The usual disclaimers apply. I’ve made no attempt to calibrate what I like against the rest of the culture. This is what I like. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. But if it doesn’t appear on the list, it either means a) I didn’t hear it, or b) I heard it, but didn’t like it better than the 100 or so albums that appear here.
Oh, another thing: ten means ten. Yeah, I listed a bunch of Honorable Mention albums. That means I cheated a bit. But over and over again I’ve seen people pissed off at these kinds of lists, with indignant lists of their own comprised of the 100 or 200 artists who should have appeared in the Top 10. But ten means ten. Really. And I promise that I counted.
10. Lucero – 1372 Overton Park
Continuing on in the grand tradition of The Replacements and The Hold Steady, Lucero offer 12 ramshackle, raw bar band tales of scruffy losers and outsiders. There’s great Stones-like riffing. There are Memphis horns. There’s a raspy-voiced poet. What’s not to love?
9. David Bazan – Curse Your Branches
Bazan breaks up with Jesus, barely hangs on with his family, and writes a wounded song cycle about it, full of anger and confusion. These aren’t merely the most harrowing songs in a career noted for its vulnerability and honesty. They are also the best crafted songs musically, a career high point in the midst of a life low point.
8. Mount Eerie – Wind’s Poem
Phil Elverum wins the award for combining the most disparate sounds of 2009. Writing songs of epic length, Elverum concocts a mixture of soothing ambience that wouldn’t have been out of place on a David Lynch soundtrack and grating, industrial noise, a sort of black metal lullaby. But good luck sleeping. Beneath the clang Elverum coos disturbing verses about mortality and disintegration. Beautiful and strange.
7. Florence and the Machine - Lungs
The best pop album I heard this year. Part Kate Bush pagan priestess, part Amy Winehouse R&B belter, Florence Welch unleashes 13 delectable tracks on her debut, some perfect pop/punk confections (see “Kiss With a Fist”), some so woolly and esoteric as to defy categorization entirely (see “Cosmic Love”). All of them are marvelous; there’s no filler.
6. Dave Perkins – Pistol City Holiness
Stevie Ray lives, sorta. Dave Perkins has backed everybody – Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, and most of the CCM contingent in Nashville. But he steps out here and rips off a brilliant blues/rock hybrid, spraying guitar notes, howling his literate laments and prayers, and engaging in inspired interplay with a red-hot band. This is the blues with a social conscience and a spiritual bent. And with a sense of humor. “I would hang with the Baptists if they could get that girl for me” is still the funniest line I’ve heard all year.
5. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines
Big band music like you’ve never heard, mixing Ellington arrangements with tape loops and fuzz-toned guitar solos. Argue leaves plenty of room for the soloists, who are incendiary, but the arrangements are still the highlight here. This is big band music the way Duke and Mingus used to play it, but thoroughly immersed in modern sounds and sensibilities.
4. Aaron Strumpel -- Elephants
In the CCM world, the Psalms have often been used as set pieces for over-the-top emoting and Big Hairdos and Big Smiles for Jesus. Aaron Strumpel strips them back to the basics – tribal percussion, chanting, and occasional wailing, rediscovering the Lament in the Psalms of Lament in the process. Utterly striking and original, Strumpel’s music accentuates the soul in both the music and the words.
3. Various Artists – Fire In My Bones
This 3-CD set spans sixty years and almost as many stylistic shifts in African-American gospel, offering the best available overview of the music. There's nothing polished to a studio sheen here. These are the unfiltered sounds heard in church services throughout black America, and as such it comes closer to worship music than most of the more sanitized imitators. Raw, raucous, and uplifting, this is music for Sunday morning, Saturday night, and everything in between.
2. The Felice Brothers – Yonder Is the Clock
The Dylan/Band comparisons are inevitable, but look – Bob Dylan and The Band made some of the best and most timeless music ever. So Ian Felice sounds like Bob Dylan; specifically, like the mid-‘60s electric Dylan on “Chicken Wire,” and like the early ‘60s folkie Dylan on “Cooperstown.” And The Felice Brothers sound like The Band circa The Basement Tapes. You got a problem with that? I don't.
1. Joe Henry – Blood From Stars
An album about love – human and divine – delivered by a song-and-dance man fronting a jazz/blues combo. And a profound meditation on the intertwined natures of darkness, grace, and change. Joe Henry is the finest songwriter in contemporary American music. His catechism – thirteen songs in this case, bordered by a prelude and an epilogue – teaches me new things about myself, and love, and marriage, and God, every day.
A.C. Newman – Get Guilty
Alasdair Roberts – Spoils
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
The Antlers – Hospice
Antony and the Johnsons – The Crying Light
Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You
The Bats – The Guilty Office
Bibio – Ambivalence Avenue
Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is
Brandi Carlile – Give Up the Ghost
Buddy and Julie Miller – Written in Chalk
Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
The Clientele – Bonfires on the Heath
Dan Auerbach – Keep It Hid
Dan Deacon – Bromst
Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Dinosaur Jr. – Farm
Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
Early Day Miners – The Treatment
Eleni Mandell – Artificial Fire
Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed
Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The Gourds – Haymaker
Gretel – The Dregs
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Hallelujah the Hills – Colonial Drones
I Was a King – I Was a King
Ike Reilly – Hard Luck Stories
Imogen Heap – Ellipse
James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game
Josh Garrels – Lost Ahimals
Justin Townes Earle – Midnight At the Movies
Kevin Devine – Brother’s Blood
Laura Gibson – Beasts of Season
Leonard Cohen – Live in London
Levon Helm – Electric Dirt
The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
Madeleine Peyroux – Bare Bones
Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything to Nothing
Marianne Faithfull – Easy Come, Easy Go
Maxwell – BLACKsummers’night
mewithoutYou – It’s All Crazy! It’s All False!
Mos Def – The Ecstatic
The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come
Muse – The Resistance
Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Passion Pit – Manners
Patrick Watson – Wooden Arms
The Receiver – Length of Arms
The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
Russian Circles – Geneva
Sondre Lerche – Heartbeat Radio
Southeast Engine – From the Forest to the Sea
St. Vincent – Actor
Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Telekinesis – Telekinesis!
Trembling Bells – Carbeth
The Twilight Sad – Forget the Night Ahead
U2 – No Line on the Horizon
Watermelon Slim – Escape from the Chicken Coop
Why? – Eskimo Snow
Wild Light – Adult Nights
Will Gray – Introducing Will Gray
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz