The 25 Best Albums & Singles of 2009

The 25 Best Albums & Singles of 2009

 

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It’s hard to pinpoint the exact source, but the music landscape of 2009 is perhaps best characterized by its slipperiness. Without any new, broad trends casting a sweeping influence on style and sound (’80s-era inspiration and Auto-Tune can’t be pinned only to the past year), with no major changes of tone or direction in the conversation about the ways people consume and interact with music, and with so much of the year’s best music keeping its emotional center carefully guarded, there simply isn’t much on which to grab hold. Indicative of this elusiveness is that so many of the year’s iconic musical moments had precious little to do with music itself: the death of Michael Jackson; the compelling, runaway success of Susan Boyle; Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna; the Kanye West vs. Taylor Swift “I’ma let you finish” meme; each of Lady GaGa’s ludicrous fashion choices; a slew of NSFW music videos from the likes of Massive Attack, Girls, Patrick Wolf, and the Flaming Lips; Whitney Houston’s failed comeback; Adam Lambert’s minstrel show of an AMA performance. On balance, it isn’t like people were talking about the music of Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Cazwell, Little Boots, and Raekwon—outside of increasingly insular Internet circles, anyway. And that’s a shame, really, since the best music of 2009 (or any year) is deserving of some thoughtful dialogue or, at the very least, a well-turned one-liner. Jonathan Keefe

Albums

Post Merriweather Pavilion

1It’s rare that the consensus pick for the definitive album of the year arrives all of two weeks into the year, but Animal Collective’s superlative Merriweather Post Pavilion is an exceedingly rare type of album. Not only did it capture a gifted band finally striking the perfect balance between their pop classicist and experimental instincts, but it also captured a broader cultural moment with its tone of guarded, tempered optimism. Robust enough to withstand the predictable backlash, the record simply feels so vital—alive, even—that its longevity is never in doubt. Jonathan Keefe

1More of an arsenal than an album, It’s Blitz! finds the Yeah Yeah Yeahs whipping, grinding, and mashing their usual post-punk bluster with unabashed ’80s glam-pop. The final concoction is wet, glamorous, and brazenly championed by Karen O and her partners in crime. Even when being gentle, such as on the wonderfully buzzing, stuttering “Soft Shock,” the band struts and preens like wannabe tween-rock stars dancing in front of their bedroom mirrors. As “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Dragon Queen” demonstrate, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are at their best when they saturate their infectious rock with insolence. Kevin Liedel

1The Bachelor is, perhaps, Patrick Wolf’s biggest, grandest, and most theatrical effort to date—if that’s possible. Copious choirs, and glitchy, impatient electronic programming are all in service of generating self-motivation. This time around, Tilda Swinton replaces Marianne Faithfull as chaperone, urgently prodding him with flashes of the ferocity she displayed in Julia on the standout “Oblivion” and nudging him more gently on “Thickets.” The album is darker than 2007’s uncharacteristically buoyant The Magic Position, but it’s no less inspiring. Sal Cinquemani

1Bat for Lashes (a.k.a. Natasha Khan) is unabashedly melodramatic and her music is at turns spacey and cavernous, but you never get the sense that you’re dealing with a flake. The Pakistan-born beauty’s sensuality tethers her sophomore effort, Two Suns, to something earthly and tangible. It helps that both the album is slightly more grounded than 2006’s Fur and Gold and that pop music is inching closer to the fringe (the tribal “Two Planets” would make Kanye a fan if he isn’t already). PJ Harvey and Kate Bush are obvious points of reference, but Khan has etched out a heady, haunting spot in the pantheon of female singer-songwriters that’s truly all her own. SC

1It opens on a typically coy indie-pop number, but St. Vincent’s Actor turns out to be one hellish debut, an unflinching depiction of a woman’s mind as it comes unhinged. It just so happens that said woman has an impeccable ear for unpredictable songcraft, spiking her quietly desperate pop tunes with jagged feedback and squalling electronic samples. When best realized, as on “The Neighbors” and “Marrow,” the unresolved tension between immaculately arranged melodies and savage noise provides the perfect sonic analogue to Actor’s underlying lyrical motif: the struggle to maintain outward composure while falling apart inside. Matthew Cole

