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





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