Hey, have you heard it's the end of the year? Or, the beginning of the year, depending on when you're reading this? Haha, biweekly print publications, yay! On the following pages, you'll find our list of the 30 Best Albums of 2009, in, for the first time in all the years we've been doing this, no order whatsoever (well, alphabetical order). It seemed odd, we thought, to assign numerical rankings to albums by artists as disparate as Paramore and Lucero, or Brother Ali and the Beets. So instead, we give you 30 albums we think you should own, along with key tracks from each, should you be interested in making the ultimate Year in Review playlist, which we assume you are.
A Sunny Day in Glasgow
On a superficial level, it's tempting to lump the hazy melodies and undulating electronics of A Sunny Day in Glasgow's second record in with the hordes of sandy-shoed mumblers who faddishly combined Gidget with gadgets this year. But doing so ignores the sculpted craft of Ashes Grammar. Tossed-off bedroom laptop records are not recorded in a pristinely echoing space under acoustic inspiration from avant-garde composer Alvin Lucier's "I am Sitting in a Room," typically. Spread-out swells of frosty ambience bloom into delicate pop life and then wilt back, all with immaculate design. Its glow comes from higher, not lower fidelity.
» key track: "Close Chorus"
Merriweather Post Pavilion
With MPP almost cracking the Billboard 200 on vinyl sales alone (?!) and its CD release falling on Obama's Inauguration Day, the year started with a real sense of underdog victory. We had made it out of 2008 alive; this was our moment! Then things got pretty shitty again, what with the soaring unemployment rate and the swine flu killing 99 percent of the human race. Fortunately, from the moment "In the Flowers" explodes into hysterics at the idea of reuniting with a long-distance lover in a dream to when Panda Bear begs his brother to quit bottling up emotions about their father's death in "Brother Sport," every second of MPP swells with so much damn heart—while also managing to make songs sound like 3-D entities. It was exactly the type of album that we needed this year—vulnerable, tangible and about life's simple pleasures—by a band who not long ago sounded like a mutant life form.
» key track: "In the Flowers"
Antony & the Johnsons
The Crying Light
Antony Hegarty is a perpetually dramatic guy, of the doomed opera-star variety, but The Crying Light can hardly be called histrionic. Compared to his earlier work, he sounds hushed and reserved, his singular voice gently quavering more often than wildly trilling. His best record is all about control; nuanced images of graceful epilepsy and disappearing bees that never become trite; beautifully orchestrated strings and golden morning piano notes that never slip into schmaltz. His voice is the most precise instrument, though, ranging from "Another World"'s alien purr to "Aeon"'s surprisingly rough, heartbreak shouts.
» key track: "Epilepsy is Dancing"
Spit in the Face of People Who Don't Want to Be Cool
Or spit on the face of anyone who doesn't embrace 50s-inspired garage pop with wide-angled joint vocals sung by three sloppy (usually drunk) boys damn proud to be from Queens because said people are lame and no fun to be around.
» key track:"What Did I Do?"
Lesser politically outspoken rappers had a hard time finding a cause in 2009, given the Bush-Obama switchover, but Brother Ali handles change masterfully. The underground MC of the decade narrowed his focus to deliver a series of at times uncomfortably intimate hyperrealist narratives of loss and iniquity. Along with the usual repertoire of powerful boasts and confessionals over Ant's wonderful beats, Ali won re-election this year as the president of indie rap.
» key track: "Games"
We've long insisted that Neko Case has never managed to release an album that's been great, or even good, from start to finish. Too often, we found ourselves thinking, "Yes, we get it. Your voice is great. But your songs? Kinda boring." But there's something ever so slightly different about Middle Cyclone: there's a sprightliness that runs through the whole thing, making it the perfect setting for Case's vocals, as opposed to something that somehow makes listening to her seem like a chore.
» key track:"This Tornado Loves You"
Yeah I Know
There we were, waiting in line for a dressing room at Urban Outfitters last week when Darlings' riled-up "Eviction Party" came on over the speakers. Naturally, we congratulated ourselves for including them in our "8 NYC Bands You Need to Hear" issue this spring, then we remembered that when garage rock is this catchy, it's pretty easy to get behind. Yeah I Know is easily one of the most listenable records of the year as odes to growing up and how sometimes it's awesome and sometimes it sucks never get old, nor do kick-down-the-door calls to arms like closing track "If This Is Love." It's a fucking anthem.