1Calling Bitte Orca strange or ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. Dirty Projectors works through art-punk interpretations of popular music’s entire history, with strangled chamber pop forced into an uneasy truce with jittery acoustic ballads and off-kilter funk. The album amounts to more than a curio or a sound collage, every song benefiting from the nervy energy of the group’s two vocalists and the efficacy of their melodic hooks—see the sublime beauty of “Two Doves” or the stormy build-and-release of “Useful Chamber.” Frequently difficult, but also undeniably transcendent. MC

1On “Time to Pretend,” one of 2008’s finest singles, MGMT sang, “This is our decision/To live fast and die young/We’ve got the vision/Now let’s have some fun.” On Post-Nothing, Canadian duo Japandroids explodes that couplet into a full-fledged I’ll-sleep-when-I’m-dead manifesto. While extolling the virtues of wet hair, french kissing French girls, and NSA hookups, the duo demonstrates real pop smarts by reflecting their hedonistic, go-for-broke attitude in arrangements that layer some ’90s-era fuzz and distortion over hooks that are reckless and uninhibited. JK

1Only Built 4 Cuban Linx…Pt. II could have been hip-hop’s Chinese Democracy, but Raekwon delivered a virtuoso sequel. RZA’s impeccable production hits that classic Wu sweet spot between eerie and soulful, while ample guest spots from the likes of Ghostface and Inspectah Deck give this bleak, lyrical crime saga the feel of an epic. Raekwon himself turns in some career-best performances: “Sonny’s Missing” is a masterful exercise in tension, the ODB tribute “Ason Jones” is indelibly moving, and the remorseless confessional of “About Me” reminds us how the Chef earned his rep as Wu-Tang’s most riveting storyteller. MC

1In between the surging strings and ebullient horns of “French Navy” and the brightly redemptive closer “Honey in the Sun,” Camera Obscura manages to pack a lot of heartbreak into My Maudlin Career. Life would probably be easier for singer Tracyanne Campbell if she didn’t fall in love so easily, but that would be our loss, since a woman luckier in love would have no cause to write gorgeous tearjerkers like “The Sweetest Thing” or “You Told a Lie.” Besides, its hard to pity anyone as talented as Campbell, particularly when she’s moping and swooning over some of the cleanest, brightest sounding arrangements in indie-pop. MC

1Grizzly Bear makes a clever bid for peculiarity by filling Veckatimest with purposefully broken organs, degraded guitars, and all manner of simulated antiquation. Yet the Brooklyn quartet’s third album never threatens listeners with cloyingness. Instead, leadman Daniel Rossen’s warm, melancholy voice adds an intimate candor to all the clunky parts. Indeed, would tracks such as the haunting “Fine for Now” or the balletic “Cheerleader” be half as effective without Grizzly Bear’s judicious vocal arrangements? In the end, Veckatimest is triumphant not just for its idiosyncrasies, but also for being intricate, careworn, and heartfelt. KL

1xx is like a favorite old coat that’s been shredded and re-sewn into something new but not entirely unrecognizable. Here, The xx rip apart reliable indie threads (a choppy drum machine, clean guitar syncopation, unassuming synth bursts, laconic vocals) and lovingly piece them back together to produce a sparse, elegant patchwork. Nowhere is xx more triumphant than in tracks like “Heart Skipped a Beat,” where deceptively simple accompaniments slide in, pause, gracefully rejoin their melodies, and then hauntingly fade as lead vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim whisper to each other from their stereo refuges. KL

1Some might describe El Perro del Mar’s sound as loungy, even dull, but nothing could be further from the truth. Love Is Not Pop is pop with a light touch and a tremendously heavy heart; it only qualifies as easy listening if you can distance yourself from Sarah Assbring’s expressive singing, if that aching voice breaking over those austere arrangements exerts no pull on your heartstrings. And if that’s the case, you may be too cold-hearted to be listening to pop music in the first place. MC

1There are more than 10 or 12 things A.C. Newman teaches us with his second solo offering, Get Guilty. The album’s soaring, melodic tracks—the most pristine collection of power-pop songcraft since the Magentic Fields’s Distortion—confirm that the singer-songwriter has always been the heart and spirit of the New Pornographers. Newman picks at his guitar as if he were dissecting his own wounded heart, and with the same teasing urgency as his lyrics, which draw all sorts of stunning correlations between the ways of love and the ways of nature and music-making. Make of that what you will. Ed Gonzalez

