In 2008, pop goes to pieces

The Baltimore Sun

Throughout 2008, as America was transfixed by a historical and climactic presidential election and a scary economic meltdown, pop music became blurry.

Styles morphed more than they did the year before as mainstream acts dissolved sonic barriers. Easy signifiers of certain genres all but disappeared. So-called indie rock, which generally prided itself on a ragged, warts-and-all style musicianship, was suffused with inventive textures (a layering of strings, for instance) and compelling melodies.

Kanye West, one of hip-hop's most successful rappers, eschewed street beats and rhymes for noisy electronica and Auto-Tuned singing. If any sound dominated pop in 2008, it was produced by Auto-Tunes, software that manipulates pitch, producing fluttering, robotic vocals.

On the flip side, so to speak, some marquee artists (namely Duffy and Raphael Saadiq) refused any studio wizardry. Instead, they went out of their way to re-create the vintage sounds of Chess and Motown, extending the approach that garnered Amy Winehouse acclaim and multiple Grammys in 2007.

The fragmentation of pop was certainly nothing new in 2008. In fact, it was an old story two years ago. But as the record industry has continued to become more irrelevant, and as consumers' budgets have shrunk and downloading has continued to spike, it has become less and less likely that any two pop fans were listening to the same thing.

"Music used to have a giant center in the Top 40, songs that casual listeners from all demographics sang along to whether they liked them or not," says Bill Crandall, editor of, an AOL-owned media player. "Now, thanks to technology, the Web and niche radio programming, more and more listeners are seeking out music they're passionate about. ... In a climate like this, ... it's better to be loved by a smaller core audience than to try to be merely tolerated by a vanishing giant one."

Although pop may have been more sonically daring in 2008, some of what topped the charts didn't exactly define the year.

Huge hits such as Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl" and Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" were shrill and very derivative. The simple but captivating video for "Single Ladies," an obvious rewrite of Beyonce's earlier hit "Get Me Bodied," is largely responsible for making the cut such a smash.

The clip, which was shot in black and white, has received more than 18 million views on YouTube since October. In it, the superstar Texan appropriates flamboyant dance moves commonly seen in black gay clubs. As Madonna did with "Vogue" in the early '90s, Beyonce ushered into the mainstream elements of a marginalized culture. That was far more interesting than her hit song, which vaulted to No. 1 as the year came to a close.

During a year of almost overwhelming uncertainty, perhaps artists felt freer to blur the edges of musical styles. And the risks some took seem to have benefited a larger audience.

"While the music business is in a state of distress, the state of music, the art form, is at an all-time high," says Bruce Warren, senior producer of World Cafe, the popular nationally syndicated radio program, which features a wide spectrum of burgeoning and established artists.

Pop acts in 2008, who had long established their fame and fan base through major labels, took more control in the distribution of their music as independents. In the process, they set up viable business models in an industry desperate for new ways to reach consumers.

Late last year, the multi-platinum rock band Radiohead made news around the world when they gave away almost half a million digital copies of their latest album, the excellent In Rainbows. In the beginning of 2008, the band made the set available physically in stores. It sold more than 2 million copies, becoming one of the year's biggest sellers.

In 2008, acts whose category-defying music would have ordinarily been relegated to the margins of pop garnered a considerable amount of mainstream press. Most - Santogold, TV on the Radio and M.I.A. - were artists of color. Perhaps the election of Barack Obama, which challenged the country's attitude about race, helped facilitate this shift in pop.

Listeners and critics were receptive to black men and women who eschewed stereotypical R&B; melisma and other "urban" styles for punk, new wave and artful noise. Lil' Wayne's highly idiosyncratic, New Orleans-bred hip-hop surprisingly ruled pop in 2008, crossing racial and musical lines.

There's a muddled sense of direction as the country faces a spiraling economy and prepares to inaugurate its first African-American president. Pop in 2008 largely echoed that sentiment. The most progressive albums brimmed with unclassifiable sounds. A wide-eyed sense of adventure drove the music. Some releases were far-reaching but hopeful. Others brilliantly pushed the proverbial envelope but were dark and sobering.

Pop in 2008 was fertile, glittering with possibilities - and it's almost impossible to tell what will blossom from it in 2009.

best of 2008

In a year where musical lines blurred, here are 10 albums that stood out:

Erykah Badu, New Amerykah: Part One (4th World War): The Dallas native has challenged fans with each album. On this one, her uncompromising vision tosses soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, undecipherable sound bites and noise into a dark, bubbling sonic stew. The album deepens with repeated listens.

Q-Tip, The Renaissance: The Brooklyn rapper's last official album came out in 1999. But despite purgatorial label politics, the former member of A Tribe Called Quest lost none of the bright musicality that has made him a peerless presence in the increasingly lame world of mainstream hip-hop.

Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs : The former indie-rock group wasn't chasing an obvious pop sound on this, the band's second major-label debut. The novelistic lyrical tales are brilliantly underscored by loose, sometimes-cinematic arrangements.

Lizz Wright, The Orchard : Evoking the warmth and scenic beauty of her native Georgia, Wright's third album for Verve is movingly soulful, aglow with sensuous, blues-suffused gems.

Lalah Hathaway, Self Portrait: As mainstream R&B; becomes devoid of nuanced emotionality, the daughter of tragic soul legend Donny Hathaway adheres to the genre's hallmarks of yesterday but places them in a smart, almost-hypnotic contemporary context.

Cassandra Wilson, Loverly : Perhaps the most adventurous jazz vocalist working today, this Grammy winner imbues dusty standards with the evocative, loamy feel of the blues - an often wondrous and sometimes danceable listen.

TV on the Radio, Dear Science : This album more or less streamlines the funky, panoramic art-rock of its 2006 major-label debut, Return to Cookie Mountain. Open-ended and sonically loopy, the album doesn't settle neatly into any style.

Aimee Mann , @#%&*! Smilers : A return to simple songwriting after several exploratory projects, Mann's seventh album is defiantly cynical and subtly engaging throughout.

Labelle, Back to Now : After more than 30 years apart, the legendary funk-soul trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash returned to the studio. The reunion album is an inspired effort lyrically centering on resilience and spiritual uplift.

Ra Ra Riot, The Rhumb Line : Although the death of the band's original drummer loomed over the sessions for the group's debut, Ra Ra Riot compellingly juxtaposes melancholic and twee sentiments, producing one of the year's most memorable indie rock albums.

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