The Year in Pop

Photo: Peter Doherty/Retna

10. Regina Spektor’s ‘Begin to Hope’
Proof that the downtown sensibility lives on, this Russian-born piano chanteuse dodges characterization: Her songs are playful and heartbreaking, literate and without guile. MTV took to her this year, but she still feels like one of ours.

The Intonation Music Festival.Photo: Brett Carlson

9. Chicago, Our Kind of Town
What summer music festival was curated by the ultrahip local label Vice Records? No idea? That’s probably because it wasn’t in New York. It was Intonation, a two-day indie-rock blowout in Chicago’s Union Park. Also this summer in Chicago: Pitchfork Music Festival, a weekend of bands from Os Mutantes to Devendra Banhart; and the second Lollapalooza in Grant Park, which had Kanye West and the Raconteurs. Meanwhile, New Yorkers were stuck in line at CMJ, a hype machine that produced little, and Siren Festival, whose white-bread lineup seems less relevant every year.

Cassie (left) and Beyoncé Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images; David Bailey

8. Hot & Cold R&B
Fire and ice: That’s what R&B’s biggest star and most surprising newcomer brought to the table this year. Beset by nasty rumors about her relationship and her music, Beyoncé rushed into the studio and turned out B’Day, a furious document of a superstar asserting her independence. Twenty-year-old Cassie, on the other hand, made a lack of personality work in her favor, riding the spacey minimalism of producer Ryan Leslie’s beats—and a little help from MySpace—all the way to number one with “Me & U.”

James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.Photo: Tim Soter

7. The Sound of Swoosh
Never before has a corporate branding tie-in yielded such good music. “45:33,” the brilliant track James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem produced for Nike and Apple’s pointless iPod sneaker, not only fulfills its official goals as a jogging soundtrack, it also works as a potted history of music you can use. Take a run around Central Park and you can appreciate the references to disco, house, funk, ambient music, and even John Cage, all in a seamless D.J. mix.

Photo: Courtesy of the Hold Steady

6. The Hold Steady Hold Steady
It might seem small-minded to celebrate the fact that a band, especially a genial gang of Brooklynites like the Hold Steady, failed to become huge stars. But when bands hit the big time—and start hurrying through a set for a crowd that’s two-thirds people irritated that they haven’t played the big single and one-third people irritated at that first group—does anyone win besides vendors of overpriced beer? Better to stay at the level of intimacy that allows for events like the Hold Steady’s October 1 drunken-sing-along-dance-party at Irving Plaza. For not becoming too famous, we raise our cup of slightly-less-overpriced beer and shout, “Wooooooo!”

Photo: Getty Images

5. The Undownloadable
Beck has always been an innovator, bending the boundaries between pop, rock, and hip-hop in ways that seem utterly unlikely for a milky-skinned Scientologist from L.A. This year, he made another wonderfully eclectic record, The Information, and then gave us a reason to visit one of them old-fashioned record stores—by including with the CD a design-your-own-cover-art sticker pack and a DVD of homemade videos for each of the album’s fifteen songs. Beck’s love of serendipity and craft makes most of his peers seem like accountants in tight pants.

Tunde AdebimpePhoto: Andrew Goetz/Corbis

4. NY TV on the Radio
After a month on the road, TV on the Radio returned to New York for a pair of shows in October that had the air of a triumphant homecoming. The studio fetishisms that clutter the otherwise excellent Return to Cookie Mountain were eliminated as singer Tunde Adebimpe flailed about with fiery passion and guitarist Kyp Malone unleashed holy thunder on his Les Paul. Did we mention the three-piece horn section? They killed.

Photo: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

3. The Boss and His Banjo
So Bruce Springsteen heads into the studio with a bunch of tuba players and banjo slingers to record hoary old folk songs favored by Pete Seeger, including goofy numbers like “Froggie Went a’ Courtin’.” A lark, right? No: It sold more than half a million copies, and the hootenanny-style live shows ranked right up there with Bruce’s best. Folkies also got a fix later in the year, with the less-popular but equally compelling The Harry Smith Project: Anthology of American Folk Music Revisited, in which Lou Reed, Elvis Costello, David Johansen, and Beth Orton, among others, covered songs immortalized by Smith’s seminal anthology.

