Thursday, December 24, 2009

The 10 Albums I Was Slightly Obsessed With in '09

After much deliberation and narrowing down, here it is. My Top 10 Albums of 2009. Of course, I'd have a few honorable mentions before we get into the list so let's get them out of the way:

Honorable Mentions:
Hospice, The Antlers : A concept album that tells a heartbreaking story with plenty of folky flourishes easily going from somber to soaring.

A Brief History Of Love, The Big Pink : UK duo, The Big Pink formed in '07 and were signed to the influential 4AD label in February '09. A whirlwind journey for a young band that sounds like seasoned vets taking their cues from shoegaze, electronic music, and Britpop.

Love, Hate, And Then There's You, The Von Bondies : It's too bad that Von Bondies frontman, Jason Stollsteimer will forever be known as that guy that Jack White beat the bejeesus out of back in 2003. Sure their lone hit, "C'mon, C'mon" is the theme song to Rescue Me, but this album was an unexpected turn for the Detroit garage rockers as they took the leap into power pop territory with help from producer, Butch Walker, sounding less like the Stooges and more like Cheap Trick.

Now onto the show...and remember, there won't be any Passion Pit, Animal Collective, or Dirty Projectors. Sorry, Hipsters...but really, I'm not.

10. Don't Stop, Annie - Annie's 2nd album was not meant to come out due to immense label resistance. Thankfully after nearly a year, Don't Stop finally did see a release. Its lead single, the playful electro-pop "I Think Ur Girlfriend Hates Me" may not have made the final tracklist of the album, though it does appear on a second CD of bonus material (rumor has it her faithful cover of Stacey-Q's "Two Of Hearts" was also intended to be included on here) but what we get is a sinfully addictive collection of pop songs not too far from Kylie Minogue territory. Whether she's sweetly singing dissecting your band ("I Don't Like Your Band") or striking a dance diva pose on the slight techno thump of "Songs Remind Me Of You," Annie sounds completely in control. But it's when Annie gets a little feisty on the jumpy dance pop of "My Love Is Better" (featuring the guitar work of Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos) where her playfulness becomes seductive.

9. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - With a name like The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, one might expect an overdose of cutesy twee pop so sugary they can cause cavities just by hearing them. And while this is somewhat true, cuteness is only part of what makes this band so appealing. It's their knack for catchy songs that really takes center stage. Their ode-to-librarian-love, "Young Adult Friction" is so sweet and infectious that it's possible to miss out on the clever joke towards the end of the song ("don't check me out!") Even though The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart may touch on the right shoegaze touchstones (the fuzzy pop leanings of The Jesus And Mary Chain) it's on the jangly, "Stay Alive" where the band really reaches new heights. Their follow-up EP, Higher Than The Stars released in September, already delivers on the promise of this full-length showing that they might actually be more than just a passing phase.

8. Dragonslayer, Sunset Rubdown - Another year, another awesome album with Spencer Krug involved. Last year, Wolf Parade, the band Krug co-fronts with Daniel Boeckner (also of Handsome Furs) put out my top pick of 2008, At Mount Zoomer and the year before Krug's more engimatic band, Sunset Rubdown put out the dizzying, Random Spirit Lover. Now on Dragonslayer, Krug and his Sunset cohorts learn that less is more. More straightforward than previous Sunset Rubdown albums, but no less addictive. Krug's wavering wails are still intact while the band keeps up with him building momentum on the crashing "Idiot Heart." Still, they're at their strongest on "You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II)" as they try to pack in as much as they can in less than 6 minutes running through bits of slithering dub, video game blips, and prog rock pomp before dissolving into a glorious haze.

7. Primary Colours, The Horrors - If anyone deserves the award for Most Improved Band, it would defintely be The Horrors. They first gained notoriety thanks to their chaotic live shows rather than their music, often times imploding onstage before the completion of their performance. Then, The Horrors lived up to their name musically, making spooked-out gothabilly borrowing liberally from the Cramps and sounding like the lost soundtrack to an episode of The Munsters. Thankfully, on Primary Colours the band shed their self-destructive ways in favor of concentrating on their music. The shift in focus benefits the band greatly. Instead of coming across as campy, the Horrors aim for shadowy post-punk drenched in feedback and noise mixing the guitar squalls of My Bloody Valentine and primal grunts of The Birthday Party. The album's centerpiece is the near 8-minute epic, "Sea Within A Sea" with its high end shrieks giving way to Kraut rock minimalism easily morphing from ghastly to ghostly.

