Top Music of 2009

January 4, 2010

Well, we’re 4 days into 2010 and I finally got my act together to, in breaks from writing my thesis, throw down my annual music roundup. I’m publishing it here, and while I realize this may not be especially pertinent to the nature of this blog (being that it mostly pertains to religion), I think my annual top-albums-and-songs-I-enjoyed-this-year list may be relevant because, to me, music is one of the ways I engage my “spiritual life” as a Secular Humanist… or whatever you want to call it. In any event, I hope these lists remind you of something you enjoyed this year or open you up to something you might’ve missed. Without further ado, my personal favorites.

TOP 25 ALBUMS OF 2009 (PLUS 2 HONORABLE MENTIONS)

1. The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come

This album could easily be mistaken for an exclusivistic religious text, a meditation solely on Christian Scripture intended for a likeminded audience. Yet it speaks volumes about its universal accessibility that an album featuring a tracklist entirely articulated through Biblical texts would move as staunch a secularist as myself to want to believe. It has been some time since religious music has had that kind of effect on me – “To Be Alone With You,” Sufjan Steven’s Christly love poem off 2003’s Seven Swans comes to mind as the most recent example. Almost predatory in its religious persuasiveness, I can faithfully say this record saved me. I may not be a Christian, but art this honest and effective helps me understand why some are.

Download: Hebrews 11:40, Genesis 30:3, 1 John 4:16

2. Animal Collective – Meriwether Post Pavilion / Fall Be Kind [EP]

I want to dislike these two records. Animal Collective have been doing their thing for years, but suddenly they are the band du jour. My aversion for whoever is this moment’s toast of the town isn’t the only reason I’d like to reject Animal Collective’s 2009 collective output; the other is that it is messy and seemingly unstructured. I have a pop sensibility, so I feel like I should hate this. But my attraction to pop sounds is actually why this record is so appealing – it is an unabashed pop record from top to bottom. In their feral fervor, Animal Collective have crafted hook after glorious hook. Stealing the throne of indie pop kings from of Montreal (let’s be honest, their last record was weak as hell), Animal Collective put out what I’d like to not-so-boldly claim is their (subjectivity alert!) “masterpiece” with Meriwether Post Pavilion. Worth celebrating, certainly, and they’ve provided the perfect soundtrack for the party.

Download: My Girls, Lion in a Coma, Brothersport

3. St. Vincent – Actor

2009 was a great year for pop records, but Annie Clark’s approach to making pop music was the most academic. Her technique is considered and deceptively cautious – so when her songs take a left turn, the surprise packs that much more wallop. Actor takes the formula of her last release, Marry Me, and expands on it tenfold, improving her method with equal parts maniacal humor, intellect and affect. If you’re not laughing, you don’t get it. If you’re not crying – well, ditto.

Download: Marrow, The Party, Laughing With a Mouth of Blood

4. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

Bill Callahan’s voice is a compass pointing to an infinite north. Reverberating between a harsh growl and a warm and lush rust, he uses this tool to teach his listener the art of cartography, not mapping out a path himself but pointing the way. Callahan is a close second to Okkervil River’s Will Sheff for the crown of contemporary music’s most literate, poetic lyricist, and he companions his wit with measured musical prowess. Kids, take notice: this old man river has imparted a near-perfect template for tomorrow’s singer-songwriter wannabe; but, try as others might, it is one unlikely to be duplicated anytime soon. [Side note: Where The Life Of The World To Come makes me want to believe in the divine, Callahan’s album closer, “Faith/Void,” serves me as a precious secular anthem.]

Download: Too Many Birds, Eid Ma Clack Shaw, Faith/Void

5. The Antlers – Hospice

I played this album (among others on this list) for a couple family members when I went home for the winter holidays and the reaction was universal: “this sounds terrible.” Their response is actually akin to what I experienced the first time I played this record through – it took me a few spins to “get it.” Definitively eerie and initially alienating, this record doesn’t invite you in; but once you’ve forced the door open, there’s no leaving. Its gorgeously buried melodies are haunting, manifested melancholy. Some records require that you work for their thrills; this is one challenge you won’t regret taking on.

