Jameson's Top 10 Albums of 2009

Seeing as it is almost the end of Q1 2010 (I operate on a calendar year here), it is probably appropriate that I officially close the books on 2009 by posting my top ten albums of the year. In short, 2009 was the first year in a long time where I did not have a clearcut "album of the year". Primarily, this can be attributed to what a solid year it was for music. There were great albums from so many bands that it was difficult for one band to really separate itself from the rest. 2009 will also go down as the year that the music elitists gave us (and the bands we love) clearance to let our hair down a little. A number of historically "dense" bands released what will probably be considered their "pop" albums in 2009. Enough of the prologue though. Let's get to the list.

10. Jj - JJ N° 2
First of all, I have not even included the actual album art for this mysterious Swedish band's debut album because I feel like it would unfairly cause people to pass judgment on them without even giving it a shot. Frankly, it looks like something that would have come out of Death Row records in the mid-90's, and I don't know if these guys could sound any further from Snoop or Dre. JJ N° 2 falls into the whole balearic beat genre that tends to move in and out of the good graces of the music gods from time to time. When done poorly, it can serve as the background music at a cruiseliner all-you-eat buffet. When done well, it sounds like this. This album is like nothing else I listen to, but something about it has drawn me in from the first time I caught wind of the band, Jj (sidenote: no one knows ANYTHING about these guys. No pictures. No bio. Nothing.) The whole album is less than 30 minutes of ambient pop music, melodic female vocals, and traces of acoustic guitar/dub beats laced throughout. The album radiates summer, or at least some place warm and sunny. Pretty tough to out-relax that.

Link to download "From Africa to Málaga": http://www.sincerelyyours.se/yours0113.php

9. Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
In a time when lo-fi has become synonymous with indie rock, Phoenix are making it pretty clear they have nothing to hide from. I mean, everything on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is right in the foreground. With songwriting as good as this, it is understandable why. I am not sure that any other band had as strong of a one-two punch as "Lisztomania" and "1901" to start an album in 2009. I have even argued that these songs are so good that it hurts the album's flow to sit them both so far up in the batting order (i.e. it is hard to get through the entire album when you keep starting it over to hear the first two tracks again). Sequencing aside, the rest of Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a spectacular mix of slick-produced pop rock music that drifts in and out of the realm of electronic/dance that has always lifted the band's sound off the ground a little bit. Who would have thought the most rock and roll thing you could do in the 21st centry would be going hi-fi?

Link to download selected live versions of songs from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: http://wearephoenix.com/observer/

8. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
The first minute of Bitte Orca pretty much primes you for the entire album. There is the off-kilter rhythm. The jangily unconventional guitar bouncing on top of the bubbling bass. Dave Longstreth's acrobatic voice ranging all over the place, reeled in (and beautifully juxtaposed) by the female harmonies of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. If you can't make it through those sixty seconds, then you should probably move on (as many do), and save the Dirty Projectors for someone a little more ambitious because once you get to the album's second track, "Temecula Sunrise", all of that idiosyncratic stuff I just mentioned is out in full force. Freak flags are flying high. In the middle of all of this off-beat rock music are two tracks ("Stillness Is the Move" and "Two Doves") that showcase just how talented Coffman and Deradoorian are on their own. The former (which features Coffman on vocals) is an R&B genre exercise, and the latter (which features Deradoorian on vocals) a sparse folk/strings number. Both are beautiful and serve as a nice breather amidst all of the guitar pop definition stretching. What's really crazy is that all of this is a reigned in version of the Projectors. I mean, the band's last album, Rise Above, was Longstreth's reinterpretation of the hardcore punk band, Black Flag's, first album, Damaged (sidenote: Longstreth claimed to have not heard Damaged for fifteen years leading up to the project, and, of course, chose not to listen the album prior to, during, or after embarking on the project). Genius has its qwerks, I guess.

7. Blue Roses - Blue Roses
Anytime a female musician comes in and knocks are socks off, we are immediately presented with comparisons to the same three female rock stars: Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, and/or Kate Bush. To be perfectly honest, I rarely listen to any of those ladies' records. We compare artists to other artists because it makes our lives easier. Why think of something original to say when I can just say, "It sounds like Stevie Nicks cerca Tusk." Well, I am sure that Laura Groves (aka Blue Roses) sounds like some other female artist that has come before her, but I don't care. Primarily because this this album sounds better than any other female folk/singer-songwriter I have ever been lucky enough to hear. While only 21 years old, Groves never plays the novice here. Nevermind the spectacular self-harmonization (wonder how she pulls that off live), the infectious melodies, or the perfectly composed strings...this girl can play an acoustic guitar as well as any of her male counterparts. Probably the most immediately beautiful album on this entire list. No surprise it comes from a female.

