These are my favorite albums of 2009, the records I looked to for comfort and pleasure. This year, I needed songs with stories and melodies, not agitation or anger. I love a good dose of vehemence in music, but tastes can be influenced by everything from trends to personal needs, and I needed the music on this list. So, while these aren't technically the best records of 2009, they're the 10 that served me best — my closest digital friends of the year.
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The Hazards of Love is a masterwork; it does everything I want an album to do. It's full of surprises, the songs are connected by plot and musical motifs that act as connective tissue, and the story is big fun and larger than life. .The Decemberists are better than ever, including Chris Funk on everything from hurdy gurdy and mandolin to electric guitar. Jenny Conlee's Hammond B3 playing is outstanding, and so is the rhythm section of drummer John Moen and bassist Nate Query. All that said, my hat goes off to Colin Meloy for the story, the singing and sharing the lead vocals with his band's two "Diamond Ladies": Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond. Their voices and characters help inspire a band willing to stretch out and take chances.
The Dry Spells are a San Francisco band with a love of British folk tales, Appalachian ballads and late-'70s New York rock. We all have comfort albums over the course of a year; records that feel like old friends. Too Soon for Flowers was that for me. The band's debut album felt familiar and new at the same time; it holds up well next to records by Fairport Convention, The Dodos or Television. The harmonies of Adria Otte, Tahlia Harbour and April Hayley feel effortless and tender, making Too Soon for Flowers the perfect Sunday-morning wake-up record.
This is a very simple-sounding record with lots of open space and a good deal of restrained soul. It sounds as if all the instruments were played with just two fingers. In fact, the percussion is played with a few fingers tapping on small rubber pads. The control and timing on The xx's album is refreshing -- and the interplay between longtime friends Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims (they've known each other since nursery school) is stark and matter of fact -- but in its casual demeanor, it's got an intensity missing from far louder records.
A slow-motion and passionate record, Beasts of Seasons asks a good deal from the listener. It takes time to dive into the world created by Laura Gibson and her collaborators, who include producer Tucker Martine and multi-instrumentalist Cory Gray. There's a sad, ghostly tension in many of her songs; a languid beauty that feels as close to meditation as I may ever reach. I put this record in the same category as star-gazing.
Many years ago, we received a homemade CD by Regina Spektor, and since 2003, her records have been favorites of mine. Spektor is one of the best pop songwriters around. Her songs are contagious, often funny and filled with characters and stories that feel plucked from life. Her lyrics are sometimes pedestrian and sometimes poignant. I'm partial to hearing a wide range of emotions on a pop record like Far, because the smiles are always so much bigger.
I do an odd thing to arrive at my favorite records of the year. I take the 20 or so records l listen to most, put them in an iTunes playlist, and then, over the course of a few weeks, listen only to that playlist and rate the songs. I then average out the star ratings and put them in a list with the highest rating at the top. When I did that, this record by M. Ward came out on top, meaning that it had more songs I loved than any other record. Ward is a master of two- and three-minute pop gems. They're sometimes dark, sometimes rocky, and very lovable. If the record had hung together a bit more, this might have been my favorite album of the year. For the most part, it felt like a collection of great songs -- nothing to be ashamed of, though in the past, Ward has knocked me out with the way his songs were sequenced.
You may know Victoria Bergsman as the former singer in the Swedish band The Concretes, or the female voice in the Peter Bjorn and John song "Young Folks." None of that would prepare you for her adventure to Pakistan and a record made with musicians there, including the Sufi singer Sufi Sain Muhammad Ali, under the name Taken By Trees. Somehow, her deadpan delivery and mystical adventurism and Qwaali sounds all work together. This is passionate music, and my surprise record of the year
After listening to a thousand songs in preparation for SXSW in 2008, one of the few outstanding finds was from a self-released EP by the British band Fanfarlo. This year, they put out a full album, which was reissued by a major label. This knockout debut is infused with mandolin, violin and trumpet flares. The melodies are strong and the singer stronger. A rousing and gentle record.
One more brilliant pop record for my Top 10, in a list filled with pop. Patrick Watson's songs are drenched in sound, employing megaphones, bicycle spokes, tree branches, pots and pans, along with cartoon and movie sounds acting as atmosphere for his twisted stories. The record is a travelogue of sorts, with Watson as tour guide and carnival barker. He's a sweeter and more relatable version of Tom Waits, but no less mysterious.
I saw K'naan bring a crowd to tears in Austin, Texas, this year. That's when I went from liking this guy a lot to loving him. His songs are messages and morality tales which are heartfelt but not heavy-handed. He sings from the nightmarish experience of growing up in Mogadishu and brings those childhood horrors to his songs with perspective and good humor. K'naan reminds me of Bob Marley: He's a teacher and a gentle spirit with a powerful voice, and his music is potent stuff.