Bonnie "Prince" Billy - Beware
(March 17) (Drag City) (Myspace)
RIYL: Bill Callahan/Smog, Neil Young
As far as Will Oldham superfans go, I reckon that I'm a bit different. You see, there is almost no question that Will Oldham in all his various incarnations and psuedonyms is my favorite musician, yet you'd be hard pressed to call me obsessive. Back when I had a Last.fm account (as many of you still do, I'm sure), Bonnie "Prince" Billy was my most
scrobbled artist by a large amount, while the rest of my top 10 consisted primarily of ambient musicians and a little band called The Beatles. Furthermore, my favorite Oldham records are not any of his work with Palace, nor some obscure rare EP. I don't think that I See A Darkness is his best album, and might not list it higher than number 5. My favorite album of his is the somber, intimate, though often overlooked Master and Everyone. In fact, that could very well be my favorite album of the decade. All this is irrelevant other than the idea that as a huge fan of Oldham, I tend to praise some things that others seem to cast aside, and tend to merely like those things that garner the most praise. Beware follows this pattern. Upon first listen of this album, I may have liked it more than any other record on first listen this year. I love Will doing solo acoustic stuff or songs with minimal accompaniment, but I also really enjoy his stuff with a full band. This album fits that mold. I gushed to my girlfriend about it for days, and when she finally played it, she liked it, though couldn't stand the out-of-tune fiddle. Fair enough, that's a reasonable complaint and I notice it now too, though somehow I personally love it, as well as most of the other backing music and what it sounds like. The songs themselves don't really rank up there with his best, but the music is wonderfully different from most of his releases (I said "most" so don't talk to me about Sings Greatest Palace Music) but whatever. It's Will Oldham, it's a good album that I enjoy more than most. It's also one of my most listened to records of the year. And it's cool to listen to a Bonnie "Prince" Billy song that seems to have sing-along choruses.
Jon Hassell - Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street
(Feb. 10) (ECM) (Myspace)
RIYL: Brian Eno, Popol Vuh, Terry Riley
Jon Hassell has been making awesome experimental jazz and "fourth world" styled ambient music for almost 40 years. Somehow, despite this fact, his latest album is one of his very best in a career of very bests. Taking his trumpet and a traditional jazz lineup, adding a lot of effects, laptop tinkering and mixing live and studio tracks, Last Night... is one of the coolest records of the year. Trance-inducing night music. Beautiful ambient tracks, funky bass. Hassell continues his vision of creating a music that pays debts to all world cultures (in this case, lots of Middle Eastern music), without actually sounding anything like it. He has jazz influences, he has Brian Eno influences, but as with most of his music, Hassell has his own sound, and it happens to be a sound that no one can replicate. Fantastic album that didn't get the praise it deserved. Some people might throw it out calling it new age bullshit. It's not. You might call it new age, it's not far away from that, but it's one of the most beautifully composed records I've heard in a long long time. How exciting that someone as prolific as Jon Hassell and with a career as influential as his, can still make some of the best music of his life when the odds are against him.
Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
(May 26) (Glass Note) (Myspace)
RIYL: Hot Chip, Hall & Oates, Todd Rundgren, Pop music
Phoenix was bound to crossover at some point. Though the momentum was hitting hard, and it seemed that Phoenix was going to become one of the biggest bands of the year on the strength of their two stellar singles "Lisztomania" and "1901", they didn't quite make it. That's ok. Those who know and love Phoenix have known the same thing for years: They're the best pop band working. Their music is insanely catchy. Where wereyou the first time you got "If I Ever Feel Better" stuck in your head? How often have you sung the chorus to "Napoleon Says"? How may times did you watch the music video for "Lisztomania" that was synched up to a bunch of Brat Pack movies? Phoenix writes the song that appeal to the youth in each of us that slowly disappears all the time. Phoenix fights to keep us enjoying ourselves, loving music, embracing huge choruses, high voices and lyrics that don't really mean anything but sound a-ok. Phoenix is the quintessential pop band, the likes of which don't exist in the 2000's, and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is their best album to date. There's no reason for you to not love this band. There really isn't.
Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
(June 6) (Domino) (Myspace)
RIYL: Yeasayer, Magnetic Fields, I don't know who else really
Nothing surprised me more this year than how much I loved Bitte Orca. I could attribute it to the hype machine, but the Dirty Projectors have had some hype for a few years now and if were around when Rise Above came out, their Black Flag covers record, you would have known there was no band I hated more than this band. I checked out one of their earlier releases out of curiosity, hated it just as much. When Bitte Orca came out and some of my peers were praising it, I was spamming message boards and review sites telling them how bad this band was, before actually hearing the record. I listened on a whim. I liked it a lot. I listened a second time, I liked it more. I then probably listened 3-4 more times (in a row, this is a huge deal for me), and I grew to love this record. My opinion about The Dirty Projectors changed in almost a complete 180 in a few hours. They went from one of my least favorite hyped indie bands to a band that I knew had just released a record that would appear in my top 10 of the year. If anything, the record's effect hasn't lessened either, the album is just really strong. I like the tracks that the females sing more than when Longstreth sings, but his voice isn't bugging me as much as it should. The music is just engaging. It's crazy, all over the place, but fuck is it good. I never would've expected it. Maybe I'll go back and listen to those old records and see if I like them now. I don't know if I will, and it doesn't matter. Bitte Orca is a great record full of great songs and deserved all the praise it received in the press this year.
Mastodon - Crack The Skye
(March 24) (Reprise) (Myspace)
RIYL: Isis, Black Sabbath, Rush, Metallica
How fitting that the only metal record on this list is the least metal album of Mastodon's career and not even considered "metal" by many people. Progressive Metal? Alternative Rock? Progressive Rock? Who the fuck cares. Crack The Skye is THE BEST rock record of the year and the best album by a band who many would consider to be one of the decade's very finest. The music is tighter than ever, the vocals are cleaner than ever, the concept is crazier than ever. What doesn't lack is just how awesome this music is. Go to Rateyourmusic and read the opinions of nerds, I don't need to tell you anything. I've always enjoyed Mastodon, appreciated their musicianship, but this album just puts them right to the top of rock bands for me. It's funny, lots of moments on this album would fit right into modern alternative rock radio, except everything seems to be done just THAT much better. I just love this shit. Turn it up loud, rock out, dream of time-traveling Russians and Rasputin and whatever else. Awesome awesome record and no metal critic can tell me otherwise.
A Sunny Day In Glasgow - Ashes Grammar
(Sept. 15) (Mis Ojos Discos) (Myspace)
RIYL: My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, M83
Even though this album is at #5 on this list, I will come out and say that this is the only other album on the list that could conceivably be considered the best album of the year. I didn't listen to it as much as the 4 albums ahead of it, but every time I do listen to it, I am almost stopped dead in my tracks thinking about how good it is. I thought the last ASIG album was good. It placed high on my 2007 list, where I stated that I had a love/hate relationship with it, where sometimes I thought it was terribly annoying, but other times I thought it was the absolute best album of the year. Ashes Grammar however, I'll have a hard time saying anything negative about. The band still revolves around Ben Daniels, but his sisters Lauren and Robin are pretty much gone. The band picked up Annie Frederickson for this album to do vocals, and they now currently also feature a good friend of my girlfriend, Jen Goma (awesome when a friend joins one of your favorite bands). What do I even say about this record? It's dreamy beyond dreamy. Hazy and beautiful, inventive, shoegazing, a masterpiece. If you like dense sounds on your records, you like guitars and effects and ethereal vocals and amazing everything. Pick up Ashes Grammar and let the 22 tracks just transport you. I could try to write a real review for this record, but it would take time. This is a truly great record.
Mos Def - The Ecstatic
(June 9) (Downtown Records) (Myspace)
RIYL: Hip Hop
Let me say this flat out: I may very well like this album better than Black On Both Sides. Furthermore, I probably would consider this in the top 10 hip hop releases of the decade. No one expected a record this fucking awesome from Mos Def in 2009. Everyone just wants to write him off as a singing goofball. On The Ecstatic Mos has proved that he in fact one of the best rappers there is, he knows the best producers and he can do a simple, no-frills album and make it good. What do you need to know about this record? Spacey, vintage sounding samples. Mos just spitting all sorts of nonsense. Short songs, minimal guests who come correct when they actually appear. The best record to play in your car this year. This is the album lots of people have been wanting Mos Def to create from day one. It's unfortunate that some of those very same people still don't consider this album great. It's everything good about hip hop.
The-Dream - Love Vs. Money
(March 10) (Def Jam) (Myspace)
RIYL: Usher, R. Kelly, almost any good r&b song on the radio
The-Dream has written and produced some of the biggest songs of the last 3 years. Most notably he is the man behind the powerhouses of "Umbrella", "Single Ladies" and "Touch My Body". The dude can write a song. Apparently he can write an album too, because his second full length Love Vs. Money is the best r&b/pop record of the last 10 years. I can understand that The-Dream hasn't really blown up as a solo artist. He's not a good looking dude, he doesn't really have a good voice, his songs are somewhat bizarre, and to be honest most songs on this album don't really sound like they should be singles. However, the 2-3-4 punch of "Rockin That Shit", "Walkin on the Moon" and "My Love" should have occupied the top 3 spots on the Billboard charts. Love Vs. Money is easily my most listened to record of the year. It's silly, it's weird to like male r&b, but The-Dream is making music that hasn't made this good in a long long time. Its a shame that his next record will be his last. Also, let's be truthful: this is an ALBUM. This isn't a typical r&b album, this is really thought out. It builds, it has song cycles, it fades, it's basically perfect. This article describes it really well. Whatever, stop fronting. This is better than anything R. Kelly ever did. And I love R. Kelly. Oh also, check out the Electrik Red album from this year which is the girl group he put together, it barely missed the list.
Mountains - Choral
(Feb. 16) (Thrill Jockey) (Myspace)
RIYL: Fennesz, Harmonia, Eluvium
Mountains have been one of my favorite ambient acts of the last few years primarily because the music they create straddles the line between organic and inorganic sounds better than anyone. Sure there is lots of electronic distortion inherent in their compositions, but the way it is executed somehow seems like it would be appropriate soundtracking a rainy day in a cold cabin. It's warm. Choral is their best album yet, and far and away the best experimental / drone / ambient album of 2009. Sounding like a mixture of Eluvium's earlier ambient soundscape work with the guitar work within some of Robert Fripp's ambient recordings, Mountains have created something special. It's not entirely new, but it is done with precision. They don't build huge crescendos or create loops of the sort that will make you weep, but they do relax you, and they do make you marvel in their beauty. There is acoustic instruments, washes of synths, darkness, lightness, everything but it sounds clean. A beautiful record from beginning to end and almost the very best record of the year.
Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
(Jan. 20) (Domino) (Myspace)
RIYL: Doesn't matter
It couldn't be anything else. There is no possible way that I could pretend this isn't the best record of 2009. Go ahead and look around the internet for the next hour, this is the undisputed record of the year. The critics are right. In my mind, this is the first guaranteed "masterpiece" of the last many years and likely the absolute best record of the past decade. Masterpiece's deserved to be recognized. Animal Collective solidified the notion that they are the best band of the 00s by putting out their best album. If you haven't heard this album, where have you been? If you don't like this album, who are you? Nothing come closes. The album leaked on Christmas of 2008. It's been #1 since Christmas of 2008. It was #1 on Christmas of 2009. It could probably be #1 on Christmas of 2010. Merriweather Post Pavilion is undoubtedly the best album of 2009.