December 24, 2009

top 20 albums of 2009

I try not to be too objective with these things, but I'd argue the case for any of these albums if I had to; I'd call them "great," "classic," "essential;" all those words that academia hammers out of you. Some of these albums were encountered via the websites I frequent (for links, see the sidebar to the right); others literally fell into my lap at contributor meetings for Stylus Magazine; still others were from artists I've been following for some time, whose albums leaked early and were (illegally) downloaded. Don't worry, I bought them eventually. Sometimes, it's nice to hear exciting music before it's over-analyzed, cast aside or raised up for all to see.

I've included the album covers because I think this year boasted some pretty amazing album covers (there are definitely a few brutal one on this list as well). And I've posted a link after each blurb, so you can get a sample of the albums I'm praising.

I think that's enough of a preamble. Here goes:

20. Bear in Heaven - Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes)
This list is full of Animal Collective copy-cats; some of them even place above AC. These guys are, like a lot of others on this list, hail from Brooklyn. Let's just say, I like the darkness they conjure in these spacious pop anthems. I'm not really sure what their album title's getting at, but their blend of Southern rock and ambient synths --it's refreshing.

Listen: Wholehearted Mess

19. The Clientele - Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)
No one likes to say it, but The Clientele is really a one note band. Though some are a bit more upbeat than others, their albums are pretty similar: light, open chorded guitar pop. Alisdair MacLean, doesn't have much range as a vocalist, and yet I absolutely love his voice. Warm, refined and inviting, The Clientele don't experiment much, but their rainy day music is done well and the atmosphere's they manage to create are captivating enough to keep me coming back.

Listen: Harvest

18. Cryptacize - Mythomania (Asthmatic Kitty)
This one was a surprise, but then, I've learned to trust Asthmatic Kitty when it comes to cute indie-pop. And this album is no exception. Nothing life-changing here, but the quality is high, the album is fresh, consistent, and the melodic hooks are plentiful.

Listen: Tail & Maine

17. Akron/Family - Set 'Em Wild, Set 'Em Free (Dead Oceans)
As a whole, the album is a bit of a letdown. I'm not expecting them to recreate their debut, but a little more cohesion (and a little less of the drugged-out inaccessible bits) would be nice. That being said, the truly great moments --"River" and "They Will Appear," for example-- are phenomenal: simultaneously restrained and excessive, at once small and grandiose.

Listen: River

16. DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty)
He's weird but I like him. With a good editor, Stith could put out a great album; this one was excellent, but you get the sense that among the diversity of sounds presented here, he's still trying to figure himself out as musician. Visual artist by day, and now an indie-folk darling by night, Stith clearly evokes labelmates like Sufjan Stevens and My Brightest Diamond, but he's far less restrained: more willing to let go of his songs and let the spirits get out of control.

Listen: Pity Dance

15. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone (Anti)
At first, I wrote this one off. Perhaps I wasn't ready for another Neko Case album. Fox Confessor Brings The Flood definitely got a lot of rotation at one point and I won't pretend that I'm not still enamored with it. Middle Cyclone felt less accessible; my first listen was forced. I thought I should try as hard as I could to like it, but only after I'd completely given up and one of my profs played it over and over one afternoon did I realize that you can't force this stuff. When you let your guard down, Case sweeps you off your feet like she's not even trying. That voice is simply irresistible.

Listen: People Got A Lotta Nerve

14. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilian (Domino)
This was Animal Collective's year and only a fool would deny it. They deserve to be at the top of nearly every list that matters (as opposed to this one...ha!). I'm not going to apologize for not putting them higher; they don't need any more support. As on past releases, dub, trance, and Afro-pop figure into Merriweather Post-Pavillion's spaced-out mixture of synths and rhythmic clatter. If MPP lacks anything, it's the rough and tumble charm that defined AC's earlier output. As the infectious beats of "My Girls" and the jolting harmonies of "Brothersport" demonstrate, Animal Collective are crossing over. And depending on your outlook (and elitism), there's never been a better time to give them your ears.

Listen: My Girls

13. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns (Parlophone)

Clearly deserving of this year's Mercury Prize, Natasha Khan put out the most metaphysical album of the year. I've been wanting to say that for a long time. The comparisons to Kate Bush are definitely appropriate but Khan definitely has her own unique touch. From the opening battle-cry ("Glass") to the tragedy of romantic possession ("Daniel") and the subdued Tori Amos-esque piano ballads (which are way better than anything Amos has ever done), Khan gave us an album to get lost in, an album that brought you into a different universe, where everything is imbued with mystery and the sweeping melodrama of teen angst.

Listen: Daniel

12. Point Juncture, WA - Heart to Elk (Homemade)

With the power to reinvigorate the most jaded pop-music voyeurs, the third album from Point Juncture, WA features matured arrangements blend shoegaze feedback, kraut-rock and horn lines that would make Broken Social Scene jealous. It’s hard to resist the rare urgency of “Biathalon,” while the epic “Sick on Sugar” delivers enough hooks and harmonies to melt the coldest of hearts. This band from Oregan still hasn't got the recognition it deserves; this is the album that should have broken them.
Listen: Sick On Sugar (live)

11. Bibio - Ambivalence Avenue (Warp)

When someone releases three albums in one year, critics tend to get even more critical --unfairly so, in my opinion. This is a great album that keeps surprising you; each time I've put this on for guests I've had to field questions about the music I'm playing: "Are we still listening to the same group?" "Who is this again?" Bibio's second (and best) of the year is an album that turns heads. Boards of Canada are the most frequently cited comparison, but I'd throw in Caribou as well. It's folk-electronica that can be bouncy and contemplative all at once. This year, Bibio's willingness to venture out into a diversity of sounds was unmatched.

Listen: Ambivalence Avenue

10. St. Vincent - Actor (4AD)

This album was a huge leap for the woman behind 2007's Marry Me, which was cute and well-crafted, but not particularly attention-grabbing. Actor gives us a taste of what lies beneath: the violent corners that threaten to undo Annie Clark's squeaky-clean persona. And it offers some of the catchiest (and the darkest) melodies of the year on songs like "Marrow" or "Save Me From What I Want" or "Laughing With a Mouth of Blood." And the drumming, like all the instrumentation is phenomenal. Less like Sufjan, more like Slayer. A natural progression, I think.

Listen: Marrow

9. A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Ashes Grammar (Mis Ojos Disco)

Ambient and all over the place. This album is full of melodies you wish you could capture, but they're alway just beyond reach. When the hooks do finally crystalize, like on "Failure" they seem to disappear just as quickly. With 25 tracks of wide-ranging sonic experimentation, this beautiful and challenging album builds on the strengths of their overlooked 2007 debut.

Listen: Failure

8. Antony and the Johnsons - The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian)

With a weird infusion of pastoral imagery and the macabre, The Crying Light, is a significant and complex step forward.“Let's take our power back,” Antony belts on “Aeon,” one of a handful of deceptively up-beat, almost celebratory tracks scattered throughout this haunting collection. The Crying Light is undoubtedly challenging, but it's even more absorbing because of its otherworldliness. And that's where it's power lies.

Listen: Aeon (live)

7. Julie Doiron - I can wonder what you did with your day (Endearing Records)

Here's an album that wasn't at all hard to love. “Consolation Prize,” is a guitar driven surf-anthem with lots of hooks and tight harmonies. The equally grungy “Spill Yer Lungs” harkens back to Doiron's days with Eric's Trip. As always, Doiron's heavier fare never skimps on melody. I can wonder what you did with your day isn't only one of Doiron's strongest albums to date (it's my favourite!); and it's further proof that she's currently among Canada's best songwriters.

Listen: Consolation Prize

6. Here We Go Magic - Here We Go Magic (Western Vinyl)

Another Brooklyn band that draws Animal Collective comparisons, Here We Go Magic have created a stunning debut, full of intense emotion and mesmerizing sounds. My only complaint is that it's too short. Standouts like "Fangela" and "Tunnelvision" could go on forever and I wouldn't complain. Like the best artists, Here We Go Magic reveal the infinite potential of those fleeting moments of consciousness.

Listen: Tunnelvision

5. Atlas Sound - Logos (Kranky)

Can we all agree that Bradford Cox is a genius? Though the quality of his prolific output may wane from time to time, he's no slacker when it comes to a transcendent melody or a big hook. He knows precisely how to give it the support it deserves. That, I believe, is one of is gifts. There are a lot of reasons why I'm a fan of this album. It's got a wicked (theologically suggestive) title; its got a pair of incredible collaborations ("Walkabout" ft. Noah Lennox, and "Quick Canal" ft. Lætitia Sadier) that showcase his guests without compromising his style or sound; it's introspective ("Attic Lights") and hopelessly romantic ("Sheila") without being sentimental or solipsistic. Bradford Cox; just watch him go!

Listen: Quick Canal

4. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)

Here's something that spans that generational gap between hipster kids and their parents. To older ears it sounds classic and inoffensive (all that crooning!), but Veckatimest is strange and catchy enough to make you wonder how they do it. Group vocals may be on their way out, but as long as Grizzly Bear is still writing such fantastic songs, the naysayers will have to allow for exceptions like "Two Weeks" or "While You Wait For the Others." A lot of people have called this a letdown, but I don't really know where else they could have gone after 2006's Yellow House. This is Grizzly Bear at the top of their game; crossing over was inevitable, but I'm still dreading the day that I walk into Starbucks and hear these boys from Brooklyn pumping on the stereo.

Listen: Two Weeks

3. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca (Domino)

It's nice being validated. When this leaked back in the first days of summer, I was engrossed by this album, sure that I'd never heard anything like it before, certain that this was going to be huge; and it was. It's hard not to sound like a prick, so I'll stop praising foresight. I'm usually wrong, anyhow. Their fantastic live performance (opening for TV on the Radio) confirmed for me that these guys are exceptionally talented; I mean, I wasn't sure how some of these songs (like "Bitte Orca" or "Stillness is the Move") would translate into a live performance, but they did and halfway through the latter, I could sense a change in the audience: suddenly, everyone was mesmerized, helplessly locked into the incredible vocal performance, the fantastic urban groove of "Stillness is the Move" (second only to Animal Collective's "My Girls" as the pop single of the year). As I've said, this is a great experimental pop record, weaving together Afro-beat, jazz, hip-hop, folk --but it also rocks hard. The opening track, "Canibal Resource" features a completely unexpected set of female vocalists who instantly throw off this track's momentous guitar hook. This battle between angelic harmonies and the scattered crunch of David Longstreth's unique compositions frames the entire album, making it an album that's impossible to shake.

Listen: Stillness Is The Move

2. Micachu and the Shapes - Jewellery (Rough Trade)

Hard to believe Mica Levi was only 21 years old when this came out. There's not a single dud here. No misguided melodrama, no existential angst. Every track is instantly catchy and creative, full of young energy that refuses to settle down. Equally refreshing is how the androgynously voiced Levi resists taking herself too seriously. She doesn't tone down her cockney. She doesn't just use a vacuum and pretend it's a studio trick, she actually sings about it. She's open and in touch with her feelings, but it's not the sort of self-involved seriousness you get from most young artists. She can sing about relationship and breakups with honesty and a sense of humour "Think I've made a massive mistake. . . . And I put your things all over the floor, if I jump from my bed I could smash it all," she sings on "Floor." The following song, the tongue-in-cheek, paranoid "Just in Case" features one of my favourite lines from the record: "And I won't have sex 'cause of STDs." But it's "Turn Me Well," the song with "the vacuum now turned on" that I've grown the most attached to. It's a cathartic break-up song ("You squeezed my heart so tight tonight. You must return it before you leave"), but Levi is aware of here emotional neediness. "Wrong" is a close second: a good sample of Levi's uncertainty about her relationships that's just as musically all over the place as anything else on this record with it's off-kilter synths, heavy chorus and prominent cow-bell. This was an album I couldn't stop blabbing about, an album I thought everyone should hear; months later, I still feel just as passionate about it.

Listen: Turn Me Well

1. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)

England's Wild Beasts top a list dominated by artists from the UK. Like Micachu and the Dirty Projectors, Wild Beasts possess a sound and a style that is uniquely theirs; and they've managed to write some of the years best songs, while crafting a cohesive album that demands repeated listens. A major critique leveled at the band's last debut, besides its patchiness, is that it often seems to fall back on the eccentricity of vocalist Hayden Thorpe's falsetto. Two Dancers, however, shows a band with depth, still just as willing to prop up the seedy corners of modern life for anyone who dares to listen. As with Limbo, Panto, vocal duties are evenly shared among Thorpe and the velvet-voiced Chris Talbot. "All the King's Men" incorporates both voices to great effect. Thorpe and Talbot are the "boys who'll drape you in jewels, cut off your hair, and through out your shoes," finding themselves caught somewhere between fairy tale romance and misogyny. Underwritten by a tight bassline and a bouncy beat, "This is Our Lot" is about a dancing pair "quiffed and cropped" holding "each other up heavy with hops". It's a tightly wound pop song; the kind you could imagine Radiohead pulling off if they allowed themselves to be a bit more straightforward. "The Fun Powder Plot" is another good example of the band's now signature lyrical twists: "This is a booty call - my boot up your asshole." The poppier turns of Two Dancers are well suited to the album's duality, all the while poking fun at the fine line between desire and disgust. Like many great artists before them, England's Wild Beasts taunt us with the ambiguities we'd like to ignore and they do it in the most captivating way.

Listen: This Is Our Lot


  1. This may be the 4 glasses of wine talking, but I can't help reading that Bibio description as a slight jab in my general direction. It's not because he released 3 records in one year that I was critical. I was critical because he released 3 great records, each of which contained dull moments; moments that could have been done away with had he stuck with the more traditional 1 record every 2 or 3 years move. Had he taken the best of the three and put out one record, followed by some ep's, that one record would have been phenomenal(like a possible personal number 1 phenomenal). It's Ryan Adams all over again.

  2. Good list. Could make for a diverse Radio Scars night. Can we still call it that?

    I was upset that I didn't recieve "Bitte Orca" this Christmas. Maybe I can make my way to MT sometime soon.

  3. Just discovered your site through your review of Menomena's Mines. How absolutely impeccable tastes you have! St. Vincent, Dirty Projectors, and Wild Beasts at the number one spot, what more can I say?