Top 10 albums of 2009
It wasn’t a particularly stellar year for music, but our critics managed to find a few things that didn’t suck.
Sadly, I lost my copy of the latest Dirty Bear Collective opus before I could give it a proper listen. I’m sure it’s a work of life-altering magnificence, but I had to settle for the following (listed in alphabetical order for your shopping convenience).
Summer of Hate
If you own a Spacemen 3 album, you’ve already heard every trick Crocodiles’ drone-stoned Charles Rowell and Brandon Welchez have up their sleeves. But, damn it, don’t you miss Spacemen 3?
Karin Dreijer Andersson (you know her as that vocal-effects addict from the Knife) scares the shit out of me, but in a good way, and I love her even more now that I’ve noticed that the list of influences on Fever Ray’s MySpace page includes Fugazi, Cyndi Lauper, and Trailer Park Boys.
Future of the Left
Travels With Myself and Another
Because every Top 10 list needs at least one record that demands you scream along until your throat is raw, raging against everything or nothing in particular, and because former mclusky nutcase Andrew Falkous is uniquely skilled at making exactly that kind of record.
The production could arguably stand to be a little more fi and a bit less lo, and head Girl Christopher Owens looks like a man who could use a sandwich and a bar of soap. All is forgiven, though, thanks to Owens’s seemingly effortless ability to write indie-rock songs with classic pop hooks sharp enough to give Phil Spector a diamond-cutter.
Kings & Queens
He might be a public-school boy in chav’s clothing, but Jamie Treays has hit upon so irresistible a synthesis of hip-hop wordplay and young-and-snotty punk attitude that I’m willing to overlook the fact that he has as much genuine street cred as John Graham Mellor.
Guns Don’t Kill People”¦ Lazers Do
For me, the summer of ’09 was all about blasting Diplo and Switch’s ridiculous but (mostly) killer tribute to Jamaican dancehall. Well, okay, part of it was also about 3OH!3, but I’d rather not talk about that.
No More Stories”¦
I’d type out the full title, but that would seriously cut into my word count. Denmark’s finest musical export (sorry, Aqua) has created a masterpiece of rock music that’s as accessible as it is formally experimental.
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Twee pop that would rather cavort in the sun than mope in its bedroom.
A Place to Bury Strangers
Brooklyn noise rocker Oliver Ackermann concocts the sickest, most ingeniously skull-splitting guitar tones imaginable, but you’d expect nothing less of a guy who builds his own effects pedals and gives them names like Supersonic Fuzz Gun and Soundwave Breakdown.
The recently dissolved Rakes’ swan song consists of 10 bracing tracks of live-wire postpunk shot through with a heady dose of modern discontent, courtesy of whip-smart (and rake-thin) frontman Alan Donohoe.
Anyone else get the feeling it was the kind of year when everyone was sitting around waiting for the next big thing, which never arrived? Which is another way of saying that the new Cobra Starship record wasn’t it.
Summer of Hate
Stinking fantastically of synth-fried doom, guitar-blazed gloom, and general soul-sucking angst, punky postpop alchemists Crocodiles proved that two-pieces aren’t nearly as played-out as we’ve been conditioned to believe. If cold-coffin black best describes the colour of your heart, get ready to fall in love.
No longer a freak-flag-flying anti-folk boho in a stained wife-beater, Regina Spektor slips into a slinky black cocktail dress for Far, which does nothing to wreck the party. Her inner weirdo hasn’t been completely banished so much as given a shimmering chamber-pop makeover.
Joel Gibb officially bids adieu to the Canadian indie-rock ghetto with a sprawling suite of orchestral wonders. The Turkish-flavoured, genre-blending opulence of “Ratify the New” alone proves that our boy has come a long way from the cultural wasteland that is Mississauga, Ontario.
Monsters of Folk
Monsters of Folk
Can anyone actually name a Bright Eyes, M. Ward, or My Morning Jacket song without using a lifeline to call the staff at Zulu? Of course not, making it even crazier that this supergroup featuring Conor Oberst, Jim James, and Ward came up with 15 killers that range from blissed-out folktronica to Death Valley Americana.
Love Comes Close
A hardcore-punk survivor, a noise-music veteran, and a Xiu Xiu escapee team up to take mega-distorted synth-pop to nightmarish extremes, the whole effect being not unlike a 20-degrees-below-zero ecstasy freak-out in a strobe-lit mortuary. Totally terrifying in the very best way.
Scott H. Biram
Something’s Wrong/Lost Forever
The self-professed Dirty Old One Man Band finally proves he’s got more to offer than a great live shtick. Biram hasn’t lost his taste for sweaty bathtub-gin blues, but he suddenly sounds like he’s developed a thing for clapboard-shack gospel, outlaw country, and ready-to-rumble rockabilly.
Think Cat Power before she started making music for Yaletown dinner parties, and you’ll have a good starting point for (a)spera, the fourth album from the under-the-radar solo artist known as Mirah. Wounded and weary has seldom sounded so beautiful and sublime.
Black Mountain’s main man embraces his alter ego with a gorgeous cocktail of orange sunshine dream-pop, purple-hazed freak folk, and peyote-stoned anti-country. Seriously, whatever mind-expanding strain of cheeba Stephen McBean has stumbled onto, he really should be sharing it with the rest of Vancouver.
Let the Dominoes Fall
The East Bay veterans give today’s Warped Generation a complete schooling in classic punk rock, with detours into ragged-glory folk and Trenchtown reggae. Nearly 20 years into their run, the reigning kings of fast, loud, and spiky have no intention of giving up their battered crowns.
The album title is a tad ironic, considering that the only colour English post-postpunkers the Horrors seem remotely interested in is bat-cave black. Deliciously dark and often loud as fuck, this is what the Jesus and Mary Chain hoped the future would sound like back in the ’80s.
Another year, another huge backlog of music I didn’t even get to. Which isn’t exactly the worst problem you could have, is it?
Manic Street Preachers
Journal for Plague Lovers
The sheer, reborn gusto of the Manics marks an incredible feat for a rock band in its 24th year, and this is the only time in living memory that a reference to Rush (in the title track) didn’t cause me to wipe my arse on a CD.
The Happiness Project
Spearin’s radiant cut-up tribute to his neighbourhood has the creative-humanist feel of an old John and Faith Hubley cartoon, not to mention the spooky power to make critics reach for extremely obscure comparisons.
Third masterpiece in a row for Mr. Midnight. Even more placid and starlit than usual, Hawley is the hipster’s bridge into the wee small hours after a hard day of grappling with the cutting edge.
Wilco (The Album)
For “You Never Know”, really. I’m always happy to discover that somebody shares my deep appreciation for George Harrison’s guitar sound. And it’s been a while since I liked a Wilco record this much. (Being There, done that, know what I mean?)
200 Million Thousand
That Black Lips makes it sound so easy at this point tells us that the militantly shabby pee drinkers have probably reached the top of their curve. Vintage-sounding garage punk, but really just music for assholes.
The Liberty of Norton Folgate
I’m aware that we should be trumpeting all things new, but fuck it, nothing gave me more pure joy this year than one of England’s greatest singles bands of yore re-emerging with a concept album as fragrant as a stroll through Camden Market with Ray Davies, the Beatles, and King Tubby for company.
Aside from Ward’s casual songwriting brilliance, Hold Time is full of killer flourishes like the Phil Spector–ish kettledrums and Christmas bells that invade “Rave On”, and the dry-as-a-bone Glitterband beat versus overdriven twang in “Never Had Nobody Like You”. One of those records that you love instantly, or I did, anyway.
Summer of Hate
This would be a disposable JAMC rip by hopeless poseurs if I weren’t around to say it isn’t, so here I am, and it’s not.
Locally made, breathtakingly accomplished country rock living somewhere between the Jayhawks and our own, late Blue Shadows, from a dude I’ve never heard of. Pete Werner, who the hell are you? Marry me!
Monoliths and Dimensions
Dunno about you, but I sit here every day waiting anxiously for reality to splinter like an overstressed windowpane; a somewhat uncomfortable feeling, if you must know, neatly captured on an album that dares to put sulphuric women’s choirs, the mortal screaming of tube amps, and the legacies of Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Gyí¶rgy Lygeti, Mayhem, and Charles Fort in a sacred circle somewhere to the left of the face on Mars, in solemn anticipation of the birth of the Avant God. On a scale of one to 10, I give it negative infinity.
