The 25 Best Albums of 2009

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10. Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed [Epitaph]

Despite the acoustic guitar, Turner’s punk roots show on his third solo record, Poetry of the Deed, especially when he spits out the title track’s earnest manifesto: “Pentameter in attack, iambic pulse in the veins, free verse powered of the street light mains / An Iliad played out without a shadow of doubt between the end of the club, yeah, and the sun coming out … Enough with words and technical theses, let’s grab life by the throat and live it to pieces.” The album is full of vivid, passionate, literate punk tunes, but its vim and vigor is made all the more refreshing by a sweet and honest appeal to his parents called “Faithful Son” and a tender love song called “The Fastest Way Back Home.” Josh Jackson


9. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone [Anti-]

Less of a departure and more of a confirmation and deepening of everything she’s been exploring over the last 10 years, Case has never sounded quite so compelling as a storyteller, unleashing the full range of her humor, defiance, and despair. Like Loretta, Dolly, and Lucinda before her, she retains her core aesthetic no matter what stylistic garb she adopts, translating her ache through shades of gospel, Motown and surprisingly sophisticated pop. But unlike those songwriters, Case displays a cagey self-awareness that informs every creative turn she takes, revealing and pulling back parts of her contrite yet confrontational persona just before you can take them for granted. That makes each new revelation more potent, and when she offers the title track as an uneasy conclusion that despite her threats and warnings, she needs love as much as anyone else, it’s startling. Naked and vulnerable, with only an acoustic guitar and tinkling music box to hide her frailties, it crystallizes in one moment what makes her so special: she’s tangible enough to touch, exotic enough to be just out of reach. Matt Fink


8. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix [Glassnote]

Following up 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, Phoenix has veered ever so slightly from catchy to chaotic, and it works. Thomas Mars sings with the urgency of Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, and his band plays with a Killers-like accessibility. The mostly uptempo Wolfgang slows down midway with instrumental “Love Like A Sunset Part I,” which is half mood-setter, half mood-killer—its climax isn’t so climactic. The album’s lyrics don’t always make sense (still pondering this one from “Lisztomania”: “Romantic not disgusting yet / Darling I’m down and lonely / When with the fortunate only / I’ve been looking for something else/ Do let do let do let jugulate do let do let do”), but then again, English isn’t their first language, and words aren’t the point here, the danceable beats and moody ambience are. Kate Kiefer


7. The Decemberists – Hazards of Love [Capitol]

The Decemberists have always moved with blithe skill amidst odd-bedfellow idioms, from sea shanties to protest pop to anachronistic epics—and they’ve made it their prerogative to do so without warning, apology or explanation. The effect has been, at worst, a lovely jumble. But The Hazards of Love plows forth fearlessly, hurtling accordion-draped lovers’ trysts into walls of despotic electric guitar fractured by high lonesome pangs of pedal steel, all strung along by narrative threads untangling as never before, stitching ancient archetypes into modern sonic landscapes that Meloy’s revivalist forebears could’ve never imagined. All of the band’s three-minute character sketches, it seems, were just trial runs for this tapestry of vibrant songcraft. The album is smartly paced and ripe with death and love. Manic, romantic, all fraught with grand ?gestures and tragic ends, it is, for now, the Decemberists album to end all Decemberists albums. Rachael Maddux


6. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost [Columbia]

Writhing and burning and staring at life straight down the barrel, Give Up the Ghost is exactly the album Carlile needed to make at this moment. Nearly every track parses the relative benefits of relief and retreat, resolution and regret. Swaddled in instant-gravitas piano lines and tidy electric-guitar solos, the lyrics might seem hokey if they didn’t feel, at once, so broadly applicable and completely personal. Carlile is too busy untangling the snarls of everyday life and love to be bothered with irony or postmodern cutesiness. For her, love is the axis around which everything turns, whether coming or going, long-lost or firmly rooted. It’s not that Carlile is a romantic—she just faces the world with a probing grace and gratefulness, despite all the snags. Carlile is hardly perfect, but she’s good—a really solid, deep-down kind of good, and not just in terms of her musical ability or quality of output, but on a basic moral level, too. She cares. She hurts. She wants to do right. And she has the heart, guts, skill and wherewithal to make crushing, beautiful art about that struggle. Rachael Maddux


5. David Bazan – Curse Your Branches [Barsuk]

David Bazan used to be a character singer. Each record was like a collection of short stories. But Curse Your Branches is a quick glimpse into a struggle with the idea of original sin. In several songs, he addresses God in second-person, asking questions, making thoughtful accusations and articulating his grievances more plainly than ever. Every word is crystal clear, and he sings slowly, as if to say, “Make no mistake.” A languid pedal steel provides a steady backdrop; the tambourines and bells are perfectly restrained. Some songs are catchy, others are pretty, and though every instrument is masterfully played, but Bazan avoids unexpected flourishes, saving all the drama for his lyrics. Not a departure from his Pedro The Lion work, the music creates order in the court so Bazan can make his case. Kate Kiefer


4. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin [Nonesuch]

If The Low Anthem’s argument is for community and collaboration, Exhibit A is the gorgeous chamber folk this trio of multi-instrumentalists has crafted on its third album. Following the path cleared by Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, and now well trod by folks like Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam, The Low Anthem is at its best composing songs fit for a hipster orchestra, with Ben Knox Miller’s delicate vocals backed by an assortment of quirky instrumentation. After two tracks of quiet intimacy, the band erupts into a pair of foot-stompers, grounding an album that otherwise might get blown away by the slightest breeze. But whether soft or loud, these 12 songs are exquisite. Josh Jackson


3. Elvis Perkins in Dearland – Elvis Perkins In Dearland [XL]

The third-most-famous singer named Elvis has hired some permanent players, and this record marks a grand union that sounds more like a band’s debut than a melancholy singer/songwriter’s follow-up. With 2007’s stripped-down Ash Wednesday, Perkins proved he could write a damn fine song. Here, he dresses his music in full regalia—with whistles, horns, organs and marching-band drums—and it’s exquisite. These tunes evoke early Americana—dancing around campfires at a time when European holdovers were still the main force steering our culture. Perkins hasn’t lost his grit; he’s just given it bold new life. Soulful footstomper “I’ll Be Arriving” would make Tom Waits proud, and “Send My Fond Regards To Lonelyville” feels like a clever adieu to the Perkins of yesteryear. Kate Kiefer


2. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion [Domino]

If you were to crown a 2000s band King of the Indies in terms of sheer rise to hipster notoriety, you’d be hard pressed to pick a group not called Animal Collective. Depending on who you ask, these dudes created somewhere between one and five classic records during the decade, flying a freak flag for electronic, noise, rock and folk, sometimes all at once. Animal Collective’s members have unleashed solo recordings both transcendent and head-scratching, and the band has toured the world, uniting indie snobs, jam-band fanatics and soccer dads. It’s hard to say where this band will go in the next decade, but there are two absolute truths: a) Merriweather Post Pavilion is the band’s breakout record and b) “My Girls” is so the jam. Austin L. Ray


1. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You [Columbia]

For their artistic breakthrough, these North Carolina howlers polished their scruffy Americana sound until it gleamed. The result: an overpowering acoustic album brimming with sadness and soul. “I was worried that I’d start crying while listening at work, but I waited until I got home,” a Paste colleague told me. That’s an accomplishment. The title track—a meditation on three little words—is a three-hanky affair unto itself. Nick Marino