10a. Bob Dylan, “Christmas in the Heart”
I wouldn’t say this is among the “best” albums of 2009 defined in a conventional sense (in fact, it’s possibly a contender for worst album of all time). Nevertheless, it’s gotta be one of the most awesomely bad albums of the year. Here Bob Dylan fondly remembers his childhood singing Christmas songs in Minnesota. Dylan, of course, grew up Jewish, but hey whatever. His croaky rendition of Gene Autry’s already-atrocious song “Here Comes Santa Claus” must be heard to be believed. And the twisted fun-house video for “Must Be Santa” leaves me wondering, “Is this all some Joaquin Phoenix-inspired irreverent satire?” Someone recently broached the subject of “irreverence” with Dylan in an interview to which he replied, “Isn’t there enough irreverence in the world? Who would need more? Especially at Christmas time.” I guess that settles it. Sometimes it’s best not to question genius.
10. Girls "Album”
There is an awful lot to discuss when we’re talking about the San Francisco band “Girls.” Between the “Hardcore xxx” gay porn edits of their videos (http://pitchfork.com/news/36981-girls-go-through-lineup-change-make-even-more-nsfw-gay-porn-video/) and the “raised by cult, rescued by a millionare, addicted to pills” biography (http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2009/jul/17/tim-jonze-interview-girls), they provide more fodder for speculation than Lady Gaga. But let’s not got there --okay, so I just went there. Anyway, their album, entitled, yes, “Album” is one of the best of the year. True to the record’s barebones name, “Album” blends cheeky garage minimalism with tuneful pop harmonies to very good effect.
9. The Low Anthem, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin"
Some genuinely beautiful melodies on this album, which runs a gamut of blues, folk, and rock influences. But like the Decemberists and St. Vincent this year, The Low Anthem is almost as notable for its evocative thematic content as it is for the music itself. Although it’s not a full-on concept album, a good part of “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin” is spent charting the emotional terrain of what it would be like to be Charles Darwin. The Low Anthem’s Darwin is less a historical monument than a mere man; he wrestles with doubts over what he may or may not have found; he feels the forlorn loneliness of a traveler sitting out in boat looking out on the water. Even seemingly unrelated songs like the rootsy, “To Ohio,” seem to fit into this mold after awhile, offering points of connection between the feelings of alienation and uncertainty of postmodern journey through the Midwest on a rock tour and that of nineteenth explorations through the natural world.
8. Decemberists "The Hazards of Love"
This was kind of an amazing concept album. Talk about gutsy: The Decemberists take on this bizarre gothic plotline in which a wood fawn falls in love with the beautiful Margaret, has a “hit” taken out on him by his mother who happens to be the Forest Queen, is momentarily saved from the rakish hitman whose dead children return to revenge their deaths and then he (the wood fawn, that is) descends with Margaret to a watery demise shortly after getting married (see also http://www.last.fm/user/FledglingZombie/journal/2009/05/01/2owmek_hazards_of_love__plot_summary). Not only that, but the Decemberists infuse their usual alt-folk fare with prog metal a la Jethro Tull. Man, if this didn’t work out, it could have been right up there in the pantheon of ill-advised concept albums with Kiss’ rock opera “The Elder” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Music_from_%22The_Elder%22). However, the Decemberists’ impresario, Colin Meloy, always seems very aware of the moves he’s making, balancing the ambition and outsized melodrama with subtle touches of humor that make the album more opera buffo than opera seria. He also receives help from some amazing guest shots by Sharon Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. As a result, “The Hazard of Love” pulls off a very tough order.
7. Camera Obscura: My Maudlin Career
I recently heard Camera Obscura’s Tracyann Campbell in an interview discussing her fascination with 1960s Motown records. At first glance, this is a surprising admission from the songwriter for a band so heavily identified with glossy indie pop. However, even a passing listen to “My Maudlin Career” gives hints of what Campbell had in mind. From the ever-present snare-kick backbeat, the orchestral strings and dreamy call & response vocals, much of “My Maudlin Career” sounds like a Scottish homage to Diana Ross’ “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” (an album that Campbell says she’s held onto all her life). In this sense, it’s one of those rare records that pulls off a synthesis of its influences while maintaining a strong identity. Given the often-valid complaint that indie music trades soul for irony, it’s great to see Camera Obscura explore this terrain, heart on sleeve.
6. Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavillion
If there’s one critical darling this year, it was definitely “Merriweather Post Pavillion,” and it’s easy to see why. Animal Collective pushes the envelope for what a rock album can sound like as they perfected their trademark sound of knob-twisting-synths meet echoing surfer harmonies. To my ears, this is a somewhat challenging sound for me to get into, but this album was the moment where (I think, like a lot of people) I finally got it. And the accessibility isn’t because they’ve dumbed down their sound; on the contrary, it’s that they’ve constructed such a finely wrought and yet warmly inviting record. I think my favorite track is “Bluish,” an ambitious and cool attempt at setting a Brian Wilson-esque ballad against a row of drum machines and noisy synths.
5. Grizzly Bear "Veckatamist"
I’m not sure there’s much I can say about the Grizzly Bear album that hasn’t been said with it showing up on so many other lists and so obsessed over by everyone from Pitchfork to Jay-Z. As everyone seems to note, it’s an incredibly lush and well-crafted record—doesn’t seem to have a misplaced note for the duration. But for all the attention, one thing that seems to have floated under the radar is the *incredible* drumming of Chris Bear (name entirely coincidental, I’ve been told). This aspect of the band only really hit me when I saw them live earlier this Fall. Bear’s rhythm section belongs in that great tradition of highly melodic drummers like Keith Moon, Glen Kotche (Wilco) and, yes, even Ringo Starr, who perform double duty with both a driving beat and a distinctive voice that harmonizes right along with guitars and vocals. On this count, I’d especially recommend giving “Two Weeks” a second listen with special attention to the story that Bear tells through his drumkit with all of the little percussive ticks, snare kicks, and polyrhythmic phrasings.
4. Dark was the Night
“Dark was the Night” is that rare compiliation that doesn’t sound sound like a collection of individual artists, but comes out as a complete and organic artistic statement. The record was put together by The National’s Bryce and Matt Dessner for the Red Hot Organization, an AIDS charity that also put out “No Alternative,” which was by many accounts the definitive alternative rock compilation of the 90s. Like its predecessor, “Dark Was the Night” provides an impressive snapshot of the current alternative music scene; the track listing reads like a who’s-who of the current indie scene with tracks by David Byrne with the Dirty Projectors, Bon Iver, The Decemberists, The Arcade Fire, Feist and Ben Gibbard. As curators of this substantial pool of talent, the Dessners craft a subdued and, at times, weirdly atmospheric record that brings out genuinely new and interesting dimensions of the various artists while allowing them to be themselves. Many of the record’s highlights come with tracks that give room for exploration of a huge sonic range (such as the Decemberists’ epic track “Sleepless” which clocks in at 8:54) and weird little interludes peppered throughout (such as Iron and Wine’s “Die”). A lesser compilation might have trimmed the Decemberists’ track to a tidy 5:00 minutes or discarded the more experimental tracks in favor of single-ready fare. Luckily “Dark was the Night” has bigger ambitions in mind.
3. Passion Pit: Manners
With this energetic, hook-laden record, Passion Pit make a strong case that they are the best of the crowd of recent bands to channel mid-80s electropop, (see also MGMT, Ladytron, Cut Copy). Like the stronger bands in this genre, Passion Pit gets the job done with catchy grooves, and a breezy exhuberance from the first to the last track. What sets them apart is the attention to detail both in the songwriting and the orchestration of the record. In each track the noisy synths and the (love-it or hate-it) falsetto vocals build into a treble-heavy wall of sound where not a single note is wasted. All of this is pulled off with a cheeky sense of humor that never feels saccharine or mawkish. I think my favorite example of this is the track “Little Secrets,” which starts with a characteristically manic crash of synths and cymbals, which leave you wondering, where the dynamics could possibly go from there. Then they hit the bridge and the children’s choir (yes, you heard me right) kicks in singing “No one needs to know we’re feeling higher and higher and higher.” Passion Pit manages to keep these types of moves feeling fresh and audacious through repeat listens. Over-the-top? Absolutely. But that’s the point. Check out the AMAZING video they made for "The Reeling."
2. St. Vincent: Actor
I seem to remember remarking a couple of years ago on my list that I really loved what might be called “the art of contradiction” on St. Vincent’s first album, “Marry Me” with Annie Clark’s Disney soundtrack vocals meeting industrial operetta and, at time,s venomous lyrics. If there was a weakness in that album, it was that it got just a little overbearing with Clarks taste for dark drama—for my part, I was really into it, but I can see how it could have been a little overwhelming. On “Actor,” Clark returns with a much more disciplined, accessible effort that retains and even deepens the sharp songwriting, lush orchestration, and tense interplay of candied fantasy with a simmering rage. To that end, there are some real bonafide pop songs like “Actor Out Work” with its crunchy guitars, driving backbeat and infectious hook. There are also a few moments of playfulness added into the mix (see the cheeky call & response of “save me” and “watch your step” on “Save Me From What I Want”). All in all, it’s awesome to see Annie Clark—already a really important songwriter—move in this exciting direction.
1. Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca
Listen to this record with headphones on and in one sitting. The Dirty Projectors offer that rare album which sustains a highly ambitious musical composition for forty minutes while remaining highly listenable. I think this is especially significant and refreshing given what’s been happening to the album as artists have increasingly turned to singles and e.p.’s to meet the exigencies of a digital music marketplace. “Bitte Orca” has a restless, searching quality, as songwriter Dave Longstreth works his way through various motifs that recur and seem to exist at many times to introduce the listener to new and unconventional ways of thinking about music. Between the highly dissonant male/female harmonies, the herky-jerky tempo shifts, and occasionally eccentric orchestration, there is a huge breadth of genuinely new sounds and ideas here that I think songwriters will be working their way through for years. At many points Longstreth throws off conventional songwriting, relying instead on songs that seem to serve as vehicles for impressionistic snippets and sonic experiments. There are also some very gutsy and interesting lyrical move (see, for example “Two Doves’” extended, ironic reference to Nico’s “These Days”) Even in light of all this headiness, the songs themselves “work” individually through some very infectious hooks and smart pop sensibilities. A friend of mine, I think, put it best when he said “Dude, ‘Stillness is the Move,’ jam of the summer, man. Jam-of-the-summer.” Very surprising for such an ambitious and willfully eccentric record. Jam of the summer indeed. To my mind, the record of the year. That, and who doesn't love a good alpaca!