By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
What's novel about the xx is that they're merely callow when so much of today's Kindermusik is both callow and cutesy. Thematize ineptitude all you want—I still object on fundamental musical grounds, much as when I hated Vampire Weekend not for carpetbagging, which was an irrelevant criticism, but for not listening to each other, which wasn't.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Lady Gaga was not only my obsession this year, but the obsession of just about everyone I knew. Here is a pop star who exists just to be a pop star. It makes sense that she started out as a coffee-shop folkie—it just shows how self-constructed her current persona is. Naming your debut album The Fame is some sort of brilliant self-fulfilling prophecy, marking her as the most cocksure pop artist since Madonna herself—and also the most (over)analyzable. It almost didn't matter what the music sounded like, except that it totally does matter. I spent weeks humming "Paparazzi" after her VMAs performance, not because of the fake blood (which certainly helps), but because of that gigantic chorus and clever metaphor.
Stephen M. Deusner
Despite her endless, uninspired proclamations to the contrary, Lady Gaga still feels, if not contrived, harmlessly momentary. But Ms. Germanotta isn't this year's only female pop singer that fashioned herself as an oversimplified response to the recent, paradoxical influence of futuristic production techniques and retro-minded fashion on commercial artistry. Whether it's Rihanna, Xtina, or even Leighton Meester, the digital radio waves and YouTube channels are besot with histrionica divas dressed like Blade Runner extras, the purity of their voices drowned out amid Auto-Tuneups and soulless robo-glitches. Makes it easy to understand why Susan Boyle's comparatively lucid debut has been such a phenomenon.
Is gay the new black? Possibly. Just ask Lady Gaga, whose LGBT-heavy demographic raised her star into the stratosphere, making her the new Queen of Pop—a crown vacated by the tragic death of Michael Jackson (who may have been 2009's most-played artist). And, certainly, the innuendo-fueled speculation abut Gaga's alleged peen (not to mention photographic evidence of her nuzzling a stripper's coochie) kept the trashy rumor mill ablaze. Meanwhile, a much larger debate over an actual issue of substance—same-sex marriage—courted an equal amount of controversy, yet for entirely different reasons. In the end, "Poker Face" trumped Proposition 8 in the national game of Hold 'Em, suggesting that while looking fabulous was one thing, demanding equality was quite another.
Not a particularly good year for music or much else, I think, but it did at least provide a vindication for Devo's theory of things evolving backwards. I for one clearly remember contemplating diva du jour Amy Winehouse back in 2007 and hoping she wouldn't kill herself. And yet here I am now, a mere two years later, contemplating diva du jour Lady Gaga and hoping I won't kill myself.
Twitter-paced historical revisionism makes me want to ascribe the strength of this year's music to the ascendance of our 44th president. So much of the best music this year is so ebullient, so irrationally exuberant, so disrespectful of petty boundaries like genre, era, culture, and geography, that I find it difficult to accept any other explanation. Animal Collective covered Frankie Knuckles and transformed house into home; the deeply goyish Black Eyed Peas made thrilling and brainless music for bar mitzvah dance floors; Semitic indie-rap group Why? traded erudite rhymes for Midwestern ennui; Yeasayer returned from some retrograde future and brought back a pagan paean to the athletes of my Zaide's generation; Hungarian composers inspired the dapper Frenchmen in Phoenix to craft flawless mall rock; Mos Def and DJ Quik went on world tours without ever crossing paths; and Alicia Keys and Jay-Z put on for their city and somehow came up with an anthem for every damn person on this planet—"Empire State of Mind," indeed.