Download: Atrophy, Bear, Shiva

6. Kid Sister – Ultraviolet

In the year of Lady GaGa, Kid Sister was the cure to GaGa’s center-of-attention cancer. She doesn’t try to be larger than life – Kid Sister just is. Years delayed, the irresistibly delicious Ultraviolet sounds utterly current. Without so much as an ounce of pretension, Chicago-native Kid Sister delivers the most fun, funky disc of the year. “Daydreaming” has the highest play count of any song in my iTunes library this year; the other tracks on Ultraviolet aren’t far behind. If you’re ready to party, Kid Sister’s got you covered, double-wrapped, and delivered to dancing’s door.

Download: Daydreaming, Right Hand Hi, Switchboard

7. Joan as Policewoman – Cover

Only available for sale at shows on her 2009 European tour, this covers record is a novelty release that is, in fact, anything but. As a fan, I expected this to be a throwaway record, a slight thrown together as a special treat for devotees. To my surprise, Cover fits neatly alongside the consistently top-tier quality releases that populate Joan Wasser’s canon. It might be tempting to compare her hip-hop covers, the best of this diverse set, to other singer-songwriter’s so-called-ironic rap reimaginings, ala the cheese of Ben Folds’ “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” but that would be an injustice. Even when covering the familiar, Wasser is an innovator of the highest order. She is this generation’s best torch singer exactly because she isn’t trying to be one. Though a punk rocker in origin, by electing to sing a slow song or ten, Wasser has made of herself a woman who can take any song, original or cover, and make you forget there was ever another musician who came before her.

Download: Whatever U Like, She Watch Channel Zero, Ringleader Man

8. Cursive – Mama, I’m Swollen

Lean, clean, and …a little less mean. It may not deliver the thematic wallop of last release Happy Hollow‘s take on religious Americana, but it is a significant advancement musically and has a (slightly more sympathetic) message all its own. Sure, Cursive comes hard, but they aren’t doing so just to bring the noise. Mama, I’m Swollen is the thinking man’s rock record, bringing together the seemingly immiscible elements of metallic thump and whine with careful observation and creative whim. If you’ve written off Cursive in the past, give them another chance – this is a band that has matured with each release into a truly exceptional and important voice.

Download: From The Hips, What Have I Done?, I Couldn’t Love You

9. The-Dream – Love Vs. Money

2009’s epic. With all the splendor of the R. Kelly “Trapped in the Closet” saga’s melodrama, minus the soap opera cheese and classed up by a man of real talent who doesn’t need shock value and novelty to set him apart, The-Dream’s Love Vs. Money is spectacle that will have your head bobbing and heart throbbing. There is a clear narrative current coursing through the record that elevates it above its singular sonic mastery (and on that note, it is so satisfying to see The-Dream’s production prowess serve himself!). The album really hits its climax in the four-track arc from “Love Vs. Money” through “Right Side of My Brain,” but overall it is a wild and winning ride. The songs bleed together, resulting in an album that seems in want of a radio-ready single exactly because they are all so spectacular – resulting in one of the most coherent, catchy, and dare I say lovable albums of the year.

Download: Fancy, Right Side of My Brain, Walkin’ On The Moon (featuring Kanye West)

10. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You

This is one well-rounded record. Punchy in places, solemn in others and at moments beautifully both, I And Love And You is a mainstream record that infuses the charm of earlier Avett Brothers releases with the shine of bank brought on by newfound major-label buck-banging. Their lyrics read as if they were overheard in Freud’s confessional, and its hard to find anything to complain about musically. With perhaps a bit more spunk this record might have cracked the top 5, but all said this album is both an articulate statement of a band uncovering who they are and a sign of things to come.

Download: The Perfect Space, Incomplete and Insecure, Kick Drum Heart

(continued after the jump)

11. Noah and the Whale – The First Days of Spring

With aching orchestration and a few light and tender tunes mixed in to provide a bit of balance, 2009’s quintessential break-up album (sorry Pete Yorn and Scarlett Johansson) is equal measures lush and spare. The metaphors are acute and apt when needed, but for the most part the lyrics are painfully straightforward. This band paints a picture like few others, and it’s a difficult scene to take in. For the heartbroken, this one’s not to be missed.

