Top 20 Albums of 2009

20. Julian Plenti – Julian Plenti …Is Skyscraper

A turn up for the books to begin with; indie superstar “Paul Banks of Interpol” indulges in a pretentiously-titled solo project, and makes it really rather good! Shocker!
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19. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Indie-pop hasn’t hit such solid gold paydirt with the opening of Lisztomania and 1901 in years. Banishing thoughts of disposable immediacy, the mid-album Love Like a Sunset movement is spectacular.
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18. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

Conjuring a spacey Wolf Parade-ish vibe, Two Dancers is experimental but not impenetrable, at times fluid and playful but always reverting to more surefooted tracks for grounding.
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17. The Antlers – Hospice

Heartbreaking, from the desolately romantic artwork and Bear’s affirmation of “We’re not old” to Wake’s shivering grandeur. Beautiful and poignant, full of daring and close-to-the-bone songwriting.
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16. Fanfarlo – Reservoir

A joyously ramshackle affair, the missing link between Beirut’s rickety rehearsal room atmosphere and Arcade Fire’s skyward gazing.
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15. Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light

Astoundingly moving in its unexpected environmental statements – Another World and Aeon particularly are saturated with the most immense gravity – the most impressive thing about The Crying Light is that it all just sounds so effortless.
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14. The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy

Life’s simple pleasures are sometimes the best; Welcome Joy proves a case in point, its quietly and beautifully contemplative songs constituting an uncomplicatedly enjoyable album which readily gives up its unembellished charms.

13. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Another step towards the expansive Tolkienian sound of Bat For Lashes’ live sets. For the most part sweepingly panoramic (see Glass and Daniel), but Siren Song in particular is beautifully intimate.
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12. The xx – xx

“Hi there, Glasvegas. This is how cool and detached should sound; clinical simplicity is much cooler than pointless layers anyway. Kthnxbye.”
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11. Goes Cube – Another Day Has Passed

Metal-infused-hardcore-alt-punk delivered with a straightforward, head down, no-holds-barred single mindedness. By turns brutal, epic and anthemic, anyone looking for drumming performance of the year need look no further.

10. Florence + the Machine – Lungs

Ignore the dreadful and noisy Kiss with a Fist and concentrate on positively stellar moments such as Rabbit Heart (Raise it Up) and Dog Days are Over. Quite simply irresistible, Lungs is expansive enough for a mainstream audience (hello Number 1 UK Album slot in 2010) whilst remaining playfully beguiling. Unfortunately, Lungs has also been seized upon by seemingly every person in the country with a copy of Final Cut Pro in their possession. Thus cue endless trailers for every conceivable TV programme which requires key phrases anywhere from ‘moody’ to ‘uplifting’ covering being plastered with a random Flo track, negating the need to listen to said album for at least the next five years. Oh dears.

9. The Maccabees – Wall of Arms

Adventurously moody and slow-building, from the massive No Kinds Words to even the more playful William Powers, Wall of Arms perhaps didn’t get the recognition it deserved despite forging into the UK Top 20 off the back of critical plaudits. An impressive progression from a band who previously sounded on the cusp of disposability with bouncealong indie disco fare such as Precious Time. Unfortunately I suspect that – considering or despite Wall of Arms’ performance – we won’t get a third album out of The Maccabees. That said, Fiction Records have been astoundingly meek and lenient with the perennially shite Athlete, so I therefore recline and await wrong-proving.

8. Twin Atlantic – Vivarium

Alright already, strictly speaking it’s a ‘mini-album’ but its sheer awesomeness more than warrants its inclusion here. Yes Vivarium may bear striking similarities Biffy Clyro, but Twin Atlantic seem to occupy the inverse of their fellow countrymen’s excitement parabola. As soon as Sam McTrusty’s throaty Scottish brogue kicks in and is quickly swamped by distortion in Lightspeed, you know you’re in for something special. I was but a lad when Idlewild emerged, yet I can’t help imagining that listening to You’re Turning into John Wayne is like hearing Roddy Woomble’s outfit for the first time. Twin Atlantic were one of the few bands of ‘09 that really made me sit up and take notice, and they deserve eyes clamped on them for their next release; Vivarium is exhilarating stuff but its clear ‘this-is-not-our-debut-album’ status promises even greater things. If only Biffy were still making music this blistering.

