Music In 2009: A Review

It’s hard to sum up an entire year of pop music in one concise “best of” list. Instead, here’s a tidy little look at some of the highs and lows in pop music over the past year:

Hip-Huh?: The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones declared that hip-hop was dead and upset a lot of hip-hop heads.

And yet, while Frere-Jones got a lot of flack for playing musical grim reaper, he had something of a point: Where was hip-hop in 2009? Last year, critics and music buyers alike flocked to Lil Wayne. Who took the crown at the top of hip-hop this year? Jay-Z may have come close, but The Blueprint 3 didn’t really create the kind of enthusiasm that The Blueprint 2, The Black Album or even Kingdom Come produced.

Who’s left to claim the top spot? Perhaps Raekwon, who’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt. II grabbed heaps of critical acclaim and nabbed the 4th spot on Billboard. But the album has also sold less than 200,000 copies since September. Tha Carter III sold over a million copies in its first week. True, chart dominance hardly extends the same might it did a decade ago, but considering hip-hop is a form of pop music that features artist that regularly flaunt their physical excess as a means of success, you have to wonder what happened this year.

Well, there was Eminem’s Relapse. But how many Em fans would select Relapse over, say, The Marshall Mathers LP? At least his cameo in Funny People hit the spot.

And this just may have been the “best” hip-hop single of the year:

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American Idle: Is American Idol still culturally noteworthy?

It’s my understanding that this year’s season ended up with the one people wanted to win getting second place/first loser, and then said individual got turned away from TV appearances after some “scandalous” performance at the American Music Awards. Or perhaps my memory is failing me… But after so many years of not watching so many seasons of American Idol, I’d find it hard for anyone to remember who won what or what AI artists not named “Kelly Clarkson” are still around.

But then, this lady kept Simon Cowell in the limelight for a while longer:

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Funny thing is, Susan Boyle’s style almost nullifies Cowell’s brand. And then her album became a smash sensation stateside. Go figure.

But, if that wasn’t a big enough sign to Cowell that his small-minded branding of pop stars lacks a certain kind of diversity, a U.K. couple launched a successful online campaign to reclaim the Christmas single from Cowell’s X Factor contestants. Nothing like “Killing in the Name” of anti pop homogeny.

Best Music-Related Memes: Kanye West or Christian Bale?

It’s hard to say what was the “better” meme for the year in music. Sure, Kanye interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMAs and the reaction was funny at first. But how many times did one have to read “imma let you finish” on some blog before it really drove someone nuts?

And when another celebrity went nuts while cameras were rolling, people took it and ran in a creative direction. When tapes featuring Christian Bale screaming utter profanities at a cinematographer on the set of the new Terminator movie surfaced, some folks with music skillz took it and made some hilarious tunes with it. The best may just be The Mae Shi’s “R U Professional?”:

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Still, nobody asked Obama what he though of Bale’s freak-out. Though who knows how Bale felt about Swift winning that VMA award for… what was it again?

Biggest Surprise: Grizzly Bear

If the many, many blogs avidly writing about indie rock are to be believed, this was the best year in music since 2007. Sure enough, for fans of all things indie, there was a lot to get excited about this year. When a band like Animal Collective receives the kind of near-universal acclaim it garnered in ’09, what rabid fan wouldn’t be happy.

However, more than the ongoing success of all-things-indie in the mainstream or Animal Collective luv, the biggest surprise of the year had to be Grizzly Bear. True, longtime fans of the band were probably going to love Veckatimest no matter what. But with their newest album, Grizzly Bear ditched a lot of the ambient ramblings that filled Yellow House for a batch of songs that manage to grab the listener almost instantaneously. Between hitting the No. 8 spot on Billboard and Jay-Z repping the band on MTV, Grizzly Bear could do no wrong this year.

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Biggest Disappointment: Passion Pit.

Having spent the last five years in the Boston area, I’ve noticed the way people in the Northeast flock to homebred winners. It’s as if the underdog attitude that painted the history of fans of the Red Sox and Patriots for the whole of the 20th Century extends to every other focus in life, and when “local (enter profession here) does good” pops on the headlines, folks go crazy. And rightfully so: Everyone likes when local people succeed.

Which is why Passion Pit’s debut, Manners, was a tremendous disappointment. In a decade when the only notable music export from Massachusetts included the word “Dropkick” in their band name (let’s put aside the Pixies and Dinosaur Jr. reunions aside at the moment), it seemed like everyone in Boston flocked to Passion Pit after “Sleepyhead” dropped. And with the infectious hook of that song, there was no reason to think these kids wouldn’t make it big.

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Sure, Passion Pit made it big, but Manners was so watered down with third-rate electro-indie tunes, I began to wonder why some other fantastic Boston-area musicians weren’t getting any love for creating superior albums.

The Class of ALT Reunions: Pixies reunion? That’s old news.

2009 saw a host of beloved alternative bands reunite to sell out concerts in ways they had never previously sold out concerts… by selling every ticket in the house. Yes, from heavy hitters like Jane’s Addiction and Faith No More, to indie middle-weights such as  The Get Up Kids and Sunny Day Real Estate, to cult-favorites like The Van Pelt all came back for either a show or two or a full-scale reunion with new music on the way. Whether some where in it for the money or some got together now because their schedules finally synched up, they came back and with the vengeance.

The real question with all these reunions may just be “what does it all mean?” above all else. Suddenly, a number of bands that had a hard time getting much attention in their first go round began grabbing headlines, in many cases from hard-working bands struggling for attention today. Is this a case of nostalgia overtaking our currently morphing society? Do people today want to live in the comfortable past vicariously through bands they loved in their youth than experience the harsh problems of our current society?

Whatever a formerly broken up band wants to do is clearly up to the decisions of its members. The questions of “is this the case of too-much-nostalgia” is really up to the individual who’s willing to drop top dollar on an old band and perhaps pay less attention to those mixing up new things today. And that might just come down to 2010: It’ll be Pavement v. the present for some folks.

Lady Gaga: Still ubiquitous. Whoda thunk it?

Blogged About Sounds: Glo-fi vs. scrunk/crunkcore

There are two sides to this coin. Glo-fi was the sound that set blog-reading hipsters into fits of elation. Take lo-fi audio dynamics, mix it in with a healthy does of ’80s music love, a dash of electronica and another helping of kinda sludgy audio and emerge with acts like Washed Out, Toro Y Moi and Neon Indian.

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Glo-fi’s not exactly for everyone, but neither is scrunk… or crunkcore. Whatever you want to call it, it’d been setting the internets afire since brokeNCYDE’s video for “Freaxxx” hit YouTube in November of 2008. 2009 proved to be an even bigger year for “groups” pushing the sound – a mix of screamo and crunk aesthetics (take that as you will) – and many garnered millions of hits online and a fare share of negative online publicity. (Mothers Against Brokencyde anyone?) Still, many a scrunk band crowded the stages at Warped Tour, with names like Millionaires and Breathe Carolina, further infuriating many a “punk” and providing some funny discourse on punk forums. Let’s see what’ll happen to these bands come 2010.

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Monolithic Merger: Ticketmaster and Live Nation had plans to merge into a money-sucking transformer bigger and more powerful than any transformer Michael Bay could concoct. The Department of Justice is currently reviewing the plan and a website was created by concerned consumer and industry groups and members of Congress. Check out the to find out how to avoid massive surcharges in 2010.

June: Was officially renamed “International Michael Jackson Month.”

After Jackson passed, it was next to impossible to go anywhere without hearing his name. But, more importantly, it was also hard not to hear why he became such an important cultural touchtone in the first place: His music. After decades of public scrutiny, all people had were doe-eyes for MJ.

Sign of the Apocalypse Sure to Hit Music Journalism: Rolling Stone‘s Best Albums of 2009

When Idolator pushed Maura Johnston to the side for more… well, who knows what, the music journalism community certainly was hurting. And yet, Rolling Stone‘s “best of” list is somehow worse. How? RS has somehow been trudging along over the past few years with a seriously decrepit view of pop music. True, they hire some great writers, but folks like Christopher R. Weingarten are pushed to the fringes of the RS empire (read: its website) in order to focus on important things. Like old peoples’ taste in rock music… Or old rock music as it is known.

Consensus can be a killer in critical circles, but U2′s No Line On The Horizon was, by consensus, not their best effort. And yet, it topped Rolling Stone‘s list for best album of the year. Which means that one can infer it’s on par with U2′s real classic works. And the classic works of many other great musical efforts through time. So, rather than appealing to the creative drive of many great musicians making new sounds and works that challenge and move people, RS played it comfortable and played to their core audience by feeding them some “news” that the best album of the year featured an awful song about putting on footwear.

Music journalism shouldn’t be about pandering to an audience. It should open people to new ideas as much as shine a light on old favorites. Nice one, RS.

Sign That There Is A Future In Music Journalism: The Washington Post Magazine‘s full-length feature on extreme heavy metal.

David Rowell followed members of Pig Destroyer as they prepared to partake in a metal festival in Baltimore and ended up with a brilliant piece that explored why some people love the music they do. Rowell and the Post clearly understand one of the most important roles of journalism in general, and all parties involved carried it out with the publication of “Into The Darkness” in the Sunday magazine. Despite the “death of journalism” or whatever people want to call it, even a white, upper-middle-class and middle-aged man has the curiosity to explore an element of music he would never listen to in his own right, and a publication that distributes news to a similar audience, had the sense to expose its readers to a foreign world and let them learn something new. Now that’s a great lesson for journalists of every kind.

I’ve Hardly Mentioned This Band in a Context of Their Own and Probably Should: Animal Collective

Because, even if you’re not a fan, this oddball act grabbed so much critical acclaim and attention after many a year of being ignored by any media outlet with a name that doesn’t end in “fork” that they do deserve a hand at making ’09 their own.

The Year, The Medley: If these bullet points weren’t enough of a brief view of 2009 in music, DJ Earworm’s “United States of Pop 2009″ should do the trick. A visual and musical mash-up of the top 25 songs on Billboard, it’s a bit odd and all-over the place. But then again, so was the year in music.

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2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Colin Horgan #

    There’s a lot to talk about in this post, but I’ll just comment on one thing because I agree with you on it 100%. What is happening at Rolling Stone? I openly laughed at their top 2009 selections.

    U2: You sort of covered it, but God, what a waste of a #1 spot on a softball clanger that sounded basically like the last U2 album: totally shit. (As an aside, how can anyone take these guys seriously anymore? That traveling claw concert stage set-up was a joke, right?)

    Jay-Z: Huh? As far as I can tell, they listened to the first half of the Blueprint 3 and thought, “oh, well, we get the idea. Can’t be much different on side B.” And then it sooo was.

    The Boss: now known as The “Meh.”

    Green Day: This was perhaps the most offensive title to make the list. I’m having trouble remembering when I last heard an album that smacked so hard of self-importance… oh right, American Idiot. RS described 21st Century Breakdown as a “rock opera about two punk lovers” that revitalizes “the idea of big-deal rockers actually saying something about the world.” What would that be, exactly? War is bad, love is good, something something. IT’S A HIT! PRESS RECORD!

    Major ughs for this year in music.

    p.s. I, too, was disappointed with Passion Pit. What happened there?

  2. Leor Galil #

    Yep. Can’t agree more on RS stuff… It’s quite sad actually. Although, I’m not sure which is worse: Their list for ’09 or ’06. In ’06, they had Red Hot Chili Peppers’ dismal double record as their No. 2 album, of the year, and straddling in at 4 was TVOTR – with a record that should have been No. 1 – and the only thing they talked about is David Bowie’s brief appearance on ‘Cookie Mountain.’ For shame. For shame.

    Also, for a pretty fantastic backhanded compliment to U2′s monolithic stage, check out David Byrne’s journal:

    And Passion Pit… yeah… I get the feeling a large chunk of what went wrong was production of their new album, which teased out the glitchy electronics and morphed it into boring “indie” pop… Also, their first EP was originally something of a cute joke the singer made for his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day, looping electronic beats and singing with a quirky, unbelievably high falsetto over it all… Once the joke ended and PP became a “real” band, all the fun and, well, just about everything good, was sucked out of that group.

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