While I the last few years have been less than thrilling for new music, leaving the year-end lists a little underwhelming, 2009 has been an absolutely amazing year. My 2008 list (located here) featured a few stretches just to get to 10 (The Lodger, Deerhunter, and the Gutter Twins, while all good albums, really don't deserve to be on a best-of-the-year list), and does not feature a single album on my short list for the best of the decade. In contrast, I could easily do a top 20 for this year without straining, and I am sure one or two will make it on my decade list. Also, this is only for new stuff, otherwise Death's For the World to See would be number 1, without question. With that said, here we go:
11) (tie) Fleeting Joys - Occult Radiance / The Sleepover Disaster - Hover - As much as I love these albums, I simply can't completely get behind them. Both do an AMAZING job of pushing every shoegaze-loving button in my body (Fleeting Joys clearly channeling My Bloody Valentine and Sleepover Disaster going more to the Slowdive/Pale Saints side), but it's almost too easy. Neither of these albums take the slightest chances, and never go outside of the pre-defined shoegaze box. Neither band has any individual character at all, just a set of reference points to past glories in the genre. With that said, both albums feature tons of great songs. For the amount that I've listened to them and enjoyed them, I have to feature them on the list. I just hope both bands push themselves a little more on their next albums, and actually try to make music that isn't just a set of citations to their album collections.
10) The Soundtrack of Our Lives - Communion - On paper, I should kind of hate this. Double-disc prog rock epics are not usually in my sweet spot, but when you add absolutely ace song-craft, melodies and hooks galore, and a tight band that doesn't float away in the ether of the orchestrations, there is some different calculus going on. Over the course of 90 minutes and 24 songs, the band never loses its focus on the songs themselves. While there are some tracks that fall below the numerous highlights, the album never once sinks into embarrassing pretension. Now if only I could actually look at the cover art...
9) The Joy Formidable - A Balloon Called Moaning - At 29 minutes and seven songs, almost more of an EP, but they call it an album, so it fits here. The best pure sugar rush I heard this year, coming off like the bratty little sister to Velocity Girl - just tons of fun.
8) Handsome Furs - Face Control - I liked the first Wolf Parade album quite a bit, have not heard the second, and have been pretty unimpressed with what I have heard of Sunset Rubdown. With that out of the way, this second album from the side-project of Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner and his wife surprised me quite a bit. Pulsing dance-punk with hooks and attitude to spare. Including a great tribute/homage/cover to my favorite New Order song is not going to hurt my rating, obviously. Great cover art as well.
7) Mos Def - The Ecstatic - Not the best year for hip-hop, with some major disappointments along the way, but this one surprised the heck out of me. With as phoned-in as his last few efforts had been, it seemed that Mos had shifted his interests to his acting and other endeavors, putting the music on the backburner. The first track, "Supermagic" on his new effort, with its gnarled guitar samples and raging energy quickly put the lie to this belief. Tight, creative, ecletic, and focused in a way that hip-hop albums rarely are, this is a welcome comeback from an artist I had completely written off.
6) The Flaming Lips - Embryonic - Like Mos Def, I had written off The Flaming Lips as having mellowed out to the point that they were virtually Adult Contemporary - good, kind of weird Adult Contemporary, but Adult Contemporary nonetheless. Then this monster falls out of the sky. I still have yet to fully wrap my head around this album, or the bizarre videos that have accompanied it, but I know I like it. Dark, challenging, paranoid, unique - The Flaming Lips at their absolute weirdest.
5) A Place to Bury Strangers - Exploding Head - This is basically part two of their first album. Not a ton of growth, but no matter. This is a top-notch set of noisy, feedback-laden, aggressive, ear-splittingly loud, energetic tunes. I will be a bit disappointed if their third album doesn't exhibit some stylistic evolution, but for now, this is absolutely perfect.
4) Franz Ferdinand - Tonight - For as much as I love Franz Ferdinand's first two albums, I loved the sharp songwriting and rock attitude more than the dance beats, so the fact that they put out a pretty dance-heavy record initially disappointed me. However, as time passed, this grew on me quite a bit. It's not to the level of their first two albums, but it's still head and shoulders above their competition. Alex Kapranos still is one of the most underrated songwriters in the market, and his band is just top notch.
3) Asobi Seksu - Hush - I loved their second album, Citrus, which was a gigantic sugar rush of an album, so the more sedate, plaintive nature of this set confused me initially. Here they go back to some of the roots of their shoegaze origins, to the dream-pop of the early 80's and come back with an album that could have been released by The Cocteau Twins - and it would have been one of their best efforts as well.
2) Dinosaur Jr. - Farm - The confirmation that Dinosaur Jr. is genuinely back as an on-going concern. The first "come back" album featuring the original trio, Beyond, suffered from an over-abundance of enthusiasm, sometimes becoming tiring in its eagerness to please (and sometimes ruining potentially great songs with over-long meandering solos). Farm is a calmer, more even-handed record. This is the sound of a band that knows it's great and has nothing to prove to anybody. They just produce the best pure rock album of the year as if it was easiest thing in the world.
1) The Big Pink - A Brief History of Love - One of the most impressive debut albums of the decade. While their initial single, "Velvet" is still the best song they have produced, the fact that every song on the album competes with its brilliance is very impressive. Equally impressive is that, while it mines a lot of the same shoegaze and Jesus & Mary Chain reference points that many other bands are appropriating, this band manages to put a number of unique spins on the formula that shows that not only are they not a one-trick pony parroting the past, but they have a good handle on their own sound that indicates they are capable of even more. I have described the album to my friends as Automatic-era JAMC trying to be the biggest pop band in the world, and the description seems to hold up. Noise rock merged with big drums and incredible pop hooks, with the vocals right out in front. Easily the album I have loved the most this year, and one that I will be listening to for years to come.