This is probably the first year that I’ve listened to enough current music that I feel comfortable making a top ten list. Some of my favorite bands released new records that I loved, a few released records that I don’t love as much as I wanted to, and I found a bunch of new bands that took me by surprise, overwhelmed me, and wouldn’t let me go. This list reflects both the bigger bands (though still not big by mainstream, stadium-going standards) and the local bands that I’ve grown to love – I’ll admit my bias for mixed-gendered bands with a focus on female vocals right now, because you’ll notice it anyway.
Ten Favorite Albums of 2009
10. Headlights – Wildlife
If you like perfectly-crafted, sparkling pop gems, look no further than Headlights. I first found Headlights at Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest in 2007 – they were a breath of fresh air after a bunch of noisier, less-pleasant sounding bands, and I was an instant fan. Their first full-length album Kill Them With Kindness was on repeat for months. I didn’t care as much for follow-up Some Racing, Some Stopping, but they’re back on top with this year’s Wildlife. From the upbeat yet wistful longing of “Telephones” (“I wish I wasn’t so far from home…”) to the blissfully poppy “Get Going” to the mellow sadness of “Love Song for Buddy” (very depressing yet lovely video here), there’s so much to like about this album.
9. Obi Best – Capades
When I was checking out my Last.fm charts to see what I’d actually listened to the most this year, I was a little surprised to find that Obi Best was at about #4 of all 2009 music. But I shouldn’t be, really – they’re one of the LA bands that I try to seek out every time they play, because I really can’t get enough of leader Alex Lilly’s whimsical tunes. She also sings back-up for The Bird and the Bee, and you can see some of their influence on her unusual melodic progressions, but she’s really created something special of her very own with Obi Best (and the help of ubiquitous LA musicians Bram Inscore, Wendy Wang, and Barbara Gruska, each of whom are in a whole laundry list of bands). It may be a little twee for some, but I find myself liking it more and more every time I listen.
8. Karen O and the Kids – Where the Wild Things Are Soundtrack
I don’t care if it’s cheating to put a soundtrack on here, or that I’m giving Karen O extra love this year. Finding out that she was doing the music for Where the Wild Things Are was the thing that really got me interested in the film in the first place, I loved the soundtrack on hearing it before the film was released, and I’ll grant you that a decent portion of my love for the film is due to this music. It’s simply perfect, both on its own, and for the movie – a seamless melding of joy and sadness, comfort and freedom, all with a wild edge that I doubt anyone but Karen O could pull off with such panache. There are no good videos or clips that I could find to go with this one, so here’s one of the TV spots that features “All is Love,” the main theme. But the track that moves me the most is her cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Worried Shoes.”
7. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns
It took me a while to warm up to Bat for Lashes (aka Natasha Khan), and the aha moment didn’t really occur until seeing her live at Lollapalooza. Even though most people agree that an outdoor festival is not the perfect venue for her, it worked for me, and I look forward to seeing her in a more controlled, indoor venue at some point. Her ethereal voice soars whether she’s alone with a piano or surrounded by intricate instrumentation, melding the influences of her British/Pakistani heritage together into something wholly unique. Her music is enigmatic, and her persona parallels it, appearing innocent and down to earth in some moments and otherworldly and profoundly strange in others. She’s not someone to be easily overlooked or forgotten.
6. Great Northern – Remind Me Where the Light Is
I was practically dragged to see Great Northern by a friend of mine, and now, here they are, on my top ten list. They’ve got the sort of sound that overwhelms you, especially live, coupled with a really unique timbre in Rachel’s voice that sets them apart from most other bands. I can’t seem to find a video that really captures their sound properly, but this stripped down radio station recording is my favorite of the ones that I found. They don’t perform acoustic usually, so take this and imagine it turned up to eleven with electric guitars and drums.
Click through to see my top five, and few of my favorite live shows of the year.
5. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
If there were any female singer right now who could rival my love for Jenny Lewis (who did not have an album this year, or you can bet she’d be on here), it would be Neko Case. The purity and power of her voice is pretty much unmatched, and she strikes such a perfect balance between indie rock and alt-country that she almost makes me think I like country music. I’ve been re-listening to this album a lot lately, and it just gets better every time.
4. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
I’ve been listening to a bunch of highly-rated 2009 albums within the last few weeks to see if any of them merited an inclusion on here; this is the only one that wormed its way on, which surprised me a little because The Decemberists have always been one of those bands that I knew I should like but didn’t really. But I’d been listening to one song at a time, and The Hazards of Love is that rare thing in these digital-download times – a concept album. And not just any concept album, but a concept album with a story that could be yanked straight out of a pre-Rafaelite painting or a medieval illuminated manuscript. It’s full of innocent maidens, shapeshifters, bandits, forest queens, and heightened language I never expected from an indie rock outfit – but it all works, and I haven’t stopped listening to it and being overwhelmed by it since I got it.
