1999’s Black on Both Sides established Mos Def as one of the most talented new rappers on the planet, delivering an intelligent and passionate playlist of songs that caught him plenty of hype and overnight success. 2004’s follow-up, The New Danger, instantly refuted much of his supporters’ praise – it was simply muddled and largely uninspired, as if his shifting focus into the realm of cinema had distracted him from his music. It’s nice, then, to see him bounce back with another album on the same level as his debut: The Ecstatic is smart, fun, catchy (see if “Casa Bey” doesn’t glue itself to your brain), and lyrically conscious. Whether dealing with racism or politics, Mos Def has always been the thinking man’s hip-hop star, and The Ecstatic does nothing if not establish the man born Dante Smith as a uniquely gifted artist, celebrating his tenth anniversary in the limelight with one of the best rap albums of not just the year, but the decade. –John Ulmer
49. Passion Pit
Even though the song was released in 2008 on an EP, “Sleepyhead” was one of the catchiest songs of 2009 (you can even hear it on the new Palm Pre commercial). It’s not your typical pop tune either, as the band really has a quirky sound to them. Lead singer Michael Angelakos sounds like he is filled with helium, yet that synth line never quits. The band has found a great balance of incorporating multiple synths and beats (among the other various instruments) – and it’s an interesting sound. Among the flood of indie-electro groups coming out, they are a breath of fresh air. It’s a good debut from a band that shows a lot of promise, but it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Phoenix is a prime example of a band that took off with their sound, and hopefully Passion Pit will as well. Ultimately, though, “Sleepyhead” is their biggest success to date, and their next battle will be topping that. –Brent Koepp
Having already created a name for themselves in the UK capital with a few well-received singles and looking to expand their reputation, Fanfarlo headed into the studio at the end of 2008 looking to capitalise on their unexpected popularity. They moved to the States for two months and hired Peter Katis to produce (whose previous work includes Interpol and The National). What resulted was Reservoir, an album not filled with back-to-back single material as some people may have expected, but an album of mostly slower songs with a heart and several beautiful melodies which were not as instant as those singles. It’s one of the sleeper albums of 2009, one that takes its time to worm itself inside your brain – but once it does it will stay there and you’ll find yourself going back whenever you hit a new music drought. –Rob Hakimian
It’s rare these days that a band can be not only deserving of as much hype as Girls has received, but also that such a band can seem completely unaffected by it. So much so that while few mentions of the band could avoid some anecdote from singer Christopher Owens’ made-for-TV-movie life, those writers just as often went to great pains to point out the the band’s music itself – which sounds the way every teenager feels toward the end of every summer – was strong enough to deserve distinction.
And those people are mostly right. Girls’ music is simple and openly derivative, so much so that one would never guess it is sung by someone who has been through as much as Owens. It’s instantly relateable to anyone who has ever worn shorts or mowed a lawn, hazily nostalgic for the archetypal summer that probably no one has ever actually experienced but which everyone somehow knows, Owens included. –Adam Clair
Nobody’s opinion about U2 is going to change at this point – their ultra-populist stadium rock will either inspire or annoy you, and you’ve probably already decided which camp you fall into. And lately, the public opinion has shifted decidedly in the latter direction, as much of their ‘00s output has suffered from a tendency to play it safe. And while they are far beyond the days of radical Achtung Baby-type shifts in sound and image, their twelfth studio album, No Line on the Horizon, is a clear step up from recent albums in the songwriting department. Much of No Line mines familiar ground, with varying degrees of success (“Stand Up Comedy” is a fantastic, funky rocker, while “Get On Your Boots” recycles the “Elevation”/”Vertigo” formula one too many times), but the album contains three bonfide U2 classics: the seven-minute, gospel-tinged ballad “Moment of Surrender,” which features Bono’s most affecting and heartfelt vocal since “One”; the atmospheric, half-chanted Eno/Lanois gem “Unknown Caller,” which boasts a rare straight-up guitar solo from the Edge; and the great Stonesy rocker “Breathe.” –Sean Highkin
If there’s been a constant in Phil Elverum’s output, it’s been the sort of reflective earnestness that usually only comes from hermetic isolation from everything but one’s own thoughts. But not only is Wind’s Poem Mount Eerie’s noisiest and most intense release to date, it’s also the one that most outwardly embraces its influences. Wind’s Poem offers the sort of acoustic tinkling and bedroom brooding that has always made Elverum so vulnerably charming, but it’s interwoven with enough hypnotic fury that he no longer seems so alone in the world.
