Making a List

Our music critics share their thoughts on the best of 2009

It's that time of year when music critics feel the need to make lists—and our critics are no exception.

If you are one of those folks who hate Top 10 lists such as these, take solace in one thing: At least we're not engaging best-of-the-decade lists like so many other publications.

Anyway ... here's part one of our critics' lists. Look for the exciting conclusion next week.


(in alphabetical order)

Baroness, Blue Record (Relapse)

Epic-rock dynamics and a furious alternative approach are back in heavy metal, and this Georgia act is as good at it as anyone. Blue Record will rattle your eardrums and hit that pleasure center as its neo-baroque interludes create drama without being precious.

Blakroc, Blakroc (independent release)

Which album this year featured the most creative all-star cast of hip-hop MCs, including Mos Def, the RZA, Raekwon, Jim Jones and Q-Tip? The one on which blues-swamp rock duo the Black Keys provides the musical accompaniment. Tough, tender, sly and legitimately underground, it also features the sultry vocals of Nicole Wray.

BLK JKS, After Robots (Secretly Canadian)

This South African band combines township jive, out-there jazz, funky blues, prog and hypnotic dub, the result being the hippest, most engaging sound in indie rock.

Fanfarlo, Reservoir (Atlantic)

This chamber-rock group with an international cast creates literate, emotional and full-bodied pop opuses in the vein of Arcade Fire and Neutral Milk Hotel. It also gave one of the best live performances in Tucson of 2009.

Nellie McKay, As Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day (Verve)

While her previous recordings have melded AAA pop and an earnest musical-theater style with touches of jazz and hip-hop, this latest embraces her inner white-bread coquette. McKay's homage to her idol is never ironic, but a cabaret flavor gives it an edgy undercurrent.

Or, the Whale, Or, the Whale (Seany)

This San Francisco-based alt-country collective builds inspiring tunes from the basic materials: gorgeous melodies, smart compositions and sublime female-male vocals. Following the band's debut by only eight months, this CD defies the trend of disappointing sophomore releases.

Os Mutantes, Haih or Amortecedor (ANTI-)

The first new album in 35 years by the pioneers of '60s tropicalia blends psychedelia, folk-rock and traditional Brazilian rhythms. This glorious disc feels even more radical than earlier releases, reveling in a pinwheeling carnival atmosphere.

Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Through the Devil Softly (Nettwerk)

The former Mazzy Star vocalist (working again with Colm Ó Cíosóig) took a full eight years to make her second solo album, but it was worth the wait, chock-full of enchanting, subtle and dreamy psychedelic-blues pop.

David Sylvian, Manafon (Samadhisound)

Avant-garde brilliance by a former new-wave pretty boy, this poetic collision of acoustic and electronic textures incorporates improvisational contributions by top-flight jazz musicians. It could well be Sylvian's masterpiece, although it could prove challenging for those used to his dreamier rock material.

Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures (Sony)

Three titans in the hard-rock world—Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and John Paul Jones (the mighty Led Zeppelin)—collaborate on beautiful riff bombs that couldn't be more sizzlingly contemporary.


(in alphabetical order)

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love (Capitol)

Colin Meloy and friends steal the year with their unabashed paean to myth-making and doomed lovers. Content with being a host of competing anachronisms, The Decemberists use progressive rock as the vocabulary for a Renaissance faire fantasy: equal parts Faerie Queene and ELO.

Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL)

The son of Norman Bates constructs a ramshackle folk pastiche, and our hearts swoon. Mr. Perkins leads us on a tour of Civil War battlefields, 1950s R&B gospel choirs and the organ balconies of Gothic cathedrals.

The Horrors, Primary Colours (XL)

This album is unapologetically dour but inexplicably erotic, a goth-pop maelstrom that shoegazes even as it post-punks. Imagine if The Cramps were wallflowers who gave up kitsch for schadenfreude.

Micachu and the Shapes, Jewellery (Rough Trade)

A collection of playful, oddball noise confections, this could be the weirdest children's album ever made in which the target audience isn't children. It may take repeated listens to recognize the gleeful joie de vivre amidst the cacophony, but it's well worth the effort.

Peaches, I Feel Cream (XL)

The latest from everyone's favorite minimalist synth-punk shock-jock is a touch more ruminative, but utterly hypnotic. Our inter-sex diva is now more interested in aging and the hollowness of celebrity than handjobs and butt sex (thought there's still plenty of that, too).

Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)

The catchiest, sing-songiest album of the year. Thomas Mars' off-kilter cadences and the band's disco-fuzz blare are absurdly contagious (and there's no known antidote).

Sonic Youth, The Eternal (Matador)

The band's first masterpiece since 1988's Daydream Nation, it has all their odd angularity and seasoned lushness. With this one, the band proves itself as the true inheritor to the Velvet Underground's legacy: psychedelic art rock as forlorn celebration and a thing of timeless beauty.

St. Vincent, Actor (4AD)

If cyborgs grew bleeding hearts that ached with cynical wonder, Actor would be their album of the year. A psychotropic pseudo-Disney fantasia you'll want to get lost in.

Telekinesis, Telekinesis! (Merge)

This could be the great unsung album of 2009: Seattle-based power-poppers grind out a brief (it clocks in at just less than a half-hour) but glittering array of rot-your-teeth gems.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz! (Interscope)

Art-rockers go disco, and the quality of the results is unassailable. It has all the slick nihilism of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, but is saved by sudden bursts of vulnerability ("Hysteric"). Karen O and company refuse to assure us that beneath the brash glamour, they might have souls. Somehow, they enslave us via that incertitude.


