In general, 2009 was the "Year of the Veterans". Almost everything on this list is from musicians who have been around forever, or bands who broke up years ago and recently re-formed. Maybe it's just a sign of my age, but I heard nothing this year that even comes close to these folks who seem to be hitting their stride in their 40s and 50s.
All Is Wild, All Is Silent
This Austin collective's third album solidifies their status as the inheritors of the "Rachel's" sound, and goes well beyond that. These are absolutely gorgeous, haunting compositions, with excellent use of strings, banjo, and other instruments. Some tracks would sound cheesy or sappy in any other context, but when these guys play them, you'll get goosebumps every time.
Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo has been around forever, but they keep making amazing albums. This one may even be their best. What always strikes me about their songs (especially those that sound exactly like 1960s pop hits) is that if anyone else were playing them, I'd probably hate them. But through the medium of Yo La Tengo, such songs sound perfectly natural and pleasing. I also don't mind the 10+ minute guitar freakouts :)
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
The Century Of Self
Here's another veteran group that had been written off in the past few years. It's true that their prior two albums were not as good as the much-loved Source Tags And Codes, but I'm really surprised that very few people have given this new album the praise it deserves. This is by far their best work - songs and arrangements bursting with vitality, and recorded in such a way that perfectly captures the energy and feeling of a live performance. This is the brilliant comeback album that no one noticed.
Another great comeback album. Some people have said it's their best, some argue against that - but it definitely feels like they picked up right where they left off 12 years ago. And this time they're actually using quality instruments, amps, and recording techniques, which benefits the album greatly. Now if only Swervedriver and Jawbox (and Chavez???) would start recording again...
This is the second "new" album since Dinosaur Jr re-formed three years ago. People were shocked at how good Beyond was, and Farm is even better. J Mascis's guitar wizardry is just as awesome now as it was in the late 80's/early 90's, and his new songs are some of the best he's ever written. But it's bassist Lou Barlow's two songs that stand out and earn this album its spot in the top 10 - may he never again leave the band!
Technically this album doesn't come out until late January 2010 in the US, but it's out now in Europe so I'm including it here. If I had written this list a week ago, I would have missed this incredible record. Beck does the music for this one (see! another veteran), and it is his best work in, well, perhaps ever. The songs are spare, catchy without being shallow, and each one has just enough trademark Beck-weirdness to make it unlike anything you've ever heard. Charlotte and he have incredible musical chemistry, and make perfect bizarre pop songs that sound like they could be from any era. The string arrangements are right out of Beck's incredible Sea Change album, and it's great to hear them again in this context. The lyrical content matches the music in being singable-but-slightly-jarring - there is a lot of death/mortality stuff, with the title track mimicking the sounds of an MRI machine (IRM, get it?). Apparently Charlotte has been dealing with a bunch of medical issues lately, and the album is definitely colored by it.
I really cannot say enough about how good this album is - it is totally infectious, and I really hope it does well. Ask me again a week from now, and I might tell you it has moved up a couple of notches.
Them Crooked Vultures
Them Crooked Vultures
Even more veterans! This time in a supergroup! John Paul Jones (of Led Zepplin, wtf!), Josh Homme, and Dave Grohl writing and playing together sounds amazing. The result is one of the best rock albums of the decade.
Swervedriver frontman Adam Franklin - yet another veteran - makes his best solo album yet. Spent Bullets sounds like exactly the album he has been trying to make ever since Swervedriver's Ejector Seat Reservation. It is the perfect marriage of his 60's pop influences with his own drone-y aesthetic. Each song is immediate enough to make you sing along, but deep enough for you to get lost in the sounds and textures. The pacing and brevity of the album is absolutely flawless- there are no throw-away tracks or missteps. It is completely tight, and sounds like the most ideal representation of Adam possible. It will be interesting to see how he follows this one up.
Mission of Burma
The Sound, The Speed, The Light
Here's another band, like Dinosaur Jr, who re-formed a few years ago and proved to be even more formidable in their second coming than ever before. The previous two albums they have recorded since reforming have been great, but this new one is better - even perhaps giving Vs a run for its money. It benefits from being a little bit leaner and more direct - focusing their musical punch with greater effectiveness. Mission of Burma's energy and ferocity is unmatched.
This is the best Sonic Youth album since Washing Machine. Simply fantastic. John Agnello was a great choice for producer - the quality of the raw sound of this album matches the songs perfectly. It's definitely the best-sounding recording they've ever made. Definitely pick this one up if you can.
Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Moderat - Moderat
Other stuff I can't think of right now