Top Albums of 2009: The 25 very best

Another year. Another several thousand albums.

Some were good, some were awful, and many more were just average.

Hundreds of them cross my desk. Some want reviews in the paper, and others are to promote bands touring through town.

Here’s my best of 2009, with a ranking and description of the top 10 and a list of the next 15.

These are the albums that sat in my CD player for weeks, got stuck in my head, forced me to sing along and, I’ll admit, occasionally made me do the air drums.

10. Green Day, “21st Century Breakdown” (Reprise)
In its follow-up to the mega-popular and universally acclaimed “American Idiot,” Green Day could have taken a breather and toned things down a bit. The band could have made a few more three-chord pop-punk songs. It could have produced another acoustic ballad a la “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).” Instead, with “21st Century Breakdown,” the trio cranked up the volume, got angrier and told a story that was more searing an indictment of American culture and government than “American Idiot” could ever be. Through 18 tracks of punk rock, piano ballads and driving anthems, the album follows punks Christian and Gloria and their journey through declining America (made up of “panic and promise and prosperity”).

9. M. Ward, “Hold Time” (Merge)
Try not to be pulled in by Ward’s drumming guitar and ethereal, shimmering voice on the first track, “For Beginners,” an intro course on the singer-songwriter-producer’s past work. From there, you’ll move on to the toe-tapping “Never Had Nobody Like You,” stumble into the slow and head-in-the-clouds tracks “Jailbird” and “Hold Time” and feel the rhythm like a train on “Fisher of Men.” You’ll also venture through Ward’s signature finger-pick-and-strum guitar playing in “One Hundred Million Years” and bop your head to a folky take on Buddy Holly’s “Rave On” and a cover of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me,” among other songs. When it’s over, Ward will have taken you on a journey through American folk and rock. And then you’ll press play and listen to it all again.

8. Wilco, “Wilco (The Album)” (Nonesuch)
Somewhere between the noise on “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and the purer rock of “Sky Blue Sky” sits “Wilco (TheAlbum),” a self-aware and sometimes tongue-in-cheek record (see “Wilco (The Song)”). This is the most representative album that Jeff Tweedy and Co. have put out yet. It has rockers (“Sunny Feeling”), folk songs (“You and I”), slightly experimental (“Bull Black Nova”) and that style they’re known for: alt-country (“Solitaire” and “I’ll Fight”). It’s also an album mostly absent of experimentation and extra noise, allowing the group to get to the heart of its music, whether it be about loving music, loving a girl or love everlasting.

7. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, “The Pains of Being Pure at Heart” (Slumberland)
It’s tough to judge a band on its first effort. Especially when no blogger or music magazine could stop talking about the group after the South by Southwest music festival. But after you slip the group’s self-titled album into your stereo, the poppy melodies and Kip Berman’s ’80s pop-esque voice flood over you and you realize why this band may be the next big thing. Before the group played in Omaha in September, Berman said: “People usually compare us to bands that are way better than us — generation-defining bands. We don’t sound as much like the Smiths as (everyone) says, but to get compared to them is really flattering.” Well, try listening to “The Tenure Itch” without making that well-deserved comparison.

6. Matt Whipkey, “Instant Heart” (Slo-Fi)
First he was the Movies. Then Anonymous American. Then the Whipkey Three. Shedding all of those band names (and most of the personnel he shared them with), Whipkey went on to make his best —and most heartfelt — record yet. It was him, his 4-track recorder and some instruments in the basement of his Omaha home. “It was as solo as a soloalbum can be,” Whipkey said before “Instant Heart” was released. Whipkey found an honest and exposed tone to his songs that makes it sound like he’s sitting in your living room, singing to you.

