The Best Albums of 2009 ... So Far
By Ryan Hamm
August 14, 2009
There is a mind-boggling amount of music that comes out every week. Like, to the point where it's an exhausting prospect to think of sifting through Amazon.com's "New Releases" section. On any given week, you might find a gem, but odds are it'll be sandwiched in between that compilation of reggaeton classics from the Ukraine and that creepy Swedish death metal album with a picture of the Devil in an evening gown. So it's difficult to narrow down all of the releases this year to a list of our 10 favorite.
But that hasn't ever stopped us.
So we are proud to bring you our list of the Top 10 Albums of 2009 (so far). We're sure we've forgotten something that will later haunt our dreams, but we're pretty happy with the way it turned out. The first half of '09 has been a great one for music. Here's to hoping that the second half is just as good. On to the countdown:
10. The Decemberists, Hazards of Love
Colin Meloy has always been ... what's a nice way of saying it ... bookish. His band The Decemberists is one of only a few bands who could close a concert with a song about a crazed sailor chasing a whale and have every person there going nuts completely unironically. And that's not even the weirdest stuff—their 2004 EP The Tain was a single, 17-minute song that owed equal parts to Black Sabbath and Irish folklore. So it's not really a surprise when they announced that Hazards of Love would be a 17-part (prog) rock opera.
What is a surprise is how darn good it is. Somehow, Meloy and Co's crazy ambitions (the amorphous story is something about a maiden [sung by Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark] who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest being—and somewhere in there is an evil forest queen and a Rake, whatever that is) don't overshadow the incredible music they produce. In fact, the story attains a certain gravitasbecause of the music—The Decemberists aren't making an ironic homage to Jethro Tull and Yes, they're trying to one-up those bands. And with all of the tonal shifts from folk ("The Hazards of Love Pt. 1") to metal ("A Bower Scene") to bar blues ("Won't Want for Love") to the type of baroque pop The Decemberists are known for ("The Rake's Song"), this crazy rock opera will have you entranced. And probably frantically cross-referencing the lyric booklet with some obscure Russian folklore.
9. mewithoutYou, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright
There are strange songs about anthropomorphic animals ("The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie" and "Fig with a Bellyache") and spiritual ruminations (most of the songs, but especially "Allah, Allah, Allah" and "The Angel of Death Came to David's Room"), but all of them are matched by whirling folk guitars, blaring horns, and interesting percussion. mewithoutYou might owe Neutral Milk Hotel a hearty thank-you, but they could hardly have picked a better fit for their band. This album is a testament to that.
8. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
Well, with Noble Beast, Bird has broken any artificial ceiling that might have been set up for him. Bird's proclivity for, well, most everything serves him well once again, as each of his songs are punctuated by his piercing whistle (if you haven't heard it, you should stop reading andgo watch this), always spot-on guitar playing and classically trained violin plucking and bowing. On this album, he adds some pop flourishes ("Oh No" and "Not a Robot, but a Ghost"), ambient drone ("Unfolding Fans") and even bossa nova ("Masterswarm"). And of course, he has an amazing voice that make his tongue-tying lyrics expressive and filled with warmth. His lyrics really are labyrinthine—just listen to the word gymnastics of "Anonanimal" and "Fitz and the Dizzyspells." There's no one that sounds quite like Andrew Bird, and that is a very, very good thing.
7. Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing
Building on a mostly steady rocking pace from the beginning, Mean Everything ends with the epic, baptism-themed “The River.” The song includes Hull shrieking, “Take me to the river / And let me see again,” and later, without any instruments in the background, he barely keeps a steady voice as he softly sings, “I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get.” When music elicits every reaction from fist-pumping, to swaying, to goosebumps, you know it’s a great album—and a band you’ll be hearing from for years to come.
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz
It's Blitz is perhaps the most accessible of the YYY's career. From opening "Zero" to the heartbreaking "Runaway" to the surprisingly tender "Little Shadow," the manic growl of the band's early days has been toned down a little bit. Not completely, of course; Karen O still spits her words in a sexual aggression on "Heads Will Roll" and "Dull Life." She's just gotten a little gentler after a couple of albums. "Skeletons" is an actual ballad and O demonstrates that she can do a slower song with her edge softened just as much as she can rock a demented yowl set to a dance beat. It's Blitz has these songs in pretty equal measure, and it's all the better for it. The best of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' output so far, this release ought not to be missed.
5. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
4. Mos Def, The Ecstatic
We're so glad you're back.
On "Auditorium," your rap about Iraq segues into a fierce Slick Rick verse that changes the questions from "Slick Rick is still around?" to "How are there not more songs on the radio like this?" And using super indie-rap producers Madvillain and Oh No seems to have invigorated you. The Middle Eastern beats fit perfectly with your ruminations on worldwide politics, the fear of growing discord all over the world and the lurking pessimism that hides just behind your generally joyful beats. Your flow on "Casa Bey" is ridiculous; it's not many people who can use an upbeat Latin swing as a backdrop for their rhymes. You can even rap in Spanish ("no Hay Nada Mas")! Finally, thank you for reuniting with Talib Kweli on "History"—now, could you maybe work on that second Black Star album?
3. Paper Route, Absence
The result is an addicting dance-pop record with a heavy emphasis on arena-ready songs ("Last Time," "Are We All Forgotten") with a healthy smattering of ballads ("Be Healed," "Lovers' Anthem"). The album as a whole stands on its own as one of the best releases of the year for its yearning, deeply spiritual lyrics and its poignant musical flourishes.
2. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
But then on Merriweather Post Pavilion, they seemed to suddenly realize that it was OK to make pop songs. And really good pop songs. They seemed to have learned something from member Panda Bear's 2007 solo release, Person Pitch, which sounded like the Beach Boys has recorded something they made after ingesting a large quantity of drugs and discovering Pro Tools. So maybe we shouldn't have been surprised when "My Girls" came out. But we were; and then when we heard the rest of the album, we were more and more blown away. From the hot-and-sticky "Summertime Clothes" to the gauzy "No More Runnin'" to the sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs "Brothersport," Animal Collective have released the album of their career. The weird sounds of their past finally found a melody to attach themselves to, and the results should be heard to be fully appreciated.
1. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
With Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has seemingly found a way to reverse the effects of their fiddling—it's like they injected a huge influx of warmth and sunniness into their normal wall of sound. And then they somehow thought "Man, I bet we could make an album that's as good as our favorite Beach Boys records" ... and then did. Listen to "Two Weeks" and it's guaranteed to put a smile on your face, even if you think it's some missing track from Pet Sounds. The perfect vocal pairings of Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen make every harmony pitch-perfect, and the clever percussion and rhythm of each song rewards multiple listens. There are so many fantastic songs on this pop record that it's hard to know where to start ... the plaintive vocals and soaring falsetto on "Fine for Now"? The sad ballad that is "Dory"? Or how about the start-and-stop perfection of "While You Wait for the Others"? No, it's best to just say: Veckatimest is the best album of 2009 (so far) and you should listen to it as soon as you get the chance.
Honorable Mention: M. Ward, Hold Time; Aaron Strumpel, Elephants; St. Vincent, Actor; Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Self-Titled; Deastro, Moondagger