1. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
The results of the French pop-rockers finally living up to their potential? The best album of the year. 2000’s United was something worth listening to. 2004’s Alphabetical was much improved. 2006’s It’s Never Been Like That was the best Strokes album ever made. Who could’ve guessed Phoenix’s fourth studio album would be a masterpiece?
It kicks off with two easy contenders for song of the year. “Liztomania,” referencing composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt, immediately has the listener hooked. During the bridge, a soft piano bounces in the background as vocalist Thomas Mars sings something that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And anyone who has heard the album will sing along as Mars states, “I’m not easily offended, know how to let it go,” in the coolest way possible.
Stunningly, it gets better with “1901.” Once again, no idea what the lyric “Past and present, 1855-1901” means, but it has to be the catchiest line of the year. The track buzzes all the way to “Fences,” a silky-smooth number that is also as good as anything else Phoenix has done.
Maybe silky-smooth would be the best way to describe the rest of the album, too. Any of the last five songs could easily become a favorite of the month at any given time. “Girlfriend” and “Armistice?” My June and July, respectively. Even the mostly-instrumental “Love Like a Sunset” is beautiful, slowing the album down a bit in the middle before ramping it all back up.
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a treasure and the sound of a band hitting their stride. It’s everything you usually want an album to be: intriguing, genuine, catchy, and tight (it all clocks in at around 36 minutes). It’s easy to recognize it as the best of ’09.
2. Passion Pit – Manners
After the Chunk of Change EP, it was easy to expect a good debut album from Passion Pit. Instead they put out an amazing debut album. For a first time listener, hearing the falsetto voice of lead vocalist and songwriter Michael Angelakos must be a surprise. One might expect the whine of Adam Young’s band Owl City or even The Postal Service’s Ben Gibbard. But then again, the music is happier sounding than Owl City and easily more upbeat than The Postal Service.
But behind the quick tempo, electronic hooks, and children’s choir featured in a few songs, the album contains some truly soul-searching lyrics. It’s often easy to forget what you’re singing along with. Conversely, on a bad day, Passion Pit’s music can easily return a smile to your face. Then again, the opening of “Little Secrets” always puts a smile on my face, reminding me of playing the fast and stressful later levels of Pac-Man back in the day.
In “The Reeling,” which is receiving some surprising radio play, Angelakos asks “Is this the way I’ll always be?” to a resounding “Oh no!” from the children’s choir. It’s uplifting and a clear example of the power of music. Standout “Sleepyhead” still sounds as good as it did on the band’s original EP. Closing tracks “Let Your Love Grow Tall” and “Seaweed Song” make it easy to hit repeat or toggle back to the start on your iPod and take Manners for another spin. And with each listen it gets better and better.
3. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
The best love song of the year opens Middle Cyclone — from the point of view of a tornado. Not joking. “This Tornado Loves You” is reason enough to listen to Case’s fifth studio album. With almost every song, it feels as if you’re sitting next to Case, listening to amazing imagery on every track, except the last; “Marais La Nuit” is a 30 minute recording of nature sounds at a pond on her farm.