» key track:"If This Is Love"
Born on Flag Day
During a year in which the most highly publicized thing about Deer Tick was that they were guests on the inaugural episode of newscaster/indie-rock fan Brian Williams' hilariously titled web-series "BriTunes," they also happened to release their best batch of songs yet. Born on Flag Day is rickety and heartbreaking—very much one of those "sad white guy with a guitar" records everyone likes to complain about—but it's also glorious and anthemic. It knows what it's supposed to be, that it's supposed to be a niche record, but it blows past all seemingly reasonable expectations with a flare for drama—and a subtle knack for melody—like you won't hear on many other records this year.
» key track: "Smith Hill"
After two LPs oddly devoted to faded 70s icons (the unmatched pair of Don Henley and Black Flag), Dave Longstreth switched his band's focus to the existential rather than the meta, which turned out to be the lesser of Bitte Orca's two great adjustments. The more important tweak was the addition of vocalist Angel Deradoorian, and the full assimilation of vocalist Amber Coffman. Longstreth's ululating diva turns might have been warmer than ever, but the Dirty Projectors' breakout was truly enabled by that extra pair, whose softly meshing vocals gave gorgeous cushion to even the herky-jerkiest of formal experiments.
» key track: "Stillness is the Move"
There is a considerable chance that you don't like the Drums. They're a lot like those squeaky clean Glee kids: enviably bright-eyed and talented, and you have a sneaking suspicion they're not even trying that hard. Chalk it up to their perfect package of 1950s surf pop delivered with a pinch of hipster kitsch (in the form of 80s Manchester gloom). At a time when beach music came in floods, the Drums' debut got it right—a 20-some minute assault of quivering Dick Dale guitars bolstering one dance hook after another—while simultaneously subverting the entire genre with tinges of Joy Division. Yeah, you should be jealous.
» key track:"Make You Mine"
Animal Collective may have dominated the year with their high-fiving odes to embracing responsibility, but this solo record from The Knife's Karin Dreijer Andersson was a more grown-up account of being a grown up. Without the kinetic beats her brother brings to their joint venture, Fever Ray's neon-black synths are almost suffocatingly goth; invoking the dark art of getting by with little sleep and an innate unease that persists even in the presence of friends and family. Four walls and adobe slats aren't enough to keep the girl inside from feeling profoundly lonely.
» key track:"Keep the Streets Empty for Me"
Future of the Left
Travels With Myself and Another
The difference between being an "asshole" and being a "dick" is fairly nuanced, nowhere moreso than among the makers of heavy rock n' roll. Whereas assholes like Josh Homme spray their nastiness indiscriminately, a dick like Future of the Left's sublimely surly Andy Falkous has a more guided aim for his salty blasts. A cast of schlubs, from suburban devil-worshippers to some guy named Rick, gets its specifically scabrous dressing-down from his perpetually sick-minded yelp, in a set where the balance between goofy pop sheen and rib-cracking heaviness is a perfecto as it's ever been (yes, including McLusky). When meanness is this witty, you have to give the dick his due.
» key track: "The Hope That House Built"
Aside from being the single most un-googleable record of 2009, the debut full-length from San Francisco weirdos Girls was also the most surprising. The band first surfaced with the ultimate hazy summer jam "Hellhole Ratrace," then came through with a record that was even better than the excitable music nerd masses had hoped it would be. It's part Elvis Costello, part Beach Boys, part My Bloody Valentine, and it's all about lazy, messed-up kids trying to make sense of things. If someone wrote lyrics better than "I wish I had a suntan/I wish I had a pizza and a bottle of wine/I wish I had a beach house/and we could make a big fire every night/instead I'm just crazy and totally mad/instead I'm just crazy and fucked in the head," we didn't hear it.
» key track: "Lust for Life"
While Yellow House showed that the Grizzly Bear boys could morph choir-boy vocals into oozily textured sonic dreams, Veckatimest attached their skyward harmonies to simple melodic infrastructures (see: "Two Weeks," "Cheerleader"). And you know what happened then? The clouds parted. Hearts melted. Jay-Z and Beyonce turned up at a Williamsburg Pool Party. Twilight tweens hummed along. And Grizzly Bear found themselves with one of the most gracefully crafted, downright beautiful albums of the year.
» key track: "Two Weeks"
Well, they finally ditched the faux-cutesy name "Muggabears" for the more suitably cryptic "Grooms," but it turns out the noise-rock trio is still rather perverse with names. Rejoicer, with its sinister lyrical puzzles and metallic guitar squall, isn't exactly a perfect Hallmark portrait of celebration. But acting as both the delayed fruit of a few thankless years on the Brooklyn scene, and the best, most cerebral guitar record this city produced in 2009, there's plenty to toast, regardless.
» key track: "Dreamsucker"
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises from early this year was what a departure Face Control was from the elegant slow burn of Handsome Furs' Plague Park. This time, Dan Boeckner's twitchy guitar strikes against the beats of Alexei Perry's pulsating drum machine succinctly and deliberately. The husband-wife duo manages a sound that, while mostly slick and standoffish (the album was inspired by a trip to Russia), radiates a sense of sadness and urgency. You're not sure whether to dance or cry, so you just decide to call your friend and tell them what an amazing album this is instead.
» key track: "Radio Kaliningrad"
It's not as urgent as Jigga's 90s coke raps, or as perfect as the first Blueprint, but this is one of the most well crafted pop albums of the decade. Timbaland and Kanye West contribute especially top-notch beats, creating a more unified, cohesive and generally outstanding listening experience than the great but disjointed Black Album. Even when Jay doesn't sound his best, carefully chosen guests step up and deliver in his stead—except Young Jeezy and Drake, whose appearances are the album's low points. Jay proves he can get away with anything, even covering Alphaville's "Forever Young" so well he made us cry.
» key track: "Reminder"
He didn't quite starve us, but compared to his usual output of 20 mixtapes per month, 2009 was pretty lean for Wayne. He made up for it by cutting the filler and dropping this top-tier mixtape, perhaps partly motivated by a sense of urgency in light of an impending jail term. He kills some great beats that were mishandled by their original users—Jay-Z's "Run This Town" and Gucci Mane's "Wasted,"—and, awesomely, sounds his best on a Black Eyed Peas track.
» key track: "I Got No Ceilings"
1372 Overton Park
It's hard to argue with those who feel like Lucero frontman Ben Nichols' voice is a bit much: he does the super-gravelly alt-country thing, and it can at times seem like a silly affectation. And while it might be, it certainly can't even begin to distract from the quality of his songs—it's standard loser/drunk/depressive stuff, but it's also got an energy that the rest of the No Depression set always seems to forget about. And they started using horns on this record, so that's really cool.
» key track:"Smoke"
With no phone and no car, Dayve Hawk's search for magic had to play out pretty close to home. But domestic inspiration seems to be all Memory Tapes' cohesive dance-music needs. These tracks build patiently, establishing suburban atmosphere with wayward dog barks or rhythmically layered sneaker squeaks from a pick-up basketball game. Even strummy bedroom indie-rock is just a building block for a soaring jam, as highlight "Plain Material" ably proves. Of all the year's many hyped DIY recording projects, the New Jersey homebody's was the most meticulously constructed.
» key track: "Plain Material"
Micachu & the Shapes
"I'll get a job when I get old," then-21-year-old Mica Levy promises in "Sweetheart," one of her dizzying debut's many bite-sized highlights. Like she's ever going to have to. Composing songs since the age of four, Mica's already a classically trained veteran whose thirst for new sounds has her inventing brand new instruments and wringing use out of her vacuum cleaner as well. Jewellry is sort of an counterintuitive name for a record that cobbles pop from rough edges and unexpected sharp turns, but it's a funny symbol for such an ADD sensibility—always grasping for the next dangling gleam.
