The 12 Best Albums of 2009… You Likely Didn’t Hear
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. Neko Case is really fucking awesome. Phoenix and The Flaming Lips? They’ve been outstanding for as long as we can remember–they don’t need our props. We’ll keep on pretending that Animal Collective is really cool, too, even though we only buy their vinyl so that our friends will respect us. Why exactly the xx is supposed to so groundbreaking, we’ll never understand, and only in our darkest hour will we admit that the only track we truly love on Veckatimest is the freakin’ single.
Now that we’ve taken care of that, here’s a list of the best albums you may have missed in 2009 because you were too busy reading Pitchfork and illegally downloading that shitty Neon Indian album:
Jean-Emmanuel Krieger’s sophomore effort as Baikonour is impossible to pigeonhole, in part because each of its nine tracks are journeys in miniature. “Shikharettes & Khukuris” tosses influences into an inflatable bounce house, pinging back and forth from The Great Escape era Blur to the droning hypnotics of American Analog Set before transcending to someplace else entirely. The songs here are rich in texture, blending traditional instrumentation with atmospheric, electronic textures, and the result is an engrossing, instrumental record that never leaves the listener missing vocals.
In a perfect world, the music of the 1970s would have sounded a little more like Mazes’ debut. On the self-titled effort, the band–a side project for the equally engaging The 1900s–channels the best of ’70s AM sounds and mixes with more than the occasional touch of Americana. It is that rare album which stands on its own as a genuine and honest act of expression, untroubled by the confines of genre or expectations. Mazes is also an album in the proper sense, with a cohesiveness and consistency which is far too uncommon these days.
If you are looking for an indictment of the recording industry and its sorry state of affairs, look no further than the fact that The Beautiful Confusion had to self-release this record. This eponymous record possesses both an endearing sense of familiarity and a character all its own, dusty and sun sapped. Pedal steel guitar notes land like kisses from a lover’s supple lips, vocal harmonies thrive over gentle percussive shuffles, and the production is spot-on throughout. The Beautiful Confusion is an exceptional album for anyone who enjoys Teenage Fanclub’s quieter moments or the solo work of Neil Halstead.
Souvenir has devised a strange recipe for musical success. Hailing from Spain, the band has always recorded their songs in French, and their past few releases have traced a trajectory away from jangly indie-pop toward synthesizer punctuated electro-pop. That metamorphosis seems to have completed on Drums, Sex and Dance, a record which (as its title suggests) is about simply enjoying music as a primal, fun medium. None of its nine tracks venture too far off the well-trod path blazed by New Order and the current crop of Aussie indie-dance acts, but they are all pure bubblegum with four on the floor.
Everybody, Come Outside! marries the pop reverence of The Shins with the more ambitious inclinations of Band of Horses so well, I’m a little shocked the blogosphere wasn’t foaming at the mouth over this release by Pomegranates. The band’s second effort has depth like the ocean; nearly every track takes unanticipated detours through enchanting spaces. While Pomegranates’ music may be guitar driven, such a designation misses the point entirely–Everybody, Come Outside! is an elegant, impressive statement.
What can one say about an album where almost every song can stand on its own as a single? “Two Shocks” is maybe the best opening track on a record since “Tired of Sex,” its mounting intensification both controlled and potent. Touchdown is the sort of record you can’t listen to loud enough, not because it is “noisy” per se, but more because it demands the sort of immersive, close listen that only turning things up to eleven can provide. Ric Ocasek should be jealous of “Crush on You,” it’s such a perfectly concise, singalong pop punch. There are fewer songs I would rather have get stuck on repeat than “Worry About It Later,” with its shimmery guitar part and propulsive vocals… except maybe for “Oh! Forever,” which could very well be the best song of the year on any album.
This album was recorded by a German fashion designer… over the course of seven months… in the catacombs of a 14th century church… and is divided into five acts apropos of the original form of Greek tragedies. Seriously. And you know what? It is mind-blowingly gorgeous.