Download: The First Days of Spring, My Door Is Always Open, Our Window

12. The Ballet – Bear Life

I dare you to try not to hum along to this disarmingly endearing release from The Ballet, a still semi-small time New York group. I’ve played it nearly once a day since acquiring it, and I’m sure I’ll continue to come to it regularly for its elevating charm. A good investment for especially thrifty hipsters: there’s really no such thing as a wrong time to play this gem, and each spin is likely to reveal something you missed the first time around.

Download: Kitty, Dangerous, Chinatown

13. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

It was a banner year for Phoenix. They were everywhere, and let’s face it: their accolades were deserved. Undeniably fun, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a more evolved version of The Killers’ breakthrough, Hot Fuss, minus Brandon Flowers’ pretentious mustache, metaphors, and musical moves. Phoenix doesn’t need to implement a showy, calculated build – their music may lean on a studio sheen but it feels unrefined, natural and wholly joyous.

Download: 1901, Lisztomania, Rome

14. Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free

Akron/Family’s 2009 release is a slight fumble following career-defining Love is Simple. They take some chances and not everything here works. Still, the album’s highlights are enough to make this one of the year’s best releases; “River” is, if not the best song of the year, the most effective of Akron/Family’s career.

Download: River, Sun Will Shine (Warmth of the Sunship Version), Set ‘Em Free

15. Peaches – I Feel Cream

Peaches bounces back after the overly ambitious Impeach My Bush, which, while it had its moments, suffered under the weight of its own expected gambles. I Feel Cream has no such pretensions. Peaches knows exactly who she is and what she does best. And in the process of streamlining, Peaches has made space to for some genuine emotion to slip through her cracks (she’d make a sexual pun here), such as on the affecting “Lose You.” Still the spitfire, Peaches is becoming less robot as she becomes more robust.

Download: I Feel Cream, Take You On, Serpentine

16. Cass McCombs – Catacombs

“You Saved My Life” is among the most beautiful songs released this decade, and while it alone is enough to merit a spot for this album in the top ranks, the rest of the record is consistently engaging. Marked by an understated warmth, this album is the perfect companion for a day of rain, snow or shine.

Download: You Saved My Life, Lionkiller Got Married, My Sister My Spouse

17. Metric – Fantasies

At first fantastical and enthusiastic, Fantasies is actually quite multifaceted. Be careful not to get stuck repeating early highlights; while there are the obvious delights of the direct cuts (“Gimme Sympathy,” “Help I’m Alive”), dig a bit deeper and you’ll uncover a beating heart beneath the shiny packaging.

Download: Waves (Bonus Track), Collect Call, Blindness

18. Girls –Album

Album begins with a blast and rarely stops for air. Yes, all the kids in Wicker Park are listening to this, but give it a chance – there is a real, almost defiant sense of earnestness at work here, even as Girls tries to disguise it with irony, devil-may-care attitude and cool-kid sneers. You can play it when your oh-so-cool little brother and his friends come over, and keep it going after they take off with your beer.

Download: Lust for Life, Laura, Summertime

19. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

The music of Andrew Bird is sentiment personified. Unapologeticly apologetic, Noble Beast pairs challenging strings with channeled strains. Clever but earnest, endeavored but honest, this is accessible chamber pomp – baroque meets folk. Each record is a neat little step forward for Mr. Bird, and I’m happy to keep following along as he marches in song.

Download: Anonanimal, Oh No, Sourverian

20. Brother Ali – Us

Fresh and vibrant, Minnesota Rhymesayer Brother Ali brings his impeccable, dexterous storytelling skills to the forefront on this release. “Tight Rope” is particularly bold, weaving the tales of a Somali immigrant, a child of divorce, and a gay son of a preacher (addressing homosexuality in a positive light, bravely betraying a particularly touchy taboo for the majority of the hip-hop world). Brother Ali could easily be made into a novelty rapper — he’s white, Muslim, blind, albino, and from Minnesota — but his chops push his identity markers so far into the background that all you hear are his words.

Download: Tight Rope, Breakin Dawn, Fresh Air

21. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

After the teaser of the Friend EP and the brilliance of Yellow House and side project Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park, this record was a bit of a disappointment. Still, considered on its own merit, Veckatimest has plenty to offer the unfamiliar Grizzly Bear listener. Album closer “Foreground” exemplifies the record’s character: while shaped with studio luster, there is still something honorably vulnerable at work. Yellow House was near the tip top of 2006’s heap; better luck next time, boys.

Download: Foreground, Two Weeks, Cheerleader

22. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost

Her voice alone gives my spine the shivers, and on Brandi Carlile’s newest release it is companioned by more competent production and engaging songwriting. Rick Rubin works his magic as he did for the Avett Brothers (#10), helping to craft something that is glossy without being frosty. A solid, haunting affair, lifted by the surprisingly fun “Caroline.”

Download: Pride And Joy, Bend Before It Breaks, Caroline

23. Memory Tapes – Seek Magic

Like a dance remix of your favorite indie-rock-group-with-strings, Memory Tapes’ excellent Seek Magic will pluck at your heart strings and keep your toes tapping; beautiful and buyout. Bonus: Disc 2’s single track, the album-length “Treeship,” is the perfect ambient soundtrack for falling asleep.

Download: Bicycle, Run Out, Green Knight

24. Clipse – Til The Casket Drops

Bleak, sleek, and difficult to critique. It may feel overstuffed standing alongside 2005’s Hell Hath No Fury, but Clipse are exhilaratingly unapologetic and the beats come hard; even as I consider how Til The Casket Drops pales alongside Hell Hath No Fury, their music knocks the wind from my lungs and leaves me without words. They say: “This shit you call music, we call it life.” Consider me convinced.

Download: Popular Demand (Popeye’s), Eyes On Me, I’m Good

25. Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms

On Wooden Arms, Patrick Watson continues to do what he did right on his last two records. Not one for evolutionary leaps, but he’s certainly dependable.

Download: Beijing, Hommage, Tracy’s Waters

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Ciara – Fantasy Ride

Why is it that every time a popular major label female R&B singer puts out a career-best, the general public pays no mind? Joining Brandy’s Afrodisiac and Aaliyah’s 2001 self-titled release (discounting its resurgence following her death) in this category of the criminally overlooked is Ciara’s 2009 effort. Though she has been a consistent radio artist, “Fantasy Ride” is a hell of a surprise – pulsating, pulse-quickening future synth is paired with slow, shifting and sensual… future synth. Forgive her the stray, misguided dud or two [A timely aisde: Dr. Luke, please stop poisoning solid efforts such as this with your presence, and while we’re on the subject, could you stop foisting “artists” like Ke$ha on us?] – this is a shimmering, yielding album that blurs genres with skill and confidence. It could easily be a companion to #9 pick Love Vs. Money if The-Dream didn’t have to share the production reins with others, and it would be better for it; sure enough, Ciara recently revealed that she is working exclusively with him on her next record. While the rest of this album mostly works, his contributions are the best things here, so count me excited. [Another aside rant: In typical Danja fashion, “Work” is a killer jam, but Missy Eliott – formerly one of the best emcees out there – needs to put a sock in it already. Her shtick is worn as thin as her voice sounds on this track. Her album slated for 2008, then 2009, was pushed back by her label yet again; at this point, is anyone surprised?]

Download: High Price (featuring Ludacris), Lover’s Thing, Keep Dancin’ On Me

Shakira – She Wolf

A friend said something the other day: “why, when I want to like something mainstream, is it [suddenly] not?” I think of this as I consider two of this year’s pop flops – the aforementioned Ciara album, which is relatively consistent, and Shakira’s She Wolf, which is fucking all over the place. I was hopeful, but Shakira’s personality – bigger than her breasts, as she herself might say  – drowns under the weight of Americanization gone awry. I want to give her adequate credit for trying: her nutty lyrics [sample: “I’m beginning to feel just a little abused like a coffee machine in an office.”] are the closest major label pop music gets to avant garde writing, the John Hill contributions (“Men in This Town,” “Mon Amour,” the craziness that is the title track and its accompanying video) are among this year’s most brilliant Santigold-aping pop songs, and Pharell turns out his single best production effort in years (“Did it Again”). The sum of these parts is almost enough to forgive the occasionally uninspired mess that is the rest, but even Shakira, one of the few truly global superstars we have (and a brilliant philanthropist, to boot), can’t salvage this listless lupine.

Download: Men In This Town, Mon Amour, She Wolf

(DIS)HONORABLE MENTION

Sufjan Stevens – The BQE / Osso – Run Rabbit Run

Mr. Stevens, I say this as a friend: I saw your show in Minneapolis this fall. Clearly, you’re working some shit out right now. That’s fine, take your time – I’ll be waiting when you’re ready.

TOP 35 SONGS NOT ON A TOP 25 ALBUM (PLUS 2 HONORABLE MENTIONS)

1. Japandroids – I Quit Girls (Post-Nothing)

2. Amadou & Mariam – Sabali (Welcome to Mali)

3. Manic Street Preachers – Jackie Collins Existential Question Time (Journal for Plague Lovers)

4. Beirut – No Dice (March of the Zapotec)

5. Matt & Kim – Daylight (Grand)

6. K’Naan – Wavin’ Flag (Troubadour)

7. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Relator (Breakup)

8. Richard Swift – The Atlantic Ocean (The Atlantic Ocean)

9. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Drain The Blood (Hometowns)

10. Jason Derülo featuring Imogen Heap – Whatcha Say (single)

11. KiD CuDi – Heart of a Lion (KiD CuDi Theme Music) (Man on the Moon: The End of the Day)

12. The XX – Hot Like Fire (Aaliyah cover) (S/T — UK Edition)

13. Neko Case – This Tornado Loves You (Middle Cyclone)

14. DM Stith – Pity Dance (Heavy Ghost)

15. Dan Deacon – Build Voice (Bromst)

16. Mount Eerie – Wind’s Dark Poem (Wind’s Poem)

17. Eels – Fresh Blood (Hombre Lobo)

18. Jason Lytle – Brand New Sun (Yours Truly, The Commuter)

19. The Felice Brothers – Rise and Shine (Yonder is the Clock)

20. Dirty Projectors – Stillness is the Move (Bitte Orca)

21. Helado Negro – Dahum (Awe Owe)

22. Camera Obscura – Honey In The Sun (My Maudlin Career)

23. Nellie McKay – Crazy Rhythm (Doris Day cover) (Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day)

24. Phosphorescent – Can I Sleep In Your Arms? (Willie Nelson cover) (To Willie)

25. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Zero (It’s Blitz!)

26. Bear in Heaven – Beast in Peace (Beast Rest Forth Mouth)

27. The Comet Gain – You Can Hide Your Love Forever (Broken Record Prayers)

28. Amanda Blank – A Love Song (I Love You)

29. Tor featuring Sufjan Stevens and Gift of Gab – The Dress Looks Nice on You / Make You Feel That Way (Illinoize mixtape)

30. The Notwist – Sarajevo 2 (Sturm)

31. Atlas Sound featuring Noah Lennox – Walkabout (Logos)

32. The Little Ones – Ordinary Song (Morning Tide)

33. Lupe Fiasco – Say Somethin’ Freestyle (Enemy of the State mixtape)

34. Greg Laswell – Your Ghost (Cover EP)

35. David Bazan – Bless This Mess (Curse Your Branches)

HONORABLE MENTIONS

YACHT – I’m In Love With A Ripper (See Mystery Lights)

Drake, Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Eminem – Forever (More Than A Game soundtrack)

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2 Responses to “Top Music of 2009”

  1. […] Oh man, I love Local Natives and Bon Iver, and “Waving Flag” was one of my favorite guilty pleasure songs of 2009. I’ll have to check out the others. Thanks for speaking with me, and good luck on the […]

  2. […] again — my annual list of my favorite music of the year. Last year I spent a week working on my 2009 year-end “best of” music list; time I just don’t have this year. So I tried to keep this short and sweet… but then I […]

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