By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
Vandaveer, Divide & Conquer. De-electrified dreams, as sung and played by Mark Charles Heidinger, sometimes of These United States, but mostly of a magically real republic.
— Roy Kasten
Our Song: In Defense of Taylor Swift
My favorite thing in 2009 has been teenage country cutie Taylor Swift. Normally my music radar sweeps shamefully closer to the underground, but it only took one encounter for me to fall in love with Swift's undeniably hooky, magnetically charged songs.
Swift was hired by Sony/ATV at age fourteen as a staff songwriter, and since then her accomplishments and accolades have just kept on multiplying. The willowy powerhouse with blond tendrils has become the hottest thing to hit country music since Garth Brooks. True, the majority of Swift's songs are hardly "traditional" country: Except for the occasional fiddle or lilt in her singing, she almost exclusively plays pop songs. And although her image is that of a young Faith Hill or Shania Twain, her talent is on par with classic artists such as Lucinda, Reba and Dolly.
Her stadium tours sell out months in advance, and she's been nominated (and won) pretty much every music award possible. But don't hate the playa, children. Just because it's popular doesn't mean it's bad. (See: Nirvana, the Beatles.) Homegirl's self-titled debut is the longest-charting record of this decade, and to date she's sold more than 10 million albums. (Swifty even outsold Michael Jackson this year. Dang.) Songs such as "You Belong With Me," "White Horse," "Love Story," "Teardrops on My Guitar" and "Our Song" are freakin' scary-good. Not good for a country star. Not good for a girl. Not good for someone her age. Just plain good.
Swift is also at least partially responsible for the greatest pop-culture moment of 2009: the Kanye West Interruption Incident from the MTV Video Music Awards. This misdirected outburst of attention-whoring introduced Taylor to a whole new group of fans she wouldn't have reached otherwise. Miss Swift's composure, grace and subsequent roof-blowing song performance was more than enough to silence any haters. Oh, snap. Don't mess with her; I think she's in it for the long haul.
— Jaime Lees
Two albums from early 2009 never became stale. The first is Face Control by Handsome Furs, the husband-wife duo of Dan Boeckner (of Wolf Parade fame) and Alexei Perry. A unique blend of Perry's Adderall-jittered synths and keyboards, Boeckner's fuzzed-out guitar and yelped cryptic refrains, the songs are simple, catchy, haunting and flat-out brilliant. The other record with staying power is It's Blitz! by Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The trio's sonic evolution has been incomparable: It's effortlessly shifted from the riotous wails and jarring art-punk riffs of early material to Blitz!'s finely honed mix of dance-friendly burners and sprawling epics. Karen O and company also put on one of the year's best live shows at the Pageant in June.
Other standouts included Phoenix and the oh-so-sweet but all-too-brief spurt of pop brilliance that is Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, the croaky-throated folk poetry of Welcome Joy by Seattle's Cave Singers and the sexy, soft-spoken understatements of London's the xx and its self-titled debut. Missouri boys made good White Rabbits also deserve heaps of praise for It's Frightening and the aptly titled mind-blower "Percussion Gun."
In hip-hop the best efforts were from Wu-Tang alums. Raekwon had the pitch-perfect Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II, and the sequel to his 1995 classic exceeded the hype with a filthy, fire-spitting array of dope-slingin' anthems. [Editor's note:[A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Freddie Gibbs ruled the underground with a pair of killer mixtapes, and K'naan gets props for Troubadour, in which the Somalia native tells American rappers about the lawless, war-torn streets of Mogadishu and what it really means to come up hard.
— Keegan Hamilton
But even during this lackluster year, I didn't live exclusively in the past. My personal sonic comfort food — mod-ish, punky, British guitar-pop — has started to taste a little stale after the recent glut of that stuff. The Cribs' Ignore the Ignorant would have set me on fire a few years ago, but now all I can muster is a "nice job" as I move on to the next album queued up in my playlist. Sometimes that album was the Thermals' Now We Can See, the catchiest meditation on death and dying ever waxed. Sometimes it was Art Brut's Art Brut vs. Satan, where the brilliant British quartet continued its witty dissections of topics such as "DC Comics and Chocolate Milkshake." Sometimes it was the updated, AM-radio pop of Girls' Album or the sturdy, should-be-FM-standards riffs of Friendly Foes' Born Radical and the Shazam's Meteor.