BEST ALBUMS OF 2009: 15-6

Welcome to my rundown of the best albums of the year.  I take a look at what I found to be my favorite releases.  I’ve reviewed some of these, but haven’t mentioned most of them here.  Keep in mind that the previous scores really don’t mean anything – just because a score was “higher” in the past doesn’t mean that my opinion is quite the same today.  Enjoy the list!

15. 11:11 by Rodrigo y Gabriela

Starting this list with a unexpected twist.  I first ran into this duo on Conan earlier this year and I was totally stunned.  With two acoustic guitars, they completely dominated about four minutes of my life.  Literally, the way they managed to play those instruments was breathtaking and enthralling.  While you can’t watch these magic musicians on album, it remains clear that they’re both up to something crazy on each song of the album.  Get this album and find some of the top guitar players out there today.

14. Wavering Radiant by Isis

I am not the world’s biggest metal fan.  Particularly, I don’t really see much use for the whole screaming thing.  And yet here is a melodic metal album on this list.  Thus is the excellence of this atmospheric and layered release.  It is a great album especially with headphones on, just to rock out and get washed away by the sound.  I’d suggest a similar approach – go somewhere solitary and soak in all the glorious sounds.  It’s a fun time.

13. Them Crooked Vultures by Them Crooked Vultures

Upon hearing about this supergroup, I was very excited.  I mean, how could they go wrong?  Well, they ultimately didn’t disappoint me.  Admittedly, this album is pretty near what I expected, but is that a bad thing here?  The album does tend to be a bit front-heavy, but this is really something that current radio-popular hard rock outfits should be forced into hearing.  Essentially this conversation needs to happen: “Nickelback, you’ve spent so long copying your own filth.  Why not listen to a musically astute group of people creating better music than you could even dream of?  If you copy even half of this, you’d be listenable!”

12. The Hazards of Love by The Decemberists

Not but a few weeks ago I thought very little of this album.  Then I gave it a harder try, and the whole thing opened up for me.  This is a really difficult listen, but if you properly invest some time into things, you’ll find a wealth of sounds coming forward.  What effect does the concept-album plot have on the quality of things?  That’s hard to say.  I’m not big on concept albums, so it really didn’t mean too much to me.  However, if you like a lengthy musical tale, this is right up your alley.

11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart by The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

An interesting blend of pop-mentality and sludge Sonic Youth/MBV guitar (but sometimes REM-type jangle!) makes this a strange type of music to initially consider.  But with repeated listens comes a satisfaction.  The band doesn’t overstay their welcome, and all the songs are at least slightly danceable.  I’ve never bought into the hype for Isn’t Anything from MBV, but I’d like to think that this can function like a more accessible alternative.

10. Blue Roses by Blue Roses

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Deep emotions are sometimes hard to convey in a legitimate way through music.  Often, such efforts sound half-assed, or just plain whiney (see also: emo).  Here, Blue Roses moves beyond any failure by offering sincerity and heart.  This is driven home by the straining, beautiful voice of Laura Groves.  She perfectly brings forth such sorrow on this album.  Perhaps the only warning that should be offered is that repeated listens tend to cause personal depression.  It can be tough to help bear her sadness… but you’ll be left hooked by the enchanting music.

9. Tonight by Franz Ferdinand

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Franz Ferdinand take a decidedly darker route here, leaving the “Dark of the Matinee” to seem like a sunny day in July.  The trick is that bigger bass sound.  Yeah, the electronics are something new, but that fat bass really adds a depth to every song.  What brings this album high on my list is its cohesiveness as a whole albumTonight manages to act like a faux-concept album, looking at different facets of a night out.  But they never hit you over the head with such high-mind ideas.  Instead, you’re left to piece it together, and eventually it clicks.  This thing may not be as hooky and fun as their first, but Tonight is a richly rewarding album, even strong enough to overcome the slight misstep in the new version of “Lucid Dreams.”

8. Middle Cyclone by Neko Case

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The hook is her voice, but you’ll be left thinking about everything else once done with the album.  It’s almost unfortunate that Case will almost be taken for granted like that.  Because it’s really the blend of music and vocals that really pushes Middle Cyclone so far.  Without that booming voice, the pop-folk would seem interesting but boring.  Yet Case would seem crazy and hyper-emotional without the stunning backdrop offered by great acoustic guitars, piano, strings, and a solid rhythm section.  Maybe the best blend of the two realms is seen in “Vengeance is Sleeping,” an angry sort of remembrance of a lost love.  Without her, the song would be flat, but without the guitars her voice would seem somewhat silly.  Thank goodness the combinations work well throughout – Middle Cyclone is superb for everyone involved, especially the listener.

7. Farm by Dinosaur Jr

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It rocks and rolls from the very start.  Insane solos, strong rhythms, and a great sense of melody all propel this guitar album to such a high spot.  I really wish I was a Dinosaur Jr follower before this.  Every track has a loveable gritty work ethic that works in tandem with the band’s clear talent.  While “Pieces” may be the best single track, each song has a memorable guitar line, and interesting lyrics.  Farm keeps you interested throughout, thus giving a great bang for the buck.

6. It’s Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs

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I was not convinced that Yeah Yeah Yeahs would be able to translate their shtick into some sort of electronic-disco setting.  Yet here I am, wondering how I didn’t see Karen O as a super-diva before.  It isn’t immediately clear that you’re into something great – “Zero” is spectacular, but can put you a bit out of sorts.  “Heads Will Roll” convinces you that the powerful Karen O is still around and then gets you to believe the electronics.  From here on, the album leads you through a series of power songs and semi-ballads.  You’re always left wondering how a song will conclude, making for a fun first listen.  After that, the whole album solidifies.  It’s Blitz may now be the best of the YYYs.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of the Best of 2009 stuff.  Fun story: Merriweather Post Pavilion did not make my top 15 list.  It seems pretty clear to me that Pitchfork and many others vastly over-valued Animal Collective this year.  Despite having two brilliant tunes, it does not make my list.  What will be featured in the top 5?

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