Shirley's Top 10 albums of the year

As a writer, one of my greatest strengths can also be a crippling weakness: I write with my heart on my sleeve. I often forget that I am prone to baring my feelings on the page and, sometimes, write things that I probably shouldn't. This is a problem for two reasons: 1. I forget that not everyone cares about my own emotional battles and 2. sometimes, feelings get hurt.

Fortunately, I've mostly learned to curb my tendency toward the second. The first, however, remains a nemesis. Or an ally, I'm not sure.

Today, as I list my Top 10 Albums of 2009, I'll pretend (and hope) that it's the latter. I'm going to tell you, dear reader, what my year has been like, and how each of the records below fit into that year. I'm gambling, of course, that you're more interested in a story than you are in a standard listing of albums, followed by 10 descriptions that include phrases like "soaring vocals," "staccato beats" and "keen production sense."

I'll do this because, well, it's what I always do.

In the past weeks, I've been working on applications to creative writing programs at several graduate schools. It's been a maddening process, mostly because I'm not sure I can see any value in paying an entity for the opportunity to write more. And, it seems to me, that my application to any sort of writing program should consist of the following e-mail:

Dear Sir or Madam:

My name is Paul Shirley. Google it. If you like what you read, you probably should have me come to your school. If you don't, you can delete this e-mail and go back to being an ineffective bureaucrat.


Admittedly, the final sentence might not endear me to anyone on a selection board.

But there have been a few silver linings to the application process. I've coaxed a short story I really like out of my brain. I had the opportunity to retake the GRE and, thus, to prove once again that if life were a standardized test, I would be Leonardo DiCaprio. (You can think me arrogant if you want, but the fact remains that I'm really, really good at multiple-choice tests.) And I got to write multiple "Personal Statements."

In so doing, I was made to explain why I write. It was an important exercise; it forced me to consider just that -- what is it that I'm trying to do in this space, or in my side projects, or even in an e-mail to my parents?

As a child, I never dreamed of one day becoming a famous writer. I didn't major in English in college. I didn't even take an English class in college. I've come by my need to write through -- dare I say -- an organic process. I needed to tell someone what was happening to me. The only way to do that was by writing it down. And even though some may scoff at my path -- thinking, as many do, that I'm nothing more than a basketball player who's fallen into a writing career -- I wouldn't have it any other way. Although, now that I think about it, there probably would have been more girls in the English department. More than the four in the mechanical engineering college, anyway.

This is the 50th piece about music I've written for ESPN. To those of you who keep coming back, thanks. I'm glad I've had the opportunity to write about what the music of our lives has meant to me. To anyone new, I hope you'll keep reading. I'll be here for another year and, I hope, will have the chance to turn you on to music that you'll grow to like.

I might even start today …

With that out of the way, it's time for the list -- my top 10 albums of 2009.

2009 wasn't a particularly smooth year for me -- I spent much of the year switching between states of being. I was a basketball player. I was a writer. I was injured, sedated, prepared for surgery. I was awake, aware, rehabilitating an ankle. I lived in Spain. I lived in America. I spoke Spanish. I spoke English. I had roommates. I lived alone.

In other words, I had a very human year.

Meanwhile, the world of music was having a very poppy year. There was Lady Gaga and Pink, the Black-Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. There was even the death, and subsequent sonic resurrection of the King of Pop.

And somehow, that sense of pop permeated the sort of music I listen to, which is why "Manners" by Passion Pit is my 10th favorite album of the year, Miike Snow's self-titled debut is my eighth favorite album of the year, and the record that many will call the best of 2009, Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," comes in third on my list.

Passion Pit, Miike Snow and Phoenix were merely the best of the best; they were -- to borrow from Art Brut's Eddie Argos -- Top of the Pops. Other examples of the pop resurgence didn't make my list. A reborn Metric and their pop-infused album "Fantasies." Matt & Kim. Hockey. Even the formerly curmudgeonly Julian Casablancas put out a happy album with "Phrazes for the Young."

It seems too simplistic to write that the "recession" had something to do with the popularity of the Pops. But sometimes, what's simple is what's best. Sometimes we have to Occam a phenomenon. How else can we explain my seventh favorite album of the year, the lovely, hopeful "It's Blitz" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs? The YYYs were, by almost all accounts, a punk band when they started in 2000. Did Karen O suddenly decide to get happy? In listening to "It's Blitz," one might think so.

It's debatable whether the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were ever all that punky; I've long thought their music was much more melodic than listeners gave it credit for being. But on "It's Blitz," the melodic and the accessible take center stage. It was a gamble on the part of the Ys -- they risked alienating their die-hard fans by edging toward electronica. In that way, they were like another of 2009's important phenomena: the Obamas. More centrist than people thought. Policy aimed at pleasing the masses. An excellent wardrobe. The only difference? For the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 2009 was a good year.

Or at least, a better year than was had by most of us.

Because it was such a weird (bad) year economically, it made sense that we (I) embraced pop music. We needed the pick-me-up, if only to help us forget about unemployment statistics, busted portfolios, and the fact we were too slow to take advantage of Cash for Clunkers .

