Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Special: Gary's Top 20 Albums of 2009

On the verge of already outdated in the wee opening days of the new year and decade, at long last is my dissertation of my favorite 20 albums of 2009. As with any year, it is borderline excruciating to decide which albums are worthy, in what order they meaninglessly belong, and most importantly, describing them with a verbose punch. Perhaps even more so this year, a year with much more musical diversity than, say, 2008. Alas, the deed is done, and the finished product is below.

If that jacked image is any indicator, or if you have been cognizant of the indie landscape this year, the results may not be terribly surprising. I was not going for surprises or upsets, but merely albums I actually enjoyed listening to throughout the course of the year. Even if it meant some off them were universally adored. The fact of the matter is, the general public would still find this list baffling and suspiciously lacking Lady Gaga. But I digress. Everyone is entitled to make lists, it seems. Here's mine:

20. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked VulturesWhen even the vaguest hint arose about the communion of three talented rock musicians (“gods” seems a bit presumptuous), expectations were expectedly high. Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, Foo Fighters), and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) are Them Crooked Vultures, and the end result more or less satisfying for any appreciator of honest-to-goodness rock that favors the “classic” descriptor. Supergroups are no guaranteed entity, but the resultant musicianship is far from clunky and superfluous; instead, riveting riffs and soaring melodies abound with minimal dull moments, as if these three had been rocking for years. The Vultures debut effort is definitely laudable and full of swagger, setting expectations for any subsequent follow-up even higher.

19. YACHT - See Mystery Lights The now-duo of Jona Bechtolt and new comer Claire Evans team up to make a cool, calm and collected set of indie dance rock jams. Brainier than the average electropop, YACHT combines groove and guile, a rare amalgamation that has listeners befuddled as to whether they should dance or think. Enjoyment preference aside, it is a mix that works effectively throughout the album, particularly the first half. See Mystery Lights is a sleek, solid set of synth-driven songs that is built to party.

18. Dan Deacon – BromstDan Deacon has created an intriguing electronic album with the nonsensically-titled Bromst, but merely in the broadest sense. Indeed, many of the noises are electronically produced, but at particular times, it sounds like the soundtrack to a toy box rave, catapulting it into its own personal realm. Slightly spastic and even silly, Deacon masters the layering of sounds from the entire spectrum, encapsulating the listener in a whirlwind of sugar-high bliss. Not content with being merely a one-trick pony, Deacon manages the down-tempo, as well, most noticeably on “Snookered,” a slow-building gem reminiscent of one of LCD Soundsystem’s epics (minus the masterful lyrics) that explodes into transient hysteria before cycling to the minimalism of the introduction. Plenty of albums could be deemed electronic this year, but few as inventive, energetic, and flat-out interesting as Bromst.

17. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix French hipsters Phoenix have created a seemingly effortless, timeless pop record for the ages. Clocking in at a lean yet effective 37 minutes, Wolfgang utilizes every second to its fullest potential, managing meaty hooks, bouncy beats, and soaring synths to create one memorable track after the other. The songs are immediately accessible without sacrificing creativity and diversity, particularly in song structure. Musical exploration is not sacrificed either, as “Love Like A Sunset” is a touching, shimmering instrumental piece, almost in the vein of M83, and a welcoming intermission to the otherwise fun-filled fare. Wolfgang is bursting with an exceptional brand of warm, danceable pop-rock that, given the brevity of the album, never overstays its welcome and has the listener coming back for more.

16. The Antlers – Hospice The idea of the concept album is nothing new. Bands have toyed with the idea in decades past to varying success and effectiveness. Enter Brooklyn indie outfit The Antlers, who have impressively pulled off the polarizing concept album with Hospice. The concept in question is not particularly difficult to discern, as the album follows the painfully heartbreaking journey of a man’s last moments with his lover, who is stricken with terminal cancer. The straightforwardness is by no means negative: The sincere fragility and raw human emotion expressed is utterly chilling and real, leaving an indelible impression on any listener time and time again. The soft, delicate nuances of the music are near-perfect, which rightfully places the emphasis on the storyline, but it swells and explodes when it counts. Hospice is the rare, universally relatable album, exploiting fundamental human experiences with a powerfully moving story.

15. Bat For Lashes - Two SunsOne of a handful of fantastic female chanteuses on this list, Natasha Khan manages to differentiate her stellar second LP, Two Suns, with dark and dense lullabies and some pop sensibility for good measure. Khan’s voice is simply magnificent from beginning to end, and the music behind her elevates the songs to frequently epic proportions. “Daniel” is the easy standout track, distilling all of the laudable elements of the album into a flawless four minutes of dreamy pop bliss. Two Suns may seem haunting and otherworldly at times, but it is consistently thrilling and downright beautiful.

