I have a unique experience with the music of 2009 — I didn’t hear any of it until December 30, 2010. Well, I didn’t hear most of it, at least. How could you not be exposed to “I Gotta Feeling” and “Run This Town” blasting out of various cars and backyards in the summer of ‘09?
I served a two-year Mormon mission that started the last day of 2008 and extended all the way through the last week of 2010. On a mission, you’re only allowed to listen to church-related music, and maybe some classical (as long as it doesn’t get too wild, like “Ride of the Valkyries” or something). Those music restrictions were… incredibly hard, as you can probably imagine. I would cope by periodically meandering over to the magazine rack in Walgreens and thumbing through Rolling Stone and Spin to get a sense of what was happening. It was there that I read album reviews for Bitte Orca and Brothers, learned that Jack White was forming a new band called the Dead Weather, and that Kanye West released a masterpiece called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The very first sanctioned “new” song I heard when I got back was “1901” by Phoenix, and my mind was blown. I learned later that most people in America were sick of that song by then, since its appearance in an ever-present Cadillac commercial. But to my fresh ears, it was glorious. Was that a guitar or synth riff at the beginning? Were they singing “Fallin’, fallin’, fallin’, FALLIN’” in the chorus? Or “Ballin’, ballin’, ballin’, BALLIN’”? Who knows, but it sounded incredible.
And that’s how it was with the music of 2009 and 2010. It was like Tom Hanks finally returning home in Cast Away, except instead of learning that your wife married someone else, you get to just experience a whole two-years worth of music as if it were brand new.
Indie art-pop was a big presence in 2009, with Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, and Dirty Projectors carrying the torch. Rap was still coasting a wave of soul samples, popularized by Kanye West in the early to mid-2000s. And Max Martin was just on the precipice of his second wave of pop dominance, with hits from Katy Perry and Kesha soon to come the following year.
I started making year-end best songs lists in 2006, but for reasons outlined here, I never made a list for 2009 and 2010. Now that 2009 is ten years away, it’s time to rectify this glaring hole in my music list inventory. One added bonus is that I guarantee the list I’m making now, with ten years’ worth of hindsight, is much better than whatever I would have made in 2009 itself.
Before we get to the top 50, here are 15 honorable mentions.
Drake: “Best I Ever Had”
Grizzly Bear: “Southern Point”
Animal Collective: “Summertime Clothes”
Raekwon ft. Cappadonna and Ghostface Killah: “10 Bricks”
Jay Sean ft. Lil Wayne: “Down”
The Rural Alberta Advantage: “The Deadroads”
Bon Iver: “Blood Bank”
Dirty Projectors: “No Intention”
The Thermals: “Now We Can See”
Mayer Hawthorne: “Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out”
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings: “Inspiration Information”
Basement Jaxx: “Raindrops”
Animal Collective: “Brother Sport”
Let’s get to it.
“Dance Anthem of the 80’s”
Built on a simple one-note-at-a-time piano riff, “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” is whimsical in a way that comes natural to Regina Spektor, the Russian-born indie pop master. Spektor has deeper, more well known tracks to her name, including “Eet” from the same album, but the effortless blend of playfulness and poignance in “Dance Anthem of the 80’s” has always charmed me most.
Atlas Sound ft. Noah Lennox
“Walkabout” is a meeting of the minds from two of indie’s most celebrated artists — Bradford Cox of the band Deerhunter, who made music on his own as Atlas Sound, and Noah Lennox of Aninal Collective, who also goes by Panda Bear. Got it straight? “Walkabout” is based on a sample of the Dovers’ 1965 single “What Am I Going to Do?” — Cox and Lennox turn it into a psychedelic dreamscape.
