Every time I plunge into a year-end top ten list, I feel the need to cleanse myself of the the whole music nerd ritual. I find it troubling that people spend a lot of time bickering over which list “got it right” as opposed to which lists reflect a unique, honest point of view.
Site Map I know it’s fun to celebrate the success of bands you love and bemoan the success of artists you don’t care for (Lord knows no one needs to hear me sound off again on how much I hate Animal Collective), but everyone tends to present their results as definitive — the product of either a pseudo-scientific polling system or a rigorously thought-out survey of the year’s offerings. Pitchfork has emerged as the basis of comparison for pretty much every list. Whether or not you agree with their decisions (chances are you probably don’t take their word as absolute gospel), if you are the kind of person who reads and writes top ten lists, you tend to get the idea of which record is Better (capital B) than the other.
In considering my approach to year-end lists, allow me to liken myself to Owen — the rotund sad sack played by Danny DeVito in the 1987 comedic romp “Throw Momma From the Train.” In one scene, simple Owen shows Billy Crystal’s character his beloved coin collection. While Crystal’s sophisticated professor expects to see rare and universally prized items, Owen reveals simple quarters and nickels. His collection is sentimental, and he details the memory each one triggers.
This is the way music lists should be — specific records of the music that fueled your life for the previous year. I’d much rather see a top ten list with a slot created for a best friend’s collection of demos over a predictable list of usual suspects that only adds to the competitive, testosterone-fueled approach to list-making.
On that heavy-handed note, here’s my list.
10. Kittens Ablaze – The Monstrous Vanguard; Slow Club – Yeah So; Other Lives – (self-titled)
While I’m on my soapbox, I’m going to use the first entry on my list to prove a point. It drives me a little nuts when people come out with their top ten lists in November. It IS possible for great albums to come out in December. Or, if you have access to pre-releases, I’m sure you can use the time to listen to more records.
So, here are three albums that I felt deserved a spot on my list and all of them were late 2009 discoveries. Kittens Ablaze (disregard the name) offers a propulsive debut, full of hardcore riffs, emotive vocals and two full-time string players to flesh out the sound. Slow Club is a UK-based duo whose harmonies sound polished whether they’re singing over Simon and Garfunkel-inspired ballads or freewheeling White Stripes-y anthems. Meanwhile, Other Lives plays beautiful pastoral music buoyed by a violin and singer Jesse Tabish’s seasoned vocals.
9. The Pomegranates – Everybody, Come Outside!
An unassuming Cincinnati-based foursome whose 2009 record grew on me with every listen.
Best tracks: This Land Used To Be My Land, But Now I Hate This Land; Coriander
8. The XX – (self titled)
When discussing The XX’s debut, everyone seems to discuss the album’s maturity in contrast to the band members’ youth. And for good reason. Because — holy crap! — the restraint they employ and mood they effortlessly establish defies their age. These kids should be thrashing on the guitars and writing opaquely about their hormones, but they’ve created upscale booty music for the art rock set.
Best tracks: Crystallizsed, Islands
7. AA Bondy – When the Devil’s Loose
I never would have thought that the force behind the dirty 90s post-grunge band Verbena would evolve into a mercurial singer-songwriter with a country bent. But, here he is, with a second solo album that is tighter and more realized than his debut, “American Hearts.” His voice is just as sad but the songs are more unified and the whole thing seems more genuine.
Best tracks: False River, Mercy Wheel
6. An Horse – Rearrange Beds
There’s not a lot to An Horse. One girl, one electric guitar, one boy, one drum kit. But their debut album is singer-songwriter fare powered by jet fuel. The lyrics are generally unhappy, but Kate Compton’s sincere delivery (and her undisguised Australian accent) gives “Rearrange Beds” a sweetness makes the songs all the more enjoyable.
Best tracks: Rearrange Beds, Postcards
5. Julie Doiron – I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day
2009 marks the year I learned about Julie Doiron. She’s been making music up in Canada for ages, writing emotionally raw folk-rock, but “I Can Wonder What You Did With Your Day” is her first album to find me. This record won me over with Doiron’s simple and direct writing style, her childlike voice and her spare rock arrangements.
Best tracks: Consolation Prize, Spill Yer Lungs
4. Ohbijou – Beacons
Ohbijou is a band I traveled all the way to Canada to see. Their second record is consistently gorgeous, employing cello, violin, piano and glockenspiel. Elegant, beautiful music that provides a lush backdrop for Casey Mecija’s high, delicate voice.
Best tracks: Make It Gold, New Years
3. Noisettes – Wild Young Hearts
On their second record, Noisettes go straight for the pop jugular. While their debut, “What Time Is It Mr. Wolf?,” was equally eclectic (ranging from acoustic balladry to funk-inflected rock), it was a rougher around the edges than their sophomore record. Every song on “Wild Young Hearts” showcases shiny pop melodies and singer Shingai Shoniwa’s larger-than-life presence. There’s an air of fabulousness that surrounds the music’s muscular energy — think sequin hotpants in a grimy rock club (which is exactly what Shoniwa wore when I saw them).
Best tracks: Wild Young Hearts, Beat of My Heard, Never Forget You
2. Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
What an excess of riches — one of my favorite albums of the year is performed by one of my biggest crushes of the year. While watching Nils Edenloff perform is a pleasure in itself, listening to his record “Hometowns” sans the visual stimulation is still rewarding. The RAA receives a lot of comparisons to Neutral Milk Hotel comparisons and not without good reason. Like NMH, Edenloff has a tendency to belt out his songs through his nose (in a good way) and they both incorporate vigorous guitar strumming as the basis for many of their songs. However, The RAA’s lo-fi electronic embellishments, manic percussion and nature-as-a-metaphor-for-romance lyrics set the band apart as a unique and exciting new act.
Best tracks: Drain the Blood, Four Night Rider, Sleep All Day
1. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
There were a lot of albums I liked in 2009, but what puts Fanfarlo’s debut over the edge for me is the response it has received from everyone I’ve recommended it to. More than any other record this year, this is the one that has been universally adored by everyone I’ve shared it with. After all, it’s an endlessly tuneful record filled with complicated lyrics, old-fashioned instrumentation and wonderful vocal harmonies.
I’m almost hesitant to give Fanfarlo the number one spot, because it almost seems too pleasant of a record to be a number one album. There’s no real boundary-pushing or edge to speak of. However, frontman Simon Balthazar’s comforting croon and his ensemble’s masterful pop arrangements make “Reservoir” a truly special album.
Best tracks: The Walls Are Coming Down, Comets, Finish Line