2009: A Feverish Closeout To The Decade

by Sean McCarthy

While I've always enjoyed making "Best Of" lists, the last two years have been fairly lackluster. I still stand by giving The Hold Steady's Stay Positive "Album Of The Year," but it was hardly an "Album Of The Decade" contender. Unlike '67, '77, '87 and '97, 2007 wasn't a year where music underwent a massive change. It seemed like music genres were so fractured, it was nearly impossible to find any releases that were able to have any universal appeal.

But it seems like popular music was just saving itself for 2009. This year felt like a huge cram session. It started in January with the release of Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion and A.C. Newman's Get Guilty. Both albums were great, and one was regarded as an instant classic. And the year was only three weeks young.

After that, the amount of quality releases kept coming. New bands like Real Estate and The XX released debuts that were so confident, they sounded like they were released by seasoned veterans. Old reliables like Wilco and The Flaming Lips continued to release great material, and the rerelease of The Beatles' collection shows that the physical CD format has not entirely died. In a decade where people had a lot to be pessimistic about music-wise (the death of the physical format, the fractioning of music genres that pretty much makes a Born In The U.S.A. or Purple Rain-like blockbuster a thing of the past), 2009 gave us plenty to be excited about for the next decade.

10. Us – Brother Ali


If you're looking for the future of hip-hop, you may want to take a venture to Minneapolis. Along with Atmosphere, Brother Ali has steadily been building a buzz with some amazing lyrical flow and a mix of sampling and live musicianship. Us is his breakout album. "The Preacher" is the type of song that can get people standing and raising their hands from the upper balcony. But it's songs like "House Keys" where Ali shows a storytelling talent that rivals Raekwon and Ghostface Killah.


9. Hospice – The Antlers

The concept behind Hospice involves watching a loved one waste away to cancer. I would like to say that, like the Arcade Fire's Funeral, the album's life-affirming desperation makes it an easy listen, but I'd be lying. Hospice is not an easy listen and at times, it's downright suffocating. 2009 was a year where almost too much good music was released, preventing some releases from sinking it with listeners with repeated listens. Hospice is one such album that demands repeated listens, but man, does it reward you for the effort.


8. Wait For Me – Moby

About this time, most music critics would have given a Moby album a 'B' or an 'A' if Moby was able to record an album that A. wasn't an abject failure and B. didn't sound like third-rate New Age music. That's what comes with ten years of lowered expectations. "A Shot In The Back Of The Head" got things started off in the right direction, but it's in the haunted, minimalist track "A Seated Night" when you realize Moby is back on his game. Eminem spent a decade razzing Moby and releasing albums that far surpassed the techno vegan. Wait For Me was Moby's long-due retaliation.


7. Real Estate – Real Estate

As this decade closes, we've seen bands desperately try to create new genres, form hybrids of existing genres and try to create a sound that would fit perfectly in a Blade Runner world. While none of this should be discouraged, it makes the release of a simple, well-crafted pop album a reason to celebrate. Real Estate may not break any new ground, but their self-titled album will make an excellent soundtrack for the next rainy summer day.

6. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix – Phoenix

If It's Never Been Like That was pure pop, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix makes that album sound positively avant garde by comparison. Unless you have some bias against great pop music (the type that doesn't put you in diabetic shock), Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is almost too perfect of a listening experience. Yes, there will come a time when you'll tire of hearing "1901" and "Lisztomania" due to their incessant exposure on commercials, but before you reach that point of exhaustion, give Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix the "front to back" album listening experience it rightfully deserves.


5. XX – The xx

Listening to XX for the first time will likely bring about Portishead comparisons. The smart, barren production and the ghostly vocals of Romy Madley Croft show an amazing amount of sophistication for a debut album. What's stunning is that most of the band is in their twenties. 2009 was a year full of great debut albums, and The xx can lay claim to the best debut album of this year.


4. Blue Record – Baroness

"Now it's time for medication" roars Baroness lead singer John Baizley on the shredding "A Horse Called Golgotha." Consider Blue Record a much needed prescription for metal in 2009. Progressive rock/metal has had an ample couple of years thanks to bands like Mastadon, Opeth, and Isis. Only problem with these bands is the lead singers fall dangerously close to the Cookie Monster school of rock singers. No such problem exists with Baroness. Packing some amazing musicianship and Baizley's throaty vocals (which are actually tuneful), Baroness is one of the most exciting new bands in rock and metal.


3. Get Guilty – A.C. Newman

If you're a music critic and you're not careful, you can find yourself reviewing an album and assigning a judgment without even giving the album a full listen. Take A.C. Newman. The brain trust of The New Pornographers released a disappointing album with Challengers. Instead of working on assembling some killer material for a redemptive follow-up album, Newman released a solo album. Conventional wisdom would have panned the album, assuming if Get Guilty contained stuff that wouldn't even go on Challengers, it had to suck. But Get Guilty was Newman at his poppy best. The open, late-night feel of the album shines brightest in songs like "The Palace at 4 A.M." and "Young Atlantis."


