Best Music 2009: Songs

Wow, 2009. For music, it was an excellent year. It was a year of fancy Beatles reissues and the Vaselines got the cool retrospective they deserved. People decided to start hating Kanye West for interrupting Taylor Swift on the VMAs. Yeah, that's right - Taylor Swift. And yes, you heard me right: the VMAs. This was depressing on a number of levels. Did I get annoyed at the attention heaped upon critical darlings Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective? Sure. Did I get annoyed when I saw Spin proclaim Kings of Leon "band of the year" and feature Caleb Followill wearing a dumb hat on its cover? Oh yes, definitely.

For me, 2009 was a year of peaks and (mostly) pitfalls and, as a result, my selections are probably more a reflection of my personality than the moderate critical distance I usually try to keep. More slow songs. More sad songs. Less hip hop, and more moody music featuring female vocalists – though I think this might have been a trend in music in general and not my less fun/more mope listening tastes.

Initially, I didn't even really feel like I had the overview I usually get, but after checking out the typical round of music publication recaps – half of which seemed more obsessed with reviewing the entire decade – I think I've heard enough to list my own favorites of the year.

So with that tiny disclaimer, here are the 25 songs that warmed our hearts in 2009:

25 “Lucky Old Moon” – Castanets
Much like Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Castanets is a one-bearded-man experimental folk project by Portland's Raymond Raposa. In some ways, I prefer his style as he unabashedly adds some electronic weirdness into the mix (as opposed to his fellow mountain men, who tend to be folk purists). This song and the album it came from may not be the best entry point for Raposa's music, but I think this track's spacey doodling might come in handy when laser light shows come back in style in 2020.

24 “Away With Murder” – Camera Obscura
Digging a little deeper into Camera Obscura's My Maudlin Career, there's something about the way this song lopes along casually and sadly that really appeals to me. Or maybe I just like the way the Scottish say the word "murder."

23 “Ulysses” – Franz Ferdinand
When you needed a new song in February to dance to, Franz Ferdinand was there with this catchy tune, even though it admittedly relied a bit on the standard FF formula. Now with the way new music cycles these days, Alex Kapranos & Co. have all but been forgotten in the year's recaps and summaries. Don't worry guys – I remembered... um, well I remembered this song at least.

22 “Sharing” – Lou Barlow
Lou Barlow has had a history of self-sabotage, and while the likes of Snow Patrol are getting rich off of his sound, Lou toils in somewhat obscurity, playing second banana in the re-formed Dinosaur Jr and revving up and winding down his various projects (Sebadoh, Folk Implosion). When he releases a solo album under his own name, it almost seems like he's not being random enough. Goodnight Unknown fares better than previous effort Emoh, because he varies the tempo a bit more, like this song, a ramped-up effort that may have been improved from the effect of hanging out with J Mascis for extended periods of time again.

21 “Black Hearted Love” – PJ Harvey & John Parish
Another dependable early 90s artist, PJ Harvey also seems to be looking for ways to de-emphasize her popularity since hitting the mid-sized time with her breakthrough Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. After a return to lo-fi punk and an album of piano songs, it seemed like meeting up with John Parish again was just a natural way to freak out the new fans again. Instead, it provided PJ with this song, her most accessible in a long time. Fortunately for PJ, there were plenty of other songs on the album meant to alienate and disturb.

20 Peter Bjorn and John – “Nothing To Worry About”
Much like Franz Ferdinand, Peter Bjorn and John succumbed to higher expectations of its previous works and produced a decent, but unspectacular collection of songs in 2009. Fortunately in every average album, there's at least a couple of gems, and “Nothing To Worry About” shows the glimmer of promise that we haven't seen the last of PB&J. And if they're going to fail, at least they'll make it interesting. As with much of Living Thing, the song leans a lot on atmosphere and not so much on lyrics. Fortunately the drums and children's chorus are enough to keep

19 “Gazillion Ear” – DOOM
Wow. What a weird song. DOOM (another year, another alias) came out of hiding and did what an artist whose been around for 20+ years needs to do - he changed up his sound. Sure, the main elements are still here: pop culture refs, movie samples, the supervillain alter ego. But something has changed - the vocals sound as raw as demo tapes and Dilla (who, posthumously, has been busier than ever) digs up an old Moroder Midnight Express sample - which suddenly sends the song into a U-turn without warning. Thanks for keeping it weird, DOOM.

18 “Wilco (The Song)” – Wilco
I'm not sure what was up exactly with Wilco's last couple of albums, but I didn't want much to do with it. In fact, I was skeptical when I saw their self-titled song/album being touted as a "return to form." I can't be certain difference between this album and A Ghost is Born and Sky Blue Sky (mainly because I never even bothered to listen to them), but from the titles alone, it's clear that they've moved out of their heavy, self-serious period and started having fun again. Thank the gods.

17 “Happiness Bleeds” – Wussy
Cincinnati's Wussy is one of those amazing bands that I have the good fortune of seeing perform live on a pretty regular basis. Nationally, their music will usually be shut out of year-end lists in favor of the bloghouse bands from Brooklyn, but they've sto;; beem able to carve out an impressive run of albums, despite their Midwest pedigree and regardless of buzz status. Wussy's latest rounds up a collection of broken love songs set to the ramshackle vocals of Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker. Also I'm a sucker for a good "la la la" chorus.

16 “Quick Canal” – Atlas Sound (featuring Laetitia Sadier)
Not the epic indie pairing of Bradford Cox and Panda Bear – I prefer this 8-minute hazy song sketch with Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier taking the lead vocals. My vote for one of the more beautiful songs in 09.

15 “Crystalised” – The xx
Weighing hype into your musical tastes is difficult – basing your interest on what a particular blog or music publication says can be seen as shallow, but sometimes, in an effort to discover new music, you need to at least somewhat rely on the praises of these sources. It doesn't always work. For example, for as much praise as The Dirty Projectors get, I still pretty much hate them. Same with fellow critical darlings Passion Pit. Some stuff I get though, which leads us to The xx, whose male/female vocal dynamic and haunting guitar lines that show there's still some creativity to be dug out of the post-punk well.

14 “Daniel” – Bat For Lashes
I couldn't get into Natasha Khan's debut as Bat For Lashes, but this year's followup Two Suns, changed my tune. The whole album holds up surprisingly well after repeat listens and is anchored by "Daniel" a song that sorta sounds like a lost single in the Europop prime of the late 80s.

13 “Blood Bank” – Bon Iver
The growing interest in rustic folkies these days must be a sign of the times. There's something about locking yourself away in a cabin alone with a guitar and emerging three months later with a uniquely original album's worth of songs that must strike a romantic chord with us in these unbelievably miserable economic times. So to do it well is impressive, and Justin Vernon proved again why he deserves to be on the top of everyone's list. Although he only released an EP this year, everything he touched turned gold - all four songs (led by this one) are amazing, and everything he turned up on (from the Dark Was The Night comp to the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack) was enhanced by his presence.

12 “This Tornado Loves You” – Neko Case
Anytime Neko Case releases something new, you can bet that it will end up somewhere on "best of" lists everywhere. Middle Cyclone was responsible for so many great songs, it was difficult to pick just one, so I stuck with the consensus and added this gem to my list.

11 “Fate to Fatal” – The Breeders
Another great EP from 2009, The Breeders also hit a creative stride of recent. A highlight from this year was seeing the Deal sisters perform a in-store set at Shake It Records in support of this EP and Record Store Day.

10 “The Day Is Coming (Sainte Marie's Dream)” – Brian Olive
Speaking of in-stores, I also got my first real sample of Cincinnati artist Brian Olive's debut album at a criminally less packed CD release show at the same record store. I'm a big supporter of Cincinnati's local music scene, but this album in particular seems to have real potential to reach audiences on a much larger scale. If Blur's Damon Albarn took a time machine back to the late 60s and fronted a garage band, they'd probably hope to produce something that sounds as good as this.

09 “The Fear” – Lily Allen
I'm a huge fan of Lily Allen's debut and was unfazed by the outpouring of negative press she's received since. Even still, I couldn't get into followup It's Not Me, It's You as much as I was hoping I would. I'm all for changing up your style, but the album's songs were generally boring, and worse yet, grating at times. This was particularly disappointing after hearing "The Fear" a few times in advance of buying the disc. This song is everything that change of direction should have been, keeping hold of Allen's wit as a songwriter and adding a more ambient, but still pop-based soundtrack.

08 “1901” – Phoenix
Did Phoenix blow up this year, or did everyone just really, really want them to? Seems like they did everything short of turning up on mainstream alternative radio to increase their profile in 2009. In addition to performing three (!) songs on Saturday Night Live, they became critical darlings, usually popping up 4th behind Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors as alt artists of the year. While Phoenix doesn't quite eclipse Grizzly Bear in my esteem (more on that later) they definitely turn out more listenable songs than the other two artists in that group. Check out "1901" to see what I mean.

07 “Already Home” – Jay-Z (featuring Kid Cudi)
The Blueprint 3 is proof that self-proclaiming your album is amazing doesn't make it so. It's still a half-decent album, starting out strong then dipping into an absurdly bad second half. So bad that it took seeing Jigga live to realize that this song (buried between two waaaaaaaay lesser tracks) is actually pretty good. So good, in fact, that I decided to rank it over equally excellent Jay-Z songs "D.O.A" and "Empire State of Mind" just to give it some of the attention it deserves. The only criticism? OK, maybe he says "already" a few too many times. Part of what makes this song is the hook, delivered by Kid Cudi, who is sort of "on the verge" right now. In fact, he's performing at a sold out show here in Cincinnati this week.

06 “Young Adult Friction” – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Now we're at the "it's-so-good-the-song-got-stuck-in-my-head" point of the list. Songs that reach this stature, are also the songs that I usually think of when I start making this list. In terms of debuts, I think The Pains of Being Pure at Heart beats out The xx, if only because at least there's a lighter lift from the doom and gloom. This song was instantly catchy to me and stayed with me through the highs and lows of this year.

05 “Cold Outside” – Raekwon (featuring Ghostface Killah & Suga Bang)
Raekwon proved this year that album sequels can, in fact, be successful, even if they happened to be released 14 years after the original. Cuban Linx II is full of highlights, but I'm going with the non-single "Cold Outside" which is about as major motion picture a song can be without the visuals. Ghost and Rae sound as invigorated as ever as they divvy up the raps and Suga Bang provides the hook by singing "cold outside" so passionately, icicles start forming on your speakers.

04 “I Cut Like A Buffalo” – The Dead Weather
The Dead Weather is better than The Raconteurs. There, I said it. This is just a (likely unpopular) opinion, but for me, I think it has something to do with the collaborators - for me Brendan Benson's occasionally bland, Beatle-copping adds too much sugar and cream to Jack White's black coffee. Art-damaged Alison Mosshart is a better fit. When the two trade vocals, there's an added sexual ambiguity – at times, you can't really tell who's singing what and the songs tread a bluesier, grittier line. "I Cut Like A Buffalo" turns up the ambiguity and contains the most entertaining vocal line of the year. (Btw, Jack provides the inspiration for this year's best music illustration).

03 “Actor Out of Work” – St. Vincent
Clocking in a little over 2 minutes and busting out with a pace that somehow mirrored her rise in 2009, St. Vincent's lead single from second album Actor showed that Annie Clark had the songwriting chops and ear for a tune that would keep her from a one-album wonder. Though the album is filled with amazing songs, this is the most accessible, and the likely the gateway to win St. Vincent boatloads of new fans.

02 “Heads Will Roll” – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
And now the final two: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were another excellent surprise this year. It's Blitz might be their most solid album ever and it contains two of the year's best singles. "Zero" might be the more uplifting of the singles, but I slightly prefer the rougher "Heads Will Roll," which commanded us to "dance til we're dead." Dancing doesn't get much more intense than that.

01 “Two Weeks” – Grizzly Bear
After some reasonably obscure picks in my top ten, I decided to ease back with probably one of the more popular indie rock songs of 2009. This thing made the rounds, tv shows, commercials . It's an amazing song though, Grizzly Bear is one of those bands, like the Shins or Arcade Fire before, that impressively creates an established hauntingly beautiful palette of rules for their music, then twists things to create even more haunting and beautiful moments. While it took side project Department of Eagles to realize their talents, Grizzly Bear have really come into their own. So here's Song of the Year 2009: "Two Weeks" complete with creepy video: