Here are my top 20 albums of 2009. In the not-too-distant future, I'll try to post those that fell just outside of the top 20...but I make no promises.
Sufjan Stevens - The BQE
Sufjan's modern-classical album. Lots of strings, horns, and electronic experimentation. Exactly what I expected...and it's glorious.
Favorite track: "Movement IV: Traffic Shock"
19. Solander - Since We Are Pigeons
Dark, acoustic-based Swedish music. A bit spotty at times, but, overall, I really like it. It kind of reminded me of Sufjan's Seven Swans era for a while...but that may have just been the banjo.
Favorite track: "Berlin"
18. Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures
John Paul Jones, Dave Grohl, and Josh Homme got together and made a terrific hard rock album. There are shades of Led Zeppelin and Queens of the Stone Age, to be sure...but it's still a great hard-rock blues album, that, at times, doesn't really sound like anyone.
Favorite track: "New Fang"
17. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson - Break Up
I've never been a big Pete Yorn fan, but I liked this album. He found a good singing partner in Scarlett Johansson. This is just a good pop album, which revolves around a couple breaking up (in case you couldn't tell from the title). Drop your cynicism and give this album a shot...it's better than you think.
Favorite track: "I Am the Cosmos"
16. Susan Enan - Plainsong
This album is, at its heart, a folk album. But all the songs are filled out with great instrumentation, making for a very enjoyable listen. Her voice really makes the album, though. Even on songs where the instrumentation is sparse (as it is on "The Grave"), her voice never allows the song to become boring.
Favorite Track: "Moonlight"
15. David Bazan - Curse Your Branches
I'll turn this one over to Matthew, who wrote about this album on his blog:
"Here we have possibly the most well-known man in Christian indie rock (Pedro the Lion) openly questioning his faith, sometimes in the most blunt manner: 'Wait just a minute, you expect me to believe that all this misbehaving grew from one enchanted tree?' This is an important record, simply because it shows how one man can struggle so deeply within himself. Alcoholism, wavering faith, depression, this is as personal as it gets. 'When all this lethal drinking is to hopefully forget about you. I might as well admit it, like I even have a choice. The crew have killed the captain, but they still can hear his voice.' This s*** is heartbreaking."
Couldn't have said it better if I wanted to.
Favorite track: "Please, Baby, Please"
14. Blakroc - Blakroc
The Black Keys decided to do a hip-hop record. So they laid-down some tracks, and invited some friends over (Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, Ludacris, NOE, RZA, Raekwon, Jim Jones, and others), and cranked out an album. It's an album filled with a blues-rock backbeat, and some great emcees in the forefront...just don't call it a rap-rock album.
Favorite track: "Done Did It (feat. NOE)"
13. The Dead Weather - Horehound
Jack White on drums. Allison Mosshart (The Kills) on vocals. Jack Lawrence (The Greenhornes/The Raconteurs) on bass. Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) on guitar. It's a loud, crunchy blues/rock mix that sounds terrific.
Favorite track: "60 Feet Tall"
12. Wale - Attention Deficit
He has a smooth style, reminiscent of Lupe Fiasco (with shades of Kanye's better moments), but without sounding like he's ripping either of them off. The production is terrific as well (including one song produced by TV On the Radio's Dave Sitek). There are some moments when the lyrics are a bit cheesy ("I remain a Giant and you Jeremy Shockey" comes to mind), but, for the most part, he keeps it interesting and funny, with moments of seriousness (most notably "90210" and "Shades"). The great moments on this album far outweigh the lesser ones.
Favorite track: "Chillin' (feat. Lady Gaga)"
11. Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz
A synth-laden album that starts out with the dance-club feel of "Zero" and ends with "Little Shadow", a slow song with minimal instrumentation. Karen O has really found out how to use her voice. Gone is the howling of Fever to Tell, replaced with a more polished (but still a hint of wildness under the surface) vocal style. It's their best album to date.
Favorite Track: "Skeletons"
10. The Raveonettes - In and Out of Control
The Raveonettes do fuzzed-out-and-distorted 50s inspired pop music better than anyone (with the possible exception of Glasvegas...but, with only one record under their belt, it's tough to tell). This album is no different. The album gets off to a perfect start with "Bang!", and it doesn't let up from there. While their lyrics have never been their strong point (there's a song called "Boys Who Rape Should All Be Destroyed"...and, while I agree with the sentiment, it makes for a pretty clunky set of lyrics), they're good enough to not be a distraction in most cases. There's not much to differentiate this album from some of their previous albums...but there's nothing wrong with that. They know what they're good at, and they're sticking with it. As long as they continue to be this good with it, I don't care if they ever change.
Favorite track: "Last Dance"
9. Elvis Perkins - Elvis Perkins in Dearland
Elvis hooked me with his first album (Ash Wednesday). It was a ridiculously sad album, and the music reflected that. This album has an entirely different feel to it, and it took me a couple of listens to get into it because of that. The lyrics haven't gotten much more hopeful on this album (although "I don't let Doomsday bother me/Do you let it bother you?" may be the closest he'll ever get to writing a happy song), but the music is much peppier. There are elements of New Orleans jazz (the aforementioned "Doomsday" sounds like it was recorded on a New Orleans street), blues, pop and folk sprinkled throughout. The songs are filled out with a full band and some terrific horn arrangements. It's an album with a lot going on, and it takes a couple of listens to take it all in. But once you do, you'll want to turn it up loud and never stop listening.
