Sunday, February 25, 2007

Billboard Hot 100 Analysis, 3/3/2007

1. What Goes Around...Comes Around - Justin Timberlake

Once again Timberlake + Timbaland proves unstoppable. Buoyed by his double appearance at the Grammys, Justin Timberlake rises seven spots to score his third consecutive #1 single, edging out another Timbaland-produced single, Nelly Furtado's "Say It Right." According to Billboard's Fred Bronson, "What Goes Around..." is only the second #1 hit to feature an ellipsis (...) in its title, the first being current tabloid fixture Britney Spears' debut single, "...Baby One More Time." Of course, Spears and Timberlake both got their start on the Mickey Mouse Club, which also featured one Ryan Gosling, vying for a Best Actor Oscar tonight.

2. Runaway Love - Ludacris (feat. Mary J. Blige)

Ludacris featuring Mary J. Blige rises another notch to #2 this week. This is the highest Mary J. Blige has ever charted when working with another artist, the previous best being her #3 collaboration in 1995 with Method Man, "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need to Get By."

4. Not Ready to Make Nice - Dixie Chicks

The Grammys had a big influence on quite a few singles and albums on the Billboard charts this week, but no act benefited from the awards more than the Dixie Chicks. The country trio won all five awards they were nominated for, including Album of the Year for Taking the Long Way, which rocketed up the albums chart this week from #72 to #8, and Record and Song of the Year for "Not Ready to Make Nice," which re-enters the Hot 100 this week at #4. The song had previously peaked at #23 in May last year.

At #4, "Not Ready to Make Nice" is the highest-charting single from the band, beating their previous #7 best attained by "Long Time Gone" and "Landslide," the former being their 2002/2003 single that had been very popular at the time singer Natalie Maines made an anti-Bush comment at a concert in London. The single, which was at its 8th week at in the top 10, plummeted instantly from the country radio backlash, falling from 10 to 43 and then off.

5. Don't Matter - Akon
6. The Sweet Escape - Gwen Stefani (feat. Akon)

Akon's third Konvicted singles climbs 6 spots into the top 10 this week at #5. It edges just ahead of Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape," down 3 this week, which he is also featured on.

7. It's Not Over - Daughtry

With all the activity in the top 10 this week, a few singles slide back while retaining bullets, including Stefani's track and this first single from former American Idol contestant Chris Daughtry's band Daughtry. The single has proven a big hit at top 40 radio, where it's currently #3 and rising. Not a bad song, sounding along the lines of a Nickelback single, only darker.

14. Waiting on the World to Change - John Mayer

Another Grammy benefactor, John Mayer, rises 10 spots to a new peak position at #14 for "Waiting on the World to Change." The single's parent album, Continuum, won Pop Album of the Year, itself rising 19 spots back into the top 10 at #1o.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Final Oscar Predictions

Last week I posted what I wanted to win in each category. This list is what I think will win at the Oscars tomorrow night.

Picture: The Departed (It's amazingly tough this year, but the fact that Martin Scorsese is such a sureshot for director gives this just enough push to win. Babel won the Globe for drama, but has its detractors, Little Miss Sunshine has been building buzz, but it's a comedy, and they rarely win--either of those could be spoilers. The other two I think are out. The Queen is well-made--my personal fave--but lacks the grand scale of a best picture, and Letters from Iwo Jima has been surprisingly unsuccessful in its release).
Actor: Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland (Peter O'Toole could upset if voters decide to honor a veteran actor for his body of work).
Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen (No upsets here. If Helen doesn't win, it would probably be the biggest Oscar surprise of all time).
Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls (Norbit aside, Murphy got a lot of love for his work in Dreamgirls. Alan Arkin could spoil, especially if there's a lot of support for Little Miss Sunshine).
Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (Among the acting categories, the most upsets happen in the supporting actress category--remember when Anna Paquin beat Winona Ryder? Juliette Binoche beat Lauren Bacall? Marcia Gay Harden beat Kate Hudson? So don't count out darkhouse Adriana Barraza's stunning work in Babel as a possible upset).
Director: Martin Scorsese, The Departed (He's sure to get it. Only possible upset here would be if Clint Eastwood got it as a nod to his brilliant double-play in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. But Clint just won two years ago--it's Martin's turn).
Original Screenplay: Little Miss Sunshine (I'd love to see The Queen spoil this, but if LMS doesn't win best picture, it will at least win this).
Adapted Screenplay: The Departed (Some are saying Borat could spoil, but come on. The Departed was a smart script, save for the finale bloodbath. Little Children would be a nice upset, but I don't think it will happen).
Animated Feature: Cars (Close call here between Cars and Happy Feet. Cars performed well at the box-office and is generally well-liked. It's a Pixar property too, and the studio has already won twice for Finding Nemo and The Incredibles--although those are arguably stronger films than Cars, and Happy Feet was this year's holiday hit, riding the penguin love started last year by March of the Penguins).
Art Direction: Pan's Labyrinth (Agonizing choice between Pan's Labyrinth and Dreamgirls. Both are good for different reasons. I personally liked the retro period look of Dreamgirls better, but I expect the academy to want to award Pan's Labyrinth with something other than just best Foreign film, and this is the best place to do it).
Cinematography: Children of Men (Great filming all around, but particularly during the long-take actions scenes. It won the guild award and has a lot of fans. I certainly don't see The Illusionist or The Prestige getting this, and while The Black Dahlia was gorgeous to look at, it was a silly movie, so it won't win. Pan's Labyrinth could spoil, but I doubt it).
Costume Design: Dreamgirls (It's an interesting category this year with two contemporary films vying with three period pieces from different time periods. Dreamgirls gets the edge for not only having cool period outfits, but good performance duds too. Marie Antoinette could upset for its lavish period costuming or The Devil Wears Prada for its effective use of fashion as part of the story).
Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth (Yes, Al Gore will win, but don't expect him to use the platform to announce a presidential bid. C'mon--he's only got a couple of minutes. Nothing else had the impact this did, so no spoiler here).
Documentary Short Subject: The Blood of Yingzhou District (Haven't seen any of them, but most pundits say this will win, with a few saying it will be Two Hands).
Film Editing: Babel (Juggling four different stories into one isn't an easy editing task, and Babel did it effectively, as well as building some cool transitions within stories, like Rinko's euphoric club-hopping. Babel also won the guild award. The Departed could spoil if there's a strong tide of suport for it, and United 93, if enough voters saw it).
Foreign Film: Pan's Labyrinth (It's still a shame Volver isn't here--it's better than the three nominees I've seen, but among those, Pan's Labyrinth was the best by a hair above The Lives of Others, which some are saying could spoil, but I kind of doubt it, given Pan's 6 nominations).
Make-up: Pan's Labyrinth (Those creatures were really cool. Certainly cooler than the been-there done-that aging work in Click, and Hollywood anti-Gibson sentiment should keep Apocalypto from winning anything.)
Original Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Queen (It's the most lovely of the nominees, so it should win. Babel could upset, for it's attempt to score scenes using sounds from the country in which their filmed, but the music just isn't as good).
Original Song: Listen, Dreamgirls (Dreamgirls has three nominations, so surely one of them should win, and Listen is the strongest of the three. It's cool to see a song from a documentary nominated, so if enough people agree, Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth could spoil).
Animated Short: The Little Matchgirl (It's about time for a traditional animated short to win, and this Disney work is very deserving--lovely and touching. Pixar's Lifted is supposed to be good--I haven't seen it--but hasn't Pixar won enough? Clever Maestro could be a nice spoiler, but I'd bet on Pixar getting it first).
Live Action Short: West Bank Story (I haven't seen any of these either, but most of the pundits choose this, with Eramos Pocos (One Too Many) as a possible upset).
Sound Editing: Letters from Iwo Jima (The sound effects award should go to one of Eastwood's war films, and since the work in both films is similar, and done by the same people, give it to the film that's also a best picture nominee. Pirates could upset, but let's hope not).
Sound Mixing: Dreamgirls (Ray and Chicago won, establishing a preference for musicals to get this.
Visual Effects: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (The crustacean-inspired baddies should triumph above a sinking ship and the man of steel).

