Saturday, December 26, 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2009

(It's the most joyous time of the year. That time when we stop what we're doing. Take some time off work. And make lists in order to prove how smart we are.

Today's list: Top 10 Albums of the Year)

(Oh and by the way, if you're only reading this blog post via Facebook notes, ho boy! You are missing so much. For instance, did you know that this blog has a nice, blue background? It's true! And there's embedded mp3's, pictures, and a really nice logo up there at the top! Seriously! Check it out!)

Two-thousand and nine is the year that we all became comfortable with artists getting their own. Several of the top albums on this list and others features bands that have "polished" their sound a bit. Metric, St. Vincent, Regina Spektor, and even Grizzly Bear put forth albums that are much more slickly produced ... and everyone was ok with that. Phoenix sold "1901" to a car commercial ... and we're ok with that. I think we've all realized that this decade, in all of it's Internetical glory, has stripped artists of much of their earning power to the point that albums are now a loss leader. So we're ok with artists appearing on Grey's Anatomy. It used to be called "selling out," but now I think we've evolved to the point where we can accept an artist trying to make a buck with slicker songs or schilling for Buick. When Coldplay glitzed up their sound way back in the mid-2000s people killed them. Turns out, they were just ahead of their time (by a whopping four years). But it turns out, you can still make great music, even if it is a bit polished. That isn't to say any of the aforementioned artists must necessarily be entirely neutered. Metric and St. Vincent are great examples of artists that may have scrubbed their sound a bit, but haven't lost any teeth.

Without wanting to do any sort of research that doesn't actually provide me sums of money, I'm going on record right now saying this was the best year of music in my lifetime. Could it be that thanks to's MP3 page, I have more access to more albums than ever? Maybe. Could it be that I cut down on drinking beer because of my MP3 addiction? Perhaps. But that should tell you just how much great music there was this year: I forwent beer for music albums! In years past, I haven't even been able to rank 10 albums either because of lack of access or lack of great albums. But this year, we have lots of both. It was difficult to narrow this list down to 10.

Honorable mention / it almost killed me to leave them out:
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Bishop Allen, Grr...
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Up From Below
The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
Foreign Born, Person to Person

And now.... the Top 10 Albums of 2009.

10. Metric, Fantasies.

Exhibit A in the "It's ok to polish your sound now" meme. "Gimmie Sympathy" is extremely juiced up as far as production value goes, but it still managed to make our Top 25 songs list. Most of the album is still true to Metric's aggressive sound and lyrics ("Heard you fuck through the wall" anyone?). The end result of all this ok-ness with polish is not an overproduced techno album, but an incredibly engaging and dynamic one. That's what 2009 gave us in a nutshell.

9. Bowerbirds, Upper Air.

Maybe we suffered a bit of Bon Iver-overload last year, but it's puzzling to see why the Bowerbirds didn't get more critical acclaim for their 2009 album. You won't find better vocal harmonies and great raw acoustic instrumentation. This is probably exhibit A in the case against the "It's ok to polish your sound now" meme.

8. Beirut, March of the Zapotec.

March of the Zapotec marries essentially two EPs together in the form of an album. The first half is inspired by south-of-the-border funeral/celebratory horn arrangements, while the second half is just lead Zach Condon doing his own thing. This might (and apparently has) rubbed some critics the wrong way. But don't let that get in the way of a great, great enjoyable album. Think of it as two for the price of one. Once you accept that tiny little fact, you can unbunch your underwear and revel in the stunning collection of songs.

7. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest.

Boy, be careful. Once you let Grizzly Bear get a hold of you, you might not escape for weeks. At least, that's what happened to me. There's just so much incredible song crafting on Veckatimest, and it's slightly more accessible than previous albums, yet still very distant. In that respect it's kind of easy to hold Grizzly Bear at a distance, if you so desire, but I don't recommend it.

6. M. Ward, Hold Time.

I've always loved how M. Ward straddles the line between the spiritual and the secular. And Hold Time is candy in that respect. The songs are very straightforward and simple in their lyrics and instrumentation. But that doesn't prevent a depth and undercurrent of aggression, desire, and sorrow from welling up from time to time.

5. St. Vincent, Actor.

The fact that this album is "only" fifth tells you what a great year of music it really was. When this album came out, nay, when I heard the first single off the album, "Actor Out of Work," I was absolutely convinced this was the best album of the year. And it still might be. Just know that St. Vincent has earned the coveted Buy No Matter What status from Dear Mr. Supercomputer. As Regina Spektor and Leslie Feist exit stage right, I was extremely encouraged by Actor. Actor doesn't sacrifice one ounce of what made Annie Clark's debut album Marry Me so special. It's got the same level of aggression, cleverness, and an additional level of vintage Clark guitar shredding.

4. The Antlers, Hospice.

An incredible concept album, Hospice was written at a time when lead man Peter Silberman was spending a lot of time in a children's cancer ward. That's about all you need to know about the emotional weight of Hospice. This album may wreck you.

3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!.

Not being a YYY fan per se, I'd be willing to bet that It's Blitz! may have rubbed a few of the hardcores the wrong way. It's pretty polished and focused. That said, the opener "Zero" and "Dull Life" alone make the album great. "Zero" is hip enough for all us newcomers while "Dull Life" is aggressive enough to satisfy the rock contingent. In between, there's solid track after solid track. And that certainly makes a great album.

2. Dan Deacon, Bromst.

As I chronicled before, I loved this album so much on first listen, I nearly died in a fiery car crash on I-25. That's how great this album is: it's crash-worthy. Along with the top album below, this album resonated in a way that few albums do. While it's incredibly hyperactive, Dan Deacon allows us to breathe a bit in between the frenetic noise-hooks. For the best example, check out the track, "Snookered" (above). The evolution of this song from start to finish is mind boggling. You could teach a class on it. Starting from slow, sparse xylophone chimes, Dan Deacon adds layer upon layer (and begins taking layers away), until all of a sudden, you're enraptured in a fast-paced sonic wonderland. At that point, Deacon drops the frenetic sampling and leads us back to the sparse xylophone. At that point, you remember where the song started, how far you came, and just what an incredible piece of music this is. That's what the entire album is like.

1. Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, vs. Children.

You can pretty much extrapolate what I said about my #3 song of the year to the entire album. The melodies may be simple, but the soundscape and lyrics are incredibly rich. This and Bromst resonated in a way that only a few albums have. You know, those albums that you mention when you play the "stranded on a desert island" game in your head.Interweaving specific themes of child rearing, crime, and spirituality beautifully with more universal themes of fear, insecurity, and hope, vs. Children is often beautiful and raw. Also, like Bromst, you won't see vs. Children on many Top 10 lists. At least, I haven't yet, and I'm not really sure why. Perhaps it's to be expected: upon first listen, it doesn't necessarily grab your attention the way other, "bigger" albums do. The opening track is simply a major chord while the opening song, my favorite of the year, isn't very "hookish." But after perhaps two or three listens, you really begin to get to know the characters Owen Ashworth presents, often in first person. The people Ashworth play in vs. Children are as deep and complex as any album in other top 10 lists, or shit, any literary character, portend to be. And after those two or three listens, you'll want to give it a few more dozen go-rounds, like any good book or good movie. For those who are willing to spend the time, this is the most rewarding album I've heard in years.


Adam said...

I've been loving Bowerbirds lately. Might be my favorite from the year...I'd have to think about it more though.

gk said...

Bowerbirds really flew under the radar (forgive the pun?) this year. My theory is that we were sort of acoustic-ed out from Bon Iver last year. Not sure if you've seen it, but they've got a real nice La Blogotheque "Takeaway show" as well.