Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Favorite Albums of 2009

Another year has ended which means it's time for my annual Favorite Albums list. These are the albums that never stayed too far away from my ears in 2009. Of the twelve albums on my list, three of them are debut albums, three of them are “sequels” to great hip-hop albums, two of them weren't heard by me until December, and one is a mixtape.

Before we get to the main attraction, here are the honorable mentions:

Ancient Astronauts – We Are To Answer: The debut from the German duo is a solid combination of hip-hop and other genres that was sadly overlooked.

Animal Collective – Fall Be Kind EP
: I never put EPs on my Favorite Albums list so this year-end release ends up here. I'm still amazed that they managed to legally sample The Grateful Dead.

Alex Goose – Blueprint 3 Outtakes: This collection of beats submitted (and apparently rejected) for Jay-Z's album is really quite good. Download it for free right now to hear for yourself.

Basement Jaxx – Scars: I am a fan of this duo but I haven't listened to this album enough to put it on my list.

Peter Bjorn & John – Living Thing: This is the first album I've ever listened to from the duo and I definitely enjoyed it.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix: I listened to it and liked it, but I haven't listened to it enough to warrant inclusion on my list.

Wu-Tang – Chamber Music: While it's not a proper Wu-Tang Clan album, it is a nice tribute/throwback to the 1990's style of Wu-Tang music.

Now, on to my Favorite Albums list, arranged alphabetically by artist name:

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion: Animal Collective's music is an acquired taste but this album made it a little more palatable. This doesn't mean that their sound is suddenly conventional. That's not the case in the slightest. It just means that it's easier to enjoy the underlying sweetness beneath the upbeat “My Girls” or the ubridled joy that ends “Brother Sport.” Things still get a bit odd like the didgeridoo on “Lion in A Coma” or the way “Daily Routine” spends much of its running time threatening to drift away. There's no telling what direction this group will go on their next full-length but I'm pretty sure it won't be anywhere near boring.

Chester French – Love The Future: The debut album by pop duo Chester French (aka D.A. Wallach & Max Drummey) is an overlooked gem. The duo condenses influences far and wide into an album that's inventive and ambitious. The production is more lush than you would expect and the music keeps you guessing. The country feel of “Beneath The Veil” is immediately followed by the bounce of “Neal,” which almost sounds like a lost track from The Love Below. “The Jimmy Choos” turns dark towards the end while “Sleep” gets really strange. The “Country Interlude” is, in reality, neither country nor a real interlude. I can't wait to hear what these guys do next.

Drake – So Far Gone Mixtape: As someone who used to watch Degrassi: The Next Generation, I never imagined that the guy who played Jimmy Brooks would become 2009's hip-hop wunderkind. However, this mixtape erased any doubts and showcased Drake's boundless talent. While it's surprising that this originally free mixtape spawned two hit singles, what's more surprising to me is how self-assured it is. With its moody, enigmatic feel, it seems less like a mixtape and more like an album. Even when rapping over others' beats, they are from the likes of Peter Bjorn & John, Lykke Li, and Santigold. It makes sense that Drake is taking a long time to prepare his proper debut. This mixtape is a hard act to follow.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest: This album is the latest addition to my favorite albums of 2009 list. Before this album, I had never heard of Grizzly Bear, much less heard any of their music. The only reason I decided to check out this album is because I saw it on various year-end lists. The fact that it made my list should give you an idea how good this album is. Veckatimest is ear candy, plain and simple. It's easy to get lost in the album's relaxed atmosphere but when you actually pay attention, you're rewarded with fantastic arrangements and harmonies. After listening to this album, I plan to spend some of 2010 exploring Grizzly Bear's other work.

Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3: Of the three hip-hop “sequels” on my list, this one had the highest profile and the biggest sales. Jay-Z proved once and for all that he doesn't have to reference drugs to be on his A-game. This is a polished, mainstream hip-hop album. Jay-Z doesn't try to reinvent the wheel (most of the producers on this album have worked with him multiple times) but does deliver some solid music. I really liked the New York love letter “Empire State of Mind,” the “Did-he-just-say-that?” lyrics of “Thank You,” and the message of “D. O. A. (Death of Autotune).” While this album is not better than The Blueprint, it's more worthy of the name than the lackluster Blueprint 2.

