ALBUMS of the YEAR - 2009

Those of you out there who actually read this blog from time to time know that 2009 was a momentous year in my life. My wife gave birth to healthy, beautiful (if I do say so myself) twin girls back in February, and though there are a thousand things to worry about every day with children, my life has been on the proverbial 9th cloud ever since. One of the many wonderful things about them is that they are amazing sleepers - seriously, they’re in bed at 7 every night and only on the rarest of occasions do we see them before we have to get up for work (and besides that, my wife is usually in bed by, like, 9). Hence, lots of time for me to still run this humble little website that shares with you the music that matters to me. And in 2009 there was a whole hell of a lot of it.

In the past I’ve limited my year end list to my favorite 20 albums, but it was obvious right when I started drafting this that 20 just wouldn’t suffice. Not this year. I thought about doing 25, it’s a very nice number, but even then there were albums that I really like that would’ve been left high & dry. So, this year you get to see and hear and read about my 30 favorite albums, and believe it or not there are still a few that I wish I had room for. Regardless, these are the albums that I enjoyed most this year. Among them you’ll find a bunch of the same albums everyone else seems to love, but also scattered throughout rather generously are ones that I hope differentiate Pop Headwound a little bit from the many, many other music blogs out there. Hope you find something new to love.

30. Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle - Bill Callahan

This one was a late contender for this list, as I just started listening to it after it was so highly recommended by Brook Pridemore in his Year In Review guest post a few weeks back. Callahan’s second solo album since ditching the Smog moniker has been in heavy rotation ever since, and even though I’m still getting to know these songs that are content [to ripple] along like a river in low water season (thanks Brook), it’s clear that Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is a brilliant record (he’s dark again), and one that would no doubt be higher if I had gotten around to it sooner.

29. There Is No Enemy - Built To Spill

After two good-not-great albums over the past ten years, There Is No Enemy finds Built To Spill back in the business of being awesome. While it may not be quite on par with their mid-to-late 90s run of classics (not much is), it is their best effort since Keep It Like A Secret, and comes full of the expansive guitar jams and skewed alt-pop Doug Martsch & co. made their name on in the first place.

MP3 :: Hindsight

28. S/T - The Pains of Being Pure At Heart

Here is a band with a lot going for them - looks, locale, buzz, youth, and a laundry list of influences that are cooler than your bands’. The thing that sets The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart apart though from the dozens of other similarly armed indie-rock outfits who were shot through the hype machine this year are the songs - a whole album’s worth of snappy potential singles that match melodic twee-pop with fuzzed-up shoegaze. One of the year’s brightest debuts.

MP3 :: Come Saturday
MP3 :: Everything With You
MP3 :: Young Adult Friction

27. Childish Prodigy - Kurt Vile

On his Matador debut, Vile alternates between heavy, stomping full-band rockers, open-road anthems filled with bright, chirpy melodies, and murky folk-blues that feature only his voice, electric guitar, and noise effects - each showing he writes compelling songs in a wide range of styles.

MP3 :: Overnight Religion
MP3 :: Hunchback

26. Cloud Pleaser - David Shane Smith

Smith’s relocation from Brooklyn to Los Angeles has only intensified the jarring tales of consumerism, urban decay, and environmental corrosion that dominated his previous albums, Wintertower and Angry Earth. Cloud Pleaser is, to say the least, a bleak album that continues the trend - if there’s one prevailing theme at work here it’s probably about feeling disconnected from just about everyone and everything. But, ironically, Smith himself has never sounded as engaged as he does throughout these 10 songs. Dark beats, tape glitches, military march drums, jarring sound effects, ambient stretches, finger-picked acoustic guitars, and Smith’s nasal, sing-speak vocals coalesce into a seamless whole - the best album yet from a young artist whose grim worldview continues to inspire stunning songs.

