The Best of 2009 in Music

I gave the RFT's freelancers very simple guidelines when assigning the following year-in-music pieces: In 300 words, tell readers what music you liked in 2009. The following responses — which range from top-ten lists to a mash note to Taylor Swift, from concert recollections to a grouping of albums — ref lect the increasingly fragmented nature of the music industry. In a year when many critics I know struggled to come up with ten full new albums they liked, older material became more than just comfort food — it represented stability in the face of overhyped baby bands and half-baked live shows. Still, no matter how many times people want to decry the death of the music industry, one thing's certain: A good song will eventually f ind an audience, no matter how long it takes — or how it's discovered.
— Annie Zaleski, Music Editor

Modern Love
Kings of Leon, Only by the Night. In late November 2008, having just bombed my second post-college interview, I wandered into Vintage Vinyl to ease the pain. I slipped on headphones, and at the first sinister groove of "Crawl," my very professional briefcase hit the floor. I already liked KOL, but from start to finish, this album sounded like a calculated takeover designed to make willing conquests of us all. With tracks that sounded simultaneously intimate and enormous, for better or worse, this album turned these dirty Southern garage rockers into the next arena rock stars. And oh yeah — I got the job.

The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You. This year saw Americana/roots-inspired music fiddling and harmonizing its way to mainstream popularity, led by the Avett Brothers. After releasing several albums and gaining a reputation for raucous live shows, the band released its Rick Rubin-produced major-label debut in September. Tearing apart tradition from the inside — this is the sound for this country right now. I'm a believer.

Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon performs at Live on the Levee.
Annie Zaleski
Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon performs at Live on the Levee.
"Taylor, I'm gonna let you finish, but I had the best meme of 2009."
Gary Hershorn/Reuters
"Taylor, I'm gonna let you finish, but I had the best meme of 2009."

Geniuses front two supergroups of the future, the Dead Weather (Horehound) and Monsters of Folk (a self-titled album). Jack White helms the former act, while Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and My Morning Jacket's Jim James split frontman duties in the latter. Each man's creative powers seem limitless — and at this point, we're just waiting for the next interesting thing they'll do.

Girl Talk and MGMT are so 2008. This year, smart hipsters danced to the lush, DIY electronica of Passion Pit (Manners), the smooth-as-French-silk fun of Phoenix (Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix), the versatile, underappreciated Canadian band Metric (Fantasies) and the spare, just-shy-of-annoying luster of Matt & Kim (Grand).

You can't hide from the diametrically opposed pop phenomena Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. One celebrates wholesome, earnest girl power; the other tests the limits of superficiality. But neither is the prepackaged poptart of yesteryear: Both Swift's winsome shrewdness and Gaga's wacky exploration of celebrity reflect sincere individual viewpoints. Stay tuned for 2010, when these sparkly songwriting forces will do bloody cosmic battle for teenage souls everywhere.
— Katie Moulton

Return of the Real
Has balance returned to hip-hop? Judging by the music that's been coming out for the past twelve months, it appears that there is hope! 2009 lacked a major release on the scale of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III, which may have given the underground an opportunity to make a comeback.

One of the year's most anticipated rap albums was Slaughterhouse's self-titled debut. The underground supergroup favors hard-edged lyricism and slick wordplay over catchy hooks and club music. Joe Budden (who also released Padded Room earlier this year) and Royce da 5'9" are the standouts, but Joell Ortiz and Crooked I hold their own as well.

KRS-One and Buckshot also collaborated to release Survival Skills. Featuring artists such as Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli and Smif-N-Wessun, the album recaptures that gritty East Coast style of the '90s. I was definitely impressed with their beat selection, and KRS tries to keep the preachiness to a minimum. (We all know how he gets!)

Probably my favorite album from this year is Mos Def's most recent offering, The Ecstatic. Much of the production was handled by Madlib and his brother Oh No from Stones Throw Records, giving it an "indie" and almost experimental atmosphere. It works well: Middle Eastern-tinged flourishes and disco-era samples saturate the music, while Mos returns to a more conscience-driven style of rap than he chose to use on True Magic. This vintage style is similar (in some ways) to Q-Tip's The Renaissance, which came out last December. (In fact, both albums are up for the Grammy Award for "Best Rap Album.")

Honorable mentions: Eminem's Relapse was not quite a return to his former glory, but it does feature the same kind of over-the-top subjects and punch lines that made him a household name. Method Man & Redman's Blackout 2 is worth checking out if you're a fan, and Wale's Attention Deficit shows the Washington, D.C. up-and-comer has promise.
— Calvin Cox

Live and Loud
If 2009 was considered something of a down year when it came to new album releases, several quality concert tours — many of which actually made stops in St. Louis — might have compensated. With blogosphere oversaturation and the record industry falling further into disarray every year, it feels as though live concert tours might be the one refuge left for the music lover in search of something tangible and believable.

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