Alex Schaaf 1. Dirty Projectors, “Bitte Orca” The musical aspects of this album can be so complicated and innovative that they blow my mind. Yet somehow, Dave Longstreth and friends have managed to make an album that also has an emotional edge to it. Bravo. 2. Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” I didn’t like Animal Collective before this album came out. Now the group is one of my all-time favorite bands. That should say it all. 3. St. Vincent, “Actor” This is the ultimate example of “beauty with an edge,” as Annie Clark has once again crafted an album full of delicate harmonies and angelic vocals alongside jarring distortion and crisp guitar riffs. 4. Andrew Bird, “Noble Beast” My favorite violinist somehow manages to keep making albums that don’t disappoint. Nothing entirely new or groundbreaking compared to his earlier stuff, but rather this is a solid contribution to an already impressive catalogue. 5. tUnE-yArDs, “BiRd-BrAiNs” I first saw her opening for Dirty Projectors and she blew the crowd away with one of the most impressive opening sets I’ve ever seen. Lo-fi production on this album meets acrobatic vocals, lots of ukulele and a solid batch of songs. 6. The Rural Alberta Advantage, “Hometowns” This album is a lot of acoustic guitar, drums and keyboards, but somehow manages to take an entirely unique approach. Lightning-quick drumming meets vocals that sound eerily like Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel, and these create one of the best debut albums of the year. 7. The Dead Weather, “Horehound” Easily the sexiest album of the year, this sees Jack White taking to the drums while Alison Mosshart takes over the microphone. The result is a dirty, provocative rock ‘n’ roll album that sounds out of this time period. 8. Japandroids, “Post-Nothing” This kind of follows the previous album in that it is more straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll than most of the other picks on this list. Japandroids is a two-person garage rock band, with huge guitars settling on top of even bigger drums, and this debut album is full of solid jams with memorable lyrics.Rich Jones Raekwon, “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Pt. II.” I was skeptical when I first heard about this album; it is rare that a sequel to a classic like “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx” is able to match the greatness of its predecessor. Against all odds, Raekwon has outdone itself. Masterful production, gritty lyrics, and cocaine, cocaine, cocaine! No numbers from here on out, just bullet points. Washed Out, “Life of Leisure EP” The soundtrack to the final weeks of summer 2009, this has got banger after banger after banger. Whether smoked out and tinted or sober and on the move, this little six-track effort by Ernest Greene is a real gem. Empire of the Sun, “Walking on a Dream” I can’t recall how I came upon this flamboyant duo from Australia but I’m glad I did. Every once in a while, I love me some pop and this was just what the doctor ordered. Kid Cudi, “Man on the Moon” I tried hard not to hop onto the Kid Cudi bandwagon, I really did. “Day ‘n’ Nite (Nightmare)” just did not do it for me – especially after the 1000th listen. However, Cudi grew on me after my friend forced me to sit down and actually listen to the man. Dude is a truly unique talent who should not be slept on. Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” These French folks rock, plain and simple. Cop it. Mos Def, “The Ecstatic” The Brooklyn MC delivers arguably his most consistent effort since his debut album, the hip-hop classic “Black on Both Sides.” This is intense, thoughtful, banging. Great to hear Mos share the mike with Black Star collaborator Talib Kweli. Miles Fisher, “Miles Fisher EP” If you haven’t seen the video for his cover of The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place,” do so immediately. Honestly, it is the only track that matters on the EP but, damn, it’s hot. Note to the readers: This list is in no particular order except for the top spot.
