Lines, Vines, and Trying Times : The Music of 2009
The biggest story in music this year was the death of Michael Joseph Jackson, the Once and Future King of Pop. Moreso than the death of an individual, the King of Pop’s death signified the end of the explosive, border crossing, iconic, truly global megastar. Six months into a year that saw Pop music deep in the throes of an unabashed nostalgia trip, the King of Pop’s death rocketed the truly great Pop music of decades past back into the collective public consciousness as the King of Pop outsold every other artist this year with a greatest hits package originally released in 2003. Thus, it seems fitting that there is no single breakout star or trend in a year that saw both the public and Pop stars looking to the past for inspiration.
Beyoncé channeled Off the Wall era Michael Jackson while Alicia Keys crafted a Pop song on par with Purple Rain. Kid Sister, Major Lazer, the Black Eyed Peas, Annie, and Amerie all somehow managed to create songs that perfectly merged the best of 80s Hip Hop and 90s Freestyle. The Vistoso Bosses and Solange Knowles channeled the ingenues of Berry Gordy and Giorgio Moroder. Shakira took a nocturnal trek to MGM in the 1930s. Russell Taylor, The XX, and Robin Thicke showed us what grown folks R&B singles should sound like.
Raindrops, Basement Jaxx
Raindrops is a glorious return that combines elements of House and Disco while successfully utilizing auto-tune to make Felix Buxton’s vocals sound all the more emotive and joyful. With Raindrops the Basement Jaxx were able to use inorganic technological flourishes to create one of the most expressive and spirited singles of their career.
Lead singer Halyey Williams offers a vocal performance brimming with life – the life of a very angry scorned woman determined to break out of her personal hell. Ignorance also boasts an equally aggressive performance by the rest of the band who never let up as they attack Williams’ shrieks with their unrelenting instruments.
Right Hand Hi, Kid Sister
A high energy party track that perfectly blends 80s Hip Hop and 90s Freestyle. Kid Sister offers a frenzied performance that is at once a declaration as it is the announcement of the arrival of a woman who is intent on becoming the life of every party.
Sandcastle Disco (Freemasons Radio Edit), Solange Knowles
Try as the Freemasons may but their pounding beat can never mask the 60s soul that emanates from Ms. Knowles’ animated single. Boasting lyrics that could just as easily fit into a ballad as they do the Freemasons’ club banging incarnation, Solange crafts a single that leaves us wondering which Knowles sister is the true dreamgirl?
My Girls, Animal Collective
In a word My Girls is Epic. The beat builds like a camera panning across a lush landscape revealing more and more with each second. The dubbed vocals buried beneath a beat that continues to flow like an ocean reveal a simple sentiment about what is truly important in life.
If The Beatles were still making music this would be it.
Hands 2 Myself, Russell Talyor
Hands 2 Myself boasts a beat ready made for the dance floor but never compromises the mature swagger of Taylor’s performance. That maturity, evident in the song’s lyrics about Taylor’s compulsion to touch others as a sign of life is the true star of this slithering would-be club banger.
Boombox (LA Riots Remix), Kylie Minogue
Minogue brings her Euro sensibilities to a song about the geography and music scene of Los Angeles as the beat literally booms around her heavily produced cooing voice. The PCH has never sounded so sexy.
Blame It, Jamie Foxx (feat. T-Pain)
Beat full of blips and beeps, √. Auto-tune, √. T-Pain feature, √. Stuttering chorus, √. Name-checking of top shelf alcohol, √. Referencing of independent women, √. Talk of throwing money in the air, √.
Blame It had all the makings of one of the most frivolous, vapid singles of the decade, yet something in Foxx’s performance elevates this single beyond the mindless ringtone singles that have come to increasingly dominate much of Hip Hop. Foxx’s swagger infused performance creates what could very well be the first ringtone rap single for the grown and sexy crowd.
Another World, Antony and the Johnsons
With 2005’s Hope There’s Someone Antony Hegarty gave the world a beautifully performed poetic meditation on his own death. Four years later Antony and the Johnsons bring that same emotion to an equally beautifully performed rumination on the dying earth.
Everything Earth Song should have been.
Lions, Tigers, and Bears (Remix), Jazmine Sullivan feat. Fabolous
The most beautiful things are often the most unexpected. Sullivan’s exuberant and emotional vocal in a song about fear serves as undeniable proof of that fact. Don’t let the title fool you though, there are no fanged monsters lurking in this, a song about the fear of the inevitable tendencies of love to fall apart. Instead, what we get is a beautiful performance by an otherwise confident adult still coming to terms with her childhood fears.
Bigger Than The World, Justin Timberlake
With its simple yet evocative lyrics and space-aged production courtesy of Timbaland Bigger Than The World manages to be both grandiose and intimate without ever losing it’s core as a declaration of love.
The inter-stellar orchestrations of the Big Bang as baby making music
Wavin’ Flag, K’Naan
K’Naan offers every disenfranchised person throughout the world a song full of determination. Determination to push against the forces of history, determination to escape the trappings of ideology, determination to end the destruction, the determination to rise above any circumstances. Wavin’ Flag is the powerful musical tale of an enduring human spirit that can never be crushed, even against the pressures of the most insurmountable circumstances.
- Wavin’ Flag (Vanguards Remix)
Up Up & Away, Kid CuDi
Buried underneath the bleak darkness of CuDi’s Man on the Moon, Up Up & Away is the Hip Hop Tomorrow – a buoyant and exuberant anthem about the ability to start over with the rising of the sun.
Sex Therapy, Robin Thicke
Like Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing before it, Sex Therapy makes no attempt to mask the its overt sexuality. Also Like the Marvin Gaye classic, Robin Thicke manages to take blatantly sexual lyrics and make them sound alluring and seductive rather than trite and perverse.
From the very first second as the audience gets its first taste of the relentless, fast-paced beat about to drop, it is clear that Switch is a high energy call to the dance floor and Ciara is the siren beckoning you further and further into her sexy groove.
A monster single full of magic-realism imploring the listener to grab on to what you want with fangs and claws by one of the most creative, worldly, and nuanced Pop stars of the last decade. Critics may have pointed out the layers of camp in Loba and its English counterpart She Wolf, but there is also no denying the sheer ferocity of Shakira’s biting single.
- She Wolf (Villains Remix)
Meet Me Halfway, Black Eyed Peas
The Black Eyed Peas (post-Fergie) have made a career out of throwing every genre trope into a song and riding off the nostalgic success. Unfortunately, for the Peas each single has wreaked of trying far too hard to capture defining sounds of decades gone by, resulting in final products (not songs, as marketing is as much apart of the new BEP as anything else) that have been one cluttered, trite, un-inspired mess after another. With Meet Me Halfway the Peas have finally constructed a perfectly simple love song full of funk, fun, and life that blends ‘90s freestyle with ’80s Flyte Tyme R&B to resounding success.
Happy Up Here, Röyksopp
In 1995 the Jackson siblings ventured into space in angst-ridden isolation. Fourteen years later Röyksopp head into space finding delirious happiness in the process.
Kinda Like a Big Deal, Clipse and Kanye West
They are a big deal. ’Nuff said.
Heard ‘Em All, Amerie
Heard ‘Em All finds Amerie at her best as she delivers one of the most assured in your face performances of her career against a lively beat while maintaining the old skool vibe she set out to capture throughout her criminally ignored In Love & War album.
Gher, Ashkin & Keyvan Baharlou
An infinitely danceable mix of Persian folk, House, and Reggaeton. What’s not to like?
Songs Remind Me of You, Annie
A cutting, ‘80s tinged, inter-stellar ode to a love gone by.
Kiss Me Thru the Phone, Soulja Boy f. Karina Pasian
With a cartoonish spirit and an endlessly catchy melody, Soulja Boy’s ode to pre-pubescent puppy love provided 2009 with one of it’s most unlikely, undeniable, and entirely age appropriate pop hits.
I’m Not Alone, Calvin Harris
In his introduction to I’m Not Alone, Harris says he set out to create “memorable music” that goes beyond “some cut up distorted blog house tune,” and despite lyrics that don’t add up to much of anything Harris has created a single that is not only memorable but absolutely epic in scope. In going beyond Blog House Harris has in fact embraced the standard elements of epic, engaging, completely danceable arena house delivering one of the greatest dance singles of the last decade.
