20. Harvard - The Inevitable and I
The most underground selection on this list, Harvard is a band based out of Charlotte, North Carolina that sports a sound eerily reminiscent to Circa Survive and Coheed and Cambria. Vocalist Jesse Clasen belts out effeminate vocals akin to Rush's Geddy Lee while guitarists Jason Shaw and Lee Herrera play atmospheric and effects laden riffs that would elicit a smile from Circa axeman Colin Frangicetto. "Deliverance" is the strongest song on the album and packs a punch while the title track "Inevitable and I" is a soft acoustic arrangement that ends the record with a mellow feeling. Harvard's debut was produced by Brian Mcternan, the man behind Circa Survive, Thrice, Senses Fail, and Cave-In, which is only appropriate considering fans of the aforementioned will surely adore Harvard.
19. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
A bit overrated? Yeah, definitely. However, there is no denying that ‘Merriweather Pavilion’ is a truly experimental effort worthy of plenty of praise. Already their 8th LP, Animal Collective have really come into their own on ‘MPP” by creating an original selection of dream pop tracks that flow seamlessly in and out of each other. “My Girls”, the album’s most popular song, typifies what you can expect from ‘MPP’ – five minute long tracks that straddle the line between keyboard-infused pop and whacked out psychedelia. “Bluish” is the strongest song on the album and features the lyrics “I'm getting lost in your curls/I'm drawing pictures on your skin, so soft it twirls”, an apt analogy for it albums imagery-laden and dreamy instrumentation.
18. Closure in Moscow - First Temple
The Aussie quintet's debut 'First Temple' is one of the most original and interesting albums of the year due to its fusion of music that is both progressive and accessible. Best described as The Mars Volta on downers (i.e., not as retarded), Closure In Moscow have normal song structures but manage to spice things up with amazing guitar work and melodic vocal harmonies. "Sweet#hart", despite the extraneous pound sign, is the catchiest song on the album and a good starting point for most. "A Night At The Spleen" is my personal favorite and upholds The Mars Volta comparison as vocalist Christopher DeCinque attempts his best Cedric Bixler impression. On the whole if you're looking for a progressive record that is sophisticated yet accessible with a pinch of post-hardcore check out 'First Temple' and you won't be disappointed.
17. Telefon Tel Aviv - Immolate Yourself
Telefon Tel Aviv's third LP, 'Immolate Yourself', builds upon the electronic/IDM influence purported by 'Map of What Is Effortless' and 'Fahrenheit Far Enough', however the emotional, gloomy nature of their music is more apparent than ever because of the unfortunate death of band member Charles Cooper. "The Birds" opens the album and is without a doubt Telefon Tel Aviv's magnum opus, a 6:38 second affair that features hypnotic rhythms, ethereal synths, and the repeated lyrics "The birds remind me of what we made/The birds remind me of what remains." The first minute of the song also includes a mumbled whisper that can't help but inspire thoughts of Cooper and his death: "The science of your days is laid bare, boiling in the sun, for all the world to see." The rest of 'Immolate Yourself' struggles to measure up to the brilliance of "The Birds", however "M", "Mostly Transculent", and the album's title track are all solid efforts as well.
16. Russian Circles – Geneva
Russian Circles first garnered my attention in May 2008 with the post-metal sound of their sophomore release 'Station'. Their follow-up, 'Geneva', is an album that improves on its predecessor in every way and packs a notable punch. Album openers "Fathom" and "Geneva" represent two of the most brutal tracks by the band to date, while "Melee" starts off slow but eventually gives way to a crescendo of guitar and percussion by songs end. Bassist Brian Cook especially shines on the first three tracks (most notably on "Geneva") by weeving heavy, low-tuned grooves between Mike Sullivan's guitar melodies and Dave Turncrantz's drum rhythms. "Hexed All" marks the turning point of 'Geneva' as the band abandons metal for more traditional post-rock stylings. "When The Mountain Comes to Muhammad" is the star of the second half of the album and wouldn't be out of place on a Mogwai record.
