Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Best Albums of 2009

Last year, Arbitrary Judgment brought you the Top 10 Albums of 2008, so I would be remiss to go out as a one-hit wonder. But with the “Double Zero’s” coming to a close and every other media outlet releasing their “Best of the Decade” lists, I thought maybe I would give you my Top 10 Albums of the 2000’s. Then I realized that I was 10 years old when this decade began. So unless you wanted to read reviews of Smashmouth, Will Smith, or Linkin Park, you’ll be happy that I stuck to the Best Albums of this year, 2009. You’re welcome.

Now, I stated this last year, but let me remind you again: I have no formal training in the world of music analysis. I am not a world-class music critic. I do not have a special ear for the art of song or anything weird like that. I am simply a college kid with a great love of music from every different time period and decade. I listen to the majority of music that comes out each week from the majority of different genres. I do feel that I have an eclectic and well-rounded taste for music, and that I have listened to enough of it to make a respectable year-end list. This is not a list of the most popular or best selling albums of 2009, but simply my list of the albums that I felt were the most musically accomplished and successful this year. So in case you were wondering, no one from American Idol made the list. I hope that’s ok.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Albums of 2009 (with a few extras), courtesy of a 20-year-old with no real music education and a strong distaste for the country music genre. Let the accolades begin.

Honorable Mention

U2 – No Line on the Horizon
You really have to admire the longevity and cohesiveness of this band. Bono is still incredible and somehow it feels like he is still on the top of his game. But what’s even more impressive is how the rest of the band has been able to fall in line and follow his lead. In a time when so many bands implode and fall by the wayside, U2 has been the cream of the crop for 30 years. Listen to Boy from 1980 and No Line from 2009 and see if you can notice a huge difference in the band’s aura and sound. It certainly won’t be easy.

Bob Dylan – Together Through Life
The Greatest American Hero refuses to let us down, giving us his 34th studio album. Oh, and it only reached the top spot on the US and British Charts. The man is 68 years old and still making #1 albums. I’ll be happy if I can still feed myself at 68. With Together Through Life, Dylan does a great job of relating the songs to his own life, and yet still keeps up that shield of mystery that he has become notorious for. The murky, Tex-Mex sound the Dylan gives on this album is trumped only by the way that his soul seems to pour out of each and every word.

Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
As I’ve said before, I like old Green Day a lot more than I like new Green Day. But regardless, you still have to respect and appreciate the way that this band has re-invented themselves during their years of prominence. Lead singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong deserves a lot of praise for the strides he has made, both musically and lyrically.

The Top Ten

10. Weezer – Raditude
On their seventh studio album, Weezer and frontman Rivers Cuomo stay true to what they do best. While bands like Green Day have impressed in the way they have changed their sound over the years, Weezer has actually stuck to its guns, and they are still reaping the successful harvests of it. Cuomo is goofy and awkward, and he makes it work for him and the band on Raditude. The album has a very Andrew W.K., old-school Green Day kind of sound to it, and is a lot of fun to listen to. I like to imagine that if Kurt Cobain had been on depression medication, he would have sounded a lot like Weezer on this album. Songs such as “I Want You To”, “The Girl Got Hot”, and “Put Me Back Together” are all Weezer at its very, most quintessential best.

9. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The bands fourth studio album landed them on every late night talk show and even introduced them into commercial fame and success, and for good reason. Phoenix has one of those playful and energizing sounds to them, very VampireWeekend-esque. And while this seems to be the popular, indie band sound of current times, it definitely works for them. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix also has hints of a Spoon influence (“1901”) and even a dash of Weezer (“Lasso” and “Girlfriend”) and a little OneRepublic (“Fences”). All in all, Phoenix plays the alternative indie band card to perfection, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

8. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
As far as concept/story albums go, it is one of my favorites of all time, just below the rung that includes Ziggy Stardust, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Quadrophenia. While the sound of the band could be comparable to Death Cab for Cutie, The Shins, or My Morning Jacket, the band’s storytelling set to their unique folky/trippy sound is what really positions them apart from the others. This particular album also has some darker, more edgy songs that Morrissey himself would be proud of. But what I love most about The Decemberists is that you can never tell whether they have written an album or some type of an adult, fairy-tale-novel set to music. Doesn’t matter. Either way, it’s a masterpiece.

7. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear’s third full-length studio album has an incredibly unique and varied sound that is tough to put your finger on. At times you can hear a Beach Boys influence (“Two Weeks” and “Foreground”), a Cream influence (“Southern Point” and “While You Wait For The Others”), The Guess Who influence (“Fine For Now”), an old school Neil Young influence (“Ready, Able”) and even a more modern, My Morning Jacket influence (“Dory”). Yeah, I wasn’t lying. Overall, this indie band (which has caught the eye of the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce) has a very folky, whimsical, and experimental feel to it. It is completely unique and weird, which is one of the reasons I found myself so impressed by it.

6. Kings of Leon – Only By the Night
Yes, their big hit (“Use Somebody”) is forever ruined for me because of how it has been overplayed to death, but the song is great and the album is great. The band finally hit it big with this release, leaving behind their grimy, garage-band sound for a more high profile, arena type sound. You get a very U2-ish vibe from them overall, although their southern roots do shine through on songs such as “Revelry”. You also get a little bit of a Rolling Stones vibe at times (“Be Somebody”), but without the British accents. You can sense a little Aerosmith in their presentation (“Crawl”) and even a whiff of Radiohead in their songwriting and composing (“I Want You”), just not quite as advanced. But in the end, I feel that this album really showed us a band that has truly arrived on the music scene and is just beginning to reach its full potential. Songs such as “Sex On Fire”, “Closer”, and “Manhattan” are fantastic, and it’s tough to find a bad song on the album.

5. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
While I feel that the original Blueprint was probably a better album, the Blueprint 3 was very good, and easily my favorite Jay-Z album in quite some time. I felt as if it was less contrived, rushed, and commercialized than some of his previous albums, such as American Gangster and Kingdom Come. Jay-Z seemed to put more time and heart into the Blueprint 3, getting back to what makes him the great artist that he is. On this album, Jay-Z is honest and upfront about his true self, rapping with a likeable ego and undeniable charm. The Blueprint 3 is also aided by a great supporting cast (Kanye, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Drake, and Young Jeezy to name a few), as well as his genuine love for singing about where he is from and what he believes in (“Empire State of Mind” and “D.O.A.”). Oh, and he gets bonus points for being married to Beyonce. Try and argue with that.

4. Vetiver – Tight Knit
This indie band’s fourth full-length studio album has continued to bring them more and more notoriety in music circles. Vetiver, named after a type of grass, really is a grassroots effort. It is a simple, laid back band that doesn’t have much glitz or flash to them, but still gets the job done. Vetiver has an old-school folk sound to it, and often collaborates with Devendra Banhart. Overall, you can sense a Canned Heat and Townes Van Zandt influence on this album, while the simplicity suggests a sprinkling of Velvet Underground. You can also sense a little CSNY influence on songs like “Strictly Rule”, a Kingston Trio influence on “At Forest Edge”, and even a more poppy, Vampire Weekend sound on “More of This”. Most of all, Tight Knit introduces us to the incredible skill that frontman Andy Cabic has as a songwriter, something we hadn’t really seen from him on past albums.

3. M. Ward – Hold Time
Known best for his work with Zooey Deschanel (She & Him) and Monsters of Folk, M. Ward is one of the most underrated and underappreciated singer/songwriters of his generation. On Hold Time, Ward achieves a very old-school, hazy, Phil Spector type sound that I really enjoyed. You can hear the Buddy Holly influence on songs like “For Beginners”, the Steve Miller Band influence on “Never Had Nobody Like You”, and even a mid-70’s Bob Dylan, early Fleetwood Mac sound on songs like “One Hundred Million Years”. Despite the fact that M. Ward may be best known for his bands and collaborations, Hold Time shows that Ward has no problem standing on his own.

2. Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
For the second year in a row, Conor Oberst has made my Top Albums list, which is probably the greatest honor to ever be bestowed upon him. Following his first solo album in ’08, Oberst teamed up with the Mystic Valley Band to create the most upbeat and lively music that we have seen from him yet. But don’t worry. Oberst has retained his amazing grasp of lyrics and songwriting, as well as that mystical way of showing you all of his cards, and yet still leaving you wondering who the heck this guy and what’s going on in his head. He has the rare ability to be both upfront and perplexing at the same time, adding intrigue to everything he writes. The songs "Slowly" and "Nikorette" are amazing, "Ten Women" so closely evokes Bob Dylan that it’s almost eerie, and "Cabbage Town" is the perfect example of Oberst and how he has grown (musically) since his days with the Bright Eyes. Conor may not have complete control on this album like he did on the last one (thanks to the Mystic Valley Band), but his influence is certainly swimming throughout the entire piece of work. The album almost makes you visualize just how amazing Oberst’s set at Woodstock could have been. If only, if only.

1. The Mumlers – Don’t Throw Me Away
This little known indie band was certainly the surprise of the year for me. I only bought this album, Don’t Throw Me Away, because the cover caught my eye and it was really cheap. It turned out to be one of the best five bucks I have ever spent. The Mumlers, named after a 19th century spirit chaser, have a very unique, soulful, jazzy, folky sound to them that seems far beyond their years. It’s hard to pin down their sound or influence, simply because it is all across the board. You get a sense of the Beatles (circa late 60’s) on a song like “Fugitive & Vagabond”, as well as a Rolling Stones sound on “Battlefield Postcard”. You can also feel the influence of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on “Coffin Factory”, Amos Lee on “Tangled Up With You”, and even the Righteous Brothers on the title track, “Don’t Throw Me Away”. For me personally, “99 Years Ago” is probably my favorite song on the album, but there isn’t a bad choice in the bunch. On this record, The Mumlers have somehow found a way to write about heartache in a way that Tom Waits or The Smiths could relate to, and yet each piece doesn’t seem all that melancholy or downtrodden. Don’t Throw Me Away was easily the most shocking and thought-provoking album of the year for me, so putting them in the top spot was no contest. If you only buy or listen to one album on this list, make it this one. It won’t disappoint.



See you in 2010. Thanks for reading

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