The Best Music of 2009

December 9, 2009


For all of the talk in recent years of the death of the album as digital distribution has become the norm and every listener is now their own DJ and programmer, the album nonetheless remains the dominant way we measure a musician's creativity.

Why? It has little to do with the Luddite tendencies of critics or the robotic buying habits of consumers. In the end, it's the artists who continue striving to create an ideal collection of songs compiled at a particularly inspired time and place in their lives and sequenced with considerable care to present a beginning to end musical journey.

As always, there was no shortage of great albums in 2009--exquisite sets of music that I couldn't stop playing again and again, and which made me think or feel in ways that seemed fresh and exciting as well as addictive. And, once again, rather than critical buzz, commercial success or any other measure of accomplishment, those are the criteria I considered when compiling by year-end Top 10.

Plain and simple, if the apartment caught fire and I had to flee, these are the CDs I would grab from among the thousands in the ponderous stacks of this year's releases. (Of course, if I took the trouble to load them into an iPod, I'd have less to carry... I really ought to get one of those new-fangled gadgets some day!)

1. Ida Maria, "Fortress 'Round My Heart" (Mercury)

Though it was issued in Europe in July 2008, the debut album by Norwegian singer and songwriter Ida Maria Børli Sivertsen only got its official domestic release last March, and that's when I caught up with it. An explosive stage presence to rival Iggy Pop or Courtney Love, Ida Maria is just as powerful on record, tearing with melodic ferocity into gems such as "I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked" and "Oh My God," which are equal parts unique autobiographies and "I'm Every Woman" anthems of female empowerment.

(My profile of Ida Maria is here.)

2. Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone" (Anti-)

On a music scene that reboots itself with fresh faces every other week, it's easy to take a 39-year-old talent on her sixth solo album for granted. But former Chicagoan Neko Case made the strongest disc of her career, turning that unrivaled voice loose on metaphors involving tornadoes, earthquakes and enough animals to fill a good-sized zoo, and proving to be nothing short of a force of nature herself.

(My full review is here.)

3. Kid Sister, "Ultraviolet" (Downtown)

In terms of capitalizing on her debut single "Pro Nails" to become the pop superstar she deserves to be, Chicago's Melissa Young didn't do herself any favors by letting nearly two years pass as she endlessly tinkered on her first full album. But it was worth the wait: Here is a batch of songs every bit as great as that first hit, and a musical merger of electronic dance sounds, retro-'80s synth-pop and a fresh female perspective that hip-hop has sorely needed for the last two decades.

(My profile of Kid Sister is here.)

4. Phoenix, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (V2)

The fourth album was the charm for this French dance-rock band as the feel-good hits of the spring held every bit of their effervescent charm through the summer and into the fall, despite umpteen airings of "1901" in that ubiquitous TV car commercial. And the disc has considerable depth beyond the irresistible hits--which also include "Lisztomania" and "Lasso"--as the group provides gorgeous instrumental interludes that evoke a combination of Roxy Music circa "Avalon" and its mentors in Air.

(My full review is here.)

5. Lily Allen, "It's Not Me, It's You" (Capitol)

Skeptics were certain that the charmingly bratty English singer who famously launched her career on MySpace would have a shorter stay in the limelight than Susan Boyle once the novelty wore off. But Allen shifted from the '60s jet-set globe-trotter vibe of her debut and headed to the modern dance floor on her second album, turning her acid wit on the phenomenon of her own fame as well as dropping the brash persona to show she can deliver a heartfelt love song ("Who'd Have Known") or even make walking the dog, watching TV and ordering takeout sound enchanting ("Chinese").

(My full review is

6. Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion" (Domino)

The four whimsical Baltimore-to-Brooklyn transplants in Animal Collective finally justified their dedicated cult following and ridiculously prolific output with a set of great psychedelic pop songs summoning up what "Pet Sounds" might have been if Brian Wilson had crafted it in 2009 with state of the art digital technology. This remains a problematic band because it is wildly inconsistent onstage--focused and impressive at Metro last January, but a complete disaster at Lollapalooza last August--yet the melodies and the carpe diem message here are blissful pop perfection.

(My full review is here.)

7. The Decemberists, "The Hazards of Love" (Capitol)

Speaking of pop perfection, Colin Meloy and his bandmates continue to court progressive-rock parody with ever more absurdly ambitious concept albums and multi-part orchestral-pop suites. Thankfully, their ability to laugh at themselves, to craft undeniable hooks and to rock their complicated arrangements as energetically as any snotty young punk band provides the perfect complement to their lofty aspirations.

(My full review is here.)

8. Screaming Females, "Power Move" (Don Giovanni)

The third album by this young trio from New Brunswick, N.J., offers a mix of melodic punk a la Husker Du and heavy-metal shredding to rival any thrash band, more than justifying the disc's title and providing an instant shot of adrenaline whenever you hit "play." Marissa Paternoster may seem shy, sweet and petite, but this screaming female is quite simply a monster of rock.