I’ve had multiple debates with people over who has the best discography, Beyoncé or Rihanna? My stance is Beyoncé has the best albums (not to mention an unimpeachable voice, work ethic, and cultural impact), but Rihanna has the best singles. I like “Rude Boy” a lot (obviously enough to put on this list), but I see it as a waystation between the dazzling singles from Good Girl Gone Bad, like “Umbrella” and “Don’t Stop the Music,” and the unstoppable slew of show-stopping singles soon to come, like “Only Girl (In the World),” “What’s My Name,” and “We Found Love.”
Cage the Elephant
“Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked”
Alternative rock radio mainstays Cage the Elephant scored their first hit with “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.” It’s one of those songs that immediately sounds like a decades-old classic, especially with the chorus’s catchy, chanting mantra — “Ain’t no rest for the wicked, mooooney don’t grow on trees!”
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
“Young Adult Friction”
Some bands have a cohesive, killer sound but lackluster songs. Other bands have good songs but nothing interesting to do with them. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart had both sound and songs fully developed on their debut album. “Young Adult Friction” is all jangly guitars, bouncy drums, and dream pop melodies conjuring the nostalgia of ’80s and ’90s college rock.
I was never quite sure if Silversun Pickups were an “indie” rock band for the hipsters or an “alternative” rock band for the radio listeners. Maybe that’s part of what made them so good. “Panic Switch” (which, according to the band, is supposed to sound like a nervous breakdown) wouldn’t sound out of place on an indie kid’s iPod at the time, but it also hit #1 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart. Best of both worlds.
“When I’m Small”
Phantogram, and “When I’m Small” in particular, embody a certain “millennial cool,” which is probably why the song was heavily used in a Gillette razor commercial. It’s dark and sinewy but in a palatable, broadly appealing way, with just the right touches of synths and breakbeats.
The Dead Weather
“Treat Me Like Your Mother”
As the White Stripes slowed to a halt, Jack White let out his creative energy through side projects like the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather. While I found the Dead Weather’s songwriting to be a bit lackluster, White’s team-up with the Kills’ Allison Mosshart resulted in slices of hard-rocking magic, like “Treat Me Like Your Mother.”
Drake ft. Lykke Li
Drake has dominated the culture for a decade now. But before the ubiquity, before the non-stop parade of hits and features, he was an up-and-comer, improbably making a credible crossover from soap opera acting to sing-songy rapping, which was beginning to rise in the wake of Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak. The Lykke Li-sampling “Little Bit” was a preview to Drake’s moody R&B ruminations that would stand side-by-side with his rap songs.
I said in my intro that “1901” by Phoenix was the first new song I was exposed to after I got back. “Silvia” was the second one, thanks to my cousin, who told me to look it up on YouTube. It’s an electro-pop song with tons of swirling sound effects, but my favorite aspect of it is its analog backbone — those stark, pulsating piano chords.
Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca is what a modern art exhibit would sound like if music oozed out of its walls. “Cannibal Resource” is Bitte Orca’s clarion call, the appetizer to Dave Longstreth’s abstract reveries, where odd time signatures and jagged instrumental interpolations mingle with moments of harmonic beauty.
It can be argued that the apex of popularity for 2000s-style indie music was when Jay-Z and Beyoncé showed up at a Grizzly Bear concert in ’09, and thereby christening the movement. Grizzly Bear’s breakthrough into popular consciousness was largely on the back of their stuttery, deliberate, baroque, harmony-laden single, “Two Weeks.”
The Very Best ft. Ezra Koenig
“Warm Heart of Africa”
Vampire Weekend was still a brand new entity in 2009, but Ezra Koenig already had his mind on side projects and other diversions. He lent his voice to the lighthearted and extremely fun “Warm Heart of Africa” by The Very Best, a duo comprising a DJ from London and a singer from Malawi.
Lady Gaga ft. Beyoncé
My time away from music exactly coincided with the meteoric rise of Lady Gaga. I remember seeing her on magazine covers at the grocery store, but not having any idea who she was (besides the fact that, based on those covers, she was clearly a fashion icon). I’m a big fan of “Just Dance” and “Poker Face,” but those were released at the end of 2008 and thus didn’t qualify for this list, but “Telephone” is right up there with those hits. The delirious production and Beyoncé feature send the song into the stratosphere.
