Sunday, January 31, 2010

New Album Releases February

Three British females (or in one case a female-fronted group) lead my list of the most promising new releases of February.

Corinne Bailey Rae - The Sea (Feb.1). Mrs. Rae charmed the world in 2006 with her soulful pop, particularly the massive hit single "Put Your Records On," which was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy. Life looked pretty good, and then it all went rather bleak when, in 2008, her husband Jason Rae was found dead of an apparent drug overdose. She channels this painful incident on her sophomore album, The Sea, which is getting very good reviews for its darker, personal edges in addition to the lush, soulful sound we heard the first time around. First single "I'd Do It All Again" is certainly quite lovely.

Sade - Soldier of Love (Feb. 8). It's been nearly 10 years since British soul-pop group Sade released their last album, 2000's Lovers Rock, which itself had come 8 years after their previous album, 1992's Love Deluxe. So no surprise then that the group has "love" on their minds again, as they are known for finely crafted, sultry pop--the kind of music that oozes seduction (How many millions of people have gotten it on to this music? I wonder if Sade ever thinks about that). "Soldier of Love," the album's first single, sounds like it's got a bit more edge to it than what we've heard from them lately, incorporating the kind of heavy beats usually heard in contemporary pop.

Marina & the Diamonds - The Family Jewels (Feb. 22). Marina & the Diamonds came in second place in the BBC Sounds of 2010 poll. Considering that's an honor she shares with Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and Duffy, it's probably not a bad place to be. A few early releases generated quite a bit of buzz, and her first proper single, "Hollywood," is sitting on the BBC Radio 1 A List this week. From what I've heard she sounds a bit like Lily Allen, but with a heftier voice, sort of like Pink.

Massive Attack - Heligoland (Feb. 8). British trip-hop purveyors release their fifth album, first in 7 years, featuring "Splitting the Atom."

Hot Chip - One Life Stand (Feb. 8). Electronic group releases its fourth album featuring first single "One Life Stand."

The Streets - Computers and Blues (Feb. 23). I wouldn't be surprised if this is pushed back, as there isn't a whole lot of information about it (a sign it may not be ready for showtime). Reportedly, for his fifth album, Mike Skinner delved into rave for inspiration.

Coming in March: Debuts from Ellie Gouldling and Two Door Cinema Club, plus new albums from Goldfrapp and Gorillaz.

UK Singles Chart, February 6, 2010

1. Fireflies - Owl City

Owl City spends a second week at #1 with "Fireflies." The single continues to sell well, moving another 72,000 copies this week, well ahead of #2.

2. Don't Stop Believin' - Cast of Glee
(8. Don't Stop Believin' - Journey)

The Glee kids continue to rise, up another notch to #2 this week. It's so exciting the see this single really take off in the UK and become a genuine hit. It charted well in the US--#4--but only due to first week sales. After that, it fell quite fast. "Don't Stop Believin'" is also in the UK airplay top 40, a feat it got nowhere near in the US. The Journey version continues to sell well, down a notch to #8.

6. One Shot - JLS

JLS climbs four spots to #6, making this look more and more like it will be their third #1 hit. The single is released Feb. 22.

7. Empire State of Mind II - Alicia Keys
(18. Empire State of Mind - Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys)
(23. Doesn't Mean Anything - Alicia Keys)

Alicia Keys' version of "Empire State of Mind" proves its not just a novelty, climbing 8 spots to #7, becoming her 8th top 10 hit. The original version rebounds a bit, up 3 spots to #18. It just surpasses her last single, "Doesn't Mean Anything," which peaked at #8, and is still hanging around the top 40 at #23.

10. Young Forever - Jay-Z feat. Mr. Hudson

"Young Forever" climbs three spots into the top 10 at #10 this week. This is Jay-Z's 10th top 10 hit, his third from his recent album, The Blueprint 3, following #1 hit "Run This Town (w/Rihanna)" and #2 "Empire State of Mind (w/Alicia Keys)."

17. If We Ever Meet Again - Timbaland feat. Katy Perry

The second single from Timbaland's Shock Value 2 debuts at #17. The single is officially released in 2 weeks, which should give it a shot at the top 10. It's the follow-up to "Morning After Dark (w/Nelly Furtado)" which hit #6. "Morning After Dark" was also the first US single, but it bombed. Second single "Carry Out (w/Justin Timberlake)," seems to be doing better; it's already #15 at top 40 radio.

