Switch on your radio right now. Who's playing? It's likely to be one of four people, or various combinations thereof: neosoul princess Alicia Keys; rapper-producer and 11-time Grammy nominee Kanye West; Lil Jon, Atlanta's irrepressible "King of Crunk"; and the gleaming torso also known as Usher, whose 8-million-copy-selling Confessions was the year's biggest, and arguably best, pop album. This foursome's Billboard dominance was nearly complete and often incestuous—which made 2004 a year of unusual chart-topper synergy. West released his charmingly ragtag debut CD, The College Dropout, and produced a bunch of other hits, among them Keys' lovely chart-topper "You Don't Know My Name." Lil Jon's seemingly unlimited supply of squalling synthesizer lines powered several huge hits, including the year's biggest, Usher's "Yeah!" And Usher and Keys got together to sing an icky little love duet, "My Boo," which was the worst thing either released all year but promptly gusted to the top of the charts and lodged there for six weeks. Indeed, Usher occupied the No. 1 spot on the singles chart for more than half of 2004 (a record), and he deserved to. For years, he had been a tacky R & B lothario—Smoove B incarnate—but on Confessions, he dropped the "I'm-a freak you" come-ons and explored the dark side of Casanovadom. The result was a thrilling, wrenching album about infidelity. Gossips speculated that Confessions was inspired by Usher's breakup with his famous girlfriend, Rozonda "Chili" Thomas of the group TLC, but his dazzling dance moves, and octave-hurtling singing in songs like "Burn," seemed intended to settle a different score. Accepting his umpteenth award at this year's MTV Video Music Awards, he asked: ''I guess there really ain't no competition between me and Justin no more, right?''
In 2004, Norah Jones extended her dominion over the brunch hour with a second consecutive easygoing blockbuster, Feels Like Home. But those who found Jones too oppressively decorous—who prefer a slightly quirkier brand of chanteuse—found plenty of alternatives, often from young, improbably cosmopolitan female vocalists: There was Not Going Anywhere, the collection of folk-pop reveries by the Dutch-Israeli-Parisian Keren Ann—songs as pretty as anything by Jones and far more whimsical and mysterious; a terrific debut from A Girl Called Eddy, a New Yorker with a ringing Brill Building sound and a Dusty Springfield-like streak of bruised romanticism; and The Living Road, Spanish-, French-, and English-language songs with Mexican folk underpinnings by Lhasa, a former circus performer who is one of the world's great young torch singers. Perhaps the best was Home, a gorgeous CD by the wife-husband team of Chiara Mastroianni, the singer-actress daughter of Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, and Benjamin Biolay, French pop's reigning auteur-whiz kid and a onetime Keren Ann collaborator. Mastroianni has perfected the peculiarly French art of whisper-singing, and on Home she does so—sexily and creepily—over a succession of pristinely arranged pop tunes. Few Anglophones will be able to resist the charm of Mastroianni's Euro-fabulous accent when, in one of the album's enigmatic forays into English-language song, she coos the words "Beak dock steering admee" ("Big dog staring at me").
Kids today. All they ever do is play video games, and talk back to their parents, and … sing Gershwin tunes. This year saw an odd boom in premature fogyism, with young singers embracing a range of vintage styles, from standards (Jamie Cullum) to old-timey spirituals (Ollabelle) to classic soul (Joss Stone). And then, of course, there was Closer,the quadruple-platinum, pop-classical opus by the allegedly human Josh Groban, most recently heard warbling "O Holy Night" in your local department store aisle. There's something vaguely dispiriting about the spectacle of a teenager convulsed by nostalgia; it's one thing for Blossom Dearie to croon a world-weary "Someone To Watch Over Me"—but 14-year-old Renee Olstead? Shouldn't she be dropping ecstasy and making out? Thank heaven for Nellie McKay, the singer-songwriter-pianist whose cranky, clever Get Away From Me mixed some Missy Elliot in with the Kurt Weill and Peggy Lee to produce a thoroughly modern kind of cabaret-pop.
The year's most acclaimed (and most unexpected) album was Loretta Lynn's Van Lear Rose, the result of a few months that Lynn spent holed up in a recording studio with the White Stripes' Jack White. This was a surefire gimmick—what magazine editor could resist the story of the septuagenarian honky-tonk legend teaming up with the sallow prince of the garage-rock revival? But as it turned out, Lynn and White were not alone: As the year wore on, more pop-music grand dames strode back onto the scene, squired by young rock turks. Nancy Sinatra recorded an album of collaborations with Morrissey, Pete Yorn, Jon Spencer, and other indie rock stars; Marianne Faithfull joined forces with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave, and Damon Albarn of Blur; and Jane Birkin, Serge Gainsbourg's onetime muse, released Rendez-Vous,a collection of duets with the likes of Manu Chao, Portishead's Beth Gibbons, and Placebo's Brian Molko. These records pioneered a wonderfully reciprocal kind of modern musical relationship. Young admirer-collaborators rejigger older icons' songs for a new audience; in return, they get a hip accessory that no style-conscious rocker could possibly resist: a pop fairy godmother. The biggest surprise of the lot was Nancy Sinatra, in which the 62-year-old singer, who for years has been recycling her mid-'60s go-go anthems, was finally given the gift of age-appropriate music. Few moments in 2004 were more delicious than "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time," a sauntering ballad written by Jarvis Cocker of the English band Pulp, in which Sinatra dispenses grizzled advice to a young woman: "The years flash by in an instant/ And you wonder what he's waiting for/ Then some skinny bitch walks by in some hot pants/ And he's running out the door."
In recent years, hip-hop had been sliding into what seemed like a post-MC phase—an era of ingenious beat-makers and nitwit rappers. But in 2004, just when Jay-Z's "retirement" seemed to signal a definitive shift, rap's wordsmiths struck back. From the traditional heartland of literate hip-hop, New York's outer boroughs, came excellent albums (and a profusion of bootleg releases) by some of rap's quickest wits: Nas, Jadakiss, Ghostface. Even better were CDs by two rising stars from Brooklyn, Cam'ron's Purple Haze and Fabolous' Real Talk. Cam'ron started out as a rather pedestrian rapper, but he's taken a great leap forward by embracing nonsense. "Now the dashboard is wooden from the hard-tangled grammar/ Interior inferior star-spangled banner/ Car game bananas," he raps in "Down and Out." Hip-hop has had its share of clown princes, but few have spouted gibberish with such deadpan menace. It's a new style: gangsta jabberwocky. The slick-talking Fabolous' approach is far more straightforward. In the hit "Breathe," he raps: "I address the haters and the underestimators/ And ride up on 'em like they escalators/ They shook up and hooked up to respirators." Flip randomly to any page of the Real Talk lyric booklet, and you'll find this kind of meat-and-potatoes stuff—thickets of funny rhymes that would sound great delivered over the most rudimentary beat. Producers continued to push hip-hop into ever more visionary sonic territory in 2004, but Fabolous and company offered reminders of the brute power of the rapper's classical arsenal: boasts, taunts, and punch lines that land with a bang every couple of bars.
Nashville Gets Ill
Blue-state listeners like their country music with an alt- in the front: the kind of demure, NPR-sanctioned twang that sounds comfortingly unlike anything that would appeal to a roomful of actual Bush voters. But this year, big lumbering Nashville pop could not be denied. The songs on Gretchen Wilson's Here for the Party (including the hit "Redneck Woman") proudly proclaim allegiance to Dixie, but rock fans could appreciate the way they surge through their time-tested chord changes. The co-writers of Wilson's best songs are John Rich and Big Kenny, aka Big & Rich, whose gonzo debut album, Horse of a Different Color,blends country, arena rock, comedy, and even snatches of rap into delirious party music. Their lyrics ("I'm singin'/ And bling-blingin,' " they proclaim in one song; "Hey ya!" goes the chorus to another) had critics talking about "hick-hop," but, again, it was the music—Big & Rich's bizarre high-low vocal harmonies and their Texas-sized kick-drum sound—that seemed custom-made to vanquish the provincialism of both Nashville itself and points north. By year's end, Big & Rich's see-no-genre-boundaries spirit had migrated to the pop charts: This week's No. 7 single is "Over and Over," the duet in which Nelly (in his do-rag) and Tim McGraw (in a 10-gallon Stetson) moon over the girl that got away. The song is almost certainly a stunt cooked up by a clever record executive, but it sounds great on a car radio turned up loud. Here's hoping 2005 brings more such arranged marriages.