The Best Albums Of 2009, In Bigger Than The Sound

MTV News' James Montgomery picks his top 20 records of the year.

Well, we made it. 2009 is practically in the books, and now it's time to look back on the rather, uh, zany year that was. Last week, I published my list of the year's Best Songs, and now, it's time for the albums. It's a fairly lengthy list, because, like I wrote in my songs column, there's perhaps no better way to sum up the year than by looking back on the soundtrack to it all. And it just so happens that there were plenty of albums that did just that.

But before we get to my list, I want to point out that, yes, I'm very much aware that "the album" is a fairly dead concept, but so is the idea that Obama is a socialist, and we spent roughly three-quarters of 2009 screaming about that, didn't we?

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the Best Albums of 2009 — the straightforward and the skewed, the silly and the serious, the artistic and the arrhythmic. And if you've got some picks of your own, I'd love to read 'em (cue the Eminem fans), so let me know in the comments below, or shoot me an e-mail at

20. Brand New, Daisy

Five kids from Long Island make the best Modest Mouse album since The Lonesome Crowded West, a sawing, slurring, snarling thing, full of enough wobbly fretwork and muddled melodies to give Isaac Brock pause. Songs like "At the Bottom" and "Gasoline" writhe like a beheaded snake, "Vices" wails like a wraith, and "Be Gone," well, it basically just sounds like an Ugly Casanova B-side. Still, after a dozen years, it's nice to finally have the old MM back in our lives, especially when the new one seems content to simply re-record sea shanties.

19. Kid Cudi, Man on the Moon: The End of Day

Scott Mescudi certainly remembers the D.A.I.S.Y. age, and Moon is his attempt to match De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. Does he succeed? Not entirely, but there's enough here — the collaborations with Kanye West and Ratatat, the vivid storytelling, the fact that Common narrates the thing — to make it perhaps the most worthwhile near-miss in recent memory. A wonderfully weird album, it left me wondering where Cudi could possibly go from here. Perhaps he's already at work on his version of De La Soul Is Dead?

18. Wilco, Wilco (The Album)

NPR (The Album). Brunch (The Album). Antiquing (The Album). This is Wilco at their most buttoned-down, making their most straightforward album in years, and yet, despite the gray around their temples, this is still a very youthful album, honed by a relentless touring schedule and some really deft production work. The songs here are given room to breathe, to stretch their legs and walk a bit. There's blood and muscle and sweat here too. The best "live" album I've heard in years, despite it not actually being a live album. Think about that.

17. Dinosaur Jr., Farm

Sleepy-eyed, bed-headed, sweatpants rock from a trio of guys who look very much like they've resigned themselves to a life of couch-surfing and resin-scraping. Only, they haven't, and the proof is in the excellent, curlicue guitar work of songs like "Plans" and "I Don't Wanna Go There." There's hope there and muted dreams too. It's proof that good posture isn't a requirement for rocking out, that the couch can be a launching pad and that there's magic in that resin.

16. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

Correctly criticized for bring overly long and overwhelmingly bookish, yet those are precisely the reasons I liked this one so much. Hazards is the Decemberists unchained, free to meander into stuff like stony prog-rock and twee folk, unashamed to give songs names like "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone." Another concept album, this one encompasses a lovelorn lass, a shape-shifting boy, a deceitful rake, a magical river and a murderous forest queen (to name just a few) and features more doomy riffs than you'd ever think possible. Librarians shouldn't shred this hard, but here, they do.

15. The XX, XX

The year's best debut. An icy, wiry album that features stone-faced boy/girl vocals, angular, post-punk guitars and windswept, barren synth gusts (often on the same song — see "Crystalized" or "Basic Space" for proof). XX is an embracingly lo-fi yet also strangely distant listen. It doesn't sound like anyone involved in its creation was having much fun, but then again, they are achingly British.

14. Mos Def, The Ecstatic

Like the title (which, Wikipedia tells me, was lifted from a book by Queens author Victor LaVelle) implies, this is Mos Def in full celebratory mode, which explains the joyous boogie of songs like "Casa Bey" or "Quiet Dog Bite Hard." But given that it's Mos, things also get slightly weird — the blurred vocals on "Twilite Speedball," the sorta-samba on "Pistola" — and unabashedly political, like the Malcolm X sample that opens the album or "Auditorium," which features Slick Rick as a soldier in Iraq. Party hard, Mos seems to be saying, because there are dark times ahead.

13. Bat for Lashes, Two Suns

An exploration of the duality of life, love and loss, Natasha Khan (she's Bat for Lashes, in case you didn't know) went deep on Two Suns, leaving her native England for places like California's Joshua Tree and New York, cultivating an alternate identity (Pearl) who nearly dragged her down into destruction. But the end result was a spate of marvelous songs, swooning, nocturnal pop like "Daniel" and "Pearl's Dream." Like Kate Bush before her, Khan draws from her personal life, but she's at her best when she throws on the ethereal veil. And that's what she does here.

12. Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted

Built in a lab by the best pop-music minds in the business, equipped with all weapons necessary to assault the Hot 100, All I Ever Wanted is the musical equivalent of a gigantic, shiny Gundam suit, with Clarkson at the controls. It's no wonder it's her best album in years. Her voice powers "My Life Would Suck Without You" and "I Do Not Hook Up" into the stratosphere, and on songs like "Cry" or album-closer "If No One Will Listen," she gets subtle (or, you know, as subtle as a former "American Idol" champ with dynamite pipes can get). It didn't exactly burn up the charts, but that hardly matters. All I Ever Wanted is Clarkson's return to form.

11. Shakira, She Wolf

Sublimely silly, supremely sexy global pop, She Wolf features more popping and locking than a chiropractor's convention and more panting than a kennel. With the title track and the excellently effervescent "Men in This Town," Shakira has created two of the year's greatest songs, undoubtedly the soundtrack to the space disco in her head. Throw in some revenge fantasies, broken English and the occasional line about Matt Damon, and you've got the years most unabashed album. And there's no one else on the planet who could've made it.

10. Amadou & Miriam, Welcome to Mali

Released late last year in Europe, Welcome to Mali didn't find its way to the States until March, but it was worth the wait. Sure, you could focus on the fact that A&M are married, blind and play a wondrous brand of so-called "Afro-Blues," a mixture of Malian traditional, Indian rhythms and Egyptian wind instruments, with some good old-fashion rock and roll thrown in for good measure. But instead, listen to the joyous keyboards of album opener "Sabali" or the funky meter of "Sebeke" and try to tell me this isn't an album for all people, everywhere. Shoot, even K'Naan comes off good here, and that's saying something.

9. Lily Allen, It's Not Me, It's You

Basically the polar opposite of every other pop album on this list, It's Not Me ... isn't the end-product of the endless tinkerings of the pop elite, nor is it particularly pop in any of its sentiments. Instead, it's a handcrafted, deeply personal thing, a complicated, sad, funny, sarcastic album that pulls no punches and spares no target, including Allen herself. Songs like "The Fear," "Not Fair," "Back to the Start" and "Who'd Have Known" crackle with humor, biting social commentary and even outright sadness, and they showcase Allen's growing skill as a lyricist. She's endlessly complicated — celebrating her independence one moment ("Never Gonna Happen"), craving the support of a lover the next ("Chinese") — and delightfully odd (who else would assume God's favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival?), not to mention brave, wickedly funny and incredibly smart. Too bad she's reportedly giving up music. Though, as far as swan songs go, you could do a lot worse than It's Not Me, It's You.

8. Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

Achingly pretty indie pop with a dark side, Veckatimest bends the lines into chamber music, psych-rock and even folk, creating a beautiful haze to lose oneself (and one's mind) in. Songs like "Two Weeks" and "Ready, Able" are ghostly, gorgeous things (with appropriately creepy videos to boot), proof that not only can Grizzly Bear write pop songs, but they can do it better than pretty much anybody. That this album debuted at #8 on the Billboard albums chart — and earned them props from Jay-Z — was only icing on the cake. Sometimes, nice guys do finish first ... or, at least, in the top 10. Even if they are somewhat creepy.

7. Jay-Z, The Blueprint 3

The year's best hip-hop album, the third installment of Jay's celebrated Blueprint series is a sprawling, ambitious listen, filled to the brim with big-name producers and even bigger collaborations. But what struck me about it is the complexity of the world Jay has created. He's unquestionably one of hip-hop's elder statesmen, and he claims to want to rap about big things, and yet, he spends most of the album bragging about seemingly insignificant stuff like his "white Louis boat shoes." He sounded the death knell for Auto-Tune on the first single, the wondrous "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)," and yet, there it is on his own album ("A Star Is Born"). On "Off That," he swears off speaking about the past, and yet, very much of this album is dedicated to listing his previous accomplishments. I'm not bringing any of this up to nitpick, rather to point out just how fascinatingly human Jay-Z really is. Even when he's perfect, he's delightfully, compellingly imperfect too.

