun to listen to because it was clearly so fun to make. It's totally artless, and not for the sake of being arty, but for the abandonment and the sheer hell of it all. "We used to dream / Now we worry about dying / I don't want to worry about dying," comes the objection of "Young Hearts Spark Fire", somewhere amid a fuzz of guitars and shattering cymbals. Japandroids don't sound like they want to worry about anything, and frankly, why should they? Dreaming, surely, is what debut albums are all about.

LISTEN: Bandcamp

9. Golden Silvers - True Romance [XL]

In year where electropop was refreshingly out of vogue, Golden Silvers strutted onto the scene, touting just that, as naturally as if it was 1980. As exponents of a genre notorious for pricing style higher than substance, this London trio stand out as quite the opposite, peddling some truly sturdy songwriting and genuine depth. They are also quite plainly unfashionable -- from the fizzy-pop synths and parping Dexy's brass right down to teary-eyed heart-clenching of frontman Gwilym Gold -- and perfectly happy about that, thanks. While True Romance is more grounded and reflective than Oracular Spectacular, though, Golden Silvers bring a British riposte to MGMT, wrapped up in their own mythologies (in this case Ancient Greek) and floating away on sweetly swirling harmonies as if they tied together to make a magic carpet. And, in their shimmying hoe-down of a title-track, they've got this year's answer to "Time to Pretend". It's a genuine pop gem.

8. Florence and the Machine - Lungs [Island]

More than any other artist this year, Florence Welch had much to live up to. It was hardly through any fault of her own, but the publicity and expectation kindled by this pallid 22-year-old and her collaborative machine seemed to set her up for an early fall (critically, anyway -- it would have sold in shedloads regardless.) That there's been barely a dissenting word against Lungs is a little short of miraculous, if perfectly comprehensible when you put your ears to it. Turned out it was a pertinently titled release, too, because it is Welch's own pulmonary clout, out of which she coaxed a willowed tone of quite exceptional range, that drives home the kind of impassioned choruses that Lily Allen's dreams are made of. Lungs is no TV-talent-show-voice-is-everything-croonfest, however. It revels in a similar sort of twinkly-eyed and mystic adventurism as Natasha Khan and Joanna Newsom, through grounded in a anthemic popularism. Welch even managed to breathe a mouthful of fresh air into the Source's "You've Got the Love", a song that's seen more covers than the courts of Wimbledon.

7. The Invisible - The Invisible [Accidental]

London in 2009 is a tense enough place to live: a tightly-wrought, clamorous and sleepless capital of 24-hour kinetics and simmering anxiety, blanketed by its own choking smoke. If the essence of the most dreadful clouds over the city's collective psyche were captured last year by the Bug's London Zoo, the Invisible soundtrack its broader identity and its fears and claustrophobia, but also its multifariously cultural heart and soul. It is brooding one moment, optimistic the next, but always in the grips of a hypnotic, pulsing intensity.

Their debut full-length is a sprawling, slick record with icy-cold electro undercurrents and a hip, swaggering groove. That has seen them persistently misidentified as the British TV on the Radio (and I promised myself I wouldn't bring that up.) There's a warmer side to it, though, most perceptibly in the woozy "Spiral", which find Dave Okumu's prickling string-picks melting out of shape beneath his own tentative soul-searching, and on "London Girl", which follows its "Another One Bites the Dust" bassline along a soulful trail of organ swells and electronic pinpricks before folding in on itself.

6. Passion Pit - Manners [Frenchkiss]

In an era where it seems it's not okay for music to just sound good, no agenda attached, Passion Pit play things refreshingly straight. Manners is the album that fleshed-out Michael Angelakos's bedroom project into a fully-staffed band, so its no surprise that it sounds so busy, brimming with freewheeling synths, euphoric gang choruses and -- whisper it -- the occasional child choir. It also free from all pretensions; just a record of surging electronic pop songs of the type where any could realistically be a single. Angelakos's lyrical vision remained dark, his falsetto occasionally strained to a desperate breaking point, but such is the openness, infectiousness and full-bodied enthusiasm on display across Manners, you can scarcely help but feel uplifted.

5. The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa [Green Owl]

In today's web-savvy, cross-continental culture, we have awe-inspiring amounts of music at our disposal, from all parts of the globe. And I'm pretty sure, if you took the time to figure it out, that there would be some correlation between the rise of the internet and the flurry of international crossover artists we've seen in recent years. The (very) best of them, however, don't sound like crossover artists -- and so it is with Warm Heart of Africa, the result of a truly international collaboration between a Malawian singer and drummer and a Franco-Dutch production team who all coalesced in London.