MP3 :: Miserablism
MP3 :: Brand New
MP3 :: Beauty Force

25. Logos - Atlas Sound

As the leader of Deerhunter, Bradford Cox has been behind some of the most affecting (and, yes, divisive) indie-rock of the past few years. A restlessly creative spirit, his Atlas Sound project has mostly, until now, been a vehicle to set at large a massive amount of lo-fi home recordings, either on last year’s Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel or through his ever-prolific blog. Logos sees Cox taking his solo project to the next level though, with successful collaborations with Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) and Laetitia Sadier and a whole batch of his best drone/pop songs yet.

MP3 :: Walkabout (ft. Noah Lennox)

24. The Ecstatic - Mos Def

Anyone who’s ever seen Be Kind Rewind, Cadillac Records, or The Woodsmen knows the talents of Mos Def reach far beyond the mic. But The Ecstatic reminds us of how he made his name in the first place - this is a diverse, socially conscious, genre-hopping hip-hop record with tinges of blues-rock, soul, pop, and Latin among its 16 songs. The highlights are many, but my favorites are the soaring “Life In Marvelous Times”, a nostalgic look back at his tough Bed-Stuy roots, and “Quiet Dog”, a brooding boogie down with some deep dark rhythms.

MP3 :: Life In Marvelous Times
MP3 :: Quiet Dog
MP3 :: Casa Bey

23. Tarot Sport - Fuck Buttons

Tarot Sport is a more mature, fully-realized version of the electro-noise band who brought us last year’s terrific Street Horrrsing - the arrangements have more of a sense of urgency and the scream-o vocals are all but extinct. Overall this is an expansive, deeply hypnotic work that will appeal to fans of electronic music as well as left-of-center indie-rock fans.

MP3 :: Surf Solar (7” edit)

22. Face Control - Handsome Furs

Handsome Furs tightened things up on Face Control, streamlining the sprawling urban-paranoia of their debut, Plague Park, into focused pop-rock gems. Dan Boeckner has never had a problem writing macho, fist-pumping indie-rock anthems, but “Radio Kaliningrad” might be his best one yet.

MP3 :: I’m Confused
MP3 :: Radio Kaliningrad

21. Album - Girls

In an era when most bands using nostalgia as inspiration are going back to The Beach Boys or the synth-pop of 80’s new wave, Album looks back even further, recalling the 50s pop of your local “oldies” radio station more than anything else. The androgynous, Iggy Pop-quoting lead single, “Lust For Life”, (with its “I wish I had a boyfriend, I wish I had a loving man in my life” lyric and NC-17 video) isn’t really a fair representation, sonically, of the album. Much of it is comprised of slow-building, self-pitying anthems that, like “Hellhole Ratrace”, suck you in and repeat their refrains like mantras until you can’t help but feel a strange sort of affinity.

MP3 :: Lust For Life
MP3 :: Hellhole Ratrace

20. Feral Harmonic - Old Canes

Feral Harmonic is a raucous folk-rock record that, despite being predominantly the unaided work of The Appleseed Cast’s Chris Crisci, sounds like it was recorded by a bunch of friends as part of a drunken hootenanny. Every song is a winner, but the mess of acoustic guitars, in-your-face drums, careening horn section, and shout-along lyrics on “Little Bird Courage” really stands out to these ears.

MP3 :: Little Bird Courage
MP3 :: Trust

19. Get Guilty - A.C. Newman

The second solo album from the chief new pornographer was one of the most underrated and overlooked albums of the year. Yet again Newman proves himself to be this generation’s most skilled craftsmen of melodic indie-pop, churning out infectious, blissful tune after tune. The orchestral “There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve” and “Elemental” are two of his most beautiful songs yet, and “The Heartbreak Rides” continues his long string of terrific track 2’s. Seriously, check his back catalog and tell me how often track two is just the shiznit….

MP3 :: There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve
MP3 :: Submarines of Stockholm

18. My Maudlin Career - Camera Obscura

The bittersweet indie-pop of these Scots is much the same on My Maudlin Career as it was on their 2006 new-classic, Let’s Get Out Of This Country. That means more reverbed, ringing guitar chords mixed with lush keyboards and Tracyanne Campbell’s unsinkable melodies. One only need listen to “French Navy” to be forever smitten.

