I waste no time. Only opportunities. Onwards:
15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t
I'd like to believe that no matter what happens, there will always be music like this. Ignoring any and all cries of "C86" and "Jesus and Mary Chain", let us judge this on its own terms. Here is an album of ten gloriously loud, perfectly formed, endlessly replayable solid indie-pop songs.
Seeing them live can be exhausting - songs are played at apparently double speed with no room to breathe inbetween - a relentlessly deafening and exhilarating solid wall of joy. Were they to add confetti cannons and technicolour hijinx it would be a hyperreal experience to rival that of The Flaming Lips.
But they're not like that. The music's there, as it is - shorn of distractions, of flourishes - wholesome, honest, and very, very special. A perfect thirty-four minutes acting as a reminder - or reassurance, as if it were needed - that pop music need not start and end with Callow and his Cronies.
14. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
One of many releases this year which gives weight to the argument that "the album" - that is, as I understand it - a collection of songs which work together to form a cohesive whole - is neither dead nor dying. For somebody who's never shuddered upon hearing the term "concept album", the idea of a unified theme of yearning for absent love was not only irresistably enticing, but also utterly devastating in its relevancy in these times of long-distance relationship. "Painful" doesn't come close - listen to the chorus of "Siren Song" if you're in need of an insight.
I have some friends who followed Radiohead seemingly right across Europe on their In Rainbows tour, for which Bat For Lashes acted as support. Early reports indicated that she'd "gone electro". I despaired - surely not another Goldfrapp; in that the heartfelt, cinematic, atmospheric debut would give way to electro sleaze? But no. Synths play a much more prominent role than they did in her debut, but rather than driving the songs they serve to add colour, texture, mood. Case in point - the spooky medieval feel of "Sleep Alone" finds itself invaded by what sounds like the theme to a futuristic hospital drama. The juxtaposition between the retro-futurist and the almost swords & sorcery creates an overall feel which is approaching steampunk. Elsewhere, the pounding drum machine rhythm and ghostly strings of "Daniel" evokes the heartfelt scores of countless epic film scores of yore.
The aforementioned "Sirens Song", in terms of its ability to reduce grown men to tears, represents a highlight not just for the album; nor merely for the music of 2009. Rather, this piece represents a high-point for music in general. In many ways, it really does not get any better than this.
13. Doves - Kingdom of Rust
2009 was, in terms of the album, the year of the "strong opening trio of songs". With many of the best releases this year, the first three songs were stellar. In the finest cases, they were but a taster - the best was to come.
Strange, then, how for one of the finest albums of the year, the first three songs sound like mis-steps. "Jetsream" certainly does kick things off to thrilling effect with its flittering synths, plaintive vocals and crunchy riffs. The problem is, the song takes off, soars majestically, but then comes into land again. Which leads to the title track. Again, stunning, with its noirish spaghetti western feel, and once again, strings are allowed to soar like choirs of souls lost on their way to heaven. But, again, so far, so low key. Things faded out feeling unresolved. Then comes the third and final curve-ball - "The Outsiders" rudely bursts into life with its jarring synth arpeggios and driving grimey guitars - this abrupt shot of angry adrenaline after a couple of morose mood-pieces makes for a most disjointed listen.
However, the beatific chiming guitars of "Winter Hill" make way for a truly affecting, endearing and touching chorus, and suddenly we all remember as to why we fell in love with Doves in the first place. And where do we go from here? "10.03" boasts a slow start, a tense breakdown and an explosive finale; the likes of "Spellbound" and "The Greatest Denier" simply could not have been written by anyone else. "Birds Flew Backwards" provides needed mid-point respite, "Compulsion" boasts an infectious quasi-funky bassline and the Northern Soul stomp is provided by "The House of Mirrors", before affairs are tied up perfectly with the starbound "Lifelines".
Then, on repeat listens, you come to the realisation that the jarring inconsistencies of the opening trio set a precedent which proves to be one of the album's strongest points. These days, there is a tendency for music (particularly, for some reason, guitar music) to find itself polished to the point of dull uniformity. Kingdom of Rust, as an album, never settles down. It refuses to be streamlined, to be compressed into radio-friendly nuggets and, as a result, plays like a mix-CD as constructed using the prompt "murky poignant hope". And, apart from anything else, this messiness in sequencing demands repeat listens. Repeat listens reveal depth, lyrical integrity and glorious melodies, middle-eights, breakdowns and other flourishes which, somehow, went unnoticed on the first listen.
An investment in a Doves album is, apparently, an investment for life. Lord knows I'm still getting endless mileage from their debut; which has now been part of my life for at least five years. I will still be listening to Kingdom of Rust come 2020. I know it. The only thing is, doubtlessly they'll have set a new career high by then, and this humble 2009 release will merely represent the seeds of what amazing fruits were to follow. Long may be their reign. Reign - kingdom - reign - I'll be here all week.
12. Mew - No More Stories...
This album has not a title in the traditional sense - rather it has a poem. Quite a sad poem at that. I don't want to type it all out. It would take too long. Also, those mildly disturbing clown/egg faces on the cover themselves act as substitutes for two different track titles. The opening "New Terrain", when played backwards, forms a new song entirely. There's a run of six songs in the middle which, together, form something approaching a suite. One of them's entitled "Silas The Magic Car".
I could go on. To sum up - this album is different. It's ambitious, adventurous, touching and beautiful. It plays tricks on you - see "Introducing Palace Players", whose opening bass riff is unbearable in its looseness. It almost sounds unfinished, lazy almost - but it's a trap! The song picks up, dusts itself off and launches into glittering nirvana - within seconds this baffling bass mishap is but a distant memory.
Melodies twitter in the distance, only to surface again later, and it's - where have I heard this before? In your dreams, of course. Where else? See - the poem that is the album's title sounds exhausted, defeated - in apparent mourning for the lack of joy and wonder in the "grey" world today. The album itself, then, was presumably conceived as a means of injecting a little colour into those drowning grey masses. Good work, Mew.
They're right - sometimes life isn't easy. So long as they're around, though, you sort of feel that things will be ok in the end.
11. Yo La Tengo- Popular Songs
At first it happened like this - "Here To Fall" was stunning - it screamed of defiant, nocturnal romance - its interplay of bass, organ and strings penetrated right to the heart of all that is exciting and enticing about music and dug really fucking deep. Later, "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" represented my favourite nine minutes of music in 2009 - chugging, driving, warming guitar riff, simple lyrical refrains, dancing feedback at the end - this is how love feels. "The Fireside" - in which chiming notes are plucked and allowed to echo for as long as is necessary to achieve wistfulness - induced wistfullnes. And the closing "And The Glitter Is Gone" was exactly the sort of fifteen minute long "Sister Ray" meltdown for which we have come to depend upon Yo La Tengo - they deliver each time.
For a while, between these two stunning bookends (one of which, admittedly, stretched for thirty six minutes of bliss) existed little more than a no-man's land of songs which, as sweet as they were, did little to seduce me. The trick, of course, was to listen.
Try as I have, again and again and again - I can find nothing but irritation in the saccharin "If It's True" and in the grating organ funk of "Periodically Double of Triple" (as fun as it was live). But nothing is perfect, and so strong are the remaining ten songs that forgiveness was never in question. They called the album Popular Songs for a very important reason - it really does feel as if there's something for everyone here. If you like music, chances are you'll find something to love on this album. It plays like a greatest hits collection for an impossibly gifted and eternally restless band who, though dabbling in a dizzying array of style, retained exactly that which made them so special throughout their varied career.
But, of course, it's not. Instead, it's the fourteenth release of a band who have done nothing but stun and stun again. It's completely true that there is no single "great" Yo La Tengo album compared to which all others pale in comparison. Rather, it depends not only upon the point at which you entered (for me it was "And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out"), but also upon how you're feeling in the right here and the right now. No matter what's eating you from the inside out, Yo La Tengo have something for you.
And so much of it can be found on this album, right here. When, in decades time, they've achieved a Dylanesque back catalogue which appears impenetrable for a newcomer, Popular Songs will most probably be identified as the perfect starting point. If not, it will certainly be identified as an example of how to do music, and, moreover, how to do it right.
NEXT - The top ten! (part one of)