Top 20 Albums of 2009

The end of the year is upon us, and it has become EMJ tradition to reflect back and celebrate the year’s music with a list of the top 20 best albums released in 2009 as voted by the musicians of New Zealand. For a month we gathered from a huge array of artists based all over the country their lists of their five favourite albums from 2009. The votes have been tallied and the results are interesting, with a number of Kiwi releases featuring quite highly in the list. All will be revealed to you over the next week and a half right here, so keep checking back regularly!



The Horrors- Primary Colours

A flawless album; a grand masterpiece and voted overwhelmingly by New Zealand musicians as the best album released in 2009. Primary Colours presents The Horrors’ utopian dream, an intense, expanding journey through time, warping the modern mindset of structured society and breaking into the vault of ’80s British new-wave. The Horrors’ maturity on their second album has them on par with Radiohead, despite sounding more like Joy Division’s Closer than The Bends. It’s explosive, colourful and expansive; bludgeoning, awakening and full of passion. Each song has its own fury, building and climaxing like a giant wall of noise with shredded synths, heavily distorted guitars and dark imposing vocals. The album progresses like man’s own search for self discovery, at first bursting with energy and endurance, it’s then hacked at the knees and left gasping for breath. It emerges from the ordeal determined to break free and start over, ending with the fantasy freak out that is ‘Sea Within A Sea’, a beautiful endearing finale to a magical musical journey that will be remembered for decades to come.

The Horrors- Myspace


Grizzly Bear


Grizzly Bear- Veckatimest

Grizzly Bear created a wonderful mystery land to sink into with Veckatimest, a bafflingly pretty, haunting and intelligent rich tapestry pulled together in upstate New York and Cape Cod last summer. The enigmatic and regal sounding results have a breathtaking quality and it is here that the Brooklyn quartet hones its sound and breaks into the mainstream. Ed Droste’s operatic tenor soars and shivers next to Daniel Rossen’s croon, laden over Christopher Bear’s icy percussion and Chris Taylor’s breathless bass. Choral vocals are often the focal point, bringing more life, energy and personality into Grizzly Bear’s work than ever before. Their chamber pop spliced with psychedelia paints a grand, majestic scenery that would be nice to crawl into and inhabit. Its hallmark songs ‘Two Weeks’, ‘Cheerleader’, ‘Ready, Able’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ are all masterful creations seeped in grandeur. Grizzly Bear embodies that carefully considered area of modern pop music, where atmospheric detail is everything.

Grizzly Bear- Myspace


Animal Collective


Animal Collective- Merriweather Post Pavilion

Shaking the foundations of music with their pulsing bass, shimmering synths and dainty voices for years, AnCo, as they’re fondly known among fans, got the levels just right on their eighth release, Merriweather Post Pavilion. Always magical and fantastic, AnCo grew to great heights in MPP, its self-destructive passages coursing through veins of psychedelia to experiment with qualities of trance, rock and dismantled pop. As a three-piece here their collage of sounds comes to life to hauntingly majestic results. Single ‘My Girls’ captures the aspirations of the young in its soaring choral vocals, dancehall bass and arpeggio synths. It’s easily the most otherworldly and fascinating release of the year, the most removed but relevant collection of dreams and imagery and ideas brought forward in songs that are as varied as the planets. It also helped that MPP is the most accessible of all of Animal Collective’s releases, bringing hordes of people together as fans. Identifiable for its dense layers of atmospheric melodies and celebratory sound, MPP is a hallmark album of the ’00s, and one that sets the benchmark for the ’10s.

Animal Collective- Myspace




Lawrence Arabia- Chant Darling

James Milne’s fitting tribute to ’60s and ’70s pop has come full circle, from winning the Silver Scroll song writing award for his single ‘Apple Pie Bed’ to featuring notably in many end of year lists. Working with his friends, including members of The Phoenix Foundation, The Sneaks and Liam Finn, Chant Darling is Milne’s own resurrection of the mid-2000s NZ pop insurgence, when Milne himself released his debut album as well as an album with The Reduction Agents. He has a penchant for writing elegant pop riffs with wonderfully moulded melodies and his lyrics are often laced with some sort of amusing crackpot irony (“we love each other/ but we hate each other/ we’re afraid of each other/ because we want to screw each other”). He lived in London during the period when most of the songs were written and the swinging London style comes through strongly, especially on ‘Eye A’ and ‘Apple Pie Bed’. Others dabble in psychedelia (‘The Undesirables’, ‘Auckland CBD Part Two’) and ‘I’ve Smoked Too Much’ has an overt sense of Kiwiana.

Lawrence Arabia- Myspace




Sharpie Crows- Greed

Only two bands have made it into the EMJ top 20 two years in a row, the first was Deerhunter (#2 in 2008, #20 in 2009) and the second band is Sharpie Crows (#9 in 2008) with their fantastic sophomore album Greed. Self-released in January, before the band relocated to Melbourne, fans predominately got their hands on Greed at live shows (although it is now available on bandcamp). The band had no label backing and did all distribution themselves. Continuing their unique assault on the New Zealand punk scene, Greed is darker and more aggressive than their first album, We Fought The Great White Whale. Built on a solid foundation of repetitive bass notes and tumultuous drum beats, Josh Jenkins (bass) and Jackson Hobbs (drums) provide the perfect bed for Casey Latimer (guitar) and Sam Bradford (keys/vocals) to unleash squelches of violent noise and wild vocals. Their songs can sound messy and shambolic but there’s always a tight rhythm that pulls everything into line. Bradford’s lyrics are again packed with satire, at times attacking and offensive, he describes song writing as “a place where I can be an absolute fucker, childish and sarcastic and utterly unreasonable.”

Sharpie Crows- Myspace


The Mint Chicks


The Mint Chicks- Screens

The Auckland punk-turned-experimental-pop quartet-turned-trio caused controversy among old fans with their unusually sedate third album Screens, released in March. Gone was the wayward frenetic power punk spite of 2006’s acclaimed Crazy? Yes! Dumb? No! and 2005’s Fuck The Golden Youth. Screens emphasised effects and production. Vocoder is used heavily throughout, and Kody’s angry spitting is transformed into a sweet melodic croon. Moments of catchiness abound in songs like ‘Hot On Your Heels’ and ‘Don’t Sell Your Brain Out, Baby’, as is typical for The Mint Chicks, however bassist Michael Logie’s absence is sorely felt. Where his sprightly basslines once steered the way, since his departure the trio has turned inward and embellished their experimental tendencies. It worked out to varying degrees of popularity among listeners, but their reverence among New Zealand musicians is still high.

The Mint Chicks- Myspace




Lightning Bolt- Earthly Delights

Are they the loudest band in the world? Some fans who attended their recent New Zealand shows say so, and it’s perhaps the reason that Earthly Delights is so high on this year’s list. Because this, Lightning Bolt’s fifth album, is hardly a major diversion or a progression for the band, it’s simply doing what they do best (intense, fast paced noise with bottomless bass riffs and speedy drums) with a few subtle changes. I’m not saying that Lightning Bolt doesn’t deserve 7th spot (because all of their albums are of the same high calibre), I’m merely suggesting that because they toured NZ in’09 a lot more people took time to listen to them, whereas previously they only had a small niche following. As far as differentiating Earthly Delights from their previous releases, it has more of a metal quality, of the stoner variety that uses a lot of lower end notes and less thick punchy chords. Still, all the songs could fit comfortably on to any Lightning Bolt record, because while it works they have no reason to change.

Lightning Bolt- Myspace




The XX- XX

So much music out of the UK this year has been bland, especially in comparison to the exciting explosions of sound we’ve heard out of the USA. London’s The XX is one of the few exceptions, having the highest rated debut album in this year’s EMJ list. Emerging from relative obscurity mid-year to become one of the most talked about bands of 2009, The XX’s climb up the indie charts is a credit to their very consistent self-titled debut. Singer Romy Madley Croft’s voice is seductive, Oliver Sim answers back in a sly drool and the heart of The XX melts like chocolate. It’s all very sexy, in a dirty adulterated way, providing the perfect soundtrack for the bedroom that’s bent from its trip-hop roots. Croft’s voice definitely appeals to those who adore Beth Gibbons (Portishead), but on the inside there’s a voice speaking to a younger generation who find themselves growing up in a time of change and uncertainty. XX is an album of emotional insecurities, but is also an album that celebrates life from an unusually acute direction; crying and laughing in the same sentence.

 The XX- Myspace




The Flaming Lips- Embryonic

The Flaming Lips’ follow up to At War With The Mystics (2006) takes somewhat of a psychotic journey back in time, travelling back to the late-90s when the band was at their most psyched out, alienated best. But Embryonic offers such an eclectic cross-pollination of genres that it’s difficult to tell if the band is deliberately interfering with the past or just trying replicate it in some kind of whacked out time machine. Only as the 70-minute opus draws to a close does Wayne Coyne admit “I’ve got no secrets to hide”, perhaps addressing the fact that many questioned his ideology behind making an album that seemed to embrace so many elements The Flaming Lips had experimented with in the past. Psychedelic music isn’t exactly stale and as chameleons of the musical genre The Flaming Lips have simply changed their stripes. The music has not changed, it has simply been regurgitated as a more exciting, messed up arrangement. Embryonic is the climax to everything The Flaming Lips have released over the past thirteen years, wrapping every element of their unique sound into 18 tracks of mind blowing grandeur. One can only wonder, what will they do next?

 The Flaming Lips- Myspace




Dirty Projectors- Bitte Orca

Uniquely classical in its timing, appeal and orchestration, Bitte Orca was instantly hailed as one of 2009’s best albums when it was released in June. Unfortunately come December the hype seems to have faded slightly, and the album has been struggling to crack the top 10 on many end of year lists. However it hasn’t stopped Dirty Projectors having a polarising effect on some listeners, marking the bands rise in popularity seven years after releasing their debut album. It’s in the birdlike vocal melodies and the rich harmonics that Dirty Projectors finally made their mark. Songwriter David Longstreth bought in Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian to add a highly featured female voice, most notably on hit single ‘Stillness Is The Move’, but also on backing vocals throughout the album. The pair complemented Longstreth remarkably well and gave his music the extra push it needed to reach a wider ranging audience. But while the singing garnished the most praise, Longstreth’s unusual fractured instrumentation and unconventional time signatures added another strange dimension to Bitte Orca, making the album a grand statement of eccentric art.

Dirty Projectors- Myspace




Wilberforces- Haunted

Wilberforces burst into 2009 with unrivaled ferocity and passion. Storming stages with an abrasive sound and an aggressive live show, they earned a devoted following at their frequent live shows and when time came for the much talked about Haunted to be released anticipation was extremely high. I wasn’t really surprised with how good it was; we’d grown familiar with their biting wit and catchy songs, it was just a matter of laying down the tracks and getting it out there. From start to finish Haunted is succinct and sharp, to the point but not perilously short. The hazy screen of layers that unfolds in single ‘Tidal Waves’ proved to be a favourite musical moment of ’09, the storm-water of Thom Burton and Emily Littler’s guitars swirling around their vicious vocals and murderous drums. Though there are so many good songs on this album it’s hard to choose a favourite, among the clear stand outs are ‘My Mind Is In My Paws’ and ‘Sirens’, whose interplay of duo vocals and obnoxious ‘la la la’s make it an obvious highlight. With the post-album departure of epic skins man Callum Sleigh to Melbourne, the band fortunately did not crumble and fade. They got even tighter! Chris Varnham abandoned his keyboard duties and picked up the drum sticks. Though Wilberforces’ future remains up in the air as reportedly Mean Street has now moved to Melbourne, taking Emily (a member of both bands) with them, we can only cross our fingers and hope for regular Wilberforces reunions.

Wilberforces- Myspace




Dear Time’s Waste- Room For Rent

In 2009 Claire Duncan emerged from the shadows, her previous solo excursions gave way to Dear Time’s Waste; a new project with a new moniker. The haunting, ethereal quality of her voice and songs captured many hearts, with its beautiful melodies and interestingly unusual production choices. Auckland-based Duncan’s EP Room For Rent showcase a unique singing style, that is at once delicately birdlike and also as if processed through a mouthful of gravel. The frequently swirling atmospherics give the EP a light, airy quality that takes the weight off the lyrics and often dark melodies. With instruments sparingly assembled, these songs are faithfully recreated live, where Duncan and band prove they are world class, both in their own shows and various support slots (including with Deerhunter). Stand out songs featured prominently on bnet radio include ‘Cows’ with its eerie howls and ‘Clandestine’ with its cautiously thunderous drumming. Duncan has a strong grasp of her vocal abilities and harnesses these to great effect, the changing style of her voice most apparent in the final track ‘Is This What You Had In Mind?’. Room For Rent is memorable for its moving songs and distinct style.

Dear Time’s Waste- Myspace




The Decemberists- The Hazards Of Love

Since releasing their debut album Castaways and Cutouts in 2002 on the Kill Rock Stars label The Decemberists have been one of the most consistent bands in the world. However their fifth album The Hazards of Love is undoubtedly their most ambitious; a concept album centred around the forbidden love between a woman named Margaret and a shape shifter, complete with different characters to keep the narration interesting. Clouded with complex string arrangements and drifting vocal harmonies, The Hazards of Love almost feels like it has a spiritual voice, promoting peace and communion and guiding listeners to a place in Colin Meloy’s imagination that is away from all the destruction and heartbreak of the modern world. The 17-track album flows like a novel, with no clear single, only chapters to highlight breaks in the story. Four songs adopt the album title, all with their own unique subheadings to exit one stanza and open another. A number of guests appear on the album, that in some way proves The Decemberists’ status. They include Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Robyn Hitchcock and Jim James (My Morning Jacket).

 The Decemberists- Myspace




Fuck Buttons- Tarot Sport 

Aided by producer Andrew Weatherall, who famously produced Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Fuck Buttons decided to overhaul their sound and go forward with a noisier, bouncier version, scraping the floor with a heavy dose of synthesizers and drum machines. Unlike their first album, 2008’s Street Horrrsing, which built musical soundscapes using guitars and My Bloody Valentine style distorted noise, Tarot Sport is concocted purely from the electronic arts. The seven track, epic monologue is a journey into the darkness of space, time and psychedelia, at times getting lost inside itself but always emerging with a grand design. Fuck Buttons is a noise band, and despite offering a somewhat eclectic output of Animal Collective-esque synth pop their melodies lie in the meandering drones that sit beneath each song, five of which are over eight minutes long.

 Fuck Buttons- Myspace


 Fever Ray


Fever Ray- Fever Ray

Eerie and other-worldly is how many would describe Sweden’s Fever Ray, the minimalist synth-heavy electronic solo project of The Knife’s Karin Dreijer (with co-producers Christoffer Berg, Van Rivers and the Subliminal Kid). Her self-titled debut album is not as initially grabbing as The Knife’s punctual, raw elements on 2006’s Silent Shout, but has prompted many critics to relate about its darkly detached icy atmosphere and frosty, wintry moods. Capturing fans’ imaginations with its ten tracks of wistful ambient music, there are odd elements of new age mysticism in the album, inherent in the spacey synths and pulsating beats. Swapping between pitch-shifted and pure unfettered vocals, Dreijer tells stories direct from her heart in fragile tones. Melodies like soft bird calls hum above less-than-relaxing drones, with vocals at times subtly shrieking not unlike Björk, and at other times grossly multi-tracked, a style The Knife made popular. Fever Ray was favoured locally amongst the bnets, and continues to grow its fan base, but seems yet to penetrate the mainstream properly. It could be that Fever Ray is just too abstract and unfamiliar, however it’s pulled many fans (and votes for this list), so it could just be a matter of time.

Fever Ray- Myspace




Nevernudes- Nevernudes’ First EP

From an enthusiastic group of young Auckland punk bands attempting to spark a punk revival, Nevernudes clearly stand out. Still, their debut EP recorded by former Mint Chicks bassist Michael Logie is possibly the most surprising inclusion in this year’s list. The young band admit themselves that their first EP is more like a set of demos, but to many listeners it came across stronger than that, matching the quality of a lot of lo-fi punk recordings being released world-wide. The energy of their rhythms, the catchiness of their lyrics and the raw aggression of their chugging guitar riffs, coupled with their ability to form the perfect vocal melody all shine through, proving they have all the basics worked out and are well on their way to achieving more illustrious goals. The entire EP is available for free download from Nevernudes’ bandcamp page.

 Nevernudes- Myspace




Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

2009 was the year that French poppers Phoenix broke into the mainstream. After 14 years of toiling away quietly on their jittery, literate pop rock, releasing such considered albums as It’s Never Been Like That and United, the quartet’s fifth album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, came out and blew everyone away. The spluttering vocal spurts and shiny guitar parts formed a party that everyone wanted to attend. The band’s sprightly sound has always been characterised by clean parts and intellectual lyrics, and the band by their various connections to the film and fashion industries (lead singer Thomas Mar is married with child to Sophia Coppola, for one). They’ve grown considerably with WAP – glitzy low-end synths punctuate songs like ‘Rome’ and ‘Girlfriend’ (the latter of which is considerably Krautrocky) that at a stretch sound like they could have had some psychological influence seep through from their relationship with fellow Parisians Daft Punk. Phoenix guitarist Laurent Brancowitz was, after all, in a band with them prior to Phoenix, called Darlin’. WAP is a very mature, kaleidoscopic and realised sound for the band, and its great to see their talents come to fruition in such a well-rounded release. Syncopated drums and intelligently interlocking bass, guitar and vocal melodies characterise much of the album. A perfect example of the cleanly produced sound is ‘Love Like A Sunset (Planetarium)’. Sing-a-long vocals and threadbare bass jitter along with urgency and hi-hat clasps, making for a bouncy, energetic, fun and sentimental sound.

Phoenix- Myspace




St. Vincent- Actor

After a year and a half of constant touring in support of her brilliant debut album Marry Me, Annie Clark returned to her home in Brooklyn, New York tired and exhausted. Needing some solid time out, she took a step back from writing music and spent many hours lying on her couch re-visiting her favourite childhood films. It was in the films that she found inspiration to write the songs for Actor, drafting songs using the computer programme Garage Band. Unable to make loud noises in her apartment, she composed the songs by drawing musical notes and without playing any instruments. In an interview with EMJ earlier in the year she explained, “What I would do was just draw in notes until it sounded like I thought it should sound. There was a lot more mathematical thinking than musical thinking in making it.” The end result showed no signs of any couch-potato lethargy, many of the songs appeared sprightly and animated with a bright, bubbly sentimentality, representing strongly the accompanying movie scenes. The song ‘Marrow’ was written to a scene in The Wizard of Oz; ‘The Strangers’ goes with a scene from Sleeping Beauty and many of the other songs fit with scenes in Woody Allen films.

St. Vincent- Myspace




HEALTH- Get Color

The abrasive, visceral attack of LA four-piece HEALTH has been documented before in their self-titled 2007 debut of epic proportions, and now the leading noise makers are back. Get Color is a hypnotic collection of dreamy, ethereal, hardcore noise. Beautifully dreamy and floating abstract vocal melodies ride atop cyclops drums and demented wiry guitar, powered by that infamous homemade Zoothorn pedal (used for both guitar and mic effects). The quartet has earned its very deserved stripes starting off by playing at its second home The Smell alongside buddies No Age and Mika Miko, who have also gone on to achieve great things. But HEALTH is unlike any other. While No Age belt out slacker/riot grunge anthems and Mika Miko revive shouty quirky punk in its best possible form, HEALTH is arguably more unique in its concoction of various elements. It’s a constant tug of war between the elements – dreamy eeriness vs gutter punk noise. The synchronicity of the band and its effortless combination of styles makes for a riveting and powerful sound, allowing them to last longer than contemporaries and split record/tour buddies Crystal Castles, who unfortunately appeared to implode after various dramas and press sieges overpowered them. Get Color is a mighty beast of a release and it’s no surprise it got the amount of votes it did. In fact, I’m surprised it didn’t do better.

HEALTH- Myspace




Deerhunter- Rainwater Cassette Exchange

The Atlanta, Georgia favourites had to be in there somewhere after repeatedly blowing us away time and again with each release and coming in at number two on our 2008 End of Year List with Microcastle. This year’s offering, Rainwater Cassette Exchange, is interestingly an EP, however that did not stop it garnering enough votes in our list to earn it the 20th spot. The group’s trademark chugging bassline-driven rhythms are ever present, swirly atmospherics and dazzling guitar-play all float airily along with Bradford Cox’s unmistakable, snarly tenor. All the songs sound like classics at first listen, and grow to sound like old familiar friends with repeat visits, of which it gets many. A contender among the top best songs in ’09 could well be third track ‘Famous Last Words’, with its alien warble and toe-tapping rhythm. Rainwater Cassette Exchange is a short but perfectly formed release, making for a very memorable listen.

Deerhunter- Myspace

A big thanks to the following bands/ musicians who voted: Catholic Guilt, These Dancing Wolves, Grayson Gilmour, Insurgents, TFF, 1995, Capsul, The Phoenix Foundation, Roy Irwin, The Hairdos, Canadia, Nice Birds, The Brunettes, The Postures, Wildwood Lights, Teacups, Sets, Hypercolour, The Veils, Clap Clap Riot, Panther and the Zoo, The Enright House, Dear Time’s Waste, Damsels, The Mint Chicks, Crackhouse 5, Connan Mockasin, Bandicoot, V!xens, Bright Lights, Radio Over Moscow, Dylan Storey, The Map Room, Lydia Cole, Dinosaur Club, The Bemsha Swing, Sharpie Crows, Little Pictures, The Debutantes, Doteyes, Nevernudes, Yule, Moron Says What?!, Thought Creature, The Hungry Caterpillar, Bang! Bang! Eche!, Street Chant, God Bows To Math, Luke Buda, Snowfield, Dyke! Dyke! Dyke!, Over The Atlantic, Mr Sterile Assembly, Sam Flynn Scott, The Sing Songs,  Sherpa, Sleepy Age, Timothy Blackman, Ragamuffin Children, Bear Cat, The Gladeyes, Bond Street Bridge, Kittentank, Secret Knives, and So So Modern.

Posted by Sarah Gooding under New Zealand
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