The Music Club
I'm eager to add my own filthy thoughts to Ann's rundown of the year in pop sex. But first, honor—and shame—compel me to issue a correction to my previous post.
Friends, the songwriter and producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald is not, as I wrote,Swedish. Nor is he Norwegian. He's not even Danish or Icelandic. He is, in fact, a red-blooded American and a New York City boy to boot. I know this because Dr. Luke's own father e-mailed Slate and patiently stepped me through the biographical facts, beginning with his son's birth in Westerly, R.I., on Sept. 26, 1973. I've been laboring under this misapprehension for years, and can't decide whether I'm upset about having to reconfigure my Grand Unified Theory of American pop's Scandinavianization, or proud to claim this songwriting savant as a native son.
In any case, Dr. Luke has been all over the charts in 2009 and is poised to put a big stamp on 2010, thanks to his latest charge, Ke$ha. Ke$ha's big hit, "TiK ToK," has an irrefutable hook. Like Ann, I recognize that her strident party-girl postures are part of a whole post-post-post-feminist gestalt. But I've spent the last couple of days listening to an advance copy of Ke$ha's forthcoming album, and it repulses me. It takes a lot to put a Black Eyed Peas fan in touch with his inner Allan Bloom. It takes songs with titles like "Party at a Rich Dude's House."
Ke$ha's message, as best I can make out, is that drunken loutishness and sexual harassment aren't just for the fellas anymore. (She's the female BrokeNCYDE.) Unlike Ann, I don't hear "fruitful comedy" in Ke$ha. Not if comedy implies laughing, and laughing implies access to neural pleasure centers. And despite Ke$ha's monomaniacal focus on getting laid, I don't hear much sex, either—just grim, Machiavellian sexual politics. (Sample lyric: "Don't be a little bitch with your chit-chat/ Just show me where your dick's at.") I'm all for slutty vulgarity in pop music. But slutty vulgarity without pleasure? It's depressing. Worse, it's boring. Here's hoping MIA puts out that third album soon to remind everyone what sexy electro-fied girl power is all about.
Regarding Ann's dreamboat, Maxwell: I, too, liked BLACKsummers'night, especially because Maxwell finally stopped impersonating Marvin Gaye and became his own oddball—crafting ballads full of Byzantine digressions and jolting crescendos. But, Ann, wait: If Maxwell's croon makes you melt, why have you not succumbed to the muysuave stylings of Aventura's Anthony "Romeo" Santos? In June, the Bronx's "Kings of Bachata" released their best album, which promptly shot to the top of the Latin charts, where it's remained more or less ever since. (It's the top-selling Latin album of the year.) Aventura's success represents a high watermark for bachata, the Dominican Republican's slinkiest musical export. (I keep waiting for some hipster indie band to get wise and jack bachata's spiky guitar syncopations.) But Aventura's triumph is really a validation of their star, Santos, whose songwriting chops are the equal of anyone in any genre. As for his falsetto: ahhhhhhhh.
Santos wasn't the only Don Juan who racked up big numbers on my iTunes playlist this year. Have you guys noticed how quirky R & B lotharios are these days? While the divas hog center stage, the guys have unfurled their freak flags, embracing all kinds of stunts and novelties.
My favorite record was The-Dream's sonically wigged-out Love vs. Money. But the big story here isn't about beats. It's about jokes. The-Dream and others are following R. Kelly's lead—reveling in the sexiness in sex farce. I'm crazy about "Sweat It Out," The-Dream's song about hot lovin' and ruined coiffure. ("Girl, call Latisha, your beautician/ 'Cause your hair is gon' need fixin'.") Then there's Trey Songz, one of R & B's most underrated vocalists, whose album Ready is a riot throughout, from the sexting anthem "LOL :-)" to the Casanova boast to end them all, "I Invented Sex."
When the choirboys and faerie princesses of indiedom sing about sex, they're a bit more circumspect than Trey Songz. And more bookish. I got a kick out of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's "Young Adult Friction," the story of a grope in the library stacks. "We came/ They went/ Our bodies spent/ Among the dust and microfiche," sings Kip Berman, who I'm pretty sure didn't invent sex. I actually really enjoyed the Pains' debut, which airlifted Belle & Sebastian's twee-pop from Glasgow, Scotland, to New York.
Carl's right, though: Much of the left-of-center action in 2009 had an audible African tinge. I'm still wrapping my mind around the fearsome Dirty Projectors. But I'm onboard with Buraka Som Sistema, Lisbon-based specialists in the propulsive Angolan electronic dance music called kuduro. Then there's the great Malian duo Amadou and Mariam, whose latest album, produced by two Frenchmen and an English rock star, beautifully blends West African and Western European sounds and sensibilities.
Speaking of Amadou and Mariam, let's not forget their erstwhile collaborator Manu Chao. Chao's sample-happy, polylingual, Latin-reggae hobo ballads set the template for a lot of the borderless music that is bubbling to the surface these days. And Chao managed to sell millions of records while establishing himself as the decade's most ass-kicking activist troubadour. In 2009, Chao was up to his usual menschy tricks, releasing Radio La Colifata, a sound collage collaboration with psychiatric patients who run a radio station out of their residential hospital in Barcelona. (You can download the enchanting results here.)
So, yes, here's to dirty cosmopolitanism. But you know what else I need in my iPod? Sturdy provincialism. One of the things I love about country music is its rootedness, those stories and voices tethered to time and place—that solidity that's often absent in the music of scene-making nomads. Of course, in 2009, Nashville's provincials are pretty damn cosmopolitan. I'm not just talking about Taylor Swift, who's taught country and teenpop to get along, or Brad Paisley, with his thinly masked Obama love. I'm talking about guys like Eric Church. Church's 2006 debut Sinners Like Me was an excellent, but conventional, neo-outlaw album, with lots of revved-up songs about good ol' boys drinking beer. He could have repeated the trick on the new record, Carolina, but, instead, he stretched. The results include all kinds of unexpected production flourishes; a title track that stakes out a middle ground between an old-fashioned Dixie "home song" and U2; and, in the current single "Hell on the Heart," a 2:45-long blast of pure radio-pop that Church has called his attempt to write like Maroon 5.
It's time to pack it in, and there's so much I never got to. I didn't get to speak up for Mika: a proudly gay pop star with freaky upper-register vocal range who, unlike Ann's beloved Glambert, actually makes fantastic records. I didn't get to rave about Ghostface's hilarious and touching foray into baby-makin' music, Ghostdini: The Wizard of Poetry in Emerald City. I never even got to my anti-Lady Gaga rant.
There's always next decade.
Jody Rosen is Slate's music critic. He can be reached at email@example.com.