(My profile of Screaming Females is here.)

9. Japandroids, "Post-Nothing" (Polyvinyl)

First coming together on Victoria island, Brian King and David Prowse rose above the cluttered pack of two-person bands with a sound that revives classic '90s fuzz guitar a la Dinosaur Jr. and Mudhoney mixed with a fresh and immediate attack, ample hooks and a timely thematic devotion to alienation--from the opposite sex, from the geographical mainland and from these disorienting modern times.

(My full review is here and my profile of the band is here.)

10. U2, "No Line on the Horizon" (Universal)

After a disappointing run in the new millennium regurgitating much of what they've done before, the long-running Irish heroes were in danger of becoming bloated dinosaur rockers sinking in the tar pit of nostalgia. The 360 Tour did nothing to rescue the group from that fate, but its 12th studio album ranks beside "Achtung Baby" as its bravest and most experimental--a welcome exercise in how far the boundaries of the U2 sound can be stretched while maintaining the majestic grandeur and stadium-rousing qualities that have become its trademarks.

(My full review is here.)

And, because list-making is hard to stop once you get started, here are numbers 11 through 60.

11. The Flaming Lips, "Embryonic" (Warner Bros.)
12. Kid Cudi, "Man on the Moon: The End of the Day" (Universal)
13. Peaches, "I Feel Cream" (XL)
14. Vivian Girls, "Everything Goes Wrong" (In the Red)
15. The Dead Weather, "Horehound" (Warner Bros.)
16. St. Vincent, "Actor" (4AD)
17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz" (Interscope)
18. Slayer, "World Painted Blood" (Columbia)
19. Passion Pit, "Manners" (Frenchkiss)
20. Arctic Monkeys, "Humbug" (Domino)

21. K'Naan, "Troubadour" (A&M)
22. Franz Ferdinand, "Tonight: Franz Ferdinand" (Sony)
23. Dan Deacon, "Bromst" (Carpark)
24. PJ Harvey and John Parish, "A Woman a Man Walked By" (Island)
25. Moby, "Wait for Me" (Mute)
26. Wilco, "Wilco (The Album)" (Nonesuch)
27. Sonic Youth, "The Eternal" (Matador)
28. Metric, "Fantasies" (02. Records)
29. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart" (Slumberland)
30. Mastodon, "Crack the Skye" (Warner Bros.)

31. Rihanna, "Rated R" (Def Jam)
32. Morrissey, "Years of Refusal" (Lost Highway)
33. Cursive, "Mama, I'm Swollen" (Saddle Creek) [3.5 STARS]
34. Bob Dylan, "Together Through Life" (Columbia) [3.5 STARS]
35. Leonard Cohen, "Live in London" (Columbia) [3.5 STARS]
36. Weezer, "Raditude" (DGC)
37. The Handsome Family, "Honey Moon" (Carrot Top)
38. Art Brut, "Art Brut vs. Satan" (Downtown)
39. Pelican, "What We All Come to Need" (Southern Lord)
40. Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, "...And the Horse You Rode in On" (Bloodshot)

41. Basement Jaxx, "Scars" (Ultra)
42. Yacht, "See Mystery Lights" (DFA)
43. Mos Def, "The Ecstatic" (Downtown)
44. Titus Andronicus, "The Airing of Grievances" (Beggars)
45. Cheap Trick, "The Latest" (Cheap Trick Unlimited)
46. Regina Spektor, "Far" (Sire)
47. Black Eyed Peas, "The E.N.D." (Interscope)
48. Bat for Lashes, "Two Suns" (Astralwerks)
49. Asher Roth, "Asleep in the Bread Aisle" (Universal)
50. Amadou & Mariam, "Welcome to Mali" (Nonesuch)

51. The Dodos, "Time to Die" (Frenchkiss)
52. She & Him, "Volume One" (Merge)***
53. The Postmarks, "Memoirs at the End of the World" (Unfiltered)
54. Wale, "Attention Deficit" (Interscope)
55. The Black Hollies, "Softly Towards the Light" (Ernest Jenning)
56. The Riverdales, "Invasion USA" (Asian Man)
57. Mannequin Men, "Lose Your Illusion, Too" (Flameshovel)
58. La Roux, "La Roux" (Polydor)
59. Mission of Burma, "The Sound The Speed The Light" (Matador)
60. Donita Sparks, "Transmiticate" (Sparksfly)

*** UPDATE: As several correspondents have pointed out in the comments below -- they're better calendar-watchers than I am, and I thank them for it! -- the She & Him album actually was released in 2008. So Move everything from Nos. 53 to 60 up one slot, and here is my new album at No. 60.

60. Kim Lenz and the Jaguars, "It's All True!" (Riley Records)