Well 2009 was a fantastic year for music. This was probably the toughest year in a while to put a top 10 in order, as all of these records were so great. The list is very close, so there isnt a huge gap between say, #8 and #3 - all of these records are almost equally awesome, and depending on my mood all but the top 2 could very well change position. After a dismal 2008 (where I still couldnt make a top 10 list), 2009 definitely restored my faith. Bands came out that made “indie rock” sound like it again, and for the first time since their “best of the 90s” feature I actually agreed with Pitchfork a little. Not just one but FOUR records in my top 10 made Pitchfork’s top 50 of the year list. I was as surprised as you are.
For those familiar with my Top 10s, you know the drill. Those who decide to read this years be warned: it’s long. As always feedback is welcome, and especially this year I’d like to know who’s reading (if anyone) and who would be interested in a best of the decade list. I spend a lot of time writing this shit every year because I like to document my feelings on albums at the time, and play music critic for a day - so I’d be doing this if no one read it, but it would be nice to know if some of you do in fact care and take my recommendations into account.
Also, this year I've taken the liberty of putting in a playable track from each album, so if you're interested you can get an idea of what the band sounds like, since my reviews probably sound like jibberish.
Anyway...onto the list...
I’ll admit I haven’t kept up with 2000s Sonic Youth much. I know they’ve had some supposed great records, but other than Sonic Nurse, which I liked a lot, I haven’t heard them and really need to get around to that. I am however, very familiar with older Sonic Youth - and that being said I think The Eternal sits very well in their catalog. Songs like “Antenna,” “Poison Arrow,” and “Malibu Gas Station” are among the band’s best - and although the record has a couple of weak points, the good far outweighs the bad. Personally I liked this record as much, if not more than most of Sonic Youth’s albums and It’s definitely in my top 5 of their catalog.
A few years ago I hated this band. No, really, I HATED them. All the comparisons to Smashing Pumpkins, My Bloody Valentine, and other favorite bands of mine - and I didnt get it at all. However, earlier this year I was driving along and heard a song called “Panic Switch,” and I thought to myself “no way...is this really them? That band I wanted to stab with a spork for making a mockery of my favorite kind of music?” and it was.
On their first record, Carnavas I had a laundry list of complaints about Silversun Pickups. On Swoon they fixed them all. Fans of the band probably wont see a difference, but there are so many. The vocals have more attitude, the music is darker, the production and overall sound is fuller, there’s more of a groove, the drums are more prominent, you can actually HEAR the bass guitar...the list goes on. The number one improvement though, are the songs themselves. This band finally rocks, and actually sounds like they listened to the Pumpkins now. In addition to the awesome “Panic Switch”, “The Royal We” and “It’s Nice to Know You Work Alone” are other album highlights. Although I still think they sound way more like Placebo than the Pumpkins, I absolutely loved this record, and I don’t mind eating my words this time around.
If Belle and Sebastian were a shoegaze band, they’d sound like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart. This album takes the best of B&S, puts it under a light layer of fuzz, and ups the tempo - and it sounds wonderful. Anyone who usually says “nevermind” when I start talking about fuzzy guitars or shoegaze, don’t be turned off here - this is a band where the hooks and vocal lines stand out a lot more than the slight treble fuzz. Anyone who likes Belle and Sebastian, Ride, or catchy jangle guitar pop in general should like this record. If that’s not your thing, maybe you wont, but if I had to guess the one album from my top 10 list that the most people liked, it’d be this one.
Cymbals Eat Guitars give me hope for indie rock, or rather, that people remember what “indie rock” is supposed to sound like. In a world where Animal Collective, Passion Pit, and all this other stuff is being held in such high regard, it’s nice to see that a band still remembers what the Pixies and Built to Spill sounded like. Yeah, you know those bands? I thought everyone else had forgotten.
Anyway, enough about that - because while Why There Are Mountains clearly is an indie rock album of yore, it certainly finds a way to combine things you’d never picture being put together - and if that’s not enough, it shifts from one mood to another constantly. One second you’ve got your twee pop complete with a horn section (“Indiana”), and the next a 7 minute shoegaze number (“Share”), before jumping into an uptempo Dinosaur Jr throwback (“The Living North”). The tempo also jumps all over the place, a lot of times within the same song. Why There Are Mountains plays like a nine-track history of the past 2 decades of indie-rock. Ever wonder what the Shins would sound like with Frank Black singing? Well this is your record.
