If there was one constant in 2008's pop sweepstakes, it was the rapid ascent of female solo artists willing to toe the line between pop diva and electroclash queen. The ubiquity in 2007 of Daft Punk and Justice seems to have emboldened a new generation of producers to harshen up the beats of dance pop and add some grit to tween pop. How else explain the jolting dance rock of, say, MILEY CYRUS's "Fly on the Wall" (on the otherwise turgid Breakout), or BRITNEY SPEARS's über-catchy "Womanizer"? The thing about diva pop is that as pop music (somehow) becomes more flagrantly sexual, the hand tips toward female artists who know how to channel that sexual energy into a dance vibe. Which means that even an ode to being cheated on (like "Womanizer") or a diatribe against an ex who couldn't commit (like BEYONCÉ's tribal detonator "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)") can be a banger if there's enough sass and 'tude thrown in.

This new attitude also opened the door to newcomers (with the right producers). I was particularly impressed with a number of production jobs by French electro-shocker SPACE COWBOY, who worked magic for ennui-laden British tartNADIA OH (with her offhandedly slut-tastic "My Egyptian Lover" off her Hot Like Wow album) and especially rising starLADY GAGA(whose album title The Fame could be prophetic if enough people hear glam-slam-thank-you-ma'am smashes-in-waiting like "Starstruck," "Just Dance," and "Poker Face"). Of course, the story of the year in terms of sassy chicks being provocative isKATY PERRY, who turned her back on her strict religious background just long enough to pen her ode to making out with another girl as long as her boyfriend doesn't mind, "I Kissed a Girl."

Meanwhile, the more accessible acts of the underground seemed intent on reanimating the corpse of the '80s. M83's lauded Saturdays = Youth whooshed listeners back to their respective proms with its John-Hughes-soundtrack-that-never-was. New Zealand oddball Pip Brown a/k/a LADYHAWKE put together a stunning pastiche of invented '80s-isms, creating anthemic dance pop that rocks hard and mopes harder — like Bananarama fronting Depeche Mode. And São Paulo players CSS continued to party all over the world on Donkey, with their increasingly sophisticated synth/guitar rock/pop carried aloft by lead singer Lovefoxxx's mix of innocent ineptitude and charming viciousness. Brooklyn'sGANG GANG DANCE departed from their formless morass of wordless space jams to merge sparkling washes, weightless euphoria, worldbeat-inflected gaiety, and sex-starved dance-floor whump on Saint Dymphna.

When pop music is at its giddiest, heavy metal can be depended on to bum everyone back down to earth, and the newMETALLICA record would do just that if it weren't so thrilling to hear these dudes defiantly back in the saddle again. Sounding like the by-product of a series of stern talkings-to, Death Magnetic sees Hetfield, Ulrich, and company return to the Black Forest guitar romanticism so painfully missing from the ugly-sounding records they've pumped out over the past two decades. If they're still coming at you with songs about suicide, war, depression, and anger, at least they do so within the confines of tightly arranged jams and unbelievably gratifying waves of rockitude. But whereas Metallica got real, the rest of the metal world continued to get more unreal.AMON AMARTH and the SWORD continued in the vein of 2007's top metallers, High on Fire and Mastodon, constructing elaborate mythologies to deepen their prog-metal labyrinths. The result is accomplished stoner thrash with song titles you can barely pronounce (e.g., the Sword's axis-shifting single from '08's Gods of the Earth, "Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzepherians").

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