As I’ve stated numerous times in my top 50 songs of the year list, 2009 was a good year for music. It was a terrible, terrible year to be a celebrity, but it was a good year to be a music fan. Unless you were a music fan who also was a celebrity. You know who I’m talking about…
Billy Mays? Way into the underground electro scene. Also cocaine. Well, mostly cocaine.
But, not only was it surprisingly easy to find 10 top-quality albums to make my year end list, there were even a handful of albums that I’m fairly certain should make this list that didn’t, and I’ll realize it after a few February 2010 listens. St. Vincent, The Flaming Lips, Cymbals Eat Guitars, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, all of them released solid albums that will not be mentioned ever again in this list. Tough shit, you can yell at me when I write my “overlooked albums of 2009” list.
And sure, we had some rough patches this year in music. There were some break ups, many beloved indie artists selling out to make the Twilight soundtrack, and I’ve heard vicious, vicious rumors that Creed released a new album.
KILL IT KILL IT OH MY GOD WHY WON’T IT DIE!?
But, despite the downs, the musical ups were well worth the see-saw musical thrill ride of 2009. And below, you will find ten of those bright spots from this past year.
10. Fuck Buttons- Tarot Sport
Fuck Buttons, or as a Jersey Shore guy would call them, “I got your Fuck Button right here *grabs self*”, more or less cornered my market for noise drone ever since their excellent, top-10-album-of-2008 debut, Street Horrrsing. In their second attempt at making electronic goodies for all the clustered up clever kids (hold steady), Tarot Sport features a little more energy and edge, with less gradual, subtle builds and more nearly danceable tunes. The songs are no less intricate, and in come cases are even more so, but it still has the decided feel of being a Fuck Buttons album. Also, the more often I say their band name (Fuck Buttons), the more I get to swear (Fuck Buttons), and as we know, if you swear enough, you either develop restrained superpowers (such as the ability to change the flavor of your jello pudding pop by touching it) or you morph into a celebrity who is past his prime, and a little out of touch with modern society.
And in some glorious instances, both.
Tarot Sport works as an album because it rewards you no matter how much attention you choose to give it. If you want some background noise to zone out to while you focus on other things, this album works brilliantly. If you want to drift in and out to the album, whenever you pay attention again, you’re rewarded with an interesting tableau of sound. If you want to scrutinize the album, you could live for weeks in the dense electronic underbrush of the album. It probably is even great to listen to if you’re on horse tranquilizers.
Haaa, I remember that movie
Either way, it plays out like a sort of musical choose your own adventure, and you know how much you loved those books. Also, Fuck Buttons.
9. Tartufi – Nests of Waves and Wires
Tartufi’s first release since 2006’s incredible Us Upon Buildings Upon Us, San Francisco duo, Tartufi, continue to make beautiful noises together in Nests of Waves and Wires. While there is no single “Oh my God this is one of the best songs of the year, I cannot stop listening to this song, oh my God” track to match their previous album’s opener, “If We Had Daggers They Would Fly,” Lynne Angel and Brian Gorman still manage to weave together a lush tapestry of guitar and vocal loops, drums, and exotic soundscapes. From the better-upon-each-listen “Fear of Tall Giraffes, Fear of Some Birds” to the more immediately accessible “Dot Dash” and throughout the remainder of the album’s seven tracks, you are swept away with the sheer scope of this album, which though performed by two people, sounds like a miniature rock and roll orchestra.
Also, they have this five minute video clip that is nothing but them eating beef jerkey.
8. Dan Deacon – Bromst
“I got your Dan Deacon right here! *grabs self*” Shut the fuck up, Jersey Shore guy
Something something fake tan something something misogamy something something hair product head ass
In all seriousness, did we ever really doubt that Deacon would be able to pull off a successful follow up to Spiderman of the Rings? Of course not. Dan Deacon gives off that vibe of crazy person genius where it looks like he could have a mental break down at any moment and start a nation wide midget hunt sponsored by the NRA, record the aftermath, and somehow warp it into a likable album.
Look at that man. If he doesn’t look like a midget hunter I don’t want to KNOW who does
What we didn’t really expect from this album was the level of intricacy he’d throw in there. Sure, Deacon can use his laptop to make crazy-awesome warped dance music, but orchestras? Xylophones and shit? For realsies?
