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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.