man...some tough decisions to be made here (and i'm sure in my mind i'll retroactively change this around a dozen times...)
however here's my list for 2k9!
10. The Low Anthem- Oh My God Charlie Darwin
With the first haunting notes on "Oh My God Charlie Darwin" the Low Anthem creates what amounts to an instant classic track. Lead singer Ben Knox's spine tingling falsetto voice throws a chill right up the back of your neck. For that track alone "Oh My God Charlie Darwin" almost certainly puts itself into elite territory for the year. As outstanding as that single track is, it's hard to imagine the band populating an entire album with that level of emotiveness & drama. What emerges instead is an incredibly satisfying mix that inhabits the territory somewhere in between Nick Drake, Neil Young & most notably Tom Waits. With the Low Anthem, the Tom Waits comparisons will be a fact of life, however they successful channel the best qualities of Waits, harnessing both the abstract & Americana elements that can be found on Heart of Saturday Night, Loose Change & Closing Time without going too over the top with the gravel vocals. Overall a very good debut by these guys. I'm really looking forward to seeing them develop as a band.
9. Discovery- LP
When I first got the debut from the collaboration between Vampire Weekend keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij and Ra Ra Riot singer Wes Miles, my honest immediate reaction was "What the hell is this auto-tuned over the top crap?!" and I put it away for a good month. It took hearing KEXP in Seattle repeatedly spin both "Orange Shirt" and "Carby" for me to actually rationalize & come around to the album. It's funny how hearing music in a different context can influence your opinions. In the case of "Discovery" a little bit of patience with the extreme playfulness & straight up bubblegum party music. Soaked in autotune & heavy thumping electro-nintendo-esque bleeps & bloops, hand claps & deep groovin beats....if Owl City is The Postal Service's emo teenage brother lamenting it's solitude, than Discovery is almost certainly it's smart alecky, College sophomore sibling partying it up & discovering itself. The lyrics here are so deliciously over the top & at the same time resonant that there's moments of "Are they serious?" where in a teenage heart-achey way...you kind almost hope they are. Only weak spot on the whole record as I see it is Jackson 5 "I Want You Back" cover...which just really doesn't belong. Guest vocal slots from Dirty Projectors Angel Deradoorian & Vampire Weekend Singer Ezra Koenig round this off as a full on pleasurable & enjoyable listen perfect for getting your blood flowing.
8. Passion Pit- Manners
In 2008 Passion Pit singer Michael Angelakos released the excellent "Chunk of Change" EP as Passion Pit but predominantly featured as a bedroom solo project. The need to play live necessitated the addition of band members, which Angelakos subsequently included in the band's proper full length debut as true collaborators. What emerged was an instantly euphoric experience that both resurrects some of the sounds & attitudes of early/mid 80s dance music while injecting an energy & aesthetic of it's own, unabashedly delivering exuberant celebrations of love, yearning & heartbreak. One thing that makes Passion Pit special (and most probably separates them from many of their peers) is the fact that this goes out beyond being just dance music & has a real element of seriousness to certain spots. Songs like "Moth's Wings'" & "Kingdom Come" definitely have some real epic qualities to them that make for an extremely well rounded record. The standout tracks however are definitely the dance jams. "The Reeling" (the album's first single) pumps & thumps with Angelakos falsetto coloring the song & of course the biggie here is the squirmy & incredibly infectious "Sleepyheads" that is really a dance anthem for the ages. I've heard these guys are outstanding live. I'm looking forward to finding out.
7. Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
In my mind, Neko Case can do no wrong. Case's latest offering "Middle Cyclone" stands up as yet another tremendous offering in what has been an incredibly consistent career. Case's powerful & hauntingly beautiful voice drives here as always however it's the left of center approach & stellar songwriting that makes this a truly great record. Middle Cylcone is more out front than it's predecessor "Fox Confessor Brings The Flood" with less dramatic effect & a more straightforward approach. That's not to say the album isn't without some level of the experimentation that Fox Confessor brought with it with the unique instrumentation & non-traditional arrangements. Over the years many have tried pin the 'alt country' label to Case, something she has resisted (fairly emphatically) and for good reason. What Neko Case does fits well outside of just a genre associated with a limited range of standards & instead traverses into a territory that is inhabited more by the likes of artists like Wilco & M. Ward. Middle Cyclone represents another solid offering in what has proven to be an incredible career that appears to be just now hitting it's prime. Stand out tracks include "This Tornado Loves You", "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and Harry Nillson cover "Don't Forget Me"
6. The Decemberists- The Hazards of Love
I'm sure this pick is going to raise a few eyebrows with some of my more critical readers as the Decemberists 2nd major label offering (and 1st rock opera) was not universally critically acclaimed & in some circles outright panned as overambitious & lacking direction. Colin Meloy even wrote on his twitter prior to the album's review "I can feel it...Pitchfork's going to turn on us"....and sure enough pitchfork followed suit with a mediocre review. I'm here to defend "The Hazards of Love" as being an exceptionally outstanding record that's really does live up to the concept that it's trying to pull off. The thing that I think a lot of the critics missed on "Hazards of Love" is that to truly appreciate the record, you have to actually take the time to explore & understand the expansive story-line.... Love, Peril, Murder, Tragedy, Adventure, Shape-shifting Fawns, Forest Queens, Evil Rakes,...children returning from the afterlife to avenge their own deaths.... it's all here set to an unlikely backdrop of what amounts to thumping, 70s style, guitar, harpsichord & B3 driven hard rock. Without taking the time to understand the storyline, I could see how one might not enjoy this one and it just might not be for everyone. As someone that really enjoys lyrics & theaterical concept however, I live for this kinda stuff. Cinematic through & through, I can almost see the story playing out in my mind when I listen to the record. Some of the standout moments on this record are provided courtesy guest Shara Worden (aka My Brightest Diamond) in her role as "The Forest Queen" (and live...Shara is like nothing you've ever seen) If Hazards of Love didn't knock you out on a first spin, i'd highly recommend a good revisitation.
5. Camera Obscura- My Maudlin Career
For my number 5, I very well may have been heavily influenced to bump Camera Obscura up a couple of slots after a really stellar performance last weekend at Turner Hall. 4 albums in, and it appears with "My Maudlin Career" Camera Obscura has found a place of comfort & maturity without losing the innocence & playful attitude from the earlier recordings. For band-leader Tracyanne Campbell, the Belle & Sebastian comparisons have been something that has been almost a given throughout the bands career not only because of sibling connection with former B&S member Isobell Campbell, but also because of the fairly distinctive kicked back & orchestral style that must almost certainly be an affect of both band's native Glasgow Scotland. My Maudlin Career finds itself both embracing the mutual likenesses to B&S and at the same strangely forging a truly unique & individual sound & style of their own that almost falls somewhere into the incredibly satisfying territory of 60s Soul/R&B girl groups. MMC has some incredibly lush string arrangements and tastefully inserted horns however the real star of this album is Camera Obscura's signature bop & swing, which make their music incredibly danceable when married to a little bit of a groove. Some great work done here with vocal harmonies and Tracyanne's ability to oscillate between the upbeat and the melancholy moments. Standout tracks here are definitely the singles "The Sweetest Thing" & "French Navy"
4. The Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
My first introduction to The Dirty Projectors was their last record "Rise Above" which was a sort of conceptual reimagination of Black Flag's "Damage" helmed predominantly by band leader Dave Longstreth. Based upon what (to me) seemed like kind of a quirky experimental band, I could have never imagined what a tremendous record they would go on to make what absolutely has to be one of the most interesting, eclectic & intriguing records of 2009 with "Bitte Orca". Traversing styles from indie-pop to world rhythms to straight up R&B (so much so that Solange Knowles did an "R&B" cover of "Stillness Is The Move" that didn't really sound all that unlike the original version ) Bitte Orca simply runs wild with imagination & retains it's previous quirks without surrendering to them. One of the biggest successes here is the incredibly endearing & charismatic dueling female vocals from Angel Deradoorian & Amber Coffman. Longstreth may be the visionary behind The Dirty Projectors, however the girls are clearly the stars of the show. Longstreth's ability to step back from the center & make this a true collaborative effort between the individual members really harnesses the greatest strengths of the band that ultimately makes this a very successful record. With all of it's complexities & diversity, Bitte Orca still manages to find a nice balance & middle ground that acts as center for the record and rather than relying simply on the easy parlor tricks, has some really tender moments of beauty as well. All of this makes for an extremely brilliant record that takes the best elements of it's contributors & is masterfully executed.
3. The XX- XX
One of the wisest axioms in all of popular music is that it's the empty spaces in between the notes where all of the real beauty & art takes place. Nowhere during 2009 is this better exemplified than on the debut album by South Londoners "The XX". The members of The XX barely 19 years old when they began recording XX (which reportedly took close to a year to do). The record just exudes atmosphere & throughout has an extremely dark & noir-ish feel makes you feel like your cutting through a cloud of vapor with just a slight electronic undertone. I have to admit, this album for me was just purely addictive. In my office, i listened to it so much that it was beginning to get a little embarrassing & I'd find myself sneaking it on when nobody was around just to get one more fix. That's for good reason though.... it's one of those records that reveals new and brilliant elements with every single listen. For what on the surface sounds like a fairly minimalist & understated outing, there's a hell of a lot going on here. From the incredibly intricate & emotive atmosphere's being created to the dueling guy/girl vocals that almost sounds like a relationship taking place before our very ears, The XX is without a doubt something to be discovered over time. There's extreme friction, sadness & triumph communicated throughout this record & it's best experienced either through a blasting stereo or a pair of headphones. The guys have already have been remixed by everybody and their mother & it's easy to see why you would want to. The spaces between each note just invite the listener to interpret & reinterpret their own experience as they take the dark & intriguing journey that The XX brings them on.
2. St. Vincent- Actor
St. Vincent (AKA Annie Clark) made a large impact on me personally with 2007's "Marry Me" which at the time ultimately became one of my favorite (and most revisited) records of that year. 2009s "Actor" is a clear step forward & quite honestly is an absolutely exquisite work that juxtaposes emotions & conventions at every turn. Layer upon layer of instrumentation, vocal overlay & complex arrangement makes up just one piece of the puzzle of what makes Actor great. On Marry Me, Clark clearly proved that she was capable of creating moments of beauty and what she does even more successfully on Actor is create those moments of beauty only to shred them to bits the next moment to create a wildly unpredictable emotional climate that makes for a strangely satisfying rollercoaster ride that juxtaposes beauty with madness & innocence with violence. It's this non-willingness to take the easy way out of the sparklingly beauty laden female singer-songwriter that sets Annie Clark apart from the rest. She's beautiful & intriguing and at the same time prickly and maybe just a little bit psycho..... this can all be a little unsettling especially when you're just getting comfortable with some of the more serene moments, however this deconstructionist bent is all part of the package and at the end of the day, that's what makes it intense, gripping & exciting to listen to. Standout tracks here are the decidedly unsettling "Marrow" in which we are barraged by almost alien sounding instrumentation, "Actor Out Of Work" and one of my faves "The Bed" in which Clark explores some truly sinister themes with some of the most sonically beautiful moments on the record.
1. Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion
On January 5th 2009, the popular music blog Stereogum asked a very simple yet poignant & intriguing question Is Merriweather Post Pavillion The Best Record of 2009 and it wasn't just Stereogum..... "Looks like it, sounds like it too..." SG continues... Pitchfork shortly thereafter gave the record a rare & coveted 9.6 rating and from there on out came an avalanche of critical praise....and of course with that much praise came a fair amount of backlash (ironically mostly from Animal Collective fans from back in the day...). for me however, MPP has indeed lived up to the hype & then some. Named for the Baltimore Amphitheater that the member of AC grew up going to see mega-massive shows at, the name of the album is a direct reference to their efforts to make music that could be played in that large scale setting & without creating something overblown or dumbed down, Animal Collective has genuinely found a significantly larger audience through their efforts. In my opinion, a rare case of a band being discovered by the masses for the right reasons. With just a mind-numbingly complex amalgamation of brilliant vocal harmonies, bizarre rhythms and impossibly nebulous layers of pulsating sound, Merriweather Post Pavilion steps back from the former quirkiness & tribal grunts, screeches & moans that (I think) tended to bog down their previous work in favor of a record that is both incredibly intricate & elaborate and at the same time surprisingly melodic (and dare I say catchy??). I don't think it's too much of a stretch to consider the group's "Panda Bear" to be something of a modern day Brian Wilson, however at the same time arranger "Archeologist" and partner in crime "Avey Tar" make for a balance and rough edge that simply is only achievable with all three contributing members at the helm. At the end of the day, although it may have seemed like they were jumping the gun a little early....i think there was a strange profound wisdom is Stereogum calling this one by January 5....I have to say I agree.
Yacht- See Mystery Lights
Just barely left this one off my top 10. Celebratory, quirky & dancey...Yacht has made an excellently fun exploration of the paranormal & supernatural with this exceptional record
Freelance Whales- Weathervanes
Great record somewhere along the lines Sufjan Stevens crossed with The Postal Service. Maybe not the hippest areas to be exploring these days in a slightly more rough & tumble indie atmosphere, nevertheless worth a good serious listen
Bat For Lashes- Two Suns
An excellently spooky & gothic 2nd outing from UK's Bat For Lashes. Lots going on here from an artist that for the record puts "Florence & The Machine" to shame....
Sea Wolf- White Water, White Bloom
Another one that stepped in and out of my ten a number of times as I mulled over the arduous task of picking just 10. Excellent Mike Mogis produced record that kinda sounds how I wish the Conor Oberst solo stuff had turned out....
thanks for reading! Best of the Decade coming up shortly!!
See ya December 27 at Trocadero!