Best Records We Heard in 2009

22. Micachu & the Shapes – Jewellery

Jams this simultaneously weird and catchy are automatically on my list. -h

21. Radiohead – “These Are My Twisted Words”

Any new Radiohead song is worth most bands’ better albums; that’s just facts, as “These Are My Twisted Words” proves.  Effortlessly.  Frighteningly.  Beautifully. -h

20. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Nothing else grabbed me by the throat and refused to let go like Natasha Khan’s second record as Bat For Lashes.  That alone might give it a spot on our list, but “Two Suns” holds up as well. -h

19. Bruce Springsteen (1973 – 1985)

Half Price Books usually has “Born in the USA” for $3 or 4, and about March I finally bit.  The Boss’ discography had intimidated me, but I figured there wouldn’t be a better opportunity than a mint piece of iconic vinyl for cheap.  A couple months later I got a deal on “Nebraska,” and I was off to the races.  “The River,” “Darkness at the Edge of Town,” “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle,” and an astonishingly pristine copy of the 5-LP “Live 1975/85” set have made their way into my collection.  The A.V. Club asked this year “Who are the American Beatles?” and after my year with Bruce I’ll throw in my lot with Donna Bowman, who answered, “The E Street Band.” -h

18. The Decemberists – Hazards of Love

On “Crane Wife,” the Decemberists moved in the direction of concept prog-rock. With this record, it’s multiplied by a bunch. The various musical themes re-appear a lot throughout this record, the songs are long, and it rocks in a very Led Zepplin way. Lots of HUGE drums. They also have a few female guests vocalists, giving it a “theatre-production” feel. If this record isn’t turned into a full-on show, I’ll be surprised. Maybe it already has. Anyway, this record is a lot less like its folky predecessors, and it’s way more epic. I’m still wrapping my head around it almost a year later. “The Rake’s Song” is the standout track, and it’s sinister as all get-out. Also, guest vocalist Shara Worden slays the spit out of everything. She’s got power-rock vocals. It blows it up! -Cory

17. Ideal Cleaners – Chord Jams EP

The Cleaners must be alchemists.  How else could weirdo time signatures, knotty arrangements, and song titles like “Perpetual Wooden Nickels” go straight to my heart?  “Chord Jams” is something I feel; the sound of knowing and being known; the paradoxical joy of expressing hard-to-deal-with emotions via loud guitars and drums.  Ideal Cleaners continue to refine their aesthetic voice, finding new crevices to explore on the mountain they build with “The H is O.” -h

16. Beep Beep – Enchanted Islands

Their first record was a weird charged up aggressive record with crazy-ass dissonant guitar lines and creepy yelpy vocals. That was an OK record, but this record is way better. It’s also way mellower; it’s not punk at all. There are tons of beautiful falsetto vocals, and the music itself is complex and eerie. This record is the perfect mix of beautiful and creepy, and I love that combination. “Return to Me” is probably my second-favorite song of the year. -Cory

15. Halloween, Alaska – Champagne Downtown (2008)

Maybe a couple times every year I click through the websites of the bands I know from Minneapolis, seeing if they’ve done anything new.  Halloween, Alaska had in late ’08, but “Champagne Downtown” didn’t arrive in my hot little hands until May.  With every new HA album there’s a process of learning to love it for what it is, rather than comparing it to their stellar debut.  What this album is is a top-flight collection of emotionally complex, refined, mellow indie/pop music.  Just for example, no other band explores the territory of contradictory definitions of masculinity in our culture and growing in to them (“Be A Man”) and sounds so beautiful and natural doing it. -h

14. No Age – Nouns

This is the record after “Weirdo Rippers” which was on last year’s list. I think I am a year behind on this band. This record is slightly more traditional that “Weirdo Rippers” but only slightly. I don’t want to repeat myself from last year, but this band is able to blend pop music and fuzz-noise-punk really well. The production sounds like cruddy garbage, and it’s charming. I want to see these guys live really badly. I think it would make even more sense then. -Cory

13. NahRight.com

I wish I remembered how I found myself at NahRight.com’s mixtape archive.  Even more, I wish Google site search could help me point you to my favorite tapes (something must be jacked about NahRight’s archtecture, or post slugs?).  Tapes like Common’s “The Common Cold,” Mick Boogie’s Jay-Z/Marvin Gaye mash “Brooklyn Soul,” Lupe Fiasco’s “Farenheit 1/15” series and “Enemy of the State,” Kevin Casey’s “Live From New York: Best of 1994-2001,” J.Period’s presentation of Q-Tip on “The [Abstract] Best,” soundtracked big chunks of the second half of my 2009.  Nothing tops, though, a dropless mix of Mos Def’s early, rare, and unreleased tracks, “The Underground Album.”  Literally no one flows like Mos, and this tape is as good as Blackstar, for real for real.  Go dig it out!  Oh, sht, it’s so good, I’ll do it for you here. -h

