“Pop” has always been a relative genre. Consider its history: defined by doo-wops and harmonization a half century ago, it eventually became a mere counter to the 70s and 80s punk wave, until about a decade ago when it was redefined by Outkast.
It’s always changing, due to how dependent it is on mass audience. Which means if it’s to stay fresh, it needs to be freshened occasionally.
And that’s what the year’s been: a fresh approach to pop music. Granted, the innovation has come from admittedly alternative artists. However, all the essential listens this year have enjoyed some commercial success. They deserve your attention, too.
Animal Collective: Merriweather Post Pavilion. It’s the best album of the year. In fact, the music community had nominated it so before the year had even begun. Why? The avant-garde gives texture to their friendly, Beach Boy melodies. Every track could be a single. But they’ve littered the album with electronic sampling, Afro-pop influences, and a 9/4 time signature. It evolves, different every time you hear it. It’s kairotic: for such crappy times, there’s an unprecedented optimism. Its relevance and innovation make it the next forerunner in pop, and in music generally.
Dirty Projectors: Bitte Orca. Dave Longstreth has a reputation of “out there” vocal techniques and orchestration. However arty, though, the record is refreshing—quenching, “like Gatorade” (see “Temecula Sunrise”). Perhaps that has something to do with its diversity. Its first single, “Stillness Is the Move,” is ethnic R&B, and somehow still dreamy. “Two Doves” is seductively lyrical—a musical accompaniment to Solomon’s erotic book. And at its pinnacle, “Useful Chamber”: it’s synthy, polyrhythmic and organically explosive. Astonishing how an album can be so grown, and still as brisk as spring.
Phoenix: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. Equally pleasant as the first two, this album is also lean, lite. Clean the Strokes of their garage sound, add a little pure pop synth and some late-70s hip, paint it all French—there you have this beautiful band. I’ll be disappointed if these guys don’t become the biggest thing on the radio; for any arena-expansive similarities, they’re much more important than Chris Martin.
Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest. I fell asleep the first three times I heard this record. It’s all very woozy, very psychedelic. One must be a student of the album, however, to find its rich complexities. Hushed songs hide intricate orchestration—a string quartet, choral arrangements, and Chris Taylor who used like ten instruments when I saw them live this summer. Chime-y 50s melodies, minor key and warm vocalists seamlessly blend—you won’t find music more crafted. Yes, that makes it sophisticated, even elitist, in its sound. You’ll want a hi-fi sound setup. It’s matchlessly enriched.
St. Vincent: Actor. Annie Clark’s photo on the cover says it all. The sound is chic and eccentric. She’s helplessly romantic but hypnotized with aggression—especially on her guitar whammy. It’s a balance like this that made My Bloody Valentine’s record the best of the 90s. Her musicianship continues to be severely underrated, even after her work under the immaculate Sufjan—not to mention her multi-talented band mates. It will be the disappointment of the year if this doesn’t garner more attention. The record’s just so sincere, so classy.