Some people look at the calendar and think “doing a year end list over a third of the way through the following year is beyond indulgent”. I’m actually one of those people, but if I cared about being indulgent, I wouldn’t exactly be posting my thoughts about my favourite things to an ambivalent audience of dozens, now would I? This list, like all the lists I’ve been doing since January, was delayed due to personal reasons like being busy with work and my newborn son (pictured – already a developing music snob). With this particular list, there was also the practical reason that I spent most of 2009 listening to the best albums of the decade. So I needed these past few months to really experience and embrace the music of 2009 – and once I did, I must say, it was a pretty good year for music. So good that I couldn’t let it go unlisted (of course, my own compulsions probably wouldn’t allow it to go unlisted even if it were an average year for music).
Honourable Mentions: Heartless Bastards – The Mountain, Islands – Vapours, Flight of the Conchords – I Told You I Was Freaky, Franz Ferdinand – Tonight, Regina Spektor – Far
20. K’Naan – Troubadour: This Canadian-by-way-of-Somalia rapper has been compared to Bob Marley for his inspirational lyrics. Which led me to check him out, even though I don’t really like Bob Marley. Instead, what drew me to Troubadour is the way K’naan can, in his words, “take inspiration from the most heinous of situations”, eschewing gangsterism for a more positive outlook, despite the fact that his childhood in Mogadishu would make most of the scenarios typically described in hip-hop seem tame in comparison.
19. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening: Everything you need to know about this album is right there on the cover: driving percussion that propels the entire album, making the lead off track (which you can hear below) “Percussion Gun” not just a great song, but a mission statement. The band got Spoon’s Britt Daniel to produce It’s Frightening, and it shows, making it the best Spoon-album-in-a-year-where-Spoon-didn’t-release-an-album.
18. An Horse – Rearrange Beds: I checked this band out because they were opening for Tegan and Sara, and figured that they’d sell a lot of CDs that night. I’m not sure I’ve ever attended a show where the opening act was more simpatico than An Horse are with Tegan and Sara (that includes the time I saw Spencer Krug play both parts of the bill as part of Frog Eyes and Wolf Parade). They basically sound like the Australian version of Tegan and Sara (albeit as a male/female duo as opposed to twin sisters), and that’s alright by me.
17. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca: A lot of the buzz bands of 2009 were hyper-intellectualized eclectic mash-ups, ready-made for internet adoption. And as much as I try to be a snob, I just can’t get into a lot of them. Even with this album, its diversity is both an asset and a detriment. The parts that work for me are some of the best songs of the year, making me think the Dirty Projectors could become one of my new favourite bands. The parts that don’t make me think that I’d never listen to a band that makes that kind of music. Kind of makes Bitte Orca a hard album to rank.
16. A.C. Newman – Get Guilty: Newman has always been the poppiest member of The New Pornographers and it shows with his second solo album. Nothing as challenging as you’d get from Dan Bejar’s efforts in Destroyer or Swan Lake, and not as majestic as you’d get from Neko Case, Get Guilty instead is merely a collection of catchy power pop songs. When done well, sometimes that’s enough.
15. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3: The Jigga man is always better off when he something more to say than simply how awesome he is (although to be sure, he still does plenty of that). With his third Blueprint album, Jay-Z decided to speak out on some of the poppier aspects of hip-hop, symbolized by the track “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)”. The result was the first album since his “retirement” in 2003 that was worth the “comeback”. It helps that the album is wall-to-wall hits, from “D.O.A”, to the Drake-assisted “Off That”, to the Rhianna-backed “Run This Town” with Kanye West, to the instant classic below.
14. The Pains of Being Pure of Heart – The Pains of Being Pure of Heart: With the obvious nods to bands like The Cure, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and… a bunch of other bands too obscure for me to know who they are, The Pains of Being Pure of Heart evokes nostalgia for earlier new wave music. It’s like finding the soundtrack to a long lost John Hughes film.
13. The XX – XX: Atmospheric, minimalist, sexy… this album should probably be ranked higher, but I came to it pretty late. It was one of the last to make the cut when I was putting this list together, and it’s been moving up since then. I set the formatting of this list up a few weeks ago, otherwise, it may have moved up again. The best debut of the year.
12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!: I was disappointed with Yeah Yeah Yeahs sophomore release Show Your Bones, and wondered if they’d ever get back to being the raucous art rock band that released one of my favourite albums of the decade. Turns out, the answer is no. They are no longer that band. But… if they can keep their trademark energy while playing around with different styles, and make albums as good as It’s Blitz!, I’ll stop wishing they had stayed the same.
11. St. Vincent – Actor: Annie Clark drew a lot of comparisons to Beth Orton (and other delicate female vocalists) with her debut album… which is probably why I didn’t listen to it. Nothing against Orton, whose voice is beautiful, but her music is often as sleepy as the lilt in her voice. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Clark’s sophomore effort Actor, which manages to complement her soft, beautiful voice with hypnotic, ornate production. And now that I’m a believer, I should probably track that debut album down.
10. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast: This is definitely a relaxed record, as evidenced by the gorgeous opening track that you can listen to below. But don’t confuse peaceful with simple. There’s complexity to this record that lies just beneath the surface of Bird’s smooth croon and whistling, with lush production of strings, acoustic guitars, and percussion that reward subsequent listens.
Sample Track: “Oh No”
9. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer: Spencer Krug’s second 2009 album after joining the other kooks in Swan Lake for their second album Enemy Mine, this time he joined up with his Sunset Rubdown buddies to release the arresting Dragonslayer. This follows 2008′s At Mount Zoomer released with Wolf Parade (which I ranked seventh that year), but precedes Wolf Parade’s upcoming 2010 album Expo 86. Damn Spencer, leave some music for others. On second thought, just keep doing what you’re doing if they keep sounding as great as this album.
8. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career: I’d been meaning to check out this Scottish band for awhile, but for some reason hadn’t until this album. I could do worse than to pick this delightful collection Motown-infused girl pop to start off with. I think I fell in love with this album sometime around the middle of the opening track (which you can hear below), and have stayed that way since.
7. The Antlers – Hospice: Deeply personal and somewhat difficult to listen to, Hospice tells the story of a man meeting a depressed and abusive cancer patient in the hospice where he is working, whom he falls in love with before eventually watching her die. So yes, it’s about as fun an album as it sounds, tapping into a level of pain not usually covered in a medium where grief is usually reserved for failed relationships. But there’s something deeply profound about the humanity of this album, making it as brilliant as it is painful, offering a catharsis that reveals the power of music better than anything else on this list.
6. Tegan and Sara – Sainthood: For their first four albums, Tegan and Sara changed their sound fairly significantly. So perhaps the reason Sainthood drew less critical attention is that its not that different from 2007′s excellent release The Con (although interestingly, it seems to be getting the most commercial attention the band has ever had). The duo have seemingly found their sound, and now it’s simply a matter of degrees (a little more synth rock here, and little less tempo switches there). But don’t worry Quinn sisters… you don’t have to change for my benefit.
5. The Decemberists – Hazards of Love: A funny thing happened when The Decemberists signed to a major label in 2005: they actually became less accessible to mainstream audiences than they had been with an indie. It started with The Crane Wife, themed around the story of a Japanese folk tale and anchored by two 10+ minutes long songs. Then they got really ambitious with The Hazards of Love, a rock opera about a women lost in the woods who falls in love with a shape-shifting fawn, angering his evil forest green mother, who sends a heartless rake out to kill her. Just the sort of thing to help them get big, particularly since the kids these days LOVE buying and listening to full albums.
And god bless them for it. If they can keep exploring their muse in new and inventive ways while getting someone else to foot the bill, all the power to them. The Hazards of Love is certainly an unusual record (which, at this point, is another way to say it’s a Decemberists record), but thrilling not only for its bizarre storyline, but for how that story allows them to explore a lot of different genres, from the pulsing metal-esque rock representing the queen, to the majestic romantic themes representing the lovers, to the black comedy of the track below (which horrified my wife when she finally pieced all the lyrics together at their live show).
4. Metric – Fantasies: I think I take this band for granted. All they do is release insanely catchy albums that are so immediately listenable that I tend to overplay them upon their release, then forget about them for awhile as I endeavour to listen to all the albums I missed while devouring Metric. Fantasies is no exception, delivering their patented brand of high tempo synth pop, powered by Emily Haines’ sly lyrics and abundant charisma. Best Canadian release of the year.
3. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest: The danger with bands as precise and particular as Grizzly Bear is that the results could end up sounding too precise and distant. Thankfully, that’s not the case with Veckatimest, in which the band uses their dense sounds and intricate harmonies to craft the year’s most beautiful album. This beauty is highlighted by “Two Weeks”, my favourite song of 2009.
2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone: In 2006, Neko Case finally released an album equal to her immense talent (landing her in my best albums of the decade list in the process). Her 2009 follow-up equals that album, and came this close to making that list as well. The storytelling is compelling, the production is airtight, and the voice is, of course, phenomenal. Here’s hoping she can release another instant classic in a few years.
1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: This was a shock. I’ve listened to Phoenix since their sophomore effort, 2004′s Alphabetical, and while I never disliked any of it, none of the music particularly struck me as vital (to the point that I’ve never spent any money on them until now). I didn’t even pay attention when this was released, until I kept hearing all the buzz about it. When I did check it out, I was flabbergasted. How did a band go from releasing generic alt rock to the most exciting album of the year with their fourth go around? Strangely, they didn’t really change their sound to get there. Their music always belied an ambition to make big, anthemic, pop rock, so it’s not like they sold out to get here. I guess it just took a few albums to grow into the sound they always wanted, with that growth resulting in the best album of the year.