This has been an unusually odd year for “pop” music. The top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 has been held hostage by the Black Eyed Peas for a full 26 weeks, as the band actually supplanted itself atop the chart, unseating “Boom Boom Pow” with “I Got A Feeling,” with a new single now in the Top Ten as of November 7th’s chart. And if you add in Lady Gaga and Beyonce, the top of the chart has been held by three musicians for 31 weeks, with only a couple dozen acts able to actually launch even a successful top ten single and gain mainstream pop notice.
In such a year, it becomes much more difficult to really say what the best “pop” music was, since the definition of pop music tends to rely on grand chart successes. Yet 2009 features a ton of great music in the pop vein which has achieved varying success. The lack of diversity at the top of the charts, however, has left some room open for some real finds to sneak onto year-end lists. So sit back and enjoy this list of the best pop music of 2009, along with a few honorable mentions you’ll surely want to check out.
1. Rob Thomas – Cradlesong
Rob Thomas’s second solo album comes along a full four years after he commandeered the airwaves with hits like “This Is How A Heart Breaks” and “Lonely No More.” Perhaps it’s the changed pop music climate or the perceived darkness in his lyrics this time out, but Cradlesong has not been the hit many expected it to be. To date the album has spawned only one “hit,” “Her Diamonds,” which peaked at #23 on the Hot 100, and the album has failed to even go Gold. That’s really a shame, because Thomas’s album features the best songwriting of his career, and plays out as a heartfelt examination of love in all its forms, how we discover it and either nurture or destroy it. Too bad that winds up paralleling the eventual failure of the album to find an audience.
2. Regina Spektor – Far
Regina Spektor remains an oddity in the world of pop. Her music has achieved at least a semblance of mainstream popularity due to its frequent placement in the worlds of television and film, but she’s never had a true hit. That hasn’t changed with Far, her third major-label effort, but her sense of songcraft has developed by leaps and bounds. On this album she strikes the perfect balance between kitsch and accessibility. More important, she’s filled the album with outright great songs. “Laughing With” may be among her best from a rhetorical standpoint, and “The Calculation” and “Eet” lead off the album with examples of her songs at their most Regina-ish. She worked with no fewer than four producers on Far and wasn’t able to find a radio hit, so perhaps that’s not something she’ll ever attain. Still, when you can put out three albums in a row as good as her first three for Warner, who really needs to pander to radio anyway?
3. Taylor Swift – Fearless
Okay, so this one came out in November 2008, and subsequently gave itself over to immediate cross-genre radio overplay, but only the most jaded among us would deny that young Taylor Swift doesn’t have the talent deserving of the success she’s found. Yes, this is country music only by the definition of studio bean-counters, but when considered on its pop merits, Fearless is definitely among the best pop albums of the year. “Fifteen” and “Love Story” might not appeal to everyone, but they and the rest of this album are catchy as hell. And though Swift has room to grow as a performer, it’s hard to fault such an assured sophomore effort as this is.
4. Kid Cudi – Man On The Moon
Kid Cudi’s leading the world of hip-hop-pop in the absence of “His Royal Ego-ness” Kanye West. “Day ‘N’ Nite” became a top five smash hit, but the free-styling Cleveland native makes more of an impact with his stream-of-consciousness raps and his wickedly inventive sampling skills than any mere pop single could ever show. It also is the first mainstream album to maintain the loose feel of the kind of mix-tapes which actually launched Cudi in the first place.
5. Keri Hilson – In A Perfect World
If you’ve been looking for some great danceable pop music and can’t bear to debase yourself enough to enjoy Lady Gaga, you’ll go positively insane over Keri Hilson’s In A Perfect World, which spawned the top five hit “Knock You Down,” one of this year’s many hits to bear the stamp of a Kanye guest spot. It’s hardly a new sound; much of the album was produced by the likes of Timbaland. But in a year of stale hits, Keri Hilson’s blend of pop-oriented R&B comes off as positively refreshing. If you’re willing to admit you actually enjoy listening to such confections, you’re bound to agree that Hilson’s album breathed quite a bit of fresh air into the summer months of ‘09.
6. Kings Of Leon – Only By The Night
This album came out in 2008 as well, but Only By The Night found a great deal of traction this year, particularly as “Use Somebody” took over pop radio this summer, becoming the band’s first top five hit on the Hot 100, building on the more moderate success of “Sex On Fire,” which didn’t manage to crack the top 50 in the US. The album’s arena-rock bona-fides have finally translated into pop radio success, and for anyone who didn’t happen to check out the album last year, this critic included, 2009 proved as good a chance as ever to hear what the band has to offer.
