From the first blast of fuzzy, pedal-to-the-metal guitar to the final cymbal crash, no record released in 2009 mines the true spirit of rock ’n’ roll better than “Post-Nothing,” the debut full-length from Canadian duo Brian King and David Prowse. These two guys create a wall of sound befitting a quintet, slathering their big, dumb pop songs with layer after layer of distortion. But nothing can obscure Japandroids’ real aim: to soundtrack and/or canonize (depending on your age) mindless fun, youthful bliss, summers spent chasing a buzz and that cute girl from science class. This is post-teenage-angst party music, where repeated slogans about French-kissing French girls win out over, like, smart stuff. The result is something like Sonic Youth jamming Superchunk songs inspired by the film “Kids.” The lyrics on “Post-Nothing” are so simple, so visceral, they deserve the final word: “You can keep tomorrow. After tonight, we’re not going to need it. Beat up, beat down. Wet ground, but too drunk to feel it,” King sings in the opening track. “I don’t want to worry about dying. I just want to worry about those sunshine girls.”
After years apart because of irreconcilable differences, the men of Dinosaur Jr reconcile and get back to doing what they do best: blistering ears with heavy, melodic rock. “Farm” is a guitar nerd’s dream, stacked to the rafters with J. Mascis’ unparalleled six-string pyrotechnics.
Quest For Fire
“Quest For Fire” (Tee Pee)
Dragging six songs across 43 minutes, Toronto’s Quest For Fire excels at something slightly more than scorched-Earth stoner metal. The band’s strong sense of melody is a welcome counterbalance to its druggy, serrated guitar jams.
“Embryonic” (Warner Brothers)
Set aside the confetti guns and silly singles that have made the modern Lips a carnival of sorts; out of nowhere, Wayne Coyne and company decided to get freaky again. “Embryonic” is a sprawling, psychedelic epic, where pop songs bubble and twitch under such a heavy, ominous haze, they’re hardly recognizable. The Flaming Lips are back, as noisy and weird as ever.
“Lose Your Illusion, Too” (Flameshovel)
Mannequin Men are just four dudes. But they are four dudes who understand the magic of jagged guitars and shoutalong choruses. This is lunchpail rock ’n’ roll, bolstered by the blustery winds and gritty dive bars of Chicago.
Them Crooked Vultures
“Them Crooked Vultures” (Interscope)
With Dave Grohl back where he’s best (behind drums), Led Zep’s John Paul Jones on bass and Josh “Queens of the Stone Age” Homme out front, Them Crooked Vultures do exactly what you’d expect: swaggering, bluesy rock ’n’ roll that’s heavy on the heavy, but mindful of melody.
The Avett Brothers
“I And Love And You” (American)
Their reputation preceded them, these three brothers (two by blood, one honorary) from rural North Carolina. For years, tales of a torrid live show — part ‘grassy hoedown, part punk fury — have circulated among fans of roots music, making the Avetts a band to watch from the day they hatched beneath some front-porch rocking chair. With songs, chops and looks all on lock, it was only a matter of time before a big label came along and snatched them up. On “I And Love And You,” the brothers have traded primitive for polished, and a little snarl in favor of the most sublime songwriting of 2009. They’ve also gravitated toward the piano, which mixes perfectly with Scott and Seth Avett’s sibling-tight harmonies, whether they’re singing somberly about the passage of time (“The Perfect Space”) or making the central point in “Ten Thousand Words,” home to the simple, dead-on observation of the year: “Ain’t it like most people? I’m no different. We love to talk on things we don’t know about.” We do, don’t we?
“American Saturday Night” (Arista)
One of Nashville’s mega-stars combines chart-topping success with artistic achievement for the umpteenth year in a row, singing pun-laden songs about marriage and kids and catching fish and drinking beer. The highlight, though, is a couple of tunes about our evolving world, inspired by the election of Barack Obama.
“Year in the Kingdom” (Western Vinyl)
As sparse as a lazy-summer sky, Tillman’s hushed folk songs are both dense and delicate, and his rich, warm voice — known for its role in Fleet Foxes’ harmonies — aches as its owner searches for spirituality in a desolate world.
“To Be Still” (Rough Trade)
Diane is only 26, but her music travels along trad-folk roots that stretch from Appalachia to old Anglo-Celtic Europe. On her second album, acoustic guitar babbles like a brook while violin and pedal steel rises and curls like smoke. But the focus is that voice, a limber, crystal-clear alto that puts jaws on floors.
This 26-year-old Texan with ‘tude follows her excellent 2007 album with an effort that talks just as tough and is every bit as engaging. Singing in a soaring, classic twang, Lambert takes down every bum guy in her path, and looks damn good doing it. Only three albums into her career, Lambert combines artistic integrity and commercial appeal more skillfully than any other young, rising country star.
“Breaks in the Sun” (Badman)
A heartbreaking day job behind him, Portland’s Adam Shearer leads his band through a set of beautiful indie-folk-pop that’s more hopeful than their previous work, but not by much.