It’s a side of him more visceral than we have seen before, a relatively new dimension from a musician who had pretty much perfected the one dimension he was comfortable exploring. But Mount Eerie has never been about comfort, and Wind’s Poem is as jarring as it is predictable. In this case, neither is a bad thing. –Adam Clair
Dark Night of the Soul seems to have been sadly overlooked by many. The concept is quite simple but brilliant: producer Danger Mouse and rock group Sparklehorse provide most of the instrumentation and production while a wide range of singers provide the vocals throughout the album. The album is accompanied by a book of over 100 original photos by director David Lynch, who also provides his vocals to two tracks. The end product is quite breathtaking. It’s a shame to think that this gem almost didn’t see the light of day.
Roughly 10 years ago, it probably wouldn’t have. Due to a legal dispute with label EMI regarding an exclusivity contract with Danger Mouse, Dark Night of the Soul had to be released as a CD-R, implying that the fans go out and download the album online and burn it to the CD. NPR streamed the album on their site for a week or so, and we’ve done our part by providing a link to the album and streaming it on our review page (and below this entry as well). Perhaps even more important than the artistic statement of the album is what this says about the music industry; labels are now less relevant than ever, and thanks to the Internet, it’s possible for anything to see the light of day, despite legal issues. –Evan Kaloudis
A bit like last year’s Viva La Vida from Coldplay, the Horrors’ latest release is a powerful argument to never underestimate the influence a producer has on a record. How else to explain the group’s enormous growth on Primary Colours than to point the finger at Portishead’s Geoff Barrow? Before working with Barrow, the Horrors were recognizable for little more than their bizarre and misguided goth hairdos and outfits (Go ahead and Google image the group right now – you done? One word: Myspace. AmIright?). But Barrow must’ve helped the Horrors find their true selves (or put something in their water), because after spending a few months with Primary Colours, it’s hard to come to any other conclusion than this: despite its completely derivative presentation (and at times unspectacular songwriting), the record is nevertheless a shining addition to the shoegaze/goth genre – a master class in the art form, even. That’s not to say Primary Colours is a masterpiece or the best record of the year. But it is to say that if you like your rock sullen, self-loathing, and featuring a frontman who sings like he’s calling to Ian Curtis obsessives everywhere, here’s your fix – courtesy of Mr. Barrow. –Elias Isquith
I’d be lying if I were to tell you that I expected There Is No Enemy to be so good. It wasn’t that I was especially down on Built to Spill prior to this year’s release, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I saw Martsch’s best days as the province of rock ‘n roll historians rather than prognosticators. And I was hardly alone. You In Reverse – good, not great, and probably not quite so good without residual affection for BtS from prior records. Ancient Melodies of the Future – about as bad as the title would suggest. So where did this – this shimmering, hazy, lilting beauty of a record – come from? I don’t know; you’ll have to ask Doug. But I can tell you why it works. It works as the best Built to Spill music always does – by engaging the listener’s heart through that endlessly seductive and fascinating medium of epic guitar. Martsch, at his best, is like Neil Young (not at his best) in that he can turn a guitar solo into fuzzbox catharsis. And throughout There Is No Enemy – but most notably on the record’s stronger first half – he manages to plumb some very deep emotional waters through the mere bending of a string. Most notably, his work on “Good Ol’ Boredom” and “Things Fall Apart” – two epic tracks of intense emotional weariness and ambivalence – is his best guitar playing since at least Keep It Like a Secret – searing, sad, and melodic. It’s not a perfect record, of course (the middle is a snooze), but for the first time in nearly a decade, Built to Spill met my expectations. –Elias Isquith
If one thing could sum up the more disparate trends of 2009, it would be this band. These British youngsters play intricately minimal music with hushed voices, design two-tone album art, dress in all black – hell, even their name is minimalistic. They sing admittedly predictable lyrics with perfectly cultivated London accents, never approaching posh nor descending into provinciality. Their melodies and inflections are inextricably infused with modern R&B affectations, a style that can be either infuriating or refreshing, depending on your own personal level of jadedness. Songs like “Basic Space” and “Fantasy” show a remarkable grasp of and love for UK bass music, while “Islands” and “Infinity” are straight-up post-punk-as-pop nuggets. The band even proves themselves as an able instrumental outfit with the opening intro, and capably explore twee on “VCR.” For such an inauspicious and tiny sounding band, The xx carry a lot of gravity with a distinct sound that eventually reveals itself to be deceptively massive, where every single guitar string struck is a death knell and every drum machine click an earthquake. –Andrew Ryce