The Best Albums Of 2009 [Part 3 Of 3]

You can read the complete list here.

Here are albums 10-1 on my list of the best 30 albums of 2009. These are the albums that have completely stood out for me in a year that has proved a goldmine for great music. They are all amazing records and at some point during the year I have been absolutely obsessed with each one.

You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.

It’s been hard work trying to sort out a coherent order for my top ten, and really I can strongly recommend any of these albums as one that you will probably love. But, the whole point of a best of list is… the list, so here goes:

10. Freelance Whales – Weathervanes

Freelance Whales are a band that began life in 2008 as a busking group in New York City, and indeed they still do busk in the NY Subways from time to time. Their debut album ‘Weathervanes’ is a wonderful and refreshing record, and it’s hard to imagine a band this talented still busking. Throughout the album Freelance Whales mix the sound of a banjo with that of a synth, which creates a very enthralling sound, even if it isn’t exactly unique (see Sufjan Stevens in particular). However Freelance Whales do it so well that there’s no reason not to love them for it. Generator ^ First Floor is one of my favourite songs of the year- it is just hypnotic, and it is the perfect song to wake up to in the morning if you use your mp3 player or phone as an alarm (it even starts with the lyrics “We get up early…”). Meanwhile its followup, Generator ^ Second Floor is just as enjoyable, even if not quite as surreal. But the album is full of highlights, from the more upbeat sound of Hannah to the strange mix of sounds that is Starring. ‘Weathervanes’ is an atmospheric, sweeping record that manages to sound as intimate as it does grand.

See writeup here.

9. Lisa Mitchell – Wonder

Lisa Mitchell is a former Australian Idol contestant. But before immediately dismissing her music, you need to know that she’s way way better than Idol, which merely encourages cover musicians. One listen to Neopolitan Dreams, the first single off ‘Wonder’, her debut album, will have you absolutely convinced that she is a serious singer/songwriter. The record is full of beautiful, sincere and honest love songs, such as closer Valium, and Love Letter. There are also more catchy pop songs however, such as Neopolitan Dreams and the second single, Coin Laundry (which is also a love song of sorts). Interspaced with these songs are a few outliers, such as the very interesting Sidekick, which illustrates that Lisa Mitchell’s music is not easily categorised and should not simply be labelled as pop. Lisa Mitchell is a very talented singer/songwriter, and ‘Wonder’ is indeed a wonderful record that thankfully bares no trademarks of the way she began her musical career.

8. Pearl Jam – Backspacer

‘Backspacer’ is the ninth studio album from Pearl Jam, and probably their best in a decade. The extent to which they have expanded their sound is truly impressive, to the point where I mentally divided this album up into three sections. There are classic Pearl Jam rock songs, such as opener Gonna See My Friend, that would not be out of place on any of their older records. Then there are songs influenced by pop, such as first single, the very catchy The Fixer. Finally, there are songs that sound like they have been taken from Eddie Vedder’s solo soundtrack album, the magnificent ‘Into The Wild’, such as Just Breathe (which features an almost identical guitar part to Vedder’s solo song Tuolumne). Although acoustic songs such as this have always been in the repertoire of Pearl Jam, the band and Eddie Vedder in particular really expand on this sound and take it to new levels on ‘Backspacer’. Even though Just Breathe is my favourite song off the album, virtually every song is a highlight, such as the surf track Amongst The Waves and the inspiring Unthought Known. Pearl Jam have still got it, and ‘Backspacer’ demonstrates perfectly how they adapt and change their musical style without losing the fundamental essence of their music.

7. Metric – Fantasies

Metric are the main project of Emily Haines, member of the irrepressible Broken Social Scene. ‘Fantasies’ is my favourite Metric album, displaying perfectly all the attributes that make Emily Haines such a valued member of BSS, while at the same time moving beyond the musical abilities she has demonstrated as part of the BSS ensemble. First single Help, I’m Alive demonstrates the more electronic elements evident throughout the album, before breaking into a stripped back chorus that accentuates the lovely vocals of Emily. My favourite song off the album, Gimme Sympathy, despite having a kind of lame title, is a really catchy tune and features the great line “Stay away from the hooks” (the original title of the song was actually The Hooks). Other highlights include the heavily-distorted Stadium Love and its polar opposite, the clean-cut Sick Muse. ‘Fantasies’, easily Metric’s best and most accessible record, exemplifies the continuing quality of the other projects of Broken Social Scene members, and the undeniable skill of Emily Haines as a songwriter.

6. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

‘Bitte Orca’ is a record that is simply impossible to criticise. It is effortlessly beautiful, technically astounding, and, perhaps surprisingly, instantly accessible. Previously, Dirty Projectors could be at times almost unlistenable, it sometimes took a real effort to like their music. Their new LP, however, does away with this tradition, and the band are better off for it. The more accessible sound of the album can be linked to Dirty Projector’s contribution to the classic compilation ‘Dark Was The Night’, Knotty Pine, which was my favourite song off the double album. They take this same stripped back sound and harmonising vocals into ‘Bitte Orca’.

Temecula Sunrise is a brilliant song, accentuated, as with so many Dirty Projectors songs, by rapid and brief changes in pace. These changes, however fleeting, serve to throw the listener off just that tiny bit from becoming too comfortable, and keep the song interesting. The same can be said of the gorgeous Two Doves, which features stunning lyrics telling the story of a couple with intimacy problems (“Please don’t defend a silver lining, around the halo of what is already shining, when all the planets are aligning, for an afternoon that’s never ending”). On closer inspection, the song’s lyrics are actually homages to many of Dirty Projectors’ influences, ranging from Stephen Duffy’s Kiss Me With Your Mouth to Bob Dylan. Yep, it’s a song for music nerds. Stillness Is The Move, meanwhile, is probably as simple as Dirty Projectors get on this record, which is saying something, because it still features a beautiful harmony and ridiculously catchy ‘Ooh’s and ‘Aah’s.

After Dirty Projectors played a song backstage at the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show, The Roots’ Qestlove proclaimed “Wow, I will follow y’all to the end of the earth”. And it’s no wonder. ‘Bitte Orca’ is a simply stunning record, full of harmonising vocals, fleeting pace changes, and, above all else, beauty.

5. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

Spencer Krug is probably the busiest man in indie. If liner notes are to be believed, then he has recorded around five new albums in 2009, as part of his various bands which include indie favourites Wolf Parade, Swan Lake, and, of course, Sunset Rubdown, which began as a solo project but has since expanded into a full band project. What makes Krug so amazing, however, is not quantity, but quality. Everything he touches seems to turn to gold, and the most prominent example is Sunset Rubdown’s 2009 album, ‘Dragonslayer’. This record is at the same time Sunset Rubdown’s most complex album and their most accessible, which is in itself an accomplishment. It is dementedly brilliant. Only Krug could sing “We killed a thousand butterflies, so I put their wings into my mouth and said a prayer for our safe arrival” and get away with it.

You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II) is my favourite song off the album, and does justice to the original Trumpet, Trumpet, Toot, Toot! off previous record ‘Random Spirit Lover’. Meanwhile Nightingale/December Song is absolutely epic, and I love the lyrics and overall message of the song, which is about the way all people live life differently: “I see us all as lonely fires, that have burned alive as long as we remember. But like all fireworks and all sunsets, we all burn in different ways. You are a fast explosion, and I am the ember”. It is a undeniably a demented album, very seventies prog-rock. But at the same time it is accessible, intelligent, and at times truly heart-wrenching. Just like Spencer Krug, it is everything for everyone.

4. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

‘Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix’ signals the return to form for Phoenix, and their return to the height of cool. Perhaps unsurprising, given that the record is mixed by Philippe Zdar, the same man responsible for the production of their debut album, the very awesome ‘United’. Suddenly, sophisticated French synth-pop is back in fashion. See opener and first single Lisztomania, which is about the piano performances of Franz Liszt, and features the killer line “From the mess to the masses,” which sums up Phoenix perfectly. Second single 1901 screams commercial appeal from the first massive synth beat, and indeed it has been featured in a few commercials. It is also a bit of a new direction for Phoenix, as compared to previous albums ‘Alphabetical’ and ‘It’s Never Been Like That’.

My favourite song off the album, Love Like A Sunset, is a chilled out and subtly beautiful track, leading up very slowly to the point where the buildup reaches boiling point, and the vocals and acoustic guitar finally kick in as release. Fences is more of a dance song, while Rome is extremely catchy, and more vintage Phoenix than other tracks on WAP. The album closes nearly as strongly as it starts, with duo Girlfriend and Armistice. The album leaves nothing left to be desired, and it’s impossible not to feel that Phoenix are giving it all they’ve got. It is slick and polished; musical cool encapsulated in a record. Ironically, the same album that sees the commercialisation of Phoenix also sees the true achievement of their potential, which is very rare in the music world. WAP is catchy, clever, sophisticated, and overwhelmingly French. It’s a classic.

