Welcome to the albums that rocked our world over the past year. Disagree with our choices? You can vote your own favourites to the top, over on the Albums Of 2009 Reader Poll.
You’ll also find our 50 tracks of the year here.
Plus, to read all-new reviews of the 50 best albums and tracks of the year, plus all the trends that defined the year, pick up the new issue of NME, on sale from Wednesday December 9.
50 I Had The Blues But I Shook Them Loose
On paper, things don’t bode well for Bombay Bicycle Club: their curry house-inspired name implies a wacky and erroneous grasp of irony that wears a traffic cone for a hat; at their first gig they played funk songs to their school assembly; and the ink’s barely dry on their A2 certificates – which makes them as good as past it in comparison to Tiny Masters Of Today and their spritely green ilk.
49 Middle Cyclone
Neko Case has said she isn’t much fond of love songs, and when you hear the part-time New Pornographer berating the “fucking bird” that keeps her awake all night on ‘Magpies To The Morning’, her fifth album doesn’t bode well for romantics.
But, like a spot-lit chanteuse bred on punk rock, Case sweeps us up like her titular storm with loved-up odes to nature, intimacy and human resilience – just not in the dainty style of other indie gals-turned-country heroine.
Much like Starbucks, Bradford Cox has become a ubiquitous presence. What with his work with art-rock outfit Deerhunter, his involvement in Karen O’s official soundtrack for Where The Wild Things Are, and now this, his second solo offering under the Atlas Sound banner, you’d be forgiven for thinking that such familiarity will start to breed contempt. But you’d be way
off the mark.
47 Dance Mother
If newness is your thing – new sounds, new style, new attitude – then ‘Dance Mother’ is for you. This is a record that sounds like 2009 for the chief reason that it doesn’t sound like anything else that’s come before it. Both serene and schizophrenic, pretentious and pop, the debut album from Brooklyn’s Telepathe – aka musical (and formerly romantic) partners Busy Gangnes and Melissa Livaudais – doesn’t so much mash together genres as drift in limbo among them.
46 Grey Britain
The last time a flame-haired iconoclast found himself at the forefront of British punk, he coined a timeless phrase: “anger is an energy”. Energy is a useful thing; it alters its circumstances and inspires its surroundings. And this is the frustrating thing about the often-great second album from Gallows, and our generation’s ginger-savant, Frank Carter. ‘Grey Britain’ has important things to say, but due to the lack of any direction or mission, it allows itself to be eaten up by the anger that fuels it.
45 Truelove’s Gutter
What a curious, quietly glorious kind of British institution Richard Hawley has become. Like fellow Steel City legend Jarvis Cocker, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone with a nasty word to say about him.
44 Rated O
It’s interesting enough that Oneida spent the first decade of their existence being a so-so rock band before transforming into a mind-blowing vessel of the spectacular, like Supergrass waking up one morning as Led Zeppelin.
Then if you consider the partial insanity that has led them to release the second instalment of their interstellar psych-rock triptych ‘Thank Your Parents’, which is in itself a treble album, well, that really is something.
43 Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Still louche, still dancing, but this time they’re showing off some new moves Album number one: “music to make girls dance”. Album number two: “music for girls to cry to”.
42 Walking On A Dream
OK, let’s just spear the elephant in the room: Empire Of The Sun are really, really like MGMT. This Sydney duo (duo!) have arrived bearing blissful psych-pop with visions of a New World Order Of Shagging For Peace siphoned directly from the Wesleyan College acid pool. You get the same nasal vocals and, right from opener ‘Standing On The Shore’, the hippy dribble flows freely too: “The future’s in my hands/I hold it in my palms/Engrave it in the leylines running/Right down her arms”.
41 Only Revolutions
“Stomp, stomp, stomp, s-stomp, s-stomp”. With what could well be an applaud-worthy vision of self-awareness-turned-sound-effect Biffy Clyro’s fifth album, carrying more expectational weight than Greek god Atlas could hope to keep off the canvas, begins with the clatter of galloping foot-patter getting louder and louder, nearer and nearer.
