December 26, 2009

Best Albums of '09

Hello imaginary readers! Well, it's that time of year again when everyone starts making lists of the best and worst of everything that happened this year. And one of the most popular of these lists seems to be the Albums list. Insanely popular, and largely the cause of many forum and chatroom debates and mudslinging, listing the best albums from a single year is a hard job. You have to take into account personal bias, lasting power, audience reception, recalling every good and enjoyable album, and being wary to include an acceptable variety of genres.
This year marks a special occasion, as we have an abundance of 'Best of the '00s' Music lists as well. Creating a definitive list of either this years or this decades albums by myself seems redundant and time consuming, and the end result would be a hodge-splodge of my favourite albums and missing many decent albums (as well as rap and R&B, two genres, try as might, I cannot get into) that I've heard are great, but are currently still in my extremely large 'too check out' list. So I've devised a more practical and impersonal approach: I'm simply going to observe a varying range of 'Best-Of' lists and, using a very inaccurate polling system, present the 'consensus' of best albums.
So today is my 'Best of '09' list, restricted to a puny 15, but I'll tack on some sort of 'Honourable Mention' type-thing within the next couple of days.
So, without further ado, here are the best albums of two-thousand-and-nine.

15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t

TPOBPAH are an easy enough band to like - their trademarked brand of warm, fuzzy twee pop sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear on a vinyl pulled from the excessively large and obscure pile of some music elitist, yet ring home like all of the best pop tunes. But there's something about this noise-pop album's sound that makes it even more enjoyable than that. This group is every bit as innocent and pure as their name suggests.

14. The Antlers - Hospice

Definitely the best album lyrically I have heard this year (if dark, depressing songs about cancer and death, and the guilt associated with being unable to cure an incurable disease is your thing), The Antlers match these lyrics with the appropriate package of ambience, white-noise and gut-wrenching vocal delivery, that you can't help but find yourself feeling the pain of the protagonist.

13. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone

"...Case sings about amorous storm fronts, menacing red tides, truly killer whales, alarming magpies, and other fauna that manifest particular conditions of the human soul. She's singing about common alt- and mainstream country themes-- broken hearts, wandering spirits, chilling loneliness, the nature of nature-- but no one bends traditional Americana sounds to fit her eccentricities so perfectly, getting at these issues through tangential songwriting and force-of-nature vocals." - Pitchfork (And no, this list is not just lifted from here.)

12. St. Vincent - Actor

On her second album, Annie Clark offers up an album that is as quirky and inventive as it is (somewhat) secretly dark and disconcerting. With a very apropos album cover that sums up it well: Colourful and upbeat at a glance, but there is something disconcerting lying there, that is as deceptive as it is obvious.

11. Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II

My token rap album, but that's not to say that it is not incredible. Paste reckons, "Simply put, it's a classic, and one of the best albums to come out of the New York rap scene in the last decade." You'll have to take their word for it.

10. Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport
This duo from Bristol sure know how to make waves, whether they be sound waves, or all talk that these guys produce. They tamed down on this release, but that is not an insult, nor implies that this album is not heavy, and it is what helped to make it feel so epic. It has the brooding and leviathan movements of any great post-rock band, but, despite the band's claims, it is wholly danceable. The perfect amalgamation of post-rock and house one might say.

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

"[It] didn’t seem likely [for the YYYs] to release an album like It’s Blitz, which brings new-wave bounce and disco flourishes to the band’s forbidding signature sound. It’s a welcome set of dance-floor dread, and it points the way toward even more unpredictable possibilities" - A.V Club

8. Girls - Album

With a backstory as sad as it is impressive, it's hard not too feel overwhelmed by singer Christopher Owen's presence. His warbling delivery of "I'm just crazy... I'm fucked in the head" in album opener Lust For Life reveal the honesty and self-awareness he possesses. He just wants a chance. But it's the chances he takes that makes this album so enjoyable. Instead of pumping out song after song of the same formula, he dabbles in several genres, be it surf-rock or shoegazing, and pulls it off while keeping out front his honest and wry lyrics. He's not willing to hind behind lo-fidelity of fuzzy production, he's here, he's singing, and you listen.

7. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

"Phoenix first brought all its components together properly on 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That, serving up 10 compositionally similar but collectively daring pop-art constructions. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix lowers the accessibility threshold for the band’s music considerably, offering 10 easy-to-like tracks that keep the rhythms brisk and the melodies catchy, with such casual confidence that they sound like they’ve been part of our shared musical heritage for decades." - A.V. Club

6. Fever Ray - Fever Ray

Featuring half of legendary Swedish house duo, The Knife, Fever Ray is the antithesis to the year's obsession with Auto-Tune - she uses software to destroy her vocals. She deepens them, and turns them wispy, airy, and brooding. It works impeccably well with the deep, bass-laden electronics, and together form a place dark and disturbingly beautiful, licked with black and childhood imagery. It seems only appropriate that I'm listening to this album as I write a 'Best Of' list.

5. The Flaming Lips - Embyonic

""Experiments" are great, but they matter most when their results can be put into practice. In retrospect, a lot of the Flaming Lips' quarter-century of intermittently inspired fucking around seems like preparatory work for this assured, forceful, savagely dark album, and for the way their cracked sense of humor glows through its darkness. This is a double album because it's heavy, an hour and a quarter of superabundance whose omnipresent digital distortion gives it heft like a jagged slab of lead, a mammoth pile of mammoth songs that offer more than it's possible to take in on a dozen listens because they're written around their sound design." - Pitchfork. Very high on my 'must-check-out list'.

4. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimist

Looking back, love it or loathe it, Grizzly Bear's Veckatimist sounds very much 2000's; it captures the warm, folksy indie sound that has transformed into such an omnipotent presence everywhere except 'mainstream', corporate radio. In a year trademarked by lo-fi, 'shitgazing' and noise, Grizzly Bear can come as a breath of fresh air, sounding familiar, "pretty" and simple.

3. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

"Much of [this] record's seductive allure is owed to Khan's gift for melody and evocative atmosphere, but ultimately the most compelling element is her voice, which is as technically stunning as it is expressive. Her passionate performances keep the songs from descending too far into misery, and place the emphasis on the beautiful romance in the music rather than all the melancholy and tragedy" – Pitchfork

2. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

Art-pop is a tricky genre. Too little, and it sounds contrived and forced, too much and it comes off as esoteric and pretentious. But, I dunno, as divisive as this record is, it's fucking good. This is most likely my favourite release this year, and, I assume, countless others. Bitte Orca moves through nine relentlessly eclectic tracks so effortlessly, it either leaves you lost-for-words or completely bemused. I'd be kidding myself if I didn't say that this album is a bit pretentious; it asks for a lot of open-mindedness (so much so that I've Italicized three words so far), and you may still end up hating it. But whether or not you end up loving it, you've got to admit, this album certainly got your attention, didn't it?

1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Gosh, who didn't this one coming, huh? No, it takes a special sort of album to be presciently labelled as the 'Best Album of the Year' only two weeks in. Talked at length for the entire year, this is one hell of an album. Lush layering of a seemingly endless supply sounds, this album finds the rare and happy middle ground between experimentation and pop sensibilities, maintaining enough obscurity to regain 'hipster' cred, whilst being accessible enough to earn Animal Collective a scourge of new fans who arrived late (like me). Really, what is there left to be said about this album?

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