Top 10 albums/20 songs of 2009

10. Lady Gaga: The Fame Monster

“Bad Romance” is topping more year-end lists than Animal Collective, and not without reason: if “ra-ra-ah-ah-ah, roma-roma-ma, ga-ga-oh-la-la” is the only thing we’ll remember about Lady Gaga, we’ll still look back fondly while overlooking some of her more dubious wardrobe choices. But The Fame Monster boasts more than just the notorious song: “Dance in the Dark” and “Monster” are also among the signature Gaga entendres, club-ready and unapologetically catchy.

09. Meisa Kuroki: hellcat

If I had to pick one successor to Namie Amuro, Meisa Kuroki would be it, and since Amuro has shown herself to be forging new territory with PAST < FUTURE, it looks like Kuroki is the likeliest competition. hellcat doesn’t have the intensity or acumen behind albums like Queen of Hip-Hop or PLAY, but it’s one of the most fun debut albums I’ve heard in a while and shows great promise, a promise Kuroki is looking to fulfill if the first single off her upcoming album is any indication.

08. Big Bang: BIGBANG [ read full review ]

Korean pop bands are taking over the world. This is not the first time I’ve said it, and I’m sort of hoping it will be the last, as we can now move forward with this knowledge intact and focus on individual artists. Big Bang finally made a break in Korea with “Lies” but it’s their dominance of the Japanese market that finally put them on the map. As a testament to the members’ individual talent, G-Dragon also released the award-winning Heartbreaker which topped Korean charts and showed the band had the potential to be indestructible. With their 2010 album already in the works, one can only hope they continue to prove themselves as adept and proficient as BIGBANG.

07. Mr Hudson: Straight No Chaser

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is more than just a rap record: it’s a rap record that doesn’t resort to petty clichés, revels in pop appreciation, and isn’t afraid to show its vulnerability as much as it does its ire. More than a bid for authenticity, Mr Hudson never lets on that he has something to prove, instead teaming up with artists like Kanye West and Kid Cudi to craft clever rhymes and confessions, a sort of mea culpa that at the last moment, decides it wasn’t in the wrong after all. At its core, it’s just another break-up record (the track listing is almost unbearably linear: boy tells lies, boy loses the girl, boy begins to reminisce, boy learns to live without love, boy cries, boy gets angry, boy comes to terms), but it’s rendered in such brilliant music, it becomes more than just another entry in Kanye’s blog.

06. BoA: BoA [ read full review ]

BoA is everything a pop fan could wish for. Far more commercial than anything she had yet released, best-selling Korean artist BoA portrays an incredible bevy of talent: deft grasp of the English language, stunning dance skills, and a knack for mainstream sound. Made all the more brilliant in comparison to Hikaru Utada’s own second English language album released the same week, which fared poorly with both critics and fans, a lot of credit must go to the writers and producers who assembled songs very of the moment, nurtured BoA’s strengths, and kept the electropop tone consistent.

05. Lights: The Listening [ read full review ]

A synth-heavy record, Lights’ The Listening is a very mature record that tackles very adolescent issues, centering around the clichéd angst of growing up. The album might be too unrealistic for some listeners, reveling in fairy tale notions of attraction and nostalgia for childhood (and the early 90s that accompanied it), but it’s still a stunning full-length debut record that explores just how hard it is to define adulthood.

04. Nadia Ali: Embers

Trance albums rarely make my year-end lists (Oceanlab was the first last year), though this has more to do with the fact that trance is a very single-based genre with mostly big-name artists releasing full-length albums. I guess Nadia Ali is further exceptional considering her music is not traditional trance, but more of a typical dance style with heavy elements of euro. In glowing tribute to a broken relationship that refuses to release its spark, Embers is steeped in accusations (“Point the Finger”), longing (“Ride with Me”), regret (“Be Mine”), and finally, self-preservation (“Fine Print”). It’s dance music you can’t dance to, stoking and re-stoking what’s left in the ashes of loss.

03. Donkeyboy: Caught in a Life

I’ll admit I’m hypocritical when it comes to the 80s synthfluence of the 00s; on one hand, it’s becoming redundant, on the other, it’s still inspiring some pretty amazing music. Donkeyboy may not have the brash sex appeal of a Gwen Stefani or the Pitchfork-endorsed review of a Neon Indian, but they have the gifted ability to work within the confines of Scandinavia’s celebrated track record to produce some of the most fundamental pop music of the decade. The cheerful melodies set against gloomy lyrics are a testament to the quintessential pandering of youth, meandering its way through real world infancy; Caught in a Life is dreamy and escapist without being immune to the harshest glare of life’s headlights.

02. Florence + the Machine: Lungs [ read full review ]

Lungs is not a perfect album – a few tracks still disrupt the musical narrative, tending to stick out like sore-thumb intervals – but in spite of its flaws, it remains a grand, sweeping album that asks more questions than it answers, provides more enigma than understanding, and never lacks for want of a desperate, sometimes frantic search – for passion, for comfort, for spiritual enlightenment. Florence Welch’s voice cuts through tempos and soars somewhere in the highest realms, lingering far above the already massive melodies, wallowing in the heady first days of romance, the agony of losing love, and finally finding it again in the least expected place.

01. Kent: Röd [ read full review ]

Kent is relentless; releasing masterpiece after masterpiece is one way to show you have enough talent to start throwing it away on B-sides, but the other is simply to keep doing what they do: releasing intricate, carefully crafted albums that build upon previous work without showing any sign of strain to which so many bands two decades old succumb. Any weaknesses the band has never appears on the record, a heady cocktail of fear, aggression, anxiety, and coping with a sort of self-inflicted isolation. Kent is nowhere near where it started in 1990, but Röd is an incredible place to land and probably more than even the most enthusiastic fans could have dreamed.

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Big Bang’s “BIGBANG”

Big Bang / BIGBANG / August 19, 2009
01. GARA GARA GO!! / 04. MY HEAVEN

The boy band is more than an East Asian staple, it’s a perennial tradition. Where the Western mass of dancing, lip-synching, and be-costumed man-children have long since grown up, discovered sex, and reaped the benefits of young teenage girls’ expendable incomes only to devolve to made-for-TV C-list movies and the hope of a lucrative reunion, East Asia has clung to its boy bands like the last lifeboat on a sinking ship; V6 is turning fifteen years old, but instead of politely handing the torch of chart dominance to its more youthful offspring, they have donned the mod-suits, angled haircuts, and dour temperaments of the serious, refined (but still hip!) gentleman in their latest promotional video for “GUILTY,” their neutered, mostly-in-synch dance steps the only traitors in their quest for relevance as they shimmy to their graves.

Though the turnover rate for boy bands isn’t as large in the East, there is the occasional competition.  With a flood of overseas Asian pop finally invading the shores and record stores of Japan, a large number of these contenders are Koreans, keen on sharing a piece of the second largest music market in the world’s pie, and eating it, too. Big Bang, formed in 2006 by YG Entertainment, may have everything you need for a successful boy band (edgy, occasionally bizarre fashion choices, requisite staple “personalities,” attractive mug shots), but they also have the least important component on their side: quality music. Quality being a relevant term, that in this case, denotes a straddling of the line between surprisingly good and not completely horrible.

Their second full-length Japanese-language album, BIGBANG, teems with all the correct formulas: there’s the fashionable auto-tune, shouts and catcalls that mark the backbone of the genre, usually by G-Dragon (the loudest and most popular disposition who has finally been given a solo outlet to perhaps quiet his roaring ego), occasional harmonies, raps, and a distant smattering of quasi-italo disco vibe (“Bringing You Love” in particular) that renders the hip hop safe, fun, and accessible, curving the average “danger” level of tracks like “Emotion” and “Top Of The World” that try to be hard and somewhat threatening, from mild to lukewarm. That’s not to say the tracks aren’t good – when you throw everything at the wall of music crazes, things will eventually stick. As a result, the arrangements hit the pulse of tail-end 00’s pop without leaving any tricks hidden up their sleeves.

To say the album isn’t “classic,” that in fifteen years it will simply be a product of its time, a sort of early 21st musical fossil, is tired and useless; whether classic or kitsch, every album inevitably bears the mark of its production year. In fifteen years, the most important thing won’t be if this album has aged well, but that we remember Big Bang at all, before they were dressing in smart suits and crooning stuffy ballads.

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You got the fire: 2NE1

I was all about Rain when he released “Rainism,” a genuinely great, classically Korean pop song: flavors of hip-hop, smoothed over with plenty of techno gloss and synth spackle. Until I saw him perform it live. All the charm of the faux arrogance, and the wet delivery of lyrics like “I’m gonna be a bad, bad boy” suddenly seemed so…manufactured. It would be stupid not to expect that in pop music, but the sheer translucence of live performances always makes me stop and wonder why they don’t even bother trying anymore.

Korean quartet 2NE1 released their (digital) debut single at the beginning of May with all the similar basic elements (the good, but not great dancing; the appropriate, but tacky costumes; the catchy, but limited single “Fire,”) to what seems like positive reception. Though they’re relative nobodies, they’ve got the right people behind them who have even solicited a collaboration with massively huge impopsters BigBang on a song appropriately titled “Lollipop“: it’s colorful, sweet, and gone in a couple dozen licks. The music video is stunningly bright, like every ’09 pop cliche amplified: laser lemon and electric lime clothes of various designs, patterns, and fabrics that only match the equally pizzazzed backdrop, psychedelic haircuts, and outrageous sunglasses propped on garishly painted faces; this is the first group that has made me feel both so young and so old. Much like the Jonas Brothers, whose demographic is catered to a completely new set of teens, 2NE1 is targeted to the same audience, albeit in what is both elements of current acts and a fostering of a brand new set of principles that will one day signify culture of the 2010’s (see also: Japanese group w-inds.’s “Rain Is Fallin'”).

2NE1’s musical choices have been very smart so far. Though they only have two songs available (and one being a duet), “Fire” itself, is a great single, and even “Lollipop” is ultimately fun and likable. The group as a whole presents an in-your-face attempt at girl power while catering to the youthful fantasy of living beyond one’s age (I’m no native Korean speaker, but the English shouts of “I gotta drop it like it’s hot” are pretty clear). It’s a sort of rebellion to the unsullied Korean pop acts of yore, like Koyote, and even Baby V.O.X., that  already seem kind of trite, though strategically so; there’s a new youth culture on the loose and it begins here.