2009 was a year of songs, not albums. Well, that's not true. There were some amazing, gamechanging records that came out this year, but only a couple. Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear etc are being fawned over but if you subtract those mammoths from all the top ten lists you've read this year the pickins are a little slim. Basically, this feels like 2006 all over again (I could only think of five albums for a list that year). However, if trends re-occur, 2010 will be another 2007, which I'll call the best year in music of the decade.
The forthcoming songs list will have probably 100 songs, because there were a lot of spotty records this year, and there were a lot of samey records this year, but there were a lot of records that had one or two drop dead amazing jams. That list will maybe come a little later today.
This list is based on the amount of obsession I poured into each album. The ranking is based mostly on how often I listened to these albums in my car rather than an esoteric merit system. Flat out, these are my favorite records of 2009 because they're the ones I couldn't get over. Some of them are flawed and some of them might be technically better than others, but these are my picks. The ones I'd want to drive me home.
Now, honorable mentions. I was going to make a Top 25 but decided that I didn't really spend enough time with these records and they would have just been filler. I really should have, because these records are really, really good. They just haven't completely revealed themselves to me yet. I'm waiting, and I'm sure it'll happen in the next six months.
The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
I think this album has some pretty glaring flaws ("Heart Like a Kick Drum" being at the well, heart of it). Rick Rubin seems to have neutered their off the cuff style a bit, but about half the songs shine through that because they're just so fucking good. "Slight Figure of Speech," "January Wedding," and the title track kill me, and this record introduced me to music that the new and improved adult me likes (when the rough and touble youth me would have scoffed at).
Drakkar Sauna – 20009
Need to get more into this one. It's the first Drakkar Sauna I've given any attention. Amazing lines abound on this weirdo space opera.
Andrew Jackson Jihad – Can't Maintain
Fuckkkkkkkk yessssssss. Folk punk at its finest. Really nice to see that someone picked up the mantle of Against Me! when Tom Gabel and crew decided to sell out and make really bland records.
Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
This album is just too daunting for me to undertake right now. I know it's good because Yo La Tengo hasn't released a bad album this decade, and the few songs I've really latched on to have been massive jams. But, I don't feel confident putting it on the list just yet.
Cass McCombs – Catacombs
Again, another album I took in a sort of piecemeal fashion. "You Saved my Life," "Dreams-Come-True Girl," and "The Executioner's Song" almost made me put this on the list, but I refrained. I just got this record on vinyl for xmas because I feel that will be the best way to explore its nooks and crannies.
The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
It is well known that I am an acolyte of John Darnielle. This record though, this one took a while for me to get into. When it came out, I instinctively bought it on vinyl at Love Garden. I'd just traded stuff in for credit when I saw the sticker: Limited to 777, 2XLP, purple vinyl. I had to have it. It's gotten better, but I still can't shake something about it that I can't quite get into. Maybe it's the melodies not being up to par or falling a little flat sometimes, but when he hits, he strikes gold.
ACTUAL LIST BASED ON LISTENING
20. The Thermals – Now We Can See
Spring and Summertime (for god and country)
The logical follow-up to their masterful The Body, The Blood, The Machine, this picks up right where the last one left off. It's the same band (they never seem to change much, but fuck it, their formula is one of the best in modern indie-rock), but they've somehow managed to come up with another batch of infinitely listenable punky pop jams. It's life-affirming, in a way. But all the Thermals albums are life-affirming to me. They're a shoe in any year.
19. A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
January (at home, for KJHK and for myself)
I panned this one when I reviewed it for KJ. After that, I found myself listening to it constantly and felt really bad about panning it and planned on re-reviewing it. I never did. This is my apology of Carl, because this is a really terrific record. It was the album's final track that did me in though, and the time period when I heard it. It was mid January, I was alone, I'd just cut off my ex-girlfriend forever in an attempt to move on and I met my current girlfriend, all within a 2 week period. “All of My Days and All of My Days Off” was my song for Jenny, that warm day in January at the beach when I decided that I would continue pursuing her by being charming as hell despite her sort of dumping me a week after we'd been pseudo-dating. Opening track “There May Be Ten or Twelve” is another surefire hit, as are the mid-album jams “The Palace at 4AM” and “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer.”
18. Modest Mouse – No One's First and You're Next
November-December (at work, for the kiddos)
I don't know why I'm not obsessed with Modest Mouse. I should be, and I remember buying Good News for People Who Love Bad News the day it came out. At Best Buy. Through all their making themselves more accessible and having their songs on Kidz Bop (the compilations where popular songs are sung by atonal children), they are STILL so fucking good. They haven't really made a bad album despite the major label and the newfound fame. Granted, they've never made something as dense as The Moon & Antarctica, but it doesn't matter. Their latest EP is a fun collection of jams that just shows Isaac Brock and co have no intent of not being awesome or watering down their sound. “Sattelite Skin” is a pure winner, and, well shit, they're all good. I've been listening to this one a lot at work and wondering how Brock does it. He should have started sucking years ago.
17. Cursive – Mama, I'm Swollen
November-December (at work, for my inner film-school drunk)
Cursive dropped off my radar after The Ugly Organ. I love Tim Kasher's side project The Good Life, but Cursive just got too aggro for me or something, too dark maybe. The only reason I even listened to this was because it came into the store and I was like “Shit, why not?” and it's really been blowing me away. I play it pretty much every day and wonder why I stopped listening to Cursive because Tim Kasher is just as good a songwriter as he's always been. The title track is pretty fucking amazing, too.
16. Japandroids – Post-Nothing
Summer (for my 18 year old self)
Wanted to hate this because I for some reason thought the bass and drums indie rock should have died with DFA1979. But I was wrong. I thought this was bland at first and then it grew on me, that seems to be a reoccuring trend. Records that sound kind of samey that just end up being subtle. “The Boys are Leaving Town” and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” were ultimate Summer jams.
15. Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
September-October (for my aging hipster)
This record is all over the place, and that quality is ultimately what made it infinitely listenable this year. I'm constantly amazed that they opened this record with “Giving Away the Bride,” probably the worst track they could have opened with of only because it's one of the more difficult tracks on the record. It's the longest track though, and it's cold, electro folk with an industrial vibe to it. It's a jam though, and there's a hook to it that sucks you, eases you into the record. On track 2, the excellent “Polish Girls,” they're back to being Califone at their rootsy best and by the time they get to jawdropping pseudo-title track “Funeral Singers,” it's all over. That is, at that point I completely give myself over to Tim Rutli and co for the next 10 tracks on this pseudo-soundtrack.
14. David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
Autumn (for my beard-rock fix)
Bazan's best album since Control. An ultimate testament to losing your faith and being a recovering alcoholic.
13. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Winter-Spring (for my experimental-pop jones)
Originally a lock for album of the year, I got pretty bored with Dave Longstreth's warble after a while. Except on “Useful Chamber,” because that song is the m-o-t-h-e-r-f-u-c-k-i-n-g JAM. I'd just keep skipping to that when rocking this in the car.
12. Transmittens – Our Dreams
Spring (for my friends and bandmates who are much more talented than me and make me work harder)
This is technically Transmittens' first legitimate CD. I play in a band with them, so this is naturally biased, but they were my favorite band in Lawrence before we ever played together so it's OK. It's just perfect pop and they'll never go anywhere unless someone scoops them up because they really just want to make amazingly good pop songs in their bedroom.
11. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
January-Early February (for the perfect medium of accessibility and great leap forward)
This was in my car when Jenny and I had our first kiss. I specifically put on “Summertime Clothes” because I thought it would be romantic. And it was freezing cold. And I really, really, really wanted to kiss her. I kind of got sick of the record around Valentine's Day and while it's deserving of all the praise that's been heaped upon dirty laundry to a basket in the corner of a room, I never really TOTALLY lost my shit over it. Although, I will say, the first time I listened to it all the way through was pretty amazing. A burnt CD in my stereo with big headphones and completely stoned. One of my top 5 music moments of 2009!
10. The Antlers – Hospice
December (for my concept album jones and infinite sad bastard)
Don't know why I didn't listen to this when it came out...or even before it came out. I'm pretty sure Nick Dormer told me to listen to this and he is never, ever wrong about a record. It's a real goddamned gorgeous piece of work. On first listen I thought it was another bombastic indie rock record. Then a few weeks ago I gave it another shot after it placed highly on a bunch of year end lists (hence, my argument for lists). In the past few months I've learned to appreciate subtlety in addition to learning to be more open minded with records after casually dismissing albums after one minutes during my three year tenure on music staff at KJ. So I let this one work me over, and now it's the only thing I have listened to on my macbook in a week. The only new music I listen to is either whatever CD I've got in the car stereo during my commute that ISN'T the Strokes This is It and this Antlers record when I get home and before bed. It reminds me of the lyrical excellence vocal lines of Okkervil River tied to the bombast of Arcade Fire, who always manage to make songs that are epic and intimate at the same time. Hospice is intimate to the point of discomfort. It's a record about watching someone die of bone cancer, and yeah, shit gets sad but it's never depressing or sad-bastardy. Anyway, this just surprised the hell out of me and I needed it to make the top ten because I know this is going to be huge in the early part of 2010 and I don't want to make the same mistake I did with Titus Andronicus, who didn't make my list last year and totally ruled the early part of this year and are left...list less.
9. Islands – Vapours
August (for my 17 year old self and look how far you've come, Nick Diamonds!)
“I've seen some great things but I don't want to see anything if I can't see you,” Nick Thorburn sings on “Tender Torture.” It's the best song on the record, and subject matter wise, it's completely different from anything he's done up til now. Gone is the creepy death stuff that's been a recurring theme in his songwriting since the Unicorns. It bogged down Arm's Way, and it was good that he stepped back, stripped his band down and put out a synth-heavy pop record. It's pretty fantastic, and definitely more cohesive than Islands' debut LP Return to the Sea.
8. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
February-April, June-July (for experiencing every molecule of joy capable of pop music)
I don't know why I ever tried to hate Phoenix. I did, at first, even after seeing the video for “Long Distance Call” on MTV some late night. It didn't last long though, because I got really into that song (but never the album it was on, for some odd reason). So, when this came out, and I saw it was so awesomely titled, I got kind of excited. Then I heard “Lizstomania” and I was fucked. It's got this pure, unadulterated bliss that's absent from almost all mainstream pop these days. That dancing alone in your bedroom, rocking your head from side to side while bobbing your knees up and down. “1901” is the other obvious jam, but the real brilliance of this record lies in it's back half, which is effectively every song that follows the two mammoth jams that lead off the record. It's almost ballsy, like Phoenix saying “Hey, check out these totally awesome singles and THEN realize that this is a perfectly cohesive record.” This record should be huge. Honestly, after nearly a year with this album my favorite track is the sorta slow jam “Rome.” Mostly because it it completely perfect in every single way. Everything so thought out, so precise and, well, perfect. There's this longing there that never ever becomes sentimentalism, there's sadness that never bogs you down. It's a heavy heart sort of feeling, a regret tinged with the necessity to move along. It's representative of a year that had two camps duking it out: the organized, meticulous pop of groups like Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, St. Vincent, etc vs. the rough and tumble neo-psych-garage-lo-fi-distortion of groups like the Smith Westerns and every band with “Girls” in their band name that are not, ironically, the band Girls. Phoenix make it sound fun though, classic even. Every time I listen to this I feel extra stupid for not trying to weasel my way into the FREE show they played at the Record Bar this summer. Stupid me.
7. Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young
October-December (for my dumbass punk rock ideals in high school)
I never listened to the Strokes, ever. Well, that's a lie, I liked the singles, but mostly I wrote them off in high school because I was punk rock and they were a bunch of rich kids. Only recently have I realized that those rich kids made a couple of really fucking incredible records that I'm only now learning to love. I listen to Room on Fire at least three times a day when I'm working at CD Tradepost and I'm still not sick of it. As with this, the debut solo LP from frontman Julian Casablancas. Unlike his bandmates solo records, this one is actually really good. It's a bit uneven (two songs in the middle really drag), but there are five tracks that could easily be in my top ten songs of the year.
6. Kurt Vile – Childish Prodigy
September-October (for being the most badass record of 2009 and one that all these shit-wave bands should aspire to)
I listened to this on my way to get fired from First Management. I'd spoken out of turn, essentially, by leaving a note for one of my managers that asked to please not craft her instructions in an insulting manner that treated me like an idiot. They called me in to can me. So, I pumped opening track “Hunchback” to get my swagger up. It's got a blusey, boozy sort of drawl to it. Like staggering into a room with sunglasses covering up a black eye, a cigarette hanging out of the mouth, a vague recollection of the previous nights events. I stayed in the car til the song was over, got out, and face what can only be described as something that didn't really matter. My hours had been cut to six a week and I absolutely hated the business practices of the company, so when they fired me over something so small (although to them it was big, I stuck up for myself and thus did not know my place at the bottom of the food chain) I didn't really care. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I asked Malia, my favorite boss, as the new girl, the bitch Jackie sat there like a goddamned deer in the head lights. Surprised I'd been so brash. I asked if they knew what it felt like to get phased out of a job, to get hired for a week in the summer and then just get your hours cut til you were expected to quit, and how the insulting weekend instructions didn't help. The only clumsy part was getting my keys off the key ring and throwing them on the table, but I did tell them to get bent. All thanks to Kurt Vile!
