Single of the year:
Diamond Rings – “All Yr Songs” (Hypelighter). A song for all seasons, this single (released only on seven-inch vinyl single) was on repeat all year: and not just because the viral video was the most goofy and grin-inducing two-and-a-half minutes you could spend in front of your computer. (The ensuing bizarre YouTube controversy brought it even more attention.) Johnny “Staccato” O’Regan writes songs almost as good as this in his other band, the D’Urbervilles, but the sparse drum machine and acoustic guitar accompaniment ensures that his melody burrows straight into your brain. If the rest of his as-yet-unfinished debut album even comes close to matching this pop perfection, he’s going to be bigger than Beyoncé .
1. Bell Orchestre – As Seen Through Windows (Arts and Crafts). As expansive and filled with vivid detail as a Burtynsky photograph, as intimate as a howling wind whistling through your windows in the depths of a Montreal winter. Classical composition, intricate textures, playful percussion and strong melodies unite in an all-too-rare fashion. “Elephants” alone has an album’s worth of ambition in it. Sharing some membership with Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre is obviously in a position to reach fans who wouldn’t normally seek out this type of magical music, but once immersed in their vivid sonic playground, it won’t matter how you got there.
2. Handsome Furs – Face Control (Sub Pop). Before its release, Dan Boeckner talked up his new album in readymade comparisons to one-up the Springsteen-meets-Suicide notices that greeted Handsome Furs' 2007 debut: No Age meets Spank Rock, the Knife meets Sunn O))). But influences aren't as important as the songwriting and production here, both of which tower over everything Boeckner has accomplished in his short but productive career so far (Wolf Parade, Atlas Strategic). Cold War electronics and punk rock guitars with Woody Guthrie melodies make Handsome Furs a band out of place and out of time—and indeed, Dan Boeckner sing these anthems of disembodiment with an urgency and passion of a man facing uncertain futures.
3. Timber Timbre – s/t (Out of This Spark). Taylor Kirk comes on more Gene Vincent than Muddy Waters, but his work as Timber Timbre is haunted, harrowing blues where terror lurks in tension behind a smooth veneer. One is never sure if Kirk is the velvet voice of a seductive devil himself, or an honest man surrounded by spirits and faced with dire circumstance. With subtle shadings from violins, organs, plinking pianos and gospel choirs, Kirk takes you on a sparse, spooky and seductive late night drive to destinations unknown. Even the joyous, major-key moments are more like a weepy sigh of relief after the first sign of sunlight ends a lonely night of the soul.
4. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone (Anti). It was the challenge of every music writer in 2009 to write about this album without resorting to cheap meteorological metaphors, the cardinal sin being references to Neko Case’s voice as a “force of nature,” especially when she’s singing about tornados in the first person, or empathizing with the animal kingdom by possibly being the first songwriter to utilize the phrase “man-eater” quite literally. But if it inspired a lot of bad writing, that’s only because the music itself is so powerful: in texture, in lyrical imagery, and most importantly, in songwriting. Case has been evolving slowly as a songwriter over the past decade: often getting stuck in morose moods, wound up in waltzes and grafting melodic snippets together to create a semblance of a song. She still does all of that, but now every minor flaw in her aesthetic has been commandeered and amplified into a singular strength. It’s the first Neko Case album to successfully encapsulate her many moods, and the first where every tiny detail truly counts.
5. Bat for Lashes – Two Suns (EMI). A vocalist with perfect pitch and pristine tone usually errs on the side of conservatory conservatism, but Natasha Khan crafts her own musical planet on Two Suns. It's a world light years away from her tentative debut, full of "a thousand crystal towers, a hundred emerald cities," and one that came into being some indeterminate point in a 30-year period between the debut albums of Kate Bush and Fever Ray. Khan's natural instincts are inventive and unusual; her goals are equally gloomy, gorgeous, goth and grandiose. And on Two Suns, she's got an entire fantastical world to herself in which to roam.
6. Tune-Yards – Bird Brains (4AD). In my more callous moments, I’ve explained Merrill Narbus’s Tune-Yards project as saying: “It’s like the Dirty Projectors—only good.” With that critically adored band (and tourmates), she shares an inexplicably unique identity rooted in similar touchstones: acrobatic melodies, subtle African and Caribbean rhythmic influences brightening up the girl/boy-in-a-bedroom template, and distinguishing herself from any prevailing trend. And instead of the Projectors’ bombast and bluster, Tune-yards is remarkably intimate and welcoming, even in its weirdest and full-throttle moments. She does all this in her Montreal apartment with a ukulele, a digital voice recorder and various noisemakers, conjuring a fantastical musical world that’s part birdsong and barking seals, set to the melodies of a young Joni Mitchell. She leads you by the hand into her disorienting musical landscape, whispers in your ear, invites you to dance, and soon enough any fear you may have dissipates as you begin to hear and see new colours in every sonic shadow.
7. The XX – s/t (Young Turks). The two singers might sound like they’re bored out of their minds, but the haunting and spare guitar lines, occasionally danceable drum machine beats, and subtle bass combine to make a compelling combo. On the surface it can appear icy and detached, yet the aching vocals and the tension in the spacious arrangements are ultimately empathetic. “Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” they ask. Probably not: this is best consumed during what Springsteen called “the wee, wee hours.”
8. Fever Ray – s/t (Mute). You don’t need to see the creepy videos to know that these haunting electronic songs are inhabited by nocturnal creatures, ominous threats, and music made by mask-wearing, feral face-painted androygnes from a dark, northern climate (in this case, Sweden). You also don’t have to appreciate Karin Andersson’s other act, The Knife, because this trumps it on every level. Imagine how much more terrifying Where the Wild Things Are would have been if scored by Fever Ray instead of Karen O.
9. K’naan – Troubadour (Universal). “We’re alive, man, it’s okay to feel good.” From the streets of Somalia to the project towers of Toronto, K’naan is never short of narrative, and his flow makes it evident that he learned English by listening to rap. Musically, he comes hard: not just on the hip-hop and pop tracks, but on anthems like "Waving Flag"—the track that was just chosen as the World Cup theme song for 2010. The world is his.
10. Charles Spearin – The Happiness Project (Arts and Crafts). These are the people in your neighbourhood, your neighbourhood—well, Charles Spearin’s neighbourhood, specifically. The core member of Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene steps outside his penchant for epic rock and creates an intimate rumination on the nature of happiness, by charting out the cadence of their speaking voices and inviting Toronto all-stars to interpret it musically. It’s no small feat, and he’s certainly not the first person to play with the tonalities of the spoken word, but the result is fascinating, joyous and uplifting. One would hope something called The Happiness Project couldn’t be anything but.
Air – Love 2 (EMI). This French duo aced their atmospherics years ago, but building their home studio for this album has made them sound more confident and loose than ever. Easily their best album since their 1998 landmark Moon Safari, it’s also their most melodic and lush—and the latter says something for these purveyors of pillowy pop.
Apostle of Hustle – Eats Darkness (Arts and Crafts). Broken Social Scene guitarist Andrew Whiteman is usually faulted for having too many ideas: it’s his best and worst trait. Here, he channels his inner cacophony into intermittent sound collages that thread through the album, leaving the music as a perfect fit of avant-garde, pop and epic rock, making Eats Darkness his most concise, accessible album to date.
Billy Talent – III (Warner). Producer Brendan Benson may have wasted time in ’09 making phoned-in albums by longtime clients Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, but he helped this Toronto band deliver not just their best album yet, but one that towers over the tired and desperate radio rock churned out by similar bands that can only dream of writing 11 songs this strong. I’ll also award them points for giving me something to bond with my sullen stepkiddo over, and, through the song “Saint Veronika,” for introducing me to Paulo Coehlo’s novel Veronika Decides to Die.
Bruce Peninsula – A Mountain is a Mouth (Bruce Trail). A gravelly preacher leads a rag-tag choir in neo-gospel songs with thundering percussion and apocalyptic themes. Like any spiritual journey worth embarking on, it’s never obvious where Bruce Peninsula plans to lead the listener on any given song, teaching us: always question, never accept as gospel.
