Music  |  Lists

The 25 Best Albums of 2009

December 15, 2009  |  7:00am

We spent the month of November considering The Best of the Decade, from albums and TV shows to books and comedians. But lest we forget all the great music that came out in the last 12 months, here are our picks for the Best Albums of 2009.

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25. Thomas Function – In the Valley of Sickness [Fat Possum]
Josh Macero’s snotty, high-pitched vocals recall halcyon-era Black Francis, filled with feral yelps and frantic questions. His polarizing voice is the first thing anyone wants to discuss about Alabama’s Thomas Function. And yet, it combines perfectly with his galloping, jangly guitar, his bandmate Zach Jeffries’ organ-aping keyboards, Travis Thompson’s excitable bass and supportive backing vocals and Philip Dougherty subtle, tasteful drumming. So when Macero brashly asks “Are you gonna buy a record or what?” on “Picking Scabs,” you’ll find yourself, perhaps surprisingly, nodding: “Yes, please.” Austin L. Ray

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24. Various Artists – Dark Was the Night [Beggars Group]
For its 20th AIDS benefit release, The Red Hot Organization enlisted Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National to curate. The result is a double album featuring collaborations that include David Byrne with The Dirty Projectors, Feist with Grizzly Bear, Feist with Ben Gibbard, Conor Oberst with Gillian Welch, The Books with Jose Gonzalez, and Bryce Dessner with Antony, and Aaron Dessner with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. On top of that are a parade of new songs, traditionals and covers from acts like The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird and Iron & Wine. It’s a snapshot of indie rock during the last few years, and the Dessners definitely caught its best side. Josh Jackson

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23. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! [Interscope]
Initial singles “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” suggested that we were hearing YYY 2.0, a sleek, chrome-coated dancefloor act; Nick Zinner’s mutant guitar gives way to a synth-heavy attack, while Brian Chase’s drumming scales back to a 4/4 pulse. But the rest of It’s Blitz! turns out to be a bit more complicated. The synths are there more for window dressing, doing double duty with the guitar to flesh out the tracks, and “Dull Life” shows that the band can still dirty itself up when the songs call for it. Forget aesthetics for a moment, though, and focus on Karen O: Now an established talent, the singer has shed her early gimmicks—the screeches, the panting. She sits back, lets the tune come to her, and picks it apart with clear-eyed purpose. The trio hasn’t quite put together an album of complete heart-stoppers just yet, but Blitz charts them in the right direction. Jeremy Goldmeier

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22. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE [Asthmatic Kitty]
Sufjan Stevens’ 2007 multimedia tribute to the seemingly mundane Brooklyn-Queens Expressway included an orchestra, three simultaneously projected films and live hula hoopers. Ever the perfectionist, Stevens took two years to record and edit this combination CD/DVD set which presents the project in its entirety with an essay by Stevens, a comic book and a vintage View-Master reel added for good measure. With his sweeping, swooning, swirling orchestral arrangements leading the way, it’s an utterly enchanting amalgam of Gershwin and Warhol, Copland and Brakhage, somehow weaving traffic jams, grainy cityscapes and construction sites into a rich tapestry of percolating humanity. It’s his most ambitious undertaking to date, and while it presents no obvious singles or easy entry points, he pulls it off without it feeling pretentious or ponderous. Matt Fink

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21. Wilco – Wilco (The Album) [Nonesuch]
On Wilco (the album), the band evokes sounds from its entire catalog while mostly continuing in the same angst-free vein of Sky Blue Sky. Despite missing the experimentation that was Wilco’s hallmark, the album is full of thoughtful, artfully crafted lyrics wrapped in memorable hooks that should stand the test of time. Tim Regan-Porter

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20. Wild Light – Adult Nights [StarTime International]
Shaggy where the album is controlled, Wild Light’s set betrays more of a debt to early R.E.M. than to any noteworthy power-pop forebears.But n the hands of producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith), Wild Light’s debut LP, Adult Nights, smoothes out the group’s punky edges by infusing its indie rock with a summertime sheen, resulting in sugar-coated gems like the impossibly catchy “California On My Mind.” Corey duBrowa

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19. Mastodon – Crack the Skye [Reprise]
Mastodon’s past flirtations with prog have consistently pitched toward the metal side of scrimmage, never fully embracing the melodic pomp of Yes and ELP. Crack The Skye—though still intrinsically a metal album—is rife with unabashed overtures to the symphonic rock of yore. The mosaic’s central tile is “The Czar,” a four-part ode to Rasputin bursting with Moog lines and Eastern European folk. “Ghost of Karelia” briefly doffs the fox mask to revisit the band’s signature style—double-bass drums and tuneful hooks welded to inscrutable libretto: “Wrathful ones, nine eyes gaze / Holding skulls / Filled and laced / With human blood.” Yet the most progressive part of the album is the band’s restrained temperament. Amidst blistering tritone riffs and arpeggiated chords is a group keener to explore sonic harmony than crank the distortion. Crack the Skye is an epic trek across the space-time continuum, entirely on Mastodon’s terms. Michael Saba

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18. Flaming Lips – Embryonic [Warner Bros.]
Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne proclaimed that their twelfth studio album would be their most experimental yet. The perennial freak-rockers showed up with more than just a deceptive title to back that assertion: on Embryonic, the Lips trade the pop-flavored peaks and hooks of their previous two albums for an ambitious double-disc acid-haze epic. The album’s somber menacing tone never recedes, leaving Coyne to play apocalyptic preacher over the fuzzy noisebox of vintage Lips (“Gemini Syringes”), and Floydian space jams (“Sagittarius Silver Announcement”). And on the droned-out “Worm Mountain,” some backing vocals from MGMT are levied to combustive effect. It’s a wonderfully weird parade of sonic delights: an arresting consummation of the Lips’ two-and-a-half decade career. Michael Saba

