Saturday, June 30, 2007

Best Albums of 2007 (so far)

Halfway through the year, and I've reviewed 16 new albums this year. With pending reviews of The White Stripes and Kelly Clarkson coming--both are quite good--here's how'd I'd rank the 16 right now (subject to change of course):

  1. Amy Winehouse - Back to Black (5)
  2. Kaiser Chiefs - Yours Truly Angry Mob (4.5)
  3. The Fratellis - Costello Music
  4. The Good, the Bad and the Queen
  5. Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad (4)
  6. Maroon 5 - It Won't Be Soon Before Long
  7. Blonde Redhead - 23
  8. Norah Jones - Not Too Late
  9. Travis - The Boy with No Name
  10. Bloc Party - A Weekend in the City (3.5)
  11. Mutya Buena - Real Girl
  12. Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Trip the Light Fantastic
  13. Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare
  14. Air - Pocket Symphony (3)
  15. Mika - Life in Cartoon Motion
  16. Hilary Duff - Dignity (2.5)

Best Albums of the Nineties

My friend Robin is doing a series on the best albums of the '90s, posting chunks on her blog. She's counting down, having done 100 through 71 so far. Her rule of thumb: select only 1 album from an artist from the decade. So, for example, if she includes Radiohead's "OK Computer," then she wouldn't also include "The Bends" (which will she choose?!).

Here's my "for your consideration" appeal:

Sinead O' Connor - I Do Not Want What You Haven't Got. Famous for "Nothing Compares 2U," but the whole album is really strong. A personal favorite.

Jai - Heaven. Not many people heard this, but it was really good--soulful, sexy, retro. I'm disappointed he never made another album.

Robbie Williams - Life Thru a Lens. His career's been on a downward trajectory of late, but his first album was a true breakthrough. Following a much-publicized post-Take That binge, he managed to pull himself together and deliver a great first album, including classic "Angels" but also "Lazy Days" and "Let Me Entertain You."

Annie Lennox - Diva. Gorgeous, classy pop music. Love "Why" and "Little Bird."

George Michael - Listen Without Prejudice. He really went out on a limb changing his sound from the poppy Faith to this more soulful, reflective set.

Pet Shop Boys - Very. Their best album, pure dance pop, and very gay, despite the fact that Neil Tennant wasn't officially "out" yet.

Everything But the Girl - Walking Wounded. They changed their sound following "Missing," and this was a great blend of electronic and adult pop styles.

Sade - Love Deluxe. Sultry and sublime, perfect on a lazy hot summer afternoon.

Janet Jackson - Janet. Back in the '90s, Janet Jackson was still making good pop music. And while it's a close call between this energetic dance pop set and the more experimental Velvet Rope, I have to go with this, simply because "If" is the best song she ever did.

Whitney Houston - My Love Is Your Love. After 7 years of doing soundtrack ballads, Whitney returned for what was sadly her last good album, a funky modern R&B mix.

Maybe I should make my own list.

Album Review: Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad (4/5)

Rihanna is someone I never expected would make it. She's a decent singer and pop package, but doesn't have the looks of Beyonce or the pipes of Christina. Yet, at this moment, the woman is sitting on the biggest hit in the world right now, topping charts all across North America and Europe. How she got to this point is a good study in perseverance and the success of a "give them what they want" mentality.

The Barbadian singer arrived in the summer of 2005 with "Pon Da Replay," a stomping Caribbean-flavored pop song that lit up the charts that August. The album's second single though, "If It's Lovin' That You Want," wasn't nearly as interesting and didn't chart as well, so it would have surprised no one if she had vanished at that point, but no. She returned mere months later with a second album and a fantastic first single, the "Tainted Love" sampling "SOS," a fantastic unrelenting workout of a pop song. Follow-up Ne-Yo penned "Unfaithful" also was a big hit, although the belting balladry revealed she lacked the voice to keep pulling that off. Later singles weren't as successful, but two big hits wasn't bad.

Again, less than a year later, Rihanna returns for round three. This time she's armed with the first solid album of her career, steeped in the lessons of her previous two. '80s-flavored dance pop? Check! Ne-Yo balladry? Check! Hot producer? (Timbaland--ain't none hotter) Check! Dancehall? Gone, as the craze has passed. The results are surprisingly good, and Good Girl Gone Bad ranks as one of the year's best pop albums yet.

"Umbrella," which features Jay-Z, is the aforementioned megahit, having settled in for long runs at #1 in the US, Britain, and many other countries. As conventional as it sounds, it's actually, counter-intuitively unconventional for 1) eschewing recent beat-driven R&B for the more melodic sound from the '80s/'90s, 2) isn't a stomping dance track like her previous biggest hit "SOS," and 3) is about friendship, not sex or romance. Whether you like the song or not, and I'll admit it's grown on me, you have to give it credit for being just the right thing at the right time.

The next four songs comprise the album's core of hard-hitting, '80s-influenced dance pop, and what a set! "Push Up on It" is my favorite, which borrow from Lionel Richie's "Running with the Night," souped up '80s styled drum machines and "hand claps." "Shut Up and Drive," the second single, draws its inspiration from New Order's "Blue Monday," punching up the electric guitars. "Don't Stop the Music" pulses with a simple insistent beat and a sample of the "mama-say-mama-saw-mama-who-saw" from Michael Jackson's "Wanna Be Startin' Something." Even "Breaking Dishes," the least interesting of the foursome, is not bad, sounding a lot like Nelly Furtado's "Maneater," although it's not one of the Timbaland contributions.

