5 Hazards of Love – The Decemberists
Hazards of Love could as easily be an album as it could be a novel. Each track is part of a story, and to listen to one without the other is like reading any given chapter out of a book at random. On its own, each track is a beautiful work of music and lyrics effortlessly pieced together, but when taken as a whole body of work, the album is an epic (and cohesive) masterpiece. Even the track names mimic book chapter headings, as the first track is titled “Prologue” and tracks “Hazards of Love 1-4” are spread throughout the album. With Hazards of Love, the only way to explain the beauty is to put the album on and let it speak for itself. It is a story of the hazards of being in love, told through ethereal metaphors of men changing into deer, princes being held captive, and otherworldly creatures. Yet, for all the surreal imagery, the message is a very real one – that, with true love, these hazards worth living through (and, as it would seem, dying for). Shakespearean in its tragedy, Hazards of Love is in every sense of the world, truly an epic masterpiece.
4 Swoon – Silversun Pickups
Okay, back to depression. Kidding… mostly. Los Angels based Silversun Pickups take the power of electronic-music in the perfect distortion of their guitar. The melody guitar explodes over the distortion, and Brian Aubert’s unique effeminate, yet undeniably powerful, voice catches your attention off guard. Swoon’s opening track “There’s No Secrets This Year” is upbeat despite its overtly gloomy lyrics (a theme which flows easily, not overwhelmingly, through the whole album). “Growing Old is Getting Old” slows down the tempo and gives the listener a chance to absorb the lyrical heaviness of the album, with the slow and heart-beat-like drum and bass combination. “Substitution” shines at the last third of the album, with that familiar distortion and hauntingly Hitchcockian style lyrics. Closing track “Surrounded (Or Spiralling)” is preacher-like in its repetition of “remember when” – opening the theme of feeling ‘surrounded’. The break midway through the song into the ‘spiralling’ verse (“is it perfect in our little hell”) mimics the ebbs and flows of the album on the whole. As it returns to the ‘surrounded’ part (‘remember who held you’ is repeated four times in a row), the track closes out the album with a bridge between the two themes – as “is it perfect in our little hell” is sang once, solitary, and finally. Swoon is the kind of album that you can pull apart, analyze, and dissect, while still leaving the beauty of the music completely intact. Swoon is perfect in its craft, its pace, and its song structure.
3 Grand – Matt & Kim
If you thought this whole list would be totally depressing, fear not! Here come Matt & Kim to save the day. The pop electronic duo is a much-needed injection of positivity and light into the doldrums of 2009. Opening track “Daylight” is perhaps their best known, with the indisputably catchy opening keyboard hook. Even if you don’t quite know what Matt is saying half the time, you cannot help but grin as the melodic sounds overtake your ears and you sing along. “Cutdown” has a great offbeat mix of quickened beats and slower lyrics, in contrast to tracks like “Daylight” and “Spare Change” – latter track having an anthem like sound which shines through in the clapping rhythm and group singing. Penultimate track “I’ll Take Us Home” is somehow a perfect love song – it isn’t romantic, but instead is just pure joy and love which we all need every once in a while. Overall, there is no way to sit still during the half-hour explosion of electronic musical goodness that is Grand.
2 Sigh No More – Mumford and Sons
With the resurgence of pop folk music, Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More was the heralding trumpet call, or rather… heralding banjo strum. Suddenly it became cool to listen to the banjo, but mostly because the seamless heart-string-tugging perfection of Sigh No More is so perfect. The title track grabs your attention with its group-chorus singing, the melodic melancholy guitar in the background. As even the best of us have had some strife, with this song, tears will spring to your eyes. Despite the over-riding depressing tone of the whole album, there is somewhere in the banjo and guitar a hopeful shimmering light in the background (after all “man is a giddy thing). The album follows on to “The Cave,” an allegory of a song about that one person we all know that we wanted to love, to help, to keep – yet, in the end, could not. “White Blank Page” starts out with a quiet simmering sadness that explodes into “a swelling rage” through the aggressive vocals and banjo (yes, aggressive banjo) And if, for some bizarre reason you were losing focus, drowning in your own misery, the famous “Little Lion Man” reaches out again and grabs you by the gut to pull you back in. Penultimate track, and personal favorite “Dustbowl Dance” breaks from the personal melancholy to tell the story of the socio-economic depression of the dustbowl era – a feeling that we are all experiencing again. Sigh No More is an epic tale of personal struggle, highlighted by the undeniably unique banjo and guitar that Mumford and Sons put forth so perfectly.
1 xx – The xx
No, you’re not seeing double. xx is the debut album of new kids on the block, British experimental group The xx. And it is a shockingly good compilation of tracks. With obscure lyrics and a lullaby like melody, the second track “VCR” sets up the album to be a well needed innovative musical experience. Especially poignant, considering that you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who owns a VCR anymore – the whole album follows in this feeling of a need to return to a life of more tangible simplicity. The following track, “Crystalised” is the type of song that, from the first four seconds, you know something big is coming – the opening riff is that kind of riff that feels like it came out of your own soul, and somehow transferred into your stereo so you could hear it back again. xx is the perfect modern day sort-of-rock album, it reflects an ideology in its music, while remaining aloof of its own importance – a key factor in its musical success. All in all, The xx’s debut xx is an amazing musical experience that, once had, you want again and again.
Each of these artists, whether breaking out or re-establishing themselves, have proven through these works that they are worth taking seriously. And, even though at the end of this list you may want to lay in a bathtub with a cup of hot tea and have a good cry (and then put Grand on in order to pull yourself out of the hole), it is undeniable that these five albums are the greatest musical achievements that 2009 had to offer.