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17. The Antlers – Hospice [Frenchkiss]
With Hospice, The Antlers made deeply personal bedroom pop on an epic scale, with Peter Silberman’s voice on the verging tears one moment and flailing wildly the next. The album’s plot line of watching a slow death anchored it in dark emotional territory, where every melting piano tone or acoustic guitar strum stings like a paper cut, but there is a shred of hope. When Silberman cries “Don’t ever / Let anyone / Tell you / You deserve that,” he—and any listener with likely moist eyes—cackles in the face of fear and death. Justin Jacobs

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16. Passion Pit – Manners [Frenchkiss]
It’s easy to say that Passion Pit makes dance music for people who hate dance music, but these guys also make dance music for people who like dance music, so here’s the new paradigm: They make dance music for people who like music. Lead singer Michael Angelakos and his merry sidemen play with a verve that traces back to disco; Passion Pit’s falsetto vocals sound like Bon Iver being sampled and sped up by Kanye West. What we need in these weary times—and what Passion Pit brings—is exuberance. Manners delivers the elusive feeling that everything will be alright. Or, just maybe, that everything already is. Nick Marino

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15. Thao with the Get Down Stay Down – Know Better, Learn Faster [Kill Rock Stars]
It begins with a threat, bare and ominous. “If this is how you want it / Okay, okay,” Thao Nguyen and a seething chorus of friends howl on the first track of her third LP, just before the song bursts into a cacophony of righteous hand claps bearing along the line’s portentous fury. Failures and regrets and sad, private moments are made public in a magnificent musical catharsis. Abetted by Tucker Martine’s warm, piquant production, the songs swerve from bouyant, jangly pop to the trembling lament. Nguyen’s band and musical guests provide cavernous backing vocals throughout, but Know Better Learn Faster mostly sounds like a young artist coming into her own—in music and life and love. Rachael Maddux

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14. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orce [Domino]
Dave Longstreth has made his first “band” album with Bitte Orca. Utilizing his bandmates as instruments, he dispatches guitarist Amber Coffman on a Mariah Carey-styled slow jam entitled “Stillness is the Move” and bassist Angel Deradoorian for the fragile balladry of “Two Doves,” their voices allowing Longstreth to experiment with a different type of pop arrangement. The Led Zep-ish swagger of “Cannibal Resource” and the dizzying harmonies and stuttering backbeats of “Temecula Sunrise” are more typical of his contrapuntal sense of composition, but he cuts directly to the listener instead of obscuring his melodies with constant thematic and structural shifts. The result is the most thoroughly engaging entry in the Dirty Projectors catalog and a triumph in sustained creative restlessness. Matt Fink

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13. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk [Shangri-La]
Monsters of Folk features four of the most influential indie musicians of the decade, whose combined forces may spell apocalypse: M. Ward, Jim James, Conor Oberst, and producer Mike Mogis. Rather than make a staid, serious statement album, the foursome keeps things loose and low-key, content to sound like postmillennial Traveling Wilburys (“Whole Lotta Losin’”) but generally just being themselves. “Temazcal” overlays Oberst’s grave vocals over James’ background whoops and hollers, creating a sound that neither of them could have made without the other. Ward’s virtuosic range allows the Monsters to incorporate country and early-rock elements on “Say Please” and “The Right Place,” and while Mogis may not have the cache of his bandmates, his production keeps things light and rambling. Plus, his guitar solo on “Say Please” is one of the album’s best and most unexpectedly bracing moments. Stephen M. Deusner

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12. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career [4AD]
My Maudlin Career is 45 minutes-plus of blissed-out orchestral indie pop, enlivened with classic Motownisms and overflowing with silvery tones as singer/guitarist Tracyanne Campbell unspools her lazy, entrancing croon and clever-cute rhymes across a night of innocence regained. Liquid-soul surf guitar and dreamy organ work are punctuated by tiny, chiming glockenspiel hits, wrapped snugly in a blanket of twee, placed gently in a Belle & Sebastianet and set afloat on the River Reverb, waiting for some pharaoh’s daughter to fish the precious little bundle out of the cattails. My Maudlin Career is anything but—sure, it’s sentimental, but never effusively. It’s an infectious album that blooms repeatedly throughout, unfolding in muted, endearing aural hues; simultaneously sad and celebratory, and always charming. Steve LaBate

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11. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest [Warp]
Having spent 2008 opening for Radiohead, appearing on late night TV shows and sharing stages with Paul Simon, Grizzly Bear was suddenly so ubiquitous that it was easy to forget that they didn’t even have a new album to promote. Yet even while on stage, they were perfecting the material that would comprise their third full-length release, and Veckatimest sounds like the final product of a meticulous and exacting evolutionary process—one that has added depth and color to their swooning chamber pop arrangements, crispness to their intricate rhythms and intensity to their careful performances. Their group mind pulsating in unison, the scrappy Brooklyn quartet has never created songs more wistfully plaintive than the gorgeously swaying “Two Weeks,” more pristinely longing than the spectral “Dory” or more haunting than the darkly lunging “I Live with You.” But underneath the orchestral flourishes and children’s choirs, beneath even the frequent textural shifts and melodic detours, are a set of melodies that find new ways to cut straight to the listener every time. Matt Fink

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