The Year in Pop

Photo: Jonathan Mannion/Courtesy of Universal Music Group

The Last Mega-Seller

Compared with the tortured history of Chinese Democracy, the almost three years it took Lil Wayne to follow up Tha Carter II look like a model of recording efficiency. But thanks to a series of brilliant mix tapes, half-finished demo leaks, and pushed-back release dates, no musician faced more pressure this year (we gave up on Axl a long time ago). Could Wayne finally create the classic album everybody believed he had in him? Had he wasted all his best verses on songs that were never officially released? Would his apparently escalating affinity for drugs derail his singularly eccentric flow? Would the album ever actually come out? Tha Carter III answered all questions, ruling both Harlem street corners—the song of the summer was the endlessly covered freestyle anthem “A Milli”—and the charts with a painstakingly sequenced, big-tent mix of styles. Full-on club bangers? Check. Sensitive acoustic-guitar-flecked tunes for the ladies? Check. Mid-nineties hip-hop classicism? Check. Weird astro-black Futurism? A Beyoncé answer song? A killer guest vocal from R&B singer Betty Wright? Check. Check. Check. Few hip-hop albums go platinum these days, let alone sell 2.7 million copies. Fewer still feel like a major cultural event.

The Year in Superlatives
The Best Singing Actresses
The Top Ten Albums

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.

Photo: Christopher Owyoung/Retna

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.

Best Singing Actresses

For all those accustomed to the earache-inducing musical stylings of Bruce Willis and Lindsay Lohan, 2008 brought a pair of welcome surprises: two pretty good albums by actors!

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/WireImage (Deschanel); Fotonoticias/WireImage (Johansson)

Actor / Singer Zooey Deschanel Scarlett Johansson Album She & Him Volume One Anywhere I Lay My Head Cred-lending Colaborator Indie Folkie M. Ward TV on the Radio’s David Andrew Sitek Concept Upbeat country-tinged pop originals decorated with pedal steel and Deschanel’s endearingly deadpan vocals. Spacey, futuristically produced Tom Waits covers delivered in Johansson’s sonorous baritone Forgivable Actor - Album Mistake Inexplicable Hawaiian-style version of the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better”. The tuneless “Song For Jo” the album’s lone orignal Highest Achievement The awesome girl-group-inspired “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here.” The shoe-gaze-y “Falling Down.”

The Top Ten Albums

1. Lil Wayne, Tha Carter III
Lil Wayne may be a visionary, delivering his unhinged but subtly patterned rhymes in a wry croak. But this disc was a throwback to the time when pop stars commanded huge CD sales. The legendarily prolific rapper focused everyone’s attention on one uncompromising set of songs and quite possibly closed out an era.

Photo: Michael Lavine/Courtesy of Universal Music Group

2. TV on the Radio, Dear Science
The band’s melodic gifts have never been in doubt, but they sometimes got mired in noisy, self-indulgent dirges. Not on this album. The fresh, funky horn players from Antibalas give TVOTR just the kick in the ass they needed to make their finest record.

Photo: Drew Kaiser

3. Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago
Brokenhearted dude heads up to a remote cabin in Wisconsin with an acoustic guitar to cry his heart out—and somehow defies all stereotypes to make an incredibly meticulous and powerful body of songs that, for all their pain, manage to feel uplifting.

4. Portishead, Third
After ten years away, the seminal British trip-hoppers managed to reinvent themselves while still sounding exactly like Portishead. The emotional despair and gorgeously grainy ambience remain the same, but now they’re underpinned by blasts of grungy Krautrock.

Photo: Joie Iacono

5. Hercules and Love Affair
Antony Hegarty (a.k.a. Antony of Antony and the Johnsons) should be a full-time disco singer. His doleful euphoria is perfect for dance music, and the rest of the vocalists on this loving re-creation of classic house and disco rhythms work just as nicely in your living room.

6. Santogold
The comparison to the sui generis British–Sri Lankan artist M.I.A. is misleading. Yes, this Brooklyn adoptee makes supremely catchy Technicolor future-pop. But aside from “Creator” and “L.E.S. Artistes,” her debut was packed with solid songs inspired by the mashed-up post-punk era.

Photo: David Belisle

7. Fleet Foxes
Seattle’s Fleet Foxes especially value traditional craft, owing more to Crosby, Stills & Nash than any indie-rock band; Robin Pecknold leads ecstatic four-part harmonies over the group’s mostly acoustic instrumentation.

Photo: Marc Baptiste/Courtesy of Universal Music Group

8. Erykah Badu, New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War
Badu’s first album in five years is as massively entertaining as it is unfailingly weird. Cooked up in her Fort Greene laboratory, it bubbles with hip-hop beats, Funkadelic-style jams, free-jazz excursions, slinky soul singing, and even a cappella scat, a kitchen-sink mix that ought to be unworkable but through Badu’s madness-as-method somehow works.

9. Beck, Modern Guilt
Maybe expectations were just too high for this album, a collaboration with the amazing Danger Mouse, because it barely made a dent. But this collection of rueful, melancholic songs—just a bit peppier than Sea Change— is one of Beck’s strongest.

10. Vampire Weekend
Four white Columbia grads singing about Cape Cod over appropriated Afro-pop to the acclaim of (white) bloggers invites a certain amount of cynicism. Vampire Weekend risked sounding entitled or worse. But their winning little songs, bubbling with good-natured stabs at literary lyrics and West African sounds, made their debut a model for indie rockers in need of a little loosening up.

The Year in Pop