6. Exploding Head, A Place To Bury Strangers - Brooklyn's A Place To Bury Strangers earned the reputation as "New York's Loudest Band" with good reason. While their self-tited debut-- essentially a collection of remastered earlier material-- showed that shoegaze can be cranked all the way to 11, Exploding Head reveals their melodic side. That's not to say that APTBS has gone soft by any means. Sure, songs like "Smile When You Smile" and the awesome, "In Your Heart" still showcase the band's distinctive sound of guitars being pushed to the brink of destruction but now there's a little more polish without sacrificing any volume. The cleaner production allows the subtleties to shine through a bit clearer whether it's the guttural tribal undertones of "Ego Death" or the slight surf rock twang of "Deadbeat." Exploding Head is A Place To Bury Strangers' bid at moving away from New York's Loudest to becoming one of New York's Best.

5. Horehound, The Dead Weather - Jack White has the midas touch. End of story. Even when he sits behind the drums, and enlists fellow Raconteurs, Jack Lawrence on bass, and Dean Fertita (also of Queens of the Stone Age) on guitar, he manages to work some magic. Of course, The Dead Weather's secret weapon is arguably one of the best frontwomen in rock, Alison Mosshart of The Kills. And once all these ingredients come together the result is a combustible mix of dark, bluesy, straight-ahead rock so dirty and sweaty, it's worthy of devil horns.

4. Embryonic, The Flaming Lips - It's sometimes hard to believe the Flaming Lips' rise from being indie rock's lovable court-jesters to respected rock royalty. It seems just like yesterday that a wide-eyed, flame-haired Wayne Coyne was singing quirky noise-pop songs about knowing a girl who uses tangerines to color her hair. Though he's no longer flame-haired, Coyne is as wide-eyed as ever and Embryonic is proof of that. Their weirdest, most tripped-out album in nearly a decade, Embryonic is a mindfuck in the best possible way. An album that doesn't require headphones so much as demands it. Embryonic might very well be THE album that Flaming Lips fans have been clamoring for; a return to form, if said form was an acid trip.

3. In And ut Of Control, The Raveonettes - Now we're into the home stretch. These last three albums were the ones I couldn't stop listening to no matter how hard I tried. On In And Out Of Control, The Raveonettes gave into their pop instincts and it paid off. Not as noisy as their previous three full-length albums, but easily their most pop-oriented. The trade-off is well worth it as nearly every song is overflowing with sparkling choruses. One listen to "Last Dance" will have anyone wanting to hear it repeatedly. Even when the lyrics are a bit darker ("Suicide," "D.R.U.G.S.") The Raveonettes manage to turn them into sing-alongs. A feat they even achieve on "Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed)"- a song that shouldn't be as catchy as its title suggests.

2. It's Blitz!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs - I would never have expected to fall for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for a second time, but after hearing this album, that's just what happened. Karen O and company transformed from screeching post punks to glammed up electro rockers and they did so very convincingly. Not only that, but the band managed to drastically switch gears musically while still sounding distinctively like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O is in top form, here, whether she tells us to "get your leather on" ("Zero") or is commanding a dancefloor to "dance til you're dead" ("Heads Will Roll.") They might not be brainier than Radiohead but if they continue to evolve like this, they'll just be better.

1. Post-Nothing, Japandroids - Post-Nothing is only 8 tracks long and clocks in at a lean 35+ mintues. It's made by Japandroids, a two-man, drums-and-guitar band from Vancouver. One thing though about the music: it's not stripped down. Japandroids, themselves, have claimed to be a two-man band trying to sound like a five piece and honestly, that's about as accurate as it gets. Eight songs filled with tons of shouted vocals, fuzzed-out guitars, and bashing drums (actually, they don't really shout on album closer, "I Quit Girls.") The best part of this band, is that everyone who I've talked to uses different reference points: one friend described Japandroids as "a mix of Saves The Day and The Jesus And Mary Chain," while another said "they sound like a noisy Sunny Day Real Estate" - me, I heard some Superchunk and lots of power pop covered in fuzz. However you might choose to describe them, Japandroids makes simple, irresistible garage-punk. Sure, the lyrics might be a bit repetitive, but that's not the point. They make that longing for more youthful days something to look back on fondly and with some excitement rather than mournful regret.

And finally, my Top 10 Albums of 2009 done and finished up after 3am on what is now Christmas Eve. Enjoy the music I loved over the last 365 days. Looking forward to swoon over whatever 2010 might have to offer.

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