Goodbye 2009. Goodbye to the aughts, or whatever we're supposed to be calling them. In his NYT editorial this week, Paul Krugman suggests that this has been a lost decade in many ways - cynical politics, dismal economics, and stagnant for the average workingperson. While I'm inclined to agree with him on those points, I've gotta say that the music of this year and this decade has been anything but lost - quite phenomenal really. So instead of rehashing the bummers of this past year/decade, I figured I'd make my peace with 2009 by throwing together a list of my five favorite albums of the year.
5. "Two Suns" Bat For Lashes
I've only recently caught the bug on this brilliant record from British-based Bat For Lashes. For the uninitiated, Natasha Khan is sort of a mystic Cat Power or a somewhat saner Bjork. Her second album, "Two Suns," features her beautiful, slightly smokey voice front-and-center over ten tracks of rumbling beats and chilling ambience. In addition to her consistently outstanding vocal performances, the songs are tightly constructed, well-embellished, and easily memorable, as evidenced by highlights "Daniel" and "Sleep Alone." At its weakest, the record tends a bit towards monotony. However what the record lacks in range, it makes up for with consistent quality and attention to detail.
4. "Ready for the Weekend" Calvin Harris
Unlike the rest of the albums on this list, "Ready for the Weekend" bears no pretension of working as an 'art album.' Rather, Calvin Harris is unabashedly aiming for the cheap seats with his exuberant blend of simple hooks, irresistible beats, and face-melting synths. And he succeeds, handily. Standout tracks like "I'm Not Alone" and "Flashback" are among the most effortlessly enjoyable I've heard all year. This is disco for the 21st century, ready for the exercise mix, a Friday evening drive, or more importantly, the dance floor.
3. "Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle" Bill Callahan
In a year of great dance music and increasingly ornate indie rock, this record is a bit of an oddball - a collection of slow, plaintive folk songs gently adorned with strings. Even more odd is Callahan's dead-pan delivery. When paired with his poignant lyrics and subtly beautiful instrumentation, his music is at once obscure and immediate - kind of like a strange, but successful mix of Jim O'Rourke and Willie Nelson. But no matter what I call it, the record is thoughtfully composed, darkly clever, and immaculately recorded - and extra points for a fellow Austinite.
2. "Veckatimest" Grizzly Bear
When I mentioned "increasingly ornate indie rock" in the last section, I pretty much meant Grizzly Bear. Replete with dazzling four-part harmonies, lush instrumentation, and thrilling crescendos, "Veckatimest" is an almost shockingly complex and richly developed album. That's not to say these four Brooklyn fellows can't write a catchy pop song too - "Two Weeks" is easily one of the best singles of the year (and Fred Falke's remix is awesome and should find its way into Jo's DJ sets...hint). In addition to the great songs and stellar production, I also admire Grizzly Bear's commitment to its ensemble organization - lead and harmony vocals are shared, along with their instrumentation. It's a combination that yields powerful collective results and has come to full expression on this excellent record.
1. "Merriweather Post Pavilion" Animal Collective
I'm basically writing this list because of this album. When it came out in January, I figured it unlikely that another record of comparable quality, innovation, and beauty would be released in 2009. In my mind, this has held true. Not only is "Merriweather Post Pavilion" the runaway best album of 2009, it is a serious contender for album of the decade. Animal Collective has assembled all their talents, fearless innovation, undying optimism, and masterful songwriting into their finest work on this album. Highlights like "My Girls" and "Brother Sport" are flat out some of my favorite songs. Harmonies soar, synths twinkle, samples chime, and just when you start feeling like Animal Collective may have lost you out in space, beats drop. This album is joyous, exuberant, and life-affirming music.
Speaking of albums of the decade, the now classic "Kid A" may have been the de facto soundtrack to the Bush Administration - a toolkit of songs to deal with all the crimes, paranoia, and pessimism of reactionary politics. Let's hope that "Merriweather Post Pavilion" will end up the soundtrack to a hopefully brighter and more progressive Obama Administration - a reminder to let optimism, connection, and mutual responsibility inform our lives and our choices over the next decade.
Have fun and we'll see you in 2010.