1Ex-Smogger Bill Callahan soared into his 20th year of recording with one of his strongest efforts yet, the lushly orchestrated Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. Grappling with long-favored themes (birds, faith, love), Callahan attaches his moody baritone to twinkling keyboards, moaning french horns, and lilting strings, and the mesmerizing package unveils a whole new way to appreciate this unique artistic vision that is getting better the more it wrinkles. Wilson McBee

1There’s an argument to be made that country music completely lost the plot in 2009, but Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, on their self-titled debut, did their damnedest to ensure that the genre retained at least a handful of meaningful ties to its history of soulful, intelligent explorations of working-class life in the contemporary South. JK

1It took a while for Hands to grow on me. I blame early comparisons to Madonna, which seemed completely unwarranted, and still do. Practically nothing on Little Boots’s debut recalls the Queen of Pop, but a slew of artists indebted to Madge—Kylie, Annie, etc.—come to mind. In fact, like Kylie, Little Boots (a.k.a. Victoria Hesketh) expertly struts, shimmies, and prances across three decades’ worth of dance music, at turns paying homage to Donna Summer (“Stuck on Repeat”), empty-calorie ’80s pop (“Earthquake”), and 21st-century electro-pop (“Click”) all within the span of an hour. The difference is that Hands is a better album than any Kylie has released this decade. SC

1Only A.C. Newman and El Perro del Mar rival the sincerity of feeling with which Rose City’s poignant, haunting lilts subsume the listener. Indeed, the catchy electro-rock-psychedelic pomp with which Viva Voce strums, coupled with the hushed vivacity of their vocals, may be described as a dream, but the mind-melting exuberance with which husband and wife Kevin and Anita Robinson’s musical approaches delicately intertwine can only be explained as an expression of profound love. EG

1Just about the only thing that doesn’t work about Revolution, the third straight knockout from Miranda Lambert, is its title. The album’s quality is hardly a surprise, given that Lambert has been mainstream country’s most compelling artist for five years running, and the record doesn’t revolutionize either her style or her fascinating, heady artistic persona so much as refine them. JK

1On their self-titled debut, the New Jersey beach bums in Real Estate make effortless lo-fi rock adequate to all manners of driftwood bonfires or secret sand-dune couplings. The guys in the band may buddy around with Vivian Girls and Titus Andronicus, but their sound evidences none of the shambolic fuzz those affiliations may connote, tending instead toward gentleness, open space, and hummable melodies. As translucent and unassumingly gorgeous as sea glass, Real Estate is one of 2009’s best new gems. WM

1After the proggish overdose of last year’s Arm’s Way, Islands’s head-man Nick Thorburn deep-sixed the entirety of his band and veered in a whole new direction for follow-up Vapours. The result was a stripped-down, synthy album that was no less tuneful or thought-provoking than its predecessor, but one that was oodles more fun. From the jaunty glam of the title track to the Auto-Tuned, tongue-in-cheek “Heartbeat,” Vapours proves that Thorburn remains an expert manipulator of pop-music structures. WM

1More than three years in the making, Cazwell finally dropped his first long player in 2009, and—comprised of most of the tracks from his 2006 EP Get Into It plus 14 new tracks and remixes—it’s magnum-sized. Putting a twist on hip-hop’s decades-long marriage to misogyny, Caz comes off like the gay answer to Eminem. Then again, the flow on “I Seen Beyoncé…” is more like the Fresh Prince. Indeed, the sound and spirit of the ’80s are a primary touchstone here, and aside from a few references to “rubbers,” Watch My Mouth manages to recapture the uninhibited sexuality and blissful ignorance of the era without being depressing.SC

1There is perhaps no other female artist than Neko Case who could cast herself as natural disasters, killer whales, glaciers, and other fierce phenomena and still produce an album as remarkably subtle as Middle Cyclone. Alternately cruel and gentle, Case runs through her nameless lovers with equal doses of frustration, spite, and grace, from the strangely sweet assault of “This Tornado Loves You” to the amble of “I’m an Animal” and the smoky, slithering “Prison Girls.” Through it all, the flame-haired, self-proclaimed terror maintains a beautifully violent poise, bragging about orphaning her victims, biting men in half, and finally, bowing to her audience in eloquent appreciation of their “gunpowder eyes.” KL

1It’s taken Mos Def more than 10 years to confirm that Black on Both Sides wasn’t a fluke. Though not without its missteps (the embarrassing Latin slumming of “No Hay Nada Mas”), The Ecstatic is almost as uncompromising as the singer’s debut in terms of thematic scope, bitterness and bittersweetness, and verbal brinkmanship. Mos Def delivers on the promise of the album’s title with one silken track after another (standouts include “Twilite Speedball” and “History” with Talib Kweli) devoted to making your head bop while also raising your consciousness. EG

1As half of the acclaimed duo the Knife, Karin Dreijer Andersson challenges the conventions of dance music with her distorted vocals and macabre imagery. For her debut as Fever Ray, Andersson jettisons any concerns with rhythm and focuses instead on tension and tone. As her dense songs subsume both narrative voice and even her own physical voice, Fever Ray emerges as an unsettling, impossible-to-shake record that suggests the aftermath of when “pop” truly bursts. JK

1Still flying her freak flag, PJ Harvey sounds particularly liberated whenever paired with John Parish. Dance Hall at Louse Point, an underrated triumph in a near-perfect musical career, was a shriekingly subversive American gothic. A Woman a Man Walked By isn’t nearly as focused a vision, but whenever untethered from her instruments, PJ’s voice has a way of soaring in canny, spine-tingling directions (most memorably on “April”) you’d think no human voice could go. If Parish’s lyrics are pale imitations of PJ’s, her alternately chilling and amusing one-of-a-kind interpretations trick you into thinking otherwise. EG

Singles

My Girls

1Next to the Radiohead we know today, Animal Collective is the most overpraised indie act of the decade, but Merriweather Post Pavilion, whose existence would have been impossible without Panda Bear’s great Person Pitch, is something very close to a masterpiece, and “My Girls” is the jewel in its exquisite crown. The catchy production suggests a psychedelic skinny dip in a great beyond, but the lyrics are grounded in something recognizably real: a father and husband’s need—no, struggle—to simply provide (lyric of the year, blessedly sung by Mr. Bear: “I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls”). With “My Girls,” these hipsters start thinking outside their typically blinkered aesthetic and thematic sphere, getting universal and keeping their groove but also finding their soul. Ed Gonzalez

1Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”: I wanna roll with him, a hard pair we will be. I don’t give a crap about whales so go hug a tree! Eric Cartman

1Already the preferred soundtrack of steel-tinted car commercials everywhere, Phoenix’s “1901” features the perfect mixed dose of hyperactive pop and careless rock sensibility. The French quartet fills their punchy ditty with enough buzz-saw synths to carve right through headphone wires, and then adds to the bite by layering them with a thick coat of Thomas Mars’s plaintive vocals. The result is a highly marketable slice of post-punk heaven. KL

1Compared to previous Yeah Yeah Yeahs tracks like “Tick” and “Rich,” “Zero” sounds fangless. But any wistful remembrances of ragged past singles should be short lived: The explosive sure-shot of a middle eight here is better and more anthemic than any of 2009’s proper hooks. As for hooks, “What’s your name/No one’s going to ask you” proves that Karen O can still spit venom even when pulling off a Donna Summer disco strut. Jonathan Keefe

1Karen O is near-orgasmic as she screams the queenly refrain of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’s “Heads Will Roll,” a blistering anthem of canned strings, unrelenting, clipped percussion pads, and plenty of milkshake-thick distortion. “Glitter on the wet streets/Silver over everything,” she sings against a flurry of convulsing melodies, intertwining her icy grace with a thumping drumfire and perfectly encapsulating the New York trio’s carefree glam posture. KL

1It certainly wasn’t the year’s only hip-hop single to view the repetitive, looped vocal hook of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” as some sort of perverse dare, but Major Lazer featuring Mr. Lexx and Santigold’s “Hold the Line” was the only such single to rise to Weezy’s challenge. But this isn’t just a matter of imitation, with Diplo and Switch filtering their trademark dancehall styles through the lens of Jamaican riddim and making an incendiary track that, as Santi suggests, vibrates like a Nokia. JK

