It felt like 2009 was a year where a music nerd could cast the net pretty wide and catch lots of interesting tuneage. Upon reflection though, even with arbitrary rankings, there really weren't that many absolutely amazing albums this year. Albums so many of us raved about, like Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix or Begone Dull Care were tactfully minimized by some as being just average. On the other spectrum side, some would say that Merriweather Post Pavilion was that great album. If I was more than a casual Animal Collective fan I might agree, but I'm still mostly sitting on that fence.
What did occur to me in 2009 was how many older artists are still completely capable of not only producing quality and relevant music, but also how many can still outplay the young hot shots we prop up as fresh and exciting.
For instance, I have a fairly specifically narrow hip-hop appreciation, but for my money three of the best albums in that genre came form Jay-Z, Raekwon, and Rakim in 2009. You could even throw in Mos Def's return to form if you wanted. All solid outings with a reminder that flow and skill still count for something, and bold proclamations of how much better you are on the mic than another MC is still at the root of the best rap, irregardless of who's pulling the most cash. Jay-Z just so happens to be able to lay claim to both titles.
One of my favourite things that happened this year was a number of British 80's alternative artists reminded us that they not only have made arguably some of the best music of all time, but they still can. The album from Bad Lieutenant shows Bernard Sumner can still write amazing pop hooks without...ahem...Peter Hook. Morrissey continued his streak of quality albums with Years of Refusal. The Echo & The Bunnymen album wasn't quite as strong as Siberia, from a few years back, but still reminds us that Interpol don't just sound a bit like Joy Division. Conversely, Sounds of The Universe by Depeche Mode not only matches the familiar signature sound that Playing the Angel brought back for the band, but expands on the depth of production a bit for a really rich and vibrant album. Lastly, are the Pet Shop Boys, who even with a bit of filler still sound rejuvenated on Yes.
Finally in that classic guitar based alternative space, with lots of cool feedback, string bending, quirky timings, and well articulated indifference there were a handful of solid releases as well. And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead put out perhaps their most focused album since Source. Bob Mould made perhaps his best album since the work he did with Sugar. Jeremy Enigk produced perhaps his most honest work since being in Sunny Day Real Estate. Polvo returned and reminded us that whatever the hell math rock is, it's not as good as Polvo and they can still make clever and delicious noise. Then there's Dinosaur Jr. Sadly I cannot lay claim to being a long time major fan. A track here and there and a genuine appreciation for where they fit and the influence they've had. Much respect. That said, I'm now almost working backward from this year's Farm to catch up on why these guys are so brilliant. The distortion is in your face yet so inviting. The solos are...ahem..."beyond" what most stripped down indie bands can muster, crossing Neil Young simplicity with 80's hair band technique and capability. The songs are as long or short as they need to be and the melodies are rewarding for those that can jump into the sludge and learn to tread.