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The Best Music of 2009

Our critics recommend the year's best in folk, hip-hop, metal, jazz, rock, R&B, and more — both here and abroad.

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Lymbyc Systym, Shutter Release

Instrumental rock albums can be cold. They can be alienating. In the broadest sense of the word, they can be voiceless. Lymbyc Systym's third release, Shutter Release, is none of the above, and may be just the sort of record patient listeners always hoped existed. Using warm acoustic instrumentation over precise electronic programming, brothers Jared and Michael Bell craft melodic, dramatic post-rock songs that are both comforting and challenging, and always worthy of close listening. The songs ebb and flow like a sea, yet are rarely as stark as Explosions in the Sky or as serene as Godspeed You! Black Emperor. With most songs under five minutes, this could be deemed instrumental rock for short attention spans, but that's okay: It's beautiful, it's moving, and then it's done, with no wasted effort on anyone's part. For those already invested in the genre, it may be revelation. (Mush)

Telekinesis , Telekinesis!

Not every song on Telekinesis! is top ten-worthy; a few fade into the background, the mortar between the bricks, such as the Pixies-esque "Look to the East" or the old-fashioned piano-pop of "Awkward Kisser." But the four or so songs that stand out are so fine it'd be a crime to exclude them. Like Weezer's best, "Coast of Carolina" mates an anthemic melody with fist-pumping energy. "Tokyo" is so catchy it lingers for weeks after a single listen. I-I-I went to Tokyo, I-I-I went to Tokyo ... Only in my dreams, only in my dreams, sings Telekinesis mastermind Michael Benjamin Lerner. As the song fades out, he repeats the line sans accompaniment, as if it's stuck in his head too and he's singing along. "All of a Sudden" is another uncannily memorable indie-pop burst — though Lerner only says it twice, all of a sudden it's the summertime! could be this winter's savior. (Merge)

Bowerbirds, Upper Air

There is no demanding, no urging, certainly no shouting: only a soft suggestion to follow Bowerbirds' emotional, nu-folk-laced acoustic pop songs through Upper Air. It would be wise to do so. When the journey leads to "Beneath Your Tree," the volume gently swells: Matt Damron's kick drum and snare become more pronounced; Beth Tacular and Phil Moore's vocal harmonies becoming more urgent; and Tacular's accordion, which dips in and out of the record, steps front and center. Next, "Ghost Life" is passionate and rousing without breaking the mold. The acoustic guitar does the heavy lifting, steel strings rattling across metal frets as Moore strums a lackadaisical rhythm like a second drum. Just as it threatens to run out of steam, bass, cello, and xylophone coalesce in the background to see it through. And so the album sidles along unassumingly, until it's gone and you realize you've been moved, too. (Dead Oceans)

Bike for Three, More Heart Than Brains

To make More Heart Than Brains, Canadian rapper Buck 65 and Belgian producer Greetings From Tuskan traded tracks electronically. The result pairs lush, Kraftwerk-like electronics with urgent, underground hip-hop sensibilities, and although the two never met in person, there are no indications the album was composed in the ether. Buck 65's sharply enunciated delivery takes plenty of liberty with rhythm and cadence, but never to the detriment of the song. His lyrics, an artsy mix of abstract and concrete, provide the perfect counterpoint to Greetings From Tuskan's ethereal, outer-spacey production; the two trade punches like lifelong sparring partners in an expertly choreographed duel. (Anticon)

Dan Deacon, Bromst

Make this the soundtrack to your next spazz-out. Balding, bearded electronic maestro Dan Deacon produces the sort of synthesized sounds you can bathe in — they'll whoosh and swirl and flow around you, moving your arms and legs as much as much as they saturate the neurons in your head. Bromst, his fifth full-length, takes the approach one step closer to the edge, looping and layering silken tracks and shattered notes at insane — some might say inane — levels. It's not drug music, but it could be: tracks like the eight-minute, blissed-out centerpiece "Surprise Stefani" feel less like songs than spinning windows into a playful, subconscious imagination. Deacon uses his powers for good before evil, producing music so askew yet life-affirming that a jaded twentysomething burnout and a prim pre-teen can get down to it on the same dance floor. At his notoriously riotous shows, they often do. (Carpark)

Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer

Spencer Krug is a busy man. That's been the line on the Canadian musician for years — at least since Wolf Parade went big in 2006, when he also played in Frog Eyes, Swan Lake, and perhaps his most indulgent endeavor, former solo project Sunset Rubdown. The latter has come to dominate his creative output, as he's already released twice as many Sunset Rubdown albums (four) as his biggest project has in as many years. One listen to Dragonslayer tells why: Wolf Parade may have his name, but Sunset Rubdown has his heart, and his yelping, over-the-top prog-rock proclivities to go with it. That's exactly what may turn people against him: his vocal affectations and the general grandiosity of his songwriting (something of a cross between David Bowie, Yes, and fellow Canadian Dan Bejar as Destroyer) are far from mainstream-ready. But for anyone predisposed to handle this sort of stuff, medieval subject matter and all, it's a godsend. (Jagjaguwar)

The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

Opening track "The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won't Wrestle the Thistles Undone)" — and no, this isn't a Coheed and Cambria record — dutifully sets the tone in name and sound for the Decemberists' best album since 2002 debut Castaways and Cutouts. Everything between then and now, including acclaimed records like 2005's Picaresque, feel like steps along the way, filler between must-own bookends. There's no escaping that The Hazards of Love — a sort of opera/concept album in which characters recur, songs flow unimpeded from one to the next, and the title track reappears in four separate guises — marks the end of something. Colin Meloy's literary lyricism dominates as ever, while the music has assumed a unified front of chamber pop, European folk, and progressive rock. It may not produce a single, but it's the artistic apex of all the band has been working toward. (Capitol)

Chll Pll, Aggressively Humble

Three Zachs — drummer Zach Hill of Hella, keyboardist Zac Nelson of Prints, and guest guitarist Zachariah Dellorto Blackwell of Danava — make the holiest of unholy noises on this side project's debut math-rock masterpiece. Eight-armed cymbal destroyer Hill is up to his old Hella-style tricks, not so much bashing out beats as blasting shards of rhythm in untold directions. Upon this canvas a lesser keyboardist would find no space, but Nelson, who fashions eminently listenable, albeit deranged, electronic soundscapes in Prints and Hexlove, masters the task. His sinewy synths make Hill's contributions sound pleasurable, and that's something. Together they open up a world where whimsy, melody, and noise stand on equal footing — where the listener is amply rewarded for meeting the musicians on their own terms. Hill and Nelson don't always deliver what's wanted and never what's expected, but seem to know just what's needed. (Porter)

From Monument to Masses, On Little Known Frequencies

At first blush, it's an eye-roller: instrumental rock imbued with leftist politics via spoken-word audio samples. But the Bay Area's From Monument to Masses is no Rage Against the Machine redux. Instead, it's one of post-rock's most progressive outfits, weaving post-punk, dub, and experimental rock into songs so painstakingly composed and professionally delivered that their underlying message becomes almost inconsequential. Almost. While On Little Known Frequencies contains fewer samples than the group's earlier work, what's left underpins the album. Perhaps sensing that they'd be preaching to the choir of a devoted fanbase, the trio went for quality over quantity, emphasizing clips such as Mario Savio's 1964 proclamation: "There's a time when the operations of the machine becomes so odious ... that you can't take part." The band's musical approach has likewise become less aggressive and more self-assured, resulting in an hour of the most sophisticated instrumental rock released this year. (Dim Mak)

TV Mike & the Scarecrowes, Spittin' in Cursive

With Devendra Banhart, the Freight & Salvage, and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass commanding national spotlights, why shouldn't the Bay Area be a bastion of self-styled folk revivalism? But a banjo and a stash of Pete Seeger records does not a 21st-century folkie make. There must be a broader vision — something to warrant trotting out the old familiar tropes. Rooted as surely in the West Oakland warehouse that frontman TV Mike calls home as in the timeless continuum from Seeger to John Fogerty to the Avett Brothers, TV Mike & the Scarecrowes excel on vision and execution alike. Part string band, part cow-punk (at times recalling fellow locals the Trainwreck Riders), and gently transcendent through and through, their debut reveals no shortage of ideas, nor of skill to see them through. The whole thing, from TV Mike's alluring drawl to Toby Oler's slow-stepping banjo, resonates to a frequency all its own. (Brave Scarecrow Records)

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