Tuesday, December 15, 2009


So I wasn't so sure if I was going to do this or not.

Every year all the magazines and blogs bombard you with their lists of the top releases, and it's usually bullshit. Some blogs will tell you that only indie bands released anything good this year, while magazines like Rolling Stone will probably say Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, U2 or Bruce Springsteen (or some other old guy/old guy band that you didn't even know put an album out this year) edged out the competition once again.

Well, in regards to my pathetic attempt at furthering this very same tradition that I just got done talking shit about, do the both of us a favor and just see the following as a list of recommendations. No need to become upset. These are my picks for the 10 Albums of 2009, the ones I find to be essential in summing up the year in music. It's not just about which albums were the most popular, and its certainly not about which albums took 25 listens to get into either(we're looking at you, Pitchfork).

Regardless of whether or not you agree, please check the albums you're unfamiliar with out! Take my word for it; over the course of 2009, these are the albums I was most impressed with. Be sure to click on the album covers to check out a review and explanation for each choice.

Read. Comment. Listen. ENJOY!











Best Albums of 2009: 10. The Horrors' "Primary Colours"

10. The Horrors “Primary Colors”

So The Horrors really like Jesus and the Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and The Shangri-Las. But get past their fairly obvious influences (and get off your high horse while you're at it) and you'll have a hell of an album in front of you. After their campy, garage punk debut album came off as a little too heavy on gimmicky madness, the band closed ranks, enlisted Portishead’s Geoff Barrow as the project’s producer, and came back with a brand new sound, and the most effortlessly creepy indie release of the year.

There’s some post-punk, a nice handful of shoegaze, and a whole lot of goth as well, and the results are quite stunning. “I Can’t Control Myself” has a subtle relentlessness that is positively hypnotic, and the epic “Sea Within A Sea,” clocking in at nearly eight minutes, is a murky, chorus-less, jaw-droppingly brave first single, complete with busy synths and vocalist Faris Badwan’s ghostlike incantations.

In 2009, all anyone could talk about was Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, but if you ask me, but they should have been talking about The Horrors.

Best Albums of 2009: 9. Drake's "So Far Gone"

9. Drake “So Far Gone”

Hey, remember when I told you guys Kanye’s “808s and Heartbreak” would end up being crazy important and potentially set the course for hip hop’s future? Well judging by the success of Drake, as well as Kid Cudi, this past year, I’m thinking I was absolutely right.

Don’t kid yourselves, Drake isn’t going anywhere any time soon, and he can thank the brilliant “So Far Gone” for that. “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful” tore up the airwaves this summer, and rightfully so. The genius of Drake is the middle ground he’s found between pop and hip hop, which is exactly what Kanye attempted on 808s. You can hear that album’s influence all over So Far Gone; and by adding in elements of contemporary R&B, Lil Wayne’s slurred delivery, Jay-Z’s self-assured mic presence, and Kanye’s emphasis on introspection, Drake crafted a sound and style that is all his own, and it made him a superstar.

And get this; he never once had to mention shooting anyone.

Best Albums of 2009: 8. Lady Gaga's "The Fame Monster"

8. Lady Gaga “The Fame Monster”

The best things about The Fame Monster are its length and its rejection of an overreliance on variety. It doesn’t overstay its welcome and it doesn’t come off like your average cookie-cutter, “throw a bunch of singles at the public and see what sticks” pop release. This is an album; an album so good that even Gaga’s biggest detractors may have to back down from their blind, misinformed “she all style, no substance” claims. Unlike The Fame, which was exhilarating but messy, The Fame Monster is tight, tuneful and sharp as a tack conceptually.

“Alejandro” and “Bad Romance” make it clear that Gaga is the dance-pop gold standard of the moment, with “So Happy I Could Die” not too far behind, but it’s with the epic “Speechless” and the evil “Teeth” that Lady Gaga makes her definitive statement; this woman is capable of anything.

Best Albums of 2009: 7. Rihanna's "Rated R"

7. Rihanna “Rated R”

It’s hard not to let the heart wrenching story of the woman behind this year’s best pop album not seep into a review of her work, so I won’t. Rihanna shows incredible bravery and strength throughout “Rated R,” facing the hurricane that was her personal life head-on over the course of thirteen impeccably written and produced tracks.

Whether she declares that “I’ll never play the victim/I’d rather be a stalker” over a storm of synths and rock guitars on the shitkicking “Rockstar 101,” scolds herself for falling so hard for the wrong man on the gorgeous “Stupid In Love,” or confesses “I just want to set you on fire/So I won’t have to burn alone/ Then you’ll know where I’m coming from,” on the album’s definitive highlight “Fire Bomb,” there’s never any doubt that she’s telling the whole truth and nothing but. Chris Brown’s new album finds the disgraced performer stuck in self-pitying, victim mode, and thankfully Rihanna didn’t go that route; she was too busy surviving, and in the process releasing the best album of her career.

