The Year in Pop

RadioheadPhoto: Courtesy of Nasty Little Man

In Rainbows, Radiohead
The only thing deader than rock is the album, so what does that make a rock album? Radiohead’s In Rainbows is the best answer anyone had all year. The word playful has never been used to describe this band, but it’s apt for In Rainbows. The first three songs set the tone—the quirky beats of “15 Step” followed by the spirited guitar riffing of “Bodysnatchers” followed by the romantic lushness of “Nude”—with Thom Yorke singing his dark heart out on each one. As a complete, fully realized album, In Rainbows had no serious rival this year.

“Umbrella,” Rihanna
Has there ever been a more unlikely summer anthem than “Umbrella”? And it’s not just that the lyrics revolve around, you know, rain. There’s the most unsummery drone of electronics that harks back to warped eighties British synth-pop, topped off by Rihanna’s deliberately flat vocals. And then there’s the hook, which made just the last two syllables of a three-syllable word instantly recognizable. But that’s what pop genius is all about: making the avant-garde irresistible.

Geek Glam
Smart lyrics, artfully repetitive grooves, major stage presence, bad haircuts: LCD Soundsystem, Arcade Fire, and Spoon merged music’s nerdy and fabulous sides, often to stunning effect, in 2007. Of course, they all came from very different places. LCD’s James Murphy polished his arch but loving revival of unselfconsciously ecstatic dance beats with Sound of Silver; Britt Daniel, playing engineer, pared Spoon’s already austere sound down to awesomely minimal grooves with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; and Arcade Fire, led by the gawky Win Butler, pushed its trademark blend of epic melancholy and wide-eyed hope to the most dizzying heights yet.

Jay-ZPhoto: Kevin Mazur/WireImage

American Gangster, Jay-Z
Jay-Z used to claim he really wanted to be a conscious rapper, but the audience demanded gangster. If last year’s Kingdom Come proved that, actually, he doesn’t have much of substance to say, this year’s American Gangster shows why that doesn’t matter. Recorded quickly after an early screening of the movie, loaded with classic seventies soul and eighties hip-hop samples, the album sounds like he could have made it in his sleep. For a rapper who’s always traded on effortless cool, that may be the ultimate compliment.

Lil’ Wayne
By disseminating an endless stream of new music via mix tapes and Internet leaks—and reportedly recording up to eight songs a day in his Miami apartment—Lil’ Wayne proved it’s possible to dominate an entire genre without actually releasing anything. On Da Drought 3, he owned hot beats by everyone from Beyoncé to Robin Thicke, while his own tracks sounded not quite finished, yet thrilling. A new persona takes shape, one more common in rock: the existential stoner poet.

FeistPhoto: WireImage

A brunette in a blue sequined jumpsuit does a little hip-shake, counts to four, and sings, “Tell me that you love me more.” For those who hadn’t already been dazzled by Feist’s 2004 release, Let It Die, this iPod ad was a perfect introduction to a singer full of happy surprises. On “1234” (the iPod song), acoustic guitar and a lone voice give way to strings, drums, bass, banjo, hand claps, finger snaps, and a chorus of backing vocals, then to horns and piano. What starts as a pop ditty ends as a roadhouse number. And so it goes with the rest of The Reminder, switching freely from lounge jazz to rock to frenetic pop to folk. It’s a hopping good ride.

Animal Collective
Back in 2001, the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs thought they’d rule rock radio, only to discover that “cool” doesn’t translate into hits. Today, the local scene is proudly, fruitfully uncool—and uncommercial. This year saw ramshackle, ultra-arty, and altogether terrific albums from Grizzly Bear, Battles, the Fiery Furnaces, and Dirty Projectors. But none was better than Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam, a joyous assemblage of blurts, bleeps, and unchained melodies.

Studio B
Dance music comes and goes in New York, and this year it came in a big way: Chart-topping European duo Justice played two raucous shows at Terminal 5; Daft Punk deejayed atop a giant, glowing pyramid at KeySpan Park, slaying a crowd of 7,500 (despite the suspicion that the pair was just playing CDs); and Greenpoint’s Studio B—with its Friday-night free-for-all, FUN—is the low-key engine behind it all, showcasing D.J.’s like the Ed Banger Crew, MSTRKRFT, and the Glimmers to packed houses nearly every week.

Dan Deacon
Deacon is a one-man postmodern orchestra from Baltimore, and he is the antidote—to bands trapped in the past, to music with no imagination. He samples cartoon characters, he twists and bends all manner of noises and beats, he has a massive good time. You’ll love it, you’ll hate it, you’ll wonder what the hell it was you just heard and have no choice but to play it again.

Dirty Looks
All those big-name reissues bloated with D-side obscurities—what’s the point? You either have those albums already or don’t want them. So go with a reissue from a band that time forgot, like Staten Island’s Dirty Looks. Not to be confused with the cheese-metal band of the same name, the Looks were New York mods from the late seventies who made two albums of punk energy and great paleo-MTV hooks.

Photo: Diana Uee/Courtesy of Say Hey Records

White Rabbits, Fort Nightly
Rockin’ piano and exuberant beats drive the Rabbits’ big sound—which is a little glam, a little soul, a little ska, and a whole lot of fun. The hype machine mostly missed them, so they can still be your personal discovery. Back from a national tour, they play the Bowery Ballroom on December 13.

Björk’s Volta
This had great promise: Timbaland onboard as well as crooner Antony Hegarty and Congolese drum orchestra Konono No. 1. But the Hegarty duets are unbearable; there are altogether too many foghorns; and her wailing about independence, etc., makes her sound like a tired hippie. For the first time, Björk botches a cool collaboration.

The Year in Pop