1It was a banner year for mediocre, teetering-on-the-edge-of-blasé records—by Camera Obscura, the xx, Japandroids, Islands—with one or two great tracks on them, all over-praised by hungry tastemakers understandably wanting for something, anything, as rich as, say, Vampire Weekend. Like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s “Young Adult Fiction,” Grizzy Bear’s “Two Weeks” is a sterling odd-track-out in a sea of meticulously crafted saminess. It sours with a sly soulfulness of spirit—the band has an unmistakable gift for lending the simplest of romantic sentiments the weight of something almost holy—that suggests Grizzly Bear has a bright future if they choose to always, not just some of time, raise their hands to the heavens. EG

1More often than not, Camera Obscura songs are about falling out of love, but “French Navy” is a crush song in the proud tradition of sighing, scrawled-in-notebook infatuation. Its lyrics detail a chance meeting “by a silvery lake,” an awkward courtship, and that moment when, despite all her best efforts to stay grounded, singer Tracyanne Campbell falls head-over-heels in love. When that climax is reached, every horn and string in the Camera Obscura ensemble earns its keep, the tune’s jangly guitar lead giving way to an utterly splendid wall-of-sound finale. Matthew Cole

1Behold the rare instance of a wet-dream collaboration actually living up to its potential. Brooklyn art-rockers Dirty Projectors bring in David Byrne, the éminence grise of the New York scene, for “Knotty Pine,” a cut originally included on the for-charity Dark Was the Night compilation and so catchy it only needs one verse and a little over two minutes to make its point. Byrne and Amber Coffman trade licks at a typically convoluted DP melody made extra-delicious by a Talking Heads-ish guitar riff, minimalist drum kick, and one-handed piano flourish. Even if it’s not quite the indie-rock equivalent of the Britney-Madonna kiss, “Knotty Pine” is nevertheless a hell of a torch-passing. WM

1The doe-eyed infatuation that comes with any good “first love story,” the perfectly minimalist and precision-tuned hooks stacked back-to-back-to-back, the youthful exuberance that makes for indelible teen-pop: It’s these time-tested conventions that made Taylor Swift the pop star of 2009. But on “Gee,” battalion-sized K-Pop group Girls Generation takes Swift’s formula and raises it literally to the ninth power, making for one of the year’s purest and most maddeningly addictive pop singles. JK

1Bat for Lashes’s love-torn “Daniel” features all of the singer-songwriter’s dramatic charm to which we’ve grown accustomed, but it’s delivered in a decidedly sleeker, more accessible, and simultaneously modern and retro new-new wave package that would be as equally at home blasting from a boombox in the mid-’80s as it would playing over the “marble movie skies” of some late 21st-century film’s ending credits. Sal Cinquemani

1You can add Little Boots’s defiant, Kylie-esque “Remedy” to the long list of great dance floor-filling odes to the universal languages of movement and sound. Music might be the balm that heals all wounds, but here dancing is the tonic that keeps a toxic lover at bay. SC

1Righteous noise-rock riffing, stampeding drum fills, and only the best off-key caterwauls to grace any recent punk release are the simple ingredients that Japandroids turn into anthemic lo-fi glory on “Young Hearts Spark Fire.” Sure, there’s little surprise in hearing scruffy young dudes transmute their adolescent yearning into sing-along form. What is surprising is how long the hooks stay with you, how five minutes feel like two, how quickly your finger moves to the “repeat” button. MC

1Thanks to the ferocious and playful wit of Middle Cyclone as a whole, listeners probably won’t be able to tell if Neko Case is being figurative or literal when she bellows, “I’m a man eater/But still you’re surprised when I eat ya.” Amid a half-dozen animal metaphors and Case’s own sardonic sense of satisfaction, “People Got a Lotta Nerve” succeeds most of all because of its breezy, sing-along style, counterbalancing the morbid narrative with loose acoustic guitars and a bicycle-riding beat. That contrast lends lyrics such as “It will end again in bullets, friend”—and, ultimately, the song itself—a blithe charm. Kevin Liedel

1The show itself may have struggled to find the proper balance between of-the-moment sincerity and Election-inspired snark, but the Glee cast recording of “Don’t Stop Believin’,” carried by Broadway vet Lea Michele’s air-raid siren of a voice, hits its mark with precision. It demonstrates both an ironic pop-culture awareness, reclaiming the evergreen Journey hit from The Sopranos’s stunt performance sendoff, and a wide-eyed earnestness, casting its Show Choir geek squad as the year’s most compelling underdogs. JK