14. Future of the Left - Travels with Myself & Another – Sometimes, an album was created for the sole purpose of deafening the listener because it begs to be played at maximum volume. Travels with Myself & Another is that album. Future of the Left have created a terse album jampacked with raunchy, angular hooks, dizzying drumwork, sheer volume, swagger and hilarious wordplay and wit. Every single song has the instinctual singalong sensibility to it, and the curious capability to captivate any listener. In fact, primal rocking out proves impossible to avoid while engaging in this album. Absurd, adventurous, but above all just flat-out awesome, Travels is all-inclusive enough to be the only rock record necessary this year.

13. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It’s Blitz!The bad news is that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of old are no longer. The good news is that they might be better than ever. The band’s third album takes a bit of a departure, relying on synths this time around to propel their compelling brand of pop-rock. As a result, the album seems a tinge retro, a touch groovy, and a certainly a dash of dazzling. Songs like “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” are unabashed upbeat synth-pop, whereas “Skeletons” and “Runaway” are affectionate barn-burners executed exquisitely by Karen O and Co. It is always encouraging and refreshing to see a band attempt the unknown, particularly when it is highly successful and engaging like It’s Blitz!

12. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at HeartBreezy, unadulterated, lo-fi pop matched with unaffected vocals and a dash of melancholy mope: This recipe works to perfection on The Pains’ eponymous debut. The soft, fuzzy feel of the songs creates a type of timeless aura, aided by sublime yet simple songwriting that could have been from anywhere in the annals of music history. It sounds familiar, yet remarkably fresh, an atypical balance. Furthermore, the typical teenage angst expressed throughout is sincere and never overbearing. All in all, the album is an affectionate, wholehearted display of irresistible indie pop goodness, making it damn near impossible not to like.

11. Passion Pit – Manners It is not always about subtlety and nuance. Sometimes, some unbridled exuberance, if executed properly, is just as effective. Cambridge, Mass. outfit Passion Pit seem to have made this their life’s mission, or at least the overarching theme of debut Manners. Most of the songs are brimming with enthusiasm and excitement, yet there is enough variety to prevent exhaustion. Cuts like “Sleepyhead” and “The Reeling” exemplify the prototypical hyperactive electropop, while songs like “Swimming In The Flood” resonate with their ballad-like sincerity without sounding unbefitting. Manners is feelgood, catchy euphoria injected right into the bloodstream, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

10. Atlas Sound – Logos Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s second effort under the Atlas Sound moniker further refines the undeniably shoegaze aspects of his debut so well, an entire album of these jams could have sufficed. Instead, in addition to these delightfully introspective gems, Cox explores a bit and produces some uncharacteristically upbeat numbers as well, and these prove to be just as satisfying. The two standouts come in the form of two polar opposite guest appearances. On one, Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox teams up on “Walkabout,” an unabashedly bouncy pop classic that defies era. On the other, Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier makes “Quick Canal” an unforgettably gorgeous trip, stealthily synthesizing significant swirls of sound and haze, whilst Sadier croons angelically. It is precisely these two realms that Logos melds magnificently, creating an often times insular yet always exciting experience.

09. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport I guess the Bristol duo didn’t get the memo about the whole “sophomore slump” business. Tarot Sport picks up right where last year’s solid Street Horrrsing left off, and improves in literally every dimension. In broad generalization, it is still an electronic, instrumental endurance test, but this time around the methods are much more diverse, subtle and mature, and thus more engaging and entertaining. Weaning off of the indistinguishable screaming and sheer walls of noise, Tarot Sport instead relies on elements of techno and even dance to create some remarkably moving compositions. Even without words, the album compellingly marches on as if there is a story. Tarot Sport is a thrilling, visceral experience and certainly worthy to be among the year’s elite.

08. Florence + The Machine – Lungs Yet another new act to hail from England, Florence Welch could be from anywhere in the world and still achieve recognition with her out-of-this-world voice. Lungs juxtaposes Welch’s knockout pipes with invigorating, genre-blurring backing that combine to form a multitude of majestic, grandiose moments. Whether it is soul, folk or pop, Welch manages them all with ease, and as a result weaves them together to form a powerful and beautiful debut effort that demands repeated replays.

07. Girls – Album One of the more pleasant surprises of the year, Girls generated plenty of buzz before their debut even dropped, mainly due to the engrossing back story of lead singer Christopher Owen (he was raised in the Children of God cult.) Owen has commented that Album is an “overflow of expression” since there was no restrictions in its creation, perhaps a perfect, pithy summation. Girls make the sun-drenched pop classic seem effortless, all the while captivating the listener with honest, heartfelt emotion. Owen can make the simplest of statements seem so profound and revolutionary, and the at-times retro, lo-fi aesthetic simply furthers this feeling. Girls may not be doing anything particularly new, but they certainly make it seem otherwise.