Ne-Yo wrote three of the album's tracks, the best being the one he also guests on, "I Hate that I love You." Further cementing his play for the title of "New Michael Jackson," this mid-tempo duet has a similar appeal to his recent hit "Because of You," and Rihanna, not asked to hold long high notes, sounds so much better here than she did on "Unfaithful." I'd be completely shocked if this doesn't end up being a single. His other two songs are not as good, but still interesting. "Question Existing" is downright weird; a slow-burning track delivered in an almost chant-like manner, while the album's final track, "Good Girl Gone Bad" is fine, but sounds like a re-do of Beyonce's "Irreplaceable."

"Say It" ends up being a pretty bland mid-tempo number. And the three Timbaland contributions aren't as good as they perhaps should be, although they do lend the album its only hint of Caribbean flavor. "Sell Me Candy" is a raucous mixture of sounds. "Lemme Get That" is a decent chant of a song, although it wears out its welcome. "Rehab," co-written by Justin Timberlake, might be the best song of the album's second half.

The album's first half is definitely stronger than its second. Too bad, because if she'd kept up I'd have easily given this a higher rating. Still, it potentially could give Rihanna her first long string of hits, as their are plenty of possible singles here. That is, unless she decides she wants to move on to something else in a couple of months--maybe even greater.

Best: Umbrella, Push Up on It, Don't Stop the Music, Shut Up and Drive, I Hate that I Love You, Rehab

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Personal Chart, 6/30/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Umbrella - Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z (3 weeks @ #1)
2 .... 5 .... Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie
3 .... 8 .... Icky Thump - The White Stripes
4 .... 4 .... Summer Love - Justin Timberlake
5 .... 2 .... Real Girl - Mutya Buena (2 wks @ #1)
6 .... 7 .... Never Again - Kelly Clarkson
7 .... 3 .... Makes Me Wonder - Maroon 5 (1 wk @ #1)
8 ... 11 ... Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors - The Editors
9 .... 9 .... Home - Daughtry
10 .. 25 .. Song 4 Mutya - Mutya Buena and Groove Armada

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

LA Times on Kelly

Interesting story here in the L.A. Times about Kelly Clarkson:,1,251010.story?ctrack=1&cset=true

What they say about the turmoil overpowering her record reminds me of when Madonna's Erotica got overshadowed by her Sex book and Body of Evidence.

Garbage Returns

Want to hear Garbage's new song "Tell Me Where It Hurts?" Here it is:

It's from a forthcoming hits package, Ultimate Garbage.

UK Singles Chart Analysis, 6/30/2007

1. Umbrella - Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z)

It's a sixth week at #1 for Rihanna and "Umbrella." It's the longest stay at #1 for a single since last year's "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley ruled the roost for 9 weeks. It looks likely to stay at the top this weekend too, unless Cherry Ghost or the Klaxons can pull an amazing upset.

2. Any Dream Will Do - Lee Mead

Speaking of upsets, back in the day when event singles ruled the British charts, this single would have been assured of a #1 placing, coming off the back of a popular reality series, Any Dream Will Do, the search for a new lead for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Lee Mead, of course, was the show's winner, proudly debuting his first single, a song from the show. Personally, I'd like to see such influence lose its grip on the charts. How annoying is it that the Christmas #1 for the last couple of years has been some dreck from The X Factor?

7. Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors - The Editors

The Editors score a career high with "Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors," the lead single from their new album, An End Has a Start, making at 23 spot leap to #7, beating their previous best, the #10 placing from their first album's second single, "Munich." Critical reaction to the new Editors album is mixed--some say they've headed off into a more mature direction, while others say they're just aping Coldplay. The album gets a stateside release July 17.

12. Do It Again - Chemical Brothers

Chemical Brothers just miss out on the top 10, rising 11 spots to #12. It's from their forthcoming sixth album, We Are the Night.

17. I'd Wait for Life - Take That

Here's a big surprise, well sort of. Take That's third Beautiful World single outright flops upon its physical release, landing only at #17, breaking the band's six-single run of #1 hits and its 14-single run of top 10 hits. What went run? Radio support appears to a be a missing ingredient. "Patience" and "Shine" were both huge hits at radio--"Shine" in fact is still, currently #12 on the UK airplay chart, while "I'd Wait for Life" is way down at #37. Radio 1 never bothered to add it to its playlist, and Radio 2, where this should have found a cosy home, has it only on the B list. The Take That comeback was such an amazing feat, it's a bit of a surprise to see it fizzle so spectacularly.

18. Map of the Problematique - Muse

More surprises. Muse releases a fifth single from Black Holes and Revelations--as a download only single--and it still manages to outchart the fourth single, "Invincible," which did get a physical CD release. I actually really love this song, so it's nice to see it here.

21. Lovestoned - Justin Timberlake

JT's skipped over "Summer Love" in favor of "Lovestoned" for his fourth UK single from FutureSex/LoveSounds. It's debuting on downloads this week--pretty high--although I think it might not get a physical release. Interesting to see how high it goes.

22. Angel on My Shoulder - Gareth Gates

1-1-1-5-1-3-4-14-22. That's the trajectory of Gareth Gates' singles. Bye bye Gareth. It was nice knowing you. Don't let that record contract give you a paper cut as it's yanked from your fingers.

