The Music Club

The Year in Musical Sex
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 15 2009 4:37 PM

The Music Club

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All hail the Dirty Cosmopolitans! Carl, I love your analysis of the new Fourth World music and agree that it's a hot spot in pop's future. I'd add your Somali-born immigrant Toronto homeboy K'Naan to your list; his "Troubadour" made my official Top 10.

But I'm going to use my latest Music Club chip to talk about that other kind of dirrty. Pop's Year in Sex brought us robotic threesomes, bilingual come-ons, and one guileless double entendre that united a former touring member of 2 Live Crew with one of the most flamboyant drag queens of 1980s New Wave (in sample heaven, anyway). Flo Rida's Dr. Luke-produced "Right Round," with its schoolyard-level wordplay, Nordic bleeps and beats, and dancehall-in-the-parking lot bounce, demonstrates the kind of fission Carl's identifying, on the crassest, most commercial level. It's a dumb song—but I'm heartened by the fact that its high-school hookup sensuality includes a female voice expressing pleasure, too.

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The voice belongs to Kesha, the latest self-styled girl-gone-wild to smear her lip gloss all over the subject of female empowerment in this (note my quotes) "post-feminist" age. Kesha is the anti-Taylor Swift, applying sass and a sense of self-determination to the bad girl stereotype, just as country-pop's prime mover does to the princess role. As a lifelong women's libber, I throw up my hands at the way today's happy pop tarts (Katy Perry, you, too) turn oppressive gender roles into fruitful comedy. But I have to admit that this moment in American sexual history is so messy and confusing, a belly laugh seems like as good a response as any.

Adam Lambert.
Adam Lambert 

Talk about transitional. As the battle over gay marriage kept raging in states across the country, that family show American Idol somehow made room for the black-haired boy who made me happiest about pop this year: Adam Lambert, a singer gifted enough (and a personality sweet and natural enough) to earn the adoration of much of Middle America, even if he couldn't wrest the top prize from his muscle-bound youth-minister pal Kris Allen.

Some criticized Lambert for not confirming his homosexuality until after the Idol season ended; many found fault with his debut album, which like nearly every Idol debut is a patched-together affair that doesn't indicate what will happen the next time Glambert brings that voice into the studio. Me, I'm staying loyal, not only because I think Lambert ably embodies the comfortably fluid sexuality of today's healthiest kids, but because of that voice, a force for change in itself, its androgynous beauty offering new possibilities for rock and dance music, and whatever else he's going to try next.

Lambert was not the only potent androgyne to make music I loved this year. Antony and the Johnsons began 2009 with The Crying Light, a gorgeous new album that connected the fragile creatures of the transgender community to the ones threatened by our environmental carelessness. Brandi Carlisle, who needs to be discovered by more listeners, took her classic femme-rock to new heights on Give Up the Ghost, which has her channeling Roy Orbison and a singer who, she reminded me in an interview, always sang loud: Patsy Cline. Beth Ditto and the Gossip matured from a great punk band to an epic dance band with Music for Men. And Grizzly Bear, though not my favorite, continued to enchant many with its unearthly choral mix.

Sex is not, thank goodness, wholly ethereal, even in the age of sexting and virtual-reality porn. Which brings me to the subject of Maxwell. The long-missed soul man made a stunning comeback with BLACKSummer's Night, an album that perfectly expressed the feeling of desire as it overtakes a lover from the bubble-bath kissed toes to the overactive brain. Many young Casanovas are treading where Maxwell scatters his rose petals, from Jody's favorite The-Dream to the ever more wonderful Ne-Yo, who's just put out another excellent cotton-candy ballad (and become part of Disney history) with "Never Knew I Needed," the love theme from The Princess and the Frog. But I'm sorry—right now, nobody rivals the artiste from Fort Greene when it comes to taking the ladies' breath away.

Except maybe those nice ministers' sons from Nashville. Kings of Leon didn't release an album this year, but the band's slow ascent to chart dominance was one of the most critically slept-on success stories of the decade's end. You could lump in the Followill brothers with the other he-peacocks of active rock, like Nickelback and Daughtry, but I think they're up to something different. Their singles, like this year's "Notion" and the still unavoidable "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody," are slow burners full of bedroom moans and shimmery cymbal crashes; to me, they suggest a new kind of straight masculinity, one working past repression to fully own desire. Hmm, kind of like Maxwell. That's a pretty nice sound.

A girl can hope …
Ann

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.

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