In 2009, music began to seem more and more like sports. Most of the events that got people talking, and tweeting, happened off the playing field - and at awards time.
Chris Brown beat up Rihanna before the Grammys, Kanye West picked on Taylor Swift at the MTV Awards, and Adam Lambert took things to controversial extremes by acting out on the American Music Awards.
The biggest story of the year was the death of a pop megastar 20 years past his prime. And, like Michael Jackson, the omnipresent stars who dominated the pop scene did it with music that wasn't actually released in 2009.
Those would be the troika of female pop stars - Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and Swift - whose genre-splicing late-'08 albums kept them on the charts well into this year. Those women ruled the roost alongside other female acts, from the self-proclaimed "She Wolf" Shakira to the resilient Rihanna to Susan Boyle, the unlikely pop star spawned by British reality TV. Meanwhile, many male heavy hitters, from Bruce Springsteen to Eminem to Jay-Z, put out albums that failed to live up to their high standards.
The music industry is much different than it was at the start of the-decade-that-nobody-ever-came-up-with-a-decent-name-for. And after 10 years' worth of iPod shuffling and major labels' collapsing, the critical consensus in 2009 coalesced around a vanguard of indie acts, such as electro-jam band Animal Collective, alt-pop siren Neko Case, and art-folk band Grizzly Bear.
Those names appear in my songs-of-the-year playlist, but not among my Top Ten albums, which are:
Amadou & Mariam, Welcome to Mali. On this follow-up to the 2005 breakout album Dimanche a Bamako, Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia, "the blind couple of Mali," absorb a host of Western influences without ever compromising their identity. The duo collaborate with Damon Albarn from the British band Blur on the synth-pop single "Sabali," roll out the Stevie Wonder funk on the title track, and team up with Somalian rapper K'Naan on "Africa." They succeed in creating a deliriously ebullient pop album that's far-reaching and forward-thinking, yet sounds completely organic. Download: "Sabali."
Girls, Album. Girls - the San Francisco band led by Christopher Owens, who was raised in the Children of God cult and says he recorded this debut with J.R. White in a pharmaceutical haze - has such a rich backstory that Album would have gotten attention even if the music were completely forgettable. That's not the case: There's an early-Elvis-Costello gulp in Owens' voice, and his tunes descend from the Beach Boys and other practitioners of sunny, secretly troubled California pop. Where Girls really gets you is the way its catchy low-fi productions are attached to lyrics that convey a naked innocence: "I wish I had a father, then maybe I would have turned out right." Punches you in the gut, even as you tap your toes. Download: "Hellhole Ratrace."
Miranda Lambert, Revolution. Shrewd country-rock songwriter Miranda Lambert isn't quite so trigger-happy on her third album, though she couldn't resist ripping up Fred Eaglesmith's "Time to Get a Gun." Revolution showcases Lambert as a songwriter who needn't point a pistol to get your attention, as she displays in the extended metaphor "Me and Your Cigarettes" and the satisfyingly nasty "Only Prettier." Download: "White Liar."
Lucero, 1372 Overton Park. Among Southern roots-rock bands moving up to major labels, this roaring Memphis ensemble fronted by songwriter Ben Nichols beats out the sometimes-great, sometimes-ponderous Avett Brothers' I and Love and You. Lucero's ninth album, 1372 Overton Park, delivers unadulterated punk-rock energy overlaid with enough Springsteenian urban romanticism to make the Hold Steady blush. Extra points for "The Devil & Maggie Chascarillo," Nichols' homage to the heroine of Jaime Hernandez's Love & Rockets comic series. Download: "What Are You Willing to Lose?"
Maxwell, BLACKsummers'night. The super-silky R&B comeback from Maxwell, the soul man's first album in eight years, promises would-be paramours a back rub, a foot massage, and breakfast in bed - anything, ladies, so long as you will "prove it to me in the nude." And, oh yeah, forgive him for being gone so long, and doing dirty things behind your back. The first in a proposed trilogy, BLACKsummers'night derives its power from its persistent melancholy, and sublimely patient approach. Grown-up music that's full of feeling, but never overplays its hand. Download: "Pretty Wings."
Mos Def, The Ecstatic. How bad a year was it for hip-hop? Two of the world's greatest rappers, Jay-Z and Eminem, released albums not worthy of serious consideration. Lil Wayne dilly-dallied, Kanye West went off the rails, and hopefuls Kid Cudi and Wale failed to fulfill their promise. That left Mos Def, who hadn't released a CD worth mentioning since 1999, to put out the best rap album of the year. The Ecstatic samples Malcolm X and interpolates the Intruders' "Cowboys to Girls," and reunites Mos with Talib Kweli in a loose, action-packed session held together by a charismatic star focused, for once, on the musical business at hand. Download: "Life in Marvelous Times."
The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. The name is a mouthful if not an albatross. It all sounds so cloyingly twee - and to be sure, the New York four-piece is proud to carry on the shoe-gazing, fuzz-pop tradition embodied by My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Velocity Girl. That approach might be off-putting if their songs - such as the bouncy "The Tenure Itch" and the shimmering "Young Adult Friction"- weren't so delightfully catchy. Download: "Come Saturday."
Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. One of the most consistently engaging and energetic albums of English-language pop music this year came from the four Frenchmen in Phoenix. The lead single, "Lisztomania," refers to Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (played by The Who's Roger Daltrey in the 1975 movie of that name). But singer Thomas Mars and his Versailles-based bandmates are interested in Liszt primarily as a tortured artist and a 19th-century pop star. There's nothing the slightest bit tortured about Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, though: It's delivered with such joie de vivre and melodic flair that it turned a longtime cult band into bona fide international pop stars. Download: "1901."
The xx, xx. The late-breaking addition to this list - sorry, Grizzly Bear, they took your spot - is a young British band that makes eerily composed minimalist pop. Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim sing together on understated and slightly sinister haunters such as "Heart Skipped a Beat" that are as severely pared-down as a Raymond Carver story after Gordon Lish got done editing it. The xx come out of their shell a bit on the gently propulsive "VCR," but low-keyed compositions such as "Crystalised" convey mystery and menace by dropping a few hints and letting the listener fill in the rest. Download: "VCR."
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It's Blitz! Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always had a penchant for mosh-pit pandemonium, though lead singer Karen O has shown a growing knack for introspective balladry. What's so intriguing, and inspiring, about It's Blitz! is that the New York art-punk trio, which includes guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase, maintains its momentum while turning its sonic strategy on its head. Instead of riding Zinner's monster riffs, the Blitz attack is built on shimmering synthesizers and disco beats. A near-complete makeover that leaves the band sounding completely like itself. "It's a dull life," Karen O sings. It sounds like anything but. Download: "Zero."
Honorable mentions: Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion; Avett Brothers, I and Love and You; Camera Obscura, My Maudlin Career; Justin Townes Earle, Midnight at the Movies; Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest; Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is!; Metric, Fantasies; Micachu, Jewellery; Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures; The Very Best, Warm Heart of Africa.