The Very Best
“Warm Heart of Africa” (Green Owl)
The Very Best’s critically acclaimed 2008 mixtape served dual purposes. It was an introduction, both of the group — the mixtape’s title is “Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are The Very Best” — and its namesake vocalist Mwamwaya, an effusive Malawian born to be a global pop star. (The European production duo Radioclit was already known.) It also was a depth charge, blowing to bits the world- and electronic-music spheres and then gluing those pieces back together in a sleek, seductive package that found favor in the music blogosphere. A year later, those pieces have come together again on “Warm Heart of Africa,” a record that positively oozes pure joy. Radioclit’s beats here are spot on, buzzing, pulsing and thumping in all the right ways. They provide a colorful palette for their singer to draw from, and Mwamwaya seizes the opportunity, soaring through one gigantic Afropop melody after another, each served with a heaping side of smile. Sometimes he sings in English, and often he doesn’t, but it never matters; always, the message shines through.
“Crack The Skye” (Reprise)
It’s the metal album that even non-metal fans can love. That bugs true heads, no doubt, but it’s a compliment to this Atlanta-based quartet, which has the ambition, technical chops and power to take metal to another level. The speed and precision with which Mastodon jigsaws through its songs is stunning; “Crack The Skye” is an aural bludgeoning, more progressive than Dennis Kucinich, and a mind-bending triumph.
“Life Of Leisure” (Mexican Summer)
“Chillwave” is a silly name for one of 2009’s hot genres, but it perfectly describes the aesthetic of Georgian Ernest Greene, who makes somber, lo-fi electro-pop in between jaunts to sun-streaked swimming holes.
“Take My Breath Away” (Kompakt)
A second sunshine hit of smooth-as-glass techno-pop from the Brazilian star. Boratto’s laptop is like a Skittles machine, showering the dance floor with blips and bloops of colorful melody.
“My Old, Familiar Friend” (ATO)
After toiling in power-pop obscurity for a decade, 2009 brought Brendan Benson an opportunity to ride a post-Raconteurs wave into solo stardom. “My Old, Familiar Friend” is a sturdy board, packed with the kind of endless pop hooks for which the Detroit native is so unknown. As always, Benson tempers his sweet sound with sour stories of love, loss and loneliness. The album’s opening track — possibly the year’s best three minutes of music — crescendoes as Benson sings, “I fell in love with you, and out of love with you, and back in love with you all in the same day.” A happy ending! But by the chorus of “Misery,” things are looking down again. “Put me out of my misery, ‘cause I can’t help myself anymore,” he sings. “I’ve become my own worst enemy.” Nevermind that this gut-wrenching tune is an upbeat toe-tapper. Brendan Benson, it seems, is incapable of anything else, whether he’s cresting or deep in a trough.
“Alice and Friends” (Goner)
In a year when no-fi bands (where “fi” equals fidelity, and sometimes talent) made music bloggers’ hearts melt, Nebraska’s Box Elders were smart enough to go light on the tape hiss and let their punchy garage-pop songs shine through. Or maybe their melodies are just strong enough to punch through the muck, unlike so many of their contemporaries.
“Merriweather Post Pavilion” (Domino)
One of indie rock’s most enigmatic outfits ditch their fringe-iest impulses and turn out a warm, inviting pop record from another (seriously psychedelic) planet. Listening to “Merriweather” feels like watching the first fractals of sunshine penetrate the womb outside your headphones. Yes, it’s that joyously weird.
Micachu & The Shapes
“Jewellry” (Rough Trade)
“Jewellry” is the oddest little pop nugget of the year, 13 tracks of skewed, skittish pop-tronica from Mica Levi. These songs are endlessly addictive and unfamiliar to the ear, and that’s hard to do these days.
Michael Benjamin Lerner (aka Telekinesis) writes short, simple, sugary sweet tunes that are incredibly easy on the ear. Think Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, if he wrote more with his Teenage Fanclub brain than his Morrissey heart.
untitled EPs (self-released)
In the era of Facebook, Twitter and reality television, a little mystery is a welcome respite from the accelerating world. Enter Shabazz Palaces, a Seattle-based hip-hop project shrouded in secrecy for weeks, if not months, which in 2009 is like years. The secret’s sort of out now — Google it yourself if you want — but still, respect is due to the Shabazz team for going against every lesson of Music Marketing 101: no MySpace, minimal Web site, few interviews. Perhaps the idea is for the music to speak for itself. Instead, it hollers, stomps its boots, and bobs and weaves its way deep into your brain. These two untitled CDs hold near-perfect hip-hop, featuring a sneering, confrontational flow draped across some of the most left-of-center production you’ll hear in rap. There’s hazy jazz and funk, militant boom-bap and serpentine electronic hooks; two of the best songs make liberal use of African sounds. Music this raw and real should be championed by hip-hop fans everywhere, but it won’t be, so the mystery is safe for now.
“Only Built 4 Cuban Linx ... Pt. II” (Ice H2O)
Rap’s most anticipated sequel finally dropped in 2009, and it’s worth the wait. Backed by a cadre of stud producers (RZA, Dr. Dre, J Dilla) and their murky, claustrophobic beats, Rae and his Wu-Tang buds spin hyper-detailed tales about the drug game. Thanks to Raekwon’s precision and vision, “Pt. II” is a powder keg of urban grit.
After an eight-year layoff from the biz, Maxwell still excels at silky neo-soul songs about relationships, except now, the relationships are crumbling rather than carnal. “BLACKsummers’night” may be the smoothest break-up album ever.
“The Ecstatic” (Downtown)
The best effort from Mighty Mos since his solo debut 10 years ago, with all the man’s hallmarks: smoky, jazzy production, a sing-song flow, and some of the smartest rhymes in the game. It’s eccentric in all the right ways, just like Mos.