6. Justin Vernon's 2009 Output: Bon Iver - Blood Bank EP, Bon Iver - "Brackett, WI" & Volcano Choir - Unmap
A bit of a copout here, but just look at it as a "two-for-one" moment. Vernon is certainly indie rock and roll's golden boy these days, but it is for good reason. "Blood Bank" may be my favorite (for sure my "most listened to") song of 2009. Vernon's ability to envoke emotion in his listeners is unbelievable. I think everything this guy records (under any moniker) has me on the verge of breakdown, and I have no clue why. The songs manage to become my memories (even though I have never been trapped inside a car, in a snowstorm, with a girl, and a Snickers...after listening to "Blood Bank" a hundred times, I vaguely remember this happening to me). Let's be honest, it is that voice. No one else is singing/has sung/or can sing like Justin Vernon. That haunting falsetto just blows a sepia toned emotion over whatever this guy is recording. The songs are all there to hold everything up though. If you are still on the outside looking in on the Justin Vernon stuff, it is time to come in from the cold.

5. Wooden Sky - If I Don't Come Home You'll Know I'm Gone
If it were not for this album, Justin Townes Earle's Midnight At The Movies and/or the Avett Brothers' I And Love And You would have been on this list. However, a group of Canadians managed to make the best alt-country album of the year, knocking off the aforementioned "southern boys" from the list. This record takes the great parts of country music (slide guitar, banjo, self-reflective guilt), earnest songwriting, and a perfect mix of honky tonk/unchecked emotion, throws them all together to create what is probably the best late night, whiskey in hand, soul searching record of 2009.

4. Antlers - Hospice
A concept album about a man meeting, falling in love with, and ultimately losing a bone cancer patient. Hospice is about as exhausting as it sounds, but that does not mean it should be avoided. The album is as epic as its premise. Antlers' mastermind, Peter Silberman's, falsetto soars through the mix of ambient rock noise, never rising above the chaos, but always situated right in the middle of the mix. All the while the music hits all the highs and lows that one would expect from a soundtrack to such an affair. Furthermore, the album's entire running has a fuzzy fog draped over the production that makes every track feel like a rainy day in late October. I realize none of this (especially as we are entering spring) sounds all that enticing, but Hospice (as you can see by my ranking) was one of the most cohesive albums to come out not just in 2009, but in the past few years. It can't all be fun and games.

3. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion
It is truly a testament to Animal Collective's ingenuity that Merriweather Post Pavilion is identified as their most accesible album. The album is drenched in the trademark Animal Collective sound. Repetitive in every sense of the word. Driving rhythm derived from anywhere between the everlasting gobstopper machine and a group of wired teens stomping on a soggy gym floor during a carnival. Vocals/harmonies that sound so far above the clouds that it is no surprise that you are more likely to find the name Brian Wilson in a Merriweather Post Pavilion review than Noah Lennox or Dave Portner. In other words, this album is unmistakably Animal Collective. So when did that become pop music?

I guess the short answer is 2009. At the end of a decade that opened with a popular rock band changing the game by "going electronic", it seems appropriate that Animal Collective would close out the 00's by amping up their underwater junkyard sound, as well. However, where Radiohead used electronic music to dive deeper into a cold, dark paranoia, Animal Collective used it to brighten up their sonic pallette. The result was an album that had critics swooning, moved units, and felt warm and sunny even upon its release in January.

Ultimately though, an album is measured by its high points, and Merriweather Post Pavilion is brimming with them. The point (approx. 2:30) in "Guys Eyes" when someone rights the stylus. The clearout (approx. 3:00) of "Brother Sport" when the repetitive yelps are broken by another "Matt!", leading into that throat opening outro. The drum roll into the "Oh!" during the chorus in "My Girls". All fantastic moments that will have even the least open-minded music listeners singing and dancing. I can't think of a better benchmark for pop music.

2. Japandroids - Post Nothing
Two (Canadian) guys with an electric guitar and a drum kit are responsible for Post Nothing. So how does it sound so huge? The short answer is heart. Honestly, this album is fists in the air, scream at the top of your lungs, pounding out the drums on the steering wheel with the windows down, massive. The album essentially starts off like a few shots of cheap booze, rages for thirty minutes straight, and then brings you down with a (pretty badass) fuzzed out ballad about swearing off girls. The lyrics are minimal, repetitive, and great to yell along to, resulting in some of the best hooks of the year (see: "She had wet hair, say what you will, I don't care, I couldn't resist it" or "You can keep tomorrow, after tonight we're not gonna need it"). This is one of those albums that makes me wish I were in college again because I feel like my life is far too domesticated to truly enjoy an album this fucking wild.

1. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest
Not a whole lot to say that has not already been said around here for this album. If the Japandroid's album is underappreciated due to my presumed maturity, then Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear's third LP, is benefiting from my current life situation. I am not sure the twenty year old version of myself would ever have even taken the time to appreciate the subtleties of Veckatimest. The intricate, slow building chamber pop would (understandably) have been cast aside for something I could (try to) play at a party we were having. If you think about it though, this is not some grand revelation. What we listen to is usually somehow linked to what is going on in our life. Music is basically another form of self-medication that enhances, or helps us cope with, whatever we are going through. That being said, I must be getting old.