3. The Raveonettes – In and Out of Control
The Raveonettes’ previous album Lust Lust Lust had been on my computer for ages before I actually listened to it enough to decide I liked them, but that meant I was perfectly primed for their new one to drop, and I like it even more. The duo’s combination of upbeat, dance-requiring noise pop with extremely serious and often depressing lyrics somehow works out perfectly – and leads to lots of moments of bopping and singing along, then realizing you’ve been happily singing about suicide, rape, and abuse. And between Sune and Sharin, they’ve got some of the best noise jams around, while still being perfectly capable of doing an entire song with nothing but voices and tambourines. I’m really not that big a fan of the “Last Dance” video (too bland for the song), but the song is one of my favorites, and they don’t have a better video for any of the other songs on the album, really.
2. Metric – Fantasies
If you know me at all, this shouldn’t surprise you – I’ve been doggedly telling people to listen to Metric all year, and while I admittedly haven’t been listening to Fantasies as much lately as I did when it came out in April, Metric remains right behind Rilo Kiley on my most-listened-ever Last.fm chart. And Fantasies is probably their best work yet, though their previous three albums and EPs are also great – Fantasies is a calmer, more assured, more mature album, not as awkwardly quirky as Grow Up and Blow Away or as angry as Live It Out. It’s just downright good, and you can tell that Emily’s in a better headspace now than before she wrote it.
MP3: Metric – Blindness [yes, inspired by the film Blindness; Emily wrote Fantasies in Argentina, and spent a deal of time on the Blindness set]
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have made a similar move with It’s Blitz! to what Metric has done with Fantasies – it’s a much more mature and assured work than either of their previous albums. It took me a while to appreciate the Yeah Yeah Yeahs because Fever to Tell was a little too on the angry, manic side for me (except for “Maps”) and I never bothered to listen to Show Your Bones. But boy am I glad I listened to everybody raving about It’s Blitz!, because this is the album that really shows off Karen O’s range and ability both as performer and songwriter. It has an emotional depth throughout that neither earlier album quite attains, but it’s still a hell of a lot of fun to just up and dance to. And loving it has helped me learn to love the other albums much more, too, so thank you, It’s Blitz!, for giving me the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Ida Maria – Fortress ‘Round My Heart [I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked]
Amy Millan – Masters of the Burial [Low Sail]
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart [Young Adult Friction]
Light FM – Let There Be Light FM [Death Toll Rise]
Viva Voce – Rose City [Devotion]
White Lies – To Lose My Life [Death]
The Dodos – Time to Die [Fables]
Elizabeth and the Catapult – Taller Children [Momma’s Boy]
Silversun Pickups – Swoon [Panic Switch]
Albums That Might’ve Made It If I’d Had More Time With Them
or that I appreciate but aren’t really my style…yet
Cage the Elephant – Cage the Elephant
Tegan and Sara – Sainthood
Florence and the Machine – Lungs
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
The Dead Weather – Horehound
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Norah Jones – The Fall
Thirteen Favorite Live Shows of 2009
13. Bishop Allen @ Troubadour, West Hollywood, CA – 3/23/09
This was the second of three times I’ve seen Bishop Allen live (the first was November 2008), but I think this one was the best of three very solid, high-energy shows. The small but very well-sound-systemed venue was just right for them, it was only a few weeks after the release of their album Grrr… (which I like, but not nearly as much as their previous release The Broken String, hence its absence above), and they were clearly very excited about it. It translated to the audience. :)
12. Obi Best/Light FM @ Spaceland, Silver Lake, CA – 10/12/09
I’m not sure I could say that this was objectively one of the best shows of the year, but it was a confluence of events that worked out very well. It was my second time seeing Obi Best, after several months of being thwarted in getting to their shows, and I stuck around for Light FM, who I hadn’t heard of but ended up being one of my favorite random finds of the year – I liked them so much, in fact, that I went back three weeks in a row to hear them again (they were doing a month-long residency).
11. Headlights @ Spaceland, Silver Lake, CA – 11/13/09
Headlights actually performed at Spaceland back in April, too, and I had been to that show, but this one was oh so much better. Much better audience turnout, and their new album had come out so they did more songs from it, and they were just generally more confident and willing to be silly and go with the flow than I’ve ever seen them. Also, singer/keyboardist Erin was rather drunk, which made hanging out for a while AFTER the show a whole lot of fun, too.
10. The Submarines @ Sunset Junction, Silver Lake, CA – 8/22/09
You wouldn’t think an afternoon show at a small outdoor music/art/local business street fair would end up being one of the best shows of the year, but it kinda was. Largely because I’d seen The Submarines twice before and loved them to pieces, but this time in particular Blake came out of her shyness more than usual and really sold the songs – the songs are so good they stand on their own, but she was really confident up there. And confidence is sexy. It was like watching someone you (kinda sorta) know come into themselves; and I can’t wait to see their next show.
9. Silversun Pickups @ Lollapalooza, Chicago, CA – 8/9/09
I’ve got to admit I was a little disappointed with SSPU’s 2009 album Swoon, which I don’t think is nearly as strong as 2006’s Carnavas, but I haven’t been disappointed with either time I saw them live at festivals. The Lolla show in particular was probably among the highest-energy shows I’ve seen, and they had the whole crowd moshing, despite the fact that they were the next to last show on the last night of an exhausting three-day festival. It was exhilarating, and I really want to see them sometime at their own show – but they seem to keep avoiding playing actual, non-festival, non-specialty shows in LA, even though they’re from here.
