25 March 2010

Better Late than Never: Best Music of 2009

So in my valiant efforts to chronicle the best of everything of the first decade of this millennium, I got way behind in my best of the year duties. Now, without further ado, here is the last piece: the best music of the past year.


1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
As if it could have been anything else. Since it dropped in January, the group has had this spot staked out. Their landmark ninth record is their most accessible but also their most brilliant. Unlike some past outings, which found them pushing every sonic boundary possible, they seemed to have reined themselves in to create a work that's at once distinctly theirs and yet friendly enough to land a spot on Letterman. And here's the real feat: it's their best-selling album to date, yet none of their fan base has dared cry "sell out!"

2. David Crowder*Band – Church Music (sixsteps)
Quite simply the most ambitious album ever released under the "contemporary Christian" banner. Meticulously engineered, this isn't a sway-with-your-arms-in-the-air Praise & Worship record. It's a God-has-pierced-directly-into-my-heart book of psalms. Determined, but not crafted, to offend orthodox sensibilities, this is the sound of awe at an unbelievably loving God.

3. Phil Wickham – Heaven & Earth (INO)
Religious or not, this is the year's best pop album. Wickham has always been the most exciting voice in Christian music, and he's shown tremendous growth since his 2006 debut. While the album sometimes borrows a little too heavily from Viva la Vida, this is a bold, unabashedly joyous hope for things to come.

4. Death Cab for Cutie – The Open Door (Atlantic)
How can someone married to Zooey Deschanel still be so sad? It doesn't much matter, because the five original songs on this EP are perhaps the best Ben Gibbard has ever written. He's never been more vulnerable on "A Diamond and a Tether" and "I was Once a Loyal Lover," two songs that seem to contradict one another. "Diamond" seems to admit that he's not worth holding onto, while "Lover" laments at how unfair it is that he's alone. I would tell him to cheer up, but not when the music is this good.

5. Bon Iver – Blood Bank (Jagjaguwar)
Usually follow-up EPs are just castaways that weren't good enough for the album. But Bon Iver's second effort is actually better than his first. It's doubtful there are better stories than four contained on this extended play. The haunting title track could be one of the Best American Short Stories, were it not accompanied by uneasy guitar work and husky vocals. A concise, brilliant work. Can't wait to see what he does next.

6. U2 – No Line on the Horizon (Interscope)
After 25 years and thousands of concerts, you'd think maybe they'd just phone it in once in a while. Not so with the legendary Irish band. This is their most spiritual album to date, with Bono wrestling with thoughts of faith–and accepting some too–inside a stadium. Big rock albums aren't supposed to have this much thought and care put into them, but then U2's never done what was expected. Oh, and they also happened to put on the best concert of all time.

7. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You (American)
Sure, they're good at whistling and fun little summertime folk ballads, but it's time to get serious on this album. Like a mixtape built for a road trip to hell the family serves up a baker's dozen of tracks that prove they may not know exactly where they're headed–personally or musically–but they're going to create the best music they can along the way.

8. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)
In keeping with the theme of '09 – experimental music with universal lyrics – the French band made their best album to date and finally gained the attention they deserved with two inescapable singles, "Lisztomania" and "1901." As always with the band, don't be fooled by how giddy it sounds. There's a headful of doubt singing those lyrics.

9. The xx – xx (Young Turks)
How bad do I feel that these twentysomethings have already done something incredible? The British duo have crafted a dreamy landscape with call-and-response vocals searching through the vast thicket of love unrequited and returned, because either leads to tremendous uncertainty. A stunning debut.

10. Kid Cudi – Man on the Moon: The End of Day (Universal Motown)
Easily the best rap album of the year, simply because he's more interested in honesty than credibility. Choosing to collaborate with MGMT over Lil Wayne won't do much for radio play ("Day 'n' Nite" notwithstanding), but it does make much better music. And until Lupe Fiasco returns with Lasers some time in 2010, Cudi is the most imaginative man in hip-hop.

Amadou & Mariam – Welcome to Mali, Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career, fun. – Aim and Ignite, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, St. Vincent – Actor, The Swell Season – Strict Joy, 500 Days of Summer soundtrack, Away We Go soundtrack, Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack, War Child Presents: Heroes


1. Lady Gaga – "Bad Romance"
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Always one for shock value, Lady Gaga's most out-there video yet is the best of the year simply because it was like nothing else out there. It raised more questions than it answered and it's David Lynch-level disturbing, by you're still going to be rattling your head for days after watching it. And that's the hallmark of a memorable video.

2. The Avett Brothers – "Slight Figure of Speech"
Directed by Jody Hill
Jody Hill was on a creative roll in 2009, even if no one was aware. Between this video, HBO's Eastbound and Down and the criminally underrated Observe and Report, it's clear he's one of the most exciting voices in film. Yes, he's dark, but also hysterical and truly gets the lower-middle class, "I'm-ashamed-but-somewhat-excited-my-family-is-on-COPS-right-now" he's always using as a backdrop for his stories.

3. Phoenix – "Listzomania"
Directed by Sarah Newhouse
Video mash-ups are nothing new, but this YouTube user captured the excited-but-terrified spirit of the song by putting it alongside clips from the late master of teen angst John Hughes. Mannequin probably shouldn't be in there, or mentioned period, but the feel of the video is pure uncertainty–in the best way.

4. Coldplay – "Life in Technicolor II"
Directed by Dougal Wilson
Perhaps the group's most imaginative video to date, and that's saying something. The puppeteering is wondrous, not gimmicky. And though it is a bit cute, it's not obnoxiously so. After more than a decade together, this video proves the band is still keeping creativity first in mind.

5. HEALTH – "Die Slow"
Directed by John Famiglietti
The house show from hell, almost literally. The sound teeters between excitement and terror, as if the party could go south–and possibly deadly–at any moment.

1. Miley Cyrus – “Party in the USA”
2. Animal Collective – “My Girls”
3. Phoenix – “1901”
4. Grizzly Bear and Michael McDonald – “While You Wait for the Others”
5. White Lies – “Death”
6. U2 – “I Know I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”
7. Dirty Projectors – “Stillness is the Move”
8. Mat Kearney – “Closer to Love”
9. Julian Casablancas – “11th Dimension”
10. Jay-Z and Alicia Keys – “Empire State of Mind”
11. HEALTH – “Die Slow”
12. Camera Obscura – “French Navy”
13. The Avett Brothers – “I and Love and You”
14. David Crowder*Band – “How He Loves”
15. Glee Cast – “Don’t Stop Believin’”

In no particular order, these songs best represent the cross-section of pop music.


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