A mellow year, indeed. The pop music of 1950 had an essentially backward-looking feel, with Big Band stars like Sammy Kaye and Guy Lombardo scoring hugely on the charts. Also faring well was Bing Crosby – and Der Bingle had been America’s star since the early 1930s.
A big year for dulcet-toned crooner Nat King Cole, a rare black presence on the radio who was so butterscotch smooth he offended no one. Also thrilling audiences were the easy-listening jazz-pop sounds of Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney.
Hit singer Johnnie Ray was so over-the-top histrionic that he’s sometimes called the first rock singer, but his style owed more to tuneful R&B than rock – some call him the “missing link” between Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Ray could (and would) sob onstage to great effect, and his big hits this year were “Cry” and “The Little White Cloud That Cried.”
A great year for the sanguine stylings of vocalist Eddie Fisher, whom Coca-Cola offered the unheard of sum of $1 milion to be its corporate spokesman. Beloved by teens and older folks alike, the pleasant-voiced tenor scored thirty-five songs in the Top 40 between 1950 and 1956. Along the way he would have five wives, including Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds. Also doing well this year were the immortal Les Paul, the guitarist and recording studio innovator (one of the first to use multi-track recording), and the demure sex kitten singer Theresa Brewer.
Ah, to be an American in 1954. Throw a steak on the grill, stir a chilled Martini, and enjoy endless white-picket-fence prosperity. On the Hi-Fi this year were Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and – for the youngsters – the Crew Cuts, trilling “Sh-Boom.” Skies were blue and worries were none. (Except, of course, for the rows of A-bombs the Ruskies had aimed at us, the fact that blacks couldn’t vote and women were hardly allowed in the workplace – but if you don’t talk about it, it’s not a problem, right?
Proving that the mid 1950s was a simpler time, scoring a big hit this year was “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” (“Davy, Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier”). Also selling truckloads of singles were the sleep-inducing piano styling of Roger Williams, and the whole milk vocals of Pat Boone. But wait – what’s that clattering racket? Oh, goodness, the teenagers are buying records! The proof: the phenomenal success of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets.
This would be one of the great transition years in American pop music. Dominating the charts was the untamed hellfire shout-outs of Elvis Presley, not to mention the R&B-flavored pop of Fats Domino and the Platters. But plenty of the old guard chaperoned these young rebels: Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Perry Como, and the always-pleasant Ames Brothers. Still, 1956 was the year that rock ‘n’ roll stood up and demanded to take over the pop charts.
On one side, the mellow-voiced status quo heavyweights: Perry Como, Pat Boone, and Johnny Mathis. On the other, the fresh-voiced gate crashers: Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Sam Cooke, and Chuck Berry. Who’s going to win?
A new species emerged this year, as exemplified by the finger-snappin’ Bobby Darin and the highly emotive Connie Francis: fresh young singers who could appeal to a younger audience without offending Mom and Dad. It was almost as if record execs had performed a lab experiment, merging old crooners with new kids on the block for maximum profit. But the real rockers would have none of it, and Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly kept pushing the rollicking new sound.
With Elvis in the Army, the teen sound grew all mushy, as a well-coifed set of teen idols took over America. The younger set was thrilled and lulled by the saccharine sounds of Bobby Darin, Frankie Avalon, and Paul Anka. That raucous rock noise, it appeared, had been just a passing fad. But artists like Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson revealed that something new was still on the way.
When Elvis reentered the pop scene after his army stint, he was a tamer presence, in keeping with the easy-listening sound of the early ’60s. Popular music was moving forward cautiously. However, a major change was taking place: the older artists were losing ground. Despite a few hits by mature balladeers like Andy Williams and Steve Lawrence, music aimed at a younger audience dominated the charts like never before.
But the youth sound in 1961 didn’t stray too far from its adult forebears. Bobby Vee, Connie Francis, the Shirelles – they performed with a slightly different beat than that of oldsters like Eddie Fisher, but they were kept on a pretty short leash.
One step forward, one step back, as early ’60s pop stayed mired in a boppin’ sound – teen idols like Bobby Vinton, Dion, and Gene Vincent poured the syrup of puppy love. Yet a new sound was brewing: folk music. Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio were recording with a fresh feel, which aspired to a greater social consciousness than bubblegum pop.
Sugar-sweet pop-rock continued to be the direction. However, the Beach Boys were playing with a faster beat, folk music was gaining steam, and Little Stevie Wonder found his groove. A new mood was in the air; was something coming?
Pow! The Beatles landed in America, and pop music (and the world) would never be the same. The group’s February 1964 American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show – a national event watched by 73 million people – sparked a new sound in an entire generation of musicians.
The British Invasion conquered America, as the Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, and Petula Clark took chart positions, and Beatlemania grew to epic proportions. Barry McGuire growled “Eve Of Destruction,” foreshadowing the socially conscious rock that would soon arrive.
The presence on the hit charts of “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” a stiffly-sung paean to military specialists in Vietnam, pointed to the bitter divisions of opinion about a war the public was beginning to turn against. Meanwhile, the Troggs got groovy with “Wild Thing,” the Stones scored with “Paint It Black,” and the success of the Supremes showed Motown to be a vital force.
Plenty of this year’s new sounds were happy and light, like Sonny & Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer.” But plenty of its new sounds took on an acid edge, like Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic “White Rabbit” and the The Doors’ hallucinogenic “Light My Fire.”
By 1968, “the ’60s sound” was in full flower. The Beatles reigned supreme, accompanied by the acid rock of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” and the pop sophistication of Cream’s “White Room.” Everyone had a message. Even Motown queens the Supremes were now socially conscious, singing “Love Child,” about an illegitimate child and the legacy of poverty.
In August 1969, the Woodstock Music Festival levitated on the power of three days of music, communal love, and psychedelic drugs. Pop music reflected this, with the huge success of the Fifth Dimension’s futuristic “Aquarius” and Donovan’s otherworldly “Atlantis.” Elvis, who had largely been pushed aside by the ’60s sound, sang the socially aware “In The Ghetto.”
1970 was a major high point in American popular music. The Beatles, who would break up this year, reached the full maturity of “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Motown was in its glory days, as were a slew of highly creative artists, including Simon & Garfunkel, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, The Jackson 5, and Sly & The Family Stone. B.B. King gave us the timeless “The Thrill Is Gone” and James Taylor recorded the classic “Fire and Rain.”
And then, as if a single page torn from the calendar dictated a new feel, 1971 saw an abrupt mood shift. Certainly, some of the music still focused on larger issues, like Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me” (The Ecology).” But pop music was coming down to earth, shifting toward a more personal focus, as in Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road.”
The wild party of late ’60s music officially ended this year. Pop music returned to its perennial emphasis on romantic love, with the huge chart success of Roberta Flack’s languorous “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The exuberance of Don McLean’s mega-smash “American Pie” stemmed from the freedom of late ’60s pop, but McLean sang mournfully of “the day the music died.” Proving that music was moving away from a larger awareness, Rat Pack alumni Sammy Davis, Jr. scored a big hit with the hyper-bubbly “Candy Man.”
Sometimes an art form grows exhausted, and pop music clearly did in 1973. The runaway success of the insipid “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree” and “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” demonstrated that the creativity of the last few years had run dry. Still, pop music had moments of genius this year, like Marvin Gaye’s inspired “Let’s Get It On,” and early hits by the Allman Brothers, Elton John, and David Bowie.
Barbra Streisand had a very big year, granola fueled artist John Denver sold a mountain of singles, and the thoughtful pop of Cat Stevens proved to have staying power. After a short post-Beatles hiatus, Paul McCartney scored hits with Wings, notably “Band on the Run.” Meanwhile, the Jackson 5 and Kool & The Gang laid the foundation for ’70s funk, a genre that would produce some great art, reaching a high point with 1979’s “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire.
In the wake of some very sour national events, including Richard Nixon’s resignation and the inglorious American departure from Viet Nam (followed promptly by the collapse of a country that the US had lost 58,000 soldiers defending) the pop charts responded by getting light – really light. No one ever accused 1975 stars the Captain & Tennille of being big thinkers, but with the country this hungry for distraction, froth was in. Even the mindless “Kung Fu Fighting” was a massive hit with the national mood this dispirited. Mellow balladeers Frankie Valli and Neil Sedaka, who had been teen idols in the early ’60s, enjoyed a comeback. Pointing to the next wave, “Get Dancin'” was a minor hit for Disco Tex & The Sex-O-Lettes.
As the public’s mood stayed low, pop music offered a solution: Disco. With disco, one can turn off the mind altogether — don’t think, just dance! Climbing the charts were “Disco Lady” by Johnnie Taylor and “Boogie Fever” by the Sylvers. Also keeping things soporific were Seals & Crofts, Barry Manilow, and Hall & Oates. But as always, there were nuggets of brilliance amid the chaff, like Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the tuneful pop of Electric Light Orchestra and Fleetwood Mac.
There’s no way around it: 1977 was a dismal year for pop music. The handful of notable exceptions include ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.” Overall, though, the year subsisted on white-bread conformity, as a genre of mild-mannered ’70s rock emerged, defined by Aerosmith, Heart, Kansas, and the Eagles – all talented groups with narrow ambitions. Elvis Presley, now truly a relic from another age, had a minor hit with “Way Down” before dying in a pill-induced stupor.
Disco flowered this year, and the Bee Gees (once a groovy ’60s rock band) became disco royalty – if anyone could turn disco into an art form, they could. Having less artistic success (but great commercial success) was Debbie Boone, whose mega-smash “You Light Up My Life” may have been the worst hit ever. This year’s high points included some good work from the Rolling Stones, with “Miss You,” and the pop genius of Steely Dan.
By 1979 the country was in such a bad mood – partially due to OPEC-induced runaway inflation – that Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in July 1979 to talk about the “crisis of confidence” that “strikes at the very heart of our national will.” With that much malaise – creating a great hunger for distraction – disco reached its zenith. Many radio stations went to an all-disco format, and kids carried disco-themed lunch boxes to school. The Village People released “Y.M.C.A.,” the genre’s most enduring hit.
Blondie had its first hit in the 1970s, but in 1980 the band took center stage with the New Wave hit “Call Me.” New Wave music, with its urgent, straight beat, and its often ironic lyrics, was related to the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, but was far more commercially palatable. The early ’80s would be the high water mark for New Wave, spawning a passel of groups, like the Cars, the B-52’s, A Flock of Seagulls, Talking Heads, New Order, the Motels, Gary Numan, the Police, Elvis Costello, Culture Club, Devo, and the Eurythmics. A minor band from the New Wave school was Romeo Void, whose song “Never Say Never,” featured one of the genre’s most memorable lyrics: “I might like you better if we slept together.”
In contrast with the emptiness of disco (which had died quickly) and the urbanity of New Wave, many listeners hungered for some real red meat – and Bruce Springsteen gave it to them. He had released his masterful Born to Run album back in 1975, and while it yielded no hit singles, it earned him heavy FM radio play. In 1981 he scored a solid hit with “Hungry Heart,” which displayed his talents for empathizing with the common man. Also notable this year was Diana Ross’s gay anthem, “I’m Coming Out,” which would be played every Saturday night in every gay club in America for the next two decades, if not beyond.
The pop music of 1982 had a shiny, glossy sound, as exemplified by Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” (Which, ten years after Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” proclamation of feminism, showed that the public now accepted a bluntly sexual woman.) Other hits with a glossy sheen included Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” and the Go-Go’s “We Got The Beat.” In keeping with the soft-focus mood, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on “Ebony and Ivory,” a tuneful bit of pop fluff. (McCartney would team with Michael Jackson to produce 1984’s forgettable “Say Say Say,” proving that it’s not always a good idea for musical giants to work together.)
This year was dominated by two mega-smash hit albums. Michael Jackson’s Thriller sold so many zillions of copies it almost required an extra fleet of trucks to keep record stores stocked. Its hits included “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the title cut, as Jackson rightfully crowned himself the King of Pop. Almost equally big was the Police’s Synchronicity which launched “Every Breath You Take,” “Wrapped Around Your Finger,” and “King Of Pain” into heavy rotation. Between these two pop leviathans there was hardly radio air time for other 1983 stars, like Culture Club, Human League, Prince, the Pretenders, and Duran, Duran.
