Well, it’s pretty much the end of the year, and so it’s time to make some sort of definitive list of what I considered the best albums of 2009. Yes, I already touched on this briefly here, but subsequently some re-evaluation has gone on in my mind. The first part of my end of year series covers albums 20-10 in my top 20 list.
20. The Temper Trap – Conditions
When it comes to describing music, ‘epic’ is an overused word – and yet, I’m struggling to think of a better catch-all term to describe The Temper Trap. So perhaps I should try to pin down what I mean when I describe Conditions as ‘epic’. It’s not a pure instrumental epic like something by Explosions In The Sky – although that’s not to say that the instrumentation doesn’t pack a punch. But this is primarily an ‘epic’ record in the way it conveys emotion – making the simplest sentiment sound huge, life-affirming even. ‘Sweet Disposition’ is the perfect example, a shimmering, impossibly feel-good tune that can’t help but tug at the heartstrings. Then there’s ‘Love Lost’, which swells with so much joy and relief that it sounds like it’s going to burst by the end of the song. ‘Science Of Fear’, on the other hand, conveys a racy, infectious sense of paranoia, and ‘Drum Song’ provides a pulse-pounding instrumental finale. Even if they don’t end up going on to bigger things, The Temper Trap sure as hell sound like they should do – this stuff feels made for big stages.
19. Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor
After witnessing Patrick Wolf’s wonderful show at the London Palladium, it occured to me that perhaps I had been a little bit harsh in leaving his latest album out of my initial list. Yes, ‘Vulture’ was a bit of a mis-step, ‘Battle’ is unarguably the worst thing he’s ever recorded, and ‘Theseus’ gets tarnished by Tilda Swinton’s over-zealous contribution.
But apart from that it’s actually rather good – ‘Hard Times’ easily matches the greatest pop moments on The Magic Position, ‘Count Of Casualty’ is one of the best fusions of his classical and electronic influences since ‘Paris’, and ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ ranks among the most moving songs Patrick has ever recorded. Add the high drama of the likes of ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Damaris’ and a collaboration (with Eliza Carthy) that actually works on the title track, and on balance you have a winning formula. After making three wonderful records, for Patrick Wolf to produce an album that’s merely ‘good’ is a noticeable drop in quality – but judged on its own merits, it’s a worthy record.
18. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
As much as it’s good – necessary, even – to be challenged by the music we hear, sometimes you just want something that’s easy to listen to. There’s nothing wrong with a record being instantly catchy, and Phoenix‘s fourth album is exactly that – scour the year’s releases and you’ll struggle to find a more immediately appealing record than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. From the dance-around-your-bedroom fun of ‘Lisztomania’ to the wistful longing of ‘Rome’, it’s a great pop record without ever seeming throwaway. Indeed, the band seem to deftly succeed at whatever they try their hand to here – even the slow-building instrumental ‘Love Like A Sunset Part I’ not only works in its own right, but also within the context of the album as a whole. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a finely-crafted, yet understated gem of a record – the only thing that you’ll find a challenge is trying not to like it.
17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Panicked reports that that the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record “DOESN’T HAVE ANY GUITARS ON IT!!” proved to be premature – you only have to get as far as the second track of It’s Blitz! before the trusty six-string returns to the mix. But make no mistake, for most of the record guitars take a back seat – whether on big floor-fillers (‘Heads Will Roll’), or fragile ballads (‘Skeleton’), synths are unquestionably the driving force behind this record. There’s no better example of this than first single ‘Zero’ – a pulsating electro-disco anthem which pretty much only sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song because of Karen O’s characteristic vocals. The closest the band come to the sound of their first two records is on ‘Dull Life’, but it’s the only moment on the record where the guitar truly reclaims the spotlight – the rest of the time, guitar lines find themselves either engaged in a constant tête-à-tête with synth lines, or end up being displaced by them entirely. The real triumph of It’s Blitz! is that the band have made a record that, despite being a marked departure, still manages to sit naturally alongside their existing body of work. This is, without doubt, still very much a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record – and it’s a very, very good Yeah Yeah Yeahs record.
16. St. Vincent – Actor
The first impression I got of this album was one of disarming innocence – thanks largely to the soft, pretty tones of Annie Clark’s voice. But Actor (her second album as St. Vincent) quickly reveals its darker side – whether it be through fuzzy blasts of guitar or sweetly-sung yet yet troubled lyrics. ‘The Bed’ sounds like a childish tale of hiding from monsters under the bed, but quickly takes a sinister turn (“Don’t move/Don’t scream/Or we will have to shoot”), while ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” sees Clark come to the bleak realisation that “All my old friends aren’t so friendly/All my old haunts are now haunting me”. Even ‘Actor Out Of Work’, the record’s most upbeat track, sees her listing the faults of a potential suitor before eventually concluding “I think I love you, I think I’m mad”. It’s the lyrical and musical juxtapositions that make Actor an album of surprising depth – St. Vincent mixes the pretty voice of Feist with the instrumentation and tone of Patrick Wolf to create a beautiful album with a dark heart.
15. PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By
Having embraced a very minimal, piano-based instrumental style on previous album White Chalk, PJ Harvey decided to step away from the responsibility of writing music entirely by teaming up once again with long-time collaborator John Parish. The resulting album, A Woman A Man Walked By, is surely one of the most diverse bodies of work in Harvey’s back catalogue. The most conventional (but nevertheless brilliant) thing you’ll find here is darkened guitar stomper ‘Black Hearted Love’, and from there the record veers all over the place. From haunting White Chalk fragility (‘Leaving California’) to raw Rid Of Me filth (‘A Woman A Man Walked By’), the album encompasses a whole range of emotions – snarling madness, poignant sadness, the burden of having loved and lost. Certainly, the sparse, focused nature of White Chalk was utterly brilliant – but it’s equally gratifying to see PJ Harvey seizing the opportunity to experiment a little as well. Crucially, however, A Woman A Man Walked By is as consistent in its quality as it is varied in its ideas – and that makes it one of the year’s most engaging and interesting records.
14. Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone!
Sometimes, less is more. With Dananananaykroyd, on the other hand, more is definitely more – you can almost guess as much from the name, never mind the fact the band have two drummers. As such, bar the disarmingly poppy four minutes of ‘Black Wax’, Hey Everyone! is basically a riotous, thousand-mile-an-hour cacophony. There’s so much going going on in any given song that it’s amazing how ordered the band’s chaos sounds – rather than trip each other up in a frantic dash to the finish, the components of a song run alongside each other in a seemingly effortless fashion. The overall effect is a record that constantly feels like it’s going to throw up with sheer excitement at its own existance – it’s big, it’s loud, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
13. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
“Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide, we won’t crack or compromise…”
Remember that line? Arctic Monkeys continued to prove that they weren’t kidding around with that statement of intent with their third album Humbug – an album that makes the sonic departures on previous record Favourite Worst Nightmare look like mere baby steps. There’s little room for concession here – the closest we get to a ‘Mardy Bum’ or ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is quirky strum-along ‘Cornerstone’, and lead single ‘Crying Lightning’ proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. The overall sound of Humbug was at times even darker than that song suggested – the guitars swathed in reverb, the lyrics far more cryptic. But if the band had churned out second and third records that were just re-treading old ground, would people still care? Actually, they probably would – so it’s to the band’s credit that they’ve chosen to push hard in a new direction and hoped that their fans will follow them, rather than letting their style be dictated by what the public supposedly wants.
12. The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love
On the strength of their first three singles alone, The Big Pink looked to be on to a winner – ‘Too Young To Love’ swirled and churned itself into a gloriously hazy blur, ‘Dominos’ contained one of the year’s most colossal choruses, and ‘Velvet’ struck a sublime balance between fragile emotion and powerful noise. Happily, there’s a lot more to A Brief History Of Love than its singles. The dirty, hypnotic noise of opener ‘Crystal Visions’ sounds like early BRMC (and by extension, The Jesus And Mary Chain), ‘A Brief History Of Love’ is a reverb-laden yet touching ballad, and ‘Tonight’ might as well just have a big sign slapped on it saying “I AM THE NEXT DOMINOS” (it’s not *quite* as good, but still). If it’s colossal, emotionally-charged walls of sound you’re after, this album is exactly what you’re looking for.
11. HEALTH – Get Color
I saw HEALTH live when they were touring their first album, and despite the fact they put on an impressive, powerful show, I found it difficult to connect with their music. Second record Get Color adds the missing ingredient to the mix, tempering their blistering noise with persistent melodies – both in the form of vocal lines and instrumental hooks. Things feel a lot more structured this time round, and the results are nothing less than fantastic – in particular ‘Die Slow’, which underpins its splurges of noise and echoy vocals with a convulsing guitar line and relentless drumming. HEALTH have created a record that manages to be unsettling, yet appealing at the same time – and without compromising what made them interesting in the first place. Take ‘Severin’ for instance – the stop-start chaos of the first 30 seconds is utterly brutal, and yet the song’s main guitar riff isn’t a million miles away from something you’d hear on a Bloc Party record. It’s this sort of contrast that makes Get Color feel almost morbidly compelling – this album is a masterclass in uneasy listening.