Live Grammys: Signing Off

Time for bed. Tomorrow morning I'll wake up and find out who won Album of the Year. Here's how I'll react, depending on who wins:

Taylor Swift: "Okay. That's not unexpected, and the album is pretty decent."
Dave Matthews Band: "I knew it. Grammy LOVES to reward a career."
Beyonce: "Yes! That was unexpected, but she totally deserves it."
Lady Gaga: "Good for her. I didn't expect she'd get it."
Black Eyed Peas: "Really? They gave it to that?"

Live Grammys: Michael Jackson Tribute

Lots of names. And it's supposed to be in 3D, so I put on my Avatar glasses, but they don't seem to be working. What $%9*$# 3D glasses should I be wearing?

Live Grammys: Taylor and Stevie

Taylor Swift and Stevie Nicks are performing. They aren't harmonizing particularly well, although Taylor sounded fine when she was singing her new "Today Was a Fairytale" song. Now it's a folksy rendition of "You Belong with Me." Stevie is singing this? The lyrics don't really fit for her.

Live Grammys: Rock Album

The nominees are AC/DC (heard its good), Eric Clapton & Steve Winwood, Green Day (hope they win), Dave Matthews Band, and U2 (wait, I hope THEY win). And the Grammy goes to...

Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

That's a surprise! Dave Matthews Band is up for AOTY, but Green Day gets it instead. Does that mean DMB probably won't win AOTY? Interesting.

Live Grammys: Record of the Year

Already! Wow. Halo, I Gotta Feeling, Use Somebody, Poker Face, and You Belong with Me. And the Grammy goes to....

Use Somebody - Kings of Leon

Live Grammys: Comedy Album

Interesting this is being presented. Must have some big names up for it. Spinal Tap, Stephen Colbert (aha), Weird Al Yankovic, Patton OSwalt (who?), Kathy Griffin (yay!), and George Lopez. And the Grammy goes to...Stephen Colbert. Imagine that.

Live Grammys: Lady Antebellum

The JoBros are looking nice tonight, particularly the one in the middle. Oh good, Lady Antebellum's performing "Need You Now." I'm really into this song these days. I haven't had a chance to listen to the album too much, but what I've heard I like (I'll probably review Corinne Bailey Rae first).

Grammy Live: Black Eyed Peas

They are wearing A LOT of metal. Miley said they were singing "I Gotta Feeling," but they are singing "Imma Be" (maybe it's a medley). The sound just cut out...maybe they were bleeped. Aha, there's the segue. I know "Use Somebody" will probably win Record of the Year, but really "I Gotta Feeling" deserves to win it more. It was everywhere this year, and it's still a fun song, even after 100s of plays.

Live Grammys: Best New Artist

Zac Brown Band, Keri Hilson, MGMT (Go Go Go!), Silversun Pickups, and The Ting Tings. And the Grammy goes to...Zac Brown Band. Oh well.

Live Grammys: Pink

What in the world is she doing? She's practically naked and dripping while spinning suspended from the ceiling, and singing a rather tepid piano ballad.

Grammys Live: Already Awarded

Since there are so many categories, there are quite a few Grammys that aren't given out on the show. Here are some winners already announced:

Male Pop Performance: Make It Mine - Jason Mraz (Blah category this year, so I really can't get worked up over this).

Pop Performance Duo/Group: I Gotta Feeling - Black Eyed Peas (No surprise there).

Pop Collaboration with Vocal: Lucky - Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat (snooze).

Pop Album: The E.N.D. - Black Eyed Peas (No surprise there, since its up for AOTY).

Dance Recording: Poker Face - Lady GaGa (A competitive category with Black Eyed Peas, David Guetta, Madonna and Britney Spears, but GaGa deserves it).

Electronic/Dance Album: The Fame - Lady GaGa (again, not a surprise, since its up for AOTY).

Traditional Pop Vocal Album: Michael Buble - Michael Buble Meets Madison Square Garden (Did you see him on SNL last night? He was great. My partner has become particularly taken with him. His Hamm and Buble sketch with Jon Hamm was quite fun).

Solo Rock: Working on a Dream - Bruce Springsteen
Group Rock: Use Somebody - Kings of Leon
Rock Song: Use Somebody - Kings of Leon

Alternative Album: Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix - Phoenix (Yes! My favorite of the pack. I'm glad they won over the Yeah Yeah Yeahs).

