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Best Of 2009

December 20, 2009

Remembering Michael Jackson. It would be shocking and immoral to call Michael Jackson's death a good thing, but its aftermath has been most positive for pop. Critics reassessing MJ's art and life produced much of the year's best music writing; young artists stepped up their game, wrestling with his legacy. We all confronted deep matters of race, fame, family and art as we mourned together, immersed in one of the greatest musical catalogs of all time.

Gaga-Glam. One turned being a pop tart into bloody and increasingly deep performance art. The other turned "American Idol" on its ear just by being himself (and singing so well.) Lady Gaga and Adam Lambert: two forces for serious liberation.

The Beatles reissues. Man, that was a good band.

Maxwell, "BLACKsummers' Night." Few artists make music as attuned to the subtle dynamics of love and sex as this soulful tone poet. That this album was a hit proves that, even in the age of the Auto-Tuned booty call, some listeners still have taste.

The female voice. Plain talkers, great singers, big dreamers: Brandi Carlile, Chrisette Michele, Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, Neko Case.

K'Naan, "Troubadour." With help from Damian Marley and Metallica's Kirk Hammett, this Somali-born, Toronto-based hip-hop bard took the streets global and made one of the year's sweetest, most powerful albums.

Hey, Nashville! "Welcome to the Future." Taylor Swift's amazing year and Darius Rucker’s crossover success were visible signs that country music is changing. The most heartening hit from Brad Paisley’s great album “American Saturday Night” put that new, open feeling into words.

Bringing it live. Leonard Cohen, still a powerhouse at 75. The Avett Brothers, leading the best sing-alongs I heard this year. And Pearl Jam, who've evolved into the most joyful band in rock.

Dirty Projectors, "Bitte Orca." This was a good year for weird art rock, with torch ballads from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Antony and the Johnsons and Animal Collective's plunge into semi-accessibility. This Brooklyn ensemble made the most startling and enduringly intriguing album of the bunch.

Rihanna, "Rated R." Staying strong in the face of partner abuse and tabloid torture, a frequently underestimated, admirable young woman did what so few stars can: She responded to a personal crisis, not on "The View" or in the gossip rags, but through her art. And what a graceful, complicated response it is.

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