Welcome to our first annual Top 25 Tracks list. Any song that was released in 2009 was eligible for our list. We hope you enjoy it!
25. Antony and the Johnsons
“Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground”
Antony Hegarty has a voice like no other. Yet, 2005’s I am a Bird Now featured guest vocalists on nearly half its tracks. On this year’s The Crying Light, Antony reclaims his territory, gifting us with his gorgeous pipes on each and every song.
This reclamation begins immediately on album opener “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground.” As the song begins, Antony’s voice surges forward in a delicate, weary and melancholic mission statement, wrapped in a ribbon of plaintive piano and mournful strings. With lyrics that encompass the love between a son and mother, homosexuality and the death not only of the soul but of Mother Earth, “Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground” is not just any lightweight torch song. “In the garden, with my mother/ I stole a flower,” Antony cries. Could this flower be a sign of his own homosexuality or just one seemingly innocent act that rips apart the Earth? Antony’s not telling, but with a song this beautiful, who cares? It’s the feeling that matters and as the song fades out on an orchestral coda, deep inside we know what he’s singing about. – David Harris
24. A.C. Newman
“Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer”
Creative vocal harmonies, heavy percussion, dissonance, quick melodic changes, violin and a punchy, staccato lyrical delivery: A.C. Newman’s “Like a Hitman, Like a Dancer” is a delightfully arranged mixture of musical elements. The lead songwriter of The New Pornographers hits an enjoyably bouncy acoustical note with the third track of his sophomore solo album Get Guilty. The driving force of the song is the marching back-beat rhythm that sets up the melody and immediately puts you at attention. The mid-way fade leads you to check your player in hopes it hasn’t actually come to an end. The back-beat picks up right where it left off at 2:12 in and you find yourself re-immersed in the overwhelmingly cohesive elements of the track. There’s so much mind-boggling activity going on it’s amazing it all works together so well… but it does, strikingly so. – KayJay
23. Junior Boys
“Dull to Pause”
Junior Boys know how to do mellowness and icy sonic glamor like nobody else. This year’s Begone Dull Care plays like the cognac of dance and electronica – so smooth it demands attention yet robust and full of lyrical character. “Dull to Pause” is Junior Boys at their best and stylistically most typical, singing of morning liaisons and tranquil moments, Jeremy Greenspan’s cool vocals barely emerging from the pattering keyboard part they subtly glide along. What Junior Boys sacrifice in stylistic variety they make up for in slick charm, and “Dull to Pause” is a classier joint than any you’re likely to hear this year. – Michael Merline
22. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Scaling back the arty guitar roar and raw singing of their early albums, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs did a slight left turn and delivered a clubby, keyboard-centric record, It’s Blitz!, which was mature in the best sense of the word. “Zero” was one of the most exhilarating singles of the year, the kind that comes on the radio and makes everything else seem drab. It retains their urban NYC edge, but is sleeker and sexier, with a driving rhythm, shimmering ’80s keyboards and Karen O’s full-throated vocals- which have become more controlled and nuanced. Like everything they do, it brims with cool energy and the kind of confidence that most rock stars have abandoned. Karen O reminds us why she’s one of the decade’s few iconic frontwomen, one unafraid of risk and convinced she can conquer the world. “Zero” makes that confidence contagious and danceable. – Lukas Sherman
21. Wild Beasts
“Hooting and Howling”
Hayden Thorpe’s theatrical vocals might be a bit overbearing, but they infuse a light lyrical conceit with weight and lend stronger ones almost overwhelming strength. With “Hooting & Howling,” a simple three stanzas find his vocal skills at their most nuanced and effective, a repetitive refrain of the song’s title smoothed over and lush with his unique delivery. It may not have been apparent with Wild Beast’s first album but this is a band that knows how to have a unique voice while still staying on target – here they condensed that previously disjointed approach into a powerful and cohesive package, and sound utterly foreign and unique the whole while. Fortunately, it’s that attribute that makes such an assuming track great. – Michael Merline
20. Bon Iver
Dark, winter clouds block the sun while “Blood Bank” is playing; by the time Justin Vernon’s ghostly “ooos” intertwine with the crystalline, strummed electric guitar, the sky is completely overcast and the feeling that something bad is inevitable weighs on the listener. Fankids all over the internet want to take the lyrics literally, deciding there’s an unwanted pregnancy detected during a girlfriend’s trip to give blood, but “Blood Bank” works better as a powerful collection of symbols that seem to suggest that, if nothing else, what individuals share with one another is a general sense of mistrust and a fear that one’s own facade will be cracked to reveal that, underneath it all, they’re only human. – Chris Middleman
19. Bill Callahan
“Too Many Birds”
Bill Callahan knows that, sometimes, we wish we were an eagle, though we sure don’t feel like one. Instead, we feel like the lowliest blackbird, with nowhere to go and nowhere to land, clutching to the most measly comforts – such as the desire to “only stop your heartbeat/ For one heartbeat” – offering little solace. In a nearly deadpan voice that seems on the verge of quivering ever so slightly and accompanied by a lofty musical arrangement that sounds eerily like paradise, Callahan sings the tale of such a miserable creature, but this song isn’t just about birds; it’s about people, and the part of us that doesn’t give a flying fuck for another song about soaring eagles and happy tidings. Sometimes, the tragic tales suit us best, and it’s on this vulnerable, deeply human level that one can appreciate “Too Many Birds.”
The song certainly doesn’t fit the mood of every occasion, but what it lacks in joy it makes up for in tenderness and, more strikingly, empathy. It may not be a feel-good experience, but life isn’t always a feel-good experience. And somehow, in the darkest of times, it’s songs like these that make us feel better. – Marcus David
18. Animal Collective
In the hands of this Brooklyn/Baltimore kaleido-pop trio, what could have been a summer anthem fit for a Coppertone commercial turns out more reminiscent of that fucked up alien beach scene at the end of Contact. While it’s relatively conventional by Animal Collective standards, “Summertime Clothes” still checks tradition at the door, ensuring that relevant influences (from The Beach Boys to Neu!) have been distorted into spaced-out versions of themselves before warranting inclusion on the dense mix. With heavy bass throbbing beneath a whirling melody and Avey Tare’s saccharine verse, the sound is at once mechanical, organic, wholly beyond words and far greater than the sum of its parts. “But I want to walk around with you,” Tare pleads through the chorus–you may come to this track for its near-flawless technical merits, but you’ll stay for its heart. – Brady Baker
“River,” the amazing stand-out of freak folk trio Akron/Family’s latest album, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free, opens with a rhythmic shaking and a simple, almost timid beat slowly fading in audibility, with an electric guitar following almost precisely. It’s quiet, yet full of sound; it’s as liquid and flows as a river itself. When guitarist Seth Olinsky sings the opening lyric “And you are no longer a river to me/ And you are no longer a river to me/ Though your coursing remain eager to acquaint me,” it sounds as timeless and right at the motion of water itself. As bassist Miles Seaton and drummer Dana Janssen slowly add their voices into the harmonies, ambiguously proclaiming that “You and I and the flame make three,” the song becomes more complex, horns and more guitars filling every second. The song becomes dense and fast, yet always flowing. “River” is a testament to both one of the year’s finest albums and the power of music to create an image in the mind. – Nathan Kamal
“Psychic City (Voodoo City)”
One of the great revelations of the ’00s was the fact that, sometimes, indie kids wanted to dance. Nobody did as much to make this possible as 21st century disco production team/label DFA, which gave us LCD Soundsystem, the Rapture, Hercules and Love Affair and now the triangle-obsessed Portland duo, YACHT. “Psychic City (Voodoo City)” was the indie party jam from the indie party album of the year. Like label-mates LCD Soundsystem, they strip music down to its elements: beats, rhythm, groove, hook and vocals. Newly full-time member Claire L. Evans’s cool chick vocals add a lot of personality to the mix, as do the cryptically goofy lyrics about talking kitchens and cake baking. Its groove is clean and irresistible and its chant-like refrains get stuck in your head. It’s the kind of song that, after I heard it for the first time, I immediately listened to it again. The future looks bright for indie dance music. Great video too. – Lukas Sherman
15. Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Heads Will Roll”
2009 was a momentous year for Yeah Yeah Yeahs, New York’s band most likely to do least what’s expected of them. After expanding from their roots as shrieking, neu-no wavers into acoustic anthems and occasional introspection (while frontwoman Karen O’s semi-solo soundtrack to the Where The Wild Things Are diverged in melancholia and children’s choirs), their third album, It’s Blitz!, brought them into a new arena: disco rock. Favoring the dancefloor over the moshpit, the album’s second single “Heads Will Roll” turned out to be one of the year’s most infectious and remarkable songs.