40 Alight Of Night
Up to the eyeballs in hippy crap? The mere mention of a ‘Brooklyn band’ likely to induce projectile vomiting of your tie-dyed innards?
Well, swallow hard, gummo: there’s a new breed of doom-mongers lurking out of New York’s dark crevices and it’s anything but quirky.
39 Post Nothing
Despite the nihilistic bent of that title, the world must seem a rosy place for this Vancouver noise-pop duo right now. Over the past few months music fans and critics alike have been throwing about all sorts of glowing adjectives concerning their debut album.
And whew! – their debut is a gale-force riot, a virtual tempest of joyous abandon. “I don’t wanna worry about dying/I just wanna worry about those sunshine girls”, yelps guitarist Brian King on the bristling, vital ‘Young Hearts Spark Fire’.
38 King Of Jeans
If all albums came with a handy listening guide from their creators, ‘King Of Jeans’ would read thusly: “Hi y’all, we’re Pissed Jeans and we’d like to confront you with the inanity of your everyday existence. We ask you to please sit still while we bludgeon you into a coma with guitars that crunch like skulls under the wheels of Satan’s chariot.”
You’ve got to hand it to Michael Angelakos’ band of beardy Bostonians. They’ve succeeded in engineering the kind of breezy electronic pop that is so definitively 2009 you wonder how they didn’t bugger up the time-space continuum.
There are few things that unite the NME office, bar mild alcoholism, social retardation or the threat of imminent nuclear holocaust. So when we heard The Drums and realised that we all thought they were brilliant, we were suspicious. Surely some trick? This perfect band must be a kind of Trojan horse, a trap to get us all into one venue and then gas us like the vermin we are.
35 The Eternal
Sonic Youth’s debut on the Matador label, heralding the end of 17 years with Geffen, is no new dawn of no wave experimentalism. Rather it’s a continuation of the roll they’ve been on since 2004’s ‘Sonic Nurse’. ‘The Eternal’ channels the impressionistic wartime fury of that album, blends it with the more straightforward songs of 2006’s ‘Rather Ripped’ and then stirs it up with some lascivious rock’n’roll sleaze.
34 Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
It’s often said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Conversely, Phoenix are what architects should dance to. Sleek minimalism. Clean lines. A propensity to wear white. Emotionally neutral but texturally rich – they’re the sound of Richard Rogers’ utopian future. If Brian Eno wanted to do ‘Music For Airports Two’, he’d just tape a Phoenix album with a bunch of gate announcements over it and spend the time he saved thinking up more policy proposals for the Lib Dems.
33 The Blueprint III
To hear Shawn Carter speak recently, you’d think that ‘The Blueprint 3’, his 11th studio album, was set to change the face of hip-hop music forever. When it comes to talking a good game, Jigga has been practically talking six sixes off one over, 147 breaks and nine-dart finishes all at once. “As a person at the forefront of my genre,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s my responsibility to make my contribution to correct it.
32 The First Days Of Spring
As concept albums go, a trudge through the aftermath of a break-up hardly makes for a tale as fantastical as ‘Tommy’ or ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’, but even so, ‘The First Days Of Spring’ is a story we could listen to again and again.
Every few years an artist releases an album that stops everyone in their tracks. Differences are forgotten and community rifts are healed. As barriers of age, class, race and sexual orientation crumble, everyone joins hands and sings along in harmony to the soundtrack of a generation.
30 Ignore The Ignorant
Say what you like about The Cribs (they look like their mum cut their hair, that bleeding-all-the-time thing was a bit gross, the phrase ‘ethical indie’ was the most ideologically flawed utterance of 2007), but you have to admit they’ve demonstrated an intriguing approach in choosing the people who produce their records.
29 Phrazes For The Young
“Somewhere along the way, my hopefulness turned to sadness/ Somewhere along the way, my sadness turned to bitterness…” Suffice to say, the first two lines that slur out of the speakers after pressing ‘play’ on ‘Phrazes For The Young’ will be instant red flags to any Strokes fan combing Julian Casablancas’ solo debut for portents of doom.
28 My Maudlin Career
To those in the know, twee-pop six-piece Camera Obscura have been making great music since 1996. Debut long-player ‘Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi’ contained ‘Eighties Fan’, one of indie pop’s great lost singles. ‘Underachievers Please Try Harder’ (released in 2003 on Merge, the tiny label that first brought you Arcade Fire) featured a bespectacled teddy bear on the sleeve and 11 flawless songs inside, and ‘Let’s Get Out Of This Country’ (2005) added a Spector-esque sheen to the Glaswegian band’s C86-indebted sound.
27 A Woman A Man Walked By
A lot has changed since PJ Harvey and John Parish circled each other on 1996’s ‘Dance Hall At Louse Point’. For one, a female solo artist now seems to lack cachet unless she’s strapped coyly in a cute vintage dress, ruffling her sexy bed-hair while strumming on an acoustic guitar and bitching about the last arsehole who let her down (yet always with that she-definitely-still-would wink). Yet for every Duffy, Kate Nash and Florence Welch, there will be one woman who still continues to forge her own path.
Pretty much every molecule of Florence And The Machine divides opinion, scoring a line of taste like a Stanley knife through a forearm. Live, Florence ‘Flossie’ Welch dresses up as a clown, flails around like a cattle prod-poked octopus, throat-wobble warbling. Fifty people we asked randomly on Oxford Street said she was the most brilliantly captivating performer this side of Slipknot in stage-destruction mode. The other 50 said it was the most toe-curling, attention-grabbing half-hour since Myleene Klass took a shower in the Australian jungle.
25 It’s Not Me, It’s You
As the first of the bad girls through the door, it’s hard to know what Lily Allen’s done more for, feminism or pop music. A quick Top 40 history lesson to demonstrate. Pre-Allen: Joss Stone, Katie Melua, KT Tunstall, Amy ‘Frank’ Winehouse; safe, insipid, grown-up and gash. Après Allen: Beth Ditto, Florence And The Machine, Ladyhawke, Amy ‘Rehab’ Winehouse; intelligent, dangerous, opinionated and human.
24 Love Comes Close
In 1995, Genesis P-Orridge of cult noise terrorists Throbbing Gristle seriously injured himself while trying to escape a fire at the home of über-producer Rick Rubin. He sued Rubin for a six-figure sum and, legend has it, promptly spent the dough on sex-change surgery.
23 Kingdom Of Rust
Blimey, they took their time, didn’t they? Doves haven’t released an album for four years, which in the current strike-while-the-iron’s-hot climate could be a seriously risky thing to do. Thankfully, though, it seems that absence has made hearts grow even fonder of the much-loved Cheshire three-piece. The band’s last LP, 2005’s ‘Some Cities’, contained some of their finest songs, most notably the thumping Motown homage ‘Black And White Town’.
22 Two Suns
After U2 and Gram Parsons, Natasha Khan is next to make the pilgrimage to the Joshua Tree for her second album. However, rather than go the whole psilocybin-and-UFO-spotting hog, she retreated to London and New York to finish the job, resulting in a split-personality LP.
Much is being made of ‘Two Suns’’ dichotomous DNA, both in its recording (the earthy Vs the mechanical, electronic Vs organic) and its subject matter (the struggle between two lovers, or between Natasha and her inner character, Pearl).
21 Get Color
Perhaps the most amazing thing about music is that its popularity endures when, on the whole, it’s so relentlessly fucking tedious. Craven, careerist, grovelling, obvious – music shouldn’t give you what you want, it should give you things you never even knew you wanted. You try to cajole it into action, like the complacent lover it’s become – ‘Come on, music. Remember Elbow? With the bukkake clips and the sabotage and the big screen? Oh, can’t we be that happy again? Please, darling. At least let’s try…’. But, alas, music almost always refuses. It prefers to keep things ‘comfortable’.
