Historically, years ending in the number nine don't bode well for music. In a way, it's the screw-off year of each decade, the one in which musical tastes slacken with generic apathy, cultural exhaustion and anxiety over the turning of a new aesthetic leaf. For example, 1979 was defined by the end of disco, but the year's biggest hits still came from Blondie and Donna Summer. The 1989 Grammy for Record of the Year went to "Don't Worry, Be Happy," and '99 was all teen pop, all the time.
As 2009 winds down, the eternal fight for the long view and the race to file a claim for meaningless "of the decade" titles rages on. In the meantime, plenty of top-notch artists went about their business and released some of the best music your ears didn't hear. What follows is our crack music staff's list of the 15 best albums of the year, along with three of the worst for good measure. Let others say that Taylor Swift or the Black Eyed Peas owned the year. We know better.
The only thing more improbable than the prospect of Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon delivering a worthy sequel to his seminal album, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which shook the hip-hop game to its core 14 years ago, is the unending embarrassment of inspiration that's poured out of Shaolin since then. Solidifying the notion that the Wu members are the most creatively bankable, enduring commodities in hip-hop history, this year saw the promised follow-up, and it's unthinkably good. Only Built 4 Cuban Linx … Pt. II (Ice H2O) is four tracks deep before you even realize what's going on; it moves that fast. From Papa Wu's seamless bridging of the two albums on the opener to the Ghostface-assisted "Cold Outside," Raekwon effortlessly immerses the listener in his panicked-yet-ice-cold world, and by the time producer RZA settles into a mid-album groove in sync with the Chef's authentic, haunting hustle rap, the word "classic" has already engraved itself in your brain. I'll do it one better and give it my top pick.
Coming in behind Raekwon is his polar opposite, Delta-folk strummer A.A. Bondy. His When the Devil's Loose (Fat Possum) evokes the kind of sentiment that you want to experience in a safe place without sharp instruments — a padded room, for instance. Bondy bears emotional long arms; his music has the ability to wear you down with precisely placed jabs while keeping its distance, whether in the actual recording (the album's mix is intentionally rough and faded) or in Bondy's deceptively menacing lyrics, as when he smirks, "Come to me sweet and slow, my dear/Tonight's the night," on "False River," a song that sounds as if it were recorded in a shallow grave.
In third place is a Scottish band that evolved leaps and bounds over their previous work by digging in the dirt. The Twilight Sad's Forget the Night Ahead (Fat Cat) never wavers from its focused deconstruction of the deliberately anthemic rock the band pursued on 2007's Fourteen Autumns, Fifteen Winters, announcing from the start that this time around the bigness comes from big despair, not ambition. It's a statement backed up by layers upon layers of treacherous guitars and singer James Graham's defiantly sorrowful brogue.
Next up is a man who served as the student-to-teacher bridge between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Ramblin' Jack Elliott was a friend to both and now, at 78, continues his blessed work as a folk-blues living liaison to future generations. There's no better example of that utterly active influence than this year's A Stranger Here (Anti-), a foot-stomping, tear-inducing rendition of classics by Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and many others. Elliott's fingers still work magic and his weathered voice sells the hell out of the supernatural Delta campfire tales he carries on.
There's nothing weathered about Imogen Heap's ultra- processed, ethereal vocals, but her music-box chimes, off-kilter rhythms and frequently disturbing stories of domestic abuse, Victorian melodrama and wanderlust make her third album (not counting her work as one-half of Frou Frou) in over a decade something to behold. Ellipse (RCA) contains all of that ambition and plenty more in a mere 45 minutes, including stark piano instrumentals ("The Fire") and Björk-esque staccato productions ("Earth").
When it comes to the worst album of the year, there are literally hundreds of fish in the barrel to shoot at, from American Idol finishers to an über-suck supergroup combining Say Anything and Saves the Day (Two Tongues). Therefore, it's best to limit consideration to artists who should know better, and nobody knows better than Bob Dylan, which makes his so-bad-you'll-die-from-shock Christmas in the Heart (Columbia) the biggest travesty of the year. The only thing more (literally) painfully funny than the boomer bard belching his way through "Here Comes Santa Claus" is reading the legion of boomer critics defending him. "It's fun!" they say. "He's supposed to sound awful!" That's true, but the reason he ever got anywhere was that his croaking voice was paired with some of the 20th century's greatest poetry. That's nowhere to be found here, unless you consider "Come, they told me, pa rum pum pum pum" a couplet for the ages.
