#1 Album for 2009: The-Dream - Love vs. Money (Def Jam)
i came to love vs. money only a month or so after discovering terius nash and his amazing first album, love/hate. that record came out in december ‘08, just late enough to make a big splash on 2009 year-end polls. by the time i really absorbed any of it love vs. money was on the shelves. i bought it the day it came out in early march. in a sense this was the best way to “get into” the-dream—with two albums worth of his maximal, highly self-referential take on r&b to deal with at once, i started to hear him trade themes, lines, and even individual sounds between the two. the effect was dizzying; the music seemed unbelievably intricate. because, while i’m not normally a big fan of meta, the-dream just has so much fun with it, and he makes you believe it’s all a part of some kaleidoscopic larger narrative. and sometimes maybe it is: lvm opens with 5 love songs, culminating in “put it down,” and “sweat it out,” both packed with the type of detailed lyrics that only nash can write, both spliced with tender feeling and goofy humor simultaneously. following these are a staggering four-song breakup set—“love vs. money” parts 1 and 2, “fancy” (a six and a half minute story-song that’s just kind of out on its own planet), and “right side of my brain,” which you can listen to above and which matches nash’s gift for melody and wordplay (he sells “touch/untouch” and “love/unlove”) with his producers’ best musical qualities: huge synths, oddball vocal samples, monumental drums, and an unerring ability to ride the line between “too much” and “just enough.” after this it’s actually hard to recover for the end of the record, even though the last two songs are ace and the very last line namechecks (what else?) listening to the-dream’s first cd on a hookup.
it adds up to an exhausting and inspiring record of the year. no one else had a fuller vision, and i don’t think anyone else gave us more of themselves. but it’s the little things i always come back to. at the beginning of “love vs. money” (part 1) the music darkens and nash says something like “i’m gonna tell a different kind of story.” and all these songs are stories: they’re human-scale (believe it or not), they’re relatable, they make you laugh, they make you feel pain. supposedly the third the-dream album is out this year. how could anyone truly be ready?
#2 Album for 2009: Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport (ATP Recordings)
it’s been a long time since i had a strong emotional reaction to sheer sound. we’d have to bring it back to the halcyon days of mogwai which were about 10 years ago (yikes). fuck buttons work with strong contrasts: earthbound, simplistic percussion against stratospheric, beatific synth noise; the beauty of sturdy postrock melodies against the violence that the band’s basic menu of sounds suggests. the result is one of the year’s most powerful, overwhelming albums, something that still has me a little bit in awe when i think about it and brought about one of my favorite written descriptions of music ever. “surf solar,” in my opinion, is the vital track from this one. it’s too big to embed in tumblr at any quality so use the youtube above. but if i can be a pedant this is the exact type of music that suffers at low quality, do yrself a favor and buy a physical copy or at least a really good file.
#3 Album for 2009: Future of the Left - Travels With Myself and Another (4AD)
future of the left (ex-mclusky) wrote the best rock song i heard this year. it’s called “arming eritrea” and you can listen to it above. for the rest of twmaa they only write some of the most inventive and interesting guitar/bass/drums music i’ve heard in ages, with a muscular dexterity that extends from faux-showtune outros to post-shellac grind to violating the remains of dance-punk. simply put, they pull a lot of stuff together, and it’s rare that a 32-minute record with this level of aggression would also have so many layers to pull back. the constant is andy falkous’ madcap black humor, which has apparently gotten more unhinged since the mclusky years. falco covers satanic orgies, pterodactyls, and a guy named reginald j. trotsfield in lyrics that are both genuinely hilarious and regularly disturbing. people who complain about where indie rock has gone, i have a record for you.
#4 Album for 2009: Raekwon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II
i know, i know: old guy rap. but it’s only fair to acknowledge that the last great wu-related album could happen at any time, and may well have happened this year: i pushed play on cuban linx pt. ii with no expectations whatsoever, and got a bracing, engaging, almost perfectly sequenced record that spanned 15 or 20 years with no seams. its 22 tracks contain an almost overwhelming haul of old soul samples, nearly abstract beats, interstitial dialogue, and verse after excellent verse from a crew of guys in the age 35-40 range. seriously, it’s verging on unbelievable that everybody would sound so good, from career bench guys like styles p up to ghostface. don’t get me wrong, i more than respect ghost’s right to follow his muse, but he never sounds more at home than he does on stuff like this—belting out hard, gritty lines with that urgent sound in his voice. at the center of it all is rae, a guy so disinclined to draw attention to himself that he’s happy to cede many of this album’s thrilling moments to others. but don’t forget about him because he gives this stuff a heart. listen to his awesome, heartfelt tribute to odb, “ason jones,” above.
