It's hard to write about the year in music without referring to the continuing decline of CD sales, which took another big hit, at least in part because there wasn't anything that great that came out. When an album did sell, labels milked it for all it was worth. Lady Gaga's The Fame soared up the charts thanks to its ubiquitous singles "Just Dance" and "Poker Face" (and if you haven't seen Christopher Walken's hilarious, straight-faced rendition of "Poker Face," head to YouTube now). As a result, Interscope recently re-issued the album, adding eight extra cuts and putting out a deluxe version that — and we're not making this up — includes a lock of Lady Gaga's hair.
While teen sensation Taylor Swift and Britain's Got Talent star Susan Boyle duked it out for the top album sales spot, veteran acts like U2 and Bruce Springsteen made impressive showings. U2's No Line on the Horizon was an assured, confident album and so was Springsteen's Working on a Dream. Likewise, Pearl Jam returned to form with the hard-rocking Backspacer, their first studio album in three years.
Rappers Eminem and Jay-Z ruled a hip-hop world with albums that showed their maturity. 50 Cent fell off the map with an album that showed his lack of maturity. Little mainstream hip-hop really struck a chord. Most of it was the kind of Auto-Tuned dreck that Jay-Z dissed on his appropriately titled "DOA (Death of Auto-Tune)." Clevelander Kid Cudi, however, was a bright spot. His Man on the Moon: End of the Day was one of the year's best hip-hop albums. Cudi even talked up Cleveland extensively as he promoted the disc around the world.
While few indie bands had major breakthroughs, there were a few things to like. Indie rockers Animal Collective garnered plenty of positive press for Merriweather Post Pavilion, and French hipsters Phoenix got giddy with it on the jittery Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, a nice mix of electronica and rock that one-upped Animal Collective. Anchored by the drumming of White Stripes/Raconteurs frontman Jack White, the Dead Weather's Horehound was one of the year's better garage-rock records, and Brit bands the Cribs and the Arctic Monkeys put out solid albums with Ignore the Ignorant and Humbug, respectively.
The Beatles reissue campaign was almost enough to make you want to start buying CDs again. Remastered by some of the world's top engineers, the band's catalog sounded sharp. The group continued to refuse to let iTunes compress its music to crappy audio files and even went so far as to release a USB drive with its re-mastered music available for download as superior FLAC files.
Reissue campaigns for the back catalogs of Radiohead and Neil Young caused less fanfare than the Beatles. Still, the remastered versions of these artists' now-classic albums lent hope that hardcore fans still appreciate the audio quality of a remastered CD or vinyl reissue.
Sadly, 2009 will likely be remembered most for the passing of Michael Jackson. The King of Pop's albums sold up a storm, and This is It, the fragmented film that attempted to piece together what would have been his London farewell concerts, yielded a soundtrack that went straight up the charts.
Given that we've just completed a decade that saw N'Sync's forgettable No Strings Attached rack up the most sales for the 10-year period, here's hoping the next decade offers something more substantial, even if it has to be downloaded to be heard.