It’s been a good year for music, and a good decade. 2009 ended with some truly forward-thinking genre development (glo-fi/chillwave) and genre resurgence (shoegazer), and an overall spirit of musical innovation that makes me excited to see what the next decade has in store. It was hard to pick my top ten this year (and any of my honorable mentions could easily have made the top ten), though the #1 was never in doubt. Anyway, here are my picks:
10) The Flaming Lips, Embryonic: Unexpected, daring, fringe… the Flaming Lips’ latest is a challenge but nevertheless grows on you with each listen. It is low-fi, 70s-era psychedelia that evokes a sort of “Age of Aquarius” atmosphere of hippie haze.
9) Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The most original hip hop album of the year, Kid Cudi’s debut is a five-act concept album that feels equal parts nostalgic and futuristic—a moody ambient piece that opens up new doors for the future of rap.
8) M. Ward, Hold Time: Matt Ward’s latest album is one of the finest folk song collections of the year, featuring retro-sounding, reverby tunes about God, love, and William Blake.
7) Memory Tapes, Seek Magic: For my money, Memory Tapes is the best example of the new chillwave/glo-fi genre, managing to curate an album of dreamy, haunting sonic scrap memories while never seeming too much like an overwrought hipster rave.
6) Various Artists, Dark Was the Night: I would normally not reserve a spot on my top ten list for a compilation album, but Dark Was the Night was not just any compilation. A benefit album for the Red Hot, an HIV/AIDS charity, this album features steller songs from the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Bon Iver, Feist, The National, The Arcade Fire, and more—an unprecedented collection of a “who’s who” of indie excellence.
5) Real Estate, Real Estate: This debut album from New Jersey quartet Real Estate is blissful and unironic, light on its feet even while it traffics in genres (shoegaze, surf-rock, lo-fi) that sometimes feel heavy, plodding and pretentious. Not so with this gorgeous and coherent piece of warm-hearted sonic nostalgia.
4) The Antlers, Hospice: This is the best debut album of the year in my opinion—an operatic, sweeping yet simple concept album about family, cancer and death. Sounds depressing, but man is it refreshingly earnest and emotionally powerful. Plus it’s just beautiful. Every song.
3) Neko Case, Middle Cyclone: Perhaps the most underrated album of the year, Middle Cyclone is something many people might have passed over because, well, Neko Case isn’t “new.” But this album finds her at her most mature and nuanced, with songs and lyrics that are as lovely as any folk or singer/songwriter album you’ve heard this year.
2) Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: These French hipster rockers made the perfect pop album in 2009 with Wolfgang—an album that is breezy, fun and Euro-chic, even while it manages to surprise us with decidedly unconventional interludes (“Love Like a Sunset Part I and II”!!!!).
1) Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion and Fall Be Kind: It’s a bit of a cliché to heap praise on Animal Collective this year, but they deserve it. It’s been quite the year for them. When Merriweather leaked in late 2008, it was preemptively declared the best album of 2009—and for good reason, as it turned out. “My Girls” immediately captured the moment like no other song did this year, and each and every song on Merriweather (and then the recent Fall Be Kind EP) managed to push music in directions that still managed to be melodic and addictive, in spite of being ridiculously experimental.
Honorable Mention: Bifrost Arts, Come O Spirit, Aaron Strumpel, Elephants, Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest, St. Vincent, Actor, Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer, Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca, Passion Pit, Manners, Mos Def, The Ecstatic, Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk.