You could distinctly sense a change in Bollywood music in 2009. Soundtracks in 2008 came packed with 'hits' - songs that could be used in promos to veil the lack of a plot, showcase the stars and put people in seats with the promise of glamor and glitz. This year, OSTs began to mature a bit - focusing on songs that critics not too long ago would have dismissed as 'situational'.
We'll talk more about this change some other time, but for now here are the artists who entertained me hugely this year. My heartfelt gratitude to them for a terrific musical year.
Shankar Ehsaan Loy
Composers and makers of diverse, enduring songs for London Dreams and Wake Up Sid
A hugely talented, paagal and personable composer once told me "There is AR Rahman and then there is the rest of us". This year, SEL pulled ahead of the rest to ensconce themselves as the #2 composers in Bollywood.
They did this by delivering a powerful and poignant soundtrack for the movie London Dreams. Combining elements of arena rock with North Indian folk music (think lots of guitars and dhols), SEL deftly manipulated our emotions after setting up shop in our ears.
Earlier on the OST of Wake Up Sid, they changed their style to such an extent that they were unrecognizable. But the results were just as entertaining. WUS remains the best indiepop album recorded in Bollywood.
Sure Pritam had more hits than SEL - but SEL matured their sound this year into something original and unique.
(Thanks to Ehsaan for the awesome SEL pic)
Composer and manufacturer of high profile hits from Love Aaj Kal, All the Best, De Dana Dan, Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani, Tum Mile
In 2009 important things (good and bad) seemed to happen to Pritam. Accusations of lifting tunes crawled to a near stop - in other words, Pritam grew in confidence and originality. Ironically, he stagnated - churning out tunes that were interchangeable between movies.
Still its hard to deny he had a huge year. He continued to operate in his customary fifth gear (dance songs) or first gear (ballads) with little in between - but he did those really well, cranking out the biggest tunes of the year.
Relying on delicious guitar licks, he created lead promo singles for Love Aaj Kal (Aahun Aahun), All the Best (Mein Jitni Martaba), Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (Mein Tera Dhadkan Teri) and De Dana Dan (Gale Lag Ja).
Just when you thought he had played out his game, he delivered the finest set of ballads this year with the gorgeous CD for Tum Mile.
Vishal Bhardwaj, Hitesh Sonik, Clinton Cerejo
The music team of Kaminey
Mid-year Kaminey fired up the Indian music scene with its signature single - Dhan Te Nan (Vishal Dadlani, Sukhwinder Singh).
Essentially three compositions spliced together into six songs, the Vishal Bhardwaj composed Kaminey delivered art and commerce in one coiled package. Mohit Chauhan sang the overlooked rock ballad Pehli Baar Mohabbat, Sukhwinder performed trademark vocal duties on the club bhajan Fatak and Rekha Bhardwaj and Sunidhi Chauhan blended their voices seamlessly and melodiously on Raat Ke Dhai Baje.
Fittingly Kaminey remains the first OST in Indian music to pay tribute to its musical contributors with producers credits (Sonik, Cerejo) on the CD cover.
Singer and Relentless Hit Machine
Neeraj Shridhar sing songs primarily for Pritam. But Pritam had a banner year and Neeraj rode that wave to deliver a seemingly endless stream of hits - more than any other singer in Bollywood this year.
Neeraj has a few attributes that makes him stand out. He has a voice quality that is distinct and interesting. His voice is commercial. And he can sing in angrezi with panache.
His best work this year was on Billu (Love Mera Hit Hit), Love Aaj Kal (Twist, Chor Bazaari), Kambakkht Ishq (Lakh Lakh), Do Knot Disturb (Bebo), Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (Prem Ki Naiya), Dhoondhte Reh Jaoge (Yeh Aane Wala Pal) and Tum Mile (title track).
Singer and Emergent Queen Bee of Bollywood Music
Shreya Ghoshal came into the year with a reputation as one of India's best soundtrack vocalists. But her mainstream reputation was based on her work on more traditional songs with jiggling, high Hindustani notes.
In 2009, Shreya set about correcting that by expanding her genre considerably. Called on to sing more than just sweet-voiced songs, she was tested on tracks that required her to sing in lower and straighter notes. Take the OST of Blue for example on which Shreya delivered three songs in different genres that broke from her usual portfolio: Aaj Dil Gustakh Hai (Nu Jazz), Fiqrana (Rock-Pop) and Rehnuma (Jazz).
What else did she do? How about beginning the journey to fill the considerable void left behind by Lata Mangeshkar, mounting a serious challenge to Sunidhi Chauhan as Bollywood's #1 female voice and singing flagship songs for virtually every music composer of note in the Indian film industry.
Singer and all-round Rock Star
We've talked about Vishal's ascent as one of Bollywood's go-to rocktastic singers. See here for more on why he is on this list.
A R Rahman
ARR's Blue might not count as his best work, although his bravado entertained me for sure. Earlier this year he gave us one of his finest Bollywood CDs - the memorable Delhi-6.
Powered by Mohit Chauhan's unforgettable single Masakalli, the OST was full of typically diverse ARR gems: Rekha Bhardwaj's folksy traipse Genda Phool, Rahman's own brat pack ditty - the hugely underrated Rehna Tu and Ash King's soul-tinged Dil Gira Dafatan.
And ah yes, he won a few international awards (Oscar, Golden Globe) and although that wasn't for music he did this year, it sure was fun to watch!
Singer, Dil Ibaadat
KK makes it to my list for one specific reason. I've always been on the fence about him: did that perfect near-monotone pitch drain his singing of emotion and make him a lesser singer?
On the soundtrack for Tum Mile, KK sang the greatest ballad of 2009 (Dil Ibaadat) and infused it with so much pain and passion that he made me feel all wimpy for a week and compelled me retract my opinion. The pleasure was all mine.
Also: Last year's Drift Music Entertainers.