Buraka Som Sistema – Black Diamond (Enchufada). This Portugese group bounces Angolan beats and Brazilian bass for the digital dancefloor, creating the most exciting new dance music of 2009. It’s also the polar opposite of the icy electronic click’n’cuts for the shut-in crowd that kicked off the decade: this music is alive, kicking, and ready to get “Wegue Wegue.” “Skank and Move” indeed.
The Burning Hell – Baby (Weewerk). Wordy writers like Mathias Kom don’t usually assemble bands as giddy as this one, who take his hilariously morose lyrics—about birth, death and international finance conferences—and set them to calypso rhythms and anything else that well help you dance away the apocalypse, complete with trombones, accordions and trumpets leading the charge. And when the party needs a breather, The Burning Hell turn down the temperature with cello-laden delicacies like “Animal Hides” and the cinematic “Mosquito.” Even the seven-minute closer, “Everything Will Probably Be OK” (which follows the Cold War pop song “When the World Ends”), gets increasingly charming the more ridiculously repetitious it gets.
Leonard Cohen – Live in London (Sony). Really, we should all be thanking Cohen’s ex-manager for cheating him out of millions of dollars. Otherwise, Cohen wouldn’t have embarked on a two-year world tour, and we wouldn’t have this live album: it not only supersedes any greatest hits collection, but these are superior versions of these classic songs—specifically his work of the last 30 years, which sounds more alive here than it ever did before. On top of that, the much-maligned moaner is singing in tune throughout, which surely even his harshest detractors have to admit by now. “Don’t stop, don’t ever leave me alone,” he laments in the extended vamp at the end of “Tower of Song.” We ask the same of him.
The Dead Weather – Horehound (Third Man). Thank god Jack White is never satisfied: his latest band could well become his best, thanks to the strut and swagger of Kills singer Alison Mosshart. (That is, if they don’t kill each other first.) PJ Harvey appears to have abandoned the blues; Mosshart is enough of a 50-ft Queenie to steal that particular rock goddess crown, and not a moment too soon. Apparently this was all thrown together in a matter of weeks, and the spontaneous combustion heard here sounds all the stronger for it.
Flaming Lips – Embryonic (Warner). Their bubblegum burst, the Flaming Lips set their controls for the heart of the sun, corralling the mindblowing production aesthetic they perfected in their pop music of the last 10 years and applying it to the unfocused freak-outs that marked their earlier years.
Charlotte Gainsbourg – IRM (Because). Even though this was written and produced by Beck , the French actress and famous progeny finds her own voice and unique sound that covers coffeehouse folk, trippy Euro weirdness, and raw psychedelic pop.
Kid Sister – Ultraviolet (Downtown). Lady Gaga might be the bigger media sensation—and, hype aside, an underrated songwriter—but newbie Kid Sister has hip-hop flow as well as pop smarts. It’s that flow that sets her far apart—sadly, as the market for quality female MCs isn’t exactly crowded. After debuting as a hot tip two years ago, she took her time making this record—and it shows.
Major Lazer – Guns Don’t Kill People… Lazers Do (Downtown). After years of mix tapes, tracks for MIA and a surprisingly chilled out solo album, star DJ Diplo finally puts his money where his mouth is, in this duo with DJ Switch (Santigold) that puts a polyglot pop twist on global beats all filtered through Jamaican dancehall. The result is as kooky as it is cutting-edge.
Metric – Fantasies (Last Gang). These long-time aspirants to “stadium love” dug deep and created a passionate pop album brimming with melodic triumphs and room to breathe amidst the anthems.
Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellry (Rough Trade). Kitchen-sink electronic folk music? Anything goes here, where this young British singer has trouble sitting still: she’s too busy commanding all sorts of organic sounds transformed into bleeps and blurps with the help of producer Matthew Herbert.
Olenka and the Autumn Lovers – s/t (indie). Take a shot of whisky, smash your glass on the floor in time with the beat, and then cry along with the accordion and cello on these Polish-Canadian folk songs, sung lustily by the captivating Olenka Krakus. (Note: technically an under-the-radar release from very late in ’08.)
John Southworth – MamaTevatron (Dead Daisy). “Tevatron” refers to the circular particle accelerator in rural Illinois, which is second in size only to the Large Hadron Collider in France—you know, the place where they’re trying to recreate the big bang just to see what happened. John Southworth’s oddball pop album isn’t quite as explosive, but it is chock full of romantic sci-fi keyboard cabaret pop that celebrates mundane fancies like getting married at Buffalo City Hall. And after years in the critical wilderness, Southworth has returned with possibly his best album to date.
Telekinesis – Telekinesis! (Merge). Maybe because Michael Lerner is a drummer first and a songwriter second, his pop melodies would sound just as sweet without a guitar’s power chords underneath them. Not since the New Pornographers’ Mass Romantic has a power pop debut album come on this strong.
The Tragically Hip – We Are the Same (Universal). Not only old fans had reason to cheer for this invigorating comeback, but people who never had the time of day for The Tragically Hip found themselves pulled in by their best single in years ("Love is a First"), the romance of "The Last Recluse," the ambitious "Depression Suite" and the simplicity of "Morning Moon."
Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch). The New Orleans pianist and bandleader still has top talent jostling to work with him, and can breathe life into even the most tired standard in ways that make you believe you’ve never heard St. James Infirmary before. Joe Henry produces sessions that feature Marc Ribot, Don Byron, David Piltch and others, but Toussaint is always front and centre, even when he’s just playing rhythm.
Wye Oak – The Knot (Merge). This boy-girl Baltimore duo are an indie rock Crazy Horse or a countrified Yo La Tengo, loping and lurching between delicacy and destruction, with a pedal steel occasionally soaring over the mix. Andy Stack is the drummer and multi-instrumentalist; Jenn Wasner is the sleepy singer who doubles as guitar god. Together, they can move mountains.
Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information (Strut)
The Clean – Mister Pop (Merge)
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath (Merge)
Gentleman Reg – Jet Black (Arts and Crafts)
Helado Negro – Awe-Owe (Asthmatic Kitty)
Lee Harvey Osmond – A Quiet Evil (Latent)
Nirvana – Live at Reading (Universal)
Tom Waits – Glitter and Doom (Anti)
White Rabbits – It’s Frightening (TBD)
Wilco – Wilco The Album (Warner)
Turkeys: over-hyped or worthy artists who wasted our time
Rihanna – Rated R (Universal). Her last album was packed with catchy singles; this one barely carries a tune. After what she’s been through in the last year, she should be singing like a fiery survivor; instead, she sounds comatose and robotic. And all the money in the world can’t seem to convince the top-notch collaborators here to do anything other than phone it in. Rated R, all right: reject.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino). Another installment of the biggest hoax in indie rock of the last decade.
Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be (Warner). He’s always been flaky, but he’s never been boring—until this, his major label debut. Coincidence?
Booker T – Potato Hole (Anti). Why do so many old soul greats always team up with half-assed rock bands and do lame covers?
John Doe and the Sadies – Country Club (Outside). Even the Sadies couldn’t convince anyone that this punk legend should be singing country classics.
Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come Easy Go (Universal). A phenomenal waste of talent from everyone involved: the guest stars, the songwriters, producer Hal Wilner and Faithfull herself. Easy go, indeed.
God Help the Girl – s/t (Beggars Banquet). God help Belle and Sebastian fans who had to listen to amateurs sing Stuart Murdoch’s new songs: off-off-off-Broadway.
Sonic Youth – The Eternal (Matador). Returning to their indie roots didn’t breathe any life into this spent force.
Bruce Springsteen – Working on a Dream (Sony). Whatever that dream was, it must have distracted him from working on this album. A bad cap to a strong comeback decade.
Those Crooked Vultures – s/t (Universal). A supergroup is only as good as its singer, and Josh Homme is no match for his backing band of John Paul Jones and Dave Grohl.