TORONTO – As the decade draws to a close, a music industry in flux is increasingly shifting toward singles and EPs instead of the conventional album. But for the traditionalists among us, 2009 bore a bounty of fantastic full-length records. Here’s the top pop albums of the year as chosen by Canadian Press music writer Nick Patch:
1. The Antlers, “Hospice”: If only all bedroom pop experiments sounded this huge. The result of years of work from mastermind Peter Silberman, “Hospice” is a raging meditation on grief and loss that tells the story of a hospital worker who grows attached to a dying cancer patient. A misty foundation of stormy guitars, hazy keyboards and distant drums waltz, march and swirl while Silberman’s voice frequently pierces through the dusk and lifts the songs high through the clouds. If it all sounds too gloomy, the opening lines of the celestial, creaky “Wake” hint at brightness: “With the door closed, shades drawn, the world shrinks/ Let’s open up those blinds.”
2. Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”: In-the-know music fans on this side of the Atlantic have long singled out this French quartet as a band who deserved to be huge. Well, the secret’s out: thanks in part to a buzzy performance on “Saturday Night Live,” North American fans have caught on to the pure joy that is Phoenix’s super-svelte pop. It helps that “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” is arguably the band’s tightest set yet, built on the one-two punch of the flawless “Lisztomania” and “1901,” a tidal wave of a song and one of the year’s best singles.
3. Girls, “Album”: Singer-songwriter Christopher Owens’ personal backstory (he escaped from the Children of God religious cult when he was 16 years old) is mentioned in pretty much every story about his band’s debut record – not just because it makes for compelling copy, but because Owens’ story dovetails so conveniently with his lyrical yearning for purpose, normalcy and, more often than not, girls. Yet Owens’ roiling angst manifests in purely universal terms more often than not, his simple, reverb-drenched lyrics accompanied by half-speed surf songs with the essence of ’60s pop radio baked in. From the rollicking jangle of “Lust for Life” to the sadsack psychedelia of “Hellhole Ratrace,” the songs on “Album” seem to occupy a sun-fried world all their own.
4. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, “S/T”: What a debut. This jangling gem manages to bypass the too-twee hallmarks of some recent indie pop that has verged on cloyingly precious. Instead, this New York four-piece draws influence from C86 innovators such as the Pastels and the Wedding Present (or, going back further, the sublime late-70s output of the Television Personalities) yet deserves to stand alongside their progenitors. “Young Adult Friction,” a winking tale of library love-making, is a winsome standout while “Stay Alive” serves its gorgeous boy-girl harmonies with a delirious racket. On “Come Saturday,” singer Kip Berman implores an unnamed lover to sway in his arms, skip parties and waste a summer inside. And why not? This album is gloriously autumn.
5. Raekwon, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II”: Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” sequel received most of the ink, but the best hip-hop album of the year was Raekwon’s follow-up to his 14-year-old solo debut “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx.” Coincidentally, some of the year’s better hip-hop records – DJ Quik and Kurupt’s “Blaqkout,” Method Man and Redman’s similarly titled “Blackout! 2” and Chali 2na’s solo debut, “Fish Outta Water” – ignore recent trends in favour of like-we’ve-always-done-it revivalism. Raekwon, one of rap’s most detailed storytellers, takes it a step further: rarely does this sequel belie the decade-and-a-half that have passed since his solo debut. The Wu-Tang Clan’s trademark relentless murk permeates almost every track, and so does the spirit of reaffirmed relevance – veterans such as Jadakiss, Styles P, Beanie Siegel, Slick Rick and Busta Rhymes all turn in head-turning guest spots.
6. Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavillion”: It seems sometimes that each of Animal Collective’s nine albums has been feted by critics as the Baltimore band’s most accessible yet. This was certainly true of “Merriweather Post Pavillion,” and relatively speaking, it’s accurate. But the uninitiated will likely still need a few listens for the swirling psychedelia, propulsive percussion and chanting harmonies to coalesce into something more than esoteric hipster weirdness. Still, those who stick around will find one of the year’s most rewarding albums, an enchanting melange of African rhythms and sunny California pop that’s grounded by humane, even earnest lyrics (for instance, “My Girls” finds Panda Bear worrying over putting a roof over the heads of his wife and daughter). Whether the group’s whirling, swooshing tribal dizziness is significantly less inscrutable than before is debatable, but Animal Collective’s distinctive delirium has never been more worthy of the close listening required to unravel its layers.
7. Grizzly Bear, “Veckatimest”: This Brooklyn quartet’s 2006 sophomore record “Yellow House” was rich in atmosphere, even if its songwriting left something to be desired. Three years later, and the meticulous “Veckatimest” stands as an immeasurable leap forward. Even the promising “Yellow House” rarely hinted at the pristine perfection of “Two Weeks” – its plinking piano keys and choir-boy harmonies giving way to pure pop delirium – or the precise amble of the looping “While We Wait for the Others.” It’s a credit to Grizzly Bear that their obsessive dedication to craft rarely stifles such whimsy.
8. Japandroids, “Post-Nothing”: Listening to this sugar-rush of a Vancouver two-piece kick up an unholy racket while yelling in unison about girls was one of the great joys of 2009. Everything here is fast, loud and delivered with breathless urgency. “Young Hearts Spark Fire” hurtles through the speaker like a missile, with its stirring refrain – “We used to dream/Now we worry about dying” – shouted with the conviction of a band-defining mission statement. But pretty much every line is sung that way, whether meaningful or blissfully not (the rallying cry in the combustible “Wet Hair” is “We run the gauntlet/Let’s get to France so we can French-kiss some French girls”). It might be a bit depressing that simple, explosive rock ‘n’ roll seems such a rarity in ’09, but there’s really no room for depression in the Japandroids’ kinetic Candyland.
9. (tie) Handsome Furs, “Face Control” and Sunset Rubdown, “Dragonslayer”: If Wolf Parade’s 2008 sophomore record, “At Mount Zoomer,” lacked the long-term impact of their 2005 debut, the Montreal band’s principal songwriters made up for it with two stellar ’09 outings that are too significant to be dismissed as side projects. Dan Boeckner’s convicted howl and soaring guitar riffs give “Face Control” a welcoming warmth to play off wife Alexei Perry’s cold-shoulder synths and junk-shop drum machines. Meanwhile, keyboardist Spencer Krug’s fourth album as Sunset Rubdown is typically epic (read: cluttered), but this time out Krug gives his melodies a bit more room to breathe, resulting in the band’s most exhilarating collection of off-kilter anthems.
11. (tie) Brother Ali, “Us,” and P.O.S., “Never Better”: It’s unlikely that many people associate Minneapolis with hip-hop, but the Twin Cities spawned a pair of stellar albums this year. P.O.S. – nee Stefon Alexander – once started out in a punk band, and it shows here: on the fiery “Drumroll (We’re All Thirsty),” he spits over feedback-drenched guitars and a frantic background chant. Elsewhere, “Never Better” plays on the indelible connection between punk and rap in theme more than moshpit-baiting fusion, as P.O.S.’s dense raps seethe on religion, the recession, politics and relationships. Rhymesayers labelmate Brother Ali is similarly frustrated, but dresses his discontent in allegory and anecdotes. On the record’s closing title track, Ali tells the story of a fan calling him a street preacher, before accepting the mantle with a line that perfectly sums up his appeal: “I’ve been called worse and tried to live up/ Hope you don’t mind a few more stories/ I swear to god y’all, I tell ’em with love.”