I can’t help but crack a smile every time I hear “Lemonade” from Atlanta’s trap statesman, Gucci Mane — a bouncy, piano-heavy track where Gucci extols the many yellow-colored luxuries he owns, including a yacht, Corvette, jewelry, polo shirt, and lemon pepper wings.
Kurt Vile has really come into his own this past decade as everyone’s favorite super chill uncle with the good vibes, good grooves, and probably the good record collection. “Blackberry Song” is a beautiful, abstract painting. Vile has never been in a hurry to get where he’s going, and “Blackberry Song” is no different. He’s content just inviting you to join him in his perpetually pleasant, guitar strumming hypnosis.
“Rockers East Vancouver”
Sometimes a song will have a specific two to five second moment that really hits the spot for inexplicable reasons. The example I always think of first is in “Under the Bridge” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, there are four repeated guitar strums between “I don’t ever want to feel” and “like I did that day.” Check it out when you get a chance. In “Rockers East Vancouver,” it’s even more subtle. It’s that recurring pattern in the middle of the song (at about 2:08) of two quick guitar/drum stabs, at the end of each time he sings “WHAT YOU WANTED” or “WHAT YOU NEEDED.” It’s just so energizing. It also gives me a headache from the requisite headbanging.
“Goin’ Home” is a low-key, poignant, twinkling solo tune from the Black Keys’ frontman, released just before the Keys made it big with “Tighten Up” the next year.
This was when Zach Condon of Beirut began to subtly shift his sound. “The Concubine” is still like a classic European song of old, as is his forte, but it has a more propulsive beat carrying you forward.
Matt and Kim
No one does “unadulterated joy” better than Matt & Kim. There’s a preciousness about “Daylight” and the childish taunt of its main piano lick that I would maybe chafe at if it came out today, but I fully embraced it years ago and still love it for the memories it evokes of a more carefree time in my life.
The Rural Alberta Advantage
“Don’t Haunt This Place”
When I went back to school, my friends introduced me to the Rural Alberta Advantage (a.k.a. the RAA), and I went to see them at a tiny venue in San Francisco — my first concert since coming back from the mission. I was absolutely floored by their drummer. The speed of his drum fills is astonishing. (Random fact: Lord Huron opened for them at that minuscule show, and they’re getting high billing at festivals now.) The RAA play a brand of earnest, twee indie rock that is no longer in vogue, which is a shame. They’re extremely talented and adept at eliciting strong emotions.
“Maybe So, Maybe No”
Where did this white guy come from with such a keen ear for ’60s and ’70s soul? Mayer Hawthorne signed with the independent label Stones Throw Records, home of enigmatic rappers and producers like Madlib and J Dilla, with the intent of putting together some soulful tracks for other rappers to sample if they so chose. But he was convinced to sing over the tracks and release them as his own album, despite not having any vocal training. The end result was pretty immaculate.
“You and I”
My favorite flavor of Wilco is the more experimental essence the band displayed on Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, but Jeff Tweedy and crew are highly capable of more straightforward fare too. “You and I,” centered around a duet between Tweedy and featured guest Feist, is an eminently charming, acoustic love song that gives off major Beatles vibes (or at the very least, has the potential for a Beatles-esque mass appeal).
Anyone remember Cactus Cooler, that orange-pineapple soda? I used to down those in high school. They were sweet and fizzy and addicting. I tried Cactus Cooler again recently for the first time in years and it just wasn’t the same. I still liked it, but it had become a bit too sweet to my taste. “Sleepyhead” is the Cactus Cooler of indie pop — a psychedelic sugar rush that I loved at the time, and still enjoy and appreciate, but sometimes it’s just a little too sweet for me. When I’m in the right mood though, it’s really a wondrous song.
