I’m not going to do a list of my favourite songs of 2009 because that would be boring and unoriginal, and chances are you’ve probably read about the exact same songs in a million other places. Instead, here’s my playlist containing fifteen album tracks, none of which were released as singles, which I notched up on my bedpost as having loved dearly over the course of the year. When you’ve read through it all, you can also feel their brilliance as nature intended, by hopping over to the superconnected playlist I’ve made over on Spotify (though the Tortoise track will be absent because their oeuvre is not yet available).
The tracks are not listed in order of preference, since they’re all fairly unique and enjoyable; instead, I’ve sequenced them for maximum aural pleasure.
- The Horrors – Mirror’s Image. What a belter of an introduction to The Horrors’ grown-up new sound! Emerging from an Eno-like fog of ambient resonances and detuned synth washes, this album opener eventually lumbers into being with an instantly memorable bassline and the kind of baggy drumbeat not seen for twenty years. Faris Badwan’s vocals, meanwhile, are all doomed romantic, which goes hand-in-hand with the slurring, bleeding guitar-work that pepper the song.
- The Flaming Lips – Silver Trembling Hands. From an album of extended krautrock grooves, this is surely the most beautiful of the bunch. Listen in wonder as it morphs from a twisted, haunted freakout into the kind of blissed-out, starstruck pseudo-chorus that The Flaming Lips specialise in.
- Wilco – Bull Black Nova. Undoubtedly the most ambitious song on Wilco (The Album), this moving and chilling tale of a man on the run, having killed his girlfriend, is brought to life by a combination of fluid bass, lilting piano, seriously cool drums, and the dazzling fretboard flourishes of Nels Cline, about whom I have eulogised before.
- Future Of The Left – You Need Satan More Than He Needs You. And then for something totally different. A blast of scuzzy, brutally aggressive hardcore that channels the vitriol of Shellac through the tightly woven punk of Fugazi, via the badlands of Wales. I’m never sure whether to laugh or cry at Falco’s lyrics, which reference orgies, cults, and the titular devil.
- Arctic Monkeys – Potion Approaching. The much-heralded stoner rock sound isn’t omnipresent on Humbug, but when they do reach for the peyote and take a drive through the desert, the results are surprisingly genuine. Here, they alternate between the ESG-pumped funk favoured on Favourite Worst Nightmare, and the kind of gloomy waltz perfected by Nick Cave and Josh Homme. All the while, Jamie Cook’s wailing guitar floats through the mix, harmonising beautifully with the carnival chants in the background.
- Tortoise – Gigantes. I’m not sure words can really do justice to the beauty of this Beacons of Ancestorship highlight, which surprises and pulls a wobbly every few bars. From its humble origins as a Spanish guitar melody, through its numerous transformations via breakbeats, vibes and wooden percussion, via a briefly noisy guitar solo, and into a polyphonic groove with squelchy synths, this song defines the ‘journey’. It’s one of those classic examples of wordless music succeeding in conveying ten times more emotion than the vast majority of vocally-accompanied music.
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Runaway. The crop of torch-waving ballads that pepper It’s Blitz! are monolithic in terms of ambition and grandeur and, more importantly, spirit. This one’s the pick of the bunch, gradually rising out of a lonely piano figure to throw a light on some seriously epic orchestral arrangements and the kind of earth-shattering drums that usually prop up Wembley Stadium. Karen O’s vocals, meanwhile, approach the raw, unbridled emotion of “Maps”, underpinned by burbling synths and those circling strings. As the song is enveloped by a fog of noise, you can’t help but be overwhelmed.
- Phoenix – Love Like A Sunset Part I. From an album that missed out on my top fifteen list because it’s not really as original or exciting as some critics would have you believe, comes this undoubted centrepiece/masterpiece – exactly the kind of left-field turn that I wish more of the album had been like. By turns noodly (it begins with a close cousin of the piano melody from “Runaway”) and then charged with static electricity, the song is utterly stupendous. You can feel a stadium-sized monster itching to break free at several points but, to the band’s credit, they always hold back, just, ramping up the tension and intrigue before unwrapping another surprising switch in mood or instrumentation.
- Atlas Sound – Quick Canal (w. Laetitia Sadier). I realise this list is starting to look very krautrock-dependent, but I couldn’t help but include this almost-nine minute wonder, which does a better job of sounding like a Stereolab song than even Stereolab have managed for most of their career. Boasting cooing, overawed vocals from Laetitia Sadier herself, the song pulses along on a chilled-out beat while drooping curtains of noise and feedback and Bradford Cox’s backing vocals invade any blank space. Halfway through, Cox drops the best little birthday present on us, suddenly cutting out the bass and chords and rapidly warping the pitch of the background noise. Then both he and Sadier kick right back in with a beautifully orchestrated further four minutes of majesty.
- Yo La Tengo – Here To Fall. The other recurring theme on this playlist is album openers, and this one’s a peach. Ira Kaplan is often overlooked for his skill on the keys; here, we’re treated to a squall of distorted Rhodes that grows into something very special, with the regularity of James McNew’s bass countered by spirals of strings seemingly lifted from an Isaac Hayes number. It sounds a bit like The Verve, yes, but it’s The Verve at their most tempestuous, channeled through a greatest-hits soul compilation, fronted by Kaplan’s world-weary, avuncular vocals that speak of “dreams that don’t come true”.
- Franz Ferdinand – Lucid Dreams. We first heard this song, in a very different format, about a year-and-a-half ago. Now, in a substantially altered state, it’s a lumbering eight-minute colossus that starts off all slowed-down glam, but eventually morphs, via a super-retro lead synth solo, into a four-minute dub-inflected arpeggiator/sequencer workout. It’s totally unexpected, and a surprisingly natural fit for the band that once dealt with exclusively angular guitars and tales of hedonism. All this knob-twiddling and drum-machine battering works a treat.
- Doves – Jetstream. Another album curtain-raiser, and another song influenced by the motorik beat of krautrock. You’d think I’d be bored of this kind of thing by now, but remember that this was one of the first new songs I heard this year, and its sixteenth-beat hi-hats still never fail to stir something in me. Doves suggested the song was written as an imaginary end credits song for Blade Runner, and it succeeds in capturing the marvel and trauma of technology that Vangelis aimed for before them. There’s a lazy, hazy feel to the guitars that responds perfectly to the swirling trills of synth and the earth-shaking bass pulses.
- The Decemberists – The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid. The centrepiece of The Hazards of Love, this song alternates between proggy, harpsichord-led folk, a kind of post-Arcade Fire anthem, and the stodgy brand of stoner-metal we love to hate the Decemberists for. What prevents it from spiralling into parody? The answer must surely be Shara Worden’s powerful voice, which suits her role as the Queen of the forest to a point. Worden is possessed with an astonishing set of pipes, which she puts to good use to keep the drama and lyrical intrigue of the song at the forefront of our minds.
- The Cribs – City Of Bugs. It was on The Cribs’ last album that a member of Sonic Youth made a guest appearance, but it is here, on the Johnny Marr-enhanced Ignore The Ignorant, that the Wakefield trio (?) (quartet?) really unearth a vaguely noise-rock vibe. City of Bugs sounds like Sonic Youth circa-Murray Street, with a ringing pack of arty guitars doing battle over a backdrop of post-punk drums and a barrel full of bass. It’s long and meandering and some would accuse of it going nowhere, but hidden in the chord progression is an anthem dying to be heard, but partially silenced by the band’s eagerness to experiment and test the listener’s attention span. Gary Jarman’s voice, meanwhile, has rarely sounded so sincere and mature, inflected with the deep resonance of Nick Cave or Thurston Moore.
- Wild Beasts – Through The Iron Gate. We close with a typically obtuse choice – a digital-only bonus track tacked on at the end of my album of the year, Two Dancers. But what an afterthought this is! Through The Iron Gate is a tricksy, stuttering waltz built on some seriously 80s-sounding orchestral keyboard stabs. Over this sinister backing, guitarist Ben Little weaves an intricate web of arpeggios, while a multi-tracked Hayden Thorpe goes predictably melodramatic with the vocals, wailing “He cried noooooo!!!” in a tone that suggests a degree of violation may be occurring in real time. It’s a pleasingly traumatic listen, replete with off-kilter syncopation in the rhythm section (including the farewell wave of those ever-present bongos) and dreamy, reverb-heavy overdubs. Before I bought the album, I was led to believe that this was in fact the actual album closer (Spotify does bad things to you!), and I would still maintain it’s a better fit than “Empty Nest”. Regardless of the band’s uninformed decision, it’s a breathtaking finale to a wonderful year of music.