The Top 10

Arguing about mellow indie rock, Lady Gaga, and the real grizzly bears

Yeah, I voted for Animal Collective. Get over it.

Stephen M. Deusner
Sunnyside, NY

I saw two great Animal Collective shows in 2009. The second was at All Tomorrow's Parties, and when "Brother Sport" exploded from a swirling echo-vortex near their set's end, I knew Merriweather was album of the year. (OK, I was a little high. But still.) AC's magic wasn't just the melodic and emotional sleight-of-hand in "My Girls," "Summertime Clothes," and "Brother Sport," but the extended techno/psych abstractions they emerge from, both on record and live. It's a jam-band paradigm—check the bootlegs—so I'm not surprised they have haters. To my ears, though, nothing else this year sounded so dizzyingly joyous.

Will Hermes
New Paltz, NY

Spending fruitless hours agonizing over Fever Ray, Grizzly Bear, and the increasingly paradigmatic Animal Collective was instructive. That age is much more than a number explains only the half of it. In the case of Animal Collective, I hear a half-understood but determined effort to examine "maturity," I think, with the guilelessness of the young-adult sensibility. AC want domestic bliss to resonate like the unmediated wonder of 13-year-olds making sense of their bodies. But a twentysomething isn't a pre-teen, and if you're still having trouble figuring out the difference, you need to find another analyst. I expect bands to realize that confusion is sex—as recent albums by Sonic Youth, Maxwell, and Ghostface showed. But they didn't dumb down their approaches to get at higher truths; if anything, their albums showed that human drama often can't accommodate them. Ideals are fine, but a burden, too—maybe a luxury—and an economy increasingly hostile to the pursuit of venalities puts a greater demand on clarity than Animal Collective are prepared to give.

Alfred Soto
Miami, FL

I'm sorry to all those loyal to the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca, but I just couldn't get past this lyric from track two: "And what hits the spot, yeah/Like Gatorade/You and me, baby." It's a pickup line that only Tiger Woods might appreciate.

Jason CherkisWashington, D.C.

I've been asked to explain my adoration for the Dirty Projectors' Bitte Orca on several occasions this year. Each time, words elude me. The reedy falsetto, the harmonic cawing, the asynchronous and paradigm-shifting jags of r&b, freak-folk, prog-rock, pop—it just seems self-evident. Like, have you heard music before? Have you heard anything like this?

Caitlin Dewey
North Tonawanda, NY

Two hundred years from now, when anthropologists thaw out my cryogenically frozen head and ask me what it was like to live in early-21st-century America, I'm going to point them to these lines from Dirty Projectors' "Temecula Sunrise": "I live in a new construction home/I live on the strip behind the dealership, yeah/I live in a greenhouse and I am getting wasted, yeah." Talk about American prospects—those lines are like a Joel Sternfeld photograph. It's description and metaphor all rolled up into one.

Michael Azerrad
New York, NY

Speaking of lack of objectivity: My dad was a very minor avant-garde composer of difficult music in the late '60s/early '70s, and a much more laidback person who could enjoy weird rock 'n' roll in the decade before his 2001 death. Dirty Projectors struck me, from the beginning, as the type of band his older self could have composed for, the tentative beginnings of an awkward truce between his musicology and the devil's pop songs. Bitte Orca is the happy peace and triumphant new alliance; people are listening to it and blogging about it and voting for it, and I couldn't be more delighted. I'm aware it has nothing at all, in fact, to do with my dad. It'll do.

Brian Block
Greensboro, NC

Besides Sonic Youth—who continued their bittersweet late-career trend of releasing the year's best album to relative indifference and scored bank from the CW for playing their mellowest set ever—only metal bands managed to cut the diet-soda inoffensiveness of the year's consensus faves the way Fucked Up did in 2008. Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Neko Case, Dirty Projectors: In Brooklyn, no one can hear you yawn (although not because the music's too loud). I'm all for sensitivity or whatever—I like Bon Iver!—but listening to these records was like watching PBS. With the best hip-hop of the year partying like it was 1996, mainstream country was the most exciting front of popular music in 2009. But Converge, Baroness, and especially Mastodon—whose Crack the Skye received a 7 from Decibel—deep-throated my proudly untr00 brain-stem and reminded me that rock 'n' roll has depended, from its duck-walking, hip-gyrating beginnings, on a (however illusory) suggestion of menace. These were the real grizzly bears of 2009.

Michael Robbins
Chicago, IL

Increasingly, the critically celebrated avant-garde sounds like stuff that might've been on soft-rock radio in the 1980s anyway, sometimes with messages as banally optimistic as Reagan's "Morning in America."

Marc Hogan
Des Moines, IA

A lot of people sneer at so-called "NPR rock" for being wimpy or something, but it's a hoary cliché that underground music has to be loud, fast, and out of control. Once upon a time, mainstream culture was blandly, blindly complacent, so underground music was angry and dissatisfied—look at the Velvet Underground droning about heroin while America tried to paste a fluorescent smiley-face over Vietnam; look at the Sex Pistols railing that "England's dreaming" in '77 while the Queen's silver jubilee distracted from rampant unemployment and racial unrest. But in 2010, mainstream culture isn't complacent; it's stupid and angry. So underground culture has become smart and serene. That's not wimpy—it's powerful and constructive, a blueprint for kicking against the pricks.

Michael Azerrad
New York, NY

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