Top 15 albums of the year

Chris Letso

Legendary British disc jockey John Peel once said, “People ask me, ‘What was the best year for the music?’ I always say, ‘This year is the best year for music. Prior to that it was the previous year.'” A lot can be learned from this statement. Contrary to the claims of Rolling Stone readers and cynics everywhere, there is always good music being made; it did not reach its peak in the ’60s. This past year has been no exception to this rule. It has been a year filled with stellar releases, some of which pushed the limits of their respective genres, others that simply exemplified great songwriting. Here are the best albums of 2009:

15. Mos Def – “The Ecstatic” Mighty Mos crafts one of the best hip-hop albums of the year with the help of eccentric producers Madlib, the late J Dilla, and Oh No. Hopefully the pattern of only one good release every 10 years will not be maintained by Mos. Best Tracks: “Auditorium,” “The Embassy,” “History (ft. Talib Kweli)”

14. Super Furry Animals – “Dark Days/Light Years” The weirdos from Wales continue their run as one of the most consistent bands around with an album that sees them experimenting a bit more than usual. The fuzzy guitar/synth pop of “Dark Days” is irresistibly fun. Best Tracks: “Cardiff in the Sun,” “The Very Best of Neil Diamond,” “White Socks/Flip Flops”

13. Jay Reatard – “Watch Me Fall” His Matador Records debut sees the prince of lo-fi punk embrace acoustic guitars to great effect. These short, catchy and often morbid tunes have expanded Reatard’s public profile for good reason. Best Tracks: “Rotten Mind,” “Faking It,” “Wounded”

12. Mount Eerie – “Wind’s Poem” Phil Elverum’s latest is a concept album (kind of) about wind and its role in nature – and it actually works. Drone-heavy guitars replace the usual folky sound of Mount Eerie/The Microphones records, but the analog keyboards are still here to give the music a rich, earthy feel. Best Tracks: “Through the Trees,” “Between Two Mysteries”

11. Times New Viking – “Born Again Revisited” If you’re looking for intricate studio production, steer clear of this album. The Ohio band turned in the master of the record on a VHS tape. “Born Again Revisited” contains 15 blistering scuzz-pop tunes with infectious riffs that are somehow enhanced by the harsh distortion. Best Tracks: “Move To California,” “No Time No Hope,” “City On Drugs”

10. Thee Oh Sees – “Help!” Prolific garage-rocker John Dwyer’s premier band combines killer riffs and guitar-work with a unique vocal style. It’s heavy on reverb and occasional female backing vocals, creating a sound from an era lost in the dusty stacks of vinyl. Best Tracks: “Enemy Destruct,” “Peanut Butter Oven,” “Can You See?”

9. The Fiery Furnaces – “I’m Going Away” The Friedberger siblings take a break from the loopy synths and reversed vocals of albums past and take a more stripped-down, traditional approach. It is a refreshing change to hear their endearing songwriting in this setting, and this is one of the better albums from the decade’s most exciting prog-pop band. Best Tracks: “The End Is Near,” “Even in the Rain,” “Lost at Sea”

8. Grizzly Bear – “Veckatimest” A lot has already been said about Grizzly Bear’s unthinkable venture into the Billboard Top 10 with their highly accessible chamber pop album. The Brooklyn natives clearly worked themselves to exhaustion on the pristine production and immaculate song-writing of “Veckatimest,” and it paid off big time. Best Tracks: “Two Weeks,” “Cheerleader,” “Ready, Able”

7. Dirty Projectors – “Bitte Orca” Yet another Brooklyn-based indie band produced a memorable breakthrough release this year. The avant-pop of “Bitte Orca” expands both the lineup and the sound of the band, as it fuses Dave Longstreth’s complex guitar licks with Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian’s soulful vocal performances. Best Tracks: “Stillness Is the Move,” “Two Doves,” “Useful Chamber”

6. Eat Skull – “Wild and Inside” The guys from Portland’s finest lo-fi surf punk band may not be the most technically-skilled musicians or singers, but they display a knack for writing oddly brilliant melodies. Their murky production choices lend the songs a charming simplicity, making “Wild” their best effort yet. Best Tracks: “Surfing the Stairs,” “Dawn in the Face,” “You’re With a Thing” 5. Raekwon – “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II” Hip-hop fans rejoice! After 14 years of waiting, Wu-Tang wordsmith Raekwon finally delivered the sequel to his 1995 debut, and it does not disappoint. The dark crime narratives and edgy slang that made The Chef famous are present, bolstered by stellar production from the likes of RZA, J Dilla, Dr. Dre and Alchemist. Best Tracks: “Surgical Gloves,” “House of Flying Daggers,” “Cold Outside,” “Broken Safety”

4. The Flaming Lips – “Embryonic”

In the year’s biggest surprise, The Flaming Lips released their best album in a decade. Rather than being complacent with their ability to churn out replicas of 2002’s “Yoshimi” and score advertising deals for decent, catchy songs, they return from the lab with a noisy, spaced-out odyssey that challenges both themselves and their fans. Best Tracks: “Convinced of the Hex,” “See The Leaves,” “Watching the Planets”

3. Yo La Tengo – “Popular Songs” In a just world, this album’s title would ring true; the Hoboken, N.J. indie rock veterans are still going strong, and 2009 saw them release a sprawling, marvelous record. Pretty string arrangements, R&B-twinged ’50s rock, quiet ballads, noise-pop, an epically-beautiful three-song conglomerate to close the album – it’s all here. Best Tracks: “Nothing to Hide,” “I’m On My Way,” “More Stars than There Are in Heaven”

2. Akron/Family – “Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free” Perhaps the most overlooked band in popular music, Akron/Family continues to do whatever it wants, combining elements of folk, free jazz, psychedelic noise-rock and even hip-hop, all without a hint of irony. Its three members contribute equally to the band’s completely unique sound, and “Set ‘Em Wild” is an album that begs to be heard by all true music fans. Best Tracks: “Everyone is Guilty,” “River,” “Sun Will Shine”

1. Animal Collective – “Merriweather Post Pavilion”

With “Merriweather,” Animal Collective establishes itself as one of the preeminent bands in all of music. On their most consistent album to date, their psychedelic, bass-filled electronic loops and joyous harmonies combine to form a future classic album unlike anything ever made. The songs are other-worldly, and as a whole, it is an undeniable work of art. Be sure to check out this month’s “Fall Be Kind” EP from Animal Collective as well. Best Tracks: “Brother Sport,” “Summertime Clothes,” “My Girls”