(in no particular order)

Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (Fat Possum)

My list this year is full of favorite artists, Andrew Bird included. Everything about Noble Beast is beautiful, from the autumnal cover art to the orchestral unfoldings.

Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

At first, I was a bit wary of this record. Not only is it self-titled; there's a self-titled title track. But that eponymous song ended up being stuck in my head for most of the summer, because, really, it's nice to know that Wilco loves me back.

Pearl Jam, Backspacer (Monkeywrench)

I'm a sucker for a Pearl Jam album. This one's short and sweet, and has strings. You gotta hand it to Pearl Jam; they can sing about middle-age mortality and still make it rock.

Modest Mouse, No One's First, and You're Next (Epic)

In keeping with the strangely ominous title, this is a weirdly gleeful Modest Mouse album, complete with several sarcastic outbursts such as, "Happy Halloween!"

Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (Warp)

I think Edward Droste is really some kind of mythical forest creature who has come to seduce us all into building ice caves under pine trees.

The Flaming Lips, Embryonic (Warner Bros.)

What's a better Karen O vehicle than her Where the Wild Things Are soundtrack? Well, a lot of things, but especially "I Can Be a Frog," on the Lips' 14th (egads!) album.

Tinariwen, Imidiwan: Companions (World Village)

I first learned about Tinariwen through the Live at Other Music online-video series; they're from the southern Sahara Desert and play inspired traditional African music with electric guitars. Imidiwan is poetic and contemplative; it's uplifting and invigorating in a way that nothing else on this list can even come close to.

The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (American/Sony)

I've heard Steve Seigel and Curtis McCrary rave about the Avett Brothers for years now; I finally listened to them, and I am kicking myself for not listening sooner. Seriously: Listen to the Avett Brothers. That's a command.

Black Camaro, Radio Capricorn (Breadballrecords)

You wouldn't think that a band as creative and nutty as Black Camaro would hail from a place as vacuous and gaudy as Las Vegas, but in a way, it all makes sense; something good has to come from all that grime and glitz. Radio Capricorn is an excerpt from the fictitious K-DIGG radio station's morning program, with commercials, annoying guests and all. It's effing brilliant. Can you kah-digg it?

Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (ANTI-)

Middle Cyclone is dark, brooding, mysterious and full of moments that beg for replaying. Can we make "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" the theme song for climate change?


(in order of preference)

1. Elvis Perkins in Dearland, Elvis Perkins in Dearland (XL)

On his second album, this extraordinarily talented songwriter assembled a full-time band to perfect a ramshackle folk sound—full of horns, organ and unorthodox percussion—that updates The Band by way of Neutral Milk Hotel. "Doomsday" is the song of the year, with an exultant horn intro becoming a stomping celebration of life, defiant even against doomsday.

2. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer (Jagjaguwar)

Spencer Krug is at his best crafting intense and pummeling music, but by backing away slightly from his more experimental impulses, Krug has made his best album yet. Dragonslayer's greatest achievement is its taut focus that makes bombastic, lengthy and relentlessly twisting songs nonetheless accessible and catchy throughout.

3. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (ANTI-)

Taking inspiration from nature's tumultuous power, Neko Case has written her most-assured, least-enigmatic batch of songs yet. Anchored by her soaring, radiant voice, the record updates Case's usual dreamy atmospheric sound with catchier songs like "People Got a Lotta Nerve" and "I'm an Animal."

4. Magnolia Electric Co., Josephine (Secretly Canadian)

Jason Molina's reedy, wounded voice gives this record a piercing, lonesome sorrow, matched impeccably by lyrics drenched in images of the open sky, deep shadows, ghosts and the faraway horizon.

5. The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You (American/Sony)

With major-label polish from Rick Rubin, the Avett Brothers reach toward both rowdier rock songs and tender ballads, leaving their rootsy bluegrass as background accents. But it is versatility, talent and honest songwriting that carry the day for the Avetts, who offer musical abundance like few others.

6. Fruit Bats, The Ruminant Band (Sub Pop)

The Fruit Bats turn out 11 songs of blissful, sunny rock music. This is the best Beatles-influenced album of the year, full of the quirky enthusiasm that sparked labels like "zoology rock," "bootgazer" and "rustic pop."

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (Slumberland)

This flawless debut cradles starry-eyed romance in fuzzy guitars, driving beats and boy-girl harmonies, a winning aesthetic for a band that wears both hearts and influences on its sleeve.

8. The Lone Wolf, Sum and Belief Are the Lone Wolf (Worker B)

The beats weave in acoustic guitar, piano, banjo and harmonica, and the lyrics are imaginative, poetic storytelling. Sum and Belief's first collaborative album sounds like what hip-hop might have been in the 1960s, mixing with blues, R&B and soul.

9. Metric, Fantasies (Metric)

This electrifying dance record stacks high-wire guitar riffs, surging keyboards and heavy bass on driving beats, but it's Emily Haines' spellbinding vocals that provide the irresistible charm.

10. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)

Hardly complacent with its most stable lineup in 15 years, Wilco's latest features mesmerizing guitar freak-outs, sweet ballads and jaunty piano rock. It's more proof that Wilco is the best band working today.