Female R&B: Single Ladies - Beyonce
Male R&B: Pretty Wings - Maxwell
R&B Duo/Group: Blame It - Jamie Foxx and T-Pain
Traditional R&B Performance: At Last - Beyonce
R&B Song: Single Ladies
R&B Album: Maxwell
Contemporary R&B Album: Beyonce
Rap Album: Eminem

Live Grammys: Beyonce

This is very Rhythm Nation-esque--Beyonce in a stiff, woven dress leading an army of dancers. "If I Were a Boy?" this must just be a teaser, because these people are assembled for something else. She looks incredible, as usual. Nice punky girl drummer. "You Oughta Know"--interesting choice. I was really hoping that army would break out and dance, but they never did.

Live Grammys: Best Country Album

Josh Duhamel looks good. Best Country Album goes to...Taylor Swift. No Surprise there.

Grammys Live: J.Lo, Green Day and Cast of American Idiot

Jennifer Lopez looks nice. Too bad she's not here because of her music. This is cool. I'd love to see American Idiot the musical. Although it's from 21st Century Breakdown, "21 Guns" is included in the American Idiot musical. I wonder how well this will do on Broadway (it opens in April).

Grammys Live: Stephen Colbert/Song of the Year

Is he the host? I guess so. "Justin Timberlake brought sexy back, but Susan Boyle sent it away." Now it's song of the year: Poker Face, Single Ladies, You Belong with Me, Use Somebody and Pretty Wings. And the winner is....

Beyonce & Company - Single Ladies

Live Blogging the Grammys

Since I'm watching the Grammys (until I go to bed around 10), why not write about it? Lady GaGa is starting us off with a muscly dancer-filled industrial set piece reminiscent of 1989-1990 Madonna. That sparkly green outfit is bizarre; like what the Joker would do if he was designing swimwear. "Poker Face" was first. Now GaGa is sitting at a piano with Elton John--in matching sparkly sunglasses--for a duet version of "Speechless." Elton John's earring is HUGE.

Album Review: Delphic - Acolyte (3.5/5)

The indie new wave revival continues! Delphic is the latest in the line, heralding from Manchester, England. Their contribution to this genre's ongoing development is a stronger emphasis on infusing dance into rock. On Acolyte, their debut, It's a trick that delivers some great songs, but also some that overstay their welcome.

The opening of the album is particularly strong. "Clarion Call" reminds me a lot of the sound The Killers developed on their 2004 debut--big upbeat rock sounds drenched in synths. "Doubt" shows more original personality, adding quite a bit of electronic enhancement to the synth melodies and dance beats, along with an electric guitar to remind you of its rock basis. "This Momentary" opens with a dark, rich sound, with instrumentation gradually added to create an expected build-up, which the eventual dance beat delivers. This is more '90s-dance than '80s dance though, pushing them beyond just new wave to house.

A couple of really long tracks follow. "Red Lights" has a nice, milder dance feel, but lacks much complexity for a 6-minute song. Probably fine for playing at a party, but just listening to it on headphones, I lose interest after a while. "Acolyte" has an ambient opening with some slow guitar strumming before it kicks into dance mode. At nearly 9 minutes, it's really long, and mostly instrumental. This track I don't mind as much, as it's got more kick than "Red Lights."

"Halcyon" returns the album to more traditional song territory. It's got a particularly strong chorus amidst its dark, layered melodies of guitar and driving dance beats. Back to '80s synth pop territory with "Submission," one of the album's slower songs, with a rueful lyrical delivery akin to Pet Shop Boys. Aptly named "Counterpoint" injects a bit of optimism into the mostly dark feel of the album.

Delphic have an interesting sound, but I don't love this album. Not enough songs are standouts for me. I'm surprised they're getting as much "big new thing for 2010" buzz as they are, although I think "Doubt" in particular is a good track and should have been a bigger hit (it didn't even make the UK top 75 singles chart).

Best: Doubt, Clarion Call, This Momentary, Halcyon

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Oscar Nominees Predictions

So many awards shows to predict! I guess it's silly, but I have fun doing it. Here are my predictions for the Oscar nominations, which are announced on Tuesday. The awards will be presented March 7.

