Hey, it’s been a pretty good year for music! After 2008 was widely declared a disaster from which only a few gems survived, 2009 had a lot of ground to make up. From Animal Collective and Washed Out to The xx and Fever Ray to Sea Wolf and Dark Was The Night, we had a lot of incredible albums to pick from for our year-end list. Unfortunately, there are only 25 spots and the three of us happen to have some very different ideas about what goes in those spots.
But if 2009 taught us anything, it’s that the world of indie music has evolved into a much more artistic and experimental-leaning scene. Influences have reached around the world and incorporated everything from Afro-pop to heavy psychedelic. Bands and artists challenged the idea of the genre, forcing critics to constantly create new ones (chillwave, glo-fi, etc.). It has certainly been a brave year in music and there will surely be many more exciting things to come. As always, keep in mind that in the end, this is just a list. [Photo by James B. Hale]
Taken By Trees – “East Of Eden”
Taken By Trees managed to make one of the gentlest, most innocent albums of the year that simultaneously stood out as extraordinarily confident. Combining modern song structures with heavy tribal and folk influences, the band made a very well-crafted album that exemplifies the artistic courage of 2009.
Fool’s Gold – “Fool’s Gold”
Keeping in line with a trend to gain inspiration from traditional tribal music, Fool’s Gold made a wonderful wake-up call to modern music with their debut, self-titled album. The album is often guitar-driven and drum heavy, but the mood is very raw. It’s the perfect album to put on the next time you plan on dancing around a fire pit.
Delorean – “Ayrton Senna EP”
Yes, it’s just a 4-track, 18-minute EP, but so much greatness is packed into Delorean’s Ayrton Senna EP that it’s hard to overlook. The band combines the typical indie fare with the typical dance fare and evolves it to another plane. Sweeping vocals, danceable beats and melodious synth come together beautifully to make a unique environment that Delorean needs to share more of in the future.
Antony and the Johnsons – “The Crying Light”
On The Crying Light, Antony collaborated with composer Nico Muhly to create more nuanced songs that still captured the songwriter’s patented emotionality. And the subtlety works — although it’s harder to initially dive into The Crying Light compared to 2005’s I Am A Bird Now, the effect is just as strong.
WHY? – “Eskimo Snow”
Eskimo Snow may not be WHY?’s strongest effort ever, but for a band as consistently great as this, that’s not much of an insult. The rapping of albums past is abandoned, and as a result, the crafting of the songs — the picked acoustic guitars, the mallets, the drums — shines through. While it’s easy to miss the trademark rapping, you have to admit that the album still does work pretty well without it.
Girls – “Album”
From the first lyrics of lead track “Lust For Life,” it’s clear that Girls’ Album is not your average record. It’s a look at a culture struggling to both fit in and stand out. It’s also very well-written music. Simple guitar riffs and steady drumming dominate the infectious pop songs voiced by the vocals of what sounds like a broken man. The album has California written all over it, and that’s just fine.
Mumford & Sons – “Sigh No More”
No longer simply London stars, these boys managed to cross the seas with relative ease. Nearly every song on the album breaks out into a fervent anthem, with aching vocals as the backbone to the sound. Sigh No More ensures that Mumford & Sons won’t be going away anytime soon.
There Will Be Fireworks – “There Will Be Fireworks”
It’s amazing how many acts have been coming out of Scotland lately, and it’s doubly amazing how they’re all so great. There Will Be Fireworks is one of the better bands in the field, combining the Frightened Rabbit/Twilight Sad-styled vocals with some distorted, post-rock-esque climaxes. And the music itself has such an excitement to it: a strong, distinct energy that shouldn’t be missed.
Memory Tapes – “Seek Magic”
The “Chillwave” movement has been getting equal parts hype and flak, and Memory Tapes is at the center of the genre. The band made one of the fullest and most consistent albums of the year, as Seek Magic creates a sort of dreamscape world that moves in slow motion. The dreamy synth and vocals combine to make a wonderful sound that deserves more than a trendy genre name.
Passion Pit – “Manners”
Manners is a case of the music speaking for itself. While songs like “Sleepyhead” and “Make Light” are fun, danceable tunes, the album really pushes ahead on tracks such as “Let Your Love Grow Tall,” which masks an emotional ending with the band’s sea of electronics. There’s something more than just dance music here, and that’s special.
Metric – “Fantasies”
Fantasies has no weak spots, top to bottom, and is Metric’s finest album to date. Seemingly dark and upbeat at the same time, Fantasies is a cut of sophisticated beauty. The extra bit of production pushes it over the top as Emily Haines finds strength in the power of the sound.
The Swell Season – “Strict Joy”
Anticipation set the bar high after Hansard and Irglova’s fame skyrocketed with Once, and while some may have been disappointed (expectations are tricky), Strict Joy succeeds more often than not. It’s tender and heartbreaking in all the right places.
