As I finalize my list of the 10 best albums of 2009—as well as what you have here, some of the best albums of 2009 that didn’t make my list—I recognize two things: (1) anything here could be in my actual Top 10, and anything in my Top 10 could be here, and I’d still like both lists just as much as I do now; and (2) these lists serve absolutely no purpose to anyone except (maybe) me. Next week is my Top 10 itself—which will be counted down with actual numbers and everything. Will you care about that, then? I imagine not. But just the same, I can’t help recommending this music, all of which made my 2009 a lot better.
Califone—All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans)
Tim Rutili’s career as Califone has yielded one of the most rewarding catalogs in indie rock. His music’s roots are in Americana, but his arrangements are so spare, and his approach so experimental, that the songs themselves sound like nothing else in the world. According to Rutili, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers is a story about a woman who “lives in a house full of ghosts, and one day, the ghosts realize they’re trapped, and she has to find a way—even though she doesn’t want them to go—to get them out of the house. Then they start destroying her life.” The album sounds quite a bit more haunting than that.
Florence and the Machine—Lungs (Island)
I can understand being suspicious of big-money, big-hype British pop acts—I’ve been suckered more times than you know—so I can understand the ambivalence with which American audiences (i.e., American critics) have approached Florence and the Machine, but every time I listen to Lungs, I’m swept up by, y’know, the music. I’ve heard Flo herself compared to Kate Bush, but when I listen I hear Annie Lennox, Feist, Roisin Murphy; I hear swirling, intoxicating, smart pop; music generous enough to welcome all audiences, even if those audiences are hesitant to accept the invitation.
Kylesa—Static Tensions (Prosthetic Records)
Georgia metal combo Kylesa have long been known for their ferocious intensity and riff-driven psychedelic explorations, but Static Tensions ups their game by a few notches. The music is pugilistic, unforgiving and hypnotic, but the band’s strict attention to songcraft gives Static Tensions depths and nuances to be explored. At its frequent best—give a listen to the amazing, almost-epic “Running Red,” for instance—the band reaches an intimidating momentum and some truly dizzying heights.
Engineers—Three Fact Fader (kscope)
Engineers’ 2005 debut was a small, overlooked gem—Floydian shoegaze with razor-sharp edges and crescendos like sun showers. After its release, almost unnoticed, the band disappeared…only to reemerge, all these years later, with this: this gorgeous, labyrinth of cascading guitars and stark, pellucid vocals; this meticulous, towering cathedral of sound. Three Fact Fader should have been recognized as a new classic of its genre—instead, however, it went every bit as ignored as its predecessor.
Real Estate—Real Estate (Woodsist)
As I wrote in a recent review of their wonderful debut, one of the best things about this past summer was unearthing all these Real Estate recorded oddities, and catching the New Jersey band live, as they seemed to be playing somewhere in New York City every weekend. In fact, I can’t think of any music I associated with summer of 2009 more than Real Estate, yet the fact that the LP itself didn’t actually drop till November was irrelevant: The songs are indelible and tied to no season, and all those gigs have paid off: Having seen the band in both July and November, I can say with authority that while they were quite good back then, they’re killing it now.
The Horrors—Primary Colours (XL)
The 2009 darlings of the NME, the Horrors released Primary Colours to both immense anticipation and skepticism. That’s only natural, considering how frequently the NME pulls a bait-and-switch on its readership, but Primary Colours was resistant to any simple reactions—instead it built a complex relationship with its audience over numerous listens. With hues of Joy Division, My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain and Portishead (whose Geoff Barrow produced here) the album was dark and sordid, sexy and sad, and by year’s end, it looked less like empty hype and more like a minor classic.
The Cribs—Ignore the Ignorant (Warner Bros.)
Is there anything left of the Britpop cycle started by the Libertines? Forgettable recent albums from the Arctic Monkeys, Kaiser Chiefs and the Kooks certainly suggest it’s over. The Cribs, then, may be the last band standing from that class, and Ignore the Ignorant may be the best work to emerge from its many once-promising alumni. Of course, none of those aforementioned bands have Johnny Marr on guitar, but it’s not just Marr’s presence that lifts the album to its impressive heights; Ignorant is a triumph, an album of skiffling, swelling pop, with sing-along choruses, punk rage, and post-punk explosiveness.
The Mary Onettes—Islands (Labrador)
Sad-eyed Swedes making dreamy new wave, the Mary Onettes may not be exploring uncharted regions of pop music, but Islands nonetheless feels vital, fresh. That’s because the songwriting here is so remarkable, the sound so crisp and the performances so spotless. It’s an album of stunning, pristine beauty, and its portrait of heartbreak is perfect, and timeless.
Fuck Buttons—Tarot Sport (ATP)
Tarot Sport loses the gnarled vocals of Fuck Buttons’ essential debut—making it a bit more accessible, and thus, I suppose, a bit less satisfying in some respects—but in every other way, the band’s sophomore effort blew away its predecessor. Astonishing in scope, with textures rarely (never before?) heard in popular music, Tarot Sport was the sound of the apocalypse as experienced through the prism of some great acid. Except, y’know, much more epic sounding.
Katatonia—Night Is the New Day (Peaceville)
A couple weeks ago, I mentioned here that Katatonia’s Night Is the New Day has brought up a significant (to me) question: What is metal? What isn’t? Night is a gorgeous, atmospheric record made by a metal band. It’s a nuanced work of great vulnerability and impeccable craftsmanship, as beautiful, mesmerizing and chilling as a lightning storm. But is it metal? I dunno. If it is, it’s easily one of the best metal albums of the year. If not, it’s just one of the best albums of the year.