The Decemberists’ The Hazards of Love has been hailed as a masterpiece, which has clearly made frontman Colin Meloy (back row, centre) and his nattily attired bandmates giddy with joyful graditude.
This year’s list is split between records that address the Big Issues of our times, albeit obliquely, and others that are dreamy or exotic enough to make the world’s troubles seem very far away. In alphabetical order, as always:
Jon Balke/Amina Alaoui
A timely and successful attempt to find common cause between Europe and the Arab world, Siwan features Norwegian keyboardist Jon Balke setting Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui’s gorgeous voice to music that also connects the baroque era to the contemporary avant-garde.
All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
Singer-guitarist Tim Rutili and bandmates assemble a soundtrack to the film of the same name, but one that stands on its own as an object lesson in how to wake up blues-based songs through sonic experimentation.
At the Cut
Possibly a career best for this wickedly imaginative lyricist—and certainly the source of the year’s most moving song, the tender, sorrowful, and yet weirdly optimistic “Flirted With You All My Life”. Death has never sounded so good.
The Hazards of Love
Slightly less wonderful than 2006’s The Crane Wife but still a magnificent undertaking, The Hazards of Love is a Child Ballad–influenced song cycle that harks back to the glory days of Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin.
The most radical trumpeter going makes a relatively accessible recording—if you’re up for an hour of chilly, abstract soundscapes and deep, doomy pulsations. Works for me!
The Low Anthem
Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
The Low Anthem makes the cut on the basis of a single song, “To Ohio”, both in its original form and in the Brian Eno–influenced remix. It’s the absolute essence of heartbreak, and a stellar example of how to make something brand-new from an ancient American template.
The Low Frequency In Stereo
Any band that bills itself as “Hawaiian/experimental/neo-soul” has got my vote, even if this Norwegian quintet sounds more like ABBA’s Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Fí¤ltskog jamming with Can under Thurston Moore’s guiding hand. Caution: playing Futuro in the car has been known to result in speeding tickets.
Tim Posgate Horn Band
Toronto guitarist and banjo picker Tim Posgate has cracked the code to a new form of jazz, one that incorporates both musical sophistication and a great deal of populist appeal. The presence of tuba legend Howard Johnson doesn’t hurt, either.
TV on the Radio guitarist Kyp Malone’s solo project is a loopy interior monologue based on what it’s like to be black and brilliant in the United States today. Incorporating both banjo folk and bed-sit soul, and punctuated at times by ecstatic falsetto singing, it’s outsider art on an exquisitely high level.
Magic happened in Memphis, circa 1950, and again in San Francisco in the mid ’60s, thanks to the fateful collision of folk performers and amplified instrumentation. The same process is going on right now in the western Sahara, where the nomad musicians of Tinariwen have taken up the electric guitar to invent the deep desert blues.
It wasn’t a stellar year for music, but thanks to an amazing southern-rock/alt-country band from Georgia and four Canadian artists I managed to scrape together a list of 10 albums that rose above the dismal din.
The Fine Print (a collection of oddities and rarities) 2003-2008
It’s a testament to the depth and talent of the DBTs that this collection of outtakes and alternate versions is so strong, whether in the form of a cautionary message to a country great (“George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues”) or a gripping tale of organized arson (“The Great Car Dealer War”).
Live From Austin TX
The cool thing about this live CD/DVD package is that after you’re done just listening to the songs—many of them culled from the DBTs’ sprawling 2008 masterwork Brighter Than Creation’s Dark—you can see them performed for TV’s Austin City Limits.
Now here’s a cookin’ combo made in instro-rock heaven: the Drive-By Truckers backing up Hammond B3 legend Booker T. Jones, with Neil Young sitting in on lead guitar. Their music-only version of OutKast’s “Hey Ya!” is a real hoot.
Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey
Sixteen years after Kerosene Hat, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman still have the guitar-rock goods. “Hey Bret (You Know What Time It Is)” is a get-your-ass-up boogie classic to rival AC/DC’s “You Shook Me (All Night Long)”.
Rachelle van Zanten
Where Your Garden Grows
The former Painting Daisies member from Burns Lake delivers 10 rootsy odes to the wonders of nature and our fragile environment. She also plays a pretty mean guitar.
Performing This Week”¦Live at Ronnie Scott’s
The world’s greatest living rock guitarist performs a career-spanning concert, mixing originals with works by Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, jazz stalwarts Billy Cobham and John McLaughlin, and Indian maestro Nitin Sawhney.
Achin in Yer Bones
Texas-based Americana great Gurf Morlix produced and played numerous instruments on this splendid blues outing by Winnipeg’s answer to Lucinda Williams. According to the liner notes, the CD is dedicated to the memory of the late great Willie P. Bennett.
Steve Morse Band
Out Standing in Their Field
Joe Satriani left a void in the instrumental-rock world when he made the artistically perverse decision to join Chickenfoot, but former Dixie Dreg Morse picks up the slack in the mind-boggling company of bassist Dave LaRue and drummer Van Romaine.
Rich Hope Is Gonna Whip It on Ya
Speaking of the lowly Chickenfoot, the booking mismatch of the year had local roots-rawk hero Hope opening for Sammy Hagar and company at the Commodore. The honest, gutbucket roadhouse blues that Hope specializes in has no connection whatsoever to that alleged supergroup’s money-grubbing crotch-rock.
Works Well With Others
I only gave this CD three stars out of five in an on-line review last month, but since then it’s earned another one in my mind. The transformation Dillon has made from rough ’n’ tumble frontman for the hard-rocking Headstones to poetic purveyor of inventive, melodic pop is a surprising and commendable one.
When you’re as potent a ladies’ man as Pink Mountaintops’ Courvoisier-swilling kingpin Stephen McBean is, a dirty bathrobe is actually an asset.
I’m not sure when it happened—possibly March—but at some point after the 2009 Times Square ball came crashing down, my musical palette suddenly became narrowed down to one style: wimpy. With that in mind, folks, make sure your chamomile tea and floral needlepoint are close by to maximize the impact of these largely sentimental titles.
Admittedly, I was a little late in jumping on the Lightning Dust celebratory wagon, but now that I’ve scrambled aboard, I can’t say enough about the moody indie lullabies spun by the darling Vancouver duo.
The Dutchess and the Duke
My checklist for a suitable mate not only starts with gorgeous dimples and an uncanny ability to spell words like sesquipedalian, but also includes a love for this Rolling Stones–inspired masterpiece. Weaving gorgeous tales heavy with heart-wrenching emotion and timeless melodies, the Pacific Northwest outfit stands as the most promising act on the block today.
Forget about what you learned in high-school geography: Kirk Taylor’s Mississippi-flavoured organ and spooky blues-based swagger prove that the Timber Timbre mastermind is a bona fide southern man, despite the fact that he calls downtown Toronto home.
If you’ve ever wondered what pure happiness sounds like, this is it. Valium, Prozac, Ativan: none of these modern-day bliss makers can offer up the contentment guaranteed in listening to these lo-fi New Jersey popsters.
Love and Curses
What would 2009 be without a good breakup album? Ringleader Greg Cartwright casts himself as a lovesick troubadour, putting sorrow and romantic misgivings to countrified tunes that will soothe your weary heart.
The follow-up to 2006’s Axis of Evol presents itself as a bit of a mind-fuck. Tracks like “The Gayest of Sunbeams” feel like an open invitation to strip off your clothes and straddle your lover atop a bearskin rug, whereas sombre numbers like “Vampire” tempt you to thumb through old Polaroids of long-lost flames. Either way, Stephen McBean and the gang are onto something, and it’s up to you to make the most of it.
Earthmen and Strangers
Earthmen and Strangers
Long before Jay Reatard became a Matador Records cash cow, he played in the trash-punk outfit the Reatards with Earthmen and Strangers head honcho Ryan “Elvis Wong” Rousseau. It seems Rousseau is now after his own piece of the mainstream pie, and this catchy U.K.-punk-leaning, pop-tinged debut might just get him one.
Et Moi et Moi et Moi, 1966–1969
Parlez-vous franí§ais? Well, even if you don’t, this playful compilation of dazzling ’60s French pop is the perfect pick-me-up.
Thee Oh Sees
The second of two LPs released by the freaky San Francisco folksters this year, Dog Poison takes top honours on account of its major kook factor. Frontman John Dwyer easily defends his title as garage rock’s reigning messiah with a never-ending supply of cockeyed psych melodies.
The bus, your ex-girlfriend, the B.C. Liberals—you can’t count on any of them. Thankfully, though, Seattle lo-fi masters the Intelligence never disappoint. Fake Surfers is solid through and through. It also happens to boast one of the most incredible song names of the year: “Thank You God for Fixing the Tape Machine”.
Politicians climb the greasy pole, make speeches from their own assholes, deny the climate’s fate foretold, gag voices that they can’t control, the arts hold out a begging bowl, and the band plays on and on and on on the Titanic. The silver swine trough is always filled, and it’s the poor who foot the bill—but it’s all right, Ma, we got the Olympics.
Together Through Life
Words and music carved by a master, with a combo that includes Los Lobos accordionist David Hidalgo. Check “If You Ever Go to Houston”, which takes a line from Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” and weaves from it a raw and rambling lost-love tale.
World-music star Oumou Sangare has been mostly absent for the past decade, raising a son. The Wassoulou nightingale is back on top of the tree, her voice as supple and nuanced as ever, leading a superb ensemble that draws on 50 musicians.
You can hear the winds and the heat of the Sahara in Tinariwen’s trance-y blend of call-and-response Tuareg songs with meshing electric guitars, traditional rhythms, handclaps, and hand drums. Includes a great DVD documentary to provide context.
Rupa and The April Fishes
San Francisco’s Rupa and the April Fishes are the top world-music fusion outfit on the West Coast. Indo-American leader Rupa Marya sings mainly in French and Spanish, blending European, Hindu, and Latin traditions into a unique Bay Area cocktail.
Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits
Sí£o Paulo–born, New York–based Cyro Baptista is a percussion crazy man who can’t stop making music and instruments. These restlessly imaginative, shape-shifting songs percolate with jazz, Brazilian rhythms, Middle Eastern melodies, and musical wit from a quartet that includes Matisyahu keyboardist Brian Marsella.
Le Vent du Nord
La Part du Feu
Montreal-area quartet Le Vent du Nord is hailed in Europe as Canada’s best roots-music band, but is little known out west. Strong traditional and original songs from Quebec—foot-clogging rhythms with hurdy-gurdy and fiddle as leads.
Things About Comin’ My Way
Vancouver’s Steve Dawson is mastermind, producer, guitarist, and bandleader on this fine tribute to the Mississippi Sheiks, the greatest blues and folk outfit of the ’30s. Great tracks from the likes of John Hammond, Bill Frisell, Geoff Muldaur, Bruce Cockburn, and Madeleine Peyroux.
French sextet Lo’Jo mixes rock, funk, and dub with cabaret and circus styles, Romany and eastern European traditions, and northwest African rhythms and instruments. Songwriter and lead vocalist Denis Péan is a poet who travels far, in every direction.
Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara
Tell No Lies
British guitarist Justin Adams (ex–Robert Plant) and Gambian one-string riti fiddler Juldeh Camara create great new world music, giving a hard contemporary edge to timeless West African rhythms and melodies.
Vieux Farka Touré
Another African album of searing electric guitar, from the son of late desert-blues legend Ali Farka Touré. Vieux has inherited Dad’s axes and deep knowledge of Malian traditions, but whereas the father drew on John Lee Hooker and the blues, the son looks to Hendrix and rock.
And that’s when Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons vowed that he would never again apply his makeup in a darkened room without a mirror.
Every year, without fail, I find out about two or three kick-ass records over the holidays that have me rethinking my list entirely. As always, I can’t wait to hear them. In the meantime, here are the albums that racked up the most plays on my iPod.
There are a ton of perfect moments on Veckatimest, like the oddly danceable folk-pop of “Southern Point”, or the bubbling Rhodes lead on “Two Weeks”, but the Brooklyn quartet’s pitch-perfect vocals are what sell the record. They’re completely unbeatable. Unless your singing group is made up of eunuch choirboys, the resurrected corpse of Ol’ Blue Eyes, and a couple of clones of Simon & Garfunkel, you should probably just quit while you’re ahead.
King of Jeans
It’s easy to spiral into self-pity while getting behind Pissed Jeans’ sleazy, Black Flag–sprinkled hardcore, in which singer Matt Korvette mostly grunts about how crappy he feels. Alternatively, you could be thankful that you’re not the one dealing with embarrassing boners, a fat ass, a crummy job, and a balding crown. The choice is yours.
