1. Florence + The Machine, Lungs (Universal)
Will 22-year-old Florence Welch get her shit together and avoid the Amy Winehouse bit? They’re both Brits, they both like to get wasted, but that’s about as close as they get. Florence + the Machine’s aptly titled Lungs is the stunning debut from a woman who sings so well, it’s annoying. Her piano-based songs (anything from garage rock to tender ballads to punk to ’80s pop) take their time to land the hooks, but once they arrive, they grab you by the balls. “I took a knife/ and cut out her eye/ I took it home/ and watched it wither and die/ Well, she’s lucky that I/ didn’t slip her a smile/ That’s why she sleeps/ with one eye open/ That’s the price she paid,” she sings in “Girl With One Eye,” seconds after telling us “I broke your jaw once before/ I spilled your blood upon the floor/ You broke my leg in return/ So sit back and watch the bed burn.” Yet she contrasts the don’t-mess-with-me trash talk with colorful arrangements and at no point does the album sound like an overly aggressive downer. Don’t get too distracted by her chilling vocal range and elaborate production: Florence kicks ass because she has the songs. If her wild ways don’t derail her along the way, she has all the makings to remain a singer-songwriting superstar for a good while.
2. The Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss)
3. Pearl Jam, Backspacer (Universal)
4. Elvis Costello, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane (Hear Music)
5. Eminem, Relapse (Interscope)
6. Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown (Reprise)
7. Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel, Willie and the Wheel (Bismeaux)
8. Devendra Banhart, What Will We Be (Warner Bros.)
9. Thenewno2, You Are Here (Vagrant Records)
10. Nouvelle Vague, 3 (Peacefrog)
— Enrique Lopetegui
1. … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, The Century of Self (Justice)
Critics’ year-end lists are mostly arbitrary and hopelessly incomplete. Both those revelations are pretty obvious, but the more pressing problem with the album list is how outmoded it’s beginning to feel. As iTunes and Garage Band reshape music’s commercial and creative potentials in their own image, music fans are left scouring the internet for self-released, bedroom-produced singles and setting their iPods to random.
How irrelevant, then, is “Giants Causeway,” the opening track from Trail of Dead’s sixth album? A hook-less, instrumental swell (featuring real instruments, no less) that serves no purpose other than to give the tracks following an extra bit of grandeur — useless out of context, not suited for blogging, and a sure momentum killer if inserted in a playlist between, say, Animal Collective’s “My Girls” and the Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move.”
Other Self tracks are closer to standalone. “Fields of Coal” packs the epic pleasure of a dragon orgasm, but that sulfurous climax might feel cheap and unearned if it weren’t sandwiched between the frenetically building “Bells of Creation” and steamy cool-down “Inland Sea.” And without the goodwill that preceding triad builds, you might not give “Luna Park” the chance to morph from an especially affecting adult-contemporary ballad to the year’s best Sticky Fingers-era Stones crib. The tracks don’t just suffer apart from one another; they lose a lot of their power if played out of sequence. That’s precisely the sort of fussiness that seems almost wasted effort in the era of “shuffle all,” but that purposeful anachronistic attitude pervades Self, from its live-in-the-studio recording process to singer Conrad Keely’s pen-drawn cover. Lyrical topics range from Gnosticism to Bigfoot, but it’s essentially a concept album about expending more effort than you technically have to these days. As the album becomes a niche item, like a novel or a newspaper, we may soon find these lists an ineffective way to evaluate a year’s worth of music, but Self’s an excellent reminder of the emotional and intellectual power popular music can have when we treat a set of silly rock songs as a self-contained work of art. Go to sacurrent.com to read my complete list of 50 favorite albums (including several local selections) from 2009.
2.Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs (Matador)
3. Raekwon, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II (Ice Water)
4. Flaming Lips, Embryonic (WEA/Reprise)
5. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion/Fall Be Kind (Domino)
6. Royce Da 5’9”, Street Hop (One Records)
7. The Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss)
8. Converge, Axe to Fall (Epitaph)
9. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone (Anti-)
10. P.O.S., Never Better (Rhymesayers)
— Jeremy Martin
1. St. Vincent, Actor (4AD)
It was easy to pick St. Vincent’s sophomore album, Actor, as my single favorite album of 2009 — almost too easy. When compiling year-end lists, there’s a temptation to bestow the top spot to a self-consciously “difficult” album that requires significant work to enjoy, giving the critic’s brain — and ego — a nice stroke in the process. (Can anybody tell me what a “bitte orca” is? Yeah, that’s what I thought.)