Don’t they call that poetic justice, or something?

Best Albums of 2009: 6. Gallows' "Grey Britain"

6. Gallows “Grey Britain”

Gallows’ sophomore release, entitled “Grey Britain,” opens with the stunning “Riverbank.” The track begins with quiet, deeply unsettling violins and slow-building feedback that erupts into a towering beast of punk-metal guitars and lead vocalist Frank Carter wailing “Great Britain is burning down/We’ll be buried alive before we die/The Queen is dead/So is the crown!” And from there, the band never lets up, spewing venom every bit as earnest and raw as the Sex Pistols when they swore there was no future, or The Clash when they said they wanted to riot. “Misery” is too bruising and honest to be cliché, and “The Vulture (Acts I & II)” sees the band make a successful foray into unabashedly melodic territory, but it's with “The Riverbed,” the sequel to the similarly named opening number, that Gallows achieve near perfection, with a dizzying, hard-as-nails riff and the heaviest, thickest groove any metal song had this side of Sepultura’s “Roots.”

Best Albums of 2009: 5. Florence + the Machine's "Lungs"

5. Florence + The Machine “Lungs”

When you talk about Florence Welch, vocalist and leader of the collaborative project Florence + the Machine, her soulful, indie-friendly voice always takes center stage in the discussion. Somewhere in between Annie Lennox and Lily Allen, Welsh is prodigiously talented. But what makes Florence + the Machine stand out amongst their post-Amy Winehouse, British female singer-songwriter peers, and what makes their debut album “Lungs” so special, is some of the richest, most nuanced and exciting songwriting anywhere in the current landscape of popular music.

“You hit me once/I hit you back/You gave a kick/I gave a slap/You smashed a plate over my head /Then I set fire to our bed” opens the masterful “Kiss With A Fist.” Propelled by a shady-but-fun, Stooges-like musical backdrop, Welsh recounts a mutually abusive relationship with a disturbing resignation. Powerful stuff, but not at all overshadowing the other fantastic compositions to be found here; particularly “Girl With One Eye,” a brilliant song that shuffles along, building momentum before exploding into a deeply emotional catharsis that enthralls and haunts in equal measure, and “Hurricane Drunk,” which boasts the best vocal performance on Lungs, with Welsh howling “I’m going out/Gonna drink myself to death” at the start of one of the albums most memorable choruses.

Best Albums of 2009: 4. The Dream's "Love vs. Hate"

4. The Dream “Love vs. Money”

The only thing more fascinating than The Dream’s many phenomenal pop hits is the lack of attention paid to his far better solo albums.

Last year’s “Love/Hate” showed great promise, but “Love vs. Money” is an entirely different beast; going places mainstream R&B never seems to these days. Things begin exciting but expectedly so; leadoff single “Rockin That Shit” opens with luxuriant, majestic synths, and Walking On The Moon,” featuring Kanye West, and the Mariah Carey-assisted “My Love,” come complete with airtight hooks and rich, layered production, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

No, it’s when we hit the album’s middle section that The Dream really pulls out all the stops, unleashing a haunting song suite that is at the very heart of album’s power. In stark contrast with everything before it, the title track, “Love vs. Money,” boasts frantic, percussion-heavy production, over which The Dream rails bitterly against a girlfriend lost to another man. “Love vs. Money II,” immediately follows and it is stunning. The hard-hitting percussion and purposefully cluttered production on the previous track suddenly disappears, leaving whining, dissonant synths, thick bass, and lone finger snaps, over which The Dream airs out his former lover and her new man for their naivety, imploring “Kiss that nigga/Hug that nigga/Love that nigga to death/Go ahead and please that nigga/Feed that nigga/In time you’ll see the problems yourself/Cause when love is the problem/Nothing can solve it.”

Next comes the 6 and a half minute “Fancy,” the albums riskiest moment; lacking any discernable chorus or structure, it slowly winds along, constantly shape shifting over light piano, swirling strings, chopped-and-screwed vocals, and the occasional Polow Da Don-styled “EY!” It’s an incredibly bizarre arrangement; taking familiar elements and configuring them in a brilliantly unfamiliar way. In other words, you’ve failed big time if you haven’t heard this album yet.

“Love vs. Money” is the best R&B album of 2009. Period.

Best Albums of 2009: 3. Mastodon's "Crack The Skye"

3. Mastodon “Crack The Skye”

The key to Mastodon’s continued success has got to be their willingness to change. They have yet to repeat themselves once, moving from concept to concept, and taking great care to ensure that the concept is fully realized lyrically, visually and (most crucially) musically. Whereas 2002’s “Remission” saw the band evoke the general theme of fire, 2004’s classic “Leviathan” dealt with the theme of water (and specifically Moby Dick) and 2006’s “Blood Mountain” centered on earth as its general theme. Surprise, surprise…this time around they’ve chosen the sky. So what winds up being most impressive about 2009’s “Crack The Skye” is how they’ve tailored the sound of their most recent epic to reflect this idea; and it works astoundingly.

