I don't want to overstate the case for our new decade's first breakout star, but I can't help hearing 2010's pop music—at its schlockiest and its most inspired—in terms of the Gaga Effect. On the one hand, opportunistic label hacks interpreted the Gaga phenomenon as a call to the dance floor—specifically, the dance floor of a trashy European discotheque, possibly located in Paris or Berlin, but more likely stashed away in the coke-addled collective memory of the 1980s. Everyone from Christina to Usher to Ke$ha tried to cash in with their own bombastic club records, but anyone who thought that manufacturing "the next Gaga" was as easy as stacking synths behind their pop star of choice was mistaken. Gaga wasn't challenging her fellow musicians to a dance-off, she was challenging them to get smarter, get stranger, and go for bigger hooks and concepts.
Take Robyn and Kanye West, who between them fill one-fifth of the spots our singles list. Their ambitious brands of pop auteurism predate Gaga considerably (you can see both of their faces on Slant's Best of 2008 list), but it's also easy to see each of them reworking their craft for maximum impact on the pop landscape she defined. If Gaga can drop a killer eight-song EP that hits harder than her full-length, then why shouldn't Robyn drop three? If Gaga can do a nine-minute art film for "Alejandro," then what should stop Kanye from producing his own 35-minute "Runaway" video?
Still, not all praises are due to Gaga, whose own success owes to a confluence of forces that always make for great pop, and all over the year's musical map those same qualities continued to yield great rewards. You want dance music that's not afraid to push boundaries? Hot Chip, Crystal Castles, and La Roux had you covered. You want to see artists toe the line between novelty and instant classic? Look no further than Cee-Lo and Gorillaz. You want ambition? Check out Sade and Hanson, who no one thought would be relevant in 2010, but here they are, doing some of the best work of their careers by trying their hands, respectively, at trip-hop and power-pop.
And if there was ever a year where we needed pop to do its exhilarating best, 2010 was it. Beyond escapism, pop music provided the brainpower, the emotional nuance, and most of all, the vision that the rest of the country, particularly in the political arena, lacked. Though we always count on pop music to give us what we want, the best pop is just as capable of giving us what we need. Matthew Cole
25. The Drums, "Let's Go Surfing." Jonathan Pierce and his bandmates are gifted, bittersweet nerds, reinvigorating the old Weezer-esque image of geeky high schoolers caught between unrequited romance and suburb-driven escapism. "Let's Go Surfing" is "Surf Wax America" for a new generation, its whistled melody line and hair-thin accompaniments somehow heavier and more meaningful than they seem at first listen. Pierce's sly, beckoning vocals hold the barest hint of angst during the verse, only to explode into a ludicrously worded, strangely melancholy chorus of "Mama, I wanna go surfing/Oh, Mama, I don't care about nothing." Even when breaking down into the simple but oh-so-catchy refrains of a popular jump-rope sing-along, the Drums evokes a savvy mix of tongue-in-cheek melodrama and genuine wistfulness. Never has a surfing-based song been filled with so much wry—and oddly satisfying—despair. Kevin Liedel
24. Laurie Anderson, "Only an Expert." Laurie Anderson, like William S. Burroughs and the makers of Pontypool, considers language a virus. This is why her voice on Homeland, an album steeped in confusion and dotted with lacerating humor, is often made to sound diseased. Perhaps its most indelible track, "Only an Expert" is a scathing amalgamation of observations about climate change, the shithole of war, our obsession with Oprah Winfrey, and our alarmist's populace's subservience to corporate interests. The borderline-cat-lady kookiness is alleviated by Anderson's customary wit and fondness for BPM. This is dance music for people barely getting by. Ed Gonzalez
23. Drake featuring T.I. and Swizz Beatz, "Fancy." Like T.I., who offers a guest verse on Thank Me Later's fourth single, Drake's popularity undoubtedly owes some credit to his broadly appealing good looks. But songs like "Fancy" offer a look into an artist with a careful eye for the kind of niceties that most rappers ignore. Too often that perceptiveness is directed inward, hamstringing his songs by picking at his insecurities; here it's pitched toward the insecurities of others, a conceit that's more interesting and leaves more room for specific detail. Using a woman's mirror ritual as a window into her soul, the song paints a complex personal character portrait that finds a neat abstract in its hook and is equal parts teasing and admiring. Jesse Cataldo
22. Japandroids, "Younger Us." Japandroids put out a couple singles this year. Of the two, "Art Czars" actually pushed their sound and thematic concerns forward a bit, while "Younger Us" provided a roundly un-progressive example of Japandroids doing the two things they do best: slacking off and looking back. Okay, three things: They also play incredibly fast and loud, churning out more noise than a drum kit and a single guitar should be capable of producing. Melodramatic from start to wailing, wordless end, the song is an ode to the days when you stay out late and get trashed because it's genuinely exhilarating and fun, not because there's nothing better to do, when your friends are the people you feel closest to in your life, not a grab bag of neighbors and co-workers, and when, most of all, you can't even imagine a time when your life won't seem all that exciting. Here's to never getting too old for Japandroids. MC
21. Laura Bell Bundy, "Giddy on Up." The western-as-drag-revue video for "Giddy on Up" actually does a considerable disservice to Broadway vet Laura Bell Bundy's debut single, making it all too easy to dismiss her for not taking her stab at a country-music career seriously. But what works about "Giddy on Up" is absolutely worth serious consideration. Bundy's performance teems with genuine personality and verve, the production takes an inventive and refreshingly contemporary approach to pop-country, and the songwriting and the arrangement pay respect to some of country music's most important signifiers. Of course, genre purists still hated it on principle, and there's no getting around the hook's deliberately bad pun, but "Giddy on Up" announces the arrival of a fascinating new voice on Music Row. Jonathan Keefe