Best Albums of 2009

There was a lot of great music this year. These are the Bureau Staff’s favorites.

Daniel

Warm Heart of Africa by The Very BestThe Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
Its title be damned, the Very Best’s Warm Heart of Africa is not your average world music bin placeholder. Sure, vocalist Esau Mwamwaya remains true to home by singing almost entirely in Chichewa, the native tongue of his home country, Malawi. But his voice is a jubilant, otherworldly thing, and when paired with the effervescent production of European duo Radioclit, the overall sound is propulsive and ebullient, aiming skyward and landing in some alternate dimension that smiles back down on Earth.

It is a joy to listen to this record and discover the next unexpected sound: cut-up childlike chanting on opener “Yalira,” soaring call-and-response vocals on the chorus of “Mfumu,” the oozing late-night stomp of mid-album standout “Julia,” and hopscotch rhyming by guest star M.I.A. on the “Rain Dance” to name but a few examples. How the Very Best managed to synthesize such stirring music out of so many different styles, and in such a depressing global context is anyone’s guess. What they’ll come up with next, under (hopefully) improving circumstances will be everyone’s gain.

Ambivalence Avenue by BibioBibio – Ambivalence Avenue
Stephen Wilkinson wins the 2009 award for Understatement of the Year. When asked in an interview how he planned to follow up on his early-year records Vignetting the Compost and Ovals and Emeralds, (the former an LP and latter an EP, released in February and March, respectively), he hinted at an upcoming “debut album on Warp records, hopefully June.” He added, “this one is going to sound different.”

In the opening moments of Ambivalence Avenue, the listener might think they’ve been put on — but only for the first thirteen seconds. On the eponymous lead-off track, Bibio’s trademark gauzy, loopy guitar noodles around familiarly, when it is suddenly greeted by a handclap beat; the blossoming of sounds that follows thereafter is nothing short of an artistic revelation. Wilkinson’s gentle voice deftly hops across tricky cadences and harmonizes with flutes piped in from the airy universe of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch on the title track; he also channels beatmakers like J Dilla, Prefuse 73, and Four Tet on “Fire Ant,” “Sugarette,” and “S’vive”, and pulls off a falsetto funk croon atop swerving bass and guitar on “Jealous of Roses.” Like fellow list-mate Tom Brosseau (who in 2009 also expanded on his signature one-man sound), Bibio has taken a bold step outside of his comfort zone, to entirely convincing and exciting effect.

  1. The Very Best – Warm Heart of Africa
  2. Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
  3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
  4. Miike Snow – Miike Snow
  5. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  6. Tom Brosseau – Posthumous Success
  7. jj – n° 2
  8. Built to Spill – There Is No Enemy
  9. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
  10. The xx – XX

Tim

Logos by Atlas SoundAtlas Sound – Logos
The collaboration between Bradford Cox and Animal Collective’s Noah Lennox on the song “Walkabout” has been the subject of much of the discussion about Logos, Cox’s second release as Atlas Sound. It’s not hard to see why — “Walkabout” is sunny, upbeat, and plucky. (For my money, it’s also among the best work Lennox has ever done, either with Animal Collective or as Panda Bear.) But as much that song is wonderful in a light and breezy way, it’s the album’s other collaboration that draws me in.

Cox recorded “Quick Canal” with singer Laetitia Sadier, whose ethereal voice makes it so I didn’t mind being unable to decipher her lyrics, even after months of listening. (I’ve since read the lyrics — I almost preferred just listening to the sound of her voice floating above the organ and guitar feedback than to the words she sings.) I don’t think I’ve heard a lovelier or more entrancing song all year.

Actor by St. VincentSt. Vincent – Actor
I never listened to Marry Me, Annie Clark’s first album as St. Vincent, but all it took for Actor to hook me was the introduction of a distorted guitar riff two-thirds of the way through album-opener “The Strangers.” The tension between that guitar line and the quiet melody Clark sings over in the song’s first minutes is both an apt descriptor of the record as a whole and one of the many sources of the album’s success.

Clark said that she listened to Disney soundtracks while writing Actor and it shows — her songs are peppered with whimsical string arrangements and warbling woodwinds. Instead of succumbing to these saccharine influences, however, Clark subverts them. Her bordering-on-sludgy guitar playing does much of the work, as do her melancholy and nightmarish lyrics. From the existential dread of “The Strangers” (“Paint the black hole blacker”), to the stealthily lugubrious “Laughing with a Mouthful of Blood” (“All of my old friends aren’t so friendly / All of my old haunts are now haunting me”), it’s the dissonance between Clark’s monsters and her schmaltz that drives Actor.

  1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  3. Atlas Sound – Logos
  4. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
  5. St. Vincent – Actor
  6. Art Brut – Art Brut vs. Satan
  7. Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer
  8. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
  9. The Antlers – Hospice
  10. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Jordan

Music for Men by GossipGossip – Music for Men
Music for Men loves a brooding teenager: the all-or-nothing declaratives, the emotional neediness, the helplessness, despair, and eventual strength found in love. The album seems to be interested mainly in post-breakup emotions. Whether it’s reminding us that it’s “the last time I love and let love” or the declaring that “love is a four letter word that should never be heard.”

Critics like to connect Beth Ditto to some sort of gospel-punk mix when she belts out songs of freedom like “For Keeps.” The track “Men in Love” is nothing less than rallying cry for same-sex love. The first single, “Heavy Cross,” exhorts the freedom of individuality and personal power. Compared to their last album’s single (“Standing in the Way of Control”), “Heavy Cross” is more polished, leaving some of Gossip’s punk roughness behind in exchange for vocal and pop clarity.

Some were unsatisfied with this change (there is also backlash that Music for Men was mastered too loud), but the album ultimately uses Beth Ditto’s voice in the way it should be used. One foot in pop and the other in punk, carried by Beth Ditto’s vocal talent, Music for Men veers from electrifyingly soulful tracks like “Love Long Distance” to fast shoutfests like “8th Wonder.” Brooding on the emotional chaos of love brings a lot of ups and downs, but Music for Men feels relatively unified.

Psychic Chasms by Neon IndianNeon Indian – Psychic Chasms
Psychic Chasms is a dreamy, retro-infused synth trip intended to channel the feelings of the sex-and-drug-infused cultural movements of the ’60s and ’70s. The single track “Deadbeat Summer,” with its simple message (“it’s just a deadbeat summer”) and breathy vocals bring thoughts of youthful love and celebratory slacker-dom.

The sounds of Psychic Chasms, though, are distinctly new, which makes this album all the more impressive. Songs like “Laughing Gas,” which begins with a playful miasma of laughing and synth sounds, quickly transforms into a steady beat, vague vocals, and electro pop tunes pulsing behind the intervening laughter. The lyrics are simple, but they’re not really the point: the song “Should Have Taken Acid with You” repeats the title line over and over; occasional interjections arise, like the vocalist dreaming of “[taking] our clothes off in the swimming pool.”
Like every other ’70s homage, Psychic Chasms moves beyond the physical pleasures of drugs and into transcendent celebration. The title track, possibly the most wordy and complex, declares that “distant looks from your face take me to another place in time where we were more refined.” The mental pleasures of psychedelic intoxication, which is the basic story arc of this short album, could not be better stated.

  1. Gossip – Music for Men
  2. Psychic Chasms – Neon Indian
  3. Florence and the Machine – Lungs
  4. Dragonette – Fixin’ to Thrill
  5. Future of the Left – Travels with Myself and Another
  6. Lady Gaga – The Fame Monster
  7. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
  8. The XX – XX
  9. Mirah – (a)spera
  10. YACHT – See Mystery Lights

Nick

Tarot Sport by Fuck ButtonsFuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
After blowing minds with 2007’s chaotic Street Horrrsing, an electronic noise album that felt, by turns, apocalyptic, tribal, and migraine-inducing, Fuck Buttons made the brilliant decision to restrain themselves on this year’s Tarot Sport. Rather then spinning further off into experimental delirium, they boiled away the hairy parts of their debut, extracted its moments of genius, and expanded those moments into a beautiful album.

Most of Tarot Sport explores the groundwork laid by Horrrsing’s opening track, “Sweet Love for Planet Earth,” a song that bathes its listeners under waves of seductive distortion. But if you could get seduced by “Planet Earth,” Tarot Sport can put you into a trance. Though mild and melodic compared to their earlier work, the new album still retains the feverish, menacing quality of real dreams, and it evokes this feeling as strongly as any music since Loveless. The whole album is utterly absorbing, but “The Libson Maru” stands out for developing complex, delicate emotions — something like melancholy mixed with wonder. And that’s what makes Tarot Sport this year’s finest; I never expected to hear such a perfect electronic elegy.

Losing Feeling by No AgeNo Age – Losing Feeling EP
A four-song EP may seem like a lightweight next to this year’s heavy hitters, but the songs on Losing Feeling represent more than just songs. Every second of this record drips with potential, evidence of blooming greatness in the minds of the LA-based lo-fi duo. Last year’s Nouns was an excellent record, but all four tracks on Losing Feeling surpass it. On the EP, No Age expand upon their raw sound by insisting that each song hit more than one note.

The title track opens with a woozy, wandering guitar, but soon an insistent drum pounds through the stupor. The contrasting aesthetics demonstrate a new maturity — Nouns owed its greatness to simple teenage angst, but Losing Feeling explores grown-up emotions with similar aptitude. This developments keeps me coming back to this record; whenever I listen to it I can’t shake the sense that No Age are on the verge of creating the next Sound of Silver.

  1. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
  2. No Age – Losing Feeling EP
  3. Fever Ray – Fever Ray
  4. Yacht – See Mystery Lights
  5. Sonic Youth – The Eternal
  6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  7. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
  8. Julian Casablancas – Phrazes for the Youth
  9. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
  10. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

Kevin

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Yahoo Answers

God Help the Girl by God Help the GirlGod Help the Girl – God Help the Girl
It’s been almost four years since the last Belle and Sebastian album, but frontman Stuart Murdoch’s musical film side-project thing, God Help the Girl, is a twee pop triumph. (There’s a phrase I never thought I’d write.)

God Help the Girl elevates a familiar idea and sound. The sugar-sweet melodies and idiosyncratic characters that inhabit the songs on God Help the Girl are distinctly Murdoch, but paired with the confident mezzo-soprano of Catherine Ireton and the lush instrumental arrangements reminiscent of The Life Pursuit, the songwriting soars in ways that we’ve never heard on a Belle and Sebastian album. The title track shares a lyrical kinship with Tigermilk, but its orchestral flourishes and gorgeous harmonies set an entirely different tone, while the instrumentation of “Musicians Please Take Heed” could be lifted from an Ennio Morricone score.

And much credit should be given to Ireton’s range. It’s not just the notes she can hit, but the versatility of her vocal character. She can imitate Murdoch’s tender candor on tracks like “If You Could Speak” or really belt it on the swing-stepping “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie.”

God Help the Girl isn’t quite musical theater — it’s far more cinematic. The movie itself isn’t due out until next year, but unlike the film project from another one of my favorite indie pop singers, I’m actually excited to see this one.

  1. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  2. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  3. Japandroids – Post-Nothing
  4. God Help the Girl – God Help the Girl
  5. Handsome Furs – Face Control
  6. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
  7. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
  8. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
  9. The xx – XX
  10. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport