If you listen to some of the biggest hits of 2009, they'll seem familiar. That's because they came from albums released in 2008. That Beyonce smash? From "I Am ... Sasha Fierce," released last year. "Poker Face"? It was on Lady Gaga's 2008 debut. It's the same with the Kings of Leon and Taylor Swift.
Though last year's releases dominated, great music was still put out in 2009 that helped define the year sonically. The best of the best, starting at the top:
1. "The Here and the Now," Sam and Ruby: This Nashville duo has been deemed exotic because of their ethnicity — she's a black woman from Ghana, he's a white dude from Wisconsin. But their blend of acoustic folk, country and soul sounds homespun, as though they've been making music together for a lifetime. And they've reached near-perfection with this CD.
2. "The Fall," Norah Jones: Jones switches things up on her fourth CD: She swaps her trademark piano for guitar and rocks out (well, as much as Norah Jones can rock out). But it's the mainstays of Jones' music — her smoky voice and evocative songs — that are constant, and those are the elements that make "The Fall" a listen worth taking again and again.
3. "The E.N.D.," Black Eyed Peas: Knock the Black Eyed Peas all you want, but there's no denying they know how to make a great groove. On "The E.N.D.," the group keeps you on your feet from beginning to end, with frenetic grooves to get your body moving, and a few downbeat songs to help you catch your breath. They deserved respect a long time ago, but they may have finally won it with "The E.N.D."
4. "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel," Mariah Carey: OK, so it's hard to take Carey seriously — she of stiletto heels, spandex dresses and girlie, butterfly motifs — but her music is always on point. On this CD, she is poignant, romantic and hilarious — sometimes, all in one song.
5. "The Blueprint 3," Jay-Z: We were expecting a sparkling, genre-defining comeback from a veteran rapper who hasn't released an album in a bit, but we were expecting that album to come from Eminem, not necessarily Jay-Z. While Eminem flopped with "Relapse," Jay-Z reasserted himself as rap's leader with rhyme after rhyme of Hova-isms that give more credence to the argument that Jay-Z may indeed be the greatest.
6. "Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future," The Bird and the Bee: This quirky, futuristic-sounding duo returned with their blend of jazzy pop, but they ratcheted up the funk quotient for an even more potent music mix.
7. BLACKsummers'night," Maxwell: Maxwell's comeback album was so eagerly awaited that a letdown seemed inevitable. After all, eight years of anticipation is hard for anyone to live up to. But with "BLACKsummers'night" — a compact, cohesive gem of an album — we were reminded of how much we missed Maxwell's sensuous songs and plaintive croon. Maxwell's music also provided R&B with what it sorely lacked: a grown and sexy man who offers layered songs about relationships instead of sex, sex and more sex (are you listening, R. Kelly?).
8. "Songs From Around the World," Playing for Change: This inspiring CD shows the common thread we all have through music, as a global array of musicians provide performances of songs — some famous, some not — that all stir the soul.
9. "Zee Avi," Zee Avi: Listening to Zee Avi might make you recall Kimya Dawson's quirky lyrical style, but the Malaysian-born Avi has an eclecticism all her own on her debut CD. Her voice sounds dreamy, her lyrics smart and humorous. And paired with her acoustic picking, she sounds intoxicating.
10. "11:11," Rodrigo y Gabriela: The guitar duo of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero are spellbinding with their dueling guitar wizardry. On their latest, the pair pay tribute to influences ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Metallica with original tunes, inspiring new legions of guitarists along the way.
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