“Sovereignty” is the most wistful song on Post-Nothing, and there’s nothing I love more than a good, wistful song. “I’ll sing the Beatles, and you’ll sing them better, forget all our friends back home” is my favorite Japandroids lyric, for obvious reasons, but I also just love the catharsis of the chorus — “It’s raining in Vancouver, but I don’t give a f***, because I’m far from home tonight.”
Big Boi ft. Gucci Mane
When the spigot of creative output from OutKast slowed to a halt, everyone expected André 3000 to be the one we cared about most in a post-OutKast world, but Big Boi surprised everyone by being the more prolific, more vital solo star. “Shine Blockas” was the song that officially kickstarted his solo career. The opulent beat is very much of its time, influenced by the soulful stylings of 2000s Kanye West.
“Lust for Life”
Girls differed from the other indie art-pop darlings dominating 2009. They had more of a manic edge. “Lust for Life” is extremely raw — I don’t even know if that jangling guitar is in tune — but it harnessed this unbridled energy.
“Por un Segundo”
Of all the 50 songs on this list, “Por un Segundo” is the only one I knew very well and listened to quite a bit right when it came out, in the year 2009 itself. I was serving in a community that primarily spoke Spanish, and was spending time learning the language everyday, and the people I would come in contact with would rave about the Latin American genre of bachata, and Aventura specifically. I was immediately taken with a number of Aventura tracks, “Por un Segundo” chief among them, with its beguiling rhythm. “Por un Segundo” certainly doesn’t fit under the definition of “church-appropriate” music, which I was supposed to be listening to exclusively at that point. But with very limited knowledge of Spanish, the lyrics never really penetrated me in the way an English song would, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
“100 Yard Dash”
It’s a crime that this song is only a hair over two minutes. I could groove to that bass line until the end of time. Saadiq conjures the spirit of Motown with “100 Yard Dash” and imbues it with all the easygoing warmth and swagger it deserves.
“Day ‘N’ Nite”
Even though Kid Cudi’s breakthrough hit “Day ‘N’ Nite” came out when I was already in college, my thoughts veer over to the stoners I knew in high school whenever I hear it. Most of them were listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath at the time, but I think they would have found comfort in the subtle trippiness of “Day ‘N’ Nite.”
“When They Fight, They Fight”
If this song came out in 1966, it’d be a hit. Instead, it came out in 2009 from a little-known New Orleans indie duo. It’s classic ‘60s pop at its best — handclaps, trumpet accents, repeating piano chords, a fun Motown style bass line, and those perfect “ooohs” in the background.
“Party in the U.S.A.”
What kind of millennial wedding would it be without “Party in the USA” dropping in on the dance floor? It wasn’t until I came back in 2011 that I came to appreciate good pop music. Even then, “Party in the USA” would have been classified as a “guilty pleasure” — but no more. There’s no guilt involved now. I just put my hands up, they’re playing my song (sorry, I had to).
“While You Wait for the Others”
Music critic Ian Cohen recently wrote, “Used to be there was an unwritten rule in music criticism: Only employ ‘Beatles-esque’ as a last resort.” Well, consider this a last resort. Grizzly Bear’s aptitude for tastefully artful production and harmonies recall the 1966-68-era Beatles, which is on full display on “While You Wait for the Others.” The harmonies in the chorus, in tandem with the brilliant jabs of guitar, are what make this song.
Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys
“Empire State of Mind”
“Empire State of Mind” was made well past Jay-Z’s creative peak. His nonsensical lyrics are proof of that. But the song still achieved transcendence, primarily due to two factors: (1) the triumphant, piano-heavy beat and (2) Alicia Keys’s exultant chorus and bridge. As a wide-eyed non-New Yorker, I’m still beguiled by the city’s charm, and Keys taps into that charm tremendously.
“You Belong With Me”
“You’re on the phone with your girlfriend, she’s upset.” And so starts the biggest hit to that point for an up-and-coming star named Taylor Swift, breaking into the mainstream with her unique brand of country pop. From the beginning, Taylor Swift has had a knack for lyrics that were relatable to a regular teenager — she’s the most popular woman on the planet, but somehow she made the geeky t-shirt-wearing, bleacher-sitting girls feel like she was one of them.
“Stillness is the Move”
Not many songs lie in the middle of the Venn diagram between “catchy” and “freaking weird.” “Stillness is the Move” is one of the few that straddles that line. There are a million little elements whilrling around over that, dare I say it, danceable beat, but the driving force is Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman’s beautifully odd vocals. Apparently some people are able to hear color — I’m no expert, but I imagine “Stillness is the Move” must look amazing to those people.
By now, you can probably tell that I love Japandroids and their debut album, Post-Nothing. They tapped it into an angst inside me that didn’t come out often, as a largely even-keeled individual, but it still needed release. “Heart Sweats” was as good a song as any to help with that release, especially given its relentless undercurrent of drums (perfect for air-drumming), and of course, the centerpiece refrain, to be yelled from the rooftops: “Some hearts bleed, my heart sweats!”
Nowadays, there are plenty of artists with whispery vocals and drum machines. But in 2009, no one sounded like The xx. “Crystalised” is as elemental as a song can be — every individual instrument is, well, “crystal” clear. And yet, somehow, despite its minimalism, “Crystalised” also has an incredibly rich atmosphere. The vocal chemistry between Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft is off the charts, and they sing with a world weariness that sounds so natural, despite barely being 20 years old at the time.
Florence + The Machine
“Dog Days Are Over”
“Dog Days Are Over” has a special place in my family. It was the song my wife played on loop right after racing to finish her last paper as an undergrad. It’s also the subject of one of our favorite YouTube videos, giving us dreams of a son or daughter who likes music as much as this kid. “Dog Days Are Over” crackles with life, harnessing the energy and elation you feel after finally turning in that irritating term paper and being rid of it forever.
“lovers’ carvings” has been a trusty soundtrack piece for me during many a slideshow or wedding processional. It’s the kind of serene, vibrant, heartwarming song that causes you to take joy and find peace in your surroundings. The lilting waltz in the first half gives way to a 4/4, woodblock-infused celebration. It’s a wholesome, inspiring romp.
“Feel it All Around”
“Feel it All Around” was not just the iconic theme song for Portlandia, but also has the distinction of being the best chillwave song of all time. Chillwave, the soft and fuzzy genre of choice for wannabe bedroom indie auteurs during the turn of the decade, is a bit of a punchline now. At its worst, chillwave was derivative and toothless, but at its peak, the best chillwave songs could achieve transcendence. The synthetic drums, deep bass line, and foggy vocal harmonies on Washed Out’s “Feel it All Around” act as an immediate transportation device to a hazy, hypnotic dreamworld.
If you inserted a Free Energy song from 2009 into a late-’70s or early-’80s high school movie, you wouldn’t even blink. But the boys of Free Energy are not trying to be pioneers. They’re not here to give you sounds you’ve never heard before. They just want to make good-time, familiar, pop-flavored rock and roll, and boy do they succeed. Their self-titled song “Free Energy” is a riff-heavy, cowbell-infused hook machine. If you’re looking for a song to kickstart a highly-anticipated road trip, might I suggest “Free Energy.”
“Exhibit C” is one of the greatest rap songs of all time, full-stop. I had no access to the world wide web when this song came out, but I’ve heard tell that the rap internet was “shut down” like never before. It makes sense. The beat, which samples Billy Stewart and was produced by Just Blaze, is epic on its own. Tell me five beats in the history of rap that are better than this one. You can’t. And then on top of that, Jay Electronica brings the heat in both his flow and his lyrics. His storytelling is captivating, progressing from “When I was sleepin’ on the train, sleepin’ on Meserole Ave out in the rain, without even a single slice of pizza to my name, too proud to beg for change, mastering the pain” to a hopeful ending: “My light is brilliant.”
If “1901” is the second-best song on your album, you’re in pretty good shape. That’s where Phoenix found themselves when they released Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix — the band’s first album to really permeate the mainstream, over a decade into their career. “1901” is just a perfect pop song. If you don’t like it, then I seriously doubt your judgment. It’s ear candy.
Animal Collective specialize in brilliantly esoteric, experimental soundscapes, but those soundscapes were never as accessible as on Merriweather Post Pavilion, the band’s landmark 2009 album that had the indie zeitgeist wrapped around its finger. “My Girls” is deeply weird, but through its weirdness lies otherwordly aural beauty and a sweet sentiment. Noah Lennox, otherwise known as the artist Panda Bear, wrote “My Girls” from a deeply personal perspective — one that is highly relatable for me in my present stage of life. “There isn’t much that I feel I need, a silent soul and the blood I bleed. But with a little girl, and by my spouse, I only want a proper house.” Tell me about it. And then, that glorious chorus: “I don’t mean to seem like I care about material things, like a social status. I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls.” I’m ashamed to admit that I want a little bit more than adobe slats for my girls, but hey, you have to start somewhere.
“Islands” is both understated and powerful. Tones are hushed, but the feelings expressed are strong. The singers are pledging commitment to each other — “I am yours now, so now I don’t ever have to leave. I’ve been found now, so now I’ll never explore” — but the musical atmosphere is dark and seductive, with a touch of foreboding. It is a song best heard in the quiet shadows of midnight.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
“Heads Will Roll (A-Trak Remix)”
Any dance party should have a well-placed barn burner — one song that serves as the climax for the whole night, usually played about 75% of the way through the allotted dancing time, when the dance floor is bumping and the collective mood is at its apex. If your dance party is Halloween themed, might I suggest A-Trak’s remix of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Heads Will Roll” as your climax? The razor-sharp synths, Karen O’s piercing vocals, and the fast, no-thought-of-tomorrow beat will be a guaranteed hit. Very few songs make me feel more alive than this one.
“Wet Hair, expertly captures the angst and optimism of youth. When I was in the height of my Japandroids fandom at the beginning of the decade, I wrote that “Wet Hair” “sounds like an adrenaline rush. It sounds like a Friday night with endless possibilities. It sounds like graduation and finally escaping your prison-like high school. It sounds like getting over the girl (or guy) that dumped you last week. It sounds like a party on a hot summer’s night. It sounds like messing around with your friends in the parking lot behind the movie theater and deciding what the night still holds in store.” As someone approaching my 30s, I don’t get those same visceral feelings that I did then. But “Wet Hair” takes me back to that time, and it sounds just as thrilling.
Julian Casablancas is not always dialed in. So it goes when you’re the coolest guy in the world, but your coolness relies on a certain nonchalance. But when the on-and-off-again Strokes singer is dialed in, there are few better than him at what he does. After the members of the Strokes had had it with each other, they all broke off and did their own thing for a while. Clearly, Casablancas must have felt stifled if he was able to bestow us with “11th Dimension” when he went solo. The track is immensely satisfying — a function of those resolving chord changes in the form of hyperactive synths, as well as Casablancas’s melody (I especially love the way he sings “And don’t be shy, oh no!”).
Somehow, Phoenix topped “1901.” “Lisztomania” is the bounciest, fizziest, most jubilant song I’ve ever heard. The booming drums, the wall of synths, the impeccable guitar licks, the double-tracked melody, the loud juxtaposed against the soft — it’s all simply perfect. The lyrics are nonsensical, but hey, the band is French. I’ll give them a pass. Granted, I don’t give an iota about lyrics if the music is spectacular, so it doesn’t really matter anyway.
“Lisztomania” is one of the best party songs of all time. It’s just brimming with ebullience and joy. The only reason I don’t play it at every gathering is because I don’t want my friends to get sick of it. In that spirit, I truly hope that “Lisztomania” can stay fresh forever.
Best Songs of 2009 Spotify Playlist: