top 10 albums of 2009

10. M. Ward – Hold Time
Scanning my Top 10 list this year, I’m noticing a lot of acoustic singer-songwriter types, and this early ’09 release from M. Ward has been a nice, folksy, laid-back listen all year long for me. I truly enjoyed last year’s M. Ward collaboration She & Him, featuring actress-turned-singer Zooey Deschanel, and I found myself really missing the “she” a lot while listening to Hold Time. Nice to see her make a guest appearance on a couple tracks. Overall an intimate and well crafted album, great to accompany a cup of coffee and a good book.

9. Swell Season – Strict Joy
I have been craving new music from The Swell Season for the last two years, ever since the independent Irish flick Once graced the film world. The Swell Season is of course the collaboration of musicians-turned-actors Glen Hansard and Mark√©ta Irglov√° whom I’ve adored at length in other posts. The new album contains a polish and level of production that has been absent from their earlier work, which has both positive and negative ramifications. I don’t like that the increased production takes away some of the rawness and honesty intrinsic to the first record. But it is nice to see the growth and musical development that occurs when these two refine a record until it is absolutely perfect. If you loved Once and have a penchant for Irish accents, you’ll really like the cohesive set of tracks The Swell Season have brought with Strict Joy.

8. Editors – In This Light And On This Evening
Dark, introspective and industrial are words that come to mind when I think of this album. While Editors have never really steered towards “pop” in any sense of the word, In This Light And On This Evening makes a point to not allow any emphasis on lyrical hooks, and focuses instead on hard, driving rhythmic grooves, underscored by lead singer Tom Smith’s vibey and somewhat theatrical voice, all layered with guitar/synth melodies. It’s different, weird, and maybe a little creepy.

7. Doves – Kingdom Of Rust
If the Editors album was a little too dark for you, The Doves returned this year with a slightly happier, if still melancholy take on British rock. There’s some great orchestral overlays happening on this album that bring a sweeping, atmospheric tone to the entire record. I like this album for the purposefully crafted, cathedral-worthy anthems that are careful not to assume too much self-worth.

6. Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson – Break Up
This musician/actress pairing was a nice surprise for me this year. The first track “Relator” immediately called to mind the Mark Knopfler / Emmylou Harris collaboration from a few years ago (see their song “This Is Us”). And Scarlett doesn’t disappoint with her smokey, mysterious voice. The ScarYo pairing is a nice follow-up for those going through a little M. Ward / Zooey Deschanel withdrawal, but not quite as peppy. The record is laced with a tasteful dose of nostalgia; you get the feeling that if Break Up were a movie, it would be filmed with vintage, hand-held equipment resulting in that familiar homey, yellow-tinged, flickering roll of tape that documented all weddings and family events from the early 70’s. But Break Up is not a movie, you’ll have to listen to get the picture.

5. A Fine Frenzy – Bomb In A Birdcage
This is definitely my most “pop” choice of favorite 2009 albums, and like most pop records it just sucks you in and I can’t stop listening to it! Great hooks, great songwriting and smartly done. Highlights are definitely the lead single “Blow Away” and “Electric Twist”. I love that this record is able to maintain acoustic folk intimacy on an collection decidedly more upbeat than your typical singer-songwriter fare.

4. Bell X1 – Blue Lights On The Runway
Finally!! A new album from Bell X1! I was so excited for this to release this year, and I was not disappointed. The Irish trio swayed a little more electronic on this album, but underscored it all with great Brit-pop motifs and the modernized Talking Heads sound that I loved so much on Flock.

3. Paper Route – Absence
All Music says Paper Route Absence is “a perfectly adequate destination for fans of technicolor, atmospheric pop,” and I suppose that is an adequate description of this record. I find that the closer I get to the top of my best music list, the less musically insightful things I have to say about albums and the more my comments tend towards “OMG I JUST LOVE THIS ALBUM!” This is a brilliant record – musically complex, sonically layered, and inviting. Again, AMG: “Taking their cues from ’80s synth pop, new wave, and the bedroom electronica of the Postal Service, Paper Route make their full-length debut with Absence, an album whose quiet grandeur is reminiscent of Stars Of Track And Field’s Centuries Before Love And War.”

2. Regina Spektor – Far
Regina is back! And I would say she is back with stronger songwriting and more complex production that still maintains her signature quirkiness. The piano is still very present, which I love, and I think is what makes Regina’s music – you don’t hear a lot of piano-based female singer-songwriters. There are plenty of songs along the lines of “Better” and “Fidelity” – two of the last album’s highlight tracks – which continues to move her sound into a more progressive, pop-friendly realm. The ballad “Laughing With God” is an incredible, make-you-think track and definitely the deepest song lyrically on the record.

1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
And here we are, #1 album of the year award goes to Phoenix! OMG I JUST LOVE THIS ALBUM!! All Music says, “Beyond containing the band’s best, most efficient songwriting, the album also stands apart from the first three studio albums by projecting a cool punch that is unforced,” and I would agree completely with that. There’s definitely a swagger in the music, but it’s underlying and not heavy handed. The record flows and builds easily, and while there are definitely great commercial-friendly moments (“1901” for the Cadillac SRX), the softer moments lend way to great sweeping, epic climaxes that carry you through the entire album. I like a band that’s not afraid to show their stuff and give you a few instrumental tracks to prove that it’s not all about the lyrical hook. I love it when I can hear a track being played in a store somewhere, and I tag it with Shazam and go, “oh wow, that’s Phoenix isn’t it!” and then realize that it’s the LAST song on the album. Yes, this record is so good that even track #10 is worthy of airplay… what band in their right mind would place a radio-friendly song as the last track? A band who records an entire record of stellar, deliberate, best-of-the-year quality music.

2009 Honorable Mentions
I listened to these albums a fair amount this year, but not enough to place them in the Top 10 of 2009:

  • U2 – No Line On The Horizon
  • Five For Fighting – Slice
  • Bluetree – God Of This City
  • Muse – The Resistance
  • Royksopp – Junior
  • British Sea Power – Man Of Aran
  • Owl City – Ocean Eyes
  • The Decemberists – The Hazard
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