2009: Albums of the Year

Welcome to the end! The Noughties, as a decade, are officially over. The decade of the iPod and Twitter and social networking on a massive scale, where the dissemination of music and media was as simple as a click of a button, has come and gone - with a whimper. The promise of a generation of musicians using this technology for good has largely degenerated into a mainstream strewn with garbage; this is nothing new compared to decades past, but the explosion of Easy Access to Everything has led to the profligation of good taste.

It used to be that the final year of a decade was a fertile ground for eager artists striving to make something great. 1959 has Kind of Blue, Time Out!, The Shape of Jazz to Come. 1969 had everything from Abbey Road to In the Court of the Crimson King to Let It Bleed. 1979 was a cornucopia with Unknown Pleasures, Metal Box, Bad Girls, and Candy-O. 1989 saw The Stone Roses and Technique and 3 Feet High and Rising. Even 1999 had at least Emergency & I and Remedy and Surrender. 2009 - this is the year where the biggest-selling album was released with five weeks left, by a frumpy 50-some Welsh woman hand-picked from obscurity by faceless record execs for her ability to make treacle sound even more syrupy. The year where an abysmal pop/R&B group dominated the singles chart for 26 straight weeks. The year when Michael Jackson died. The year when the consensus #1 album was released on January 6. The year when the CD's death knell was officially sounded and its wake begun in earnest. The year that will be remembered for - what?

For me personally, this marks the 10th year of maintaining this website, which I uploaded on Christmas Day 1999 with a simple list of the RIAA Diamond Award albums. In ten years, we have seen many of those already-existing albums move up on the list, but very few released in the ten year space. Of the 103 albums on the list, only 8 were released in the past ten years, and none since 2004. Clearly this website had to do something else while the music scene stagnated, so I used it to platform my simplistic music criticism with year-end lists that mirrored many other publications. Who knows what the next decade will bring, but I thank you all for reading; may the next ten years right the ship and continue to give us more hidden jewels in the tidal wave of crap.

20. Maxwell, BLACKsummers'night
Maxwell made a choice after 2001's Now to sit out the decade, while rumors of creative exhaustion and drug abuse swirled around him. With advance word of a trilogy of albums to come, the public was hopeful - and by March, they were vindicated. As if time had stood still, the album shot to No. 1 on the charts and he embarked on a well-received tour. What was most remarkable was the brevity - anyone expecting a bloated affair with a decade's worth of ideas was left wanting more by the gorgeous and supple 37-minute album. Bring on the rest.
19. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz!
Not to suggest that the Noughties could have had a "definitive band", but the YYY's have made a stronger case than most. Three solid studio albums, two incredible EP's, a smattering of visually arresting videos - and when the neon synth attack of "Zero" was made available, we still heard the band and not a gimmick. Granted, this isn't the synth-pop reinvention everyone was heralding based on the first two songs; it is simply a collection of flawless pop and guitar songs that they have perfected in the past decade. Balancing anthems like "Zero" with ballads like "Little Shadow" and cooing burners like "Dragon Queen" make this one of the highlights of the year.
18. Mastodon, Crack the Skye
You have to give it to Mastodon: after all eyes were on them in 2006, they delivered one of the most brutal metal epics mainstream has embraced since 1986. After that album established them as a top-drawer metal act capable of holding their own while opening for Metallica, they twist the formula with a downright proggy concept album about a crazed Russian similar to Rasputin (the evil court manipulator who couldn't be killed, not the dance floor-packing love machine), astral travel, and wormholes, packaged as a tribute to drummer Brann Dailor's sister, who had committed suicide at 14. While they wrote mostly straightforward strophic songs before, they drop multi-part epics in excess of ten minutes, with myriad tempo changes and guitar pyro. Whatever comes next, it will definitely be interesting.
17. The Field, Yesterday & Today
Inexplicably lost in the shuffle at the end of the year, this follow-up to Axel Willner's hugely acclaimed first album as the Field can best be described as more of the same, and so much more. The songs have stretched out, given more room to breathe; but most importantly, Willner has brought in a guest list of acoustic instrument to color the music. Actual vocals, guitars, and drumming courtesy of Battles' John Stanier make this more than your average techno album: it showcases Willner's willingness to experiment and add elements which push his music in more blissful territory.
16. Baroness, Blue Record
The Southern U.S. has been host to an impressive array of metal bands in the past ten years; it must be something in the woods, or the water. Savannah's best metal act is in the enviable position of following up an acclaimed debut, and they do not disappoint. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a very long or a very short album. Although it definitely clocks in at 44 minutes, there are countless little diversions and iterations of riffs and extras that fill up the tight songwriting and make the album extra special to listen to. They have more work ahead if they want to reach Mastodon's level, but they are on the right path.
15. U2, No Line on the Horizon
Hating on U2 is about as easy as shooting fish in a barrel, but The World's Biggest Band™ has been on a hell of a third wind this past decade since their 2000 resurrection, and for the first time in many years, they have released an album that is slightly more than an excuse to release a couple of big singles and mount an extravagant, sold-out world tour. Interestingly enough, there have been no big singles from this album in the vein of "Beautiful Day" or "Vertigo", through no fault of the band;'s: many of the songs on here are of a slightly more experimental vein, though "Magnificent" and "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" are some of strongest and most anthemic tracks they've ever written. And of course their 360 Tour is well on its way to being one of the biggest in history. Lukewarm though reception and album sales have been, U2 continue to earn their relevance through huge gestures and albums that push them in new directions.
14. Sunn O))), Monoliths & Dimensions
Sunn O)))'s previous album Black One sounded exactly as it was titled, an unforgiving swirl of black tones and molten lava tempos. While they don't exactly throw the drapes open and let the sunshine in, this album is definitely a bit less oppressive, even though it flirts with self-referential megalomania. "Aghartha" opens with the same slow, unbelievably bruising guitar chords as before, while Attila Csihar recites obscure poetry in an almost comic Cookie Monster growl (helpfully transposed in Hungarian in the lyric sheet!), but slowly additional elements are added, and sixteen minutes later you realize you are nowhere near to where you began. "Big Church" is full of eerie vocal harmonizing, and "Alice" is almost pretty by its last five minutes of jazz instruments lightening up the dark. And of course, their slavish attention to detail with the beautiful heavyweight vinyl packaging adds bonus points.
13. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
My first true exposure to this band was in May, when they opened for TV on the Radio. I had heard of their name, but not the music, and as soon as the disjointed and wobbly "Temecula Sunrise" kicked in, I was hooked by the tensile quality of the music: never quite sure where it was headed next, balanced on a tightrope of time changes and unexpected melodies. Listening to the album later, I realized how very true to the sound their live performance was, an impressive achievement in and out of the studio.
12. The-Dream, Love Vs. Money
Reading off the list of The-Dream's production credits from the past few years is to read some of the biggest hits of the decade. But there has been an unsaid secret about him: he saves his best stuff for himself. This was true for Love/Hate, and is doubly true for Love Vs. Money - this is an album sequencer's dream (ahem) come true, an album-length suite about relationships, their success and failure as a result of love or money. There is a unified sound throughout the album (in itself refreshing in an era of scatterbrained R&B albums), with synths the main ingredient against a backbone of crisp drums. The-Dream has a slightly chirpy voice, but is wise not to stretch it: the songs provide a skeleton he wears like a fur coat. This is luxurious and stately pop for 2009.
11. Doves, Kingdom of Rust
Last year Elbow did it. This year, their counterpart in Doves must be hoping for the same fate. They both still live in the shadows of the infinitely bigger and less interesting Coldplay, releasing wonderful, stately and mature albums while seeing a fraction of the sales. For the first time in their career though, Doves have made a cohesive album rather than a solid album with two or three monolithic songs. The reason no song stands out here is because the entire album is of an elevated quality – a melancholic widescreen epic of sadness and hope. Elbow's Mercury Prize win was a worthy nod to their career - here's to Doves winning for this deserving album. There is hope that one day they will be as big as they deserve to be, but until then, the few of us can cherish one of the best kept secrets in rock.
10. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
We all know the stories behind this Brooklyn band's ascension to the top of the indie world: eagerly awaited sophomore album exceeding every expectation; an adoring fan base multiplies exponentially; Solange turns B and Hova onto the band, leading to hilariously white swaying in public. And all the while you think it couldn't have happened to a more deserving band. Though Yellow House was too swoony and hazy to really resonate with me, this album is crystal clear in comparison and sounds best on a good pair of headphones: there is great attention paid to the little details (the percussion is especially impressive), and the songs are designed to slowly percolate in the back of your head. In a year full of flash and bang pop trash, it was refreshing to view a baroque work of art.
9. Fever Ray, Fever Ray
You might know Fever Ray as the female half of the Knife, the icy siblings responsible for one of the decade's best albums. Fever Ray plays like the Knife dropped into an icier abyss, losing the drum machine but keeping the vocal manipulator in the process. It is much less poppy than a Knife fan would like, but what Fever Ray sacrifices in hooks it more than abundantly supplies with mystery and allure and her typically oblique lyrics. A year's worth of experimental videos have only served to make the album a lot more enigmatic - this is one to cherish.
8. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II
Hip-hop sequels invariably suck; just the idea of making a follow-up to what must classify as a classic is the folly that many knock rap for, and let's face it, the years of word about a follow-up to Raekwon's incredible 1995 Classic inspired fear and trepidation rather than excitement. After so many delays and setbacks, the fact that it was released at all is a victory of sorts; that it is not bad is a miracle. In fact, it is more than not bad; it's kinda sorta amazing. Although it suffers from the typical rap trappings (22 songs and 70 minutes is excessive), everyone involved here brings their A-game - Jadakiss, Siegel, and members of the Wu haven't sounded so vital in years, while the production is on fire. Erick Sermon, Alchemist, the late J Dilla, even the RZA contribute outstanding tracks, though when a 55-second song produced by Marley Marl is better than two Dr. Dre tracks, you know Detox is in trouble. Raekwon has delivered, and Method Man said it best: "See these fans can't resist the rush, they Wu-Tang for life / Scarred for life, they can't forget the cuts."
7. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic
I expect that many folks who bought Yoshimi in an attempt to be in tune with the hip alternative sound of the early 00's must have been slapped right upside the head with this beast. This is the dirty, fuzzed-out, berserk and utterly captivating album that anyone better in tune with Wayne Coyne's weirdo sensibilities held their breaths for. Leave it to the Lips to fly in the face of convention, releasing a paranoid 70-minute epic double album at the peak of their popularity, confounding a new-found fanbase while alternately pleasing those who still remember the disastrous reaches of Zaireeka. I suspect the majestic and accessible The Soft Bulletin will still be the go-to Lips album for many, but two musical reinventions and two masterpieces inside a decade is still a great achievement.
6. Manic Street Preachers, Journal for Plague Lovers
Richey Edwards is officially dead; long may he live. Though official records will list him as having shuffled off the mortal coil, his bandmates do everything in their power to keep his memory alive on this, their finest album since The Holy Bible. Not only is this their first album to feature all Edwards lyrics since that 1994 masterpiece, but they haven't sounded so rocking, so alive and angry, since then. Steve Albini produces the band in the red, and their melodic rock fury is a perfect partner to Edwards' abstract, confounding and viscerally tortured prose. And considering this is the band's ninth album, they once again did us a favor by staying together.
5. Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport
Playful and abrasive. Fate and chance. Bliss and chaos. On their debut Street Horrrsing, this experimental duo straddled the fine line between dance and noise, often landing in migraine-inducing territory. With uber-producer Andy Weatherall (behind some old album called Screamadelica) guiding the band, they find the unique balance that births masterpieces. An insistent rhythm plays throughout; you often feel as if you've spent the night inside a club's speakers and you're left with the glorious ringing in your ears. Their name alone will keep them away from the mainstream, but this is one of the most ecstatic albums of the year, and if they can influence some more forward-thinking musicians to balance the glut of guitar bands, we'd be better off.
4. Converge, Axe To Fall
This year saw several long-toiling bands reach a new critical and commercial zenith in their careers (read on). One of the most impressive is Massachusetts metal-core band Converge. Ever since 2001's seminal Jane Doe they have been tinkering with their sound, introducing elements that push their sound in new directions: on Axe, they enlist kindred spirits from the metal world on several collaborative songs that retain Converge's own distinct sound. This is guitarist/producer Kurt Ballou's finest moment, with insane riffs and sonic warfare; Jacob Bannon is as angry and indecipherable as ever, and the rhythm section of Nate Newton and Ben Koller simply punishes whether slow or blindingly fast. It's highly unlikely Converge will ever become commercially successful, but when you are so consistently good for so long, you have to keep it to yourself.
3. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Toiling away on the fringes of pop music for nearly a decade, Phoenix enjoyed a richly earned commercial reward with this breakthrough album. The formula has not changed: this is the most Phoenix-sounding of all the Phoenix albums, tasty nuggets of sophisticated pop married to acoustic instruments, sharply produced and delivered in a francois deadpan not easily imitated. The 1-2 opening punch of "Lisztomania" and "1901" is a blow to the solar plexus, the type of opening that would handicap any other mortal band's album, but Phoenix are much too smart to sputter away. Even the slower songs between the skyscraping anthems are like gorgeous black-and-white comedowns in a 60's art film - it is in their sequencing genius that such an immediate and fleeting 36 minutes could feel like an entire summer.
2. The xx, xx
Much has been written about this group of young, assured Londonites just entering their 20s - refreshingly, the hype machine is much more taken by the music than the image, and rightfully so. It takes unparalleled maturity and restraint to make music like this; the songwriting is flawless, and their use of negative space is a huge difference from the stuffy, over-produced albums that are so in vogue. Boy-girl singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim circle around each other like tired lovers, playing a tug-of-war of emotions while the music pulses and breathes behind them. For the best example of their breathtaking patience and control, download "Island". While in the process, download the rest of album: unlike many of the previous flavors-of-the-month, they do not have a single track that best epitomizes them, you need to hear it all. Who knows where they go from here (keyboardist Baria Qureshi has since left the band citing exhaustion, leaving them a trio), but this is one of the best debut albums of the year, if not the decade, and they will be a band to watch.
1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Pro: it is nice in this era of fragmentation and dissonance to have an album that so easily and readily unites critics and listeners, a unanimous consensus that mirrors real life in the last year.
Con: do we need yet another list with Merriweather at the summit, an album released six days into the year to so utterly dominate? Did 359 days release nothing that could challenge it?
Short answers to the con: yes and no. Merriweather really is the type of world-conquering album that gets released so rarely these days - a long-suffering band slowly building momentum and finding their widest acceptance with their most accessible album, featuring a crossover single so immediate it made the top 10 of many decade-end lists. Hell, just the first three songs were better than most bands could ever hope to muster. You could quibble about the enormous praise for what is a cleaner version of their sometimes abrasive sound, but could it have happened to a better band than Animal Collective? After the world got a little unifying consensus, maybe it's time the music world had a single album to rally behind.

