1. Strand of Oaks: “Lawns Breed Songs”
2. Strand of Oaks: “End In Flames”
3. Strand of Oaks: “Two Kids”
4. Strand of Oaks: “Do You Like To Read?”
5. Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons: “Tennessee”
6. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson: “Relator”
7. Death Cab for Cutie: “Little Bribes”
8. Phoenix: “Girlfriend”
9. Gomez: “Airstream Driver”
10. Joshua James: “Lawn Full Of Marigolds”
11. Frightened Rabbit: “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”
12. A.C. Newman: “Like A Hitman, Like A Dancer”
13. Strand of Oaks: “Dogs of War”
14. Say Hi: “Elouise”
15. Say Hi: “Hallie and Henry”
16. Bowerbirds: “Northern Lights”
17. The Avett Brothers: “Ten Thousand Words”
18. We Were Promised Jetpacks: “Quiet Little Voices”
19. Phoenix: “1901″
20. The XX: “VCR”
21. Say Hi: “November Was White, December was Grey”
22. Say Hi: “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh”
23. Pezzettino: “You Never Know”
24. Joshua James: “Coal War”
25. Megafaun: “The Longest Day”
26. The XX: “Heart Skipped a Beat”
27. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes: “Home”
28. Jay-Z: “Run This Town”
29. Joshua James: “Weeds”
30. Phoenix: “Lisztomania”
31. Say Hi: “The Stars Just Blink For Us”
32. Say Hi: “Maurine”
33. A.C. Newman: “You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me”
34. Bell X1: “The Great Defector”
35. Fruit Bats: “Tegucigalpa”
36. Lucero: “Mom”
37. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers: “Shady Esperanto and the Young Hearts”
38. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers: “Wagon Wheel”
39. A.C. Newman: “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve…”
40. Joshua James: “In The Middle”
41. Andrew Bird: “Fitz and the Dizzyspells”
42. Mike Doughty: “Nectarine, Part Two”
43. Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons: “Born Again”
44. A.C. Newman: “Prophets”
45. Grizzly Bear: “Two Weeks”
46. Eels: “Prizefighter”
47. Fruit Bats: “The Ruminant Band”
Back in June, the topic of best music of the year came up. I think someone asked me what I’d been into so far in ’09. I didn’t have an answer. I’d bought a few albums, but didn’t really get into them. And so I went around for months, talking about how 2009 was a weak year for music.
Now, in compiling my list of the best albums of ’09, I’m reconsidering that notion. I don’t think it was a strong year, but there’s plenty to point at in its defense. Some of those early albums grew on me, and a couple of great ones came along later.
These are them.
1. Strand of Oaks: Leave Ruin
When I post my list of best tracks of the year, it’s going to be hard to not include half of this record. A sort of coming-of-middle-age album, with simple folk instrumentation, gorgeous vocals, and memorable, haunting lyrics, Leave Ruin is a head above every album on this list and a terrific reminder of why I constantly search for new music – I’d never have heard of this if not for a note from a friend.
2. Say Hi: Oohs & Aahs
This was a fluke. If you follow my Twitter account, you’ll know that I often post potential band names, generally just to be clever or silly. I posted “Say Hi To Your Mom For Me” as a potential name one day, was told that a band already existed with that name, and checked them out. They’ve since shortened their name to “Say Hi,” and they recorded the best pop album of 2009.
This is the same kind of indie-pop stuff people gush about when it comes from Phoenix or The XX. And while Oohs & Aahs may offer anything quite as danceable as some of the songs on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix or as pretty as some of the stuff on xx, it manages to be, by turns, gorgeous, danceable, and consistently good. There’s not a weak moment on this album.
3. A.C. Newman: Get Guilty
A.C. Newman has eclipsed The New Pornographers, in my estimation. If you’re familiar with him or with that band, Get Guilty should offer few surprises, but it’s some of his best work. If you’re not familiar: This is what power pop sounds like in the 00′s: power chords, crisp production, relentlessly catchy.
4. (tie) Cory Chisel and the Wandering Songs: Death Won’t Send A Letter, Joshua James: Build Me This
Highly appropriate to group these albums together. Both were initially disappointing, but grew on me. And they’re still not as good as the albums that preceded them. But that doesn’t keep me from recognizing them as good collections of songs from two of my favorite artists. (Hopes were unreasonably high, I think.)
