My Favorite Albums of 2009
With music blogs thriving, there were more outlets covering music than ever before in 2009, but you wouldn't know it to look at this year's best albums of the year lists, which were as homogenized as I've ever seen. Critics united near unanimously behind a handful of albums, and though their consensus benefited some excellent records, it also usurped the spotlight from other deserving records that could have used the end-of-the-year boost. In 2009, some of the very best albums were also the most overlooked. Below are my 10 favorites (10 runners-up are here). If some of these picks seem a little outside your comfort zone—particularly the top one—remember how many people thought the same thing about Animal Collective just 12 months ago.
10. Telekinesis – “Telekinesis!”
Like a lot of young people with big ambitions and even bigger anxieties, Telekinesis’ Michael Benjamin Lerner can't sit still. He spends his band’s debut album darting around the globe, from America to Tokyo to London, over mountains and across seas, in search of the magic shortcut that will suddenly make the rest of his life fall into place. Lerner’s eager, kinetic power-pop riffs, engineered for maximum catchiness by producer Chris Walla, are so urgent they suggest he’s racing against some imaginary clock, as if he fears his youth were on the brink of sudden expiration. His marathon quest never yields the easy answers he wants or the love he seeks, but it pays off in hooks on one of the sweetest guitar-pop albums of the year.
9. Megafaun – “Gather, Form and Fly”
The North Carolina trio Megafaun revisits the past 50 years of American music on its sophomore album, basking in ’60s folk, ’70s country-rock and bluegrass or all eras. They do so, however, not as revivalists but revisionists, re-purposing these influence into restless new compositions. To Megafaun, American music is a puzzle that has yet to be fully cracked. “I can’t read a painted picture of life as it was in the past,” they sing on “Impressions of the Past,” a shape-shifting orchestral suite that sheds its entire skin three times over, “Impressions of the past will be moored until I find what it is I’m looking for.”
8. Method Man and Redman – “Blackout! 2”
Method Man and Redman’s belated follow-up to their 1999 team-up Blackout! improves on the original in every way, eschewing cartoonish filler in favor of ecstatic hooks, colossal funk and some welcome concessions to contemporary rap that take the duo on an overdue trip outside their comfort zone, most impressively on the southern-flavored UGK homage “City Lights.” Red and Meth’s respective hot and cold flows are fundamental complements of each other, and their chemistry is particularly potent here, with both rappers on the top of their game. Even curmudgeonly old Method Man sounds like he’s having a ball.
7. Grizzly Bear – “Veckatimest”
The compositions on Grizzly Bear’s third album seem fluid, twisting in dramatic, unexpected directions as if following a whim of their own. In reality, each harmonic surprise was meticulously scripted and most likely thoroughly researched, given how studiously Veckatimest resurrects so many forgotten and out-of-vogue forms of American music. Tin Pan Alley, barbershop, church choirs and waltzes of both the jazz and classical variety ground these arrangements, but these sounds are paired in ways they’ve never been before, creating a record that’s both antique and modern. In a year marked by consensus buzz albums, Veckatimest was the universal critical darling that most deserved its accolades.
6. The Church – “Untitled #23”
Old dogs can teach themselves new tricks. Thirty years into their career—and 20 years after their brief commercial peak—The Church have recorded one of their most striking albums yet, a genuine psychedelic masterpiece. Untitled #23 retains all The Church’s hallmarks—the warm, effusive melodies; the complex guitar interplay; the surprising tangents—but it strikes a tone distinct from anything else in their discography. The band resists playing to their usual strengths for shimmering guitar-pop or grandiose, surround-sound rock, and instead attempts something less immediate. Untitled #23 is resigned and melancholic, its guitars restrained and its hooks hidden behind a shadowy, psychedelic haze. It’s a Rorschach inkblot of an album, and each listen lends itself to new discoveries and interpretations.
5. Antony and the Johnsons – “The Crying Light”
On Antony and the Johnson’s 2005 album, I Am A Bird Now, Antony confessed his fear “of that middle place between light and nowhere,” but The Crying Light finds Antony beginning to pine for the purgatory he once dreaded. “I need another world, a place where I can go,” he sings. The Crying Light isn’t as penetratingly sad as I Am A Bird Now, where Antony had not only to contend with issues of mortality but also of gender identity. On that album, Antony’s piano threatened to spiral into madness, but here it just basks in the quiet beauty of these simple, peaceful songs. And though two dozen musicians color The Crying Light, they make themselves as unobtrusive as possible, never attempting to upstage Antony’s nimble voice. The title track, for instance, ends not in a crashing crescendo, but rather with simple finger snaps.
4. Cursive – “Mama, I’m Swollen”
Cursive’s Tim Kasher has spent the decade battling relationship woes and Catholic guilt, troubles that return on the latest Cursive album along with an even more demoralizing scourge: societal pressure for him to give up the whole art thing and act his age, and the lingering doubts that society may be right. Mama, I’m Swollen opens with a bold fake-out: “In The Now,” the most regressive punk song in Cursive’s oeuvre, a knee-jerk response to charges Kasher behave like an adult, but that tantrum gives way to some of Kasher’s prettiest confessionals yet, horn-kissed, soulful pop tunes that beg for extended psychoanalysis.
3. Passion Pit – “Manners”
In 2009, indie-rock was dominated by slight and synthy sorta-pop records, but Passion Pit’s Manners was the real deal, a stadium-sized, lighters-up, “throw your arms around the person closest to you and let’s have a shared moment” pop album. No other electro-pop album offered anywhere near the blood rush, or for that matter nearly as many great singles.
2. Wye Oak – “The Knot”
The second album from the Baltimore dream-pop duo Wye Oak assures that they will never again be referred to as dream-pop duo. It’s a record that eviscerates its listeners with both tiny, graceful flicks of a penknife and wild slashes from a roaring chainsaw—the chainsaw being singer Jenn Wasner’s guitar, which charges through a few of these songs like a bull in a China shop. Wasner’s new-found fury does nothing to undermine the fundamental gorgeousness of these songs, though, which the band saturates in waltzing violins, mournful horns and textural flourishes. Each fluctuation from loud to soft represents another shift in the power dynamics of a relationship so tangled there’s no longer any hope of a clean escape. The more the couple pulls in different directions, the tighter the knot becomes.
1. The-Dream – “Love Vs. Money”
Contemporary R&B albums don’t usually top these sorts of best-of lists, but then again, there’s never been a contemporary R&B album like The-Dream’s 2009 headphone masterpiece. For its scale and ambition, Love Vs. Money invites comparisons to Radiohead, though it’s not nearly as esoteric as Kid A or even OK Computer. This is a piece of art crafted entirely from the fabric of modern pop radio, all regal synthesizers, dulcet vocal tics, booming, skittering drums. It’s such instant ear candy that it’s easy to overlook how much is going on under the surface, where camouflaged hooks and flowering flourishes further reveal themselves with each listen. The-Dream’s songwriting is similarly multifaceted, juxtaposing disarming humor with bruising emotion. Love Vs. Money’s breezy opening singles give way to an anxious suite charting romance from flirtation to fruition to collapse, which The-Dream narrates with the momentum of a gripping mystery novel. The smartest, most gripping album of 2009 was also the one that sounded best played loud over a pair of car speakers.