The Top 20 Albums of 2009

Hi, you’re reading this list because it’s too cold to do anything outside and you maybe like music. I’ve written this list because I definitely like music and it’s definitely too cold to do anything outside.

I’d like to congratulate Lily Allen for “The Fear,” the first great single of the year. It was, in fact, a year dominated by womenfolk: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Annie, Sally Shapiro, Bat For Lashes and St. Vincent each helmed super neat work. Yay to girls. I’d like to commend Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective for delivering the two most-overrated “good” albums of 2009, if that makes any sense. Normally if you say “Beach Boys harmonies” and “synthesizers,” I’m a really easy, cheap date, but try as I might these records never rose above okay. “Summertime Clothes” was a brilliant piece of kaleidoscopic pop from AC, and Grizzly’s “Two Weeks” sounded lovely in a reverb-drenched Letterman performance a few months ahead of the record’s release. But neither band writes great songs in quantity, and if hipster bloggers are going to namedrop Brian Wilson they ought to choose better agents.

Alright. 2009-stamped albums made up about 30 per cent of my intake for the year, and here are the 20 best of ‘em. Presented in order, because that’s how it oughtta be.

20. EDITORS – In This Light And On This Evening

Solid rebound from shabbily crap sophomore effort. Not as gripping as the clipped, Joy Division-Comsat Angels rock of the first album; this time it’s slavishly mopey synth-rock on the menu. It’s as secondhand as a trawl through Kensington clothing shops but they’ve written some nice choruses. “You Don’t Know Love” and “Papillon” are worth seeking out for the curious.

19. JARVIS COCKER – “Further Complications.”

The new Jarvis overcomes a sludgy start and gains momentum as it plays, checking in at all sorts of interesting, typically Cocker-like checkpoints on its merry way. While it’s not as fluidly chintzy as prime Pulp, he’s on form through most of the entertaining second half: it’s that voice making those familiar smartarse observations over melodically sturdy songs like “Hold Still,” “Fuckingsong” and Slush,” although the disco experimentation of the closing “You’re In My Eyes” overstays its welcome by half. We’re a long way from “My Legendary Girlfriend,” but the greybeard has some fight in him yet.

18. SALLY SHAPIRO – My Guilty Pleasure

This one trades the spare grace of her wonderful first record in for a fuller sound, which isn’t as striking, but still works well during the nicely written second half. “Moonlight Dance” sounds like a lost mid-‘80s gem that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miami Vice episode. As before, the guileless vocals sound just like another instrument in the pleasantly Eurodisco-ish mix. A producer’s record.

17. THE CLIENTELE – Bonfires On The Heath

This stylish quartet’s put a little more rhythmic pep into their songs lately, stripping away much of the reverb-heavy gauze that marked earlier records. It’s a better balance, actually, switching between shimmering loveliness and light, bookwormish funk. Alasdair MacLean’s hushed, close-miked vocals haven’t changed, and his lyrics still scan like particularly well-written diary entries. I think the songs are missing something without Louis Phillippe’s superb string arrangements, but I won’t argue against the lullaby-like beauty of the closing pair, “Graven Wood” and “Walking In The Park.”

16. PHOENIX – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix write riffs, not songs. So far, it’s kept them from writing a start-to-finish classic record, but in an era of listener ADD, the ability to sew tight pastiches like “Lisztomania” and “1901” together makes every record a Happy Meal. “Girlfriend” is just as good. And the sound is amazing. I’d suggest they steer clear of aimless instrumentals, however.

15. DOVES – Kingdom Of Rust

All the fourth Doves album was missing was a killer single. Because there was nothing on the order of immediate classics like “The Cedar Room,” “Pounding” or “Black And White Town,” it took a while for this to sink in. A grower, then. More epic, earnest arena rock. Curiously, club elements from Doves’ prior incarnation as dance band Sub Sub are finally creeping into the mix. On “Compulsion,” it gives them a huge leg up on lead-footed peers like Coldplay and Snow Patrol.

14. DEPECHE MODE – Sounds Of The Universe

Trucking along a dozen years after losing arranger Alan Wilder, Depeche made their best album of the decade by returning to analog synths and resisting the urge to beef up the sound with modern processing trickery. While the songwriting edge is no longer sharp enough to guarantee winning singles, Depeche’s managed to shore up compositional deficiencies by allotting a few songs to Dave Gahan, who’s blossomed late-career into a capable second writer to Martin Gore. DM won’t win new fans with this work; it’s an album for devotees, deep and resonant and ultimately rewarding on a very specific scale.

13. FRANZ FERDINAND – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand

I think the three-and-a-half year break from Franz Ferdinand did wonders for everyone. I know I was pretty Franzed out after 2005’s “You Could Have It So Much Better.” This one’s a rebound of sorts. While T.V. performances still betrayed Alex Kapraonos’ cheesy self-love, the songs were much more vivacious this time around. Same general blueprint: spiky, danceable guitar-pop. “No You Girls,” “Twilight Omens” and “Live Alone” don’t break any new ground, but they’re fine additions to the canon, if you’re already part of the Franz-friendly camp.

12. VARIOUS ARTISTS / SOUNDTRACK – “God Help The Girl”

Essential for any Belle & Sebastian fan, this sprung from the pen of Stuart Murdoch as the soundtrack to a film set for 2010 release. With full backing from B&S themselves, Murdoch takes the mic a few times, but leaves most of the work to a crew of heretofore unknown girl singers – Catherine Ireton foremost among them – who make fine work of songs written from a feminine perspective, a welcome return to one of Murdoch’s early career vehicles. Usual soundtrack limitations aside, good songs abound, with the twin towers “Come Monday Night” and the stomping “I’ll Have To Dance With Cassie” setting the pace. Murdoch is the best vocal melody writer over the past 15 years and his gift’s very much in effect throughout.

11. BAT FOR LASHES – Two Suns

Concept art-pop with synths and inventive drum patterns usually sets my heart racing with thoughts of Kate Bush, c. “Hounds Of Love,” and Natasha Khan’s second album doesn’t disappoint. The narrative takes some work to get into, but the core songs – “Sleep Alone,” “Daniel” and “Pearl’s Dream” – are bold, standalone delights. A real headphone treat, “Pearl’s Dream” plays like a muted cousin to Kate’s ecstatic “The Big Sky.” The class of the field is “Daniel” – good on record, but brilliant in its rearranged live incarnation. Watch the Letterman clip on YouTube, where you can almost hear the host’s mouth drop in appreciation after a stupendous take on a terrific song.

10. PASSION PIT – Manners

For the fan of bearded, eunuch-voiced, synth-rockin’ Greeks in all of us, I give you Passion Pit and the amazing five-song stretch at the heart of debut album “Manners.” Never mind the other songs surrounding “The Reeling,” “Eyes As Candles,” “Swimming In The Flood,” “Folds In Your Hands” and album highlight “To Kingdom Come.” Concentrate on this delightful, rattling, 21-minute run of extroverted geek-pop, it’s more than enough.

9. MORRISSEY – Years Of Refusal

A brawny tour-ready rock record from music’s best inside joke, “Years Of Refusal” fitfully welcomed Moz into the ranks of the fiftysomething club with a bitchy set of moderately quotable diatribes about pills, ex-friends and self-reliance. I’d rank it lower but for the fact he’s still improving as a singer even at this late stage, and that he’s somehow able to squeeze decent songs out of his nondescript sidemen two decades after Johnny Marr’s well ran dry. Every Moz record adds a few winners to the neighbourhood, and “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” and “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” are on quality street. Oh, and the record soundtracked our infamous “Roadtrip of Refusal” to Buffalo in March, which surely counts for a few points.

8. NEON INDIAN – Psychic Chasms

Whatta romp this is. 31 minutes of twitching, tasty, keyboard-heavy pop. Imagine Chromeo writing theme music for a Saturday morning kids’ program, c. 1985. Or early Brian Eno crossed with early Cut Copy. It boils down to this: there’s a chunk of sighing, chugging, colourful pop songs, treated with the kind of low-fi glaze that died with cassette tapes and the advent of digital compression. Bound by nothing bar imagination, “Deadbeat Summer,” “Terminally Chill” and “Local Joke” throb like burbling, smoking, science-fair projects. There were a lot of good records released this year, but this one delivers the most fun.

7. JUNIOR BOYS – Begone Dull Care

Depth perception is the key to enjoying the third Junior Boys album. Like an expertly framed, low-light photo, “Begone Dull Care” doesn’t give much away until it’s scrutinized, its undulating grooves defining “sinuous” in terms white dudes from Hamilton aren’t supposed to be able to deal in. Twinkling, knowing keyboard fills abound in these flexibly funky, hip-shaking, mid-tempo tracks. Jeremy Greenspan’s become a master deployer of the hushed come-on delivery. “Hazel” raises the bar far beyond the ken of likeminded bands. Marvellous stuff from a duo that dared to cover Sinatra last time out, remember? The grooviest, slyest synth-pop band on the planet. CD booklet doesn’t do anything for me, though.

6. ANNIE – Don’t Stop

A record of disco extravaganzas produced by the likes of Xenomania, Richard X and Paul Epworth, Annie’s long-delayed sophomore effort has more stylistic consistency than you’d think, given all the hands on board, and the first side’s lousy with awesome idiot-proof bonkers stompers. Seriously, if you like any of Madonna, Kylie, sleazy Goldfrapp, Girls Aloud or Saint Etienne, I don’t see how this could fail to grab you. Second side’s got some weak spots but I can hardly bring myself to bitch about them. This girl should be huge.

5. THE CHURCH – Untitled #23

Another veteran band whose longevity and quality control is beginning to accrue serious Mount Rushmore consideration. Five songs in, all this stately, gorgeous, shimmering guitar rock had me shaking my head in amazement: how is it they write this well after 29 years and nearly two-dozen records? It’s as lovely as the quieter moments from the last Radiohead, but as fashion-aware as Tony Bennett: The Church long ago entered that “respected elders” phase, enjoyed only by long-time fans and ignored by everyone else. Let them be our secret, then. “Cobalt Blue,” “Happenstance” and “Operetta” headline the new additions to a very long list of very good songs.

4. ST. VINCENT – Actor

Between Bat For Lashes and Annie Clark’s St. Vincent project, Kate Bush fetishists have a lot to be thankful for. “Actor” conjures memories of Kate c. “Sat In Your Lap,” with all manner of crunchy, coiled art-rock songs like “Marrow,” “Actor Out Of Work” and “Save Me From What I Want.” Despite the implied mayhem behind the music (check out her strangled lead guitar parts), Clark sings in a beautiful, measured tone I initially mistook for bet-hedging: oceans of elliptical reserve on the record’s delicate ballads like “The Party” left me expecting ugly rage on the knottier material. On later listens, I realized that’d be too obvious: Clark is inhabiting a world of desperate, unhappy characters, struggling to maintain order over lives bursting at the seams. Her voice represents the heavily dolled-up public face, the music is the beehive of misery hidden behind the designer shades.

3. GIRLS – Album

My top lo-fi entry in a list populated by high-sheen keyboard pop. Girls make fuzzy, buzzing, sloppy Jesus And Mary Chain jangle-pop, mixed with some of that snot-nosed heartache Alex Chilton and Chris Bell wove into the first Big Star record. It’s lazy, late-summer, daydreaming music for people with good intentions but low ambitions, which I think is how some people used to describe shoegaze, but that stuff never had the sun-kissed quality of “God Damned,” “Summertime” or “Morning Light,” which tickle and fizz like a packet of Pop Rocks on a swig of Jolt Cola. And the epic “Hellhole Ratrace” is every bit as good as Pitchfork says. Go be a teenager again.

2. CAMERA OBSCURA – My Maudlin Career

The heir apparent to both Belle & Sebastian and Spector’s Wall Of Sound, evidently. The last two albums have seen Glasgow’s Camera Obscura shed their prim folk-pop for swaggering, ‘60s-bedecked orch-pop, and even if there isn’t anything quite so thrilling as “Lloyd, I’m Ready To Be Heartbroken” here, “My Maudlin Career” might be the better album. Tracyanne Campbell’s lyrics are endlessly quotable reflections for the crestfallen set (“In your eyes there’s a sadness enough to kill the both of us/Are those eyes overrated? They make me want to give up on love”), but the gushingly big music is as hopeful as Charlie Brown lining up to kick that frigging football. There’s something regal about “The Sweetest Thing,” “Swans,” “Honey In The Sun” and the title track’s bulldog intensity in the face of piled-on romantic failures. Doesn’t this girl ever win? Even here, she finished in second place. Fuck!

1. YEAH YEAH YEAHS – It’s Blitz!

By a narrow margin, the record of the year, and also home to the song of the year in “Hysteric.” YYY’s wove synths into their web of agit-rock and let the inherent sweetness of Karen O’s vocals take centre stage on a record that recalls the lush romanticism of the great singles Siouxsie And The Banshees were cutting around 1982. Now, nothing then was quite as tightly compressed as the remarkable, fevered “Zero,” or quite as high-stepping as the chunky, discofied “Dragon Queen,” but I totally hear Siouxsie in the closing “Little Shadow” and the madcap “Heads Will Roll.” And of course, there’s the ecstatic “Hysteric,” the gorgeous ballad favourably compared to “Maps,” which nails its chugging, one-word chorus with all the wonderment of a summertime swoon. “Flow sweetly, hang heavy/You suddenly complete me, you suddenly complete me,” she sings, and just like that, eight months after I first melted into her delirium, knowing then I’d found my song of the year, and maybe its album too, we’re done with 2009, and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s have won the gold star.

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