2009 sometimes felt like a clash of the indie rock titans, with albums from Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, The Flaming Lips, Dirty Projectors and a slew of others already emerging as consensus picks on critics’ best-of lists. And while we were fans of most of these records, too, we were sad to see how many other great releases have failed to get their due. With that in mind, we present, in no particular order, Flavorpill’s refreshingly subjective list of the 10 most underrated albums of 2009. Use the comments to tell us which artists you think deserved more respect than they got this year.
Deastro – Moondagger (Ghostly International)
Detroit electronic wunderkind Deastro (a.k.a. Randolph Chabot) made the best synth-pop album of the year. An ambitious, sci-fi concept record that recalls a deliciously nerdy New Order, Moondagger is stacked with perfect dance-party tracks. And yet, when we took in his set at October’s CMJ Music Marathon, the venue (which would be packed later in the evening for buzzier bands like Cymbals Eat Guitars and Real Estate) was barely half full.
Recommended tracks: “Kurgan Wave Number One”; “Greens, Grays, and Nordics”; “Moondagger”
Stream “Kurgan Wave Number One”:
Eat Skull – Wild and Inside (Siltbreeze)
We are big fans of the lo-fi punk revival, relishing every album from the likes of Psychedelic Horseshit and (the sadly defunct) Mika Miko. And one of our favorite acts is Times New Viking. The only problem? This year’s Born Again Revisited just didn’t do it for us the way TNV’s past three albums did. Luckily, Portland’s criminally underappreciated Eat Skull — with a sixth sense for pop melodies and a killer way with amplifier fuzz — was here to fill the void.
Recommended tracks: “Heaven’s Stranger”; “Who’s in Control”; “Oregon Dreaming”
Stream “Heaven’s Stranger”:
Marissa Nadler – Little Hells (Kemado)
Marissa Nadler’s music has always garnered excellent reviews. But perhaps her appeal is limited by her style — a deadly dark, theremin- and organ-laced take on folk that chills listeners to the bone. Her fourth full-length, Little Hells, may be Nadler’s best album yet, imbued with deep, richly described sadness. If you missed its release early this year, don’t despair: Little Hells actually feels like winter and is best enjoyed around this time of year.
Recommended tracks: “Heartpaper Lover”; “Loner”; “Ghosts & Lovers”
Screaming Females – Power Move (Don Giovanni)
Nothing shocked us more this year than seeing epic New Jersey noise-punk act Screaming Females profiled in New York magazine. Then, we learned they’d scored an opening slot on the Dead Weather’s tour. So while it’s true their star was certainly rising in 2009, we lamented that all the attention seemed to focus on their life-changing live shows and, in particular, the impossibly powerful pipes of pint-sized frontwoman Marissa Paternoster. In fact, Screaming Females also put out an excellent album this year, and they sound almost as good on record as in person.
Recommended tracks: “Bell”; “Skull”; “Adult Army”
Watch Screaming Females perform “Skull” at New York’s Terminal Five:
Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers (Dead Oceans)
We are going to go ahead and chalk up this album’s lack of impact to a major marketing fail. Fresh off of 2006’s career- and genre-defining Roots and Crowns, Califone released All My Friends Are Funeral Singers — a record that is almost equally strong. Conceived as the soundtrack to frontman Tim Rutili’s film of the same name, the album more than stands on its own. Never has Califone seemed so comfortable in its trademark territory, combining old Americana styles with newfangled recording technology. Too bad so few people heard it. And we have some idea why: A friend who edits a top music site tells us he heard nearly nothing about from labels or publicists. We interviewed the band about the album here.
Recommended tracks: “Funeral Singers,” “Alice Marble Grey”
Watch the video for “Funeral Singers”:
Bike for Three! – More Heart Than Brains (Anticon)
Another marketing fail, Bike for Three!’s debut (and perhaps sole) album should have generated much more interest than it did. A record born of an online-only collaboration between respected rapper Buck 65 and Belgian producer Greetings from Tuskan (who still, to our knowledge, have never met) resulted in one of the year’s strangest and most exciting fusions of hip-hop and electronic music. Greetings from Tuskan lends fragile but intricate beats to Buck 65’s often dark, introspective lyrics. At times, he even seems to reference the bizarre circumstances of the pair’s collaboration.
Recommended tracks: “All There Is to Say about Love”; “Nightdriving”; “Let’s Never Meet”
Stream “Let’s Never Meet”:
Rock Plaza Central – At the Moment of Our Most Needing… (Paper Bag)
Rock Plaza Central’s literate indie rock invites comparisons to artists from Neutral Milk Hotel to the Decemberists. And yet these Toronto-based purveyors of neo-Americana haven’t managed to parlay those similarities into more widespread popularity. There are no gimmicks or blog-worthy memes driving At the Moment of Our Most Needing…; the album excels on the basis of good, old-fashioned songwriting.
Recommended tracks: “Oh I Can”; “(Don’t You Believe the Words of) Handsome Men”; “O Lord, How Many Are My Foes”
Watch “(Don’t You Believe the Words of) Handsome Men” live at SappyFest 2009:
Swan Lake – Enemy Mine (Jagjaguwar)
Here’s the problem with Swan Lake: The supergroup keeps getting overshadowed by its members’ higher-profile projects, from Dan Bejar’s flawless Destroyer to Carey Mercer’s cult favorite Frog Eyes to Spencer Krug’s incredibly popular Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown. Swan Lake certainly works on a smaller scale, but we don’t see that as such a bad thing. In fact, we see in Enemy Mine a sort of vocal and narrative theatricality that recalls nothing more than ’70s Bowie.
Recommended tracks: “Paper Lace”; “A Hand at Dusk”
Stream “A Hand at Dusk”:
Grooms – Rejoicer (Death by Audio)
There are so many noise-rock acts in Brooklyn right now that it’s hard to keep track of them all. But don’t forget about Grooms (formerly the Muggabears). Among the most talented of these bands, their debut full-length balances harmony and feedback, spookiness and warmth. What is most entrancing about Grooms is their impeccable sense of pacing, as songs move intuitively from high-speed shredding to slow, meditative whispers.
Recommended tracks: “At the Pool”; “Dreamsucker”; “Kier”
Julie Doiron – I Can Wonder What You Did with Your Day (Jagjaguwar)
Of all the singer/songwriter albums that came out this year, former Eric’s Trip singer Julie Doiron’s I Can Wonder What Your Did with Your Day was among the strongest, if not the most celebrated. Her songs are never simply beautiful; they’re also funny and self-effacing, full of tiny, realistically autobiographical details. Listening to Doiron sing is like hearing a friend who’s a great storyteller recite a favorite anecdote.
Recommended tracks: “The Life of Dreams”; “Consolation Prize”; “Borrowed Minivans”
Watch the video for “Consolation Prize”: