- The Washington Times - Friday, January 1, 2010

Two stories dominated music news in 2009. The untimely death of Michael Jackson — perhaps the best-known pop singer on Earth — stunned the world last June.

The world also thrilled to a new talent — as unknown Scottish singer Susan Boyle garnered global attention with her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” on the TV contest, “Britain’s Got Talent,” which racked up hundreds of millions of YouTube views. Miss Boyle’s Internet fame carried over to the real world, as her debut album crushed at the cash registers — making her the first debut artist in the 53-year history of the Billboard 200 to open at No. 1 and chart five consecutive weeks in the top spot. Her success papers over the continuing financial woes of the music industry, which is looking to the possibility of garnering new royalties from radio and making deals with social networks and other online properties as a way of stemming declining revenue.

Of course, more compelling music wouldn’t hurt. But 2009 was not a banner year for pop, with the charts dominated by lackluster efforts from established divas and leading men. The emergence of the eccentric Lady Gaga, however, provided some excitement on the Top 40 front.

The giants of hip-hop and the dinosaurs of rock similarly disappointed (with some notable exceptions). Contemporary country, meanwhile, got a shot in the arm from Brad Paisley’s excellent “American Saturday Night.”

Of my own list, I think that albums by Sonic Youth and the Dead Weather will come to be regarded as minor classics. I’m just as convinced that some of the new bands that critics (myself included ) mooned over this year — like Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, the XX and Dirty Projectors — will wind up as footnotes in the history of a transitional era in pop music.

1. Sonic Youth, The Eternal, Matador Records — The amazing consistency of Sonic Youth over a recording career spanning 25 years masks the brilliance of their latest release. “The Eternal” is something of a crowning achievement, bringing new pop discipline to all the off-kilter elements they’re known for: eccentric tunings, discursive guitar solos, harmonic effects. The result is amazing — a musical garden of forking paths that is by turns rough and finely wrought; comfortable and full of surprises.

2. Marcio Local, Says Don Day Don Dree Don Don, Luaka Bop — This candy bar of a Brazilian album is compulsively listenable. The samba beats mix effortlessly with funky horns and soulful organ, creating a musical experience that is both a throwback to the 1970s and coolly contemporary. Mr. Local brings an ebullient singing style and a palpable love of Brazilian traditions to his U.S. debut. One of the best party albums of the year.

3. Wilco, Wilco (The Album), Nonesuch — Wilco is surging in its current incarnation, with guitarist Nils Cline largely responsible for the transformation. Frontman Jeff Tweedy is composing with new authority and confidence. This comes across in the uncharacteristically upbeat riffs, as on the coy, sugary “Sonny Feeling.” But Mr. Tweedy is equally at home in the grit and gristle of murder ballad, “Bull Black Nova.” The driving jams and mix of moods place “Wilco (The Album)” as the most mature, complex album of the band’s great career.

4. The Dead Weather, Horehound, Third Man Records — Jack White’s new band feels more like a one-off than an enduring side project. But the grim overtones of Dead Weather’s roots-infused metal sound has staying power. The overall effect is that of a horror-core musical -with Alison Mosshart of the Kills starring as a grindhouse chanteuse on deftly plotted songs like “So Far From Your Weapon” and “Treat Me Like Your Mother.” Mr. White largely confines himself to drums, but his songwriting — especially on the enigmatic “I Cut Like a Buffalo” — is more vivid and gripping than his work for the White Stripes.

5. Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Know Better, Learn Faster, Kill Rock Stars — Despite being signed to a major indie label, Thao Nguyen is still an up-and-coming talent. On “Know Better, Learn Faster,” the Falls Church native combines soulful, hook-driven guitar playing with a wry, self-aware lyrical style. Her occasionally spastic singing style is quirky but winning, and the track “When We Swam” gets my vote for indie-rock single of the year.

6. Neko Case, Middle Cyclone, Anti- — It took me a few spins to warm to Neko Case’s “Middle Cyclone”; her singing haunted by a sense of cool that feels new and a bit strange. But this album doesn’t trade in bold, belted-out-of-the-park songs, but rather offers brief tales from nuanced, complicated characters, which Miss Case inhabits convincingly.

7. Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion, Domino Records — “Merriweather Post Pavilion” is an enveloping pop experience, on which orchestrations build weird, unexpected harmonies out of opposing tonal strains. There is a richness of mood here, too, as Animal Collective’s shifting harmonies draw bliss from somber passages or proceed from ordered duets to seemingly chaotic climaxes. The album is a revelation from beginning to end.

8. Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, V2 Records — On the best pure pop record of the year, French band Phoenix bops effortlessly between styles and influences, channeling contemporary Britpop, glam rock, 1980s Top 40, trance and electronica. Lead single “Lisztomania” is almost unbearably catchy, with its mumble of rhythm guitar set against the upbeat vocals of Thomas Mars.

9. Levon Helm, Electric Dirt, Vanguard — Levon Helm, famous as the drummer and vocalist for iconic roots group the Band, is enjoying a fruitful solo career as a kind of rock ‘n’ roll curator. On “Electric Dirt,” Mr. Helm captures the spirit of the music he spent a lifetime helping to invent — a uniquely American blend of gospel, folk, country and blues — on covers version of songs by artists ranging from Muddy Waters to Randy Newman.

10. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz!, Interscope — This synth-driven album marks a new direction for the New York trio. Singer Karen O. hasn’t lost her edge. On “It’s Blitz!” she shows off a more searching, emotional side. While the opening tracks “Zero” and “Heads” show off the driving, garage-revival beats they’re known for, songs like “Skeleton,” “Runaway” and “Little Shadow” betray a pleasing austerity that seems perfectly in step with the times.

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