I think part of my initial disappointment stemmed from my predilection for spare instrumentation. Both Death and Build Me This find the artist exploring a more full-band sound, and it generally works, but it’s not what I wanted. But it does work in many cases. And some of the best quiet folk songs of the year are mixed in, as well.
6. Lucero: 1372 Overton Park
You wouldn’t think that adding a horn section would help Lucero. This is a band that’s been endearing to me largely because of its rough edges, the tossed-off quality of its sound. But it works. They (admirably) used some restraint, and produced what might be their most end-to-end listenable album since Tennessee, mixing in some of the waltzy bar-room country sound of their early records and the driving, Springsteen-style rock of their more recent work. There aren’t any stand-out tracks, unfortunately but it’s an excellent album.
7. Fruit Bats: The Ruminant Band
Shins-ish indie pop with fewer twee moments than there were on Chutes Too Narrow. And way better than the last Shins album, now that I think about it.
8. Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
No question, Phoenix put out two of the catchiest singles of 2009 in “Lisztomania” and “1901.” Unfortunately for them, both tracks were massively overplayed (which is saying something, since I don’t listen to the radio), and the rest of the album, while good, isn’t strong enough to warrant placement at the top of my list. It’s at the top of plenty of other best-of-09 lists, though, and it is a damn good album. And a big step forward for the band.
9. The XX: xx
A lot of the reviews I read about this raved about how well The XX “create space.” It’s kind of a confusing concept, I think. From what I gather, it means they’re not afraid to leave empty moments in their music. Let everything stop for a moment or two. Let just the bass play for a few moments. That sort of thing. And it’s a neat trick, but it didn’t jump out at me when I listened to xx. What did was the intimacy. This is a sexy album. The combination of breathy, sort of slurry vocals with spare, synthy production and some exquisite bass easily make it the make-out album of ’09.
10. The Decemberists: The Hazards of Love
I want The Decemberists to go back to writing singles. In an era in which the album, as an art form, appears to be losing its relevance (as opposed to singles, which are gaining ground), The Decemberists could give a shit. There are no singles on Hazards of Love. It’s a prog-folk epic, not unlike their earlier EP, The Tain, and it’s an amazing hourlong piece of music. It ebbs and flows and bobs and weaves, getting catchy in parts, revisiting pieces of itself, and telling a lovely story. But I miss being able to put Decemberists songs on mixes. They’d probably be higher on this list if they’d help me out.
Honorable Mentions (with some notes):
A.A. Bondy: When the Devil’s Loose
A few good tracks, but plenty of dry, unmemorable stuff. Disappointing after his stellar first album.
Andrew Bird: Noble Beast
Might just not have listened to this one enough. I definitely liked a couple tracks, but most of the rest blended together. It’s all pretty and intricate, though, and I’d go see Andrew Bird live any day.
The Avett Brothers: I and Love and You
Definitely didn’t listen to this enough. I have a feeling I’m going to regret not placing it in the top ten, when I do give it some more attention.
Bowerbirds: Upper Air
“Northern Lights” is one of my favorite tracks of the year, and the rest of the album sounds great, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to love it. (Yes, that’s a theme.)
Cass McCombs: Catacombs
Love the sound. Barely missed the top ten.
Clem Snide: Hungry Bird
First half is gorgeous, ethereal pop. Second half is kind of boring ethereal pop.
Deer Tick: Born On Flag Day
Love the sound. Barely missed the top ten.
Megafaun: Gather, Form & Fly
Love the sound. Barely missed the top ten.
Mike Doughty: Sad Man Happy Man
Includes a couple of great songs that just happen to sound like every other Mike Doughty song. That’s not really a bad thing to me, though. Also, some charming goofy stuff and some stupid goofy stuff. Worth ten bucks, especially if you’re a fan of his previous solo work. (If you’re not familiar, go get Haughty Melodic first.)
Monsters of Folk: Monsters of Folk
Didn’t give this enough attention.
Local band, of whom I’m a big fan.
Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers: The Bear
Good guitar-based pop-rock. It’s a crime that Stephen Kellogg isn’t on the radio.
We Were Promised Jetpacks: These Four Walls
Just barely missed the top ten.
Wilco: Wilco (The Album)
Disappointing, but still decent.