Best Albums 2009 (1-5)

5. Oumou Sangare — Seya

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Y’all love those Malian guitarists, I know — something about the mystic, ancient, manly roots of the blues. And yeah, those guys can smoke, lots of ’em, even if they’ve got nothing on their more elegant Congolese counterparts. But West Africa’s woman belters proffer a more exhilarating and more social art, and Oumou is their queen. She entered her 40s with her first U.S. album since 1997 (excepting a two-disc compilation where the unconvinced should start) after a decade spent mostly as a mother and entrepreneur, to propound on her version of Wassoulou feminism in a undiminished voice that exemplifies the sound of power and generosity not just coexisting but bolstering one another.

4. Sonic Youth–The Eternal

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Following Thurston and Kim’s split, what was once just another excellent Sonic Youth record has become the last Sonic Youth record, a testament (or tombstone) capping the close of great group’s late period. Gossip detectives are free to ferret out lyrical hints of discontent, with Kim’s impossible but not unreasonable demands of sexual transcendence all the more likely to now nettle the flinch-prone. But no rock band has ever sounded so confident a quarter-century into its existence. Even the Beat namedropping that once seemed an affected route to borrowed cool has come to mark their commitment to a NYC bohemian past of which they would soon become the latest chapter. Not quite as concise and hooky as Rather Ripped, but I’ll take Mark Ibold and his unobtrusive bass over Jim O’Rourke and his diffuse ideas.

3. Wussy — Wussy

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Chuck Cleaver started his decade with a great Ass Ponys comeback and a pretty good follow-up, then left his comic Americana in the ’90s to collaborate with off-and-on mate Lisa Walker on an imperiled-relationship album worthy of comparison to Rumours or Shoot out the Lights. Rather than describing direct confrontations, Wussy’s songs more resemble furtive journal entries or whispered phone calls to friends. Cleaver yelps desperate abstractions like “Your punctuation hit me like a truck”; Walker prefers deadpan reports of concrete sensation like “Your hollow teeth are tasting my lower lip.” When they harmonize, or their guitars combine to split the difference between jangle and drone, you can hear why they stayed together.

2. Mos Def — The Ecstatic

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Chalk up those rumors that Mr. Smith had fallen off to unrealistic expectations easily thwarted, not to mention rap fans’ reluctance to trust anyone over thirty. Fact is, Mos had a stronger decade than many more a la mode underground heroes, not to mention most of the genre’s blockbuster titans. But though I’ll rep for The New Danger all night — much of what makes this supposed “return to form” succeed is in embryo there — you don’t have to agree with me there to hear this as a triumph, flaunting a decidedly non-heroic willingness to within the mix, a fluidity with beats skipping internationally meaning, a narrative ebb and flow. And as a bonus, a Slick Rick rhyme about Iraq to remind us that the Ruler’s overdue for a new album.

1. Leonard Cohen — Live in London

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Live albums by singer-songwriters are mostly useless. Though sometimes those sets significantly reinterpret familiar material, that alchemy occurs far less often than we’re led to believe, and it’s not exactly what makes this 2008 concert recording so special. Fewer still are live albums that transform an artist you admire into an artist you love, and for me, this is one. I prefer the old sage’s thick voice to the young poet’s questing tenor–at eighty-three what once sounded like well-phrased guesses at the ineffable now carry the heft of something like accrued wisdom. And in the presence of an adoring yet unobtrusive audience, I can even hear “Hallelujah” anew. So I excuse him for not dying.

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