29 January 2010

Best Music of 2009

I’m almost done with my Top 100 Albums of the 2000s list, but it seemed kind of ass-backwards to post that one before doing my Best of 2009 list. I had thought this year was going to be kind of an afterthought, what with the inevitable end-of-decade hoopla, not to mention that I appeared to be headed for my oldest and most esoteric Top 10 ever, but having now had a chance to catch up on some late-breaking releases, as well as others that I’d missed during the year, I’m now convinced that this was a pretty decent year, one with at least 13 or 14 albums that would have easily made my 2008 Top 10. Even better, 2010 is shaping up to be a monster, with strong new releases from Spoon and Four Tet already making bids for next year's list and new albums on the way from most of my other current faves. Less happily, this is my first rapless Top 10 since…well, ever, I guess. Raekwon’s fine Only Built for Cuban Linx…Pt. II came closest, but, good as it is, it seems like evidence that hip-hop is now entering its classic-rock period. That’s not a good thing, in case you were wondering. On to the list:

1. U2—No Line on the Horizon

U2’s 12th studio album is one of its best, with longtime producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois asserting themselves as full-on collaborators. Following the solid but too comfortable How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), No Line on the Horizon reclaims the sense of musical and spiritual searching that has defined the band’s best work. (See “Found Horizons,” posted March 10.) (“Unknown Caller” “Moment of Surrender”)

2. The Field—Yesterday and Today
This supremely chilled out second album from Sweden’s Axel Willner improves on the formula of his 2007 debut, From Here We Go Sublime, adding a little rhythmic variation to his melodic techno. The most striking move is a cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” a new wave hit from the Korgis, which briefly adds a human voice to Willner's mix, but each of the six tracks on this carefully constructed album is subtly distinguished from the others. The result is the most aesthetically realized music of the year. (“Leave It” “Sequenced”)

3. The XX—XX
The debut album from a quartet of British early-twentysomethings who know what a VCR is. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim trade intimacies in vocals that feel almost whispered against the minimalist precision of the band’s arrangements. Supposedly they’re influenced by early-2000s R&B, but I can’t hear it. I’m thinking their parents must have listened to The Cure. Or possibly their grandparents. (“Crystalised” “Night Time”)

4. Julian Casablancas—Phrazes for the Young
The first solo album from Casablancas continues along the musical (synthpop, crooned vocals) and spiritual (Baudelairean) vectors of the third (but apparently not last) Strokes album, First Impressions of Earth (2006). I’m now convinced he has the stuff to develop into an American version of Jarvis Cocker, should we dare to even hope for such a thing. Included is the funniest/saddest song about NYC gentrification ever (“It started back in 1624…”). (“11th Dimension” “Left & Right in the Dark”)

5. Sonic Youth—The Eternal
Sonic Youth’s 15th proper album, and first for Matador, dissects and reconfigures musical elements from various phases of the band’s music to date—atonality, ironic pop forms, noise, hard-rock riffing, etc. As with U2 on No Line on the Horizon, the result is an album that feels both quintessential and not quite like any of their other records. Returning to the lo-fi sound of their ’80s period, the band stretches out gloriously on extended cuts like the alternately anthemic and meditative “Anti-Orgasm” and the unsettling “Massage the History.” (“Anthem” “Massage the History”)

6. Florence & the Machine—Lungs

With the Amerindie scene increasingly overrun by turgid hipster music (well represented in this year’s Pazz & Jop poll), it was refreshing to hear something hi-fi from a new artist with a big voice and bigger songs. A 23-year-old native of London, Florence Welch combines a variety of influences, mostly of the misfit female variety (Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk, etc.), and musical styles (alt-rock, soul, mainstream pop) on this buoyant, overflowing debut. (“Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)” “Between Two Lungs”)

7. Fever Ray—Fever Ray
This solo project from Karin Dreijer is in many respects even darker and more disturbing that her work with brother Olof as The Knife. The gothic soundscapes and distorted vocals recall the duo’s Silent Shout, but repeated listenings reveal Fever Ray as a more intimate, if no less mysterious, record, eschewing some of the dissonant sonic flourishes of the earlier album in favor of a haunting ambience. (“When I Grow Up” “Now’s the Only Time I Know”)

8. PJ Harvey & John Parish—A Woman a Man Walked By

For some reason, I didn’t much care for this when it was released in March, but having rediscovered it a few weeks ago, I’m now convinced that this war-haunted album is Harvey’s best since Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (2000), a reminder of how indispensable her artistic vision remains. The somber tone is similar to that of 2007’s dirge-heavy White Chalk, but here sadness and regret are tempered by anger, and Parish’s presence as collaborator adds some much-needed musical variety. (“The Soldier” “A Woman a Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All the Little Children Go”)

9. Dirty Projectors—Bitte Orca
Something from an arty hipster band that I do like. (“Stillness Is the Move” “Temecula Sunrise”)

10. SunnO)))—Monoliths & Dimensions
Try as I might, I’ve never been able to get into metal—most of it tends to lose me as soon as the singer opens his mouth. SunnO))), a duo comprising guitarists Stephen O’Malley and Greg Anderson, isn’t exactly a metal band, but the music does employ some of the instrumental and, yes, vocal tics of the genre in the service of what the band has termed “power ambient” music, a label that aptly describes Monoliths & Dimensions. The album’s doom-metal sonics are complemented by unexpected elements like a women’s choir and even a French horn. The vocals on the first track still remind me of the orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s a hypnotic song that holds up to repeated listenings, and the album only gets better from there. (“Big Church” “Alice”)

Top 5 songs not on those albums

I half-assed this list so badly last year that I almost didn’t do one this time, but I’m happier with this one.

1. Girls—“Lust for Life”

2. Bob Dylan—“It’s All Good”

The title kind of says it all.

3. Bat for Lashes—“Daniel”

I’m highly ambivalent about Two Suns, much of which is beautiful and mesmerizing, even as other bits feel fraudulent. This is the type of goth-tinged pop song that a band like Love and Rockets might have been able to get on the radio 25 years ago, but which has sadly disappeared from the mainstream.

4. The Arctic Monkeys—“Cornerstone”

I want to hang out at the Parrot’s Beak. Or the Rusty Hook.

5. Patterson Hood—“The Pride of the Yankees”

Also some mention should be made of Edan’s unclassifiable “Echo Party,” a 29-minute track that reimagines the old school hip-hop party jam as some synthetic type of alpha beta psychedelic funkin’, and of The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms (1980) and The Good Earth (1986), the most significant rock reissues of the year.

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