Albums of 2009: What's the best, and what you've missed
As the summer slowly rolls to an end, it seems as good a time as any to take stock in a year, so far, that bustles with spectacular new music.
With dozens of albums being released every week, it's often hard to filter the goods from the bads, which lists -- oh, all the lists! -- can assist with.
Below, HitFix critics Katie Hasty and Melinda Newman list their favorite album releases of 2009 so far, some of which may arrive at the finish line this year as being the best of the best. Additionally, we describe some of the albums you have missed, or simply dismissed, and why they may be worth your precious, reflective moments at the "play" button on the MP3 player.
Click on the artist names to be redirected to MySpace sites for your listening pleasure.
BEST ALBUMS... SO FAR
1) Phoenix, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (May 26)
2) Animal Collective, "Merriweather Post Pavilion" (Jan. 20)
3) Harlem Shakes, "Technicolor Health" (March 24)
4) Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz!" (March 10)
5) Grizzly Bear, "Veckatimist" (May 26)
WHAT YOU'VE MISSED
Future Of The Left, "Travels With Myself And Another" (June 22)
This is one of the loudest releases this year - aside from maybe Isis and Mastodon - but hardly can be considered in the metal vein. This is hard-rock without the need for a pure melody, but sick, driving rhythm with endless energy. These Welshmen, collected from the ashes of former group mcclusky, put on a show on par with the steel-toughness and hilarity of songs like "You Need Satan More Than He Needs You" and "Stand By Your Manatee."
Various Artists, "Dark Was The Night" (Feb.17)
Calling this one of the year's best is sort of cheating, but also indicative of what 2009 sounds like overall. It boasts all-new contributions from Dirty Projectors, Antony (of the Johnsons), Andrew Bird, Grizzly Bear and The Decemberists, all of whom have released new efforts this year, alongside other rock and pop mainstays like Feist, David Byrne, The National, Conor Oberst and Cat Power. I can honestly say there isn't a bad track on this double-disc charity collection.
Glasvegas, "Glasvegas" (Jan. 6)
This band, along with acts like Silversun Pickups and Gaslight Anthem, have successfully managed to make modern rock radio sound cool again. The Scottish group sound almost primitively polished, if such a thing exists. Once, frontman James Allan told me that he and his brother and his friends formed a band so they could get out of the dingy part of Glasgow. Growing worldwide successes now, I'd say mission accomplished.
Maxwell, "BLACKsummers'night" (July 7)
You may not claim to be an R&B super-fan, but that's no reason to dismiss Maxwell's comeback record. It's got a couple elements of soul interlaced with cool, luscious beats but - and not to get all audio-dork on you - but this is one of the most beautifully mixed records this year. His lyrics have also improved with time. A definite crowd-pleaser. Since Raphael Saadiq's "The Way I See It" was technically released last year, I can say this is my favorite R&B set this year... so far.
Bowerbirds, "Upper Air" (July 7)
Released right around Independence Day this year, you can't help but to feel free and summery with this largely acoustic set. Commentary about man's relationship to the environment and nature gives cause to what would otherwise just be a gorgeous record.
Manchester Orchestra, "Mean Everything To Nothing" (April 21)
This Atlanta rock band's album unfolds like a miniature play, and the group has treated it as such: they released a music video to every track, and have worked hard on constant tour to spread its gospel. It's not just the name that evokes Brit-rock, but melodic elements and endless harmonies brings the Invasion to mind. "The Only One" kills me every time and singer Andy Hull howls so fine on "In My Teeth."
Black Lips, "200 Million Thousand" (Feb. 24)
Lou Reed may not be able to dazzle anymore, but the heart of The Velvet Underground lives on, in the torrent of garage rock, fuzz and left-of-center jams from The Black Lips. Some tracks sound like first-takes, others sound like a well-orchestrated dream we've all had before. Either way, these guys know what they're doing, and I like it.
Sydney Wayser, "The Colorful" (March 17)
Growing up, Sydney Wayser split time between living in Paris and L.A.; her sophomore set spends equal energy on lush orchestration and artful, sweet lyricism. With banjos or glockenspiels or snaps or a simple piano, Wayser's yelping, pretty voice is perfectly accompanied by a crew of studied musicians. "La Di Da" will take your breath away.
BEST ALBUMS... SO FAR
1) Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown"
2) Ben Harper & Relentless7, "White Lies for Dark Times"
3) Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone"
4) Diane Birch, "Bible Belt"
5) Yusuf, "Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night)"
WHAT YOU'VE MISSED
Lily Allen, "It's Not Me, It's You" (Feb. 10)
Sensation overwhelms this British warbler's considerable talent, which is a shame. Although Allen's album started strong here, but quickly faded with a whimper. Allen sings like a little girl, which makes it all the more devastating when she slips the knife in during such biting, trenchant tunes as "Not Fair" and "Fear "or the quietly heartbreaking "22."
Diane Birch, "Bible Belt" (June 2)
She's drawing comparisons to Carole King and Laura Nyro. Most singer/songwriters would crumple under such weight, but Birch soars with her lilting, nuanced voice and her songs about love. Check out "Valentino" and just try not to sing along.
Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone" (March 3)
Is there a better, more expressive female vocalist out there right now? We don't think so. Case's ethereal-yet-strong voice can sell tracks about such unusual topics as the weather and the animal kingdom (check out "People Got A Lotta Nerve" and you'll fall in love not only with Case, but with her wacky, off-filter songwriting.
Green Day, "21st Century Breakdown" (May 19)
We can practically hear you screaming that it's impossible to ignore an album that came in at No. 1, yet we can't help but feel like "Breakdown" has not gotten its due. Sure, it's overly ambitious, but you got to love Billie Joe & Co. or caring so much. Just listen to "Know Your Enemy" again or "That Static Age" and tell me it's not the year's best album so far.
Ben Harper & Relentless7, "White Lies for Dark Times" (May 5)
In his best record yet, Harper conjures up Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, all the while creating something wonderful of his very own. From smoky barnburner "Why Must You Always Dress in Black" to "Fly One Time," Harper takes us on an electrifying journey that never lets up emotionally.
Ida Maria, "Fortress 'Round My Heart" (March 24)
Punky Norwegian singer growls her way through such overwrought tunes as "Oh My God" or near-novelty tracks like "I Like You so Much Better When You're Naked" that would fail in lesser hands, but Maria is so sure-footed from the start that it's impossible to ignore her. And why would you want to?
Tinted Windows, "Tinted Windows" (April 21)
Power pop with a pedigree. Hanson's Taylor Hanson, Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger, Smashing Pumpkins' James Iha and Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos come together with ringing guitars, simple chords, largely forgettable lyrics and melodies that stick in your head like peanut butter to the roof of your mouth. It's 1974 all over again.
Yusuf, "Roadsinger (To Warm You Through the Night)" (May 5)
Old folks remember him as Cat Stevens. No matter what you call him, Yusuf has one of the smoothest, softest voices around. His second pop album in three years following a 25-year hiatus is a rare beauty: topical and timely, yet timeless all at once. Criminally underrated.