Kid Cudi – Man On The Moon: The End of Day: Kid Cudi burst onto the scene with the hypnotic single “Day N Nite” and his debut also stands out from the crowd. Cudi sings, raps, and everything in-between on this quasi-concept album featuring narration by Common. His unique sound pairs introspective lyrics with a sonic backdrop that includes elements of hip-hop, pop, rock, and electronic music. Whether he's trading rhymes with Common and Kanye West over a Lady Gaga sample on “Make Her Say” or teaming up with MGMT on “Pursuit of Happiness,” Kid Cudi is anything but typical.

Maxwell – BLACKsummers' Night: It can be difficult for an artist to make a new album after a long hiatus, but Maxwell makes it seem effortless with this release. He eschews modern R & B trends and instead focuses on making excellent, timeless music. With only nine tracks and a running time of less than 40 minutes, everything has to be well-made in order for the album not to fail. Thankfully, that's the case from the beautiful “Pretty Wings” to the sparse “Playing Possum” and the electronic-tinged instrumental “Phoenix Rise.” If this album really is the first of a proposed trilogy, we can only hope the other parts are just as wonderful to listen to.

Method Man & Redman – Blackout! 2: It took 10 years for Method Man and Redman to reunite for another album but thank goodness they did. Hip-hop has changed a lot in the time between the first and second Blackout! but Meth and Red have not. They don't try to use autotune on every track or imitate younger, more popular artists. They just deliver the same brand of playful music that made them beloved back in the 1990's. As someone with fond memories of that era of hip-hop, I found it refreshing to hear these two together once again.

Mos Def – The Ecstatic: I have not been that fond of the music Mos Def has released since his superb solo debut Black on Both Sides. However, this album made me a believer again. He raps more than he sings. He sounds genuinely excited to be making music. His lyrics are good and the beats are appropriately daring. It takes a little time to appreciate what Mos Def has done here. Once you do, it's hard not to like the energetic “Supermagic,” the Black Star reunion “History” featuring Talib Kweli, or the addictive drums of “Quiet Dog.” Enthusiastic artist + great music = Ecstatic listener.

Passion Pit – Manners: This album is another relatively late addition to my favorite albums of 2009 list. I heard their song “Sleepyhead” in a commercial for the Palm Pixi, sought out their music, and now their debut full-length release is on this list. There's something unusually intoxicating about this album that I can't quite put my finger on. On paper, this music shouldn't work. The voice of lead singer Michael Angelakos is high-pitched and teeters between endearing and annoying. There are electronic and indie rock elements with splashes of funky 1980's pop and even the occasional children's choir. Somehow, it all makes sense together and the result is a blast to listen to. This is one case where I'm glad I sat through a commercial.

Raekwon – Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II: The original Only Built 4 Cuban Linx not only stands as one of the best Wu-Tang Clan solo albums ever, but also as one of the best hip-hop albums released in the 1990's. It seemed almost crazy for Raekwon to make a follow-up to such a seminal album but 14 years later, that's exactly what happened. Fortunately, this album turned out to be very good. Raekwon assembled a dream team of producers for this endeavor. It includes production by hip-hop greats such as Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, The RZA, Marley Marl, J. Dilla, and Erick Sermon among others. The gritty crime narratives of the original album return as well as the presence of Ghostface Killah on multiple tracks. The original album may be better but this “sequel” is a great album that stands on its own merits.

Royksopp – Junior: This is the third wonderfully crafted album by the electronic duo and it manages to evoke both of their previous albums without feeling like a retread. A variety of tracks from the bubbly “Happy Up Here” to the dark, epic pop of “The Girl and The Robot” keep things fresh throughout. The collaborations with unique female voices such as Robyn, Lykke Li, Anneli Drecker, and Karen Dreijer-Andersson also give the album a backbone that helps it stand apart. However, just like their previous works, this release leaves you begging for more even as you find more to like about it.

Check out a playlist featuring tracks from 11 of the 12 albums on this list on MOG.

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