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2010: The Year In Pop Music

A schizophrenic year of rock and pop
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  December 21, 2010

DOLLAR THRILL: Like it or not, pop irritant Ke$ha ruled 2010’s party.

Music may exist to express emotions, dreams, and nightmares, but beyond its loftier aims, it's a means of escape. Whether you're slamming your hands on the steering wheel to a rock jam or bumping trunk junk on a dance floor (real or imagined), the best music is supposed to take you away, for at least a few minutes. What with the clusterfuck that was Americans' waking life circa 2010, this year's primo releases seemed more interested than ever in getting us the hell out of reality, pronto. Of course, maybe music's departure from reality has to do with reality's departure from reality: if we live in a country where the culture of grassroots activism has been hijacked by the billionaire-funded far right, and television shows nothing but programs on how to run a cake shop, how mind-blowing is it if a rapper goes Joy Division on our ass, or some 20-year-old girl in a meat dress does a duet with Sir Elton John? Not only is weird normal, but bizarre is now pop with a capital P.

No one in music combined weird with pop in 2010 like the ubiquitous KANYE WEST. On a damage-control mission after his disastrous flame-out last year, 'Ye escaped to his Hawaii studio, shuttling in a fleet of guest stars in a mad vision quest that resulted in the year's most interesting album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam). An epic meditation on the consequences of being a celebrity asshole and not caring (though caring enough to make a whole album about it), Fantasy is the distillation of the mainstream-rap-album ideal: a song cycle of specific personal issues that are in no way universal enough to be shared by the enormous audience paying attention, all parlayed into crucial musical drama via groundbreaking beats, catchy hooks, and gloriously foot-in-mouth lyrical bons mots.

Numerous other albums tried to hit the same sweet spot between shameless braggadocio and teen-diary emotional vulnerability. DRAKE's massively popular debut, Thank Me Later, is the most defensive album ever released by a major label, with the unibrowed Degrassi High grad taking up beaucoup lyrical space kvetching about the perils of fame and the burdens of being well known. This year also marked the return to ubiquity of EMINEM, who some 10-plus years ago created the whole business of elevating an ambivalence toward fame into an impenetrably defensive cult of personality. It was certainly odd all summer to hear hits from Recovery (Aftermath) like "Not Afraid" and the RIHANNA duet "Love the Way You Lie" blaring from every musical orifice imaginable, as if it were 1999, but maybe not as odd as being jolted from the business of the real world by Eminem's unceasing personal demons screaming in your ear.

Metal in 2010 continued to move into uncharted realms of the unreal. The rejection of nü-metal a decade ago has spawned countless metallic subgenres that have embraced, by turns, sprawling instrumental weirdness, dizzying technical prowess, fastidious adherence to any of a multitude of pre-nü-'90s genre conventions, and an overwhelming desire for chaotic expansion.

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Related: Fall National Pop Preview: The golden age, The Big Hurt: Kanye leaks!, Guest lists 2010: Phoenix critics weigh in on the year in music, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Music, Nicki Minaj, Holy Grail,  More more >
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