Finally, I’m making my list of the best albums of the year. Admittedly, there are a few more albums from 2009 I’d like to give a listen, but since I don’t have a way to stretch time, unfortunately, this will have to be it. But it’s still a solid list, I think. Enjoy!
15. Unmap – Volcano Choir
Quite honestly, this album was a bit of a disappointment for me. As a collaboration between Collections of Colonies of Bees and Justin Vernon (a.k.a. Bon Iver), I was expecting a lot more out of it. A good majority of it is ambient, like a sleepy-sounding noise experiment. However, there were some great moments here, particularly the songs “Island, IS” and “Cool Knowledge,” which is far too short. Definitely a good album for nap or thinking time listening.
14. Far – Regina Spektor
This was another one that was a bit disappointing for me, but then I had astronomical hopes for it. Regina’s albums have been some of my favorites for years now. Begin to Hope singlehandedly inspired me to put more effort into finding new albums and artists to listen to. I think the problem here, for me, is that it’s not weird enough. My favorite aspect of her music is that it likes to toe that “this is way too strange for me” line. But she took a few steps away from that line here, especially when compared to some of her earlier albums. Listen to 11:11 and then listen to Far, and you might think two different artists made them. That doesn’t mean that this isn’t a good album, though. “The Calculation,” “Two Birds,” and “Dance Anthem of the 80s” are terrific throwbacks to her earlier work. Musically, Regina’s on top of her game here. Her voice sounds great, and she plays the piano as if it was a part of her. It’s certainly not her most imaginative output, but she’s still leaps and bounds ahead of many of her contemporaries, both creatively and technically speaking.
13. 3 Rounds and a Sound – Blind Pilot
I would have never heard of Blind Pilot had I not seen them opening for The Decemberists during their stop in Louisville for their Hazards of Love tour (which was actually called “A Short Fazed Hovel Tour,” whatever that means). Their brand of soothing folk music still seems in to be in the development stages, as they are a young band. However, that just enhances the simple beauty of it. The album is packed with rough, unpolished little gems. It sounds like what I imagine a rainy fall day in Seattle to be. Perhaps it gets a bit repetitive, at times, and it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is rather pretty, and crazy listenable (I blame this on the gentle flow of their sound, which lulls the listener into a drug-like trance that is just as addictive). Favorite tracks of mine include “One Red Thread,” “Go On Say It,” and “The Story I Heard.” Go forth and download.
12. The Fame Monster EP – Lady Gaga
Okay, okay. I realize I might catch a lot of crap for this one, as most people seem completely torn on whether or not Lady Gaga makes “good music.” I don’t get this. Just because she’s on Top 40 radio doesn’t mean that she can’t be good. Perhaps her lyrics aren’t groundbreaking (and sometimes, as in her hit song “Love Game,” they’re downright stupid). But I don’t think this is because Lady Gaga is stupid. On the contrary, I really have respect for her artistic vision. For example, she views even her stage costumes as symbolic pieces of art, and she puts a lot of thought into choosing and crafting them. I think that she’s trying to capture, package, and sell the pure essence of contemporary pop music. What she ends up crafting is insanely catchy (no easy feat). More technically speaking, her singing is more than decent, and she can play the piano like a pro (which doesn’t show up in her recorded music as much as it does in her live performances). I was always interested in the whole idea of Lady Gaga, but this new eight-track EP convinced me that I actually enjoy her music. I was surprised at the number of musical influences (and not just Madonna) that I noted in The Fame Monster. “Monster” is pure ’80s synth-pop; “Speechless” sounds like a Queen song; “Teeth” establishes a funky tribal groove. But the Lady never abandons her original sound – “Bad Romance” is probably the most Gaga-esque song she’s ever recorded. Ultimately, I don’t need to explain myself beyond saying that this is just a really pure, fun pop album, and it was created by someone whose intelligence actually isn’t questionable.
11. Lungs – Florence + The Machine
Lungs was a pleasant surprise. I had heard “Kiss with a Fist” and “Dog Days” months and months ago, but I didn’t really expect as much from the album as a whole. I was wrong. Lead singer Florence Mary Leontine Welch has a powerful voice that is earthy and rather reminiscent of Jenny Lewis or even Fiona Apple, or her fellow Brit, Adele. These songs are kinetic, they pack a punch; and yet, they’re very pristine and rather delicate at times. Besides the two songs mentioned above, my favorites would have to be “Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up),” “You’ve Got the Love,” and “Hurricane Drunk.” Truthfully, though, it’s hard to choose favorites out of an album that provided me with exactly what I wanted from it, track after track after track.
10. Freak Wharf – Paul F. Tompkins
Perhaps it’s cheating, but I enjoy stand-up comedy albums, and yes, I will be including two on this list. I’d been hearing for a while just how awesome Paul F. Tompkins’ album Impersonal was, so I recently downloaded it and came across Freak Wharf, his newest release, along the way. They are both tremendous, and very unique. His routines have an intriguing structure that I don’t think I’ve ever heard. For the most part, he performs separate tracks with different themes for each. This is unlike a lot of comedy albums that basically feature one long routine with extremely vague “track” designations. And while some parts of his routine seem very confident and concrete, he’s at his most wacky when he’s riffing on the happenings on stage and in the audience. Freak Wharf is worth listening to if only for the final track, “Go Ask Alice,” which is about that iconic anti-teen drug use “diary” of the same name. Hysterically strange subject matter, and yet it’s a great playground for Tompkins’ unique sense of humor and comedy style.
9. XX – the XX
I was listening to this last night as I was falling asleep, and I dreamed up a lot of awesome things to say about it. Then I forgot those awesome things. But that’s okay. All you need to know is that it’s an album chock-full of smooth, haunting electro pop. Plus, it’s got a little something I love: the male and female dual vocalists. Mmhmm. I love it when bands provide listeners with a little vocal variety. As far as I can tell, no one track has really stuck out to me yet. Rather, I think this is one of those albums that one has to listen to as a whole; it’s rather symphonic in this way. In fact, the first track is even called “Intro,” suggesting that everything that follows it will be related in some way. But it’s definitely worth the time. During my first listen-through, I sped past eight of the tracks without even realizing it. I think I was just enjoying myself too much to notice.
8. Dark Was the Night – Various Artists
This was a compilation album released in February, featuring 31 “exclusive” tracks to “benefit the Red Hot Organization – an international charity dedicated to raising funds and awareness for HIVand AIDS” (thanks, Amazon.com!). Basically, all the stars of the indie music world are featured here. It’s like Pitchfork’s musical wet dream, and rightfully so. It’s unlike many other compilation albums because it features songs that are actually good, and not just whatever garbage the featured artists had lying around. There are some very interesting covers (Ben Gibbard and Feist’s haunting rendition of Vashti Bunyan’s “Train Song,” for example), and some epic pairings (David Byrne teaming with Dirty Projectors for the crazy cool “Knotty Pine”). I would recommend this album to anyone looking for a crack in the wall through which they can sneak a peek at the world of modern indie music. Actually, I’d recommend it to anyone, period.
7. The Hazards of Love – The Decemberists
This is a strange one. Let’s call it a concept album for that kid in your English class who really likes Romantic and Gothic literature; he might also carry a pocket watch and brag about his mandolin playing skills. I am not that kid (I loathe the overindulgent, perfumey stink that pervades most Romantic-era literature, and I always make mistakes reading analog clocks), and I still think it’s a great album. Sure, the story is beyond convoluted, and the lyrics are flowery (although I kind of enjoy that there’s such a large vocabulary on display here. It’s not like you hear the words “taiga” and “mistle thrush” all the time in songs), but holy cow, is it catchy. Listen to it, and if you don’t get “The Rake’s Song” or “The Wanting Comes in Waves” stuck in your head, then I will send you a check for $10. Not really. But I will be shocked. Guest vocalists Becky Stark and Shara Worden make for a lovely addition to The Decemberists gang, as well. So much so, in fact, that I wish they could be featured on every Decemberists album. Please, Colin Meloy? Pretty please?
6. Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome – Maria Bamford
This is the second (and final) comedy album on my list, and it’s from my favorite stand-up working today. Maria Bamford has such a unique sense of humor, and she’s not afraid to visit some of the darker nooks and crannies of her psyche to drum up material. Listening to her routine, you’ll probably laugh, perhaps until you can’t breath (if you’re me). But, when you stop to think about it, there’s a lot of deep thought and even personal turmoil behind it. Anyone who has ever considered themselves an artist, or who has gone through the process of creating something, anything, or even people who are borderline crazy can relate to her material. She has such an interesting point-of-view, too. I’ve heard of self-deprecating humor, I’m a fan of it, but she takes it past the obvious and exterior, and instead chooses to poke fun at her own mental condition, and draw upon her problems for laughs. She’s also got an insane talent for voices (but not in an irritating, Jeff Dunham kind of way), which allows her to portray some very strange characters, like her old high school nemesis, her mousy co-worker, her high-strung twin sister, and her kooky parents, among others. Track this one down if only to listen to the epic, eight minute long track, “Vision Board.” It’ll blow ya mind. And look at that album cover. How could you not be intrigued?
5. Veckatimest – Grizzly Bear
Veckatimest finds Grizzly Bear in a dreamy, thoughtful mood, it would seem. The songs float, they’re adrift, which seems appropriate for an album named after an island off the coast of Massachusetts. There’s also an eerie, haunting quality to them, brought about by the distant, harmonious singing, and the sometimes muffled orchestration. The lyrics aren’t complex, but anyone could find some kind of meaning in them; they’re the concrete foundation for all the ethereal musical business that’s layered on top. Clearly there must be some kind of magical, indescribable quality to this album, because I am turning this blurb into “Ode on a Grecian Veckatimest,” by John Keats.
4. Manners – Passion Pit
Manners is definitely not a word I would use to describe this album. If Passion Pit had manners, they’d have put out an album of simple pop tunes or what have you, with a bland tenor singing lead, maybe a guitar or two, a drum kit, and some keyboard tinkles on every third song. There’d be a verse, a chorus, a verse, a bridge, and the chorus repeated two more times. Luckily, they didn’t have manners (ooh… zinger). Instead, what you’ll find here is Passion Pit pumping out energetic, straight-up wacky noise, that somehow arranges itself into coherent electro-pop songs. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what instruments they use to do it (although I suspect there’s at least one computer involved in the process), and lead singer Michael Angelakos wails in a falsetto that’s borderline grating at times. As if that weren’t enough, they even decide to throw in a choir of kids (see: “Little Secrets”). But it works. You won’t find pure chaos on Manners. Instead, you’ll hear some finely crafted pop songs, busting at the seams with unadulterated enthusiasm.
3. Miike Snow – Miike Snow
I don’t know much about Miike Snow (I am pretty sure it’s a group, though, and not a solo artist who loves winter and the letter ‘i’). What I do know is that this album has some of the catchiest songs I’ve heard in quite some time. And not only are they catchy, they’re lots of fun, too, and sunny – basically everything I would not expect from a group with the word “snow” in their name and a giant ice cube on their album cover. Pitchfork, in their rather scathing review of the album (and yet, it’s number three on my list, so perhaps I am not a hipster? Shocking!), tells me that Miike Snow is actually compiled of three music producers who decided to become performers. I this definitely comes through in the music. One usually thinks of producers as the ones who create the backing tracks for bigger solo artists who clearly couldn’t be bothered to create their own music (I know that’s not always the case, but right now the only producer I can think of is Timbaland, and that usually is the case in his career). So it really doesn’t seem shocking to me that the lyrics here aren’t Shakespeare, although I am fond of the chorus in “Animal,” which goes, “I change shapes just to hide in this place, but I’m still, I’m still an animal. Nobody knows it but me, when I slip, yeah I slip; I’m still an animal.” It’s nothing tremendous, but it’s simple and catchy and just affecting enough for me to remember. Besides, there’s no better cure for the wintertime gloomy dooms than some sunny pop music.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – Phoenix
These French pop-rockers released (what would seem to me) the most universally appealing album of the year. It’s a mystery why they aren’t bigger than they are (though at least it seems that they’re headed there). Singer Thomas Mars (Sofia Coppola’s long-term boyfriend and baby daddy, not that it’s relevant) has a voice that is both harmless and completely unique. Their songs are jumpy and fun, energetic and thoughtful. I don’t see how there could be anything here that anyone could truly dislike, or take offense to. Next to The Fame Monster and Miike Snow, it’s the best album for driving on my list (and yes, this is an important aspect to me, as I do a good portion of my listening in the car and rely on the music to keep me awake on my school-to-home-and-back trips). “Driving album” means, in my book, that it’s hyper-charged, engaging, and I can sing along. It has to poke at my brain enough to keep me awake; it can’t bore me, and it has to be “happy,” because driving makes me the opposite of “happy.” One of the biggest compliments I can give music is that it’s “good for driving.” And, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the best for driving.
1. Bitte Orca – Dirty Projectors
Bitte Orca is definitely one of the more musically complex albums on this list, and that achievement is what earns the album the number one spot (and I even made Dirty Projectors the band in my banner at the top). I was so in awe of how different it was the first time I listened to it. It combines little pieces of so many genres to create something almost totally new. There’s an R&B feeling to it (especially on “Stillness is the Move”), African-esque guitar plucking throughout, and a glossy electro-sheen over top. Like the XX, Dirty Projectors use both male and female vocals, which I love. Bitte Orca is all very groovy, surprisingly enough, and “Stillness is the Move,” “Cannibal Resource,” and “No Intention” are as addictive as potato chips. You can’t listen to them just once.
So, there you have it, my top 15 albums of 2009. Soon I hope to have my best albums and films of the decade lists up, so keep those eyes peeled.