Dreamgirls - 5 awards
The Departed - 3
Pan's Labyrinth - 3
The Queen - 2

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Album Review: Norah Jones - Not Too Late (4 / 5)

When Norah Jones released her first CD, Come Away with Me, in 2002, who could have foretold it would launch the career of the best-selling female artist of this decade? Sure, its soulful/mellow jazz-tinged pop, skillfully guided by veteran producer Arif Mardin, was a class act, and Jones’ voice grew to be more appealing on each subsequent listen. But 20 million albums and six Grammys later, Jones was not just a popular artist, she was a global phenomenon.

Not wanting to stray to far from this surprisingly winning formula, her second disc, Feels Like Home, was another Mardin-produced collection, this time of soulful/mellow country-tinged pop. It wasn’t as successful as Come Away with Me, that is it was only the second best-selling album of 2005 and sold a mere 11 million copies world-wide instead of 20 million. Going into this third album, the pressure from the record company was high. EMI’s sales have struggled lately, and the company crossed its fingers Jones would flex her sales muscle.

Not to worry, Not Too Late became’s most pre-ordered record ever, and instantly hit #1 in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as a host of other countries. There are some differences this time, some attempts to be more experimental, although they are sporadic do not stray far from the established winning formula. About half of this album’s songs follow the same soulful/mellow country-tinged pop template as Feels Like Home, while the others attempt to explore eclectic territory, incorporating folk, blues, and exhibiting a less-polished production veneer. The results are mostly positive, with hits and misses coming from both ends of this effort.

Tracks like “Wish I Could” and “Broken” have sparser arrangements than much of the material from her previous albums, relying only on guitar and the contrast of both bowed and pizzicato techniques on stringed instruments, cello in the case of “Wish I Could” and bass in the case of “Broken,” which also features some cello. These tracks, like many others, find a more intimate-sounding Jones. And its no surprise she’s taken a more personal approach this time, having produced the album with her boyfriend Lee Alexander, and written or co-written all of the songs.

Jones applies a more playful approach to several songs too. “Sinkin’ Soon” was referred to by one reviewer as being”’30s jug band blues.” It’s certainly different, as well as fun, scored with plucky mandolin, tinkling old-fashioned piano, and an eerie “yah yah yah” effect, that I think comes from a horn. There’s a great diversity of instrumentation throughout the album, as if Jones has thrown in—literally—everything but the kitchen sink (liner notes reveal that the percussion even includes “pots and pans”). The playfulness gets a big cloying though on “Little Room,” which has an annoying whistled solo.

My two favorite tracks ,“Until the End” and “Not My Friend,” are right next to each other, and both represent the best of both the Feels Like Home-style material and the more experimental songs. Bluesy “Until the End” has a great groove underscored by bass and piano. Jones songwriting ability extends not just the melodies, but the lyrics too. The couplet “I remember everything, and every sting” is so close as to sound more like a lisp than a rhyme, rendering it immediately memorable.

With a different arrangement “Not My Friend” could have been a Coldplay track. Acoustic guitar, piano, and marimba create an ethereal soundscape, punctured later in the song by “backward electric guitar.” It’s a simple and beautiful sad song that terminates with a few light taps of high piano keys.

