To be honest, I thought my susceptibility to commercial music had faded long ago. I could "appreciate" it, sure. But get caught up in its sticky web of glib hooks and precisely calibrated sound production like some lovestruck schoolboy? Forget it. Mainstream pop was just entertainment stuff that could and should be dispassionately analyzed like any other cultural trend.
Boy, was I wrong. In 2007, individual tracks aimed squarely at the mainstream stuck in my head for months on end. Arcade Fire? The National? Common? Gogol Bordello? Santogold's goofy-groovy take on dub? Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' unexpectedly potent collaboration? Hey, I appreciated them all. But they're not what creamed my burn. Nope, in 2007, if it was unabashedly commercial, it was in the CD drive.
Some examples. Although I still can't understand why Justin Timberlake hasn't been raked over the coals for lifting Michael Jackson's act pretty much wholesale, "Give It to Me," his collaboration with the omnipresent Timbaland and Nellie Furtado (who did a lot of the heavy lifting), has a swagger about it that's impossible to resist. And that simple drum sample Timbaland employs in the intro? Brilliant stuff.
Akon's lilting, furiously fresh reggae hybrid "Don't Matter" is even catchier. Elsewhere on his triple-platinum release Konvicted, the Senegalese American singer is as bad as you wanna be (see "Smack That" and "Do You Wanna Fuck?"), but on this boyish defense of forbidden love he's sweeter than cotton candy. Mmm, mmm, good.
Then there's Feist's kindergarten-cute reworking of Sally Seltmann's "1234." Every time I hear this pop bon-bon, I think of pink ribbons and unicorns and little kids playing hopscotch. It's the essence of sonic escapism, and it's little wonder that Apple used the track to add some bounce to their TV commercials for the iPod Nano.
Having long been a sucker for anything by Daft Punk, I was also overjoyed to hear how Kanye West cut up portions of their electronic/house hit "Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger" on his insistent Nietzschean love cry "Stronger." Sampling and looping may be old hat at this point, but when employed with care, they're still two of the most potent weapons the contemporary pop star has in his arsenal.
Now for the ringer. Despite a recent Grammy nomination, indefatigable soul survivor Bettye LaVette probably won't be seeing action on the singles chart for the rest of her career. But she should. Especially for an urgent piece of self-affirmation like "Before the Money Came (the Battle of Bettye LaVette)." With help from Drive-by Truckers' Patterson Hood, this swampy, Muscle Shoals-style soul-rock track finds the pocket early and never slips out. Older artists rarely get a shake in clubland, but if anyone deserves some love out on the floor in 2008, LaVette does.
The coup de grace in 2007? Amy Winehouse's thoroughly louche junkie anthem "Rehab," of course. Much of the time, this tattooed train wreck's hipster appropriations of Dinah Washington leave me cold. But on "Rehab" the beehive-topped Brit takes heroin chic to such an extreme that conventional critical assessments of things like talent and taste and studio production are really beside the point. Winehouse's casual, doped-up embrace of the death wish is so audacious, you can't turn away. For better or worse, millions of us will be humming her outrageous hook long after she either a) cleans up her act or b) ends up in a morgue somewhere with a dirty needle hanging out her arm.
Of course, the year in music was about more than some addictive tracks. According to some, the most important events in the aural parade had to do with the way even established talents turned their back on old-school media conglomerates. The most crunching blow to the biz came in October, when contract-less British rock esthetes Radiohead decided to make the initial release of their new album, In Rainbows, an Internet-only affair. Worse still, they called the music industry's formulation of suggested retail prices into question by inviting fans to pay them whatever they felt the download of the disc was worth. Radiohead are releasing an In Rainbows CD set in January, but that hardly matters. The cows are well out of the barn, and even the handful of folks who are still willing to pay $19.99 for an album have gotten the message: Music pricing is and always has been totally arbitrary.
The other key business move of the year was Madonna's decision to leave Warner Brothers to sign a $120 million touring, merchandising and album deal with the concert promoter Live Nation. With CD sales suffering another year of double-digit declines and the concert business around the country also flagging (Billboard reported that concert attendance was down a startling 19% over the past 12 months), the ambitious blond one surely won't be the last proven seller to search for guaranteed dollars outside of the old biz.
The news this week that Warner Brothers has signed an agreement with Amazon that does away with copy-protection software on digital downloads suggests that even the most resistant old-school companies are resigned to the fact that a whole lotta people just won't pay for their music anymore.
What's on the agenda for 2008? I couldn't say for certain, but I expect lots of rocky economics and a bunch of quality commercial music. If that's not a weird - and in many ways wonderful - contradiction, I don't know what is.