2009 is a tough year to judge. I’ve checked out more albums this year than any year in the past. Well over 1,000. And there have been quite a few great ones as well. When this list began, it had 110 albums. I abandoned my top 33 and 1/3 for 45, and then said “screw it” and upped the number to an even 50. These are the top notch albums of the year, all worthy of praise.
Despite trouble all around, 2009 wasn’t all that bad. It forced us to hold our wallets a little closer, and by doing so allowed us to enjoy some simpler things in life. Living briefly in Edison before buying a house, I’d take walks around town with my camera in hand and my iPod in ear. The above photo was from one of those journeys.
It was the year of fuzzy pop, so it’s no surprise that the biggest standout label from the year would have to be Slumberland, who gave us a slew of phenomenal singles, a few great albums, and a number of excellent EPs. Hometapes also finds their artists sprinkled throughout the list. As usual, there are some local favorites, as well as a few obscurities.
Off we go…
50. Postcard by Elin Palmer
From Devotchka fame comes Elin Palmer, whose Denver by way of Sweden sounds blend multi-instrumental orchestral folk with angelic vocals. Title track “Postcard” is a mystic song that hits all the right notes, from beautiful echoing vocals to soft accordion and masterful strings.
49. Cosmic Clancy by The Nightgowns
The Nightgowns turned some heads in the Pacific Northwest this year, gaining momentum with their synth-based pop. It’s simple and catchy, but a dark base and vocal pairing keeps it from being overly twee.
48. The Mountain by Heartless Bastards
Title track “The Mountain” is truly an epic, and it’s hard not to say the same about at least half the songs on Heartless Bastards’ latest LP. These songs are pure rock and hint at a greater 70s theme yet find themselves entirely modern. And the female-fronted vocal styling is deep and filled with a verbose vibrato, making Erika Wennerstrom one of the more unique vocalists around.
47. Letting Up Despite Great Faults by Letting Up Despite Great Faults
Letting Up Despite Great Faults wears their influences on their sleeves on their self-titled debut LP. Listening to electronic beats and fuzzy keys and guitars, fronted by dreamy reverb-filled vocals, one can hear hints of The Radio Dept. in nearly every song on this album. That is far from a bad thing, as Letting Up Despite Great Faults picks up precisely where Lesser Matters left off.
46. Promenade by Grand Hallway
Combining Japanese classical sensibilities with orchestral pop isn’t all that common. Promenade, Grand Hallway’s second album, is much stronger than their debut and it finds the group gaining confidence in their songwriting abilities, both from an instrumentation and a vocal standpoint.
45. Gather Form & Fly by Megafaun
An experimental style of folk, freak folk, and blend of fully orchestrated folk with minimalist folk, Megafaun does a great job infusing various styles of folk for an entirely unique sound that is fun, crazy, and beautiful all at the same time.
44. Första Brevet Till Amerika by The Hartmans
Riding the fuzz pop train is Sweden’s The Hartmans, who remain underground but whose songs are absolutely worth checking out for fans of this year’s favorite sub-genre. Första Brevet Till Amerika is technically the US release of an album from one, possibly two years ago, but because Series II dropped it in ’09, I’ll consider it. The Hartmans focus is harmony backed by massive distorted harmony.
43. March Of The Zapotec / Holland by Beirut
Beirut’s so-called third LP, March Of The Zapotec / Holland is technically a double EP. One half finds the balkan-influenced band matching their early sounds while the other sees Condon et. al adding in electronic beats.
42. My Maudlin Career by Camera Obscura
“French Navy” by Camera Obscura is one of my favorite singles of 2009, and title track “My Maudlin Career” is pretty damn close to being an album favorite. This album nears the influence set forth in Let’s Get Out Of This Country.
41. Fan The Flames by Golden Bloom
With infectious pop songs like “Doomsday Devices” and “The Flight At The End Of The Tunnel”, Golden Bloom takes contemporary pop to a whole new level. Sure, this stuff is more than nerdy, but you can’t help falling in love with these songs.
40. Sunset / Sunrise by The Dutchess And The Duke
Aside from an overall higher production value on Sunset / Sunrise, The Dutchess And The Duke exudes a greater level of comfort and confidence in the music they create. Sure, this album lacks that gritty lo-fi element so beloved in their debut, but it’s made up with this band’s new-found certainty in their abilities.
39. Post-Nothing by Japandroids
Japandroids made waves this year with their album Post-Nothing. Many consider “Young Hearts Spark Fire” one of the best songs of the year. Sure, I’ll give them that, but my favorites are “Heart Sweats” and “I Quit Girls”.