6. YACHT, See Mystery Lights

Vaguely cultish electronic music that's full of new-age sentiments ("It may come as a surprise/ But you are not alone") and cryptic notions about eternal life and mysterious triumvirates, but don't let that scare you. See Mystery Lights also contains some of the year's most gleefully fun pop tunes, all bloops and bleeps and chopped-and-screwed vocal tics. Sounding very much like it was recorded in someone's basement using only an old Casio and a MacBook, this is DIY dance music, though that doesn't stop songs like "I'm in Love With a Ripper" or "Psychic City (Voodoo City)" from positively glowing, much like the titular lights that haunt the outskirts of Marfa, Texas, most nights.

5. Paramore, Brand New Eyes

The year's biggest surprise was also the year's best straightforward rock album. Hayley Williams and her Paramore mates ditch the DayGlo and just get down to the business of making a killer rock record, and Eyes rips along on hair-trigger guitars, controlled pummel and Williams' decidedly killer pipes (check songs like "Careful" and "Ignorance" for proof). But, for once, they're not afraid to slow things down, either, and the results — songs like "Misguided Ghosts" and the terrific "All I Wanted" — are stunning. Like Williams told me back in Tennessee, Paramore have "matured, not ma-toored," and I can't wait to see what happens as they continue to get older.

4. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

As I wrote back in July, this is "retro pop hyper-focused on a futuristic reimagination of postmodernism and neoclassicism as proletarian touchstones ... that you can dance to." And that pretty aptly sums up Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, an album for all times and all eras. Full of undeniable melodies, fist-pumping choruses and razor-sharp hooks, this is whip-smart pop, a prime example of a band striking the perfect balance between heady theory and hip-shaking boogie, the kind of book party you'd want to attend every night of the week. This one breezes by in 10 too-short tracks, which is about the only bad thing I have to say about it. Next time, let's go for the double, guys.

3. Dan Deacon, Bromst

Part hippie-dippy communal art project, part "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," Bromst is a dynamic, schizophrenic listen: churchly quiet one second, cacophonously ear-splitting the next. It takes electronic squelches and pushes them skyward, then thrusts them into the ground, it starts and stops on a dime(bag), and it takes Deacon's electro-weirdo leanings and amplifies them, thanks mostly to the addition of extra musicians and instrumentation. This is music for both the dance floors and the chill-out tents, all-encompassing even when it's trying very hard to be nothing short of confounding. But, hey, that's the case with all great art, communal or otherwise.

2. The Flaming Lips, Embryonic

The album on which the Lips take all the good will they've built up over the past decade and jettison it out into space, Embryonic is a dissonant, disturbing thing, all fuzzed-out guitars, churning low end and muttered, barely there vocals, with the occasional animal noise (courtesy of Karen O), flubbed note and studio mishap (that one part where something makes a sound very similar to what happens when you leave a BlackBerry too close to a radio, which, I can only assume, was created by someone actually leaving their BlackBerry too close to the radio) thrown in for good measure. In all seriousness, this sounds very much like the Lips trying very hard to annoy, torture and thin their fanbase, and given their past history of abrupt left turns, I wouldn't put it past them. Of course, Embryonic only made me like them more. For years, I felt like the Lips needed a shot in the arm. And, well, here it is. Somewhat naturally (or perversely), the Lips say they intend to follow Embryonic with a note-for-note re-creation of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Seems like a great idea to me.

1. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

For once, the blogs got it right: 2009 really was over in January. Justly hyped to within an inch of its life, MPP lived up to the advanced billing, taking the listener on a brightly colored, hugely saturated electro-psych voyage, full of whomping low end and whistle-clean harmonies. It's electronic but organic, and very much a pop record — or at least songs like "My Girls" and "Lion in a Coma" are. But this is also a hugely important record — one of the decade's best bands fully realizing their potential, making an album that is both experimental and accessible. Not to mention amazing, breathtaking and undeniable too. Not only the best of 2009, it's also one of the decade's great records, and after MPP was released, the remainder of the year felt very much like one gigantic letdown. At least until you listened to it again.

Questions? Concerns? Hit me up at