3. Yves Klein Blue – Ragged And Ecstatic

‘Ragged And Ecstatic’ is by a large margin my favourite Australian album of the year, from my favourite Australian live band at the moment. It is an album that not only manages to live up to all the preceding hype, but to vastly exceed it. I hesitate to use the words ‘perfect debut album’, because ‘Funeral’ has made them almost redundant in comparison, but this is dam close. Their EP, ‘Yves Klein Blue Draw Attention To Themselves’ did exactly what its title suggests, and although only one song is carried onto ‘Ragged And Ecstatic’ the band keep their same individual sound while expanding their horizons significantly. Opener Make Up Your Mind encapsulates their trademark sound perfectly, with the infectious keyboard riff and fast paced vocals. Single Polka, which is the one song carried over from their EP, was featured on a car commercial, which is surprising given that it is about the not-too-subtle support of recreational drugs: “If you’re ever coming down, or if you ever take too much, remember that’s much better than never ever getting enough”. These lyrics combine with a very catchy guitar riff to produce a pretty unique song, at the same time a happy pop song and a pro-drugs song.

Although this song may make it sound like YKB try too hard to be a rock group, they really don’t. Far from this, they instead seem to just record songs and sounds that come easily to them: like all great records, ‘Ragged And Ecstatic’ seems natural as opposed to forced. Indeed they pull off the infections keyboard riffs with absurd ease, as is evident in the album’s second single and my most-played song of the year, Getting Wise. But yet the band don’t get too caught up in this pattern, even though they could very easily have produced a record full of songs like Make Up Your Mind and Getting Wise. About The Future is a honest reflection on the state of our current generation, juxtaposed with that of a young relationship. It’s impossible not to appreciate the lyrics: “What this generation needs is a war. But it’s hard to choose a side, when you don’t know which is right,” which illustrates how this generation has not had a single unifying conflict against universally recognised ‘baddies’.

If you want any further proof that this isn’t your normal rock group, for all that they sing about sex and drugs, check out Reprise, where the band lament that “There will come a time when we finally look forwards instead of always behind. I hope I live to see that day”. Dinosaur and Queeny rock a bit harder, but are just as catchy. The fact that the band left out so many other stellar recorded songs from this album, such as 19 and Silence Is Distance, only serves to illustrate further that this is a band who could be the next big thing in Australian music, if they’re not already.

I love every song on this album. Yves Klein Blue are a band who can’t do anything wrong at the moment, and ‘Ragged And Ecstatic’ is much more than a polished debut, it is a record that many established international rock groups would give anything to produce, even if it isn’t quite getting the recognition it deserves. Yet.

2. Mumford And Sons – Sigh No More

Undoubtedly the surprise mega-hit group of 2009 is Mumford And Sons. What right does a group that features a permanent banjo player, no drummer, and enjoy fronting hoedowns at their live shows,  have to be on MTV? None, that’s what. But that hasn’t stopped the English folk outfit from not just breaking into mainstream, but exploding into it. Us super cool indie kids (tongue-in-cheek intended) only had a few weeks to enjoy the band to ourselves before the whole world was jumping on board- I have lost track of how many Little Lion Man Facebook statuses I have seen. Although it would be nice to have a band as good as this to ourselves however, there are many positive things of Mumford And Sons hitting it big: it means more touring, more money for the band, and less of a chance that they will break up (see my #1 album). And hell, if any album is good enough to make folk mainstream again, then it’s ‘Sigh No More’. There is just no escaping the commercial and universal appeal of the album, and those who deny it or refuse to like Mumford And Sons because of it are really missing out on something special. Besides, they’re not actually indie anyway.

I guess I should start with Little Lion Man. However it has already been canvased so thoroughly by everyone from music critics to Twilight fangirls (this made me cry a little bit) that there’s not much left to say. The way it builds to a resounding climax towards the end is just magical, and, just like in the video clip, it is as if the music is shedding light on the world. Ironically, for a song that is now all over the airways, lead singer, guitarist, and percussion player (with his feet, at the same time as doing everything else)  Marcus Mumford chants during the chorus “I really fucked it up this time, didn’t I my dear?”. It is an honest love song, an antidote to all the phoney music out there: “Weep for yourself my man, you’ll never be what is in your heart”. It is this lyrical genius that is a constant throughout the record. That and the banjo. My favourite lyric is “But you say maybe that’s exactly how this grace thing works” from Roll Away Your Stone– to me there’s just something intangibly and resoundingly moving about it.