The surest sign that you’re getting a more by-the-book Jones track is the presence of a Hammond B-3 organ. It’s good at creating that country-ish sound heard on first single “Thinking About You,” a good, but clearly calculated number. More upbeat “Be My Somebody” covers similar ground, as does “The Sun Doesn’t Like You” and “Wake Me Up.” These are the throwback tracks, all of which are fine, but none are particularly memorable in contrast to the other more eclectic tracks.

Lots of popular artists (John Mayer, Pink, Keane, Pet Shop Boys, Green Day, Dixie Chicks, etc.) have gotten political in their music lately, and Jones joins the growing chorus on “My Dear Country,” a dark rumination on her disappointment of the results of “election day,” presumably the one in 2004. Perhaps fearful of the branding the Chicks endured Jones says “I cherish you, my dear country” but then adds “sometimes I don’t understand the way we play.”

Two particularly lovely slower songs close the album. Sultry and smooth peddle guitar underscore the lovely ballad “Rosie’s Lullaby,” a song that isn’t afraid to take its time, unfolding with a reflective melancholy. Lovely closing number “Not Too Late” is scored by overlapping high and low piano chords, with some strings and subtle drumming coming in later.

With the death last year of renowned producer Arif Mardin, this third album might have appeared riskier, but Jones with her new producer proves to be as effective as before, if not more interesting. Although Not Too Late lacks the cohesive focus of the other two, a result of its eclecticism, there is a lot to like here, particularly in her efforts to venture beyond the safety of the MOR material to be more personal, showcase a variety of musical styles (all of which suit her gorgeous voice), and express some mischief and political ideas. Surely destined to be played in a Starbucks or Borders Café near you.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Looking Back: February 1987

February 1987 brought one of the year's biggest hits, Bon Jovi's "Livin' on a Prayer," the band's second single from their breakthough album Slippery When Wet, and their and second and ultimately biggest #1 hit, spending 4 weeks at the top. Listening to this song now, it sounds so dated, with rock music going through some big changes in the '90s, largely influenced by grunge pioneers like Nirvana. The "wow wow" sound effect is particularly interesting.

Madonna's fourth True Blue single, "Open Your Heart," became her fifth #1 hit in February, and came packaged with one of her most provocative '80s videos, which followed an adolescent boy lusting for a peepshow stripper. Madonna of course played the stripper, entertaining club patrons first before dancing away into the night with the boy.

My favorite discovery of revisiting February 1987 is Cyndi Lauper's "Change of Heart." I'd never heard this song before, and It's pretty cool. I love the hard drumming and prominent bass keyboards. The song was the follow-up to her 1986 #1 hit "True Colors." She would have only one more top 10 single.

Not much else of interest from the month. Chicago had an Air Supply-sounding ballad, "Will You Still Lvoe Me," Southern rockers Georgia Satellites hit #2 with "Keep Your Hands to Yourself," and Samantha Fox tried to raise heart rates with her dated dance pop "Touch Me (I Want Your Body)"

Britney meltdown continues

I generally like to limit my popular music commentary to the substantive--that of the music itself, along with awards and album/tour rumors, etc.--but I can't help but comment on the nutty downward spiral Britney Spears appears to be in. What's going on with this woman? Within the last week she spent several days in New York on a clubbing party binge, spent less then a day in rehab, and now, she's gone and shaved her head. What's next?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Billboard Hot 100 analysis, 2/24/2007

1. Say It Right - Nelly Furtado

Beyonce proves she really isn't "Irreplaceable" as that song falls from #1 after a 10-week run to give Nelly Furtado her second #1 hit with "Say It Right." Furtado spent 6 weeks at #1 with her current album's first single "Promiscuous," which was followed by the relative less popular "Maneater," which made only #16. "Say It Right" bring her back at the top though, and his her fourth top 10 hit overall.

3. The Sweet Escape - Gwen Stefani (feat. Akon)

"The Sweet Escape" continues its ascent, up two spots this week to #3. It is Gwen Stefani's second-highest charting single as a soloist.

5. Runaway Love - Ludacris (feat. Mary J. Blige)

Rapper/actor Ludacris scores his third top 5 hit this week with "Runaway Love," his Mary J. Blige collaboration that rises 1 notch this week. Both of Ludacris' previous top 5 hits, 2003's "Stand Up" and last year's "Money Maker" were #1s.

8. What Goes Around...Comes Around - Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake climbs back into the top 1o with "What Goes Around...Comes Around," his third top 10 hit from his current album, FutureSex/LoveSounds, and his fifth top 10 solo single.

9. Glamorous - Fergie (feat. Ludacris)

Fergie makes a huge 22 point leap on the Hot 100 this week, earning the Airplay Gainer award and her third consecutive top 10 single. That ties her with her band Black Eyed Peas' three top 10 hits. Both of Fergie's previous solo hits, the #1 "London Bridge" and #2 "Fergalicious" charted higher than the highest-charting BEP effort, the #3 singles "Don't Phunk with My Heart" and "My Humps."

11. Don't Matter - Akon

Akon already has two hits in the top 10, his former #1 hit "I Wanna Love You" at #10 and his appearance on Gwen Stefani's "The Sweet Escape" at #3, and almost had a third as his new single, "Don't Matter," glides up 19 places to #11 this week.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Oscar Picks

I've seen 72.6 percent of the Oscar nominations so far, and as long as "The Lives of Others" and "Days of Glory" remain unreleased in my area, it's doubtful I'll see many more (I might watch "The Illusionist," and with luck Netflix will send me "The Prestige" next week).

Were I am Oscar voter, based on what I've seen, this is how I would vote:

Picture: The Queen (My favorite film of the year, I'd be happy with Babel winning, but none of the others)
Actress: Helen Mirren, The Queen (A tough call, as they were all great, although Streep is less-deserving because I see her role as really supporting. Cruz would be second choice, but Dench and Winslet were awesome too).
Actor: Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson (Forest Whitaker's going to win, and he was great, but like Streep, that role skirts the line between lead and supporting--the film was about James McAvoy's character. Ryan Gosling was fresh and surprising in a remarkable role, and although he won't win, he deserves it).
Supporting Actress: Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls (Adriana Barraza really wowed me for a completely unknown actress, and I was tempted to pick her, given that Hudson is the clear favorite and sure to win, but in the end, Hudson deserves it, so I went with her).
Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls (Murphy, Hounsou, and Haley were all really great, so I could have gone with any of them, but Murphy was surprisingly good and it was nice to see him back on track).
Director: Martin Scoresese, The Departed (He's a legend and he's never won. The Departed was a great, complex film. Why not give it to him?)
Animated Feature: Cars (the only one I've seen and it was pretty good).
Foreign Film: Pan's Labyrinth (It's a real shame Volver wasn't nominated, as that would have been my pic, but between this and Water, I'm going with Pan's Labyrinth, which was original, dark, extremely visual and grisly).
Adapted Screenplay: Little Children (Great story, great movie).
Original Screenplay: The Queen (The story probed both the British monarchy and its people quite effectively).
Art Direction: Dreamgirls (The movie looked really cool, with its retro sets and stylish homes, and that's what matters here I think.
Cinematography: Children of Men (Whether those "one-take" action sequences were truly one-take or not doesn't matter, the first-person "you're there" persepective was very well done).
Costume Design: The Devil Wears Prada (Close call with Dreamgirls, but it's so cool--an unusual--to have not 1 but 2 contemporary-set films nominated here that I had to choose one of them. Of course the one about fashion deserves it, for using costuming to portray not just the profession but also the personality of many of the film's characters).
Documentary Feature: An Inconvenient Truth (Wished I'd seen more of these, but I've only seen this and Jesus Camp, which was interesting, but unfocused. An Inconvenient Truth was very well done and engaging).
Documentary Short: none (haven't seen any of the nominees).
Film Editing: Babel (I'm not sure how to judge this, but I guess I'll go with Babel, which did a good job of weaving together several different stories).
Make-up: Pan's Labyrinth (Why is Click nominated? I haven't seen it, but it's so odd. They should have nominated The Queen for transforming Helen Mirren into Queen Elizabeth II).
Original Score: The Queen, Alexandre Desplat (My favorite score of the year is actually another one by Desplat, The Painted Veil, but the score from The Queen is good too, certainly better than Phillip Glass' typically overbearing work for Notes on a Scandal).
Original Song: Listen, Dreamgirls (Beyonce sounds great singing this, and something from Dreamgirls deserves to win).
Sound Editing: Flags of Our Fathers (The sound effects made the war scenes just as chilling as the visual effects. Alternately this could go to Letters from Iwo Jima, since the Sound Editors were the same guys doing just about the same thing).
Sound Mixing: Dreamgirls (Not sure how to judge this either, but the musical in the bunch did sound good).
Animated Short: The Little Matchgirl (This was a sweet little film and touching too. I also like that it's traditional animation. I also enjoyed Maestro for the fun surprise at the end).
Live Action Short: none (haven't seen any of these either).
Visual Effects: Superman Returns (not a very inspiring crop of nominees, so I just went with my favorite).

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Personal Chart, 2/17/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Grace Kelly - Mika (4 wks @ #1)
2 .... 2 .... Say It Right - Nelly Furtado
3 .... 6 .... What Goes Around...Comes Around - Justin Timberlake
4 ... 13 ... Ruby - Kaiser Chiefs
5 .... 4 .... A Bad Dream - Keane (1 wk @ #1)
6 .... 5 .... Starz in Their Eyes - Just Jack
7 ... 12 ... Catch You - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
8 .... 7 .... This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race - Fall Out Boy
9 .... 3 .... Perfect (Exceeder) - Mason vs. Princess Superstar
10 .. 17 .. Lil Star - Kelis (feat. Cee-Lo)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Grammy Winners

The Dixie Chicks may not be ready to make nice, but the music industry certainly is, showering the Chicks with five Grammy Awards last night, honoring them in every category they were nominated in including the prestigious top three: Album of the Year for Taking the Long Way and Record and Song of the year for it's single "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Norah Jones was the last artist to score the triple in 2002, winning Album for Come Away With Me and Record and Song for "Don't Know Why," although technically she didn't win song because the award went to Jesse Harris. Eric Clapton then was the last artist to truly achieve the feat in 1992 with Album for Unplugged and Record and Song for "Tears in Heaven." Natalie Cole did it the year before with Unforgettable...with Love and "Unforgettable"--seems fishy to have awarded Best Song to "Unforgettable," given that it was penned years ago. No one did it in the '80s.

The Dixies also won best Country Album and Best Country Performance by a Duo/Group, which is particularly smacking, since that was the branch of the industry--radio mostly--where the Dixie Chicks contempt had been bred. Another country star, Carrie Underwood, walked away expectedly with Best New Artist. She is the first reality TV star to claim the honor. She also won Best Female Country Performance for "Jesus, Take the Wheel"; the song was also honored with Best Country Song.

John Mayer snagged the award for best Pop Vocal Album for Continuum, his first win in that category. He also won Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for "Waiting on the World to Change," his third win in that category. Another veteran won Female Pop Vocal, Christina Aguilera for "Ain't No Other Man." Surprise win in the Pop Duo/Group category went to The Black Eyed Peas for "My Humps," and the Pop Collaboration went not to one of the couplets of hot, current artists, but to the pairing of Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder for "For Once in My Life."

Madonna got an award for Best Electronic/Dance Album for Confessions on a Dancefloor, which is only her sixth Grammy. Best Dance Recording went to Justin Timberlake for "Sexyback," who also won Best Rap/Sung Collaboration with T.I. for "My Love."

Other major album wins: Stadium Arcardium by Red Hot Chili Peppers (rock), St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley (alternative), The Breakthrough by Mary J. Blige (R&B), B'Day by Beyonce (contemporary R&B), Release Therapy by Ludacris (rap), Modern Times by Bob Dylan (modern folk/Americana). Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds was the only Album of the Year nominee not to win a best album genre award.

Brit Award British Single Field Narrows

The Brit Awards have winnowed down the original 11 nominees for Best British Single down to a 5-record shortlist:

Fill My Little World - The Feeling

America - Razorlight

Chasing Cars - Snow Patrol

Patience - Take That

All Time Love - Will Young

So gone are Lily Allen, The Kooks, Leona Lewis, James Morrison, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Sandi Thom. Great to see they kept The Feeling and Will Young over Allen or Rae, although if it would up to me I'd have kept Allen and ditched Razorlight. Still, they managed to mostly jettison the bad stuff (Lewis, Thom) in favor of the keepers. My personal vote goes to Will Young, but I expect Snow Patrol will win.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Grammy Awards Rundown

The 49th Annual Grammy Awards are tomorrow night. Who will win? Who should win? Let's take a look...

Record of the Year

Be Without You - Mary J. Blige
You're Beautiful - James Blunt
Not Ready to Make Nice - Dixie Chicks
Crazy - Gnarls Barkley
Put Your Records On - Corinne Bailey Rae

I don't think Corinne Bailey Rae or James Blunt have a shot at it, and while Dixie Chicks are frontrunners in the album category, I don't see the Grammys singling them out for Record. This race comes down to a veteran artist at her peak, Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You," and an innovative newcomer, Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." You could argue Mary deserves the award for the snub of not getting an Album of the Year nomination, but on substance alone this award should and will go to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."'

Should win/will win: Crazy - Gnarls Barkley

Album of the Year

Taking the Long Way - Dixie Chicks
St. Elsewhere - Gnarls Barkley
Continuum - John Mayer
Stadium Arcadium - Red Hot Chili Peppers
FutureSex/Love Sounds - Justin Timberlake

It still looks odd to not see Bob Dylan's Modern Times and Mary J. Blige's Breakthrough among the set, although their inclusion probably would have meant the exclusion of John Mayer's soulful, understated Continuum, which ended up being my personal favorite of the three I own (along with Timberlake and Dixie Chicks). While Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" is a frontrunner for Record, the album as a whole is undeserving, too many weird moments among the good ones. For RHCP, it's "an honor just being nominated." This race comes down to Justin Timberlake, the popular favorite and second-time nominee whose singles have been ubiquitous for the last 6 months, and The Dixie Chicks' pop/country statement of standing their ground. Both are good albums too, and between these two I'm going with The Dixie Chicks for their more consistently good album and the opportunity for the recording industry to stick it to all those who stuck to the Chicks for expressing what they believe.

Should win: Continuum - John Mayer

Will win: Taking the Long Way - Dixie Chicks

Song of the Year

Be Without You - Johnta Austin, Mary J. Blige, Bryan-Michael Cox & Jason Perry, songwriters (Mary J. Blige)
Jesus Take the Wheel - Brett James, Hillary Lindsey & Gordie Sampson, songwriters (Carrie Underwood)
Not Ready to Make Nice - Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison & Dan Wilson, songwriters (Dixie Chicks)
Put Your Records On - Put Your Records OnJohn Beck, Steve Chrisanthou & Corinne Bailey Rae, songwriters (Corinne Bailey Rae)
You're Beautiful - James Blunt, Amanda Ghost & Sacha Skarbek, songwriters (James Blunt)

The songwriters award. Usually goes to adult contemporary-type fare, so count "Be Without You" and "Jesus Take the Wheel Out." "Put Your Records On" is lovely, but too slight. "You're Beautiful" would appear to be a favorite, as it is lovely too, but not very interesting lyrically. "Not Ready to Make Nice" still gives me goosebumps during its middle 8, and it tells a compelling story.

Should/will win: Not Ready to Make Nice - Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison & Dan Wilson

Best New Artist

James Blunt
Chris Brown
Imogen Heap
Corinne Bailey Rae
Carrie Underwood

Already this decade this award has gone to some pretty impressive talent, including Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5, Alicia Keys, and Norah Jones, so it's not the "curse" it once may have been (of the '90s winners only Mariah Carey and Sheryl Crow are arguably still going strong). James Blunt seems like a strong contender, and my personal favorite, but Carrie Underwood is going to be irresistible as the American Idol that made it.

Should win: James Blunt

Will win: Carrie Underwood

Best Female Pop Vocal Performance

Ain't No Other Man - Christina Aguilera
Unwritten - Natasha Bedingfield
You Can Close Your Eyes - Sheryl Crow
Stupid Girls - Pink
Black Horse and the Cherry Tree - KT Tunstall

Last year this went very deservingly to Kelly Clarkson, who had been snubbed in the Record and Album of the Year categories (she won both of her nominations though, the other being for Pop Album). Christina Aguilera and Sheryl Crow have won this before, but for better work, "Beautiful" and "All I Wanna Do." Pink's song is great, but would seem an odd choice for Grammy. This race comes down to my personal favorite Natasha Bedingfield's star-making performance for "Unwritten" and KT Tunstall's breakthrough "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." For some reason I'm feeling this will go to Tunstall, as the more Grammy-like choice.

