Best Albums of 2009

the XX: xx

The XX don’t try to innovate here; there are no bold statements of vision, no daring experiments like those being concocted in contemporary Brooklyn. But make no mistake, this is a young band who know exactly what they want. These young Londoners crafted an accomplished, assured album of tight, cold synth-heavy britpop that stands with the best work of Interpol or Franz Ferdinand.

N.A.S.A.: The Spirit of Apollo

The list of collaborators on this album is overwhelming. Joining core members Squeak E.  Clean and DJ Zegon are David Byrne, Chali 2na, Tom Waits, Lykke Li, George Clinton, Santogold, Tom Waits, John Frusciante, Kanye West, Karen O, George Clinton, and half a dozen others. Most reviewers hated the mish-mash of styles on this album, but I’m an unabashed fan. If the disparate sounds don’t always quite form a conversation, they’re always reaching toward that goal.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society: Infernal Machine

A rarity anymore, a band I discovered through a local radio station. They bill themselves as a “steampunk big band”–not sure what’s steampunk about them, but I know subtle arrangements and strong jazz sensibility when I hear it. The practical fact is that it’s hard to pay a big band in this day and age; like Carla Bley and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Argue shows the compositional potential inherent in such a big ensemble.

“Transit”

Mamer: Eagle

From China’s frontier comes a beautiful new album melding central Asian songs with bluesy American folk. You can hear a track about halfway down this list from NPR.

“Man”

Bat for Lashes: Two Suns

This is art-school music at its best. With her second album Natasha Khan solidifies a place as Kate Bush’s heir-apparent, but she draws from other mystical women here as well: Sarah McLachlan, Sheila Chandra, Tori Amos, Bjork. The whole album is theatrical without making eyes roll and highly produced without ever losing the artist’s personality.

“Daniel”

Boy Least Likely To: The Law of the Playground

When mainstream radio is dominated by Nickelback, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West, one of the most revolutionary things a band can do is take up guitar and glockenspiel and write songs that come across as deliberately, fiercely nice. Heavenly, Talulah Gosh and the Field Mice did it in the late 80s; Belle and Sebastian have been carrying the flag for over a decade; and the Boy Least Likely To look poised to keep the fires burning as we enter a new decade. WARNING: this song is so good it will have you deliberately quoting Scrappy Doo.

Rodrigo Y Gabriela: 11:11

They’re undeniably skilled flamenco guitarists, but that’s not a rare commodity; every generation has some. These two bring metal sensibilities to a genre that’s too often insular.

“Santo Domingo”

Neko Case: Middle Cyclone

What’s left to say about Neko Case? She’s among the best poets in contemporary music (“I have waited with a glacier’s patience / smashed every transformer with every trailer / till nothing was standing / sixty-five miles wide”), a rich-voiced, commanding singer, a performer equally at home with brooding country, brashy punk, and sunny pop. Past albums were firmly rooted in alt-country; Middle Cyclone shows more influence from Case’s membership in pop supergroup the New Pornographers, but the songs are purely hers.

Mos Def: The Ecstatic

Sometimes I forget that Mos Def is a rapper. He’s a charming actor who hasn’t recorded much in years, so an album this good comes as a pleasant surprise. Hip hop was founded in part on turntablism, and you can hear Mos Def’s hunger for sounds on this record. Check on the threatening trombones and marimba, plaintive guitar hits, and doom-fueled rap on “Twilight Speedball.”

Metric: Fantasies

How can a band that sounds so much like Blondie in 1979 still sound new? Metric add more indie rock guitar to their usual synths on this outing, and the change is welcome.  Songs like “Sick Muse” and “Gimme Sympathy” have me missing the tiny dance floor at Yesterday’s.

Mono: Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Just when I think post-rock’s all tapped out, along comes a band like Mono. Despite their obvious influence from soundtracks, Mono’s music demands attention. There’s nothing new about the instrumentation of guitars, bass, occasional keyboard, and drums, but the soaring energy and drama sound like Schubert as much as shoegaze, Franck as much as Frank Zappa.

“Hymn to the Immortal Wind”

Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion

I’m not saying it’s as good an album as Sgt. Pepper, but it invites those kind of comparisons. The album is so huge, so disparate that it’s hard to take everything in. Animal Collective doesn’t transcend or erase musical borders; they seem genuinely unaware that borders exist. Cutting-edge electronica, vocal harmonies straight out of frontier hymns, avant-garde noise rock, and unique pop blend with some of the simplest, sweetest lyrics around to bring us songs like “My Girls.”

NOMO: Invisible Cities

Afrobeat seen through progressive jazz eyes; there’s lots of Fela Kuti, but also Holger Czukay, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, Herbie Hancock, and even Tortoise. At first I was afraid this band would fizzle out after the first release, skilled young college folks who’d learned to appropriate funk and Krautrock and wouldn’t know where to go from there. On this third album they sound more confident than ever, breathing new life into some quintessentially 70s sounds.

“Invisible Cities”

Riverboat Gamblers: Underneath the Owl

PUUUNNNK RAWWWWWWK!

Vijay Iyer: Historicity

I enjoy an almost petty happiness when people like Vijay Iyer come along to shake up the jazz establishment. Modern pop music is incompatible with jazz? Howzabout a cover of M.I.A., bitches?! Iyer is fun and accessible in a way that Art Ensemble of Chicago rarely managed, reaching for new ideas in a manner lost to the legions of jazz quintets still imitating Miles and Trane.

“Galang”

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