12. Ember Schrag – A Cruel, Cruel Woman

Ember’s from Lincoln, and she’s a good friend. She also happens to be totally kickass. This record is a folk-americana-pop-country experience, but the melodies and chords are like nothing I’ve heard. She’s also a trained poet, and the lyrics are just fantastic. And of course, her voice is great. It sounds antiquated, but not in a forced of conscious way. The instrumentation is stellar, too: everything is played excellently. More people should heard this record, and I’m guessing that they eventually will. -Cory

11. Wilco – Wilco (the album)

Another round of dad-rock? Listen again.  Jeff Tweedy & Co. recorded a surprisingly diverse collections of songs with noisy guitar chaos (“”), impeccable guy-girl harmonies (“You and I” with Feist), perfect ’70s AM rock rips (“Wilco (the song)”), and most everything else we’ve lovedabout Wilco (“Sonny Feeling”) made just fresh enough again.   I waited to pick up this album used because the initial reviews didn’t thrill me, even as a solid Wilco fan; once I did, it played nonstop for about three weeks, and I’ve enjoyed every return visit. -h

10. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

After a ton of listens, I am STILL getting to the bottom of this record. I bought it off the strength of the song “Two Weeks” which is easily my favorite song released in 2009. That’s definitely the catchiest song on the record, and this record just has so many layers. If there’s one thing I can say about this record, it’s that the instruments and vocals only happen when necessary. There’s a lot of room in each song, and the song arrangements aren’t traditional at all. I have to turn this record up a lot in my car a bunch because of how subtle so much of it is. My favorite moments on this record, though, are when they do the big pop choruses. “Two Weeks” exemplifies this, but they happen on almost every other song as well, coming out of nowhere. The four part “whoa” chorus on “While You Wait for the Others” is killer, and the album closer “Foreground” is slight and beautiful and weird. That describes the rest of the record pretty well, too. -Cory

9. Q-Tip – The Renaissance (2008)

The generally positive reviews “The Renaissance” garnered on its release don’t do justice to this banger.  Every track hits a sweet spot, from the five-star “Gettin’ Up” to closer “Shaka.”  Not until I started reading the liner notes did I realize what a beatmaker and producer Q-Tip is.  The vast majority of the album, including the best tracks (“Johnny is Dead”), are his own beats; an unbeatable blend of classic vibe, crafstmanship, and subtle,forward-looking freshness. -h

8. The Kinks – Village Green Preservation Society (1968)

This is also amazing. I just see now that it came out the same year as the Zombies record [Our #6 for 2009 -Ed.]. It’s another classic Brit-Pop record, but it’s still very different than the Zombies or the Beatles or whoever. The Zombies are sincere and heartfelt, and the Kinks are raw and sarcastic and super British. During the whole record, you get the feeling that Ray Davies is telling an elaborate deadpan joke. The record is all about nostalgia, so in that way it’s a “concept record,” but every song works great on its own. How is the song “Picture Book” not as popular as “Help from My Friends” or “Come Together”? -Cory
7. U2 – No Line On The Horizon

Reality could never live up to the anticipation for a new U2 record.  Lead single “Get On Your Boots” weirdly recalled the dance-influenced “Pop” album, widely regarded as the band’s biggest misstep.  But then you play the record again, the 360 Tour sounds like a good show, “Magnificent” starts showing up in the pre-show playlist at Friday Night Flicks… and U2 has delivered their best album since 1991’s incredible “Achtung Baby.”  These songs mean as much to me as anything I heard in 2009, and I’ll be playing them long after everything else on this list has been relegated to shuffle duty. -h

6. The Zombies – Odessey and Oracle (1968)

This might be the best record I heard this year. I had heard “Time of the Season” countless times as a kid, but had not heard it or appreciated it as an adult really until this past summer at now-defunct Lincoln club Box Awesome. Jim the sound-guy was playing the song over the soundsystem in between bands, and I really heard it for the first time. I was like, “Holy Spit, this song is amazing!” Jim highly recommend this record, and I was willing to spend $10 on the record even if “Time of the Season” was the best song on the record. But it totally is not; they are all awesome. This is the epitome of British Baroque Pop. -Cory
5. Architects – The Hard Way

