Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What Madonna album are you?

Inspired by my friend, I invented a Quiz Farm quiz: What Madonna album are you?


Personal Chart, 11/31/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Bleeding Love - Leona Lewis (5 weeks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... 2 Hearts - Kylie Minogue
3 .... 3 .... Apologize - Timbaland Featuring OneRepublic
4 .... 4 .... Valerie - Mark Ronson Featuring Amy Winehouse (1 wk @ #1)
5 .... 5 .... Rule the World - Take That
6 .... 6 .... Saving My Face - KT Tunstall
7 .... 8 .... Hate that I Love You - Rihanna Featuring Ne-Yo
8 .... 9 .... Bubbly - Colbie Caillat
9 ... 12 ... Clumsy - Fergie
10 .. 28 .. Call the Shots - Girls Aloud

Sunday, November 25, 2007

UK Chart Notes

1. Once again holding off the tide of challengers, young Leona Lewis stays on top of the singles chart for a fifth week with "Bleeding Love." She now ties Mika's "Grace Kelly" for the second longest running #1. Rihanna's "Umbrella" is still way out in front with 10 weeks at the top. So where then are the Spice Girls? Read on...

2. Dance act T2 (feat. Jodie) lands at #2 with "Heartbroken." This sounds like the kind of song that would have been big in the late '90s or early '00s. Strange to hear it now, but it's not bad.

6. While last year's X Factor winner continues to rule the roost, 2005's winner, 23-year old Shayne Ward, continues to wear out his welcome, this week debuting at #6 with "Breathless," his 5th top 40 hit, and 4th to reach the top 10. Musically, it's nice enough, but lyrically, it's pretty silly. Something about having a baby with a girl so he can watch her create something. Why not get her a watercolor set instead? To think this beat the Spice Girls. Ouch.

9. This is a surprise, and good one. Girls Aloud's new album, Tangled Up (see review below) came out this week, but "Call the Shots" doesn't get an official release until next week, so its debut this week at #9 on downloads is a realy good showing.

11. Ouch! Let me say that again...ouch! Capping a career that saw them hit #1 nine times, and #2 with a 10th single, the Spice Girls finally reunited this year to tour and release their greatest hits. The release of a new single from them sound have been big. It should have been just as big (if not bigger really) than the reunion comeback of Take That, who've scored two #1 hits in the last year off that. But no, the love for the Spice Girls is gone, and they land their first single ever outside the top 2 all the way down....at #11 for "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)." Ouch.

24. Soulja Boy had a recent big US #1 hit with "Crank That (Soulja Boy)," and this week the single moves into the UK top 40 at #24 on downloads. It's not officially out until December 17, so expect this to build over the next month.

Next week: Looks like it will be a 6th week at #1 for Leona. Sean Kingston, who had a big #1 earlier this year with "Beautiful Girls" will try to unseat her with "Me Love." Also out, new singles from The Editors ("Racing Rats"), Uniting Nations ("Do It Yourself") and the fantastic new Girls Aloud single, "Call the Shots."

Album Review: Girls Aloud - Tangled Up (4.5 / 5)

While the Sugababes continue to be Britain's reigning girl group, Girls Aloud continue to nip at their heels. Sure the Sugababes have bigger hits, but recently they've begun to rest on their laurels. In 2005 both groups released albums. The 'Babes scored a massive #1 with "Push the Button," and while the first half of Taller in More Ways, was great, the second half was a bore. The Girls meanwhile saw their luck on singles chart falter. After a consistent string of top 5 hits, only one single from Chemistry, "Biology," earned that honor. Despite that, Chemistry was the more consistent and better album of the two, showing a good degree of innovation, but an unfortunate lack of hooks.

Fast-forward to 2007 where both groups again have new albums, and prior to their release, the pop landscape looked poised for a repeat. Sugababes first single, "About You Now" became another smash, spending a month at #1, while the Girls Aloud single, "Sexy! No No No..." only made #5 and fell quickly down the chart.

Then the albums arrived. Sugababes' Change received mixed reviews, and based on the 30-second sample clips, sounded like it was going to be a repeat of their last album: a few great tracks, but too much filler. I'm looking forward to future singles, particularly "Never Gonna Dance Again," but so far, I haven't felt inclined to purchase Change. On the other hand, Tangled Up, the fourth Girls Aloud album, has received stellar reviews, so even though I didn't love Chemistry, I thought I'd give it a try. I wasn't disappointed.

Tangled Up is the best Girls Aloud album yet, effectively addressing the shortcomings of Chemistry while maintaining the band's signature propulsive pop sound, courtesy of production team Xenomania. Notably, they've dispensed with the balladry, which was never the group's strength, and the songs continue to display pop production innovation but with better hooks.

The first half of the album is particularly good, although there isn't a bad track here. "Call the Shots," restrained for a Girls Aloud track, pulses with '80s synths, a dark sound, and a knockout chorus. Spunky "Close to Love" screams "release me!" and crackles with a production layered between synths and electric guitar. First single "Sexy! No No No..." opens with a swirl of keyboard and vocoder vocals before exploding forth with beats and guitar. The band's signature energy doesn't let up for "Girl Overboard," a slice of Europop.

Then there's "Can't Speak French," my favorite song here. Not as high-energy as the other tracks, but very cool. I love the unusual beat and slinky groove, plus the lyric: "I can't speak French, so I let the funky music do the talking, talking now."

What's great about this album is that it feels very cohesive, but no two songs sound alike. "Black Jacks" has a rock vibe and a pounding chorus. "Control of the Knife" goes for a Caribbean sound with that reggae keyboard beat, although faster than I've usually heard it. "Fling" is quite the concoction. It opens with a sound effect like the Star Trek transporter and is layered with fuzzy keyboard and guitars over a fast dance beat.

"Falling" hits hard with low bursts of something--synths? guitar? synth-guitar? Whatever it is, it's great, coupled with another strong chorus. The only ones I don't like as much are "What You Crying For," which is fine, but doesn't stand out for any reason, and "Crocodile Tears," which, because it's mid-tempo, is the album's slowest track. These are not bad songs by any means, just not gems.

It's been 3 years since Girls Aloud had a proper #1 hit (not counting their Sugagabes collaboration remake of "Walk This Way" earlier this year), and as good as this album is, I don't think any of these songs is going to change that. No one track stands out with the kind of attention-seeking character of a #1 single, but I'd much rather have an album of interesting pop songs than spend $16 on something that only gives me a handful of tracks I like. Besides, they seem to be having too much fun being Xenomania play things to care.

Best: Can't Speak French, Call the Shots, Close to Love, Sexy! No No No..., Black Jacks, Fling, Girl Overboard, I'm Falling, Control of the Knife

Thursday, November 22, 2007

US Chart Notes

  • Alicia Keys scores her third #1 hit this week as "No One" ascends to the top spot, ending the 3-week run at #1 for Chris Brown and T-Pain's "Kiss Kiss." Her album, As I Am, is also #1 this week. This is the third week this year that an artist has topped both charts, following May 5th when Avril Lavigne was #1 with single "Girlfriend" and album The Best Damn Thing, and September 29 when Kanye West was #1 with "Stronger" and Graduation.
  • For the second week, T-Pain has four singles in the top 10, albeit all ones where he is a guest on other artists tracks. He's at #2 with Chris Brown on "Kiss Kiss," #4 with Flo Rida on "Low," #7 with Kanye West on "The Good Life" and #9 with Baby Bash on "Cyclone."
  • Fergie's "Clumsy" moves up four spots to #8, giving her a fifth consecutive top 10 hit from The Dutchess. The last female artist to score five top 10 hits from her debut album was Paula Abdul, who achieved the feat between 1989 and 1990 with Forever Your Girl, which saw four of those five top 10s go all the way to #1. Similarly, Fergie's singles aren't lower rung top 10s either; she's had three #1s so far and one #2. This puts Fergie ahead of marquee names like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and Beyonce, whose debuts only netted four top 10s. Very few artists have had five or more top 10 hits from one album over the last 20 years, particularly this decade. The ones I can think of besides Paula: Michael Jackson - Bad (6), George Michael - Faith (6), Whitney Houston - Whitney (5), New Kids on the Block - Hangin' Tough (5), Milli Vanilli - Girl You Know It's True (5), Janet Jackson - Rhythm Nation (7) and Janet (6), Usher - Confessions (5).
  • Biggest mover in the top 40 this week is Natasha Bedingfield (feat. Sean Kingston), who moves up nine spots to #27 with "Love Like This." This is Bedingfield's third top 40 hit, following "These Words" (#17) and "Unwritten" (#5). That puts her one hit ahead of her big brother Daniel, who's had two top 40 hits, "Gotta Get Thru This" (#10) and "If You're Not the One (#15).
  • Finally, Carrie Underwood further extends the amazing longevity of "Before He Cheats" to 64 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100. That puts her in third place for the longest-running single ever after Leann Rimes' "How Do I Love" (69 weeks), and Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me"/"Foolish Games" (65 weeks). As Billboard's Fred Bronson points out, the single might not last much longer, since a lot of its airplay is coming from adult contemporary stations, which typically shift formats to Christmas music around now. This week the single falls four spots to #47. If it falls four more next week, it will be removed from the chart.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Album Review: Seal - System (3/5)

I wasn't interested in Seal's latest album until I heard it was produced by Stuart Price, aka Jacques Lu Cont, aka The Thin White Duke, aka the producer that put Madonna back on top of the charts with Confessions on a Dancefloor 2 years ago. Since I love that album, I was excited this might be good.

As it turns out, the results are okay, not great. To be honest, It plays like a lightweight retread of Confessions. Clearly intentionally. Even the cover, featuring Seal's face converted into a mirrorball, is reminiscent of the Confessions cover of Madonna surrounded by reflected mirrorball light. The first track, "If It's in My Mind, It's on My Face," sounds like typical Seal, albeit with a higher BPM. Lyrically, he still favors broadly metaphorical cliches like "If I could fly, I'd spread my wings." Wouldn't we all? It's alright, but nothing special. The remix of current single "Amazing" is the second track, actually preceding the standard version which comes last, likely because the remix fits in with the dance sound of the album better. The regular single mix is better, a pretty decent song in fact.

The tracks that remind me most of Madonna's album are probably my favorites. Guitar-backed "Just Like Before" is engaging, although a little repetitive. Synth-heavy "The Right Life" reminds me of "Get Together," my favorite Confessions track, so of course its one of my favorites here. Title track "System" has vaguely Radiohead-esque touches (I'm talking modern electronic Radiohead here) like the intro and heavily distorted backing vocals. I like the heavy use of electronic keyboards here. This is a decent song, and it's too bad more of the album isn't this good.
In comparison, other up-tempo tracks lack spark though. Take "Loaded." It has a promising bass line, but there's not much to the song, making me feel like there's something missing. "Dumb" has interesting guitars, but a terrible chorus "dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb." Yes it is.
Then there's bland "Wedding Day," which features a guest appearance from Seal's wife, reality TV star Heidi "You're Out" Klum. I do love Project Runway, but this I cannot endorse. If Project Runway Canada host Iman was around she would say, "Heidi, when it comes to pop music, you just don't measure up."
Unlike on Confessions on a Dancefloor, the party ends with "Rolling" and "Immaculate" Ballads heavy on acoustic guitar and synths. Although neither tracks are standouts, they sound more like the familiar Seal of "Kiss from a Rose" AC territory. I know Seal cut his teeth on dance music ("Crazy" is probably his best song), but he made himself a superstar on adult pop.
So Seal tried on the Stuart Price sound and it just didn't fit. He's too middle-of-the-road for this, and I don't mean that as a bad thing. Seal's made some pretty great music--I still love his second album Seal (1994)--but he should stick with what works for him.

Best: System, The Right Life, Amazing, Just Like Before

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Personal Chart, 11/24/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Bleeding Love - Leona Lewis (4 wks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... 2 Hearts - Kylie Minogue
3 .... 3 .... Apologize - Timbaland Feat. OneRepublic
4 .... 4 .... Valerie - Mark Ronson Feat. Amy Winehouse (1 wk @ #1)
5 .... 5 .... Rule the World - Take That
6 ... 16 ... Saving My Face - KT Tunstall
7 .... 7 ..... Hot Stuff (Let's Dance) - Craig David
8 .... 9 .... Hate that I Love You - Rihanna Feat. Ne-Yo
9 ... 10 ... Bubbly - Colbie Caillat
10 .. 12 .. Headlines (Friendship Never Ends) - Spice Girls

Listening to these days....

  • "Flux" Bloc Party. This frenetic dance track fits in with the sound of A Weekend in the City, but far more dance-oriented than anything on the album. One of their best singles, in my opinion.
  • "Until the End of Time" Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. Adding Beyonce to this--the sixth release from Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds--feels like a gimmick. She doesn't real add anything to the song other than her name, but having this decade's two hottest boy/girl band turned singers together on one track is a treat. It's today's equivalent to Michael Jackson and Diana Ross getting together and covering a sultry Prince ballad. Shamelessly fantastic.
  • "Rockferry" Duffy. Expect Duffy to pop up on all the lists of who the pundits think will make it big in 2008. This first taste of her raspy, retro-60s pop definitely has me interested in her album. The next Amy Winehouse? Perhaps.
  • "Call the Shots" Girls Aloud. Girls Aloud may have finally made an album I really like (Tangled Up, released yesterday). This second single is more conventional than "Sexy!...No No No," but no less enticing. It has a stronger '80s vibe, but still a modern europop undercurrent. Surely a Xenomania production.
  • "The Racing Rats" The Editors. Overall, the album was only so-so, but this is one of An End Has a Start's better songs. I love the "surface of the Earth" refrain, for whatever reason.
  • "Saving My Face" KT Tunstall. Another good mid-tempo pop song from the Scot singer. I read something on-line about this being about preventing middle age women from ruining themselves with plastic surgery. Very funny.
  • "Sing" Annie Lennox and Friends. Apart from the PSA at the beginning and the folksy ending this is a decent pop song. Funny how audible Madonna is, despite being in a "choir of 23." Did she edge everyone else away from the mic? Probably.
  • "Baby When the Light" David Guetta Feat. Cozi. This is another cool dance song from Guetta. Sounds amazing like Dannii Minogue's "All I Wanna Do."
  • "Love's Not a Competition (But I'm Winning)" Kaiser Chiefs. One of the better tracks from a great album. It's not getting an official release, but it has been getting airplay lately.
  • "Love Is a Losing Game" Amy Winehouse. Sounds like Amy and the Kaisers could have quite the debate about the game of love. Leave it to them and enjoy the songs. This haunting one took on a deeper meaning in the fall when it became the first performance from Winehouse after weeks of cancellations. Her rendition at the Mercury Prize award show was quite stunning. Considering all the trouble her husband's been in and out of lately, the lyrics are pretty poignant too. This is the fifth single from Back to Black.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

UK Chart Notes

  • These days nothing can stop Leona Lewis. She earns the UK triple crown chart award this week (if such award existed), topping the singles chart, the airplay chart and the albums chart. Ka-ching. "Bleeding Love" further solidifies itself as the UK's biggest hit this year, spending a fourth week at #1, beating out competition from Take That, Timbaland, and Kylie Minogue--more on her in a minute. The song also spends a second week at #1 at radio. Over on the album's chart, Leona's debut, Spirit, sold an amazing 375,000 copies, breaking the record previously held by Arctic Monkeys for most records sold in the first week by a debut artist. I feel I've devoted more than a fair share of ink to Leona lately, but in the English-speaking pop music world, there is no bigger story right now.
  • Coming in at a disappointing #4 is Kylie Minogue, with what was supposed to be her big comeback single, "2 Hearts." Even with Leona around, this single should have easily snagged #2. That it also gets beaten by Take That and Timbaland shows that many of her fans are taking a pass on this. A pity, for although different, it's a cool song. Put in perspective this is certainly not the worst a first single from a Kylie album has done. "The Word is Out" and "What Kind of Fool" missed the top 10, and "Some Kind of Bliss" peaked at a lousy #22. But given that she's hit #1 five times with an album's first single, and #2 three times, I was expecting better. Let's hope X fares better on the albums chart when it comes out in 8 days.
  • British indie group Bloc Party earns a top 10 hit at #8 with "Flux." The very up-tempo single was added to A Weekend in the City for a digital re-release out tomorrow. This is the band's 4th top 10 hit, the last being this album's first single, "The Prayer," which hit #4 earlier this year.
  • An oddity at #9, Scottish folk group Runrig earns their first top 10 hit with a recording of Scottish folk song "Loch Lomond." This version of the song features the Tartan Army singers, which is some sort of sports thing (football, aka soccer).
  • Spice Girls backpedal three spots to #23 with "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)." Not a good sign, although they are sure to rebound into the top 10 next weekend, following physical release tomorrow. Still, if Kylie couldn't depose Leona, I doubt this single will be able to. After slipping a bit last week on the airplay chart, they reach a new peak there at #16.
  • Amy Winehouse scores a chart oddity for a second week in a row. Last week with charted with two versions of "Valerie." This week, her April single "Back to Black" makes a surprise return to the chart at #30. This is actually the second-highest the song has charted--it peaked only at #25. She is also still up at #5 with "Valerie." Not sure why "Back to Black" is suddenly popular again; perhaps because her husband was jailed this week and people feel sorry for her?
  • Another oddity at #37. Led Zeppelin's most famous song, "Stairway to Heaven" finally charts on the UK singles chart. It is only their second top 40 single, after "Whole Lotta Love" hit #21 in 1997. Despite their fame, they are an albums act. The occasion is the release of Mothership, a hits compilation, coupled with this year's new UK chart rules that allows any track to chart, regardless of whether its a physical single release.
  • Outside the top 40, Hard-Fi flops at #45 with "Can't Get Along (Without You)," surely a bitter disappointment after their last single, "Suburban Knights" was their highest-charting single. Also a flop, the new Duran Duran single, "Falling Down," which limps onto the chart at #52, one place above their lowest charting single ever, "Someone Else Not Me."
  • Finally, Leona Lewis, lands four of her album's other tracks within the top 75, led by "Whatever It Takes" at #61, followed by "Footprints in the Sand" at #65, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" at #73 and "A Moment Like This" reappears at #74.
  • Next week the Spice Girls will try to unseat Leona Lewis with their first single in 7 years, "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)." T2 Featuring Jodie might have better luck with "Heartbroken," which debuted at #14 on downloads this week. Also out, new singles from KT Tunstall ("Saving My Face"), Justin Timberlake and Beyonce ("Until the End of Time"), Shayne Ward ("Breathless"), Se:Sa Featuring Sharon Phillips ("Like This Like That"), Reverend and the Makers ("Open Your Window"), Maroon 5 ("Won't Go Home Without You"), and Athlete ("Tokyo").

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Album Review: Leona Lewis - Spirit (4 / 5)

It's not too often a new artist gets a launch as spectacular as this. After winning last year's third season of The X Factor, the British answer to American Idol, Leona Lewis put out the obligatory first single that became Christmas #1, an unremarkable remake of Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This." The single sold over half a million copies in one week, quickly becoming the second-best selling single of the year. Leona then went dormant for the better part of this year, crafting her debut album.

Calculating is more like it. Having caught the eye of Clive Davis, America's most prominent music mogul, Davis and Simon Cowell of X Factor and American Idol fame, teamed up to assemble an army of pop music's latest and greatest to ensure Leona's debut would be a success. For success is no guarantee, as Pop Idol, American Idol and X Factor winners have learned. Sure you have Will Young, Kelly Clarkson, and Carrie Underwood. But then you also have Michelle McManus, Steve Brookstein, and Taylor Hicks. Winning a reality show and getting a quick #1 are a nice boost, but you need to follow it with a proper launch to became a sensation.

Intriguingly, the list of producers and songwriters is heavier on Americans than Brits--an indication of where Sony BMG sees this project heading long term--and includes such names as Dallas Austin (Madonna, TLC, Michael Jackson, Sugababes, etc.), Walter Afanasieff (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion), J.R. Rotem (Rihanna, Sean Kingston), Stargate (Beyonce, Ne-Yo), Dr. Luke (Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne), Billy Steinberg (Whitney Houston, The Bangles, Heart, Celine Dion), and Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic, Jennifer Lopez, Natasha Bedingfield). Basically, you could trace the origin of a good number of the biggest hits of the last 20 years to the group responsible for Spirit. It's the most remarkable pop music production team I've ever seen assembled for one album, and interestingly doesn't include some of the British staples like Cathy Dennis, Guy Chambers, or Stephen Lipson.

The template chosen for Leona is appropriately Mariah Carey, the most successful female pop artist of the last 20 years, having scored 17 #1 hits in the US since her 1990 debut. The parallels are worth noting. Both scored their first hits fairly young--Leona at 21 last year and Carey at 20 with "Vision of Love." Both come from mixed race parentage (black fathers and white mothers) and grew up in their countries' largest urban areas, New York and London. Leona even looks a bit like Carey did 17 years ago, courting a youthful but sensible image, her hair in long blonde-kissed corkscrew curls. Lewis apparently won a talent show in her early teen years, performing Carey's "Always Be My Baby."

On Spirit she sounds like Carey too (particularly early '90s Carey), commanding an impressive vocal range over a varied but safe collection of slow to mid-tempo pop that leans ever so slightly adult, ever so slightly urban, without going too far in either those directions. First single "Bleeding Love" recalls "Vision of Love" for being dramatic and instantly striking, as it is different enough to stand out from the current pack of hits, but similar (and likable) enough to guarantee airplay (it is currently #1 on the UK radio chart). The melodic track pulses with strong bass drums, strings, and a great hook, despite its surgical lyrics ("you cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep keep bleeding love").

"Bleeding Love" is the album's best cut, but there other good ones, ensuring that Leona has a few more hits (possibly #1s) to look forward to next year. Second track "Whatever It Takes" is a winning upbeat track, scored with mostly strings and other acoustic instruments, recalling Des'ree's "You Gotta Be." The album's other good up-tempo track is "The Best You Never Had," marked by strong beats, guitar, and a strong chorus. It's written by Billy Steinberg, and is not too unlike the track he wrote for Jojo that was a hit last year, "Too Little, Too Late." Two other somewhat uptempo numbers, are fine, but not as good. "Angel," a Stargate production whose sound is instantly recognizable (they did Beyonce's "Irreplaceable") is inoffensive, but not distinctive. Same goes for urban sounding "I'm You."

The rest of the album is slower songs, many of which are quite good, but not all. "Homeless" opens with piano in a haunting minor key expanding with a full orchestra for the choruses, reminiscent of Christina Aguilera-type stuff like "Beautiful" or "Hurt." Leona is effectively restrained for most of the song, letting loose a tingling vocal assault for the middle section when the drums kick in. The song effectively showcases Lewis as a proficient singer, not just a studio-enhanced product.

"Take a Bow," like "Bleeding Love" is co-written and produced by Ryan Tedder, the lead singer of band OneRepublic currently enjoying a massive international hit, "Apologize," thanks to a re-work by Timbaland. Tim's influence on Tedder is apparent here. "Take a Bow" is a beat heavy ballad with a strong dramatic chorus, not unlike "Apologize."

