By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
By Ray Cummings
By Nicholas Pell
"There should never be guilt in pleasure," John Mayer wrote this year to his nearly 2.8 million Twitter followers, in reference to a Miley Cyrus song. The 32-year-old singer, songwriter, and bluesy guitarist has also taken aim at jaded souls who acknowledge liking a popular song by saying they "actually" like it—the implication being, I guess, that you wouldn't have expected such a tasteful person to like that song, and thus that it's still, on some level, a guilty pleasure. To me, "Who Says"—the first single from Mayer's fourth major-label studio album, Battle Studies, which entered the charts at #1 to mixed reviews (or, among the circle of critics I'm friends with, no reviews at all)—isn't "just" a song about getting high. It's the anti-guilty pleasure. And yes, I "actually" like it.
It's really difficult to write about Susan Boyle without sounding like a Hallmark card. After many attempts to clarify why I love this oddball, here is the least trite explanation I can offer: Like Barack Obama's victory, Boyle's performance of "I Dreamed a Dream" made the human spirit palpable. Her heart triumphantly beat its way into our chests. I doubt Boyle's success taught the masses not to judge a book by its cover. But enough about Them. I hope dowdy oddballs all over the world believe that they are entitled to live out loud. It's a lie that the meek will inherit the earth. The brave and brassy always get more out of life.
When my apartment burned down, taking much of what I held dear with it, the CD that I had left in my car—and, hence, survived, and, hence, accompanied me during the five weeks that the rest of my collection sat in waterlogged cases in a warehouse somewhere—was the Thermals' Now We Can See. Its garage-rock visions of the apocalypse fit fighting memories of the wall of flame and the terrible things it wrought, while trying to keep my shit together long enough to buy a new mattress. "It kept me alive/Kept me defined/Kept me safe/When I was afraid." Thanks, guys. I needed that.
"Welcome to the Future" epitomized Brad Paisley's greatness: matter-of-factly modern country that, just as it veers into corn, sucker-punches with poignancy, and squeezes in shit-hot guitar solos to boot. There's plenty to say about its Obama-era politics (check the video). But as Paisley prefers storytelling details to dogma, suffice to say that every generation gets the country hero it deserves—he's ours.
New Paltz, NY
The consensus take on Brad Paisley's "American Saturday Night" was that it was a celebration of the nation's immigrant melting pot, but that wasn't true. Intentions aside, the song was in reality an ode to the global market and its attendant commodity culture. That is, the lyrics go on about the many cool imports we can buy—German beer, Italian ice, Chinese food, Mexican beer—but neglect to mention any actual immigrants from Germany, Italy, China, or Mexico. You know, Americans.
Kansas City, MO
The Antlers' Hospice sounds like something that should be playing at the end of the world. Or maybe the beginning.
Everyone who voted for Dear Science last year and then failed to check out Darcy James Argue's Secret Society in 2009 was living wrong. Yes, it's jazz. Get over it. Infernal Machines swings with a density that most Brooklyn bands can't match, even when they stick to 4/4. Also: In a year where politics was nowhere to be found in indie rock, Argue titled one of his tunes "Habeus Corpus" and dedicated it to Maher Arar. Punk as fuck.
Seth Colter Walls
New York, NY
The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come: I spent the year doing theology work, though I have a problematic and deeply ambiguous relationship with Christ/God. All of my feelings—of loneliness and desire, of home-seeking, of scapegoating, of living with the texts, of wanting to destroy the texts—are here. Most important theological work of the last decade. We should play it over the loudspeakers at the next Lambreth, and John Darnielle should get a private audience with the Pope.
Toronto, ON, Canada
I almost ranked Nirvana's Live at Reading number one on my list, but I just couldn't do it, 'cause then I'd just feel old. A receding hairline is bad enough.
In so many ways, seeing the video for Demi Lovato's "Remember December" damn near ruins the song. For me, the track evokes late-'80s female-fronted hair-metal at its best. So rather than be reminded of the fact that this catchy girl-done-wrong rocker was performed by a Disney darling, I instead prefer to think of it as a lost Femme Fatale B-side.
New York, NY
The two most successful shows I attended around New York City in 2009 were Sunn O))), Earth, Pelican, and Eagle Twin at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple and Baroness, Earthless, and U.S. Christmas at the Bowery Ballroom. Both of these shows were packed to the brim, one even a full-blown sell-out. Let's face it—metal fans are the most loyal and often the most pleasurable to be around in a concert atmosphere. They come for the music, not to be seen and talk through an entire set. Hell, at the Sunn O))) show, talking or seeing within the fog-filled temple was physically impossible.
Dethklok, Dethalbum II: Much to the dismay of purists, this is the bestselling death-metal album all time. More than a parody, it actually outsmarts the original and beats it at its own game. This album brings color and dimension to death metal like never before. It's kind of like how people are actually getting news now from The Daily Show, because it's so much more fun than actual news.
Bruce Springsteen's giant Orbison quaver is somehow more moving as it grows more unwieldy, and on tunes as funny, charming, catchy, and tongue-in-cheek as any he's ever written. The way the checkout beep becomes a heart monitor at the end of "Queen of the Supermarket" is as hilarious as it is movie-sweet.
Peter S. Scholtes
Shoot me: "That's Not My Name," the Ting Tings; "I Gotta Feeling," Black Eyed Peas; "I Do Not Hook Up," Kelly Clarkson; "Gives You Hell," All American Rejects. No, really. Implausibly catchy hooks that cannot be escaped, but only serve to drive one over the threshold of annoyance to a much darker place. If torture was to be turned into some kind of audible Red Shoes—the fairy tale of ballet slippers that dance the wearer to death—any one of these fine titles could serve as "madness-inducing" personified. For once one hears any of the above, there is no chance to shut it down—only to suffer the self-inflicted tape-loop of the 21st-century "Mickey." Death be not proud, because it is a bad pop song with a hook that won't stop.
Those who know me have heard the story a dozen times apiece. When the Strokes still played clubs right after Is This It? came out, I stood in the front row at the Casbah and got biffed in the bean by Julian Casablancas's microphone stand, producing an impressive golf-ball-size knot. Between the head injury and the revelation of hearing "Barely Legal" for the first time, I fell in love on the spot with what became one of my five favorite bands of the decade. Phrazes for the Young is the first time since Room on Fire that I felt a tingle in that phantom spot on my forehead.
I would argue that even Kiss—in their prime, I embroidered their logo on the back of a jean-jacket in junior high art class—has never rocked out as lustily, nastily, catchily, or insistently as the Eagles did that night. They truly put lead in my pencil, when it's much the fashion to dong-wilt, or at least gently emasculate to the sound of strings.
Can we please cut off the trend of straight dudes naming their bands Women, Girls, and the like? It's the indie-rock equivalent of having a man in drag play Lady Bracknell, except even less edgy. At least Men actually do gender-bend.
New York, NY
With axes increasingly losing out to synths these days (whither Nick Zinner?), it can seem like the only new heroes to be found are trapped in a Playstation somewhere in the Midwest. But 2009 did see the quiet (yet outrageously loud) emergence of an electric six-string warrior. Her name: Marissa Paternoster. Her band: Screaming Females, from that toxic hardcore swamp known as New Brunswick, New Jersey. At five-foot-nothing and positively transfixing in her bowl cut and Amish-style dress, Paternoster is a dash of Carrie Brownstein, a pinch of J Mascis, a dollop of Billy Corgan, and a heap of generally insane power-shredding. Think Marnie Stern with the purr of a panther and the gaze of a murderer.
As a displaced second-generation, it warmed my heart a bit to see legendary Indian film composer A.R. Rahman finally get his due in the States thanks to the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack, the ensuing performance during the Grammy Awards broadcast, and, of course, that crucial assist from M.I.A.'s tidy soundbite referring to him as "the Indian Timbaland." It's a shame, however, that it took six years to come up with a suitable follow-up to Jay-Z championing Panjabi MC. Come on, second-most-populous country in the world, get your act together.
Did Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" have a lengthier run at #1 than "Boom Boom Pow"? Not sure—but I'm predicting that it'll be making people happy long after its predecessor's expert flash is relegated to the sidelines. "I Gotta Feeling" exists somewhere inside a November election–eve euphoria that never ended, a moment a world apart from Joe Lieberman, Orly Taitz, Glenn Beck, Sgt. Crowley, Matt Taibbi, and the, um, exigencies of governing that have made the past year such a prosaic slog.
Toronto, ON, Canada
Finally, I consider Rihanna's "Hard" my down payment on 2010—the song broke late this year, and yet feels like the sound of our gloomy, national geo-economic collapse: See her marching in fatigues and undies in the video, a battered woman firing a machine gun into what looks to be the dreary moonscape of Obama's Afghanistan. Gives me more goosebumps than Gucci Mane's jewelry.
Given that the whole Coachella Festival thing had been something of a letdown so far, I began to have my misgivings as I herded myself into the big tent for My Bloody Valentine's set. However, as soon as the first blast of guitar blew through, I knew it was all going to be all right. Better than all right. All the bad omens and wrong turns and evil associations bleached away by white noise and cauterized by feedback. Suddenly, I realized that I was standing with my hands in the air and tears streaming down my face, like one of those disturbing people you see in the audience at a Christian-rock concert. I suppose that would make feedback and reverb my twin gods, and I do not dispute that. But I have no idea why I was crying. Unless it was the joy of having your hopes exceeded. And perhaps the sadness of once again touching something you will never hold.
Lissa Townsend Rodgers
Las Vegas, NV