And if it was inevitable that Lady Gaga would strike gold with the masses in 2009, it was set in stone that I would grow to love Passion Pit, Miike Snow, Phoenix, and a new version of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs this year.

Normally, I'm super-aware of the music I like. In 2009, I was scarily aware, not in small part because I was writing about music in these very "pages." The obvious side effect of all this awareness was the discovery of lots and lots of new music. More on that in a paragraph or two. The less apparent result was the second chance I gave to music I might otherwise have scorned.

The Silversun Pickups' 2009 release, "Swoon," would have caught my attention whether I was writing about music this year or not; I liked their debut and so would have bought the follow-up. But "Swoon" didn't pique my interest at first. If it had been a normal year, I would have treated the record like it was a midlevel girl with a bad calf tattoo. That is, I would have ignored it.

But sometime in October, like an overmatched boxer in the 10th round, I hauled myself back to the computer and gave my ears over to the Pickups. I'm glad I did: Their desperate but confident sophomore release is well worth any effort it takes to crack its code. And so it's my sixth favorite album of 2009.

I didn't have to work nearly as hard to love my fifth favorite album of the year: Jamie T's "Kings and Queens." I raved about "Kings and Queens" for an entire column in the fall, and I won't subject the reader to a repeat, but my enthusiasm then was based on my initial reaction to the record. I was like a giddy teenager in love. Now, all of three months later, I feel like Jamie T and I are an old married couple. I don't want to jump his album's bones every four hours, but we continue to care about each other with a deep and abiding respect.

"Kings and Queens" is at the end of the first half of my list. That's only important because the top half of my top 10 consists of albums I had to actively stop myself from listening to because I didn't want to burn out my brain on them. My ninth favorite album of the year was similar, although it didn't quite have the staying power of the others.

I discovered Bad Veins thanks to a tip from the cyber-friend of a cyber-friend. He sent me the band's self-titled first record, at which point I promptly threw it on a heap of CDs I had, and forgot about it.

Fortunately for my ears, he was persistent and reminded me the band would be playing in Lawrence, Kan., sometime in late August. I went and was so impressed that I started listening to the album nonstop.

I was glad to have found Bad Veins, not only for my own aural enjoyment. I also felt like they gave me the tiniest bit of credibility -- they were my first discovery.


I inserted that break because I had to give the early adopters a chance to calm themselves. If I've learned only one thing as a music writer, it is that those in the know like to remind a person that they were in the know first. I'm sure I pushed someone's button by writing that I "discovered" Bad Veins.

[Hangs head] I know I didn't discover Bad Veins, you guys. I just found them earlier than I usually find bands and I was sorta excited. So lay off.

Back to the Top 10 …

If my list were put on a Venn diagram, one circle would be called Bands I Learned About This Year. Another would be Albums I Couldn't Stop Listening To. The weird little section where they overlapped would encompass the following two albums:

At No. 4 -- The Big Pink, "A Brief History Of Love"

At No. 2 -- White Lies, "To Lose My Life"

(My No. 1 would fit in that same overlapping section, but indulge me whilst I build a tiny bit of suspense.)

When I first listened to The Big Pink, I assumed they were all 19 years old. They're not. But they make rock songs like they are. And for my money, the only way to make a decent rock song is to sing it like you're 19.

There's more than a touch of the '80s in "A Brief History Of Love." The band embraces the synthesizer to the degree that, if a 12-year-old version of me were transported to the present, we could convince him that the album came out in 1987, but that it found only limited success because of the staying power of Duran Duran.

But mostly, The Big Pink is a pleasure to listen to. "A Brief History Of Love" sounds familiar and groundbreaking all at once.

Fellow UKers White Lies evoked this response from my friend John, when I told him I thought "To Lose My Life" would make my Top 10: "Yeah, but are you really going to remember that album in 10 years?" The answer: I don't know. I do know that, after I saw the band play at Lollapalooza, I bought "To Lose My Life" as soon as I found an Internet connection in my Chicago hotel.

Others around me have noted the similarity between White Lies and another middling post-wave UK band called The Editors.

Both are valid points. But I don't care. For the album's big hooks, memorable choruses and, most of all, for its general bombasticity, it goes on the list at No. 2.

"To Lose My Life" was oh-so-very close to No. 1. But in the end, I had to return to my roots. I had to pick a messy rock album.

There's a moment in Manchester Orchestra's song "Shake It Out." It comes at the 2:36 mark. The tone of the song goes from frantic and rawk to soft and introspective.

It is a breathtaking transition.

That moment in time isn't unique to one song on "Mean Everything To Nothing." To me, the record satisfies all of my requirements for a great rock record. There are big guitars. There's vulnerability. There's storytelling. And most of all -- there's humanity. After listening to Manchester Orchestra all year long, I feel like I know lead singer Andy Hull. And I feel like Andy Hull -- like every other person -- has had some very "human" years. He's ridden through some peaks and valleys in his life, and his band is able to express that on a rock 'n' roll record. No small feat, I'd say.

