“How can it be bullshit to state a personal preference?” – Rob Gordon, High Fidelity
For many reasons – personal and otherwise – I’m glad 2009 is over. I realize this is probably an unpopular sentiment, but the year in music seemed like a dud. As my friend Royce claims, it was the year of the No. 8 album – as in, the best albums belong no higher than the eighth spot on year-end lists. That’s his theory and I’m sticking to it.
That said, I know I’m only getting back as much as I put in, and I felt particularly curmudgeonly in ’09. I shunned Wavves and chillwave. I didn’t really get into The xx or Animal Collective or Dirty Projectors (so sue me). And don’t get me started with the lo-fi/no-fi/glo-fi/bro-fi bullshit. This is the first year in the almost five I’ve written this blog that I felt sort of mentally drained by it all.
If it seems the circle of artists and albums I’m listening to is slowly shrinking, that’s probably because it is. I’d like to think I’m trimming the fat and listening smarter. Who has time for all that’s out there? (And how much of it is really that good anyway?) So, as always, I don’t even pretend that my list is comprehensive or a collection of the “best” albums – these are just my favorites and, aside from record No. 1, the rankings are negligible.
10. JASON LYTLE: Yours Truly, the Commuter (Anti-)
So maybe it sounds a lot like a Grandaddy album … is anyone going to complain about that? Lytle stays true to his old band’s spaced-out sound, prominently declaring his return in the first line of the album opener: “Last thing I heard I was left for dead. I could give two shits about what they said.”
Favorite tracks: Brand New Sun, Birds Encouraged Him.
MP3: Jason Lytle | Brand New Sun
9. TELEKINESIS: Telekinesis! (Merge)
Every year, I need an album like this: a bundle of expertly crafted indie-pop that crawls into and lives inside my brain. Michael Benjamin Lerner possesses a keen sense of melody that is airtight. You won’t find a weak song in the bunch.
Favorite tracks: Coast of Carolina, Tokyo, Calling All Doctors.
MP3: Telekinesis | Coast of Carolina
8. MOS DEF: The Ecstatic (Downtown)
After experimenting — but misfiring badly — on two albums following his seminal debut Black on Both Sides (1999), Mos Def rediscovered the touch that made him a force 10 years ago. Sharp production from supreme beatmakers like Oh No (Supermagic) and Madlib (Auditorium) appear to have put Mos back on the path to greatness.
Favorite tracks: Supermagic, Auditorium, Casa Bey.
7. NEKO CASE: Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
It just seems like a given any more that when Neko Case puts out an album it’ll end up on my top 10 list. Hers is a voice I never get tired of hearing. (It’s also hard to think of a better album cover for the year.)
Favorite tracks: People Got a Lotta Nerve, Polar Nettles, Prison Girls.
MP3: Neko Case | People Got a Lotta Nerve
6. JAPANDROIDS: Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)
For an album I almost entirely overlooked, Post-Nothing (whose title cleverly mocks genre labeling) may stick with me as long as any other release from 2009. Brian King and David Prowse strike a nerve here with an energetic mess of rock songs about dysfunctional love (Crazy/Forever) and fading youth (Young Hearts Spark Fire).
Favorite tracks: Young Hearts Spark Fire, Heart Sweats, Crazy/Forever, I Quit Girls.
MP3: Japandroids | Young Hearts Spark Fire
5. BUILT TO SPILL: There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.)
A brilliant return to form for Boise’s finest, led by Doug Martsch, the everyman’s rock hero. It’s not hard to imagine the highlights here — Aisle 13, Oh Yeah, Done — ranking among some of the band’s best tracks from a storied catalog.
Favorite tracks: Aisle 13, Oh Yeah, Done, Things Fall Apart.
4. VARIOUS: Dark Was the Night (compilation) (4AD)
Based on logistics alone, this two-CD benefit compilation deserves hearty recognition. Recruiting some of the brightest names in indie rock — Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Dirty Projectors, Spoon, My Morning Jacket and so on — to contribute can be no easy feat. But instead of a ragtag collection of B-sides and throwaways, we get all-star original material.
Favorite tracks: Deep Blue Sea (Grizzly Bear), So Far Around the Bend (The National), Tightrope (Yeasayer), Hey, Snow White (The New Pornographers / Destroyer cover), Well Alright (Spoon).
MP3: Yeasayer | Tightrope
3. MAYER HAWTHORNE & THE COUNTY: A Strange Arrangement (Stones Throw)
Mayer Hawthorne’s falsetto-heavy soul owes an obvious debt to the Motown Sound, his sweet-sounding vocals recalling the best of the 1960s R&B movement.
Favorite tracks: Maybe So, Maybe No, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, Your Easy Lovin’ Ain’t Pleasin’ Nothin’.
MP3: Mayer Hawthorne | Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out
2. PHOENIX: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)
On the strength of the undeniably catchy 1901 and Lisztomania, Phoenix earned its well-deserved breakout in 2009 (hello, Grammy nomination). But the album that launched a thousand remixes digs down past Phoenix’s pop mastery. It’s the sprawling, two-part Love Like a Sunset that anchors the album and shows a band eager to venture outside its comfort zone.
Favorite tracks: 1901, Lisztomania, Love Like a Sunset.
MP3: Phoenix | 1901
1. THE TWILIGHT SAD: Forget the Night Ahead (Fat Cat)
If The Twilight Sad’s debut Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters was a cathartic gut punch, Forget the Night Ahead is the emotional comedown. There are fewer drastic swells, both in the music and James Graham’s vocals, but it’s no less powerful with the songs wrapped in dark tones and Graham’s thick Scottish accent, making for another dramatic — and sometimes emotionally draining — effort.
Favorite tracks: Interrupted, I Became a Prostitute, Reflection of the Television.
MP3: The Twilight Sad | Reflection of the Television
The next five (in no particular order): The Cave Singers, Welcome Joy (Matador); Port O’Brien, Threadbare (TBD); We Were Promised Jetpacks, These Four Walls (Fat Cat); Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch); Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (Fat Possum)