A shortlist of the people or entities who, through their irreducible weirdness or humanity, made the pop realm a more livable place this year:
1 Jack White’s surgery photos: A rock star has a duty to be strange, and almost no one is doing the job right now. (Ozzy doesn’t count.) That’s why it was a triumph for all rockers, and all rock fans, when Jack White of the White Stripes smashed his finger (while driving a Porsche with Renee Zellweger) — and then posted hideous photos and video of his finger surgery on the band’s Web site. I’m sorry, but that’s just not something people do. No one does that. I don’t know why, but they don’t. I ask you, though: Is it fair that one little man should have to carry the proud torch of rock madness for so many?
2 OutKast’s “Hey Ya”: “Hey Ya” is the first song since “Sugar Sugar” to be liked by every single person who has ever heard it. The song makes me feel a part of something big, fun and innocent — and something which we’ve been taught is impossible nowadays: That is, that in the age of niche marketing everyone can still agree on something — and something really good. Most incredibly, no matter how many times it’s played on TV and radio, it’s not getting old. It’s got its own internal fountain of youth, spraying everyone in earshot.
3 Radio Disney: Radio Disney kinda rocked this year: The most requested song for ages was the Cheetah Girls’ “Cinderella,” a Spice Girls–y anthem in protest of evil, girl-hating fairy tales. (It’s extra-cool that Radio Disney, of all venues, was pushing it so hard — I mean, like every 20 minutes.) “I can slay my own dragons/I can dream my own dreams/My knight in shining armor is me,” the girls sing. I even heard little boys request it — still can’t get my head around that (in a good way). Hilary Duff’s “So Yesterday” was pretty okay, too — a post-breakup I-didn’t-like-you-anyway song in the tradition of the Waitresses’ “No Guilt.” I guess the little kids are all right.
4 The Donnas’ beer ads: The strange magic of the Donnas is that selling out has only made them seem cooler than they were. Their hilarious radio ad for Budweiser features the girls bragging about how they care more about writing cohesive albums than other bands. The thing is, it’s true. (And how gorgeous is it for a girl band to decide to sell their souls for beer?) The other thing is, the Donnas never claimed to want anything but world domination. Going for it blatantly, while staying true to their musical instincts, makes them different from 99 percent of rock bands on the radio, and a total anachronism, spiritually akin to ambitious/freaky artists like T. Rex, the White Stripes and the Sweet. Fuck punk rock. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make great rock and also be ridiculously famous.
5 PharrelL and Jay-Z’s “Frontin’”: If it weren’t for “Hey Ya,” maybe Pharrell and Jay-Z’s “Frontin’ ” would have been the lovable crossover hit of the year. This hooky little cream puff is the kind of music Prince wishes he could still make — funky, childlike, romantic, and clearly high on excellent pharmaceuticals. Pharrell, stop producing for other people and start making more music like this already!
6 Radiohead’s “Creep”: At the Bowl a few months back, Radiohead played “Creep” — a song they don’t perform much anymore — and something miraculous happened. The entire audience sang together, word for word, the lines everyone understands with the darkest part of their hearts: “I wish I was special/But I’m a creep/I’m a weirdo/What the hell am I doing here?/I don’t belong here.” A friend who went to the show during a terrible personal crisis came away tear-soaked and ready to face her future with grace and pride. I think everyone did. That’s not just musical catharsis — that’s exorcism.
7 100.3 The Beat: Probably no sector of radio has been more brutally dismembered by deregulation than black radio, since, in its heyday, black radio served the original purposes of the medium most purely. It was a source of information and entertainment, sure, but it was also, literally, a community-builder and spiritual web. The soul of black community radio lives on in ghost form at 100.3 The Beat, competitor to the godawful Power 106, a station which is an insult to the history of black radio (and in that sense, feels secretly racist). The Beat plays much of the same music as Power, but it sounds better because it is presented with genuine heart, from Steve Harvey’s up-with-people-ism to Spinderella’s sexy-smart chick power during afternoon drive time. (Salt ’N Pepa lives!) You listen to Power and feel like a fucking demographic chump. You listen to The Beat and feel like you live in L.A. And it’s home.