38. Logos by Atlas Sound
I haven’t fully absorbed Logos yet. There are a few albums that haven’t quite fully garnered my attention, and these are the ones that are likely to see big movement when it comes time to compile my 2009 A Retrospective. I rather enjoy what I have digested quite a bit more than Atlas Sound’s last album. In particular is “Walkabout” which features Noah Lennox of Animal Collective/Panda Bear.
37. Reservoir by Fanfarlo
Quite like Beirut, but with less emphasis on the obscure and a bit more on greater accessibility to a wider audience, Fanfarlo’s Reservoir is hailed by many as one of the top albums of the year. It’s a bit too much like Beirut at times, but there’s no question that these guys can create a pretty powerful tune. “The Walls Are Coming Down” and “Luna” are instant favorites, songs that aren’t likely to wane any time soon.
36. Welcome Joy by The Cave Singers
Oh man, “At The Cut” rocked. Invitation Songs was pretty damn solid, and placed the band in a unique folk-rock place, hinting at a folk sound from an entirely different era. But Welcome Joy finds The Cave Singers blowing up that earlier sound, injecting some powerful riffs (as if they weren’t there to begin with), and pumping up volume levels a bit. Sure, not all songs are like this, but the right ones are, and that’s all that matters.
35. In The Dream Of The Sea Life by Candy Claws
Thanks to a clever mixing in of lapping waves, In The Dream Of The Sea Life nears concept album greatness. Candy Claws mixes highly experimental electro-pop with folky traits common to artists like Animal Collective, but a thousand times dreamier. This music is pleasant and hypnotic.
34. Intuit by Ramona Falls
After Menomena’s Friend And Foe, I’ve been dying to hear more from the band. While we have yet to receive a follow-up, Intuit is pretty damn close. From Menomena’s Brent Knopf comes Ramona Falls and the music has a pretty strong similarity to one of Portland’s best groups. In the coming months, I’ll probably regret keeping this one so low on the list.
33. Vekatimest by Grizzly Bear
Vekatimest has made more of an impact on me than both Yellow House and Horn Of Plenty alike. “Two Weeks”, in fact, is one of my favorite singles of the year. As a whole, this album is more than solid and propels Grizzly Bear into a unique position; out there far enough to warrant lauding by supreme pretentious indie nerds and a more mainstream crowd as well.
32. Waking Heat by Tempo No Tempo
It’s been a while since I’ve really been into a dub band, but that all changed in 2009. Tempo No Tempo became an instant favorite thanks to a hefty bass/drum part in songs like “The Rat (Part One)” and “Medicines”. Unsigned, I wouldn’t be surprised if this band doesn’t stay that way long.
31. We Bet Our Money On You by Daniel Francis Doyle
Math rock has always been a bit crazy, with pointed beats and riffs and wild lyrics. Daniel Francis Doyle is the most promising artist to fit the genre in a very long time. His abilities extend far, from erratic in-your-face experimental and fully math oriented tracks (“Old Lives”, for example, is quite wonderful, reaching a point between Don Cab and Dismemberment Plan) and soft melodic piano tracks (“Your Baby Is Speaking” is the best representation of that sound). Perfect.
30. Keep In Mind Frankenstein by Grand Archives
The harmonies remain, both from an instrumental and vocal standpoint. In Keep In Mind Frankenstein, Grand Archives take it down a notch at times. While there isn’t that immense climax (“The Crime Window” off Grand Archives took that slot), these songs are still quite amazing. Grand Archives’ music is filled with pleasant folk-pop that truly sets this band apart from the crowd.
29. Everybody Come Outside by Pomegranates
With their sophomore LP, Everybody Come Outside, Pomegranates have soidified their station as the best creators of upbeat pop songs around. And I’m not just talking songs that will make you nod your head. Even their sadder, less happy songs are entirely bouncy. Prime example: “This Land Used To Be…”
28. Family by Le Loup
The Throne, Le Loup’s debut, was an album wrought with strife; it was a tormented display of a mind torn between good and evil. And it leaned quite substantially toward the darkness. With their follow-up, Family, Simkoff seems to have found a pleasant peace among friends. This album lacks some of the minimalistic traits of its predecessor. There are still forays into that wild sound, but now it’s more tribal, connected to individuals outside Simkoff himself. And you can hear it in the music: it’s a positive progression.
27. Tarpits & Canyonlands by Bombadil
Mixing a sound that can only be described as a folky rendition of Slaraffenland (or Efterklang) fronted by a Cat Stevens-ish character, Bombadil has produced an entirely unique album that is one of 2009’s must-hears.
