This decade has been an unraveling. All in a span of eight years, the U.S. mainland was attacked and the financial pillars of capitalism have collapsed. Somewhere along the way, the once-powerful music industry lost its grip on the sound of our culture.
The old orders are gone, but they haven't been replaced yet. And the best early releases of 2009 are smart enough to acknowledge that.
Here are the three most compelling albums I've listened to so far this year. Their sound and presentation fit the disheveled feel of the times. They embrace sonic experimentation, even as they lament the lost order of yesterday.
Merriweather Post Pavilion (Domino)
Indie rock bands have spent the last decade deconstructing the tightly wound songs structures that were the hallmark of the record industry era.
Animal Collective's new release is no exception. The tracks are a sea of vocal harmonies plus suspended and subdued electronics. Synthesizers, be they live or sampled, rise and fall, change tones and keys. But they never pause. The result is baroque and sometimes danceable electronica that follows a trail once blazed by the Flaming Lips. Tribal beats provide the only punctuation to an otherwise dense listening experience. If there are verses and choruses here, they often seem indecipherable.
Animal Collective might be 21st-century avant-garde, but in the lyrics to "My Girls," they confess a thirst for old-fashioned domestic tranquility: "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things like a social status / I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls."
Like Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio, the Baltimore combo Animal Collective makes music that is frequently impressionistic. The fuzz guitar that opens "Summertime Clothes" is foggy. It loops redundantly without clarity or direction, gradually rising into an instrumental chant.
Is any of it superior to the verse-chorus-verse days of yore? In the opening line of "Bluish," "I'm getting lost in your cause," Animal Collective doesn't profess to be convinced, even if this album is gorgeous all the way through.
Hold Time (Merge)
This Portland-based singer-songwriter released my favorite album of 2006, Post War. Ward is one of several artists - among them Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists - who have redefined folk music for the 21st century.
They've reshaped it in a way that's consistent with the most prominent characteristics of indie rock, making it loosely structured and broadly atmospheric.
Hold Time is layered in plush instrumental textures that range from swooning strings to fuzzy electric guitar. Like the songs of Animal Collective, Hold Time is built on suspended sound.
You can hear it in the lingering interplay of somber piano chords and restrained strings that permeate the title track. Ward's vintage, old-time radio voice wafts across the measures, caressing them at every turn.
It's a voice that's perfect for a duet with Lucinda Williams. The result of that collaboration is the aching ballad "Oh Lonesome Me."
By the third track of Hold Time, Ward unleashes a cover of Buddy Holly's "Rave On." His version drifts through airy harmonies and guitar layers that recast the dawn of commercial rock in the complexity of modern arrangements.
It's another example of the music of 2009 taking comfort in the sound of the past.
On Post War, Ward's songs were lullabies for a nation burned out on Iraq. This time, the cultural context is far less certain. Hold Time, perhaps, is just the right name.
Never Better (Rhymesayers)
Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. began his musical career in a punk rock band. That might explain why his approach to hip-hop has always been wider in scope than beats and samples.
The tracks on Never Better are clearly conscious of themselves as songs. A drum jam and a growling electric guitar define the frantic pace of the raps on "Drumroll." Jimi Hendrix-style blues-rock opens "Been Afraid," just before pounding beats recall Public Enemy's "Fight the Power."
The best track on the album is "Low Light Low Life," an adrenaline-fueled anthem to lost opportunities backed by the swagger of horn riffs. The lyrics are biting social commentary ready to take aim at Wall Street and Main Street: "It seems we're falling out of favor / The era ended on us / Now the money's just paper / The houses are haunted / We had a helluva run before it caught up / For all the corners cut, we got an avalanche of sawdust."
The Minneapolis hip-hop scene has become a national force, and the Rhymesayers label has been at the forefront. Never Better is sure to further the hype, and songs like "Optimist" advance the idea that hip-hop themes have moved beyond living large: "Trying to teach my son how to reach / Damn right, cause it gets a little darker every night / And the rent goes up."
My January spins also included two anticipated albums that let me down. Tonight: Franz Ferdinand never conjures the scintillating hooks and melodies that defined the band's excellent albums from 2004 and 2005. The chic jazz-rock that's at the core of these tracks is marred by unsophisticated vocals sung (and frequently shouted) in unison.
There are plenty of charming, whistled riffs on Andrew Bird's Noble Beast. It's not business-as-usual for a violin to take the instrument lead in a rock band, but Bird's players effortlessly adjust. Yet the album is too laid back, and it quickly grows sleepy.
The last year of this decade brims with an uncertainty that's edgy and restless. Here's hoping more 2009 albums will show us that there's beauty in what that sounds like.