The Checks – Ballroom Baby / This out-of-left-field recommendation by a TBE reader quickly caught my ear and became an instant favorite for summer days spent between two headphone speakers. After tracking down their debut, it’s clear how much these New Zealanders have matured on Alice By The Moon. Their sound is equal parts raw, catchy, big, and double on the rock n roll, leaving me certain of it’s Best Album status after my first listen. Each track takes over your speakers with a different energy and personality that is rarely found in these days of same-sounding albums. It’s not an easy task to choose just one jam to represent this fantastically varied album. These guys may also win the best album art prize. I’d pay good money to have that blown up on my wall. These guys need to get more worldwide love this year. Can we get on that?
Dead Man’s Bones – My Body’s a Zombie for You / By no means a perfect album but seriously unlike anything else I heard in ’09. Each listen betrays new layers and new favorite moments. I used to skip opening track “Dead Hearts” but it’s recently revealed itself to be the perfect mood-setter for the album. And the uses of smashing glass as an instrument is brilliantly executed. (also sweet because I think I could actually play that one pretty well) I remember reading that the guys limited their takes on each track because they wanted the imperfections to show. If anything the rough edges only add to the haunting aura of the album. I can only hope that these guys continue making great music.
Frelance Whales – Generator ^ 2nd Floor / This is what crafting an album is all about. There may be 13 tracks on Weathervanes but you would never know by the way each track seamlessly flows into the next as the music magically progresses through tales of friendship, love, and death. And ‘magic’ is an appropriate word because I imagine this to be the kind of music forest gnomes would play to me if I ever stumbled upon their humble tree-kingdom. It’s astounding that this album is the Brooklyn group’s debut and even more impressive how they caught us all by surprise without any of the usual pre-album hype, single leaks, EPs, or any of that. Just write a fantastic album, release it on the world, and let the praise roll in. I like that style.
Generationals â€“ Wildlife Sculpture / I was tipped off to Generationals debut album, Con Law, on a tip from 17 Dots and knew at first listen that this was something special. This is probably the hardest album I will have to describe this year. Not because it’s overly “heady” or “challenging” — it’s the opposite really — but because they blend genres so well that I can’t even pick apart the references. Con Law is like a mixtape of amazing unknown bands from a bygone era of soul-filled and infectious music. Their chosen moniker is perhaps the best indication of the kind of whole-family appeal this album has. Crank this up the next time everyone gets a bit too testy on your next road-trip and everyone will soon be bouncing contentedly and trying to sing along to lyrics they’ve just heard.
Jack PeÃ±ate â€“ Letâ€™s All Die / Going for the Understatement Of The Year award with the title to his sophomore album, Jack blew more than just me out of the water with his revamped sound. Gone were the ska-influenced goofball pop jams of his debut and in were some of the tightest, most honest, and spine-tinglingly catchy sing alongs of the year. “Be The One” nails it as a lost-boy love song and “Let’s All Die” edges out Freelance Whales’ “Generator ^ Second Floor” as the year’s best song about dealing with death. At a trim 9 tracks, Everything Is New is part of a trend of albums getting shorter. However if all that means is we are cutting out the filler then I’m all for it. Managing to see Jack perform twice in ’09 I can attest to his ability to bring it live and more than make up for a short supply of tracks.
Jamie T â€“ Chaka Demus / Having always been a big fan of half of Jamie T’s debut album, I was pretty excited to get my ears on the epic “Stick N Stones” as a preview to his follow up. Tough times to top that jam but Jamie pulled out all the stops on Kings & Queens, dropping an album that is as varied as it is anthemic and infectious. The guy has a perfect ear for jangly rambling punk-tinged melodies that always feel like they are a beat away from coming apart at the seams as they chug through your speakers. This is the kind of music I would sing along to if only I could understand more than half of what Jamie’s thick accent is mumbling about. “Sticks N Stones” is still my standout favorite but the rest of the jams are piled precariously right beneath it on the podium. Put on “Chaka Demus” to remind you of what warmth sounds like. As for the rest of the album, do what jonathan_uk does and play it while driving. I just hope your speakers can handle it.
The Maccabees â€“ Can You Give It / Yet another spectacular sophomore effort coming from a UK band. The Maccabees debut was always a nice listen but didn’t stick with me past a few months. This album got about 8 spins in it’s first day back in May and has been getting them regularly since then. Orlando Weeks’ voice has a tenderness that gives it a magical feel when layered over anything from galloping guitar rides (“Young lions”) to tender slow jams (“Bag Of Bones”). “Can You Give It” still takes the cake as the albums biggest swaggering fist pumper as it ebbs and flows through blaring vocals and tinkering drums. I have a feeling that these guys would put on a great live show and it’s a sad day that I haven’t had the honors yet.
Miike Snow â€“ Cult Logic / Any regular TBE reader know I can’t go more than a few weeks without dropping some Miike love. There is not much to say about this jam except that it remains to be the only album I have ever bout from iTunes (eMusic 4life!) and $6.99 later it was an early shoe-in for this list. Continued listening further solidified that feeling. Seeing 3 live shows further solidified that feeling. Consistently fantastic videos further solidified that feeling. Getting my notoriously fickle buddy Blake on-board with Miike further solidified that feeling. At some point the feeling of love for this album became so solid (avoiding analogy to album cover here) that even the gajillion “Animal” remixes couldn’t faze it. It fact, they propelled “Animal” to one of the top spots on my Best Songs list. (“Cult Logic” is my favorite jam from the album but “Animal” demonstrated such a resilience to meddling that it claimed that spot.)
Passion Pit – Folds In Your Hands (New to TBE) / Oh boy, remember when people were worried this album would be a let down? Remember when “The Reeling” dropped it’s bad self and people were still griping? Remember when Manners proper came out and everyone shut the fuck up? Yeah, that was sweet. May was a good month in ’09 with 4 albums on this list all dropping that month. How Passion Pit took that little-Ep-that-could and turned it into the masterpiece on Manners I’ll never know but I’m sure glad they did. Track after track of gorgeous synth/dance/indie/pop whatever that hasn’t grown stale to me. I never posted a specific album review for some reason so let it be noted that I love their use of a children’s choir here. (also see: Dead man’s Bones, above) I also love when “Folds In Your Hands” breaks at the 2:37 mark and everything just gets happy. I just listen to that jam everytime I need to forget about their disappointing show opening for Phoenix in Central park.
Phoenix â€“ Lisztomania / Speaking of Frenchies! No surprise that 2009’s favorite made this list. (Sorry Justice, try sucking less) Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix took us all by surprise when it’s release turned a band some of us kinda liked into a band we all loved. They straight murdered it in 2009, riding their epic 4th album all over the damn place. Although I’m not sure I agree, I appreciate their balls in taking what should be a single track album closer (“Love Like A Sunset”) and not only smacking it right in the middle of the album, but splitting it two tracks just for the hell of it. Dickery like this would kill the momentum of similar pop albums but this one picks up right where it left off and may even finish harder than it started. Jeez, it’s all beginning to sound a bit sexual. Do I have a boner for this album? Hmmm… I guess I do. But don’t tell me you don’t either, that’s not the question. The real question is: “1901” or “Lisztomania”? Could be the question of the year…
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Four Night Rider (New to TBE) / So what if Hometowns was on my Best Of 2008 list, I told you that their Saddle Creek re-release would get them in for 2009 as well. That fact that I am actually following through on that is a testament to this album. Few have grabbed me so firmly and held me for so long. Intimate when it needs to be and rip roaring rock when that’s appropriate. The best part is that those moments often overlap to create music straight from the heart to your years. I had hoped that these guys would blow up bigger this year but despite some mid-year hype they never exploded like they should. You could argue that it’s not quite accessible enough but then I would just say that you aren’t acccessible enough. It was as much of a delight to have to honor to interview the band as it was to have this album to lean on for another year.
Slow Club â€“ Giving Up On Love / I can’t thank of another band who better combines grandiose rock stompers and intimate love confessions into one sound that is undeniably their own. While mostof the songs on Yeah So are about breaking/broken hearts, the them never gets monotonous. Each track tackles a different issue or emotion that we know all too well and wraps it in the most beautifully honest lyrics I have heard this year. The youth of these two Brits is betrayed by their wisdom and I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that this album has actually helped me understand my own relationships better. Sometimes it takes hearing it from a neutral third party to really get it to sink in. And what better backdrop to such a “talking-to” than these jangly country-tinged jams?
The Sweet Serenades â€“ Mona Lee / I’ve said it before, and I said it again, and now here it is, one of the best albums of the year for anyone who appreciates their rock-n-roll with a heavy dose of good times. As these these Swedes so perfectly put in in “Mona Lee”: “a hurricane is coming down, I’m holding on so desperately.” That pretty much sums up my feeling towards this album from the first time I pressed play. That slow, lurking suspicion that with each passing minute things are gonna get more intense. I don’t mean to make it sound like tantric sex or anything, but for my money it’s pretty damn close and you don’t ever have to think about Sting naked. I will allow that this album might be too poppy for some but you people are just repressing your inner child. Let that rapscallion out and teach him to skank to the kazoo line in “I Can Never Die!”
Tegan & Sara – The Ocean / It’s clear why Tegan & Sara went with “Hell” as their lead single. It’s not that it is the album’s ‘best’ track, or even ‘most familiar’ to fans, it’s just the one that stands up and yells the loudest that these two Canucks are no longer the pessimistic mopes they were on their last album, The Con. They have taken some time off, rearranged their game plan, and decided that priority numero uno is rocking faces. Not that Sainthood is a non-stop ear pounder — its not at all — but it’s that perfect collection of varied rock tunes that showcase all these girls’ talents: huge hooks, confessional lyrics, off-beat instrumentation, and most of all, supreme listenability. At 13 tracks it’s one of the longer albums (my, how times change) to make this list and it did take repeated listen to fully grow on me. Part of the problem is that each song is so solid that it’s hard find those 2 or 3 that lock you in with continuous listens.Â However, at the end of the day there isn’t a jam on here that I skip and at 33% longer than other albums on this list that’s pretty impressive.
The xx â€“ Crystalised / Speaking of taking a little time to fully get into, this masterpiece took me half the year to come around to. Now that xx and I are best buds we have been spending the better part of this winter with each other. I’m usually studying or reading and well, per usual, xx is crooning on about something inappropriately sensual and steamy. Sure, we look like an odd couple to some, especially if you know the others I have loved, but we don’t care. We are happy. And we could we not be when our mellow times are sound-tracked by such perfectly sparse dance/lovemaking jams, girl/boy vocals that make conservative parents blush, and beats so delicate that it seems like a stiff breeze might dislodge the rhythm.Â Better just turn it up, disconnect the phone, and lock the windows cause this is gonna be a night in.