Owl and Bear’s Top Albums of 2009

Owl and Bear writers’ favorite albums of 2009.

30. Lady GagaThe Fame
Lady Gaga’s provocative, larger-than-life persona can be polarizing. But divorce the music from the imagery and you’re left with one of the decade’s best pop albums. It’s no accident that “Just Dance”, “Lovegame”, “Paparazzi”, and “Poker Face” are all smash singles; Gaga creates idealized dance music by blending bouncy beats, Euro-club sleaze, and cunning wordplay into a force rivaled in intensity only by the Lady herself. Emerging from obscurity as a fully-formed icon, Gaga and her Top 40 shenanigans came to define 2009’s music in a way that no bearded flannel enthusiast ever came close to doing. And, for once, that was a good thing. (Chris Maroulakos)

29. Woods – Songs of Shame
Upon first listen, Woods might seem like just another indie folk band. But allow Songs of Shame‘s catchy harmonies and psychedelic sprawl to surround your ears and you’ll see that Woods are not your typical troupe. I still haven’t gotten tired of listening to the song “Rain On”, and I don’t think you will, either. (J. Walkos)
Live download: Daytrotter Session

28. Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement
You know those old Motown songs that you sing along with every time they come on the radio? Songs like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “Where Did Our Love Go?”, and “My Girl”? I know it’s hard to believe, but a white kid from Michigan has managed to channel those classics with A Strange Arrangement. You won’t hear anything original on this album, but you will hear some fantastic soul music that improves with every listen. (J. Walkos)

27. Vic ChesnuttAt the Cut
Oh Death, you hector me/you decimate those dear to me/tease me with your sweet relief/you are cruel and you are constant./When my mom was cancer-sick/she fought but then succumbed to it/but you made her beg for it/lord Jesus, please, I’m ready.
Goodbye, Vic, you were rare, and great, and dark, and funny, and you broke our hearts. (T. Loper)
Live download: Daytrotter Session (with Elf Power)
Donate: 100% of all funds raised will go to Vic’s family

26. GenerationalsCon Law
The name Generationals implies the influence of different periods of time, and the band’s music follows suit; Con Law‘s sound ranges from doo-wop to reggae and everything in between. But, far from merely ripping off other genres, Generationals manage to make each sound their own. (J. Walkos)
Live download: Daytrotter Session

25. Cass McCombsCatacombs
From the opening notes of the 50s-esque “Dreams Come True Girl”, it’s clear that Catacombs is something special. “Prima Donna” and “You Saved My Life” find McCombs on a new creative plane, crafting gorgeous songs of hushed beauty. Penultimate track “Jonesy Boy” uses distorted guitar to brilliantly restrained effect; each staccato strum confirms the subliminal energy that runs through even the quietest songs. (Chris Maroulakos)
Live download: Daytrotter Session

24. Smith Westerns – Smith Westerns
In a year full of beards and post-rock, the self-titled album by Smith Westerns was just the in-your-face, piss drunk, I-don’t-give-a-shit album that I needed. Smith Westerns are a welcome red-hot breath of fresh air amid the air-conditioned sincerity found in most indie rock. I can only hope that Smith Westerns are just the first attack from a new generation hell-bent on restoring rock and roll to its former glory. (J. Walkos)

23. TortoiseBeacons of Ancestorship
As a big Tortoise fan, I should’ve known that I’d come to love Beacons of Ancestorship, but I have to admit: upon first listen, I wasn’t sure. I even put it down for a while. Then, one day as I placed the needle on Beacons‘ beautiful white vinyl, it hit me. The instrumentation ranges anywhere from classic pop to Dark Side-era Pink Floyd, to video game soundtrack, to punk, to high school science videos—but no matter what, it is always awesome. (T. Loper)
Download: “Prepare Your Coffin” (MP3)
Live download: July 8, 2009

22. Fanfarlo – Reservoir
I almost missed the bus on this album, but I’m sure glad I didn’t. Fanfarlo create chamber pop music that gets lodged in your head and keeps you chanting joyously all night long. From the moment play is pressed, you can sense that Fanfarlo are on the verge of indie rock stardom. (J. Walkos)
Interview: Cathy Lucas and Amos Memon

21. Bill CallahanSometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
Bill Callahan’s career has seen his music grow increasingly personal and refined as he shifted from persona (the late, great Smog) to person (Callahan). Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle is typical Bill: storytelling lyrics punctuated with random, often crass humor and marinated in the man’s unmistakable baritone. “Eld Ma Clack Shaw”, “Too Many Birds”, “All Thoughts Are Prey to Some Beast”, damn near every one of the album’s nine tracks is a tour de force, culminating with the haunting ten-minute existential crisis “Faith/Void”. (Chris Maroulakos)
Download: “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” (MP3)

20. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
This is the album that Phoenix have always had in them, and the pieces finally come together on the near-perfect Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Every pulsating track is a surprise that leaves listeners craving more, and each subsequent song satisfies that craving. I sure hope this isn’t Phoenix’s high water mark, but if it is, that’s fine by me, too. (J. Walkos)

19. Marissa NadlerLittle Hells
For those who like dreamy, dark vocals and reverb-heavy guitars, Little Hells is not to be missed. The fragile “Heart Paper Lover” and eerie “River of Dirt” are some of the willowy singer’s best songs, and the album is full of others. If Marissa Nadler’s version of Hell is anywhere near the real thing, little or large, I’m not going to worry about salvation. (T. Loper)
Live download: Planet Claire Session

18. MewNo More Stories / Are Told Today / I’m Sorry / They Washed Away // No More Stories / The World Is Grey / I’m Tired / Let’s Wash Away
After the prog-heavy And the Glass Handed Kites, it would have been easy to pigeonhole Mew as purveyors of gonzo bombastic arena rock. But the band surprised everybody with No More Stories, opting instead for restraint and delicately woven sonic tapestries. Not only does the new Mew sound like a different band, they sound like a better one. (Chris Maroulakos)
Live download: Daytrotter Session

17. The Gentlemen Losers – Dustland
This album has remained under the radar all year, getting only a fraction of the attention it deserves. Finland’s The Gentlemen Losers have created some of the most sublime, melancholy, and heartbreaking songs I’ve heard in a long time. Rarely does an instrumental album strike me so powerfully, but Dustland is a dreamy masterpiece. (J. Walkos)

16. Black Heart ProcessionSix
Despite what material about suicide, loneliness, abandonment, hell, and rats may otherwise suggest, there’s no deep, dark secret why BHP’s sixth album is a good one. It’s simple, really. With ten-plus years of peddling gloomy rock under their sad, ill-fitting belts, BHP make grim look easy, and Six rests buxomly within the balance of the band’s catalog. A mainstay of sunny San Diego, the finesse with which BHP dodge any cheeriness while avoiding stepping in something sappy speaks to their abilities to plumb the depths and come up with the best of the icky stuff we usually like to flush away. (Andy)

15. Dirty ProjectorsBitte Orca
Dave Longstreth and his trio of female singers create harmonies that will make your head spin. And when you’re not being floored by the vocals, Longstreth’s defiantly atypical compositions and Afro-Carribean guitar licks will keep you from regaining your balance. Bitte Orca is a fascinating, dense work that sounds completely unlike anything else in indie music. But the album’s crown jewel has to be “Stillness is the Move”, which finds Amber Coffman stealing the microphone—and then the show—with her impossibly nimble voice. (Chris Maroulakos)
Review: July 17, 2009
Photos: July 17, 2009

14. The Avett BrothersI and Love and You
On their Rick Rubin-produced major label debut, The Avett Brothers court the masses with fancy production and copious amounts of strings. It may be a departure from the down-home aesthetic that fans have come to love, but I and Love and You combines all of Emotionalism‘s upbeat catchiness with the breathtaking sincerity of the Gleam EPs. “Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise”, “And It Spread”, and the title track are just some of the highlights from the brothers that seem physically incapable of making bad music. (Chris Maroulakos)
Review: May 10, 2009
Live download: Daytrotter Session

13. Immaculate MachineHigh on Jackson Hill
When your bandmates are AC Newman, Neko Case, and Dan Bejar, it must be pretty hard to stand out, but New Pornographers keyboardist Kathryn Calder does just that with High On Jackson Hill. Whether channeling T. Rex (“He’s a Biter”) or singing tenderly incriminating duets (“You Destroyer”), it’s obvious that Calder and Co. have a refined sense of songwriting, and their understated confidence is nothing less than captivating. (Chris Maroulakos)
Download: “He’s a Biter” (MP3)
Live download: Daytrotter Session

12. Girls – Album
The simplicity of the music and lyrics is what interests me so much about Girls. Evoking teenage nostalgia with odes to bad decisions and getting hammered, lead singer Christopher Owens proudly wears his heart on his sleeve. With Album, Girls provide a welcome reminder that it’s okay to have a “Lust For Life”. (J. Walkos)

11. Neko CaseMiddle Cyclone
When you have a set of pipes like Neko Case, it’s hard to create music that’s anything less than stellar. But all the much-deserved attention paid to Case’s once-in-a-century voice can distract from the fact that she is also a top-notch songwriter. With its evocative imagery and wry humor, Middle Cyclone is a staggering masterwork from a songwriter at the top of her game. And that voice… (Chris Maroulakos)

10. Bowerbirds – Upper Air
Indie folk’s popularity soared in 2009, and Bowerbirds’ Upper Air was a highlight. With their girl/guy harmonies, sincere lyrics, and varied instrumentation, it’s easy to want to make a nest and listen to Upper Air, one of the best albums of 2009. (J. Walkos)
Photos: August 5, 2009
Live download: Daytrotter Session

9. Jason LytleYours Truly, The Commuter
Jason Lytle rose from Grandaddy’s ashes with an album that tops everything that band ever did. Yours Truly, The Commuter maintains the moody longing fans have come to expect, but marries it with exquisite production and a transcendent atmosphere of hope. (Chris Maroulakos)

8. Thao with the Get Down Stay DownKnow Better, Learn Faster
From Know Better, Learn Faster‘s galvanizing first track, “The Clap”, onward, Thao and company forge infectious pop firecrackers tempered by moments of splayed-out vulnerability. Every track is a keeper, but songs like “Cool Yourself”, “Body”, and “When We Swam” make this the most fun breakup album ever made. (Chris Maroulakos)
Photos: November 20, 2009
Live download: Daytrotter Session

7. Black Moth Super Rainbow – Eating Us
With Eating Us, BMSR made an accessible psychedelic glitch pop record, and that’s no small feat in any year. I hope these Western Pennsylvanians keep drinking the Kool-Aid and churning out amazing songs like “Born On a Day the Sun Didn’t Rise” for years to come. Completely original and infectious. (J. Walkos)

6. Camera ObscuraMy Maudlin Career
Tracyanne Campbell’s voice has always sailed atop deep undercurrents of emotion, but My Maudlin Career finds her leading Camera Obscura into uncharted waters. Cathartic string compositions, 60s pop ditties, and sleepy country ballads intertwine to create one of the most beautiful albums in recent memory. (Chris Maroulakos)

5. Grizzly BearVeckatimest
For many acclaimed bands, creating a sophomore album that lives up to the first can be quite the challenge, but Veckatimest shines even brighter than its predecessor. The songs are both complex and catchy; look no further than the brilliant “Two Weeks” for evidence of the band’s genius. If this album doesn’t stand the test of time, then there’s something wrong with time. (T. Loper)
Download: “Two Weeks” (MP3)

4. CalifoneAll My Friends Are Funeral Singers
With something for everyone, All My Friends Are Funeral Singers may be the best record yet from these hard working folksperamentalists. For new fans, Funeral Singers is Califone’s most accessible effort; for those who already like the band because they push boundaries, there’s no shortage of experimentation. It’s especially great for über fans like me who enjoy Tim Rutili’s entire catalog—from the 90s (Red Red Meat) to the 2000s (Califone): Funeral Singers is a perfect blend of everything I’ve ever loved about both bands. (T. Loper)
Review: October 10 & 11, 2009
Live download: Chicago Public Radio

3. Animal CollectiveMerriweather Post Pavilion
People have come to expect the unexpected from Animal Collective, but nobody foresaw Merriweather Post Pavilion. The album is bold and experimental, yet also accessible—a first for this decade-old freak folk band. Released just six days into 2009, no subsequent album this year would match Merriweather‘s wild creativity or sprawling sonic scope. (Chris Maroulakos)

2. Fruit Bats – The Ruminant Band
On every Fruit Bats album, there is a door. Once you find it, the entire album will open up. On Mouthfuls, it was “When You Love Somebody”; on Spelled in Bones, “The Earthquake of 73”; on this year’s excellent The Ruminant Band, it’s “Singing Joy to the World”. Eric Johnson has written some of the best love songs I’ve ever heard, and “Singing Joy to the World” is another in a long tradition. Put the entire album on repeat and play it loud. (T. Loper)
Interview: Eric D. Johnson
Live download: March 28, 2009

1. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros – Up From Below
Fronted by Ima Robot’s Alex Ebert, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros mix infectious melodies and childlike innocence to create songs that stay in your head—and, dare I say, your heart—for days on end. Songs like “40 Day Dream”, “Up From Below”, and “Janglin'” are beyond terrific, but even those can’t compare to the transcendent ballad “Home”, Ebert’s unabashedly affectionate duet with bandmate Jade Castrinos. Invoking 60s hippie-folk and Ennio Morricone’s film scores, Up From Below is an alternately sentimental and moody album that recalls the past but still manages to feel timeless. (Chris Maroulakos)
Review: November 3, 2009
Photos: November 3, 2009
Live download: Daytrotter Session

One thought on “Owl and Bear’s Top Albums of 2009”

  1. Excellent list and I now have some great new music to listen to.

    I'm going to get right to it as soon as I can quit listening to AMFAFS, for me, the best album by anyone in a long time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.