#9 - Peter Bjorn & John - Gimme Some
#8 - Eleanor Friedberger - Last Summer
#7 - Cults - Cults
#6 - tUnE-yArDs - W H O K I L L
#5 - Wild Flag - Wild Flag
#4 - Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo
#3 - St. Vincent - Strange Mercy
Annie Clark's sophomore album Actor would have likely rated very high on my 2009 list if I had actually paid more attention to it in 2009. As it was, I gave it short shrift until early in 2010, shortly before seeing her in concert for the first time. The album and the show were both terrific. Her intention on Actor was to create an album loosely based on Disney score type music, but with much more sinister themes lurking in the background. Over the ambient and mood setting background strings she layered her beautiful voice, and juxtaposed it with angular, scratchy guitars, never more evident than on arguably the album's best track "Marrow".
On 2011's Strange Mercy, Annie doesn't completely ditch the movie score backgrounds and lead-ins, and the angular, buzz-saw guitar is still there. That juxtaposition is what her sound is all about. The album's first single, "Cruel" sticks mostly to the formula from Actor. On Cheerleader (the second great song by that title in the last couple years) she sucks you in with her vulnerable voice and quiet background, right before the pounding chorus kicks in, while singing about all the things she's done that she really doesn't want to do anymore - "I've had good time with some bad guys, I've told whole lies with a half smile, held your bare bones with my clothes on, I've thrown rocks and hid both my arms."
She brings a sense of urgency to Northern Lights, the one really rock sounding track on the album, singing of the end of times. She gets sounds from her guitar that nature simply didn't intend. It's this albums version of Marry Me's "Your Lips are Red", but without the major key send off. By the end of the album, she's playing the role of the 1%, crowing about an inherent ability for scheming. She sings on "The Tiger": When I was young, coach called me the Tiger, I always had a knack with the danger), before thumbing her nose at the proletariat (Italian shoes, like these rubes know the difference, suitcase full of cash in the back of my stickshift. I had to be the best of the bourgeoisie...Oh America, can I owe you one?
There's something about her waifish good looks contrasted with the way she shreds on guitar that's jarring, but at the same time captivating. And that's basically St. Vincent in a nutshell, raw power in a subtle package. It's rare that an album so highly anticipated (at least by me) lives up to the expectations. These final few slots are usually populated by the albums that really came out of nowhere. But this album was everything I was hoping it would be.