In this week's issue, we asked our small gang of in-house and freelance music writers to think deep and come up with the studio or live collections, box sets, reissues, or EPs that best stood out in their minds — the albums that received repeated play time in the car, on the stereo, or on the iPod. The following lists contain some surprises — and a few that even earned multiple listings.
It is a common habit among music journalists across the country to make a big deal out of their own personal tastes by posting these kinds of "best of" lists. Sometimes they reflect the top-charting, best-selling albums of the year and industry trends. But best-selling and most popular collections aren't necessarily the strongest artistic efforts, though. As these lists demonstrate, there's much more to 2009's new music than what the mainstream music media might suggest.
This is the second of two compiled lists. Dig it.
2009 didn't really knock my tits off like 2008 did, which was highlighted by classic entries from established artists (The Hold Steady, David Byrne & Brian Eno) and stunning debuts (Bon Iver). Instead, my favorites of this year were good-to-great albums from a few all-time favorite bands (The Flaming Lips, Yo La Tengo), and a few artists that I've grown to love in more recent years (Andrew Bird, Junior Boys, and Califone). As whole albums, these 2009 efforts didn't quite reach each artists' previous peaks, but each featured more than enough brilliant songs to keep me listening. A few things that also kept the year consistently interesting were tracks from promising new artists like Here We Go Magic, Washed Out, and Toro y Moi. Hopefully that bodes well for 2010.
Andrew Bird — Noble Beast (Fat Possum)
The Flaming Lips — Embryonic (WEA/Reprise)
Yo La Tengo — Popular Songs (Matador)
Junior Boys — Begone Dull Care (Domino)
Bon Iver — Blood Bank EP (Jagjaguwar)
Various Artists — Dark Was the Night Compilation (4AD)
The Thermals — Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars)
Califone — All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans)
Wooden Shjips — Dos (Holy Mountain)
Mulatu Astatke & The Heliocentrics — Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut)
John Edward Royall is a City Paper graphic designer and a contributor, known best for his sharp eyewear and jerky dance moves.
U2 — No Line On The Horizon (Island)
Striking a middle ground between the accessible anthemic rock of its most popular albums (think The Joshua Tree or All That You Can't Leave Behind) and more experimental efforts like Pop and Achtung Baby, U2 shows it's still pushing creatively, still trying to live up to its ambition of remaining rock's best band.
Pearl Jam — Backspacer (Monkeywrench)
On its latest CD, Pearl Jam gets back to hard rocking basics, and the result is a bracing, catchy, and energized album that ranks with the group's best efforts.
The Hard Lessons — Armed Forest (QK)
Perhaps the year's most sorely overlooked album, Armed Forest showcases some starkly contrasting strengths. The album is anchored by several hard-hitting, melodically potent rockers, including "Sound The Silent Alarm," "The Arms Forest," and "Tired Straits (Nothing But Time)," but powerful ballads like "Talk It Over" and "Wedding Ring" are equally impressive.
Metric — Fantasies (Last Gang)
This CD filled with potent rock-pop feature several songs that sound like sure-fire alt-rock hits, including the thundering rock-pop gem "Help I'm Alive," the roof-raising anthem "Stadium Love," and "Front Row" (which achieves a striking balance between heavy and sweet). Why it didn't get more alt-rock airplay is one of the mysteries of 2009.
Wilco — Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
Although not quite as good as stellar previous CDs, such as Sky Blue Sky and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco nevertheless reaffirms its status as one of rock's very best bands with yet another fine album.
Art Brut — Art Brut vs. Satan (Cooking Vinyl)
There's no band in rock any funnier than Art Brut, and its music is just as good. The spiky, highly catchy guitar rock (think the Buzzcocks crossed with Gang Of Four) of Art Brut vs. Satan provides a lively soundtrack for the pithy lyrical musings of songwriter Eddie Argos.
Green Day — 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)
Green Day follows up its thematically based CD American Idiot with another concept album. 21st Century Breakdown is a worthy successor to its predecessor, covering a wide range of styles with plenty of energy and sass.
Maxwell — BLACKsummers' Night (Columbia)
After an eight-year absence from the music scene, Maxwell returns in style — specifically a simmering horn-laced sound — on BLACKsummer's Night. Offering more lyrical depth than most examinations of romance and plenty of enticing melodies and grooves, BLACKsummer's Night could be a modern soul classic.
The Avett Brothers — I and Love and You (American/Columbia)
The gothic country rock on I and Love and You should establish the Avett Brothers as one of the leading lights on the alt-country scene. Musically varied, lyrically poetic, and just plain stirring, it's a true breakthrough for this group.
The Decemberists — The Hazards of Love (Capitol)
The group hinted at doing thematically linked albums before, and on The Hazards of Love, the Decemberists made good on its threat to do a full-blown concept album. Drawing on seemingly disparate styles that include folk and healthy metal, along with punk, pop, and edgy rock, the Decemberists (led by frontman Colin Meloy) create rich musical work that runs from being graceful and pretty to forceful and foreboding.
Alan Sculley is a St. Louis-based freelance writer and regular music contributor. He likes to refer to albums as "CDs."
