I’d love to be able to say I did this list in one shot, fired from the hip, and came out fearlessly and decisively with my rock solid Top 20 Albums list ready for prime time. The truth is, unfortunately filled with scribbles, crumpled paper balls, wishing I had 25 slots, and a few question marks that will inevitably be answered in a year or two from now when I look back on this list and laugh at myself. I must admit my 2008 list held up pretty well for me over time. Even my 2007 list doesn’t make me blush, but my lackluster “top 15″ of 2006 has definitely not aged as well. This list is the naked, sometimes ugly truth of what really stuck with me this year. Some albums started out sure fire top five when I first heard them, but eventually I just plain got sick of (sorry Passion Pit). Some albums I could not make myself sick of no matter how many times I hit repeat (thank you Dirty Projectors). I even found myself asking “Where is Grizzly Bear on this list”? Only to answer that, while I respect the album, it just wasn’t an album I found myself wanting to listen to over and over again, although the Michael McDonald version of “While You Wait For The Others” gets filed under coolest move of the year.
When my list was finished, I found myself wishing it was drastically more different than a lot of the other blog lists, but making a list just to be different seems stupid. If it’s my favorite and it happens to be a million other blogger’s favorites, so be it. I always see people leave comments on top album lists like [say in comic book guy voice] “most unoriginal list ever”. Those people are missing the point. These lists are the author’s favorite albums of the year, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t pretend to be any kind of authority or suggest anybody out there should take these too seriously.
The list is far from thorough, unlike John I don’t go through and listen to every album that deserves consideration at list making time. If I haven’t had time to really fall in love with an album, (as John mentions with multiple front to back listens) and time for the album to grow on me as I fall in and out of love with it, then it doesn’t get considered for my list. I do love catching up on music I missed in the past year with other people’s lists. I’ve found some really cool music over the past few weeks on some of my other favorite blogs that I’m sure if I had found them earlier, would have had a shot at making my list (as if anybody cares about making my list). There are a handful of albums like this that just didn’t make my radar during the course of the year, and as I listen now I’m wishing they did.
I really look forward to making these lists. It’s why I started blogging in the first place. Friends would ask me, “what’s some good new music I should check out?” and I would always draw a blank when put on the spot. These lists are a good reminder on what a great year it actually was in music. When I first started I was worried I wouldn’t have 20 worthy albums to include, now I’m wishing I had room for at least another five. They are also a good way for lazy bloggers like me that didn’t take the time to tell you about these albums when they were actually released to get you up to speed. I’m not going to write much on these albums, I’ll let the music speak for itself.
#20. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Dreamy dark music with a tinge of 80s goodness. Gotta love her video for “Daniel”, paying homage to none other than the Karate Kid himself, Daniel-San. Makes me wonder if she grew up with a huge crush on Ralph Macchio. I’m sure she has her fair share of guys growing up with a huge crush on her.
Download Two Suns here
#19. Japandroids – Post-Nothing
This album is by far louder than anything else that finds it’s way into my regular rotation, but there is something particularly special about Japandroids. Kind of reminds you of early Pumpkins with their powerful, at times insanely in your face loudness, but still somehow making beautiful music at the same time. I think the one difference where they could have taken another page out of the Pumpkins book would be to add a bit of room for dynamics, this album starts noisy, ends noisy, and is noisy in the middle. This is one of the albums I thought for sure would also be on John’s list, I’m looking forward to catching up with him about our lists.
Download Post Nothing here
#18. Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
I’ve said it before, and before that, I love the sounds Alan Palomo creates. This album is just as trippy as the title suggests, and literally feels like it was recorded on tape, sealed in a time capsule for 25 years, and just now pressed to CD. The only reason the album isn’t higher on my list as I didn’t think every single song was worth a re-listen.
Download Psychic Chasms here
#17. The Xx – xx
If you read my best remixes of 2009 post, you know they did a bang up job on Florence and the Machine. The only reason The XX didn’t make it higher on my Top 20 is because I get the impression The XX think they are entirely way too cool for pretty much everything, including Top Album lists, and showing any signs of exerting effort into anything, let alone vocals on a song. Almost a “we can’t be bothered” vibe. At times their vocal style dips almost into near comatose. I don’t like the feeling that somebody is trying extra hard to sing with a certain style or type (see John Mayer doing his best whispery Dave Matthews impression for example) but I can’t deny they make good tunes. I especially like the Chris Isaak vibe on “Infinity”, if only because as a young lad that music video got me through many a lonely night.
Download xx here
#16. Atlas Sound – Logos
Atlas Sound is a solo project from Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox. I have mixed feelings on this album, it at times escapes too far beyond reality as he tends to do, but the Atlas Sound project is definitely more focused and on track towards reality than Deerhunter. Has a sixties vibe to it. There are some beautiful songs on this record and he has a knack at making them without ever having to let on that they are anything but ugly. This album also earns my nomination for worst record cover of the year.
Download Logos here
#15. Yacht – See Mystery Lights
How would I ever begin to describe Yacht? There are no words. Like nothing I’ve heard before. Incorporating elements of electronic music, sampling, live instruments, mantras, and a bunch of other crazy stuff. One of my favorites to listen to this year because it’s so fresh and different than anything else. Think of how you would have described Tom Tom Club or LCD Soundsystem the first time you heard them. I’m pretty sure this album is about dying, you wouldn’t know it from it’s tone and energy. After writing this paragraph, I just hopped over to Pitchfork to get some background on Yacht, and of course it cites Tom Tom Club and LCD Soundsystem as influences, and they cite using mantras. I swear I haven’t read that review before, or anything on Yacht for that matter. Weird.
Download See Mystery Lights here
#14. Cass McCombs – Catacombs
I never really caught on to Cass McCombs before, but was completely won over by this album. I only knew of him from his tune That’s That, which I found to be pretty good, but this new album is more than pretty good. It’s got a kind of minimalist approach, a relatively quiet album, but has the feel of something like the quieter side of Velvet Underground, tough to describe, give it a listen. Where The XX are exerting extra effort to sound cool in my opinion, for Cass McCombs it’s a natural occurrence. There isn’t a bad song on the record.
Download Catacombs here
#13. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
You’ve gotta love Neko Case’s voice. Smooth as silk, even when she’s bellowing at the top of her lungs, what a pair of lungs they are. I’d go so far as to say she has the best female voice in modern music. Hard to describe her musical style, not Tex Mex ,not Country but certainly not mainstream Pop or Rock either. I took a few years break from Neko (I heard she was heartbroken) after going through a huge Neko Case phase. This album was the perfect reminder that she is still amazing and can still mix things up. This is her most refined and focused album to day.
Download Middle Cyclone here
#12. Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
Solo effort from Dan Auerbach, the frontman from The Black Keys (if you don’t know them start making yourself familiar right away). As pretty much expected, this is the only album that made both John and my list this year. These tunes are at times slightly quieter than those produced from The Black Keys, but one thing is for sure, Auerbach turns whatever he touches to Blues gold. If you like The Black Keys, this will not be a let down.
Download Keep It Hid here
#11. J. Tillman – Year In The Kingdom
Josh Tillman is a member of Fleet Foxes, and has been recording solo music for some time. His latest release, Year In The Kingdom, is nothing short of earth shatterring, without ever raising the dB needle past green. The amazing thing is, he is the drummer for Fleet Foxes, and I don’t even think there was a drum kit on site when recording this album. Think of the first time you heard Iron & Wine or Bon Iver, that’s the kind of spine tingling goodness this record contains. Looks like there are plans to digitally release some of his earlier works, looking forward to hearing those as well. As a wannabe songwriter, I’ve always appreciated being able to allude to something without actually ever coming out and saying it, rewarding the careful listener with allegories and clues. See “Earthly Bodies” for a great example of singing about doing the no pants dance without ever mentioning the word sex.
Download Year In The Kingdom here
#10. Cymbals Eat Guitars – Why There Are Mountains
So many great bands come to mind when listening to Cymbals Eat Guitars – Pavement, Sonic Youth, Built To Spill. The first three tracks are especially killer, I swear if you put them on for someone without telling them they might think it was a lost track from one of the aforementioned bands. Some people take offense to being compared to other artists, but how could you in this company? It doesn’t necessarily infer that you are just copying what’s already been done, or worse, trying to sound like somebody else on purpose, just that it’s clear you grew up listening to great music.
Download Why Are There Mountains here
#9. Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is!
Whatever happened to making simply good damn music to get funky to? Thank God for Black Joe Lewis, the closest we are going to get to the Godfather of soul anytime in the foreseeable future. With a good mix of funk and blues, It would be impossible for you to not be moving at least one extremity when this record comes on. Going to see Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears live in Feb at Great Scott in Allston, I’ve heard they put on a hell of a show.
Download Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! here
#8. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
I have to admit, when I first heard a track from Fanfarlo “The Walls Are Coming Down”, I thought these guys were just trying to rip off Beirut, like literally copy every aspect of it – from the mandolin to the trumpet to the tremolo style vocals. But then I got the full album and realized that was only one tune that sounded like Beirut, and the album was actually a layered, well written album. Any fan of Sufjan Stevens, The National, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! and Beirut should give Fanfarlo a listen.
Download Reservoir here
#7. Throw Me The Statue – Creaturesque
Another band that I bet I could trick you with if I put it on for you. The first time I heard them on the radio I could have sworn they were Built To Spill. Again, I don’t mean to offend anyone with comparisons like this, I know it’s not the favorite of most artists to be compared. These guys make great rock music, the lead singer has a soft delivery much like Built To Spill or the Flaming Lips. Hi Fi Goon was a strong contender for my song of the year.