Favorite track: "1 2 3 Goodbye"
8. Handsome Furs - Face Control
Made up of the husband and wife team of Dan Boeckner (from Wolf Parade) and Alexei Perry, this album comes off as a dark, scuzzy rock album with a hint of dancehall. It's upbeat and catchy, but it also feels a little creepy. It's one of those albums that I loved right away, and the more I listened to it, the more I loved it (for the record, that's extremely rare for me).
Favorite track: "All We Want, Baby, Is Everything"
7. Fun - Aim & Ignite
An upbeat album from a band that seems to love Queen and ELO. Nate Ruess' (from The Format) voice has a Freddy Mercury feel to it, but not quite as dramatic (it sometimes comes off a little more as Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance). For the most part, the songs are very well orchestrated, filled out with lots of voices and strings. "The Gambler" is the exception. It's a piano-driven love song that brings to mind Ben Folds' "The Luckiest". It's a beautiful song, and it fits well on this album, even though it's a slightly different style.
(Extra note: Andrew Dost, a former member of Anathallo, is also a member of this band.)
Favorite track: "All the Pretty Girls"
6. Neko Case - Middle Cyclone
I originally had this album ranked much higher. Then, as I went back and listened to it again, I realized there were a handful of songs that I didn't really care for ("Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" and "Fever" being the major culprits). I didn't hate them: I just didn't really like them too much. But, aside from those couple of tracks, all the others are amazing. I've been a Neko Case fan since 2000's Furnace Room Lullaby, and I think this is her best album. "This Tornado Loves You", "Magpie to the Morning", and "Don't Forget Me" rank right up there with the best songs she's ever done. The music sounds terrific (the "piano choir" on "Don't Forget Me" is absolutely gorgeous) and her voice is in top form. If you haven't listened to Neko Case before, this is a good place to start.
Favorite track: "Magpie to the Morning"
5. Bat for Lashes - Two Suns
Bat for Lashes' first album (Fur and Gold) was a great debut album, but it was a little uneven. I liked it a lot, but there were a number of songs that never really hit me. This album is a different matter. It's a much more cohesive album, and the songs are a much stronger group. There's nothing that quite approaches the beauty of "Sad Eyes" from Fur and Gold, but, as a whole, this album is much better. The album is laden with synths, percussion, and lots of lyrics featuring crystals. It's a haunting album that sounds something like Kate Bush in her prime. Don't miss this album.
Favorite track: "Sleep Alone"
4. Regina Spektor - Far
Regina Spektor has been making quirky, piano-driven pop music for a number of years now. This is the best she has ever sounded. I can't explain it, but the piano just sounds better on this album. Perhaps it's a little cleaner...but it definitely sounds like there's an extra measure of beauty in those keys this time around. I can't explain why...I just know how it feels. There's not a weak song on the album. It's a great quirky pop album. Like you could expect anything less from her at this point.
Favorite track: "One More Time With Feeling"
3. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson - Summer of Fear
His first, self-titled album was decent. It started off strong, but, overall, there wasn't much to it. It was originally recorded to be a demo, and it sounded like it. It was mainly Miles and his guitar. Pretty stripped down. This album was produced by Kyp Malone (of TV On the Radio), and it shows. The songs are more realized, and they're filled out with layers upon layers of guitars, vocals, percussion, horns, and strings. When everything is working, it sounds terrific; a glorious sound that only improves the louder it gets. At times it sounds a little ramshackle, and at times his voice doesn't quite sound on-key, but it all seems to work. It's not the most accessible album (it took me 6 or 7 times to really start liking it), but, once it "clicks", you'll be glad you gave it a chance. There are moments when this album is absolutely breathtaking.
Favorite track: "Summer of Fear, Pt. 2"
2. Florence + The Machine - Lungs
I had head that Florence Welch had a great voice. That's all I knew going into this album. But there's so much more to it. Her voice is incredible...but it's the percussion that really made me love this album. It's not often you hear deep, booming percussion as far up in the mix as you do on this album (it is most evident on "Howl" and "Drumming Song"). Yet, even with the percussion sitting up far in the mix (and the rest of the instrumentation swirling around it), her voice is able to be prominent without the need for screaming. She has a commanding voice that demands to be heard, no matter what else is going on. Her voice is also diverse enough to switch from dance pop ("Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up") to punk rock ("Kiss With a Fist") to slow-building, explosive pop/soul/blues ("Girl With One Eye") without skipping a beat. Florence Welch is a tremendous talent...and she should be making terrific music for a number of years.
Favorite track: "Girl With One Eye"
1. St. Vincent - Actor
From the moment this album came out, I knew it would end up here. It had to. Annie Clark is a unique talent; she is able to make creative, abrasive rock music without sounding forced or "arty for the sake of arty". She's sincere in her music, and you can tell. This album is a perfect blend of pop, rock, and violent outbursts of sound. Sure, there are some quieter moments (like "The Bed"), but even those songs have enough creative instrumentation going on to keep it interesting. But it's the harder moments (the crunchy guitar of "Actor Out of Work", the woodwind and kick-drum driven groove of "Marrow") that demand your attention. When everything kicks in, you can't help but listen with your mouth hanging open. And, of course, throughout the entire album is Annie's voice, doing whatever it needs to do to fit with the music. She's a chameleon...in a good way. She's a master of vocal delivery (the moment that starts around the 2 minute mark of "Neighbors" may be my favorite moment of the entire album...her voice kicks in and just steals the show), standing strong in the midst of the musical chaos that surrounds her.
Marry Me was incredible. This album is darn near perfect. I can't wait to see what she does next.
Favorite track: "Marrow"
Feel free to add your own thoughts in the comment section.