2009: Favorite 50 Albums of 2009
50 Albums that Defined 2009 for TMT

Since 2004, we have been celebrating the year's end with two music lists: a favorite 25 albums of the year, and a favorite 25 Eureka! albums of the year. The Eureka! list, an extension of our ongoing Eureka! section, reflected our more adventurous tastes -- "avant-garde," "experimental," etc. -- while the "main" favorites list consisted of everything else. The goal of the Eureka! list was to complement the main list with music that didn't get the financial and ideological support that, say, a Strokes or Arcade Fire album did. It was a concerted effort to highlight the new and the bizarre, without creating a sort of hierarchy that, at the time, seemed so antithetical to the Eureka! section (the albums were neither put in order nor voted on).

But not only was this random free-for-all confusing (and ultimately alienating), but creating an entirely separate list was in fact an inherent capitulation to hierarchy. That is, why do these albums get their own special list when it already has a devoted section? And isn't any list-making already an implicit support of superlative value? The silliness of the distinction between the "main" list and the Eureka! list was made even more apparent when the two lists started to blend increasingly together, with artists like Fennesz, Graham Lambkin, Emeralds, Magik Markers, Blues Control, Tim Hecker, and Earth populating the main list. And this year's initial tally for the main list only served to support the ever-approaching reality: the Eureka! list must be destroyed.

And so, rather than creating two lists with dubious justification, we've decided to combine them into one list of 50 albums. This is not in an effort to kill the Eureka! section, but to acknowledge that the majority of our reviewers now lean toward Eureka! albums anyway, so we no longer need to try so hard to give these albums special attention at the end of the year. So, yes, you'll see Raekwon next to Oneohtrix Point Never, Sunset Rubdown next to Kreng, and Antony and the Johnsons next to Kevin Drumm -- but the weirdness is exciting to us. Of course, our goal has never been to have the most "unique" year-end list -- because, really, who gives a shit -- but we think this list finally reflects TMT's overall approach to music, and we're glad to finally have made this crucial jump before the new decade.

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(50-36) - (35-21) - (20-11) - (10-01)

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50. Antony and the Johnsons
The Crying Light

[Secretly Canadian]
by Jared Bier

Although he's no stranger to best-of lists, attempting to situate Antony Hegarty within a year-end round-up always feels a bit ingenuous, as if the nature of his music passively and unwittingly defies the contextualization we force upon it. While it was certainly derivative, the creative process that Antony and the Johnsons maintained this year through The Crying Light disclosed a compelling opacity, conjuring images not by way of filtration through a specific setting but rather via diffusion: each sound, though not entirely unplaceable, proved transcendent, less of a genuflection to the encompassment of time than a removed, panoramic survey of a very personal history. But then, the exhausting melancholy with which this record was infused served to conflate this cognizant, pensive reflection with ensuing uncertainty, the lines “I'm gonna miss the sea/ I'm gonna miss the snow” denoting an awareness of some imminent yet indeterminate change, a juxtaposition of his narrative with the inescapability of transience. Much like the short stories of Edith Wharton, The Crying Light evoked both a wintry tonal consistency and the vulnerability of one's ambiguous internality, not only examining but also testifying to our determinate experiences with captivating discernment.

Antony and the Johnsons - Secretly Canadian - Review

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49. Kevin Drumm
Imperial Horizon

[Hospital Productions]
by Dugan Hayes

An album by Kevin Drumm is like one of those optical illusions where you stare at a picture for a long time and then look at a blank page to see the colors of the image inverted: after listening to a classic harsh noise album like Land of Lurches, the silence in the room sounds like a soft, gentle hum. And after listening to a gorgeous ambient release like Imperial Horizon, background noises are amplified a hundred fold into an overwhelming, abrasive din. But really, harsh noise and ambient music are two sides of the same coin: taken past a certain point, harsh noise really just converges to ambient music anyway. But Kevin Drumm seems to have nailed the formula for seamlessly going from one side to the other, becoming the Joseph Fourier of experimental electronic music. And while the concept of listening to a single 65-minute track may seem daunting, Drumm considerately broke it into a series of five-minute vignettes, where two or three frequencies constructively and destructively interfered for a few periods before the tones start to slip and the next “song” started. It was impossible not to get lost in the beauty, but that's what the track title told you to do anyway.

Kevin Drumm - Hospital Productions

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48. The xx
xx

[Young Turks]
by Owen B.

On the "Influences" section on their MySpace, The xx wrote "Aaliyah to CocoRosie, Rihanna to The Cure, Missy Elliott to Chromatics, The Kills to Ginuwine, Pixies to Mariah Carey and Justin Timberlake to Tracy + the plastics." From most bands, this would've smacked of ironic pop fetishism, but from The xx, it made perfect sense. Their brand of stark minimalism would've never fit on American Top 40, but their narrative predilections were pop at heart: "I think I'm losing where you and I begin"; "I'm burning to impress"; "I'm froze by desire"; and so on. That's not to say that their sentiments were shallow or pedestrian, but rather sagaciously, lyrically universal. Theirs was indie's best album about sex and relationships since The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, and if it didn't share that album's sheer breadth of emotion, well, nothing else has since either. And, lest we forget, this was their debut. If this is what they can do with 20 and confused, just imagine what they can do with a disillusioned 35. Or, better still, with satisfaction and certitude?

The xx - Young Turks

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47. Baroness
Blue Record

[Relapse]
by Bryan Reed

Among its many traits, Blue Record was a watershed moment for Baroness. It's not that this album was going to launch the Georgia band to headlining slots in stadiums and amphitheaters come 2010 (it should have, but that's a separate discussion). What Blue Record did more than anything else was deliver on the promises the band offered since day one; the artful incorporation of recurring lyrical images and melodic phrases, the nods to classic rock (Thin Lizzy harmonies, Pink Floyd textures, and Zeppelin-worthy choruses, for example), and the sheer momentum of the album topped anything on Red Album, which itself was a breakthrough. At this point, considering Baroness a metal band is inaccurate. They have moved past their genre into the realm of the simply great. Over and over again, Baroness betrayed their musical depth simply, succinctly, and beautifully, as in the marriage of acoustic Piedmont blues fingerpicking to a buzzing psychedelic melody on electric guitar in “Blackpowder Orchard” or in the surprisingly anthemic forcefulness of “Jake Leg.” Blue Record was a crowning achievement for an ascendant band. It was a musical package worthy of its stunning cover art. And it was among the most complete rock albums of the decade. Baroness' Blue Record was the type of collection that justifies a “best albums” list in a “best singles” era.

Baroness - Relapse

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46. Ducktails
Landscapes

[Olde English Spelling Bee]
by Brendan Mahoney

Just as the Inuits are said to have dozens of words for "snow," rock writers have coined nearly as many for the music that Ducktails and his contemporaries are making, which testifies to the hold it has had over listeners' imaginations in 2009. While goofy descriptives like "chillwave" suggested the sudden trendiness of acts comprising one dude in his bedroom manipulating breezy synth noises and recording it onto cassette, Real Estate's Matt Mondanile's output as Ducktails has always seemed to materialize naturally, like an idea whose time has come. With Landscapes, he stuck to familiar territory: the Jersey shore, two-chord rave-downs, 80s education-film synths, and lots of unobtrusive, noodley layering. Everything feels gently out of sync and unapologetically stoned. The result is something strange and abstracted, but also immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up in the suburbs in the 80s or 90s. Highlights include "Wishes" and the incongruously driving "Landrunner," but the real appeal lies in the feeling that this music has no beginning or ending, and that one could drift down the river of our collective unconscious endlessly -- or at least for as long as Mondanile feels compelled to make these records.

Ducktails - Olde English Spelling Bee - Interview

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45. HEALTH
Get Color

[Lovepump United]
by Keith Kawaii

What was it keeping HEALTH just outside the periphery of the hipster crowd? The single "Die Slow" showed early promise of being accepted into 2009's indie pantheon, but perhaps the rest of Get Color was too filled with aggressive weirdo bile to fit in. Although there were undeniable moments of accessibility, the whole affair also blended elements of outlier genres more successfully than any record I heard this year. There was the drum-circle, ascending-to-heaven madness of Boredoms, the sheet metal blasts of early-decade harsh noise, the drugged-out androgynous vocal whispers, and the weird understanding of sheer rock dynamics that tied it all together. Essentially, HEALTH were revealed as consummate pros who knew how to raise goosebumps in a post-everything rock landscape. That Get Color wasn't quite the breakthrough some were expecting didn't diminish the album's impact, it heightened it; there were no concessions, just the intense honing of a craft. If that means they'll always be on the indie rock sidelines, so be it. Mass appeal is overrated.

HEALTH - Lovepump United - Review

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44. Sun Araw
Heavy Deeds

[Not Not Fun]
by M. Hugh Steeply

Given the veritable buttload of cultural references and weird plastic ancient ephemera bundled in Cameron Stallones' Sun Araw project, it's a wonder that he manages to let so much of his distinct spirit shine out. Channeling kings of the past like Neil Young, Fela Kuti, or even O.V. Wright into lo-fi dusk ballads and burnt-out stoner pop jams, Sun Araw pushed multiple genres forward on Heavy Deeds via neo-Primitive guitars, plodding bass fuzz, and more angsty atmospherics than we were used to from dubbed-out previous works like “Horse Steppin'.” Wriggling out of a similar emphasis on repetition came laid-back progressions -- scorched 70s vibes from a track like “Hustle and Bustle” certainly had a proclivity toward the more “zoned out” kind of listen, but amongst that glitzier and bass-heavy fuzz was an enormous sense that this form of reappropriation was oblique and sincere. “The Message” preferred the residue of afrobeat rather than any overt modernization of it, while those spooky organ tremolos and slow acoustic strums came off with as much admiration for the past heroes as for the aesthetes of today's beached-out DIY.