Merriweather Post Pavilion
You might miss the manic, jungle-drum rhythms and carnival shrieks of Animal Collective’s past, but the captivating singsong choruses of calypso-electro number “Brother Sport” and bone-rattling Euro club banger “My Girls” alone are worth the change of sonic scenery.
As breakout albums go, Bitte Orca’s messed-up art-rock mashup of Led Zeppelin, Ali Farka Touré, and early Mariah Carey is as head-scratching as they come.
It was hard not to hear the strains of Spoon’s blue-eyed soul on White Rabbits’ sophomore set, produced by tour bud Britt Daniel. But the group’s percussive focus on tunes like “Percussion Gun”, a high-energy hybrid of Adam and the Ants and the cast of STOMP, is what sets the sextet apart from its peers.
Antony and The Johnsons
The Crying Light
The initial shock of Antony’s otherworldly warble has worn off since 2005’s I Am a Bird Now, and all that’s left is another hauntingly gorgeous album of dark, piano-driven pop. Bummer, right?
The King Khan & BBQ Show
Hearing nasty-ass King Khan sing about tasting his lady’s butt through his testes on “Tastebuds” proves that juke-joint ragers can still offend and outrage people like they once did your parents’ grandparents.
From the skittish tape loops on indie rumba “Tail & Mane” to the title track’s sleigh-bell-driven surf rock, Cryptacize mixes things up throughout Mythomania, shattering almost every expectation along the way.
Now that Deerhunter is on hiatus, Bradford Cox has more time to showcase his slightly more experimental project. With the singer spiking his familiar sad-sack shoegaze style with electronic rave-ups, Logos sounds, unsurprisingly, like a more experimental Deerhunter album. What’s also unsurprising is that it sounds great.
Press reports of bar brawls and festival meltdowns paint Nathan Williams (aka Wavves) as a bit of a douchebag, but the kid’s still got the goods. Armed with a million distortion pedals, a couple of cribbed Beach Boys hooks, and the lousiest production values of all time, Wavves showed us all that pop doesn’t always have to sound so crystalline.
Grizzly Bear’s members live together in a converted one-room schoolhouse, where they listen to old Beach Boys records and burn furniture for warmth.
I had a great 2009, which may put me out of step with the Zeitgeist. Keep that in mind if you seek a deeper meaning in this often sunny, often Scandinavian hard-rock and metal list. In the immortal words of April Wine, it means I like to rock.
Cinematic in its ambition (“Movie Gods”) and epic in its realization (“Wolf and the Moon”), this Finnish sextet’s third album delivers prog-tinged, synth-blessed heavy rock at its finest. If anyone penned a more inspirational anthem than guitarist-songwriter Tuomas Heikkinen’s “Rider of Storm” this year, I’d like to hear it.
No Sacrifice, No Victory
Like hockey’s Sedin twins, the Swedish power-metal songwriting duo of axeman Oscar Dronjak and vocalist Joacim Cans delivers pure chemistry year after year, not always lauded, but always reliable. Seven albums in, HammerFall still brings a knack for optimistic, defiant sing-alongs (“Life Is Now”), ultra-catchy riffs (“Punish and Enslave”), and colourful covers (“My Sharona”).
From the folkloric reveries of “Highest Star” to the soaring cadences of “Course of Fate”, the 20-year metal veterans rhapsodize and roar their way with style through the follow-up to 2007’s Silent Waters. Lyrically, it’s great PR for Ilmarinen, the creator-blacksmith of Finnish legend.
Ex–Yngwie Malmsteen singer Jeff Scott Soto rebounds nicely here after getting fired from his retirement-fund gig fronting Journey. His cascading-waterfall vocals propel this brand-new trio’s glistening, ’80s-style hard rockers like “One Love” and “Invincible”.
3 Inches of Blood
Here Waits Thy Doom
When Cam Pipes shrieks in his Rob Halford–esque falsetto, “Beware the preacher’s daughter,” you wonder if it’s about a night of passion gone wrong in Abbotsford. The Vancouver metal traditionalists unapologetically ram out ’70s chord changes and humorous D&D lyrics on an album that’s a grower.
A return to classic form for Finnish power metal’s most enduring institution. Long-time songwriter Timo Tolkki is gone, but the operatic vocals of Timo Kotipelto and helter-skelter fills of drummer Jí¶rg Michael are showcased here in their dramatic, wintry glory.
Last Look at Eden
Nobody dubbed Europe environmental crusaders when they released “The Final Countdown” in their hair-spray heyday, but this month they rocked the UN climate-change summit. Evidently, the modern-yet-gripping pop bombast on their third reunion album since ’04 isn’t depleting their credibility.
Echoes of Eternity
As Shadows Burn
As Shadows Burn is even bigger and bolder than the female-fronted, L.A.–based melodic metal quintet’s 2007 debut, The Forgotten Goddess. Pumped-up production enhances drummer Kirk Carrison’s intricately thrashy beats, while Francine Boucher warbles mythic lyrics in full-bodied splendour.
Apparently, shamelessly revisiting your old sound and rehashing ’80s demos can result in your hookiest album, track for track, in more than 25 years. Eddie Van Halen, are you paying attention?
Smoke and Mirrors
Former Dokken riffmonger George Lynch stages a guitar clinic with his solo band’s first all-original studio album since 1999’s rap-metal experiment Smoke This. Capable of pleasing Deep Purple and Gary Moore fans alike, and featuring the return of original belter Oni Logan, this 13-track outing is even more surprising in its success than the new KISS.
Everyone’s a critic; that’s an old saying, but it’s especially fitting in an era when everyone has a soapbox and nobody pays for music. Too bad, then, that we’re nearing the end of the worst decade in pop history. In the wider historical sense, even the records below are merely very okay.
Sounds of the Universe
Just another Depeche Mode album—an immaculate collection of songs imbued with enough psychological depth and musical sophistication to utterly shame the world’s many spastic-hipster synth-pop bands.
Coldplay’s last album began as U2’s The Joshua Tree did, with a gorgeous synthesizer overture in the Brian Eno style. Coldplay’s opener was written and played by Jon Hopkins, an Eno protégé whose third album, Insides, is an object of crystalline beauty.
Deeper Than Rap
The most luxurious and regal-sounding rap record since The Blueprint, this is the album Jay-Z should have made this year. The fact that the once-buffoonish Ross has the world’s best ghostwriters penning his rhymes makes him not just tolerable, but triumphant. Who would have believed it?
Love vs. Money
If R. Kelly is the king of R&B, then his crown princes are Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, the creators of the fluttering, rapturous sound that Rihanna, Mariah, and Kelly himself have copped. Love vs. Money is the definitive synopsis of the Nash/Stewart method, a relentlessly tuneful and euphoric testament to their genius.
Woozy and sunburnt, Album seems like it could have emerged from a time capsule buried under the Santa Monica Pier in 1962. Over 12 note-perfect tunes, Girls gives a sense of how surf-pop might have sounded if everyone had been as fucked-up as Brian Wilson.
As Love’s Forever Changes was to ’60-era psychedelic pop, so Veckatimest is to today’s indie generation—a masterwork of melody and refinement in a scene that too often contents itself with sloppiness.
The Shimmering Hour
This was the year dubstep went overground, but for me, the best electronic full-length was The Shimmering Hour, a throwback to first-wave intelligent dance producers LFO and Aphex Twin. All skittering synth-drums and squelching pads, this disc will get a rare breed of 30-something nerd all misty-eyed for the good old days.
Sample-based dance music never sounded so brittle and chilling as it does on Symbiosis, an eerie album-length exploration of what might best be called horror-techno.
In general, I don’t think DJ mixes qualify as albums, but an exception applies to Detroit’s Omar S, whose contribution to the Fabric franchise is a compilation of his own tracks. Funky and rugged as hell, his productions retrace techno to its roots in urban black America.
After writing and producing hits for Madonna, Britney, Kylie, and J.Lo, the three men who make up Miike Snow—two Swedes and an American—made a few of their own, crafting the year’s best electronic-pop record.
More contributors' picks for the best albums of 2009:
Read John Lucas's picks for 2009.
Read Mike Usinger's picks for 2009.
Read Adrian Mack's picks for 2009.
Read Alexander Varty's picks for 2009.
Read Steve Newton's picks for 2009.
Read Jenny Charlesworth's picks for 2009.
Read Tony Montague's picks for 2009.
Read Gregory Adams's picks for 2009.
Read Lucas Aykroyd's picks for 2009.
Read Martin Turenne's picks for 2009.
View all ten contributor's picks on a single page.