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My 2009 Mix, Feat. Aarktica, Animal Collective, Bat For Lashes, The Mary Onettes, meWithoutYou, Sufjan Stevens & more

These are my favorite songs of 2009, the songs that stuck with me and continued to challenge, inspire, and entertain me throughout the months.
Richard Hawley

First, the usual disclaimers… I do not claim that this list represents the best music that came out in 2009. That would imply some sort of objective standard. Rather, these are just my favorite songs of the year, the songs that stuck with me and continued to challenge, inspire, and entertain me throughout the months.

Songs are listed in alphabetical order by artist.

1. Aarktica — “Hollow Earth Theory”

While I’ve liked some of Jon DeRosa’s recent material, I’ve always preferred the dronier, noisier sounds of his earliest releases (e.g., No Solace In Sleep). Which is one of the major reasons why I enjoy the more atmospherically minded In Sea so much. The other major reason is that DeRosa, himself, has never sounded better.

DeRosa’s vocals have always been Aarktica’s weakest element, but on In Sea he uses them to great effect. On “Hollow Earth Theory”, his voice has a longing, pensive tone, which meshes well with the exploration-themed lyrics. Adding to the emotional effect is the song’s structure, which begins with stark guitar notes and a surging bassline. As the song progresses, though, it slowly loses its way and moves further afield into an unexplored country of loops and noise.

2. Animal Collective — “My Girls”

I never really understood all of the praise that was heaped upon Merriweather Post Pavilion. I enjoyed the album well enough in small amounts, but it never stood up to repeat or extended listens. But this isn’t a year-end list of my favorite albums; it’s a year-end list of my favorite songs, and “My Girls” definitely counts as such.

I do wonder if this song would’ve affected me so much were I not a husband and father. Be that as it may, the longing contained within “My Girls” for a simpler life, one in which all that really matters is a solid soul, the blood you bleed, and a proper house for your loved ones, hits me hard. And when delivered in an almost mantra-like manner amidst dizzying loops and infectious programming, the song takes on a joyous and even quasi-religious tone.

3. Bat For Lashes — “Daniel”

Ah, Bat For Lashes’ Two Suns: here again we have a release that I liked, but didn’t love as much as so many others did. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that much of Two Suns sounded so eerily similar to releases I’ve heard before, particularly Heather Duby’s underrated Post To Wire.

That being said, I was immediately hooked the very first time I heard “Daniel”. The murky percussion and 80s-inflected synth-work are bewitching enough by themselves, but when Natasha Khan begins singing her ode to Daniel LaRusso(?!) with those smoky, seductive vocals of hers… well, it leaves one a little weak in the knees.

For the record, though, I prefer the version of “Daniel” that Khan has performed live several times, mainly because it features a ghostly, Seventeen Seconds-esque guitar riff that is absent from the more synth-oriented album version.

4. The Clientele — “Bonfires on the Heath”

The Clientele’s music has always had an eerie, otherworldly feel to it thanks to Alasdair MacLean’s dreamy vocals, his lyrics’ nostalgic ruminations, and the band’s hazy arrangements. But that’s even moreso on Bonfires on the Heath. With their latest album, MacLean and his bandmates tap into something primal in a way that they’ve never done before.

On the title track, MacLean sings — in his inimitable woozy-doozy manner, of course — of preternatural sights and settings before concluding that “Nothing here quite moves the way it should”. Which is a conclusion helped by the spectral steel guitar and piano flourishes that drift through the song like the lyrics’ “late October sunlight” as well as the subtle melodic shifts that the Clientele do oh so well.

All in all, “Bonfires On the Heath” is yet more proof that noone has mastered the art of wedding pop songwriting with ambience half as well as The Clientele.

5. Crepusculum — “For Hannah”

Sure, the name Crepusculum might conjure up images of wannabe Vikings in corpse paint ripping through blast beats and Satanic lyrics — but Fred Baty’s folksy/post-rock guitar-based instrumentals (think John Fahey meets Talk Talk) couldn’t be further from the blasphemous sounds of the Far North.

His earlier music was pretty enough, but with Sing On In Silhouettes — which is available as a free download — his music displays a whole new level of confidence and maturity.

