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2010: The Year of the Musical Monster

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Monsters have been lurking around rock & roll since "The Monster Mash." David Bowie sang about "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)." R.E.M. hit the fuzz pedal on "Monster." Judas Priest coined a phrase with "Monsters of Rock." Conor Oberst and Jim James proved they have a sense of humor by naming their "supergroup" Monsters of Folk. Metallica went to the shrink in "Some Kind of Monster." And Michael Jackson transformed himself into perhaps the most famous musical monster in his iconic "Thriller" mini-movie.

Jackson will play a similar role yet again next month: The December 14th album "Michael" includes a track called "Monster" featuring 50 Cent -- who has had his own monster moment recently. And he's not alone: in 2010, monster music exploded in an unprecedented way. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise, since one subset of the monster family tree, vampires, have enjoyed an extremely long (and ironic) moment in the sun thanks to "Twilight" and a handful of bloodsucker-themed TV series.

The logic seems right: Monsters are "others," and rock stars are quintessential outsiders. (If you question this premise, ask yourself if you could be wearing a leopard, a top hat and bikini, or a model of an atom at your job at the moment). And rock stars love to revel in their uniqueness, their ability to party in the manner defined by their job title, to explore their vulnerability and heartbreak in front of millions.

Monster is an incredibly appealing term because of its inherent flexibility. The word itself can be a noun or an adjective; a way to describe something extreme in size or success, or a way to express non-humanness. It can be hideous or oddly appealing; powerful or toothless. Vampires connote a specific outsider status that comes with a parasitic quality -- they pray on mammals for survival. Aliens are foreign curiosities that are generally feared and misunderstood. "Monster" is the most vague term of them all -- they can be cuddly like Sesame Street characters, or threatening like the Boogie Man; a scientific oddity like Frankenstein, or a natural creature like a werewolf.

Over the past year, we've seen five artists align themselves with the monster movement, all with different motives. Lady Gaga's monsters are intentional outsiders -- fans who, like her (Mama Monster), strive to accentuate their otherness in a defiant display of individuality. Kanye West rapped about being a monster success, but he spent a lot of the year in PR purgatory because he acted monstrously at the 2009 VMAs. When he realized what kind of monster he'd become, though, he wrote "Runaway," a song about plumbing the depths of his humanity. Go figure.

Here's a rundown of the year's monsters:

Lady Gaga
Album/Song/Tour/Fans: "The Fame Monster," "Monster," "The Monster Ball," Little Monsters
Who's the Monster: Her, us, everyone. It's a very equal-opportunity monster environment.

Kanye West
Track: "Monster"

Who's the Monster: Nicki Minaj, who eats our brains, starts rocking gold teeth and fangs, and upstages even Jay-Z.

50 Cent
Album: "The Return of the Heartless Monster"
Who's the Monster: 50's new album won't be out until 2011, but the tabloids seem to think the answer is Chelsea Handler.

Ne-Yo
Song: "Beautiful Monster"
Who's the Monster: "She." (But he doesn't mind. Probably because she's beautiful.)

Usher
Song: "Monstar"
Who's the Monster: Usher, who paints himself as a half-monster, half-superstar sex machine.

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