The Top 10 Albums of 2009

The past 10 years have upturned the music world, and we're all better for it. A countdown of the year's best music, and the artist of the decade is named.

It was a phenomenal year for music. Veteran acts broke their own sound barriers, notching the best work of their careers. Rookie artists reset boundaries and staked their claims to longevity. More than just this year, though, it’s been a phenomenal decade for music. Ten years ago, maybe you had an mp3 or two; now you can’t remember the last time you purchased a CD. For the record labels, it’s been a decade of tumult: 10 years of legal battles and dwindling margins.

However, music in the 2000s wasn’t about the self-destruction of the record industry. Music is about the artists, the music they create, and the audiences who feast on it. The future of music isn’t in question, only how it’s sold.

For this year’s installment, rather than including mp3 previews of album tracks, I’ve added videos of the musicians performing songs from their albums; watching them is a reminder that they’re delivering creativity and adaptability—way more than commodity. If you want some mp3s, you probably already know where to find those. For the record labels, that’s the bitter legacy of the 2000s. For us (the fans), we get what really matters: another phenomenal year of music.

10. Islands, Vapours

The best album you didn’t hear this year. And how is this possible? What is going on? I can’t help but suspect Islands may have traded ties with Guy in Rosemary’s Baby. Why aren’t they getting the attention they deserve? There is an evil plot at work. Perhaps we aren’t meant to see it. Because this album has everything: hooks that’ll make your knees wobbly, double-entendre lyrics. It even has some very unexpected Auto-Tune. (And during a year when you might normally expect the Auto-Tune.) There must be some explanation.

9. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

This summer a friend mentioned that, as an upper-middle-class New Yorker in his mid-30s, he has no choice but to like Grizzly Bear. It’s targeted to his demographic: good for walking around the city, equally good for dinner parties (but with enough edge to remind everyone that just because you’re having a dinner party doesn’t make us provincial; after all, this is Brooklyn and we are drunk), and: Jay-Z likes Grizzly Bear. It’s friendly and awkward. “Two Weeks” is amazing. Go on, just dive in and love it. It is so good.

8. Atlas Sound, Logos

Funny story, depending. Bradford Cox of Atlas Sound (and Deerhunter) posted an unfinished version of Logos online last year, assuming it was in a private folder. He became very upset when he learned it wasn’t—and that he’d inadvertently leaked his own album. Not that he went all Axl or anything. Instead, he was upset with himself; he was upset with whomever was picking through his directories; and he was upset enough to want to abandon the album altogether. Good for everyone concerned (except Axl) that he didn’t, and decided to finish what he started. This is the best work so far in a young, prolific career.

7. Drake, So Far Gone

With Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” and two more airwave-dominating singles (“Every Girl” and “BedRock”), the year in hip-hop belonged to Lil Wayne’s Young Money imprint. And the star of the show was Drake, whose So Far Gone is actually his own bootleg mix tape—not a full-fledged studio release at all. Drake’s often ethereal, introspective rap pushes new boundaries in hip-hop, and perhaps for Lil Wayne as well, who appears on a solid third of the album, and—let’s face it—was in an Auto-Tune rut before all this happened. You’ve already heard “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful.” Now listen to “Congratulations,” centered around a sample from “Viva la Vida” that sounds better than Coldplay and Joe Satriani put together, if that’s possible.

6. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

Colin Meloy is the sort of lyricist who tells stories. More than rhyme schemes of imagery, his songs have plots. So if the Decemberists up to this point have been giving us short story collections, a novella (The Tain), and a year of serials (plus a retelling of a Japanese folk tale), The Hazards of Love is the big, long-awaited novel. Yes, there is an overarching story and yes, there is organ, but it’s unfair to file this under “concept albums.” That’s nothing against concept albums, per se, but the sticker is applied too often and implies too many things this album isn’t. Instead, let’s just say it’s the Decemberists you know, only much bigger, with more storylines, and a 3D CGI treatment from James Cameron in the works. (No, but wouldn’t that be something?)

5. White Denim, Fits

In an alternate universe, this is what music critics listen to while freebasing and carping over the worthlessness of commercial music. This is what true artistry sounds like, they say, this is what true musicians do: They create, and what they make is beyond our comprehension. If Miles played guitar, this is what it would sound like. This is a band so technically proficient that they’ve turned over the odometer then run it up again—they’ve been around the bend, deconstructed their own sound, then built it back up into something that resembles not so much music, but whatever the thing after music is. So yes, this is music from an alternate universe. And more specifically: Austin.

4. Girls, Album

The Roger Federer of pop music, Girls makes note-perfect melodies and jaw-dropping hooks look easy—though they’re not without their detractors, who bemoan the buzz heaped on this San Francisco band. But whose fault is that, really? If you were courting buzz, would you pick a band and album name that are that hard on the Google? (More importantly, how gracious do you think Juan Martín del Potro would be about all this? He would be exceedingly polite, is what would happen.) Style-wise, there are many comparisons to Elvis Costello. I’d add the Smiths to that. My dad doesn’t like either, so I’m betting he wouldn’t like this; but I’m betting you would.

3. Passion Pit, Manners

Passion Pit burst onto everyone’s radar on the strength of a song (“Sleepyhead”) that was recorded in 2007 by singer Michael Angelakos in his dorm room and given to his then-girlfriend as a Valentine’s Day gift. That’s very sweet and emo, and so is Manners, the debut album that followed this year. How sweet and emo? Pump your fist in the air on a cool summer day with the windows rolled down and a car full of all your best friends smiling and singing along. That’s how sweet and emo. Sweet and emo and idealistic. Really, you shouldn’t have one without the other two. Such a perfect, fun album.

2. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

In 1987, Ivo Watts-Russell, founder of the famously outsider 4AD record label, suggested two artists on his roster, A.R. Kane and Colourbox, team up to write and record a dance song that would be so immediately appealing and commercially popular as to make them all a lot of money. The result of their ploy: the chart-topping “Pump Up the Volume.” The lesson from all this is that the only barrier between experimental musicians and the rest of the world is a hot, thumping beat. Certainly the band’s biggest success to date, Merriweather Post Pavilion was hardly a departure for Animal Collective—it’s a natural progression of a sound they’ve been establishing for nearly a decade—so I don’t think we can call this a money grab. But for anyone who wants to know why popular music was a notch better this year, it’s because Animal Collective finally, finally broke through—and those beats didn’t hurt.

Album of the Year: Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Churning out the good stuff since 2000’s United, Phoenix has been a pop undercurrent all decade long—“If I Ever Feel Better” sounds as fresh today as nine years ago. And now that we’ve finally hit the end of the aughts, the plucky sluggers from Versailles are finally getting the major mainstream attention they’ve earned so many times over—we’re talking about a Grammy nomination here. With Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, they’ve reached the zenith of a career built on making their next album an improvement over the last. Though as good as Wolfgang is, they’ll top it too. Now that’s going to be something to hear.

Band of the decade? Here they are.

Originally published at The Morning News