23. When You're Gone - Avril Lavigne

Avril Lavigne continues to climb with "When You're Gone," its physical release still a ways away. Could be a major hit for her--perhaps her first UK #1?

36. Grace - Simon Webbe

At least "Grace" made the top 40, after "My Soul Pleads for You" missed it. Still, there was a time we were debating where in the top 10 the former Blue man would land, not whether or not he'd make the top 40.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Album Review: Maroon 5 - It Won't Be Soon Before Long (4/5)

Maroon 5 struck pop music gold in 2004 with Songs About Jane, a then 2-year old album that finally took off with the massive singles "This Love" and "She Will Be Loved." Massive worldwide success ensued, and 5 years on we now have It Won't Be Soon Before Long, a second collection of breezy funk/rock/pop songs that doesn't stray far from Jane, save for one key ingredient. While Jane was the work of a band with dreams of the Hollywood life, Long displays the confidence of a band now entrenched in the high life.

Likes its predecessor, the album is about the ups and downs of relationships, but the downs come with particurlarly sharp barbs here. First track "If I Never See Your Face Again" slides in with enough retro thump, guitar and keyboards to let us have a good time even if Adam Levine is bemoaning the loss of some hot girl. Infectious "Makes Me Wonder" is similarly bitter in lyric, but not in tone. It's funky enough to be the best song Jamiroquai never got around to making. A clear standout and great choice for the first single.

Reviews of the album have marked its sharp production, which shines throughout. "Little of Your Time," for example, includes prominent guitars whose sound just sparkles during the duration of the short track. Edgy "Wake Up Call" is purportedly the second single and reminds me a bit of "This Love." It's okay, but not one of my faves. I much prefer mid-tempo ballad "Won't Go Home Without You" (which will probably be the third single, a la "She Will Be Loved"). The verses are driven by crisp bass and piano, saving the guitar to punch up the chorus.

"Nothing Lasts Forever" was giving me a weird sense of deja vu until I realized why--it's chorus is taken from Adam Levine's vocals for Kanye West's 2005 single "Heard 'em Say." That settled, it's another nice tuneful mid-tempo track. Very tight too--in fact all the songs are pretty tight and pack in a lot of melody and hooks in short bursts. Only two songs cross the 4-minute mark (and just barely), and "Little of Your Time" is barely over 2 minutes. "Can't Stop" is another short one, bursting with energy and electric guitar, and a retro middle section.

"Goodnight Goodnight" is earnest, if not sexist, as Levine apologizes for having "hurt his little girl." It's got a great dark vibe, a gentler feel than most other songs, and it's nice to have the guitar playing take center stage, at least until the strings arrive. "Not Falling Apart" seems inspired by the police--its bass sounds like its out of "Every Breath You Take." It's another good one, even if it has the predictably louder chorus marked by piano chords and guitar chords.

"Kiwi" didn't really excite me, until it hits this sudden burst of electric guitar and other noise at the end, which then abruptly stops, but song doesn't quite end as there's a final keyboard effect. Interesting and uncoventional. Piano ballad "Better that We Break" returns to more conventional territory, and if they need it, would also make a great single--perhaps for next year's prom time. Even better though is final track "Back at Your Door." Very tuneful, if not soulful.

I actually ended up liking this album more than I expected to. While listening to it in the background I thought "this is fine, but not special." But after giving it a closer listen, I realized there's quite a lot to like here, little if no filler, tight production, a strong emphasis on melody, and some great singles. It's nice to see a band elevated to immense fame take the challenge seriously of staying on top of their game, which they definitely do here.

Best: Makes Me Wonder, Won't Go Home Without You, Back at Your Door, If I Never See Your Face Again, Better that We Break, Nothing Lasts Forever, Goodnight Goodnight, Not Falling Apart

Personal Chart, 6/23/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Umbrella - Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z) (2 wks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... Real Girl - Mutya Buena (2 wks @ #1)
3 .... 3 .... Makes Me Wonder - Maroon 5 (1 wk @ #1)
4 .... 4 .... Summer Love - Justin Timberlake
5 .... 7 .... Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie
6 .... 9 .... Heavyweight Champion of the World - Reverend and the Makers
7 .... 8 .... Never Again - Kelly Clarkson
8 ... 13 ... Icky Thump - The White Stripes
9 ... 10 ... Home - Daughtry
10 .. 6 .... U + Ur Hand - Pink (2 wks @ #1)

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Kelly Clarkson on MTV Leak

MTV's leaked Kelly Clarkson's new album, My December. Check it out
I chatted with the Washington Post's music critic today. He said he thinks Kelly's troubled:
Me: Have you heard the new Kelly Clarkson album yet? What are you expecting? The press around it seems...strange. The whole Clive Davis doesn't like it thing seemed contrived. She's apparently fired her publicist and has been speaking her mind in the press. "Never Again" under-performed on the charts. What do you make of all this?

J. Freedom du Lac: Actually, she fired her manager. And then cancelled her tour, apparently due to soft ticket sales. Things are a mess in her world. I honestly don't think the head-butting duel with Clive is make-believe. I think there's a there there. I mean, Clive Davis would never do anything to make himself look bad.

As for the album: Kelly's publicist -- a high-powered flack whose clients include folks like McCartney and Faith Hill --just informed me that I won't be able to hear it until either the day before release, or the day of release. Of course, he assumes that I won't just go here to hear it:

Monday, June 18, 2007

Single Reviews

Song 4 Mutya - Mutya Buena (feat. Groove Armada) (5/5). While the Real Girl album is a disappointment, this single is really great. If, like Pink says, God Is a DJ, then this will be put on heavy rotation this summer. The synth and beat heavy song sounds like it samples everything great about '80s dance music, but I believe it's all original. Love it.

When You're Gone - Avril Lavigne (5/5). "Girlfriend" was a much-needed return to the top of the charts for Avril Lavigne. With that need fulfilled, she can go back to the more serious music we know she's interested in. "When You're Gone" is a lovely rock ballad, perhaps her best yet. I really like the middle section too and credit her for "going for it" and pushing her vocals when so many similar songs would cop out and go for a quiet moment in the middle 8. Like the strings too, very nicely done.

Icky Thump - White Stripes (4.5/5). A great first single from the White Stripes sixth (yes, sixth!) album, Icky Thump, out today. I love how this song transitions through so many different parts, like some sort progressive '70s rock epic.

Like This - Kelly Rowland (feat. Eve) (4.5/5). Kelly Rowland, the other former member from Destiny's Child returns to solo work after a 4-year hiatus. She won us over with "Stole" from her first album, but failed to find a second hit from that set. Back with the first single from Ms. Kelly, due next week, "Like This" is a throbbing can't-help-but-move-your-ass kind of R&B single with a surprisingly pleasing middle section. It's a great return and completely different from "Stole."

People Help the People - Cherry Ghost (4.5/5). This is a lovely, lush British rock track in the Coldplay mold of British rock tracks. It's got a big echoey, Piano-driven sound. They're from Manchester. What's not to like? This is their second single; the album's out in July.

Smokers Outside the Hospital Doors - The Editors (4.5/5). A great return for the Editors, also in that Embrace/Coldplay sort of vein of British rock, with big piano chords and really insistent drumming.

Beautiful Liar (Freemasons Remix) - Beyoncé and Shakira (4.5/5). This song was sort of a letdown in its original version, but this great dance remix gives it a real pulse, turning it into something really fun.

Selfish Jean - Travis (4.5/5). Proves once and for all that Travis isn't all doom and gloom. This is probably the single most uptempo thing I've heard from them, and it's great, really great. Joyous in fact.

Soulmate - Natasha Bedingfield (4/5). After the silliness of "I Wanna Have Your Babies," this dark, tender acoustic ballad harkens to her last album's "I Bruise Easily," and shows off her voice nicely. Unfortunately, I fear she may be the victim of a bit of a backlash at the moment. Too bad, as this is a nice follow-up and something different.

Writer's Block - Just Jack (4/5). "Glory Days" was a letdown after "Starz in Your Eyes," but "Writer's Block" is much better. It opens with some woman muttering about her dreary morning, concluding that "it was pouring with rain and I thought, 'good ole England!'" Funny and cool at once.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Billboard Hot 100 analysis, 6/23/2007

1. Umbrella - Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z)

It's a third week at #1 for Rihanna's "Umberella," matching the 3-week stay at the top she had last year for "SOS." It's also this week's airplay gainer, a good sign she'll stay #1 next week in favor of nearest competition Shop Boyz and T-Pain, who stay put at #2 and #3 this week, but both lose their bullets.

4. Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie

Fergie also holds pat at #4 but keeps her bullet with "Big Girls Don't Cry." The song is still gaining strongly at pop radio, so it could climb higher. This makes her fourth straight top 5 single, putting her well ahead of her band now in chart success.

6. Hey There Delilah - Plain White T's

American rock band Plain White T's take their first top 40 single into the top 10 this week. "Hey There Delilah" is a gentle acoustic song. Not what I was expecting for a market that prefers its rock bands to be like Fall Out Boy and Linkin Park. The song makes a big jump up 10 spots this week.

10. Rehab - Amy Winehouse

Jumping an impressive 38 spots to land her first top 10 hit this week is Amy Winehouse with her second single "Rehab." While her first US single, "You Know I'm No Good," may have missed the top 40, "Rehab" is a bona fide hit. Winehouse has been aggressively promoting her amazing album, Back to Black, so it's nice to see her find chart success.

12. Lip Gloss - Lil Mama

Two weeks ago this song debuted at #95. Last week it wasn't on the chart. This week it suddenly re-enters at #12. ???!!!??? It's about as bad as you think it would be.

14. Thnks fr the Mmrs (Thanks for the Memories) - Fall Out Boy

Fall Out Boy reclaims its #14 peak position from 3 weeks ago with "Thnks fr th Mmrs" (sic), up three to #14. The band's last single, "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race," debuted at #2.

28. Nobody's Perfect - Hannah Montana

Disney product Hannah Montana scores her first top 40 hit this week with "Nobody's Perfect," which makes its Hot 100 debut at #28.

34. Wait for You - Elliott Yamin

I don't know what's going on with this song. It peaked at #31 and slides back two spots from #32 to #34 this week, but does keep its bullet. The former American Idol contestant's single has been doing great at top 40 radio, so I'm expecting this to just explode on the chart if it's sales would catch up.

