For help with this year’s music list, we have once again enlisted the help of Bevin Beers and recruited Portland hipster Dan Vore. A reminder about methodology: Erin, Ben, Dan and Bevin all agreed on a consensus of the best twenty-four or so albums and then ranked them numerically, from favorite  to least favorite . Albums that did not make anyone’s list were given a score of 11. The lower the score, the better the album. Given the extra guest critic this year and the wider range of musical proclivities represented on the judging panel, as well as the length of our initial list, it was far more difficult for any one album to hit every list. In fact, only three did. After further deliberating, horse-trading, shoving, shouting, cursing, earmarking, pork-barreling and pile-driving, we finally agreed on a list. And then after Bevin and Dan left, we decided that our process had been a bit too, ah … democratic … and accordingly rigged the list to suit our dictatorial tastes. (Forgive us, Bevin and Dan.)
As we poured over our lists, we were struck by the thought (echoed by all) that nobody fell head over heels for any one album this year. Which isn’t to say it was a bad year for music, only that nothing blew us away.
Before we delve into the list, here were our favorite concert experiences from 2009:
Ben and Erin: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Southgate House, Newport, June 11. We enjoyed playing the “Is That Person Over There Going To The Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Show?” Game almost as much as the actual show. Anybody can play this game, and everybody who plays wins.
Bevin: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, The Sommett Center, Nashville, November 18. The Rolling Stone editorial board in no way influenced Bevin’s vote.
Dan: The Flaming Lips, Edgefield Ampitheater, Portland, August 20. What does Dan remember most about this show? “The band came onstage out of a giant vagina projected onto a screen.” Dan also took a date to this show. It was her first Lips experience. Way to go, Dan.
The panel also agreed to create a special section for soundtracks this year. Whether it was the wild, tribal yelping and folk-pop of Karen O and the Kids on the Where The Wild Things Are soundtrack, the splendid variety of the Fantastic Mr. Fox soundtrack, with the Ennio Morricone-inspired score from Alexandre Desplat as well as pop gems from Burl Ives and the Beach Boys (and a killer closing number, “Let Her Dance,” by The Bobby Fuller Four), or the indie rock all-star summit known as the New Moon soundtrack (the soundtrack being the only redeeming thing about the movie), it was a good year for soundtracks. (The Adventureland soundtrack, though we did not buy it, will also appeal to you Velvet Underground/Lou Reed fans, plus Yo La Tengo did the score.)
Though not a soundtrack, the Dark Was The Night compilation afforded another indie rock all-star summit. This was the album that introduced us to, among others, the Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer and Buck 65. Plus you got great new tracks from The National and The New Pornographers.
Before we plunge into the top ten, let’s acknowledge those albums that made at least one of the four “best of” lists. (In college football poll parlance, these would be “Others Receiving Votes.”)
Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion; Antony & The Johnsons, The Crying Light (regrettably stuck in our Suzuki’s CD player for the past ten months); Thad Cockrell, To Be Loved; Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Up From Below; Iron & Wine, Around The Well (Bevin’s #1 pick); Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk; Passion Pit, Manners; Jay Reatard, Watch Me Fall; St. Vincent, Actor; Tom Waits, Glitter & Doom.
Finally, let’s also acknowledge the “Best Album That Almost Saved Matt Masterson’s Soul“: Absolution, by Muse. Though it did not in fact bestow eternal salvation upon Matt, it deserves some kind of special mention here for symbolizing the immense amount of time and thought that the many Voreblog readers put into selecting it. Those of you who might be shocked not to find Creed’s Full Circle on the list below should rest assured that if anyone will write the definitive review of that album, it will be Matt.
And now — the top 10! (Er, 11 — we cheat!)
10 (tie). Andrew Bird, Noble Beast and The Low Anthem, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin. Any Andrew Bird album will be destined to make a Voreblog “Best of” music list, although Noble Beast did not rank as highly as Bird’s previous two efforts. The Low Anthem made both Dan and Bevin’s list, so we purchased it literally an hour ago. Hasty of us to just go and throw it in the top ten? Based on a first listen, we vote “no.” (More things to love about Ohio: Low Anthem’s “To Ohio.” Ohio: Musicians love us!)
9. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus. Fizzy, catchy, buoyant pop, somewhere between Vampire Weekend and Franz Ferdinand. “1901” and “Lisztomania” are the standout singles everyone drools over, but almost every song is a keeper, with “Rome” and “Armistice” being highlights farther down the track list. Don’t hate them because they’re French! Or because they sell Cadillacs! Or because everyone else and their mother put them on their top 10 list! Just like them!
8. Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career. Higher on Ben’s list than anyone else’s, but then again, Ben is a sucker for lush, retro pop tinged with strings and melancholy. Now that Belle & Sebastian has jumped the shark, Tracyanne Campbell and bandmates are our musical Scots of choice. We dare you to listen to “French Navy” and not shimmy those hips. No, correction — we triple dog dare you. (According to iTunes, Ben has also played “The Sweetest Thing” 134 times. It’s a great song, people. [See “Songs of the Year” below.])
7. The Avett Brothers, I And Love And You. Dan’s #1 pick. Erin thought she didn’t like The Avett Brothers, until she did. We hear that some longtime fans think the latest album is a betrayal of the “authentic” Avett Brothers sound. Whatever. The only album on our list that features a skull on the cover. (Megadeth did not release any albums this year.¹)
6. The Swell Season, Strict Joy. A consensus top ten pick. You know Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from Once, and while they are no longer romantically involved, there’s an intimacy to the album that transcends its sorrow and yearning. Dan reports that they put on a swell show. Sucks not to live in Portland.
5. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone. Ben ranked it #1 and no one else ranked it, which technically meant it shouldn’t have cracked the top ten. But this would have simply been unacceptable. This is a kick-ass album with the most kick-ass cover of the year. You do not mess with Neko Case. There’s a feral quality here (one song is titled “I’m An Animal,”), and she will surely reap bloody vengeance on those who did not vote her. Lyrical proof: “I craved I ate hearts of sharks, I know you know it.”
4. Thao, Know Better Learn Faster. “If this is how you want it, okay, okay,” Thao and backups sing over a dirge-like note at the start of Know Better Learn Faster, and that pretty much sets this tone for this sexy, snappy bunch of songs. KBLF showcases a more eclectic sound than Thao’s previous effort, notably the title track (which sounds like it was peeled from Andrew Bird’s Armchair Apocraphya, probably because Bird himself plays on it). And who doesn’t like a song that begins with the lyric, “Everybody please put your clothes back on”?
3. M. Ward, Hold Time. Another consensus top ten pick. Initially underwhelming, this album only gets better with each listen. Zooey Deschanel duets on “Never Had Nobody Like You” and Lucinda Williams swings by for a cover of “Oh Lonesome Me.” Ward’s reverb-soaked vocals settle down on you like a warm, woozy spell. The sunny, jangly closer “Shangri-La” is reminiscent of another favorite of ours, Devendra Banhart’s “At The Hop.”
2. Why?, Eskimo Snow. Erik Brueggemann doesn’t just recommend books, he recommends good music too! After hooking us up with most of the Why? catalog, we sampled all of it on the drive to Asheville this fall. Although Elephant Eyelash (2005) remains our favorite, Eskimo Snow is the one that came out in 2009, and thus the one that makes the list. Why? has a knack for brilliant wordplay set against the full spectrum of musical genres: hip-hop, pop, folk, even a little country. Appropriately, iTunes categorizes Eskimo Snow as “unclassifiable.” Oh yeah — Erin’s #1 album of the year.
1. Wilco, Wilco (the album). Another top ten consensus pick, and while no one ranked it #1, it had enough oomph to beat all comers. We love Wilco. You know this. Surely you’re sick of us writing another word about Wilco, so we’ll simply say that while this isn’t our favorite Wilco album, it’s well worth adding to your library.
WORST OF THE YEAR
The Flaming Lips, Embryonic. Ben thinks it’s simply unlistenable. Dan actually ranked it #8 on his list. Brother fight! (Seriously though, if the urge to buy this album ever sweeps over you, just take $15 and flush it down the toilet. Go ahead. Flush it. At least you’ll have spared your eardrums.)
Kings of Leon. These guys are insufferable, and so is their music. Spin inexplicably chose KoL as Band of the Year. All they really seem good at is drinking. Sample quote (from the Spin article) from frontman Caleb Followill: “When you have success like we’ve had, you kind of have to feed the masses.” Way to go, guys. Spoken like true artistes. Can’t wait for the Rehab Years.
TOP TEN ELEVEN SONGS OF 2009
[in random order]
“Home,” Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros. We’ve raved about this song before. And how many songs deliver nonsensical dialogue about a man proclaiming his love for a woman who’s just fallen out a window? It’s a short list, that’s for sure. (Many drugs went into the making of this video.)
“Charlie Darwin,” The Low Anthem. Bevin’s pick for song of the year. (Sam Beam, eat your heart out.) Simon Taffe and Glenn Taunton of End of the Road Films made the stop-motion video for the band. (Wes Anderson, eat your heart out.)
“Sleepyhead,” Passion Pit. Dan’s pick for song of the year. Just because it’s the soundtrack to a Palm Pixi commercial doesn’t mean you can’t like it. (Dan reports that the floor of The Crystal Ballroom in Portland was literally bouncing when they played this live. He feared for his life.)
“I And Love And You,” The Avett Brothers. Proof that you can dislike The Avett Brothers for only so long.
“Life is Long,” David Byrne & Brian Eno. Technically a 2008 song, we discovered it in 2009. This video is crummy so just close your eyes.
“The Sweetest Thing,” Camera Obscura. Ben’s top pick. 134 plays. But maybe he just has a thing for girls with handlebar mustaches.
“Cool Yourself,” Thao. Easily the best video among the best songs of the year. Also best use of space catnip and a giant Amish squid in a musical video. Who knew that the sound of a teensy tiny singer-songwriter careening into a meteor was “BROMF!”? To the Thao cave! (Whatevs.)
“Lisztomania,” Phoenix. Okay, okay. This is a total cave to peer pressure. Everyone else was putting it on their lists, so there you go. We’re almost at 2000 words and it’s getting late. (Best use of the Franz Liszt Museum in a video this year, hands down.)
“Zero,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Another one on everyone’s list, and with good reason. We’ll defer to Spin on the virtues of this song: “With her gift for sod-off squawking and tear-streaked realness, Karen O was born to lead the frisky rock revolt that the aughts never earned. So here, with a regal hip check, she strides off by her lonesome, resplendent synth riff all aquiver, cooing, ‘Get your leather on,’ as we gambol on the grave of 2009’s tragic, orgiastic flimflam.” (Huh?)
“Down,” Jay Sean. Our guilty pleasure pick. The best way to experience the infectious catchiness of this song is to experience it, as Ben did, in a jeep full of 13- and 14-year-old boys. En route to a flag football game one Sunday after church, this song came on and immediately everyone sang along to the chorus. As soon as the song ended, we scanned through two other stations until we hit the song again, at which point (again) everyone sang along to the chorus, this time with the giddy hope that maybe this song would never stop playing for the rest of their lives.
“So Far Around the Bend,” The National. If only for the lyric, “You’ve been humming in a daze forever / Praying for Pavement to get back together.”
And in 2010, they will.