1Jazmine Sullivan has a refreshing, albeit near-pathological, allegiance to truth. Her debut, Fearless, is filled with songs like “Lions, Tigers & Bears,” on which she admits that loving someone is more frightening than performing to a sold-out crowd. Said like a superstar. And there’s no excuse for why she isn’t one yet. SC

1Reflections on the soul-crush of celebrity are a particularly risible strain of pop music, but Patrick Wolf brings a deliriously virtuostic sense of camp to his music that tempers the inherent whininess of his gripes. Throughout “Vulture,” Wolf is tired, dead tired, blurring the line between performer and consumer with evocative lyrical imagery and thrilling electronic flourishes that suggest a nosedive into an abyss. This drama queen has a massive ego (for proof, see—or, rather, don’t see—the embarrassing Brüno-meets-Conan the Barbarian music video), but with “Vulture,” he not only tells you as much, he shows you his bleeding guts in the process. EG

1Easily Daniel Rossen’s finest turn on lead vocals for Grizzly Bear, “While You Wait for the Others” is a giant swooning volley of angst. With only an abrasive guitar figure, some subdued organ noodles, and an unobtrusive rhythm section beneath them, the voices of Grizzly Bear do all work here, and what work it is. If and when all the current Beach Boys adulation and re-imagining grows stale, I’m sure “While You Wait” will stand as one of the highlights of the movement. Wilson McBee

1Though her previous and subsequent singles failed to crack the Top 10, Timbaland protégé Keri Hilson TKO’ed the competition with “Knock You Down.” Thanks to a sugarcoated hook, Kanye guest spot, and nod to Michael Jackson, even the song’s tacky domestic abuse metaphor couldn’t keep it down for long. SC

1Islands” is climb-up, climb-down pop, and perhaps xx’s sweetest and most demure piece. Bursting out the gate with the trickles of muted guitar and The xx’s unadorned drum programming, the track bounces along in a bittersweet gait, allowing Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim to elevate a disconnected duet and coo their lovers’ thoughts in a gentle, sleepy drawl. KL

1Wavves’s “No Hope Kids” is further evidence that rock n’ roll will never tire of wasted-youth anthems. This particular ode to the gutter comes thundering out of Nathan Williams’s San Diego bedroom, a primitive squall of guitar feedback and bled-together vocals proclaiming, “Got no car, got no money/Got nothin’, nothin’, nothin’, not at all,” and, rather poignantly, that “no hope kids are bruised.” Bruised, hopeless, fearless: “No Hope Kids” thrives on the secret shard of youth that even the oldest among us still feels. WM

1Oh My God” belongs somewhere between the jilted ex-lover’s rock of Alanis Morissette and the full-on hellcat confessions of Courtney Love. Not only does Ida Maria nail the intersection of manic and tuneful, she does so with a sense of vulnerability that’s totally unaffected and refreshingly raw. Next to “I Love You,” “Oh My God” could be the three most heard words in pop music, but every time Ida Maria lets them slip they feel like a punch to the gut. MC

1With its plodding 4/4 beat, catchy refrain, and just-strained-enough-to-be-beautiful vocal, the first single from Alicia Keys’s new album, the decidedly vanilla “Doesn’t Mean Anything,” followed the blueprint of her hit “No One,” but it received an appropriately tepid response. The follow-up, “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart,” is a less literal attempt to repeat the style of “No One” and it succeeds wildly: Keys’s production choices (clunky hip-hop beat, ’80s synths flourishes) are a focal point, but it’s her vocal performance (namely those breathy, Prince-esque verses) that, once again, makes the song. SC

1Passion Pit’s big breakthrough, “Sleepyhead,” was an understated electro-pop gem, but there’s absolutely nothing subtle about “Little Secrets.” Michael Angelakos takes his vocals into the helium range, while synths, strings, and yes, a children’s choir, all jockey to have the song’s biggest hook. The band’s rhythm section wisely cuts the sweet stuff with some snarling bass and a pumping, clattering drum section—just enough swagger to balance out all of the major-key swooning. MC

1The latest victim of Kanye’s on-fire feature barrage, Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal” keeps the Virginia coke-rappers relevant even if they have nothing really to do with the song’s success. Because even with the Thornton brothers comporting themselves with relative dignity, the real stars are West’s scene-stealing classclown routine (“Meet Ye’ alligator souffle, had it made/Special Ed got head from a girl in special ed”) and DJ Khalil’s squawking, rock-infused beat. WM