Saturday, January 2, 2010

Make-Up Sex -- The Best Albums of 2009

Looking back over my list of best albums of 00, I realized that not a single title came from this past year, which is pretty sad. Over at Metacritic, they said in their year-end review that '09 wasn't a particularly great year, with no album scoring over 90 on their 100-point scale (a first in the decade, I believe). That doesn't mean that '09 didn't have some wonderful music, though.

So, now that I feel bad, it's time to make things up to the past year and feature my top 10 favorite records of 2009 (in no particular order).

1. I And Love And You, The Avett Brothers

Every now and again I hear an album that demands I listen again, and this is one of those. The Avett Brothers, from Tennessee, have created some very beautiful music here. On the surface, it sounds folky, yet with another listen, you can pick out different tastes -- a bit of rock, a bit of country. And lyrically, it's passionate, intimate, and mature. Songs like, "The Perfect Space" show an understanding of the personal journey seldom seen in a pop song: "I wanna have friends that I can trust/that love me for the man I've become/not the man I was." The Avett Brothers are the only brothers you should be listening to right now.

2. The Hazards of Love, The Decemberists

The Decemberists general approach is to mire themselves in anachronism. Albums like The Crane Wife have titles and lyrics that would fit well in the 1800s. The Hazards of Love takes this approach and expands it with a story to match. Colin Meloy's voice has never sounded stronger than it does here as he croons "the beast began to change/singing: oh, the hazards of love/oh, the hazards of love/you'll learn soon enough/the prettiest whistles won't wrestle the thistles undone/undone." The guitar work on this record is also some of the group's best, as well -- lithe, folky, charming, urgent. It's hard not to love this record.

3. Grey Britain, Gallows

This album sounds like the Clash had a conversation with Bad Religion in a dark alley behind a pub. And things didn't go too well. Seriously, this album is all hate, rage and discord, yet with the catchy 3-chord hooks that make the best punk music. Don't get me wrong, though, this is not a pop-punk album. Nothing pop at all about it.

4. 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day

I've been going back-and-forth about whether I liked this album more than American Idiot, and have finally decided that it doesn't matter. They are both masterpieces. Green Day brought back the rock opera, and I don't understand the story of 21st Century Breakdown anymore than I understood the story of American Idiot. What I do understand, though, is the music, and songs like "East Jesus Nowhere," "Last Night on Earth," and "Viva La Gloria" are classic Green Day punk anthems.

5. Kings & Queens, Jamie T

A British rapper? What the fuck? All I can say is this album does for rap music what District 9 did for science fiction movies last year. By changing the setting from the ghettos of Harlem, D.C., and South Central to those of lower London, Jamie T. finds something new to say. He combines the punk attitude of groups like Arctic Monkeys with the flow of Eminem to give us rhymes like "Gave money to man he put a bag in my hand/Said son don't you understand/This isn't the way out this is the way in/You're doubling your troubling."

6. Backspacer, Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam went back to the studio and produced the shortest album in their legendary career, and also one of their finest. The album opens with a heatseeking missile of tracks -- "Gonna See My Friend," "Got Some," and "The Fixer." But by the time the 39 minutes is over, the songs you'll remember are the remarkable ballads, "Unthought Known," "Against the Waves," and Pearl Jam's finest love song (and maybe their only) "Just Breathe."

7. Middle Cyclone, Neko Case

When she's not collaborating with Canada's power-pop group The New Pornographers, Neko Case is making some pretty remarkable solo albums. Middle Cyclone may be her finest. Her voice is soars over the alt-country sounds in majestic swoops and sustains. In the pop music world, all we hear about are techincally good voices -- the American Idol types. Yet, women like Neko Case bring character in phrasing and interpretation. And lyrically...let's just say she's a woman women should be proud of. Throughout the album, she compares herself to everything from a tornado to a glacier to a centrifuge. But it's in the lyrics to the song "People Got a Lot of Nerve" that Ms. Case shows the true colors of her music: "I'm a man-man-man, man-man, maneater/and still you're surprised when I eat you."

8. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, Phoenix

These Frenchmen have their roots in the dance/electronica of contemporaries like Daft Punk, and it shows in the absolutely catchy and danceable tunes on this album. A lot has been written and said about Phoenix's breakthrough album, but there's one thing I haven't heard yet: it's fucking awesome to listen to in headphones!

9. Crack the Skye, Mastodon

In high school, we used to think all the "hessians" -- you know, the headbanging crowd -- weren't all that smart. After all, they seemed to spend all their time cutting classes, putting Iron Maiden patches on their leather and jean jackets, and smoking cigarettes, pot, and god knows what else behind the auto shop. Well, here comes Mastodon to throw out that stereotype with a heavy metal concept album about astral projection, Rasputin, and Stephen Hawking's theories of space-time. Fuck! I feel like I need a doctoral degree to even listen to this metal masterpiece. Then I realize that they spent time touring with Slipknot and that makes me feel a little smarter. All kidding aside, Crack the Skye is incredible. The progressive rhythm and chord changes make this band seem like the love child of Dream Theater and System of a Down.

10. It's Blitz!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs decided to add a synthesizer to the mix, and came up with one of the best albums of the year with It's Blitz! The addition seems merely superficial at first when you hear the dance-friendly single, "Zero," but it's songs like "Shame and Fortune" and "Runaway" that reveal Karen O. and company are looking to create some real sonic landscapes here. This album plays like a soundtrack to a subway station, whatever the fuck that means (and I expect you to figure that out yourself).

Honorable mentions:

1. Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective
This was the critical darling of the year, and while I liked it a lot, it felt cold at times, lacking the emotional power of some of my other picks.

2. En Concerto, Jack Johnson

As with all of Jack Johnson's stuff, it's a great listen. As a live performer, he's exceptional, and guest appearances by Paula Fuga and Eddie Vedder make this album worth it. Couldn't include it, though, because A) it's a live album and B) it's not new material.

3. The Fall, Norah Jones

Norah picks up an electric guitar and releases her best album since her debut.

4. No Line on the Horizon, U2

I had to listen to this record five times before I finally got into it. What does that say about it? Who knows? Maybe I wasn't in the right state of mind to dig it. In the end, though, U2's newest is quite an achievement. Songs like "Magnificent" and "Moment of Surrender" will be added to their greatest hits, but it's the title track, "Put on Your Boots" and "I'll Go Crazy (If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight)" that make this album essential for your collection.

There were plenty of other great records in 2009, I'm sure, but I'm nowhere near as well listened as your neighborhood music critic. What I can say is that this is what I liked, and I hope you'll listen to and like as well.

Let's hope 2010 and beyond give us even better music!