When the dust has settled on 2009, I think we’ll see that it was a very strange year in music. The blogs collectively went breathless for some bands and artists that did little more than remind listeners that hazy Polaroids look cool. A longer, more nuanced list is probably in order, but I will only remember 2009 for these handful of records. There were certainly some remarkable runners-up (espeically Neko Case, Bat for Lashes, Underwater Peoples Compilation, Atlas Sound) but I only have so much juice in these fingers.
Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. 2 – Hip Hop, like life, does not allow for second chances. Once you’ve fallen off the map, you better hope that your Escalade has a GPS system. But in 2009, The Chef showed up to the party with a couple of old friends clutching a sequel to Only Built 4Cuban Linx like he wasn’t 14 years late. Fourteen years. Fourteen years ago, RZA released Liquid Swords. Imagine Bobby Digital releasing the best rap album of the year next year, and you’ll understand Raekwon’s accomplishment.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion – Look, MPP is incredible album, but it’s still only the 4th best album in Animal Collective’s catalog (Feels, Strawberry Jam, Sung Tongs, in that order). I refuse to budge on that judgment, but just understand that that speaks volumes about a band that pulled itself out of arty obscurity to become the most relevant band in America.
Fever Ray – s/t – It took me a little over 2 years to fully digest and appreciate The Knife’s Silent Shout, but I could immediately get down with the terrifying videos and scary outfits. The Venetian plague masks didn’t make a lick of sense until I heard the inky black drone of the opening chords of “If I Had a Heart.” Perhaps more than dozens/hundreds/thousands of glitchy IDM fluxus records (with their accompanying remixes), Fever Ray’s album showed us the true potential of electronic instruments. This is avant-garde that isn’t so much above your head as it is inside your head.
The XX – s/t – I feel like we’re on the verge of a great paradigm shift with R&B. Perhaps more than any other genre, R&B needs a makeover. It needs to hit the gym, drop a couple thou on a new wardrobe, and break up with those half-baked revivalists who are too reverential for their own good (Jamie Lidell, you’re an asshole. So are you Mayer Hawthorne). I think more than anything else about this album, I want to see it lead the pack to genuinely reinvent R&B.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz – In the world of YYYs fandom, 2009 will be an important year for one particular reason: with the release of It’s Blitz, we finally came to understand that the YYYs’ legacy will rest on their remarkable ability to reinvent themselves. With unlimited internal resources, these 3 have reinvented a band that could have released Fever to Tell knockoffs for the next 10 years to easy success and acclaim. Also, they managed to release their best song since “Maps” (“Hysteric”). Oh, they also managed to create the best album art in a career filled with great album covers. Also, it turns out that Nick Zinner knows his way around a synthesizer. Right, and Brian Chase can make the hip kids shimmy with his sticks and skins.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – I resisted this for a long time because a) I never bothered picking up their other albums and b) I was skeptical of the hype. Of course I had heard “Lisztomania” and “1901” but nothing clicked until I heard “Lasso.” It all finally dawned on me. Phoenix plays pop music. They write good songs, and they play them well. There’s absolutely nothing more to this sticky wallop of a record.
Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport – I first listened to Street Horrrsing on a bus from northern New Hampshire to Boston. The in-ride movie was Chocolat. I watched the entire movie while listening to the album a couple of times. I liked the juxtaposition but never really bothered listening to the record after that day. I was surprised, then, to learn that their followup was the most conventionally gorgeous things I heard all year.
Real Estate – s/t – When all of your Neon Indians/Best Coast/Wavves/Memory Cassette (Tapes?) chillwavers have become old fads gathering dust in the corner of your iPod, Real Estate’s debut will still sound like the soundtrack to every great summer memory you ever had. While my fellow Bostonians and I face down another 4 months of winter, I’m fortunate enough to have a summer album that shimmers like the condensation collecting on a bottle of beer from every great backyard barbeque ever.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest – Consider this: in a year when lo-fi made a strange comeback, one of the most highly lauded albums was a well-recorded and well-produced record of admirable studiocraft. Veckatimest is the sonic equivalent of a dapper boho who writes better poetry than any of his stinky and unkempt peers. Grizzly Bear is leading the crusade to obscure this generation’s obsession with half-baked irony with a big-hearted sincerity.
Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer – Let’s just deal with the facts. Spencer Krug frequently sounds like an insane Cassanova. He writes cryptic lyrics that make Black Francis’ look like Cliff Notes to weirdness. He pens epic shapeshifters that can’t sit still long enough to find their groove. Between SunRub, Wolf Parade, Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, and (apparently) Moonface, he’s prolific enough to almost guarantee two albums of material a year for the past 4 years(!). Spencer Krug has managed to turn all of these potential drawbacks into serious advantages. Look, Krug’s only legitimate peers right now are Thom Yorke, Avey Tare, Panda Bear, and Win Butler.
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca – If you predicted that Bitte Orca would be tremendous before even hearing a note of it, then you are a liar. The Dirty Projectors were, at best, a cool little band that made exceedingly weird music. I loved both Rise Above and The Getty Address, but I had no idea that they had something anywhere near an album of the year in them. I first got an inkling that something was afoot when I came across an acoustic live version of “Temecula Sunrise” from an intimate show at the Walker in Minneapolis. Longstreth sounded relaxed in a way that he never had before. Gone were the complex mythopoetics about Don Henley (or something). Here he was singing about the joys of Gatorade and cooperative living. Plus, he managed to bring his beloved finches back. Listen closely: Bitte Orca is the best album since Radiohead dropped In Rainbows on October 10, 2007. And, strangely, much like In Rainbows, Bitte Orca is a breezy album by an otherwise tightwound dude.
Despite the music degree from Yale, Longstreth doesn’t expect you to trace the complex time signatures or unusual tunings. Part of his trick here is to hand many of the vocal jobs over to Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, whose voices are so immediately soothing and pleasant that you forget about the filigree of guitar weaving threads around them. Coffman’s “Stillness is the Move” is the most immediately likeable song on the record. For her part, Deradoorian gets “Two Doves,” which continues Longstreth’s unaccountable love affair with traditional (and lovely) love songs that sound as if they were written 80 years ago. When they’re not leading their own songs, Coffman and Deradoorian wrap Longstreth’s brittle warble in warm blankets of oohs and aahs.
Backup singers? Love songs? Heavy low end beats? I hope that you realize that when you’re listening to Bitte Orca you’re hearing the most fractured R&B album ever conceived. It’s more David Bryne than R. Kelly, sure, but I don’t think Longstreth wants you to make those distinctions. Bitte Orca is not smarter pop music, it’s just more ambitious.