06. Dirty Projectors - Bitte OrcaWhen Grizzly Bear frontman Ed Droste was asked to describe Bitte Orca, he was at a loss of words. Good, I’m not the only one. This should not be construed as critically pejorative in the least. In fact, this is simply a testament to the admirable work Dirty Projectors have accomplished on Bitte Orca. Perhaps the premiere instance of genre blurring, the lean nine-track album exploits unconventional experimental measures and stunningly refurbishes them into awe-inspiring accessibility. Compiling elements from across the musical landscape with laudable songwriting and synthesizing them into something as listenable as this is simply impressive. Classification may be elusive, but the end result is not: An exhilarating, digestible piece of experimental near-perfection that nearly circumvents any modicum of diminishing returns.

05. Fever RayFever RayOne-half of Swedish electronic outfit The Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson (under the pseudonym Fever Ray) demonstrates glimpses of her origins on her solo debut, but more impressively establishes an interesting blend of electronic music. Equal parts chilling and claustrophobic, every song haunts the senses with its combination of rich textures and Andersson’s shrill, often times manipulated vocals. Everything gels together for a truly nocturnal album that is dark and uncertain at every turn. Fever Ray’s eponymous debut effort may not be immediately gratifying, but upon repeated listens it becomes apparent that it is an album filled with standouts, each more evocative than the last.

04. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic Don’t call it a comeback. The Flaming Lips have been waxing experimental for two-and-a-half decades now, so they certainly know what they are doing. Embryonic is an ambitious, sprawling double album that is simply jam-packed with a bevy of ideas and influences. The antithesis of refined, the songs are scattershot, raw and sometimes indulgent, but all in the best possible manner. Over seventy minutes in length, and yet there is never a dull moment to be found, as the album constantly keeps the listener off guard with its bountiful bag of tricks, ranging from beautiful, laid-back and trippy to explosive, rocking and urgent. From beginning to end, Embryonic is one hell of an intriguing ride that, despite its length, still ends too soon.

03. The xx – xxAll debut albums wish they could sound this good. The South London quartet of twentysomethings has made an impressive album on their first attempt, displaying maturity beyond their years. It is an impressive feat to use the standard palette of instruments and sound so fresh, which is constantly on display over the eleven tracks of xx. The startlingly effective use of minimalism and unbelievable nuance create evocatively powerful backdrops over which the subdued boy/girl dual vocals work their magic. The result is a complete, perfectly-executed album, free of any extraneousness and brimming with raw emotion.

02. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest Seemingly destined to always be second to MPP, Grizzly Bear put out a fantastic album that could have been tops in many other years. A meticulously refined album, the band’s astuteness to detail on their third LP pays major dividends, rewarding listeners with well-constructed, warm chamber folk/pop gems that are too easy in which to get lost. The continual restraint and precision exercised on Veckatimest only makes the moments of grandiose (such as in “Fine For Now” and “While You Wait For The Others”) that much sweeter and epic. Perhaps fulfilling the “grower” classification of album, Veckatimest still manages to finagle some pop sensibility in their beautiful compositions, yielding a powerful hybrid of an album that consistently delivers.

01. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion - Upon its leak to the masses on Christmas 2008, and its subsequent release a month later, many hailed the Collective’s eighth studio album with premature “Album of the Year” distinctions. Potentially facetious in January, MPP certainly had a special aura surrounding it that always put it a cut above the rest. At year’s end, the haughty expectations hold true: It is that good.

A seemingly unanimous pick among some indie circles, the reason is simple: It has it all. They manage to create some sonically stunning soundscapes on the fringe of accessibility while maintaining their unique identity. The songs detail raw human emotions and desires, concepts that are universally relatable. Each song has its own feel to it, whether it is the hazy otherworldly bliss of the perfect love song that is “Bluish,” the successive sugary Afro-chamber-pop swirls of “Brother Sport” or the slightly less refined, experimentally electronic edge of “Daily Routine.” Every song is not only good, they are all great, and any perceptible lull only further emphasizes the majestic highs of the album. Not to mention that Noah Lennox and David Portner are simply unmatched when they sing together, forever drawing Beach Boys comparisons.

Fresh, fulfilling and always fun, MPP is worthy of all of the hype and superlatives surrounding it. 2009 saw a lot of impressive releases, but none quite as memorable or landmark as MPP.

There ya have it. Predictable but deserving. Things become cliche for a reason, after all. Some final footnotes:
- I wasn't kidding last year when I said that
Merriweather Post Pavilion would have placed high if it was legitimately released in 2008.
- Circulatory System's "Signal Morning" just missed the cut. Love that album, not the fact that it was snubbed.
- Grizzly Bear & Animal Collective owned my top two favorite songs and albums of 2009. Go figure.
- This list excludes EPs, but Animal Collective's
Fall Be Kind would probably top a shortlist of Top EPs, too. Give it up, it was their year.
- I didn't get Baroness's
Blue Record.
As if this needed any additional restatement, 2009 was way better than 2008.

And cut. Here's to an eventful beginning to a new decade. Hope Contra is awesome.

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