Was 2010 The Best Year For Music Ever? American Idol Wobbles, R&B Thrives, And The '90s Rise Again
Welcome to Sound of the City's year-in-review rock-critic roundtable, an amiable ongoing conversation between five prominent Voice critics: Rob Harvilla, Zach Baron, Sean Fennessey, Maura Johnston, and Rich Juzwiak. We'll be here all week!
If I had to pick one example of hashtag rap that I liked more than any other, it would probably be Nicki Minaj's "And I just be coming off the top -- asbestos," from Young Money's "Bedrock," if only because of its somewhat feminist implications. The song reached No. 2 on the Hot 100! Surely that must represent some strike in favor of female sexual empowerment. (Or maybe radio listeners finally realized the charms of Lloyd, whose silky come-ons were also available on "Lay It Down," one of the many r&b songs from this year with which I had passionate, intense flings.)
But can we pick up on the subtopic of Rich's query -- Randy Jackson, the only judge left standing after the wall-to-wall devastation of American Idol that began almost immediately after mealy-mouthed paint salesman Lee DeWyze's crowning? I know Sean and I watched the show pretty closely this season, and if I were to craft a hashtag-rap line about the talent show's ninth year, it would probably use the word "flopsweat" as its punchline. The show's struggles over the winter and spring -- the judges fighting! Simon Cowell's departure! Alex Lambert's elimination! Dueling versions of "Hallelujah"! -- made for fascinating television, even if the show's death grip on the populace wasn't as tight as during the relatively halcyon days of Jordin Sparks' purity ring and Blake Lewis' beatboxing, and even if the dramatic tension seemed to stem more from Bridezillas-style "Are they really going to pull this thing off?" trepidation than from, say, any worries over whose name Ryan Seacrest would yell out at the end of the finale. (Crystal Bowersox, you were robbed by virtue of being too good from the start.) But worrying about whether or not the iceberg-cool Seacrest would finally melt down in the middle of the Idoldome? That's entertainment, even if it doesn't sell very many albums or concert tickets anymore.
To get to the central query of the panel, I don't know if I would say that 2010 was the best year for music ever: The Hot 100 being sugar-rushed by Glee's Stars On 45 revivalism and Taylor Swift's "difficult, yet accessible to people who read People" record seem like fairly large check-marks in the "con" column. Then there was the new record by the Black Eyed Peas, which sounded like a terrible party held inside a tin can and had exactly one good bit . . . which was lifted from Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. And speaking of lousy nightlife, I'd have to agree with Rich on the sell-by date of "club music about the club" -- especially in the case of Usher, whose not-yet-a-single "Stranger" is a glittering synth-and-b track that actually allows him to sing, and not just serve as a key or two on will.i.am's Big Keyboard of Recycled Pop Whimsy, which is the role he's stuck playing on the hungover "OMG."
Which is not to say that it was all bad out there. Here's a list of 10 songs that I really enjoyed in 2010, mostly by artists who haven't been mentioned yet.
Pulled Apart by Horses, "High Five, Swan Dive, Nose Dive"
Yelawolf, "Pop the Trunk"
The Joy Formidable, "I Don't Want to See You Like This"
Mike Posner feat. Boyz II Men, "Déjà Vu"
Jazmine Sullivan, "Don't Make Me Wait"
My Chemical Romance, "Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)"
Raheem DeVaughn, "I Don't Care"
LeeLou, "Burn Your Houses Down"
Wye Oak, "I Hope You Die"
Black Mountain, "The Hair Song"
(Social-networking-related asides: I first heard the Yelawolf and Posner tracks while driving around New Jersey late at night with some friends over the summer; the LeeLou song entered my orbit because she started following me on Twitter, and a little Googling revealed that it had been produced by the same guy behind the Sugababes' still-perfect-10-years-on "Overload.")
Other highlights: There was a ton of ridiculously good r&b out there, from Miguel's deliriously off-kilter debut to Dondria's gospel-tinged "You're the One" to Ne-Yo's Libra Scale, which had a bit of an Icarus problem but flaunted quite a few killer MJ-inspired jams, like the slinky "'Cause I Said So." Somewhere between her disastrous set at the Bamboozle and today, I was won over by Ke$ha, whose garbage-bag-dress aesthetic seems like an implicit admission that nights on the town are never really as euphoric as advertised. I just wish that for all her "We R Who We R" posturing, she'd come out as a rapper. (Who, though, can tell her that it gets better?) Eminem's "Not Afraid" sounded like he went into the studio to try and remake "All the Young Dudes" as a semi-inspirational anthem -- and succeeded. Bruno Mars' constant state of uxoriousness almost made me believe in love again. Justin Bieber was a much more appealing teenage dream than the barky, strident Ms. Perry, who to me is still as forcibly "life of the party" as she was in 2008, when she tried to get a restless Warped Tour crowd's attention by yelling "PENIS!!!" (It didn't really work . . . until she started singing about kissing girls.)
This year I was a bit distracted from the current moment thanks to a couple of projects that forced me to take longing looks at chunks of the 1990s, although in 2010, that sort of retro fetishism was quite current. My favorite show of the year was Greg Dulli's CMJ show at Bowery Ballroom, during which I and other members of my cohort revisited their most deliciously bad decisions. I didn't attend any of Pavement's local shows, but there was a week in July where I binged on concerts by Faith No More and Unrest. I caught a Slayer/Megadeth double bill at Nassau Coliseum that only betrayed its 21st-century pedigree by having Terry Richardson in attendance. I saw Kathleen Hanna revive the Julie Ruin name on a night where Kim Gordon read the Riot Grrrl Manifesto and a parade of people tore through Bikini Kill covers. One of my favorite songs of the year -- Posner's slick ode to ex sex "Déjà Vu" -- has both a crucial harmonic assist from Boyz II Men and an oozy charm that would have taken it to the top of Dial MTV's charts in 1992.
Even right now, I'm engaging in some revivalism: I'm writing this while listening to R. Kelly's just-minted Love Letter. Perhaps Kells has tired of the 2010 iteration of the club too, as this album is All Retro Everything; "When a Woman Loves" puts him center-stage at a nightclub where jackets are required and smoking is still allowed. "Taxi Cab" is not just a memory of backseat sex, it's an ode to hired cars' after-dark proclivity toward smooth jazz. And the K. Michelle duet "Love Is" breaks with current tradition by sounding like its two principals are actually in the same room singing to one another, and not emailing each other tracks while separated by oceans and landmasses. Every time I listen to Love Letter, it nudges up a space on my year-end list. (It's at No. 7 now. Stay tuned!)
So Rob, I turn it over to you, and I have two questions: One, what was your favorite example of time travel in 2010? And two, how have we not mentioned Gaga yet? The Fame Monster might be a 2009 release technically, but certainly her combined Ace of Base/Madonna homage "Alejandro" was a byproduct of this overheated summer.
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