The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 5 - 1

The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 5 - 1

Here they are: the best five releases of 2009! Perhaps it goes without saying that these records have, in one way or another, all the qualities we've seen throughout the list (viewable here andhere) that make each entry so urgent and relevant--only these top five have it in spades. The will to test boundaries, to experiment, to take the decay and uncertainty that characterized this past year and turn it into something we can look to for a measure of inspiration. 

Keeping that in mind, it's notable that at least three of this year's top five--including number one--weren't even released via the "traditional" music industry. This isn't to fetishize the underground or independent; nor, however, is it a coincidence. 

But there's something else that ties all these releases together and makes them stand out: a feeling of strife. Trite as that may sound, it's also something that has characterized this past year. Spurred by the overwhelming relief of having the Bush regime off our backs, most of us seem to now be regarding the new, disappointing reality with a surprising sense of collective yearning. Not for the past, mind you, but for the unknown future, where there has to be something better--though what it is specifically we have no idea. While "hope" and "change" as buzzwords may be giving way to a very real confusion among ordinary folks, there remains underneath it all a real and palpable belief that this isn't as good as it gets. For those of us who steadfastly believe that art and music have the capacity to give us a glimpse of what's to come, these are five releases that have given us a lot to think about.

5. J.Period and K'NAAN - The Messengers

If those who don't remember the past cannot hope to change the future, then we're damn lucky to have The Messengers released this year. Taking the work of one legendary artist and twisting it into a thoroughly modern context is hard enough--K'NAAN and J.Period have done it with not one, not two, but three legendary artists. These three mix tapes (four if you count the last one, which essentially is all the previous three thrown into one) sought to capture the essence of Fela Kuti, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan and set them to K'NAAN's own unique, chilled rhymes and flow. "In our world today, in the world of sound and music and rhythm... who has a message?" asks K'NAAN. "Who has something to say to us? Who has a way to propel us forward? And I feel like Fela Kuti did. I feel like Bob Marley did. I feel like Bob Dylan did. And I hope I do."

Seeking to examine each of these artistic gianst while still maintaining your own voice is a tall order. Kuti, Marley and Dylan were very different artists, but what they held in common at their height was their refusal to back down creatively and their insistence on speaking truth to power. K'NAAN throws himself into the mix with style, though. He isn't putting his own face on this Mount Rushmore of rebel musicians--J.Period's remix of their music remains pared down, and each song is still recognizable as its original self. Rather, K is simply trying to build on their legacy and pointing out that it there's more work to be done. Given his assured, outsider persona, his assured and plainspoken rhymes blend into all this quite well. Whether he's rapping about growing up in war-ravaged Somalia over "I Shot the Sheriff" or ruminating on personal relationships to a remixed "Lay Lady Lay," K'NAAN has, along with J.Period, paid tribute to these artists in the best possible way: by revealing their relevance to today's time and insisting they not be the last of their kind.

4. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Few will be surprised that Merriweather Post Pavilion is on this list. This has been one of 2009's most critically acclaimed albums--so much so that it's caused a backlash among some reviewers who have grown sick of hearing it praised so much. That doesn't negate how incredibly creative and uniquely engaging it is, however. With the synthesizer becoming the new favorite indie musician instrument-du-jour, with just about everything being sampled and thrown into a song nowadays (with some good results too), few groups can use either to their full advantage to not only test the musical limits, but break them down. Even fewer can be so damned catchy in the process.

Indeed, that's one of the things that has defined Animal Collective from the start: a complete disregard for even their own sense of convention. They've pasted together what initially seem to be elements that simply won't work and, well, make it work! So even though Merriweather may be considered their most "pop" album to date, such labels don't even begin to describe it. "My Girls," which leaked on the web prior to the album's release and has easily become its most recognized song, exemplifies this. A twinkling, dream-woven synth experiment underlaid by buzzed-out electric bass. No two tracks are the same, but this kind of ability to simply say "what if?" is what makes the whole thing such a fascinatingly beautiful listening experience. You can certainly hear the myriad influences that this album has in its repertoire (pop, electro-clash, psychedelia, Afro-Brazilian rhythms, and most likely a few campfire jams), but ultimately this is a collection greater than the sum of its parts. It also proves yet again that truly good music isn't made within any kind of confined space.

3. The Gossip - Music for Men

"Heavy Cross," the lead single off Music For Men, seems to be incredibly well-timed. The song is a wound-up spark-plug that finds lead-singer Beth Ditto declaring that "it's a cruel, cruel world to face on your own." For a historically gay-friendly group to say that in the midst of the current debate on same-sex marriage means that the song, as has happened countless times before, takes on a new context. Ditto, who has always been outspoken about her own lesbianism and left-feminist ideals, has almost without a doubt watched this past year with baited breath as LGBT activists have experienced both victory and setbacks in their rising struggle for equality. Lines like "we can play it safe or play it cool / follow the leader or make up all the rules" really do take on a new meaning in this time.