Compared to ’09’s freaky (Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors) or fuzzy darlings (every low-fi “chill-wave” record), Actor is poised and pretty — not unlike Annie Clark herself. But it’s a mistake to dismiss the record as simple surface pleasure. A cinephile and fan of classic musicals (some of the songs on Actor began life as “alternate scores” to her favorite films), Clark obviously paid attention when Julie Andrews sang “A Spoonful of Sugar.” Actor has its fair share of sharp corners, dissonance, and dark imagery, but they all go down smoothly.
That sweet/sour dichotomy is what really drives the record. Clark’s arrangements might start with strings and woodwinds out of a fairy-tale landscape, but driving beats and distorted guitar riffs crash the party, snorting pixie dust along the way. Lyrically, Clark’s sweet voice is often at odds with her words: In “The Bed,” Clark threatens imaginary monsters under the bed with “dear daddy’s Smith & Wesson”; in “Actor Out of Work” she verbally rips someone before admitting, “I think I love you/ I think I’m mad.” Mad genius, maybe. Actor was just the medicine I needed this year.
2. Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca (Domino)
3. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest (Warp)
4. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
5. Japandroids, Post-Nothing (Polyvinyl)
6. The Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss)
7. Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle (Drag City)
8. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (Glass Note)
9. Wilco, Wilco (The Album) (Nonesuch)
10. Andrew Bird, Noble Beast (Fat Possum)
— Chuck Kerr
1. La Roux, La Roux (Cherrytree)
This year, synth-pop duo La Roux (made up of flame-haired singer Elly Jackson and elusive production partner Ben Langmaid) released an eponymous debut album in their native England to near overnight success. Tales of heartbreak and defiant girl power are brilliantly expressed through soulful, haunting vocals and stripped-down new-wave beats reminiscent of the early work of scene starters like Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Yazoo (all of whom can coincidentally be traced to the Yoda of synth-pop — Vince Clarke). La Roux’s video for “Bulletproof,” a number-one single in the U.K., shows Jackson looking like an impeccably dressed, androgynous cyborg defiantly strutting through an avalanche of falling objects (picture a Pretty In Pink-era Molly Ringwald exiled in an early Atari game). The Woody Woodpecker-coiffed Jackson adopted the name La Roux based on a loose translation: “the red one.”
Earlier this year La Roux went on tour with fellow Brit pop star Lily Allen, whose sophomore album It’s Not Me, It’s You reads like the diary of a socialite who’s tired of being punished for crimes many of us are guilty of. Allen’s rise to fame is an early example of social networking doing wonders for an unknown artist — her debut single “Smile” (a perfect piece of boy-bashing bubble-gum pop) became an underground hit long before a record deal, thanks to ruthless self-promotion on MySpace.
While on tour, Jackson’s let-them-wonder approach (she refuses to smile in photographs or comment on her sexual preference) inspired Allen (who has been photographed passed out in nightclubs, wearing a pink wig and no underwear) to take an extended vacation from airing her dirty laundry on Facebook (Allen has allegedly given up her laptop as well). Isn’t it cute? Two painfully adorable young British girls enjoying fruitful careers in the music biz, looking fabulous in the word’s coolest clothes, learning from each other, raking in cash, and sharing with us a priceless secret: Love hurts — even when you’re famous.
2.Lily Allen, It’s Not Me, It’s You (Capitol)
3. The Sounds, Crossing the Rubicon (Original Signal)
4. The Juan Maclean, The Future Will Come (DFA)
5. Basement Jaxx, Scars (Ultra Records)
6. Diane Birch, Bible Belt (S-Curve)
7. Simian Mobile Disco, Temporary Pleasure (Wichita Records)
8. Peaches, I Feel Cream (Beggars XL)
9. Jack Peñate, Everything is New (Beggars XL)
10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz! (Interscope)
— Bryan Rindfuss