Opener Sigh No More builds to a very powerful conclusion as Marcus repeats: “Love that will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free. Be more like the man you were made to be”. In case you can’t tell by now, it is in large part the lyrics of Mumford And Sons that give this album its appeal for me. After The Storm is quiet but resonates just as strongly as other songs, with the line “With grace in your heart, and flowers in your hair”. Meanwhile Dust Bowl Dance tells the story of a man who has his land taken away from him and exatcs his revenge. ‘Sigh No More’ is an album about the liberating beauty of love, something which cops quite a beating in modern music. The overall message is that, despite the short-term failures and heartbreaks of love (see White Blank Page), it is ultimately a journey that is well worth the effort. The fact that this is on a folk (bordering on country) record makes this only more special.

‘Sigh No More’ is a truly special album that heralds the overwhelming mainstream success of a band no-one saw coming. It is, at the moment, as Zane Lowe put it, “The hottest record in the world”. It is at times brutal and heartbreaking, but it is also resoundingly hopeful and optimistic about the beauty of the world and of love. Above all else however, it is at all times honest and uncompromising, and for that, it is impossible not to love it.

See full album review here.

1. Harlem Shakes – Technicolor Health

So we have come to my favourite album of 2009. And unfortunately, it comes from a band that no longer exists: ‘Technicolor Health’ will be Harlem Shakes’ first and last album, the band having broken up midway through the year. As sad as this is, it is a blow lessened by the fact that they have left us this album to enjoy, which I can easily imagine doing for the rest of my life. It is the most carefree, delightful, catchy, and just plain happy album that I have ever heard. It is just impossible not to feel overjoyed and content with the world when you are listening to ‘Technicolor Health’, which is full of witty one-liners, intricate arrangements, and emphatic choruses.  Although their optimism has taken on an ironic quality given their split, Harlem Shakes manage to accomplish this breezy, happy feeling without seeming cliched or forced. ‘Technicolor Health’ is frozen in time, which perhaps in many ways might be a good thing for the record.

Strictly Game perfectly illustrates the nature of the band. Lead singer Lexy Benaim sings emphatically “This will be a better year. We’ll make a lot of money, take a lot of shit, feel real bad, then get over it,” perfectly describing the year Harlem Shakes should have had. After a tumultuous few years, 2009 should have been the year that they built a real fanbase with their debut album. Even if this didn’t come to pass, it’s impossible not to enjoy Strictly Game– a catchy guitar hook which is buried in the background just enough so that you have to listen to hear it, a frantic and fun pace, lots of ‘Ooohs’ and ‘Aaahs’, and lyrics such as “I’m sick of slow rock, I’m sick of quick quips, sick of holding on to nothing when I just want to hold your hips”.

Sunlight is in the same mould, with chilled out verses just building up to an explosion of happiness (that sounds really wrong). And I just love the line: “Long live sunday seekers, slack-jawed by the speakers”. Nothing But Change Part II is brilliant as well, even if I have no idea where Part I is. My favourite song off the album, Niagra Falls, takes bouncy keyboard riff to a whole new level, and is just such a fun song: “I don’t even know what I’m in the game for, I don’t even get your t-shirt’s pun”. There are songs that appear as if they might be a bit less optimistic, such as Natural Man, but they inevitably break into that same Harlem Shakes sound; full of joy and happiness. Final song Technicolor Health is the only one that messes with the system even slightly, at times bordering on a more drug pop type of sound, almost reminiscent of early The Beatles.

There is nothing groundbreaking, or even that original about ‘Technicolor Health’. It is just indie pop, the way it’s fucking meant to be. And, believe it or not, there’s just not enough of that at the moment. For better or  for worse, I’m perfectly content with having the record that has given me the most enjoyment this year as my number one album, as opposed to the most groundbreaking record of the year. It is such a truly happy record, without being cliched or phoney. Despite the breakup of Harlem Shakes, there is no reason not to enjoy and love this album for what it is.

See writeup here.

So there you go. Wow that took forever,  anyone would think I was unable to stop talking about my favourite records or something. I also have completely run out of adjectives. Now that you know the complete list, have your say below in the comments section: what have I missed, what’s too high or too low, and what shouldn’t be here at all?

One Response to “The Best Albums Of 2009 [Part 3 Of 3]”

  1. Great article man! I’ll definitely be checking out some of these albums.

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