26. Setting The Paces by BOAT
Setting The Paces, BOAT’s third album, sees the band progressing as a whole. Songs are more complex, yet they all maintain a fair share of those good ol’ traits that us fans fell in love with upon hearing their debut. D. Crane still has that overly joyous, sarcastic self-deprecating lyrics and that grinning throaty vocal style. These songs rock, and they rock harder than BOAT ever has before.
25. Psychic Chasms by Neon Indian
Take Animal Collective, drop in a notable and dark 80s influence. Then ship the whole package over to Europe and shove it into one of their electro thingies. An image should be forming, and the result is probably something along the lines of Neon Indian. By the way, this album cover speaks to this music more than practically all others in 2009.
24. Telekinesis! by Telekinesis
You wouldn’t expect this album from Telekinesis brain-child Michael Lerner, who is soft spoken and quite kind. Then again, this album isn’t hard hitting, nor is it pretentious. It hits the right pop hooks and injects the perfect amount of rock to achieve something better, more pure. One listen to “Great Lakes” and you’ll be saying Move over Death Cab – there’s a new boy in town!
23. Parade by Afternoon Naps
When it comes down to it, there is little I love more than a good indie pop album, and Parade by Afternoon Naps is just that. The band’s smokey and mysterious vocals are dark and seductive. There are plenty of somber pop hooks here, but this band isn’t beyond throwing a wrench in that – there’s also a lot of bouncy melodies.
22. Summer Of Hate by Crocodiles
Summer Of Hate brought Crocodiles quite a bit of hype in the indie world upon its release. It took me a while to get around to checking these guys out but I’m very glad I did. The title track remains my favorite, but in truth this album is filled with favorites.
21. Declaration Of Dependence by Kings Of Convenience
“Boat Behind” is one of my favorite videos of the year. It’s perfectly sunny and more than fitting. The title of this album is honest and revealing, and it fits the music this duo creates. Kings Of Convenience is back and I’ll probably kick myself later for not sticking this higher on the list. Oh well.
20. Beast Rest Forth Mouth by Bear In Heaven
From the dissonance of Red Bloom Of The Boom to the harmonious Beast Rest Forth Mouth, Bear In Heaven continues to be a gripping band despite a substantial progression. The first one emphasized space; this one creates the matter that fills space.
19. Up From Below by Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros
Epic folk comes in many forms and while Up From Below may not necessarily be a concept album in the true concept album form, it possesses the traits (albeit externally for the most part). As they continue to put out videos from the album, which will ultimately form a near feature-length film, this album’s brilliance will radiate brighter than ever.
18. We’re On Your Side by Slaraffenland
Few bands have the efficacy of uniqueness than that produced by Slaraffenland. Their plush orchestral instrumentation, bordering on experimental pop, is simultaneously minimal and monumental. And the vocals that coincide with it are expansive. Beauty has nothing on Slaraffenland.
17. Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective
In my opinion, Merriweather Post Pavilion is Animal Collective’s initial leaning toward becoming more accessible to a wider audience. Fall Be Kind is an even further progression into that realm, but when compared to that which came before, MPP has more songs that fit that classification. A favorite, you can totally hear Noah Lennox’s influence on “Guys Eyes”.
16. Over And Over by The Legends
At first glance, it may appear that The Legends have returned to their roots with Over And Over, the overly fuzzy basement pop distinct on Up Against The Legends. But in reality, they’ve merely combined many of the sounds over their past three quite distinct albums. This band continues to impress – again, it should be no surprise as to why I regard Johan Angergard as one of today’s most talented musicians.
15. You Can Have What You Want by Papercuts
Sometimes you’ll find that certain albums sound better on vinyl. On one hand, it’s the experience of sliding that beautiful piece of wax out of its sleeve and placing it gently on a record player, then watching the needle as it drops in the precise location for optimal listening. You Can Have What You Want by Papercuts is one such album. The good news: this album nears perfection no matter how you take it in.
14. There Is No Enemy by Built To Spill
There Is No Enemy is, without question, my favorite Built To Spill album since Perfect From Now On. Filled with more radio-friendly hits, like “Hindsight” and epic rockers alike, this album nears their prior pinnacle of greatness. “Oh Yeah”, both lyrically and instrumentally, could have been on that earlier album. It has become an easy album favorite.
13. Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band by Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band
Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band took a while to catch on for me, but eventually I came around. “Albatross, Albatross, Albatross” was one of my favorite videos of the year, and the album is packed with songs just as powerful. At times these songs hint at metal guitars, but the music is far from the genre – it’s entirely rock, with minor pop sensibilities.
12. Album by Girls
At first, Girls didn’t do much for me. Call it a youthful childish shun; a fear of cooties. But like most young boys, I quickly grew up and started to notice Girls in a way I never thought possible. At first it was subtle – the soft songs like “Hellhole Ratrace”. Eventually the “they’re OK” became a bit more of an intense desire, a longing, an infatuation. The harder songs like “Lust For Life”, “Laura” and “Summertime” all became favorites. Two months ago, I wouldn’t have thought it possible for Album to crack the top 20. Now it sits at #12.
11. The Banyans by The Banyans
Ask anyone about any band within the top, oh 15, and the one that the fewest people will know is The Banyans. This self titled album was self-released by this Seattle band, and done so not as a physical release but as a free download. “Grenade On Course” and “Neon Heat” are some of my favorite songs of 2009. As a whole, this album fits together quite nicely; not something you’d expect from a brand new band.
10. Heavy Days by Jeff The Brotherhood
Not since The White Stripes’ early days has a lo-fi punk duo created such an impact (on me, at least). What you get: noisy distorted riffs and sloppy percussion fronted by grungy lyrics. This album might not strike you as anything fancy from the get-go, but give it time and the songs on Heavy Days will blow your fucking mind.
9. Rules by The Whitest Boy Alive
OK, if you thought Dreams was good, wait until you hear Rules. This album has everything you loved off The Whitest Boy Alive’s debut LP yet does exactly what you expect from a follow-up: it takes it to the next level. Seriously: it does so in every way possible. “High On The Heels” is the shining star here, but “Keep A Secret”, “Courage”, and “Timebomb” are right behind.
8. Clangour by Sin Fang Bous
In 2008, Sin Fang Bous gave us a teaser off their then forthcoming album, the Clangour 7″ single; both songs fit the experimental electro-pop Sin Fang Bous would come to be known by. Despite that being more than one year ago, the two songs, “Advert In Ives Garden” and “Clangour And Flutes”, are just as mesmerizing as the day I first heard them. Add to them ten additional songs that are just as powerful, and the result is astonishing.
7. Eskimo Snow by Why?
With lyrics that flow 1) like poetry, and 2) better than the best gangster rap, Why? has finally caught my attention by demonstrating they are one of today’s best bands thanks to lyrical prowess and masterful wordsmith-ery backed by an impeccable ability to instrumentally craft a great tune.
6. Yeah I Know by Darlings
Basement pop has never been as upbeat and party-centric as it is with Darlings. As we heard just the other day, “Eviction Party” is an entirely true story, packed with insane antics of the overly imbibed. I associate this album with summer (thanks to being released then, and also having an upbeat sound). “Teenage Girl” will have you falling in love with the young punk chick a few seats away on the bus, while “If This Is Love” is perfect for the moment that summer fling comes to an abrupt halt.
5. Tree House Whispers by Anois
Louder than bedroom pop but not quite fit for the basement, Anois is left with the title King of Living Room Pop. The title, at least in my opinion, is one they are more than worthy of keeping. Tree House Whispers adds in experimental elements, drone, and rounds it all out with sexy foreign accents and all the beauty in the world.
4. Reservoir by Ah Holly Fam’ly
The smokey, nasally vocals of Jeremy Faulkner are about as unique as vocals can get. When backed by the pop-tinged folk of Ah Holly Fam’ly, the result is one of the best albums of the year. Listening to the band’s old stuff, they’ve come a long way from their home-made CD-R days (when we both resided in the Palouse, them in Moscow and me in Pullman. Whatever this band is doing, they should absolutely keep it up. Reservoir is brilliant!
3. Wind’s Poem by Mount Eerie
Until Wind’s Poem the two Mount Eerie albums I was most familiar with were Lost Wisdom and Dawn, both of which find Phil Elverum at his more minimal. Not once does he pick up an electric guitar on either album. Thus, Wind’s Poem was a bit of a change – much more in line with the stuff from Microphones – and, overall, this album is phenomenal.
2. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
I would say my #1 song this year is “Young Adult Friction” by The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. This song and the album as a whole are both excellent. “Contender” and “Everything With You” are right up there thanks to massive distorted pop and seemingly insurmountable vocal pop hooks.
1. AZAR by Venice Is Sinking
The difference between the first and eighth album on this list is, in fact, quite miniscule. These eight albums are truly very close in terms of the power they’ve held on me throughout the year, and their ability to be mainstays on my playlist in the years to come. Still, the decision to put AZAR at #1 wasn’t all that difficult. Venice Is Sinking possesses not only the ability to put out a great record, they are also very forward-thinking from an industry standpoint. I’m very excited to hear what their 3rd LP has in store for us.