In last month’s Q magazine, I read with some surprise and not a little disappointment, their (rather early) list of the top 50 albums of 2009. Although these lists are by their very nature incredibly subjective, I found myself taking issue with the vast majority of their choices. Lily Allen at number 7? Kasabian at number 1? The Decemberists skulking around just outside the 50? All quite laughable.
But at least it prompted me to start thinking about my own choices, and encouraged me to compile my list. At the outset, I will explain that it contains several albums that were not released this year – in fact, in at least one case, not even this century. However, they are all albums that are new to me this year, that I had not previously heard until 2009. In the interests of fairness I did try to keep the older ones out of the top 20, and in fact only one managed to sneak in.
I will present the list in full, without comment, and maybe revisit that decision and add a brief note to each one when I have more time.
I’d be more than happy to receive your thoughts on my choices, and your suggestions of glaring omissions.
In the interests of suspense, I will present them in ascending order of merit, from 50 to 1.
50) Staff Benda Bililli – Tres, Tres Fort
A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo in Kenya, including a 17 year-old performing incredible guitar-like solos on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can. What’s not to love?
49) Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
My introduction to the wonders of Wilco – the American Radiohead, according to some.
48) Vetiver – Tight Knit
One of many new bands I discovered this year, and a pleasant record, but probably not their best. Enjoyed their set in the Big Top at the End of The Road Festival in September.
47) The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin
If more of the songs were as good as the title track, this could have been a top 20 contender. An odd mix of lo-fi nu-folk (a la Fleet Foxes) and growly mad stomping blues (like Tom Waits let loose in a potting shed).
46) The Broken Family Band – Welcome Home, Loser
One of three of theirs in the 50, and full of very fine songs with the trademark BFB witty lyrics and a fab cover photo and title to boot.
45) Florence and The Machine – Lungs
I resisted this until late November, as all the hype surrounding Florence, La Roux, Little Boots et al and their electro-pop revolution had made we want to give them all a wide berth. However, Florence doesn’t really fit that mould, is clearly the pick of the bunch and this is quite a fabulous album. Great pair of lungs too.
44) Taylor Swift – Fearless
Stands out from the rest in this list as rather poppy and young, but Ms Swift does write a fine tune and lyric. Although this was purchased for Mrs Cook’s birthday the sheer catchy-ness of these songs has infected me too.
43) Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
Undoubtedly the best album title in the list, and packed with some fantastic songs. As ever with Yo La Tengo, they manage to sound like at least five different bands over the course of the same record. Never a dull moment.
42) Cat Power – The Greatest
Spurred on by her great version of ‘Amazing Grace’ on the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation, I got this for a half price itunes bargain and was not in the least disappointed. Great voice, great piano, and a number of fine songs.
41) Great Lake Swimmers – Great Lake Swimmers
Haven’t had time to listen to this one as much as the other two in the list by this fine Canadian band, but their debut showed signs of the huge promise that has been fulfilled on the subsequent records. Folky acoustic songs of the highest order.
40) Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara
This one had me from the opening seconds of the opening song ‘Your Rocky Spine’, discovered on Spotify on my birthday using my new laptop speakers. Was enthralled by this album for most of that afternoon. Sounded even better with the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies that inspired it on our trip in June.
39) Woodpigeon – Songbook
Another Canadian band, and one of my first Spotify discoveries. ‘Death by Ninja (a Love Story)’, ‘A Sad Country Ballad For A Tired Superhero’ and ‘A Hymn For 2 Walks In Different Cities’ are all quite brilliant songs, in very different ways. Fast becoming a favourite band of mine.
38) The Broken Family Band – Please And Thank You
Their most recent, and sadly their last album as they split up in October. The usual reliably great tunes, combined with the occasional barbed lyric, this would have been higher but for the fact I haven’t listened to it as much as my favourite of theirs, ‘Balls’, that appears further up the list.
37) Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin
So much fuss is made of the Fleet Foxes, but I actually much prefer their Sub Pop label-mates BOH: there is more to the music, the instrumentation is better and the songs are a bit more interesting than the Foxes pastoral by numbers. For me, not as immediately satisfying as their debut, which appears higher up, but definitely worth a listen or several.
36) John Martyn – Solid Air (Remastered)
Sadly I’d never heard any of John Martyn’s music until after he died earlier this year – this remastered version of one of his most popular records was a great starting point. ‘May You Never’, ‘Over The Hill’ and ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ are all stand-out tracks and I love his distinctive guitar playing style.
35) The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain
Checked this out after a very good set they played at the End Of The Road Festival: intriguing acoustic rock – a bit of a grower.
