The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 25 - 16

The Top 25 Releases of 2009: 25 - 16

It's that time of year again: when every music rag, website and blog releases "the list." It's no mean task sifting through the countless notable CDs and sound-files that come our way every year and definitively naming "the best." Nonetheless, if music tells us something about the time and place we live in (and it does), then the top 25 releases of 2009 tell us how quickly the tectonic plates are shifting under our feet. Choosing this list wasn't just a mere exercise in taste--which, as the saying tells us, there is no accounting for. 

Rather, these were releases (albums, EPs, mixtapes and the like) that, true to the time, have been able to make the gloom exciting. Be that by taking past sounds and making them new again, or creating something completely unique, today's artists have a lot to work with. It's an odd juxtaposition: innovation in a time of dwindling opportunity and few resources. Anyone can sit down at their computer and make something resembling music (whether it will be relevant is another matter), but in the face of a confusing and sometimes hopeless world, who can give us sounds that pull us out of our alienation? In short, the artist that gives meaning to the pieces of detritus left behind by a decaying world is the one who will be the most memorable.

That's what stands out about this first ten, number 25 through 16 in this best of 2009 list. There are a fair share of familiar faces in this first batch (Jack White, the Flaming Lips, et al), as well as some new artists. What ties them all together, however, is that collision of old and new, brash and beautiful--that sense that we are somehow hanging in the balance between things ended and things begun. 

25. The Dead Weather - Horehound

The music video for "Treat Me Like Your Mother" pretty much sums up the Dead Weather as an act. Jack White and Alison Mosshart, two heavyweights of modern, down-and-dirty rock 'n' roll, facing off with automatic machine guns, absolutely blowing each other away. Quite unnaturally, both walk away, but naturally, we love it! Horehound is full of this kind of full-on assault that each member's full-time group (the White Stripes and the Kills respectively) have sought to bring back to rock 'n' roll. It's dynamic, extreme, hard-edged, gut-twisting, unrelenting, almost beautifully nihilistic and flat-out fun music that your parents don't get. White already has one side-project with the Raconteurs; this could make the Dead Weather a belabored and uninspired exercise in artistic masturbation--as if we were expecting "White Stripes Mk. 3." Instead, White, Mosshart, Dean Fertita and Jack Lawrence have shown yet again that when it comes to good rock 'n' roll, there's always enough room. For that reason alone, Horehound make the list.

24. Slaughterhouse - Slaughterhouse

"Supergroup" is a word that provokes endless eye-rolls--especially in hip-hop. But when said group is made up of four of today's most prolific and talented masters of the mixtape--Royce Da 5'9", Joe Budden, Joell Ortiz and Crooked I--an exception can be made. These four emcees have found their path into major labels frustrated repeatedly over the past few years despite undeniable skills on the mic. So what do they do? Combine forces. The resultant album is a grimy, intricate and, for once in the supergroup phenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts. All four of these emcees have considerable skills on the mic; it would be wrong to profile just one and space hear won't allow quotes from all of them. So, let's just say that between dank, dark beats that pull on everything from glistening keys to rousing string sections, Slaughterhouse's rhymes take aim at everything from parties to drive-bys to the rap game itself with simultaneous depth and skill. Some reviews have hailed Slaughterhouse's debut as "the return of gangsta rap." Of course, gangsta rap never really left. With any luck, however, this album will mark a return to its past dominant glory. 

23. Peter Doherty - Grace/Wastelands

Years of Doherty's countless run-ins with the law and his well-publicized drug habit had many wondering what this solo effort from the Libertine/Babyshambles man would sound like. The answer was his most worldly and mature to date. Much like the Kinks' Ray Davies, Doherty has always given us a picture of modern English life that is at once sad and angry--as can be observed in "Last of the English Roses": a steady thumping ode to long-lost innocence. What makes Grace/Wastelands notable is that the isolation and loneliness no longer sound as if they're coming from that old and withered barfly who won't stop bugging you in the pub. Rather, they're coming from the charismatic hangdog troubadour that we've always known Doherty to be--but because of myriad demons weighing him down we've only caught glimpses of. Mournfully subtle strings, straightforward and understated acoustic guitars, and of course, Doherty's sly, off-kilter delivery. He's not trying to make these songs anything more than what they are, and what they are parts of a deft, simple portrait of persistent hope in the midst of fading dreams. With Doherty at a new, surprising level of razor sharpness, it's a portrait we can all see on our own street with shocking clarity.

22. Meshell Ndegeocello - Devil's Halo

One has to really hand it to Meshell Ndegeocello. After nearly twenty years, she is still going very, very strong. Ndegeocello's trademark mix of hip-hop, soul, R&B and rock have remained potent after ten albums. Nonetheless, some critics cited her 2007 release The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams as a "comeback." This, despite that Meshell had released at least one album every three years since breaking out in '93. Maybe it was just good timing; ...Man of My Dreams dropped right around the time much of the music establishment was starting to take "neo-soul" seriously again. Be that as it may, Devil's Halo is a brilliant follow-up. True to the album's title, Ndegeocello displays her ability with stirring compositions that lyrically dive into the complex and sometimes contradictory "gray area" of love, loneliness and despair. Even seemingly mundane monikers like "Crying in Your Beer" provide titles to vivid portrayals. Bleak though they might be, they are crafted with such intimacy that it's hard to not identify with her subjects. Nobody can seriously doubt Ndegeocello's ability, and this album is more proof why.

21. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

This isn't the Lips' best--but then we're talking about degrees of genius here. It's also probably their least radio-friendly (though that's not the reason for Embryonic being below some of their previous efforts--let's not forget that the Flaming Lips haven't had a certified hit in sixteen years even as their loyal and committed fan-base has continued to grow year after year). Embryonic sees the group's continuing musico-cosmic quest evolving into their most abstract yet. The abstract, computer-analog sounds that have always punctuated their songs have been brought front-and-center here. Opener "Convinced of the Hex" sound like the members have absconded with their kids' Casio keyboards for the nearest abandoned machine factory. And as with most of their albums, the subsequent songs take the listener of something of a journey through the most existential, surreal corners of human existence. To be sure, you aren't likely to find any future official rock songs for the state of Oklahoma here, but the Flaming Lips' insistence on simply saying yes to themselves and fascination with what it is that makes humankind tick still sets them apart to this day. 

20. Busdriver - Jhelli Beam

Just in case you didn't know, Regan Farquhar (a.k.a. Busdriver) is certifiably insane! Need proof? Watch the video for "Me-Time." Anyone willing to put a Chuck E. Cheese version of himself in a video only to be ripped apart by a screaming child's upright father is guaranteed to have a few screws loose. It's moments like these that make Busdriver a well-needed addition to hip-hop. Plenty of great emcees have his acerbic wit and biting commentary, but few have his sense of humor, or his skills with rapid-fire flow. There's little doubt that he often comes off as an outsider with more than a bit of disdain for the mainstream (maybe it's not disdain so much as he thinks its weird and absurd). But then, his dad did direct Krush Groove, so maybe he knows a bit more than some nay-sayers might be ready to admit. At a time when no one sound is dominating hip-hop, and followers are wondering what next, his skewering of Hollywood, club-culture, the record industry--not to mention the screwy humor of Jhelli Beam--are more than welcome. 

19. The Noisettes - Wild Young Hearts

Do yourself a favor: next time the Noisettes are playing in your town, go see them. It will be the most infectious blend of dance-infused rock you have heard in quite some time. This UK three-piece has been beating around the underground circuit for a few years now. Wild Young Hearts brings all of their best qualities into relief. At the center of it all is Shingai Shoniwa's voice--a cross between Tina Turner and Patti Smith at each of their most swaggeringly cocky. Shoniwa heads up her incredibly adept group (drummer Jamie Morrison and guitarist Dan Smith) like a high rock 'n' roll priestess summoning her congregation into insurgent testimonial. Lead single "Don't Upset the Rhythm" captures the group's essence: they are playfully daring you. It's almost as if they're saying "go ahead, upset the rhythm, see what happens." And though we know the consequences will be dire, the grooves and beats are so catchy that we don't want to anyway. This whole album is proof positive that some walls don't have to be kicked in order to crumble--sometimes the right moves are sufficient.

18. Anti-Pop Consortium - Fluorescent Black

Much like Busdriver, Anti-Pop Consortium reveal just how much room for artistic expansion there is in hip-hop--still derided (albeit less today) as being too one-note. Only they've been at it a good while longer. Plus, their hiatus has definitely left their fan-base wanting, so Fluorescent Black is that much sweeter after the seven-year absence. All of the production curve-balls and seeming non-sequiturs are there--anything really does go for these guys! Sure, it sounds cool, but there's a deeper level here too. Their application of the screw-chop job to just about any sound they can get their hands on gives the impression they're playing hot-potato with a live hand-grenade; you're not sure what's going to happen, but you can't turn away either. On a lyrical level, APC seem more convinced than ever of their own ability and the abilities of folks like them. The title track--a five minute electro-jolted trip into --has them exalting their listeners: "understand the transition right now / we're at a pivotal axis in history right now." Maybe it's this gap between hope and horror that's given them the arm-shot needed to get back together and see what's possible.

17. Passion Pit - Manners

Over the past few years, "indie" has gone from a simple description of a music genre to an ever-expanding subculture where the only musical limit is what you can't make sound authentic. So what exactly does it mean when this movement gets its hands on synth-pop? To listen to Passion Pit, it means that anyone can do it and make it sound good. "Sleepyhead"--from their late 2008 Chunk of Change EP--has easily become one of the year's most recognizable songs. And before anyone could doubt whether they were the real deal, they followed up with Manners. The spit-shined, chirpy electronics that made "Sleepyhead" so damned unforgettable have found greater scope here. Swirling highs have been complimented with swooping lows. While artists like Lady Gaga have no doubt brought a great dose of artistic seriousness back to pop, Passion Pit and others like them have shown that the seeming-glamor of the art-form is prime material for us lowly bottom-dwellers too. Hell, we may even be able to do it better.

16. Blue Scholars - OOF!

Blue Scholars' determined sound and assured radicalism have never really given the impression that they could fit neatly into any one category. And true to form, the group's emcee Geologic sharpens his chilled lyrical chops on just about anything he can think of: the state of hip-hop today ("Coo?"), finding solidarity with everyday strangers ("New People"), even tying Hawai'ian self-determination with the struggle of folks on the mainland ("HI-808"). The island-state hangs heavy as an influence on OOF! thanks largely to the duo's connections to it, and DJ Sabzi's reliance on Hammond organ, surfy guitar and traditional percussion blend the whole thing into a well-honed musical package. In delivering interesting stories in a dope way, they accomplish what a lot of political rap artists can't: an airtight message that goes beyond the realm of rhetoric. With a fast-growing following, a redux of their 2007 album Bayani out alongside the EP, Blue Scholars own persistence and fierce independence indeed bodes well for hip-hop's future. 

Next week: numbers 15 - 6 in the best of 2009.

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

He can be reached at