Late last month, when 2009 was rapidly ending, I decided that I wanted to compose a "best of 2009" essay ("Best Songs of 2009", "Best Albums of 2009", "Best People I Hung Out With in 2009", etc.) to celebrate the New Year. Eventually, I decided that the concept was somewhat arrogant. It might make sense if I was some media outlet with access to all of the music released this year (e.g. Pitchfork, the Onion AV Club, etc.). But as one solitary music-loving individual, ignored by major labels, indies, and bands feverishly making demo tapes, it is impossible to know what positively amazing music released in 2009 that I shall not hear until 2010 or 2011.
As a result, I decided to compile a list of notable music that I had heard during 2009. I did something similar in 2006, so this essay has precedent. Unlike in 2006, though, this list is based on chronological order, as opposed to a "top ten" format (again, arrogant).
I discovered Beirut in February and quickly fell in love with them. Neutral Milk Hotel is probably my favorite band in the entire world, but they are not releasing new albums. While The Decemberists (once considered their heirs) are making progressive rock concept album abominations,1 Zach Condon is traveling the world and finding new ways to incorporate horns into his music.
In March, I visited Amsterdam. Besides seeing the sights (Red Light District! Rijksmuseum! Anne Frank House! etc!), I also spent a decent amount of time at night watching TMF (similar to MTV, but with actual music videos). Standouts2 included Diggy Dex and De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig. More importantly, I heard Röyksopp. Röyksopp's album Junior is definitely one of the best albums released last year. Its songs flow into each other when played sequentially while still remaining distinct. I was doubly impressed by the fact that Lykke Li (whose debut Youth Novels was one of my personal music highlights of 2008) does guest vocals on two tracks.
I do not think I have met anyone who claims the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are their favorite band. If that changes in 2010, it will be the result of It's Blitz!, released last spring. Not only does it have the best album cover of 2009,3 but it is one of the rare albums where every single track is strong and worth listening to. Simultaneously hard rocking and earnestly sentimental, the entire album makes me feel like it is Saturday night, I am going dancing, and absolutely nothing else matters.
I had high hopes for Art Brut back in 2006 listening to Bang Bang Rock & Roll. In 2009, I realized that they were still making music. It's a Bit Complicated (released late enough in 2008 that I did not catch it until early this year) lived up to its title and was not really notable. Their third album, 2009's Art Brut Vs. Satan, reminded me of how much I loved them. The best track on the album is definitely "Demons Out!", which provides the album's title. From the chorus:
How can you sleep at night when nobody likes the music we like?
How am I supposed to sleep at night when no one likes the music we write?
Record buying public, we hate them!
This is Art Brut vs. Satan!
Only in the music industry would demonizing potential customers seem reasonable.4
While Handsome Furs started the year as being just another one of the 36 different musical groups containing members of Wolf Parade, the release of Face Control changed that. I have never been to Eastern Europe (the inspiration for the album), but Handsome Furs seem to accurately convey the hope for better times amid an atmosphere of confusion that seems to be the dominant theme of the post-Soviet era. This is apparent from some of the song titles on the album:
This summer, I started watching Life on Mars. Not the short-lived American series with Harvey Keitel and Gretchen Mol, but the original British series with actors you have never heard of. As the title of the series comes from the David Bowie song of the same name, I found myself listening to that song and Ziggy Stardust (I found Hunky Dory, the album that the song "Life on Mars" is from, sort of uneven) a lot this summer. I was previously unconvinced of Bowie's importance in the development of music, since I considered the 1970s in general to be a Lost Decade in terms of culture, but listening to his music has forced me to reconsider both of those notions.
Bush is one of those bands that everyone loves to hate (case in point). For me, however, Bush, is one of those bands that epitomizes the 1990s - especially the period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the terrorist attacks on September 11th. While I do not recall Bush's debut (Everything Zen is only notable to me for its Life on Mars references), I can recall the title of their last single being changed (from "Speed Kills" to "The People That We Love") because of the 9/11 attacks.
I learned about La Roux accidentally - through a link to the video for "Bulletproof" posted on some random Gizmodo blog comment suggesting that it was a plausible view of the future.5 Still, their appeal was enough that I bought their album when it was released in the United States later in the fall and enjoyed it. I would describe La Roux as a guilty pleasure - while I am convinced of the band's usefulness ("I'm Not Your Toy" helped me get through a rough patch this fall), I do not think it is possible to convince my "indie" friends (widely defined as those whose musical tastes I trust) as such. When asked about music this fall, I talked about La Roux but made sure to mention that they were "silly British electropop", just in case they got popular in the US and started opening for Lady Gaga or Hannah Montana or somesuch.
While I am kidding that "The Hazards of Love" is an abomination, it was definitely one of the greatest musical disappointments of the year for me. While a number of its songs are more than tolerable, it did not stand out from other releases this year. ↩
While I would always claim that lyrics are an important part of songs, it was still possible to appreciate Dutch music without understand what the artists were saying. ↩
It's not being arrogant if it's true. ↩
While I kid, this "snobbery" is consistent with their message from the first track from Bang Bang Rock & Roll and its exhortation to the listener to "stop buying your albums from the supermarket." ↩
Woe to the world we live in when CGI blocks falling around your home randomly is what people aspire to in the future. ↩