Best New Rock & Electronic Albums of 2009

Mulatu_AstatkeWhen critics complain that it wasn't a good year for music, I just think of how hard it was to narrow my best-of-the-year list down to twenty, though admittedly it wasn't quite as much of a struggle this year as it's occasionally been. In compensation, I especially enjoyed 2009 because the post-punk and shoegazer revivals are lasting much longer and bearing greater fruit than I ever would have guessed, with the post-punk crowd now reaching far beyond the simple-minded disco beats of The Rapture to instead mine the angular weirdness of more obscure late '70s/early '80s practitioners. And the Afrobeat revival, though largely a reissue-driven phenomenon, brought some thrilling surprises thanks to Strut's collaborative Inspiration Information series, including my #1 choice that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the year's offerings.1. Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut) Astatke, the self-proclaimed inventor of Ethio-Jazz, finally started getting long-overdue recognition for his distinctive composing and arranging when he dominated the Broken Flowers soundtrack; now in collaboration with London funkateers The Heliocentrics he emerges with a whole album of new recordings mixing new compositions with a few old favorites. The Heliocentrics match their deep grooves to Astatke's heritage with wonderfully elliptical beats under his haunting modal melodies.

2. Nisennenmondai: Destination Tokyo (Smalltown Supersound) This Japanese group has evolved into something more danceable -- with the tracks stretched out to club length, but with real drums -- yet also more daring, like Neu! playing Philip Glass. Drummer Sayaka Himeno is starts out motorik and then bashes through the increasingly dense crescendos as guitarist Masako Takada and bassist Yuri Zaikawa lock into complementary patterns, then pile on additional layers and swooshes with celestial clarity, achieving ecstasy through repetition and slight variation.

3. Mountains: Choral (Thrill Jockey) The fourth album in the collaboration of electronic artists Koen Holtkamp and Brendon Anderegg offers thoughtful and sensual combinations of gently pulsating timbres and textures. Field recordings, simple patterns played on musical instruments, and electronic treatments are layered and looped in varying degrees of density, often building to quietly ecstatic climaxes in structures and techniques influenced more by the example of Medieval/Renaissance polyphonic choral music (hence the album's title) than typical laptop tactics. Precisely by avoiding all shock and glitz, it is thoroughly and eternally engrossing.

4. James Blackshaw: The Glass Bead Game (Young God) On his first album on Young God, piano has grown more prominent in this acoustic guitar icon's densest music yet. Guests add violin, cello, clarinet, flute, and even wordless vocals as Blackshaw's style moves closer to a sort of thickly layered Brian Eno/Charlemagne Palestine hybrid minimalism, without abandoning the core of what makes his music so interesting and attractive.

5. Asobi Seksu: Hush (Polyvinyl) My favorite current dream-pop band's third album was even more beautiful than their breakout, Citrus, and while that comes with a slight loss of edge (more Cocteau Twins here than My Bloody Valentine), over the course of the year I found myself repeatedly ingesting the tasty aural bonbons herein in addictive fashion.

6. Grooms: Rejoicer (Death by Audio) Grooms (formerly Muggabears) revolves around singer/guitarist Travis Johnson's clangorous alternate-tuning guitar (a Sonic Youth comparison is inevitable, but there's more to this trio than that) and vocally varied (yelps, falsetto, fractured Everyman singing) delivery of cryptic, oddly poetic lyrics, but the harmony vocals and throbbing bass of Emily Ambruso and the way drummer Gabriel Wurzel leans into the beat are also crucial to the sound. Of all the many noisy guitar bands spawned in Williamsburg, this is my favorite.

7. Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band: Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera) Has Ono's time finally come? Her vocal style fits right into the jagged, post-punky music son Sean and friends create on a third of the tracks, and her idealistic lyrics get to spread their poetic wings on quieter, less abrasive tracks that draw on hip ambient jazz/electronic styles for most of the record's second half. Acquired taste? Yes, but well worth acquiring.

8. The XX: XX (XL) This London quartet's cool, quiet ditties exude DIY charm. Sometimes, with their quiet male/female vocal tandem, they seem to be reworking the dreamy end of the post-punk spectrum using current electronic beats and equipment to augment their low-key guitar pop. At other times, they fit neatly but imaginatively into the current dance/indie-rock miscegenation with their clicking, stripped-down beats and brightly pulsating guitar patterns. A pure delight.

9. Vic Chesnutt: At the Cut (Constellation) This continues the style shift started on North Star Deserter, Chesnutt's first album on Constellation, recording in Montreal using a similar mix of musicians. My full review is here.

10. Castanets: Texas Rose, the Thaw & the Beasts (Asthmatic Kitty) Castanets is Ray Raposa and as many (or few) collaborators as he chooses to use to flesh out his starkly individualistic and unflinching depictions of troubled souls (whether his or characters -- or both -- is left gloriously unclear). He leaves all the cracks and crevices in his voice unvarnished, which with his bare, gritty acoustic guitar textures points in the opposite directions of the avant-garde and ancient Americana. Other instrumental colors are there to suggest country music or freakouts exploring strange territory (whether sonic or psychic) on one of the most intimately disturbing albums of the year.

11. A Place to Bury Strangers: Exploding Head (Mute) Those who insist on getting their noise served as dirtily as possible will prefer this Brooklyn band's first album, but I say their sophomore release is all the more gloriously noisy for being produced clearly enough that the noise's textures glint more brightly. Working a uniquely American vein of dense, post-punk inspired guitar darkness that's more atmospheric than beat-driven yet still oppressively/impressively heavy, they throw in enough spiky hooks to pull listeners into each track on an individual basis.

12. Jimi Tenor/Tony Allen: Inspiration Information 4 (Strut) Allen was Fela's drummer, and certainly at times this CD is closer to the Afrobeat style of Fela than much of what Allen's done in recent years (which I consider good news). But track to track, there are many other comparisons that come to mind, notably the Sun Ra Arkestra and Dorothy Ashby. Finnish techno-lounge star Jimi Tenor contributes much, from his versatile big band Kabu Kabu to a little vocalizing and some fine flute. Allonymous raps wittily on a few tracks, Daniel Givens adds some deejaying, and Strut's Inspiration Information series of collaborations has another winner. (The below ain't much of a video, but you can hear the music, which is the main point.)

13. Bear in Heaven: Beast Rest Forth Mouth (Hometapes) Another Brooklyn band strongly influenced by post-punk, in this case its more electronic side. Its second album finds the group a quartet. It arrived with much ballyhoo, and at first I stupidly reacted against that and ho-hummed this release, but within a month its pounding beats and percolating synthesizers had captured my ears and still haven't let go. I've since discovered that they are even more powerful in person.

14. Thomas Watkiss: Ancestor Phase II: Machine (Seventh Media) Laptop electronica is the ultimate D.I.Y. music, and Dark Ambient artist Watkiss takes this to the logical extreme and issues his albums himself in beautiful packaging that coordinates musical and visual elements (the photography is gallery-level and highly evocative). The second release in his Ancestor trilogy features low drones of industrial menace, buzzing and thrumming without recourse to melody, harmony, or beats, though finely calculated pulsations provide forward momentum and shape. The limited edition deluxe version includes a bonus disc, Live at Lydgalleriet, a concert in Norway.

15. Blank Dogs: Under and Under (In the Red) The lo-fi/garage scene's occasional overlaps with the post-punk revival are my favorite manifestations of the former, and here's a standout example. Some of the scene's catchier hooks, delivered not only via guitar but also synthesizer, are supported by snapping snare beats and that sinister bass sound that screams "early '80s," with the vocals wedged deeply between these elements rather than floating out front. More musical greatness come to fruition in the fertile fields of Brooklyn.

16. Polvo: In Prism (Merge) Other reunions got more press, but this was one of my favorites, partly because it also produced the sterling new music on offer here. The math-rock pathfinders' skills were undiminished after a dozen-year recording gap, with just enough change that it wasn't just a repetition of past glories. Still, if you liked their powerful yet artfully layered dark riffs, you won't be disappointed or surprised by what chimes out here.

17. Efterklang & Danish National Chamber Orchestra: Performing Parades (Leaf) This is a magnificent transformation of the quintet's 2007 sophomore album Parades. Performing it with orchestral textures and richness makes the stylistic ties to Minimalism -- some of this could pass for Steve Reich -- even more obvious, and makes the songs more sensually powerful (kudos to arranger Karsten Fundal; additional collaborators here include Peter Broderick and Our Broken Garden's Anna Bransted); having the vocals declaimed by a small chorus lends the music a ritualistic tone that heightens its intensity.

18. Bat for Lashes: Two Suns (Astralwerks) This Mercury Prize-nominated album was supposedly inspired by time in Joshua Tree Desert and Brooklyn, but Natasha Khan's band sounds like Hounds of Love-era Kate Bush to me, which is more interesting nowadays than another Gang Gang Dance-influenced band anyway. The harmony vocals in particular are spectacular (and spectacularly derivative of Bush), and the dynamic fluctuation of the music, from beats alone to lush fullness, is wonderfully infectious.

19. Etienne Jaumet: Night Music (Domino) French electronic producer Jaumet stands outside current trends, instead looking back on old styles and giving them his own spin. My full review is here.

20. Jonsi & Alex: Riceboy Sleeps (XL) This side-project of Sigur Rós’ Jón Þór Birgisson and his partner Alex Somers is, as one might expect, beautiful minimalist/ambient music, like the gentlest side of Sigur Rós (something they’ve expressed less lately as they’ve become slightly more pop-song-oriented). Strings and choral voices make the sound luxuriously plush as the pieces (not songs) develop at a leisurely pace, often electronically treated for a warm fuzziness.

- Steve Holtje Steve Holtje Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who splits his time between editing Culturecatch.com, working at the Williamsburg record store Sound Fix, and editing cognitive neuroscience books for Oxford University Press. No prizes for guessing which pays best.

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