Pop Music: Radiohead tops a fractious music scene

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With the impact of file sharing and iPods, you'd have to go back to the '60s to find a decade with more upheaval in the music industry. It got to the point where one top artist gave his new album away for free at concerts and another put it online and said, "Here, take it and pay whatever you want."

Despite the record business nearly bottoming out, iPod playlists flourished and the concert industry prevailed even through the tough economy.

Before we see what the two thousand teens bring, let's look back:

Best albums: "OK Computer" was so clearly beyond what everyone else was doing, it was natural to want another one. Rather than repeat itself and compete with its imitators, Radiohead tossed aside the guitar riffs and reinvented itself, setting a disturbing sonic tone for the decade early on with "Kid A."

Wilco, having already mastered alt-country and power-pop, moved on to something more textured and experimental with "Yankee Foxtrot Hotel" without sacrificing Jeff Tweedy's songcraft. Both albums have topped national lists and it's hard to argue with either.

The same goes for Kanye West's "The College Dropout," which not only expanded the palette of hip-hop in the way it used R&B/soul samples, but also introduced a fresh persona to the game. A personal favorite was "Source Tags and Codes" by And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, an epic album with staggering mix of beauty, majesty and chaos. Other favorites: Grandaddy, "Sumday"; Jay-Z, "The Blueprint"; Astronautalis, "The Mighty Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters"; Iron & Wine, "The Creek Drank the Cradle"; The Hold Steady, "Separation Sunday."

Best band: No band built anticipation for its new albums like Radiohead, which delivered with four gems in the '00s. The last one, "In Rainbows," dropped as a groundbreaking pay-as-you-will release. Radiohead backed them up with stunning concert performances, not one of which was performed in Pittsburgh.

Best performer: The Boss brought the house down every time he set foot in Pittsburgh, from his reunion with the E Street Band (after 13 years) in April 2000 to his post-9/11 "tent revival" stop to his PNC Park blowout to the most recent post-Super Bowl bash. Springsteen also delivered two of the decade's most powerful statements, "The Rising" and "Magic," while, shockingly, becoming one of the most politically engaged musicians of the '00s.

Best singles: With iTunes downloading life back into the single, there was no shortage of great ones. 2003 alone produced OutKast's galvanizing "Hey Ya!," the Beyonce/Jay-Z joint "Crazy in Love," Jay-Z's thumping "99 Problems," Britney's genre-busting "Toxic," 50 Cent's decadent "In Da Club" and The White Stripes' bass-driven "Seven Nation Army." Others for the 2000s' playlist: Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," MGMT's "Time to Pretend," M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes," Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?"

Best rapper: Jay-Z towered over the scene in any number of ways. This year's "The Blueprint 3" became his ninth No. 1 album in a row, going back to 1998. Seven of them came in the '00s, including two that were nearly perfect, "The Blueprint" and "The Black Album." Along the way he remained free of scandal and even donned a suit as CEO of Def Jam Records.

Best new band: Contenders here include TV on the Radio (featuring two Pittsburgh members), the Arcade Fire, Coldplay and Animal Collective. My vote goes to The Hold Steady, who broke out of Brooklyn (via Minneapolis) in 2004 with "Almost Killed Me," finding a way to merge the narrative approach of early Springsteen with the riffage of classic rock and energy of post-punk.

Best concert: Besides The Boss? In April 2004, Prince swung back into town to remind us what we missed all those years when he wasn't quite himself. Fans got a free copy of his forthcoming album "Musicology," then Prince scorched the arena with The New Power Generation, an ensemble with all the weapons of a small militia.

Best free concerts: The Three Rivers Arts Festival outdid itself, bringing in the likes of Patti Smith, Lucinda Williams, the New York Dolls and the Avett Brothers. Its true stroke of brilliance, though, was booking Sonic Youth and Wilco back-to-back nights in 2003.

Biggest news: When CDs boomed a decade ago, acts such as Pearl Jam and 'N Sync broke the million mark in their debut weeks. In the new century of Internet album leaks, acts could now top the album charts moving 150,000 units, and total sales went from $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.6 billion in 2008. The most visible victims of the sales decline and proliferation of big-box stores were chains such as Tower and our own National Record Mart.

Here's the good news: As we end the decade, indie stores such as Paul's, Eide's, Jerry's and the Attic are still hanging on, and even catering to connoisseurs of vinyl.

Biggest trends: While grunge overpowered the '90s, the indie scene diversified in the '00s with more textures: the neo-psych-folk of Animal Collective, the Baroque-pop of Sufjan Stevens, the New Wave Revival of the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs and Interpol. On the mainstream level, superstars such as Eminem and 50 Cent shared the spotlight with a new flood of upstarts from "American Idol" that rose to the top a la Carrie Underwood or sunk quickly like Taylor Hicks. Thanks to "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band," the Beatles were as big as ever and a new generation got schooled in classic bands from Mountain to AC/DC.

Biggest local band: The Clarks continued to cash in on that "Penny on the Floor." The band came into the decade already 14 years old and peaked in 2004 by selling out two nights at the Station Square tent and becoming the second Pittsburgh band, after Rusted Root, to play Letterman.

Best local band: The Modey Lemon launched in 1999 as the killer garage-rock duo of Phil Boyd and Paul Quattrone and became even more heady and psychedelic with the addition of Jason Kirker. Not content with just conquering Pittsburgh, the Modey Lemon toured the country and beyond, drawing raves -- even from Pitchfork.

Biggest local success story: She made her true local debut in the summer of 1999 at the Lilith Fair, just after the genie came out of the bottle. Then North Allegheny High School product Christina Aguilera went on to sell more than 43 million albums worldwide, while eclipsing rival Britney by blossoming into a mature diva. She bolted to L.A. soon after her success.

Biggest local export: No local band accomplished more than Anti-Flag, which took its protest punk to RCA Records, stages of the Warped Tour and all the way to Moscow. A-F produced five albums in the '00s, the best of which was this year's "The People or the Gun." Here we should also mention rapper Wiz Khalifa, who left Warner Bros. without releasing an album but ended the decade by topping the iTunes singles chart.

Most acclaimed local artist: What a beautiful thing that the city known for steel and smash-mouth football also produced the world's leading mashup/laptop artist. Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) rose to fame in '00s as a colorful symbol of the city's high-tech conversion. While rocking the college kids under showers of beer and confetti, he's also cracked top album lists in national media.

Best new venue: It's a good thing Mr. Small's popped up when it did. When it opened in 2002 in the former site of St. Anne's Church in Millvale, Metropol and Club Laga were still going strong, so it was still a bit player. Within three years, though, those bigger venues closed (Metropol became the all-ages Club Zoo) making the new 600-capacity venue crucial for mid-sized club acts. The saviors for the 1,000-capacity range were the Carnegie Library Music Hall and Ches-A-rena.

Best work in progress: We'll miss the old dome, but the Pens' new arena could be a boost for the concert scene. Maybe we can avoid that trip to Burgettstown even more. And we'll even get Radiohead.

Scott Mervis can be reached at smervis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2576.


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