Joe McElderry - Wide Awake (3/5)
Big week for new pop albums in the UK. First up is the debut release for last year's X Factor winner Joe McElderry. I'm madly in love with his current single, "Ambitions," the most purely joyous pop songs to come along in some time. It suits McElderry well, for he is undeniably sweet, and this kind of sincere, upbeat pop should be his thing. Unfortunately, the powers that be try to push him in another direction for much of this album--toward more of a camp pop sound. Unfortunately, he just doesn't have the personality yet to pull them off, and they end up sounding like paler imitations of..well, the acts they surely try to imitate.
Take "Real Late Starter," a rollicking, upbeat pop song that struts along just like many of the songs from Mika, but, while this isn't a bad song, I don't believe that Joe feels at home here. Same goes for "Until the Stars Run Out," which shoots for a darker, broodier sound, not dissimilar to what Adam Lambert put out last year. It even interpolates a bit of George Michael's "Faith" (just because the lad is gay, do they really have to reference EVERY major gay pop star's sound for him?). The only merger along these lines that works really well is "Fahrenheit," which imitates the sound of Scissor Sisters' "I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" right down to the retro sci-fi bleeps--I'm will to accept it under the "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" label.
McElderry generally works best when he's singing more traditional pop, where his sincerity and youthful appeal serve him best, such as the aforementioned "Ambitions," the bright and building "Someone Wake Me Up," and the title track. I also like "Smile," which manages to be bright and cheery without going over the top. Unfortunately, the worst songs are the big-ballad remakes, "Superman (It's Not Easy)" and "The Climb," which are just needlessly excessive and uninteresting.
I think McElderry has a lot of appeal, and I'd like to see him get a chance to put out a second album (the second album is always more interesting--just ask Kelly Clarkson or Will Young). I hope it happens though. Some are sounding the death knell after "Ambitions" peaked at only #6 (heaven forbid). And it seems that while McElderry has his British fans, the international market for sweet male pop singers is securely cornered by Justin Bieber.
Best: Ambitions, Fahrenheit, Someone Wake Me Up
The Wanted - The Wanted (4/5)
I was so looking forward to Joe McElderry's debut, that I never considered that I actually might like The Wanted's first album better. When the fivesome appeared in the summer, they looked the latest scrubbed boyband, yet they delivered a surprisingly decent first single in "All Time Low," a tuneful mid-tempo pop song that offers a nice surprise about two-third through when it magically transforms briefly into a bracing club tune.
Gratifyingly, The Wanted offers up many other such interesting surprises. The biggest of which has to be "Let's Get Ugly," which is an incredibly awesome pop song. It starts by sampling Ennio Morricone's iconic western film score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (which it also effectively references in the lyrics) and layers on a strutting melody and beat not unlike something from Hard-Fi. Rounded out with some tuneful strings-based transitions that sound like key changes and you have what should become a major, major hit. I shouldn't be surprised that the song is co-written and co-produced by one of my favorite behind-the-scenes talents, Guy Chambers.
Also worthwhile are some the ballads, which manage to be more than just cookie-cutter boyband stuff. "Heart Vacancy," has a sweet, guitar-based melody and a warm vocal delivery that borders on country. It's a nice song, although a bit of a grower. More immediately stunning is the piano ballad "Hi and Low," which, if you didn't know was from a boyband album, you might think came from some moody singer-songwriter type. It has a beautiful piano tune--especially great during the soaring transitional middle. The vocal is a bit rough around the edges too, which is one of this group's most appealing traits: they don't all sound the same. "Golden" is another nice piano-based pop song, written by Jamie Hartman, better known as Ben's Brother (if you like piano-based pop, check out his "Let Me Out").
Many of the other songs mine more traditional pop territory, but are certainly serviceable. "Lose My Mind, "Replace Your Heart," and "Weakness" hit all the right notes, even if they aren't the most original songs. Guy Chambers also worked on two other songs, "Personal Soldier" and "Made," which are fine, but not nearly as exciting as "Let's Get Ugly." By the time "A Good Day for Love to Die" rolls around, I feel like I've heard enough mid-tempo, guitar-and-synth driven pop for one night (at 13 tracks, the albums feels just a tad long). Overall though, this is a surprisingly fresh and decent listen.
Best: Let's Get Ugly, All Time Low, Hi and Low, Heart Vacancy, Golden