Featuring a memorable music video with a werewolf by way of Michael Jackson, “Heads Will Roll” opens with O’s stentorian, sinister command “Off with your head/ Dance ’til you’re dead” and a droning creepshow synthesizer. The melody is nearly sepulchral in its shaking, quavering tones, until a swift, dance-ready beat kicks in. O chants typically impressionistic, bewildering lyrics like “Dripping with alchemy, shiver stop shivering/ The glitter’s all wet, you’re all chrome,” while Nick Zinner and Brian Chase thrash it out behind her- the music video ends with her severed head still singing the chorus. During a song this catchy, even a corpse can’t help but get on the floor. – Nathan Kamal
14. The Pains of Being Pure of Heart
“Young Adult Friction”
New York-based indie outfit The Pains of Being Pure At Heart broke through in 2009 on the strength of their self-titled debut and their combination of fuzzed out guitars and sweet pop melodies; sounding somewhere between Belle & Sebastian’s most lascivious moments and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s pop leaning, is it any surprise that one of their standout tracks should be a sordid affair in a dusty library? Lead singer/guitarist Kip Berman’s voice is perfectly pleading as he sings lyrics like “We came, they went/ Our bodies spent/ Among the dust and microfiche,” perfectly harmonizing with Peggy Wang’s girlish, climactic plea “Don’t check me out.” Is it shame or fear that spurs them on? Or the aftershocks of lust? Through the buzzing guitars and pleading, it’s clear that something “has come of age” in a way perfectly suited to the new face of twee pop- moody, adolescent and a little dirty. – Nathan Kamal
13. Dirty Projectors
“Stillness is the Move”
Though Bitte Orca contains some of Dave Longstreth’s most affecting work, Dirty Projectors’ other lead vocalist, Amber Hoffman, helms the record’s stand-out track by distancing herself from some of his cross-genre noodling. Retaining Longstreth’s curiosity for West African guitar, Hoffman’s arias with bassist Angel Deradoorian push both their voices and his music several steps further in the direction of ’80s blue-eyed soul. There’s a catch though. Both their voices reach such an incredibly high pitch while bouncing off woodblocks and steel drums that’s its hard to find any blues in their bounce. They have to shoot higher then pop music serenity.
Instead what the band aspires to is to shake a spiritual awakening within the body. The words for “Stillness in the Move” are based on a monologue from Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Longstreth asked Hoffman to watch the film in order to pen the song’s up-tempo stream of consciousness lyrics. Like the angels of Wenders’ masterwork, the band reaches a point where everything mortal reaches an awed sacredness that becomes interchangeable with the divine. They’re able to taste the food of the gods without shedding the corporeal fat. – Neal Fersko
12. The xx
Much of what made xx stand out from the hyper-compressed, keyboard-driven pop landscape in 2009 was the record’s sense of space. Singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim duet over most of the record, yet almost always sound like bruised-heart monologues listened to in stereo. On “Crystalised,” however, the band’s sound itself seems a little more claustrophobic; Jamie Smith’s electronic percussion is more insistent than on other tracks, and Croft’s guitar seems more tense. As the song itself is about the alternation of the stifling and/or aloof quality of young love, Croft and Sim here sound as if they’re being forced to acknowledge one another in the same room and the tension, whether real or imagined, makes for a stand-out on a stand-out record. – Chris Middleman
11. Camera Obscura
Camera Obscura, heir to the Jenny Lewis throne of sad girl-pop, sounds even better than Rilo Kiley because the heartbroken Scots share a musical gene pool with Belle & Sebastian. The opener on My Maudlin Career, “French Navy,” like late-period Belle & Sebastian, is a beautiful ’60s pop explosion that fulfills what the Pipettes’ polka dot posturing only kind of promised. It’s the sunniest song on the record, but also, paradoxically, the most painful. The key is Tracyanne Campbell’s vocals, mournful and just a bit sarcastic, contrasting with the complete-with-string-arrangements Wall of Sound milieu. Then there’s the escapist fiction Campbell spins as she meets a French sailor in a library, falling in love. The brilliance of “French Navy” is the friction between the music and Campbell’s disposition. The heartbreak of “French Navy” is that it isn’t real. – Danny Djeljosevic
“My Wife, Lost in the Wild”
It’s not surprising that Zach Condon’s electronic work is as engaging as the rest of his oeuvre. Under the moniker Realpeople Holland, Condon began recording his synthy side project in his bedroom before Beirut had even materialized. On last winter’s March of the Zapotec / Realpeople Holland split EP, Condon dished out an official taste of his musical alter-ego for the first time. On “My Wife, Lost in the Wild,” Condon proudly layers a foundation of artificial instrumentations straight out of the ’80s. The canned drum machine and bubblegum keyboards mesh into a timeless Euro sound one wouldn’t expect on a Condon project. Condon’s resonating voice is the only link to other Beirut work, and when it’s not being mimicked by a crooning violin, its harmonies form a hopping baritone wall of words that give “My Wife” its unique life. It’s a sweet and simple song that demonstrates Condon’s universal musical prowess in any genre. – Jory Spadea
9. Neko Case
“This Tornado Loves You”
Neko Case certainly used her bag of tricks on “This Tornado Loves You” and even picked up some new ones along the way. Her story of a violent tornado tracking down its true love says more about ravenous desire than weather, but the natural world is the best stage for this all to play out. The roaring arrangement of her guitarist Paul Rigby imitates the long gusts and forceful kicks of a storm system. He allows Case’s lovely siren call to stretch the sky and, for the first time, sing with a gorgeously stubborn persistence. Her forlorn country ballads have never shown this kind of gentle hunger before. The distant passion her voice is searching for makes every anguished cry thunder that much louder at every dead end.
Toward the middle of the flurry is a line that could have easily been from the darkly intimate country noir of her early career:”I miss how you’d sigh yourself to sleep/ When I raked the springtime across your sheets.” Case’s mainstream exposure may have gone several steps further with Middle Cyclone but its clear that her heart still wanders through the dark basements and solitary highways where no storm can reach her. – Neal Fersko
8. Andrew Bird
Built around layers of looped violins eventually fading into an acoustic guitar and one of Andrew Bird’s most striking violin instrumentals, “Effigy” is a song of loneliness and isolation. Whatever the song’s specifics exactly are – ostensibly it’s about a lone drinker at a bar who’s short on companionship but long on existential laments, but with Bird, how the hell can anyone be sure? – it is simply one of this year’s most powerful and relevant songs.
On paper the song’s lyrics are dark enough, but its understated instrumentation and Bird’s vocal delivery make the character’s situation seem that much more tragic. A few key lyrics add to the track’s poignancy; specifically, Bird’s reference to “fake conversations on a nonexistent telephone,” suggests that communication and social interaction are not among the man’s strong suits. Perhaps as bleak a song as Bird has recorded, it offers little sense of resolution or hope. Time isn’t on anyone’s side and there’s nothing romantic about a solitary life for a “man who’s lost his way/ Slips away.” It’s not the first time Bird has written about such things, but the song is among his most direct and moving. “Effigy”‘s arrangements, lyrics and vocals fit together perfectly, resulting in one of this year’s most touching songs. – Eric Dennis
7. Amadou & Mariam
Pop music is as universal as it is diverse and Amadou and Mariam represent the best in both of those camps. “Sabali” – obviously a love song whether you understand the track’s Mali-influenced lyrical dialect or not – is in every way what pop music strives to be, no matter from what part of the world it originated. The song’s beat is steady and contagious, building from a gentle melody and a sing-speak phrasing into a dance-friendly conclusion, and Mariam’s vocals rise and dip playfully between octaves throughout. The instrumentation, as produced by Damon Albarn, is as modern and highly constructed as any American radio single but the ideas at work are tapping into something more international; Amadou & Mariam’s stunning track may have world-music language and compositional flavor but is woozy with the universal sentiment of one’s dedication to another. To write such an immediate and transcending piece is a fine achievement for any artist, but it’s especially notable when an American Joe Schmo can appreciate that musical appeal as much as his African counterparts across the world. – Michael Merline
6. Atlas Sound
Logos’ star song is pop-meets-avant-garde perfection. This sugar-coated ecstasy rush, driven by Bradley Cox’s destined collaboration with Animal Collective founder Noah Lennox, builds its melody from carefully processed loops that present their function without falling into experimental excess. Beginning with delayed organs and digital pixelations, “Walkabout” proceeds to dive headfirst into a wintry stew of octave-bouncing synth loops that pluck and pop in the song’s many crystallizing reverb clouds. You can almost see Cox and Lennox’s icy breaths puff into the air during their vocal free-for-all.
“Walkabout” is a melancholy tale about following dreams, dreams that often lie beyond one’s hometown. To follow said dreams, one must defy not only discouragement and dissuasion from friends and family, but also resist the temptation derived from the nostalgia, memories, and lifelong relationships this place offers. Had Cox and Lennox not followed their hearts, as easy or hard as it may have been, the indie generation would’ve sorely missed out on two great songwriters, and “Walkabout” is a perfect testament to this. – Jory Spadea
Build up. Break down. Detonate. So many pop songs follow the formula, tried and true as it is, but so few deliver to this level of synapse-frying exhilaration. “Lisztomania” kicked off Phoenix’s first-rate Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix LP with such force that it became a near liability; demanding constant repetition and threatening the relevance of the album’s remaining eight tracks. The bopping, feel-good hit is a four-minute measure of indie-pop gold, undeniable in its universal appeal even without anything particularly remarkable about its structure and lyricism. It’s the meticulous command of detail that allows Phoenix to achieve a stunning new depth of sophistication while maintaining the effortless, breezy feel that has come to define their sound. Thomas Mars’ double-tracked tenor is pushed to dizzying heights by an ever-buoyant bedlam of punchy-crisp instrumentation–“Lisztomania” is sleek and clean with a Euro-charm that only this French quartet can deliver. Franz Liszt himself, the celebrated Hungarian composer referenced by the track title, would surely grant his seal of approval to this effervescent summation of the best Phoenix has to offer. – Brady Baker
4. Passion Pit
“Look at me/ Oh look at me/ Is this the way I’ll always be/ Oh no.” Does that sound like the hook of an intensely catchy dance song? Too often those sport generic “Love let’s dance tonight/ Dove let’s romance tonight” trappings that sound like they were pulled from a lyrics generator. “Here I am/ Oh here I am/ Oh why won’t someone understand,” the chorus continues. You see, Passion Pit is what happens when the origin of your musical project is a Valentine’s present for your girlfriend–it’s dance music, but the emotions are out in the open, assuming you pay attention.
In “The Reeling,” the self-consciously introspective lyrics hide in plain sight under the guise of an electro club banger–imagine “D.A.N.C.E.” on steroids but with better lyrics. But you don’t listen to these things for the words. You listen for the bleeps, the bloops, the bass; “The Reeling” is such a pounding, pulsing, muscular id of the dance song that it can only force the existential ego of the lyrics into the background. Introspective dance music. 2009 has been a really strange year for music. Passion Pit and Kid Cudi are wearing their hearts on their sleeves in genres that aren’t “about” sensitivity while Weezer, one of the cornerstones for open-nerve pop, did a song about clubbing with a verse by Lil Wayne (who’s coming out with a rock album himself). Kanye West has a lot to answer for. – Danny Djeljosevic
3. The Thermals
“Now We Can See”
[Kill Rock Stars]
Good times tend to be hard times for punk bands, not that last year, with financial meltdown, would qualify as a good year, but the election of Obama largely vanquished many of the usual punk scapegoats and songwriting targets. A band like the Thermals, whose breakout 2006 album The Body, the Blood, the Machine existed in a world run by a zealous militaristic theocracy, might be forgiven for taking a break as dawn rose over the end of the Bush era. No such pause was needed however, for the trio used 2009 as an opportunity to issue their fans a carpe diem challenge with an album written from the perspective of the dead. The lead single and title track, “Now We Can See,” pictures generations of warriors looking back and mourning their misguided efforts, (“Our present was empty/ Our history a mess“) and urging listeners that “we should need nothing, nothing at all!” Powered by thundering guitars and an infectious call and response chorus, it’s the kind of existential urgency that the Thermals have been channeling their entire career, sounding every bit as potent now as in the past. – Sean Marchetto
2. Animal Collective
It is interesting that one of Animal Collective’s best songs ever, “My Girls,” is a tribute to contentment. One of the decade’s most sonically restless bands, the members of Animal Collective are now also literally scattered globally as Panda Bear now lives in Lisbon, Portugal, Geologist in DC and Avey Tare in New York City.
But perhaps this contentment helped contribute to the band’s biggest selling record, Merriweather Post Pavilion, and that pure joy of family is nowhere more obvious than “My Girls,” which may have caught many Animal Collective fans off-guard with its straight forward lyrics. Beginning with pixelated synthesizer, Panda Bear begins the song with, “There isn’t much I feel I need.” As the song expands, first with the group’s tribal drums, then layers of West coast harmonies and handclaps, “My Girls” becomes more joyous, more exuberant until it explodes into a full-blown wave of blissful noise heralded by an exuberant, shared “woo!”
The song’s true pinnacle comes when Panda Bear breaks down into: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about/ Material things like a social status/ I just want four walls/ And adobe slats (slabs?) for my girls.” In some ways, “My Girls” could be the mission statement of indie rock of the ’00s, where the game is no longer played for lucrative riches or a major label contract, but just the opportunity to no longer work a day job. Thanks, Animal Collective, for sharing your happiness with us. – David Harris
1. Grizzly Bear
All the far-reaching, hyperbolic adjectives that critics have used to praise “Two Weeks” – “gorgeous,” “swaying” and “gloriously ornate,” to name a few – still don’t do justice in describing Spectrum Culture’s pick for song of the year. Both retro and forward-looking, embraceable and untouchable, this unique piece of folk-pop represents one of Grizzly Bear’s finest moments and approaches perfection like no other single from 2009.
Like any great album, Veckatimest’s whole is stronger than its parts, but “Two Weeks” is such an exceptional single that it can be appreciated on a variety of levels even when separated from its broader album context. An uplifting song that doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre, it’s a stunning, multi-layered track that incorporates sounds ranging from classical Baroque to modern indie. In a honey-coated voice that never deteriorates into saccharine melodrama, singer Ed Droste invokes ambiguous images of time and distance, set against a blend of piano-driven melody and pop-doo-wop harmony. You can listen to “Two Weeks” countless times and still not know what the song is strictly about, and for good reason: just as it eclipses any musical epoch, its lyrics transcend any one sentiment. All of these elements combine to create what sounds to us like four minutes of musical heaven, as well as the best single of 2009. – Marcus David