Download Creaturesque here
#6. White Denim – Fits
Let me put a disclaimer in, pretty much every album from my #6 to #1 have at some point during my list making process been #1. It was quite a struggle for me to sort these last six out. They are pretty much all #1s to me. This album sure was a surprise for me. Some of my favorite bloggers have been absolutely raving about White Denim for a few years now, and I never understood why. I didn’t really dig their first album, but when I sat down with Fits, and listened to it twice over, I was blown away. So many different sounds for this album. Zappa, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Dead, more recently Tapes N Tapes, but most importantly, their own, rocking unique sound that makes them in no way like any of the influences I just mentioned. You won’t be able to get a feel by just listening to a couple of sample songs, you really need to pick up this record and give the full album your undivided attention.
Download Fits here
#5. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
Fever Ray is a solo project for The Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson, and one of The Giant Panther’s absolute favorites for 2009. The first time I heard this album I was a little weary, because I think I was expecting a Knife album, which this is not. But it grew on me incredibly quickly, and became my second most listened to album of the year. I’ve raved about The Knife and Karen in particular many times before. She has such a ballsy voice and is way way out there in the music she makes. Often times creepy, but in a good way. Also my pick for best album cover of the year.
Bonus Remix: The Knife -Triangle Walks (Rex The Dog Radio Edit)
Download Fever Ray here
#4. Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
Bibio came out of nowhere and hit me in the head with an amazing album. Half beautiful indie melodic songs, and half sampled head bobbing beats, this album was an amazing surprise. Easily my favorite track of the year, “Fire Ant” is an example of the latter. I’m not sure what inspired Bibio to go from the experimental folksy Boards of Canada type stuff to the Flying Lotus, J Dilla-esque beats like “Fire Ant”, but it’s a great combination.
Download Ambivalence Avenue here
Bonus Remix: Bibio – Lovers Carvings (Letherette Remix)
#3. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
I’ve been listening to Dirty Projectors for years. I always thought to myself that frontman Dave Longstreth is one step away from perfection, if he could just trade a tiny bit of orchestral experimentation for catchiness, they could be one of my favorites. Their last album Rise Above set them on this path, and Bitte Orca finally hit perfection. Killer album. Rocks my world every time I put it on. I’m convinced 20 years from now “Stillness is the Move” will be considered a decade defining song. You can almost hear it making it to the Top 100 radio station, it’s so damn catchy. Amber Coffman puts in a vocal performance that is could have easily been transplanted to any top R&B song (without needed assistance from an autotune). As a matter of fact, I think I remember seeing this video posted on Kanye West’s blog, and all the commenters were like “damn this is a pretty good girl group etc”, maybe this single took things to far into the popularity realm for Longstreth, I guess time will tell when we hear the next album from them whether they keep on the current course or hunker back towards experimental interpretations or maybe a rock opera. The guitar riff is so unique and added to the beat it’s a great combination, I’m always impressed when I hear a live version of “No Intention”, how tight the harmonies are, and how easily they play that guitar riff (I’ve tried, it’s hard). I love the harmonies and voices the lovely pair Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian in Dirty Projectors bring to this band. There isn’t a bad track on this record.
If you don’t believe me that Stillness Is The Move has R&B potential, check out Beyonce’s sister’s rendition:
Bonus live performance: Dirty Projectors – No Intention (Live acoustic on Sirius XMU)
Download Bitte Orca here
#2. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Don’t stare directly into the album cover! If you’ve read a music blog in the last five years, I don’t need to tell you about Animal Collective. If you haven’t, stop and give them a good listen, because you probably won’t ever hear them on the radio. Stick with your first listen, some of the songs have long, repetitive intros, almost mantra like, that end up rewarding the listener greatly towards the middle or end of a song with a catchy hook. “In The Flowers” would also get the TGP nod for best written song of the year (even though sometimes I had to refer to a lyrics sheet). This is by far their best album, and it really blew me away. It was the most listened to album by The Giant Panther this year, and I think it’s because you can find so many things with each new listen. I would also go so far as to say this is their most “radio friendly” album to date, but again, don’t ever expect to hear these on the radio. Sorry to be so unoriginal with my #2 selection, but they are on a lot of year end lists for good reason. There is nobody like them and they make amazing, interesting, original music.
Download Merriweather Post Pavilion here
#1. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
Your first listen to The Pains Of Being Pure at Heart will most likely leave you wondering how they were able to achieve perfection without seemingly trying too hard. Cramming so many perfect songs into one album, I would imagine takes making about 30 or 40, then leaving 20 of them on the cutting room floor. I hear so many influences in this music, all of which bring me back to my favorite era and genre of music, 80′s new wave. From song to song I hear The Cure (one of my all time favorite albums is Disintegration), The Smiths, Jesus & Mary Chain, and on and on. Maybe throw in a little Belle & Sebastian for good measure. I thought after listening that this band was from the UK, but I think they are actually Brooklyn based. If you pick up one album this year based on my recommendations, make it this one.
Download The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart here