The Year in Superlatives
Best Instigator: Katy Perry
Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” was almost as divisive as Hillary Clinton’s campaign this year. Perry hijacked Top 40 charts with a super-catchy grrl-power tune about sapphic experimentation. Was it brilliant subversion in a year ending with the passing of Prop 8, or another lame case of a straight girl cashing in on this most clichéd of high-school experiences? We say: brilliant. Unlike Britney or Christina in their early days, Perry’s almost normal—a little goofy even—and she writes her own songs.
Best New Genre: Auto-Tune
If you’re not sure what Auto-Tune—a piece of software originally intended to correct pitch that can also be used to distort a singer’s voice—sounds like, turn on the radio, and within minutes you’ll hear the syrupy cyborg vocals of T-Pain, whose current hit “Can’t Explain It” might be the pinnacle of the sound. T-Pain was once considered a gimmick, but everyone from Kanye West to R. Kelly to North African pop musicians jumped on the software this year, using it to melt their vocals into stranger and stranger shapes. Auto-Tune might turn out to be an entire genre unto itself.
Best Audacious D.J.: Girl Talk
Having sampled over 300 of your favorite pop tunes on his album Feed the Animals, Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, spent a good part of 2008 explaining to flabbergasted interviewers just how, exactly, he intended to get away with this apparent flouting of copyright law. Gillis claimed that his work is fair use, as it is “transformative” and “doesn’t impact the artist negatively.” Gillis’s brazen “theft”—thus far unpunished—has opened the door for more creative sound bandits to follow.
Best Nutty Covers: Doveman
This was the year that covering someone else’s song became an art form unto itself: a challenge to totally reinvent a song, the cheesier the tune, the better. Grizzly Bear—already known for their love of Paul Simon’s Graceland—put a starkly minimalist slant on Yes’s “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Lo-fi singer and pianist Doveman took the cover concept to a whole new level, bringing his special brand of introspection to the entire Footloose soundtrack, with occasionally brilliant results. And let us not forget the umpteen versions of Rihanna’s ubiquitous “Umbrella,” with standouts from Manic Street Preachers (fuzzy British alt rock) and, yes, Mandy Moore, who convincingly turned it into a plaintive love song.
Best Local Festival: All Points West
Imagine a vast expanse of land right next to Manhattan, accessible to public transit, kissed by cool harbor breezes, and set picturesquely in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. It’s called Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, and it’s where the first All Points West Festival was staged in August. APW was a success on almost all levels: It booked a diverse lineup, ranging from headliners Radiohead to crowd-pleasers like the Roots and Trey Anastasio to great local acts like Animal Collective. Bathroom lines were tolerable, and the limiting of alcohol consumption to roped-off beer gardens turned out to be a wise way to walk the line between no-fun Jones Beach prohibition and random-dude-puking-on-your-girlfriend’s-head free-for-all.
Best Way to Revive Old Classic Rock: Video Games
As video games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero rack up billions in sales, they’ve also pulled kids “back into the musical gumbo that ate their parents,” as Steven Van Zandt noted so artfully in Time. Expect to see more arena-rock dinosaurs, like Rush, playing actual arenas again.
Best Alternative to Classic Rock: Replacements
The great post-punk virtuosos sadly broke up before they could benefit from the indie surge of the early nineties, and bandleader Paul Westerberg has, thus far, proved too ornery to reunite the band for a tour that might find them a new, younger audience, as the Pixies did. Fortunately, this year, Rhino has reissued the complete Replacements’ Twin/Tone catalogue, including the incomparable Let It Be. Make sure your nephew gets a copy for Christmas.
Best Grown-up Indie Bands: The Walkmen and French Kicks
For nearly a decade, these two bands have played one another’s doppelgängers as master stylists of the indie-rock scene. Both parlayed first-album hype into critically acclaimed follow-ups, then seemed to fade with lackluster third albums. But this year, both took up the basic pieces of their styles and refashioned them into their strongest, most mature work yet, the Walkmen’s You & Me and the French Kicks’ Swimming.
Best Kanye West Substitute: T.I.
Recorded during T.I.’s house arrest on weapons charges, Paper Trail impressively proves that it’s possible to maintain one’s swagger and hard-partying outlook even while wearing a court-mandated ankle bracelet. And Kanye himself guest-appears.