When the going gets tough, the tough go dancing.
And in the economic pit of despair that was 2010, that adage certainly held true, as one escapist dance anthem after another topped the charts and Americans looked for anything that would help them forget their job searches and mounting bills for three minutes or so.
It's times like these that give rise to the teenage dreams and melting Popsicles of Katy Perry and the whacked-out fantasy art project that is Lady Gaga and her dress made of meat. Who wants to talk about their troubles when they can watch Ga and Beyonce dress up as superheroes and sing about leaving their heads and their hearts on the dance floor?
It's enough to make you want to say, "Oh oh oh-oh, oh-oh oh oh oh" like Usher. Or "Oh ooh-oh-ooh oh oh oh ooh-oh-ooh oh oh" like Ke$ha.
Sure, there was some seriousness in music this year, too. But it didn't usually come from real life infiltrating musicians' work — though Dix Hills' Ryan Star did take the unusual step of turning his video for "Breathe" into a way to help the unemployed. It was more of a reality-show, tabloid-fodder seriousness — the kind people immerse themselves in to prove that their lives aren't quite as messed up as the world Kanye West outlines in "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" or the issues Eminem survives in "Recovery" and pulls Rihanna into for one of the year's biggest singles, "Love the Way You Lie."
Serious? Maybe. But not all that deep.
Even Taylor Swift's travails in "Speak Now" are more celeb-specific than the more universal problems that filled her previous albums. That said, her takedown of John Mayer, who had his own very public issues this year, was so on-target in both sound and form that Swift has made that transition effortlessly.
Her artistic transition hasn't hurt her sales, either. Swift's stunning opening week in October — when she sold 1.05 million copies of "Speak Now," the biggest sales week since 50 Cent's "The Massacre" sold 1.15 million in 2005 — proved that massive mainstream hits are still possible, no matter how much overall album sales erode. It's simply a matter of connection — which is also at the heart of the year's other success stories, the cast of "Glee," which dominates the singles chart each week the show is in session, and Susan Boyle, who started 2010 at the top of the album charts with "I Dreamed a Dream" and closes the year at the top with "The Gift."
Connection also brings surprising niche No. 1's — indie-rockers Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend, hard rocking Disturbed and Avenged Sevenfold, and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles all topped the charts — feats made possible in part by weakening album sales, which are about 13 percent below last year's already-shaky results.
Maybe industry execs should take up dancing, too.
In Top 10 albums, some surprises:
Top 10 Albums
1. Kanye West, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" (Roc-a-Fella) — It takes an egomaniacal narcissist to conceive of an album this grand, one that doesn't just strive to be the best in hip-hop, with the stunning "Monster" and "So Appalled," but also stretches its boundaries with the prog-rock-sampling "Power" and the nine-minutes-plus epic "Runaway." Luckily, West fits that bill.
2. The National, "High Violet" (4AD) — The indie rockers show the power of subtlety. Singer Matt Berninger is low-key with his complaints and rallying cries, while the rest of the band surrounds him with all sorts of acoustic and orchestral loveliness, from the U2-influenced "Lemonworld" to the infectious "Bloodbuzz Ohio."
3. My Chemical Romance, "Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys" (Reprise) — The comic-book collision of revved-up glam and a superhero story cycle is irresistible, even when the band embraces its dance-pop side ("Planetary") and its love of U2-ish drama ("Sing"). And nothing can kill the joy of the careening rock thrill ride "Na Na Na" or the stomping "Vampire Money."
4. Gaslight Anthem, "American Slang" (Side One Dummy) — Brian Fallon's Springsteen-ish growl perfectly embodies the struggles of the of the working man, especially in the inspirational "Bring It On," with its "Born to Run" heroics and Ronettes sweetness. But it's the punishing drums of "Orphans," paired with Replacements-inspired guitars, that propels Gaslight Anthem to the next level of its promising career.
5. Black Keys, "Brothers" (Nonesuch) — The Black Keys bets its well-deserved blues-rock reputation on the ambitious, wide-ranging "Brothers" and wins big, as the Danger Mouse-produced "Tighten Up" and Dan Auerbach's soulful falsetto on "Everlasting Light" introduces the Akron, Ohio, duo to all sorts of adoring new fans.
6. LCD Soundsystem, "This Is Happening" (DFA) — So much club style, so much elegant synth-pop, so many great lines that it becomes almost impossible to escape James Murphy's groovy little world once he sucks you in. You may start with the catchy "Drunk Girls" or the rebellious "You Wanted a Hit" or the desperate "I Can Change," but "This Is Happening" is so good, you'll likely stick around for the duration.
7. Tracey Thorn, "Love and Its Opposite" (Merge) — It all sounds so fragile — the restrained piano, brush-stroke percussion and the spare, poignant stories about grown-ups that Tracey Thorn tells. But its core is immovable, the pure beauty of her voice and her desire to make the wrenching "Oh, the Divorces," the bittersweet return to dating in "Singles Bar" or the wedding-phobia of "Long White Dress" as true to real-life as possible.
8. Rihanna, "Loud" (Def Jam) — Rihanna gets her groove back with a regained desire to have a good time and a string of irresistible dance hits to provide the soundtrack. From the Europop of "Only Girl (in the World)" to the laid-back, island-tinged "What's My Name," it's a party and even when she slows things down for "Cheers (Drink to That)," she's still, you know, drinking.
9. Ryan Star, "11:59" (Atlantic) — As the title suggests, everything on "11:59" feels like it's on the edge of a major shift. Star maintains that edge on up-tempo songs like "Start a Fire," as well as his poignant, big rock ballads "Breathe" and "Last Train Home."
10. Taylor Swift, "Speak Now" (Big Machine) — Swift manages to tell stories that are both personal and universal, while stretching a bit with her country-pop arrangements to suit her better. "Mean" and "Mine" aren't just great songs for a 21-year-old, they're great songs, period.
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