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Top 10 Albums of 2009’s First Half

1969 can go hang. The profitable industry of baby boomer-writ history will try to convince you 40 years ago was superior to the here and now, but, like patriotism, nostalgia is the refuge of a scoundrel. 2009 has been an unbelievable year for music. Away from the dim-witted pornography of chart-pop lurk thousands of albums made by independent artists working beyond boundaries of culture, tradition, and genre. Albums available to anyone with a computer, mere clicks away. Maybe there’s too much new music, but there’s nothing wrong with being spoiled for choice. And, choose I do: these 10 LPs, the best of 2009 thus far.

1. Animal Collective ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’

Animal Collective 'Merriweather Post Pavilion'Domino
Animal Collective‘s last LP, Strawberry Jam, topped 2007’s best-of list, and Merriweather Post Pavilion pretty much stitched up the ’09 mantle one week into the year. After years in the ‘exploratory’ wilderness, Animal Collective have turned into a joyous, rambunctious, infectious outfit fashioning ever-evolving walls of sampled sound into dancefloor-friendly anthems of no known genre. This almighty music strives for a state of communal euphoria, AC’s members —divided, now, by continents— hoping this joyous togetherness will help bridge the distance between them. Big, bizarre, and intensely beautiful, Merriweather Post Pavilion cements Animal Collective’s reputation as one of the most important, distinctive voices in modern music.

2. Dirty Projectors ‘Bitte Orca’

Dirty Projectors 'Bitte Orca'Domino
Dave Longstreth’s been making amazing, idiosyncratic albums, as Dirty Projectors, for most of this decade, only to find his astonishing output oft ignored or overlooked. No longer. The seventh DP LP is a grand, irrepressible pop record that marks the culmination of the many varied, particular, peculiar strains of hipster musicology —pointillist orchestration, West African guitar pop, thudding R&B sub-bass— Longstreth has thus far explored. But just bigger, brighter, bolder. More confident and rich, more ridiculous and fun. Pimping compositions that change directions radically, pursue peculiar sonorities, or mismatch competing polyrhythms, Bitte Orca is an album of constant thrills, a joy for longtime Longstreth lovers or neophytes alike.

3. Jenny Wilson ‘Hardships!’

Jenny Wilson 'Hardships!'Gold Medal
Jenny Wilson’s magical 2005 debut, Love & Youth, was a suite of songs about high-school politics, summoning pangs of awkward adolescence over an amazing ‘acoustic disco’ sound. The Swedish starlet’s follow-up is a gorgeous R&B record of rich, real instrumentation —all piano, hand-percussion, and woodwinds— that equates new parenthood with going to war. Razing the noxious clichés of celebrity trophy-babies, Wilson feels abandoned by society, mourns the loss of her individuality, even fantasizes about walking out on her children. On the set’s title-track, she wonders why the scars of motherhood are unworthy, whilst the scars of war are noble. It’s brave, brilliant stuff, an inspired marriage of thematic conflicts and harmonic songwriting.

4. Wildbirds & Peacedrums ‘The Snake’

Wildbirds & Peacedrums 'The Snake'The Leaf Label
It’s not like this was unexpected. After all, Swedish husband/wife pair Wildbirds & Peacedrums unleashed one of 2008’s best debuts, and loomed as a breakout-likely pick of SXSW ’09. But the second W&P LP, The Snake, is even better than you could’ve hoped. Where their first disc’s study in musical elementalism —Andreas Werliin’s percussion as rhythm, Mariam Wallentin’s voice as melody— seemed reductionist, The Snake isn’t stripped down, but built up; the duo using those same simple tools to construct soulful songs of towering grandeur. The set is punctuated by its epic, majestic, seven-minute send-off, “My Heart,” which finds Wallentin exhorting her heart to keep beating, so she can stave off mortality to sing —to love— for one more day.

5. Crazy Dreams Band ‘Crazy Dreams Band’

Crazy Dreams Band 'Crazy Dreams Band'Holy Mountain
Though released late in December ’08, Crazy Dreams Band’s debut has ruled my ’09. Made up of members of Lexie Mountain Boys, Harrius, Mouthus, and Religious Knives, CDB come steeped in histories of difficult listening. But they couldn’t be easier to listen to: their joyous, jam-band racket stumbling a line between classic-rock-approximation and shambolic capitulation. Powered by Nick Becker’s overwired moog and dueling, wailing vocalists Alexandra Macchi and Chiara Giovando, CDB make ad-hoc experimentation sound stadium-sized. On the anthemic “Separate Ways,” Macchi harangues “hating you takes a lot of ENERGY!” in a bluesy, boozy roar that sounds not so much like Janis Joplin back from the grave, but Janis Joplin rotting in her grave.

