Wolfing down a McRib at 2:00 AM. Re-watching the season premiere of Jersey Shore. Going to see Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen… on opening night. In 2009 there was no shortage of guilty pleasures to go around, but few were as good as listening to the first album by LMFAO. Oh sure, you can pretend you spent all year in your apartment reading The New Yorker while waxing poetic about the new record by Grizzly Bear. But everyone knows that when you were getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, you actually cued up “I’m In Miami Bitch” and sang along to every word. And why wouldn’t you? Like the rest of Party Rock, “Miami” was an irresistible combination of rap, pop and rock that made LMFAO the one band in 2009 that you hated to love, but who you loved all the same.
This year, Florence Welch was the other Flo’: Not the part-time rapper and full-time gym enthusiast who rode the chorus of an ’80s hit to the top of the charts, but the brassy redhead from London who slowly built a cult following based on orchestral rock songs and introspective lyrics that packed a surprising punch. In fact, on “Hurricane Drunk” the 22-year-old literally sings about punching an unfaithful ex-boyfriend in the face. If you were looking for tender ballads, this wasn’t the record for you. But it was that sort of intensity that made Welch so compelling. At times, she seemed like the next Amy Winehouse. Or the next Tori Amos. But no matter what alt-rock siren she seemed to be channeling on Lungs, she always sounded like a force to be reckoned with.
When Asher Roth went from being an unknown rapper pushing his demo tape on MySpace to one of the fastest rising stars of 2009, it was easy to write him off. After all, once “I Love College” began blaring out of dorm rooms across the country, he seemed too much like an Eminem knock-off (or, worse yet, the kind of forgettable MC who exclusively wrote songs about getting wasted). But then came Asleep In The Bread Aisle and suddenly things began to change: Jay-Z gave him props in an interview and, soon, even Eminem admitted that he was a fan. Now, months after the heat around Asher has cooled, it’s easy to see what all the fuss was about: As songs like “Be By Myself” and “Lark On My Go-Kart” prove, this is one kid who can rhyme circles around whatever criticism you may have of him.
Simian Mobile Disco is a band that knows how to soundtrack a party, no one would question that. But with Temporary Pleasure they set out to prove that they know how to party—period. In turn, many of the lyrics throughout this vicious song cycle examine the highs and eventual lows that so many of their fans experience once the drugs have worn off. But Temporary Pleasure wasn’t just a hedonistic affair. Like 2007’s Attack Decay Sustain Release, James Ford and Jas Shaw stick to their winning formula on Temporary Pleasure, slowly building self-recorded rythmns until they explode into instantly enjoyable choruses. Wisely, they also enlist vocal cameos from an all-star cast including Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and Beth Ditto from the Gossip, who struts through “Cruel Intentions” like she’s the fiercest diva on the planet.
Fifteen years ago, Bjork left the Sugarcubes to pursue a solo career that was more creative, more groundbreaking and more weird than pretty much anyone would have expected when she was still playing charming indie rock songs. Not to draw too strong of a parallel here, but that’s essentially what happened with Karin Dreijer Andersson in 2009, as she took a break from electro-pop favorites The Knife to explore world beat rhythms, minimalist techno beats and even primal chanting on Fever Ray’s incredibly inventive debut. The end result was a leftfield hit that drew an extremely diverse, not to mention unbelievably devoted, fanbase. But best of all, it also made face painting a completely acceptable look for female singers across the world.
For much of the last year, Jason Schwartzman played a writer on the show Bored To Death who was so uninspired by his day job that he decided to re-invent himself as a private detective. In the process his character accidentally became one of the most eager unlicensed cops in Brooklyn. That’s sort of what happened with Coconut Records this year, too. Not that he’s bored with acting. Or on the verge of performing a citizen’s arrest. But as Schwartzman continues to moonlight as a one-man band, he has turned into a excellent songwriter who is anxious to prove he’s more than just an actor. Which, on Davy, was exactly what he managed to do: From the vintage sleigh bells and horns on “Saint Jerome” to the warm melodies of “Drummer,” this is no vanity project. It’s a gorgeous pop album that will stand the tests of time.
A couple of underground veterans get into a room to record an album together. They’ve all dealt with major labels, so when it comes time to release the fruits of their labor they say to hell with the suits and leak the album onto the internet. Within months, a sizable fanbase is born and, as the year comes to a close, their name is on the lips of people who make lists like this one. No, this isn’t the story of Wilco. It’s actually the tale of Joe Budden, Crooked J, Royce Da 5′9″ and Joell Ortiz—four MCs who have spent the past 15 years floating beneath the mainstream’s radar, but who easily made one of the best rap records of the year. And not just for underground fans, either: In a just world, Hot 97 would be playing “The One” every 15 minutes while “Cut You Loose” serves as a friendly reminder that the key to any good hip-hop song is the art of telling a story.
Ten years ago, no one would have predicted how this decade would have turned out for Morrissey. When the ’00s kicked off, the semi-retired singer was living as a recluse in the Hollywood Hills, only coming out in daylight to take his pinstriped suits to the cleaners. But ever since he released You Are The Quarry in 2004, the former Smiths frontman has been on a undeniable roll, banging out triumphant albums like Years Of Refusal that are filled with the sort of punchy alt-rock tunes that should belong to artists half his age. (Seriously, if it weren’t for his theatrical singing on “Something Is Squeezing My Skull” you might confuse it for something by the Alkaline Trio.) But in 2009, that is exactly what made Morrissey so cool: He knows now that it’s practically his duty to emerge every few years and, with both style and grace, show the rest of us how it’s done.
A funny thing happened to Pearl Jam as they began writing their ninth album together: The world that they spent most of the ’90s rebelling against had practically disappeared. Think about it: In 2009, there was no finite version of what “selling out” or “corporate rock” actually meant. So what did that leave Eddie Vedder and company to cry about? Not much, really. But it turns out that was actually a good thing because, throughout Backspacer, the lyrics are more optimistic and the guitars are once again cranked up to 11, especially on rollicking tracks like “Got Some” and “The Fixer.” Granted, Pearl Jam weren’t the only grunge Gods who mounted a comeback this year. (Unfortunately, we also had to suffer through Alice In Chains.) But in the end, Eddie and the boys were the only ones who actually got it right.
You know who likes Mayer Hawthorne? Questlove, Justin Timberlake and John Mayer. This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it is: You see, whenever Mayer or Questlove talk about their favorite artists, it’s not some new band that your little sister is bumping while she cruises the local food court. If you had the opportunity to ask JT who was on his iPod, he would never tell you All Time Low. Chances are he would say he was listening to Al Green. Or Sam Cooke. Or Otis Redding. Or, as it turns out, Mayer Hawthorne who in 2009 put out a record so filled with blue-eyed soul and jazz-inflected balladry that he may one day join the prestigious list of names mentioned here. Bonus points for playing every instrument on it, too.