Ruth Jacobs 1. Mike Marshall’s Big Trio, “Mike Marshall’s Big Trio” On this album, renowned mandolinist Mike Marshall collaborated with 17-year-old fiddle prodigy Alex Hargreaves and 23-year-old Paul Kowert, a former student of Edgar Meyer who is now touring with Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers. It is comprised of all original songs that highlight Hargreaves and Kowert’s virtuosic playing and that combine elements of jazz and classical music. 2. Casey Driessen, “Oog” This album demonstrates Casey’s unique musical style, bringing in elements of jazz, bluegrass and even classical music. 3. Sarah Jarosz, “Song Up in Her Head” This is Sarah’s debut album and at 18 she is already playing with some of today’s leading musicians, including: Chris Thile, Jerry Douglass, Paul Kowert, Sam Grisman, Ben Sollee and Alex Hargreaves. 4. Julian Lage, “Sounding Point” This album showcases Julian’s virtuosic jazz guitar playing and compositional style and includes collaborations with Chris Thile and Béla Fleck. 5. Sam Bush, “Circles Around Me” On his seventh solo album, Sam Bush demonstrates his mastery of traditional bluegrass songs as well as more complicated instrumental works. “Circles Around Me” also emphasizes his collaboration with other leading musicians, as Edgar Meyer and Del McCoury also appear on the album. 6. Béla Fleck, “Throw Down Your Heart” This album is a result of Bela’s 2005 trip to Africa to explore the roots of the banjo from Gambian instruments. On his trip he recorded with a wide range of local African musicians and made an accompanying documentary. At the Telluride Bluegrass festival last summer, I was lucky enough to talk to Béla about his experiences in Africa. The complexity of the music they were able to create coming from such different musical backgrounds and cultures was striking to me. 7. Bryan Sutton, “Almost Live” As a versatile guitar player whose performance experience covers a wide range of genres, Sutton’s “Almost Live” showcases many of the performers he has worked with over the years, including Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, Béla Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Mark Shatz and Jerry Douglass. As so much of Sutton’s music revolves around live performance, this album makes his music more available to a wider audience. 8. Crooked Still, “Crooked Still Live” This is Crooked Still’s first live album and is only available at their shows. It features their current lineup with Aoife O’Donnovan on vocals, Greg Liszt on the banjo, Corey DiMario on bass, Brittany Haas on fiddle and Tristan Clarrige on cello.
Ben Levine 1. The Dead Weather, “Horehound” This combination of Allison Mosshart, Jack White Dean Fertita and Jack Lawrence produced the best album of this year. The group crafts a dark atmosphere that I enjoy more and more with every listen. While I am a huge Jack White fan, it is the influence of the other members that really makes this record stand out. 2. Japandroids, “Post-Nothing” This record grabbed me immediately. Japandroids is a two piece band from Canada, and its lo-fi punk anthems speak for themselves. “Post-Nothing” is at record that relies on nothing more than honesty and feeling. The end result is one lovely piece of music. 3. The xx, “The xx” This new band out of England was my most pleasant surprise of the year. The xx takes a minimalistic approach to pop music that begs listen after listen in many different contexts. The interplay between the male and female vocalists also create a subtle sexual tension to their music that greatly adds to their overall sound. 4. Mos Def, “The Estatic” Mos Def made his return to hip-hop this past year with “The Estatic,” and it appears that Mos had quite a bit to say. On this album, Mos poses many interesting thoughts about the present state of the world while also diving deeply into h
is relationship with Islam. Great production, lyrics and guests make this one of the year’s best. 5. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “It’s Blitz” “It’s Blitz” saw the Yeah Yeah Yeahs taking its distinct style in some new directions. On this album, the songs are more melodic and developed than on the previous two records. The group also incorporates some newer electronic elements into its music that certainly add something. My favorite songs of this album have to be the quieter ones like “Hysteric” and “Skeletons” that really display this group’s raw songwriting talent. 6. Antony and the Johnsons, “The Crying Light” This record is a quieter one that uses strings and piano as the driving force. Antony’s wonderful and unique voice gives the record a very intimate and vulnerable sound that feels just right. 7. Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” Animal Collective proves its significance once again with its latest full length album. Undeniably unique and extremely well put together, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” pushes the boundaries once again. 8. Mastodon, “Crack the Skye” Mastodon’s latest epic tells an insane story through punching guitar, grandiose lyrics and masterful song craft. Mastodon are innovators of their field and this album shows it.