KC’s own boys turned around quick from last year’s “Vice,” pressing ten more tales of crime, alcohol, growing up, and indomitable punk spirit to plastic in time for Warped Tour.  Aside from lyrically heavy-handed clunker “I Carry A Gun,” the quartet burn through their tunes with a hunger I can only envy, stripping back guitar leads to the bare essentials and shouting home lines like “Bastards at the gate / Your walls are tumbling / Your pretty plastic world is crumbling, crumbling / Turn up the stereo, this is the end now / These bastards are your only friends now” (“Bastards At The Gate”).  2009’s Most Unforgettable Guitar Lick: “Big Iron Gate.” -h

4. Church – Song Force Crystal

Full disclosure; Cory knows these guys, and I opened for them at their KC show.  They played well to a small group of my friends and colleagues, a sort of warped, fractured, ever-so-slightly-proggy brand of pacific northwestern indie-twee, and I got a disc to support the tour, with modest expectations.  Then it grew on me.  And grew. -h

3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

Howie had mentioned that this is the first Animal Collective CD he’s really liked, and that’s also true for me, but it’s because this is the first Animal Collective CD I’ve heard. Before its release, it seems like I couldn’t read anything music-related without some mention of this record. Pitchfork practically named it the best record of the century before they’d even heard it. I’d heard a lot about AC and so I decided to buy the record, just to see what the fuss was about. It was kind of what I expected in that it’s really rich and echoey, but I did not expect it to be so pop. My friend described them as similar to the Beach Boys before I’d heard them, and that’s kind of accurate; there are lots of layered up-tempo harmonies, but the music and production is space-age. I was hooked when the second track, “My Girls,” came on. -Cory

2. Ladyfinger (ne) – Dusk

Making awesome metal out of everyday anxiety, decisions, and events takes guts and a willingness to risk being authentic in a genre known more for being larger-than-life.  Ladyfinger (ne) has both in spades.  “Dusk” earns its power through the compressed fury of the rhythm section, stark riffs, varied dynamics, and Chris Machmuller’s voice, which shifts from croon to howl like a classic Mustang.  Its tuffness is eminently listenable, a rare feat.  You can pull down five tracks from their site. -h

1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Once every few years, a record comes out that is so much fun, you don’t even bother to analyze it or judge or it or measure it against other similar records. A couple years ago, that record for me was Vampire Weekend’s self-titled disc. This Phoenix sounds completely different than VW, but it manages to accomplish the same thing, which is to make a record that no one can deny. Phoenix might have even been more successful: unlike with VW, there hasn’t been any backlash against Phoenix: everyone loves this band and this record. It is a dance-party rock and roll record, and I can stop listening to it. Go online and listen to “1901” or “Lisztomania” and you’ll see what I mean. -Cory

2 thoughts on “Best Records We Heard in 2009”

  1. Totally agree with Phoenix. Records like that don’t come along very often. The VW comparison is right on the money too. Speaking of VW, have you heard any of the new tracks? I’ve heard White Sky, Cousins, and Horchata, and I’m getting excited. I’ve heard rumons of auto-tune…

    Wilco the album didn’t hit me the way their last few have. There are some greats tracks, (You and I, Bull Black Nova, I’ll Fight…) but it doesn’t hold a candle to YHF and Sky Blue Sky, which I really enjoyed.

    Howie, those mixtapes are great. I still can’t find the Q-Tip one though. Can you link to it directly?

    Other good albums I’ve enjoyed this year:
    -The Beatles (Abbey Road & Sgt. Peppers): I have never really enjoyd them until this year when the new remasters came out. I know… it is bad to admit that… but I’ve loved it! If only I had the cash for the mono box set!
    -Discovery: surprisingly great album. I’ve listened to it during plan periods at school consistently. I was really surprised by this disc.

  2. Q-Tip:

    http://nahright.com/news/2009/02/10/jperiod-the-abstract-best-mixtape/

    I agree that Wilco’s record isn’t as artistically significant as YHF. I put it pretty high on the list because (against my expectations!) I simply *enjoyed* it a lot, and for a long time.

    I’ll join you, Jake, in copping to just getting started with the Beatles this year. I got “Meet the Beatles,” “Sgt. Pepper,” and the White Album on vinyl all this year.

    DrugStore, I wish I knew. -h

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