15. Merriweather Post Pavilion-Animal Collective
It seems that most of the music world absolutely love MPP by Animal Collective. The truth is that it is a pretty good album. Best ever? Hardly, but quite good. There are some stellar tracks (i.e. “My Girls,” “Also Frightened,” “Summertime Clothes,” and “Lion in a Coma”) but the rest are–honestly–mediocre. Animal Collective’s eighth studio album finds the group making nice, poppy, accessible music that is much more open to those a bit scared off by their earlier releases. Overall, it’s a solid album but not earth shattering. If nothing else, it easily has the best album cover of the year.
Standout track: “My Girls”
14. Noble Beast-Andrew Bird
Indie music’s best whistler is at it again with his 2009 release, Noble Beast. The album shifts from opulent to bare-boned with regularity but the change is surprisingly unjarring. It took me a few times through the album to find it a comfortable listen, but the effort is well worth it. Bird is a brilliant musician with challenging lyrics and a unique style.
Standout track: “Effigy”
13. Dark Was The Night-Various Artists
Sure it’s a charity compilation album and sure, it’s not the best work of the artists involved but the sheer number of great artists on the album (Andrew Bird, Bon Iver, MMJ, The Decemberists, Yeasayer, New Pornographers, Sufjan Stevens (!), Beirut, etc.) has the makings of a great album. Produced by Aaron and Bryce Dressner of The National, Dark Was the Night benefits Red Hot Charity which works to fund HIV and AIDS research and prevention. My favorite songs are “Die” by Iron & Wine and “You Are The Blood” by Sufjan Stevens, natch.
Standout track: “You Are The Blood”
12. Embryonic-The Flaming Lips
They have been making music longer than I’ve been alive and still Embryonic, the latest release by The Flaming Lips, demands respect from musical folk in every aspect of criticism. The opening track is a bit trying, but once that’s through the Lips offer a sprawling romp through various styles and moods. Going quickly from euphoria to paranoia, they’ll heighten your senses and stir your musical soul. I don’t promote the ingestion of illicit substances, but if I did, I would also suggest this album as a companion to said substances.
Standout track: “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine”
11. Octahedron-The Mars Volta
Octahedron is the most accessible The Mars Volta album in years, perhaps ever, and it does not disappoint. Their style has been called many things–post-hardcore, prog-rock, jazz fusion, Latin-inspired, weird–and really, they’re all correct. The Mars Volta, now based out of Mexico, fuses a unique mixture of sounds to create their music and have been appropriately rewarded for their efforts, winning a Grammy in 2009 for their 2008 release The Bedlam in Goliath. This album, Octahedron, does not fall far from their older works but is somehow more new-listener friendly. They keep the sinister vibe of De-Loused in the Comatorium while somehow retaining a lyrical quality that invites new ears.
Standout track: “Teflon”
10. The Life of the World to Come-The Mountain Goats
This record registers as the most surprisingly incredible one of the year. Since I’ve recently been drawn to lusher sounds, I didn’t expect to love the famously lo-fi sound of The Mountain Goats or the straightforward lyrical delivery of singer John Darnielle, but I most certainly did. Darnielle’s lyrics are sterling and each song, titled with a verse from the Bible, adds to a fairly haunting narrative. The power of stripped-down simple folk rock is evident in this album. Don’t miss it.
Standout track: “1 Samuel 15:23”
This jangly album from Girls seems to be what the music that went down the day to music died were it now produced by Brian Wilson. There is a decided Beach Boys influence tinged with other styles but they don’t fall prey to the frequent indie trope of sadly falling short of the Beach Boys at their height. The lead singer, Christopher Owens, was raised in the Children of God cult and his lyrics are appropriately eerie yet engaging. Overall, Album is a solid record that while flirting with a dark side remains sunny and warm.
Standout track: “Big Bad Mean Mother”
8. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix-Phoenix
My favorite French band Phoenix delivers with their 2009 release Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Their driving indie-pop feel manages to avoid the kitschiness that is frequently found in the genre and adds a certain zest to their sound. You’ve probably heard the track “Lisztomania” on a Cadillac commercial but don’t fault the band for selling out–the euro is way stronger than the dollar and pâté prices have skyrocketed.
Standout track: “Lisztomania”
7. Unmap-Volcano Choir
Volcano Choir is yet another permutation of Justin Vernon’s sound. This collaboration of Vernon (of Bon Iver) with members of Collections of Colonies of Bees is certainly experimental, but decidedly wonderful. Of this effort Vernon said, “I sing on it, but there aren’t a lot of lyrics– it’s definitely more on the experimental side of things,” and the vocals–more than anything–act as another instrument in the orchestration of the song, not the driving force.
Standout track: “Island, IS”
6. See Mystery Lights-YACHT
YACHT, before this album, consisted only of Jona Bechtolt but the group expanded to a duo adding Claire L. Evans as a full member before recording See Mystery Lights. The album is sonically interesting with each song differing from the previous just enough to keep a listener interested. Any group that fantastically treats T-Pain’s “I’m In Love With a Stripper” like YACHT does is worth a listen.
Standout track: “I’m In Love With a Ripper”
5. The BQE-Sufjan Stevens
Having seen the debut performance of Sufjan’s orchestral suite at BAM in 2007, I expected the album to be lackluster in comparison. To my pleasant surprise, the recording is spot-on and gives the listen a good impression of a live performance, though the instrumentation is flawless. Despite the rampant flute runs throughout (which is almost too common in Sufjan’s orchestration), the piece sounds as if it could have been written by any number of contemporary composers until the electronic interlude hits toward the middle of the piece. The excellent recording of a very good piece is accompanied by a dazzling book of photos of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the DVD of the film Sufjan shot to accompany the suite.
Standout track: “The BQE.” It has individual tracks named, but I refuse to call it more than one song.
The lovechild of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij and Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot (both groups featured in last year’s list), Discovery is a delightful mix of their styles, relying more on synth leads and tech-inspired drums than either of their main groups. The lyrics are neither as clever as Vampire Weekend’s or as insightful as Ra Ra Riots, but they’re sufficient. Easily the best authentically summer sound of 2009. My favorite track is the auto-tuned cover of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” which is the best pre-emptive MJ tribute of the year.
Standout track: “Orange Shirt”
3. Hazards of Love-The Decemberists
The Hazards of Love is an ambitious album that really doesn’t take a wrong step. Colin Meloy and friends spend the full album telling the star-crossed love story of William, the shape-shifting forest dweller, and the lovely Margaret. The album features vocals by Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, Becky Stark from Lavender Diamond, and Jim James of My Morning Jacket to compliment the golden, oft compared to goats, pipes of Colin Meloy. In the last few weeks, The Decemberists released a full-length video/film of this album featuring the work of several different artists and designers.
Standout track: “The Queen’s Rebuke/The Crossing”
2. Ecstatic-Mos Def
The only true hip hop album on the list this year is Mos Def’s Ecstatic. The record pulls speeches from Malcolm X and Fela Kuti along with Arabic prayers into the tracks and uses diverse musical influences to augment his sound. There is a strong Middle Eastern influence in his songs, particularly in “The Embassy,” and the confidence in Mos Def’s flow carries the album fantastically. The lyrics are at times biting and others mellifluous but nearly always spot on.
Standout track: “Quiet Dog Bite Hard”
1. Bitte Orca-Dirty Projectors
With Bitte Orca, the Brooklyn-based Dirty Projectors have crafted the best album of the year. The record outstrips the group’s 2007 release, Rise Above, by miles and, for me, sets the gold standard against which I compare any unfamiliar group–whether that’s fair or not. The amalgamation of sounds–vocal and instrumental–creates a unique experience that is mildly unsettling but unavoidably wonderful. The vocals of Dave Longstreth and the rest of the group blend magnificently and more often than not function more for instrumentation than lyrical delivery. There is not a wrong step taken on this fantastic record. Each track fuses nicely with the next and Bitte Orca stands as the best representation of music in 2009.
Standout track: “Stillness Is the Move”
Other notable albums of 2009:
Why There Are Mountains-Cymbals Eat Guitars
Blood Bank EP-Bon Iver
Two Dancers-Wild Beasts
As is bound to happen, I’m sure I’ve missed some stellar music this year but these albums are what my 2009 a little brighter than it would have been otherwise.