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Spin has already picked the year’s 20 best pop albums, and topping the list is “your hard drive.” Perhaps more significant, though, is a redefinition just announced by the organizers of the Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, whose latest edition won’t be published until mid-February: “A single now means ANY INDIVIDUAL SONG, whether or not it’s ‘commercially available,’ whatever that means in the age of Napster.”

So the era of the album is over. The legacy of Sgt. Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon has been banished, liberating the song from the overarching concept and returning pop music to its innocent 45-rpm roots. So why do I keep getting so many albums in the mail?

Despite all the publicity about MP3s and other digital music files, most people still buy music on CDs; few songs are officially available in any other form. The upper regions of the Billboard charts are dominated by performers who are essentially singles acts—Britney Spears is years away from her first rock opera—yet their preteen fans (or their obliging parents) must buy those performers’ albums to get the hits. And because acquiring one of these filler-heavy discs now costs almost $20, it’s no wonder that kids are interested in trading MP3s as soon as they get high-speed Internet access.

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The Recording Industry Association of America may call it piracy, but it’s also a hi-tech variation on the mix tape, the form that seems to have overcome the concept album as the highest expression of pop’s current sensibility. Most techno discs are essentially mix tapes, as are song-oriented movie soundtracks and the increasing number of samplers and compilations on the market. So, for all practical purposes, was the year’s most heralded indie-rock comeback, the Go-Betweens’ The Friends of Rachel Worth, which just sounded like a sampler of the next solo albums Robert Forster and Grant McLennan would have made if they hadn’t reunited. (Those without access to the MP3 bazaar should note that the ‘Tweens’ label, Jetset, released the album’s catchiest song, “Going Blind,” on an actual CD single.)

There were full-blown albums released in 2000, notably Radiohead’s Kid A, the improbable No. 1 that showed that rock can still use a large canvas—and without the epic bluster of OK Computer, too. Radiohead was merely the year’s most prominent example of indie mutating into prog; Elf Power’s The Winter Is Coming, Cave-In’s Jupiter, Sunny Day Real Estate’s The Rising Tide, and others took similar trips—but not too trippily. Recalling indie’s punk origins, not one of these discs sounded as if it really wanted to be a Pink Floyd double album. Neither did Godspeed You Black Emperor!’s intermittently gripping Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, which really was a double album and had the musical dead zones to prove it. I assume Sigur Rós’ Agætis Byrjun fits in here too, but I haven’t been able to find a copy.

Sustaining a drone or a burble for 10, 20, or even 80 minutes is easier for a band—if not its listeners—than stoking a blaze. I commend the craggy neo-post-punk of Q and Not U’s No Kill No Beep Beep and At the Drive-In’s Relationship of Command for never flagging. Most of the year’s liveliest neo-punk albums, however, are also candidates for a mix tape: the Bangs’ Sweet Revenge, Good Charlotte’s Good Charlotte, Hot Snakes’ Automatic Midnight, Mest’s Wasting Time, Sleater-Kinney’s All Hands on the Bad One, Therapy?’s Suicide Pact—You First, Tsar’s Tsar, the Urge’s Too Much Stereo, and U.S. Crush’s U.S. Crush started out vigorous, but all ran out of energy or, more frequently, ideas.

The distinction between pop-rock and pop-punk has become slender, but let’s just say that the former shows more deference toward the Beatles, Byrds, and Beach Boys and hails the Comas’ A Def Needle in Tomorrow, Jupiter Affect’s Instructions for the Two Ways of Becoming Alice, Super Furry Animals’ Mwng, and Western Electric’s Western Electric as fine examples of the form. Downloaders and mix-tape compilers might also want to investigate the Apples in Stereo’s The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone, Coldplay’s Parachutes, Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump, the Mayflies USA’s The Pity List, Papas Fritas’ Buildings and Grounds, Teenage Fanclub’s Howdy, Ultimate Fakebook’s This Will Be Laughing Week, Wolfie’s And the Coat and Hat, and XTC’s Wasp Star (Apple Venus Volume 2).

Two of my favorite albums of the year managed to slip free of even these loose categories. 12Rods’ Separation Anxieties starts out ferocious but takes fruitful detours into neo-lounge and even prog-rock. Derrero’s Fixation With Long Journeys journeyed even wider, jumbling pop, rock, metal, and more.

A less strenuous eclecticism distinguishes Telek’s Serious Tam, Papua New Guinea pop that is perhaps the year’s most blithe music. Most of the year’s other world-beat highlights come from Africa—including MCA’s extensive Fela Kuti reissues, Olivier Mtukudzi’s Paivepo, Cheikh Lo’s Bambay Gueej, Youssou N’Dour’s Joko (The Link), and Oumou Sangare’s Ko Sira.

My rap, art-hop, and neo-soul mix would sample The Artful Dodger Presents Re-Rewind Back by Public Demand, Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun, Björk’s Selmasongs, Black Box Recorder’s The Facts of Life, Broadcast’s The Noise Made by People, DMX’s …And Then There Was X, Fatboy Slim’s Halfway Between the Gutter and the Stars, Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music 1948-1980, OutKast’s Stankonia, Primal Scream’s Xtrmntr, Dave Ralph’s Tranceport II, Paul Van Dyk’s Out There and Back, and the soundtracks to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and Groove. Of course, many of these discs are essentially samplers to begin with.

These genre catalogs may provide some helpful consumer tips, but they also illustrate the fractured critical consensus. Today no one can credibly argue that any one style can or should be dominant. (Electronica is the music of the future? Then why does the earliest track on Ohm, the set’s subtitle aside, come from 1937?) Although some critics strive to earnestly contemplate teenypop, most people who take pop seriously just don’t care about the music that usually tops the charts. And the number of established auteurs whose albums must be deliberated—this year, U2, PJ Harvey, and my somewhat ambivalent choice, Lou Reed—is dwindling.

The major labels’ concerns aside, this sort of mix-and-match musical culture seems healthy. The majors may be more mercenary than ever, but there have never been more niche labels catering to minority tastes; if you can’t always get what you want, you must not be looking very hard. Indeed, the problem is not drought but flood. And direction.

In 2000, pop music seemed to go every which way. It’s no accident that so many contemporary performers return for inspiration to years like 1964 to 1968 and 1976 to 1980, eras when music seemed vital, connected, and moving forward. The model today, of course, is decentralization: Every hard drive holds a piece of the culture, autonomous yet contiguous. That sounds like the model for both community and revolution, but pop music’s hard-drive epoch has yet to produce much of either. CP