5. Little Brazil, “Son” (Anodyne)
Starting off with a bright, beautiful romance, the story on “Son” quickly devolves into one about a broken home that includes adultery, divorce and a custody battle. It’s tough stuff, but it makes for beautiful music. The couple meet and marry and are happy in “Brighton Beach.” They fight over the kids in “Wasting Time.” And he desperately wants her back in “Separated.” Landon Hedges’ songwriting is so good that you actually feel like the album’s namesake son being told the story of your parents. And you want them back, too.

4. Monsters of Folk, “Monsters of Folk” (Shangri-La)
It wasn’t really folk. And while supergroups can be scary, these four fellas were far from monsters. Influential indie artists M. Ward, Jim James, Mike Mogis and Conor Oberst came together to create a modern-day, indie-rock version of the Traveling Wilburys. This album runs the gamut, giving us loose and fun tracks “Say Please” and “Whole Lotta Losin’,” acoustic and heartfelt ballads such as “Temazcal,” killer guitar on “Losin Yo Head,” and fierce harmonies and dueling vocals on “Baby Boomer.” None of the four artists, each great in his own right, overpowers another and that creative harmony makes a listen well worth your time.

3. Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” (Glassnote)
Who knew the French could make really good American pop music? Good pop music with themes such as Hungarian composer Franz Liszt? And a 5½-minute instrumental? Well, these fellas did it. When you listen to “1901,” the line “I’ll be anything you ask and more/You’re going hey hey hey hey hey hey hey” will get stuck in your head for hours. And a note to readers who think they’ve never heard these songs: Yes, you have. On car commercials, movie trailers, video games and a multitude of TV shows. The song clips were catchy and you were left wondering where they came from. They came from four guys from France. Now you know.

2. The Avett Brothers, “I and Love and You” (Sony)
Looking over super-producer Rick Rubin’s résumé is basically like gazing at a list of the who’s who of rock, metal and hip-hop. He took a hard left turn (and turned in something brilliant) when he got his hands on the Avett Brothers, guitar and banjo-picking siblings from North Carolina. Rubin polished these folky Americana-playing boys to a high shine, making ballad after ballad soar with piano and banjo and scream with authenticity. (Read: They don’t sound like cheese-ball hillbillies.)

1. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, “Summer of Fear” (Saddle Creek)
Sometimes it’s Springsteen. Sometimes it’s Petty. Sometimes it’s even Dylan. You hear them all on this record. And if you have to pick three people to influence you, who better?

Robinson, a 27-year-old singer from Oregon, channels all three at different times, whether it be in his voice, in his guitar playing or in his words.

And within his heartfelt lyrics about drug addiction (“Never going back again without a lot more medicine”), suicide (It’s a hard enough time just trying to hang myself”) and heartbreak (“You’re not saying that you won’t be long/Just that we don’t belong”) is a whole lot of truth.

“Summer of Fear” is what Robinson named the summer when he broke up with his girlfriend and dissolved his band, a time that followed a period of homelessness and heavy drug addiction.

The songs are so well-crafted with crashing guitars, jazzy horns and his deep, growling croon that they make you relate to his tales of drug-addicted misery and hard times, even if you’ve never been through anything like that.

The next 15 (honorable mentions):
These albums were great efforts, and you should listen to every one of them. But they weren’t quite great enough to fit among the 10 best. Here they are, arranged alphabetically by artist:

» Ben Kweller, “Changing Horses”
» Brad Hoshaw and the Seven Deadlies, “Brad Hoshaw and the Seven Deadlies”
» Japandroids, “Post-Nothing”
» Jay-Z, “The Blueprint 3”
» Matt & Kim, “Grand”
» Old Canes, “Feral Harmonic”
» Owl City, “Ocean Eyes”
» Passion Pit, “Manners”
» Pete Yorn & Scarlett Johansson, “Break Up”
» Rihanna, “Rated R”
» Rural Alberta Advantage, “Hometowns”
» Silversun Pickups, “Swoon”
» Telekinesis, “Telekinesis!”
» The XX, “The XX”
» Yo La Tengo, “Popular Songs”



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