The year 2008 was a good one for recorded pop music, though not as great as it could or should have been, and most of the treasures came from unexpected corners. Lots of high-profile artists released middling albums this year, a couple of them so underwhelming they ended up registering among the worst — any other year, I’d probably just as soon forget all about them. Still other artists produced albums that were pleasing but unexceptional, including pretty much every one-name-only gay-lauded diva currently working: from Madonna to Kylie, Beyonce to Mariah, Cyndi to Britney. But alas, no Whitney.
But as good as the releases were from Solange Knowles, the Killers, Coldplay, to say nothing of GLBT artists like Bob Mould, Kaki King, Sia and k.d. lang, none of them were as notably good — and notably bad — as the following.
- Morel, Death of the Paperboy — Rich Morel broke out as a recording master in 2008. First, he produced the best tracks on Cyndi Lauper’s long-awaited return. Then, he released his third artist album, a two-disc package as alive as can be, alternately happy and sad, energetic and burdened. The result is a tour de force, a masterpiece.
- Robyn, Robyn — If there were any justice in the pop-music circus, the ringleader right now would be this sassy Swede. Robyn came out swaggering like a champion on her self-titled set, with one piece of pop perfection after another. Robyn is an exceptionally savvy songwriter, exhibiting a maturity and an impressive perceptiveness about the human condition.
- Goldfrapp, Seventh Tree — Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory may have strayed from the disco-fired glam-rock of their past, but the duo never sounded warmer or more engaged than here, on an album every bit as sensual as the duo intended it to be.
- Estelle, Shine — The British Estelle turned out an album that offers refreshingly original, eminently enjoyable music drawing from old-school R&B, even doo-wop, as well as hip-hop, neo-soul, dub and reggae.
- Emiliana Torrini, Me and Armini — Torrini grew up in Iceland, the island of musical eccentrics. Her voice sounds eerily like her fellow compatriot Bjork, though it’s more sweet than strange. And her gorgeous music, with sharp lyrics, draws inspiration from many other folk-inspired pop rockers.
- Amanda Palmer, Who Killed Amanda Palmer — The solo debut from the bisexual lead singer and keyboardist for cabaret punk duo Dresden Dolls is a little unwieldy, but it’s as bold, dramatic and quirky as the Dolls’ previous sets. The set shows more range, too, with songs that register as soft and intimate.
- Bimbo Jones, Harlem 1 Stop — Lee Dagger and Marc JB have been turning out average club remixes under the alias Bimbo Jones. This year, they teamed up with vocalist Katherine Ellis to record a debut album. And the shock is how magnificent it all is, without a single flaw as they hopscotch around dance’s various sub-genres, from techno to trance to house to chillout. They also offer poignant lyrics.
- Jay Brannan, Goddamned — The quintessential troubled artist, gay Jay Brannan deserves attention for this audacious and compelling debut album. His music is nearly as naked as he was in the film Shortbus: sparse, stripped down to acoustic guitar, occasional bass and occasional piano.
- Sheryl Crow, Detours — Sheryl Crow reunited with her original producer here, the strongest and best album of her career. The album features one irresistibly catchy, bluesy pop anthem after another, reflecting on events in her life and the world the past few years.
- The B-52’s, Funplex — The self-described ”World’s Greatest Party Band” picked up right where they left off some 16 years ago. In fact, the quartet with three gay members never sounded better. ”Keep doing what you’re doing, cause it’s what we like,” they rightly sing on ”Ultravoilet.”
Remixing machine: Morel
- Katy Perry, One of The Boys — Perry has a way with hooky melodies that you hum almost from the first listen. Maybe you can overlook her juvenile, offensive lyrics, but I can’t. A one-time contemporary Christian artist, she comes across like a taunting, insecure schoolyard bully with serious gender issues.
- Jason & deMarco, Safe — Timed for release with a documentary about them, We’re All Angels, this is a collection of songs from the gay couple’s five years of making too-sweet music together. It actually sounds like the soundtrack to a mockumentary about contemporary Christian music.
- LaBelle, Back to Now — After a 32-year hiatus, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash returned this year as recording act LaBelle. Back to Now starts off cute, but soon enough the trio starts crying tritely over the state of the world, and offering an overdone, predictable tribute to Rosa Parks — because the world needed another one.
- Lady Gaga, The Fame — Lady Gaga has some cute tricks up her sleeves, but they’re largely undermined by empty-headed, clichÃ©d lyrics consumed with money and fashion, style over substance. The self-anointed club diva offers little that’s new. Especially in this day and age, we’re tired of all the vanity and excess.
- Veronicas, Hook Me Up — The Australian twin-sister act hired several famous producers for their latest dance-pop album, with songs that hew too close to everything that’s come before. These twins are also trading on a little lesbian action to promote themselves — it certainly was a year for gay titillation.
- New Kids on the Block, The Block — The music was more modern and pleasant than you’d ever expect from this boy band’s first studio album in 14 years. But those excessively horny lyrics — egad! Does anyone really want to hear the adolescent thoughts and desires of nearly 40-year-old grown men.
- Pussycat Dolls, Doll Domination — There was actually nothing wrong per se with these sex kittens’ second album — except that it sounds just like the Dolls’ debut. They’re still relying on sex appeal and charm to draw our attention, not their smarts or sophistication, certainly no class.
- Leona Lewis, Spirit — Leona Lewis’ no-expense-spared debut is just too derivative and too predictable to inspire much cheering. This overproduced album fails at the one thing it needed to do most: fully harness Lewis’ talent, tying it to material as great as her voice.
- Jennifer Hudson, Jennifer Hudson — I wish Hudson all the best in recovering from the severe blow she was dealt this year, losing her mother and brother. My expectations are partly to blame for the disappointment here, on which too many high-profile producing cooks churned out a woefully uneven hodgepodge of sappy ballads, sassy hip-hop jams and lots of unobjectionable R&B filler. Where are the neo-soul gems.
- Janet Jackson, Discipline — Janet Jackson’s latest album was not nearly as bad as her previous offerings, but if only she had employed a little more, um, discipline. Then, she might have avoided the gross similes, mixed metaphors and childish, disturbing sentiments peppered throughout. Not to mention created a few more melodies that actually stick with you, like first single ”Feedback.” Will she ever recover.