Top 10 Albums of 2009

Mom and dad,

This list of the Top 10 Albums of the past year is a bit anti-climactic, since I’m sure you pored through my Top 100 Albums of the Decade list with a fine-toothed comb, or at least a comb with teeth that are relatively small. It definitely wouldn’t have been one of those thick plastic combs that come with dolls that you buy at the Dollar Tree. If it was, then you’re both dead to me.

You’ll see a few repeats here (six, in fact), but I’m sure you won’t mind reading them again – I’m your flesh and blood after all. It’s the least you could do.

10. Iggy Pop – Préliminaires
Iggy Pop’s 15th solo album is a brooding slab of French pop, post-punk and Basin Street blues, making for a delightful departure from his firmly established hard rock sneer. Whether he’s seducing like Serge Gainsbourg on “Les Feuilles Mortes,” leaning into a dirty New Orleans groove on “King of the Dogs” or channeling Leonard Cohen over the wandering violins of “Spanish Coast” and brooding synths of “Party Time,” Iggy’s gothic cabaret baritone totally captivates, thickening each arrangement like café with extra lait.

9. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic
This is the album that The Flaming Lips needed to make after 2006’s At War with the Mystics, a solid effort that nonetheless signaled the band’s return to Earth after seven years in the space rock stratosphere. Shredding that sacred, universally appealing Soft Bulletin formula once and for all, Embryonic isn’t much interested in hooks, or for that matter, traditionally beautiful sounds. Raw, challenging soundscapes are the order of the day instead, accentuating the inherent weirdness of Wayne Coyne’s voice where previous albums sought to offset it. Where Bulletin or Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots would have given you a blast of harmony, Embryonic hits you with a wall of static, a dissonant power chord or wash of synthesized harp. By bringing their freakier ’80s and ’90s selves back into the fold, the band can give us metaphysical head trips like the “The Sparrow Looks Up at the Machine” and towering, passionate jams like “Worm Mountain.” Drummer Kliph Scurlock goes ballistic throughout, like Nick Mason would’ve if Pink Floyd had tried to go back to its roots. With feet planted in the past and the future, Embryonic makes the present a hell of a lot more interesting.

8. Vetiver – Tight Knit
Quick, listen to Vetiver’s song “Everyday” right now, before Target or Old Navy or some other company beats it into submission in a ubiquitous commercial. Coupling some breezy acoustic chords with a sweet, McCartney-esque vocal melody, the track is as effortlessly catchy as anything released in ’09, and if it wasn’t for Feist’s “Mushaboom,” the entire decade. And this quality bit of easy listening is only part of the charm of Tight Knit, a record that’s intent on conveying one particular form of happiness – that lazy Sunday afternoon, dipping your toes in the lake kind of feeling, a sensation that’s as unforgettable as it is fleeting. As a result, Andy Cabic’s songs aren’t all that interested in changing your life, or even getting you to think all that much. This is gentle, artful soft rock, irresistibly simple and mostly free of James Taylor-ish stabs at poetry. Keep it out of your On the Go party playlist, but when you’re hung over the next day, you’ll cling to it as intensely as that bottle of blue Gatorade.

7. Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II
Wu-Tang Clan broke the rules from the start, a crew of nine MCs that rolled out a raw East Coast masterpiece at the height of gangsta rap’s popularity, took four years to record a two-disc follow-up, and turned that into a stroke of brilliance as well. In this context, the utter magnificence of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II makes sense. Usually when artists borrow off the cred of their younger days, it’s because they’re either greedy, out of ideas, or both. But Raekwon’s “sequel” to his legendary solo debut is no Stillmatic. Maybe the title alone was enough to get the MC to push himself, so as not to sully the sacrosanct Cuban Linx name, but regardless, Raekwon has never sounded better, not to mention guests Ghostface Killah and Method Man, and producers RZA, Dr. Dre and the late J Dilla. These project newscasts, dealer diatribes and prison yard tales are as raw and compelling as hip hop gets, from the chilling descriptions of “Cold Outside” to the laid-back crack-making interlude “Pyrex Vision” and the heartfelt Ol’ Dirty Bastard memorial “Ason Jones.” Part II is such a shocking triumph, one wonders if these guys could’ve salvaged The Godfather: Part III.

