"Britney got married. Ashlee was caught lip-synching. ODB died," writes Dallas Observer music editor Sarah Hepola in "Trend Spotting," one of eight essays the New Times has compiled to assess the year in music. Sarah's statement is deceptively facile. While she picks three superficial, screaming headlines from the previous twelve months, she also hints at several genre-fied worlds -- from the celebrity disaster that is Britney to hardcore rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard -- that threaten to collide as the record industry slowly emerges from its years-long slump.
Some saw this rebound as a sign of hope. In "Dance, Dance Revolution," New Times contributor Darren Keast points out: "All in all, it wasn't as faddish or fleeting a year as the last few." If anything, the recent electroclash trend -- as wack as it was -- has opened up popular dance floors everywhere to a wider range of sounds than the house/techno/trance/Top 40 pop trap. Tantalizingly, Keast highlights several import-only albums such as British producer Mylo's brilliant Destroy Rock & Roll and German electro enigma Anthony Rother's Popkiller.
And while East Bay Express music editor Rob Harvilla notes in "Smells Like Indie Spirit" that it has become "harder and harder to find the best aspects of each combined: the fist-pumping intensity of the butt-rockers, the ludicrous melodrama of the emo kids, the inventive guile and vast record collections of the elitist indie crowd," fans of Death From Above 1979 and Oxeneers will argue that more and more indie hard rock acts are trying to bridge the best of these worlds, Nirvana-style. Dutifully, Harvilla calls attention to The Secret Machines' excellent Now Here Is Nowhere, marveling "no album this year WHUMPS with more aplomb than this one."
Meanwhile, metal has recovered from its rap-rock malaise to initiate a full-blown renaissance, thanks to bands such as Dillinger Escape Plan and Mastadon; appropriately, in "Up From The World," Cleveland Scene music editor Jason Bracelin writes about these hot acts that have "shoveled the lime into nü-metal's grave."
There isn't much new that can be said about the pop/R&B/hip-hop matrix, which dominated the national radar this year.
"The loose confederation of disparate genres that march under the Americana banner trudged on, touted by critics and mainly ignored by mainstream rock and country radio," writes Houston Press music editor John Nova Lomax, who calls attention to noteworthy albums such as Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose and Drive By Truckers' The Dirty South. "They're all better than Wilco's latest overrated opus," he promises.
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In "On the Down-Low," New Times contributor Craig D. Lindsey seconds Lomax's opinion, writing, "With everyone paying attention to these superstars, a lot of other talented folks got drowned out, and not just Brandy," referring to the one-time R&B pop star whose audience inexplicably gets smaller and smaller while her albums get better and better. So Lindsey spends some time highlighting overlooked discs by King Britt, Cee-Lo, Amp Fiddler, and others. "Just think of them as the Nineteen Great Black-Music Albums You Probably Didn't Know Were Out There," he writes.
Concurrently, since New Times contributor Dan Leroy admits in "God Save the Scene" that "Today's industry is too fragmented to be satisfyingly overthrown the way the Clash stomped REO Speedwagon," he turns to talented British rappers Dizzee Rascal and The Streets and homegrown heroes Madvillain and Beans. He also singles out Miami starlet Jacki-O's Poe Little Rich Girl, which, he writes, "stood out as much for its clever crunk-&-B production as for the expected in-your-face nastiness."
There was little big news on the music video front this year as most artists stayed within the usual boundaries for their genres. However, videos offered plenty to talk about. Contributor Tamara Palmer points out some of the highs and lows, from the $15 it cost to make the clip for Sarah McLachlan's "World on Fire" to the strange encounter between Won-G and Gizzelle in "Rapture." In Caribbean music, soca moved into the mainstream and the homophobic lyrics spouted by some dancehall deejays drew protests. Veteran artists such as Beres Hammond and Toots and the Maytals made contributor Patricia Meschino's Top 10.
Oddly, Usher, the one man who utterly dominated 2004, garnered little comment from our essayists. Which is just as well. Popular music, in all of its fragmented forms, continues to draw complicated and sometimes contradictory reactions. Some, such as Harvilla, seemingly make a compromise with MTV's evil eye, while others such as Lomax and Lindsey prefer the comfort of their own subcultures. One thing is for certain, though: The major-label record industry -- fueled by Usher, Lil' Jon, and even Hilary Duff -- is gearing up for a big pop cultural comeback, and few who love music will soon be able to hide from it. Whether that is cause for celebration or alarm is in the ear of the beholder.