25. Ceremony- Rocket Fire
Think of a slightly cuddlier A Place To Bury Strangers, and you have a broad but helpful idea of what you'll experience with Ceremony. Indeed, on Rocket Fire, their latest, the Virginia shoegazers seem as eager to craft melodies as they do to pierce your eardrums. This is a surprisingly easy listen for an album slathered with noisy, static-y rock, and it's a welcome detour from the occasional coldness of this approach put into practice.
Have no fear, though. The noise is still thick and penetrating, and it all but squirms in and blenders your brain, but unlike lesser wall-of-sound acts, ratcheting up the cacophony isn't hiding any shortcomings. As Rocket Fire deftly demonstrates, Ceremony are totally in control of their aesthetic.
Select Tracks: Stars Fall, Cracked Sun, Regret
24. Shinobu Nemoto- Melting Loop Trip
That melting is your brain, of course, as you tackle this monumental collection of loops from Japanese experimental/ambient wizard Shinobu Nemoto. This is about as all-business, no-bullshit as you'd want from a release like this: tracks are untitled (Loop 1, Loop 2, etc.), often stretching over the 10-minute mark, and a casual listen will get you right about nowhere. Only trusting its creator and blindly falling backwards will allow you to appreciate the nuances of each track, as Nemoto treats them all like his own children, adding and subtracting until he's created stunning, staggering examples of droning ambience that any daydreamer can get behind. This ain't easy listening, but it's essential.
Select Tracks: Kinda impossible to pick. Take the suggestion and jump in cold.
23. LCD Soundsystem- This Is Happening
James Murphy now seems incapable of creating anything that falls short of our expectations. He's so locked into his unique groove, so aware and assured of who he is as a musician, that a letdown on his part seems impossible. But has this had something of an effect on how we react to LCD Soundsystem's amazingly consistent output? Despite all the accolades, the glowing reviews and huge audiences the world over, is it possible we're sort of underappreciating LCD Soundystem? When some small act produces great work, we go starry-eyed and write dense, hyperbolic prose cheering it on. We take it for granted that Murphy will never disappoint, and he never does, and we listen and enjoy and give it its five-star review and that's that. But it's rare that any artist achieves this type of consistency, and it may be necessary for us to step back a second and appreciate that rarity. Murphy's been keeping us in epic electronics and dance bliss for a long time, and it should be lauded, maybe even more than it already is.
Select Tracks: Dance Yrself Clean, All I Want, I Can Change
22. Forest Swords- Dagger Paths
Here's where second chances become so valuable. Dagger Paths was met with little fanfare on its first release, but those who delved into the album often found themselves enraptured by its long, lustrous guitar lines and perfectly evoked atmosphere. It's a post-rock album that doesn't adhere to the rise/fall dynamic that's been cheapened, somewhat, by a slew of imitators.
That's why it's so rewarding to see Forest Swords get their due respect on Dagger Path's expanded release, earning its sterling reviews and bleeding out into a much larger audience. I predict that, whatever they do next, it will be met with a lot of deserved anticipation.
Select Tracks: Miarches, Hoylake Mist, Glory Gongs
21. Black Milk- Album Of the Year
Select Tracks: 365, Welcome (Gotta Go), Closed Chapter
20. Nicholas Roy- In a Shoebox Under the Bed
It's a wonder that Nicholas Roy isn't getting massive play already on MTV2, and no, that's not an insult. He crafts some of the most infectious, likable pop gems you could imagine, and does so with skill and dignity, but the Australian singer-songwriter is largely unheard-of at the moment. His latest, ...In a Shoebox Under the Bed, should go far to change that.
Select Tracks: It's All My Fault, Where To Now?, Taxi
19. Mountain Man- Made the Harbor
Maybe the most deceptively simple recording of the year. Mountain Man is a Vermont folk trio that eschews almost all instrumentation, opting instead to let their voices mingle in the empty spaces, set off by the occasional acoustic guitar or stray sound. The effect is immediately ear-catching: three female voices haunting the dead air, with little accompaniment, building unassuming back porch songs that drift and linger. You could call it minimalist, but that betrays just how striking these compositions are. It's an interesting concept, skillfully put into practice, and it leads to one of the best folk albums of the year.
Select Tracks: Animal Tracks, How'm I Doin', River
18. Gift Horse- Mountain Of Youth
Proof positive that jammy, unfocused rock has a place in this world is Athens, GA's Gift Horse, and their great new album, Mountain of Youth. The guitars are dirty as they crunch and build again and again, leading the vocals through a wilderness of pure rock composition without dropping into the usual pitfalls of the genre.
