1) Forest Fire - Survival: Survival is a sonic masterpiece—a magnum opus of ear-crushing folk music. Originally released in 2008 by Catbird Records and later rereleased in 2009 by Infinite Best, it's an album recorded in a delightfully raw fashion with space and texture hovering around every instrument and voice. Led by Mark Thresher, the piece-by-piece 8-month-long recording process finds its success in beautifully fuzzy acoustic gems like "Slow Motion," "I Make Windows" and "Fortune Teller" (mp3).
2) Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest: Often times the search for contemporary music ends in unsatisfying and polarizing memes: pretentious, hip, noisy. With Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear have made in many ways what is a perfect compromise: an art-centered, genre-bending and practically unclassifiable record that still manages sharp pop hooks ("Two Weeks") and remains relatable, as with the near tear-inducing
3) Girls - Album: Christopher Owens' voice can be like a jolt of hot or cold coffee (depending on the song) to an unexpected listener, but with his Girls he's created a wholly unique musical persona that's brimful of witty and insightful lyricism, irresistible hooks, and California sunshine. With the strong influence of smart pop artists like Elvis Costello permeating throughout, songs like "Lust For Life" (mp3) and "Hellhole Ratrace" come out like pre-fitted classics ready for heavy rotation.
4) Elvis Perkins In Dearland - Elvis Perkins In Dearland: If there was one true poet in this bunch, it would be Elvis Perkins—just see the metaphor and color-filled "Shampoo" (mp3). The songsmith, twisted by grief from the loss of his parents, corralled every last emotion and ounce of talent into this whirlwind of gospel-inspired and folk-driven music that soothes and inspires like a potion for the soul. To say the record is simply cathartic would be a grave understatement: it's a testament to life.
5) Dan Auerbach - Keep It Hid: It's hard to separate singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach from the success of his garage-rock and blues duo the Black Keys, but with his solo debut, Auerbach does just that. Breaking from the confines of the duo format, the gristly and honey-voiced singer uses his free reign to create some of his softest and most soulful ("Trouble Weighs A Ton" and "When The Night Comes"), bone-crushingly loud ("I Want Some More"), and free formed songs, such as "Whispered Words (Pretty Lies)" (mp3).
6) Deer Tick - Born On Flag Day: In no way a game changer, Born On Flag Day is instead a perfect example of an artist reflecting his influences and sense of history while simultaneously breathing life into a tired genre. It's a 30 minute romp of steaming rhythm and sturdy craftsmanship, where instrumentally, John McCauley finally gets a full band to put an exclamation point at the end of his every scraggily whiskey-soaked sentence. For Chuck Berry, see "Straight Into The Storm." For Pete Seeger and the Boss, try "Song About A Man" (mp3).
7) Flaming Lips - Embryonic: In the digital age, it's often easy to separate the parts from its sum, but with the Flaming Lips 12th LP, that's a near impossible feat (unless you want a really unsettling and possibly disturbing playlist). Embryonic's cohesive nature is arguably its greatest benefit: the 18-track psychedelic odyssey is a collection of movements rather than songs—chapters in a work inseparable from its parts.
8) Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca: Probably the most creative and original work of 2009, Bitte Orca is a record that requires the listener's full attention at just about every moment. From the subtly orchestrated acoustic number
"Two Doves" (mp3) to the genre-crushing, R&B-laced, guitar shredding single "Stillness Is The Move," it's a complex album that takes time to grow and then sticks like your favorite book—one that's worth rereading a dozen times.
9) Antlers - Hospice: While Hospice—an end-of-life concept record—may not be the first choice for a merry get-together, the subject tackled is in many ways a perfect introduction to songwriter Peter Silberman: an other-worldy angel-voiced singer whose confidence and color-outside-the-lines home recording style lend itself to far-out ethereal textures that all the while remain whole-heartedly sincere and intimate. The mandolin-strummed "Two" (mp3) is simply put, a heartbreaker.
10) Vetiver - Tight Knit: I've listened to Tight Knit more times than any other record this year. It's simple and largely acoustic music, but frontman Andy Cabic has a soft and effortless way with words that proves to be an irresistible and timeless combination when paired with a hopping bass line and hip-shaking rhythm ("More of This") or drifting 60s and 70s era west coast pop. Just try not to like "Everyday" (mp3). Seriously. Try.