5. Why? - Eskimo Snow
Late July - October (for every miserable moment in the last three years and moving on)
I don't know why but everyone seemed to hate this record. It's no Elephant Eyelash or Alopecia, but it is a fitting end to a trilogy of albums. I guess it does have a kind of Return of the Jedi vibe to it. Shit, this trilogy is set up like Star Wars come to think of it. Elephant Eyelash is like A New Hope, a shockingly good record that kind of came out of nowhere, featuring Wolf toning down the hip-hop in favor of rock and pop song structures. Alopecia is The Empire Strikes Back, the masterpiece that everyone can agree is the best of the series. Eskimo Snow is, as I said, Jedi. There are no ewoks, but it does lack the emotional gravitas of the first two because it's trying a little too hard to give you the emotional gravitas. Still, I couldn't stop listening to this record.
4. Girls – Album
August - September (for living life the way you see fit)
Album is a pretty appropriate title, because every song sounds like it's from a different album. It's a mish-mash of styles all thrown together to make one of the most unique documents of 2009. From that opening chord on “Lust for Life” it just never lets up, it's like a journey to the end of the night. Songs full of heartbreak and an aching longing to just fucking LIVE. Basically, this record is one of the few times I will ever justify the use of drugs. This was my summer jam, and sadly, it came at the end of the summer.
3. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
October-December (for old haunts and tradition)
This one took me a while to get into because I was so convinced Random Spirit Lover was perfect. This is a different record, this time utilizing a full band recording live as a unit opposed to segmenting everything down track by track. It sneaks up on you. It's full of incredible lines that just hook you, stop you in your tracks. Spencer Krug just keeps getting better, and while I can't tell if this is better than Random Spirit Lover or not, I do think it's much more focused. It's trimmed down, more bare, and the songs are epic but incredibly personal and affecting. I listen to this album when I need something to put on that's comfortable.
2. St. Vincent – Actor
April - May (for buttoned-up adventure brimming with excitement and delivered with grace)
Annie Clark is so fucking good at what she does. I get lost in this album. I wonder how she can be a real person, having deftly crafted such an extraordinarily cohesive record. I seem to remember listening to this on drives to Miracle Video. I think on multiple occasions. If I had to pick a best record of the year, this would probably be it. It's artful, but it's fun. It's buttoned up but it also knows when to show a little skin.
1. Rooftop Vigilantes – Carrot Atlas
January-April (for local music that destroys the "it's good, for local music" adage, and for the immensely talented people who live in my postal district)
The best record out of Lawrence since, well fuck, I don't even know. Things were really boring for a while after the Get Up Kids and the Anniversary broke up. Two scenes were formed, Range Life and Chomp Womp. While the latter seemed to cling to the ideals of local music past, Chomp Womp was devoted to pushing past that to an obnoxious degree. Then there was Rooftop Vigilantes, a band composed of members of other bands I thought were OK. Somehow, they formed the best band in the whole fucking area. Every time I listen to a local record for the Pitch I compare it to Carrot Atlas and if it is anywhere near as fucking good as Carrot Atlas is. This year, no other local records even came close. It's a record full of energy, enthusiasm, ideas and a way of co-opting the turns of bands past and making them sound original (unlike most bands who just tend to rip another band off and hammer away at it until it's dead dead dead). Zach is the Bob Pollard to Oscar's Tobin Sprout and they effectively made the last great GBV record...if GBV were from Lawrence and drank PBR instead of whatever lite beer was on tap. And was younger and were goofier. And I fucking hate the Lawrence music scene now. It's become this weird, out of control thing that I can't even grasp EXCEPT for Rooftop Vigilantes, who are effectively the only Lawrence band (other than Transmittens) who would be able to coax me out of my apartment and three blocks down to the Replay to see a show. And fuck, “Copper is Free.” The fact that someone I know wrote a song that fucking great amazes me and gives me hope. Why can't EVERY one of my friends write a song that good? Clearly, it's possible.