Select Tracks: Missionaires, All the Rage, And When I Die
17. Tamaryn- The Waves
Here's the type of thing I'm just a total sucker for. Pretty, shoegaze-y pop, with stirring female vocals and familiar but enchanting melodies. I would like this no matter what. I'm redeemed, somewhat, by the fact that the album is actually pretty damn excellent.
The San Francisco-based duo Tamaryn strike an excellent, if not totally original, pose on their debut album. It's not totally shoegaze or rock or pop, but takes pieces of all three and goes its own glorious way. A band to keep track of, for sure.
Select Tracks: The Waves, Sandstone, Mild Confusion
16. White Wires- WWII
Tired of the darkness and the doom? Need a break from the pitch-black, sprawling juggernauts you've been subjecting yourself to these days? Winter just a little too much for you right now? White Wires' WWII may be the perfect tonic for that. These songs are short, fast, and to-the-point, and they're stuffed with all the jangly guitars and singalong vocals you'd want from this type of release. They're sandy songs done by a peppy, pop-punk trio. Beach-blanket music is getting a bit of a resurgent workout these days, but White Wires nicely counter that with the wiry, punk edge they add to their songs. They're lovers and troublemakers the same, and they never swing too far to either side.
Pop-punk isn't dead, my sugar-rushed friends; it's just been waiting for someone as fun and inventive as White Wires to make it relevant again. If WWII is any indication, they're more than capable of bearing the torch.
Select Tracks: Roxanne, Just Wanna Be, Hands
15. Lobi Traore- Rainy Season Blues
Mr. Traore died earlier this year. This is his last studio recording before his passing at far too young an age. Naturally, its release is tinged with melancholy. Losing the prominent Malian blues musician is hard, but if anything can soften the blow, it's Rainy Season Blues. Traore's finale may be his best work; it's warm and inviting, emotionally complex without ever sounding like a chore, and a stirring coda for an impressive career that shot off with 1994's Bamako and didn't let down until the day he left us. Those who listened to and appreciated Traore during his life will miss him dearly, but he left an unmistakably wonderful final gift for us in Rainy Season Blues. In terms of getting to know the late musician's work, there's nothing better for old fans and newcomers alike than this.
Select Tracks: Djougoyua Magni, Moussa de Konina, A Lamen
14. Bardo Pond- Bardo Pond
It's no surprise that Scottish post-rockers Mogwai are so taken with Bardo Pond. For one thing, both outfits laugh derisively at the idea that taking the amps to 11 is even half of the raw, noisy power you're gonna need. The seven sprawling tracks on Bardo Pond's self-titled latest are layered with acoustic passages, rises and falls, and a whole lotta sonic blasts to keep your attention. Heavy, inventive, and never complacent, Bardo Pond is a godsend for post-rock fans who want to feel the vibrations deep in their stomachs.
It may come as a surprise that Bardo Pond's been active since the early '90s, but with Mogwai's blessing and great album after great album, they're primed to explode.
Select Tracks: Sleeping, Undone, The Stars Behind
13. Liars- Sisterworld
Select Tracks: Scissor, Scarecrows On a Killer Slant, Proud Evolution
12. Hayvanlar Alemi- Guarana Superpower
Yeah, alright. We can get it out of the way. That is, indeed, the worst album cover you've ever seen. Yes, it's the type of thing you expect to see in the $5-and-under world music bin at Best Buy. The type of thing you consider buying as an ironic gift for someone, before realizing the joke isn't worth $3.99 and the shame of bringing it to the counter.
Pretend like you didn't buy a hard copy of the album, though, and just downloaded it (shouldn't be difficult to imagine). Ignoring the art is easy enough from the first few seconds of opener "Bahar Patlatan," and it gets even easier as this fantastic guitar record locks you in. These Turkish jammers are groovy, sunny, and intricate on Guarana Superpower. The album is a love letter to various guitar styles, as both Eastern and Western styles get some time to shine. A wonderful, colorful release from an unexpected source, this disc lends strength to judging a piece of art not by its cover, but by its bright exuberance.
Select Tracks: Bahar Patlatan, Welcome To Sunny Australia, Guarana Superpower
11. Librarians- Present Passed
Who says psychedelic music has to be so undisciplined? West Virginia's Librarians strike hazy gold on their sophomore album, Present Passed, molding their trippy influences into strong, well-constructed songs and dedicating the album to an overarching '60s-weirdo-pop statement. By locking their psych-rock into little, joyous melodies, the album never meanders or wanders into loose experimentation. This is an excellent showcase for Librarians' myriad talents, front to back.
Select Tracks: Candy Season, Hard To Unwind, So What
10. Flying Horseman- Wild Eyes
There's something about Bert Dockx's voice that is both darkly, unsubtly threatening and yet absolutely seductive (the same could be said for his name, but that's another article). As the head of Belgium-based gloom-rockers Flying Horseman, Dockx has a deep, booming voice that perfectly compliments the subtly sinister dreams on Wild Eyes. The guitars swirl above mechanical percussion, bringing a shadowy world to life, and there's that voice, talking about love and madness, and leaving the listener wondering where the answers are. They don't come, but Flying Horseman phrases the questions beautifully on this release.
Select Tracks: Beats, Landmark/Lament, Climb Up the Walls
9. Kno- Death Is Silent
From oral sex jokes to concept albums about death; the CunninLynguists' Kno is clearly not content being pigeonholed. His case is bolstered by the quality of Death Is Silent, a ballsy project that never missteps. This type of ultra-serious statement could have been a laugher, but Kno's rap prowess and sampling creativity elevate it to one of the best hip-hop releases of the year.
Select Tracks: La Petite Mort (Come Die With Me), Rhythm Of the Rain, I Wish I Was Dead
8. Suckers- Wild Smile
Suckers exist in an uncanny place in modern indie, where everything they do has been done before, and yet, on their debut album, they've put it all together in a way that's astonishingly accomplished and refreshing. And it doesn't hurt that they possess the rare energy of a band that sounds like they're having a hell of a lot of fun. This is crucial to Wild Smile's incessant charm; it begs you to sing along with every track, and I don't see many listeners resisting.
Select Tracks: You Can Keep Me Runnin' Around, It Gets Your Body Movin', 2 Eyes 2 C
7. Kanye West- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Confession time: before MBDTF, I was never a big fan of Kanye's. His talents as a producer were obvious, but none of his albums ever gelled for me the way did for others. I found moments I liked, and some I really liked, but the universal acclaim was largely puzzling.
Consider that chapter of my life over with West's latest. After being blown away by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I went back to Kanye's previous work, and, though I did find myself appreciating some of it more than I had, none of it really hints at the expansive, futuristic insight of this album.
There's almost no end to the pleasures West has in store for us here. He goes from the great rhymes and perfectly garbled production of "Gorgeous" to the hard-hitting single "POWER" (with its awesome accompanying video, below) to the bigger-than-life glory of "All Of the Lights". And that's only the first half. He still has the 9-minute toast to self-loathing that is "Runaway", which, with its emotional complexity and unorthodox instrumentation, may be the best song on the album, and the Bon Iver collab "Lost In the World", in which Kanye re-imagines the singer's "Woods" as a pulsing club-beat speakerblower. It's all great, and it's really like nothing you've ever heard before from hip-hop.
'Ye's dark fantasy is not perfect. Sometimes the boldness of his creative vision gets the best of him, and it leads to a headscratching moment. But the best NBA players are often the ones at the top of the turnovers list; sometimes you have to fumble the ball now and then to break off a jawdropping play, and Kanye's fearless inventiveness more than justifies the occasional misfire. Way I see it, the man can pass into traffic nine out of ten times if it leads just once to anything as outright exceptional on the whole as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Select Tracks: POWER, All Of the Lights, Runaway
6. Grinderman- Grinderman 2
Dirty old men. Scuzzy, mid-life-crisis-suffering perverts. Swampy, mean bastards howling the no pussy blues sans dignity or grace. It's all been said, and more, about Nick Cave's Grinderman side project.
And it's all true, in the best possible way.
I liked Grinderman's self-titled debut a lot. It was a fun way for Cave and co. to momentarily re-shelve the books on history and love and religion and get down to the brain's nitty-gritty: primarily, sex with a capital Hard-on. That said, nothing on that disc prepared me for how great a follow-up they'd have with the appropriately named Grinderman 2.
Because, you see, Grinderman may not obsess over big things like Cave does with the Bad Seeds or his film score work, but he never abandons his craft or ambition. Even at 53, he brings to every song and subject his unrestrained chops and unique mood, and in this case, it's the sneering bravado that proves a man stops looking when a man dies. Cave proves that you can deliver the grime without sacrificing the music.
Grinderman 2 ups the first album's ante on almost every track. "Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man" is a cock-rocket of an opener, and it sets the scene for each of these ten uncontrollable beasts. "Heathen Child" is the mandatory single, but it's anything but a tepid exercise, and it manages to be both catchy and sinister, and it's a filthy good time. The album centerpiece is "When My Baby Comes", which starts out fairly innocuously, until it swirls into a psychedelic cyclone of noise and Cave's repeating vocals. "Palaces of Montezuma" is as pretty a song as you'll find on the album, a love song, but it never betrays the mood of the record, with its references to JFK's spinal chord, the epic of Gilgamesh, and Miles Davis, "the black unicorn." And it all ends about as epic as we could hope for, with the huge reckoner "Bellringer Blues" welcoming the apocalypse with a shameless smile and a cocked fist. My money's on Grinderman.
There's been a trend recently to make rock music more stately, more gentlemanly; musicians wear fine suits and behave themselves. Nothing wrong with that, in theory, but it's led to a lot of seriously neutered, overly groomed tunes. If those fellas are chatting politely at the black tie affair, the guys in Grinderman are shutting down the open bar, pissing and smoking in the back alley, with ties undone and shirts all wrinkled, and hitting on your girlfriend right in front of you. Gentlemanliness is overrated. Let's fight and cuss and fuck and tear this shit up all the way to the retirement home.
Select Tracks: Mickey Mouse and the Goodbye Man, When My Baby Comes, Bellringer Blues
5. The Ascent of Everest- From This Vantage
If you're going to evoke the name of Everest right there in your band name, you'd better have the big, breathtaking sound to back it up. The Ascent of Everest does so, and then some, on their latest album, From This Vantage. The record really does bring to mind the dangerous and beautiful scale of the mountain. Incredible, epic post-rock with near operatic vocals, this band sidesteps the potential silliness and presents an earnest, accomplished creation, full of avalanche guitars and howling winds. Maybe the most gorgeous album of the year.
Select Tracks: Return To Me, Safely Caged In Bone, From This Vantage
4. Big Boi- Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son Of Chico Dusty
Andre 3000 or Big Boi? It's become a question like Ginger or Mary Ann, and with clean-split double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Outkast were practically challenging us to take sides. This hypothetical ignores the fact that Outkast's untouchable catalog benefits greatly from the duo's inimitable interplay, but it remains an entertaining timewaster.
Andre is the obvious choice. He's the bolder, sexier, more charismatic pick, ever since he Hey Ya'd his way into even the most hip-hop resistant among us. He's got the style and the smile of a great entertainer, and he is; this is no knock on Andre. He's a great songwriter in his own right. Sometimes things blow up and saturate the cultural landscape because they really are that good.
But we can't forget that we don't often see Big Boi's smile because he's been toiling away as the backbone of the one of the most successful and beloved rap groups of all time. If Andre's that sleek coat of paint, BB's the engine. Not always seen, not always talked about, but the driving force behind every mile. Sir Lucious Left Foot, Big Boi's first solo album, finally gives him the chance to doll up a bit, and it's a pleasure to report that he's as much a larger-than-life hero as his Outkast counterpart, and he hasn't lost a bit of his unmistakable genius.
This is a generously stuffed, booming hip-hop statement, immediately likable but rewarding of multiple listens. "Shutterbugg" is everything you could want from a statement single; "Tangerine", with its repetitive, darkly seductive flare, is even catchier. And that barely scratches the surface of what Sir Lucious has in store for you. There's so much going on with this album, but Big Boi never lets it seem hurried or overly ambitious. He backs up each of his promises, and in doing so, has reconfirmed his place as one of the best and most important hip-hop artists working today.
Select Tracks: Shutterbuug, Tangerine, Shine Blockas
3. Wildbirds and Peacedrums- Rivers
Wildbirds and Peacedrums' latest, Rivers, collects two vinyl EPs by the Swedish experimental couple of Mariam Wallentin and Andreas Werliin and puts them back-to-back as a proper album. One might be skeptical that such a stitching process could birth a strong, cohesive album.
Put your worries away for the next Interpol album. The two EPs, Retina and Iris, work so well as the front and back of the album that it seems almost predestined. Like Modest Mouse's classic b-sides compilation Building Nothing Out Of Something, this album makes its origins irrelevant. It isn't that the EPs are so similar; they're actually quite different. But the sequencing flows so naturally between them, both highlighting their differences and letting them play naturally off each other.
Wallentin has a great, chamber-echoing voice; the type of voice you can follow anywhere, and Werliin is an absolute monster on the percussion side of things. These are essentially the only elements of the music, and they taste so great together, so versatile, that Wildbirds and Peacedrums can wield them to craft songs of equal subtlety and bombast.
The Snake was one of my favorite releases of 2009. Rivers is that much better; a statement of intent for a great band landing in our music consciousness. It builds on the outstanding promise of Wildbirds and Peacedrums as an example of the sweet spot between experimentation and accessibility. The sky's the limit, baby.
Select Tracks: Tiny Holes In This World, Fight For Me, The Course
2. Gareth Liddiard- Strange Tourist
Gareth Liddiard is the best lyricist in current rock music, bar none. As the frontman for Australian heavies the Drones, Liddiard's been adding a rare, literate quality to the band's lurching, primal bar-and-garage rock, sharing epic stories of crime, drug abuse, and misanthropy, all while dropping esoteric references to Australian history and culture, and wrapping it up in strong, sophisticated view of the modern political landscape. He's the rare rock frontman who can make an unironic point without seeing any eyes roll in the crowd, and it's led to endless respect from music critics and, more importantly, some of the best albums of the last decade.
To begin the next one, Liddiard finds himself going solo for the first time, armed with an acoustic guitar and...nothing else. No heavy, crunching assaults. None of bassist Fiona Kitschin's reliably bluesy lines. Not even a single distortion peddle. Just a man and his voice and his words, with nothing to hide behind. It's got to be terrifying.
Maybe not, though, for someone as confident and smart as Liddiard. Not when the voice is this strong and the words this compelling. Stripped of any sort of safety net, he excels, even benefits, maybe; the Drones are exceptional, but I'm not sure if their frontman has ever been more focused or inspired than he is here.
And there's no get-in get-out hurry here. Liddiard takes his time, stretching these spartan tracks up to nine-and-a-half minutes, and culminating in the wildly ambitious 16-minute closer "The Radicalisation of D," which should, by all means, fall flat on its face and beg listeners to skip back to the beginning. It's a testament to Liddiard's magnetic talent that it's as great as it is, stuffed but not overly so with fiercely wielded language and imagery as good as anything you'll hear or read this year.
It all comes back to the lyrics. I've heard Liddiard described as a "novelist who just doesn't know it yet." While I agree that the thought of a Liddiard-helmed work of fiction sounds like a bleak, gothic delight, it's not necessary to divide the two professions. He proves defiantly and definitively on Strange Tourist that the words don't just have to be there so people have something to sing along to. They can be whip-smart, emotionally resonant, and evocative, telling tales that work beautifully alongside slight but careful music. On this album, the lyrics are all of those things and more, and for this accomplishment alone, it's an instant classic.
Select Tracks: Highplains Mailman, Strange Tourist, The Radicalisation of D
1. The National- High Violet
It's hard to imagine the National were once cult heroes. They were, though--brooding niche rockers from the overcrowded Brooklyn music scene, opening for the bigger and better while quietly comforting thousands of dirty lovers with their sad songs.
Well, they're still brooding, for sure, but the National now have the privilege of doing so from the top of the mountain. The twin powerhouses Alligator and Boxer may not have been immediate, but they've vaulted frontman Matt Berninger and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf to the forefront of modern rock music. They could very well have reached their ceiling right there, after dual great albums, and, while it would have been disappointing, they would have left a huge impression. But we the fans wanted more. We saw the National's incredible potential and wanted, perhaps unfairly, another Moon and Antarctica. Another Kid A.
In High Violet, we got one. Everything about the album demands our respect. Big opener "Terrible Love" acts like a mission statement--a summarization of the record's beautiful broken heart--on which the rest of the album expounds. "Sorrow" may be one of the most affecting songs the band's ever recorded, and that's saying a lot. "Anyone's Ghost" quickens things, but it doesn't drop the conflicted feelings of hope and despair that keep High Violet afloat. The first half of the album rounds out with early cuts "Afraid Of Everyone" and "Bloodbuzz, Ohio", both as great as you remember them, and as good as it is, the second half is an absolute triumph: the rousing "Conversation 16", the slight, lilting "Lemonworld", stately closer "Vanderlylle Crybaby Geeks", and, of course, the best song of the year: "Runaway", a slow-burning plea for comfort and sanity in a darkly human age. Berninger's voice and his lyrics have never been better than they are here. It's the tremendous center of a modern masterpiece.
We're witnessing a great band at the height of its powers. If, in 2020, High Violet has fallen from my top 5 of the decade, it will have been an implausibly great ten years of music. I'm reminded most right now of Berninger's howling promise at the end of Alligator. He was right; they didn't fuck us over.
But then, who expected them to?
Select Tracks: All of them