As with any list, I can hardly claim this to be all-encompassing, as it focuses primarily on the genres of most interest to me (alternative/indie rock, folk, minimalist, ambient). I've also included a handful of 2009 albums, and in one instance, a selection from 2008, making this less a definitive year-end music list than a personal collection of various albums that made an impact on me throughout the year. Without further ado, here's the list.
1. The Walkmen - Lisbon
The Walkmen return with their breeziest, most stripped-down album yet. Hamilton’s voice is at its most relaxed and triumphant, and the songwriting is simple and timeless. It seems that the more the band strips away from their already spare sound, the more resonant their music becomes. Standouts like "Blue as Your Blood", "Juveniles", "Woe is Me", and "While I Shovel the Snow" demonstrate impeccable craftsmanship even as they downsize with the most basic ingredients of rock'n'roll (guitar, bass, drums, organ). No other album this year grew so intensely in my affections; I’ve listened to it over 50 times. It’s a shame that The Walkmen are so consistently ignored by music outlets, presumably just because they don’t pander to fleeting trends.
2. Tallest Man on Earth - The Wild Hunt
Another example of a sadly neglected album with huge, iconic power in spite of its modest ingredients (a guitar and a voice, for the most part). Kristian Mattson’s folk songs have the gift of being universal, like the best of Bob Dylan and Dock Boggs, and intensely singular, marked by Mattson’s expressive growl and virtuosic finger-picking.
3. Sufjan Stevens - All Delighted People
I don’t care much about how this is formally called an “EP”. Aside from the gargantuan length, it’s more complete and varied than most conventional full-lengths. The title track is an incredible marathon with about as many hooks as you could hope for in a great pop song, and an equal number of avant-garde orchestrations. It’s infectious music, alternating from the big and bold to the deliciously intimate (“Owl and the Tanager”), and it’s a greater joy than Sufjan’s other release this year, The Age of Adz.
4. DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (2009)
There’s two voices of D.M Stith on Heavy Ghost: an eerily intimate, nakedly produced one that suggests someone whispering in your ear and a ghostly, propulsive one that swerves around in the background. They are constantly competing in his elaborate songs, which range from hobbling folk waltzes (“Pity Dance”) to darkly beautiful piano numbers (“Braid of Voices”). How I missed this in 2009 is a mystery to me.
5. Dr. Dog - Shame Shame
Such a consistent rock band. There’s nothing extraordinarily inventive here; just a collection of contagious pop songs. It’s also the band’s most high-fidelity album, which gives new clarity to their nuanced textures.
6. David Sylvian - Manafon (2009)
I love how Sylvian’s bellowing, expressive voice is laid bare by the intensely minimalist contributions of his collaborators. Manafon quickly settles into a Zen-like state with its first slow-burner (“Small Metal Gods”) and never ceases. Sylvian’s elaborate and enigmatic stories are supplied shape and emotional support by the hushed static, the unexpected violin swells, and the various acoustic clicks and pops across the album.
7. Jonsi - Go
There’s not much contemporary pop rock that sounds quite like Jonsi. Even though his first solo album incorporates orchestrations by ubiquitous indie composer Nico Muhly, the youthful, energized sound is unlike anything the two have ever done. The dynamic range of this record – from euphoria bursts like “Boy Lilikoi” to loose epics like “Grow Till Tall” – is astounding. What’s more, it was the most overwhelming concert experience I had this year.
8. Sam Amidon - I See the Sign
Sam Amidon’s previous album All is Well is undoubtedly one of the greatest folk records of the decade, so it’s perhaps inevitable that I See the Sign had tough ground to follow. To his credit, Amidon doesn’t try to rehash the same method. Instead of the elegant simplicity of All is Well’s chord structures and instrumentation, the Connecticut native excavates more discordant experimental sounds and unexpected time signatures, lending unique auras to the ageless Appalachian folk songs he reinterprets. If there has ever been an opener that more pointedly announces a different direction than the bizarre murder shuffle of “How Come That Blood”, then I’m not aware of it. I See the Sign, albeit in its own distinct way, is almost as affecting and lovely as its predecessor, and that’s no small feat.
9. The National - High Violet
High Violet is bigger, bolder, and less pensive than 2007’s excellent Boxer, but it worms its way into your brain with a similarly lasting impact. Aside from the colossal misstep that is “Terrible Love”, the veteran Brooklyn quintet spare none of their melancholy beauty, and Matt Berninger’s sardonically pained lyrics are at their most enigmatic.
10. She and Him - Volume Two
I’m clearly a big fan of music that sounds timeless, that refuses to get swept up in current trends and resists short-term interest. As such, the second album from She (Zooey Deschanel) and Him (M. Ward) doesn’t leap at you. The songs mostly sound like something you’ve ever heard before (and in many instances they are, given the duo’s propensity for covers), but they have instant, timeworn appeal, and they are filled to the brim with subtle instrumentation and clever production ideas courtesy of Ward. Moreover, Deschanel’s voice has really matured, capable of sounding as rich as Patsy Cline but still retaining a child-like self-awareness with all those “hmms”, hiccups, and giggles.
11. The Caretaker - Persistent Repetition of Phrases (2008)
Ghosts of 1920’s ballroom music obscured by the thick crackle and pop of static. These are ambient dreamscapes to get lost in for hours, a kind of impressionistic music that summons up the best and most mysterious of mental pictures.
12. Amiina - Puzzle
Amiina’s first album since 2007’s Kurr fortunately keeps their signature sound intact, but they’ve added some decidedly modern flourishes to their primarily organic instrumentation. The brooding opening track, “Asinn”, doused in anticipation, utilizes electronic beats that gradually swell into a clashing acoustic kit. This is all married perfectly to their typical base of bells, violins, accordions, and other various acoustic gadgets. The overall effect recalls Icelandic natives Mum, but Amiina retains their own distinctive lullabies.
13. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
The persistent thematic ambition of Arcade Fire is what separates them from most big indie acts. Even if The Suburbs suffers occasionally from being overlong, generic, and redundant, the standout tracks (“Ready to Start”, “Rococo”, “We Used to Wait”), which dutifully capture suburban angst and nostalgia, keep things interesting. And something tells me we have to savor what might be their last engaging effort before an impending sellout.
14. Norberto Lobo - Pata Lenta (2009)
Norberto Lobo is a Portuguese acoustic virtuoso who spends his time on both six and twelve string guitars, never ceasing to amaze with the sheer technical brilliance on display. Pata Lenta showcases Lobo as a writer of dazzling instrumental pieces that take unexpected left turns and a pure avant-gardist, using the acoustic in unconventional ways to create haunting atonal textures.
15. Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
I’m still skeptical of how comfortably Sufjan’s tender voice sits atop these bombastic electronic symphonies, but The Age of Adz has definitely grown on me in recent listens. One has to respect his ambition and his desire to challenge himself artistically. I tend to vacillate between thinking the album needs more moments of quiet repose (“Now That I’m Older” being the one soaring exception) and realizing it may not be necessary given the amount of delicate folk songs he’s already treated us to in his career. In a word, this is the most problematic great album I have on here.
16. Swans - My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
Swans’ My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky is thick with dread and otherworldly force, conjuring up a variety of different musical styles in the process from screaming prog-rock to quiet blues to Lynchian noise. Sometimes it’s not as cohesive or tight as one would hope, which has supposedly been a spot of continuous trouble for frontman Michael Gira, but it holds on with a wealth of creative ideas and a general atmosphere of anxiety and gloom.
17. Timber Timbre - S/T (2009)
This Canadian blues act is fascinatingly minimalist on their self-titled third album, restraining their delivery to guitar, organ, piano, and subdued drums. It’s as if each instrument has been performed as quietly and infrequently as possible so that only the beating of a tom or the wheeze of a sustained organ punctuates the silence. Taylor Kirk’s eccentric voice helps articulate the emotions only hinted at by the music.
18. Of Montreal - False Priest
Kevin Barnes embraces the funkiest R&B side of his musical personality, unafraid to look goofy or regressive even as he invigorates ridiculous retro flourishes like call-and-response vocals and beefy 80’s synths. False Priest is a more enjoyable album than 2008’s Skeletal Lamping, which covered similar ground, and it features the band’s most anthemic tune in a long time (“Sex Karma”). Also, one senses Barnes frequently voicing deep-seated and resolutely serious opinions from beneath all the silliness, a notion that is made explicit in the final agnostic screed of “You Do Mutilate?”.
19. First Aid Kit - The Big Black and Blue” (2009)
When these two Swedish sisters can fully shake off their obvious Fleet Foxes idolatry, I think they’re capable of records they can call their own. They’ve got the shtick down pat though, and there are certainly glimpses of greatness on their first LP.
20. The Black Keys - Brothers
I much prefer their raw early records, but The Black Keys have certainly embraced their growing rock-star status in admirably exciting ways, introducing new sounds to their bluesy foundation and higher fidelity production. Individually, the songs on Brothers are as full of attitude as anything they’ve ever done, but as a whole, the album stumbles with too many mid-tempo grooves, making the long running time really feel excessive. But they did release the most entertaining music videos of the year.
(Numbers 21-28 refer to albums I have only recently begun listening to and am therefore incapable of providing an appropriate encapsulation. Given more time though, I'm sure they'd make the list.)
21. Mount Eerie - Wind’s Poem (2009)
22. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
23. Antony and the Johnsons - Swanlights
24. Dirty Projectors + Bjork - Mount Wittenberg Orca
25. Hildur Gudnadottir – Without Sinking (2009)
26. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me
27. Titus Andronicus - The Monitor
28. Sun Kil Moon - Admiral Fell Promises
Also worth noting: my own band, Old Abram Brown, released our second album this year. It's called Restless Ghosts, and it's available for purchase here.