2. Middle Cyclone – Neko Case

If you come within a hair of getting "Album Of The Year" and half of your album is populated with frog noises, that first half must have been utterly astounding. Middle Cyclone, much like Fox Confessor Brings The Flood was rich with animal imagery and American Gothic tales of loss and murder. And like Fox Confessor, this album at first listen didn't seem to have the emotional punch of her classic 2002 release Blacklisted. But with each listen, Middle Cyclone sinks its talons deep in your skin, be it the chilling "Prison Girls" or the stark vulnerability of the title track. It's an album that makes you believe this artist can do no wrong.


1. Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective

For the last few years, the best album of the year has always been a bit of a race. It's good for excitement, but not so good when you're hoping for an instant classic that sets itself apart from every release of not this year, but other years as well. No such problem existed a few weeks into January of this year when Merriweather Post Pavilion dropped. Animal Collective's previous albums tended to be a mixed affair, falling into the same musical trappings (tuneless melodies, cloying lyrics) that have plagued so many indie/hipster Brooklyn bands in the latter half of this decade. Merriweather Post Pavilion was the sound of a band that finally stopped trying to be cool and instead focused on creating a genuinely great album. "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes" and "Bluish" each could have been "Song Of The Year" contenders. "Sometimes I don't agree with my thoughts on being free" Panda Bear and Avey Tare sing on "Lion In A Coma." By self-imposing a few simple rules about great songwriting, Animal Collective released their warmest album and closed the decade on a high note.


Albums Just on the Outside

Wilco – Wilco (The Album), Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II, The Flaming Lips – Embryonic


Disappointments of the Year

(Tie) Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown / The Implosion of Aerosmith

Before American Idiot, Green Day may have disappeared from the radar, but they certainly didn't make any huge missteps. If they would have made Warning after American Idiot, it would have been a logical extension: grown-up, but not succumbing to the trapping of trying to one-up their blockbuster. Instead, Green Day went all in and opted to record another rock opera. Butch Vig was an inspired choice, but sadly, the mixture failed to gel.

For those unfamiliar with the drama surrounding Aerosmith, Steven Tyler has said he wanted to take some time off to pursue "brand Tyler," or a solo career with a heavy emphasis on the ballads that made Aerosmith a huge amount of money in the '80s or '90s. Guitarist Joe Perry basically wants the band to follow in the footsteps of AC/DC and get back to what they know best: bluesy, balls-to-the-wall rock à la Rocks and Toys In The Attic. Tyler… this is not the '80s or even the '90s. Glenn Ballard is not going to help you sell four million copies. Listen to Joe Perry. Get back in the studio, do what you do best. The world needs a truly authentic Aerosmith record, not another Get A Grip.


Rereleases of the Year


5. The Stone Roses 20th Anniversary – The Stone Roses

One of Rolling Stone's most embarrassing gaffes was to give this pioneering album of Brit-pop a one-star review when it first came out. Little did the magazine now at the time The Stone Roses debut album went on to change the landscape of British pop and pave the way for Oasis/Blur/The Verve in the '90s. Twenty years later, The Stone Roses' marriage of pop and psychedelic shoegaze remains a classic. The reissue does the album justice.

4. Paul's Boutique / Check Your Head / Ill Communiction / Hello Nasty – Beastie Boys

The B-sides for all of the Beastie Boys' rereleases were scattershot at best. They were most likely not enough to justify the repurchase of Hello Nasty or Check Your Head. But the beautiful glossy recreation of the album covers and some slight tweaking of the sounds on Ill Communication were enough to at least make people entertain the thought of purchasing these albums again instead of doing a quick and easy download.


3. For Your Own Special Sweetheart – Jawbox

Some reissues are released to correct problems from previous releases (e.g. The Beatles). Some are made to enhance an already-regarded masterpiece (e.g. Radiohead). And some (hopefully) will bring attention to a band you may have ignored the first time around. Consider Jawbox's rerelease of For Your Own Special Sweetheart part of the latter reason's for a rerelease. Jawbox may not have had the intensity and the political fire of their peers like Fugazi, but For Your Own Special Sweetheart justly got the rerelease it rightfully deserved. Here's hoping a new generation of punks stumble upon this lost masterpiece.


2. Pablo Honey /The Bends /OK Computer /Kid A /Amnesiac/Hail To The Thief – Radiohead

Capitol knows what a feverish fan base Radiohead holds, and thankfully, they know not to screw with them by putting out an inferior product. They did not mess with the main recordings, but opted to include some excellent live tracks and B-sides for each recording as well as include a snazzy repackaged album cover for each of their reissues. If any of these albums are your favorites, these reissues justify a second purchase.


1. The Beatles Catalog – The Beatles

How could it NOT be The Beatles? As people move away from CDs, the fact that people could still pack a record store on the "day of release" is a feat unto itself. If you have an average stereo system and are not a huge music geek, you're going to be hard-pressed to find the difference between the remastered versions and their 1987 counterparts. Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Help! were not terribly different, but Revolver and The White Album had some definite advances. If you are done buying CDs, give serious consideration in making a final investment in these classics. 

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