6. Grizzly Bear ‘Veckatimest’

Grizzly Bear 'Veckatimest'Warp
After debuting as Ed Droste’s solo home-recordings on 2004’s Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear have grown exponentially grander with every added member; the now-quartet upping the artistic ante sizeably on their glittering third LP. With this set of sweet pop-songs writ compositionally complex, their ambition has come to full fruition; Veckatimest ripe with body, vivid with color, bursting with sweetness. Cascading with counterpoints and decked out in heavenly harmonies, the beautifully-produced tunes bless those listening on headphones; each one a romantic dance of tiny detail and grand sweep. It’s a record both staggeringly simple and quietly complex, one that, wonderfully, plays as well three dozen listens in as it does on that virgin spin.

7. Here We Go Magic ‘Here We Go Magic’

Here We Go Magic 'Here We Go Magic'
Call it truth in advertising. Luke Temple’s debut LP as Here We Go Magic actually has a sense of magic to it, an ineffable, indefinable ‘something.’ Inspired by homebound, layering-based, magnetic-tape alchemists from Arthur Russell to Ariel Pink, Temple casts song-spells heavy on the atmosphere; thick clouds of muffled sound looped into audio incantations, summoning mystery and electricity and the glorious unknown through sheer repetition. After two solo albums of stately, Sufjan-ish pop, it’s a revelation hearing Temple plunging his Paul Simon-ish falsetto into an eerie realm of pop-songs fashioned from gaseous, ambient sounds. The result plays like the unlikely offspring of Grizzly Bear and Panda Bear. Now that is magical.

8. Micachu ‘Jewellery’

Micachu 'Jewellery'Rough Trade
21-year-old London lass Mica Levy ain’t your conveyor-belt pop-star. As Micachu, Levy slaps together an indefinable mish-mash of musical futurism in two-minute pop-song form. Having honed her chops via avant-gardist live performances in which she uses glass bottles, vacuum-cleaners, CD racks, and home-made electronic apparatuses as instruments, Jewellery introduces Levy as an insistently curious, utterly idiosyncratic talent. Taking influence from grime’s thickly-accented lyricism, riot-grrrl‘s balls-out demeanour, early death-metal’s frantic fury, Harry Partch’s microtonal experimentation, Herbert’s sampler-science, and, even, the sonorities of Polynesian folk-music, Levy has authored a distinctive, previously-unheard sound all her own.

9. Cryptacize ‘Mythomania’

Cryptacize 'Mythomania'Asthmatic Kitty
In an over-saturated era that finds an ever-growing number of records drowned in an ever-rising tide of hype, it’s amazing there’s still discs, like Mythomania, that remain criminally ignored. Born as a love-in between Nedelle Torrisi (a sentimental songsmith of sweet voice and savage humor) and Chris Cohen (onetime discordant Deerhoof guitarist, sometime leader of wonky-pop project The Curtains), Cryptacize are an indie-pop band who radically redefine what ‘indie-pop’ could possibly mean. Made on miniature guitars and drumkits with heaping helpings of autoharp and random dabs of found sound, they wield such unconventional instrumentation with melodic intent; writing glorious, summery melodies that come together in odd, splintering parts.

10. The Decemberists ‘The Hazards of Love’

The Decemberists 'The Hazards of Love'Capitol
Long live the rock-opera! So sayeth The Decemberists, whose fifth LP finds Colin Meloy penning a 17 song, hour-long musical, his nasally sneer narrating a Victorian-era tragedy filled with woodland magic, infanticide, and ghosts. Veering between harpsichord interludes and bulldozing riffs, The Hazards of Love marries those twin English movements of the late-’60s/early-’70s —heavy metal and the folk-revival— in grand fashion. Taking inspiration from Led Zeppelin IV and Shirley & Dolly Collins’ Anthems In Eden, Meloy summons the golden age of the album in defiance of the single-track-downloading present. Written, conceived, and executed as linear work, this Decemberists disc demands to be experienced, sequentially, from start to finish.

August 12, 2009 - Posted by | 1

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