7. Cobra Starship – Hot Mess
The band that cut its teeth with a hit in the film Snakes On A Plane is back with more guilty pleasure glam-pop that gives groups like Scissor Sisters a run for their money. This isn’t music that makes a long-term impression; it’s more comfortable as the one night stand you walk out on in the morning after a night of good times you’re too hung over to remember. Still, there’s always a time and place for everything, and at least Cobra Starship doesn’t ruin things by trying to get all serious.
8. Kelly Clarkson – All I Ever Wanted
Kelly Clarkson’s label may not know how to properly market her music, and Ryan Tedder may have indeed fucked her over by selling her the same tune for “Already Gone” that he’d sold Beyonce when she recorded “Halo.” But all that aside, All I Ever Wanted was a welcome pop return from our very first American Idol. With a little pruning this album could have gone from good to great, but even as it stands it was a welcome reprieve from the likes of Black Eyed Peas or Lady Gaga. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I’ll admit, but for any true fan of pop music it’s hard not to find something about this album to enjoy.
9. The Fray – The Fray
The Fray didn’t follow How To Save A Life with any radical style shifts or pretentious experimentations. Rather, they returned this February with an album eerily similar to their debut, which incidentally required a similar incubation period to truly enjoy it. If you didn’t like Isaac Slade’s style of piano pop before, you probably didn’t find any reasons to change your mind with their sophomore effort. But say what you want about the group, they know how to consistently produce catchy hooks. And “Never Say Never” has to be one of the most ear-catching ballads of the year, even if it was featured in the summer’s biggest, baddest, loudest trash-fests.
10. Jay-Z – The Blueprint 3
I’m not normally the biggest Jay-Z fan, but he grabbed everyone this summer with his one-two punch in “D.O.A. (Death Of Autotune)” and “Run This Town,” which may be the best hip-hop collaboration to come around in years. The rest of the album asserts that he’s the next Dr. Dre, only this time he’s a hip-hop Godfather who knows how to reign in the talent of others and creates songs that linger around the ears. This is one of the few pop albums of ‘09 that might stand a legitimate chance of remaining a big hit-maker in 2010.
11. Ryan Leslie – Transition
The album on this list which you likely haven’t yet heard, Ryan Leslie’s second new album of the year packs a significant pop/R&B punch. Essentially a concept album wrapped around a collection of songs inspired by a summer of secret love, Leslie’s smooth vocals weave their way around a synth heavy mix of R&B that manages to sound fresh and interesting even when he apes some of Usher’s best moves. Expect to hear a good deal about this album as we head into 2010. Track for track it’s a real keeper.
1. Ryan Leslie – Ryan Leslie
An “under-the-radar” release that spent two years in various stages of incubation before Leslie’s label blew its wad in February, resulting in complete chart stagnation. The album spawned three “almost hit” singles which all made minor R&B headway but failed to reach Hot 100 status. Transition is going to be his breakthrough, but once you hear it, you’ll want to hunt down the debut too.
2. Amerie – In Love & War
She hasn’t had a US release since 2005, but this talented pop songstress’s latest effort, out since early November, has the kind of songs which are going to get her compared to Beyonce more times than I suspect she’d like. But add a world-beat edge to what you’d expect from that comparison and you might be better prepared for the likes of “Tell Me You Love Me,” which is bound to be a chart-topper as we head toward a new year.
3. A Fine Frenzy – Bomb In A Birdcage
I couldn’t quite get away with putting this one on a top 11 of pop releases, since it still feels a bit too “folk” for most pop junkies. But in the world of TV/music crossovers, Alison Sudol’s very addictive sophomore effort exudes confidence and suggests she’s around the indie-pop world for the long haul. “What I Wouldn’t Do” sounds like the future Top 40 hit that Brandi Carlile has yet to record.
4. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Another indie pick, this album reminds me of a more poppish version of something the Decemberists might have come up with if they weren’t catering to those of us who remain indie snobs… or want to make people think we are. Two Suns will not produce a Hot 100 hit, but that’s beside the point. In a world where Black Eyed Peas can have the #1 song in the nation for half a year, the raw creative juices that pour through each listen of this album give me faith heading into a new year that if you dig hard enough, you’ll manage to find music that sounds pop without making your brain rot. Natasha Khan may be England’s answer to Bjork, a songwriter who can craft intelligent, interesting – and catchy – pop music. I certainly hope it’s true.
5. The Script – The Script
This album only recently gained a US release (it’s been out since ‘08 in Europe), and trust me, it’s the next best thing to a new One Republic record, yet with more Daniel Bedingfield than Ryan Tedder influence. Turn it up loud, and crank the bass, it’s bound to be your next secret shame.
Reprinted with permission from Stereo Subversion.