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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"