Top 50 of 2009 :: 20-11 [You've been acting awful tough lately]

20. Neko Case - "People Got A Lotta Nerve"

Neko Case is to animal metaphors what Siegfried and Roy are to dangerous jungle cats. She manages to compare love to a taming of a wild, completely undomesticated animal. "You know, they call them killer whales," Case elaborates, "but you seem surprised when it pinned you down to the bottom of the tank where you can't turn around?" The supposition is that if you jump in tank with a deadly animal, you might want to table your shock when it is ripping your face off. Case declares herself a "man-eater" in the chorus and we are hardly prepared to judge. After all, we put her songs in our music library, we let her in, and maybe we should just be happy to still be alive.

19. Marina and the Diamonds - "I Am Not A Robot"

In one of my favorite running jokes of 2009, a friend of mine would send me texts every month, simply reading: "Guess what?" Of course, it was a paraphrase of Marina's signature lyric from "I Am Not A Robot." She was baiting me and to lose this game, I needed to send back a genuine, "What?" But for me to win, I would need to reply, "I'm not a robot," correctly completing the phrase. Over time, the question never changed but the answers evolved. Guess what? "I AM a robot." Guess what? "We are all robots." Guess what? This song is a crushing examination of our humanity and how quickly we can become romantic technocrats. Guess what? We aren't robots, no matter how hard we try.

18. Everything Everything - "MY KZ, UR BF"

In an email I sent to one of my A&R friends at Sony, I described Everything Everything as Passion Pit, but from the other side of the pond. Their first single, "Photoshop Handsome" indicated promise, but follow-up "MY KZ, UR BF" (or "My Keys, Your Boyfriend") proved that this band is going to make its money by packing enough hooks that you can't reasonably breathe. With vocals that bounce like an attention-deficit rubber ball and a chorus with elements of a head-nodding epic, "MY KZ, UR BF" is nearly radio-ready. 2010 is going to be a big year for these kids and it starts right now.

17. My Jerusalem - "Sweet Chariot"

My Jerusalem offered up "Sweet Chariot" in 2009, a rich mixture of Wilco, The National, and Beulah. Organ, rich strings, shabby guitars, and 3am-Marlboro-Red vocals collide in a tweaking, shaking chorus. The best moment, however, is the eponymous bridge. "We will not suffer the mistakes of our fathers/Sweet chariot take us away" becomes the repeated edict to go with a tide of building sound. The strings churn from the below and finally, a double-tapped rhythm section as we reach a thrashing catharsis. Just like that, the song fades into nothingness and is gone.

16. Emanuel and the Fear - "The Rain Becomes The Clouds"

There is this moment in "The Rain Becomes The Clouds" somewhere in the final third, right before the final chorus where the singer intones: "As winter ends and spring begins/with summer winds off in the distance/pushing in, they move us." Focus on "move us." The singer's voice tumbles down three or four notes in an eye-blink. The strings are soaring behind him as he continues to insist in the chorus, a metaphor rooted in the water cycle, that "the rain becomes the clouds." Emanuel and the Fear sound like a Rufus Wainwright take on Sufjan Stevens but with something more hopeful, more desperate and more propulsive; something designed specifically to move us.

15. Egyptian Hip Hop - "Rad Pitt"

Egyptian Hip Hop were neither hip-hop nor were they obviously Egyptian in 2009. In the world of indie rock names, this should not surprise us. What was surprising was the explosion of vocals and melody that stumbled out of the headphone jack. The first lyrics, after a shimmering, post-punk intro, give a mighty debt to New Order's "Temptation" chorus of "Up, down, turn around/please don't let me hit the ground." In the world of Egyptian Hip Hop, the melody is almost identical but the lyrics begin "What are we today?" It is a useful question for a band with a non-sequitur for a name.

14. The Joy Formidable - "Cradle"

The Joy Formidable released one of the best records of 2009, A Balloon Called Moaning, gave it away for free through NME and still didn't get enough press. The signature song is "Cradle" a charging, industrial rock joint. A sing-song melody in the verses gives way to a driving, nearly tribal chorus. The lyrics, hard to make out, are a repeating "My vicious tongue/cradles just one." It is violent and sexual and ambiguous. But when "Cradle" finishes, you only have one moment stuck your mind; the first lyrics, "I can see he says what he means," in perfect, alternating hi-fi.

13. Fanfarlo - "Luna"

"Luna" is a story in two-parts. From the jump, Fanfarlo charges out of the gate like an in medias res Arcade Fire. Instead of waiting for the charging second-movement, "Luna" opens at a sprint. This doesn't leave the band much room to grow, making the whole song into a brilliant comedown. By the end, we've slowed to a near waltz, miles from the initial burst. None of this is to say, "Luna" is poorly conceived. Rather, it is a different construction built heavy on the front and light on the back. But each movement, the slamming first two-minutes and the slow-drive final two-and-a-half, has its own narrative and ultimately leaves us feeling complete.

12. Pains Of Being Pure At Heart - "Young Adult Friction"

From the opening snare hits, through the soaring chord progression, "Young Adult Friction" does more than describe what its lurid and, presumably, metaphorical title intimates. Pains Of Being Pure At Heart seem to describe something less intimate and more public. You feel surrounded by people, by movement, by the thing you came here to see. The plea for earnesty gets deeper in the song's final movement, as they repeat, "Don't check me out/don't check me out." By the final, slamming conclusion and its echoing finale, you've experienced a case for intimacy and a case for public interaction - sitting right next to each other, kissing, we presume, in the privacy of a million strangers.

11. Two Door Cinema Club - "I Can Talk"

A vocal loop is the assaulting opener for Two Door Cinema Club's slamming single "I Can Talk." This is the first unveiling. The track then takes off in a speedy direction, calling to mind the high-fret-board moments of Editors, before settling into the twitchy, angular guitar sound that TDCC is deservedly known for. This is something different, returning to find a massive chorus with the title, "I Can Talk" squarely as its centerpiece. The arrangement rises, the vocal loop returns and these little, almost frail, falsetto vocals scream out from the maw. The down-beat might break your neck because it is, quite simply, one of the biggest moments of year.

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