15. Converge - Axe To Fall
Listening to Converge's 'Axe To Fall' is like taking a brick to the face - and man does it hurt so good. The Massachusetts-based mathcore band continues to cement themselves as the preeminent act in the genre with the 7th LP since their inception in 1990. Be warned, 'Axe To Fall' is not for the faint of heart as it pumps ferocious instrumentation, grating vocals, and morbid lyrics into a thirteen track adrenaline-fueled frenzy. The album opens up at break-neck pace, with "Dark Horse", "Reap What You Sow", "Axe To Fall", and "Effigy" each containing the technical guitar meedling, spastic time signatures, and patented Jacob Bannon bark that lend Converge their identity. Some of the most rewarding tracks on the album come in the way of "Worms Will Feed", "Cruel Bloom", and "Wretched World", longer works that ditch high-speed proficiency and Bannon's typical scream for slower, more epic build-ups and toned down vocals. 'Axe To Fall' features numerous guest appearances, including contributions from members of Genghis Tron, The Red Chord, Hatebreed, and Cave In. All told, 'Axe To Fall' is another terrific installment in Converge's catalog and a must-listen for any fan of hardcore music.
14. James Yuill - Turning Down Water For Air
London-based James Yuill began the year in obscurity but ascended to relative popularity thanks to plugs from last.fm and most recently Starbucks. His debut 'Turning Down Water For Air', released in May of this year, caught my eye thanks to its catchy, albeit sparse mix of folk rock and electronica (folktronica?). Fans of Phoenix and The Postal Service will immediately resonate with Yuill and are sure to love tracks such as "No Pins Allowed" and "This Sweet Love", two of the album's best. 'Turning Down Water For Air' emphasizes Yuill's vocals, which are subdued yet emotional. His lyrics don't try to solve world hunger but are instead poignant love ballads that any adolescent or young adult will find relatable. "No Surprises" is certainly no exception, as Yuill sings "If you want me, I will be right here/And if you love me you will notice me here." 'Turning Down Water For Air' was one of the best surprises of 2009 and an effort that most, especially fans of the hybrid indie/pop/electronic craze, will enjoy.
13. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
If there was a winner for most striking album artwork of the year, ‘The Crying Light’ and its black and white depiction of 1970s butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno would take first prize. It stands alone on its musical merits as well though. Antony and the Johnsons is comprised of singer Antony Hegarty and his backing musicians, both of whom collaborate to fashion what has been described as “baroque pop”, a vocal-intensive style of music with delicate strings and orchestral samplings in the background. And make no mistake, Hegarty is what makes ‘The Crying Light’ great. “Epilepsy is Dancing” makes full use of Hegarty’s glorious voice in its discussion of the inexplicable pain and aural wonder (if you can believe it) caused by epileptic seizures: “Cut me in quadrants/Leave me in the corner/Oh now it’s passing/Oh now I’m dancing.” Hegarty’s vocal crescendo on the album finale “Everglade” is near tear-inducing and leaves the listener with a sense of wonder and amazement about how emotional the human voice can be.
12. Thrice – Beggars
Thrice has come a long way from their 2001 debut ‘Identity Crisis.’ At the time they were a generic post-hardcore band trying to make a name for themselves, however with ‘Beggars’ Thrice, much like Brand New, has cemented themselves as one of the elite alternative bands around today. Upon listening to ‘Beggars’ it is easy to notice stylistic similarities to the ‘Earth’ and ‘Air’ sections of 2008’s ‘The Alchemy Index’, particularly on tracks such as “Circles”, “Wood & Wire”, and “Beggars” that sound like something off a Radiohead album. “All The World is Mad” and “At the Last”, while good songs, are the only remnants of circa-2003 Thrice to be found on ‘Beggars’ and serve as telling evidence of the band’s progression.
11. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear’s ‘Veckatimest’ was one of the few albums of 2009 that deserved its critical reception and hype, promoting what I can best describe as minimalistic foggy folk rock. Tracks like “Ready, Able” and “While You Wait for the Others” put the listener into trance, tricking us into believing there’s more to it than vocal harmonies and a guitar strums. Perhaps that’s what makes Grizzly Bear so good though – they don’t overextend themselves, and instead stick to a ‘Pet Sounds’ style folk rock that is intensely satisfying. The album’s best and most accessible is probably “Two Weeks”, which opens up with a piano lick that sounds very similar to Jay-Z’s “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” ‘Veckatimest’ isn’t recommended for all audiences; however those appreciative of a little nuance and subtlety with a dash of pop will come away satisfied.
10. Passion Pit - Manners
To put it succinctly: Passion Pit’s ‘Manners’ is probably the most addicting album of the year. The Massachusetts-based electro-pop quintet managed to create an album that, unlike MGMT’s ‘Oracular Spectacular’, provides a full listening experience rather than just a couple catchy singles. There isn’t one skippable track on ‘Manners’, every one managing to meld Michael Angelakos’ unich-esque bellow betwixt catchy synth pop melodies. My personal favorite is in a perpetual state of flux; however “Sleepyhead” and “The Reeling”, the album’s first single, are a great starting point for potential listeners. I can’t honestly conceive of someone disliking ‘Manners’, so if you’re not short of hearing please check this album out.
09. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another
Look up a definition of the word “badass” in the dictionary and you’ll be sure to see mention of Future of the Left, a sometimes brutal, often times catchy, yet consistently hilarious punk band from Cardiff, Wales. I’d be hard-pressed to describe what ‘Travels With Myself and Another’ actually sounds like (last.fm has “noise rock” as the top genre recommendation) – I don’t think I’ve heard anything like it before. Instead, I’ll offer this bit of advice: turn the volume up to 11 and rock out to the gravelly vocals, heavy as fuck bass lines, and driving keyboard arrangements. “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” has ridiculously heavy synth beats and pummels the shit out of you. “Throwing Bricks at Trains” is a bit easier on the sensibilities and is also inexplicably hilarious: “Slight/Bowl movements/Preceded/the bloodless coup/But no one/must know it/I am at fault.” Overall, if you like a band that is heavy, catchy, and doesn’t take itself too seriously, check out Future of the Left and their new record ‘Travels With Myself and Another.’
08. Paper Route - Absence
Paper Route, fresh off a world tour with Paramore, combine musical elements from Mute Math, Coldplay, and M83 to form a rare brand of ambient-electro-rock that propels their full length debut 'Absence' to #8 status in 2009. Perhaps the most impressive thing about 'Absence' is its diversity. "Last Time" sounds like a B-side off Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida...', "Carousel" channels 'Frengers'-era Mew, while "Gutter" opens with a distorted beat that could be confused for TV on the Radio's "I Was a Lover". The strongest tracks on the record include "Good Intentions", "Last Time", and the finale "Dance On Our Graves", which closes the album with an electric violin solo that is arguably the best minute of music in 2009. Any fan of the abovementioned comparisons will find something they like in ‘Absence.’
07. dredg – the Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion
I owe my entire musical taste to dredg. They’re the band that grasped me from the throngs of generic radio rock and unveiled the beneficent world of progressive music. Needless to say, I was freaking excited for June’s release of ‘the Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion’, and thankfully the Bay-area prog rockers didn’t disappoint. “Pariah” opens the record in epic fashion and conjures thoughts of 2002’s ‘El Cielo’, while tracks such as “Saviour”, “Information”, and “I Don’t Know” could easily pass as top forty singles. The second half of the album features a bit more experimentation, especially “Long Days and Vague Clues”, a 1:53 funhouse thrill ride complete with bombastic cellos and violins. The versatility of ‘the Pariah…’ is its strength, but also its downfall, as the album seems to lack continuity at times. dredg’s brand of progressive pop rock on ‘the Pariah…’ should sit well with fans of Circa Survive, A Perfect Circle, and U2.
06. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I was a little late to the Phoenix party so it’s likely that ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’, with a little more time for absorption, could have been as high as 2 or 3. “1901” and “Lisztomania” are their two big singles and serve as extremely catchy electro-pop tunes; however I would struggle to call them the album’s best since their isn’t one throw-away track on ‘Wolfgang…’. “Fences”, “Rome”, and “Lasso” are all great and stick to the formula of the two singles, however “Love Like a Sunset” stands out as the album’s best, a seven-minute instrumental epic that rises and falls like the tide. Fans of Passion Pit, MGMT, and Empire of the Sun will definitely love ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ and should give it a listen.
