Artwork by Brian Kuperman
2009 was an exceptional last year in an exceptional decade for music. In 2009 we were bombarded with solid release after great release after epic release throughout the entire year (upfront: I didn't listen to every album released in 2009), so narrowing my picks for the best albums of the year was not easy. Nonetheless, I have here Pretty Much Amazing's 25 best albums of the 2009.
At the end of this list, you will have the chance to enter the last PMA contest of 2009. I will be giving away — courtesy of my wallet, unless someone wants to sponsor ;) — a copy of every album on this list on vinyl (or CD, at winner's request) in a Vinyl is Forever Tote Bag, along with a poster featuring one of the listed artists of their choice, and a custom one year subscription to Paste Magazine. More details on that at the end of the list.
I want give a big shout out to Brian Kuperman for designing this awesome artwork for our list. I also want to thank the wonderful contributors to this blog who reviewed most of these albums throughout the year for PMA and helped me share the music I love with all of you; and thank you for reading and coming back and subscribing to PMA in 2009. I look forward to starting 2010 with all of you, but before we do, here's one last look at our favorite albums of the 2009
24. Various Artists
Dark Was The Night
Aim and Ignite
22. Harlem Shakes
21. Lady GaGa
The Fame Monster
20. Florence + The Machine
19. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
18. Music Go Music
17. Passion Pit
16. Camera Obscura
My Maudlin Career
14. The Very Best
Warm Heart of Africa
12. Dan Deacon
11. Sunset Rubdown
Artwork by Brian Kuperman
10. Freelance Whales
Freelance Whales have a quality rarely found on debut albums. I wish I could say that it is tough to identify – a musical je ne sais pas. But in reality, it’s easy to spot. It’s their patience that wins me over. There isn’t any urgency here, the album doesn’t sound in the least way desperate. Instead, they slowly build songs, layering banjos and synths and bells and vocals in a calm progression, letting the music itself dictate the pace, rather than strapping notes and rhythms to a predetermined bpm. Opening track, “ Generator ^ First Floor,” takes a full minute and forty-five seconds before the first verse starts – and makes the wait worthwhile. If Where The Wild Things Are were re-released next year, this track would be in the trailer. That may be a weird way to sum up the easy power of this track, this band, this album, but it seems to me to be about the best way to put this type of music into words. [Full Album Review]
Japandroids are not going through any character building emotional experience here, but instead, they are at that crucial moment in life when it is the fear of one’s own maturity that worries him/her the most. This is the lyrical focus of the fantastic and arguable album high point, “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” “Young Hearts,” opens like so many songs by twenty-somethings: with lyrics of empty wine bottles, two hearts beating, and having gotten so drunk that you’ve gone numb; yet it is that one repeated lyric, “We used to dream. Now we worry about dying” that sells the album. Through all of their drunken ranting, clamoring for girls, and rocking like they’ve got a whole party behind them even though they are only two, at the heart of Japandroids lies two boys, scared to grow up, and not forgetting this fact no matter how wrapped up in girls and partying they might tell us they are. The title, Post-Nothing, is all too accurate. Japandroids are not post-anything, they are here now, and terrified of what comes next. [Full Album Review]
jj n° 2
Summer is an elusive season. It is almost always feels too short, and is often defined more by anticipation before and nostalgia after than actual substance. How many times did you really make it to the beach this year? It is a season of ardor, until the temperature—like all passion—fades. Half the fun of summer is giving in to the nostalgia after the fact, fondly washing over the memories with a hazy veneer, romanticizing the good and the bad. Just as winters always become “the worst” and “the coldest” ever, summers always become “the best.” Even bad summers are referred to as “the most painful” in a way that reveals the enjoyment borne of that pain.
Nostalgia is a principle character in jj’s debut full-length album, jj n° 2. The opening cut, “Things Will Never Be The Same” announces it, and nine tracks later, “Me and My Dean” serves as a lo fi goodbye to that nostalgic journey. Then album ends, just over 26 minutes after it started, and like the summer, it is gone—a mysterious, almost magical experience. [Full Album Review]
07. The xx
It’s unclear what type of band The xx are, let alone what they want to be. And we don’t like things that we can’t put in a box. But outside that there box, The xx have made a damn good record. It’s not unremarkable, it’s understated. It’s not dull, it’s developing. It’s not simplistic, it’s seductive – The xx aren’t going to reveal too much without a commitment from you.
No matter how you see xx, it’s certainly not a series of variations on “Crystalised.” That song is far from a mission statement; at best it is a snapshot of what the group does best – well-balanced male and female vocals, controlled drumming, and plenty of space buffering each note, all resolving to a catchy (but not overly so) chorus. Songs like “Basic Space” and “Islands” follow that formula nicely without being reproductions – they gently push on the boundaries of the sound that The xx have established, creating wonderful sidesteps along the path through the album. When you reach the end of that path and the final notes of “Stars” fade away you realize, hey, there was a lot more to that than I originally thought. [Full Album Review]
06. The Big Pink
A Brief History of Love
With the dubstep scene flourishing in London, the electronic influence on the album makes sense. On every track the drum and bass really kick, elevating the noise. “Too Young to Love”, “Velvet” (my personal favorite; with haunting vocals floating perfectly over a distorted, industrial-electronic soundscape), and “Golden Pendulum” are excellent examples of the kind of stadium-level and festival ground bigness that The Big Pink are aspiring to. You can just imagine the masses of swaying bodies bathing in these anthems.
But The Big Pink’s genius lies in the fact of how organic the mesh of electronics and real instrumentation sounds. Electronic instrumentation is not a novelty anymore, and for this generation of young artists, electronics and technology are just a fact of life. Because of that, the synergy of the two sounds ends up sounding a lot more natural, and The Big Pink uses that to their advantage to amp up the immensity of their sound to a level and an originality that previous noise-rockers just couldn’t. No one would call this album cheesy the same way a lot of 80s synth-pop sounds tacky now. [Full Album Review]
05. The Antlers
There are few albums that give me shivers. Few albums that really get me at my core – real albums, honest albums, painfully personal albums. Even rarer are those records that continue to do so on subsequent listens, hitting me hard each time I hear its story unfold. The Antlers’ Hospice does it like few I can remember.
The album is the product of Peter Silberman’s two year isolation in New York City, a seemingly foreign concept that is much closer to reality than many of the New York City myths you hear on records. Emerging from his self imposed exile, he joined with Michael Lerner and Darby Cicci to form the current incarnation of The Antlers, recording two EPs that would eventually merge to become Hospice. The album tells the story of a man forced to watch his loved one struggle with – and eventually succumb to – bone cancer, and it tells it eloquently, brutally, breath-takingly.
If, as Ben Gibbard proclaims, “Love is watching someone die,” then Hospice is a love album. And, unconventionally, it is. The album is remarkably multi-dimensional, delving into the perspectives and moods of both lovers involved – the love, the hate, the fear, the denial, the dependence. It is the sinking stomach of a desperate hope fading. It is the pain of being a helpless bystander as invisible Death works his slow knife. It is the phantom limb left by a loved one. [Full Album Review]
04. Dirty Projectors
Notes on Dirty Projectors’ sixth full length album, Bitte Orca, spill out as if dumped from a bucket; they fall one after the other, at a near but not constant rate – avoiding predictability is a mission here. And yet, amongst flexible time signatures and unpredictable rhythms, each note seems perfectly placed. If the stories about Dave Longstreth’s obsessive work ethic are even half true, you can bet on the notes being right where he wants them to be.
Longstreth, the heart and soul of the Dirty Projectors, has the pedigree of an art rocker. He dropped out of Yale Composition school and started releasing music under the Dirty Projectors moniker. It’s oddball music – a glitch opera based on Eagles’ Don Henley here, a reinterpretation of Black Flag’s Damaged there – but it’s brilliant. It’s the kind of complex music that reveals as much on the tenth listen as the first. The kind that you play for your friends with the pretentious disclaimer, “you’re probably not going to like this”.
But not this time. Because here, in this topsy-turvy world of 2009, indie has apparently taken a few hits of pop and is ready to make a run at mainstream. Bitte Orca is poppy, the Dirty Projectors at their most accessible, and downright spectacular. [Full Album Review]
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Would it be weird to say Phoenix is the Vampire Weekend of 2009? Well they are. The band pulled a total Vampire Weekend: universal praise from the blogosphere, SNL appearance catapulting them to relatively mainstream fame, song snippets in commercials, and so on. But unlike Vampire Weekend, Phoenix managed to avoid the backlash. How? By releasing an undeniably superb album that pleases everyone, from hipster snobs to mainstream pop-lovers. An album filled with different variations of the same synth-y style: remix-ready, sing-along anthems ("1901"), instrumental electronic epics ("Love Like A Sunset"), and dance floor groves ("Fences"). Every track is both catchy and substantial, poppy but so much more than a pop song.
