From French pop-rockers Phoenix to Jay-Z’s new style of hip-hop, here are the nine best albums of 2009. Journalists John Ortved and Alex Littlefield on what to listen to and what to avoid.
2009 was a red-letter year for music—with a few notable exceptions, of course (“I’m on a Boat” got nominated for a Grammy, Michael Bublé continued to exist). As the year winds to a close, we sat down to compare notes on our favorite (and least favorite) releases of the year, and to predict which will appear in stockings on Christmas morning—and which will later be held up by dour-looking senators as evidence of a horribly mismanaged record industry during the forthcoming EMI/BMG/Universal bailout hearings.
From U2 to Jay-Z, some of the biggest names in music launched new albums in the past 12 months. But some of the year’s biggest hits came not from veteran musicians but from consummate newbies: fresh, original acts from places like Toronto, Brooklyn, and Cambridge that are giving the old timers a run for their money—and giving everyone else something to rave about.
THE NINE BEST ALBUMS OF 2009
Merriweather Post Pavilion
Indie rock’s equivalent of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young—free-spirited, psychedelic-influenced rockers who form more of a commune than a collective (in this case, around a shared love of synthesizers). Their complex, hallucinatory style has long limited their listenership to only the wonkiest indie-rock aficionados, but the boys have left the Hog Farm with their eighth album, Merriweather Post Pavilion, which perfectly blends their trademark sound with (gasp!) listener- friendly melodies. These tunes are still a challenge to listen to, but that’s what makes them so rewarding; case in point: “My Girls,” a brilliant marriage of club-savviness and art-school cred. David Byrne, watch your back (kidding, we know he is all-seeing).
The Blueprint 3
Future music scholars will have something interesting to say about The Blueprint 3. When Jay-Z and Alicia Keys played the album’s hit single “Empire State of Mind” at the World Series, whatever line still existed between hip-hop and pop music was summarily erased. Hova’s been building to this point for a while—as a producer, businessman, and entertainer, he’s helped build a new genre at the intersection of pop and hip-hop—but his latest album marks his official coronation as this new genre’s king. Jay can still spit it, of course (“This ain’t for iTunes/this ain’t for ringtones/this is Sinatra at the opera/Bring a blonde”), and unlike his detractors (ahem, 50 Cent) he continues to invigorate the genre rather than marketing signature fragrances.
Passion Pit’s first full-length album grates on many listeners, but that’s nothing new—since their buzzed-about EP launched last fall, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, electro-pop group has been fast becoming the most controversial band in synth-pop. Their lead singer’s plaintive, almost whiny falsetto is partially responsible; so is the album’s fizzy-sounding mega-single “Sleepyhead,” the most infectious (and overplayed) dance track of the year. Their popularity may work against Passion Pit in the long run (repetition being the musical equivalent of sarin gas), but there's no denying that Passion Pit’s over-the-top enthusiasm has changed the way indie fans approach party music.
A Russian Jewish émigré who started playing piano as a child in Moscow and kept at it until she was headlining Madison Square Garden, Regina Spektor is a mashup of Norah Jones and Fiona Apple, but is more fun (and palatable) than either. She’s a veritable one-woman production line for yearning, gorgeously melancholic ballads, but that’s not to say there’s ennui here—Spektor’s poetic, ingenious, and often silly lyrics elevate this album into something brighter than her folksy predecessors. “You went into the kitchen cupboard/got yourself another hour/and you gave half of it to me,” the album begins, and it only gets better from there (including a fair dolphin impression on “Folding Chair”). Piano music hasn’t been this varied—or so weirdly fun—since Erik Satie’s Dada-ist compositions over a century ago.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
French rockers Phoenix are participating in the grand tradition (mastered by Elvis and his ilk when they turned black rhythm and blues and into white-digestible sound bytes) of updating the spirit of rock 'n' roll for a new generation of listeners. The de facto party soundtrack for hipsters from Williamsburg to the Marais, this album is at once their least interesting and their most addictive: a collection of well-crafted, perfectly canned-sounding rock tunes. Its eminent uncomplicatedness is exactly what makes Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix such a brilliant album; its precise, guitar-driven melodies sound timeless, not dated. Maybe that's what the title is referring to.
She has ties to Feist through the Canadian collective Broken Social Scene, but Metric’s lead singer Emily Haines is a refreshing twist on the staid indie-rock chanteuse: She’s stormed the scene sporting Joey Ramone’s guitar, Kim Deal’s husky vocals, and Joan Jett’s libido. Infectiously catchy, even a bit bubble-gummy, this is hard rock for the Disney set—pure teen angst and dance-in-your-underpants bliss—but it’s set apart by crafty nods to alt-rock and electro-pop influences, and by jagged edges that the Avril Lavignes and Pinks of the world wish they had, but don’t. Being mainstream has never felt so sordid; fitting, then, that Metric has joined producer Nigel Godrich (Beck, Radiohead) to craft music for an upcoming Michael Cera flick—the indie-comic, indie-music orgasm that will be Scott Pilgim Versus The World.
Think of the xx as the Velvet Underground-and-Nico collaboration of the aughts—with a sound this economical and lo-fi (read: lazy), it's amazing they could’ve been bothered to pick up their guitars in the first place. These barely legal London kids are definitely too cool for school—which is good, because if they hadn't bagged that academic rubbish and formed a band, we wouldn't have been able to spend the latter half of 2009 slouching around with their spare duets wafting through our headphones. The xx are easily the most promising thing to come out of the U.K. since John Oliver or Peep Show, and their debut is an antidote to the mindless, disposable releases of Adam Lambert and his ilk, those products of Britain’s single worst export since smallpox: American Idol.
In 2007, everyone who loved dancing (and maybe cocaine) gave electro another shot with Sweden’s The Knife and their ubiquitous hit “Heartbeats.” Two years and countless bathroom lineups later, we have this bewitching side project from The Knife’s lead singer, electro-diva Karin Dreijer. Electronica’s answer to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, Fever Ray produces a much more haunting, feral sound than The Knife. It’s as if Bjork moved inland—Fever Ray is slower and darker, but still has the eerie, majestic feel of the Nordic landscape. We have great appreciation for Dreijer’s new direction—truth, after all, often lies in the darker places—and with Fever Ray, she reaches nadirs she could never have approached with The Knife’s dancier, more kinetic beats. This is an album for 2009’s sadder moments: the flight back to Alaska after the Playgirl shoot, as you realize that it all might be downhill from here.
The Rural Alberta Advantage,
While Fever Ray has 2009 covered when it comes to music of the “haunting” variety, it’s difficult to describe the Rural Alberta Advantage’s complex rhythms and gorgeous melodies as anything but—although they’re more folksy, colloquial, and hyperactive than anything you’ll find in Scandinavia (a Scooby-Doo “haunting,” if you will). The trio’s lyrics—which tell tales of prairie pastorals, mining woes, and other, less-material losses—are enchanting, and resound with the engrossing mix of acoustic simplicity and orchestral ambition. And while RAA’s sound harkens back to The Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, and other transformative Canadian groups of the early aughts, one can’t help but think that this might be something different—even entirely new. There’s no official video of theirs available, but you can listen to some of their tracks here.
…AND THE REST
Phrazes for the Young
Human League fans will be excited by the first track (“11th Dimension”) on Julian Casablancas’ first solo album, but brace for disappointment—he quickly turns to hackneyed, vaguely familiar reiterations of old tropes to fill out his album. If The Strokes occupy some untouchable place in your memory, where everyone dresses vaguely like Johnny Ramone, and Bush looked like a one-termer, Casablancas’ album will bring you back to a reality where the Obama administration is a very expensive hug, and the least-winning members of Michael Jackson’s surviving family have a reality show on A&E.
No Line on the Horizon
Whether they'd admit to it or not, most Americans have been U2 fans at one point or another. The vast majority of that fandom is weighted toward the band's early period, and for good reason; U2's latest effort is exactly that—an effort. Bono seems to be going for a dynamically tortured sound, but just comes off as confused. U2’s trademarks—the sweeping choruses, a driving guitar line—come off more like late-era Santana than anything we'd expect from the guy who wrote "Sunday Bloody Sunday.” If U2 is going to continue making albums, it is advisable that Bono spend a little more time writing songs.
While there may be a direct correlation between the Black-Eyed Peas’ Grammy nomination and Will.i.am’s manager punching Perez Hilton in the face, it is entirely possible that the folks in the National Academy actually want to reward these well-coiffed cheeseballs for what they’re producing (it’s difficult to call it “music”—it’s mostly production; it’s a Michael Bay film). If that’s the case, though, we’re renouncing our ties to the music industry. THE E.N.D. is to hip-hop what Night at the Roxbury was to disco: a grating, cartoonish kaddish sung over the ashes of once-mighty genre.
John Ortved was raised in Toronto and graduated from McGill University. A former editorial associate at Vanity Fair and the youngest feature writer to be published in that magazine, John’s work has also appeared in New York, Interview, Vice, The New York Observer and he is the author of The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History. Living between New York and Toronto, he is an occasional member of the band Henri Fabergé and the Adorables, and maintains the Web site Artisdumb.org.