MP3 :: My Maudlin Career (follow link)
MP3 :: French Navy

17. xx - The xx

On their debut, London’s The xx create spellbinding, noirish little songs where the negative space between notes expresses as much emotion as the music and vocals. The starkly minimalist arrangements are impressive enough on their own, but combined with the chilled-out back and forth boy-girl vocals and mature, fully-realized songs far beyond what you’d expect from a bunch of kids in their early twenties adds up to one of the year’s strongest debuts.

MP3 :: Basic Space (Sapha Remix) (follow link)

16. Veckatimest - Grizzly Bear

Grizzly Bear’s elegant, painstakingly detailed third album is easily my favorite thing they’ve ever done. Their nuanced art-folk sways from sweeping, near-pop masterpieces like “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait For The Others” to cathartic, slow-building mood pieces like “Ready, Able” and “I Live With You”. Less raw and more, well, choir-boyish than the music that made my Top 10, Veckatimest is still every bit the “fucking stunning achievement” I called it way back when everyone only had their 128 kbps leaked copies.

MP3 :: Cheerleader

15. A Brighter Light - Brook Pridemore

A Brighter Light finds NY’s Pridemore once again bashing out his fiery, invective brand of punk/folk/agit-pop at a variety of deserving sources, but it also manages to be his most personal album to date. Recalling The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle or anti-folk legend Ed Hamell, Pridemore sounds, as always, intent on moving your ass and your mind in equal measure. Overall, there’s not a weak moment on A Brighter Light – it’s a tour-de-force rock ‘n roll record that’s smart, sharp-tongued, and fun. As he says himself, “I didn’t come here to proselytize; I came to bring the noise”.
MP3 :: Stockholm St. Syndrome

14. Only Built For Cuban Linx pt. 2 - Raekwon

Raekwon’s magnum opus is a true street poet (and a lot of friends, most prominently Ghostface) rapping their asses off for well over an hour. It's the kind of animated, vivid storytelling that seems made for the big screen.

13. Year In The Kingdom - J. Tillman

Compared to his more expansive Vacilando Territory Blues, the 9-song Year In The Kingdom can come across as a somewhat minor offering. But listen carefully and you hear a fully developed batch of songs that whisper about mortality like a man who thinks about dying a lot. Tillman sounds like he’s consumed by this inevitability - offering ruminative insights over gorgeous, hymn-like arrangements. He’s on such a streak right now that even this, his second best album of 2009, tops nearly everything else I heard this year.

MP3 :: Earthly Bodies
MP3 :: Though I Have Wronged You

12. Farm - Dinosaur Jr.

Yeah, 2007’s Beyond signaled a startling return to form from the original cast of Dinosaur Jr. It was a record steeped in their early, sludgy SST sound and housed a lot of Mascis’s best songs in a decade and a half. But Farm, the even better second coming of the second coming, finds the band leaning more towards their early 90s days (my personal favorite DJr. era). It was then that they were alt. rock’s best near-miss on the strength of the slacker anthems and stoned guitar-god heroics of Green Mind and Where You Been. That latter album seems to be Farm’s best point of reference, with the band playing tight, searing mid-tempo crunchers for the better part of an hour.

MP3 :: I Want You To Know

11. Embryonic - The Flaming Lips

Embryonic is a thrillingly excessive display of warped, druggy songcraft and musicianship. It’s the band walking the fearless freak-walk instead of just talking it up with a megaphone, balloons, and a light show. Since The Soft Bulletin they’ve spent the better part of 10 years making a major label’s idea of “weird alternative” music (granted there are a few great songs mixed in there), but on Embryonic The Flaming Lips sound like a band again; albeit one that’s been hanging out on Mars and listening a lot of Can, Zappa, Beefheart, and Miles Davis. Since At War With The Mystics I wasn’t expecting to ever really like a new Flaming Lips album again, let alone love one.