When "Rome," the seventh track, kicks off, one begins to feel that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix will finally start getting repetitive. Lead singer Thomas Mars' voice starts to drone on, as he sings in the same manner he does on every track- some kind of beautiful harmonic whine. "Rome, rome, rome, rome, rome" he croons. But the song explodes into something new and incredible with pounding, uplifting chords and cymbal clanging in the kind of musical moment that proves a band's greatness and depth. And it is this depth, to the album and to each song on it (notably "Countdown," the album's best but most under-appreciated track), that lifts Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix to its spot on this list.
02. Grizzly Bear
Veckatimest isn’t a good album. It’s a beautiful album. Unhurried and effortlessly, Grizzly Bear finds a balance in which detachment and patience mix to sound worldly and wise. The band lets the music breathe, letting the notes fall where they belong rather than trying to place them perfectly. As a result, each track takes on a feeling that is equal parts identifiable and unique. The cuts are Grizzly Bear varietals – the album isn’t just a bottle of wine, it’s a whole wine cellar.
“Ready, Able” is an oaky red, perfect for winter afternoons and forest cabins. “About Face” is a brighter summertime white, to be enjoyed with a sunshower. The opening notes of “Fine For Now” are a sacred Port and “I Live With You” is a sweet dry Sherry. The entire album is delicious. It isn’t for everyone, though. There will certainly be a fair number of bump-seekers that will leave empty-handed and disappointed. The tracks on Veckatimest, although reservedly hopeful, aren’t always upbeat. Droste’s voice has a mournful tinge to it, evocative of a broken heart or an empty bottle. But for those who take the time to give this album a chance, I’d venture that few will be disappointed.
“Foreground”, the album’s closing track, is one of the most gorgeous songs I have heard in years. It is painfully simple, calm – tranquil and yet unsettling. It envelopes the listener, the taste of the final drop of wine slowly spreading across the tongue. And when it is finally finished, Veckatimest lingers, hesitant to disappear entirely. It’s a perfect ending to a fantastic album that will only continue to improve with age. [Full Album Review]
01. Animal Collective
Merriweather Post Pavilion
I feel like I’m supposed to tell you that this album was over-hyped. I feel like I’m supposed to tell you that we all got caught up in some big sham – that Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t all that great. Hell, there are scores of fans who will tell you it’s Animal Collective’s third or fourth best album. But you know what? They’re wrong. Because this album is phenomenal. It is the summation of every Animal Collective note that came before it, a landmark album from a group that has always pushed the edge of the proverbial envelope , provided that the envelope contained ridiculous jams.
Listening to this album from front to back, I am struck by how consistent it is – there aren’t low points on the record. And although the aforementioned “My Girls” and “Brothersport” do shine through as pinnacles, my favorite moments are found elsewhere on the album: the resolution of frantic keyboards at the beginning of “Daily Routine,” the soaring vocals during “Lion In A Coma,” the explosion of drums halfway through “In The Flowers” that really kicks off the record.
Merriweather Post Pavilion really is just that – a collection of amazing musical moments strung together to form an album. Which, I think, is why many haven’t found the album to their liking. The keyboards and loops are often repetitive. The lyrics aren’t the clearest. The songs sometimes seem like they aren’t going anywhere. But when you stick with them, whoo child, when you stick with them those choice cuts are like the sun breaking through clouds. A musical release of whatever is being held behind the floodgates. Animal Collective hits with a brightness that’s rarely found on an album so organic. Call it buzz or call it hype, but I’m hooked on the rush that those moments deliver. [Full Album Review]
That's all folks, but if you're interested in entering into the contest I mentioned earlier, all you have to do is:
1) Leave a comment with your thoughts on the list, as well as your favorite album of the year. (Make sure you leave your name and email in the respective fields, not in the comment itself)
2) "Retweet" this on Twitter by clicking the green widget under this post, or "Share" this on Facebook by clicking on the blue widget at the end of the post. Make sure to mention in your comment that you either Retweeted or Shared the list (or both).
Entries will be accepted until December, 25 2009 at 11:59PM. I will contact the winner early on the 26th, I will be shipping the entire package on Monday, 12/28 at Noon sharp, no exceptions.
Notes: Please make sure you type in your email address correctly. More than once have contest winners given my faulty email address, forcing me to choose another winner. Also, a US Mailing Address is REQUIRED for this contest..