Bruce Springsteen had his biggest year this year, released the multi-million selling Born In the U.S.A., spawning the radio hit “Dancing In The Dark,” among others. Also reigning supreme was Tina Turner, with her earthy voice and ’60s rock pedigree, and Prince, whose Purple Rain sold 13 million copies and spent a jaw-dropping six months at No. 1. Outshining them all – eventually – would be Madonna, whose Like A Virgin would be her first hit album, scoring a handful of chart-toppers, including the “Material Girl,” “Angel,” and “Dress You Up.” Over the decades Madonna would cling tenaciously to the hit charts, and by the year 2000 it was estimated she had sold 120 million records worldwide, becoming the most successful female singer of all time.
Some groups experience massive fame before they disappear and are quickly forgotten, and 1985’s Wham! – who spelled their name with an exclamation point! – is one such flash in the pan. The duo’s “Careless Whisper” and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” were enormous hits, only to be cast into the cut-out bin some 24 months later. Proving more substantial was “We Are The World,” the multi-artist hit single whose proceeds were donated to famine relief in Africa. Featuring vocals by more than 20 stars, from Tina Turner to Bob Dylan to Cyndi Lauper to Billy Joel, the single sold over 3 million copies. On April 5, 1985, 5,000 radio stations played the song at the same time.
Pop music had one of its weak years this year, as the flaccid pablum of “That’s What Friends Are For,” recorded by Dionne Warwick, enjoyed massive success. Also finding great success with lackluster product were Mr. Mister (no, we don’t remember them either) with “Broken Wings,” and Lionel Richie’s soporific “Say You Say Me.” You’d need to go to a Holiday Inn lounge to hear anything from 1986 still being played today. The notable exceptions were Cyndi Lauper’s pensive “True Colors,” and Run D.M.C.’s inspired remake of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” which would be cultural landmark in its melding of rock and rap styles.
U2 would lay claim to rock superstardom this year with “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With You Or Without You.” Having less commercial success, but pointing to a musical tidal wave on the way, was the Beastie Boys rap hit, “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party).” Rap was the most creative breath of musical energy since Paul and John picked up a guitar. It had originated in the ghettos of New York and Los Angeles in the late ’70s, but saw only modest radio play in the ’80s. The success of the Beastie Boys – white artists finding early acceptance for an originally black art form, a recurrent theme in pop music – gave notice that rap was on its way.
Tracy Chapman’s folkie-sensitive homage to endangered dreams, “Fast Car,” suggested that folk music might enjoy a resurgence – but no. Instead, this year’s big hits had the glossy sound that characterized much of pop throughout the ’80s: Gloria Estefan, George Micheal, Belinda Carlisle, Micheal Jackson – all these artists’ music sported a highly polished sheen. In contrast, a few of this year’s bands favored a raw sound, like the boozy Guns ‘n’ Roses and head-bangers Def Leppard.
One of the year’s biggest groups was Milli Vanilli, the slickly-produced dance-pop duo who sold millions of albums and won a Grammy. But the following year, the duo was exposed – gasp – as fakers. The public learned that the two weren’t actually singing at all, they were merely lip-syncing to the tracks of studio musicians. The decade’s dominant sound had been overproduced, studio-heavy tracks, polished within a half inch of perfection – exactly the Milli Vanilli sound. The duo became the shining example – the shiniest example – of the artistic emptiness of this often mechanical, artificial sound. Milli Vanilli was stripped of their Grammy, and comedians had a field day making jokes about lip-syncing.
In many ways the ’80s sound keep right on going in 1990: Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, Billy Idol – these ’80s stalwarts didn’t seem to notice that the calendar had changed. But a long-brewing sound was becoming dominant. Enjoying huge hits was rapper M.C. Hammer, who scored with “Have You Seen Her” and “U Can’t Touch This.” Hammer would earn a cool $20 million (though end up bankrupt nonetheless), and the clean-cut rapper’s popularity signaled that the ’90s would be the decade of rap ascendancy. Children soon began carrying M.C. Hammer lunch-boxes to school.
Continuing a hot streak that began in 1988 was dance-pop queen Paula Abdul, who kept sizzling on into the mid ’90s. Also having a good year was middle-of-the-road rocker Bryan Adams, the lusciously-layered R&B vocals of Boyz II Men, and the dance music of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch (‘Marky’ being actor Mark Wahlberg). Gangsta rap was becoming in vogue, but D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s brand of rap was light ‘n’ breezy, as on “Summertime.” (And of course ‘Fresh Prince’ being actor Will Smith).
Grunge rockers Nirvana saw massive success with “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from the group’s seminal Nevermind CD. The band eventually sold more than 50 million albums worldwide. The group’s brand of unshaven rock helped pave the way for other grunge groups, like Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden, and this raw sound became dominant in the rock scene in the mid ’90s. Meanwhile, the heavy radio play of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s homage to full-bottomed women, “Baby Got Back,” demonstrated that rap was not just another genre, but the star of the show.
The sound of 1993 was a mix of soaring Big Emotion pop by Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, the soft-edged rock of Bon Jovi and Tina Turner, some hits by perennial chart toppers like Madonna and Rod Stewart, and the edgy tracks of rap artists like Ice Cube, 2Pac and Dr. Dre. Dre in particular would be a hugely influential hip hop producer, helping create the gangsta rap sound and launching the careers of Eminem, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent.
Speaking of Big Emotion pop, Celine Dion, a songstress who never met an emotion she couldn’t inflate, enjoyed overblown sales this year. Her popularity would build steadily for the next few years, and her version of “My Heart Will Go On” – the theme song to Titanic – was one of the biggest hits of the ’90s. Also finding great success in 1994 – though short-lived – was Swedish dance-pop band Ace of Base. The group had one of the highest selling debut albums of all time, then disappeared not long after. Fame, in the ’90s as in all decades, could be fleeting.
Coolio’s wildly successful “Gansta’s Paradise” demonstrated that rap – street rap, not the light stuff of Jazzy Jeff or Hammer – had arrived. The song takes an ironic turn at the end. After spending several verses promoting the macho posturing of the gangsta lifestyle, in the last verse Coolio asks, “Tell me why are we so blind to see / That the ones we hurt are you and me.” On the other end of the musical spectrum, the success of Hootie & The Blowfish pointed to a rock era that favored an acoustic sound, as exemplified by Blues Traveler, the Dave Matthews Band, and Sheryl Crow.
The wildly expressive rock vocals of Alanis Morissette dominated the radio waves, as her song “Ironic” became stuck in heavy rotation. The Candian singer-songwriter won a slew of Grammy’s, including Best Female Rock Vocal and Best Album. Still more popular this year was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena,” which would be danced to by synchronized groups of slightly-drunk dancers at every wedding from now on.
When Elton John released “Candle In the Wind 1997,” a single to honor the recently-deceased Princess Diana, it was if every record buyer on the planet earth had been given orders to purchase it. And those orders were obeyed – the tune became the best selling single of all time. On a lighter note, the Spice Girls, a British all-girl dance-pop group, scored the year’s top selling album. The bubbly quintet went on to become the best selling girl group ever – even starring in their own movie, Spiceworld, which grossed $75 million – before they disbanded and were promptly forgotten.
Slickly produced R&B had been in vogue for many years, and several artists proved its staying power, including Usher, Janet Jackson, Brandy & Monica, and Destiny’s Child. On another front, hits by kiddie groups Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync pointed to a major phenomenon on the rise: Tween power. Groups whose music was aimed at the young teen crowd (14 years old or younger) enjoyed a spike in popularity not seen since the early ’60s. If the music wasn’t artistically significant, it certainly was profitable for the record labels. Ka-ching!
And in 1999 the biggest Tween Queen of all emerged, Britney Spears, who scored massively with “…Baby One More Time.” The onetime child performer on the Mickey Mouse Club TV show was now 17 years old, and set to launch a recording career that would sell 85 million albums worldwide (with most of those CD bought by people under 21 years old). Fueling her album sales was a major controversy over her image: Never before Spears had so young a female performer exuded such overt sexuality. Along with Spears, another former Mickey Mouse Club alum turned pop star, Christina Aguilera, would make 1999 the year of the Pop Tart.
Pop music in the early to mid 2000’s would see no major new directions. Instead, dominating the radio waves were sounds that listeners had heard before. Chart topper Santana had performed at Woodstock; Madonna had been on the radio since the early ’80s; Destiny Child’s brand of slick R&B had been in vogue since the early ’90s; and the year’s rap tracks continued grooves from several years back. But a few fresh glimmers were heard. Chiefly, the Latin music of Marc Anthony, the idiosyncratic R&B of Macy Gray, and the spunky punk-pop of Pink. The year’s biggest success was Eminem, with his wildly popular The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem would not push rap as a whole in a new direction, but his lyric and rhythmic talent produced some of the genre’s best work.
Dido’s “Thank You” was stuck in heavy rotation for months, and the lilting tune would become the default soundtrack for all sentimental home videos from now on. The year’s largest change was the phenomenal rise in country music. The music itself wasn’t new – far from it – but never had it been so popular on mainstream radio. As the country shifted toward the conservative in politics, country artists reaped great gains, as seen in hits by Toby Keith, Diamond Rio, Kenny Chesney, Travis Tritt, Tim McGraw, and Brooks & Dunn. Also this year, Latin kept growing – witness the hits of Enrique Iglesias and crossover artist Jennifer Lopez (though J. Lo crossed so far over that her Latin roots were all but obscured).
Linkin Park released its melancholy but intense rap ‘n’ rock single “In The End” in mid 2001, and the song immediately climbed the charts. It became one of 2001’s and 2002’s most played radio tunes. Its crunchy power chords and introspective rap lyrics seemed to be an anthem for a generation, much as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” had been four decades earlier. On another front, Avril Lavigne emerged as the anti-Britney, as she snarled and declared that Tween Pop was over. Also having a good year were R&B crooner Usher, light rocker Sheryl Crow, and Latin artist Sharkira. Missy Elliot released her hip hop classic “Work It”: “Girl, girl, get that cash / If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass / Ain’t no shame, ladies do your thang / Just make sure you ahead of the game.”
The non-stop radio play of 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” made it clear, if any doubt remained: rap was now popular music’s dominant style. And gangsta rapper 50 Cent was the genre’s king: shot nine times (and stabbed a few times for good measure), with his mother killed in a drug deal – 50 lived the life he rapped about. But his desperate upbringing was soon behind him as he sold more than 20 million albums worldwide. Also getting heavy radio play were the highly produced R&B of Beyonce and the soft-edged rock of Matchbox Twenty and 3 Doors Down. Finding runaway success was dark alt-rock outfit Evanescence, with the emotional peaks and valleys of “Bring Me To Life.”
In 2004 it was Usher’s world, and we just lived in it. The R&B love balladeer had been building a career since the mid ’90s, but this year’s Confessions sold a cool million units in its first week. Not be outdone, Britney Spears reinvented herself – from Tween Queen to grown-up dance-rocker – with “Toxic.” (The tune did well, but her greatest success was now as a tabloid star.) American Idol became a major force in music, and three of its stars, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, and Clay Aiken, saw chart success this year – and winner Carrie Underwood’s debut sold strongly the following year. Clarkson in particular, having rebuilt her image, from vanilla pop singer to edgey rock artist, enjoyed a high profile this year and next.
Earning Comeback of the Decade honors was Mariah Carey, who had fallen from favor a few years back. But the big-voiced songstress struck back with the emotional mega-smash “We Belong Together.” Green Day’s alt-rock opera American Idiot proved that rock still had plenty of fight left in it. And Gwen Stefani, (formally of No Doubt) who was as big a style maven as rock singer, was heard poolside all summer long on her hit “Hollaback Girl.” Finding a pot of gold was new group the Pussycat Dolls, six female dancers and burlesque performers who typically appeared in lingerie, or close to it. Their light ‘n’ frothy pop was about as profound as Paris Hilton’s deepest thought, and almost as memorable.
The top songs this year were solid pieces of craftsmanship. Tunes like “Bad Day” and “You’re Beautiful” offered tasty melodies and sweet harmonies – and become runaway hits. Yet plenty of this year’s music was, at best, disposable. There’s no chance that we’ll be listening to Dem Franchize Boyz’s “Lean Wit It Rock Wit It” five years from now – or even next year. The same is true of this year’s hits by Ne Yo, The Pussycat Dolls (haven’t they disapeared yet?), or Chamillionaire. Not that there weren’t some bright moments. Gnarls Barkley, the year’s most significant emerging voice, touted a hipper-than-thou mix of DJ beats and soul vocals. Also quite cool: KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree,” which has real spirit.