Patrick Zimmer’s vocals are exquisite and barely there, the perfect complement to his wall of instrumentation. The Best Low-Priced Heartbreakers You Can Own is by turns devastating and inspiring, filled with dramatic arrangements and impeccable production. Zimmer’s compositions bravely venture beyond delicateness to sheer fragility, but just when you think he’s shattered your heart, he knows how to bring the pieces together again. It is hard to think of a better record for wallowing in melancholy or perhaps soundtracking a wistful, snowy weekend morning. Utterly and unpretentiously beautiful music.
Some folks are born mathematical whiz kids, others with an uncanny memory and ability to recall dates, names, and facts. My guess is that Malcolm Middleton was just born blessed with some sort of musical Rainman gene. How else to explain an album like Waxing Gibbous, whose songs are flawlessly conceived and even better executed.
In a world where fewer music journalists are content to sheepishly follow the cues of their contemporaries, Waxing Gibbous would be gracing a whole hell of a lot of best of 2009 lists. Instead, I suppose this record just gains an added degree of specialness from the fact that not enough people know about it. Middleton’s vision here is impeccable and precise–it is easy to imagine him meticulously guiding each track’s myriad elements into place, not like a perfectionist but rather with the exacting hands of someone working with an elaborate blueprint.
Wild Beasts’ Limbo, Panto was one of the most engrossing, original debuts in recent memory, and they followed it up a year later with Two Dancers, a record that built upon all of the strengths of its predecessor to create something even more remarkable. The band has two of the most inimitable vocalists around, and their compositions have reached a new height of refinement. Wild Beasts are now comfortable stretching things out when they want to (as on the five and a half minute opener, “The Fun Powder Plot”) but avoid the misstep of sloshing around in their own grandeur (two tracks here are less than two and a quarter minutes long). Although, if they want to wallow in their own genius on record number three, I wouldn’t complain. Some people will gripe that they “don’t like the way they sing,” but these are the same sad bastards who miss out on bands like Shearwater and Sigur Ros (and hell, probably even The Smiths). Their loss, especially considering how Wild Beasts excels at jeux de mots.
All these records later, and I still fantasize about an alternate universe where Richard Hawley is my embarrassingly cool father, the kind who gives you a ’57 Chevy on your sixteenth birthday and who all of your girlfriends are a little bit in love with. I’m hard pressed to think of any contemporary artist whose music is more deserving of the “romantic” label than Hawley, who commands the timeless cool of performers like Roy Orbison and, fuck it, Elvis Presley. Truelove’s Gutter is another set of positively swoon-worthy tunes by the former Pulp member. Hawley traffics in an iconic, melodramatic style that even your grandparents might think is cool (but that’s alright–you guys probably don’t spend enough time together anyway). Truelove’s Gutter is perfect music for falling in love to… or for mending a broken heart.
This kid is still in college–it just ain’t right. It should take songwriters decades to exhibit the sort of compositional mastery Will Stratton does on this, his second amazing full-length. The music here is emotional without being saccharine, grand without being pompous, and sincere without being self-consciously so. “Who Will” is a stunning opener, the perfect platform for Stratton’s brilliant chops and instrumental acuity. It envelops the listener like a warm blanket on a winter’s night, its vocal harmonies and gentle strings a tender, secure embrace. We should all be so lucky as to live in a world where Stratton has so many productive years ahead of him. Albums like No Wonder feel like a gift from some unknowable place.
And now for something completely different. When Volume One of the compiled recordings of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou was released in 2008, it was easily one of the better releases of the year. The same is true for this second installment, which traces the Nigerian outfit’s recordings at EMI’s (relatively) posh Lagos studios from 1969-’79. The folks at Analog Africa have done an amazing job with the packaging on this release, which includes a forty-four page booklet outlining the band’s origins and various permutations in text and through photos.
As for the music, it is unmistakably celebratory and seriously transfixing, its grooves appropriately thick in relation to the voodoo rhythms (the “Echos Hypnotiques” in question) the band interpreted toward its inception. This time around, however, the band’s influences are more global. Afro-beat styles feature prominently, but so do tropical Latin rhythms and the kaleidescopic confections of the era’s psychedelia. When swirled together with the Vodoun sounds and native sato and sakpata traditions, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou weaves a fertile, idiosyncratic set of songs almost guaranteed to be unlike anything else you have previously encountered.