CD of the Year, Not Of the Year
Nirvana, Live at Reading
So much has been written about Nirvana's legendary 1992 headlining performance at Reading Festival, so much ink has been spilled about their cultural significance and Kurt Cobain's martyrdom, so much time has gone by since Nirvana was an active band and not just rock mythology, that its hard to remember they used to be a flesh and blood band that was known for great live performances. Wait no more. What was once a low-quality bootleg is now on the TV, in startling colour and sound: Nirvana. Live. At Reading Festival. There is Kurt being wheeled on stage in a horrid blonde wig, falling over at the mic before launching into "Breed". There is a rare live performance of "Teen Spirit" which isn't a sneering bit of irony played at triple-speed. There is the embryo of "All Apologies". There is nearly the entirety of Nevermind played in furious power. There is the stage banter and jokes. There is the destruction of rig, with a scorched "Star Spangled Banner" before the guitar is handed to the audience. There is Kurt awkwardly meeting a terminally ill youth, a flash of the public life he was never at ease with. There is Nirvana, in full live flight, as they should always be remembered.

Songs of the Year

20. Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance"
19. Animal Collective, "What Would I Want? Sky"
18. Converge, "Dark Horse"
17. The Big Pink, "Dominos"
16. The Gossip, "Heavy Cross"
15. Passion Pit, "The Reeling"
14. Peter Bjorn & John, "Nothing To Worry About"
13. U2, "Magnificent"
12. Dizzee Rascal & Armand Van Helden, "Bonkers"
11. Basement Jaxx, "Raindrops"
10. Jay-Z (ft. Alicia Keys), "Empire State of Mind"
9. Atlas Sound, "Walkabout"
8. Grizzly Bear, "Two Weeks"
7. Raekwon (ft. Inspectah Deck, Ghostface & Method Man), "House of Flying Daggers"
6. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Zero"
5. Burial / Four Tet, "Moth / Wolf Cub"
4. Phoenix, "1901"
3. The xx, "Crystalised"
2. Mastodon, "Oblivion"
1. Animal Collective, "My Girls"

Notable Events of the Year

1. Death of Michael Jackson
This one is as self-explanatory as it gets. It can easily be said that Michael Jackson's sudden death from cardiac arrest was the most seismic celebrity death since Princess Diana's. Within almost minutes of the 911 call in Los Angeles, the Internet was on fire with news of his death - it was one of the single biggest surges of Internet usage in its history. The outpouring of grief was worldwide; his funeral was watched by nearly 1 billion people. His sales went through the roof digitally and in record stores. At the end of the year, he had sold nearly 8 million copies of his albums in the US, and airplay of his songs has never been higher. The documentary about rehearsals for his upcoming London concerts was an international hit, with huge sales to come on DVD. He was a rare performer, whose personal life often overshadowed his incredible accomplishments as an entertainer, but the vast treasure trove of indelible pop classics will be his final measuring stick. He will be incredibly missed.

