1. Animal Collective — Merriweather Post Pavilion
The Animal Collective gang may have grown up, but they’re definitely not wearing ties. While Merriweather finds the indie iconoclasts tempering their signature banshee wails and zero-gravity space jams, these Animals haven’t been neutered. The album is an irrefutable crackerjack, an experimental pop record of startling maturity and immediacy that consistently shimmies the ears without ever spilling over into the noodly realm of overindulgence. Double-helix polyrhythms and mind-dripping textures grace wedding-cake song structures, walking the fine line between airtight and twisty. Put simply, Merriweather is the decade’s definitive electro-pop album (but to simply call it “electro-pop” would be utter sacrilege). It uncannily melds the warmth of melt-in-your-mouth sunshine pop with the coldness of electronic cyborg drones. And, as with any pop masterpiece, the melodies are guaranteed to induce shivers — the warm kind, of course.
2. Grizzly Bear — Veckatimest
Grizzly Bear just Gets It. The band has one of today’s most complete and attuned rhythm sections, two phenomenally gifted vocalists in Ed Droste and Dan Rossen — the latter also being a vastly inventive (and underrated) guitarist — and, most importantly, the maturity to keep from collapsing under the immense sum of its parts. Veckatimest is a paradox, somehow displaying the scrupulous, detail-obsessed work that went into it while still seeming transparently effortless. The shipwrecked beauty of “Dory” and “Ready, Able,” the layered intensity of “Fine For Now” and “I Live With You” and the pop mastery of “Two Weeks” all sound calculated down to the core, yet remain unbridledly emotional and human. But Veckatimest’s greatest gift is something that, in a culture of irony and detachment, is becoming a rare and under-appreciated commodity: simply, an occasion to feel.
3. Dirty Projectors — Bitte Orca
While artsy contemporaries Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear obscured their so-called masterpieces behind dense clouds of reverb and harmony, Dirty Projectors had no shame in flaunting the naked, waif-like sexiness of its songs on Bitte Orca. Delicate, sensitive, feisty and cerebral, the record is a career achievement from notoriously eclectic frontman David Longstreth, who finally decided to zero in on songwriting and style. Though the album’s pacing benefits from a few song-length detours into acoustica, the temperature peaks with “Stillness is the Move,” a featherweight R&B titan on which singer Amber Coffman unapologetically gets her falsetto rocks off.
4. Phoenix — Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix has always had that certain je ne sais quoi — whether it’s the band’s chic attire or its foreign allure, the French foursome has probably been more famous for its trendsetting image than its glammy, slicked-back synth-pop. But that all changed in 2009. After absurdly remaining in obscurity for years, Phoenix soared to the peak of indie stardom with 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Album opener “Lisztomania” sets the infectious tone that permeates the entire record, with Thomas Mars’s cooing vocals layered over disco-vibe synths and a crisp, elastic beat. With Wolfgang, Phoenix has channeled 15 years of pop experience to create a sophisticated, stylish, dance-friendly album that the band’s leather-clad counterparts (ahem, The Strokes) couldn’t even touch.
5. Girls — Album
With Album, these sneering, pill-popping heirs to Elvis Costello craft a sunny, drug-addled collection of songs about youth, slacking off, and, well, girls. Girls, the San Francisco duo whose lead singer is a former Children of God cultist, has created a record that easily lives up to the hype. With plenty of early-Beatles-esque jangle and solar-powered synths, and propelled by a healthy dose of punk attitude and burnout sarcasm from lead vocalist and songwriter Christopher Owens, Girls’s tightly crafted pop arrangements make for a winning debut.
6. Mos Def — The Ecstatic
How is it that the best rap album of 2009 came from a guy who’s half actor? Renaissance man Mos Def took lots of unexpected turns on The Ecstatic, and they all worked. Middle Eastern riffs and Spanish-language raps mix with bonged-out production to blend into a cohesively cinematic whole. On highlights “Auditorium” and “Life In Marvelous Times,” Mos swaggers movie-star style through lucid action scenes. So is he a musician or an actor? It’s hard to tell. But regardless, The Ecstatic proves that Mos Def is definitely an artist.
7. Atlas Sound — Logos
When does Bradford Cox sleep? After releasing the critically acclaimed Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. in 2008 with his band Deerhunter, the wunderkind returned in 2009 with the even more refined Logos under the Atlas Sound moniker. With an array of distorted lo-fi sound waves and more than one high-profile collaboration, Logos allowed Cox to explore the extent of his musical capabilities outside the confines of a multi-artist outfit. The product is a cohesive record comprised of dreamy soundscapes and static-tinged sonics, tied together by Cox’s high-reverb vocals.
8. The Flaming Lips — Embryonic
Embryonic is anything but perfect. And, for The Flaming Lips in 2009, this is a very good thing. After countering a decade of Bubble Yum noise pop with back-to-back space-opera masterworks The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002), 2006’s similarly symphonic At War with the Mystics turned out unpredictably predictable. Enter Embryonic, a jagged clusterfuck of a double album so unpredictable it hurts. Saccharine hooks take the wayside as the Fearless Freaks conjure a molten jungle of funky bass squelches, leviathan drum pummeling and infantile animal impersonations. If someone granted a tribe of babies ungodly musical abilities and a sickening number of effects pedals, the end result would probably be something like this album.
9. The xx — xx
Barely out of their teens, four brooding Londoners quietly made their debut in late 2009 with one of the most intimate albums to come out in ages. Throughout the record, frontwoman Romy Madley Croft’s breathy vocals are answered by bassist Oliver Smith, creating a running dialogue between two lovers. Listeners are swept through aching moments of budding romance and sleepily coy 3 a.m. inquiries (“Can I make it better with the lights turned off?”). The sultry juxtaposition of Smith’s raspy, mumbled responses and Croft’s rich, soulful voice is mystified by new-wave guitar riffs and spare drum machines, creating a haunting backdrop for the main event — the smoky conversation that melds each delicate track.
10. Fever Ray — Fever Ray
Karin Andersson is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a voluminous black cloak. The publicity-shy musician — often obscured by ghostly white paint or Venetian masks — first made waves as one half of electronic duo The Knife, and has perfected her eerie wails for her eponymous solo debut as Fever Ray. Andersson’s melancholy howls lend a deliciously chill tone to the record, while her surreal lyricism adds an unsettling layer of ambiguity to darkly luminous anthems about isolation and heartbreak.