Should win: Unwritten - Natasha Bedingfield

Will win: Black Horse and the Cherry Tree - KT Tunstall

Best Male Pop Vocal Performance

You're Beautiful - James Blunt
Save Room - John Legend
Waiting on the World to Change - John Mayer
Jenny Wren - Paul McCartney
Bad Day - Daniel Powter

John Mayer's already won this twice, first for "Your Body is a Wonderland" and later for "Daughters," so he's a likely favorite. I've never even heard "Jenny Wren," so voters probably haven't either. Count "Bad Day" out. This is probably James Blunt's best chance to win, but I expect he will be edged out by the soulful single from last year's best new artist, John Legend.

Should win: You're Beautiful - James Blunt

Will win: Save Room - John Legend

Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal

My Humps - Black Eyed Peas
I Will Follow You Into the Dark - Death Cab for Cutie
Over My Head (Cable Car) - The Fray
Is It Any Wonder? - Keane
Stickwitu - The Pussycat Dolls

This is an odd assortment, isn't it? Recent winners include Maroon 5, Los Lonely Boys, and No Doubt (twice). I really can't see Black Eyed Peas or The Pussycat Dolls wining a Grammy, so count them out. As well as Death Cab for Cutie and Keane for not being known enough. The Fray's popular "Over My Head" should easily win.

Should win: Is It Any Wonder? - Keane

Will win: Over My Head (Cable Car) - The Fray

Best Pop Vocal Collaboration

For Once In My Life - Tony Bennett & Stevie Wonder
One - Mary J. Blige & U2
Always On Your Side - Sheryl Crow & Sting
Promiscuous - Nelly Furtado & Timbaland
Hips Don't Lie - Shakira & Wyclef Jean

Surprisingly competitive this year, more so than usual, and includes some very popular songs. "Promiscuous" is the popular choice, but since Nelly Furtado was so looked-over in other categories, I don't expect her to win. Same for Shakira's "Hips Don't Lie." "Always on Your Side" is a lovely ballad by two Grammy favorites, and should be a frontrunner, but the irresistible combination of Mary J. Blige and U2, also Grammy favorites, is unstoppable.

Should win: Always on Your Side - Sheryl Crow & Sting

Will win: One - Mary J. Blige & U2

Best Pop Vocal Album

Back to Basics - Christina Aguilera
Back to Bedlam - James Blunt
The River In Reverse - Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint
Continuum - John Mayer
FutureSex/LoveSounds - Justin Timberlake

Twice recently this has gone to the Album of the Year winner, but more often goes to another worthy album not nominated in the lead category. That would mean James Blunt's Back to Bedlam (too old for me to be excited about at this point) or Christina Aguilera's Back to Basics (innovative and adventurous, but uneven). I'm going with neither though and say that Justin Timberlake deserves to win with last year's hottest pop album that firmed up his status as a pop music leader.

Should/will win: FutureSex/LoveSounds - Justin Timberlake

Best Dance Recording

Suffer Well - Depeche Mode
Ooh La La - Goldfrapp
Get Together - Madonna
I'm With Stupid - Pet Shop Boys
Sexyback - Justin Timberlake

This usually goes to a popular choice or at least a popular artist. I'd love to think that Madonna could win this, but "Get Together" was barely a blip on the U.S. music scene last year. Despite it being the least "dance" of the pack, Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback," overlooked for Record of the Year, will probably win.

Should win: Get Together - Madonna

Will win: Sexyback - Justin Timberlake

Best Electronic/Dance Album

Supernature - Goldfrapp

Confessions on a Dancefloor - Madonna

A Lively Mind - Oakenfold

Fundamental - Pet Shop Boys

The Garden - Zero 7

Madonna has so few Grammys, it would be nice to see her win, but in all honesty, Goldfrapp's Supernature is a better album and deserves to win. Pet Shop Boys had their best album in years, but did anyone pay attention?

Should/will win: Supernature - Goldfrapp

Friday, February 09, 2007

Album Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Queen (4.5 / 5)

It's been four years since Blur has released an album, and in that time it's lead singer, Damon Albarn, has created a small musical dynasty with his spin-off projects. First their was Gorillaz, who reached massive worldwide acclaim last year with their second album, the DJ Danger Mouse production Demon Days and it's Grammy-winning single "Feel Good Inc." Being as it was a cartoon band, Gorillaz far exceeded its expected potential, leaving Albarn to try something more conventional for his next act.

Out comes The Good, the Bad, and the Queen. The band consists of Albarn on vocals, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Ong, and afrobeat dummer Tony Allne. DJ Danger Mouse is back as producer too, so although the sound is more akin to that of a traditional indie rock band, it still has hints of the same ambient electronica that permeated Demon Days, despite pulling back from the hip-hop vibe of that album.

Opening track "History Song" in particular sounds like a late-night Gorillaz jam session. Repetitive guitars, bass, and keyboards with Damon Albarn's soothing voice over it. The atmospheric "History Song" gives way to the more melodic and uptempo "'80s Life," which features '60-ish repeating piano chords over a synthetic keyboard stream and a heavy bass line.

The Good, the Bad, and the Queen is one among a set of recent releases chronicling modern life in London, along with Lily Allen's Alright, Still and Bloc Party's A Weekend in the City. "Northern Whale" epitomes that theme explicitly--a rumination on the recent occurance of a whale actually finding it's way up the River Thames into London. Again it sounds like a very Gorillaz-ish song, albeit more mellow. It's got a great reliance on staccatic piano chords and some funky electronic bass.

"Kingdom of Doom" is another cool song. Acoustic guitars, shimmering cacaphonic electronic keyboards, and Albarn's processed vocal blend effortlessly, breaking into a Beatles-like moment of charging piano chords during the chorus. "Herculean," the album's first single, sounds surprisingly like something that French techno group Air would have come up. (I'm a big Air fan, so it's not a bad thing.) It's moody, seemingly dark, yet surprisingly uplifting.

"Behind the Sun" starts off simply enough with some guitar and bass swagger but breaks into string-backed choruses set apart from its fuzzy snyth verses. "The Bunting Sun" is another Air-like moment of ambient electronica, probably the least interesting track so far, but certainly not bad. War is an ever-present theme on here, as it is sadly on lots of albums lately, but no more so than on "Nature Springs" As its lyrics suggest, where once Oceanographers charted the rise of seas, "today is a submarine." Yikes. Whistles, guitar, keyboards, strings, and bass all vy for the microphone here. "A Soldier's Tale" has a similar sound: scratchy guitars, weeping strings, some whistling.

"Three Changes" sounds like a carnival rolling into town before the bass and drums take over. About two-thirds through the song though it takes an interesting little break, then resumes the bass and guitar. Not my favorite, but interesting.

Apocalyptic "Green Fields" is a definite highlight. Spanish guitars, shimerring electronic keyboards, gentle acoustic guitar, and an environmentalist theme ("we saw the green fields turn into stone") make for a great little song that just over 2 minutes long. In fact, much of these songs are pretty short--four are under 3 minutes--so 7-minute closer "The Good, the Bad, and the Queen" really stands out just by its length. Haunting piano that's recorded to sound somehwat distant opens this number, joined soon by drums, bass, and other assorted electronic sounds. Even some electric guitar gets a word in before it's over. About a third of the way in the tempo kicks up a few notches, the guitar takes over, and the crash cymbal goes crazy, the song reaching for a frenzied musical climax to cap off the moody atmospherics that came before it.

Other reviewers have commented that The Good, the Bad, and the Queen takes a few listens to really sink in, and I agree. iTunes reports that I listened to it seven times before writing this review, and I agree that I didn't really appreciate it upon first listen, but it's grown on me more and more. An odd, but good album, blending the melodic best of Gorillaz with the apocalyptic sensibility of bands like Muse.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Billboard Hot 100, 2/17/2007

1. Irreplaceable - Beyonce

"Irreplaceable" hits the magic 10 week mark this week, making the single Beyonce's longest solo stay at the top. One more week at it will tie her former group's 11-week run for "Independent Women." Each week it amazes me this single stays at the top, and an 11th week looks very unlikely. Still, it's possible.

2. Say It Right - Nelly Furtado

If Nelly Furtado's going to score a second #1 hit, next week's the week. "Say It Right" eclipsed "Irreplaceable" at top 40 airplay this week, but has Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around...Comes Around" hot on its heels, and I expect him to get a sales boost after this Sunday's Grammy Awards performance.

5. The Sweet Escape - Gwen Stefani (featuring Akon)

"The Sweet Escape" rises a notch this week, surpassing last single "Wind It Up's" peak at #6. This is Stefani's second solo top 5 hit, following her #1 "Hollaback Girl."

11. What Goes Around...Comes Around - Justin Timberlake

Justin takes a 1-notch dip this week, but keeps his bullet. This single is still likely to be a huge hit, if not a third #1 single for him. If he cleans up at the Grammys it will unstoppable.

14. Here (In Your Arms) - HelloGoodbye

This is a very cool song, a great blend of synth, rock, and pop influences. It's up 5 spots this week. The band formed in Huntington Beach, California and appeared on MTV The Read World in Austin.

15. Cupid's Chokehold - Gym Class Heroes Featuring Patrick Slump

This gets the Airplay Gainer award this week, rising 13 notches from #28. I listened to the iTunes clip and was not impressed.

29. Lost Without U - Robin Thicke

Growing Pains actor Alan Thicke's son Robin has his first top 40 hit in "Lost Without U," rising 8 spots this week to #29.

31. Glamorous - Fergie (featuring Will.I.Am)

Fergie's third solo hit breaks into the top 40 this week, rising 20 notches. Time will tell if it will be another big hit for her, but it's not a bad song--mellower than it's predecessors, with another spelling lesson too.

32. If Anyone Cared - Nickelback

Sorry Nickelback, I don't.

40. Year 3000 - Jonas Brothers

Radio Disney flexes some chart muscle here, sending young band Jonas Brothers straight into the top 40 with this week's highest hot 100 debut. It's a remake of "Year 3000," a #2 hit in the U.K. for Busted in 2003.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Personal Chart, 2/10/2007

TW LW Title - Artist
1 .... 1 .... Grace Kelly - Mika (3 weeks @ #1)
2 .... 4 .... Say It Right - Nelly Furtado
3 .... 3 .... Perfect (Exceeder) - Mason vs. Princess Superstar
4 .... 2 .... A Bad Dream - Keane (1 wk @ #1)
5 .... 5 .... Starz in Their Eyes - Just Jack
6 .... 6 .... What Goes Around...Comes Around - Justin Timberlake
7 ... 10 ... This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race - Fall Out Boy
8 .... 7 .... Irreplaceable - Beyonce (2 wks @ #1)
9 .... 8 .... Patience - Take That (4 wks @ #1)
10 .. 12 .. Golden Skans - Klaxons

Monday, February 05, 2007

UK Singles Chart Analysis, 2/10/2007

1. Grace Kelly - Mika

It appears the chart is slowing down. Last year gave us only 24 number one hits, and this year is off to even a slower start, as Mika's "Grace Kelly" spends a third week at #1. By all appearances he's very likely to get a fourth too, which would make "Grace Kelly" the third single in a row to spend 4 weeks at #1. Mika's debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, is out today, so far to mixed reviews. The Evening Standard gave it 4 stars, saying it delivers "consistently well-crafted pop tunes that buzz with energy," while The Guardian, however, gave it 1 star, calling it "wearingly relentless" showboating.