Beyoncé and Jay-ZPhoto: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

2. What Jay-Z Does When He’s Not Selling Beer
Kingdom Come might be the biggest letdown since Gangs of New York. But last summer, Jay-Z’s Radio City celebration of the tenth anniversary of his debut album, Reasonable Doubt, was a master class in showmanship: Jay-Z drove onstage in a ’96 Lexus, performed the album in reverse order, reinvented “22 Twos” as “44 Fours,” and wheeled out Beyoncé for the encore. Never again let anyone say hip-hop sucks live.

Sonic YouthPhoto: Richard Kern/Courtesy of Geffen Records

1. Still Kicking
In a different, more mixed-up New York—like, say, the New York of 1982—Ghostface Killah and Sonic Youth would already have made a single together. They’d know each other from the gallery scene, they’d hang at downtown clubs. This may not be that New York, but that doesn’t mean we can’t note the similarities between them, and think about how cool it would be if they got together. In a music scene dominated by blog hype and MySpace hits, these veterans have not only withstood the cruel ebb and flow of fashion, they’ve improved with age. Sonic Youth’s Rather Ripped is a paean to the city’s great legacy of guitar rock, expertly wedding melody and texture. Meanwhile, on the fabulous Fishscale, Ghostface rolls up the past, present, and future of New York as if into a $100 bill—for snorting, naturally.

M. WardPhoto: Courtesy of Merge Records

Honorable Mentions
Like clowns piling out of a Volvo, the Swedish onslaught did not let up, with excellent tunes from Love Is All, Peter Bjorn and John, Teddybears, and those lovable glamsters the Ark. At the Rolling Stones show at the Beacon, which could’ve been mistaken for The Muppet Show, Jack White saved the night with a sweet rendition of “Loving Cup.” Sisters Meg & Dia gave emo a much-needed makeover. M. Ward made the record Bob Dylan should’ve made. Songs we loved: “15 Step,” a Latin-tinged number that Radiohead has started playing live; Spoon’s “The Book I Write” from the Stranger Than Fiction soundtrack. Favorite local acts: Grizzly Bear, Harlem Shakes, Beirut, Matt & Kim, the Essex Green, Papoose, plus the reunited Chavez. Cat Power strong and sober at Town Hall. Lily Allen and Lady Sovereign picked up the scrappy Brit hip-hop girl torch from M.I.A. Forget Joanna Newsom’s Ys, The Drift by Scott Walker was the art-rock epic of the year. Scott Storch’s banging facsimile of Dre on The Game’s Doctor’s Advocate was so convincing that he should finish Detox. Arctic Monkeys: Remember them? Radio ignores Bush-bashing Dixie Chicks, but record buyers do not. Balladeer Nelly Furtado comes out of nowhere with the awesome party jam, “Promiscuous.” Lil’ Wayne, best rapper alive.

Industry Star: Josh Deutsch
The year belonged to brand-new label Downtown Records, which music-biz veteran Josh Deutsch started in his living room and which has not yet broken double digits in staff. Immediately after hearing their single “Crazy,” Deutsch signed smash-hit duo Gnarls Barkley, and the album went platinum. Quickly showing that was no fluke, he demonstrated his broad taste by signing buzz-bands Art Brut and the Cold War Kids, then landed the soundtrack rights to Borat. Most impressive, though, is the label’s prescient marketing strategies; yes, Downtown is active on MySpace and other community sites, but they also plan to promote their most recent signee, R&B talent Kevin Michael, on the virtual-reality site Second Life and the online nightclub Doppelgänger. As The OC soundtrack juggernaut runs out of gas, this is the song-placement model du jour—any music exec worth his extravagant salary should be taking notes.

Not long after The Killer’s irresistible synth-heavy debut, Hot Fuss, broke the top ten, painfully insecure front man Brandon Flowers began feuding with teenage emo bands and attempting to grow a beard. On the desperate follow-up, Sam’s Town, the Killers grasp for shreds of credibility by openly and ineptly emulating Bruce Springsteen, right down to the boss’s glockenspiel and open-road metaphors. They’re from Las Vegas, and they still can’t pull this off.

By Sara Cardace, Nick Catucci, Hugo Lindgren, Ben Mathis-Lilley, and Ben Williams

The Year in Pop