The piano and string backed "Better in Time" is an obvious choice for a future single. So is "I Will Be," another piano and string backed ballad that kicks it up with drums and guitar at the first chorus and builds to a big rock climax and Carey-worth high note. "Yesterday" recalls the smooth urban groove of Carey's comeback hit "We Belong Together," but with a richer string-driven ending. Lovely "Footprints in the Sand" is worthwhile too, if you like a good dramatic ballad with lots of strings and a chord change power ending complete with choir. It's a cliche I know, but it works. Less interesting are ballads "Here I Am," which producer/songwriter Afanasieff makes sound too much like his 1993 Carey hit "Hero," and an unneeded remake of "The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face." The album closes with a bonus cut of "A Moment Like This," which presumably will be omitted from any US release.

The extent to which I can easily compare these songs to big hits by others acts underscores how safe the production is here. These songs are designed to be hits, and in many cases they already have been in slightly altered form. By having them assembled by such en esteemed group of musical craftsmen, it's like the music industry is saying that newbie Lewis is good enough to stand with the likes of our most successful performers. It makes for a good, but not great album, similar to the debuts by Will Young and Kelly Clarkson. I am hopeful, that just as those two did, Leona will soon put out a better second album, the first in a possibly long pop career. Who knows? Perhaps ten years from now Leona will hand out popsicles on MTV Europe, the press will catalog her rise and fall, and then she'll surprise us all with a remarkable comeback, The Emancipation of Li-Li. Like the promo for Battlestar Galactica: Razor (Sci-Fi next Saturday night) says: "All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

Best: Bleeding Love, Whatever It Takes, Take a Bow, Homeless, The Best You Never Had, I Will Be, Better in Time, Yesterday, Footprints in the Sand

Friday, November 16, 2007

Channel 4's take on Taking Chances

Perhaps it's because I have a few margaritas in me, but I found Channel 4's Michael Baggs' music blog critique of the cover of Celine Dion's latest single, "Taking Chances," to be quite funny. Original here, reprint here:

Ten things we find frightening about this picture:

1. That hair. It's less of a 'style' and more of an 'assault'. It looks as if she could walk away and it would stay where it was. Either that or she has unsuccessfully attempted to re-wire her house.

2. That crooked arm. That is not a position arms naturally find themsleves in.

3. The absence of a second arm. Really, where is it? Perhaps she's inviting fans to draw in an arm of their choosing.

4. That pose. She couldn't look more uncomfortable if she had her fist in her mouth and one foot behind her head. Is her right leg resting on an invisible Chihuahua?

5. It's completely grey. Even her skin is grey. How does skin become grey?

6. She looks like she could do with some dinner. As usual.

7. Although saying that, despite her slight frame she still couldn't find a jacket that fits.

8. She did manage to find some trousers to fit, although when was the last time you saw anyone wearing flares? Celine's obviously so excited by the return of the Happy Mondays she's spearheading the baggy revival.

9. That little boob is dangerously close to putting in an unwanted appearance - which would be like catching your nan getting out of the bath.

0. We cannot help but wonder what 'chances' Celine is taking on the new album? Other than threatening to get her little boob out, we would guess the answer to that question is 'very few'.

However, saying all that, the 'Taking Chances' single is quite good. It's an understated mid-tempo ballad and has nothing to do with great big boats crashing into floating slabs of the arctic. Hurrah!

Personal Chart, 11/17/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Bleeding Love - Leona Lewis (3 weeks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... 2 Hearts - Kylie Minogue
3 .... 3 .... Apologize - Timbaland Featurng OneRepublic
4 .... 5 .... Valerie - Mark Ronson Feat. Amy Winehouse (1 wk @ #1)
5 .... 4 .... Rule the World - Take That
6 ... 10 ... Can't Get Along (Without You) - Hard-Fi
7 ... 13 ... Hot Stuff (Let's Dance) - Craig David
8 .... 6 .... About You Now - Sugababes (2 wks @ #1)
9 .... 9 .... Hate that I Love You - Rihanna Featuring Ne-Yo
10 .. 11 .. Bubbly - Colbie Caillat

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Spice Girls: Greatest Hits

The Spice Girls Greatest Hits was released this week in the UK and the US. Thankfully, they do it right here: you get all of the group's singles, including the less popular track of their two double-A side singles, plus two new tracks, the current single, "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)" and "Voodoo." Both the new tracks have a production in-line with most of their singles--i.e. they sound more like "2 Become 1" and "Move Over" than "Holler." The tracks are sequenced in order of release, save for "Goodbye," which comes appropriately at the end. Here's a closer look at the hits:

1. Wannabe (UK #1, US #1)
Their first single remains their signature piece. It took the UK by storm in 1996, spending 7 weeks at #1, and followed suit in the US a year later, topping the Billboard Hot 100 for 4 weeks. According to Wikipedia, it topped charts in 22 countries. It was their biggest hit in both countries, and won the Brit Award for best single of 1996. The song is upbeat but not clubby europop, sassy, includes a little section to introduce each girl, and is over in under 3 minutes. What more could you ask for?
2. Say You'll Be There (UK #1, US #3)
This more urban sounding second single was another massive hit. After the frothy debut single, releasing something a little mainstream was a good move, especially in the US, where it was an even bigger hit at top 40 radio than "Wannabe."
3. 2 Become 1 (UK #1, US #4)
Despite the hi-energy image, a big chunk of the Spice Girls hits were ballads, and very accomplished at that. My end of summer 1997 was dominated by this and the Backstreet Boys' US breakout, "Quit Playing Games (with My Heart)." Having already shown they can do eurpop and pop/R&B, this string-laden track was bid for the adult pop market, and it became a top 10 hit on the Billboard AC chart, in addition to giving them another pop success. This single was the 1996 Christmas #1 in the UK, the first of three such consecutive honors.
4. Mama / Who Do You Think You Are (UK #1)
This single was never released in the US, as "Spice Up Your Life" was released right after "2 Become 1" in order to promote Spiceworld, a result of Spice having been delayed a year in the US, but Spiceworld was not, so both albums were released in 1997 within 9 months of each other. In the UK, it was another massive hit, further showing the group's ability to conquer a variety of pop styles. "Mama" was another ballad, more earnest than "2 Become 1" and backed by guitar rather than strings. "Who Do You Think You Are" was a stomping pop track with a clubby disco beat, and the bigger of the two at UK radio. The single was 1997's UK Comic Relief charity release.
5. Spice Up Your Life (UK #1, US #18)
The first Spiceworld single was another big hit in the UK, but stumbled in the US. Not content to just copy the winning formula of "Wannabe" or another Spice hit, "Spice Up Your Life" had a distinctive Latin flavor, "Samba-pop" according to Wikipedia. The frenetic production was fitting for the zany image the group courted.
6. Too Much (UK #1, US #8)
"Too Much" is another string-backed ballad, a la "2 Become 1," but musically superior and with more of a girl-group swing to it. It was the band's second consecutive Christmas #1 in the UK, and was still all over the radio when I went to study abroad in London in January '98 (this single was actually the first music purchase I made in the UK).
7. Stop (UK #2, US #16)
"Stop" ended the group's run of consecutive #1 hits, capping that at six, a record at the time for a debut artist, although surpassed by Westlife in 2000 who had seven. The single is also in the '60s girl group groove, a la Supremes, although peppy and upbeat. My friend Erin and I have a little dance we did to this one (okay, we still do it when prompted).
8. Viva Forever (UK #1)
If you've read this far then you're probably not a Spice Girls detractor, but even if you are, you should try to give this song an honest listen, for it is a remarkably beautiful pop ballad. Like "Spice Up Your Life" the song has an obvious Latin influence, but its very different from that song. Spanish guitars play throughout, a lush string solo comes in during the middle 8 and stays around for the final choruses, and the vocals are solid. It was originally intended as a double-A side with "Never Give Up on the Good Times," but Geri's departure shortly before its release caused the record company to release "Viva Forever" by itself.
9. Goodbye (UK #1, US #11)
This one-off single, later included as bonus track on Forever, was the first Spice Girls hit recorded without Geri, and was promoted as a send-off tribute to her. It became their third consecutive UK Christmas #1 in 1998 and their final US hit. It's another strings backed ballad, this time was a slight R&B hilt. Good, but paled in comparison to "Viva Forever" or "Too Much."
10. Holler / Let Love Lead the Way (UK #1)
This double-A side release was the first and only single released from the Spice Girls' third and final album Forever. Sans Geri and sporting an edgier R&B sound produced by Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins, the album was a bomb, even though this was a #1. The upbeat "Holler" was the clearly bigger song here. It's not a bad song, but it just doesn't sound like Spice Girls, having more in common with Jerkins' other hits of the day, such as Brandy & Monica's "The Boy is Mine," Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right, But It's Okay" or Jennifer Lopez' "If You Had My Love." "Let Love Lead the Way" is tepid, the weakest ballad they ever put out a single. With Melanie C scoring #1 hits and the others working on their various solo projects, the group no longer felt like a group, and no other singles were released.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Spice Girls: Then to Now

The Spice Girls Greatest Hits album has finally hit shelves. Therefore I'm celebrating all things Spice Girls this week. Who doesn't like the Spice Girls? I remember in spring 1997 when "Wannabe" took the charts by storm, followed quickly by "Say You'll Be There" and "2 Become One." Their debut album Spice was a massive seller across the world, and was quickly followed by Spiceworld, an album and soundtrack to their December '97 film. When I was abroad in London in 1998, "Too Much," the '97 Christmas #1, was just wrapping up its chart run. Vibrant "Stop" came out a couple of months later, the sole Spice Girls single that didn't hit #1--it was stopped at the top by the revival remix of Run-DMC's "It's Like That," which was taking Britain by storm that spring.
By Christmas 1998 things had started to change. During the summer, just before "Viva Forever" became their 7th #1 hit, Geri "Ginger" Halliwell announced she was leaving the band. The remaining four girls paid tribute to her with "Goodbye," their 8th number 1, but it was the beginning of the end. In 2000 they released their third album, Forever, which took their sound in a new more contemporary R&B direction. It didn't work. And although "Holler" was their 9th and final #1 hit, there were no more singles, and the album was a flop.
So what have the girls been up to since then? My guide below charts the highs and lows of what the five ladies have done with their non-Spice Girls careers. Collectively they've scored eight #1 hits, released 13 albums (and recorded a 14th that has never seen the light of day), had 3 husbands, 4 kids (only one of which was with any of the 3 husbands), and 38 top 40 hits. Starting from the top and going clockwise around the picture up top, here's what they've been up:
Victoria "Posh" Adams Beckham
Despite being arguably the most famous Spice Girl, Victoria's music career has been--ironically--the most dreadful. Wikipedia in fact describes her vocation not as a musician or entertainer but as an "internationally recognised and photographed style icon, socialite, and entrepreneur." Right.
Music: Victoria's biggest hit was appearing as vocalist on dance act Truesteppers' "Out of Your Mind," a #2 hit in 2000. She also had two top 10 hits from her only album, Victoria Beckham. A double A-side single "This Groove"/"Let Your Head Go" hit #3 in early 2003, but its parent album, Open Your Eyes, was never released.
Best known for: Marrying David Beckham, shopping, wearing sunglasses
Friends with: Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes
Melanie "Scary" Brown
Mel B has probably had the lowest profile of any Spice Girl. Practically forgotten until she grabbed tabloids last year by having Eddie Murphy's baby, her second child. She married someone else in June of this year.
Music: Mel B was actually the first Spice Girl to step out solo, collaborating with Missy Elliott in 1998 on "I Want You Back," a #1 hit. She's had a couple of other top 10 hits, two albums (in 2000 and 2005), but nothing else really of note.
Best known for: Having Eddie Murphy's baby
Friends with: Eddie Murphy
Emma "Baby" Bunton
At first, Emma Bunton didn't look like she was going to do anything interesting, and then she went and made a cool album with a '60s sheen before Amy Winehouse made it cool.
Music: Emma's first solo outing was a collaboration with well known dance act Tin Tin Out, who remade Edie Brickell's "What I Am" and took it to #2 in 1999. Emma followed that in 2000 with her debut album A Girl Like Me which scored a #1 single in "What Too You So Long." Her second album though was a real winner, perhaps the most highly regarded album by a Spice Girl. Free Me embodies a fun '60s motown sound, and gave Emma three more top 10 hits, including "Free Me" and "Maybe." Her similarly retro third album, Life in Mono, was a comparative flop, despite having the top 10 hit charity single "Downtown," a remake of the Petula Clark classic. She and her boyfriend had a baby in August.
Best known for: The retro cool album Free Me
Friends with: Justin Timberlake
Geri "Ginger" Halliwell
Geri was the flashiest member of the Spice Girls, so it wasn't such a shock that she was the first to ditch the group for a solo career, since in 1998, her prospects were the brightest. In 1999 she had a remarkable appearance makeover, ditching the red/yellow hair in favor of an elegant blonde look, became a United Nations goodwill ambassador, and launched her debut album, Schizophrenic, which gave her three #1 hits. She's also appeared on TV, including Sex and the City. She's got a kid too.
Music: As stated above, her debut album scored three #1 hits, and her second album, 2001's Scream if You Wanna Go Faster, contained the massive #1 hit "It's Raining Men," which became one of the year's best sellers and the only single by a former Spice Girl to be nominated for the Brit Award for single of the year. Her third album flopped in 2005.
Best known for: Remaking the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men"
Friends with: Robbie Williams
Melanie "Sporty" Chisholm
Of all the girls, Mel C was the one who emerged as the most dedicated to her craft as a musician, and she's been the most prolific, having released four albums with varying degrees of success.
Music: Like everyone else but Geri, Mel C's first single was a collaboration, "When You're Gone" With Bryan Adams, which was a huge #3 hit in late 1998. Her 1999 debut, Northern Star, was well-received, spawning a #1 hit collaboration with Lisa Left-Eye Lopes, "Never Be The Same Again," and a second #1 hit, "I Turn to You." She's released three other albums in 2003, 2005, and 2007, although none have been as big a hit as Northern Star. Although not a hit in Britain, she hit #1 in several European countries in 2005 with "First Day of My Life."
Best known for: The frothy remix of "I Turn to You"
Friends with: The other Spice Girls; what other friends could one need?

Monday, November 12, 2007

If the Oscars were today...

If the Oscars were today and it was up to me, here's what I'm nominate and award based on what I've seen so far this year.

Best Picture
>American Gangster
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Gone Baby Gone
In the Valley of Elah
Into the Wild

American Gangster is the best movie I've seen this year; not a dull moment in its 2.5 hrs. The other movies here all all still very good, and Michael Clayton was close to making my list too. Yet to come: Atonement, Charlie Wilson's War, Juno, The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, Sweeney Todd, There Will Be Blood.

Best Actor
>Denzel Washington, American Gangster
Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone
George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild
Tommy Lee Jones, In the Valley of Elah

As with last year, the male categories are going to be mega competitive this year. All the of above were fantastic, with Denzel getting it for now if only because he was such a big part of why American Gangster was so amazing. But that can be said for Casey, Emilie, and Tommy too. Russell Crowe was also great in American Gangster, but it's unclear at this point whether he'll be pushed in the lead or supporting category. Ditto for Casey Affleck in The Assassination of Jesse James, his other brilliant performance. Not yet seen: Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men), Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood), Johnny Depp (Sweeney Todd), Tom Hanks (Charlie Wilson's War), James McAvoy (Atonement).

>Julie Christie, Away from Her
Keri Russell, Waitress

Also as with last year, the best actress category isn't looking very competitive; I can't even fill the five slots yet! Unfortunately, a lot of the potential leading actress nominees weren't in very great movies (which I didn't bother to see), like Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth 2 Electric Boogaloo or Jodie Foster in The Brave One. Two upcoming movies look like they'll yield great performances: Ellen Page in Juno and Keira Knightley in Atonement. I've also heard that Marion Cotillard was fabulous in La Vie en Rose--I'll have to Netflix it. Also upcoming: Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding), Helena Bonham Carter (Sweeney Todd), Laura Linney (The Savages)

Supporting Actor
>Casey Affleck, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Chris Cooper, Breach
Ethan Hawke, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

I'm such the Casey Affleck fan these days. He's just dynamite here, and so different than in Gone Baby Gone. He easily takes this for me, although Ethan Hawke and Hal Holbrook were very good too. Upcoming performances: Havier Bardem (No Country for Old Men), Phillip Bosco (The Savages), Michael Cera (Juno), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Charlie Wilson's War).

Supporting Actress
>Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Ruby Dee, American Gangster
Imelda Staunton, Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton
Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows Your'e Dead

At least I can fill in some names for the supporting actress category. Nothing's really stood out yet, but Amy Ryan, Ruby Dee and Tilda Swinton were all very good. I threw Imelda Staunton in for fun. I don't believe she has any real shot, but of all the class act actors that have played small roles in the Harry Potter films, she's been the best, which is really saying something. Looking forward to seeing: Cate Blanchett (I'm Not There); Romola Garai, Saoirse Ronan, and Vanessa Redrave (Atonement); Jennifer Garner and Allison Janney (Juno); Jennifer Jason Leigh (Margot at the Wedding); Julia Roberts (Charlie Wilson's War)

>Ridley Scott, American Gangster
Ben Affleck, Gone Baby Gone
Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Sean Penn, Into the Wild

Still to see: Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men), Joe Wright (Atonement), Mike Nichols (Charlie Wilson's War), Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Marc Forster (The Kite Runner), Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd), Todd Haynes (I'm Not There)

Kylie: 40 40's under 40

Congratulations to Kylie Minogue, who this week scores her 40th top 40 hit. She achieves the feat at just under 40 too (she'll turn 40 next May). Here's the compete list by year with peak positions, #1s in bold:

1. I Should Be So Lucky (1, 5 wks)
2. Got to Be Certain (2, 3 wks)
3. The Loco-motion (2, 4 wks)
4. Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi (2, 3 wks)
5. Especially for You (with Jason Donovan) (1, 3 wks)
6. Hand on Your Heart (1, 1 wk)
7. Wouldn’t Change a Thing (2, 2 wks)
8. Never Too Late (4)
9. Tears on My Pillow (1, 1 wk)
10. Better The Devil You Know (2, 2 wks)
11. Step Back in Time (4)
12. What Do I Have to Do? (6)
13. Shocked (6)
14. The Word Is Out (16)
15. If You Were With Me Now (4)
16. Give Me Just A Little More Time (2, 1 wk)
17. Finer Feelings (11)
18. What Kind of Fool (14)
19. Celebration (20)
20. Confide in Me (2, 1 wk)
21. Put Yourself in My Place (11)
22. Where is the Feeling? (16)
23. Where the Wild Roses Grow (with Nick Cave) (11)
24. Some Kind of Bliss (22)
25. Did It Again (14)
26. Breathe (14)
27. Spinning Around (1, 1 wk)
28. On A Night Like This (2, 1 wk)
29. Kids (with Robbie Williams) (2, 1 wk)
30. Please Stay (10)
31. Can’t Get You Out of My Head (1, 4 wks)
32. In Your Eyes (3)
33. Love At First Sight (2, 1 wk)
34. Come Into My World (8)
35. Slow (1, 1 wk)
36. Red Blooded Woman (5)
37. Chocolate (6)
38. I Believe in You (2, 1 wk)
39. Giving You Up (6)
40. 2 Hearts (?)

UK Chart Notes

  • It's a third straight week at #1 for Leona Lewis and "Bleeding Love." The track also finally reaches #1 on the UK airplay chart, having been beaten the last couple of weeks by Sugababes and Take That. Even in its third week, the single is still raking in 6-digit sales, about 112,000 copies this week. When you consider that only one other #1 single this year managed to sell in the 6-digits range in one week, and Leona's now done it 3 weeks in a row, it's really quite something. With the added sales, "Bleeding Love" is now officially the biggest selling single of the year in Britain. All this bodes well for Leona's debut album, Spirit, which hits shelves in UK music stores today (I'm listening to it right now in fact--expect a review soon).
  • Despite its good fortune, this may be "Bleeding Love's" last week at #1, as a serious challenger emerges to next weekend's chart: Kylie Minogue. After an almost 3-year chart absence due to her battle with breast cancer, Kylie has made a triumphant return with "2 Hearts," the first single from her 10th album, X, out in 2 weeks. "2 Hearts" is this week's highest debut at #12 on digital sales, and with the album's physical single out today, expect it to be a serious contender for #1 next weekend. "2 Hearts" gives Kylie the significant milestone of now having had 40 top 40 hits in the UK chart, a career that spans nearly 20 years back to her first single, "I Should Be So Lucky," a #1 hit in early 1988. If "2 Hearts" does reach #1, it will be her eighth chart topper.
  • Some of the biggest UK acts from the '90s have reunited lately to stage hyped up comebacks. First there was All Saints, who sadly flopped, and Take That, who have been surprisingly resilient. These acts were huge in their day, but the real phenomenon from that period was the Spice Girls, who after a 7-year wait, have finally released their Greatest Hits collection and are using the occasion to reunite for a massive world tour. First single "Headlines (Friendship Never Ends)" was released digitally this week, and debuts at #20. Not shabby for a single not due in shops until Nov. 19, although maybe a bit disappointing considering their cache. What is surprising is the airplay for this single, which had been rising, but makes a sudden downturn from #23 to #28. By comparison, Kylie's "2 Hearts" has been in the airplay top 10 for several weeks now, up to #3 this week. Still, I wouldn't count the girls out until this plays out fully. Come Nov. 25th, it is still possible the group will have scored its 10th #1 hit.
  • Back to the top 10, the biggest new single there is the latest release for UK pop/R&B sensation Craig David, who drives up 12 places to #7 upon physical release with "Hot Stuff (Let's Dance)." This is one of those hate it or love it singles, depending on whether you feel his liberal use of David Bowie's classic "Let's Dance" is inspired or travesty. Count me in the former, as this is one of the most fun singles he's ever done. This is David's 11th top 10 hit, 13th if you count his two Artful Dodger appearances. The parent album Trust Me, Craig David's 4th, is out Nov. 20.
  • Also making a splash in the top 10 this week is American R&B sensation Alicia Keys, who's third album, As I Am, is out next week in the UK (this week in the US). "No More" is her latest single, rising up to #9 this week. This is only her second UK top 10 as a soloist, her first being her 2001 debut, "Fallin'." She has appeared in the top 10 two other times with other artists, on Eve's "Gangsta Lovin'" in 2002 and Usher's 2004 hit "My Boo."
  • Kanye West hit #1 earlier this year with "Stronger," but misses the mark quite a bit with its follow-up, "The Good Life," which rises 19 spots to #23. This follows the pattern set with his last album's singles. After "Gold Digger" became a big #2 hit in 2005, its follow-up, "Heard 'Em Say (with Adam Levine)" only made it to #22.
  • Amy Winehouse makes a surprise top 40 debut at #35 with "Valerie." Wait--wasn't that already a big hit? Isn't it still on the chart at #4? The version of "Valerie" at #35 is a live version that first appeared as a B-side on "Back to Black" and now appears on second disc of rarities with the Back to Black deluxe album re-release that just came out. Unlike the big hit version, which is credited to Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse, this version is all Amy.
  • Last but not least at #40 is "Taking Chances," the 24th top 40 hit from French-Canadian sensation Celine Dion, and first since she hit #27 in 2003 with "One Heart/I Drove All Night." Her biggest UK hit remains "Think Twice," which spent 7 weeks at #1 in early 1995. At only #40 though, this is decidedly a flop.
  • Next week Kylie will duke it out with Leona for #1, Alicia Keys will hope for the top 5 upon physical release, and new singles from Bloc Party (Flux), Fergie (Clumsy/Fergalicious), Hard-Fi (Can't Get Along Without You), and Rihanna (Hate that I Love You) will hope for the top 10.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Album Review: Wilco - Sky Blue Sky (4.5 / 5)

Once again I find myself reviewing an album by an established band of which I've listened to nothing other than the current release. This can be tricky since I can't compare this to previous works, and from what I've read, Wilco's Sky Blue Sky is somewhat of a departure into mellower more straightforward territory. Regardless of what came before, I can tell you that Sky Blue Sky is a fabulous work of soulful, plaintive rock.
Most of the songs are pretty mellow, but certainly not dull. The instrumentation is varied and many songs--even the quiet ones--have crescendos of glorious middle eight sections of dueling electric guitars and strings. "Side with the Seeds" for example hums along as an earnest folksy number underscored by piano and guitar until it hits its instrumental section and the two guitars take over, soaring higher and higher with strings underneath. There's a brief return verse and then bam, another instrumental highlight, this time with piano too.
Good as that song is, the similar "Impossible Germany" has to be the album's best. The 6-minute track begins with fairly mellow guitar, bass and drums--typical reflective kind of rock. The lyrics are a bit mysterious, "Impossible Germany, unlikely Japan," whatever that means. Then about halfway through the instrumental section begins, first quietly with electric guitar over piano, but then building into a melodic section of dueling guitars, with the more prominent one coming out only in the left speaker.
Lead singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy doesn't have the greatest rock voice, but it does have a sort of honest quality to it that suits the material. The emphasis generally isn't on the singing anyway, as many of these songs have long instrumental sections that sometimes take up more than half the track. On opener "Either Way" his delivery and the lyrics are very matter-of-fact "maybe you still love me, maybe you don't; either you will or you won't." The searching simplicity is nice, because it allows the lovely guitar and string work underneath to shine. Second track "You Are My Face" has a very similar sound at first, although the guitar solo takes a harsher, more insistent tone, followed by a more upbeat section with piano and organ.
Wilco is generally described as landing somewhere between alt-rock and alt-country, and while I don't hear much country influence here, it does come out in the lovely title track "Sky Blue Sky." There's a bit of twang in this reflective, atmosphere number, as well as a lyrical emphasis on setting that feels very country. The country sound also comes through on "What Light," which helps lift the album's downtrodden spirit toward something more hopeful near the end.
The varied nature of many of the songs is another highlight, providing striking musical contrasts. "Shake It Off" shifts between quiet soft rock and harsher '70s classic rock sections. "Hate It Here" has a more upbeat sound with prominent piano and fuzzy guitar, but its subject is downbeat loneliness. "Leave Me (Like You Found Me)" has a depressive quality at first, but then gets a dose of hope in the more upbeat middle section and following verse. Not every song does this though, as "Please Be Patient with Me" starts mellow and just stays that way. After several woe-is-me numbers, jaunty "Walken" is a needed reprieve from the misery, even if it doesn't quite fit in musically because it's so upbeat. "On and On and On" though provides an appropriately uplifting conclusion.
Sky Blue Sky really impressed and surprised me, enough so that I'm planning on checking out some of Wilco's other works such as their 2002 album Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, their most famous work. The music is rich and interesting, and although lyrically many of the songs are about post-break up sadness, there's also a reassuring note of hope and strength.
Best: Impossible Germany, Side with the Seeds, Sky Blue Sky, Either Way, You Are my Face, Shake It Off, Hate It Here, On and On and On

US Chart Notes

  • It's a snoozer of a chart this week, as the same ten somes occupy the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for the third week in a row. In fact, six of the singles in the top 10 are in the exact same spots, with Alicia Key's "No One" trading spots with Soulja Boy to move up to #3 and Baby Bash's "Cyclone" doing to same with Kanye West's "The Good Life" to move up to #7.

  • Even outside the top 10 it's pretty quiet. The week's biggest mover within the top 40 is DJ Khaled Featuring T-Pain, Trick Daddy, and Rick Ross with "I'm So Hood," up 11 to #19.

  • Fergie's "Clumsy" moves up eight spots to #20, making it her fifth top 20 hit, matching the five top 20 hits Black Eyed Peas have had.

  • Good Charlotte scores their third top 40 hit this week with "I Don't Want to Be in Love (Dance Floor Anthem)," up three to #39. The Waldorf, Maryland band had their first top 40 hit in early 2003 with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," which hit #20. Although they had success at top 40 radio with follow-ups "The Anthem" and "Girls and Boys," those tracks didn't crack the top 40 of the Hot 100. The band's last single, "The River," peaked at #39 earlier this year.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Atonement Clip

I have high expectations for Atonement, the forthcoming film with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy based on the Ian McEwan novel, which a personal favorite. This clip is really cool. A trippy blend of joyful elements (chorus, carnival rides) and carnage (war wreckage, dead bodies). All in one take.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Leona Lewis on Radio 1 Live Lounge

BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge has had some inspired performances lately, such as Robyn's acoustic version of "With Every Heartbeat" a couple of months ago or Arctic Monkey's take on Amy Winehouses's "You Know I'm No Good." Leona Lewis was on recently, and performed this lovely rendition of Snow Patrol's 2004 hit, "Run."

Also, clips from her new album Spirit can now be previewed on 7Digital here. The album is out Monday.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Behind the Music: Kara DioGuardi

Kara DioGuardi literally is behind the music. She's pop music's hottest songwriter. This year alone she's contributed songs to albums from big name acts like Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Leona Lewis, Hilary Duff and Nicole Scherzinger. Some of the hits she wrote or co-wrote over the last few years include Ashlee Simpson's "Pieces of Me," Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away," Kylie Minogue's "Spinning Around," the Pussycat Dolls' "Beep," Gwen Stefani's "Rich Girl," and Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man."

She performs too. She formed a band with the Eurythmic's Dave A. Stewart called Platinum Weird. They released the album Make Believe last year, and earlier this year a single, "Taking Chances," the very single currently out for Celine Dion (see previous post). The production is virtually identical, but Kara puts a slightly different spin on the vocal--more soulful I'd say. Check it out.

Celine Dion "Taking Chances" Video

Surprisingly hip video from Celine Dion for her new single "Taking Chances." Has a 24 vibe to it, and I like how it plays off her workplace for the last 5 years. Not a bad song either--has that rocky/poppy vibe like Kelly Clarkson's second album.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

UK Chart Notes

  • It's a second week at #1 for Leona Lewis and "Bleeding Love." In another strong week, she moved over 158,000 copies, nearly three times the 57,000 copies sold of #2 track, Take That's "Rule the World." "Bleeding Love" was written by American pop star Jesse McCartney, best known for "Beautiful Soul," and Ryan Tedder, the lead singer for OneRepublic, whom along with Timbaland moved up 3 spots to #4 this week with "Apologize." The Timbaland/OneRepublic track also also #8 on the UK airplay chart, #2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and #1 US top 40 radio.
  • Landing at #3 for most acts would be a success, but for Westlife, who've hit #1 with 14 of their now 22 singles, it's a disappointment. "Home" is the first single from their forthcoming 8th album, Home Again. As is the case with most of their recent hits, this is a remake, this time from Michael Buble's recent adult hit. This is the second time Westlife have missed #1 with an album's first single, the first time being "Hey Whatever," the first single from their 2003 album Turnaround, which hit #4. Still, the single keeps up their perfect record of top 5 hits.
  • Swiss-Iranian dance artist Samim has one of the year's most ununsual dance hits, "Heater," at #12 this week. The instrumental club track is led by accordian of all things.
  • "Hot Stuff (Let's Dance)," Craig David's first single from his forthcoming fouth album, Trust Me, lands at #19 on digital sales. Expect it to be his 13th top 10 hit next week.
  • Every Avril Lavigne album has found a tipping point after which the singles just don't perform. For The Best Damn Thing, that point would be third single "Hot," which manages to reach only #30 following the #2 hit "Girlfriend" and #3 hit "When You're Gone."
  • Finally Keane released new single "The Night Sky" last week, but it's nowhere to be seen on the chart. The reason? Disqualified because it contains a free gift. Who knew.

Listening to these days....

  • "Bleeding Love" Leona Lewis - The UK's latest big breakout star is a former X-Factor winner. This is the first single from her debut album, Spirit, out Monday. It's a good pop ballad that has the sort of immediacy that Mariah Carey's debut, "Vision of Love," had. Perhaps we can just forget that Leona actually debuted a year ago with a tepid remake of Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This." The new single is much better.
  • "Headlines (Friendship Forever)" Spice Girls - Back at last and out with a new single that easily slips into their ouvre of #1 hits from the '90s, thanks to the re-teaming with producer Richard Stannard, who was responsible for many of them.
  • "Too Many People" Wet Wet Wet - Still known mostly for their 1994 hit "Love Is All Around," featured in Four Weddings and a Funeral and skewered in Love Actually. The new single has a smooth disco groove like a lost George Michael track.
  • "Hot Stuff (Let's Dance)" Craig David - Best use of David Bowie's "Let's Dance" since Puff Daddy's "Been Around the World." This is a fun song, more energetic than any of the singles from David's last album.
  • "I Found Out" The Pigeon Detectives - Favoring short songs like Arctic Monkeys this high-energy number by the English band clocks in at just over 2 minutes.
  • "Teddy Picker" Arctic Monkeys - Speaking of the Monkeys, their album, which I was initially ho-hum about, has grown on me a lot lately. This third, bass-driven, single is darker and tighter than their last, the radio-friendly "Fluorescent Adolescent."
  • "Handle Me" Robyn - This should have been a bigger hit, but clocked in at a lousy #17 Sunday. Pity, it's another fun electronic pop song from Robyn's fantastic album.
  • "D.A.N.C.E." Justice - This song sounds like what would happen if Jamiroquai gave a song to an elementary school class. It also snagged a surprise nomination at the MTV VMAs for video of the year, along with much more established acts like JT, Kanye, Beyonce, and Rihanna. Funky electronic dance music at its best.
  • "Cant Get Along (Without You)" Hard-Fi - Swaggering second single from Hard-Fi's latest has a Smash Mouth feel to it. It comes off like a fun Saturday night singalong with your friends at the bar.
  • "2 Hearts" Kylie Minogue - I've already said enough about this. Listen to it and love it. Sounds clips for the album are out now.

Personal Chart, 11/10/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Bleeding Love - Leona Lewis (2 weeks @ #1)
2 .... 4 .... 2 Hearts - Kylie Minogue
3 .... 3 .... Apologize - Timbaland Featuring OneRepublic
4 .... 5 .... Rule the World - Take That
5 .... 2 .... Valerie - Mark Ronson Featuring Amy Winehouse (1 wk @ #1)
6 .... 7 .... About You Now - Sugababes (2 wks @ #1)
7 ... 11 ... Handle Me - Robyn
8 .... 6 .... The Way I Are - Timbaland Featuring Keri Hilson
9 .... 9 .... Hate That I Love You - Rihanna Featuring Ne-Yo
10 ... 10 ... Can't Get Along (Without You) - Hard-Fi

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Looking Ahead to 2008: Introducing Duffy

Welsh singer Duffy, 22, has a soulful voice that evokes the '60s. Q magazine has already dubbed her the Welsh Amy Winehouse. Her MySpace page has two clips, the latter of which, "Warwick Avenue," is my favorite of the two. Also, check out the Youtube clip of her in the studio recording "Syrup & Honey." Her debut album is due next year.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Album Review: The New Pornographers - Challengers (4/5)

Canadian "supergroup" The New Pornographers are among the best darlings of indie rock to emerge this decade. Their debut, Mass Romantic, won Canada's Juno Award for Best Alternative Album in 2001. Their first three albums all score in the 80s on Metacritic. They've stayed on top because they developed a winning sound and stuck with it: upbeat, melodic pop/rock with a wink to the '60s and '70s.

The formula changes only slightly on their fouth album, Challengers, which favors quieter melodies over the rocking stompers that dominated their previous work. Opening track "My Right Versus Yours" opens softly with vocals and a few stringed instruments, waiting a minute before the bass and band kick in, but even then it's a more restrained beginning in contrast to the big opening numbers of their previous albums like "Twin Cinema" or "Electric Version." "All the Old Showstoppers" follows, with a sound alternating between folksy and '60s-ish.

The album is also their first to not open with the title track. "Challengers," another mellow number, comes third. The song is a duet between the group's principal singers, male A.C. Newman and female Neko Case. It completes the trio of quieter, mostly acoustic tracks that open the album on a more plaintive note than their others.

Quirky "Myriad Harbor" feels like the band's more typical work, transposing spoken word passages with choral responses, building the guitars toward the choruses, and closing the song with some low stringed instruments, cello perhaps. It also shows how the band can play seriously good music without taking themselves too seriously. The tempo doesn't get amped up much until "All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth," a retro-flavored stomper that again features duelling lead vocals. Pounding piano keys keep the song moving along at a clip. Another member (there are 8 in total), Kathryn Calder, takes vocal lead on swaggering "Failsafe," which uses a cool pulsating electric guitar sound (I've heard it before on Soho's 1990 dance single "Hippychick," but I'm sure there are better comparisons).

The tempo slows down again for "Unguided." At over 6 minutes it is the albums longest track, following right behind the 2:37 "Failsafe," its shortest. The track bursts with sound and then reins in it to almost silence. This song clearly has ambitions to be something special, but it doesn't quiet get there for me. That's okay though, as the effort is commendable. "Entering White Cecilia" is another odd one, okay but not a favorite. "Go Places" features the female lead, Neko Case, and is another slower, but very melodic track. This has the feel of an early '70s love song.

"Mutiny, I Promise You" is another upbeat standout, contrasting electric guitar and bass with flute in the strong chorus. "Adventures in Solitude," as perhaps the title would imply, has the gentlest touch of any of the album's tracks: quiet vocals, quiet piano, and no drums. It does kick up a bit at the end with a string section, but only a bit. Warm closing track "The Spirit of Giving" is one of the lovelier slow songs, punctuated by a nice horns and accordion middle.

I'd be curious to hear what longtime fans of the band--a group that includes some of my dearest friends--think of this album as compared with their others. While I like Challengers, I enjoy the more upbeat, energetic tracks the most, which, on this album emerge as the exception rather than the rule.

Best: My Right Versus Yours, Myriad Harbor, Mutiny I Promise You, All the Things that Go to Make Heaven and Earth, Failsafe, The Spirit of Giving, All the Old Showstoppers

Thursday, November 01, 2007

US Chart Notes

  • Chris Brown (feat. T-Pain) tops the Billboard Hot 100 this week with "Kiss Kiss," displacing Soulja Boy Tell Em's "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" after 7 non-consecutive weeks at the top. "Crank That" now ties Rihanna's "Umbrella" for the year's longest stay at the top, not counting the 10 week stay by Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" That began in December of last year. Sadly this is not another remake of the dance song popularized by Tarkin, Stella Soleil, and Holly Valance, but a new song.
  • T-Pain can actually claim the unusual feat of having three singles in the top 10 this week, albeit in a supporting role in each case. In addition to appearing on Chris Brown's single, he's also at #7 on Kanye West's "The Good Life" and at #8 on Baby Bash's "Cyclone." Those two singles trade places on the chart this week.
  • T-Pain's not the only artist with multiple top 10 hits this week. Kanye West also appears at #6 with his former #1, "Stronger," and Timbaland is at #2 with "Apologize (feat. OneRepublic)" and at #10 with "The Way I Are (feat. Keri Hilson)."
  • Fergie makes her top 40 debut this week with her latest solo single, "Clumsy," which rises 17 spots from #45 to #28. The track is the fifth release from Fergie's debut album, The Dutchess. The last female artist to score five top 40 hits off of one album was Kelly Clarkson with 2004's Breakaway. They are the only ones I know of to manage this feat this decade.