20 Bitte Orca
Pity the maverick, won’t you? While blinkered bands peddle straightforward (read: drab), indie ‘Music For The People’ with nary a murmur of complaint, others stick their heads above the parapet with something inventive only to be met, far too often, with the suspicion that they’re over-complicating things. That smart, creative bands are somehow reneging on music’s main purpose (presumably to make us want to be Liam Gallagher) is, of course, a massive crock of shit.
19 Wall Of Arms
Bookish tendencies are by no means a bad thing, but there’s always been an air of wimpy feyness about The Maccabees that suggests Orlando Weeks and his crew spent their art-school days stalking the corridors like nerve-wracked velociraptors, bobbing their heads appreciatively at fetching pairs of clogs. So while 2007 debut ‘Colour It In’ was a commendable set of art-pop confections, it was short on bite and big on cutesy, cuddly songs with titles like ‘Toothpaste Kisses’. The solution? Simple: The Maccabees have ‘gone dark’.
18 Travels With Myself And Another
We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,” goes the saying, but now, finally, the past is through with Future Of The Left. Their debut ‘Curses’, stunning though it was, was beset by memories of the members’ former bands and subsequently ignored by anyone without intimate knowledge of Cardiff’s DIY music scene (ie, almost everyone). But now FOTL can move forward as A Band rather than Three Ex-Members Of Other Bands because they no longer sound like their old bands.
Never let the music get in the way of a good story. So goes the music journo mantra in a world where quotes rule over chords and headlines matter more than basslines. With this in mind, Girls’ press coverage is pretty much guaranteed before they’ve even played a note.
Lead singer and songwriter Christopher Owen was raised in a cult where pop music was banned, women sold themselves for sex and several members were driven to suicide. Want more juicy anecdotes?
16 Sigh No More
The problem of authenticity in folk is as old as the Appalachians. Ever since masters of the form were plucked from under rocks and corralled into chic NYC café venues for the edification of right-on students in the early ’60s, folk has signalled something desirable yet tantalisingly out-of-reach for fed-up inhabitants of the lonesome, crowded west.
15 The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
This time last year it was as if someone had been leaving copies of ‘Graceland’ in every thrift-store in Brooklyn. Now it seems like someone has come across a job lot of NME’s legendary ‘C86’ tape of fey indie bands, because they’re all at it – Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and now this lot.
Everything from the oh-so-twee name to singer Kip Berman’s affected English accent screams wrong, but it sounds so right; a bit of Mary Chain here, a withering Moz-esque turn of phrase there and a lot of early, jangly My Bloody Valentine everywhere else.
14 Journal For Plague Lovers
If we have to define Manic Street Preachers’ ninth album ‘Journal For Plague Lovers’, then let’s begin with what it isn’t. This is not ‘The Holy Bible Mark II’. This is not another state of the alienation address.
13 La Roux
Annie Lennox’s stern, android persona. The asexually metallic voice of Neil Tennant. Marc Almond and Andy Bell’s flamboyant vocals. During the ’80s, the labour-saving potential of the synthesizer allowed for Eurythmics, Pet Shop Boys, Soft Cell and Erasure to develop a new form.
The electropop duo was a perfect yin/yang, the anonymous machine operator and their asexual and ambiguous singer, and it blew the charts wide open. It was a golden age for androgynous, aesthetically sharp British pop.
You do wonder whether, in their treehouse, the Arctic Monkeys haven’t got a copy of the lyrics to ‘Who The Fuck Are Arctic Monkeys?’ pasted to the wall, with the important bits circled. Never were truer words spoken in drawl: “Stick to the guns. Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide…”
So, as they Montgolfier off on the magical balloon ride that is ‘Humbug’, over the side they chuck about half of the fanbase who filled Old Trafford like so many sandbags. Goodbye proper-tunes people! This is not for you.
