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Sonic Boom: The 10 Best Albums of 2009

You thought it was a bad year for new music? You were dead wrong. Here's 10 reasons why.

I’ve kind of left myself no time to write a real intro here, so I’ll make this quick and to the point—these are my favorite albums of the year. Needless to say, I also think they are the best albums of the year, but I recognize that I only heard a microfraction of the music released this year, and I missed out on a lot. And probably forgot a few more. But this is 2009, as I heard it—and as I heard it, 2009 was a very good year. (Oh yes it was; and for more on just how good, go here and here, for 20 albums that just missed my Top 10.)

fotl10. Future of the LeftTravels With Myself and Another (4AD)

The Welsh trio Mclusky were responsible for at least two, maybe three classic albums in the first half of the decade, albums filled with frenetic, sociopathic post-punk that would have fit neatly on the Touch and Go Records roster next to the likes of Big Black and The Jesus Lizard. That band split too early—leaving behind only those two or three classic albums and a dubious mythology—but two-thirds of the trio (singer/guitarist Andy “Falco” Falkous and drummer Jack Egglestone) continue to release music as Future of the Left. And they’re still making classic albums. Travels With Myself and Another indulges in the same depraved pleasures as those found on the old Mclusky records: a jaw-breaking, brain-jarring rhythm section; vocals in the forms of stutters or shrieks or screams; big hooks delivered like cross-checks; and some of the funniest, sickest and best lyrics in music today.


bts9. Built to Spill There Is No Enemy (Warner Bros.)

I had written off Built to Spill a long time ago—like, a looong time ago, like pre-9/11 we’re talking here. And even then—this is July, 2001 now, at the time of the release of Ancient Melodies of the Future—I thought, “Well, they’ve had a long and great career. Time for them to ride off into the sunset already.” And that they did, releasing only one more album, 2006’s workmanlike, forgettable You in Reverse. So I was genuinely shocked by There Is No Enemy, which is not just a surprisingly relevant Built to Spill record, but Built to Spill at their very best. In fact, for my money, it is their best record, period. The melodies are generous and plentiful; the guitar work—via frontman Doug Martsch, one of the brightest guitarists of his generation—is both magnificent and sublime; and these are simply the strongest, tightest and most compelling songs ever written by this band, whose long, great career has suddenly become a little longer and a lot greater.

phx8. PhoenixWolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)

One of the frustrations of making these lists is, your choices are likely to overlap with the choices of a lot of other people who also make these lists. And where’s the fun in that? However, to actively avoid including albums solely because you believe other critics will include them is to be dishonest. I tried to think of ways to leave Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix off this list—because everyone already knows it’s one of the best albums of the year, because everyone owns it and it’s everywhere and it’s wonderful—but I couldn’t do it. A career highlight from a band who have yet to release a single inessential work, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix may be ubiquitous, but that ubiquity is deserved, and there’s nothing wrong with a lot of people loving one album, at least when that one album is this good.

bibio7. Bibio Ambivalence Avenue (Warp)

As I wrote in a Twitter post on July, 24, 2009, “It is almost certain that I will forget to include Bibio’s Ambivalence Avenue on my Best of 2009 albums lists. And that will be a mistake.” But here we are, in December, and here it is, in my top 10. Ambivalence Avenue is bigger than any avenue; it is, maybe, a universe, or a beach resort, or a space station. It is a lovely and wholly unique blend of Balearic, ambient, acid jazz, folk, house, Tropicalia, IDM and indie rock. And more. It is, on every level, a masterpiece. As I wrote in another Twitter post, on July 8, “Bibio’s Ambivalence Avenue is gorgeous, grand, textured, serene and delightfully weird. Every time I listen, I hear something new to love.” Again, it’s December, and I’m still listening, hearing new things, and loving it.

japandroids6. Japandroids Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)

There’s a song on Post-Nothing—the debut album from Vancouver, British Columbia duo Japandroids—called “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” I mean, it’s not just a song, it’s, like, an anthem. Or a war cry. And it perfectly captures the overflowing, exuberant greatness of Japandroids. Over a burning, double-wide guitar riff and hyperspeed drums, the band’s members, guitarist/vocalist Brian King and drummer/vocalist David Prowse, cry in unison, “We used to dream/Now we worry about dying.” Post-Nothing combines the propulsive energy and sing-along choruses of a young Superchunk with the fuzzed-out dreaminess of My Bloody Valentine, but the perfect snapshot it provides—of two young men on a road trip, maybe, or in an apartment, or a bar, sharing fears and hopes and passions and lots and lots of whiskey—is something few artists have captured in any medium. “I don’t wanna worry about dying,” the duo sings in “Young Hearts,” to clarify their earlier remark, to illustrate exactly their place on Earth. “I just wanna worry about those sunshine girls.”

MPP5. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)

See No. 8 above. There is nothing original about including Merriweather Post Pavilion on a Best of 2009 list, but there is also no way it can be excluded. Furthermore, there is nothing new that can be said, so I will say only this: In January, 2009, I shared an office with Brad Pareso, who writes the excellent “Nothing But Net” column for the Press, and an intern—Big Tommy—who would come to work, every day, stoned to the heavens. The three of us would take turns playing DJ, and frequently, when it was my turn, I would spin Merriweather Post Pavilion—because it was new, yes, and spectacular, yes, but also because I wanted to freak out Big Tommy, because the album was so spaced out and psychedelic, and I knew that if I were sitting in an office, 18 years old and high as an airplane, I would get enveloped in MPP’s endless reflections and refractions and folds. And, yes, it did freak out Big Tommy, who would sit at his desk, staring at the wall, lost in that vast sonic wilderness. And more often than not, I got kinda lost in there, too.

dinojr4. Dinosaur Jr.Farm (Jagjaguwar)

I wrote the following in an installment of “Sonic Boom” published on Nov. 5, 2009: “You know who’s having a good year? All those ancient and unfashionable indie rockers favored by douchey college professors and hippies.” And man, did they ever: Bands like the aforementioned Built to Spill, Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Flaming Lips all released exemplary albums this year—but even those albums fell into the considerable shadow of Farm. Not sounding so much invigorated as timeless, Farm—the second album released by the now-reunited original Dinosaur lineup—is better than a career best; it’s an instant and essential landmark of a genre that doesn’t really exist anymore, a genre that lives on mostly in nostalgia. But Farm is not nostalgic—it is rich and immediate and endlessly rewarding. In many ways, really, Dinosaur Jr. live up their name: They are old and heavy and loud. But they are also a miracle of nature, a thing that commands wonder and awe, a thing big and strong enough to rule the world.

cobalt3. Cobalt Gin (Profound Lore)

No musical subgenre today is more exciting or adventurous than American black metal (or USBM, as it is sometimes called), and that is proven beyond a doubt by the magnificent albums released over the last two years by Nachtmystium, Leviathan, Wolves in the Throne Room and Krallice, among others. But I think Gin, the 2009 album from Colorado duo Cobalt, has bested them all, and set a new standard for the many outstanding acts working in the genre. Cobalt vocalist/lyricist Phil McSorley is a sergeant in the U.S. Army, and he spent much of the year in Iraq, from where he collaborated long-distance with vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Erik Wunder on Gin. And while the album is not specifically a meditation on war, its violence and horrors are in the very marrow of the music. On the cover of Gin is a photograph of a young Ernest Hemingway, and the album is littered with references to Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson—two revolutionary writers who served in the military and eventually took their own lives via shotgun blast. Indeed, McSorley’s stunning and powerful lyrics have a literary, poetic clarity, and throughout its epic course, Gin is primal, unforgiving and intoxicating.

baroness2. BaronessBlue Record (Relapse)

When compiling this list, I took very seriously the concept of “albums”—collections of songs that are meant to be heard together, in a certain sequence, to convey a certain message, or emotion, or set of messages and emotions. And I don’t know that any album I heard this year was more of an “album” than Blue Record by Georgia metal quartet Baroness. It repeats certain chord progressions throughout, in many different forms, giving the collection a cohesive quality and a singular voice. Beyond those obvious musical echoes, Blue Record has what feel like millions of tiny details holding it together. It is a complex and labyrinthine work, something to be studied carefully and at length, something that rewards the fascination it inspires. But it is also crushingly, delightfully heavy—its drums kick like a mustang, its giant guitar hooks connect like a baseball bat to the head. With all its many interlocking parts, all pieced together so carefully, so diligently, to construct such a monolithic single piece, Blue Record seems almost like a skyscraper, or a cathedral, or a pyramid: enormous, imposing, breathtaking, monumental.

mew1. MewNo More Stories… (Sony)

Danish act Mew threatened to make the album of the year a few years back with 2005’s And the Glass Handed Kites. That album was a carefully crafted masterwork of sonic majesty; a textural forest in which a listener can get lost for hours, days. In a decade, it will be considered an influential classic. With No More Stories…, though, Mew took a real and tangible step forward. The album adds new shades and hues to the band’s already mind-bendingly diverse sonic palette. The songs here have impossibly complex structures, but the music is not built to confuse or intimidate—instead, it is accessible, centered, even as it spins further and further into outer space. It is touching and strange and, in a word, divine. (An aside: The album sounds great in any setting, but it is a true “headphones album,” in that its towering grandeur and its tiniest details are made most apparent when experienced via headphones, preferably Sennheiser HD800s, which offer total ambient noise isolation and audiophile quality. However, if you’re not able to lay out $1,400 on a pair of these suckers, any decent noise-canceling headphones will do the trick.) The album feels like a dream or a long hallucinogenic trip, like a journey into remarkable and unknown lands. The album’s full title is ambitious and insane—No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories The World Is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away—and while it appears to mean absolutely nothing, it actually gives a pretty accurate indication of the music to be found inside. It’s daring and beautiful and melodic and inventive and spectacular. And, yes, it is the best album released in what was a very good year.

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