Neko Case
Neko Case's "Middle Cyclone" is one of the best CDs of the year.

Best-of lists at the end of the year are always a bit arbitrary, dependent as they are on individual taste and happenstance. But we stand by these as at least some of the very best CD releases of 2009, nationally and locally.

New technology in the last decade has in many ways democratized the album-making process for musicians, making it easier and easier to record and release music. On one hand, there’s more music. On the other…there’s more music. This makes it harder to both find and separate out the good stuff. These lists are in no way complete or definitive, but we hope they’ll inspire exploration.

Best Local CDs

1. His & Her Vanities, “The Mighty Lunge” (Science of Sound) — From the nervous caffeination and slicing beats of “Hits Like Hail” to Ricky and Terrin Reimer’s silvery harmonizing on “Wake Up This Day,” this is fully developed and cathartic post-punk.

2. dumate, “We Have the Technology” (World Around Records) — This follow up to dumate’s debut “The Known Knowns” is a true team effort: the hip-hop fusion pops with Man Mantis’ jagged, cascading production, Jah Boogie’s smooth singing, Nick Moran’s crackling bass and the sharply constructed rhyming of emcees Dudu Stinks and DLO.

3. iCarus Himself, “Coffins” (Science of Sound) — Songwriter Nick Whetro has a Ween-like knack for screwy lyrics, and manages to sound both scrappy and intensely precise on this album of punchy rock.

4. Cougar, “Patriot” (Ninja Tune) — With members scattered around Wisconsin and elsewhere, Cougar is only partially Madisonian, but the post-rock group deserves (and is getting) attention for these richly textured, surprising anthems.

5. The Cajun Strangers, “Cajun Country Ramble” (Swallow Records) — Playing music more appropriate for a muggy bayou than between two frozen lakes, this unlikely group of Madisonians plays 22 original Creole dance tunes in the traditional style on this lively 22-song CD.

6. All Tiny Creatures, “Segni” (Hometapes) — The math rock quartet sinks in like a musical muscle relaxant on this four-song EP of instrumentals by knitting and unraveling looping arpeggios, kneading open chords with increasing urgency but never quite climaxing or resolving. To powerful effect, the band tinkers and jabs like humans teasing a machine.

7. Know Boundaries, “The Ghost Spell according to Know Boundaries” (self-released) — Fusing rap and rock doesn’t often yield quality (the less said about Limp Bizkit, the better), but Know Boundaries are different, tempering the usual dumb bombast of the genre with wit, politics, funk and smooth production.

— Katjusa Cisar

Best national CDs

1. Neko Case, "Middle Cyclone" (Anti) - The idea of using wildlife metaphors to delve into the human heart works brilliantly on this album, which is chock full of terrific songs that showcase not only Case's incredible pipes, but her sharp songwriting pen. A career high from an artist who just keeps getting better and better.

2. Avett Brothers, "I And Love And You" (Sony) - The North Carolina roots-rock band can dive deep into heartbreak in its songs (especially the devastating title track) and never veer into sentimentality. The songwriting is like great fiction with pedal steel guitar and violin added in.

3. Monsters of Folk, "Monsters of Folk" (Shangri-La) - Most supergroups fizzle, but this amiable project featuring M. Ward, Jim James and Conor Oberst played to the strengths of all involved. Each seemed to bring some of his best material to the album, and the result is a terrific collection of songs.

4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "It's Blitz" (Interscope) - The art rockers took a dramatic left turn on their last album, trading in jagged punk guitars for pulsing dance-rock keyboards and drum machines. But the underlying tension and unrest that stoked their older tunes remained dangerously intact.

5. The Doves, "Kingdom of Rust" (Astralwerks) - Although it's been largely overlooked by critics, the Manchester rock band brought a euphoric tone and epic sweep to its fourth album, adding elements of electronica and Americana to the arena-rock power of its songs.

6. Cave Singers, "Welcome Joy" (Matador) - This band from the Pacific Northwest has a homemade, rootsy vibe, but every once in a while, just when you are lulled by its Nick Drake-like folk, a full-on prog-rock explosion will catch you by surprise. One of the nicest discoveries of 2009.

7. Sonic Youth, "The Eternal" (Matador) - One of indie rock's most venerable bands came roaring back in 2009 with an album that focused their experimental bent into some killer rock songs.

Honorable mentions: Grizzly Bear's "Veckatimest," Phoenix's "Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix," Andrew Bird's "Noble Beast," Wilco's "Wilco (The Album)," and The Swell Season's "Strict Joy."

- Rob Thomas

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