11 West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum
Oasis. Lad rock. There, three words in and that’s the phrases obligatory to all Kasabian reviews out of the way. Good. Now we can move on, because they certainly have. Did you see last week’s NME cover? Does that look like a band to be adored solely by Stella-swigging football hooligans? If you haven’t already, go watch the Noel Fielding-starring video to ‘Vlad The Impaler’.
10 Kings & Queens
When Jamie T surfed the initial wave of hype on his washboard, it just seemed like Virgin had dropped a syringe on Camden and signed up whichever posho troubadour dabbling in ragamuffin chic it stuck in. However, even though his vocal inflections and street poet lyrics seemed desperately seeking for a place between His Holiness The Doherty and Citizen Skinner, his jumble of punk, hip-hop and folk proved to be great fun, and his debut album ‘Panic Prevention’ became an unlikely favourite of Mercury judges, Whiley coyotes and mams and dads too.
9 Fever Ray
Karin Dreijer Andersson sounds demented on this album. Not in a keeping-a-woman-down-a-well kind of way. And not demented in a constructing-furniture-out-of-human-thigh-bones-as-a-sickening-monument-to-insanity fashion. And not even in a following-deranged-orders-from-a-long-since-deceased-mother-in-the-attic manner either.
8 Tarot Sport
The way people toss around words like ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’, you’d think they were important to still have any meaning. But trust NME, Fuck Buttons aren’t avant-garde. Sure, their debut, 2008’s ‘Street Horrrsing’, was a weird beast – a hybrid of the tropical wibble of Black Dice, the abrasive howls of and the starburst kosmische of Boredoms, birthed from laptop, floor tom, myriad synthesizers and some kit apparently shoplifted from the Early Learning Centre.
7 A Brief History Of Love
‘A Brief History Of Love’? That’s a big undertaking. Love’s infinite and sublime vicissitudes have proved a draw for creative sorts since time immemorial, its landscape mapped by every artist who ever felt the rush of oxytocin to the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Not that Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell are daunted. This year’s recipients of the Philip Hall Radar Award, they’ve crafted a sound that could variously be described as ‘big’ and ‘fuck-off massive’.
Classifying Grizzly Bear alongside American folksters Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver is a common error – it’s like comparing the real-life Ursus arctos horribilis (that’s grizzly bear to you) with a runty park squirrel. In the years since Ed Droste released the lo-fi solo album ‘Horn Of Plenty’ under the Grizzly Bear name back in 2004, he and his band have proved themselves to be more than mere backwoods strummers.
5 Merriweather Post Pavilion
The picture of the sleeve on this page is nowhere near big enough. Go look it up online, as big as you can, and stare at it very hard. See how, as you try to focus on any one part of the tessellated pattern, the sections in the periphery of your vision shift and undulate, almost alive, making it impossible to pin the image down in your mind?
Right. Sadly for me, that’s probably given you a much better idea about the nature of the new Animal Collective album than the next 700 words will.
4 Two Dancers
Making the strange seem normal is the most accomplished act of artistic alchemy. Any idiot can try to be weird; most will just end up being depressingly inane. But to take something as wonderfully, magically strange as Wild Beasts’ debut ‘Limbo, Panto’ and sublimate its elements into something as subtly beautiful as ‘Two Dancers’ is something very special indeed.
3 It’s Blitz!
Repent ye and make ready for the coming of the Lord: the end days have come. Frogs rain from the sky, the beer taps froth with blood and Yeah Yeah Yeahs have started using synthesizers instead of guitars.
2 The xx
Space. Everyone needs it to stay sane. In London, though, it’s hard to find. Coffin-narrow streets are piled with tiny flats, subdivided into even tinier rooms, cramped and claustrophobic. No act of chance, perhaps, that it’s in the capital that the most original music of recent years, dubstep, with its booming, echoing spaces, first developed.
1 Primary Colours
At first sight, you could easily have dismissed The Horrors as haircuts, scenesters, talentless art-school chancers. Sure, after listening to the brilliant, bilious racket of their debut ‘Strange House’, you might have struggled a bit more. But you’d still have managed it.