Here ends the recap of this year’s best music. I hope you’ve enjoyed my take on what 2009 has had to offer. Come back tomorrow for the first part of my look into the Best Songs of the Decade. Thanks again for reading!
5. Bitte Orca by Dirty Projectors
Free admission: I had never heard of Dirty Projectors when Pitchfork started hyping this album as the next coming of Jeebus, or something absurd. But that darned little Lala player thing in their review… so I clicked and before I knew it I was hooked.
Bitte Orca is so interesting because of how scatterbrained it seems. But the album is such an overwhelming success because it is, above all else, a pop album. Great hooks, catchy guitars, a solid beat in every song, and enjoyable vocals all sound like something your “average” band would aspire toward. Dirty Projectors work toward those goals, but with a sense of originality and fun.
Each song has a particular moment that you’ll mentally return to – the first time the guitars kick back in during “Cannibal Resource,” the high-pitched “ooos” in “Stillness is the Move,” or the sense of finality and rest felt throughout “Fluorescent Half Dome.” Bitte Orca is ultimately so great because it has something for everyone. For me, it is a stream of catchy indie pop and I love it.
4. No One’s First and You’re Next by Modest Mouse
There is a strong predisposition in my mind toward the works of Modest Mouse. My ears are always happy to hear the skittering guitars, the wild rants and the complex drum parts. I was mildly disappointed by We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, but having so much mental stock in the band, I was pretty excited to hear about this EP.
No One’s First is so much more than just an EP. Clocking in at over 33 minutes, this EP stands tall, managing to last as long as many full-lengths out there. But more impressive is the overall quality of these “throwaway” songs. Every song can get under your skin, be it through muscular guitar heroics on “The Whale Song,” the fun wobbling horns of “Perpetual Motion Machine,” or the absolute insanity of “King Rat.”
One point I’d like to return to is this “throwaway” song concept. Modest Mouse manages to gain a great deal of respect for releasing such collection EPs. No One’s First joins previous releases like Everywhere and His Nasty Parlour Tricks and The Fruit That Ate Itself as a document of the non-album products from recording sessions. The more complete image of the band’s work is fascinating, but made all the more thrilling when the bonus tracks are as great as those found on No One’s First.
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix by Phoenix
I first ran into these guys on Pitchfork (I sound like such a sheep) and a few blogs that I follow. I’d heard of them before but never heard the band. So, when I went to buy Veckatimest from Amazon (real CD, mind you), I decided to chuck Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix in my cart to get some free shipping. Wow what a great impulse buy.
There must be something in the water in France. That or they’re given some gene that allows great work with electronics in popular music. At any rate, this album would have held down a top 10 spot with just the first two songs – “Lisztomania” and “1901” have both been drooled about already on this blog. They’re fantastic pop with insane musical benefits.
But then Phoenix decided to slap a worthy album at the end of this super-duo. Amazingly enough, I find myself considering the synth-sounds in “Fences,” the guitars in “Lasso” and the lyrics of “Rome” nearly as much as the starting two. Ultimately, I find myself falling back on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix more often than any of the other albums released in 2009. Its position on this list indicates a slight superiority in two other releases, but in terms of sheer play time, it’s hard to find an album that has dominated my life more than this.
2. Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear
I did not need the internet hype for this album: I’d already hyped it up for myself. After learning about Grizzly Bear out of necessity (they were opening for Radiohead), I realized what an amazingly talented group they were. Yellow House was wonderful, but it was their live performance that convinced me. From that point on, I was insanely excited, realizing that Grizzly Bear might make that breakthrough, maybe creating that next OK Computer…
Veckatimest doesn’t quite reach OK Computer, but it does more than admirably. As has been analyzed by others, the album is one of beauty. Instead of setting out to impress with flashy sounds, everything here happens through a slow, delicate burn. The songs take multiple listens to reveal their full brilliance, but are very good even with one trial. I am always impressed by Veckatimest in how it manages to disarm my tendency to stick with maybe one or two songs. Yes, “Two Weeks” and “While You Wait for the Others” are stunning singles. But “Southern Point” is such a perfect starter. And “Ready, Able” is so heartbreaking and powerful. And “I Love With You” and “Foreground” form a perfect closing duo.
Yes, Veckatimest is as good as the hype claims. It’s a stunning, near-perfect album album. The whole thing should be considered when pondering its excellence, and it never fails to impress. Only a few months ago, this was a shoe-in for the best album of 2009, and probably in the top 3 of the decade. But then…
1. Embryonic by The Flaming Lips
It really pains me to pick this as the best album of 2009. I was so ready to pick Veckatimest. The Grizzly Bear album feels an old worn friend. It succeeded at being the great album I wanted and more. But it wasn’t even fair.
Previously with The Flaming Lips, we were watching a band sit idle. After ending the 1990s with such a brilliant album in The Soft Bulletin, the group released a similarly ambitious and sonically rich album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Both felt really magical, leaving a sense of euphoria and a musical high with the listener. But then came At War With the Mystics. There’s nothing really wrong with Mystics, but it’s just not that great. The songs seem repetitive, and don’t really carry that sheen of excellence seen before. It was like the band was running out of steam. And then this happened.
Embryonic sounds like nothing else this decade. Massive, overwhelming, almost like a poorly edited idea that got thrown onto an album. But everything is so good. Right from the beginning you’re left at attention. The way the guitar bursts in, you can’t help but wonder what is going to happen.
From here on, you are carried through a whirlwind journey of music. The key here is the atmosphere. The Flaming Lips never lose touch with what they’re doing on this album – it’s dark, foreign, depressing and imposing. Thus every song builds with these ideals as a basis. How did the stagnant Flaming Lips turn around and explode with such suddenly mysterious, muscular music?
The whole thing also seems to focus on the wrongs of humanity, the working of the machine, the tendency of evil. It’s all rather overwhelming… and yet it fits the huge, ambitious music perfectly. Embryonic was just so surprising and amazing.
With a bit of time now to digest things, I really had no choice in the matter. Embryonic is clearly the best album of 2009. My heart may wish to go otherwise, but to leave this album would be so wrong. Maybe even more impressive is how this album has managed to reach that kind of plateau where I can think about it along with The Moon & Antarctica or OK Computer. Its scope, concept and style of music fits the bill. This is an album I hope to be playing years from now, still considering how lucky I was to run into it.