“For Hannah” is a fine example of this, an ambitious track that unfolds through several distinct movements with their own individual emotional states. Nevertheless, they all flow together thanks to Baty’s deft, delicate guitar-playing. I can’t get the song’s guitar “solo” out of my head — it’s kind of metal, in a Robin Guthrie-esque sort of way, and its crescendos serve only to increase the song’s emotional heft as it moves into a triumphant denouement.

6. The Declining Winter — “Haunt The Upper Hallways”

When perennial Opus favorite Hood went on hiatus, the Adams brothers forged on with new projects that reflected Hood’s different sides. Chris Adams’ Bracken explored the more electronic aspect of Hood while Richard Adams’ The Declining Winter explored pretty much everything else, particularly the pastoral moments that characterized albums like The Cycle Of Days And Seasons.

“Haunt The Upper Hallways” — the title track from the band’s 2009 album — is a fine encapsulation of that aesthetic. Spanning six minutes, it’s a constantly evolving and evocative combination of guitar noise, shuffling percussion, acoustic guitars, strings, keyboards, and Adams’ breathy, mostly indecipherable vocals.

Hood may never record again — according to their website, they’re on “extended hiatus”. But if The Declining Winter continues to record and release material like “Haunt The Upper Hallways”, they might not need to. (I kid… get back together, guys!)

7. Ecovillage — “Here and Now”

Ecovillage (aka, Emil Holmström and Peter Wikström) are devotees of the same ambient/shoegazer/dream-pop aesthetic that folks like Jonas Munk, Ulrich Schnauss, and Anthony Gonzalez have worshiped and adored throughout the years. But with “Here and Now” — which comes from their debut album, Phoenix Asteroid — the duo easily outdoes their peers/influences.

Disembodied vocals shift and drift such that lyrics are barely intelligible (there’s a lot of talk about “falling down”, for what it’s worth); the song’s copious amount of synths twinkle about like stars on the galactic rim; and the chrome-like guitar tones on the song’s bridge — if a song this amorphous could be said to have a bridge, that is — sound like all of the best bits of M83’s recent output rolled into one single moment.

8. Richard Hawley — “Open Up Your Door”

Apparently, Richard Hawley never received the memo that it’s not cool to write unabashed love songs that don’t contain any traces of irony, sarcasm, or snark. And I, for one, am glad.

On Truelove’s Gutter, he has the guts to sing about the ups and downs of life and love via lyrics such as “Never say goodbye/You’re the apple of my eye” with nary a smirk. The result is gorgeous and deeply heartfelt, and sometimes just heartbreaking (such as when he sings about the ravages of drug addiction).

“Open Up Your Door” is one of the album’s most immediate tracks. Whereas much of Truelove’s Gutter is rather subtle, using deep and rich arrangements, “Open Up Your Door” is one of the few tracks where Hawley and his numerous collaborators rock out. And by “rock out”, I mean launch into a cinematic swell of strings and piano that would probably come off as saccharine if it weren’t anchored by Hawley’s Scott Walker-meets-Johnny Cash voice and sincere lyrics.

9. Junior Boys — “Sneak A Picture”

On the surface, “Sneak A Picture” seems rather straightforward: a seven-minute blend of synth-pop, solid grooves, and Jeremy Greenspan soulfully crooning obtuse lyrics (“Sneak a picture above my shoulder/Don’t make a sudden move/You’ll spoil the light, Oh no”). In other words, nothing we haven’t heard from Junior Boys before. But upon a closer listen — preferably via headphones — it becomes apparent just how much the track shifts and morphs during its seven minutes.

The same basic elements — plinky-plonky synths, programming, slinky guitar fragments, Greenspan’s voice — never really change, but they’re constantly and expertly rearranged in many subtle ways, adding and revealing new shades and layers that also affect your perception of the lyrics (which at times come off as innocent, creepy, nostalgic, depraved, mournful, and/or voyeuristic).

And the piece de resistance? The breathy sax solo at the four minute mark that adds a retro element to the song that is both hopelessly cheesy and absolutely essential to the song’s mood.