The Very Best draw on sounds from far and wide, but they make easy bedfellows because the elements mingle at the most fundamental level. Is that a minimal electro groove underpinning "Nskoto", or is it an Afrobeat rhythm? Is Ezra Koenig's peppy yap perfectly suited to the Afropop of the title track, or was the title track always earmarked for Koenig? Is this Africa reaching out to western music or is the west reaching out to African music? It's neither, it's both and it's irrelevant; Warm Heart of Africa is simply one of the most joyful, exuberant and downright fun records you'll hear all year.

4. BLK JKS - After Robots [Secretly Canadian]

If you thought this Johannesburgian quartet simply hadn't got the memo that vowel neglect is, like, so 2008, then think again. BLK JKS are nine years old already, and set the ball off long before we noticed it was rolling. With that in mind, After Robots has taken its sweet time to arrive on our shores, but with the consequence that its sound is not one of budding promise, but of a dense, frenetic experience already beautifully realised. With the Very Best, Antibalas and, Vampire Weekend all familiar names, the fusion of African and Western music is hardly an exotic delicacy any longer, but BLK JKS offer a flipside to the coin in that it is American indie that has percolated into their sound, not vice-versa.

"Lakeside" was the breakout, and it's easy to see why, with its trickling arpeggios and exuberant chants which whip up into a crescendo of swirling guitars and Mpumi Mcata's searing solos. Multifaceted, multi-instrumental and multilingual, the album once or twice loses itself in its own smoke, but that's hardly surprising when it burns brightly on so many fronts.

3. Titus Andronicus - The Airing of Grievances [XL]

In a sense, Titus Andronicus are a bit like the xx. Every chunk of gristle they hurl into this meaty debut disc is unmistakably and venomously authentic. But while xx sounds like it oozed effortlessly from the hip, Titus Andronicus is belligerently spat out, laced with phlegm and blood. Sonically, it's pretty much the antithesis of xx, a cacophonous clatter of drunken anger, youthful indignation and thrashing riffs. Muddy, murky and messy throughout, it is also triumphantly and cleverly so, Patrick Stickles' slurry, fist-in-the-air bawl both literately and self-aware as well as howlingly passionate. This is anthemic but intelligent, histrionic yet down-to-earth, and most of all damn good, sweaty fun.

2. Micachu & the Shapes - Jewellery [Rough Trade]

More than anywhere else in this list, the future lies in these hands. Or let's hope it does, anyway, because 21-year-old Mica Levi, a classically trained composer slash grime MC slash garage DJ slash giddy pop miniaturist, has this year single-handedly reinvented pop music. The first thing you'll be told about Jewellery is its complexity, its experimentalism, and it's all true, but significantly, after a couple of listens, you can't even tell. Superficially, the likes of "Golden Phone" and "Turn Me Well" are messy musical playthings, crammed in their brevity with all sorts of squiggly, glitchy, yelping, chiming sonic bric-a-brac (vacuum cleaner included). Spin them again and everything just seems to slide so easily into place.

The bubbly groove of Levi's acoustic guitar, the surprising sweetness in her androgynous and manifestly Londonian burr and Raisa Khan's shape-shifting electronics, strung together by Marc Bell's thumping percussive timekeeping. Thirteen songs, and not one of them ends up where it starts -- nothing ends up where it was ten seconds earlier, for that matter -- or anywhere near where you might feasibly have guessed it was going. A running time of half an hour would normally suggest a dearth of ideas, but with Micachu, there was never any hope of her squeezing them all in.

1. The xx - xx [Rough Trade]

Of all the compliments it is possible to pay London four-became-three-piece the xx, possibly the most germane is that their sorta-self-titled debut album sounds nothing like a debut album. While most groups of 20-year-old mates would, thrown into a record label's own garage with a fistful of cash, quickly see to all nearby booze and drugs and then lay even the kitchen sink down on record. It is quite apparent that the xx aren't your average group of 20-year-old mates, then, when you consider that xx is one of the slickest records you'll hear this year, restrained to the point of minimalism and palpably ached-over. The intimate interplay between dual vocalists and lifelong friends Romy Croft and Oliver Sim was enough for some to suggest a sexual relationship kept furtively under wraps, but the album doesn't need a juicy back-story: intriguing enough is its skeletal architecture of its gorgeous, reverb-glossed guitars, breathy vocals and swaggeringly collected rhythm section. It is genuinely rare to hear music that sounds at once so carefully crafted and so natural.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.


MetalMatters: The Best New Heavy Metal Albums of September 2020

Oceans of Slumber thrive with their progressive doom, grind legends Napalm Death make an explosive return, and Anna von Hausswolff's ambient record are just some of September's highlights.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.