"Mean Everything to Nothing" doesn't really fit with the pop-soaked year that was 2009. Which is probably why it won't be anyone else's favorite album for the year. But a poppier album couldn't have been my favorite album of the year. For me, it wasn't a pop year. It wasn't a bad year; no one close to me died. Nor did I lose a limb or a large sum of money. But it wasn't a pop year. It was a human year.

And that's why -- because of their talent and because "Mean Everything to Nothing" fit so well with my year and so well with whatever set of neurons is responsible for my taste in music -- Manchester Orchestra created my favorite album of 2009.

Paul's Top 10 Albums of 2009
10. Passion Pit -- "Manners"
9. Bad Veins -- "Bad Veins"
8. Miike Snow -- "Miike Snow"
7. Yeah Yeah Yeahs -- "It's Blitz"
6. Silversun Pickups -- "Swoon"
5. Jamie T. -- "Kings and Queens"
4. The Big Pink -- "A Brief History of Love"
3. Phoenix -- "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"
2. White Lies -- "To Lose My Life"
1. Manchester Orchestra -- "Mean Everything To Nothing"

Now, for the fun part. For the past month, I've asked readers to submit a guess at my Top 10 list. The winner, and recipient of half a page of real estate on this page (and a copy of my book), was Joe Werner of Riverview, Fla.

As promised, Joe gets to post his own Top 10, with no comment from me. Unless he picks either Animal Collective or The xx as his No. 1. Then I'm going to let him have it for being a critic's suckup. (Note: I wrote this before receiving the final draft of his Top 10.) (Secondary note: Thankfully, Joe kept both out of his Top 10.)

Remember, Joe won by guessing at my Top 10. The list that follows is his Top 10, not his guess at mine. (Which I've locked away for safe-keeping, in case anyone challenges his victory.)

Here it is, Joe Werner's Top 10 of 2009, in his words:

My list is based on the idea that music needn't be good or fun, it can be both. My main issue with a lot of these year-end "best of" lists is that the writers are trying too hard to impress me. For example, I've seen Passion Pit's "Manners" on a lot of these lists. My objection to their inclusion is that the singer in Passion Pit just can't sing. I'm not saying a singer has to have a classically trained voice to get me to listen, but it helps if his voice doesn't make me cringe. As an alternative, check out the soaring vocals and imminently more likable "In the Fall" by Red Cortez.

Animal Collective's "Merriweather Post Pavilion" is featured on many of these same lists. I don't think there is anything very exciting about the album. It comes off as boring to me. I can appreciate it, I just don't find much to like. The frantic rush of the Low Anthem's "The Horizon is a Beltway" sounds much more urgent and quite frankly, fun.

Finally, my theme of music as fun is fully captured by my album of the year, Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix." Themes of confusion and discouragement can be found throughout the album, but they don't weigh it down. Instead, those feelings add depth to a great set of songs that will make you sing, dance and jump around. You know, all the things music should make you do.

Without further ado:

1. Phoenix, "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix"
2. Deer Tick, "Born on Flag Day"
3. Girls, "Album"
4. Wilco, "(The Album)"

5. Red Cortez, "Hands to the Wall" -- EP

6. Metric, "Fantasies"
7. The Low Anthem, "Oh My God, Charlie Darwin"

8. Handsome Furs, "Face Control"
9. Nirvana, "Live at Reading"
10. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "The Pains of Being Pure at Heart"

-- Joe Werner

As promised, no comment from me, even though Werner is completely wrong about Passion Pit's lead singer …

And one more thing. Because it made me laugh, I'm also including the guess at my list sent by reader Evan Hartstein of Scottsdale, Ariz. Enjoy …

I inserted the comment I thought Paul Shirley might make about each album. Note: these are Paul's comments, not mine.

10. Handsome Furs -- "Face Control" (Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown, Handsome Furs -- Spencer Krug can do no wrong!)
9. Phoenix -- "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix" (just too good not to be somewhere on this list)
8. Fanfarlo -- "Reservoir" (simply beautiful and a better listen than Grizzly Bear)
7. Stellastarr* -- "Civilized" (because it's Stellastarr* and they put out an album this year)
6. Metric -- "Fantasies" (I saw them 13 times this year so this has to make the list)
5. Manchester Orchestra -- "Mean Everything to Nothing" (built momentum as the year went on)
4. Kurt Vile -- "Childish Prodigy" (he's got soul and he's an a**kicker to boot)
3. Brand New -- "Daisy" (they just keep making great albums)
2. Dinosaur Jr. -- "Farm" (could it be No. 1? Probably should be, but the album I listened to more than any other is …)
1. White Lies -- "To Lose My Life" (if you've been paying attention you know I think this is the best album of the year)

-- Evan Hartstein

And with that, enough discussion of 2009, a year that saw plenty of great music, some of which appeared on the lists above. The easy way out of this column would be to write: "Here's to hoping that 2010 will be even better!" I'm not going to take it. Whether 2010 will be better isn't important. Sometimes, what's important is the awareness of what's happening now. The music of 2010 probably will be great -- there's no reason to think otherwise. But we should cherish what's been made in 2009. Allow it to remind us of what a year it's been -- good or bad, rich or poor, love-soaked or despondent.

In other words, let the music of 2009 help us remember what it's like to be alive.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.