Best Albums of 2009 (#30 – #21)

camera obscura

30. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

Will men please quit breaking Tracyanne Campbell’s heart?? Sure we benefit from it but think of the toll it’s taking on the poor girl! Campbell and her group jumped labels, from Merge to 4AD, and turned in their finest effort of 60’s girl group pop, twee-ish rock, and even a little bit of country & western. No one can get their heart broken as easily and no one can make you feel so bad yet still make you smile like Campbell. Though My Maudlin Career didn’t feature a big pop number such as “Lloyd, I’m Ready to Be Heartbroken,” it was the type of subtly nuanced and well crafted pop album we didn’t know we needed them to make. It showed great growth from the band in fine song craft that began with Let’s Get Out Of The Country and shows even more promise for the future. – Matthew Smith

monsters of folk

29. Monsters of Folk – Monsters of Folk

Affectionately acknowledging the super-group of precedents of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and The Traveling Wilburys, whilst asserting and combining their own individual talents, Matt Ward (M Ward/She & Him), Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), and Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes/producer-for-hire) delivered a rich and diverse debut as The Monsters of Folk. Masterfully mixing Byrdsian country-rock (“The Right Place”), red raw bluegrass (“Man Named Truth”), careening Crazy Horse crunchiness (“Losin’ Yo Head”), beatific folk rambling (“Sandman, The Brakeman, and Me”), blissful Sun Records rockabilly (“Whole Lotta Losin'”), Beach Boys indebted harmonizing (“Temazcal”), and even a touch of blue-eyed soul (“Dear God (Sincerely M.O.F.)”), the quartet emphatically quashed any fears of egoism disjoining proceedings. Almost without question, the foursome’s seemingly effortless comradeship fashioned a collection that delighted and cross-pollinated inherited fanbases with ease. Arguably too, Oberst, Ward, and James even surpassed their own recent solo wares, suggesting that together with Mogis they could breeze into an even stronger sequel with everyone’s interests intact and satisfied. – Adrian Pannett

dirty projectors

28. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

There was a time when Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors project seemed destined to become the next Red Krayola instead of the next Technicolored, pop-smart, art-rock act. But somewhere between 2005’s The Getty Address and 2007’s Rise Above, as the band’s lineup started solidifying, he started channeling his restless giddiness into more tasteful and maximal arrangements. Being responsible for crafting music for a stable band seems to provide Longstreth the limit he needs to focus his powers, as Bitte Orca is crafted from elements entirely recognizable in his past work, but which jumps off the page bursting with wildness and confidence. The only concern on first hearing it was whether or not it had any heart. After the initial wow of technical details and off-beat stylistic mixtures fades into memory, the heart reveals itself, somewhat ironically for Longstreth’s reputation for obscurantism, as a will to be heard clearly and to find joy in simple expression. To follow along, just accept their invitation in “Temecula Sunrise”: “Definitely you can come and live with us / I know there’s a space for you in the basement, yeah / All you gotta do is help out with the chores and dishes / And I know you will!” – Greg Argo

bear in heaven

27. Bear In Heaven – Beast Rest Forth Mouth

Bear In Heaven have created an album that resembles their name. It’s a beast of a record that rocks with a blissful mix of strident tones. Beast Rest Forth Mouth journeys over a sonic landscape that’s a gauzy mix of hypnotic synth washes, pounding rhythms and shoegazing guitar noise wrapped around melodic and sharp indie-rock. With a creative use of distorted guitars, tape loops and echoboxes, a mysterious mix of background noises, mock choir choruses and a dreamy ambience provided by sporadic rays of shimmering guitars, Beast Rest Forth Mouth is like a ménage à trois of Garbage, Cocteau Twins and Asobi Seksu executed with the bombastic flair of The Arcade Fire. It may be difficult to absorb this murky mix in one sitting, but if you allow the sound to fill the room with a few attentive spins, it will become evident that Bear In Heaven have fashioned a clever and brilliant album that won’t soon be forgotten. – Matt the Raven

fuck buttons

26. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

After Street Horsssing’s blistering histrionics, one would be excused from expecting that Fuck Button’s follow-up, Tarot Sport, would be any easier to listen to. But, the enchanted twinkling intro to lead track “Surf Solar” (reminiscent of the incidental music from the dreamy scenes of The Goonies) serves notice that this is a more enchanted, slick, and melodic affair. That’s relatively speaking, of course. These tracks still aim to overwhelm, and each time you think the duo can’t add another more intense layer, they can. Instead of being hooked up to filters, it sounds like their keyboards are patched through a church’s pipe organ, and much of the background space on these tracks is filled with long-sustained chords. The pace here is more indebted to techno and house, all precision and endurance. Really though, it’s the hooks they drop this time out, from the Gary Glitter robotics of “The Lisbon Maru” to the singing phased glory-mongering of “The Olympians”, that show Fuck Buttons’ desire to be enjoyed by a wider audience this time around. If they aren’t, it’s not because they put out a difficult, noisy record. Tarot Sport is bursting with head-nodding, earsplitting delights. – Greg Argo


25. Converge – Axe To Fall

Converge is nearly two decades old and still pushing the boundaries of metalcore – and themselves.  Some crown them as the saving grace of a now dirty word.  Wherever you stand, their consistency cannot be ignored.  The frantic music video for title track “Axe to Fall” has a man belted to a chair with his eyes forced open and tubes in his mouth.  Imagery you’d expect from a band that hasn’t lost its bite with age.  Kurt Ballou’s shredding metamorphisizes into a few variations before a grand staircase spiral of power chords, a sludgy and crushing breakdown reminiscent of You Fail Me.  The new ground lies deeper in the tracks.  Before its abrupt transition into comfortable Converge territory, “Dead Beat” is vocally longing and instrumentally similar to the Dischord post-punk that Jake Bannon is said to favor.  “Slave Driver” is a filthy one night stand between Doomriders and These Arms Are Snakes.  Nothing sticks out more than “Cruel Bloom” and “Wretched World,” respectively a deserted piano-driven melody seasoned with crooning from Neurosis and an atypical closer with dream-like and atmospheric layers.  Four bands worth of guests contribute to the record from the likes of Cave In, Entombed, Pg. 99, and 108.  Converge continues to expand on its proud history with the help of a few friends.  If you’ve been keeping tabs since Jane Doe, hearing this should be a no brainer. – Brian Kraus

tim hecker

24. Tim Hecker – An Imaginary Country

Although Tim Hecker’s latest album wasn’t quite the revelation of his noisier works like Harmony in Ultraviolet or Mirages it does have a lovely character all its own. Perhaps the most engaging aspect was the addition of mellotron on cuts like “100 Years Ago” and “200 Years Ago.” The slowly pulsating patterns of these pieces bookend another excellent addition to the Canadian musician’s catalog. In between Hecker takes the listener on a musical journey with “A Stop At The Chord Cascades,” “Sea of Pulses,” and “Paragon Point.” It’s a more laid back affair for sure but no less affecting in the end. Some might even call it a “grower.” While there are tons of guys with laptops out there aping this style right now, Hecker has been around the block and he knows his way with a melody far better than just about anyone. – Joe Davenport

bon iver

23. Bon Iver – Blood Bank

After the demonstrative success of his lush debut, For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon knew he had to cash in on that praise. Blood Bank is a wonderful extension of the solemn, personally careful music Vernon is fully capable of. While the first two songs place the focus on chugging guitars and drums and on Vernon and his band-mates’ harmonious singing, there is a strong shift on the second side of the EP. “Babys” starts with a relentlessly fast-paced piano that treads back and forth from uncertainty to blunt clash, and even though Vernon brings his gutsy falsetto to the front, it’s an unusual sound for him. Perhaps nothing could be farther from the unexpected than the auto-tune on “Woods.” Quivering and alone, Vernon sings with a reflection, in repetition, of forever stopping time; and with each passing verse, a new octave, a new voice, a new tone is added to create a mountain of sound that cascades all over you. And that’s exactly what an EP should be: a reminder of what we first loved about you and a few new touches to excite – Blood Bank is all of that and more. – Bryan Sanchez

m ward

22. M. Ward – Hold Time

It’s not as if M. Ward has ever tried to come off as anything other than a terrific singer-songwriter with apt sun-drenched melodies with folksy narratives – Hold Time is no different. There are ballads that sound like they were carved from homemade sentiments and regrets, upbeat bluesy tunes that recall images of Americana-Tom Waits and covers that not only provide a new twist but with genuine, earnest, poignant reflection, provide an immense amount of passion. The smooth blend that caters to the transitions allows the album to feel like one long-playing recording with Ward’s voice revealing a perfectly poetic amount of tenderness throughout. Through all of the covers and guest appearances, Lucinda Williams’ fragile vocals on Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me” further present a heart-wrenching despair. The two sing separately, before meeting at the middle to sing the depressing declaration of “Oh but I still love her so. Oh and brother, don’t you know, that I would welcome her right back here in these arms.” It’s various moments like these that help remind us of Ward’s virtuosity and on Hold Time, it’s utterly exceptional. – Bryan Sanchez


21. ISIS – Wavering Radiant

Somehow just like Portishead in 2008, ISIS managed to take elements from bands that they had obviously influenced and fold them back into their own music. Some of the arpeggios and crescendo riffing on Wavering Radiant sound like they came out of the Explosions in the Sky, Pelican, and Mogwai playbooks. The difference is that ISIS was able to arrange them inside of well written songs that only add these parts for further emphasize features that are already great. The band operates like some kind of amorphous blob, taking on whatever features will suit it best for that particular album – aspects of The Cure on 2004’s Panopticon or Tool on 2006’s In The Absence of Truth. While some might decry this album as ISIS playing pop, it works well and sees the band in a rare moment of shimmering transparency. – Joe Davenport

View albums #20 – #11>