Before I get to the business of running down my top five albums of 2009, I've gotta do a little rule-breaking. One of the parameters of this annual look back is that we don't include reissues, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention just how amazing the Big Star box set — Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino) — is. It's not only head-and-shoulders above all of the other box sets released this year; its mix of outtakes, album tracks and alternate versions from the iconic power-pop band may make it one of the most essential box sets ever released. Seriously: Buy it now. Since we're talking about reissues, technically, this year's Nonesuch release of The Low Anthem's Oh My God, Charlie Darwin was a reissue, since the band originally released it on their own last year. If you saw their jaw-dropping performance at the Social earlier this fall, you know that this multi-instrumentalist dream-folk trio is a force to contend with.
Before we get to the list, though, I want to make sure to mention two local bands that made 2009 for me. First, the crusty metallians in Junior Bruce peeled my face off every time I saw them; each show was a brutal, groove-laden slab of awesomeness that outstripped the previous brutal, groove- laden slab of awesomeness. Meanwhile, three-fourths of the boys from New Mexican Disaster Squad went and teamed up with Tony Foresta of Municipal Waste to form No Friends, a practice-when-we-get-to-it blast of straight-up classic hardcore. (Also: Blind Man's Colour, though not technically local, sure are fantastic, aren't they?) (And also: The Tenant!)
Oh yeah, the list. Here are the records I listened to and liked the most in 2009:
No. 1: Crippled Black Phoenix, 200 Tons of Bad Luck (Invada)
No. 2: St. Vincent, Actor (4AD)
No. 3: Major Lazer, Guns Don't Kill People … Lazers Do (Downtown)
No. 4: Riverboat Gamblers, Underneath the Owl (Volcom)
No. 5: Bat for Lashes, Two Suns (Astralwerks)
And the worst? Well, I was conflicted as to whether the new Baroness record disappointed me as much or more than the new Mastodon record bored me, but then I really got to thinking about what pissed me off most about 2009, and the word that immediately came to mind was Lotusflow3r (NPG). On one hand, that spelling abomination is the title of an excellent new album by Prince, probably the first good record he's made in years, a thoughtful and weird melange of psychedelic rock and woozy, slinky funk. But it's also the name of a three-CD Prince package that contained the vacuous and venal "throwback" album MPLSound as well as an unlistenable bimbo protégé album. That's pretty bad. Worse? It's also the name of the website Prince convinced his ravenous fans to shell out $77 to access. What did they get? The very same album that was sold in Target (for $12), a T-shirt and the ability to watch grainy, VHS-dubbed videos they probably had at home in higher quality. Classy.
Antlers, Hospice (Frenchkiss) Over the course of this year, this intensely atmospheric pop masterpiece went from small self-release to high-profile indie release on dope New York label Frenchkiss Records. With a sophisticated sense of texture, melody and sheer scale, this remarkably realized album is a marvel of harrowing emotional expression that cuts as close to the heart as it does the bone. Devastatingly gorgeous and gorgeously devastating, this is some of the most dramatic music produced this year.
DePedro, DePedro (Ingrooves) Though its take on traditional Mexican and Latin folk music is a manifestly simple and unassuming thing, this debut album by Calexico touring guitarist Jairo Zavala is done with such loving intuition and perfection that it transforms the elemental into the poetic. Beautifully human, the songs here move and fulfill listeners in ways that overly intellectualized fare can never achieve.
Miike Snow, Miike Snow (Downtown) One of the most balanced and consistently rewarding albums this year, this debut by the three-man Swedish-American congress of producers is built on electronic pop that walks a line between forward-thinking and outstandingly immediate. Warm and lovely, with masterful arrangements and razor-sharp melodies, this is pop perfection. Why it hasn't conquered the world yet is a mystery.
Monotonix, Where Were You When It Happened? (Drag City) Everyone already knows that I'm totally gay for this band. Though you may be wholly unsurprised to see these Israeli savages make my list, I'm personally astonished. It just seems cosmically unfair that the greatest live band going today also happened to author one of the year's best recordings. But it can't be disputed that this animalistic record is the fucking deal.
Pissed Jeans, King of Jeans (Sub Pop) This face-punching, gut-kicking album is the most coherent bludgeoning on a record this year. Unhinged, unclean and dangerous, this nasty, noise-pumped Neanderthal rock is some of the most listenable brutality in recent memory.
And for the worst record, I choose The Datsuns' Headstunts (Blackseal). When I first heard the big-dick '70s stomp of their 2002 debut album, I was convinced this was the second coming of bad-ass hard rock, and this was four whole years before Wolfmother emerged. But Headstunts further represents the colossally depressing entropy that's ensued for the once-mighty New Zealanders ever since. In an age when hard music is getting its true propers, they've made the mysterious decision to soften up and go in a '60s direction that's thin on soul and grit. It's a more tragic example of post-debut atrophy this decade than even the Strokes, and disappointment is one bitter-ass pill. Then again, that Asher Roth album does make me firstname.lastname@example.org