After the awesome Vespertine in 2001, Bjork started to get too weird, even for her. She made a whole record with nothing but beatboxing as musical accompaniment- but then she released Volta, which was more in her style, but just not good at all. That’s where I decided I needed a new Bjork.
Natasha Khan (aka Bat For Lashes) isn’t Bjork, but she’s fucking awesome. She’s got a killer voice, she makes great catchy pop songs, and she sounds a little like Bjork and Tori Amos’ British love child. For now, she’ll certainly fill the void. Two Suns, her second album, was a huge surprise for me this year. I remember reading about Bat For Lashes in some magazine and thinking what I always do - “she sounds interesting, but it’s probably nothing like how they describe it, and I probably wont like it” - but I was wrong. The second I heard her hypnotic whispering voice at the beginning of “Glass” I knew I was in for something really special. The record plows along with catchy pop tracks like “Sleep Alone” and “Daniel”, as well as great ballads like “Moon and Moon” and “Siren Song” - my only complaint is the album kind of falls short at the end. The last track is probably my least favorite. It’s still good - it just features a Scott Walker guest vocal and I’m not a fan of his.
While she may not quite be at Bjork’s level yet, she’s still got a long time to prove herself. Two albums in, and both are stellar - I’d actually recommend 2006's Fur and Gold as much as this one (I go back and forth between which I like more). I’m definitely looking forward to hearing her future work - but for now, I still haven’t played out this one yet..
I never thought two people could make as much noise as Vancouver’s Japandroids - it’s absolutely insane. The frantic guitar playing, the behemoth drumming, and the dual gang vocals are intoxicating. Musicians: do you remember being in your first band with your practice amps? And everyone was just playing as HARD as they could just to be as loud as possible? Well for eight songs, Post-nothing takes us IN the garage with two kids who are flailing away as hard as they can, yelling into the mics so they can be heard over the massive wall of fuzz.
Musically, Japandroids are a great band who can somehow make one hook seem catchy for an entire song.- they’re one of the most fun bands to listen to, and you can’t help but smile when you hear these guys having so much fun enjoying their youth and singing about girls. Post Nothing is to indie-rock in 2009 what Blink 182 was to pop punk teenagers 10 years ago, except musically it’s far more interesting. It’s a throwback to 90s post-emo, like the Promise Ring or Braid, except it’s steeped in heavy, fuzzy guitars and gang vocals - which means when I listen to it I feel nothing but envy, because these guys have managed to combine two great styles of music amazingly well - and the worst (and best) part is that they don’t even take themselves seriously.
Since Morrissey came back in 2004, he’s been consistently releasing better records. Years of Refusal is no exception, and surprisingly it’s his most angry and aggressive. This album absolutely rocks throughout most of it’s duration, and when it lets up the ballads are astounding. Years of Refusal has an ongoing theme of mortality, and it’s clear that Morrissey is aware that he’s not getting any younger - but it’s just as clear that he’s going to get his best work out of him before he’s gone.
I’m almost tempted to say this is my favorite Morrissey record, maybe even more so than Your Arsenal. It’s hard not to like it as fan, I cant understand how any of his fans wouldnt like it - he’s still such a bitter and sarcastic bastard - but the songs themselves are among his most catchy as well. “I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris” is written in classic Morrissey style, and longtime fans should have a new favorite. “All You Need is Me” and “I’m OK by Myself” are two of the best “new style” songs he’s written as well. The ballad “It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore” is unbelievable, and was an instant favorite for me - even including Smiths songs. I think Years of Refusal can be summed up with one lyric - “You don’t like me, but you love me / Either way you’re wrong / You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone”. Whether you love or hate the guy - whoever is next in line to be the pope of mope isn’t going to be able to fill those fancy Italian shoes nearly as well.
In 2008 J. Mascis became my new guitar hero. When I was a little kid, Billy Corgan and Kurt Cobain made me want to play guitar. When I was 18, I discovered shoegaze and especially My Bloody Valentine - and Kevin Shields made me rethink everything about the electric guitar. I don’t know why I was so late to the Dinosaur Jr party. I knew about them, I had heard some stuff, I even have a tape of a solo J Mascis acoustic show that was tacked onto the end of a Nirvana bootleg I got in high school - but for some reason I had overlooked them.
Then something magical happened, I decided on a whim to give a 2nd listen to a bunch of bands - and I listened to You’re Living All Over Me in the process. Needless to say, this time around my mind was blown. After that I got everything Dinosaur I could get my hands on - and I loved it all. So it’s no question that when I heard Farm was coming out in 2009, I was SO fucking ready for it - and it didn’t disappoint one bit.
The original lineup of J, Lou Barlow on bass, and drummer Murph will always be seen as Dinosaur Jr, and since their reunion and subsequent release of Beyond in 2007 the band hasnt missed a beat. Farm may very well be their most complete album with the original lineup, at the very least it trumps most of their catalog - and that’s no easy feat. However, personally I’m most partial to 1994's Without A Sound, which most fans would slay me for.
What Farm manages to accomplish in spades, is that it explores a variety of moods like no other Dinosaur record. “Said the People” and “Plans” are two of the most melancholy songs the band has written, while “I Want You to Know” and “Over It” are classic bouncy songs that could have fit right by the older stuff. In addition to that, “Your Weather” is probably Lou Barlow’s best contribution to a Dinosaur album. The best part of Farm though, is that it’s all still there; the youthful urgency, passionate guitar solos, and complete ignorance to whatever else is popular in music. They may be in their mid-40s, but they’re still fucking Dinosaur Jr - and they make damn sure you know that.
After The Alchemy Index, a conceptual 4 EP project that explored each area of Thrice’s musical influences separately, it was hard to tell where the band would go from there. Would they explore the more Kid A influenced electronic side of the Water EP? The hard hitting melodic metal of their past? The stripped down acoustic/piano driven sounds of the Earth EP? Or would Thrice go in a new direction completely? Beggars, much like Radiohead’s In Rainbows is the sound of a band that’s gone in many directions surveying the landscape, and finding their feet again. It’s not their best album, nor is it bad in any way - it’s just really good, and different without being some kind of wild leap.
Where Beggars excels the most is in its songwriting. It’s probably Thrice’s most accessible album, and that’s not to say it’s as poppy as they’ve ever been. The songs are just very straightforward, stripped down, simple, to the point, whatever way you want to say it - Beggars, quite simply, is just a great rock record. In interviews Thrice would compare this record to their most popular, 2003's Artist in the Ambulance, and upon hearing Beggars it wasnt hard to understand why. Beggars is how Thrice got their groove back. Sure the heavy distorted, downtuned guitars are replaced with cleaner, more high end guitar tones. The metal riffing is now replaced with bluesy leads. But the foundation is back-to-basics, and sounding like Thrice is what Thrice does best. The drums and bass are tighter than ever, Dustin Kensrue’s vocals shine brighter than ever, and the whole record is glossed in a very jazzy, relaxed feel. It sounds like a band jamming in a garage. I’ll be the first one to say I’ve always loved Thrice’s more experimental stuff the most, but now that theyve grown as a band, it’s great to hear them re-explore the “Thrice sound” with a new approach.
I almost gave the edge to Thrice this year, because sometimes an album doesn’t need to be wildly experimental to be the best. Sometimes it can mean just creating a great front to back listen of fresh songs from one of your favorite bands.Beggars, while again not my favorite Thrice album, is flawless. There’s 10 tracks, no filler, and it flows seamlessly. At the same time, all the songs stand up when your mp3 player is on shuffle. With all the great music that came out this year, I found that I was never “not in the right mood” to hear a song off Beggars, and that’s something rare.
Daisy is a fucked up record. There’s no better way to put it. Throw it on, listen to a minute and a half of a woman singing a hymn and right as you’re about to go “what the fuck is this?” you’re jolted by “Vices”, the album’s first song, out of nowhere - and boy is it intense. Only Brand New can combine Bright Eyes and In Utero. Only Brand New can turn Built to Spill into Indian Summer. They are brilliant, and it’s time people outside of “the scene” start to recognize this.
Jesse Lacey described the album as “exhausting,” and that’s exactly what it is. It’s a barrage of intense vocals and Richter scale toppling guitars - but there are points where the album slows down and builds it back up again, which is the key. For every punch to the face like “Vices” and “Sink” there’s a slower, more serene “Bed” and “Daisy” to counteract it. Then there are songs like “You Stole” and closer “Noro” , which combine the two together. It’s a fantastic experience, and as an album it works unbelievably well.
It was hard to decide between Daisy and Beggars, mainly because they were both so different - but the more I look at Daisy, the more I see a lot of similarities to Beggars. Both are by bands I’ve been a longtime fan of, both are followups to the band’s best work, both do not surpass the band’s best work but succeed on a different level. The list goes on. The reason Daisy is #1 (and why it was for so long) is because 2009 was an angry, kind of depressed year for me - I got laid off, I was broke, and I had to admit to myself that a 4 year relationship was over. Daisy is a great record no matter which way you look at it - but there’s nothing like screaming along to “Vices” while you’re in your car and angry at the world - and at the end of the day isn’t being a soundtrack to your year what an “Album of the Year” is all about?
Honorable Mentions that didn’t make the top 10 list:
For the first time, Mae didn’t make my top 10 albums of the year - but it’s for good reason. They released EPs. (m)orning and (a)fternoon are part of a 3 EP set for charity that will culminate with (e)vening in 2010. Mae is one of my favorite bands, and I think the fact that these EPs made essentially my “#11 and #12" for the year is a testament to how much I enjoyed these. This time around Mae is experimenting with strange chord progressions and time signatures, but is still undeniably Mae, and some of these songs are among their best. Definitely worth checking out.
Taylor Hanson, James Iha from Smashing Pumpkins, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne, and Bun E Carlos from Cheap Trick walk into a bar. They get up on stage and proceed to play 11 surprisingly good original power pop songs...No, this actually isn’t a joke - and this album was actually really solid. Totally recommend it if you like some good catchy pop rock in your life.
After Paramore blew up with Riot!, an album that wasn’t half as good as their debut, I was kinda indifferent toward them. They had a couple good songs, but I just thought they’d start getting worse. Brand New Eyes proved me wrong. Sure, a chunk of the record is filler, and the lead single “Ignorance” leaves a lot to be desired - but there’s promise there. “Misguided Ghosts” and “The Only Exception” are awesome acoustic numbers that sound more like Eisley than Riot!, and the closer “All I Wanted” shows that Hayley really does have some pipes on her. The real kicker though, is “Playing God,” which is the best song the band has written yet (and one of my favorites of the year). I’ve always been a sucker for a good girl-fronted pop rock band, and I really think this band could do something truly awesome if they get out of the box they put themselves in with their singles.
Other 2009 Recommendations:
Metric - Fantasies
Bob Mould - Life and Times
Jeremy Enigk - OK Bear
Mars Volta - Octahedron
Boston Spaceships - Planets are Blasted
Fleeting Joys - Occult Radiance
Most Disappointing of the Year
If disappointment could be a sound, it’s this album. In 2007 I wasn’t more excited about any new band than I was about the Dear Hunter. This album is great for the first couple songs, and then for the ENTIRE rest of the record (about 10 songs) it just bores me. Everytime I’ve listened to it I’ve lost interest halfway through - there’s just not much here that hasnt been done far better on the other albums. However I will say “In Cauda Venenum” and “What it Means to be Alone”, the first two actual songs on the album, are two of the best songs Casey’s ever written.
They tried to make American Idiot II: Electric Boogaloo and inflated it with a bunch of stuff that should have been cut. There’s some gems on here - “Viva La Gloria” (the first one, NOT the “little girl” one), “Last Night on Earth,” “Before the Lobotomy” - but as a whole it just does not work. 18 tracks and I only get in the mood to listen to about 1/3 of them - and “East Jesus Nowhere” may be the worst song they’ve ever written. It sounds like a fucking Gary Glitter song for christ’s sake!
In a word: Meh. How a band can go from making such a great record to making an “ok” double album, and then this is beyond me. It brings no reaction out of me at all. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it either.
Alright I guess that’s it...see you next year!