Best intentions If 2004 was the year pop got political, in 2005, pop stars showed their giving spirit. The hastily assembled Live 8 concerts were proof of Bob Geldof's indomitable will and the music industry's ability to mobilize for a good cause. Ten concerts, an estimated three billion viewers. Live 8 was a success in terms of raising awareness of African poverty and putting the issue on the table at the subsequent G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. Whether all the singing and finger--wagging will make a significant difference in the lives of destitute Africans now lies with the politicians.
Bono vista Was 2005 good to Bono? Hmmm, let's see: His band, U2, tallies the 2005's top-grossing stadium tour ($260 million). The rocker-slash-activist earns partial credit for his work in organizing Live 8, shares Time's Persons of the Year award (with Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda), scores Q magazine's Man of the Year and is the subject of a fulsome cover story in the New York Times Magazine. Yes, he's everywhere: yes, those sunglasses look ridiculous. But can you name another private citizen who has donated as much of his energy to eliminating human suffering?
Kanye flips the script The Hurricane Katrina relief effort was likely the second biggest cause of musical solidarity in 2005. But amid the feelings of sadness and good will, rapper Kanye West could not hide his anger at the disparities between blacks and whites in New Orleans. During the NBC telethon on Sept. 2, Kanye deviated from the scripted platitudes to express his outrage with the coverage of the disaster and the government's lackadaisical response. "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.'" Unprepared for this harangue, NBC was unable to censor Kanye's crowning blow: "George Bush doesn't care about black people!"
Shopping has dropped In what is becoming an annual ritual, the music industry reported another plunge in album sales; according to Nielsen SoundScan, sales were down more than seven per cent from 2004. Industry watchers don't agree on the reason. Is it downloading (legal or otherwise), the rise of CD burning or mounting competition from DVDs and videogames for consumer dollars? Or is it that there aren't as many massive releases? My prediction: the industry will still be wrestling with the question this time next year.
A star is reborn Admit it: before 2005, you wrote Mariah Carey off as a past-her-prime pop diva. Short of expunging her film Glitter from our collective memory, you figured there was no way she could ever be relevant again. Well, Mariah made proved us wrong. The Emancipation of Mimi, her 10th album, sold seven million copies worldwide, her single We Belong Together reigned supreme on the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks and she scored a throng of Grammy nominations. In related news, "Rebirth," J-Lo's attempt at career rejuvenation, flopped magnificently.
Hate him or love him If Kanye flirted with news headlines in 2005, fellow rapper 50 Cent practically dictated them. In March, Fiddy released his sophomore album, The Massacre. In April, he became the first artist since the Beatles to have four songs in the U.S. Top 10. In early November, he starred in Get Rich or Die Tryin' -- a thinly disguised autobio directed by Jim Sheridan. Later that month, a Toronto MP attempted to have the contentious rapper barred from entering Canada, saying 50 Cent's music fetishized the sort of gun violence that has plagued Toronto in 2005. And that sound in the background? Cash registers ringing up The Massacre.
Payola does not pay In the 1950s and 1960s record companies often bribed radio stations to play their songs. The practice, known as payola, wasn't legal, but it also wasn't unusual. Most people had forgotten this primitive practice until an investigation by New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer determined that payola was still "pervasive." Among his findings was this e-mail by someone at Sony BMG's Epic label, addressed to an employee at radio station WKSS:"WHAT DO I HAVE TO DO TO GET AUDIOSLAVE ON WKSS THIS WEEK?!!? Whatever you can dream up, I can make it happen." The findings were so embarrassing that Sony BMG Music Entertainment agreed to pay a $10-million US settlement and promised to stop bribing radio stations. Spitzer mooted that other major record companies could be next. (In related news, forgotten Canadian band the Payola$ saw no discernible spike in their popularity.)
Diamond mine In 2001, Neil Diamond was such a kitsch icon that he lampooned himself in the frat comedy Saving Silverman. Who could have predicted he would have enough mojo left to release another album -- much less one of the best-reviewed discs of 2005? Ruminative, heartfelt and 100 per cent kitsch-free, 12 Songs is utterly compelling. Much of the credit goes to producer Rick Rubin. As he did with Johnny Cash's waning career in the 1990s, Rubin saw through the layers of parody to pinpoint the honest songcraft that made the man great in the first place. If you’re looking for another Cracklin' Rosie or Kentucky Woman, you won't find it; what you will find is a great American songwriter, his skills undiminished.
R.I.P. Another year, another spate of passings. Deaths in 2005 included: guitar god Link Wray; R&B smoothie Luther Vandross ; Ibrahim Ferrer, revered Cuban singer and the wizened face of the Buena Vista Social Club; legendary singer and piano maven Shirley Horn; guitarist Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a Texas original whose distinctive sound was a searing blend of bluegrass, jazz, Cajun, country and calypso; and jazz great Jimmy Smith, arguably the most famous emissary of the Hammond organ.
Please, please, no more Peas If a band can over saturate the market, the Black Eyed Peas have done it. In 2005, the California quartet --once a hip-hop outfit, now the worst kind of mongrel pop act -- was everywhere, demonstrating a willingness to appear anywhere, with anyone, for any cause, any time. While that included a fair bit of altruism (e.g. Live 8, an Amnesty International charity album), the Peas were far too voracious to let it end there: award shows, free concerts sponsored by Honda, the Super Bowl, the Grey Cup -- plus the threat of opening the 2006 World Cup of soccer in Germany. To ensure we would be talking about them through the holidays, in November, the BEP's released My Humps, a strong contender for Most Nauseating Single Ever.