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.
Jon Balke and Amina Alaoui's "A La Dina Dana".
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.
Califone's "Funeral Singers".
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.
Vic Chesnutt's "Flirted With You All My Life".
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 Decemberists' "The Hazards of Love 1".
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!
Arve Henriksen's "Sorrow and its Opposite".
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 Anthem's "To Ohio".
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.
Low Frequency in Stereo's "Texas Fox".
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.
Rain Machine's "Smiling Black Faces".
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.
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.