Disclaimer: I’ve not yet properly heard The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love, Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood, and a whole bunch of other stuff I really should have. I took a biiiiiiiiig break from music around this summer — reviewer burnout, it’s a terrible job hazard — and I simply haven’t caught up yet.
Honestly, this list won’t really tell you that much about what was going on in music this year. It’s totally biased, completely incomplete, and signifies nothing more than my personal tastes. (Hence the word “favorite” and not “best.”) But I love writing about music, so I thought this exercise might still be worthwhile, and hopefully at least somewhat interesting for you to read.
Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Passion Pit – Manners
The Raveonettes – In and Out of Control
The xx – XX
10. The Miniature Tigers – Tell It to the Volcano
By all rights, I shouldn’t like this album as much as I do. What a way to start the top ten, huh? But seriously, I’ve gotten so entirely sick of quirky, slightly twee masculinity that I want to scream. And yet. Something in this album is just sophisticated enough, just self-aware and self-deprecating enough that it rounds that corner for me. (See my review for actual thoughts on the music here.)
9. Franz Nicolay – Major General
If you’re put off by how much the first song on this album sounds like The Hold Steady, you’re not alone. But keep listening, because there’s a lot here to love past the narrative tricks Nicolay has picked up from bandmate Craig Finn. (As a matter of fact, I happen to love those too, because there’s no way Finn would’ve ever written “Jeff Penalty,” and I think it’s a cool song.) Nicolay is at his best when he’s singing about fucked up relationships, seemingly drawn from his personal life. Case in point: “Confessions of an Ineffective Casanova,” which is the most epic and simultaneously most charming hatefuck song I’ve ever heard.
8. Venice is Sinking – AZAR / Okay EP
Athens’ ViS can basically do no wrong in my book. Both their releases this year were spectacular — and I say this as a girl who doesn’t even really like shoegaze-y pop most of the time. They’ve got another album coming soon (had it not been delayed, they probably would’ve been the only band I can think of to score a hat trick this year), a collection of songs performed live on the stage of the since-destroyed Georgia Theatre. It will stand as a testament to the venue’s gorgeous acoustics, while also serving as a fundraiser to get the theatre rebuilt. (You can read about the fire, and my personal reflections both on the theatre and ViS, here.) And if that weren’t enough, the band has also spent 2009 being the nicest, most accessible and fun kids in the Athens/Atlanta music scene.
7. Heartless Bastards – The Mountain
2010 needs more albums like this one. Sure, there aren’t a lot of hooks, but the dirty southern-inflected rock and Erika Wennerstrom’s raggedly beautiful voice are enough. This is the kind of album to put on in the background of any kind of day: drinking in the heat on front porches, driving in the rain, while prepping for a holiday dinner party, walking your dog through the snow, &c., &c.
6. Girls – Album
If last year was all about Phil Spector, and the year before that was all about Springsteen, it’s pretty clear that the zeitgeist of aught-nine was The Beach Boys. This is my favorite album of the bunch, mostly because of the painfully desperate lyrics, which managed to still sound detached when coming from Christopher Owens’ mouth.
5. Ida Maria – Fortress Round My Heart
I reviewed Ida Maria’s album earlier this year and said everything I could possibly say. Read it here.
4. Marina & the Diamonds – Crown Jewels EP
Yeah, okay, this is a cheat. A 3 song EP in no way actually compares to a full-length. But Marina is my favorite of all the female-fronted electropop bands to come out this year, so she gets a place on the list. “I am Not a Robot” is fun, danceable, joyous, and one of the best messages anyone has managed to fit in a pop song possibly ever. Increasingly, this has become the anthem of the end of my decade, a sentiment to be remembered over and over again.
3. The-Dream – Love Vs. Money
My favorite r&b album of the year, though to be fair, it may be the only one I actually listened to all the way through. The-Dream is the best songwriter currently working (why yes, he did write “Single Ladies” for Beyonce, and if that isn’t proof enough, your tastes and mine simply do not mix). His album is nothing but top of the line tracks a la “Single Ladies” and his other huge songwriting coup, “Umbrella.” If you want the best of the best, check out “Rockin’ That Shit” (on the right stereo system, it’s the sexiest massage you’ve ever gotten) and “My Love,” the song that made Mariah Carey tolerable to me again.
2. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
So the best voice in Americana moves to Vermont, fills a barn with orphaned pianos, and releases the pop-est album to ever feel like country and folk in its heart. Did we know we needed this? Not really, but there it was this spring, stripped of the last vestiges of twang but still seeming to issue from the desolate fields and unending roads of the American countryside. Girl ain’t even from the South, y’all.
It’s possible that Case’s lyrics are growing more cuttingly insightful with each successive album, a scalpel slicing effortlessly between our true selves and the shields, walls, and masks we hide behind. Witness title track: “Can’t give up acting tough / It’s all that I’m made of / Can’t scrape together quite enough / To ride the bus to the outskirts of the fact that I need love.” Or, even simpler, this stinging line from another song: “I want the pharaohs, but there’s only men.”
1. Lady GaGa – The Fame Monster
Let’s not even lie — 2009 was the year of GaGa. Though The Fame was released in 2008, girl took off this year in the charts, in her increasingly weird ass music videos, and in a series of stellar awards show performances. We’ve seen her graduate from low-rent hipster party video concepts to living the actual, for-real Gossip Girl dream, and then shook our heads as she murdered Aleksander Skarsgard, danced as a cripple, bled to death live on MTV, and showed us the strangest bathhouse ever dreamed up, then topped it all off by lighting her piano on fire and pouring whiskey into the flames while continuing to sing the shit out of… whatever it was. Do you even remember? Did you pay attention to anything out of Stephanie Germanotta’s mouth in 2009?
It’s a dirty trick that she makes us think the images matter more than the words in the Haus of GaGa. Sure it’s all flashy weirdo fashion, subtle CG tricks, and more performance art than most performance artists can muster, but the actual words out of GaGa’s mouth, truly, speak volumes.
The Fame Monster is, at least in part, a fairly sophisticated theorem on the disparities between male and female desire. The differences are massive. Male desire is a consuming force, an appetite to be sated with female flesh, and girls are the unfortunate victims of this uncontrollable urge to devour. That’s the main theme of “Monster,” in which a boy who’s totally bad news eats GaGa’s heart and brain. It’s a powerful and frightening metaphor.
(Days before hearing the album for the first time, I had a conversation with a male friend about how terrifying I found Tom Petty’s video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” in which the characters of Alice in Wonderland consume a cake standing for Alice’s body, while she looks on, unable to move. I literally still have nightmares about that video. My male friend didn’t get it, but Lady GaGa sure as hell does.)
Elsewhere she’s less scared of the predatory nature of male/female relationships, but the metaphor stands. “Take a bite of my bad girl meat,” she goads on “Teeth,” the stomp and stammer closing track. But wanting to be devoured may just be what makes a bad girl, and it doesn’t make the devourer any less of a monster — a word that in itself connotes some shameful hunger, whether in use in myth and legend (Polyphemus the Cyclops comes immediately to mind, or the Big Bad Wolf) or modern parlance about sex offenders.
But while male desire is active in this most terrible way, female desire is presented as thwarted, as unsustainable and even tragic. In “Speechless,” a woman whose man has given up tells him she’ll never talk again; the consequence of loss of love is loss of speech, and thereby loss of agency. Not only that, but she’ll also never write again, presumably songs like the one she is currently singing. While male desire consumes and therefore destroys, female desire creates. It is the fuel used to speak, to write, to perform acts of artistry. Take love away and the female voice follows, and with it the ability for said female to assert herself.
It works only because GaGa is, as she reminds us on other tracks, a “free bitch.” Peeking behind the curtain, we know that the Haus of GaGa is run by the lady herself, almost completely free of (male) label control. This song sung by any other pop diva would scare me. But knowing this girl, I know better than to think she means it. I also know better than to think she isn’t willingly positioning herself in the male role at least half of the time. The monster of her song may be male, but the video for “Bad Romance” has Germanotta herself emerge from a space coffin labeled “Monster,” has her subtly changed into something inhuman (see: those scary-big eyes at one point, and the lizard-like spine protruding from her back at another).
Anything this layered masquerading as simple (amazing) pop deserves no less than the #1 slot. Besides, it’s fucking great to dance to.