Note that these are mostly out of albums that I’ve actually listened to, not an objective end-all (hence the lack of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, etc).
The Top Five
1. Yeah Yeah Yeahs—It’s Blitz
When it became known that the YYYs were going to bust out the synths for their third record, fans started jumping ship and decrying the band for changing their sound. Then they actually heard the album and realized nothing got worse, but got better. The stomping “Dull Life” is just as festival friendly as old timers “Date With a Night” and “Pin”. Any fan outcry about the new synths and dance influence is quelled with “Heads Will Roll”, one of the most synth loaded tracks on the album, and one of the best tracks as well. Karen O leads the band through a groovy, pretty, and out and out stellar record.
2. The Dead Weather—Horehound
On band number three, Jack White teams ups with members of The Kills (vocalist Alison Mosshart), Queens of the Stone Age (Guitarist/keyboardist Dean Fertita), and The Raconteurs (Jack Lawrence) for a blues-rock trip down the darker side. Mosshart absolutely nails it here; on slow burning opener “60 Feet Tall” she’s calm and seductive, whereas she’s spitting venom on tracks like “Bone House” and her explosive vocal sparring match with Mr. White on high point “Treat Me Like Your Mother”. Other highlights are the crunchy cover of Bob Dylan’s “New Pony” and apocalyptic closer “Will There Be Enough Water?”
3. Pearl Jam—Backspacer
PJ’s follow up to 2006’s back-to-basics self-titled record is their leanest, most focused record to date. Clocking in at 36 minutes and change, the band keeps things fairly brief with rockers like “Got Some” and “Supersonic”, while also raising anthems like “Amongst the Waves” (the next chapter in Vedder’s surfing fascination). The band also sounds their best as a group here; Mike McCready and Stone Gossard continue their muscular, intricate guitar work, but the rhythm section of bassist Jeff Ament and Matt Cameron truly shine. Vedder also seems to have found a brighter outlook, exemplified by “The Fixer”’s YesWeCanism and the loving “Just Breathe”. A band doing what they enjoy.
4. Sonic Youth—The Eternal
Seminal New York alt rockers Sonic Youth have had a successful decade (I’m ignoring NYC Ghosts and Flowers, and so should you) crafting mellow, somewhat poppy albums. All of this is undone by the time Kim Gordon’s punk-inspired opener “Sacred Trickster” comes to a sudden stop. The Eternal rocks, plain and simple. Lee Renaldo offers a pair of his stronger songs with “What We Know” and “Walking Blue”, Thurston Moore leads the way on quintessential pop song “Antenna” and “Thunderclap for Bobbie Pyn”, and Kim Gordon drops “Sacred Trickster” and rocker “Malibu Gas Station” on us. Just because the band might be older than your parents doesn’t mean they can’t rock like kids half their age.
5. Bomb the Music Industry!—Scrambles
Jeff Rosenstock and whoever happens to be around him put together one of the best punk albums I’ve heard in years. Scrambles might sound like an odd album title at first, but after listening to songs like “Stuff That I Like” or “(Shut) Up The Punx!!” (described by my friend Steve as sounding “like a garage band rolling down a hill”, which is not a bad thing), it makes sense. The band’s energy is nuts; Rosenstock often finds himself shouting over loud guitars, frantic drums, and whatever else comes along, be it a piano, a synth, or horns, and you can’t help but want to scream along.
Alice in Chains—Black Gives Way to Blue: The album Alice fans have been hesitantly looking at since William DuVall was announced to be more than a replacement singer at festivals. There’s a few passing tributes to Layne Staley, but Black Gives Way a fine hard rock record in its own right.
John Frusciante—The Empyrean: (former) RHCP indulges his psychedelic side on his latest solo outing to great results. His trademark guitar is still present, especially on opener “Before The Beginning”, but the record also gives way to keyboards and the occasional strings.
Them Crooked Vultures—Them Crooked Vultures: the first decade of the 2000s was littered with supergroups that all too often failed completely to meet expectations or produce one great album. Them Crooked Vultures, made of Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters), and John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), buck the trend by making a record that shows three living legends banging out great jams and having fun while doing it.
Jay-Z—The Blueprint III: Jay does it again. Aided by 2009’s most deserving punching bag Kanye West acting as a producer, Jay-Z cracks out another album full of great beats and samples, clever lyrics, and fruitful collaborations. The singles exemplify this (“Run This Town” and “Empire State of Mind”), but they only speak for the greatness of the entire album.
The “Eh” list of 2009
Lady GaGa—The Fame/The Fame Monster: An extremely unfortunate case where an artist is stacked as far as the singles go, but the actual album itself leaves something to be desired. This mix of great singles and poor album content lands GaGa in a frustrating middle.
Green Day—21st Century Breakdown: Green Day adds a shot of pop, piano, and production for what essentially became American Idiot 2. While it isn’t a bad album, it also isn’t what you’ll be reaching for if you want a Green Day fix anytime soon.
Paramore—brand new eyes: Paramore grows up and expands their sound. It’s less interesting and more predictable than it sounds.
Muse—The Resistance: The only rock album this year that ends with a twelve minute closing “symphony”. Muse finally takes their over-the-top theatrics, well, over the top.
Owl City—Ocean Eyes: Your girlfriend bought this album, didn’t she?
So that’s my 2009. Was it a good year? I’d say so. Here’s to what 2010 can gives us!