8. Metric @ The Wiltern, Los Angeles, CA – 10/8/09
Let me get this out of the way – I HATE the Wiltern. Okay, that’s possibly a little strong. I STRONGLY DISLIKE the Wiltern. Mostly because I’m spoiled by seeing things in tiny venues like the ones I’ve listed above, but the Wiltern is just too big, and not comfortable to be in. But it’s where Metric was playing, so I had to go there and put up with it, but I can honestly say that if they’d been playing anywhere smaller, this show would likely be a lot higher on the list. Because Metric are awesome, and they were awesome even here. I wish they’d taken a little more time for banter, because I’ve heard Emily and Jimmy on radio shows, and they have some great banter, but this was pretty much straight through the setlist. So it was a really good show with a great band, and fantastic music, but the show as a whole could’ve been better.
7. Bat for Lashes @ Lollapalooza, Chicago, IL – 8/9/09
Let me tell you how good this show was. My friend and I ambled over because we wanted to check Natasha out, since one of my other friends is a huge fan of hers. We planned to leave in the middle to catch the Kaiser Chiefs, who we both like a lot. We never did – Natasha had us both completely mesmerized as soon as she stepped out on stage, and never let us go. Outdoors might not showcase her otherworldly talents as well as a more intimate setting would, but it was certainly enough to push us over the edge from casual listeners to outright fans. And that’s what festival performances should do.
6. Los Campesinos! @ El Rey, Los Angeles, CA – 8/21/09
Los Campesinos! performed at both Coachella and Lollapalooza this year, and I saw them both times, then at their own headlining show in Los Angeles, and I honestly had difficulty choosing which show was the best – they’re so consistent that all three shows were outstanding. So I went with the headlining one almost by default. LC! are more manicly poppy than any other band I know, and they also have some of the most heartbreaking lyrics I’ve ever heard – if they’d released an album this year you can bet it would’ve been in my Top Ten, but they actually released two last year instead. Look for their third full-length in January, and on my 2010 Top Ten list.
5. Great Northern @ Echoplex, Echo Park, CA – 5/23/09
This is the show I was dragged to and ended up being blown away by Great Northern, who weren’t even headlining. I’ve since seen them twice more, but the first one remains the best, both because of the venue and because they were such an overwhelmingly wonderful surprise. It’s rare that a band catches my ear so quickly; usually my favorite bands are ones that percolate around on my iPod for a while before they finally hook me, but I fell for Great Northern pretty much immediately at this show, not having heard any of their music before at all.
4. The Bird and the Bee @ Echoplex, Echo Park, CA – 4/6/09
If I had to pick one perhaps surprising band to say “see this band live” it would probably be The Bird and the Bee. They’re not overpowering live like some of the bands on this list, and if you don’t like their twee poppiness, sure, stay away. But if you like them at all, do not miss them live, because Inara George is one of the funniest, most personable, most adorable people you’ll ever see on stage, and she will banter back and forth with the audience between songs better than anyone else. Often she and Greg Kurstin perform alone, which is still highly enjoyable, but at this show, they had a full band and backup singers with them (including Obi Best’s Alex Lilly and Wendy Wang, and Juliette Commagere, who has an excellent solo album out as well), which was the icing on the cake. Easily one of the most delightful and enjoyable night I’ve had all year.
3. Ida Maria @ Coachella, Indio, CA – 4/18/09
This show was so great because it was completely unexpected. I’d heard her single “I Like You So Much Better When You’re Naked” and a couple of other tracks off her album, but she was the first performer of the day at Coachella, going on at the hottest part of the day in the middle of the California desert. I wasn’t expecting that much. But she was OFF THE CHAIN. She treated it like she was headlining the thing, threw everything she had into it and more, and basically gained herself an entire tentful of fans. Her album just barely didn’t make it onto my Top Ten list, but her live? Not to be missed.
2. Yeah Yeah Yeahs @ Lollapalooza, Chicago, IL – 8/8/09
When it was announced that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs would take the Beastie Boys’ headlining spot at Lollapalooza after they had to bow out due to illness, I was ecstatic. (Not about the Beastie Boys illness, that was sad, but because I’m such a bigger fan of YYYs than BBs.) And even though I was way far back from the stage and mostly watched it on the screens, it didn’t even matter. They were totally amazing, and they filled the whole park with their sound and presence.
1. The Raveonettes @ The Glass House, Pomona, CA – 11/14/09
I saw this show at exactly the right time, at the height of my obsession with their new album. And even though it was a venue without a bar (WHAT?) and I didn’t like the opening band, and I was super-tired from driving two hours over there and standing in line outside, Sune and Sharin made it all worth it. They aren’t much for the patter/banter, but they played a really long set (still not long enough!), and completely blew the roof off the place. See them live. It’s a must.