The actual midway point of 2009 occurred on July 2, one week after the death of arguably the greatest entertainer of our generation. It was a pretty somber way to cap off the first 182.5 days of the year and, obviously, pretty much everyone's attention was turned to eulogizing the King of Pop (myself included ... twice over).
One piece I had intended on writing was my annual mid-year "Best Of" list, taking a look at my favorite albums released so far. And, well, here it is. There's lots of ground to cover, and I used a lot of words to do it (more than 2,000?! Jeez ... ), so let's get right to it. Here are my picks — some honorable mentions and a straightforward Top 10 — for the Best Albums of 2009 (So Far).
Multiple-personality music from schoolteacher-turned-songsmith Natasha Khan, Suns envisions pop music much in the same way M83's Saturdays=Youth did: through a John Hughes-ian filter. An album filled with gauzy vintage synths and odes to teenage love, as told by Khan and her alter ego Pearl, it's bravely backward-looking and weirdly prescient at the same time. If only all pop could be this good.
Dan Auerbach, Keep It Hid
Black Keys' main man goes solo, makes the best (or at least most somber, rousing, dusty, creaky, pretty, dank, horny, focused, swampy, sweaty, spooky, funky) Black Keys album yet. "I Want More" is a herky-jerky haunted-house ride, "When the Night Comes" is a plaintive, plucky ballad, and "Goin' Home" sounds like a Beatles B-side. There's a lot here, and it's all good.
The Pacific Northwest's reigning poets laureate ditch the diction and make a batsh-- prog-rock album (OK, it's still plenty wordy — the title track is broken into three sections, with handles like "The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone"). They unveiled it with a big, booming show at South By Southwest, and frontman Colin McCoy unveiled some burly sideburns for the occasion. Not surprisingly, this one runs a bit long, but there are hooks for days. Bookworms shouldn't be able to rock this hard, but the Decemberists do.
Grating, overly cutesy choir exercise, or daring, artfully arranged vocal experiment? To be honest, I can't really seem to decide, though given that this album has received near-universal acclaim, it seems to be the latter, which is why I keep giving it second (and third, and fourth) listens. There's something here; I'm just not sure I've got the patience to find it.
Both are currently stuck in the six-disc changer of my friend Monty's car, so I will grade them both as incompletes for the time being. But Ida rocks and rambles like the female Craig Finn, and the Weather recalls the rattling, ethereal darkness of the Jesus and Mary Chain, so, you know, based on what I've heard, both are plenty good.
The album that drew the unenviable task of following the decade's biggest rock spectacle, Breakdown might not be a better album than Green Day's revelatory American Idiot, but it's certainly a more accomplished one. A difficult album about a difficult topic (because, really, how do you encompass this upside-down decade?), it's proven divisive among GD fans and rock critics alike, though, according to my pal Christopher Weingarten, this is the best album of the year. And really, who am I to disagree?
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
Swoony, gossamer-thin nu-gaze (get it?!?) from a bunch of Brooklyn kids too young to remember My Bloody Valentine or Sarah Records. Somehow, nothing gets lost in translation. Pure, unadulterated joy — whirringly, blurringly so.
The year's most unlikely rock-radio success story, the Pickups proved they weren't just flashes in the pan thanks to "Panic Switch," a very angsty track on their very angsty album. Frontman Brian Aubert told us the song is about a nervous breakdown, which is fitting, because it probably gave a few program directors shakes when they realized they had to fit the track next to Shinedown's latest. It's just one song, but at this point, we'll take all the small victories we can get.
The real King of the South (his highness Bun B) leads a funeral procession for his partner (the late Pimp C) and a victory lap for the beloved Underground Kingz. In keeping with tradition, the beats are smooth like a wood-grain grip, the production is plush like velour seat-covers, and B emits vocal sparks like a dragging muffler. It's hardly a somber affair — more like a joyous celebration, which is probably why Bun included the ode to hirsute ladies. You know, for old time's sake.
The Top 10
Fun, funky and free — not to mention rambling, shambling and downright terrifying at points. And partially sung in Spanish. Mos Def is pretty much everything at this point (actor, rapper, poet, rocker, dodgy interview subject), and this album perfectly captures his free-wheeling, wide-ranging personae. It leaps through time (and time signatures), genres and generations with glee, gets political and doomy at points, is biting and smart and also a genuine thrill to listen to. Throw in cameos by Slick Rick (as a soldier in Iraq on "Auditorium") and Mos' Black Star partner Talib Kweli (on the J Dilla-produced "History"), and you've got the album his fans have been waiting for since 1999's milestone Black on Both Sides. Welcome back to earth, Ford Prefect.
Super-smart pop from a woman who makes no bones about being anything but, It's Not Me details the breakups, makeups, booze-ups and punch-ups of Allen's recent years, only, thanks to her growing strength as a songwriter, it's never alienating or off-putting. Lily's a very normal girl, unsatisfied by her lover (the great "Not Fair"), let down by life ("The Fear," "22") and just looking for a little tenderness ("Chinese") or forgiveness ("Back to the Start"). She's also brave enough to admit that she feels all those things, which puts her head-and-shoulders above everyone else in her field. She's the perfectly (im)perfect pop star, which is just what we need in these imperfect times.
8. Amadou & Mariam, Welcome to Mali
A married musical couple from Mali who just so happen to both be blind? Sounds like a music journo's wet dream (and it probably is). Still, on A&M's Welcome to Mali, the duo make breathtakingly beautiful, undeniably inspired music, blending rock guitars with Syrian violins, Egyptian flutes and Dogon percussion — to name just a few. Sometimes little more than Mariam's achingly pretty voice, others a whirling, rousing boogie powered by Amadou's ax, it's music for all seasons and all people. Released overseas last year, it saw the light of the day here in the States back in March, and I'm thankful to have gotten the chance to hear it. You should too.
Am I a 30-something white dude who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn? Pssht, no. I'm a 30-something white dude who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (there's a difference), and yet I still like the strummy, somber, decidedly NPR-ified version of Wilco. Jeff Tweedy and company appear to be aging gracefully here — except on the unwieldy "Bull Black Nova," of course, which seems to be about murdering someone in a car — and, in the process, they've created the summertime anthem for anyone who owns a battered Volvo wagon and spends their Saturdays playing kickball in McCarren Park. But don't hold that against them.
Beautiful, aural indie-rock from the gentlest band in Brooklyn (or the world, for that matter), Veckatimest — named after a small island in Massachusetts, just in case you were wondering — is full of carefully strummed guitars, hushed drums and, most notably, otherwordly harmonies, the musical equivalent of a million New England summer sunsets. A stunning, gorgeous album, featuring songs like "Cheerleader" and "Two Weeks," which are among the finest you'll hear this year. It leaked super early, but that didn't matter: Grizz fans are loyal, so when the album improbably bowed inside the Billboard top 10 (#8!), Grizzly Bear acted like any muted, genuinely nice indie band would — they Twittered a "thank you" note to their fans. Sometimes nice guys do finish first ... or eighth.
Yes, seriously. The finest pop album you'll hear this year, full of perfectly crafted, big-budget tunes, All I Ever Wanted is sort of like some high-powered musical F-14, with Clarkson as the pilot. Some might say that the album is her peace offering to Clive Davis (after the whole My December debacle), but I like to see it as her finally realizing her full potential as a pop megastar. We get big, bold tunes like "My Life Would Suck Without You" and "I Do Not Hook Up" mingling with weepers like "If No One Will Listen" and "Cry" (duh). She is empowered yet vulnerable, everything you could ask for in a star of her caliber ... pop perfection, delivered by the best voice in the business. Kelly is back. It's almost like she never went away.
In 2005, alt-rock elders Dino Jr surprised pretty much everyone by setting aside their differences and reuniting for a European tour. In 2007, they surprised pretty much everyone by recording a new album that was actually pretty awesome. And now they're back with Farm, an album that's even awesomer than their last one. So, I guess the question is: At what point do we stop being surprised? Held up by a couple of epic, solo-laden tracks ("Plans" and "Said the People"), Farm is shiftless, stoner rock that sounds exactly like the dudes playing it look, if that makes any sense. But don't let the glasses, paunches and poor posture fool you — as evidenced by the songs here, these dudes can kick your ass ... once they get up off the couch, that is.
3. Dan Deacon, Bromst
Massive-yet-molecular, full of never-ending builds that head heavenward and deep burrowing lows that strike limestone, Deacon has always made electronic music unlike anyone else ... and on Bromst, he's gone orchestral. Sure, this is still very much music crafted on laptops, but he's added a multitude of instruments to the madness here, which gives songs extra sonic wallop, and moves the album into the space of really, truly great art. This is communal stuff, hands-on and hippified, the kind of music that ascribes to a higher quality. It's also maddening, beautiful, ear-splitting and pin-drop quiet ... a cacophonous spazzer one second, churchly hushed the next. It's carefully crafted and composed chaos, with Deacon holding the conductor's baton. One bone to pick, however: If he really is our Mozart, perhaps he should stop wearing cutoffs.
2. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Retro pop hyper-focused on a futuristic re-imagination of post-modernism and neo-classicism as proletarian touchstones? That you can dance to? Why, of course they're French — but don't let the book-speak fool you. Phoenix are, at their very bourgeois heart, a pure pop band, and on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, they've crafted the year's most unabashed ode to the power of pop music. It's an album of undeniable melodies, joyous choruses and razor-sharp hooks — one that you wish would go on for eons (but sadly, is over in just 10 too-short tracks). Sure, conceptually they may be aiming for the stars, but with songs like "Lisztomania," "1901" and "Rome," they're also gunning for your heart, your hips and your lips. History can be awesome sometimes.
The blogs were right. Proclaimed to be "The Album of the Year" all the way back in January, and it's turned out to be about the only thing I can remember that has actually lived up to the hype ... if not exceeded it. A massive, hugely important record, one that represents one of this decade's most impressive groups operating at the absolute peak of their powers, MPP is the one people are gonna remember for a long, long time. Immaculately produced (Those highs! Those lows!) and full of bizarre, undeniable art-pop ("My Girls," "Lion in a Coma," "Summertime Clothes"), it shows what's possible if you stick to your guns and never, ever sacrifice your ideals. Amazing, breathtaking, undeniable — this time the hype machine got it right: The year really was over in January.
If there's something I've missed — or if you've got a list of your own — you can let me know in the comments below ... or e-mail me at BTTS@MTVStaff.com.