The band injects far more melody into this project than previous ones, allowing for standouts like “Quintessence” and “Oblivion” to anchor themselves with clean singing, unpredictable, jazz-influenced percussion and incredibly intricate, whirlwind guitar work, rather than the typical howling, pounding and pummeling, sledgehammer riffs. The songs also feel longer and more freewheeling than their previous work, taking multiple, unexpected twists and turns throughout, and at times actually are longer than their previous work, with the album’s epic, “The Czar,” clocking in at a filler-less 9 minutes and 47 seconds. It all lends itself to the infinite expanse of the sky above us, and it consistently feels as exhilarating as hurtling through space or floating amidst the clouds.

Mastodon can truly do no wrong.

Best Albums of 2009: 2. Raekwon's "Only Built 4 Cuban Linx...II"

2. Raekwon “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II”

“Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II” is to Raekwon what “The Chronic 2001” was to Dr. Dre; though it would be virtually impossible to match the power and sheer freshness of the original, OB4CL2 is seriously as amazing as anyone could possibly want it to be, and gets as close as it ever could have gotten to besting the original. And that’s saying a lot.

Set up as a continuation of the first installment of the OB4CL series, we find Raekwon at the top of the drug game, left to survey its bittersweet smell of success and the damage it inflicts on everyone it touches. Nowhere is this motif more successful that the Ghostface Killah-assisted “Cold Outside,” undoubtedly the best rap song recorded in 2009. Over a rich bed of crying horns, and anchored by a haunting chorus from guest vocalist Suga Bang Bang, Rae and Ghost weave one of their most vivid and intricate webs of rhymes and imagery, with Ghostface vividly lamenting “They found a two year old strangled to death/With a “Love Daddy” shirt on in a bag on the top of the steps.” The attention to detail from Raekwon, Ghostface Killah (who, as with the original OB4CL, serves as Rae’s copilot throughout), and every guest emcee involved in the project easily places OB4CLII far above any other rap album of 2009, based solely on sheer lyricism alone.

Meanwhile, the production, supplied by the likes of RZA, Dr. Dre, J Dilla and The Alchemist to name a few, is impeccable, perfectly capturing the decadence, guilt and relentlessness conveyed in the subject matter. “Baggin Crack” literally sounds like someone taking a razor to a coke-covered mirror, the Dr. Dre-produced “Catalina” hits the jackpot with a fantastic chorus from Lyfe Jennings, and the grand finale, “Kiss The Ring,” features ridiculously fitting sampling of Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” as Rae celebrates his ascent to the top once again.

Many tried, but nobody in the rap game did it better than Raekwon in 2009.

Best Albums of 2009: 1. The Dead Weather's "Horehound"

1. The Dead Weather “Horehound”

Clearly Jack White assembled his latest side project, the utterly brilliant Dead Weather, with one goal in mind; to make the bluesiest, sleaziest, sweatiest, dirtiest, sexiest, most villainous album of the year.

Well, he achieved this goal, and in the process made the best album of the year as well. The masterfully evil Alison Mosshart takes center stage on Horehound, howling away over one near-perfect-yet-perfectly-imperfect, blues-drenched, hard rock number after another, coming off like Patti Smith fronting Led Zeppelin in some backwoods bar joint in Louisiana somewhere. You can practically feel the sweat trickle down your cheek when White and Mosshart feign choking during the drunken, disorienting “I Cut Like A Buffalo,” and the tension only gets thicker when Mosshart croons “There’s a bullet in my pocket burning a hole/You’re so far from you’re weapon and the place you were born” on the slow burning “So Far From Your Weapon.” But its “Treat Me Like Your Mother” that finds the band hitting on something almost supernaturally good. The song strikes out like a caged animal from the second it opens; Mosshart rails against an ungrateful, no good man, wailing “Look me in the eye now/You wanna try to tell a lie?!/But you can’t, and you know why?/I’m just like your mother.” The tumultuous, stuttering verses give way to an eerily steady, droning chorus, with Mosshart repeating “You came home/Too late!” in the kind of tone you’d hear from a woman whose already made up her mind what she’s going to do about her man’s transgressions. No more talking, and no second chances.

“Rocking Horse” sounds like it should have been on the soundtrack to Wild Things (particularly the threesome scene), and the raucous Dylan cover, “New Pony,” which opens with the following lines: “Once I had a pony, Her name was Lucifer/I had a pony, her name was Lucifer/She broke her leg and she needed shooting/I swear it hurt me more than it could ever hurt her,” fits in just fine, don't ya think?

Inevitably, when we reach the end of our journey, at the haunting “Will There Be Enough Water,” in which White and Mosshart wonder “Just because you caught me/does that make it a sin?,” you may get this sinking feeling that perhaps you’ve just taken a sonic journey straight to hell. And you’ll be absolutely right.

This is the devil’s music, you know.