I was compiling a list of 2009′s best songs to post here, but I realized that doing so would leave off two of my favourite albums. I’ve always been more of an LP guy than a singles fella, so it seemed distorting not to do a top five albums post instead. I’m somewhat pained to have to leave out The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ memorable It’s Blitz!, and Magnolia Electric Company, The Decemberists and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy all released records worth a listen in 2009, too. Anyway, omission is the nature of the listing beast. So here goes:
This is a simply gorgeous record. At times it is ruthlessly simple – the finger-picking which starts the album is standard country stuff – and yet there is always something to add texture, weight or depth. On opener ‘Charlie Darwin’, its Ben Knox Miller’s other-wordly falsetto, couched in the warm tones of backing vocals and humming organs; on the raucous ‘Home I’ll Never Be’, it’s the off-kilter percussion. The vocal delivery is particularly strong throughout, making the record a crowd-pleaser, but a decidedly fragile one. Undemanding possibly, but irrefutably lovely.
4. British Sea Power – Man of Aran
I wrote about this upon release, and it’s remained at the top of ‘to play’ pile ever since. This was one of the albums which would have been passed over by a mere songs list, since there’s no single track – with the exception perhaps of the 12-minute ‘Spearing The Sunfish’ – which can or should be taken from the whole. The band have successfully crafted both a soundtrack and an album in its own right, and the eery sounds which often only just approach the musical remain some of the most piercing I’ve heard all year. Incomparable, really.
3. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
Being one for the underdog, I really didn’t want to select this record, but it would have been disingenuous not to. I haven’t been a great fan of the Monkeys before now – Favourite Worst Nightmare simply didn’t come together for me, whilst Whatever People Say I Am That’s What I’m Not was entertaining but callow. That last adjective is not a word that can be applied to ‘Humbug’, which is a substantial record on every level. It’s simply the best thing the band have recorded, and in a period when British music feels very much a poor relation to its American cousin, a joy to behold.
The second record which would have been unrepresented in a songs list (although Pitchfork counter-intuitively selected ‘My Girls’ as its song of the year), this was the first record I purchased in 2009 and was left largely untouched in quality for twelve whole months. In terms of inventiveness, audacity and sheer verve, Merriweather Post Pavillion was braver than the Flaming Lips, quirkier than Devendra Banhart, and catchier than My Latest Novel. ‘Also Frightened’, ‘Summertime Clothes’ and ‘Brother Sport’ are highlights – along with the gloriously hypnotic ‘My Girls’, of course – and even when the album flirts with disaster – on the bonkers ‘Lion in a Coma’, or the calculatedly messy ‘Guys Eyes’ – the band’s instinct for the exact moment at which to insert a slither of melody doesn’t abandon them. Tip top stuff, pop pickers.
This is in some ways a less ambitious work than some of the others on the list – in a sense, it’s a step back into comfortable territory for Callahan, as I suggested when I wrote about it earlier in the year. But comfort is relative, and there’s little on this record in terms of easy resolution or soft consolation. “It’s time to put God away,” Callahan sings, and the whole album is suffused with this abandonment of, well, hope. It’s a lighter album than that makes it sound, though, as if, as in the wonderful ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’ (“Show me the way, show me the way, show me the way / To shake a memory”), Callahan is haunted by the possibility of beauty. There’s just wonderful songwriting going on here – on the suitably airy ‘Rococo Zephyr’, or the harrowing ‘all thoughts are prey to some beast’ (the closest anyone has got, though in quite a different fashion, to the intesity of Of Montreal’s ‘The Past Is A Grotesque Animal’ since its release), Callahan allies perfection in both composition and performance to superb effect. Ultimately, this is a thoroughly coherent album bursting with incident – and there’s the alchemy which shades it into the album of the year slot.