The Best Albums of 2009

Alright folks.  Time to switch gears a bit.  As many of you know, I’ve spent the last month working on my list of the best movies of the last decade.  As a result, I haven’t had time to really tie up 2009 as it relates to film or music.   I think now would be as good a time as any to talk about some of my favorite albums of 2009.  T

In my view, 2009 was a relatively weak year musically.  There were a few old names that resurfaced with some new material.   But as a whole there were no game changers.  In fact, just coming up with ten albums I liked was quite difficult; that is why this isn’t a “top 20″ list.  With that in mind, here they are:

#10.  Dave Matthews Band: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

Over 15 years after songs like “Satellite” made them a household name, the Dave Matthews band return with their best work in quite some time.  On this, their tenth album, Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King, is a dedication to saxophone player LeRoi Moore, who died from complications that resulted from an ATV accident in 2008.  Although Moore played very little on the album, his presence is felt throughout.  With Moore’s likeness gracing the album cover’s artwork, the whole package is really more of a New Orleans style celebration; the result is easily the band’s best album since 2002′s Busted Stuff.  Don’t get me wrong, the band hasn’t entirely shed its fascination with overly commercial music.  In fact, all you would have to do is turn on the tube on any given Saturday afternoon and you’ll find a few tracks from Big Whiskey blaring during every commercial break of ABC’s college football coverage.  But that should not and does not diminish the quality of the music.  Produced by Rob Cavallo (Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls), the album offers a refreshing approach not seen from DMB in quite some time.  There’s a little bit of that harder-edged rock we first saw from them withEveryday, a few odd metered tunes, and one of the best songs the band has recorded in nearly a decade (“Lying in the Hands of God”).

Select Cuts: Lying in the Hands of God, Seven, Squirm

#9.  Passion Pit: Manners

The opening keyboard riff from the song Little Secrets tells you all you need to know about Passion Pit.  Hailing from Cambridge, Massachusetts, Passion Pit offers up a fun, hook-laden brand of electro-pop.  Lead singer Michael Angelakos’ falsetto singing style sounds a bit like the Bee Gees on speed but it works.  The concept is hardly new but the songs are undeniably catchy.  Check it out; I bet you won’t be able to turn it on without bobbin’ your head a little.

Select Cuts: Little Secrets, Moths Wings, Swimming in the Flood

#8.  Them Crooked Vultures: Them Crooked Vultures

I’m usually not a fan of supergroups.  It is a rare occasion when a supergroup puts out an album that’s worth the hype (see Asia,AudioslaveVelvet Revolver), much less as good as anything any member has done on their own or in another band.   Combine that with the fact that I’m really not a fan of the band “Queens of the Stone Age” and you can see why I wasn’t in a hurry to hear what these guys had to offer.  Much to my surprise, Them Crooked Vultures is pretty darn good.  Featuring the great John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin fame on bass, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) on drums and Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) on vocals, this, the group’s eponymous debut does not disappoint.  The Zeppelin and QOTSA influence is most evident.  A few of the tunes (Scumbag Blues, Elephants) sound like re-interpretations of Zeppelin tunes recorded post-Physical Graffitti.  In sum, its a great hard rock album with three of rock n’ rolls most preeminent figures past and present.

Select Cuts: Scumbag Blues, Bandoliers, Spinning in Dafodils

#7.  The XX: XX

Kudos to my boy Billy Wood for giving me the scoop on this one.   Somehow XX managed to slip through the cracks.  Nevertheless, I’m glad I had a chance to check these guys out because this is a wonderful album.  On the appropriately titled first track “Intro,” the band reminds us of all the things we used to like about Portishead.  It’s an instrumental track set to a tight groove, layered with a dark ambient feel.  As the album proceeds, other influences start to come through.  On VCR the band channels a sound quite similar to Swedish europop outfit, Peter, Bjorn, and John.  There are some other favorites on here though like the beautifully haunting “Shelter.”  Although XX was not my favorite album of 2009, it’s definitely the most refreshing.  Something that has become increasingly hard to find in today’s musical climate.

Select Cuts: Intro, VCR, Shelter, Night Time

#6.  Jay-Z: The Blueprint 3

As the old saying goes, the only certainties in life are “death and taxes.”  Well it may be time to add “Jay-Z puttin’ out a good album” to that list.  After all, very few artists have the type of consistency of Jay-Z, or H.O.V.A, or “Jigga” or whatever you prefer to call him.  Yeah, yeah, I know, he’s like an old prized fighter.  I mean the guy’s retired like 5 or 6 times at least; but can you blame him?  Following a tried and true formula, The Blueprint 3, the final installment in the Blueprint trilogy offers Jay-Z’s lyrical bravado, and a collection of beats destined to be accessible to a wide audience.  Its hardly a triumph.  Yet, in an era of hip-hop homogeneity, it’s nice to see that you can depend on Jay-Z to put out something that stands out amid all the noise.

Select Cuts: What we Talkin’ Bout’, Thank You, Real as it Gets

#5.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs: It’s Blitz!

If there was ever any thought that the YYYs would be some flash in the pan rock band, riding the wave of the 80′s new wave revival,It’s Blitz! should be clear message that this group is here to stay.  On every studio album they’ve released, they’ve taken different turns.  Here, they opt for a sound, more rooted in synthesizers than in the brilliant guitar work of Nick Zinner.  Despite my preference for the latter, the new approach works, and quite well I might add.  While the music this trio has put together over the last half-dozen years or so is respectable, it is the charisma and lyricism of singer Karen O that really sets these guys apart from their contemporaries.  Both sonically, musically, and visually, the YYYs set themselves apart from the banality that is most current rock bands; It’s Blitz! is a friendly reminder of that.

Select Cuts: Zero, Soft Shock, Skeletons

#4.  Raekwon: Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II.

This may be a shock to some people.  As a musician and guitar player for over 20 years, I listen to rock music more than any other genre of music, with jazz being a strong second.  So ranking a hip-hop album this high on my list may seem a bit odd.  Naturally, I don’t think its odd at all.  As a child of the 80s, I grew up during the “golden age” of rap.  For years, groups like Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane, took rap music to new heights, previously unseen and sadly not seen since.  I continue to listen to rap music, but it takes up a whole lot less of my listening time because it bores the hell out of me.  Thankfully, guys like Raekwon are out there to keep me engaged in the rap game.  On Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II, Raekwon, featuring a cadre of other rappers (Jadakiss, Ghostface Killah, Method Man), proves again why he is a force to be reckoned with.  Personally, I find Raekwon’s music most engaging because it reminds me of a Tarantino movie.  The cultural references and homages to 70′s soul classics, laced with the lyrical stylings of rap heroes of years past make Only Built, one for the ages.  It’s almost like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions decided to record a rap album; pure genius.

Select Cuts: Gihad, Sonny’s Missing, Penitentiary

#3.  Pearl Jam: Backspacer

Okay, I’m a little biased here.  Personally, PJ remains in a small group, as they are one of my favorite bands of all time.  Setting that aside, Backspacer is a great album.  As a PJ album, its different in many respects.  Replacing the darkness of PJ albums of the past (which are all good in my view), is a general upbeat feel that permeates throughout the album.  It’s also concise.  At a little over 36 minutes in total, its the shortest full-length studio album the band has ever recorded.  Although some of the tunes are a bit of a departure from previous albums, there are still a few tracks on Backspacer that stick to the PJ formula of heavy guitars and big choruses; most notably, “Amongst the Waves” and “Unknown Thought.”  If you’re one of the many that shied away from PJ right around the time No Code came out, now may be a good time to get back into them.

Select Cuts: The Fixer, Amongst the Waves, Speed of Sound

#2.  Muse: The Resistance

In full disclosure, I was a unimpressed with this album at first.  After all, some of the operatic, multi-harmony vocal stuff are torn directly from the Queen (see “United States of Eurasia”) playbook.  Nevertheless, I have come to realize the greatness of The Resistance.  After all, when lead singer Matthew Bellamy isn’t busy doing his best Freddie Mercury impersonation, he is a great vocalist.  The melodies are well written and the music is well crafted.

To be sure, The Resistance is  a concept album.  Several of the tunes sound like they belong in a sci-fi flick.  That would probably explain why ABC has been using the tune “Uprising” in its promos for the V series remake.  Given the feel, it may not be the most accessible album.  Still, credit must be given to Muse for their ambition.  The album ends with a three-part suite titled “Exogenesis Symphony;”  the depth and beauty of which goes beyond the scope of what your average rock band is capable of composing.  To that end, Muse should be commended for their ambition and songwriting prowess.

Select Cuts: Uprising, The Resistance, Guiding Light

#1.  Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

If you’ve listened to this album before, you probably heard “1901″ and thought, wtf? I know I did.  It is the second song on the album, and the band’s most popular to date, as it can be heard on the Cadillac SRX commercials.  But that’s not what makes this album great.  The album is great because here, Phoenix does something that so few bands are able to do: they make a modern sounding album that is both accessible and credible.  Sure the sound is hardly novel.  Heavy on the synthesizers, Phoenix’s music fits quite well among other electropop bands that seem to rule today’s indie music scene.  Yet, Phoenix proceeds with an understated approach, more so in line with their French brethren Air.   Despite all the synthesizers, no pieces seem out of place overdone.  Frequently, you’ll find well-placed guitar vamps underscoring the keyboards that make for a great blend.

If you’re a student of history, you know that musical styles change.  What endures though are great melodies; Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix has those in spades.  As a result, it is the album I’ve spent the most time listening to this year, and in turn is my pick as the best album of 2009.  I would encourage anyone to give Wolfgang a listen.  If you can get past the packaging, you’ll love what’s in it.

Select Cuts: 1901, Lasso, Rome, Girlfriend

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