10. My Son’s Home - The Roadside Graves

The latest from New Jersey’s Roadside Graves is a raucous journey through nearly every corner of American music. The 18 songs here touch on barroom rock & roll, folk, blues, country, and soul, as well as The Pogues, Exile-era Stones, The Band, and Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. Despite its long running time, the album is held together by the theme of family and friends trying to stick it out during hard times. Singer/lyricist John Gleason’s aptitude for using simple details to reveal universal human truths makes him stand out as a songwriter, and the 6-piece band never fails to further bring those words to vivid life. Hell, just listen to “Ruby” and see for yourself.

MP3 :: Ruby
MP3 :: Far And Wide
MP3 :: My Son’s Home (demo)

9. Outside Love - The Pink Mountaintops

Part Phil Spector wall of sound pop, part Jesus & Mary Chain feedback-fueled madness, part warped folk/country, Outside Love strings together some pretty disparate influences and coalesces them into a unified set of songs about the ups, downs, and middle grounds of love. Every song is top notch, but the hauntingly romantic “Vampire” never ceases to amaze me – it's my favorite song of the year.

MP3 :: Vampire
MP3 :: While We Were Dreaming

8. The Earth Is Black and other apocalyptic lullabies for children - Soft Black

The Earth Is Black is a strikingly personal album from an artist spilling his guts on the effects of deep fear, religious doubt, and nightmare-induced sleep deprivation. While that may seem like soporific inspiration for a rock n’ roll record, singer-songwriter Vincent Cacchione never puts his owns demons before the good of the song. The Earth Is Black is thematically bleak, but Cacchione surrounds his words and melodies with a crackin’ band that’s equally capable of anthemic glam-folk (“I Am An Animal”), Ray Davies-like shuffles (“Time Gets Away And Has Its Way With You”), and propulsive folk-rock sing-alongs (“The Lions”, “The Earth Is Black”). It’s all brought home by the album’s cathartic finale, “Night Terrors”, whose creeping tension is relieved only by the vulnerability in the vocals. Over the past few years I’ve heard and written about a lot of New York’s up-and-coming talent - The Earth Is Black is the fanged, rabid animal at the front of the pack.
MP3 :: The Lions

7. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix

Kicking off an album with two of the year’s very best singles (“Lisztomania” and “1901”) is a sure way to get the rest of your songs ignored, but those who managed to stop hitting repeat for “Fences” and beyond heard the most consistent record yet from these slick French indie-rockers. Never ones to shy away from their obvious commercial ambitions, the clumsily titled Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a straight pop-rock album that’s, for lack of a better way to put it, un enfer de beaucoup d'amusement pour écouter.. Seriously I don’t know how anyone with five working senses could not enjoy the hell out of this record.

MP3 :: Lisztomania (A Fight For Love & 25 Hours A Day remix)
MP3 :: 1901 (L’Aiglon Remix)
MP3 :: Fences (The Soft Pack remix)
MP3 :: Love Like A Sunset (Animal Collective remix)
MP3 :: Love Like A Sunset (Shuttle remix)

6. Post Nothing - Japandroids

The primordial garage-rock of Vancouver’s Japandroids hits with a combination of brute force and undeniable hooks. This duo may just be yelling about french kissing French girls and getting older and the tediousness of their hometown, but they do so with such conviction that you can’t help but hang on their every word. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” is one of the best angst-anthems I’ve heard in a long time, but Post Nothing is filled with 7 more songs that are its near equal.

MP3 :: Young Hearts Spark Fire
MP3 :: Wet Hair

5. Out Into The Snow - Simon Joyner

Out Into The Snow is Simon Joyner’s 12th full-length record since debuting way back in 1993, and it finds his songwriting talent finally peaking. A highly impressionistic writer, he matches the creativity of his words with acoustic guitar and piano-driven arrangements that, on the surface, are not dissimilar to some of his obvious inspirations - Townes Van Zandt and On The Beach-era Neil Young. Though it may recall these classics, Out Into the Snow is a quietly intense album that stands entirely on its own. In my opinion, the most overlooked album of the year.

MP3 :: Out Into The Snow
MP3 :: Roll On

4. Bromst - Dan Deacon

What’s most apparent when listening to Bromst is that Deacon is at the peak of his creative powers - a madcap genius striving to be taken seriously as both sound artist and traditional musician. Bromst is looong, but its sizzling kinetic energy hardly wavers. Simply put, this record is fucking righteous.

MP3 :: Woof Woof

3. Bitte Orca - Dirty Projectors

2009 was a breakthrough year for Dirty Projectors. First they were prominently featured on the terrific Dark Was The Night compilation on a song co-written with David Byrne. Then they dropped Bitte Orca, a surprisingly accessible album, to near-universal praise from critics. It deserved every bit of it - Bitte Orca is a kaleidoscopic art-pop thrill ride. Despite being masterminded by David Longstreth, the whole record is a truly collaborative effort, which is never more evident than on Amber Coffman’s star-turn lead vocal performance on “Stillness Is The Move” - one of 2009’s best songs.

MP3 :: Knotty Pine (w/ David Byrne)
(from Dark Was The Night)

2. Merriweather Post Pavillon - Animal Collective

Most people were ready to declare Merriweather Post Pavilion 2009’s best album when it leaked last Christmas. Yet here it is almost a year later, having withstood its unfair head start and even a moderate degree of online backlash (initiated more by competitive Grizzly Bear fans than critics or bloggers methinks). There’s no doubt that it’s proven to be every bit the classic that those first few listeners intimated.

After the brooding intensity of much of Strawberry Jam, Animal Collective filled MPP with similar lush harmonies and mesmeric repetitions to those found on Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. That stylistic decision works particularly well within the album’s recurring themes of fatherhood and the struggle to overcome limitations to provide for your kids (see “My Girls”, especially). For years before Merriweather, Animal Collective churned out whimsical sing-alongs (“Grass”, “Leaf House”, “Peacebone”, etc) that seemed tailor-made for kids to blindly shout along with. It wasn’t until they started voicing adult concerns that they truly exploded with a whole new generation of indie-kids.

1. Vacilando Territory Blues - J. Tillman

There are records that you hear in your life that become inextricably linked to a specific time and place. Hearing Vacilando Territory Blues for the first time last February, five days before the birth of my twin girls, gives it a distinct advantage when held up against the other great albums on this list - sentimentality. As much as I adore Merriweather Post Pavillon, Bitte Orca, and the other albums I have just written about, those feelings just don’t come close to the ones I have for this humble little folk-blues record by a guy best known (for now) as the drummer in Fleet Foxes. I just can’t hear songs like “Firstborn”, “Above All Men”, or “Someone With Child” without being immediately brought back to the (sniff, sob) happiest days of my life. Which is kind of ridiculous considering that much of Vacilando Territory Blues is made up of weary, whispered folk songs whose overall mood, while certainly celebrating life (as opposed to Year In The Kingdom’s meditations on death and what comes after it), wouldn’t be confused with “joyful” in a thousand years. When he does employ fuller arrangements the songs are just as stark, merely louder. Regardless, there’s a deeper connection here for me that won’t ever fade - every time I put it on I feel like I did on the morning my little world doubled in size. Fatherhood. Holy shit. “I don’t want to live again cause I don’t want this life to end” - yeah Josh, that about sums it up. But honestly, take away the personal affiliation and what’s left is a soul-stirring album with a cohesive mood that’s thirteen great songs deep. The most moving, most beautiful album to find my ears in a long, long time.

MP3 :: James Blues
MP3 :: Steel On Steel
MP3 :: Firstborn


Wayne Massingham said...

Hey James, glad to see J. Tillman top your list. It obviously made a deep personal connection to you. I love the album too. Glad to see Dan Deacon and Roadside Graves feature highly too. Both wonderful albums.

Burn The Bowery (music blog) said...

Great work as usual James. really enjoyed reading the blog this year.
some of these i'll def. have to sit down and get more familiar with.

steve @
Burn the Bowery