Performing Arts

The 10 Best Albums of 2009

BY John Smithies TIMEDecember 19, 2009 PRINT

1. WILD BEASTSTwo Dancers
Britain’s finest and most unique new band have improved on last year’s Epoch Times runner up spot with this, their second album. A work of staggering precocity, this set primal rhythms to the much debated operatic vocal range of Hayden Thorpe and the Nutella-rich voice of Tom Fleming, and told tales of sexual misadventure and bothersome boot boys. From the intro to album opener ‘The Fun Powder Plot’ the album pulses with percussion that seems to have been drawn from an African tribal ritual. It is the perfect backing to the burgeoning eroticism the band seem immersed in. By the album’s high point ‘This is Our Lot’ eight tracks in, Thorpe can barely contain himself, heavy breathing as he sings “my darling, my dumpling, my plump heart a thumping/begging you to come to me” with the most overwrought delivery you’re ever likely to hear. Slightly sinister but always intoxicating, Two Dancers is a testament to the possibilities of popular music, and what can happen when convention is not permitted to constrain boundless imagination. PH

2. ANIMAL COLLECTIVEMerriweather Post Pavilion
It was only with this euphoric and electronic-inflected ninth album that Animal Collective’s psychedelic and often impenetrable sound, became, dare I say it, mainstream. Mind you, with support from the likes of Kanye West for ‘My Girls’ and Twilight writer Stephenie Meyer (an appearance on the Twilight soundtrack duly followed) mainstream is where these boys seem to be headed. Merriweather Post Pavilion reached number 13 in the US Billboard charts with its fusion of primal chants, danceable bass kicks, synth loops and reverb-drenched vocal harmonies. AC’s genius is in anchoring it all with a killer pop sensibility and zeitgeist-friendly lyrics. Essential. JS

3. MEMORY TAPESSeek Magic
Only receiving a full release late in the year, Seek Magic has slipped under the radar of many a publication as they unveil their end of term lists. It can only be hoped that this doesn’t mean this album remains only a cult concern as its heady stew of genres makes it one of the most exhilarating and downright fun records of recent years. Opener ‘Swimming Field’ is sure to have any Cocteau Twins fan in raptures and ‘Bicycle’ contains the kind of lolloping bassline beloved of fans of Daft Punk. ‘Plain Material’ confirms this as an album diverse enough to be ranked alongside The Avalanches’ Since I Left You, a comparison that only confirms what a great record this is. PH

4. FANFARLOReservoir
This debut by the London-based Fanfarlo was originally released in the US as a $1 download. Their uplifting brand of indie folk is reminiscent of a less experimental Arcade Fire and both bands can claim David Bowie as an admirer. There’s also a strong Talking Heads influence here, particularly in the often David Byrne-like Swedish lead vocalist Simon Balthazar. The exuberant mood is enhanced by a trumpet – among many other instruments – to give a distinctive south of the border feel. Some might find Reservoir samey, but surely that’s more a reflection of the consistency of Fanfarlo’s epic vision. Each song here is an understated gem. SM

5. RICHARD HAWLEYTruelove’s Gutter
‘As The Dawn Breaks’, Gutter’s opening track alerts the heart to the exquisite survival of meaning and its transcendence even of Hawley’s urbanised landscape of washing lines and rooftops. His rise through a long musical apprenticeship to this perfect album has the atmosphere of inevitability. Dignified by increasing maturity, Hawley’s gorgeous baritone is pitch perfect and with almost choral delivery, his studied vocal aim is completely true throughout. This is a tour de force, swelling strings, lap steels and all. Deep, accomplished and beautiful, for me it’s the very best of 2009. All my stars go to this engaging and, guitar wise, wonderful work. MC

6. ANATHALLOCanopy Glow
Don’t be put off by the slightly grim cover of this second offering from Chicago’s Anathallo. Inside you will find a gentle and enchanted world – forget about the obscure lyrics, close your eyes and let the lush, swooning, ever-changing melodies wash over you. With horns, strings, every type of percussion, and complex vocal harmonies, Canopy Glow is beautiful and majestic, yet has a darker baroque undertow. The Greek meaning of Anathallo is “to renew, refresh, or bloom again” and that is what happens here on an album that is much more fully formed and refined than their overwrought debut, Floating World. One of 2009’s highly original classics. SM *

7. DIANA JONESBetter Times Will Come
Dignified, pure and uncluttered Better Times heralds Jones’ rise from anonymity in the 90s, via notoriety in 2006, to critical acclaim this year. Crying “Appalachia, my Appalachia” with grief and integrity from each brilliantly composed track, her iconic blue mountain voice was always eventually going to be heard. Her archetypal and melodic vibrato bears witness with truth and clarity to the abandoned child, the doomed miner and, on ‘If I Had a Gun’, translates the melancholy wrath of the abused wife whose loyalty is darkly betrayed. Musically superb and uplifting because of the honesty in it, this album wholly deserves all its accolades. MC

8. SPEECH DEBELLESpeech Therapy
Right. With all the hoo-ha surrounding Speech Debelle of late – dropping her label Big Dada (silly, Speech, silly), misguided dissing of Take That at, umm, an event celebrating the songs of the foursome – it’d be easy to forget what a breath of fresh air Speech Therapy was this year. A Mercury win seemingly left critics scratching their heads, and it didn’t translate into sales either. But here’s the thing: this is a spectacular debut, as Debelle bares her soul, ruminating on love, work, friends and surviving without a father. With lush, live, jazzy production, ignore the haters and Debelle’s recent antics: this was the sound of summer 2009. JS

9. NNEKATo and Fro
Winner of Best African Act at this year’s MOBO Awards, Nneka’s latest offering To and Fro has been released alongside her previous two albums, allowing the full picture to unfold. Often compared favourably with Lauren Hill, raw, uncompromising, beautiful and gifted, those looking for the soul in modern music need search little further. From gentle melodies to eminently danceable tracks, the influence of legendary figures such as Fela Kuti and Bob Marley can be clearly heard. Unifying themes are responsibility, sacrifice, pain and suffering, as the brutal realities of her homeland of Nigeria interrelate with the hypocrisy and materialism of European life. JP

10. REVEREND AND THE MAKERSA French Kiss in the Chaos
Reverend and The Makers form a rare musical entity – politically incisive lyricism combined with stomping party beats. Opening track ‘Silence is Talking’ borrows intelligently from 70s funk supremos War, and produces a floor filler reminiscent of Black Grape and early Primal Scream. ‘Manifesto’ tackles subjects as diverse as the BNP, the pharmaceutical industry and media control. Slower tracks such as ‘Long Long Time’ provide Oasis-esque sing along anthems. The raw quality of the production reflects the album’s underlying honesty. Often referred to as indie or electro-pop, let me recategorise Reverend and The Makers as simply rock ‘n’ roll. JP

* Anathallo’s Canopy Glow was released in 2008 in the US, but 2009 in the UK, hence it has been included.

John Smithies
Journalist
A journalist for The EpochTimes based in London. These views are firmly my own.
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