First albums from former reality show winners (and notable contestants) are always a turning point--do they prove they have what it takes to make it in the real world or was their fame a fleeting TV-only product? It's been said before, but I'll say it again: For every Leona Lewis and Will Young there's a Michelle McManus and a Leon Jackson; for every Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, a Justin Guarini and a Taylor Hicks. The first single doesn't tell the tale--it's almost always a smash hit, even if radio ignores it.
"Hallelujah," the first single from Alexandra Burke, last year's X Factor winner, was an unqualified hit. It become Christmas #1 and the decade's fifth best-selling single in the United Kingdom, making it so far the biggest domestic hit from a X Factor alum. It was a gorgeous, soaring ballad that showcased the singer's substantial vocal ability. But even on the basis of such a hit, scoring a hit album is a whole different game.
With tremendous pleasure, I'm happy to report that Burke's debut, Overcome, is a knockout of a pop album that comfortably showcases the singer as an adept pop vocalist whether she's singing an epic ballad, an '80s-styled dance pop tune, or a modern R&B-influenced number. Overcome is actually quite diverse, ranging from Amy Winehouse- and Duffy-esque '60s styled songs to modern dance pop featuring hot American guests.
"Bad Boys," the UK's current #1 hit is perfect counter-programming to "Hallelujah," included here as a bonus track. Where "Hallelujah" was graceful and soaring, "Bad Boys" is down and dirty--a dance pop stomper that announces itself with sirens blazing. Burke exudes an awful lot of personality here, much more so than Leona Lewis, the other major X Factor winner (and yes, there will be lots of comparisons between the two). While Lewis generally seems pleasant, albeit a bit proper, Burke is the life of the party. She gets down quite properly on the frothy RedOne (Lady GaGa, Little Boots) dance pop productions "Broken Heels" and "Dumb" and Stargate's "Nothing But the Girl."
On the other end of the spectrum, she also excels at the ballads, several of which clearly want to be the next "Bleeding Love," with their big choruses and slow drum beats that sound like they were pounded out on skins the size of the moon. "The Silence" and "Overcome" are the showcase power ballads. As big as these productions are, Burke is never overpowered, although it's nice to hear her ably apply more restraint on "They Don't Know," the quieter closing track soulfully rendered with piano and strings.
Falling somewhere in the middle are my favorite tracks. Her Ne-Yo collaboration, "Good Night Good Morning" is a really cool track with a seductive pop melody and the great hooks we've come to expect from a Ne-Yo penned song. "All Night Long" is fun bubbly dance pop. The '60s-styled tracks both work well too. "Bury Me (Six Feet Under)" is sweet and fun, while "You Broke My Heart," co-penned by Pixie Lott, is big and brassy.
My only gripe is that many of the productions sound too similar to other songs. "All Night Long" is almost identical to Chris Brown's "Forever" (I assume they have the same producer, but have not been able to confirm it), "Broken Heels" sounds a lot like Alesha Dixon's "The Boy Does Nothing," "You Broke My Heart" a lot like Duffy's "Mercy," and "Overcome" is so similar to Kelly Clarkson's From Justin to Kelly ballad, "Anytime" that you can just about sing along with either set of lyrics (both songs were written by Louis Biancaniello and Sam Watters).
This would be more of a problem if Burke was just phoning in her performance or if these varying songs' styles didn't suit her. As it is, it's a bit of playing-it-safe, which is to be expected for a project like this. More importantly, she sounds great on every song here, regardless of how familiar they may sound.
Overcome is the first in a series of albums released in the next few weeks from female pop stars that got their starts on British reality TV singing competitions. Cheryl Cole and Leona Lewis take notice--Alexandra Burke has thrown down the gauntlet, and it's going to be a hard act to follow.
Best: Bad Boys, Good Night Good Morning, Bury Me (Six Feet Under), You Broke My Heart, Broken Heels, They Don't Know, All Night Long, Overcome, The Silence