Waking Up in Vegas (Calvin Harris Remix), Katy Perry
In a post M.I.A., Annie, GaGa, and Robyn world Katy Perry is in desperate need of producers like Calvin Harris to provide the elements that bring character and life to her otherwise trite material brimming with perfectly manufactured uniqueness ready-made for the Real World/Road Rules Challenge generation.
Supernova (with string quartet), Mr. Hudson
Mr. Hudson’s rumination on a life reminiscent of a Fitzgerald story is made all the more beautiful by the presence of a string quartet that transports the listener to the vast emptiness of Hudson’s desolate mansion.
New In Town, Little Boots
Not only does Little Boots capture the feeling of moving to a strange new place in her lyrics that could be as much about anywhere in the world as they are specifically about Los Angeles, but she also describes herself as the exact kind of person we would want to kick it with. Given the lyrics and energy of New In Town, Ms. Hesketh can be our tour guide through L.A. any time she wants.
Alejandro, Lady GaGa
GaGa finally delivers a catchy, kitschy, dance-pop single worthy of Studio 54 where her cooky artsiness belongs. If ever Lady GaGa has crafted a single that Andy Warhol, Thierry Mugler, and her would-be tour mate Kanye West could all dance to in an LSD-induced haze this is it.
Run This Town, Jay-Z (feat. Rihanna & Kanye West)
The Kings of Hip Hop have made their declaration to take over the globe and they brought their favorite ingenue along for the ride.
- Ego at the Radio 1 Live Lounge
Try Sleeping With a Broken Heart, Alicia Keys
Armed with a 4/4 beat that could just as easily be the beating of her damaged heart as it is the sound of her Louboutins marching towards “a way to make it without you,” vocals that go from the breathiness of an insomniac to steely determination, and a synth direct from Flyte Tyme Studios Alicia Keys does her best Prince impersonation to resounding success.
Delirious, Vistoso Bosses
How Taylah P. and Kelci managed to perfectly re-capture the vibe, melodies, and style of girl groups many decades their senior on this Soulja Boy assisted single is beyond us. When a Pop song sounds this good though, the details are of much less consequence than the inspired outcome.
Rollacoasta, Robin Thicke (feat. Estelle)
Even if Rollacoasta wasn’t a sexy, slithering mix of Disco and R&B set against a vaguely Hip Hop beat it deserves to be on a best of list for the sheer feat of rescuing the roller coaster metaphor from the doldrums of Pop music.
Crystalised, The XX
The XX have crafted one of the most seductive singles of 2009 that manages to be entirely sexual without ever being overt or filthy. Sexy and classy seem to be an ever more difficult pairing in contemporary R&B but in a post Touch My Body world The XX have managed to do just that with a smart, sophisticated, atmospheric single.
Sweet Dreams, Beyoncé
Sweet Dreams is sexy, sweet, and straight out of the 1970s. Perhaps no other single this year better embodies the successful use of retro production techniques to contemporary Pop songs than Beyoncé channeling of Off The Wall era Michael Jackson. The saccharine lyrics of a refusal to let go of images whose origins you are entirely uncertain of couldn’t serve as a better representation of a world where promises of Hope and Change are being questioned and the King of Pop’s death has left a massive void in Pop music that it is becoming all the more apparent that no one could ever fill.
Best I Ever Had, Drake • Empire State of Mind, Jay-Z (Featuring Alicia Keys) • Heartbreaker, MSTRKRFT featuring John Legend • Speakerphone (Steve Anderson Studio Version), Kylie Minogue • Rain Dance (ft. M.I.A.), The Very Best • The Fixer, Pearl Jam • Pearl‘s Dream, Bat For Lashes • Scream, Chris Cornell • Bonkers, Dizzee Rascal And Armand Van Helden • Bull Black Nova, Wilco • Beautiful, Eminem • We‘re From America, Marilyn Manson • Young Forever (Featuring Mr. Hudson), Jay-Z