Album Review: Mutya Buena - Real Girl (3.5/5)

Isn’t it painful when you have high expectations for an album, and when it arrives, it just doesn’t live up? That’s the case with Real Girl, the debut solo album from Mutya Buena. While there are some good songs here—great ones in fact—only a handful really stand out, while others, which are good songs, just don’t suit Mutya’s voice. It’s as if she decided that rather than determining her strengths up front, she’d try on a bunch of different styles and let the public decide what works best, inevitably leading to some that should have stayed in the editing room.

First a little bit about Mutya. She began her career in the limelight 7 years ago as one-third of the hugely successful girl group Sugababes. In late 2005, following their fourth (and biggest) #1 hit, “Push the Button,” Mutya announced she was leaving the band to pursue a solo career. This was greeted with some excitement in the pop music world, with pop music aficionados noting that Mutya had the band’s most distinctive voice and would surely continue to bask in pop greatness. It could have spelled doom from the group, who replaced Mutya and have since scored two top 10 hits and a #1 collaboration with Girls Aloud. Mutya gave us a taste of what would come when she appeared on George Michael’s “This Is Not Real Love” last year.

That brings me to Real Girl, starting with what's great, really really great. There are two hands down fantastic pop songs on this album. The first is the lead single and title track. “Real Girl” is a completely appealing upbeat ‘70s via ‘90s slice of feel-good pop, the 90s coming courtesy of its liberal sampling of Lenny Kravitz’s “It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over,” itself a ‘70s-flavored number. Mutya sounds fantastic here and it’s too bad this wasn’t a #1 single (it was overpowered by Rihanna’s “Umbrella”).

The other real standout is “Song 4 Mutya (Out of Control),” a high-powered Groove Armada collaboration that sounds like a Prince-produced time capsule from the ‘80s. The upbeat song has a great ‘80s dance vibe and tells a cute story of Mutya about to fly off the handle when her ex shows up with another girl (“Don’t panic panic, Mutya don’t get erratic”). This will make a great summer single this year, a good second shot of Mutya getting her first solo #1.

Had the rest of the album been populated with songs like this I would have rated it much higher, but sadly that wasn’t the case. While there are few other decent tracks, too much is bogged down in soulful balladry that doesn’t fit with Mutya’s assertive but not particularly powerful voice. The Guardian wrote in its review that Mutya would like to be compared to Mary J. Blige but will settle for Jamelia, which is totally true, and too bad she didn’t include more Jamelia-like songs.

Piano ballad “Wonderful” is a case in point. This is a good song, but it doesn’t feel right with Mutya. First off, it’s way too conventional sounding, like something David Foster would have produced in the early ‘90s. And then I cringe when she hits some of the stronger notes, because she just doesn’t have the right control from this kind of singing. “Strung Out” has a similar problem. This is a cool song, a dark piano ballad, but Mutya doesn’t have the voice to carry it off. “Suffer for Love,” er, suffers a different problem. The song has a good sound like a late ‘80s Prince ballad, and Mutya sounds better here, but it gets too repetitive.

Messy “Paperbag” is probably my least favorite track. “This Is Not Real Love” gets mangled by an unnecessary remix that adds beat-rich percussion to the slinky original George Michael duet. First track “Just a Little Bit” is a somewhat enjoyable soul throwback, but nothing special. “It’s Not Easy” is an upbeat attempt at the sort of trip-pop that populates the filler of Sugababes albums.

Then there’s “B Boy Baby,” which I’m not sure what to make of. Start with the Ronettes “Be My Baby” but twist its title into something illogical. Name check Nike. Throw in Amy Winehouse, but bury her vocals under Mutya’s so you wouldn’t even know she was there unless you’d read the liner notes. Very odd indeed.

Despite all that disappoints me here, there are three more tracks that I like. “Breakdown Motel” is the one ballad that Mutya manages to sound great on. It again has a certain dark Prince vibe to it. Sassy “Not Your Baby” sounds like it could be a cut from the grand third album from the aforementioned Jamelia. And mid-tempo “My Song” closes the album on a poignant soulful note.

I give this album a fairly good rating only because of “Real Girl” and “Song 4 Mutya” which are so good they really do redeem the mistakes here and prove that Mutya may still be something great as a soloist. It’s too bad the rest of album was so mediocre.

Best: Real Girl, Song 4 Mutya, Not Your Baby, Breakdown Motel, My Song

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Album Review: Sophie Ellis-Bextor - Trip the Light Fantastic (3.5 / 5)

Sophie Ellis-Bextor has one of the most distinctive voices in dance pop, namely because she manages to actually retain her British accent into her songs, while most people end up sounding like they could be from any English-speaking country. Returning here with her third album, the third of the "ips" (Read my LIPS, Shoot from the HIP, TRIP the Light Fantastic), it's the follow-up to her mostly disappointing 2003 album. Here Sophie turns down the beat in favor of mostly mid-tempo pop songs, with mixed results.

The album starts of nicely enough with the energetic electro first single "Catch You," followed by the album's best cut, the disco/house throwback "Me and My Imagination," which sees Sophie return to the clubby sound that made big in the early '00s. (Isn't it nice that you can type '00s without having to pronounce it? How do you say "'00s?). It's a really great song and it's shame it wasn't a hit.

The album's other '70s-inspired number, "Love Is Here" is another highlight. It's light and breezy and definitely disco, although not as clubby as "...Imagination." I guess it should come as no surprise that the track is co-written (with Sophie) by Dan Gillespie Sells, frontman for her husband Richard Jones' band The Feeling, who's debut album last year had its fair show of '70s influence. Sells also helps out on peppy "Only One," another highlight among the surprisingly MOR tracks.

