Alas, the fates have conspired against me and this year I shall not be able to put quite the effort into my annual top 10 that I prefer to. However, it wouldn't feel right to skip the list entirely, so I'll give you my rundown with some limited explanation. And here we go...
Honorable Mention: Titan: It's All Pop!
I would love to put this on the list proper, but two things prevent me from doing so. First, it was released just after Thanksgiving 2008, making it not a 2009 release even though it (barely) qualifies under the rules. Second, it's a collection of songs from the late 1970's, so it's not really new music in any sense. Basically, in 1978 two guys from Kansas City liked power pop so much they started a label to put out music by local power pop acts. However, they had no business plan- many of their deals didn't even involve contracts- and unsurprisingly they folded in 1981. The collection gathers everything they released as Titan records, plus about 20 other tracks that either went unreleased or ended up on other labels. The result is about 2.5 hours of great music in three minute bursts. From the opening salvo of Secrets' "It's Your Heart Tonight" to the giddy handclaps of Arlis' "I Can't Take It" to the surprising brawn of The Boys' "Yesterday's Circles," the two discs are full of songs that make you wish some of these acts had a competent label, but also glad that they managed to get anything out at all.
10: Girls- Album
Calling your band Girls is a sure way to piss people off. Just try typing it into google. Calling your album "Album" isn't any better. It seems almost like a way to cut the uncomfortable intimacy of the songs. I won't presume to get inside the artist's head, but it must be like writing in a diary. The uncomfortableness of the confession is tempered by the fact that the confession itself is hard to find. In any event, all of this analysis is secondary to the fact that the album is good, though that's as much for the brutal honesty and shocking self-insight in the lyrics as anything else. I personally think the music itself is OK- not bad by any stretch of the imagination- but it wouldn't be half as interesting if it weren't part of such a raw package.
9: Camera Obscura- My Maudlin Career
There's something baroque about about Camera Obscura that increases with each subsequent release. Their music is ornate, with irregular bits floating in a sea of sound- bells and violin runs and "oohs" swirling beneath that lovely voice. This is my favorite album of theirs since Underachievers Please Try Harder, and I didn't think that album would be topped. The loss of a male vocal presence was noticeable on their last album (in spite of the fantastic one-two punch of "Lloyd, I'm ready to be Heartbroken" and "Let's Get Out of this Country"). On Career, Camera Obscura seem to have regrouped a little and figured out just how to best play their songs. This has lent a certain timelessness to the songs that is appealing and gives them an added resonance. As catchy as "Knee Deep at the NPL" was, I'll listen to "Swans" and "French Navy" much longer.
8: Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest
I like this album. I can't tell you why, other than it's pretty. I just enjoy listening to it, and sometimes that has to be enough.
7: Neko Case- Middle Cyclone
Neko Case has the kind of voice that's impossible not to like. It's forceful, pitch-perfect, and can bend any song to it's whims. As a showcase for that voice, any Neko Case album has merit. When it's served by songs as catchy as "People Got a Lotta Nerve" or as twisty as "Vengence is Sleeping" it becomes top-10 material. Seriously. It's all the voice.
6: Drums- Summertime!
There's a Cure-meets-Smiths-meets-Zoloft thing that runs throughout the Drums 2009 EP that's especially ingratiating and ultimately likeable and appealing. Like the Cure, the music is roomy and full of echo, and the vocals are distant. Like the Smiths, the songs are driven as much by specific guitar lines (as opposed to chords) that are pushed up to the front. However, the songs themselves are not as dour and melancholy as one would normaly associate with those bands. These moods are not absent, but they're tempered with a certain optimism that those bands rarely managed. While either of those bands could have managed the best song on the album- the stuck-on-repeat "I Felt Stupid"- neither could have pulled off a song like "Let's Go Surfing," with it's whistling hook and brand-new-day hope. I'm looking forward to the next album, since I think there's too much potential in Drums to continue to talk about them in terms of obvious musical touchstones.
5: Pains of Being Pure at Heart- S/T
You can make the argument that the album is a little same-y throughout. You can argue that they're aping Belle & Sebastian by way of the Jesus & Mary Chain. I will concede both of these points. And I will tell you that I think this is an extremely good album anyway. It's tight and catchy and I find myself coming back to it again and again and again. The songs are solidly constructed and immediate without losing impact on repeated listens.
4: Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavillion
Two confessions. First, I grew up in Maryland and the closest major outdoor concert venue was, in fact, Merriweather Post Pavillion. Thinking that I didn't need an Animal Collective live album, I largely ignored it until I was told that it was a studio effort. Second, I'm not a huge fan of Animal Collective. Aside from "Who Could Win a Rabbit," I haven't found much appealing in their music or the music of their side projects. However, I find myself coming back to this album in spite of that. I can't name a song that I particularly like. But I downloaded the album about three weeks ago, and I keep putting it on. It's growing on me, but not enough to overtake the rest of the list.
3: XX- XX
The XX are a study in economy of music. There isn't a note out of place, and nothing extraneous is laid to tape. It's either a hook, a foundational part in full service of the feel of the song, or ideally both. This fits the lyrics, which tend towards themes of self-contained love that works all the better for the boy-girl vocal interplay. Nowhere is this more apparent that in "Crystalised," where the "Hay-i-ay-ay" first serves as a lead-in to the next singers' verse, then is harmonized as a chorus, and then phased out entirely in favor of "clo-oh-oh-ser." It's foundational, then a hook, and it's present only as long as is strictly necessary. And the hooks are bitching.
2: Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca
The Projectors' Dave Longstreth likes to see himself and his songs in a classical-music light, and that certainly shows in this latest effort. Songs have distinct sections that make them more like suites, and themes re-appear with different instrumentation. And yes, everyone makes a big deal out of how there are 3/2 time signatures and other such complexities and eccentricities slathered liberally throughout the album. But the real accomplishment is that these ideas are always in service of the song. Too often, a complex idea- unusual time signature, odd chord progression, etc- is the kernel and the song is constructed around it. On Bitte Orca, though, those ideas are there because the song needs them. To give an analogy, Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" is a great melody that literally cannot work in any time signature other than 5/4. Though odd time signatures are a hallmark of that whole album, one gets the idea that the song was less "I need a song in 5/4" and more "I have this awesome song and I need to write it in 5/4." It's the latter idea that suffuses every second of Bitte Orca and makes it more than an interesting exercise and instead a great, great album.
1: Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I had a thesis at one point this year that WAP is a secretly difficult album. The music is so pleasant and easy to listen to that it runs the risk of simply washing over you and therefore requires the kind of active engagement that one normally reserves for the latest by Radiohead. I've backed off this idea a little, though I reserve the right to return to it. The fact remains that this year's Phoenix album goes straight for the reward center of the brain, giving you just enough to leave an impression but not so much that you don't hit repeat four or six times before moving onto the next track. From the bouncing piano and descending guitar that buoy "Lisztomania" to the joyous "Hey-hey-hey" of "1901" to the thundering drums of "Lasso," every song has something to overwhelm you with awesomeness. In fact, it took me a month or so to realize that the lyrics were actually pretty self-aware and shockingly well-written for anyone, let alone people who don't speak English as a first language. Which I guess inadvertently proves my earlier thesis.