Yeah. For realsies.
The album starts with “Build Voice,” slowly rising from softness into a vicious fervor, and that fervor doesn’t let up for the whole album. Yes we still have our chipmunked voices. Yes we still have our screechy roller coaster pick ups. And yes. We still have another top album of the year.
7. The XX – XX
Probably the fastest rising star in Indiedom right now, The XX got their Pitchfork love, and cashed in on it by playing so many shows one of the band members had to quit due to exhaustion and “personal differences”. The XX is easily the best band run by what appears to be the goth population of Hogwarts
This album is refreshing because of it’s sparseness. While I love me some ornate, lush instrumentals, when the “less is more” approach is done well, and I mean well, it can be just as impactful. That’s the case here with The XX, who never sound too complex or elaborate. They never try to amp things up to 11, instead hovering between a 3 and a 5 on the Spinal Tap scale. But damn, how it works for them.
6. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
If you had to pick one artist that doesn’t really seem to advertise himself as religious, but who you would not be surprised at all to find them making an album where all the songs were based on bible passages, John Darnielle would be your first choice. I mean, really, if anyone can pull it off while being both meaningful and not patronizing, it’s The Mountain Goats. That’s rookie, everyone knows that.
He also has been known to dabble in alcoholism and Crystal Meth! Go God Go!
We’ve had Mountain Goats albums that subside on their lo-fi lyrical brilliance, and we’ve seen Mountain Goats albums that thrive on orchestration. While The Sunset Tree probably remains, for this writer, the best album the band has produced, I still have a deep admiration of Tallahassee, so the fact that this album plays like a slightly more produced version of Darnielle’s pre-Sunset Tree days is something I completely support.
Seriously! Crystal Meth! He used to love that shit! Someone told me that at a concert!
The Life of the World to Come combines a handful of upbeat, almost peppy tracks (including the driving, gritty, top-10-song-of-the-year track, “Psalms 40:2) and tracks that are soft as a sad whisper, with everything else lying somewhere in between. And, like any self respecting Mountain Goats album, the more you listen and interpret the lyrics, the more complex and brilliant it becomes.
5. Silversun Pickups- Swoon
I’m not saying that Silversun Pickups were lazy, they just had me worried. I know they’re not lazy because, since their 2006 debut release, they’ve pushed the hell out of their buzz-worthy hit, “Lazy Eye” to the point that every quirky Indie TV show pilot, car commercial, and Guitar Hero version of Rock Band uses the song. I know they’re not lazy because they’ve gone on a never ending stream of tours as the backup band for larger bands like Muse and Snow Patrol. Probably Weezer too or some shit like that. Weezer’s not really good, anymore.
The dog is a metaphor, because the music on this album is dog shit.
But, I was still concerned about these guys. Would Silversun Pickups, a notoriously slow moving band (their Pikul EP was out for quite some time before Carnavas debuted), fall into the Sophomore slump that befalls too many Indie hype bands? Would they just remain stagnant, release an album that sounds like it would have been considered bland and “safe” even four years ago, and slowly fade out of our minds as a one hit wonder? Or would they actually buckle down, expand their sound, and create an album to remind us why we started listening to the band in the first place?
Well, since it made my best albums of the year list, obviously it’s the last one. A driving tour de force of an album, SPU sounds bigger and more produced. Yes, they still sort of sound like early Smashing Pumpkins, but people only started using that as an insult when Billy Corgan went insane and started murdering Asians and wearing their skin like some sort of Rock and Roll Buffalo Bill.
“Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me”
In the end, we’re dealing with an album that, while not necessarily better than their debut, is a worthy Sophomore effort that is at least on the same scale. If you really loved Carnavas (which I did), you’ll like this album. If you didn’t like Carnavas, this won’t change your mind about the band. But hey, it’s good enough for me.
4. Art Brut – Art Brut Vs. Satan
Art Brut! Top of the pops!
For all their initial bombastic boasting, it’s strange to think that Art Brut is six years old at this point. They’ve outlasted many a Brit rock group, John Peel, and have even outlasted Top of the Pops, which they gleefully shout out during their live rendition of the Bang Bang Rock & Roll‘s “Good Weekend”.
So, by their third album, you’d think these uppidy young Brits would have grown up a bit. And they have. But not too much, which is why they still do what they do so well. Snappy lines? Check. Fun, uptempo tongue and cheek rock songs? Check. Frank Black of the Pixies as a producer? ….Well, wait, that’s new, but that’s kind of badass.
About this much badass
While Black doesn’t particularly add to the Art Brut sound, he at least ensures they can maintain what is great about the band, and in the process, helps Art Brut make an album that’s arguably better than their actually-still-really-good Sophomore effort, It’s a Bit Complicated.
3. The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
I’m from Chicago, raised in Oak Park, a suburb of about 50,000 people just West of the city. Chicago’s famous for blues music, Al Capone, and the Chicago Bulls from the years of 1990 to 1998. Oak Park is the birth place of Earnest Hemingway and the chosen home of Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet somehow, I feel, if I decided to write an album centered around my own personal hometowns (“ohhhh, that’s what he’s getting at” you all exclaim) I wouldn’t be able to fit in a full album worth of bittersweet sentimentality. I could maybe write about Nelson Algren, self-exiled from Chicago, an unfaithful lover of a city, residing in a tomb with his name misspelled. Something something Carl Sandburg something maybe? I could maybe write a song about Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistresses, and Earnest Hemingway’s hidden depression, who knows. What I’m trying to say is, The Rural Alberta Advantage paint a geographical homage towards Alberta that even one of the cities with the richest history in America would be hard pressed to match.
With simple folk rock (leaning more one way or the other, depending on the song), beautiful harmonies, and some of the most frantic, complex drum work I’ve seen in a long time, The Rural Alberta Advantage make an understated, loving, and occasionally haunting homage to their hometowns. Some are personal, with tracks such as “Don’t Haunt This Place” and “Drain the Blood” brilliantly addressing coping with break up and desperately trying to grab onto a fading relationship, respectively.
Here’s a funny picture because I’m not going to have many jokes in this section
Others center on a geographical focus, like “The Deathbridge in Lethbridge”, a reference to the famous Lethbridge Viaduct, one of the largest cities in Southern Alberta, Canada. “Frank AB” centers on a small town in Alberta that was covered in a rock slide, the lives lost left beneath the rubble due, and almost appropriately, the track ends with an a capella, occasionally broken, ghostly call of, “Under the rubble of the mountain that tumbled/ I’ll hold you forever/ I’ll hold you forever”
It’s pretty damn impressive when an artist can take something distant and abstract and make it sound universally personal. It’s even more impressive when that can be maintained, effectively and incredibly, throughout an entire album.
2. The Thermals – Now We Can See
While The Body The Blood The Machine left us wandering through a post apocalyptic wasteland, The Thermals continued onto the theme of their previous concept album with another album focusing on a singular concept (or, if you will, a concept album…) of high energy indie punk. Going on the basic motif of “Songs From When We Were Alive,” The Thermals, either intentionally or unintentionally, made an album centered around drowning. I might be the only writer foolish enough to make this claim (I somehow doubt The Thermals will read this, but if they do, please, tell me how wrong I am), and with the benefit of a press packet I might be able to delve more accurately into the intention behind the album, I stand by it. The whole album is about drowning.
Pictured above- rock and roll
Now, ignoring for a second that the songs are all blessedly upbeat, and lead to spontaneous head bopping (and they are, oh my sweet sugary Jesus, this is easily the best pure rock album of the year), you have an album that starts off with a track “When I Died”. Which is about drowning, and which you can read more about HERE in my top songs of the year list. We got a track list that’s titles read like a story. Maybe if I just put it as a few sentences, with a picture of a band, it’ll seem like I’m not doing bullshit English Literature interpretation here.
When I died, I was sick. I let it go. Now we can see at the bottom of the sea. When we were alive, I called out your name. When I was afraid? Liquid in, liquid out. How we fade? You dissolve.
And while, as I said earlier, the songs themselves are amazing (see also, number one song of 2009), there’s a lot to be said about the focus on drowning in the album. It’s rich with metaphorical significance, not only since this album is probably the most “spaced out” of their albums, in terms of song length (a Thermals song clocking in at nearly six minutes? Get right out of town!). And drowning itself is considered one of the better ways to die (what a chipper article this is!) the lack of oxygen causing a sense of near euphoric calm. The more you listen to this album, the more you can read into the lyrics. There’s a literary tapestry hidden within these little rock and roll gems. How often do you get to say that?