Sun Araw - Not Not Fun - Review

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43. Caboladies
Crowded Out Memory

[Gneiss Things]
by Elliott Sharp

Caboladies is a Lexington, KY duo featuring sound-adventurers Chris Bush and Eric Lanham, though Crowded Out Memory was recorded over a year ago when Ben Zoeller was still in the group. They navigate post-Skaters all-night pizza club and arcade terrains, constructing glowing and dynamic soundworlds that fuse ambient glass shimmers, joyful tape hiss, intergalactic video game glitches and splices, space pinball aerobics, underwater visuals, and magically flowing synth-based wanderings. The tribal grooves evoke visions and aquagogic memories of some long-lost, deep-sea, swirling community that swims and drifts perpetually in meditative, tropical-opium bliss. This world is meant to fully absorb the listener, so it was easy to give in to the album's charming tentacles and get lost in the pulsing vibes and rushes of multi-layered electronic whistles, crystal webs, and color droplets of bright sound. There's been much talk this year about summer and hypnagogic pop, and while we here at TMT are often skeptical of such self-aggrandizing category-building and genre-constructing, we also think that if there is such a thing as h-pop, then Crowded Out Memory was one of the best representatives of this mysterious post-noise persuasion. With captivating and robust sound mazes like these to float around in, we don't care what label comes along with it. We just wanna get wet.

Caboladies - Gneiss Things

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42. Mos Def
The Ecstatic

[Downtown]
by Embling

Bright moments always come back vivid. Those words could not possibly be more fitting for Mos Def. The Bed-Stuy polymath spent most of this past decade burning off reserves of goodwill; we all wanted to believe that Mos still kept part of his heart in the rap game, but the depths of True Magic — his mid-decade nadir — made it hard to keep the faith. Whatever residual disappointment accumulated after Black On Both Sides was instantly erased within the first moments of The Ecstatic. Although no longer in possession of the precision of youth, Mos more than compensated with religious belief, blunted metaphysics, and journeyman attitude. And with the help of Madlib, Mr. Flash, and the late J Dilla, The Ecstatic more than matched its title. It might not have knocked hard enough for mouth-breathing message-boarders, but it was a rare widescreen entry into a defensively rigid genre. Who could argue that there were many other hip-hop albums this decade that felt this vibrant, nimble, timeless, or sweeping? Okay, Mos Def, faith has been restored; please, no mook-rock relapses, and if you can, get that Jay Electronica collaboration out soon. This next decade has the potential to be so much brighter than the last.

Mos Def - Downtown

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41. Phoenix
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

[V2/ Loyauté]
by Brom

Phoenix must be mightily pissed off at The Strokes. Regular pop fans, journalists, and music aficionados never hesitate to compare them to the New York band, despite the fact they they were bringing rock ’n’ roll back to the dancefloor a year before Is This It? What's made Phoenix a more intriguing band is their willingness to subvert that sneering, no-holds-barred rock that got people so excited about The Strokes. One only has to hear “Too Young,” “Diet of the Heart,” and “I'm an Actor” on their earlier releases to see a band willing to break out from their “Strokes-copycats” pigeonhole, and this continued on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Part one of “Love Like a Sunset” saw Phoenix experimenting with fuzzy synths alongside a mixture of piano and guitar measures that collapsed and cascaded as the piece developed. Electronics pirouetted and fluttered around the band's firm rhythm section on “1901.” Sugar-laced synths swirled and twirled on the pure pop of “Girlfriend.” The album also had its share of excellent rock songs, with “Lasso” and “Armistice” providing the cheap thrills. But what set Wolfgang apart from other like-minded records this year was its readiness to embrace experimentation and invention without sacrificing straightforward pop sensibility.

Phoenix - V2

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40. Camera Obscura
My Maudlin Career

[4AD]
by Rachel B.

This was a big year for Scottish heartbreakers Camera Obscura. Following their move from Merge to British indie 4AD, they set forth to release their fifth and most orchestral record to date, My Maudlin Career — and there's no better word than “maudlin” for Camera Obscura's career. They filled this new record with inventive, warm melodies, while Tracyanne Campell's bell-clear lyrics were consistently fresh from the oven of a torn relationship, without any tear-filled warblings. With sunshiny strings, hookier-than-ever melodies, and lyrics imbued with Campbell's bitter, bittersweet misery, Camera Obscura somehow managed not only to make a seamless transition to 4AD, but also to create an album that effectively presented a lasting homage to their music and career. My Maudlin Career repeatedly reached over to scratch the back of its sister record, Let's Get Out of This Country (I swear I can hear “Come Back Margaret” in “Swans”), and its lush orchestration could not have been realized without that record, nor without any before it. It's been a maudlin career, but not in vain.