34) Cage The Elephant – Cage The Elephant
Brash, noisy, full of energy and highly enjoyable.
33) Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Love the cover, love the title, love his voice, adore ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and this would have been higher except one or two tracks are a bit too weird for my taste.
32) Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Think I need to give this more time, especially as many people have raved about it, but it is a step up from her debut and contains some great moments.
31) She Keeps Bees – Nests
Another itunes bargain following a sterling closing set at the EOTR Festival, this is well worth checking out. A band to watch out for.
30) The Decemberists – The Crane Wife
My ultimate discovery of the past year, as regular readers will know, Portland, Oregon’s finest are very much my favourite band these days. This was the first album of theirs I heard and there are a number of outstanding tracks here, such as ‘Crane Wife 3’, ‘The Shankhill Butchers’, ‘O Valencia’ and ‘Yankee Bayonet’. A good starting point for new listeners, but not my favourite, as will become apparent.
29) The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay
Would have been much further up the top 30 if every track had been as good as ‘If You Ever Get Famous’, one of my favourite songs of the year. Sadly, only one or two other tracks come close to matching it, although I suspect this record’s a grower and I need to give it more time. They were fantastic live at the End Of The Road Festival in September when they added a lot more punch and panache to these stripped-down songs.
28) Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South
Any record featuring Conor Oberst’s distinctive vocals and trademark lyrical dexterity is always going to get in my top 30. This year he manages it twice with two different, new bands. Haven’t given this one as much of a listen as The Monsters Of Folk, but a good set of songs as ever.
27) Regina Spektor – Far
As with so many of the albums in this list, this one started as a speculative Spotify selection, and over the course of several listens to this captivating set of songs and Spektor’s quirkily endearing vocals, I grew too fond of it to only have access to it via my computer. Well worth a listen if you’ve never heard of her before, and not only for her dolphin impression on ‘Folding Chair’ and beat box ending on ‘Eet’.
26) The Broken family Band – Balls
I discovered this album in the middle of the Summer and just couldn’t stop listening to it. Some of the most acerbic and barbed but hilarious lyrics I’ve ever heard are matched to some of the most beautiful, perky and downright hummable tunes. ‘It’s All Over’ and ‘Alone in the Make-Out Room’ are absolute solid-gold standouts but there really isn’t a bad track here. If you’ve never heard this record, Spotify it immediately!
25) First Aid Kit – Drunken Trees
OK, so strictly speaking this is an EP, but with 8 tracks and 3 bonus videos on the download version, I think it merits inclusion. One of the acts I’m sad to have missed at The End Of The Road Festival, these Swedish sisters have a great way with harmony, are talented instrumentalists and write their own interesting songs. Having said that, the best track here is their stunning cover of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’.
24) Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Many high profile musicians claim Grizzly Bear as their favourite band, which always makes me a bit skeptical. Having tried and failed to get my ears around their previous album ‘Yellow House’ on Spotify I held out for a while on this, their latest, despite reading many rave reviews. When my resistance was eventually worn down by a very good track included on one of the free CDs from ‘The Word’ magazine and a Spotify test drive I started to see what the fuss was all about. A bit like ‘Bitte Orca’ by Dirty Projectors higher up this list, this is a record that challenges the listener and broadens your musical perspective as a reward.
23) Band Of Horses – Everything All The Time
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m indebted to one of my brother’s friends for recommending Band Of Horses, and they turned out to be one of my favourite discoveries of the year. This is their first album, and my favourite of the two so far. Lots of great songs to choose from here, but the guitar riffs in ‘Weed Party’ are sufficient on their own to make me want to learn how to play that elusive instrument despite my complete lack of musical skill.
22) The Decemberists – Picaresque
Of all the albums in this list you’re unlikely to find one with a better or more flamboyant opening track than Picaresque’s ‘The Infanta’. From the initial rumbling jungle sounds, to the tenor warbling at the grand finale this song is a master-class in showing-off.
21) The Airborne Toxic Event – The Airborne Toxic Event
20) Joyce, Nana Vasoncelos & Mauricio Maestro – Visions Of Dawn
19) Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk
18) Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
17) Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels
16) Woodpigeon – Treasury Library Canada
15) Muse – The Resistance
14) Slow Club – Yeah So
13) Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
12) Wilco – Wilco The Album
11) The Leisure Society – Sleeper
10) Emmy The Great – First Love
9) Joe Gideon & The Shark – Harum Scarum
8) Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
7) Loney Dear – Dear John
6) Various Artists – Dark Was The Night
5) Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
4) The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy
3) Loney Dear – Loney, Noir
2) Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
1) The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love