7. Tubelord – Our First American Friends

There’s no other word for it, Tubelord’s full-length debut Our First American Friends was fucking class. Vital and alive with energy, Kingston-Upon-Thames hilariously sells the Americans their own brand of hyperdrive alt rock back to them with added interest. I suggest you don’t hesitate for a second and go buy it, but also check them out when they come to your town in 2010 and their star should really go supernova. Clearly mewithoutYou are a strong influence, but where are they these days? Nobody ever truly got them, however I suggest that Tubelord have what it takes to go where mwY haven’t really managed.

6. Imogen Heap – Ellipse

Like the slow-burning spacestation fire to Little Boots’ nuclear glitterbomb test and La Roux’s Master System hotwiring, Ellipse is superior to the slightly disappointing Two Suns and overly poppy Lungs, but inkeeping with their self-contained aesthetic. Heap is currently beginning to hit the big time, particularly with Hide and Seek from her debut Speak for Yourself, prominently featured in ‘The O.C.’ and ‘CSI: Miami’ and sampled on Jason Derulo’s Whatcha Say, a former Billboard Number 1 and UK Top 10 single. Lead track First Train Home sounds as slick and fluid as Heap’s work with Frou Frou, but there’s more than enough to keep indie experimentalists happy, the Bavarian stop motion apparition of Aha! for instance. Tidal is a less dentist’s drillish version of La Roux, Wait it Out gorgeously perfect indie pop, like a Nerina Pallot track composed entirely on a laptop. Wisely, nothing on Ellipse replicates the harmonizer-based lovesong for dialup modems Hide and Seek; not even the beautifully sparse closer Half Life, which American TV producers are probably lining up to be played over their wedding day car crash season finale as we speak.

5. HEALTH – Get Color

Who else in the world sounds like HEALTH? Nobody. No other band understands that we love having our heads kicked in, but in nice, considerate, 3-minute bitesize chunks. No other band has that bass sound. Hallucinatory and terrifying, music very rarely sounds as close to pylons coming to life as Get Color. Opener In Heat sounds like 65daysofstatic’s Await Rescue being played in the bowels of an abandoned oil rig, echoing blastbeats and needlepoint guitars shattering in all directions. Lead single Die Slow is the sound of a computer virus infecting a music studio console, oddly danceable with its cyberpunk synth, electroclash chorus and processed palm muted guitars. Listening to Nice Girls is like being tortured with circular saws by some terrifying floor tom-pounding crime syndicate and enjoying it. Perhaps a grander departure from their self-titled debut would’ve placed it higher on this list, but Get Color represents a fair amount of restraint on HEALTH’s part – compare Triceratops to Severin, for example – which can only be applauded.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

It was the glorious mashup style quality of It’s Blitz! that took me; everything about it was unexpected, sounding beautifully handpicked. It was borrowed, bespoke and crafted, an album that even without the stellar opening couplet of Zero and Heads Will Roll would remain pretty strong. Softshock – like Jimmy Tamborello remixing Radiohead’s Treefingers – is luscious and lugubrious, Skeletons like Kate Bush visiting The Cocteau Twins in their sleep. Dragon Queen sees Korn playing in A Clockwork Orange’s Korova Milkbar to a disco beat, Hysteric sounds like TV on the Radio (probably because Dave Sitek co-produces), with Karen O happening upon another lovelorn Maps-like chorus in “You suddenly complete me”. YYY’s story so far now reads: debut album eye-meltingly good, follow-up in which all of debut’s verve and sass were absent unexpectedly wayward, impressive reinvention of synthy sophistication triumphantly cool. Nice.

3. The Longcut – Open Hearts

It seems as if I’ve ended up with this list by default; I literally didn’t like any other albums enough this year. Say what you like about that, “You miserable bastard” is fair enough, and “You’re not listening to the right things then” is a moot point, but a look at Amazon’s Top 20 of the year seems to support my supposition. For every faceless pop automaton (Lady GaGa, Newton Faulkner), there’s a corresponding mouldy old act past their best (Alice in Chains, Kiss, The Prodigy) or beyond-a-joke nobody (The Raveonettes, Noah & the Whale, Editors). For the record, I personally just don’t get Animal Collective. Accordingly, Open Hearts falls agonisingly trapeze artist short of The Longcut’s debut A Call and Response. But Out at the Roots and The Last Ones Here are stirring anthems from a band with a commendable never-say-die attitude and work ethic and tracks like Evil Dance and Open Hearts are amongst The Longcut’s strongest efforts yet.

2. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

Of all the albums released in 2009, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin may not quite be the best, but it’s certainly one of the most affecting. From Charlie Darwin’s terrified gasp of “Oh my God, the water’s cold and shapeless; Oh my God, it’s all around” and To Ohio’s covered wagon roadtrip soundtrack, through The Horizon is a Beltway and Home I’ll Never Be’s earthy Springsteenish everyman evangelism and Omgcd’s communal spirit, this is accomplished, atmospheric and eminently listenable. Only a midsection in which the material’s standard fluctuates slightly keeps the album from faultlessness. Still, a poignant and compelling record full of the same stark beauty as the landscapes it evokes, picking up where Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago left off in 2008.

1. Manic Street Preachers – Journal for Plague Lovers

Anyone expecting The Holy Bible Pt. 2 will have been disappointed with Journal for Plague Lovers, abrasive flanged guitars and extensive solos notably absent. It’s nowhere near as dark or damaged as The Holy Bible, taking in some lyrical jokes and mostly composed of proper chords. The backstory is well-known, the Manic Street Preachers fleshing out lyrics left to them over a decade ago by their missing presumed dead cohort Richey Edwards. The lyrics are the obvious centre of attention, given the record’s context it’s almost too easy to read William’s Last Words as Edwards’ suicide note. It bids goodbye to his loved ones (“I’m just gonna close my eyes, think about my family, shed a little tear”), bandmates (“You’re the best friends I ever had”) and seems to seek an end to the torment he doubtlessly endured (“I’m really tired, I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy”). The title track’s Heideggerian sentiments insist “Only a god can bruise, only a god can soothe; only a god reserves the right to forgive those who revile him,” the remaining Manics take it upon themselves to also judge here. They practically edit together an album that isn’t the seismic landmark The Holy Bible remains, but bears scrutiny as part of Edwards’ unique legacy. In terms of tunes, artistic merit and emotional reaction, easily the Manics’ finest since Everything Must Go. Not indie enough for you? The remix album is more than worth a listen.

Honourable Mentions

The Horrors – Primary Colours
A slap on the back of rib-shattering magnitude to anybody who saw this coming.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
As somebody who’s never really understood the fuss about Animal Collective, Merriweather was no sudden dawning of clarity for me; it’s still baffling to the casual listener and pretentious as fuck. But it’s also more accessible, with some genuinely great tunes managing to peek through the melee.

Enter Shikari – Common Dreads
Scored me some writing work, and not a bad album to boot. Cheers, ears.

Deadmau5 – For Lack of a Better Name
Dance record of the year, hands down. Or should that be hands up? No, you’re right, hands down.

Exlovers – You Forget So Easily EP
Just look out for their album, more than worth a mention to close.

This article, aside from having been stuck in formatting hell for the past month, contains some elements from contributions to Noize Makes Enemies’ Best of 2009.

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