Mono – “Hymn To The Immortal Wind”
Hymn to the Immortal Wind could be seen as simply a perfect exercise in creating traditional, quiet/loud post-rock, and the five songs that trump 10 minutes are all testaments to that. The band takes their beauty to new heights on the shorter, interlude-type songs, especially “Follow the Map,” which has one of the most stunning instrumental swells of the year.
Sea Wolf – “White Water, White Bloom”
Alex Brown Church delivered a whopper of an album with a fuller sound than we had grown accustomed to from Sea Wolf. He wanted an orchestral and band-like quality to his new material, and on White Water, White Bloom, he accomplished just that – without it ever becoming superfluous.
Grizzly Bear – “Veckatimest”
Critically-acclaimed Grizzly Bear had a lot of high expectations to meet on Veckatimest, and man did they meet them. The album is part indie rock, part experimental folk and part psychedelic in a weirdly cool hodgepodge of sound that mixes together brilliantly. From the incredible single “Two Weeks” to the courageous art piece “Ready, Able,” the album is full of (to put it simply) extremely well-made music.
Atlas Sound – “Logos”
Logos is kind of just a bunch of weirdness — acoustic guitar, processed vocals, really odd sounds, etc. But it works! The album, courtesy of Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, has a strange hypnotic quality to it, as if after the fourth song or so you start to lose track of the fact that you’re listening to a group of songs. It’s weird, yes, but in a very memorable way.
Phoenix – “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”
On Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix accomplished a rare achievement, appealing to both the mainstream and hipsters alike, as well as just about every music supervisor out there. After taking Wolfgang for a spin, good luck getting it out of your head. As Adrian Jewett proclaimed (about “Lisztomania”, specifically), “It’s super catchy, euro-sexy dance dance.”
Dan Deacon – “Bromst”
Making sense out of chaos isn’t easy, but Dan Deacon somehow pulls it off. Bromst is full to the brim with sounds that manage to work together to make not only listenable but amazing-to-listen-to songs. Focusing hard on the synth end of things, the album is created from nothing and is a testament to the year that expanded musical experimentation.
Florence + The Machine – “Lungs”
With possibly the most evocative voice to come out of 2009, Florence Welch took the indie world by storm with her commanding yelps of desire, delivering a fresh and exciting sound to the female singer/songwriter genre. Meshing hip-hop beats with indie-pop, Welch stole the breath from our collective lungs. *Wink*
The Antlers – “Hospice”
Hospice does so much with so little. The album features barely more than a keyboard, a guitar, and drums, and still manages to be either huge and loud or quiet and emotionally devastating. The vague concept of the album drills the point home, as vocalist Peter Silberman sings in easy rhymes that are so effective because they’re so simple. The album — and band — could very well be one of the best surprises of the year.
St. Vincent – “Actor”
Oh, Annie Clark, your talent is unfair – who else can play guitar, bass, keys, horns and the triangle? On this album, Clark takes songwriting to the next level, deftly mixing an assortment of instruments into a cohesive whole. She’s risen from the orgy of The Polyphonic Spree and made her music her own. Actor is complex, elegant and singular in its experimental nature.
The Dirty Projectors – “Bitte Orca”
Vocals are important, and for The Dirty Projectors, thats what it’s all about on Bitte Orca. The contrast of beautiful, sweeping voices overtop lyrics plays perfectly with the hard-picked guitars and sporadic percussion. Bitte Orca might just be one of the most exciting releases in a long time, and it gives a lot of hope to the future of the music scene.
Various Artists – “Dark Was The Night”
Who would have thought a compilation album would be near the top of a year-end list? The National’s Dessner brothers worked to create a masterpiece of modern folk pop on Dark Was The Night, enlisting the help of several accomplished and extraordinary musicians. With stunning collaborations (Dirty Projectors and David Byrne) and epic compositions (“You Are The Blood”), the result was nothing short of majestic.
Sunset Rubdown – “Dragonslayer”
Spencer Krug and co. returned earlier this year with Dragonslayer, an album just as soaring and celestial as all their other releases. It’s business as usual for the band, but that doesn’t take away from, say, the sudden drama at the end of “Paper Lace” or the sprawling epic “Dragon’s Lair.” It’s a very consistent band making an unsurprisingly great album. What’s to dislike?
Animal Collective – “Merriweather Post Pavilion”
A LOT has been said about Merriweather Post Pavilion. When Animal Collective first released the album in January, it was immediately pronounced (with some tongue in cheek) “The Best Album of 2009.” It’s easily written off by those who don’t want to seem trendy, and hailed by those who easily fall into trends. But taking a strictly critical look at the best albums of the year, nobody can compete with Animal Collective. Regardless, we’ve come to a consensus.
The band has created a world within the album that is deeper and more fascinating than any other release of 2009. Listening to MPP is a journey down a rabbit hole that is built in psychedelia and stops off at pop music and the indie song structures we’re all so used to. In this way, it makes heavily experimental and “artistic” music more accessible and helped set the tone for the rest of the year, and following years to come. MPP is not just another trendy album, it’s a masterpiece.