Top 10 Albums of 2009

Number 10.  –  Fever Ray – Fever Ray

A thing to note is that I am not impacted by The Knife because I’m probably in the minority that has not listened to the band prior to this album. That’s probably for the best, as it allows me to review it unaffected by other impressions. The album is very atmospheric, it’s dark, it’s moody. The first time I listened to it, I was on the bus to go to buy Animal Collective tickets. Since then, everything’s changed, my misconceptions have been cleared up somewhat, the show’s date came and went (without a concert) and now I’m here listening to this album again. The first time was a time of excitement, this second time is post-disappointment. The record is the same, unchanged. The tracks flow one into the other, with If I Had a Heart a nice introduction into the album, then becoming When I Grow Up with a completely different, albeit related feel to it. The music is gentle yet foreboding and, for me, is most reflective of the cover art, which sees Karin as a mystic (or is that a witch?) in a night-time rural scene, with twisted tree roots and billowing clouds creating a sense of menace.  The artwork’s hint of a mythical world, with wizards, ghouls and goblins, reminds me strongly of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I used to play as a kid, and the a lot of the music on Fever Ray wouldn’t sound out of place in such imagined worlds either

Number 9.  –  The Fauns – The Fauns

For a group made up of three guitarists, The Fauns make a surprisingly gentle noise. This is the softer side of shoegazing where swirling atmospherics wash over the speakers. Added to this is Alison Garner’s light, aching vocals to caress each song, making them even smoother. Jangly affairs like ‘Understand’ (actually a cover version of a song by 1980′s indie act Brian) are multi-layered and mesmeric, ‘Come Around Again’ revolves around a subtle hook and ‘Fragile’ is simply lovely as its slow percussion, effects and Garner’s tender tones build into a fabulous glacial melody. The only problem is the lack of urgency on the album where even the faster tracks like ‘Black Sand’ are blurred around the edges. The Fauns arrive at a time when shoegazing is more in demand than ever but I’m not sure that they bring anything particularly new to the genre. That said, if you like your music to float rather than to grind, you could do a lot worse.

Number 8.  –  Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix –
Phoenix

hat you have here is some good old-fashioned guitar-synth pop. But goddamn if it isn’t some of the most intricately arranged and most achieved pop music out there. For the majority of the songs here, there is an incredible sense of completeness. There’s almost a sort of minimalism at work, as there is hardly any element here that feels extraneous. The songs are tight, impeccable little 3 minute exercises in music sensibility, and it’s so good. It’s hard to point another record that works so completely within the confines of pop music that achieves such an effect so marvelously. The second half of the album doesn’t stand up to the first in large part because the tracks on the album’s second half sound as if they were distilled from “Lisztomania”. A big part of this can be attributed to the vocal melodies being catchy, but lacking in diversity. Or it could be because the lead singer has trouble changing the range in emotion of his voice from track to track. Despite the variations on a theme that is the album’s second half, this is the only logical starting place for Phoenix and should please indie pop and dance pop fans alike.

Number 7.  –  Sigh No More –
Mumford & Sons

The best way to describe the music in Sigh No More is like going on a road trip through such beautiful scenery or a sad poem with a glimmer of hope from its expressive riffs. I feel like this was Mumford and Sons best album so far, which had such amazing tunes like Dust Bowl Dance, Winter Winds, White Blank Page, and their smashing hit Little Lion Man. It’s all very earthy but not in a camped up new-age ‘medieval-fare’ kind of way. Musically, Mumford don’t seem to wear their musical predilections on their sleeves like so many folky bands do and it comes through as a kind of quiet integrity both in the gorgeous lyrics and the top notch musicianship. There are the triumphant, blood quickening tempos wildly crashing into almost rock-like rhythms. Others will make you weep with their stillness and the cold beauty of their lyrics. The bright twang of acoustic steel underpinned with galloping but tastefully done banjos and Dobros, all the ingredients one would think for a hillbilly showdown yet so unlike that stereotype that I found myself re-assessing completely what these instruments mean in modern music and what can be done with them. A stunning debut! Heartfelt, passionate and downright sad in many places.

Number 6.  –  Cage The Elephant –
Cage The Elephant

We’ve all probably heard Cage the Elephant’s single Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked a couple of times and it’s really the most pleasant thing to listen to in recent years.  Part of it is because the band sounds like a solid mix between The Whigs and The White Stripes, but it’s uncertain if the group could release a whole album full of quality songs until we’ve checked out their self-entitled album that given us more of what we were expecting.  Somewhat surprisingly, Cage the Elephant have produced one of the most enjoyable albums I have heard all of 2009.  This debut is just pure fun from beginning to end.  One highlight called In One Ear immediately provides an indication how Cage the Elephant views their music while others like Tiny Little Robots and Back Against the Wall were still in my head long after Cage the Elephant spun to a stop.  This group certainly answered my doubts about releasing a very good album and I’m betting they can follow it up with something equally enjoyable.

Number 5.  –  Farm – Dinosaur Jr.

No band should be this strong in their third decade. It defies all conventional logic — just another act of Dinosaur Jr. defiance, it seems. Their reunion album Beyond was the album that proved that they still got it and then 2 years later they came up with one of their best efforts! Music doesn’t require perfect vocals. This is one thing that dinosaur jr. seems to emphasize with every single album. It is speed and guitars that make up the core of every of their songs. Dinosaur jr. has never truly been the same after their break up and ”farm” should not be compared to ”you’re living all over me”. It lacks the element of grunge, but truthfully who cares? I don’t and I can say with absolute certainty that other fans will agree. Farm doesn’t have the edge-pushing guitar effect work of You’re Living All Over Me or the variability of some other albums like Green Mind, but what it does have is just about the most solidly rocking and infectious songwriting of their career.  On top of that, the gorgeously distorted and compressed guitar tone is a treat to hear, especially in head phones where you can hear the thick tone dribble into your eardrum like honey.  This is one of my favorite albums of the last couple years, and one of my favorite Dinosaur Jr. albums.  Well worth a listen. A good album, but do not listen to it constantly like I did. Try it out and come back to it once in a while and I guarantee you that you will not regret getting it.

Number 4.  –  Black Gives Way To Blue –
Alice in Chains

For those who say that this band should have remained dead because Layne Staley is no longer around are forgetting the fact that the rest of the band want to carry on with new projects for the band but Layne’s isolation with Mad Season & his personal demons got the best of him. Never would I imagine there would be any similar wave & songwriting again because Layne’s death in 2002. Black Give Way To Blue could have been a major disaster because William DuVall is taking Layne’s place as lead singer, but surprisingly enough, Black Gives Way To Blue turned out to be the best comeback album of the entirety of the 2000s decade. The album feels much heavier than anything AiC have ever done before. They were always more of a heavy metal band than a grunge band, but if there was ever any doubt before there can be done now, Black Gives Way to Blue is definitely a metal album, I’d go as far as to say it really lacks what grunge influences were in the band’s music at the height of grunge. I strongly believe that if somehow this album was released in 1993, it would and could be Alice in Chains’s second best album and one that would be regarded a sure contender for the title of best Alice in Chains record and top alternative metal album. In fact, the child in me still thinks this is some kind of miraculously hidden album which was lying asleep in their rehearsal room and now that they’ve found another fantastic singer they thought they could finally release it. This is up to Layne’s memory, the Dirt/Jar of Flies times and it serves as a great introduction into the beautiful and sorrowful world of Alice in Chains. The riffs have groove, the vocals are hypnotic (both from newcomer DuVall and Cantrell) and the songs could rival anything off Dirt even. This is a monolith of alternative metal. I’m so glad they are back! Also these songs’ live presentation is on par with the glorious past. This is disturbingly great!

Number 3.  –  Static Tensions – Kylesa

It sure took Kylesa a while to get that edge to separate themselves from the rest of the Sludge metal genre but for nearly a decade, they found their edge to start their reign of good albums in their discography. The first thing you notice in “Static Tensions” is how different it sounds compared to previous Kylesa material: it is clear the band have found their own, original take on this kind of music. They have massive Sludge Metal/Hardcore Punk influences in most of the vocals , as well as in the heavy, crunchy, and extremely loud guitars; but the original aspect of the music is probably the rhythm section, which often incorporates more exotic percussive patterns that replace simple drum fills. However, the drummer in this band does not hesitate in blasting bursts of velocity, making Kylesa basically sound like the more drugged out, intense and in-your-face cousin of Mastodon. The great thing about this new style is that slower, clean moments are not rare, and still hint at that Psychedelic feel that is just as powerful as in the more intense moments, especially thanks to the clever addition of female vocals and the hazy production chops.  “Static Tensions”, in it’s most intense passages, reminds not only of the Hardcore flashes but also of clever, well structured Sludge Metal. Despite this raw blend, Kylesa manage to be extremely accessible in every single song, proving amazing songwriting skills. It is pretty rare to find a band that can successfully write catchy melodies, be adventurous, and surround you with total, blissful distortion, all at the same time.  With only forty minutes “Static Tensions” is by far the most solid Kylesa album. Although each song maintains a similar style (the clean moments though are all different from one another), they never bore all together, and together shine as one. Of course, there are specific highlights, like the amazingly face-bashing first track “Scapegoat”,  the more dualistic (soft and aggressive) nature of “Running Red”, the hypnotic atmosphere of “To Walk Alone”, or the straight-forward catchiness of “Almost Lost”. Each and every one of these songs has a different character, many of them present a different structural form, and all together they form a quite functional family of tough boys.

Number 2.  –  Merriweather Post Pavilion –
Animal Collective

If there’s anything that came from the indie scene that is a clear landmark to the genre (outside of Arcade Fire’s Funeral or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea) it has to be this very album. Merriweather Post Pavilion is not only Animal Collective’s most likable, straightforward pop album, it’s also a lush, dreamlike experience, with endearingly cluttered arrangements and themes of family and brotherhood. It is a treasure of neo-psychedelia, it is one of the few post-2000 albums that actually challenges and surpasses the psych of the sixties in many ways, while still being unique in its own right. Almost every song on this album is powerful, well arranged, catchy, and loveable. “In the Flowers” sets the tone for the album with the line “If I could just leave my body for a night”, before erupting into a frenzy of synthesizers and quick drums. “My Girls” is an irresistibly catchy pop song that wouldn’t be out-of-place on top 40 radio (they seem to be cashing in the “indie” dollar for all it’s worth, but Animal Collective is much better than that). “Also Frightened”, “Summertime Clothes”, “Taste”, “Lion in a Coma”, and “No More Runnin'” are immensely unique in the realm of psychedelic pop, as well as unique amongst each other, making the album flow really well. Avey Tare’s vocals are at their very best on many of these songs. “Brother Sport” couldn’t have ended the album in a better way, the progressive tantrum of synths and loops at the end is impressive.

With many things in my life that I love, I hated Merriweather Post Pavilion the first time I listened to it. Actually, I didn’t even listen to the whole thing, just a short excerpt of My Girls on Youtube, because somebody recommended me the album. I was disgusted. “What is this shit?” I thought to myself. “Sounds like a mess of shitty synths and a terrible vocalist.” I exited from the website and went on my business for the day. I took me a while to actually listen to the album start to finish too, the songs were strange and hostile to my ears. And when I did finally listen to it I said, “Wow, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.”, and set it aside. Merriweather Post Pavilion certainly got better with age.  This record is a guide to life as an adult. Responsibility, arriage, and children, but also confusion and death — all swirling in the deranged hippy rave that is your life from now on. The entire feels like some odd trip through a purple swamp, with animals and plants and monsters hissing, screaming, singing with you on your strange journey.

Number 1.  –  XX – The xx

Some albums are best listened to in certain way. Whether it’s seasons, settings or times. Some albums are best listened to in the summertime, in a park, around midday. Others are best listened to where you stare at your own four walls and wonder where it all went wrong. xx is an album best listened to around autumn, driving around in your car, late at night. The early hours, in fact. It just has that smooth, dark, sexy sound that’s brilliant for driving around aimlessly to. Driving around with just you, the music and your thoughts. It has that thoughtful, personal, introspective quality to it. It’s amazing to think that this is their debut album, because it’s so incredibly accomplished. When they made this, they were all in their early 20s, but it has a certain maturity to it. I can’t even begin to think where they could possibly go from here. How on earth are they going to top this? This is about as good as debut albums get. Even if they don’t ever do anything this good again, at least I’ll always have this. I remember when I first listened to it, I’d just moved house and it was summertime. The exact wrong time to listen to this kind of album, because summery is the one thing it’s not, but I adored it anyway and I just connected immediately to it and waited for autumn. When I first listened to it, the thing that first struck me was the vocals. Particularly the female singer’s voice, I absolutely adored it. I kept listening and listening, the more I listened, the more I fell in love with her. I kind of put off seeing what she looked like, because she was never going to look as good as she was inside my head but when I eventually saw her I was a bit dumbfounded. How could that gorgeous, sexy voice come from her?! Needless to say, I don’t find her attractive, but every time I listen to her, she’s just about the most attractive woman in the world to me. Seriously, one of my favorite vocal performances and it’s just so suited to the music and the male vocals add a nice juxtaposition to the music. I love how both voices bounce off of each other. I adore the lyrics as well and the way they’re delivered is just perfect. The album has this intimacy to it, xx is like a window into the lives of two lovers. It’s just so easy to connect to. How can you not connect to lines delivered as perfectly as the way they sing “Sometimes… I still need you” on ‘Heart Skipped A Beat’? I find it impossible.  Musically, it has this really moody, melancholy, subtle, understated, intimate beauty to it. It’s almost haunting at times. The beats are fantastic, the guitar lines are great, the vocals are just orgasmic, the drum machine is fantastic and reminiscent of Young Marble Giants who are clearly a huge influence on The xx and it’s perfectly produced – glossy, smooth and accomplished. xx is incredibly minimalistic, but brilliantly atmospheric and evocative. No one knew before the xx’s self-titled debut that the silence laid between beats and spacey guitar could be used as a band’s most potent, emotive instrument. For an album that’s simplistic and spacy, it take a real talent to make it sound good rather than lazy and ironically enough it given its listeners a big bang to end the 2000s decade as we were entering a new one.

And speaking of the 2000’s decade, stay tuned for the upcoming Top 10 Albums of the 2000s as we wrap up this entire series before we enter the next decade!

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