The Year in Music: The Best Albums of 2009

The Pines, Tremolo

There's a good reason that we chose to feature folk duo the Pines on the cover of this year's music wrap-up, and it's not because they make mighty fine photo subjects—it's because their latest effort, Tremolo, is one of the most delicately arranged and timeless local albums to be released this year. Though David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey trade off singing melodies, it's Ramsey's voice in particular that lives up to Tremolo's title, words wavering on his breath as he sings haunting songs about loneliness, wanderlust, and falling in and out of time with reality. The spirit of the blues is alive and well in the souls of these young Red House songwriters, and though they don't seem to fit into any of the sub-scenes their music would suggest—the West Bank folkies, the hip young old-timey revivalists, the bleeding-heart acoustic guitar-strumming crooners—their accomplished sound commands the respect of all of the above, and more.

Mason Jennings, Blood of Man

Screw whether he's playing acoustic or electric guitar—Mason Jennings's latest album is worth owning because of its gut-wrenching sincerity and unadulterated artistic freedom, the likes of which haven't been present in his work for years. While fans expressed shock at the idea of Jennings "plugging in," the more significant aspect of Blood of Man is the way it veers across the spectrum of human emotions without a shred of self-consciousness, covering loss, joy, agony, love, and anger in equally forthright measures. Whether he's strumming softly on pensive tracks like "Black Wind Blowing," doing his best Jack White rock-out on "Ain't No Friend of Mine," or taking on the war from a parent's perspective in "The Field," Jennings exhibits a refocused dedication to singing on his own terms and with his own voice.

Gary Louris & Mark Olson, Ready for the Flood

Ah, sweet relief. That's the main theme behind Ready for the Flood, the first collaboration between Jayhawks founders Gary Louris and Mark Olson since the early '90s. In contrast to the more rock-driven alt-country of their Jayhawks work, their new album reflects a softer side of their songwriting, giving their chilling, spot-on vocal harmonies plenty of room to blossom over the gentle strums of two acoustic guitars and the eerie whir of a slide guitar.

Red Pens, Reasons

Sit through a few spins of the debut album by the Red Pens and it becomes obvious why this new rock duo won our Picked to Click contest this year by a landslide. Their sound is at least five times larger than their pared-down lineup would suggest, with lead singer and guitarist Howard W. Hamilton III building a wave of fuzzy feedback that seems to compound on itself while Laura Bennett pounds away on her drums. If fate plays out the way it ought to, Reasons will be the record critics dig up years later to find out how, exactly, this band-on-the-rise got their start—a document of the origins of a group that bleeds sincerity and sweats contagious passion.

The Twilight Hours, Stereo Night

If "easy listening" didn't have such negative connotations, it might make a good descriptor for this debut release by longtime collaborators Matt Wilson and John Munson. Simply put, these songs are extremely easy to listen to, a well-calculated joy for the ears, chock full of soaring vocal hooks, catchy melodies, and call-and-response harmonies. Stereo Night is further evidence that these former Trip Shakespeare bandmates were beamed down to this planet for the sole purpose of making music with one another.

Peter Wolf Crier, Inter-Be

Though at first listen it seems that Peter Wolf Crier rest heavily on a Bon Iver influence, repeated spins of Inter-Be suggest a deeper and more interesting concept. Featuring the Wars of 1812's Peter Pisano and Laarks drummer Brian Moen, Peter Wolf Crier's take on lo-fi indie-folk is surprisingly refreshing, contrasting moments of childlike preciousness with somber undertones and the slightest hint of utter, irrefutable despair. This haunting quality, combined with their groundbreaking, intimate house-show album-release parties, make Inter-Be one of the most fascinating releases this year.

Brother Ali, Us

It'd be hard to refute Brother Ali's impact on both the local and national indie hip-hop movements, and Us is another nearly flawless volume in Ali's growing anthology. Ever the reflective truth poet, Ali spends much of Us evaluating his place in life, expressing gratitude for the progress he's made, and encouraging others to follow in his footsteps and become a part of his ever-expanding community. To sweeten the pot, producer Ant's tapestry of gospel and R&B-inspired beats perfectly accentuates the words of the Twin Cities' finest street preacher.

Anders Ponders, Nodes of Overtones

Given his years of cohabitation with members of Unicorn Basement and the Sundowners, and keeping Kitten Forever as his musical kith, one wouldn't expect Anders Mattson's first musical venture to be of such tender, soft-spoken brilliance. But out of that bramble of wild noise comes the Twin Cities' most startling debut. Nodes of Overtones is a jaw-dropping work of musical vision and discipline. Achingly acoustic and handcrafted, the one-man show exhibits a communion of songwriting and musical mastery rarely found in whole bands, let alone single performers. Listen to the album's opener, "The Discus Incident," if you dare—we haven't heard anything this honest and beautiful in years.

Vampire Hands, Hannah in the Mansion

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