Monday, January 4, 2010

Top 10 Albums of 2009

I did my write-up of the Ten Best Albums of 2009 for the Fairfield Weekly's blog. You can read it HERE, but honestly, I fucking hate the formatting of that blog (always have issues), so I'm just going to reproduce it here. Boo-ya.

01 La Roux (Polydor/Cherrytree)
Yes, it's true that wickedly coiffed lead singer Elly Jackson and her producing partner Ben Langmaid made beautiful, chirpy, squelchy electronic pop that was so authentic that you could have sworn it drifted through some rift in time from a chrome-plated version of the 1980's. But that's undermining the emotionality of the year's best break-up album. Even the hands-in-the-air summer jams like "I'm Not Your Toy" course with melancholic undertones ("You don't love me, you just want the attention"), with the gorgeous, nakedly brokenhearted "Cover My Eyes," a song that had Elly breaking down in tears while recording it, being the album's emotional and musical centerpiece. (But let's be honest, there's not a dud in the bunch.) The album is rewarding on further listens, when the earth-shattering brilliance of lines like "In a parallel universe, it's me you can't resist" really sink in. Rarely does an album as referential as this sound so blazingly new and important.

02 Rihanna, Rated R (Def Jam)
Without a doubt the best fucked up pop singer album since Britney's irrepressible Blackout. Rated R is light-years removed from her bubbly single "Umbrella" as you can get, full of songs about sexual dominance ("Rude Boy"), abuse ("Russian Roulette"), and general emotional hollowness (uhhh… the whole thing). Even the songwriting/production team behind "Umbrella" deliver too songs that are outrageously odd, increasingly nihilistic and admirably shapeless - "Hard" and "Rockstar 101," the latter featuring a guest guitar lick from none other than Slash. Sometimes Rated R is a bit too bleak, and it's one song too long (it should have concluded with the breathlessly brilliant, Justin Timberlake-written "Cold Case Love"), but it's a scathing, personal, weird-ass pop album by a pop star working through some serious shit.

03 Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (V2)
All hail Phoenix. In a dazzling return-to-form, the French band recruited Philippe Zdar, producer of the band's debut album, and recaptured pure pop magic. Each of the ten flawless tracks (the perfect number for a pop record) will have you singing along, tapping your toes, and feeling something (thanks to the strong melancholic undercurrent - just like La Roux!) "Lisztomania" was probably the single of the year (and it also boasted the most bad-ass collection of remixes) - a song so insidiously catchy that the first time you hear it immediately precedes the 97th you've heard it. What's more - it's the perfect summer album that, thanks to those melancholic tinges, made the transition to being a perfect fall album, winter and… When are we getting a new Phoenix album, again?

04 Basement Jaxx, Scars/Zephyr (XL)
Scars is the Brixton duo's darkest, most sinister album yet and their most album-y album since Kish Kash. Assembling their most eclectic bunch of vocal collaborators yet (British pop star Sam Sparro, Florida rap duo Yo Majesty, Yoko Ono - to name a few), they made a restless, wildly ambitious album that featured their patented style of bouncy musical decoupage (strings, squiggly synths, brassy broads) while pushing things, both sonically and lyrically, into more sinister territories. Just a few months later they unleashed Zephyr, at one point the second half of a Scars double-album, which is even weirder, more ambient, jazzier, but never falling into the territory of "arty bullshit." Zephyr felt like a bold evolutionary leap for a band that is never content with a singular sound (and all at around 30 minutes!)

05 The-Dream, Love vs. Money (Radio Killa/Def Jam)
The-Dream, one half of the writing/production team behind Mariah Carey's underrated recent album and Rihanna's "Umbrella" (see above), saved some the best material for himself. For a dude that says he treats every song like a single (we call that the ABBA philosophy), he assembled quite The Album, with a core song cycle ("Take U Home 2 My Mama," "Love vs. Money," "Love vs. Money Part 2"), thematic overlays, and everything. I'm still not sure if this is as good as his debut album, 2007's late-game list-maker Love Hate, but it's still a fucking masterpiece, all the more so for its introspective bits (like "Right Side of My Brain") that rest alongside the boastful party jams ("Walkin' on the Moon").

06 Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster (Interscope/Cherrytree)
In just 8 songs (long enough to qualify as an album, short enough that the shtick never has time to grate), Lady Gaga established herself as an artist above and beyond her occasionally questionable live performance theatrics. Whether she's belting out tender odes to her ailing father ("Speechless") or stomping around the dance floor ("Bad Romance"), Gaga's sly subversion, her knowingness, enriches what could just be ace radio fodder into something profoundly, well, artistic.

07 Miike Snow (Downtown Records)
Okay, so maybe I lied. Maybe "Animal" is the best single of the year. If not, then it sure is the catchiest. Miike Snow, a kind of pop music dream team featuring the production duo previously known as Bloodshy and Avant (Christian Karlsson and Pontus Winnberg) and Downtown Records executive and Mark Ronson protégé Andrew Wyatt on vocals, produced a chilly, haunted house album that you could also boogie too ("Plastic Jungle" is my joint). Rarely do weird-sounding side project-type deals like this ever produce an album this listenable, much less one where you're dying for the second album. Also, when I saw them live this summer half the show they were wearing freaky Eyes Wide Shut masks. Ponder that.

08 Passion Pit, Manners (Frenchkiss Records)
Lots of old school synths? Check. The PS-22 kids doing backup? Check. One of the most charming pop records of the year? Triple check. This Cambridge, Massachusetts band (let's think of them as the electro Vampire Weekend) seemingly came out of nowhere, but man oh man did they make their presence known. (I saw them open for Girl Talk last year at Toad's Place. They were better than Girl Talk.) Yes, the album is fun to sing along to and jump around to, but there are also subtle musical layers and textures that make repeated listenings just as rewarding. It sounds like the work of a band three or four albums into their discography, not one just starting out. Party on.

09 Florence and the Machine, Lungs (Island)
This is an album to get lost in. Richly textured, to an almost ridiculous degree (blame co-conspirators Paul Epworth and James Ford), this debut album from ridiculously talented Brit Florence Welch will envelope you whole. Her melodies are delicate and percussive, with each song absorbing a number of influences ('80's dance music, Goth, god knows what else) and churning out something wholly unique. Part of what makes the album so compelling is Florence's ready-for-opera voice, which combined with the density of the production, is a force to be reckoned with, and part of it is the pure enjoyment of each song - the catchiness of the chorus, the gorgeousness of the sound-scapes, the musical crystallization of heartbreak. Oh, and she made "Howl," a better female werewolf song than "She-Wolf" (sorry, Shakira, your album was quite good too).

10 The Gossip, Music for Men (Columbia)
The Gossip, beloved indie band, signed to a major label, put out a record that was totally brilliant, and nobody gave a fuck. Maybe this was because of its bizarre release schedule, which saw it on iTunes a full four months before its physical release, maybe it was just a little too gay for the masses, but for whatever reason, it was unfairly ignored. Still, you'll be hard pressed to find better barn-storming pop jams than "Love Long Distance," "Pop Goes the World," "Heavy Cross," or "Vertical Rhythm." Also, "Men in Love" rules. I love this record.

ALSO: Royksopp, Julian Casablancas, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Fever Ray, The Bird & the Bee, Lily Allen, Dragonette and Muse put out very good albums this year.

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