It’s that time again. Time to list our favorite albums of 2009. As always, this isn’t an exhaustive list. There will be albums we leave off, artists we’ll discover in two weeks that change our lives, comments we’ll read and think "of course, how could we have been so foolish" before drowning in a sea of remorse. But at this time and place: We’re proud to present the RELEVANT Top Albums of 2009. And, of course, tell us what we’ve overlooked in the comments. Just be gentle …
1. Grizzly Bear—Veckatimest
With Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has seemingly found a way to reverse the effects of their constant (and sometimes detrimental) fiddling—it’s like they injected a huge influx of warmth and sunniness into their normal wall of sound. Listen to "Two Weeks": 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 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 and you should listen to it as soon as you get the chance.
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, 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; Merriweather sounded like the Beach Boys after they ingested a large quantity of drugs and discovered Pro Tools. From the hot-and-sticky "Summertime Clothes" to the sing-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs "Brothersport," Animal Collective have released the album of their career. And, in "My Girls," the single of 2009. The weird sounds of their past finally found a melody to attach themselves to, and the results should be heard to be fully appreciated.
3. The Avett Brothers—I and Love and You
What do you do if you’re an Americana revival band who’s really good but hasn’t yet gotten the attention you deserve? For starters, it’s probably best to get Rick Rubin to produce you. And while Rubin has been mostly known in recent years for his stripped-down approach to Johnny Cash’s country music, he’s done the opposite here—he’s smoothed out some of the edges and made them much more melodic. Gone are the punk leanings and wild yelps of past records; instead, the brothers Avett sing and pick their instruments through 13 fantastic tracks. The title track is an piano-driven expose on why it’s so hard to say those three little words. "Ten Thousand Words" is another highlight, layering guitar, mandolin and Hammond B3 on top of already-layered vocals, while "Kick Drum Heart" sounds like it could be on a kid’s album. I and Love and You stands as the Bros.’ strongest effort, taking their strengths and smoothing them into a cohesive whole.
4. 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 really, all they needed to do was play "Lisztomania" or "1901" and they 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 bit like a less-dirty Strokes—all 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. All in all, a classic album that will make any party you throw more fun.
5. Kid Cudi—Man on the Moon: The End of the Day
When you think about Cleveland, you probably don’t think of it as a burgeoning hotbed of some of the newest, most ground-breaking hip-hop being made. But that’s exactly what Kid Cudi is doing. Previously known mostly for some killer guest spots, Cudi took over the world this summer with his ubiquitous single “Day n’ Night.” On this, his solo album, Kid Cudi elaborates on the promise of these hints of talent with a fully realized concept album with plenty of hipster cred as Kanye, MGMT and Ratatat offer guest spots and Common “narrates” the story of the album. The entire effort sounds like the soundtrack to some kind of urban sci-fi film, with echo-y beats and synth washes ruling the day behind Kid Cudi’s refreshingly not-AutoTuned warble. This debut album makes Kid Cudi someone to pay attention to as he tries to change hip-hop.
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs—It’s Blitz
It’s Blitz is perhaps the most accessible album 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.
7. Passion Pit—Manners
The whole "Hey, hipsters do like to dance" movement got a big shot in the arm from Manners. Adding to the template patented by LCD Soundsystem (putting indie stylings to awesome dance pop), Passion Pit put giant beats under thick layers of synth, happy tunes and … really sad lyrics. Passion Pit is part of a burgeoning indie-dance scene (with bands like Cut Copy, Crystal Castles and Hot Chip) who make anthems you can sing along and dance to without having to deal with AutoTune. Owing a heavy debt to New Order, "The Reeling" was one of the best singles of 2009, and with good reason—no other song this year got toes tapping with a giant anthem like this one. Add the sped-up menace of "Sleepyhead," the down-tempo after-party groove of "Swimming in the Flood" and the ’80s-movie-theme sound of "Eyes as Candles," and Manners is the can’t-miss dance record of the year.
8. 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 act that makes giant songs, 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.
9. Derek Webb—Stockholm Syndrome
Derek Web is not known for big beats—Matisyahu he is not. Strangely, he finds them on Stockholm Syndrome, his most unusual and best release today. Curiously non-analog violas wrap around a fat bass line progression on “Cobra Con.” “Freddie, Please” is smoky-bar rendition of a song that Frank Sinatra could have done in his prime (except Ol’ Blue Eyes probably wouldn’t have done a song about gay-bashing "preacher" Fred Phelps). Then there’s a song called “The Spirit vs. The Kick Drum,” during which the former songwriter for Caedmon’s Call sings sarcastically about how having sex without being in love is like hell without flames—as in, not gonna work. And, of course, there’s "What Matters More," the lightning rod of controversy for his label and for the CCM market—it’s got the notorious "bad" words, but it’s also the best track on the album.
10. Mos Def—The Ecstatic
Ah, Mos Def. We’ve missed you. Sure, you’ve shown flashes of greatness in the last couple of years, but we miss the fired-up 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 shows the veteran still has chops. 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 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. Oh, and thanks for reuniting with Talib Kweli on "History"—now, could you maybe work on that second Black Star album? 11. Andrew Bird—Noble Beast
13. mewithoutYou—It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream! It’s Alright
14. David Bazan—Curse Your Branches
15. Manchester Orchestra—Mean Everything to Nothing
16. DOOM—Born Like This
17. St. Vincent—Actor
18. Switchfoot—Hello Hurricane
19. The Swell Season—Strict Joy
20. Pains of Being Pure at Heart—Pains of Being Pure at Heart Honorable Mention: The Antlers—Hospice, Sufjan Stevens—The BQE, Taken by Trees—East of Eden, Sleeping at Last—Storyboards, Wale—Attention Deficit, Jay-Z—The Blueprint 3, The Clientele—Bonfires on the Heath, The Decemberists—Hazards of Love, MuteMath—Armistice, We Were Promised Jetpacks—These Four Walls, Deastro—Moondagger, fun.—Aim & Ignite