The record industry may be on its last legs, but that hasn't stopped independent artists from putting out innovative and occasionally brilliant releases in 2009. Neko Case offered up new depth in her strong but tortured anthems, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made a gutsy choice to take their music in a new direction, and the Decemberists crafted a prog-rock opera. Phoenix and Sondre Lerche soared up the college radio charts, electro-dance friendly efforts by You Say Party! We Say Die! and Telepathe made our feet move, and gems from Land of Talk, Bon Iver, and St. Vincent weaved storytelling gems around catchy hook-laden indie-pop.
Neko Case — Middle Cyclone (Anti)
Yeah Yeah Yeahs — It's Blitz! (DGC/Interscope)
The Decemberists — The Hazards of Love (Capitol)
Sondre Lerche — Heartbeat Radio (Rounder)
Land of Talk — Some Are Lakes (Saddle Creek)
Bon Iver — Bloodbank (Jagjaguwar)
Telepathe — Dance Mother (IAMSOUND)
You Say Party! We Say Die! — XXXX (Paper Bag)
St. Vincent — Actor (4AD)
Phoenix — Wolfgang, Amadeus, Phoenix (Glass Note)
Andrea Warner is a freelance writer, pop culture critic, and a fan of peaceful chaos. She occasionally uses words like "toque" and "toboggan."
Soulsavers — Broken (101 Distribution)
Mark Lanegan is the king of dark art-rock, the 21st century, underground Jim Morrison. Everything he does is pure gold. He just keeps getting better and better. He penned the bulk of Broken. It's not only the best Soulsavers record, it's by far the best album of the year. Period. Believe it.
John Frusciante — The Empyrean (Adrenaline)
Frusciante is such an interesting artist; everything he does is cool in some way — even if you don't really get it. The king of "out," he's one of those rare artists that transcends his medium. Unbridled creativity is always really the only goal, and you get the feeling the only reason why it's manifested through music is because a guitar just happens to be in the room.
Arc Angels — Arc Angels (Geffen)
Blending rock, soul, and blues, Doyle Bramhall II is a shining light. His talent is unequaled, and his songwriting is in a class of its own. Not unlike Mark Lanegan, he's always in high demand for side gigs, and he always takes whatever project he's involved with to another level. Though the angels are kind of rocking on the nostalgic trip here, there are a handful of reasons why Living in a Dream is in the top of '09, but the only one that really matters is Bramhall.
Neil Young — Fork in the Road (Reprise)
Neil kicks so much ass that even just an okay album from him is better than pretty much any other thing out there. There's always at least a few really good gems on anything from Young. And usually it's in the slower, more mellow stuff.
Them Crooked Vultures — Them Crooked Vultures (DGC/Interscope)
Three pros kicking ass, having fun, and breaking the rules — but at the end of the day, it's basically another Queens of the Stone Age record. Josh Homme is so unique, everything he is a part of sounds unquestionably like him. And that's a very good thing, especially in today's sea of plastic, homogenized bullshit.
AC/DC — Backtracks (Sony/Legacy)
Brian Johnson had a few nice moments with AC/DC, but everyone knows the real gold was in the Bon Scott era. The latest box set reminds us how great Bon and the boys really were. Any Bon is a good thing. More Bon is a better thing. Lots of new Bon is one of the best things a rocker could ever dream of. Is there anyone cooler than Bon? Does anyone kick near as much ass as Angus? No. And no.
Drivin' n' Cryin' — The Great American Bubble Factory (Thirty Tigers)
Sometimes hard and driving, sometimes crying, always real, DNC has become a tried and true Southern brand through the years. But the latest is solid. It's a very honest record, with the production and the performance and, of course, the content. And they name check the Stooges' Funhouse in the first minute. Sold.
Doug Walters' nickname "Street D" implies credibility, toughness, and smarts.
Yeah Yeah Yeah's — It's a Blitz! (DGC Interscope)
Yeah Yeah Yeah's do it again. Only electric and disco, but the kind of disco that wears skin-tight leather.
The Raveonettes — In and Out of Control (Vice Music)
Pop and sugar that slaps you in the face.
The Dead Weather — Horehound (Warner Bros.)
I'm not just saying this because I'm an avid (at times psychotic) Jack White fan, but the album is brilliant. Mosshart and White provide raw and fierce vocals, giving the album a dirty sex sound in some tracks, and a slow sweaty lull in others.
Blakroc — Blakroc (Blakroc Project)
The Black Keys collaborated with hip-hop legends merging blues rock with dark resonating beats and thoughtful rap verses. Album guests include: Wu-Tang Clan members Raekwon, RZA, and even ODB; Q-Tip, and Mos Def. Intelligent hip-hop unleashed in a time of catchy mindless Top 40 rap hits.
Original Soundtrack — Original Songs by Karen O and the Kids (Interscope)
A perfect soundtrack for the number one hipster movie of the year, Where the Wild Things Are. Whimsical and wildly calming in a hauntingly dreamy Freudian kind of way.
Imee Cuison is a full-time nurturer, dreamer, and budding musicologist.