It's hard to say what exactly are the top ten best albums. For every name that makes the list, there is another that deserves mention and another completely undiscovered. Moreover, it's even harder to break it down due to the varying genres and the enormous amount of music released in a given year. That being said the following 10 albums are ones that left me wanting more as soon as they finished. While there are numerous albums that have left a strong impression this year, these 10 stand out.
Top 10 Albums of 2009
1. Rickie Lee Jones - Balm in Gilead
Now in her fourth decade recording music, this multi-Grammy winner has redefined herself with an austere, spiritually-heavy album that draws on numerous computer effects, her trademark vocals and her always engaging lyrics. To call this the best album she's written in years is a dramatic understatements. This is as good as her early albums in the late 70s/early 80s that put her on the map. A truly staggering work. Likened by many to being the Kid A of the singer/songwriter movement, Balm in Gilead is an album many people will go back to for years to come.
2. Portugal the Man – The Satanic Satanist
A most awesome album of true genius. Toning down their progressive leanings of prior efforts, the Alaskan band hones in on pure unadulterated pop. Lilting falsetto matches with My Morning Jacket-esque harmonies, a bevy of hooks, concise arrangements (no song is longer than four minutes) and a chamber pop structure that draws on electro, indie-folk, art-rock and synth offerings, to make for a truly compelling listen.
3. David Berkeley -Strange Light
One of the nation's most underrated singer-songwriters, Berkeley has penned an album that's equal parts introspective, poignant, and plaintive. Strange Light is deeply affecting, undeniably magnetic and tremendously inspiring. The Harvard-educated singer has released nothing but quality since his debut six years ago, but this Brian Deck produced effort is in an entirely different stratosphere. The lilting prayer, "O Lord Come Down," is most definitely one of the year's best songs. A truly astonishing album of rare beauty.
4. Bad Veins - Bad Veins
Cincinatti's best kept secret. The duo of Benjamin Davis and Sebastien Schultz have crafted an album that's fuzzy, melancholic and symphonic. Backed by heavily layered instrumentation, megaphone vocals, impassioned drumming and irresistible hooks, this self-titled debut falls somewhere between The Strokes and The Flaming Lips. With epic, grand-scale arrangements, no one song triumphs the other. Equal parts rousing, swaggering and sun-drenched, Bad Veins is a towering album and one not to be overlooked.
5. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
These Brooklyn boys have certainly set the bar quite high for all the indie upstarts. One of the more shimmering, transcendent and hypnotic chamber pop releases of the decade, Veckatimest, is a challenging album that is backed by crystalline production. Perhaps the best part is there's an intimacy and immediacy that's hard to overlook. While their pop leanings are certainly what has made this band so buzzworthy, their chill-inducing ballads and stark piano landscapes are equally as impressive.
6. The Antlers - Hospice
An absolute gem of a disc. Frontman and founder Peter Silberman has created a disc that details a man losing a loved one to bone cancer and watching her die in the Sloan Kettering Cancer Ward while he is beside her. Filled with nostalgia, bitter ache, desperation, helplessness and endless amounts of affection, it is a chill-inducing, once-in-a-lifetime kind of listen. Written in first and second person narrative, the album's lyrics read more like a memoir than that of popular music. Utilizing accordion, harmonica, trumpet, harp, keyboards and bowed banjo, this indie-folk concept album is a masterwork. A truly beautiful disc of rare genius and an absolute treasure.
7. The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin
A hybrid of gospel, folks and blues, the intimate listen manages to use contemporary flourishes to make an album that sounds decidedly antique. Earthy, spacey and painstakingly calculated, Oh My God Charlie Darwin features a bevy of three-part harmonies, thick layers of reverb and stirring strings. Equally adept at writing slow-burning ballads and swashbuckling rockers, the Low Anthem's major label debut is a true delight.
8. Paolo Nutini – Sunny Side Up
The Scottish Italian takes a tremendous step forward on this rhythm-centered follow-up. His deep sense of soul and blues has always been his hallmark but this time he builds on that. With a more defined sense of harmony and melody, Nutini broadens his lyrical pallette and utilizing the production of Ethan Johns has woven an album that's indispensable. Featuring a wash of Hammond B-3, omnichord, mellotron and a thick, hazy horn section, there's a slight calpyso vibe that veers towards country, swing jazz, doo wop and more. While for many artists, a disc of this broad range would come across as a mess, Nutini manages to make it one cohesive piece.
9. Maxwell – BLACKSummers’night
A cathartic album that is bittersweet, wrenching and panged, BLACKSummer'snight is an impassioned and incredibly focused exercise in masculinity, sensitivity and sex appeal. Aided by a horn section and a veteran session band, BLACKSummer'snight harkens back to the days of Al Green's rise to prominence and redefines the neo-soul movement. Heavily nuanced, incredibly intimate, and undeniably emotional, the R-and-B on these nine tracks is as good as any released this year. If all pain could be eschewed this effectively, the music industry would be not be in such bad shape.
10. Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard - One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur
Anytime two of the best lyricists in contemporary music get together, it's bound to be something special, and as one would expect One Fast Move or I'm Gone does not disappoint. Written as a response to Kerouac's Big Sur, many of the albums lyrics are based on the 1962 novel. Equal parts a valentine, an adaptation and a reinterpretation, One Fast Move or I'm Gone is a triumph. Though Farrar does little to move away from his morose, deadpan sound that has been his trademark for the last decade, there's a life and an energy here that surges from the speakers. His deeply resonant blues lilt seems a perfect match for the deeply introspective prose of Kerouac. In an effort to jolt the disc to life, Gibbard's sprite, more playful melodies allow one of literature's most recognized names to become a pop-music novelty. Who knew?
Top 50 Songs of the Year
1. Brand New "At the Bottom"
2. Phoenix "1901"
3. Just Jack "The Day I Died"
4. Mumford and Sons "Little Lion Man"
5. Manchester Orchestra "I've Got Friends"
6. Kevin Devine "Carnival"
7. Pilot Speed "Put the Phone Down"
8. Civil Twilight "Next To Me"
9. Stars of Track and Field "Racing Lights"
10. Passion Pit "Moth's Wings"
11. Norah Jones "Stuck"
12. David Bazan "Please Baby Please"
13. Beach House "Norway"
14. David Berkeley "O Lord Come Down"
15. As Tall as Lions "In Case of Rapture"
16. Eels "Fresh Blood"
17. Avett Brothers "Kick Drum Heart"
18. Low Anthem "Horizon is a Beltway"
19. Mos Def "Quiet Dog Bite Hard"
20. Regina Spektor "Folding Chair"
21. Felice Brothers "Penn Station"
22. Brandi Carlile "Dreams"
23 Jonatha Brooke "All You Gotta Do is Touch Me"
24. Jill Sobule "Palm Springs"
25. Florence and the Machine "Rabbit Heart"
26. Andrew Bird "Fitz and Dizzyspells"
27. Jenny Owen Youngs "Led to the Sea"
28. Morrissey "Something is Squeezing my Skull"
29. Bell X1 "The Great Defector"
30. Diane Birch "Don't Wait Up"
31. James Maddock "When the Sun's Out"
32. Phish "Backwards Down the Number Line"
33. Wilco "You Never Know"
34. Laura Marling "Goodbye England"
35. Justin Townes Earle "Mama's Eyes'
36. Corey Chisel "Born Again"
37. Brendan Benson "A Whole Lot Better"
38. Bob Mould "I"m Sorry Baby, But You Can't Stand In My Light Anymore"
39. Soulsavers "You Miss Me When I Burn"
40. The Big Pink "Dominos"
41. Edward Sharpe and the Magnificent Zeros "Home"
42. Benjy Ferree "Tired of Being Good"
43. Rocco DeLuca and the Burden "Open Pages"
44. Among the Oak and Ash "Peggy-O"
45. Zee Avi "Bitter Heart"
46. Rodrigo y Gabriela "Buster Voodoo"
47. Tim Williams "I Hit Another Wall"
48. Miiike Snow "Animal"
49. Dan Auerbach "Last Mistake"
50. Will Hoge "Even if it Breaks Your Heart"
Other notable discs (in no particular order):
Roman Candle - Oh Tall Tree in the Ear
Dawes – North Hills
Sea Wolf – White Water, White Bloom
Animal Collective Merriwether Post Pavilion
Meaghan Smith The Crickets Orchestra
Will Hoge The Wreckage
Passion Pit – Manners
The Avett Brothers I And Love And You
Imogen Heap Ellipse
Dave Matthews Band Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King
Metavari Be One of Us and Hear No Noise
Civil Twilight Civil Twilight
Wheat White Ink Black Ink
David Moore My Lover My Stranger
Eels Hombre Lobo
The Working Title Bone Island
Pilot Speed Wooden Bones
The Veils Sun Gangs
James Maddock Sunrise on Avenue C
Danny Ross One Way
Kevin Devine Brothers Blood
David Bazan Curse Your Branches
Dan Auerbach Keep it Hid
Brendan Benson My Old Familiar Friend
Diane Birch Bible Belt
Jill Sobule California Years
Wilco The Album
Gomez A New Tide
Phoenix Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons Death Won't Send a Letter
Monsters of Folk Monsters of Folk
Lyle Lovett Natural Forces
John Fogerty The Blue Ridge Rangers Rides Again
The Felice Brothers Yonder is the Clock
Freedy Johnston Rain in the City.
Pilot Speed - Wooden Bones
Jay Z- The Blueprint 3
As Tall as Lions - You Can't Take It With You
The Damnwells - One Last Century
You are such a gosh darn good writer. Teach me.
Fantastic list - stealing some of your best songs
never listened to a single thing on this list...kinda makes me wonder if im missing out
Brandi Carlile "Dreams"
Love that song as well as the entire album. The women has an amazing voice I feel more people should know who she is. Definitely have the same opinion on her as Paste though I think anything she puts out is gold ha ha.
The Antlers - Hospice is definitely on my AOTY list. Good call.
I had no idea Rickie released a new album this year. Dang.
As I've grown to really respect your opinion, I will definitely seek out some of these albums. Thanks for the list!
Wow - one of the few lists on here with a bunch of stuff I don't know, but the stuff I do know I really enjoy so I'm guessing the rest will be quite interesting to hear and I can't wait to dig into this.
Thanks for the list, and like others said - your writing really is fantastic and appreciated.