What better way to end our list making extravaganza with a list of the 15 best albums of 2009. This was our easiest list to make, requiring little haggling over available spots and positioning. So we hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, tell us why in the comments!
15. Girls – Album
“I don’t want to cry…I want to do some laughing too” sings Girls’ (male) singer and mastermind Christopher Owens, in a kind of thesis statement for the band’s debut Album. Mixing melancholy vocals and lyrics with summery, triumphant, and weirdly innocent beach rock for an album that felt very much like a throwback to an earlier time. Songs like “Hellhole Ratrace” and “Lust for Life” were among the best of the year, thanks to Owens’ Elvis Costello-esque vocals and clever songwriting.
14. jj – jj n2
The mystery and speculation over who, exactly, jj are could have threatened to obscure their actual musical output. But, fortunately, the band’s first lp is built to last, combining shimmering synths with songs that come dangerously close to adult contemporary without becoming boring. With a sound that references everything from Lil’ Wayne to Enya, jj has crafted the year’s most eclectic record and one of its most pleasant bits of sonic escapism.
13. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko Case long ago established herself as a unique voice, but on her beautiful, oft-dark Middle Cyclone, she shows off some of her best songwriting to date. Between grisly stories of murder and running from the law, Case mixes in soulful songs that bring to the front her strong voice, that towers equally over acoustic ramblings and alt-country jaunts. Middle Cyclone is the strongest all around album of Case’s career, which continues to get better and better with every record.
12. Real Estate – Real Estate
In a year when lo-fi ruled, Real Estate’s self titled debut drifted in and established itself as one of the best. The album is mellow without being too slow, and hums along smoothly from beginning to end. What set Real Estate apart from similar lo-fi bands is that their songs have a deliberate pace to them that creates a relaxed record that is equally perfect for snowy days and summer breezes.
11. Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellery
If Lily Allen was a clerk at Other Music, you might get something approximating the bizarre sound of Micachu and the Shapes. Wikipedia lists Micachu’s instruments as “vocals, guitar, electronics, vacuum cleaner” almost as a warning to expect the unexpected. Jewellery is catchy but eclectic, combining hip hop, world music, indie rock, chart-topping pop and electronica into a music comp major’s dream. Songs like the “Tequila” swiping “Calculator” and the insanely catchy “Golden Phone” are wildly experimental without being inaccessible.
10. Woods – Songs of Shame
Unlike most of the fuzzed out lo-fi bands of 2009, Woods reached further back in time than 1990, making a timeless, pastoral album that owes as much of a debt to Neil Young as it does to Robert Pollard. From the Crazy Horse-esque noise jam session “September with Pete” to the lush, country ballad “Rain On,” Songs of Shame is a delicate, beautiful album with a rock edge.
9. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
If you can get past the goofy name, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s self titled debut is a fun, throwback record packed with enough catchy songs to stay in your head for weeks. Between ripping guitar solos, sweet vocals, and swirling keyboards, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart is an irresistible pop gem. The band wears their heart on their sleeves, but in such a way that makes you want to listen again and again.
8. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
It didn’t seem like it was possible to make darker music than The Knife, but Fever Ray, Karin Dreijer Andersson‘s solo project, accomplishes just that. A claustrophobic haunted house of synths and drum machines, Fever Ray’s record is the rare album that can be convincingly called Lynchian. The whole record sounds like some kind of bad trip, with Andersson’s frequent pitch-shifting and the record’s sparse feel adding to the psychological unease that permeates throughout the album.
7. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix was deserving of a breakout record after steadily getting better and better with their first three. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the band’s most accessible to date, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. Songs like “Lizstomania” and “1901″ became unavoidable and incredibly enjoyable hits through endless performances on SNL and every late night show. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is an absolute blast to listen to, and was perhaps the best pop album of 2009.
6. St. Vincent – Actor
On Marry Me, Annie Clark showed off her guitar chops, unique voice, and flair for songwriting with a timeless feel, but it didn’t come anywhere near the sonic innovation of her follow-up. Actor walks a tightrope, often sounding like the score to a nightmarish version of a Disney film, mixed with Clark’s dark, starkly drawn lyrics like “Marrow’s” booming chorus (“H.E.L.P. Help Me”). By combining swirling strings and woodwinds with electronic noodling, Clark crafted an idiosyncratic gem and continued to raise her already through-the-roof stock.
5. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
After beginning to stagnate in terms of both songwriting and performance, The Flaming Lips showed that they still had a few tricks up their sleeve. Building on the dark, violent imagery of Christmas on Mars, Embryonic is a sprawling, acid-rock anthem that combines prog ambition, acid-jazz experimentation, and electronic innovation to start yet another exciting new chapter for the Flaming Lips. The album is inaccessible and freewheeling but never overly indulgent and clearly reenergized the band, who sounds more alive and dynamic here than they have in a while.
4. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound must have weighed heavy in the minds of Tracyanne Campbell and co. as they crafted their best record in My Maudlin Career. Long in the shadow of fellow Glaswegians Belle & Sebastian, Camera Obscura came into their own on a record full of love, love lost, and disappointment. There are few songs as infectious as opener “French Navy,” and tracks like “The Sweetest Thing” ingrain themselves into your brain with their lush arrangements and Campbell’s silky voice. While it flew under the radar compared to the records following it on our list, My Maudlin Career is a phenomenal album that demands repeat listening.
3. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Dirty Projectors were a surprise break-out hit in 2009 with Bitte Orca, an album that sounds like nothing else out there. The jumping harmonies, odd time signatures, and Dave Longstreths distinct voice combine on a record that is both wonderfully weird and incredibly fun. The popular standout was “Stillness is the Move,” but track “Temecula Sunrise” and the stunning “Two Doves” are equally as great. Bitte Orca is the kind of record that makes a band step up the next level. Here’s hoping for more greatness from Dirty Projectors in the near future.
2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Veckatimest is both throwback and forward-thinking. Grizzly Bear dabbles in influences ranging from turn-of-the-century folk and Americana to avant-garde and pop, but on their third record (and second as a full band), they made a record that feels firmly fixed in the here-and-now. Grizzly Bear’s songwriting shows a patience that can, at times, border on sadistic; each note is so deliberate and thought out that it can take several listens to truly appreciate the breadth of what they accomplished.
1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
Animal Collective have been a lot of things this decade – esoteric Brooklyn experimenters, freak-folk weirdos, overhyped, underrated – which can obscure just how great Merriweather Post Pavilion is. The band blends innovative sampling with 1980s electronics, and Afro-pop rhythms to make an optimistic and joyful, yet clear-eyed record that represents yet another bold new identity for a band that wasn’t lacking them. Merriweather Post Pavillion was in many ways the sound of 2009, and it will remain the band’s defining work for years to come.