As a medium, the rock album is so under siege that even Radiohead made noise in 2009 about giving it up for downloadable singles and EPs.
The album can’t help but increasingly feel like an afterthought in a year where the big thing in rock seemed to be landing on the soundtrack of New Moon. But even though 2009 may not have produced a wealth of classic discs, there was still great stuff to be heard. One writer’s top 10 of the year:
1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion: It’s a trip, to be sure. The strength of Animal Collective has never been in the lyrics or even in songcraft. But with buzzing, pulsating electronics, they create primal jams for the 21st century. Best here are the songs by Panda Bear, one of the group’s two songwriters along with Avey Tare. On songs such as My Girls and Daily Routine, Panda Bear (whose real name is the less silly Noah Lennox) sings simply about young fatherhood while fracturing dazzling, sunny Beach Boys-esque melodies. Merriweather is a claustrophobic, dizzying maze that only releases in the final, sky-parting minutes of the album closer, Brother Sport.
2. Franco, Francophonic, Vol. 2: 2009 has in many ways been the year of African music. Fela Kuti’s music is blaring on Broadway. The Dirty Projectors — along with such bands as Vampire Weekend and Fool’s Gold — found popularity in adapting Afropop to indie rock. But curious fans should go to the source: the Congo legend Franco Luambo, whose soukous style rumbas earned him the title of James Brown of Africa, a grand label that still underestimates him. Dance to the golden rumbas of this collection and its earlier volume and fall into the musical world of greats like Tabu Ley Rochereau and contemporaries such as Amadou&Mariam, whose Welcome to Mali was also one of the year’s best.
3. Wilco, Wilco (The Album): Having apparently rid himself of his demons, Jeff Tweedy upends the rock ’n’ roll convention of the drugged-out, troubled poet: He’s better with those days behind him. Darkness (as on spooky Bull Black Nova) still lingers, but good spirit and Tweedy’s top notch songwriting feel utterly unencumbered.
4. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love: Pay less attention to the narrative of this “folk opera” than to the excellent drumming and the rousing cameos from My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden and Lavender Diamond’s Becky Stark. Both just about steal the show — and it’s quite a show.
5. A.C. Newman, Get Guilty: One of the most underrated albums of the year is A.C. Newman’s second solo album. Newman, whose real name is Carl Newman, is best known as the lead singer and songwriter of the New Pornographers. Without his larger band, Newman’s hooks (seemingly in unending supply) are stripped down to their bombastic essence. “We used to throw thunderbolts,” Newman reminisces, but he still hurls them.
6. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse, Dark Night of the Soul: If this album is unfamiliar, it may be because it doesn’t quite exist. When it was released, it included only a photo book by filmmaker David Lynch and a blank CD. Legal troubles held it up, but with a wink-wink, the musicians suggested it be downloaded illegally. Dark Night of the Soul has a mysterious quality and not just because of its find-it-somewhere-online release. These two ridiculously named pseudonyms team up to play backing band to a host of guest singers, from Iggy Pop to James Mercer of the Shins.
7. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest: Delicate and light, Grizzly Bear’s third and finest album has a purity to it. It’s filled with sonorous, singsongy melodies that seem to float. It’s been a galvanizing force in the indie world, which is increasingly turning to dreamy, catchy tunes sometimes labelled “glo-fi.”
8. Flaming Lips,Embryonic: It’s inspiring to see a band more than 25 years on make such an experimental, unpredictable album such as the two-disc Embryonic. The Flaming Lips weren’t alone, either in proving their great longevity; Built to Spill and Yo La Tengo — similarly classic acts forged primarily in the 1990s — also released impressively lively albums. High points include the Lips’ epic, throbbing Watching the Planets and Built to Spill’s Life’s a Dream, where they perfectly marry their trademark swirling guitars with horns.
9. Allen Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi: No, it doesn’t rock, but it swings. Always one of the more elegant of the Crescent City’s great R&B men, Toussaint tiptoes cleanly and with panache through jazz, with standards by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhardt. Produced by Joe Henry, the pianist plays with an excellent band of Marc Ribot, Nicholas Payton and Don Byron.
10. Regina Spektor, Far: There’s a danger of underrating Spektor because she makes it seem so easy. The Russian-born, classically trained pianist plays bouncy, infectious pop songs that abruptly turn and soar. Resistance is futile.