Some of the mid-tempo stuff does work, like "Today the Sun's on Us," which has been chosen at press time as the third single. It's one of those "don't be so down" type songs ("Don't let your shadow spoil the view of what's around you"). Also good is electro/'80s-sounding "The Distance Between Us," which is so slow you could probably slow dance to it if you wanted to. It's got a good bass groove though.

After that, the songs are decidedly so-so. "New York City Lights" and "China Heart" are electro/dance-pop in the "Catch You" vein but not as engaging or memorable. "If I Can't Dance" is stripped down and fairly good, but not a standout in my opinion. Same goes with "If You Go"--fine, but not classic. The weakest tracks are "New Flame," which fails to generate any heat and "What Have we Started," which has a promising, driving bass pulse, but ends up being too dramatic.

In a nice twist, the two bonus tracks end up being pretty decent, particularly clubby "Supersonic," which is co-written by none other than former B-52's member Fred Schneider.

Overall it's definitely better than Shoot from the Hip, but it gets bogged down into too many mid-tempo songs that just aren't as satisfying. Next time hopefully she'll up the BPMs and give us that "Groovejet" feeling again.

Best: Me and My Imagination, Love is Here, Catch You, The Distance Between Us, Today the Sun's on Us, Supersonic

Personal Chart, 6/16/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 3 .... Umbrella - Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z (1 week @ #1)
2 .... 1 .... Real Girl - Mutya Buena (2 wks @ #1)
3 .... 2 .... Makes Me Wonder - Maroon 5 (1 wk @ #1)
4 .... 4 .... Me and My Imagination - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
5 .... 7 .... Summer Love - Justin Timberlake
6 .... 6 .... U + Ur Hand - Pink (2 wks @ #1)
7 ... 11 ... Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie
8 .... 9 .... Never Again - Kelly Clarkson
9 ... 15 ... Heavyweight Champion of the World - Reverend and the Makers
10 .. 13 .. Home - Daughtry

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Looking Back: May 1987

May's big hit in 1987 was "With or Without You," U2's first single from The Joshua Tree, which history has judged as "the" classic U2 album. The album, fueled by this #1 hit and follow-up #1 single "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," solidified U2 in the U.S. and worldwide as a rock sensation. Personally, I find the song a bit dull, but It's never been personal favorite. The band looks so young in the video.

Also hitting #1 in May was The Cutting Crew with "(I Just) Died in Your Arms." The British band almost qualified as a one-hit-wonder, save for the fact that they followed this with a top 10 hit that no one remembers. This song is okay, not great.

My favorite song from this month has to be the debut single from Jody Watley, "Looking for a New Love." The song has a lot of energy, and Watley sounds great. It's really too bad she couldn't sustain her fame, because she was pretty good. She did win the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1987. The low-budget video is fairly silly though.

May also saw the release of Madonna's fifth and final True Blue single, "La Isla Bonita." It became her 11th consecutive top 5 hit. The breezy ballad, while not a personal favorite, is decent enough and holds up well.

Bryan Adams was in the top 10 with "Heat of the Night," the first and only top 10 hit from his album Into the Fire. His next album, 1991's Waking Up the Neighbours, would be more successful. The song's actually pretty decent. Finally, Chris DeBurgh hit the top 10 with his slow-dance classic "Lady in Red."

Looking Back: April 1987

I'm behind on my 1987 reviews, but I'm going to catch up. Here's April:

The best thing about April 1987 was Starship's (a.k.a. Jefferson Starship) "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." The #1 hit was one of the year's biggest, embodies the late '80s rockish-pop sound perfectly, and is taken from the soundtrack to one of those quintessentially late '80s movies, Mannequin. The video is made up entirely of clips from the film, and in fact, tells the movie's whole story.

The month's other big #1 hit was George Michael & Aretha Franklin's "Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)." The single appears to be a one-off project, as it is not tied to an album by either Michael or Franklin. George Michael would be back in a few months with the lead single from his forthcoming debut solo album Faith, "I Want Your Sex." Following "Careless Whisper," it was his second #1 solo hit.

"Tonight, Tonight, Tonight" was the fourth Genesis single from Invisible Touch, and my personal favorite by them. It's a cool song, with a great production, slightly sinister with hard percussive elements. The video matches the mood well.

American girl group Exposé hit the top 5 with their first single, "Come Go With Me," with epitomized the dance pop sound of the group. Not bad, but better singles would follow. Crowded House hit the top 10 with snoozer ballad "Don't Dream It's Over." And Prince was in the top 10 with "Sign 'O' the Times."

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Personal Chart, 6/9/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Real Girl - Mutya Buena (2 wks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... Makes Me Wonder - Maroon 5 (1 wk @ #1)
3 ... 17 ... Umbrella - Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z
4 .... 3 .... Me and My Imagination - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
5 .... 7 ..... Signal Fire - Snow Patrol
6 .... 4 .... U + Ur Hand - Pink (2 wks @ #1)
7 .... 8 .... Summer Love - Justin Timberlake
8 .... 6 .... Girlfriend - Avril Lavigne
9 ... 10 ... Never Again - Kelly Clarkson
10 .. 12 .. Kiss You Off - Scissor Sisters

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Music and the Movies

In honor of my friend Robin, who deserves a hearty congratulations on landing a great new job, I'm posting some of my favorite song moments from recent movies, similar to a multi-part post that Robin put up recently. These aren't necessarily the definitive best song moments, but just some cool ones that came to me, in no particular order...

"Falling Slowly" from Once

This song plays several times during the film, but the best moment, which appears in some of the shots of this montage video, is when the guy and girl play together for the first time in the piano shop. Very sweet.

"The Blower's Daughter" from Closer

I love it when a movie opens with a cool song, and the way the crowd behind Natalie Portman seems to undulate in slow motion to the music is visually poetic. Even if you hate the rest of the movie, you gotta love the opening scene.

"I Say a Little Prayer for You" from My Best Friend's Wedding

Rupert Everett stole every scene in this film he appeared in, and this was a fun moment in the middle of the movie.

"Streets of Philadelphia" from Philadelphia

Another cool song to open a movie. Unfortunately this is the Springsteen music video and not film footage, but the video has a similar vibe as the film's opening, which was shots around the city.

"Por Una Cabeza" from Scent of a Woman

Such a lovely scene from this movie. A nice musical moment that (for awhile) made Julia Ormond somewhat of a star.

The Dance Contest from Pulp Fiction

A moment of levity in a bloody (and bloody good) film.

"The Crying Game" from The Crying Game

"She's...she's on."

"It Might Be You" from Tootsie

A quintessentially '80s music montage from a classic '80s movie.

"Johnny B. Goode" from Back to the Future

The invention of rock n roll!

"Anything Goes" from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Apparently satisfied Spielberg's urge to ever make a musical, and who knew even sci-fi/action films can stage a great dance number? Can you blame me for, as a little boy, doing the fan dance in my bedroom?

"Come What May" from Moulin Rouge

Only original song from the movie, right? Great song.

"All the Time in the World" from On Her Majesty's Secret Service

James Bond fell in love and married one woman in his life, and the montage set to this romantic song is one of the most tender moments in any Bond movie. Too bad I can't find the straight cut from the film, but this actually discusses the use of the song, which is interesting.

Billboard Hot 100, June 9, 2007

1. Umbrella - Rihanna (feat. Jay-Z)

Rihanna makes a 40-spot jump to #1 this week with "Umbrella," her sixth top 40 single and second #1 hit following last year's "SOS," which made a similarly big jump to #1 (34 to 1). "Umbrella" is also currently #1 in Britain, making it the second single after Timbaland's "Give it to Me' to top both country's charts this year.

2. Party Like a Rock Star - Shop Boyz

Also making a big leap is the first top 40 hit for rap group Shop Boyz, who moves up 49 spots to #2 with "Party Like a Rock Star," this week's airplay gainer.

5. Home - Daughtry
9. Never Again - Kelly Clarkson
12. Before He Cheats - Carrie Underwood
34. It's Not Over - Daughtry
35. Wait for You - Elliott Yamin

American Idol alums continue to do well this week, particularly Kelly Clarkson who rebounds 8 spots to #9 with "Never Again." More though on AI in a bit.

8. Big Girls Don't Cry - Fergie

Fergie jumps 13 spots to #8 to land her fourth solo top 10 hit with "Big Girls Don't Cry." In doing so, she surpasses yet another statistic of her band Black Eyed Peas--her four top 10 hits now outpaces the band's three. All three of Fergie's previous top 10 hits went on to hit #1 or #2.

15. This Is My Now - Jordin Sparks
18. You Give Love a Bad Name - Blake Lewis

Somebody's got to be unhappy about this. Following the crowning last week of Jordin Sparks as the 6th American Idol (and Blake Lewis as the runner-up), both artists released their debut singles available as of Thursday morning on iTunes. Every other year, the AI finalists have been assured massive first-week sales, sending their hits up to #1 or #2. A recap of the biggest:

2002: Kelly Clarkson, A Moment Like This, #1 after its first week of sales
2003: Clay Aiken, This Is the Night, #1 debut
2003: Ruben Studdard, Flying Without Wings, #2 debut
2004: Fantasia, I Believe, #1 debut
2005: Carrie Underwood, Inside Your Heaven, #1 debut
2005: Bo Bice, Inside Your Heaven, #2 debut
2006: Taylor Hicks, Do I Make You Proud?, #1 debut

So what went wrong this year? Was it the shorter sales frame of 5 days? Perhaps, but I would think that if the demand were big enough it wouldn't make a difference. Is it that the singles aren't available as physical releases this year? Maybe, but "Umbrella" is sitting at #1 without a physical release. I think that this might be another sign of the growing American Idol backlash, the show's numbers were, afterall, down a bit this year. It will be interesting to see if Jordin Sparks can follow this up with a real hit.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Album Review: Dixie Chicks - Taking the Long Way (5/5)

I wasn't a Dixie Chicks fan until this year. Not because of their politics, but just because I'm generally not a country music fan. But their story intrigued me: the biggest-selling band in country music rejected by that industry because of an off-the-cuff political comment. Certainly many musicians of late have thrown their hat into the political ring. Pink, Pet Shop Boys, John Mayer, Green Day and others have all riled against the war, the president, the general state of things. But the Dixie Chicks dared to do it when the war was fresh and Bush's approval rating was high, drawing the vicious ire of their mostly conservative fanbase and Nashville in general.