1. The Decemberists – Hazards of Love
This might be a bit of a divisive choice for a top album of the year (as many an anguished hipster screams, “WHERE THE FUCK IS ANIMAL COLLECTIVE!?” Well, to them I say, you like Animal Collective way more than I do, so bugger off) the Hazards of Love has its detractors and its adulators. I’m obviously a member of the latter group (number one album of the year? Hello?)
When an established act makes a rock opera, it’s going to cause come contention. There’s no focus on singles. It’s lyrically restrained to fit within the subject matter. The need for a structured story arc lead to filler tracks that are needed to continue the plot. The use of musical motifs means you’ll have less unique instrumentation throughout the course of a full album. Has anyone actually heard an interlude that they really like? Hell no! If your friend told you about an awesome CD, and then played a two minute instrumental interlude to prove how good it was, you’d smash them in the mouth with a sock full of quarters.
I don’t give a shit if it hurts, teeth are for winners only
But fuck all that noise. I’m a sucker for a well played out concept album, and when a Rock Opera is really done well, it can be amazing. Seriously, raise your hand if you didn’t think Tommy by The Who was badass. I’ll wait.
See? No one raised their hands because they knew that the second they did, an angry deaf blind mute would hit them over with a pinball machine. It’s science.
When they said he was a pinball wizard, they meant he could actually kill you with this fucking thing
Despite having two songs in my top 10 tracks of the year, this album doesn’t play out like an album where you want to listen to the same certain tracks on repeat. Detractors would argue that this statement highlights the weaknesses of an album without many good stand-alone tracks. I would argue that I came to their homes and injected them with tainted blood. Only one of those things would be true, but at least we can agree that we all have a really horrific case of Hepatitis now.
I wanted to google search hepatitis for this joke, but it was really gross, so here’s a picture of a puppy.
This album has a tableau of different styles throughout, and it shows such a break from the norm for this Portland band that it’s clearly going to be divisive. But after I personally (and, it seems, I was the only one) was underwhelmed by their last effort, The Crane Wife, I feared a Wilco-like reaction to popularity from The Decemberists, with each subsequent album being a distilling of their previous album, and a copy of a copy of an original sound still sounds a lot like a copy to me.
Instead, we start off with near silence in “Prelude”, as slow instrumentals and organ slowly build up, leading to an a mix of songs, from the standard “sounds like a good Decemberists song” track you find in the appropriately pretentiously titled, “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle The Thistles Undone)” which then expands the musical motif with deliciously sinister sounding dark, cleanly rough guitars dominating “A Bower Scene”. By “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)” and “Isn’t It a Lovely Night” we’ve established Becky Stark’s sweetly coy vocals as the character of “Margaret” with a few soft songs with a little country twang. Which immediately gets blown to hell when “The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid” bursts onto the scene, going back and forth between dainty harpsichord and raging 70’s anthemic guitar and Shara Worden making dirty, kinky love to your earlobes as the sultry Queen. They even throw in the peculiar, with the so-strange-you-can’t-help-but-be-mesmerized “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!),” a song that’s both incredibly strange, but also grabs your attention to the point that you want to hear more of it. Maybe even become friends with it. It’s like Sloth from The Goonies, written by Colin Meloy.
Sloth dost feel an enamored affection towards Chunk!
No shift is too sudden though, and the tracks flow seamlessly one into the other to the point that you’re often not aware how many tracks you’ve listened to until the album is finished. While this album clearly has its highs and lows (the love songs don’t really do much for me, while the 70’s-rock guitar riffs used in certain tracks pretty much blows my mind), this is an album that you play on repeat. Even if you’re not following the plot (and I rarely do), when you make the decision to listen to The Hazards of Love, you’ve made a commitment to hear the whole damn thing. It’s not done out of obligation, it’s not done out of spite, you listen to the album front to back because you don’t want to listen to anything else, interludes and all, it’s a truly complete album. And those albums are the rare ones that you have to latch onto when you can.