Top 50 of 2009 :: 30-21 [We are young and still alive]

30. The Traditionist - "I Know My Ocean"

Joey Barro, the brain-child behind The Traditionist, turned out one of our favorite records of the year, the crushing Season to Season. "I Know My Ocean" remained one of the most approachable and re-listenable tracks on the record. Without over reading, it's a road-show, rambling bit of acoustic indie-rock. A harmonica shows up at one point, and a lazy acoustic guitar progression keeps your head nodding. But it is, perhaps, the soft, honest aesthetic that makes Barro's work so compelling. He confides in the second verse: "I know how to take my time/and I know how to recreate a moment/without faking that I'm fine/just for you." We don't have to fake a moment of being fine - this is very really good.

29. Voxtrot - "Trepanation Party"

"Trepanation Party" didn't make a ton of sense to me the first few times I heard it, but this only showcases my lack of foresight. Clocking in a five-and-a-half minutes, it is a builder by design. Opening with ominous drums and an unsettling piano-progression, Ramesh and company eventually unleash a wash of synths and crashing rhythm. The bass line charges ahead and the piano moves from concerning to outright upset. Ramesh's vocals flit around the top of the mix, only to become the centerpiece of the best lyric of the year: "Everyone I know is losing their mind/Yeah, but everyone I know has a really good time/Drilling holes in my head/You will never go blind/I will always be the outlaw for your love." It's about doing drugs and freaking out. It's about a drastic procedure to fix mental illness. It is a monster.

28. The Ghost Is Dancing - "Battles On"

The Ghost Is Dancing didn't reveal themselves to me until this November, making them a late entry into the Song of the Year run-off. But "Battles On" proved to be a such a masterwork of massive proportions that it quickly cracked the top 30. Big synths, big guitars, fist-pumping lyrics - it proved to be the same concept as Los Campesinos but with more hooks and more lift. This is a battle cry for a generation of messed-up kids who want to raise their hands in unison against the neo-hippies who screwed the pooch in 1980s. "Here comes the battle/A brand new era/So we're old children/Let's fight those bastards down." Hit 'em where it hurts.

27. Surfer Blood - "Swim (To Reach The End)"

Put Weezer in the bottom of an aquarium on the eastern coast of Florida. Give them wet-suits, face-masks, airtanks - the whole deal. Then turn them loose, the sharks I mean. Surfer Blood and their seminal single, "Swim (To Reach The End)" call out from the bottom of the pool, fuzzy and echoing. There is an element of danger, of attack or repel, that colors even the most chanting moments of "Swim." The eponymous chorus encourages us to, yes, "Swim to reach the end." For Surfer Blood, the scent of the frenzy is on the water. Now, they must keep moving or die.

26. Shout Out Out Out Out - "Guilt Trips Sink Ships"

Of the weird things I was doing when "Guilt Trips Sink Ships" clicked, reading Jonathan Franzen on the coast of the Dominican Republic was only one of them. It took investment, this song, and its value didn't reveal itself until two or four or six minutes in. Multiple listens later, my head nodding, uncontrollable, I was clocked down on the meaningless lyrics, the buzzing keyboards, and the splashy drums. You will find yourself waking in the middle of the night, mouthing the lyrics, "Guilt trips sink ships" and you won't know why. This will work a tunnel into the middle of your most forgettable corner of your brain and there it will wait. Until the moment your iTunes puts this on random and your legs take control. Warn the people around you or make sure they hear it too."

25. Action Painters - "456"

Action Painters are on somewhat permanent hiatus and will probably fracture into a million little pieces. But, if "456" proves to be their final movement, it will have been a good one. The stumbling, slow build has elements of the epic from the outset. By the time singer, Tom Haslow is screaming, "I do not need anyone to tell me what to do/But how do you start up again when everything is new," we've been moved. For a band on the rocks, on the outs, probably finished, the words ring strikingly true. How do you start up again if everything has already been done and what you had is gone? First, some down-stroke guitars, a leading riff and then throw in some drums: Four, five, six. Make us move, Tom. The rest is easy.

24. Free Energy - "Free Energy"

Over the summer, I listened to Free Energy for the first time on a couch in Beverly Hills. It was the middle of the night and I was in no place to hear anything like this. And yet, despite the barriers to our bond, this happened. All the classic rock signifiers should have frustrated me. I should have written this off. Instead, I wrote down all the lyrics and sent them to my friends. "Free Energy" is an anthem of youth, a hymn for the young and the young at heart. "This is all we got tonight/We are young and still alive/Now the time is on our side." The band storms out of the bridge with a wide-open, free-range guitar progression. As they build to the last chorus, they insist, "The fever is coming/It's shaking the ground," and they couldn't be more correct. They say youth is wasted on the young. In your case, we'll make an exception.

23. US Royalty - "Every Summer"

US Royalty are the Kings of Leon you haven't heard of yet. With an explosive lead-singer and a band that is so tour tough that one of the members leaned over to me, after playing to 15 people at the Mercury Lounge and said, "We don't always remember to promote the shows, to be quite honest." Sitting in their pockets is a set list that has "Every Summer" written in the middle of it. The track showcases some of the bands signature vocals and an eruptive chorus that will lock in your head for days. Think back to that show with 15 kids dancing around, Noah and I walk in the back of the room, watch about 45-seconds of "Every Summer" and look at each other with the same thought: "These guys are going to be big. Really big." If they just remember to tell anyone.

22. Ellie Goulding - "Under The Sheets" (click through to Neon Gold for download)

Ellie Goulding made our list last year, storming all the way to number 40 with "Wish I Stayed." We suggested she was going to rip people to bits in 2009 but, of course, these things take longer than expected. Now, with "Under The Sheets" on the prowl and ready to crush people, Goulding is set to take over the universe with "Under The Sheets," and its double-entendre chorus. The hook is huge and we are miles away from the cute, Frou Frou-moments of "Wish I Stayed." The video makes you feel like you have glitter, not blood, pumping through your veins. In the final chorus, you're taken to this alternate reality where everything is full of phosphorescent harps and is moving to the beat.

21. The Antlers - "Two"

On January 9th of 2009, I said that The Antlers were poised to be one of the "it" bands of 2009. Well, it turned out to be true with everyone (not just Frenchkiss) jumping on the band's debut LP, Hospice. Fifty days after my prediction and, less than three months into 2009, NPR absurdly declared it the album of the year. Both our predictions were based largely on the strength of "Two," a six-minute mediation on the emotions of departure and loss. "Two" moved us to feel, though what we were supposed to feel we couldn't be sure. The lyrics stuck with us, ("There's no open doors/there's no way to get through/there's no other witnesses, just us two") and the music, an inflating, six-minute build, ended up leveling the listener with density and a haunting melodic character. Almost a year later, there's still just two: The Antlers and you. And that either makes you feel really alone, or completely together.

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