Saturday, January 09, 2010

Best Music of 2009

I wasn't planning on posting a best-of 2009 list (and in fact have been focusing on my much more long-winded best-of-the-decade list) but Matt inspired me to do so. As he says, 2009 was a much better year music-wise than 2008 (though I'd hesitate to call it "amazing"), and anyway, I can never shy away from a good music discussion.

Attentive readers (if such still exist for this probably-long-left-for-dead blog) may recall that I attempted to begin a clearly overly ambitious new habit of posting quarterly music reviews. These readers may have further noticed that the idea quickly fell by the wayside. But oh well, time to make amends, so here we go.

First, let's get the downer stuff out of the way: any music year is bound to have a few disappointments, and this one was no exception. My biggest disappointment of the year was either the new People in Planes, which sadly abandoned the meandering atmosphere of 2006's number 2 album in favor of a more radio-ready sound, or Our Lady Peace, who continued the fall from grace that began with 2002's Gravity (sometimes I wonder if it's mere nostalgia that makes Clumsy and Happiness seem so much better to me). Blue October's Approaching Normal has also diminished somewhat in my initial estimation, but only because I continue to marvel at how good Consent and Foiled were. The Dead Weather album (another side project from Jack White) was also generally poor, but I didn't have super-high expectations as I figured no one can score hits with three different projects.

Next, I'd be remiss to not call out some of my favorite songs of the year that do not appear on my top 10 albums. In no particular order (or rather, alphabetical order):

- A.C. Newman, "Prophets"
- Anberlin, "Feel Good Drag"
- Animal Collective, "My Girls"
- Arctic Monkeys, "Cornerstone"
- Julian Casablancas, "11th Dimension"
- Cymbals Eat Guitars, "And the Hazy Sea"
- Franz Ferdinand, "No You Girls"
- Friendly Foes, "Get Yr Shit Together"
- Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown"
- Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
- The Lonely Island, "I'm on a Boat" (the obvious song of the year)
- Manchester Orchestra, "Tony the Tiger"
- Metric, "Help I'm Alive"
- Phoenix, "1901"
- Silversun Pickups, "It's Nice To Know You Work Alone"
- U2, "Magnificent"
- Vertical Horizon, "The Middle Ground"
- White Rabbits, "Percussion Gun"
- Woods, "Rain On"

And finally, the top albums of the year. I have adhered to the quarterly review strategy of shortening my usual diatribes and letting the recommended tracks speak for themselves. If I weren't lazy, I'd provide links, but I am, so just head to Lala and find them yourself.

Honorable mentions:
- A.C. Newman, Get Guilty
- Comet Gain, Broken Record Prayers
- Cymbals Eat Guitars, Why There Are Mountains
- Iron & Wine, Around the Well
- Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing
- U2, No Line on the Horizon
- Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs

And, without further ado about nothing, the top 10:

10. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
Not much to say that wasn't already said in the aforementioned quarter 1 music review. If you're not a Decemberists fan by now, you've either been living in a cave or it's just not your thing, either of which is okay. Otherwise, you already own and love this album.
Recommended tracks: "Won't Want for Love", "The Wanting Comes in Waves", "The Rake's Song".

9. Alice in Chains, Black Gives Way to Blue
A pleasant surprise from one of my favorite long dormant 90s alternative bands. New lead singer William DuVall can never fill Layne Staley's shoes but sounds close enough that it's easy to forget. Sticking with what they're good at, AiC throws dense heavy rockers at you, occasionally mixing in acoustic numbers and surprising dynamic shifts, and closing with the elegiac title track paying tribute to Staley (and featuring Elton John on piano!). It sounds just like the sort of album they would have recorded if they'd never taken a break.
Recommended tracks: "Your Decision", "A Looking in View", "Take Her Out".

8. Pearl Jam, Backspacer
Speaking of my favorite 90s alternative bands, here's a second consecutive winner from the artists formerly known as Mookie Blaylock. Dialing up the raw energy even more than its eponymous predecessor (and dialing back the righteous indignation, perhaps a reflection of the new presidential administration), this collection of songs is short and to the point, and as a result the band sounds tighter, hookier, and more relaxed than I think I've ever heard them.
Recommended tracks: "The Fixer", "Just Breathe", "Force of Nature".

7. Built to Spill, There Is No Enemy
Built to Spill released new material this year, so there was never much doubt it would show up on this list. These guys have never steered me wrong, and here they balance rockers with more dreamy, laid-back songs to create an excellent melange of guitar-driven pop, complete with Doug Martsch's trademark wandering, thoughtful lyrics.
Recommended tracks: "Hindsight", "Life's a Dream", "Done".

6. The Airborne Toxic Event, The Airborne Toxic Event
I found this album less than a week after finishing Don DeLillo's excellent novel White Noise, so I picked it up on a whim. And it's awesome. Just the right album at this stage of my life, capturing perfectly the premature nostalgia for the past, uncertainty about the present, and cautious hope for the future that being in your late-20s is all about.
Recommended tracks: "Wishing Well", "Gasoline", "Sometime After Midnight".

5. Japandroids, Post-Nothing
I'm usually not a fan of that noisy post-rock sound, so this album really caught me off guard. Deceptively catchy and surprisingly easy to sing along to once you unearth the vocals, it's not for everybody (of course, what that I listen to is?), but it's one of my favorite surprises of the year.
Recommended tracks: "Young Hearts Spark Fire", "Heart Sweats", "I Quit Girls".

4. The Thermals, Now We Can See
It's rare to find an album that can be this catchy and fun while also dealing with the complex issue of human mortality. Some of the most infectious music of the year, it practically dares you not to be humming it afterward.
Recommended tracks: "Now We Can See", "When I Was Afraid", "Liquid In Liquid Out".

3. The Rural Alberta Advantage, Hometowns
Hmm, a nostalgic album that consistently evokes that feeling that we've left behind the places where we truly feel at home, be they geographical, emotional, or merely the arms of someone we love? Sign me up. The pervasive sense of loss and regret is offset by some of the most gorgeous melodies of the year.
Recommended tracks: "Don't Haunt This Place", "Drain the Blood", "Edmonton".

2. Dinosaur Jr., Farm
Picking up right where my 2007 #2 album Beyond left off, here's another set of pensive lyrics and incredible guitar heroics with a pulsing rhythm section as background. Would that every late 80s-early 90s band could suddenly return from a 15-20 year break without missing a beat.
Recommended tracks: "I Want You To Know", "Plans", "Said the People", "See You".

1. Army Navy, Army Navy
AllMusic says this album was released in 2008, but it was eligible for Pitchfork's best-of-2009 readers' poll and I first heard it this year anyway, so screw it. When I was listening to this album at the beginning of this year, I loved it but figured it was of-the-moment and would fade over time. And yet I kept coming back for more all year long. With its ability to put you in a good mood without being twee or resorting to novelty songs, this is a shining example of sunny, fuzzy guitar pop at its best.
Recommended tracks: "Saints", "Sleight of Hand", "Ignite", "In the Lime".

Stay tuned. As mentioned above, I have aspirations to revive this blog in grand fashion with best-of music and movie lists encompassing the entire decade. Because after all, Americans love lists. A more general review of the decade that just passed is also in the works.

And by the way, Happy New Decade!