Every publication under the sun that covers music in some way, shape or form has an annual “Best Of” list around this time of year. I read them all. This either means a) I have way too much time on my hands, or b) I care way too much about arbitrary rankings published by people I will never meet. In reality, it’s probably a little of both.
Regardless of which problem(s) I may or may not have, I do know that I enjoy creating lists, particularly concerning things I like. After all, I thought to myself sometime in October, how hard can it be to come up with the year’s 20 best albums based solely on a criteria I make up in my head? Turns out it’s harder than it seems.
I spent months agonizing over every little detail of this list, hoping to make a perfectly ordered piece of authoritative perfection with which no one could quibble. Then, sometime around early December and after much personal consternation, I realized all that effort was in vain. Art is unquantifiable and completely subjective. As much as I believe that everything I feel about these artists is perfectly sane, logical and correct, you will inevitably still think I’m an idiot. This is unavoidable. So, in that spirit and after much procrastination, I decided to suck it up and throw something together.
And thus was born the following list: the best albums of 2009, according to me and some unspecified criteria that only makes sense in my brain. All of you will disagree, and I suppose that’s fine. Feel free to leave your thoughts (positive, negative, apoplectic) in the comment space below. Maybe even make a mini-list of your own if you’re feeling super-ambitious — but, like I said, it’s harder than it looks.
1. Joshua James, Build Me This
This isn’t a hometown pick. Yes, Mr. James calls Provo home and is undoubtedly the local scene’s most nationally visible artist, but those things don’t matter in comparison to the ungodly talent he unleashes on his second record. Build Me This features James doing folk-rock at its absolute best — with a little harder edge than on his 2007 debut, but with the same heartfelt sincerity. One listen to album opener “Coal War” instantly reveals James as one of America’s great young songwriters and a musical talent worthy of serious accolades. Build Me This may be a risky or unorthodox pick for album of the year, but I’m confident it’s the right one. This is a truly brilliant record by a prodigiously gifted artist.
2. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
French rockers Phoenix finally broke out of obscurity with this artfully crafted disc of catchy dance-rock jams. From the opening keyboard plunks and scruffy guitar work of the infectious “Lisztomania” on through the electronica-tinged finale of “Armistice,” Phoenix holds the listener in the palm of their collective hand. Some have been critical of the band’s creative decisions in the months following the album’s release (i.e., lending their masterful hit “1901″ to a Cadillac commercial), but you can’t deny that Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix just makes you want to shake your moneymaker and maybe indulge in a few snails.
3. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion
Brooklyn freak-folkers Animal Collective have been one of indie-rock’s most consistently excellent bands over the last decade. With each successive album, the trio’s music has become more polished and their melodies noticeably more addictive. The process culminated in this year’s excellent Merriweather Post Pavilion, easily the group’s best and most accessible album to date. Combining bits and pieces from a variety of genres, Merriweather is what the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds would have sounded like if Brian Wilson owned a synthesizer and a drum machine.
4. Passion Pit, Manners
Few people had a better 2009 than Passion Pit mastermind and lead vocalist Michael Angelakos, who parlayed a four-song EP he made for his (now ex-)girlfriend into international indie stardom. How is this possible, you ask? (Well, besides the Internet and our culture’s ravenous obsession with “The Next Big Thing?”) It’s simple — Angelakos and crew make insanely enjoyable, surprisingly literate dance-pop. Listening to Manners is like repeatedly injecting pure saccharine into your bloodstream for 45 minutes — and addiction never tasted so sweet.
5. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You
The Avett Brothers have been making their (oddly traditional) folk ruckus for quite some time now, generally in small clubs and dark corners – wherever their ardent fan base can congregate. So it was interesting when the Avetts, renowned for their energetic live performances, teamed up with super-producer Rick Rubin to churn out a collection of slickly produced piano ballads with that Rubin-esque studio sheen. But my goodness, they certainly are beautiful. If the album-opening, lonely road ballad “I and Love and You” doesn’t melt your heart on first listen, you may not have a soul.
6. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear garnered a lot of attention earlier in the year following the May release of their second full-length album. Named after a small Massachusetts island and boasting sublime chamber-pop arrangements, Veckatimest brought a more mature, refined set of sensibilities to the indie genre. The staccato piano, rolling drums and four-part harmonies of the album’s lead single “Two Weeks” form a near-perfect pop gem with an intoxicating catchiness. After all, it hasn’t spent three months as my personal ringtone for nothing.
7. Matt and Kim, Grand
This Brooklyn duo may have made the most consistently underrated album of the year — and that’s a damn shame. The indie community is often skeptical of artists that wear their melodies and hooks on their sleeve — but when did catchy, original pop tunes become a crime against music? Matt and Kim make unique, minimalist dance jams with just a drum set and their Casio keyboard. The beats are as distinctive and different as their shout-along choruses are infectious. If you want to rock out and have a good time with some expertly crafted pop music, Matt and Kim are definitely for you.
8. Girls, Album
There’s nothing better than a good backstory, and Girls frontman Christopher Owens, who was raised as a member of the Children of God cult, sure has one of those. In essence, Girls’ debut album takes Owens’ whirlwind of conflicted childhood emotions and wraps it all up in a bright Beach Boys package. The group’s bouncy, wonderfully efficient pop-rock songs are bright and energetic, even if the lyrical emotions languishing beneath that veneer are often agonizing. While his rough voice and occasional coarse language may not be for everyone, Owens’ Album marks one of the year’s most promising debut efforts.
9. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3
Though many critics felt The Blueprint 3 came up short of being the rapper’s best work, it bears mentioning that even a fairly solid Jay-Z record would be a phenomenal accomplishment for anyone not born Sean Carter. That being said, the third installation in the Blueprint series is more than solid. The hits are there (“Run This Town,” “Empire State of Mind”), star-studded guest appearances dot the tracklist, and Jay’s flow is tight as ever. Despite being safely ensconced in his 40s with nothing left to prove, the greatest rapper alive still shows no signs of slowing down.
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!
Apart from having one of the most creative album covers in quite a few years, It’s Blitz! represents a massive musical shift for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, trading Nick Zinner’s trademark muscular electric guitar work for pulsing synthesizers. The result is a highly stylized dance record that could get any party started. Vocalist Karen O. has never sounded better as she howls her way through the album’s taut 41 minutes and 10 tracks — and when she admonishes you to “get your leather on” in lead single “Zero,” it sounds so good that it’s near-impossible to say no. Here’s to hoping the Yeahs’ next musical evolution is even half as successful as this one.
11. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Most non-rock and roll band ever makes great fuzz-pop for a new generation, dedicates album to their ailing grandparents. (Sarcasm.)
12. The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Alternating between gorgeous harmony-laced ballads and brash foot-stompers, The Low Anthem cover the full folk spectrum. It’s a shame so few people have heard this album.
13. Mosters of Folk, Monsters of Folk
Indie-folk supergroup turns in a surprisingly cohesive set of songs, marked by Conor Oberst’s trademark nasal drawl and Jim James’ always heavenly croon.
14. Dead Man’s Bones, Dead Man’s Bones
Notebook heartthrob and former Mousketeer Ryan Gosling gets all dark and makes a Halloween-esque album featuring schoolchildren singing about their bodies becoming zombies. Highly advanced career move.
15. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca
Yale-educated avant-poppers craft oft-kilter masterpiece, complete with more tempo changes than any regular human being can begin to comprehend.
16. Volcano Choir, Unmap
Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon gets together with friends and goes experimental. If you liked all the sonically ambient characteristics of last year’s For Emma, Forever Ago and can do without any type of functional song structure, Volcano Choir is for you.
17. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day
Kanye West’s protege had a much better 2009 than his mentor — released great space-hop album, won loads of critical praise, didn’t interrupt Taylor Swift at an awards show and provoke global backlash. Success.
18. Manchester Orchestra, Mean Everything to Nothing
Emo for people who think emo is for whiny wimps. Andy Hull shares his continual crises of faith via face-melting rock and roll in a way that makes literalism and confessional songwriting cool again.
19. Wilco, Wilco (the Album)
Jeff Tweedy and company may be well into their 40s with multiple kids, but they still know how to make a great rock record. Sure, Wilco (the Album) is no Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but what is?
20. Neon Indian, Psychic Chasms
The 2010 version of Passion Pit had the good manners (pun definitely intended) to give us a little sneak peek before year’s end. Look for Alan Paloma’s ’80s-derived dance-pop to be the stuff playing at the Alpine Village dance parties you stumble onto where everyone is trying way too hard to be hip. It’s a guarantee.
Steve Pierce is co-founder and editor of Rhombus. His wife is disappointed Taylor Swift’s Fearless didn’t crack the Top 20.