#5 Album for 2009: Wild Beasts - Two Dancers (Domino)
the odds of a very british art-rock band taking this spot were incredibly low, but here we are. way overlooked in the u.s., this record won me over with its clear vision, sophistication, maturity, and intellect. the band mostly works by contrasting two expressive, almost indulgent vocalists with a very cool and controlled post-punk sound. there are lots of guitars but none of them take the spotlight, and there’s the blessing of a really good drummer who pushes the rhythmic complexity of these songs while never overtaking them. one more notable contrast—most of the lyrics on two dancers are about aggression, chaos, violence, and all kinds of other words that could never possibly describe the singing or music. i love how they characterize runaway misogyny on “all the king’s men” (which you can listen to above), in which the narrator and his crew terrorize the girls from roedean and whitby, hounslow and shipley.
the odds of a british buzz band comprised of 20-year-olds taking this spot were incredibly low, but here we are. i haven’t changed my position on these guys since i first heard them on myspace—they understand more about the little things that make music good (dynamics, understatement, use of space) than most musicians much, much older than them. their debut is nocturnal pop of the highest order. it’s moody, a little sexy, and surprisingly wide-ranging—at points for me it calls to mind chris isaak and early pinback (easy way to score points in my book) and ymg and lots of other things that they may have never heard. or hey, maybe they have. check out “infinity” above.
#7 Album for 2009: A.C. Newman - Get Guilty (Matador)
i guess in fairness at this point the question is what would a carl newman record have to do to not make my top 10 (let’s see if i just jinxed the new pornographer album coming out in a few months)? still, i was pretty indifferent to get guilty when it came out. it wasn’t until a few months later that i listened to it for an entire week. and thereafter it would come out every so often for another week of compulsive listening. with different arrangements and singers, over half the songs here would not be out of place on a killer stretch of any of the new pornographers records—the guy just writes songs that i love, they’re catchy and thoughtful and familiar without ever being obviously referential. and the best part is that i think he’s getting more out there with time: check out “young atlantis” above, it’s closer to musical number than pop song but good luck getting it unstuck from your head.
#8 Album for 2009: Bat For Lashes - Two Suns (Astralwerks)
so i think my original post on bat for lashes still applies—not because i successfully blogged that much, but because it took many more listens to finally settle my feelings on natasha khan and her second album. and in the end i’d say this: she’s a lot rangier than many of her comparables, she has a real knack for characters and personas, and i’ve never seen her get enough credit for the superbly varied production and arrangement on two suns. in a lot of ways it’s just a cool old art rock album, which is way even at maximum piano bombast i can hang with it—it still feels measured, and it still feels like songwriting more than autobiography. so the audio above, “siren song,” is presented as proof that maximum piano bombast can still work on me.
#9 Album for 2009: Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glassnote)
sometimes these things aren’t very complicated: wap wasn’t my favorite album of the year, but it was certainly my most listened-to. it’s 36 minutes of ultra-clean, sharp focus pop that was useful on just about any occasion, seemed just as good during the day as at night, and left you with no fear of the cd ending and starting back at track one (these are all extremely underrated qualities as far as i’m concerned). two things about this one will always stick out to me: the perfectly processed drum sound, and thomas mars’ vocals throughout: he’s a walking non-sequitur in english yet (or perhaps as a result) it only adds to the band’s universalist appeal. anyway, you can her “1901” and “lisztomania” just about anywhere so here’s “fences,” which to me is their peer.
it would be unusual for a debut album to arrive so fully-formed, but for those of us familiar with the knife, it wouldn’t be totally fair to call this a debut. still, while the electronics and unmistakable voice are there, there are some differences. fever ray’s music is maybe a little more functional and less ornamented, and karin dreijer andersson’s lyrics work within a different, narrower set of obsessions—mostly what i’d call a kind of low-key domestic dread. it’s about being in a quiet house alone at night with a spinning mind, all empty streets, imaginary bottles of rum, real dishwasher tablets. essentially, it’s this simple: andersson led the way creating evocative, haunting music in the second half of the decade. i chose fever ray’s huge closing track, “coconut” for the audio above.