Even in a down year, picking the 10 best albums is always one of the hardest columns to write. In an excellent music year like 2009 it’s nearly impossible.
Perhaps the digital revolution — this new age of musical commerce in which consumers can buy individual songs for 99 cents apiece so artists have to bring their “A” game to every track in hopes of selling a whole collection — is spawning better albums after all.
Whatever the divine inspiration, many deserving artists like Animal Collective, Neko Case, Mos Def Japandroids, Wilco, Paramore, George Strait, Lily Allen, Green Day, The Flamings Lips and Bruce Springsteen had to be cut so that the list below could live.
There is no ranking from best-to-worst. All these albums are worthy of representing 2009 and will be excellent head candy well beyond this year. Enjoy!
Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (V2 Records) From the synthesized bells and bass clap that introduce “1901” to the uptempo Adam Ant time signature of “Lisztomania,” French rockers Phoenix have proven gifted with hooky melodies, cryptic lyrics and indie “street-cred” that should make them superstars. Now that they’ve been nominated for the Grammy Album of the Year and had their music mixed into prime time television shows C.S.I and Cougar Town, the trick will be to keep that indie “street cred” fresh and hungry. Lead singer Thomas Mars can work on keeping things real while he raises his two kids with baby-mama/actor/director Sofia Coppola in Paris. Good luck with that.
Lyle Lovett, “Natural Forces” (Curb/Lost Highway Records) The best albums are often defined by an ability to break new musical ground. Occasionally, however, a sound that is as old and reliable as a Chevy can be as equally comforting. For that, we can always count on the pride of Klein, Texas. On “Natural Forces,” Lyle Lovett mixes cover songs by other local Texas singer-songwriters and Anderson Hall favorites like Townes Van Zandt, Eric Taylor and Vince Bell with a few new original works. Most are arranged as if Lovett were playing them for friends on a porch swing with nothing but an acoustic guitar for melody and his boot heel to keep time. This is an uncomplicated and wonderful pleasure.
U2 "No Line On the Horizon" (Interscope) The biggest band in the world is proving, once again, that the key to rock band longevity is not being afraid of (or adverse to) musical change. After a decade of stripping their music back down to guitar/percussion/vocal basics following the '90s synthesize bombast of “Achtung Baby,” and “Zooropa,” the Irish quartet finally started revving up the personality engine again on “No Line On the Horizon." Combining a bit of Moroccan-influenced timekeeping and lyrical patience with Edge’s signature guitar jangle, cuts like flirty first single, “Get On Your Boots,” and the inspired anthem title track make longtime U2 fans practically giddy for what comes next.
Fever Ray, “Fever Ray” (Rabid Records) Without a doubt, the most eclectic album on this list. That’s unexpected considering that before Karin Dreijer Andersson gained attention in underground music circles, the most popular musical output from Scandinavian countries was either by ABBA or some taffy-pull hook worked up in a studio for Britney Spears. Andersson’s experiments in sound as Fever Ray are anything but happy-pop. They are, however, just as mesmerizing, but in a much darker way. “When I Grow Up,” wraps around the ears like horror flick fog and “Keep The Streets Empty For Me,” is like a chant set to Goth-xylophone. Fever Ray isn’t for everybody, but for those who have ear drums in constant need of new indulgences, this could end up a dark horse favorite.
Grizzly Bear "Veckatimest" (Warp) More than any other album released in 2009, this is the one that kept creeping back to the front of my iPod all year. There’s something about the crystalline quality of Ed Droste’s soaring tenor in front of a spare psychedelic crunch on “While You Wait for the Others” and the brushed snare loop on “Southern Point” that seems to change with each listen. Listening to “Veckatimest” for the first time made me feel the same way I did when I originally heard Miles Davis’ “Birth of the Cool” as a teenager: The music is technical, subtle and seems to change personality depending on your mood. That’s the mark of strong songwriting.
Dirty Projectors "Bitte Orca" (Domino) Just like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors hail from Brooklyn. That should be enough to unofficially mark New York City’s most populous borough as the “Breakout Music Scene of 2009.” The falsetto harmony by Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian on the single “Stillness is the Move” is but one of several changing soundscapes offered throughout the album. Following the tracklist through the charging, bluesy guitars of “Useful Chamber” or the twee “Two Doves” is the sonic equivalent of shifting exhibits at a modern art gallery: Beautiful even as it suddenly changes.
Metric “Fantasies” (Sony Music Distribution) While everybody else is building an image and practicing poses, Metric’s lead woman, Emily Haines, has relied on little more than her wits, instinct and natural charisma. In the process she has become a rock 'n’ roll everywoman that we all can relate to even as we admire her stage moxie. Blessed with gifted musicians around, Haines emotes, purrs and puts feet on the dance floor with “Satellite Mind,” and “Help, I’m Alive.” Even better is “Sick Muse,” which runs the entire gamut of relationship emotions in four minutes and features one of the great opening song lines: “Watch out, Cupid stuck me with a sickness. Pull your little arrows out and let me live my life.”
The Crooked Vultures “Them Crooked Vultures” (Interscope) If you haven’t heard supergroup Them Crooked Vultures, just imagine Queens of the Stone Age lead man Josh Homme on vocals and guitar, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones flicking the thick strings and the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl back behind the drums (as he was when he was with Nirvana). Getting a mental soundtrack for how that might sound? Now go listen to it. It’s even better.
Pearl Jam “Backspacer” (Monkeywrench) It took nearly a decade but Pearl Jam, one of the most influential bands of the '90s grunge era, finally made a dent worthy of mention in the new millennium. After spending three albums “finding themselves” as adult men with wives and families and noodling with complex arrangements that were often provoking but rarely rocked, Eddie Vedder is leading an anti-establisment masterpiece on “Backspacer.” There are 11 rips about government politics, relationship politics, the destruction of drugs and the human psyche wrapped up in an efficient 36 minutes. If I didn’t know we were talking about Pearl Jam, I’d say that describes to a tee the great punk albums by everyone from The Ramones to Black Flag.
UGK "UGK 4 Life" (Jive) I admit that this is a bit of a “homer” pick on my part, but that doesn’t mean “UGK 4 Life” is unworthy of being on any “Top 10 of 2009” list anywhere in the country. UGK has helped raise “third coast” rap to national hip-hop consciousness since the Port Arthur duo first signed with Jive records in 1992 and became stars when they backed Jay-Z on “Big Pimpin” a decade ago. As it happens too often in hip-hop, UGK’s grandest contribution is the product of tragedy. Just over two years ago, rapper Pimp-C died leaving Bun-B to finish this album as a tribute to his long-time partner before going solo. Joining him to say their “goodbyes” are Ron Isley, Snoop Dogg, Too Short, 8Ball & MJG and Akon to name a few.