6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
The press went apeshit about an album with a weird title by a relatively unknown Brooklyn indie-folk band. Lots of people listened, went out and bought it. And it’s terrific. What a refreshing thing to think about as the “death of the album” decade comes to a close. To those going in pre-hyped, Veckatimest might not be an immediately rewarding listen, because this isn’t typical pop songcraft. It’s lofty, hypnotic music, where the verses draw you in and the choruses only serve to deepen the mystery.

5. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Take an infectious, harmony-drenched pop album of enviable quality. Now stick it in a jam jar and shake it up violently. You might have something resembling Bitte Orca, a record that’s stuffed with stunning vocal melodies and intricately beautiful guitar passages, put together in jarringly unconventional ways. Odd time signatures, jittering solos and acquired-taste falsettos abound, and instead of giving the sense of a masterpiece marred, Dirty Projectors reminds us of the beauty of broken rules.

4. Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse – Dark Night of the Soul
When two absolute masters from different genres team up on a project, the expectations are overblown, and the results usually can’t meet them. But when Danger Mouse joined Mark Linkous, the one-man wonder behind Sparklehorse, for a cinematic, star-studded affair called Dark Night of the Soul, the final product was as good as advertised. This is much more of a Sparklehorse record, which means it’s weird, whispery and sad (the most upbeat cut is called “Daddy’s Gone”). Mouse gives Linkous’ songs more room than they usually get to breathe, resulting in the most far-reaching album of his career. Guests with defined personalities (e.g. The Flaming Lips, Iggy Pop, David Lynch) blend gracefully into this tapestry, not a small feat. And in true Danger Mouse fashion, the record still hasn’t been released – a frustrating fact that only adds to its intoxicatingly mysterious vibe.

3. Mos Def – The Ecstatic
Until this year, Mos Def was a shoo-in for the most disappointing hip hop artist of the decade. His 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, is one of the masterpieces of the genre, but it’s had to tide us over since then – 2004’s The New Danger was hazy and uneven, and 2006’s True Magic is best left forgotten. But from the opening, acid rock/Bollywood strains of “Supermagic,” where the MC spits a twisted Mary Poppins-inspired chorus, our faith is instantly renewed in his ability to get our heads nodding and spines tingling. The Ecstatic is more an album of vignettes than full-blown songs, and it keeps Mos Def constantly on his toes, crushing one mesmerizing analog beat after another, two-three minutes at a time. His acting is enjoyable, but here’s hoping he leaves the multiplex by the wayside and continues this musical resurgence.

2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Neko Case’s fifth album finds her at the peak of her abilities, channeling Emmylou Harris and Jeff Tweedy in her reverb-laden alt-country soundscapes, and the devastating power of Mother Nature in her lyrics. When a singer/songwriter name-checks the natural world, we expect it to be a treatise on peace and beauty. But on Middle Cyclone‘s opening cut, “This Tornado Loves You,” the narrator is a fearsome storm, destroying towns and villages in her search for the love that got away. The lilting Sparks cover “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” turns the tables on the standard abuser-victim relationship between mankind and the environment. On the title track, Case lets her guard down to confess the pain of a loveless life, but she finds her strength by the end – “But I choke it back/How much I need love.” The record is a gorgeous examination of love’s warts and blossoms, and by the time you get to its final cut – more than a half-hour of cricket-laden nature sounds – it feels less like a soothing sleep aid and more like a beautiful, potential threat.

1. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Good music is fun to listen to and easy to identify with. Great music transports you to another world. The Crying Light is great music, an impeccably produced, soul-searching record, marked by ambitious arrangements and Antony Hegarty’s indelible, quavering voice. This is a white man in his late 30s who sounds like the reincarnation of Nina Simone, pouring sincere expressions of pain and pleasure into lyrics that aren’t afraid to get markedly poetic. In Hegarty’s world, hearts don’t break, they sob. Lovers don’t kiss his lips, they kiss his name. Celebrations of Mother Nature rub shoulders with a devastating account of an epileptic seizure. And the singer’s hypnotic way with words makes them ideal bedfellows for these arrangements, which employ small string sections, spare pianos, subdued guitar picking and dancing woodwinds in a way that’s both elegant and humble. The Crying Light is an album dominated by soft, shy balladry, yet it demands your attention. God-given talent isn’t a background kind of thing.

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