It would ultimately be insulting, though, to reduce Music For Men down to a single dimension. The Gossip have always been that kind of rebel group whose musical outrageousness comes first and foremost from their own artistic honesty. As most rock-based music within the indie subculture increasingly takes the form of a danceable neo-punk, it might be easy for the righteousness to get swept under the need to really get down to the beat. But acts like the Gossip have no intention of letting that happen--on the contrary, they declare that the two can be one and the same. Through drummer Hannah Blilie's stutter-step beats, Brace Paine's jagged guitar work and Ditto's own soulful voice, this is an album that says--hell, screams--that "I am here, goddammit! And I am not to be ignored!" Hearing these twelve tracks is like hearing a sonic challenge to everything that wants to put its foot on your neck. 

2. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse present: Dark Night of the Soul

The second best album of 2009 wasn't even officially released! The story of Dark Night of the Soul, a collaboration between two undeniably independent-minded artists, is itself a fascinating tale--one that reveals the record industry's utter incapacity for quality music. Due to a legal dispute with label EMI most likely stemming from using sampled sounds without permission, the label has refused to release the album. It's an idiotic tragedy that happens all-too-often. The artists weren't to be deterred, though. Dark Night is available to purchase on their website, though the disc included is a blank CD-R. The same day as the album's release date, the tracks began streaming on several websites. Incidentally, the tracks have been reverse engineered, making them available for download. Touche, guys. Touche indeed.

This kind of propensity for coloring outside the lines shows up in Dark Night's beautifully crafted content. Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse have brought in just about any artist you can think of to help out with this album--from Iggy Pop to Frank Black. Even director David Lynch was brought in to take photographs that provide a "visual narrative" of the music. Sonically, Dark Night is a thing of beauty. "Revenge," featuring the Flaming Lips, is a gently pulsing, slightly electronicized ballad that plays with the stillest corners of melancholia. "Jaykub" sees the duo weaving together tripped-out, reverby guitar and organ with psychedelic choral vocals and rattling percussion. "Insane Lullaby," featuring the Shins' James Mercer, lives up to its name, filtering the loveliest of music through fuzzy, distorted feedback--almost as if a gang of tweaked robots have invaded the recording studio and tried to join in. Below it all, however, there is a simplicity that Sparklehorse (a.k.a. Mark Linkous) has especially loved to play with. Add Danger Mouse's penchant for turning even the most foreign sounds into workable music, and Dark Night of the Soul is definitely a head above most other releases this year. And to think: if the industry had its way, this album would have never seen the light of day. 

1. Blitz the Ambassador - Stereotype

This time last year, few knew who Blitz the Ambassador even was. At the end of 2009, however, he is now swiftly gaining recognition as one of the best artists to hit the hip-hop world in quite some time. According to his lead track "Something to Believe," there are too many kids "scared of their own voice, that's why they auto-tune it." Blitz clearly doesn't have that problem. 

When this Brooklyn-based emcee originally hailing from Accra, Ghana, took his material to major labels, he was given the run-around. It was a frustrating process. "One day I just said 'fuck it,'" he recalls, "I was tired of record labels telling me I had to be like somebody else." End result: Blitz launched his own label, and with a creative viral marketing campaign and relentless touring, released Stereotype himself. To be sure, the majors are probably kicking themselves for slamming the door on him. The album has gained glowing reviews from just about every reviewer who's listened to it. Even before its release, leaked tracks had magazines like XXL and Vibe salivating to hear the finished product. Beat-wise, that finished product is something of a collision between early Kanye and Quality-era Talib Kweli, with a healthy dose of African highlife thrown in (courtesy of the live horn section).

That being said, Stereotype is far from a throwback album mostly because the passion and urgency with which Blitz delivers his rhymes make him impossible to write off. With the rousing horns often taking center-stage beat-wise, one can almost get the picture of Blitz standing with his fist raised at the front of a crowd. He is conscious without being pretentious, intensely intelligent without sacrificing any listenability. Tracks like "Home" see him weaving together the stories of a Katrina survivor, a soldier in Iraq and an immigrant mother attempting to cross the Mexican-American border with vivid imagery and intense flow. And then there's "Ghetto Plantation," where a gentle Spanish guitar sample balances underneath a brutal lyrical assault comparing cops and jail cells to a modern-day slave system.

There is very little to disagree with on Stereotype--ideologically or musically. Blitz is anything but tentative on his debut. That's rare in and of itself. But what's truly unique is how by the time you're done listening to the album you've gone from wondering who the hell this guy is to having something completely new to wrap your head around. Ideas expressed in a way you haven't heard before, stories told so effectively you can imagine yourself there. When the final track is done, your left with what Blitz has introduced you to at the very beginning: something to believe in.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for SleptOn Magazine and the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, Socialist Worker,, CounterPunch and

He can be reached at