In an age where hit singles can be downloaded in one click and listened to ad nauseam, I think there continues to be an underappreciated value in the album as a complete work of art. Like savoring a novel, I find that an album is best enjoyed in my favorite listening booth — my car.
I listen on repeat until I can hear the next song before it starts, and start to absorb all the intricacies of the album as a whole. Sometimes there’s no connection at first, but after a few listens, it can become one of my favorites. These are a dozen of the albums released in 2009 I couldn’t seem to get out of my CD player.
1. Metric, “Fantasies”
After touring relentlessly in support of 2005’s “Live it Out,” Metric’s Emily Haines took a reflective journey to Argentina to write much of the Toronto band’s fourth release. What resulted is a revived sound for the band, with catchy pop hooks, synths, distorted guitars and driving rhythms. From the lead-off single “Help, I’m Alive” to the exuberant closer “Stadium Love,” this disc is a celebration from start to finish.
2. The Very Best, “Warm Heart of Africa”
A collaboration between Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and European DJs Radioclit, this long-awaited official debut album comes after a mixtape released digitally last year started the buzz about their updated Afro-pop sound. Sung in Mwamwaya’s native Chichewa, he begins with “Yalira,” a call to dance around the world. The album takes Paul Simon’s “Graceland” and the indie-chic of Vampire Weekend to new heights with an electro-pop base that requires no translation to enjoy.
Also featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on the title track, and M.I.A. on “Rain Dance,” The Very Best prove they can live up to their name.
3. Muse, “The Resistance”
For this British megaband, bigger is always better. Leading off with the anthemic “Uprising,” full of fist pumps and wailing guitars, “The Resistance” was a bit of a departure from their previous efforts, with a heavier dose of synths, strings and closing with a three-part rock “symphony,” “Exogenesis.” As a devoted fan, I was eagerly awaiting this release, and it let me down on the first few listens. It was not until I left it in the CD player that I was able to really get past some of the ’80s rock cliches (“Undisclosed Desires”) and ballads (“Guiding Light”) to savor the magnitude of “The Resistance.”
4. The Decemberists, “The Hazards of Love”
Somehow, the idea of a rock opera from Portland’s The Decemberists wasn’t all that big of a stretch. Coming off the success of 2006’s “The Crane Wife,” Colin Meloy and the band tackled a fantastical love story of a maiden and a faun, and an evil witch who threatens to ruin them both. The sound is heavier than previous Decemberists albums, with crunching prog-rock guitar that drives the recurring musical themes.
With vocals by Meloy, Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond, Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond and Jim James of My Morning Jacket, the album weaves together the characters of the convoluted story, highlighted by “The Rake’s Song” and the heart-wrenching closer “The Hazards of Love 4: The Drowned.”
5. Phoenix, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix”
From the very first driving drumbeats, “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” invites you to dance around the living room with childish abandon.
These French pop-rockers have hit the American consciousness with their fourth album thanks to well-placed songs in a Cadillac ad, “Where the Wild Things Are” trailer, and the rounds on late-night tv. Beyond the singles “Lisztomania” and “1901,” the whole album is crisp from start to finish — the culmination of nearly a decade of making music.
6. VNV Nation, “Of Faith, Power and Glory”
The seventh album by this UK/German electro-industrial band takes you on a cinematic journey through a post-apocalyptic world that explores the nature of humanity. With driving synth beats, “Of Faith Power and Glory” begins on a very rigid beat with “Sentinel,” climaxes with “Defiant,” and finally concludes with a positive outlook for the future with “Where There is Light.” Not all the songs live up to what the band is capable of, but it is another step forward in sound for this band, and an album I had trouble getting out of my CD player.
7. Passion Pit, “Manners”
Michael Angelakos’s falsetto could be a deal breaker for some, but I find that it adds to the childish charm and abandon of “Manners.“
Filled with thumping beats and fun electronic hooks, the whole album is just a plain good time. Each song is a carefully crafted creation of layers of sound and rhythm, which invites repeat listens long after the catchy melodies have been committed to memory.
8. Animal Collective, “Merriweather Post Pavilion”
The eighth studio album from this ever-shifting group of musicians is a groundbreaking experiment in the song form. With layers of vocals, electronics, rattles, shakes and harmonies, “Merriweather Post Pavilion” carries you away to a dream-pop universe. With dashes of world music on “Summertime Clothes” and “Brother Sport,” and watery melodies on “Bluish,” this album shows the good things that can happen when you dare to make music on the edge of convention.
9. The Low Anthem, “Oh My God, Charlie Darwin”
With simple acoustic guitar and harmonies that blend together like cake batter, these New England folkies have created a simply lovely collection of songs that keeps revealing new layers on each listen. It is an album best enjoyed with a winter’s day and a cup of hot cocoa.
10. The xx, “xx”
This London band’s debut is dreamy electro-pop sweetness, with syncopated beats and simple melody lines. Guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim trade vocals in whispery conversation that floats above the musical layers.
11. Steve Earle, “Townes”
A touching tribute to Earle’s late mentor, Townes Van Zandt, “Townes” brought attention to songs by the little-known-but- influential Texas troubadour. Earle puts his own gravelly rendition on his favorite Van Zandt tunes, including “Pancho and Lefty,” “Brand New Companion,” and “Rake.” The album also features his son, Justin Townes Earle, who he named after Van Zandt, and guitarist Tom Morello. Best when Earle keeps the arrangements simple, the album is filled with the spirit of Van Zandt, which is likely what Earle was hoping for.
12. Bill Callahan, “Sometimes I Wish I Were an Eagle”
On his second album under his own name, the artist formerly known as Smog takes his storytelling style to new heights. Swelling strings soar over his unpretentious baritone style as he muses on life and love. The heavy drums in the mix of the album distract from the delicacy of the songs, but it is a hauntingly beautiful album that showcases Callahan’s songcraft at its best.
Contact Casey Riffe at email@example.com or 657-1391.