20 Best Albums of the Year (2009)
Once again, it’s that time of the year. Sometimes it feels like if you don’t put out a year-end best-album list, you’re not a real site. So here they are, my top 20 albums of 2009:
Wait, why 2009? You can go back and read my post from the end of last year, when I rated my top 25 albums of 2010, and then you’ll understand. Or I can sum it up in three quick notes: (1) 2009 was a great year in music, (2) perspective helps – it makes more sense to look back on something a few years later than at the end of that same year, and (3) last year I promised to “See you in 2013 for a review of 2009” and I always keep my promises.
So for real this time, without further ado, here are my top 20 albums of 2009:
20. The Dead Weather– Horehound
On my 2010 list The Dead Weather’s Sea Of Cowards appears at #18. All I wrote was “Jack White can do no wrong. Unless it involves a solo show in NYC.” Because the story of how he f**ked over his fans that night cannot be told enough times, I’m re-posting that link. But Horehound is a good album.
19. Tegan & Sara – Sainthood
Very similar to their prior (and better) album, The Con, but nevertheless a nice listen that includes one excellent track, “Alligator”.
18. Miike Snow – Miike Snow
This debut album from this Swedish indie-pop band stood out from similar sounding records in 2009, yet isn’t distinctive enough to have carried forward that credit beyond 2009-10. At the time I might have argued that it was as good as #9 on this list – Passion Pit’s Manners – but unless you have a nostalgia for the end of last decade I’m not sure there’s a need to keep these songs in rotation any more. It was nice hearing them play over and over at trendy NYC shops for a little while there.
17. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast
A solid debut album and an amazing debut single in “Swim” turned me on to Surfer Blood, and I’m glad it did. This band plays some mean guitars and lowers the boom on their best songs. Unfortunately both Astro Coast and 2013’s Pythons ultimately disappoint in that the albums are incomplete. When Surfer Blood puts it all together and delivers killer albums – not just collections of songs with some killer hooks and sounds – this band will reach another level. I have a feeling they’ll get there.
16. The Thermals – Now We Can See
It’s pure coincidence that Now We Can See comes in at #16, just like 2010’s Personal Life. I wrote last year that Now We Can See is the much better album and I stand by that. It’s simply that while 2010 had a much stronger top 5 and top 10, there were a series of records about to come on my top 15 that were surprisingly strong efforts from artists where I least expected it. I wanted to give the nod to those albums (which I also find generally more complete, top to bottom, than Now We Can See) and get them all into the top 15, starting with …
15. Modest Mouse – No One’s First and You’re Next
No One’s First is a collection of Modest Mouse songs that the band recorded throughout their career without releasing on any proper album. Knowing that, one would have every right to expect it to be a sub-par entry in the Modest Mouse catalog and an inconsistent listen. Yet for some reason it works. Modest Mouse has changed their sound over the years but not so much that their early and late stuff can’t be included on a single album, almost as a trip through Modest Mouse history. The songs themselves are all strong, which isn’t always the case with this band’s lengthy albums. Well worth owning for any fan of the band.
14. Dinosaur Jr – Farm
Dinosaur Jr is still putting out great music, not just in 2009 but beyond. How many ’80s and ’90s college rock bands can you say that about? Long after R.E.M., Sonic Youth and the Pixies have all broken up (or dumped their Kim’s) DJr still rocks those wah-wah pedals better than anyone.
13. Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM
In many ways this album is a collaborative effort with Beck, who produced, wrote the music, co-wrote the lyrics and even mixed it. Add the brilliance of Beck to the haunting beauty of Gainsbourg and you get this immaculate album, including the very Beck-sounding single “”Heaven Can Wait”.
12. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
The Decemberists may have been ahead of the curve in recognizing the re-birth of the LP. The Hazards of Love is an old school rock opera, the kind of album that needs to be listened to from start to finish as a single unit. There is one excellent single (“The Rake’s Song”) but a stand-alone song isn’t at all what this album is about. Just drop the big vinyl plate onto your turntable and allow the story to unfold.
11. Silversun Pickups – Swoon
In my opinion the apex of Silversun Pickups’ career, Swoon has three legitimately excellent songs in “Panic Switch”, “Substitution” and “Catch & Release”. Swoon won’t be remembered as an all-time album, but these songs will be in rotation on Alt Nation for years to come.
10. Weezer – Raditude
Can I keep putting these late-career Weezer albums on my lists without explaining my love of this band? Yes, yes I can. Instead I’ll ask you to listen to this – the first single off of Raditude – and tell me you aren’t hooked. The really divisive song on this record is probably “Can’t Stop Partying” featuring Lil’ Wayne. In my opinion this song (and other on Raditude) is a rare example of a band being both ironic and genuine at the same time. It’s a feat few bands can pull off but Weezer has perfected. Pinkerton fans should probably just move on.
9. Passion Pit – Manners
Manners is an excellent example of an album that needed a little time and perspective. It was an indie pop hit in 2009, but something I easily could have dismissed as a good but uninteresting debut. As I mentioned above, I initially found it somewhat on par with Miike Snow. Over time the hits have mostly held up, but more importantly Passion Pit followed up Manners with the terrific Gossamer. Seeing how this band has remained true to its pop sensibilities but evolved into something more clever has given me a renewed appreciation for Manners.
8. Florence & the Machine – Lungs
Speaking of debut albums and perspective, if you had told be that Florence Welch’s debut would land only one spot ahead of Manners even as recently as 2011, I would have thought you were insane. While #8 is an excellent spot for a debut album, it seems low for a singer who absolutely owned the 12 months after Lungs was released. The problem is that Florence’s sound has been copied and is now grating on me just a little bit. With all the copycats (most recently MS MR comes to mind) I find it hard to distinguish Florence from her many followers, not to mention predecessors (10,000 Maniacs anyone?). Great debut, but Florence’s time may have already passed.
7. Muse – The Resistance
There are few bands that you wouldn’t want to see in an intimate venue, but Muse may be the quintessential example of an arena band. Nowhere is this more obvious than on The Resistance. I actually did get to see Muse live in an arena on that tour, at the circus-smelling Nassau Coliseum in Long Island in the fall of 2010. (Photos and setlist here; smell available upon request.) It was everything I expected out of a Muse show, full of bombast and pyrotechnics, with the added benefit of opening band Metric. For indie fans who want their own version of post-Zoo TV tour era U2, Muse is the way to go.
6. We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls
On the other hand, for indie fans who want a new and improved version of pre-Joshua Tree era U2 (which sounds good to me) I recommend this thunderous Scottish band. Get past the silly name (or embrace it) and you have a tremendous debut album that includes what was possibly my favorite song of the year, the single “Quiet Little Voices“. For some unknown reason the Jetpacks have flown under the radar and so I’ve been lucky enough to see them in two intimate venues, the late Maxwell’s and Brooklyn’s Bell House. You can catch them in Webster Hall this coming March.
5. Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Young
The Strokes’ lead singer Casablancas came out with his first solo album 3 years after the Strokes’ third album, after some had already given up on there being any more music from the Strokes proper. Those hoping that this was going to be the long-awaited fourth Strokes album were highly disappointed (though I suppose no more disappointed than they were with the Strokes third album, 2006’s First Impressions of Earth). Others, like me, found Phrazes to be a fun new direction for Casablancas, a way for him to express a side of him that didn’t fit in with the Strokes aesthetic but remained true to his roots. The Strokes sound exactly like the decade in which they appeared; their music, while excellent, is neither past nor forward looking. Phrazes is the exact opposite, borrowing from the ’70s and ’80s while sounding vaguely futuristic too. It’s not a Strokes album, but for that we’re probably fortunate as it’s much better than their most recent effort.
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs– It’s Blitz!
While Julian and friends were off doing their solo things, another New York City band that emerged on the scene in the early 2000s hit is absolute peak in 2009. If there was anyone who wasn’t in love with Karen O before It’s Blitz! I don’t know how they couldn’t have fallen for her after. Four years later “Zero”, “Heads Will Roll” and “Soft Shock” sound as fresh as ever. For a band that started off on the same career trajectory and is often compared to Franz Ferdinand, It’s Blitz! is where they left Franz in the dust.
3. Matt & Kim – Grand
I have such a soft spot for this happy-go-lucky pair and it all starts with Grand. You either love them or hate them, and if you haven’t made a decision yet it’s probably because you haven’t listened to Grand with the volume turned way up high. Stream it now, make up your mind and I won’t fault you either way.
2. Metric – Fantasies
I’m not going to pretend that the top 5 of 2009 is as good as that of 2010. All five of those albums belong in the conversation for album of the decade, while these don’t quite get there. With that said, Fantasies may be the most underrated album of the decade and Metric the most underrated band of this era. Emily Haines is just as good, but not nearly as famous, as Karen O. For the life of me I can’t figure out why Metric doesn’t get one-tenth of the attention of the band that will have the #1 album on my list below. These Canadians rock even though they’re a pop band, their songs have incredibly catchy hooks, and they are amazing live. (Replace the word Canadians with Frenchmen and I could have been describing Phoenix.) And Fantasies is by far their best effort to date.
1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Earlier this year, in celebration of the release of a new album from Phoenix, I wrote a little about their Wolfgang tour, thinking back to the time I saw them at MSG in 2010. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote: “Somehow, a band that just one year earlier played the tiny Music Hall of Williamsburg, successfully scaled up to the World’s Most Famous Arena and pulled off one of the best arena shows I’ve ever seen. It speaks to the popularity of Wolfgang that both shows – the intimate Brooklyn one and the much larger NYC one – both came after the release of that album and featured primarily the same songs. After a year of the ubiquitous “1901” and “Lisztomania” (and smaller hits like “Armistice” and “Rome”) appearing on the radio, TV commercials, movie trailers and everywhere else music is heard, Phoenix had become a household name.” Before Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend had #1 albums on the Billboard charts, Phoenix was the indie champion, because of Wolfgang and rightfully so. I saw them again this year, this time at the Barclays Center, and the songs from that album are as good as ever.
2009 was a great year for music, and a sign that even better things were to come as musical styles were changing and indie bands were just starting to break through. Many of these albums remain in heavy rotation on my iPod and (somewhat sadly) several seem to have been the peaks of their artists’ career. Maybe next year I’ll go back to 2008 and see if that is where this upward trend began … but this time no promises!
 Why 20 this year and not 25? After I made my list, I just felt that the bottom few albums weren’t even worth a mention. So from the perspective of number of quality albums I’d have to say that 2010 gets the nod over 2009.