2. This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race - Fall Out Boy

Three singles occupy both the U.S. and U.K. top 10s this week, including this track from Fall Out Boy, which manages to be #2 this week in both countries. At #2, this is by far their biggest U.K. hit, surpassing the #8 peaks of "Sugar We're Going Down" and "Dance Dance."

4. The Prayer - Bloc Party

"The Prayer" edges out the #5 peak of "So Here We Are" to become Bloc Party's highest-charting single so far. Their second album, A Weekend in the City, is out today. Listen to most of it at My Space.

9. I Wanna Love You - Akon
10. How to Save a Life - The Fray

Akon and The Fray enter the top 10 this week on downloads, their physical single releases still 1 and 2 weeks off respectively. This is The Fray's first top 10 hit.

19. Lil Star - Kelis (featuring Cee-Lo)

Kelis has had only one major hit in the U.S., but the U.K. has been enamored with her for sometime. "Lil Star" ends a 3-year drought for her, and the response has been very positive. This single isn't out for 2 weeks, it's already #19 on downloads and #3 on the airplay chart, making it a strong contender against The Fray and Kaiser Chiefs for #1 in a few weeks.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Best Films of 2006 Updated

When I made my top 10 list, there were still a few year-end releases I hadn't yet seen. I've pretty much made my way through them now, so here's a final top 20 of 2006:

1. The Queen
2. Babel
3. Flags of Our Fathers
4. Little Children
5. The Departed
6. Casino Royale
7. United 93
8. Letters from Iwo Jima
9. Dreamgirls
10. Little Miss Sunshine
11. Half Nelson
12. Volver
13. Children of Men
14. Pan's Labyrinth
15. The Painted Veil
16. Notes on a Scandal
17. Blood Diamond
18. The Devil Wears Prada
19. The Last King of Scotland
20. An Inconvenient Truth

Biggest disappointments: Bobby, The Good German, A Prairie Home Companion, The Good Shepherd, Venus

Lead vs. Supporting Acting

The San Francisco Chronicle had a good article last weekend about the difference between the lead and supporting acting categories at the Oscars. Much a source of confusion as to what the criteria are for determining a performance as "lead" or "supporting," the bottom line is that there is no criteria. The academy members decide through the nominating process. The article quoted the Academy's communications director:

"The actor's achievement is (automatically) eligible in both categories and it's entirely up to the actors' branch. The leading and supporting categories are tabulated at the same time by Price Waterhouse. Let's say John Pavlik is up for an award and half of the voters think it's supporting and half think it's lead; whichever of those reaches the magic number first (about 20 percent of ballots cast) is the category he's nominated in."

Given this wide-open discretion, it's no surprise that studio Oscar campaigns can have a big influence as to whether an actor is "put up" in one category or another. Factors such as a star's popularity and clout and the expected field of other actors vying for a slot therefore are as likely influences as more intuitive measures such as minutes of screen time or centrality to the film's story.

Arguing over whether a lead nominee is really a supporting performance and vice-versa is a longtime staple of Oscar season. This year there are two such lead performance nominees whose characters, when considered in terms of screen time and story centrality, should really be considered supporting performances.

The Devil Wears Prada is about a young woman's (Anne Hathaway) experience working as personal assistant to a devil of a fashion magazine editor (Meryl Streep). Hathaway has more screen time and her character is more central to the story, yet Streep is up for lead actress. Likely a decision reached because 1) Anne Hathaway, while a rising star making efforts to appear in Oscar-worthy films (Brokeback Mountain, for example), is still not considered Oscar-worthy herself, 2) the field for supporting performances is more crowded this year, and 3) Meryl Streep is...Meryl Streep. So she appears in the lead category, which, despite the apparent inconsistency, was no surprise at all.

Similarly, The Last King of Scotland is about an idealistic young Scottish doctor (James McAvoy), who rather than follow in his father's practice, ventures off to Africa to do humanitarian work, but instead ends up becoming the personal physician to the country's dictator (Forest Whitaker). McAvoy's is the story's main character and he clearly has more screen time, but Whitaker's role is showier, Whitaker is well-liked and under-recognized, and McAvoy is a virtual unknown, so Whitaker takes the lead nomination. Interestingly, McAvoy was even getting a bit of buzz for a supporting nomination, which could have led to the bizarre (but not unprecedented, see The English Patient below) situation of a larger role being nominated in the supporting category and a smaller role in the lead category from the same film.

My take on a few other notable examples of the folly of the lead vs. supporting categories:

Collateral (2004). Jamie Foxx was on fire during the 2004 Oscar season, hands down the frontrunner to win Best Actor for his performance in Ray. However, the actor was also getting considerable attention for his appearance in the summer thriller Collateral. Strangely, he ended up getting a supporting actor nomination for Collateral, despite clearly being that movie's central character. Sure, Tom Cruise was in it too, but he played the much smaller role of the nasty antagonist.

The English Patient (1996). Ralph Fiennes' role was clearly the main character in this film, but how to categorize the roles of the film's two actresses -- Juliette Binoche and Kristin Scott Thomas -- was less clear. Binoche played the nurse to Fiennes ailing character in the films later scenes, while Thomas played the love interest in the earlier scenes. Given to desire to push the film as an epic romantic drama, Thomas was pushed for a lead nomination, while Binoche was deemed a supporting player. Interestingly though, Binoche actually had more screen time. I'm sure she's not complaining though, as she walked away with a little statue and Thomas did not.

Tootsie (1982). Dustin Hoffman was the obviously the film's lead, Teri Garr clearly a supporting role, but what about Jessica Lange? She wasn't in the film enough to be seen as a lead, yet, she was clearly more central and had more screen time than Teri Garr. In the end, both were nominated for supporting actress, to which Garr was nonplussed. Lange won.