10. The Mary Onettes — “Puzzles”

When I first heard Islands, it didn’t grab me as much as the Mary Onettes’ debut album. Not that I didn’t like it, but it felt more polished and in this case, that meant not as immediate or intense. But it’s sure grown on me in the months since then and now that we’re at year’s end, I find it has several contenders for this list. (The thought of not putting a Mary Onettes song on my year-end mix never occurred to me.)

So I’m just going to go with “Puzzles”, the album’s opening track and the one that usually comes to mind first when I think of Islands. The 80’s influence is still as prevalent as ever, but while the Mary Onettes certainly evoke the likes of New Order, The Cure, and A-ha, they never sound like rip-offs. In their hands, those familiar guitar tones and synth sounds become new all over again. And the orchestral flourishes that abound on the song certainly don’t hurt, from the plucked violins that bolster the song’s opening shoegazer bliss to the strings that dance a lovely duet with Philip Ekström’s voice.

11. Mew — “Introducing Palace Players”

More confession time: I just didn’t get that into Mew’s No More Stories Are Told Today I’m Sorry They Washed Away No More Stories the World Is Grey I’m Tired Let’s Wash Away. And to this day, I’m not really sure why. The album has some great tracks, but it simply never gelled for me quite like 2006’s And The Glass Handed Kites did.

“Introducing Palace Players” was the first track I heard from the album, and it remains my favorite: it’s full of the proggy-yet-poppy goodness we’ve come to expect from Jonas Bjerre and the boys. Kicking off with skronky guitar, off-kilter drumming, and some spacey synth doodles, “Introducing Palace Players” sounds like it might come apart at the seams at any moment. As such, when everything does come together, it does so with such energy that, even if didn’t have those angelic choral vocals, the song sounds like it wants to take to the stars. And it still maintains that off-kilter sound the whole time without ever losing its celestial view or its catchiness.

Oh, and this being a Mew song, Bjerre’s falsetto voice and obtuse-yet-enchanting lyrics are in full effect. I don’t really know what he’s singing about — floating alien stones and snails, perhaps? — but it gets me all the time.

12. mewithoutYou — “A Stick, A Carrot & String”

It’s safe to say that with It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright, mewithoutYou risked alienating many of their fans for two reasons. First, the album’s lyrics are less exclusively Christian in content and explore the teachings of Sufi mystic Bawa Muhaiyaddeen — something bound to throw part of the band’s core fanbase for a loop. And second, the band moved away from the emo/screamo sound of their earlier records and towards a flowery, folksier sound that is more reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel than, say, Jawbox.

That second reason was the harder of the two for me. Lyrically, mewithoutYou has always been a mixed bag, moving from raw spiritual confessions to pretentious poetry with the same wild abandon that frontman Aaron Weiss displays onstage. It’s All Crazy! is no different there. Musically, though, I’ve always loved the band’s reckless, wild energy, from Weiss’ unhinged screams to the soaring guitar solos and experimental flourishes, and I do miss that on the new album.

But on “A Stick, A Carrot & String”, the change in musical direction works. Feeling like a spiritual b-side to “The Friendly Beasts”, the song whimsically yet thoughtfully tells of the stable animals comforting the newly born Jesus and contemplating His crucifixion, mankind’s salvation, and the devil’s defeat. The song is joyous in a way the band wasn’t before — as much as I miss the fervor and frenzy heard on, say, Catch For Us the Foxes, this newer, gentler mewithoutYou can do quite nicely.

13. Mono — “Ashes In The Snow”

I had basically given up on instrumental post-rock awhile ago, once it had become rather obvious that the market had become flooded with Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai clones, bands that had all of the volume but little of the heart. But heart is something Japan’s Mono has in spades.

Make no mistake: Mono doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre. Their music still relies on the tried and true structure of quiet beginnings, glacially slow build-ups, and fiery climaxes — and they do it well. But where their music shines is its ability to tap into deep reserves of emotion within the listener.

Nowhere is that more evident than on “Ashes In The Snow”, the opening track from Hymn to the Immortal Wind. I actually feel bad for the rest of the album, as good as it is: “Ashes In The Snow” leaves me exhausted, enthralled, and completely satisfied every time, barely able to go on.

14. Mount Eerie — “Between Two Mysteries”

Mount Eerie’s Wind’s Poem was the most haunting, terrifying album of the year for me. Exploring themes of isolation, the impermanence of existence, and the smallness of man in the face of nature’s chaos and wildness, it was an album full of sadness, existential dread, and resignation. Even its catchiest, most “upbeat” moment found Phil Elverum singing “Nothing means nothing/Everything is fleeting”.

And yet, at the same time, I found the album incredibly beautiful and even humbling, as it constantly reminds you of the frailty of life. Furthermore, the atmosphere conjured up by Elverum with his lazily mumbled vocals, exotic musical arrangements, and occasional slabs of noise was irresistible in its otherworldliness, and even stirring at times. This is particularly true on “Between Two Mysteries” (which gains some extra credit for its lyrical and musical references to Twin Peaks).

Amidst murky synths and creepy percussion, Elverum sings about, well, murky and creepy things. He mentions “black wooden mythologies” and sings about mortality (“Driving to work in the morning, we live in graves”). But the song potentially contains one of the album’s few points of light, as Elverum confronts mortality and life’s fleetingness and finds that there’s a part of him that wants to keep on keeping on.

Even so, this moment is shrouded in shadows and sadness, and simple interpretations fall apart. But just as Elverum finds that his heart “will not stop thumping”, I find that I can’t stop listening, and every time I do, I’m left shaken, enthralled, and moved

15. Native Lights — “El Rosa (Demo)”

This demo track by Native Lights — which can only be heard on their MySpace page — would probably have been on my year-end mix anyways, seeing as how the group features members of Unwed Sailor and Ester Drang. But fortunately for my cred, the track is an absolutely brilliant blend of shoegazer atmospheres and post-punk edginess.

Bryce Chambers’ vocals are as breathy as they ever were during Ester Drang’s glory days; the rhythm section of Johnathon Ford and Nathan Price is as infectious and gloomy as your favorite Cure song; and when the song’s guitar riffs erupt on the bridge, they sounds as glorious and terrifying as the sky being ripped asunder.

Or, to put it another way: if Native Lights had only recorded this one song — which is a demo, mind you — and subsequently disbanded, I’d still be singing their praises a decade from now.

16. Sally Shapiro — “Dying In Africa”

It’s totally appropriate that Sally Shapiro’s latest album is entitled My Guilty Pleasure. One could say that about her entire catalog, given that it’s wholly indebted to italo disco (and if that particular genre’s not a guilty pleasure, then I don’t know what is). But at the same time, there’s nothing guilty about enjoying a well-crafted slice of dance-pop, and that’s precisely what her cover of Nicolas Makelberge’s “Dying In Africa” is.

Johan Agebjörn’s sterling production and programming, those out-of-this-world synth arpeggios, the faux-orchestral hits, and of course, Shapiro’s breathy and delightfully awkward vocals — they all come together in a manner that’s completely irresistible. At her best, Shapiro makes what ought to be clichéd music about heartache and romance sound completely heavenly and even triumphant, and “Dying In Africa” is truly Shapiro at her best.

17. Sufjan Stevens — “Movement II: Sleeping Invader”

Sufjan Stevens’ The BQE took all that was good and golden about the man’s music — as well as everything about it that is typically characterized as pretentious — and ratcheted everything up to eleven.

A concept album/symphony/multimedia art piece about the construction and impact of New York’s (in)famous Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the, um, hula hoop, The BQE was at times thrilling and grandiose, as Sufjan took his compositional powers — and Steve Reich fascination — to new heights. (It could also be a bit of a slog, as those same compositional powers collapsed in on themselves, resulting in really pretty pieces that went nowhere, but let’s not dwell on that.)

The highlight of the album is “Movement II: Sleeping Invader” which, as strange as it seems, struck me as a particularly fine musical example of God’s sovereignty. Sufjan’s stately, imperial arrangements move with solemn purpose, only to be nearly overthrown and undone by the squawks and skronks of an errant trumpet somewhere in the rafters. But as the song progresses, those seemingly random elements are subsumed by the song’s indefatigable core themes and are made even stranger — and more beautiful — in the process.

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