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PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2009

Regardless of whether the past year lacked superstar moments or even a strong genre trend or two, we weren’t lacking for strong recordings. As ever, it’s a grab bag of styles, themes, and emotions, but this year proved to have a lot of quiet greats.

Edited and Produced by Sarah Zupko and Patrick Schabe

Here we are nigh on 12 months through the whole thing, and yet for some reason “music in 2009” seems like a mystery. Without speaking ill of the dead—or diminishing its cultural significance—it’s a strange thing to say that the biggest musical event of 2009 was the death of one of music’s iconic megastars. And we can mine any number of implications from the fact that Michael Jackson’s untimely passing resulted in the summer sales charts being dominated by a catalog that stretches back some 30 years. It speaks to the continuing relevance of MJ within the cultural memory, sure, but it also speaks volumes about today’s diffuse musical territory that again we needed Thriller to provide something that everyone heard, talked about, and yes, (re)purchased. (No offense to you Off the Wall die-hards, but the Guinness Book of World Records don’t lie.)

And even if we chalk that final spotlight-stealing moment up to Jackson’s larger-than-life persona, the fact is that in the mid-‘80s, Jackson had competition for his success. Hell, he even had peers. But in 2009, the spaces carved out for music have continued to ebb away. Music’s place on television has been relegated to providing soundtrack focal points to dramas and commercials. The music press has continued to crumble, and with it we continue to lose journalism that extends beyond mere word-of-mouth (with the possible exception of Matt Taibbi’s reporting on the financial crisis, of all things). Radio is an afterthought anymore, forced by competing technologies into a prison of chasing trends rather than discovering new artists. And let’s be honest: every time a so-called “online sensation” rises up, they seem somehow silly without the edification of those more familiar institutions, not to mention even more prone to social media’s inherent fad-ism.

Of course, we’ve had this discussion before, but in 2009 it seemed like we simply lacked musical moments. Those that stuck were not exactly for their laudable qualities. Kanye West stealing the stage, mic, and show from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards may have given Swift a boost in popular culture profile, but it mainly left a lot of people asking “Who cares what Kanye thinks?” For anyone who thought that in the future we’d all be living in the Gagaverse, the one thing Lady Gaga’s Saturday Night Live performance managed to prove is that gyroscopes make for bad dresses, especially when sitting at a piano (that, and listening to songs about “disco sticks” is pretty awkward outside of the club). Chris Brown and Rhianna? ‘Nuff said.

Instead, as we see from each of the lists here, 2009 was yet another year with strong releases by familiar artists, with a few powerful voices making a name for themselves—same as it ever was. Many of these artists didn’t have high-profile media exposure or any sense of popular ubiquity (though there’s plenty of name recognition here), but those are always after-the-fact phenomena. The enduring strength of these albums, whether trumpeted or sleeper, is that music’s real quality is determined when it’s written, recorded, and produced. So whether you purchased your Animal Collective download from an indie online distributor, or picked up the Neko Case disc at Starbucks along with your chai, it doesn’t matter. Regardless of whether the past year lacked superstar moments or even a strong genre trend or two, we weren’t lacking for strong recordings. As ever, it’s a grab bag of styles, themes, and emotions, but this year proved to have a lot of quiet greats.

—Patrick Schabe

Thursday, December 17 2009

The Best 60 Albums of 2009

PopMatters presents our 60 best albums of 2009, highlighted by a bevy of American indie rock juggernauts, the return of a hip-hop master, and a couple of the finest voices on the planet.

The Best Singles of 2009

PopMatters kicks off our annual two-week-long best music of the year feature with the 50 best singles of 2009, highlighted by a trio of American indie rock headliners.

The Best Re-Issues of 2009

PopMatters presents our 20 best re-issues of 2009, highlighted by the long overdue remastering of the Beatles oeuvre, a number of '80s and '90s classics, and one of the most storied catalogues in electronic music.

Wednesday, December 16 2009

The Best Live Albums of 2009

This has been a year teeming with one of the most robust outputs of live recordings in recent memory.

The Best R&B of 2009

In this increasingly stratified musical climate, only a handful of albums revealed sound artistic strides while meeting critical and commercial success. Here is the very best of 2009, a year where some of the brightest luster shone from the hidden gems.

Tuesday, December 15 2009

The Best Americana of 2009

This year saw a flood of plaid-shirted indie-roots bands building on the beardy throwbacks who gained country-rock traction in 2008. And while mainstream country music continued its evolution into '80s pop metal, plenty of roots acts turned the other direction with back-to-basics records.

The Best Country Music of 2009

Country music purists may be stockpiling vinyl and dry goods for the Swiftocalypse, but all things considered, 2009 was a pretty good year for country music.

Monday, December 14 2009

The Best Hip-Hop of 2009

2009 was the Year of the Comeback, filled with powerful storytelling, dense lyricism, and sprawling departures.

The Best Jazz of 2009

This was a great year for melding innovation and tradition. The trend continues of piano trios playing boldly, creating a new language for this venerable jazz form. And other kinds of groups have been equally inventive, particularly in working through what it means to be a jazz group -- a notion that has evolved beyond trumpet-saxophone-piano-bass-drums.

Thursday, December 10 2009

The Best Electronic Albums of 2009

We have no idea where the hell electronic music is going in the next decade, but if you can't find something in the wide stew of sonics out there to get excited about, check your pulse. You're probably dead.

The Best Psych Albums of 2009

Psychedelia has influenced so many things in 2009 -- whether the band is labeled freak-folk, psych-pop, or garage psychedelia to name a few -- that the creative approach to songwriting has influenced and been adopted by so many genres that barely any independent label has remained untouched by its reaches.

The Best Metal Albums of 2009

It seems every year I say it, but this year it's truer than ever: this was one hell of a year for metal. If you think the Mastodon record is good (which it is) just wait 'til you hear this list’s top three.

Wednesday, December 9 2009

The Best World Music of 2009

In 2009, well-known artists reliably produced solid albums, lesser-known artists did things that were often surprising and successful, archives were trawled by enthusiasts, old songs were excavated, polished, and compiled, and labels both large and small kept moving stubbornly on.

The Best Bluegrass of 2009

For bluegrass fans, 2009 was a great year for music, a bad year for frugality. Though we're only listing the Top Ten, there were many excellent artists and albums worthy of a mention.

Tuesday, December 8 2009

The Best Indie Pop of 2009

My indie-pop year 2009 was about young energy and autumnal melancholy, about the rush you feel when you first hear an exciting new band and the bittersweet feeling you get when your favorite band calls it quits.

The Best Singer-Songwriter Albums of 2009

We got it all in 2009. The stuff right here -- this is singing, this is songwriting. It lives, it breathes, and it bites. Hard.

Monday, December 7 2009

The Best Debut Albums of 2009

The best debuts are exciting not only for what they promise, but for what they deliver, too. Think of these ten albums not as what could be, but also what already is: the best debut records of 2009.

World Tour/Media Whore(s): The Year in Reunions

While 2009 spawned plenty of rumors that brought the Libertines, the Smiths, and the Stone Roses back together, these were the bands that actually dusted off their guitars and plugged in their amps one more time.

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