» key track: "Golden Phone"
Brand New Eyes
There is something admittedly outdated about the particular brand of mall-punk/emo that makes up Paramore's second full-length, Brand New Eyes: Avril did it, Kelly Clarkson did it, and really, even Ashlee Simpson did it. But no one's ever done it quite like this. First of all, 20-year-old singer Hayley Williams can sing all of those girls under the table, with a wild, affecting voice she's really learning to control. And second, while we know it shouldn't matter, her heart is in the right place: Don't look for her to up and decide she's going the teen-pop route anytime soon. She already knows liberating, soaring rock songs make for the best kind of pop.
» key track: "Brick by Boring Brick"
Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Psycho scion Perkins didn't tweak his sound too drastically between 2007's Ash Wednesday and this year's Elvis Perkins In Dearland: Both albums sport that peculiarly sleepy-yet-feisty acoustic vibe, vaguely evoking an American roots-rock style in ways both similar to and wildly divergent from the frontman's bearded contemporaries. But this year's record distinguishes itself with songwriting maturation, the new band's energy and a uniformity of great tracks, the result of some streamlining: This time around, he reserved the filler for a follow-up EP.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The best thing about how popular this record became this year is that if you were to google the name of it because, say, you can never remember how to spell "Amadeus," you would find that Google first assumes that you're looking for Wolfgang Puck, then Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, and then Mozart. Fair, we say, because Mozart neither dressed as well as these dudes nor wrote ten pop songs so good even our snobbiest, most noise-loving friends loved them. He totally never played Saturday Night Live, either.
» key track: "1901"
Nostalgia runs deep on the Jersey band's debut full-length, but everything else floats along wistfully, giving rise to Yo La Tengo and Galaxie 500 comparisons, if they had recorded underwater. Ultimately, Real Estate is an exercise in balance and texture—we're pretty sure they've cracked the code to the perfect guitar tone—and a testament to how tapping into the universal longing for home, summer, etc. can carry an album a long way.
» key track: "Green River"
The Rural Alberta Advantage
The first 40-odd seconds of Hometowns' opening track, "The Ballad of the RAA," seems, frankly, to set the table for another in a long line of low-rent Postal Service ripoffs. But the airy synths and canned-sounding drums are eventually joined by the ragged, soulful singing of Nils Edenloff, and things immediately come together. What follows is a batch of songs that alternates between keyboard-heavy indie-pop and aggressive, acoustic folk-punk that will appeal to fans of Neutral Milk Hotel, early Against Me, and anyone who, even only occasionally, misses wherever they came from.
» key track: "The Deathbridge in Lethbridge"
More than ever, bands seemed to chase trends in â�‚��œ09. Leave it to Spencer Krug to put out an album that couldn't have been further from the beach themes/slop-pop/lo-fi haze craze that seemingly worked its way into every other recording this year. His weird man-boy yelps led an acutely refined band through hook-happy moonlit orchestrations about, like, Rapunzel and stuff, culminating in an epic last track—a twisting nail-biter that might be the best ten minutes of music recorded this year. With Dragonslayer, the Krugster officially bowed out of Wolf Parade's shadow and established himself as one of the most enigmatic, prolific songwriters of the decade.
» key track:"Dragon's Lair"
Songs of Shame
In November, New York Magazine largely credited Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors with restoring "New York as America's music capital," but both bands spent the bulk of the year on tour. So where were forward-thinking, flannel-wearing New Yorkers spending their time? At sweaty Market Hotel shows seeing Woods. Songs of Shame is a slab of rattled, acid-drenched backwoods country, infused with Neil Youngish vocals and filtered through what would eventually become the signature scuzzy sound of their homegrown record label, Woodsist. Woods sounded progressive enough, classic enough, creepy enough, and strangely optimistic enough to rightfully represent our city's growing legion of DIY bands. This is it. This is how the Brooklyn music scene sounded in 2009.
» key track:"To Clean"
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
With two dayglo singles frontloading It's Blitz!, "punks go dance pop" was an easy description. It's a very unsatisfying one, though. Sure, with Nick Zinner and Brian Chase quietly programming zaps and beats rather than bombastically bashing, this wasn't the debauched, visceral band that initially caught New York's ear. But the record's strength is one that's been obvious ever since that first rough and tumble EP; the wounded torch song. Karen O's increasingly refined singing just wrung the ache out of every slow burning composition. And for heart health, a sad glass of red wine beats a beer bath, it seems.
» key track:"Hysteric"