My best-of album list for 2009 is probably even more esoteric than usual, which I think is the result of three factors. First, I spent most of my summer listening hours consumed by past faves and overlooked potential faves for end-of-decade list making, resulting in hearing less new music this year than normal. Second, it turned out that some of my favorite new-to-me records were really 2008 obscurities I was late getting around to, a couple of which I cherish too much to leave off the list. But finally, there just wasn't much in the way of critical consensus this year and what there is (hello, Animal Collective) seems highly specious to these ears.
The most important artists of 2009 in terms of making compelling music for a mass audience were Jay-Z, Brad Paisley, and Taylor Swift, though Jay-Z's blockbuster is only a high-second-tier album by his own standards and Paisley and Swift are habitués of a vital pop genre taken seriously only by millions of devotées and a hardy minority of rock critics.
You might not get this sense from reading much of the pop-music press, which, over the past decade, has become overrun with indie-rock specialists who confuse personal inclination for a cultural center.
Even more than normal, I thought the indie hype machine was a little off this year, though I found little in the pick hits to fully reject. Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors produced songs I like ("My Girls" and "Stillness Is the Move," respectively) on albums (Merriweather Post Pavilion and Bitte Orca, ditto) I can take or leave, which is more than I can say for Grizzly Bear. And while I'm down for anything Karen O & her sonic boytoys want to throw my way, I think It's Blitz is only half-great and far from a career peak.
I admire the throwback craft of Phoenix's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Girls' Album but don't think the former really amounts to much beyond pleasant background sound and don't think the latter quite matches the more inspired traditionalism of the garage-rock-identified likes of Jay Reatard, the Reigning Sound, and Davila 666.
More promising to me are the spidery guitars and shy boy-girl vocals of Brit band The XX, whose late-'09 debut might've made this list if I'd had a few more weeks to live with it. Truth be told, however, I was more impressed by the graceful staying power of indie/alt elders Sonic Youth and Built to Spill. Among other finds of 2009:
1. Troubadour — K'Naan (Capitol): Mogadishu-via-Toronto rapper K'Naan takes a quantum leap on this second studio album. Vaulting past the folkie constraints of 2008's otherwise excellent The Dusty Foot Philosopher, Troubadour unites the swagger of American hip-hop, the ebullience of Afropop, and the swing of reggae; it combines the pan-cultural appeal of Bob Marley, the razor wit of Eminem, and the detail-rich bootstrap storytelling of Notorious B.I.G. Documenting a journey from "the only place worse than Kandahar" to a triumphant moment that finds him "on a world tour with Mohammed and them," he's got a story to tell — a cousin left behind in the war, a girlfriend lost to it, a dangerous obstacle course of pirates, "warlords," and "beardos." He wants — and deserves — to be massive. But even if he never gets there, he'll have left a testament.
2. American Saturday Night — Brad Paisley (Arista): Skilled songwriter, nifty guitarist, and engaging aw-shucks vocalist, West Virginia's Brad Paisley has long been a country-music master-craftsman and occasionally brilliant singles artist. But here's where he breaks through to something even grander. The dual national hymns to cultural diversity and progress are the unavoidable calling cards, but this country boy's out-of-character optimism is rooted in more than an unspoken respect for a groundbreaking president. It's also grounded in a happy home life that is its own symbol of red-state/blue-state reconciliation and which Paisley pays tribute to with a battery of songs about courtship, marriage, and fatherhood that consistently tweak cliché into wisdom.
3. Love vs. Money — The-Dream (Def Jam): On this second album, Terius "The-Dream" Nash emerges as R&B's Kanye West: Producer turned artist, overcoming vocal limitation with an overflowing batch of musical, lyrical, and conceptual ideas, and with the rare humor and awareness to comment on the culture from the inside. He plays at being a standard-issue nightclub lothario, but his failure fascinates: He doesn't just want to take a hottie home. He wants to take her home to his mama and then keep a beautician on standby in case things get, um, interesting.
4. Watch Me Fall — Jay Reatard (Matador): Local favorite(?) son roots around in his own rotten mind for half an hour, finds plenty of botheration, but also pockets of grace and hooks galore. Indie-rock album of the year for people who like actual songs.
5. Wussy – Wussy (Shake It): A great throwback indie band from Ohio with Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker wrapping their complementary voices (him: high-pitched, nasally; her: deeper, more fraught) around complementary songs (him: loopy metaphors, left-field imagery; her: concrete but poetic) on top of a sturdy bar-band sound.
6. The Ecstatic — Mos Def (Downtown): A couple of sure shots aside, this career-best album doesn't sound that way song for song, but it flows like a great mixtape, with a hip-hop-gone-global sound that deepens with time.
7. Revolution — Miranda Lambert (Sony): Her first album was a surprise personal statement. Her second a genre firecracker. This crafty, consistent third establishes Lambert for the long haul. The Texas-bred songwriter has taken over the half-in/half-out approach to mainstream country that Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett inhabited 20 years ago. The difference is that the very thing that makes her more commercially viable (she's a pretty young blond woman) also makes it harder for their (stuffy white dude) fans to take her seriously.
8. It's Not Me, It's You — Lily Allen (Capitol): Whipsmart, alternately ornery and tender, subtly musical, Allen is the Brit synth-pop Liz Phair, only with a better sophomore album.
9. The Blueprint 3 — Jay-Z (Roc Nation): A high-toned pop juggernaut about what he now knows best: celebrity lifestyle, hip-hop history, political connects, his own awesomeness.
10. Davila 666 — Davila 666 (In the Red) and Vol 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails — The Baseball Project (Yep Roc): Two mid-2008 releases I first discovered in '09. San Juan's Davila 666 sift through pre-punk rock (Stones, Stooges, Velvets, garage-rock, etc.) with a startling musicality and rousing spirit that never let up. The Baseball Project is alt-rock also-rans Steve Wynn and Scott McCaughey coming together for a series of songs about our onetime national pastime. Result: Dylan excepted, the best folk-rock record since Mermaid Avenue.
Honorable Mentions: Tres Tres Fort — Staff Benda Bilili (Crammed Discs), Glasvegas — Glasvegas (Columbia), Art Brut vs. Satan — Art Brut (Downtown), Love and Curses — The Reigning Sound (In the Red), I and Love and You — The Avett Brothers (American), There Is No Enemy — Built to Spill (Warner), It's Blitz — Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Geffen), The Eternal — Sonic Youth (Matador), Horehound — The Dead Weather (Third Man), BlaQKout — DJ Quik & Kurupt (Mad Science)
A Second Opinion
By Stephen Deusner
1. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — Phoenix (Glassnote): Pure pop for now people, Phoenix distills a decade of stray hooks and rambling arrangements into a precisely arranged and dynamically performed collection of songs. It's how you wish the Strokes sounded these days.
2. Beauties Never Die — Sissy Wish (Afternoon): Siri Alberg released her third album as Sissy Wish two years ago in her native Norway, and it's only now received a domestic edition. It's well worth the wait, as she constructs her songs in odd and original ways, combining wordy observations with distinctive dance-rock orchestrations. The title track is one of the sweetest declarations of love and patience this decade.
3. It's Blitz — Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Interscope): The years haven't been kind to most of the boroughs' bands, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs change things up enough to uproot themselves from that scene. Borrowing gritty synths from some lost '80s soundtrack, they continue to chronicle New York in all its gutter glory, producing one of the best singles of 2009 in the process ("Zero").
4. Album — Girls (True Pantha/Matador): One of the best indie albums of the year is also one of the best back stories: After escaping from a death cult as a child and bumming around America like a lower-rent Kerouac, Christopher Owens recorded an album of catchy, life-affirming rock songs that borrow from early pre-orchestral Beach Boys as well as Elvis Costello and the Stooges but without the slightest trace of irony or record-collection nostalgia.
5. Because I Was in Love — Sharon Van Etten (Language of Stone): Spare, heartbroken love songs written during a bad relationship and performed afterward, Van Etten's debut simultaneously resurrects and exorcises every act of blame and recrimination and makes a virtue of giving little comfort.
Honorable Mentions: Gather Form & Fly — Megafaun (Hometapes), Embryonic — The Flaming Lips (Warner), Merriweather Post Pavilion — Animal Collective (Rough Trade), Middle Cyclone — Neko Case (Anti-), Electric Dirt — Levon Helm (Vanguard)