Camera Obscura - 4AD - Review

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39. Leyland Kirby
Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was

[History Always Favours the Winners]
by Stephen Bezan

With its emphasis on spectrality, murky nostalgia, and hypnagogic states, the recent work of James Leyland Kirby epitomizes the ideas dominating sections of today's avant-garde aesthetic. On Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was, however, Kirby reduced the conceptual and sample-based qualities that were essential to his previous work as The Caretaker and V/Vm in favor of a more introspective and personal approach. While this new direction contained idiosyncratic elements that served as a connection to his earlier incarnations, it nonetheless marked a significant departure for Kirby and led to a more expansive and truly definitive statement. Throughout the staggering three-album set, Kirby blended traditional piano lines and ethereal washes of synth with abstract soundscapes melded from more unidentifiable sources. But it was Kirby's unique approach to sound manipulation, both subtle and overt, that ultimately gave these components their distinctive and otherworldly quality. He produced an album that was a testament to the overwhelming expressive potential of a post-Eno ambiance. Mournful, unsettling, desolate, and beautiful, Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was drifted by like a dream whose details slowly faded, but whose memory left you with a heavy heart.

Leyland Kirby - History Always Favours the Winners - Review

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38. St. Vincent
Actor

[4AD]
by Nobodaddy

Almost immediately, there was something slightly off about the galvanizing cover photo on Annie Clark's second album as St. Vincent. The soothing palette of sunny burnt-yellow and warm-glowing peach framed a pallid, ashen portrait of Clark, who was captured somewhere uncomfortably between profile and front-view, like a headshot gone subtly but unmistakably wrong. Clark's icy, impassive, off-axis stare instantly recontextualized the coiffed glamor shot, taking it from delicate and angelic to claustrophobic and faintly unsettling. Welcome to the fascinatingly bizarre and meticulously purposeful world that Actor inhabited. From the deceptively cheery, chiming guitarwork that adorned the stark, isolation-themed opener “The Strangers” to the ethereal, lapping waves of orchestral vamping that are inevitably pulverized by the demonic funk-stomp and eerie suffocation cry of “Marrow,” not so much as a hi-hat click is wasted in driving home Clark's musical obsession with exposing the grimace of panicked desperation that exists underneath the seemingly put-together public face of every adult human being (not to mention every secretly and eternally insecure artist). Clark may appear to be in control at first glance, but so does every out-of-work actor in her headshot.

St. Vincent - 4AD - Review

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37. Real Estate
Real Estate

[Woodsist]
by Heidi Vanderslice

I don't often pay attention to track titles, consuming albums with my eyes closed on the train or while working at home. By chance I noticed that Real Estate's song titles read like an autobiography-in-a-box, splashed with working titles. Instead of agonizing over the perfect words to describe the garbage-can-lid percussion and understated surf-rock melody of “Fake Blues,” Real Estate slapped it with a title other bands would have used as a placeholder. They even began two titles with the same word; “Suburban Dogs” slyly described the risks of dead-end small-town life (“Carry me back to sweet Jersey, back where I long to be/ By the fumes of the yellow and green, next to my darling lady”), and “Suburban Beverage” picked up where it left off, sweetly howling off a too-familiar sophomoric concoction: “Budweiser Sprite/ Do you feel all right?” The love/hate relationship many of us have with our teenage roots was embodied in the rueful, half-smiling approach taken by Real Estate as they shared a secret about your underage stomping grounds: you can go home again, but you can't take it too seriously. Real Estate revel in the beachside beers, the salty kiss, and the drum you brought home from a party: the one where you might have been a hit, but you don't really remember.

Real Estate - Woodsist - Review

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36. Super Minerals
Clusters

[Stunned]
by Jspicer

It might be confounding to think that two 20-plus-minute piano pieces recorded for a cassette could be a high form of musical exploration. Yet the breathless creations of Philip French and William Giacchi not only fit the once obsolete medium, but also conformed to its simplicity. Clusters was dutiful, never lifting its gaze from the mighty ebony and ivory that laid before it. The flourishes and swirls that accented “Oxygen Bombs” and “Clusters” found themselves most powerful when contained within Giachhi's and French's minimalistic backdrop. Not once did the duo ever trip over the idea that experiments in piano need to be overloaded with unexplained bleeps or ill-placed effects. Rather, Clusters was a blank canvas, each listen manipulated by time and mood, and though Super Minerals controlled the palette, one's imagination had carte blanche to create a masterpiece all their own.

Stunned - Review

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(50-36) - (35-21) - (20-11) - (10-01)

- Click here to return to our 2009 year-end image map.