Taking the Long Way debuted at #1, but hasn't sold nearly in the numbers of their last three albums (it's merely double platinum, while Wide Open Spaces and Fly are both diamond--10x--platinum), and hasn't generated any country music hits. An amazing thing happened though at the Grammy Awards this year. While Nashville may have turned its back, the broader music industry was paying more attention than ever, and awarded the group with all of the year's top honors: Album of the Year as well as Record and Song of the Year for "Not Ready to Make Nice." So I bought the album, and I haven't been disappointed.

First track "The Long Way Around" is an absolutely gorgeous song. I cannot say enough good things about it. It has an upbeat melody, great rhythm, and awesome lyrics. I'm not usually a lyrics man, but the Dixie Chicks are great songwriters lyrically as well as musically, telling interesting stories and turning provocative phrases ("I hit the highway in a pink RV with stars on the ceiling. Lived like a gypsy; six strong hands on the steering wheel"). The production is pretty rich: guitar, banjo, strings, and bass are all in the mix, but rather than competing they blend well, while the Chicks' vocals soar over the top.

As good as "The Long Way Around" is--and it is very very good--"Not Ready to Make Nice" is even better. This is the one. It's the band's reaction to all the negative press and rejection from country music they faced after lead singer Natalie Maines made an anti-Bush comment during a London concert. No back peddling here though. The band is united, defiant, and moving on. The dark song peaks during the middle section, which grows with intensity with each word: "made my bed and I sleep like a baby with no regrets and I don't mind saying it's a sad sad story when a mother will teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger. And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge that they'd write me a letter saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over." Then this is followed by a powerful burst of strings--the music pushing through the hatred. It's so lovely and perfect and still gives me chills, even though I've heard it 28 times (according to iTunes).

With highlights like that you hardly need anything more, yet this album continues to deliver. "Easy Silence" is a lovely piano and acoustic guitar ballad with a middle strings section. "Everybody Knows" is more traditionally country sounding and is good too. "Bitter End" is a kiss off to the departed country fans ("farewell to old friends..."). The song's ending is a double entendre--leaving the door open, but also saying we can go on without you thank you very much ("We'll still be here when you come 'round again").

"Lullaby" is the album's quietest moment, the three mothers taking a break to sing about their children. I didn't like this song at first--it is very slow--but it grew on me with time after its tenderness and lovely strings section won me over. It's a nice contrast to the harder moments, spanning the emotional range of the album.

Rollicking "Lubbock or Leave It" takes Maines back to her Texas home town, which she is clearly glad to have left ("...this is the only place where, as you're getting' on the plane, you see Buddy Holly's face. I hear they hate me now just like they hated you. Maybe when I'm dead and gone I'm gonna get a statue too"). She describes it as "Dust bowl, Bible belt, Got more churches than trees."

Other highlights include "Voice Inside My Head," a collaboration with Linda Perry about accepting life's tough choices. "Silent House," which features Neil Finn of Crowded House, addresses Alzheimer's, and maintains the rock/country mix that dominates the album. "I Hope," the last track, has a Norah Jones vibe about it.

The recurrent blend of guitar, bass, banjo, and strings is really winning rich production upon which the Dixie Chicks weave their lovely harmonies and tell their amazing stories. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this album, which only gets better with successive listens.

Best: Not Ready to Make Nice, The Long Way Around, Easy Silence, Everybody Knows, Bitter End, Voice Inside My Head, Lullaby, Lubbock or Leave It, Silent House, I Hope

Album Review: The Fratellis - Costello Music (4.5 / 5)

The Fratellis are a Scottish rock band from Glascow that broke out big last year with Costello Music and its raucous first singles "Henrietta" and "Chelsea Dagger." The album evokes boozy nights in the local club and the album plays like a live setlist. They're no doubt great live, and that their energy transfers to their first album so effortlessly is a tribute to them.

"Henrietta" kicks it off in high style and gets you moving; can't you just see the kids thrusting up and down to this? "Flathead," used in iPod advertisments, gets you moving too and is even better. "Cuntry Boys and City Girls" bursts forth with horns and guitar blasts. This is music for the masses with glasses (of ale).

"Chelsea Dagger" is another highlight. The plodding bassline demands you move along with it and the chanting refrain demands you sing along too. (FYI: "Chelsea" refers to lead singer/guitarist John Lawler's wife). Energetic "Creeping up the Backstairs," which was chosen to lead the band's first EP last April, is frenetic and breezy at the same time. "For the Girl" occupies a similar vein of upbeat energy and fast singing, along with a good dose of "la la las," which permeate most songs.

"Baby Fratelli" also has that sing-along dance-along quality and has a particularly powerful chorus. It's near the end of the album, so by then the wasted crowd would probably be up for anything. As British as this album is, it has some significant American influences too, including country, whose twangy sound shows up on cheeky "Vince the Loveable Stoner."

As fun as the party songs are, the quieter/slower ones are good too. "Whistle for the Choir" provides a lovely resting point early in the album. "Doginabag," slower, but definitely not quieter, has a darker vibe than most of the tracks. As does "Got Na Nuts from a Hippie." "Ole Black 'n' Blue Eyes" closes the album on a nice mellow vibe.

Personally, I much prefer this to the Arctic Monkeys. It's a little more polished, but still retains enough rough edges to make it sound fresh. The songs are more melodic and more interesting too. That the band has managed no less than seven singles from this album is a testament to its staying power.

Best: Chelsea Dagger, Flathead, Henrietta, Whistle for the Choir, Baby Fratelli, Ole Black N Blue Eyes