2009 was an embarassment of musical riches. After a lackluster year last year, this is the best 365 days of musical releases for me since at least 2003 (maybe ever). I expanded the list to my top 20 meanwhile a third of my “most anticipated” albums weren’t even released and I still have a few albums I didn’t even get around to. Translated: I did the best I could but it was nearly impossible to include all the noteworthy music, let alone rank things appropriately. The “also receiving votes” section has more quality to it than ever, but just because I got tired of writing don’t ignore those entries. With that in mind, here are my subjective highlights of the year in music:
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run
The Who – Who’s Next
Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros – Global A-Go-Go
The Clash – Anything and Everything
New Found Glory – Not Without A Fight
This album isn’t as bad as the other albums in this section, but if I wanted to listen to something that sounds like this, I’d pull out one of their superior albums from ten years ago. I may be in the minority here, but I thought this was a step back after displaying some growth in Coming Home.
Eminem – Relapse
There were a couple stand out tracks, but this was mostly trash (and not the good kind like his earlier stuff).
Two Tongues – Two Tongues
How can two of the genre’s top song writers produce such an unmemorable collection of songs? Say Anything was clearly saving it’s best material for their self titled release. Hopefully Saves The Day does the same with their upcoming album.
RX Bandits – Mandela
The talent in this band is undeniable, but I had always listened to them because of the horn element, which unfortunately was completely taken out in this latest album. The keyword in this categorization is clearly “disappointing” instead of “bad.”
Also Receiving Votes:
They do not get a thumbnail but they can try again next year.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Fightstar – Be Human
Ace Enders and a Million Different People – When I Hit The Ground
Umphreys McGee – Mantis
Mutemath – Armistice
Franz Ferdinand – Tonight
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
MeWithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All A Dream It’s Alright
Harlem Shakes – Technicolor Health
Mew – No More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away / No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away
Dashboard Confessional – Alter The Ending
20. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones – Pin Points and Gin Joints
“I was in a barroom that was somewhere on the southern shore of Boston/The tender of the bar poured me a whiskey on the house/I had a love for whiskey, I chased it with a beer/I have a love for Boston and I loved writing it there.”
Out of all the reunion albums I was expecting this year, this was the one that actually happened (not sure what Blink 182 and Eve 6 are out there doing right now). Considering how many ska bands regularly get played on my iPod, it’s surprising that for the most part I’m pretty cool towards most of the Bosstones’ discography. The exception is 2002’s A Jackknife To A Swan which I really dig. Considering they have been on hiatus since that album, my anticipation for PP&GJ ended up not matching up with the final result. There are some quality jams to be found here (thus a presence on this list), but overall I was disappointed, particularly with some lazy songwriting.
I Wrote It
The Bricklayer’s Story
A Pretty Sad Excuse
19. All Time Low – Nothing Personal
“Maybe it’s not my weekend/But it’s gonna be my year/And I’m so sick of watching while the minutes pass as I go nowhere/And this is my reaction/To everything I fear/Cause I’ve been going crazy/I don’t want to waste another minute here.”
I just can’t help myself. I like crappy music sometimes and this is an example of that vice. All Time Low popped onto my radar because they were a local band to me when I was living in Maryland. Now they seem positioned to be this generation’s Blink-182 (when I say “this generation” I mean the horrible, thieving, whoring, Twilight-loving, Hot Topic generation who are too young to know who Monica Lewinski or Lou Bega are). The lyrics are stupid and poppy and this album will probably rot your brain, but it really is great driving music. At its best it sounds like New Found Glory in their heyday. “Keep The Change You Filthy Animal” seriously could have been written by NFG in 2002.
Break Your Little Heart
A Party Song (The Walk Of Shame)
18. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
“The next time that I caught my own reflection it was on its way to meet you/Thinking of excuses to postpone/You never looked like yourself from the side/But your profile could not hide/The fact you knew I was approaching your throne/With folded arms you occupied/The bench like toothache/Stood and puffed your chest out like you’d never lost a war/Although I tried so not to suffer the indignity of a reaction/There was no cracks to grasp or gaps to claw”
Let me start out by saying that if this were the Arctic Monkeys’ first album I would not have listened to any of their other ones. I definitely had to let it grow on me. Every song still sounds like it belongs in a James Bond movie, but now they belong in the boring parts. Maybe the parts in M’s office. There are still a few standout tracks that will grab you on the first spin, but enjoyment of this album comes just relaxing and going along with the looser feel. While I like this album, it’s not really what I’m looking for from this band. I’d gladly trade in some maturity and band growth in favor of some of the infectiousness of their first two albums.
The Jeweler’s Hands
17. Fake Problems – It’s Great To Be Alive
“You said I do not love him anymore/And as the words left your mouth/I should have went for the door/But I forgot how skilled an actress you are /So I stuck around like a fool asking for more.”
Fake Problems’ sophomore album It’s Great To Be Alive is my first exposure to the band and it definitely made an impression. The album tackles issues ranging from relationships to religion to loneliness. The band seems to come from a punk background, but has expanded on that base to include a wide array of instruments that will always keep you on your toes. At times this band even sounds like something that would be concocted by the Muppets (and I mean that in the best possible way).
You’re A Serpent, You’re A She-Snake
Level With The Devil
16. The Dangerous Summer – Reach For The Sun
“So tell me what you think of the atmosphere/And all those months inside my head/Well do you really believe in me?/I will hold this like a gun/Because I’ve got some things to do.”
This is that album that I kept forgetting about but when I would listen to it I’d still be surprised by how good it is. Instrumentally, there isn’t anything groundbreaking going on here, but it is catchy enough. What sets this album apart is the deceptively dark lyrics that if you’re not paying attention would not seem to go with the style of music being played. I’d also recommend this Ellicott City, Maryland band to anyone who is missing The Starting Line (at least their later work), because the similarity of styles, particularly the vocals, is striking.
This Is War
15. Chuck Ragan – Gold Country
“A wise old friend recently told me/An idle mind is the devils playpen/Mind the gaps and watch them closely/Spread the love but choose your friends wisely/Love yourself to love your family/And find the difference between wants and needs/Be sure to stop and count your blessings/Smell the roses and fight for something.”
Chuck Ragan was a part of the inexplicable folk phase I went through for a couple months this year. I got hooked on his first solo album Feast Or Famine and anticipated this album for much of 2009. There’s something about this style of music that takes me to a peaceful place. This was my soundtrack to several summer sunsets on my deck this year with a beer in hand. I’m not sure why this style of music has never clicked with me until now, but I know I’ve never needed a peace of mind more than I have this year so maybe it all makes sense.
For Goodness Sake
Done And Done
14. AFI – Crash Love
“I thought you sang so tastefully/But now I see I was wrong/Your serenade turns to filth/when I leave so, please, cut the love song.”
First of all, thank God somebody got a haircut, so I don’t have to vomit every time I think about this band. I guess it’s better to vomit because of hair than because of your music though (I’m looking at you, BrokeNCYDE). Thankfully, this is not AFI’s problem. I really only started listening after Decemberunderground so my frame of reference is ridiculously small but Crash Love is my favorite release by this band. Gone are the synthy grooves of Decemberunderground replaced with a more poppy sound while still remaining true to the band’s goth-punk roots.
Okay, I Feel Better Now
Darling, I Want To Destroy You
13. Big D And The Kids Table – Fluent In Stroll
“8-6-5/Baby study the rhyme/Dancing in the street all loopy and blind/2-3-9/My little partner in crime/Didn’t study for the test and it’s past bedtime/8-6-5/Baby study the rhyme/Feeling like we’re moving through water tonight/2-3-9/It’s a victimless crime/Just digging on the feeling of feeling sublime”
This album really came out of nowhere to become a staple of my summer soundtrack. I’ve never been a fan of this band. Like, at all. So I’m not sure why I even gave it a chance, but I’m glad I did. They call their new style “stroll,” which is described on Wikipedia as “a mix of double-dutch, ska, reggae, and soul.” Double-dutch? I’m pretty sure that’s as made up as “stroll,” but the final result is a breezy, relaxed album that I will probably breaking out for many summers to come.
Doped Up Dollies On A One Way Ticket To Blood
Describing The Sky
A Kiss A Week
Fluent In Stroll
12. Cartel – Cycles
“Let me reintroduce myself/As a man with a cause/I’ve had a lot of time to think/And look at who we are/And I’ve got nothing left to say/But we’ve got to carry on/And I’ve got so much left to do/But I’ll start with this song.”
Following Cartel’s pop-punk classic Chroma, there were a lot of high hopes for their follow up self titled album. I, and many others apparently, were left a little disappointed. Only this year did I finally decide that I was perhaps too harsh on the self-titled, but Cycles really represents more what I’m looking for out of this band: upbeat pop-punk tunes. While Cycles doesn’t reach the heights of Chroma, it is more a step in that direction. In fact, if I have a criticism of this album it’s that it’s a bit too homogenous and could maybe use a couple more change of pace songs. Regardless, this album is exactly what you’d expect with catchy summertime driving tunes and terrific vocals.
The Perfect Mistake
It Still Remains
11. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane
“If you were my life’s companion/As it seems you may turn out to be/I’m contemplating/How I hope I’ll find you waiting/At the very end of this crooked line.”
As prolific as Costello is (he’s released 11 albums in the past 8 years), I try to always to at least check out every release. Last year’s back-to-basics album Momofuku was certainly a highlight of recent years but in years past this bluegrassy offering would have been pretty quickly discarded by yours truly. Oddly, I was actually in the midst of a folk/Americana kick inspired primarily by Chuck Ragan, so this was released with impeccable timing.
The Crooked Line
10. Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
“Mayday this is not a test!/As the neighborhood burns/American is falling/Vigilantes warning you/Calling Christian and Gloria!”
Note to Green Day: you are not The Who, no matter how much you’d like to be. The first couple of times I listened to this album I hated it. Part of that was probably based on my thoughts on the first single, “Know Your Enemy,” which could be summed up with, “It took you five years to write…this?” That song fits a lot better within the context of the album, but still I don’t find much that really sticks out in the first half of this record. Luckily it’s so freaking long, that there’s still plenty of material that packs a punch in the second half. The bottom line is that I can appreciate wanting to give your fans as many new songs as possible after producing nothing for five years, but someone really needed to tell Green Day to take a hatchet to maybe a quarter of these songs. It would have made the final product a much more enjoyable listen for me.
Restless Heart Syndrome
9. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
“And here I am, softer than a shower/And here I am, to garland you with flowers/To lay you down in a clover bed/The stars a roof above our heads/And we’ll lie until the Corn Crake crows/Bereft of the weight of our summer clothes/And I’d wager all/The hazards of love.”
This band is so weird, but so good. After the critically acclaimed The Crane Wife, The Decemberists got even more ambitious and wrote a musical. As best I can tell the story is as follows: a girl falls in love with a boy who occasionally shape shifts into a fawn. They do it on a clover bed and the girl gets knocked up. The dude’s mom is some sort of forest queen witch who forbids him from being with the girl. Meanwhile a Rake who has murdered his wife and children has kidnapped the girl. SPOILER ALERT: I’m pretty sure everyone dies. I knew a guy who did that in high school once. You want something a little more mainstream, perhaps you should be looking elsewhere.
The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)
The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid
The Rake’s Song
The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)
8. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing
“You mean everything to nothing/You mean everything to nobody/But me.”
The theme of this album can pretty much be summed up by the second line of the first song: “I am the only son of a pastor I know who does the things I do.” The lead singer’s religious hang-ups hang heavy from beginning to end and it’s a bit ambiguous where he’s ended up with the bulk of the album seeming to deal with the fallout of a newfound disbelief, but ending with the line, “Oh my God, let me see again.” As someone who grew up in a very Christian household but ended up not as well behaved as my parents would like, I always find albums like this interesting. I only wish the music itself were more consistent. This album contains some of my favorite songs of 2009, but also some tracks that I can hardly ever get through without skipping. This would probably be an album of the year contender if it was able to maintain the highs that it often achieves.
Shake It Out
Everything To Nothing
7. Say Anything – Say Anything
“Your life is always the post of something else/Where is the present in the way that you present yourself?/And it’s disgusting how little that you try/The existential equivalent of pink eye/Drink alone and watch TV/You’re expecting harmonies/To tap your tunes with silver spoons/Anthem of impending doom/Guiding Satan’s steady hand/Forcing Beatles to disband/It’s ego freaks and drama queens/The young at heart know what I mean.”
Max Bemis, the Jewish, foul mouthed, pill-popping man ho, has apparently married and converted to Christianity and now he writes songs about Jesus and, oddly, the Lehigh Valley. Not that any of those developments are bad, but a fan of Say Anything would have a right to be skeptical of the band’s future output given their past material. I’m happy to report that this self-titled release is the best material they’ve done this side of the classic …Is A Real Boy. I’m apparently the only person left who still enjoys In Defense Of The Genre, but I will admit that double album was just flat out too long. I have a hard time imagining a fan of IARB who did not enjoy IDOTG not being won over yet again by this album. SA is quick and to the point, but still maintains the lyrical wit that you would expect from Say Anything. You would think that a spiritually content Max Bemis, who is apparently finally in a stable relationship, would not be as interesting. As he says in “Mara and Me,” “I can’t keep writing the same damn song over and over again,” and this new mature and content tone wrapped up in the poppiest melodies they’ve ever written is surprisingly satisfying given that background.
Mara and Me
6. Morrissey – Years of Refusal
“It’s not your birthday anymore/There’s no need to be kind to you/And the will to make you smile and belong has now gone/It’s not your birthday anymore/Did you really think we meant all of those syrupy, sentimental things that we said yesterday.”
Years of Refusal was the first album this year that really made an impression on me, which I was not expecting given my history with Morrissey (my history with Morrissey being listening to “Every Day Is Like Sunday” maybe twice a year). The difference this time around is that he has traded in a little bit of his old man emo for some old fashioned rock and roll. The dude is still mopey and battling hang ups that he should have shed decades ago, but this time around the music behind it is equally interesting. I’m not nearly well versed enough in Morrissey’s discography to know if there’s an equivalent album out there, but this is the first material I’ve ever heard from him where he sounds like he’s almost having fun while doing his sad clown routine.
Mama Lay Softly In The Riverbed
When I Last Spoke To Carol
It’s Not Your Birthday Anymore
I’m OK By Myself
5. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
“There’s a darkness upon me that’s flooded in light/In the fine print they tell me what’s wrong and what’s right/And it comes in black and it comes in white/And I’m frightened by those that don’t see it”
I’m taking a huge risk ranking this album where I am and I have a feeling that I may be splitting the difference one way or another. At the time of writing I simply have not had enough time with it to make a final judgment so I could see it being in my top 3 albums for 2009 or I could see it being lower than this. As you can see from the preceding albums on this list, my tastes shifted slightly towards a more rustic sound this year (while never quite going all-out country). I feel like all those albums may have just paved the way for me to fall in love with I And Love And You. My instincts are telling me that this will be a “gateway drug” if you will into folk music just as Dog Problems was for me into indie music. Whether that pans out or not is yet to be decided, but what is certain is that The Avett Brothers have written an album full of touching lyrics set to melodies that are simplistic, yet beautiful almost in a spiritual way. While I don’t want to get tired of this album any time soon, I’m anxious to dig into their back catalogue whenever that eventually happens (or perhaps even before).
I And Love And You
Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise
The Perfect Space
Ill With Want
Incomplete And Insecure
4. John Mayer – Battle Studies
“I was a killer/Was the best they’d ever seen/I’d steal your heart before you ever heard a thing/I’m an assassin and I had a job to do/Little did I know that girl was an assassin too.”
Continuum was the album that took John Mayer from someone I never listen to to someone that I listen to when I’m in a certain mood. Battle Studies may very well be the album that turns him into an anytime, anywhere entry in my playlist. The bluesy elements of Continuum are gone in favor of a more straight up acoustic sound, although there is also some experimentation with his traditional sound. What is most striking to me about this album is how relatable all these relationship-based songs are while being written by a dude whose actual love life can’t possibly be relatable to more than .3% of the general population. I’m certainly not included in that .3%, yet I can’t seem to get enough of this album.
Friends, Lovers, Or Nothing
3. Brand New – Daisy
“Little light/Lead us through the night/And if we die burn down the forest/Chariots/Carry us distances we don’t care to walk/I’m on my way out.”
It took me three albums but I finally cracked Brand New’s code. I knew before listening to Daisy that a) I wouldn’t like it right off the bat and b) what I was expecting is not what I would be getting. Even expecting the unexpected it’s hard not to be taken aback by the sheer brutality of the opening track “Vices.” The second track settles back down into familiar BN acoustic territory, but the edge of that opening track rears its head fairly regularly. I usually don’t care for the whole screamo thing but it didn’t take many spins before realizing that the screamy songs were my favorites.
This is also the first album where Jesse Lacey hands the reins over for the bulk of the album lyrically and unfortunately it shows. While there were a few cringe worthy moments in The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me, they seem more prevalent this time around (“I’d serve you drugs on a silver plate?” “Run a million miles if you want first prize?”), and the nonsensical filler track, “Be Gone” is even more obnoxious than “Untitled” in TDAGARIM. With the disclaimer that this soon after its release my attitude was the same towards The Devil and God (which I now consider a much-loved classic), Daisy appears destined to merely be an album I like a lot instead of an album I love. Ask me again in a year though.
At The Bottom
2. Muse – The Resistance
“They will not force us/They will stop degrading us/They will not control us/We will be victorious.”
OK, so I’m waaaaay late to the Muse bandwagon, but I’m glad I’m hopping on when I am. My first exposure was to the single “Uprising” and it dawned on me that I was listening to a non-country band that actually seemed on the same bandwidth as me politically. Whether that was their actual intent or not, it’s certainly easy to interpret this album as a collection of libertarian “fight the power” anthems. Yes, this fit my mood every well this year. It’s almost as if they sat down and tried to write 1984: The Album and it is every bit as epic as the novel.
In a year where every day’s news headlines seemed to bring a new outrage it felt good to drive home from work in the evening cranking up this album and feel a little more empowered to fight back. I don’t know how this album will age on me years from now, but I do know that I will have a hard time listening to it in the future and not have it instantly take me back to 2009.
Exogenesis Symphony: Part 1 (Overture)
1. fun. – Aim & Ignite
“We were the get rich quick kids/We never got it right/So we settled for the center of town/Where all the rich white kids is out looking for a fight/Got the blonde one staring me down/And I really want to take a swing/I can’t help but remember James Dean/See we are part of the few who agree/That hey he lived life fast but he died/Me, I’m gonna live forever.”
This was probably my most anticipated release since The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, and even in a musically dense year with many great releases, this is easily my favorite album of 2009. The Format’s Dog Problems was an immensely influential album for me, so after that band’s demise I couldn’t help but accept with some trepidation the announcement of lead singer Nate Ruess’s new band. That trepidation disappeared completely upon hearing the demo for “Benson Hedges,” and while listening to the complete album I realized that Mr. Ruess has reached rarified air (matched only by Jim Adkins in the Clarity through Futures era), where every song he writes seems to hit me in just the right spot.
From the chaotic and ironically titled opener “Be Calm” to the 7 minute-plus closer “Take Your Time (Coming Home)” you’re never sure what twists and turns the album will take instrumentally, yet it is simultaneously accessible and poppy. In a better world the ELO-esque single “All The Pretty Girls” would dominate the summertime radio waves. All songs are bolstered by Ruess’s confessional lyrical style with the best example probably being his moving tribute to his parents, “The Gambler.”
I could go on, but let me close by saying that the older I get and the more music I’ve listened to, the harder it is for an album to really affect me the way music did regularly when I was younger. Aim & Ignite is like a more mature, contented, and orchestral version of Dog Problems. Years from now I will be cherishing Aim & Ignite alongside Dog Problems as essential albums of my life.
All The Pretty Girls
Walking The Dog