2. Death Knell of the CD
The Stone Roses' eponymous debut album. Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft. The Feelies' two albums. Pearl Jam's Ten Redux. The Beatles' catalogue. Radiohead's Capitol's Collector's Edition albums. Neil Young's Archives Vol. I. The Jesus Lizard's first four albums. Kraftwerk's self-acknowledged eight album oeuvre. Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus. Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson. Not merely a lengthy list of some fantastic albums, but specifically ones that were remastered and/or re-released this year on CD. Some were celebrating an anniversary. Some were contractual obligations. Some were freed from record label limbo. All were given a final treatment on the CD. This fact compounds the second fact that 2009 saw the lowest number of album sales in the US since 2008, which was the lowest year since 2007, and so forth. There have been remastering jobs in years past; there will be more to come. But this year seemed especially vociferous in its breadth. At least we can take solace that 2009 also saw the highest amount of vinyl sales since SoundScan started in 1991. Life moves in circles?

3. Meet The Beatles, Again
On a personal level, the Beatles have been in my life since 1999, so the wholesale remastering of their catalogue was a nice anniversary present for me. As to why 2009, which saw no real Beatles anniversary save Abbey Road - who knows? Probably just to take advantage of its 9/9/9 release date. The last time the Beatles catalogue was remastered was in 1987, when the CD was still new technology: it was famously poorly done, and it was the prevalent way a generation (including me) was introduced to the biggest band ever. George Martin and a small team of engineers went back to the master tapes and lovingly restored every minute of the most famous nine hours of music for simultaneous release (another difference from 1987, when releases were staggered to build anticipation). I would have expected such a huge event to have been similar to the first remaster, done over time - but that is the effect of the CD's slow death. Definitely seek out the Mono box if you can - the band was always more involved in mono mixing, and some of the differences are quite stunning, especially Sgt. Pepper. The Beatles entered the decade by releasing 1, one of the biggest selling albums of all time, and end the decade with a wholesale remastering of every album - they will forever raise a new generation to sell music to.

Worst of the Year

Black Eyed Peas
So by now it is useless to whine about the Black Eyed Peas and their regular assault on good taste. People like being fed bad music, and if its particularly bad, they might end up sending it to number 1 on the charts for 26 weeks, as was the case for consecutive number 1's "Boom Boom Pow" and "I Gotta Feeling". That incidentally is a chart record. Its nice to see that in this era of music going downhill, we can still set records, even if for futility.

Owl City, "Fireflies"
There are songs that come around every so often that send me into an apoplectic rage everytime I hear the first three seconds of it. Not even just an annoyed grunt type of rage, but actual white-hot let's-burn-something type of blind rage. The sort of innanely melodic whine-fest sung by a lovelorn skinny white boy set to fourth-rate Postal Service beats that makes me see red and accidentally punch out the nearest person, resulting in a battery charge and a 30-day prison stint. This is one of those songs.

Eminem, Relapse
Nobody has done more to damage Marshall Mathers' reputation as untouchable hitmaker and MC extraordinaire than...Marshall Mathers himself. Encore was the first step, where the album began focused and possibly killer before it slipped on its own puke (literally) and descended into idiocy. After a particularly hard few years marked by addiction and the murder of his best friend Proof, we had all but given up hope that Marshall would reclaim his throne. Word of a return fueled anticipation: the first glimpses killed any remaining hope. "Crack A Bottle" was glassy-eyed stupidity, a tired posse cut that was dead on arrival, and first single proper "3 A.M." was even worse, a fake retreat to the horror-rap gore that he had done (for lack of a better term) better nine years ago. The rest of the album answered the question: Marshall has no interest in being relevant again. The honesty and humour we saw in his early career has been sacrificed for bottom dollar: his addiction and losses could have made for startling material. Instead, he coasts by on sadism and digs at Nick Cannon (??) in the Leprechaun accent we already hated to begin with. Anything else, Marshall?

Flo Rida, "Right Round"
Wait, I spoke too soon: remember those songs that make me upset whenever I hear them? You know, the ones with cliched samples of past hits redone in an overly Noughty-style sexualized and simplistic manner with none of the original's charm? The ones put out by no-talent hacks in search of a quick buck, looking to exploit the general public's moronic tastes? Yeah, this is another one.

Timbaland, Shock Value II
About the same caliber as the first installation, with the addition of Chad Kroeger. Yeah, about all you need to really know.

Ke$ha, "TiK ToK"
Aww, heck, one more of those songs that drive me up the wall. This girl featured in the one just mentioned! Also, it is the last number 1 single of the decade! That just about sums up this rotten decade.

TV on the Radio on hiatus

Email: leftsun7@hotmail.com