Albums of 2009 – Lis(z)tomania!

UPDATE: Grab a convenient playlist featuring two key tracks from (almost) all of the albums featured here.

2009 has been a year when I’ve taken stock of a fair bit of older music – thank Spotify for that! – which might explain my profligacy in terms of listening to some really highly-regarded new albums. Nonetheless, in the last few weeks I’ve clawed back lost ground and taken the opportunity to investigate the hype surrounding some of this year’s gems.

In the interests of economy, I’m only listing my fifteen favourite albums; there were plenty of others that I enjoyed, but couldn’t justify adding to this list. So, as well as the albums listed below, do please go and have a listen to wonderful albums like Doves‘ triumphant Kingdom Of Rust, The Cribs‘ Johnny Marr-enhanced Ignore The Ignorant, and Atlas Sound‘s mesmerising Logos. But without further ado, and a bit more explanation where necessary, here are my offerings:

15. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love. It’s cheesy and Floydian in places, but you can forgive them their excesses the instant that you hear the killer riffs (“The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid”), the beautiful melodies (“Isn’t It A Lovely Night?”), and the witty and clever wordplay (“The Rake’s Song”). The concept holds up pretty well too, even if you’re not paying close attention to the lyrics booklet.

14. The Big Pink – A Brief History of Love. Channelling the brutal power of shoegaze and noise rock through big-beat pop songs with heart-on-sleeve lyrics, this album manages to pummel you in the base of the neck at the same time as winning your heart over. It sounds simultaneously dug up from twenty years ago, and beamed back from twenty years into the future. Its emotional appeal is timeless; the music an alluring mix of anthemic (“Dominos”) and avant-garde (“Frisk”).

13. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light. Part environmental musing, part contemplation on the life cycle, we’ve had to wait a long time for this follow-up to I Am A Bird Now. Luckily, it’s worth its lengthy gestation – Antony has soaked up the talents of numerous instrumentalists and collaborators to create a sparse, fragile collection of songs that float along (“Epilepsy Is Dancing”) with great grace, considering the immense gravity of their subject matter (“Another World”).

12. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!. Cult NYC art rock trio swap guitars for synths that sound like guitars. Result: an album that frisks the listener through a heady night of disco, new-wave, and the distilled highlights of indie rock music. At its most energetic (“Heads Will Roll”), you feel lifted above the dancefloor; at its most reflective (“Runaway”), you feel emotionally cleansed.

11. Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs. Having brought us albums that have oscillated between downtempo trip-hop, 60s pop, and pulverising noise-rock, Yo La Tengo bring it all home with a surprisingly cohesive album that draws in all their influences and winds up showing off some of their best-written songs to date. “Here To Fall” is all soaring strings and reverb-heavy keyboards; “If It’s True” is pure Motown; and where would we be without a token Ira Kaplan sonic freakout like “And The Glitter Is Gone”?

10. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug. Yes, I get it. Albums like this aren’t supposed to appear on these lists. But the songs are still thoughtfully written, the music is every bit as beguiling and stormy as early reviews indicated, and the lyrics – however obtuse – should be printed in their own hardback and sold at Waterstones’.

9. Tortoise – Beacons of Ancestorship. I didn’t think Tortoise were ever going to make another album, after the tombstone-like epitaph/leviathan that was 2006’s A Lazarus Taxon. But here they are, future-thinking as ever, whether dissecting a rave-up on opener “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” or blowing punk’s socks off on “Yinxianghechengqi”. This is a dazzling piece of work imbued with great precision, but not at the expense of tangible emotion.

8. The Horrors – Primary Colours. Speaking of surprises, few would have expected this Southend five-piece to turn their backs on their lamentable gothic origins; knuckle down in the studio with Portishead mainman Geoff Barrow; and emerge bearing this strange, ripened fruit. On a beautiful journey through krautrock, shoegaze (“Mirror’s Image”) and glam (“Do You Remember”), The Horrors show us that they’ve been taking considered notes from the bands they used to only namecheck; Faris Badwan’s lyrics and vocals, meanwhile, reveal a surprising depth of emotion and recast him as a doomed romantic, far away from silly eyeliner and ghostly make-up. And it ends with an eight-minute motorik epic, “Sea Within A Sea”, which deserves its place in the annals of recorded music.

7. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic. I was initially sceptical of this mammoth work, which spreads out over 70 minutes and boasts nary a commercially viable single. It is unrelenting in ferocity, misery and acid-fried terror, but somewhere in that cauldron of krautrock-frazzled grooves lurks Wayne Coyne’s unpredictably scared heart, no longer an amused commentator, but a real-life citizen of a planet (real? imaginary?) on the verge of imploding. And if the colossal epics like “Worm Mountain” and “The Sparrow Looks Up At The Machine” get too much, there’s some relief in the form of far-out beauties like “Powerless” and “The Impulse”.

6. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca. It should suffice to say that this album features the best Mariah Carey song she never sang on (“Stillness Is The Move”). If that won’t satisfy you, then take heart from the fact that Dave Longstreth has reined in previous excesses to produce a surprisingly focused set of R&B-tinged gems that look to Africa (“No Intention”), the charts, and the stunning vocal talents of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. The guitar parts are still fiddly and time-signature ignoring, but the songs they inhabit are accessible and deeply loveable.

5. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion. For long stretches of the year, I didn’t dare listen to this album. I was afraid that the reviews were all wrong, and that an intangible sonic mush was swallowing up the middle of it (“Bluish”, “Guys Eyes”). Then I re-visited it, and realised that I was mistaken. This is a class act, bringing together the musical and lyrical themes of all the collective’s previous releases into a sophisticated, challenging, but ultimately rewarding work. The opening pair of “In The Flowers” and “My Girls” lets us know about the band’s new-found love of earth-shattering bass; the tropical closer “Brother Sport” ends in a mesmeric rave; and along the way we’re treated to forward-thinking pop music with vocal harmonies to die for, and gurgling production that eventually yields happiness for the listener.

4. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest. I don’t care how antiquated it seems to say this, but this album reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel. There’s something about the intricacy and studiousness of the musicianship, coupled with Daniel Rossen’s slightly grainy voice, that can’t help but forge a link with songs like “The Boxer” and “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright”. Not that that’s a bad thing – far from it. Grizzly Bear have fashioned the most wonderful chord changes and a sweet harmony that many would formerly have sneered at, in an album that captivates and charms and regularly sends chills down my spine. In Rossen’s songwriting contributions (opener “Southern Point” being a highlight), they explore unconventional shifts in timbre and mood; in Ed Droste’s more straightforward material (“Two Weeks” is one of the pop songs of the year) they still manage to shimmy in subtle textures that could easily be disregarded. Veckatimest is a work that rewards multiple listens, each revealing new complexities in the music, and strange new meanings to the language of the lyrics.

3. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns. Natasha Khan’s voice is an astonishing agent of emotion. By turns it resembles the innocent wanderlust of Björk, the impassioned lover of Kate Bush, and the punkish energy of Karen O. And each of these transformations is a fearsome engine, driving Two Suns along its initially tenuous narrative, and complementing the alarming variety of musical styles displayed throughout. From the beguiling opener “Glass”, which pits tribal drums against a selection of glacial synths, through the unashamed starstruck pop of “Daniel” (my song of the year, undoubtedly), to the plaintive piano-led moaning of “The Big Sleep” (ably assisted by the guttural baritone of Scott Walker) – Khan journeys through a wondrous landscape of sounds and textures, never losing sight of her lyrical intrigue. When she quotes the Song of Solomon, it doesn’t sound laboured or fussy; rather, it seems like a natural decision that links the past with the future on an album that melds a variety of influences, as well as pioneering musical styles that have never really been ventured into before. It’s interesting that in shedding the classical ornaments Khan favoured on her debut, Fur and Gold, she has succeeded in making a far more original album, and one that balances her unique aesthetic with compelling songwriting craft.

2. The xx – xx. What more is there to say about this mature and considered album, crafted in an innocent yet post-lapsarian manner, by four twenty-year olds from south-west London? There’s so much to like in its concise and economical running time, and also so much to fear, like the solitary sub-bass pulses that haunt “Fantasy”, and the quivering cry that signals the opening of “Crystalised”. xx is an essential listen for anyone who thought Aaliyah was dead and that her inspirational pop music of the turn of the millennium was buried forever. It is also the soundtrack to walking through the city at night; to wandering between empty night-buses; and to taking one’s tentative, scary steps through love and friendship. Only a small fraction of this album is actual noise – the deal is sealed by the empty space and the sound of dead air that envelops much of it. This unique method lets every guitar part trill, and every swooning vocal – whether uttered from Romy Madley Croft’s naïve lips, or from Oliver Sim’s raspy bark – resonate into the darkest recesses of your mind. Some critics have suggested xx sounds like the work of artists twice their age, such is its maturity, but I would beg to differ. For me, such maturity as is displayed here could only be derived from innocence, and the feeling of awe at being locked in a makeshift studio at night, free to roam through the emotions of being a young person in love, without needing to engage with the studio as a treasure trove of instrumental stardust.

1. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers. Similarly austere to xx, there is something very paradoxical about Wild Beasts’ sophomore release. Where they previously discussed sex and violence over a baroque-n-roll soundtrack, here, they tone down the musical rollercoaster and dial into a kind of steely, vaguely tropical funk, while upping the ante, lyrically, to tackle subjects like tentative romance, chav warfare, and… gang rape? The result is an utterly cohesive album that doesn’t shy away from experimentation (see the echo-drenched two part title-suite, “Two Dancers (i) and (ii)”) but is also unafraid of lavishing the listener with instantly memorable vocal and instrumental hooks (“We Still Got the Taste Dancin’ on our Tounges”, “Hooting & Howling”).

Of course Hayden Thorpe’s honking falsetto is still a major attraction (or turn-off, depending on personal preference), but it’s put to good use effortlessly, evoking a range of emotions and melodrama. The secret weapon in the band’s arsenal, meanwhile, is surely Tom Fleming’s more traditional baritone, which provides them with a useful counterfoil to Thorpe’s antics on songs like “All The King’s Men” and “Empty Nest”. This balance of power between the two vocalists helps make a body of work that continually surprises, but never loses its way in terms of excesses. Along with Fleming’s increasing prominence, the other major surprise on Two Dancers must surely be the percussion, which memorably features bongos alongside a more traditional drum kit. The syncopated polyrhythms this set-up allows for carries the album’s more upbeat songs inexorably forwards; on the slower, more meandering songs, it creates a more luxuriant, laid-back mood that is equally affecting.

On considering why I chose this album, which is ostensibly a thirty-seven minute document of guitar-based pop music, above the layers of experimentation and sonic warfare fostered by other artists this year, I can only come to one conclusion. Two Dancers succeeds in entertaining the listener like no other album – I do not just admire it as the fruits of its creators’ labour; I revel in every minute of it, as it delights the ear with its mellifluous instrumental work, and pleasures the mind with its libidinous and raunchy lyrics. In a year where we have been subjected to waves of tragedy and pessimism, it is wonderful to be able to enjoy an album that basks in the thrill of hedonism and creates passionate, believable drama out of the base and corporeal. Wild Beasts, like The Horrors, have confounded expectations, and returned with an album in which they have invested not necessarily a great deal of time (the band admits that much of the album was recorded live, with minimal overdubs), but an enormous quantity of soul and spirit and intellect; the end product is exactingly produced (in a manner that brings to the fore the band’s defining qualities) and earnestly performed, and yet manages to convey more intention and feeling than albums with far lengthier gestations. Two Dancers is a vital piece of work, made by young people full of brain and brawn – just the right cocktail to see you through the next decade.

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