05. Brand New – Daisy
Make no mistake, Brand New's 'Daisy' is a dark and uncomfortable album, one that lulls the listener into a false sense of security before delivering a jarring helping of angsty Jesse Lacey screams and distorted guitar riffs. The CD's first track, "Vices", encapsulates this notion perfectly, opening with a vocal track reminiscent of Edith Piaf before eventually segueing into a veritable torrent of dissonance. The progression to 'Daisy' further confirms the reality that 'Your Favorite Weapon' era Brand New is gone, dead in the past. They have distanced themselves from the ubiquitous emo scene and established themselves as true progressive artists, deserving a place right next to the Radiohead's of the world thanks to their originality and creativity. "You Stole", one of the best tracks on the album, confirms that Lacey is still a champion of deep and cryptic lyrics, as he yearns "So if I'm a liar and you're a thief/At least we both know where the other one sleeps/So let's end this tonight." “Noro” is one of the best album closers you’re going to find, eventually closing with the same Piaf-like intro that lead into “Vices”.
04. Every Time I Die - New Junk Aesthetic
What happens when you combine math metal, southern rock, and hardcore influences into one nice little 37-minute package? Everytime I Die's 'New Junk Aesthetic' of course, a sonic assault that bludgeons the listener with tight, heavy riffs and Keith Buckley's perfect scream and genius lyrics (which cannot be emphasized enough). Tracks like "Who Invited the Russian Solider?" and "White Smoke" precipitate a sense of alarm and urgency thanks to Buckley's wonderful delivery. "For the Record" is the album's best and features Buckley's exclamation, "Lord have mercy on my soul/I've had a good run but can't run anymore/Just put me down", amidst one of the band's most brutal breakdowns to date. "White Smoke" and "Goddamn Kids These Days" follow a similar thread while "The Marvelous Slut" is a short number that features Greg Puciato of The Dillinger Escape plan on guest vocals.
03. Portugal The. Man - The Satanic Satanist
The quarter from Wasilla, Alaska must be bionic or something. July's release of 'The Satanic Satanist' makes four LP's and one EP in a meager four years. "People Say", album opener and lead single, is an anti-war anthem that harkens images of 1960s Vietnam protests and college campus sit-ins. The song is catchy and well-written but does not over stay its welcome, a consistent theme among all eleven tracks on 'The Satanic Satanist'. "Work All Day", Guns & Dogs", and "Everyone Is Golden" are all very accessible and contribute to the Beatles-type classic rock vibe present throughout. "The Home" is my personal favorite and an ode to the soul-infused numbers on 'Censored Colors' and 'Church Mouth'. Singer John Baldwin Gourley stands out as much as ever with his effeminate and helplessly melodic croon, especially on tracks such as "The Sun". Portugal. The man does not attempt to reinvent the wheel with 'The Satanic Satanist', but instead provides extremely catchy and light-hearted pop tunes that any person would enjoy.
02. Mew - No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away
An extremely long and pretentious album title is the only fault evident in Mew's 'No More Stories Are Told Today I'm Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I'm Tired Let's Wash Away.' The Danish rock trio's most recent release is a natural progression from 2006's 'And The Glass Handed Kites', combining pop and shoegaze elements to craft an album that would be equally suitable for a late-night listening session or a car ride with some friends. 'No More Stories...' remains remarkably consistent throughout and is bolstered by a whimsical, almost child-like pop/ambient sound that is extremely difficult to categorize. "Repeaterbeater", the band's most recent single and a good place to start for those unfamiliar with Mew, is a pragmatic if not depressing track about lost love that has lead vocalist Jonas Bjerre emote, "Sometimes I've got nothing to do/Nothing to signal out when I can't be with you." "Silas The Magic Car", "Hawaii", and "Sometimes Life Isn't Easy" also round out the album's best.
01. The Dangerous Summer - Reach for the Sun
The unequivocal zenith of 2009, 'Reach for the Sun' is a once in a life time record that is heartfelt, sincere, and evocative. The album's foundation is Jared Palermo's lyrical content and intensely emotional vocal delivery which resonates increasingly with each listen. The instrumentation is catchy, rife with hazy guitar licks that serve as an admirable supplement to Palermo's vocals. The band initially comes off as “pop punk”, however several songs in it becomes obvious that ‘Reach of the Sun’ is something more. "Where I Want To Be" deals with introspection and a lost lover and concludes with Palermo's realization that "I'm learning now that I was wrong in everything/And that's the reason why I think that I can grow." "The Permanent Rain" has more weighty subject matter as Palermo discusses his deceased grandmother and her effect on his music career with "You know I've lost a lot/But I won't let this die/You know I've got this friend up in the atmosphere/Another reason not to fear the sky." 'Reach for the Sun' is quite simply one of the best vocal and lyrical records of all-time. The album is very accessible and a must listen for everyone.