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My Top 10 Albums of 2009

December 18, 2009

10. Owen – New Leaves

Mike Kinsella’s latest album as Owen was a major step forward. It was optimistic, pretty and it retained the traditional Owen sound – a quiet bit of loathing and bitterness served on a plate of delicate acoustic guitar work.

By working with a producer Kinsella made the percussion pop more and gave the album an illusion of depth with a very basic framework.

Though a song or two fell a bit below par, this album was still a constant on my turntable.

9. The Decemeberists – The Hazards of Love

This is, perhaps, the worst album of the Portland-based folk group’s superb career. But this is anything but a bad album.

Frontman Colin Meloy’s grandiose idea of a folk-rock opera with metal influences is meant to be heard as a whole. In it’s pure unadulterated form the results are stunning. Taken apart it loses some of it’s value, but is no less impressive.

The addition of the ladies Diamond (Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond) really push this album above and beyond what The Decemberists could have done alone. Overall, it is a great album and something that is meant to be seen (see: Best Concerts).

8. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

This is a special kind of album. It’s harmonies are tender and thoughtful. It is matched perfectly by tender and lighthearted music. The slight country twang that marks the precious folk rock that these brothers make is splendid, a simple pleasure for the ears.

For their first album on a major label Rick Rubin was called into do the producing, and I can’t say enough about what his touch did for this album. Where he could be prone to creating a super-slick, cookie-cutter album he took the time to make an album that feels warm and well suited for the band.

My favorite part of this album is that it contains fast and slow songs that are of the best quality. Every song on this album has a familiar feel to it, but never sounds like any other song on the album.

7. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Of all the over-hyped indie bullshit that came out this past year the most legitimate was Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest.

The album was dripping with lush hooks and lavish instrumentation. Their sweet harmonies and beautiful orchestration don’t ask for respect, they demand it.

These Brooklyn natives blew up this year, even Michael McDonald wanted to ride their success. Their album deserved all the respect that it earned, however, and I believe that Grizzly Bear have the talent to continue to make quality music.

6. David Bazan – Curse Your Branches

Bazan’s first solo album is cool and composed. His simple guitar parts accentuate the vast complexity of the religious ambguity he is struggling with in the lyrics.

This album is on this list because of the juxtaposition of pretty melodies and intense lyrics. He is a master at squeezing the most out of the instruments that he uses and makes this album a tight, cohesive piece of art.

I said in my review that hearing someone’s crisis of faith has never sounded so good, and I stand by that. I love this album for exactly what it is and I don’t think that anyone could ask for anything more from this album.

5. The Antlers – Hospice

Like Bon Iver in 2008 the Antlers came out with a quiet, deeply personal album that they self-released before being picked up by a record label to mass critical acclaim. Unlike Bon Iver, the Antlers weren’t afraid to turn up the amplifier and really pour their soul out with a little noise.

This album is beautifully constructed, blending highs and lows expertly to match the emotions of the lyrics. Vocalist Peter Silberman’s harrowing tale of losing a loved one to cancer is heart-rending and his delicate voice perfectly narrates the ordeal. The listening experience for Hospice is really heart-rendering, it’s a special kind of album.

4. Pomegranates – Everybody Come Outside!

I had never heard of this Cincinnati experimental pop band before they swung through Champaign in January with Headlights. From the moment I saw them wearing their matching black coveralls I knew that I was going to like what this band had to offer.

Their frenetic use of tempo and frequent stops and starts, along with their use of a megaphone, are infinitely cool and make this album as good as it is. My favorite song on the album is probably “Corriander,” which has one of the coolest guitar riffs I’ve ever heard. But songs like “Southern Ocean” get stuck in my head with the greatest of ease and keep me humming along all day.

When I was able to see them a second time this year, with all of the songs from this album memorized, I became an even bigger fan and fell further in love with Everybody Come Outside, pushing it so high on this list.

3. Justin Townes Earle – Midnight at the Movies

In my list of underrated acts I definitely showed my hand in regards to this album, but I wasn’t kidding when I asserted that Midnight at the Movies is the best thing to happen to country music in a long time. I feel like every song on this album is a little gem that is ready to be unearthed by the listener.

“Mama’s Eyes” is the perfect description of what it means to be a son; “Someday I’ll Be Forgiven For This” is the perfect breakup song; “Can’t Hardly Wait” is the perfect Replacements cover song. I find myself falling into these fits of obsession when I listen to one of these songs. I catch the first few notes and suddenly I’m compelled to listen to the whole album. I’ve never regretted that decision and never disliked the compulsions. I love this album and I love the music that Earle is making. Obviously, since I put it on this list, I think that you should be listening to this to. Don’t hesitate any longer.

2. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

This album should need no introduction or explanation at all by this point. Phoenix have become about as ubiquitous as a French indie-dance band can get. They’re in commercials, on everyone’s year end list and popping up at party’s all over the place by now.

All for good reason. This album is as good as billed.

Lead singer Tommy Mars has this gentle lilting voice that is heavenly. Cymbals Eat Guitars lead singer Joseph D’Agostino nailed it in his P4K guest list in which he identified the little squeak at the end of Mars’ verses, which would normally be awful, but because it’s Phoenix it’s not. Nearly everything from this album is perfect, it’s quite a treasure.

1. Fanfarlo – Reservoir

If you hadn’t already figured it out from the rest of this week of lists, Fanfarlo blew up my iTunes this year. Hell, they everywhere I was: in the car, in my headphones, at friends, I could not stop listening to their album.

As I’ve noted, I acquired this album for the bargain basement price of $1, and it was probably the best dollar I spent (rivaled only by many black jack tacos from Taco Bell). The song “Luna” was my favorite initially, but as the album grew on me, “Harold T. Wilkins” and “Finish Line” quickly earned top honors. But in reality, I love all the songs on this album.

I’ve already said about as much as I can say about this album over the past few days, but I really think this is about as good as debuts get. I am selfish and already anticipating a new album from these Brits. I hope they make it happen soon.

Apologies to: Passion Pit – Manners, The xx – xx, Wilco – Wilco (the album), Neko Case – Middle Cyclone, Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band, Dark Was The Night, Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – It’s Blitz, Andrew Bird – Noble Beast


But wait, there’s more: Bonus lists!

Best EP

5. Joe Pug – In the Meantime

This fun little stopgap from Chicago singer/songwriter Joe Pug represents whatever didn’t make the cut for his next full length, which means that album is going to be really good. I like the roots rock sound Pug creates and the raspy warble that he sings with over the din of his acoustic guitar.

4. Modest Mouse – No One’s First and You’re Next

I didn’t love everything on this album, but it really wasn’t a terrible album overall. I guess maybe I just wanted a full length from Modest Mouse. It’s cool to hear everything that came in between their last few albums even though I already heard “I’ve Got It All (Most)” it’s still one of my favorite one of their songs.

3. Owen – Seaside

This collection of Japanese bonus tracks and one-offs isn’t Mike Kinsella’s best stuff, but it’s nice to have. I always felt a bit slighted that the Japanese were getting cover songs with their copy and I was getting gypped, but now I feel content. It’s not a half-bad EP either.

2. Bon Iver – Blood Bank

I don’t know when we’ll see Justin Vernon don the Bon Iver moniker again now that he has Volcano Choir, but his work for the band in 2009 was pretty special. Blood Bank saw him experiment even more, even delve into T-Pain territory and autotune the hell out of “Woods.” But damn, it was good.

1. Death Cab for Cutie – Open Door

This EP almost made it on the big list up above. It’s that good. I was a fan of Narrow Stairs (and practically everything else Death Cab has done) but this little EP may have reached its way to the top of their discography. The descriptiveness of “Little Bribes” is awe-inspiring.

Top 10 songs not on one of the albums listed

10. “The Sweetest Thing” – Camera Obscura (from My Maudlin Career)

This song is so sweet. It melts my heart every time I listen.

9. “Crazy/Forever” – Japandroids (from Post-Nothing)

My favorite from their debut, it goes on for a while, but I could listen to it for even longer.

8. “Masquerade” – Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band (from Mt. St. Helen’s Vietnam Band)

This song has progressive riffs, waltzing breakdowns and sick drumming from a pre-teen. Just awesome.

7. “People Got A Lotta Nerve” – Neko Case (from Middle Cyclone)

Death by killer whale has never sounded so cool.

6. “Bull Black Nova” – Wilco (from Wilco (the album))

This song is like a more concise version of “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” I love it.

5. “Crystalized” – The xx (from xx)

I love the raw emotion that seethes from this song, it’s very passionate.

4. “Knotty Pine” – Dirty Projectors and David Byrne (from Dark Was The Night)

I think this is why I hate Bitte Orca so much, it’s so different, and this is so good.

3. “Empire State of Mind” – Jay-Z featuring Alicia Keys (from The Blueprint 3)

This song is an instant classic. The hip-hop anthem of 2009.

2. “Anonanimal” – Andrew Bird (from Noble Beast)

Andrew Bird’s beautiful loops are probably the prettiest thing from this year (except Taylor Swift).

1. “You Belong With Me” – Taylor Swift (from Fearless)

I’m counting this because the single was released this year, even though the album was not. Really, who doesn’t love this song. No one, that’s who.

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