Editor’s note: This list is the third and final installment in RELEVANT’s coverage of the best
of progressive culture in 2009—so far. Check out our list of best movies and our list of favorite books. There is a mind-boggling amount of music that comes out every week. Like, to the point where it’s an exhausting prospect to think of sifting through Amazon.com’s "New Releases" section. On any given week, you might find a gem, but odds are it’ll be sandwiched in between that compilation of reggaeton classics from the Ukraine and that creepy Swedish death metal album with a picture of the Devil in an evening gown. So it’s difficult to narrow down all of the releases this year to a list of our 10 favorite. But that hasn’t ever stopped us.
So we are proud to bring you our list of the Top 10 Albums of 2009 (so far). We’re sure we’ve forgotten something that will later haunt our dreams, but we’re pretty happy with the way it turned out. The first half of ’09 has been a great one for music. Here’s to hoping that the second half is just as good. On to the countdown:
10. The Decemberists, Hazards of Love
Colin Meloy has always been … what’s a nice way of saying it … bookish. His band The Decemberists is one of only a few bands who could close a concert with a song about a crazed sailor chasing a whale and have every person there going nuts completely unironically. And that’s not even the weirdest stuff—their 2004 EP The Tain was a single, 17-minute song that owed equal parts to Black Sabbath and Irish folklore. So it’s not really a surprise when they announced that Hazards of Love would be a 17-part (prog) rock opera. What is a surprise is how darn good it is. Somehow, Meloy and Co’s crazy ambitions (the amorphous story is something about a maiden [sung by Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark] who falls in love with a shape-shifting forest being—and somewhere in there is an evil forest queen and a Rake, whatever that is) don’t overshadow the incredible music they produce. In fact, the story attains a certain gravitas because of the music—The Decemberists aren’t making an ironic homage to Jethro Tull and Yes, they’re trying to one-up those bands. And with all of the tonal shifts from folk ("The Hazards of Love Pt. 1") to metal ("A Bower Scene") to bar blues ("Won’t Want for Love") to the type of baroque pop The Decemberists are known for ("The Rake’s Song"), this crazy rock opera will have you entranced. And probably frantically cross-referencing the lyric booklet with some obscure Russian folklore.
9. mewithoutYou, it’s all crazy! it’s all false! it’s all a dream! it’s alright
At some point in the years since Brother, Sister, mewithoutYou must have gotten really into Neutral Milk Hotel. And, of course, that’s not a bad thing—NMH’s In the Aeroplane over the Sea is rightly recognized as an indie rock classic, with artists from all over the musical spectrum taking queues from the album. So it makes sense that mewithoutYou would owe a small debt to NMH. But fortunately, Aaron Weiss’ frenetic yelps and stream-of-consciousness lyrics (many of them based on the writings of a Sufi mystic) mixed with the overall intensity of the band make the sound more than fitting for mewithoutYou. They take the sounds and make them all their own. There are strange songs about anthropomorphic animals ("The Fox, the Crow and the Cookie" and "Fig with a Bellyache") and spiritual ruminations (most of the songs, but especially "Allah, Allah, Allah" and "The Angel of Death Came to David’s Room"), but all of them are matched by whirling folk guitars, blaring horns, and interesting percussion. mewithoutYou might owe Neutral Milk Hotel a hearty thank-you, but they could hardly have picked a better fit for their band. This album is a testament to that.
8. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
Andrew Bird has seemed on the verge of "breaking into the mainstream" for his past few albums. Each successive album has been more and more accessible, and each recording has brought Bird’s twisted and wordy take on folk-rock (if you can pigeonhole it that easily) a little bit closer to the masses. Well, with Noble Beast, Bird has broken any artificial ceiling that might have been set up for him. Bird’s proclivity for, well, most everything serves him well once again, as each of his songs are punctuated by his piercing whistle (if you haven’t heard it, you should stop reading andgo watch this), always spot-on guitar playing and classically trained violin plucking and bowing. On this album, he adds some pop flourishes ("Oh No" and "Not a Robot, but a Ghost"), ambient drone ("Unfolding Fans") and even bossa nova ("Masterswarm"). And of course, he has an amazing voice that make his tongue-tying lyrics expressive and filled with warmth. His lyrics really are labyrinthine—just listen to the word gymnastics of "Anonanimal" and "Fitz and the Dizzyspells." There’s no one that sounds quite like Andrew Bird, and that is a very, very good thing.
7. Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing
After Manchester Orchestra generated buzz with their debut album, I’m Like a
Virgin Losing a Child, listeners were curious—and certainly excited—to hear what they’d come up with next. And they weren’t disappointed when Manchester released Mean Everything to Nothing. From grinding out vocals through gritted teeth, to screaming them, to singing melodies fitting for a lullaby, lead singer and guitarist Andy Hull definitely showcases his singing talents on this album. “Shake it Out,” a stand-out track, will make you want to employ the kind of rocking out generally reserved for alone time—you know, when you jump up and down while shaking your head back and forth, and possibly punch-dancing (don’t pretend like it’s never happened). Building on a mostly steady rocking pace from the beginning, Mean Everything ends with the epic, baptism-themed “The River.” The song includes Hull shrieking, “Take me to the river / And let me see again,” and later, without any instruments in the background, he barely keeps a steady voice as he softly sings, “I’m gonna leave you the first chance I get.” When music elicits every reaction from fist-pumping, to swaying, to goosebumps, you know it’s a great album—and a band you’ll be hearing from for years to come.
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz
Confession: Karen O is a little scary. Clearly, she’s amazing, but the force with which she sings and especially the way she prowls a stage in concert is a little off-putting from time to time. Of course, none of that matters if her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, puts out a great album—which they have. Three times now. It’s Blitz is perhaps the most accessible of the YYY’s career. From opening "Zero" to the heartbreaking "Runaway" to the surprisingly tender "Little Shadow," the manic growl of the band’s early days has been toned down a little bit. Not completely, of course; Karen O still spits her words in a sexual aggression on "Heads Will Roll" and "Dull Life." She’s just gotten a little gentler after a couple of albums. "Skeletons" is an actual ballad and O demonstrates that she can do a slower song with her edge softened just as much as she can rock a demented yowl set to a dance beat. It’s Blitz has these songs in pretty equal measure, and it’s all the better for it. The best of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ output so far, this release ought not to be missed.
5. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix has been making its bouncy version of electro-pop for years—but their exposure to the world has come in more spread-out bursts. First, they appeared on the essential Lost in Translation soundtrack. Then they received some buzz for It’s Never Been like That. But last spring, they showed the United States they could make people dance by performing on Saturday Night Live. And really, all they needed to do was play "Lisztomania" or "1901" and they immediately would have captured our hearts. One of the best things Phoenix does is to make carefully arranged, three-minute pop songs sound completely effortless. They’re a little bit like a less-dirty Strokes—all the swagger, carefully chimed guitars, crisp synths, staccato percussion and soaring choruses, while lead singer Thomas Mars’ easy voice soars in and around every beat and instrumental wash. And that doesn’t even mention the fact almost every track on this album is a dance song under the more stolid mask of "indie rock." If you need one album to play at parties in 2009, make it this one.
4. Mos Def, The Ecstatic
Ah, Mos Def. We’ve missed you. Sure, you’ve shown flashes of greatness in the last couple of years (guesting on the Roots’ "Rising Down" and singing the chorus of Kanye’s "Drunk and Hot Girls"). But really, we miss the fired up, angry (and yes, controversial) rapper who took over the alt-rap world with Black Star and Black on Both Sides. We’re so glad you’re back. On "Auditorium," your rap about Iraq segues into a fierce Slick Rick verse that changes the questions from "Slick Rick is still around?" to "How are there not more songs on the radio like this?" And using super indie-rap producers Madvillain and Oh No seems to have invigorated you. The Middle Eastern beats fit perfectly with your ruminations on worldwide politics, the fear of growing discord all over the world and the lurking pessimism that hides just behind your generally joyful beats. Your flow on "Casa Bey" is ridiculous; it’s not many people who can use an upbeat Latin swing as a backdrop for their rhymes. You can even rap in Spanish ("no Hay Nada Mas")! Finally, thank you for reuniting with Talib Kweli on "History"—now, could you maybe work on that second Black Star album?
3. Paper Route, Absence
Paper Route is a bit of an anomaly. They’re based in Nashville, but they don’t really fit into the Nashville scene, which usually accompanies lots of Contemporary Christian Music and some pretty terrible modern country music. But Paper Route is a synth-pop that makes giant anthems owing debts to Coldplay ("Wish") and New Order ("Tiger Teeth"). It’s obvious that Paper Route has done their homework and has ingested a pretty steady diet of Joy Division, Pet Shop Boys and The Cure. The result is an addicting dance-pop record with a heavy emphasis on arena-ready songs ("Last Time," "Are We All Forgotten") with a healthy smattering of ballads ("Be Healed," "Lovers’ Anthem"). The album as a whole stands on its own as one of the best releases of the year for its yearning, deeply spiritual lyrics and its poignant musical flourishes.
2. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Animal Collective have always been a little weird. On their past albums, they flirted with melodies every once in a while (and that’s being generous for some of their releases), but mostly it was a lot of weird electro-noodling and some occasional yelps. But then on Merriweather Post Pavilion, they seemed to suddenly realize that it was OK to make pop songs. And really good pop songs. They seemed to have learned something from member Panda Bear’s 2007 solo release, Person Pitch, which sounded like the Beach Boys has recorded something they made after ingesting a large quantity of drugs and discovering Pro Tools. So maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised when "My Girls" came out. But we were; and then when we heard the rest of the album, we were more and more blown away. From the hot-and-sticky "Summertime Clothes" to the gauzy "No More Runnin’" to the sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs "Brothersport," Animal Collective have released the album of their career. The weird sounds of their past finally found a melody to attach themselves to, and the results should be heard to be fully appreciated.
1. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear loves to tweak and process an album until it attains a very specific sound at a very specific sound level with a very specific mood. This much is obvious—just look at their last album,Yellow House and side-project Department of Eagles’ last album. And sometimes, that kind of insistence of hyper-processing can take all of the warmth out of a record. It becomes dull and clinical. With Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has seemingly found a way to reverse the effects of their fiddling—it’s like they injected a huge influx of warmth and sunniness into their normal wall of sound. And then they somehow thought "Man, I bet we could make an album that’s as good as our favorite Beach Boys records" … and then did. Listen to "Two Weeks" and it’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face, even if you think it’s some missing track from Pet Sounds. The perfect vocal pairings of Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen make every harmony pitch-perfect, and the clever percussion and rhythm of each song rewards multiple listens. There are so many fantastic songs on this pop record that it’s hard to know where to start … the plaintive vocals and soaring falsetto on "Fine for Now"? The sad ballad that is "Dory"? Or how about the start-and-stop perfection of "While You Wait for the Others"? No, it’s best to just say: Veckatimest is the best album of 2009 (so far) and you should listen to it as soon as you get the chance. Honorable
Mention: M. Ward, Hold Time; Aaron Strumpel, Elephants; St. Vincent, Actor; Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Self-Titled; Deastro, Moondagger