The Hunches
Exit Dreams
In the Red

After a year of delays, and word that this Portland band would be calling it quits upon its release, Exit Dreams arrived in early ’09 as a beacon in this shitstorm we currently call rock & roll. Guitarist Chris Gunn wails his way to god status; the rest play through a range of emotions, but never stray from that exuberant lift of a band fizzing, pounding and scratching in perfect unison. It blows me away how happy they sound here, even when the music is played with such aggression. Exit Dreams is bittersweet farewell from one of this decade’s best groups. DE

A Sunnny Day in Glasgow
Ashes Grammar
Mis Ojos Discos

From a distance, it would be hard to see the tiny gears and motors that propel Ben Daniel’s blissful experiments. Obscured in swirling puffs, flashing pastels and wayward echo, the initial smokescreen of Ashes Grammar could be chalked up to any number of nameless shoegazers blaring their album from the basement and through the heating ducts. Certainly the touchstones are there. The dual vocal performance of sisters Lauren and Robin Daniels recalls the celestial intonations of the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser; the warped and warm rushes of synths on “Close Chorus” soothes like a faded copy of Loveless; the methodical patterns of pulsating electronics matched with a very human heart stand as populist as the Postal Service—but none of those signifiers stick. Daniels instead keeps his compositions in an atmospherically confounding state of flux, a place where everything blurs into one prolonged illusionary trip. KJE

Fever Ray
Fever Ray

On her solo debut as Fever Ray, the Knife’s Karin Dreijer creates an insular word of self-discovery. Her ever so slightly affected voice traipses over exotic icy soundscapes, leaving small revelations in its wake. It’s this balance of personal epiphany and Fever Ray’s frosted-pop countenance that gives the record its brilliance. As such, when she sings “I put my soul in what I do,” amongst the electronic nettles of “When I Grow Up,” she leaves no reason to doubt her. SS

Bill Callahan
Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle
Drag City

As of 2007, Bill Callahan hasn’t been releasing records under his revered indie household moniker Smog. On the off-chance he made this move to signify a departure or separation from his prior work—not unheard of with these singer-songwriter types—then he’s not fooling anyone. This year’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle is artful mastery of the hysterically morbid and powerfully engaging style that listeners have delighted in for two decades now. The record’s instrumental arrangements reach something approaching perfection when paired with its bizarre and insightful lyrics. Though Callahan’s contemporaries remain highly productive, none of their releases in recent years have even come close to the remarkable Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. PG

Grizzly Bear

The impossible accomplished several times over. Complexity married to pure pleasure. Unabashedly arty rock that’s fun to sing along to in the car. An entire record as captivating as the the opening bars of “Two Weeks.” Vecktamist is one of those incredibly rare instances when a band who’s operating at the very peak of their creative powers manages to fulfill their promise in every moment. And just when you think you’ve heard all their tricks, Grizzly Bear unturn yet another unforeseen stone in their pursuit of perfectly exquisitely pop music. MS

Major Lazer
Guns Don’t People... Lazers Do
Downtown/Mad Decent

Putting Diplo and Switch together was definitely one of the most no-brainer combinations of the year. After working together on MIA’s second record, most importantly the Grammy-nominated “Paper Planes,” even Mr. Magoo could see that the pair had great chemistry. Guns Don’t Kill People... Lazers Do, credited to a one-armed zombie vampire killer named Major Lazer, is one of the most fun records put out this year. It’s a respectful, yet twisted, take on dancehall and a collection of dance jams that would make even Dick Cheney shake his stanking ass. DSH

Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

If any band can wedge a heap of sunshine into a cold grey winter, it’s Phoenix. The boys from Versailles and their knack for tight glowing pop are finally achieving mainstream bustle. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth studio record, is the sextet’s strongest cocktail of whirling synths, buoyant vocals and staccato beats yet. Intrinsically catchy cuts like “Lizstomania” and “1901” retain enough kineticism—and unparalleled mirth—to beguile a room full of grumps. AK

Kurt Vile
Childish Prodigy

Though the surname is somewhat misleading, singer and guitarist Kurt Vile managed to put out a magnificently minimalist and earnest record as a follow-up to 2008’s Constant Hitmaker. Childish Prodigy further typifies his skill, which lies not only in his raw voice and strong songwriting, but arranging as well. (Though undoubtedly his backup band, the Violators, help this cause, bringing a welcome depth and totality to the album.) Prodigy is an idyllic blend of straightforward folk and rock—two cups of Neil Young and a pinch of psychedelia—and those that listened were left enchanted. JF

The Flaming Lips
Warner Bros.

You would be forgiven for believing that the Flaming Lips had run their course. And when Wayne Coyne started tossing Miles Davis’ name around in interviews, I laughed aloud. Imagine my surprise then, when I put on the Lips’ new record and heard the closest approximation anyone’s ever created to the fuzzy funk and telepathic interplay of Miles’ early-70s ensembles. Ever more remarkable, they manage to keep up the authentic inventiveness for 18 divergent tracks, convincingly reinventing themselves once again and almost completely subsuming their stuffed-animal antics with this stunningly new direction. MS

The Fresh & Onlys
Grey-Eyed Girls

San Francisco’s Fresh & Onlys released two LPs as well as a slew of singles and splits in 2009. While the quality is consistently top notch across the board, their second album, Grey Eyed Girls, is the best of the bunch. It succinctly summarizes the band’s sunny, fuzzy, garage psych. You can’t go wrong with a song called “Dude’s Got A Tender Heart.” TB