Best Picture

District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The Messenger
A Serious Man
Up in the Air

With 10 movies in the mix this year, it will be extremely difficult to accurately predict the nominees this year. Interestingly, five films have really emerged as the frontrunners for a nomination, and in any other year, these would be the sole nominees: Avatar, an amazing technical achievement that has become the highest-grossing movie ever; The Hurt Locker, a visceral Iraq war drama; Up in the Air, a thinking man's comedy/drama about a rootless recession-era existence; Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's deliciously stylized World War II revision; and Precious, a gritty inner-city look at a girl's struggle to find herself. Beyond the top 5, An Education and Up look like good bets, which will make Up only the second animated film ever to be nominated for Best Picture (after Beauty & the Beast in 1992). I didn't care for A Serious Man, but I think it has a lot of Academy support and buzz to get a spot. After that, it gets harder. Nine and The Lovely Bones had Academy pedigree but got such piss-poor reviews, that I think both movies are surely dead. Invictus is a toss-up. I enjoyed it, and it had a lot of buzz prior to its release, but it seemed to die off really quickly. The Hangover could make an appearance here, but even though I thought the story was creative, I didn't think it was so hilarious. I'd much rather see (500) Days of Summer here, but I'm afraid that won't happen. Stylish Tom Ford's directorial debut A Single Man deserves Art Direction and Costume Design nods, as well as some acting ones, but I doubt it's hefty enough for Best Picture. Science Fiction had a great year in 2009, and wouldn't it be fun to see a Star Trek film get a Best Picture nod? I doubt it will happen, but I think it's a good possibility for District 9, which was honored with a Producer's Guild nod (as was Star Trek, by the way). I'd love to say that Crazy Heart has a shot here, but I really doubt it. I think the Iraq war will be the inspiration for not one, but two best picture nominees this year, sending The Messenger into the mix.

What I would choose: Up in the Air, Avatar, (500) Days of Summer, Crazy Heart, Star Trek, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, District 9, Precious

Best Actor

Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the front-runner to win this year, and deservedly so, as his performance in Crazy Heart is amazing. If you haven't seen it--go see it. It's really good. George Clooney and Colin Firth look like shoo-ins for their respective roles as a man who refuses to be tied down and a man who contemplates ending it all after the death of his partner. Morgan Freeman was the best part of Invictus, and his studied portrayal of Nelson Mandela deserves a nod. Fifth place is a bit "up in the air" this year. There was talk of Daniel Day-Lewis for Nine, but the film is DOA. Viggo Mortensen could be a contender for The Road, although the film underperformed. Matt Damon for The Informant, Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man, and Ben Foster for The Messenger look like longshots. I think slot #5 will go to Jeremy Renner, as the reckless/troubled bomb squad leader in The Hurt Locker.

What I would choose: Bridges, Clooney, Firth and Freeman for sure. I might give a nod to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt's earnest, lovelorn architect-to-be from (500) Days of Summer.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia

This is the easiest of the acting slates to predict this year. The winner is a different story (but we have a month to worry about that). Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock lead the pack, and will be duking it out for the award in March. Gabourey Sidibe and Carey Mulligan share newcomers-of-the-year honors for their vastly different yet interestingly similar roles of girls making the difficult transition to womanhood in places so extraordinarily different as to be two separate worlds (the underbelly of 1980s New York vs. 1960s suburban London). I've not yet seen The Last Station--it opens next weekend in DC--but I hear Helen Mirren is fabulous as Leo Tolstoy's wife, so I'm sure she'll get it. The rest are real longshots: Emily Blunt for The Young Victoria, Abbie Cornish for Bright Star, Penelope Cruz for Broken Embraces, and Marion Cotillard for Nine.

What I would choose: Streep, Mulligan, Sidibe, and if I get a chance to see the films, I imagine I'd be up for Mirren and maybe Bullock too. That lack of good roles for women is really showing itself this year, isn't it?

Best Supporting Actor

Matt Damon - Invictus
Woody Harrelson - The Messenger
Christian McKay - Me and Orson Welles
Christopher Plummer - The Last Station
Christophe Waltz - Inglourious Basterds

This one's a bit trickier. Christophe Waltz is the easy frontrunner for his portrayal of the Nazi baddie in Inglourious Basterds, followed somewhat closely by the soldier-with-demons performance by Woody Harrelson in The Messenger. Again, I haven't seen The Last Station yet, but I hear Christopher Plummer is great as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (a possibility for lead actor actually, depending on how the Academy decides to go). The last two slots are harder. I thought Alfred Molina was great as the father in An Education, but his buzz never really picked up. Stanley Tucci had a lot of good buzz for The Lovely Bones, but I think the film's poor reception might damage his chances (although he did get a SAG nod). I'm giving his spot to Christian McKay for Me and Orson Welles, another movie I didn't see, so I'm out on a limb here. I did see Invictus, and I thought Matt Damon was quite deserving, so I'm giving him the last slot over Peter Saarsgard (excellent in An Education), Anthony Mackie (The Hurt Locker), and Alec Baldwin (It's Complicated).

What I would choose: Waltz, Harrelson, Damon, and Saarsgard. Molina too, although I expect I'll appreciate Plummer in The Last Station.

Best Supporting Actress

Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Julianne Moore, A Single Man
Samantha Morton, The Messenger
Mo'Nique, Precious

This is an interesting race this year. Mo'Nique is the frontrunner for her portrayal of the evil mother in Precious, despite her public refusal to campaign for the award (which could lead to an upset for the win, but she'll still surely be nominated). Both Up in the Air women should make the cut too--Vera Farmiga as the older, slightly world-weary but still ready to play woman and Anna Kendrick as the young upstart. After those three, there's lots vying for the last two slots. Some pundits are writing off Julieanne Moore, but she was fantastic in A Single Man, despite a smallish role. I think Samantha Morton will prevail for the last spot as the widow in The Messenger. Yet there are lots of other great choices. Both Melanie Laurent as a revenge-seeking moviehouse operator and Diane Kruger as a popular German actress have a shot from Inglourious Basterds, but both are such unknowns too. I was quite taken by Paul Patton's performance as the teacher in Precious, and Mariah Carey, as the social worker, got quite a bit of buzz at one point. An Avatar sweep could throw in Sigourney Weaver, or even Zoe Saldana as one of the alien women (although I think that is a real longshot). If Nine had done better, it certainly has plenty of women to choose from (Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, and Sophia Loren, for example). Who I'd really, really love to see here is Maggie Gyllenhaal as the love interest/journalist/mother from Crazy Heart. She's such an underrated talent.

What I would choose: Farmiga, Kendrick, Gyllenhaal, Patton, and Moore (take that Mo'Nique).

Best Director

Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avator
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds

Isn't it fun that the leading contenders for Best Director this year are divorcees? Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron were married from 1989 to 1991 (she was his third wife; he's now on number five). They were DGA nominees, along with Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman and Quentin Tarantino, making them the most likely nonimees. As a new face, Lee Daniels is the most vulnerable though, which could leave room for longtime Academy favorite Clint Eastwood (Invictus) to claim the final spot. Longshots include The Coen Brothers for A Serious Man, Jane Campion for Bright Star, and Lone Scherfig for An Education.

What I would choose: Cameron, Bigelow, Reitman, Tarantino, and Tom Ford for pulling together a masterful debut with A Single Man.

Original Screenplay

(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
A Serious Man

Other possibles: The Hangover, Avatar, It's Complicated

Avatar is vulnerable here, since some people don't like the story (whatever, I think they just want to knock it). The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man look pretty solid. Pixar movies tend to get screenplay nods, so expect to see Up here. I'm hoping (500) Days of Summer can triumph over The Hangover for the last spot.

Adapted Screenplay

An Education
District 9
Julie & Julia
Up in the Air

Other possibles: Invictus, The Road, A Single Man, The Last Station, Crazy Heart, Star Trek

Up in the Air and Precious are the shoo-ins. An Education should make the cut. District 9, which some people don't realize is an adaptation, looks like a good choice too. I hope Julie & Julia makes it, since, after all, it is an adaptation of two different books into one film, which is pretty impressive. The WGA also honored Crazy Heart and Star Trek; I give the former a better chance.

Animated Feature

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog

Documentary Feature

The Beaches of Agnes
The Cove
Food, Inc.
Living in Emergency
Under Our Skin

Foreign Film

Ajami (Israel)
A Prophet (France)
El Secreto de Sus Ojos (Argentina)
The White Ribbon (Germany)
Winter in Wartime (The Netherland)


Bright Star
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon

Film Editing

District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Up in the Air

Art Direction

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Inglourious Basterds
Public Enemies
Sherlock Holmes

Costume Design

Bright Star
Inglourious Basterds
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria


District 9
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Star Trek

Visual Effects

District 9
Star Trek

Sound Mixing

District 9
The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
Transformers 2

Sound Editing

The Hurt Locker
Star Trek
Transformers 2


Coco Before Chanel
The Princess and the Frog
Sherlock Holmes


Avatar, "I See You"
Crazy Heart, "The Weary Kind"
Nine, "Cinema Italiano"
The Princess and the Frog, "Almost There"
The Princess and the Frog, "Down in New Orleans"

Most Nominations

Avatar - 10
The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds - 8
Up in the Air - 7
District 9 - 6

The Mainstreaming of Rap by MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice

M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice. They were like the Kanye West and Eminem of their day. You may scoff at that statement, but in many ways it's true. As 1990 began, no rap single had ever topped the Billboard Hot 100, and only a handful had been top 10 hits. M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice changed that in 1990, the tipping point between rap being a novelty offshoot of R&B to full-fledged genre of mainstream pop.

Like West and Eminem, who garnered significant acclaim and success going against the traditional stylings of hip-hop, M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice were also pioneers of a sort, packaging their rap to be more upbeat and accessible to a mainstream audience than the works of then prominent rap acts like NWA, 2 Live Crew and Public Enemy. While those groups spun tales of urban decay with explicit lyrics and hard beats, M.C. Hammer and Vanilla Ice were more interested in the meaningless pursuit of the dance floor, girls, etc., told over pop rhythms with familiar samples (Rick James, David Bowie, etc.).

And the hits rolled in. M.C. Hammer's "U Cant Touch This" became the first rap to top the top 40 airplay chart and propelled its album Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em to #1 where it stayed for 21 weeks. It gave way to Vanilla Ice's To the Extreme, which also had a long run at #1 (16 weeks) and produced the first rap single to top the Hot 100, "Ice Ice Baby."

Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em kicks off with "Here Comes the Hammer" and "U Can't Touch This," party anthems that have little to say than "I'm here, let's dance." Then comes "Have You Seen Her," which, as a rap "ballad," is a bit of an anomaly, but it works well. "Help the Children" was another slower track, a tepid attempt at infusing a bit of social consciousness into the mix. Other highlights include the bubbly "On Your Face" and Prince-sampling dance track "Pray," which hit #2 the week after "Ice Ice Baby" was #1. Production-wise, these songs have more in common with pop acts like New Kids on the Block than with hip-hop. Although there are quite a few fun songs here, ultimately the non-singles lack much distinction.
To the Extreme kicks off with Vanilla Ice's massive #1 hit, "Ice Ice Baby," which is pretty much the same song thematically as "Here Comes the Hammer," as all it says is "here I am, I'm me, let's party." While upbeat, Vanilla Ice's album is less dance-pop-oriented than Hammer's, with a focus on melodies pinned to prominent bass lines. "Ice Ice Baby's" groove, taken from David Bowie's "Under Pressure," is particularly infectious. Musically though, apart from that major hit and its top 5 following, "Play that Funky Music," there's little here that provides any enduring appeal, although I do enjoy the disposable party vibe of "Ice Is Workin' It." I was really excited to get this for Christmas in 1990, but since I recognize very few of these tracks now, I guess I didn't listen to it much, and now I can see why.

Unlike Eminem and West, Hammer and Ice proved to have little staying power. Hammer's next album, Too Legit to Quit, yielded two top 10 hits, but sold far fewer copies. Vanilla Ice would never come close to repeating the success of his debut. Time hasn't been kind to them either. Even though Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, I doubt few would argue its artistry parallels that of say Late Registration or The Marshall Mathers LP (and no one would dare make the case for Vanilla Ice).

M.C. Hammer - Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em (3/5). Best: U Can't Touch This, Have You Seen Her, Pray, Here Comes the Hammer, On Your Face

Vanilla Ice - To the Extreme (2.5/5). Best: Ice Ice Baby, Play that Funky Music, Ice Is Workin' It

1990 Album Review: Lisa Stansfield - Affection (4.5/5)

Released in 1989 in Britain but not until February 1990 in the US, Lisa Stansfield’s debut, Affection, was a charming blend of modern dance beats with old school soul and disco sensibilities. The UK and US track listings differed a little by their order, but contained the same 13 songs (the LP version ditched three of them, including the opening track, a future single).

“This Is the Right Time” begins the set on an upbeat note with a warm keyboard-based dance pop arrangement. "Mighty Love" keeps a dance beat, but ditches the keyboards for piano and strings, giving it a lighter, sultrier arrangement. "Sincerity" slows the tempo a bit, showcasing Stansfield's considerable vocal talent. She has an interesting voice, with quite a bit of heft and control.

The highlights are sprinkled throughout the album, not front-loaded like most albums are today. "The Love in Me" is another winning dance-pop confection, with an "I'm Every Woman"-like synth-strings melody. "What Did I Do to You" keeps the tempo up with a news-bulletin-like opening and adds flutes to the musical mix. She sings lower here too, which is interesting. "You Can't Deny It" is another upbeat charmer and was the album's second US single. "Live Together's" jazzy disco production showcases the album's best strings arrangement. "When Are You Coming Back" opens with some sharp bass beats, but is actually one of the slower songs here, exuding a sexy burn.

The biggest treat though is "All Around the World," Stansfield's signature song and biggest hit. Groovy disco strings and beats underpin this soulful tale of lost love. It hit #3 in the US and #1 in the UK. It also topped the US R&B chart, a rare feat for a non-black artist.

Stansfield's second album, Real Love, delivered one more US hit, "Change" (a song I adore), after which she was relegated to the dance chart (but with quite a bit of success, scoring four more dance #1s in the late '90s). She fared better at home in Britain, where she hit #1 with George Michael on "These Are the Days of Our Lives" and scored a total of eight top 10 hits.

Best: All Around the World, This Is the Right Time, What Did I Do To You, Live Together, You Can't Deny It, The Love in Me, Mighty Love

Friday, January 29, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Grammy Best New Artist

Since I find this category so confounding, here's a look at when they got it right, and when they didn't (with the wonderful benefit of hindsight).

Years they got it right:

1990. Mariah Carey, who is arguably the biggest new artist of the last 20 years, beat The Black Crowes, Kentucky Headhunters, Lisa Stansfield and Wilson Phillips, none of whom we've heard a peep since the mid-'90s (and that's being a little generous).

1986. Sade, who continues to make awesome albums, beats stuck-in-the-'80s acts a-ha and Katrina and the Waves, plus people I've never heard of: Freddie Jackson and Julian Lennon.

2002. A lot of big names in this slate, such as hitmakers Linkin Park and Nelly Furtado, and critical favorite India Aire, but Alicia Keys, who won the award, has proven that she earned it.

Years they didn't:

1991: Boyz II Men became one of the decade's biggest hitmakers, Seal had an enduring career (and married Heidi Klum), Color Me Badd and C&C Music Factory didn't have staying power, but delivered quintessential hits of the early '90s. Despite all that, the Grammy went to Marc Cohn.

1989. Milli Vanilli won. We all know why that wasn't right. Can we go back in time and give it to Neneh Cherry or the Indigo Girls?

1996: The year after losing best new artist to Hootie & the Blowfish (who petered out pretty quickly after this), Shania Twain recorded the biggest selling album of all time by a woman or a country artist. Alanis Morissette was also in this set.

Hard to call:

2003: Norah Jones was huge at the time, but I think it's safe to say that Avril Lavigne and John Mayer have since eclipsed her (can't say the same for Ashanti or Michelle Branch).

1999: Lauryn Hill was huge in 1998, and I still could see her making a comeback, but that she won over Backstreet Boys (who were perhaps more significant culturally) and the Dixie Chicks, who were more enduring, makes it a questionable call in hindsight.

Grammy Awards Predictions

The 52nd Grammy Awards are this Sunday. Here's who I think will and should win.

Album of the Year
  • Beyoncé - I Am...Sasha Fierce
  • Black Eyed Peas - The E.N.D.
  • Dave Matthews Band - Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King
  • Lady GaGa - The Fame
  • Taylor Swift - Fearless
Will Win: Months ago I did a study on the Grammy Awards Album of the Year category. And although I only predicted 3 of the 5 nominees, I think the principles I articulated applied (one of my mistakes was to not apply one of my principles, which is that a pop album is always nominated, and I chose the wrong rock album, but nobody was predicting DMB). What I learned was that, above all else, Grammy likes to award a veteran act with this award. Only once in the last 10 years did a hot young act beat an established veteran, in 2003 when Norah Jones beat Bruce Springsteen. Otherwise, we saw Steely Dan beat Eminem, Ray Charles beat Kanye West, U2 beat Kanye West, Herbie Hancock beat Amy Winehouse...and Kanye West. So count out hot young things Lady GaGa, who is really a better singles artist, and Taylor Swift, who is still cutting her teeth as the Grammys go. Black Eyed Peas should count their lucky stars they were nominated and have no chane of winning.

Will win: Beyonce is almost a veteran, having been in Destiny's Child over a decade ago and a solo act for 7 years now, but I think Dave Matthew Band is the true veteran here and will take the prize.

Should win: My favorite of the bunch is Beyonce's I Am...Sasha Fierce, whose third album showed tremendous growth as a vocalist while displaying an effective range of styles from dance to balladry, old school to modern pop.

Record of the Year
  • Beyonce - Halo
  • Black Eyed Peas - I Gotta Feeling
  • Kings of Leon - Use Somebody
  • Lady GaGa - Poker Face
  • Taylor Swift - You Belong with Me
Four of these singles are also from Album of the Year nominees, which would appear to give them an upper hand. After all, the only single to win Record of the Year that wasn't from an AOTY-nominated album was Coldplay's "Clocks." So that would seem to weed out Kings of Leon's "Use Somebody"....however, during the '90s it was fairly common to award ROTY to a record that wasn't also on a nominated album, with records by Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Eric Clapton and Celine Dion taking such honors. While it's tempting to try to equate hit power with this honor, that also doesn't work, as frequently the ROTY winner is actually the lowest-charting of the bunch. That was certainly true last year for Robert Plant & Alison Krauss' "Please Read the Letter," Coldplay's "Clocks," Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," Ray Charles "Here We Go Again," U2's "Walk On" and "Beautiful Day," and Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Be Nice." As foolproof as this formula appears to be, it doesn't work this year, since all 5 nominees were big hits.

Will win: The only thing left I can see is that the single that most appeals to adults seems to generally win. So out with Lady GaGa, Black Eyed Peas and Taylor Swift. So between Beyonce and Kings of Leon, I give Kings of Leon the edge, which also, even though it was a big hit, is probably the least biggest hit here (in US chart terms).

Should win: Hard to say. I really enjoyed "You Belong with Me" when it came out, and I do love Beyonce and Lady GaGa, but I would probably say that "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas deserves it most.

Song of the Year

  • Thaddis Harrell, Beyoncé Knowles, The-Dream, and Christopher Stewart - "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" performed by Beyoncé
  • Kings of Leon - "Use Somebody" performed by Kings of Leon
  • Lady Gaga and RedOne - "Poker Face" performed by Lady Gaga
  • Hod David and Musze - Pretty Wings" performed by Maxwell
  • Liz Rose & Taylor Swift - "You Belong With Me" performed by Taylor Swift
This category confounds me. About half the time it goes to the ROTY winner, and it used to be that it awarded songs that would have staying power and be recorded by other people, but apparently not anymore.

Will win: Beyonce & Company's "Single Ladies" seemed to have the most cultural value, so I give it the edge.

Should win: I do like "Singles Ladies," but I thought Taylor Swift and Liz Rose's "You Belong with Me" perfectly captured adolescent unrequited love in quite an appealing package.

Best New Artist

Keri Hilson
Silversun Pickups
The Ting Tings
Zac Brown Band

Another head-scratcher. With Lady GaGa disqualified, it's hard to say who's really most deserving here. I don't even know who Silversun Pickups and Zac Brown Band are. Keri Hilson is fine, but didn't exactly set the world on fire.

Will and Should Win: But MGMT managed to build quite a following, deliver a great album, and a couple of good singles over the last 2 years.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Two Is Better than One

In the last couple weeks I've really gotten into the new single from Boys Like Girls featuring Taylor Swift, "Two Is Better than One." The track entered the top 10 on the top 40 radio chart recently, besting Swift's recent solo single, the similarly numerically minded "Fifteen." It's a bit odd that she doesn't appear in the video.

Boyzone "Gave It All Away"

You might want to grab a tissue before you watch Boyzone's new video, "Gave It All Away." It was recorded before Stephen Gately's death, but the band used the video as an opportunity to make a tribute to him. It's heartfelt and appears quite genuine. The song, which features a gentle reggae beat, was written by Mika. I can't embed the video, but just click on the link above to see it. The song is the first single from a new Boyzone album, as yet untitled, due out in March.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

UK Singles Chart, January 30, 2010

1. Fireflies - Owl City
2. Replay - Iyaz

Okay, so this week I DID pay attention to the midweeks, but I was still really surprised to see Owl City score their first #1 hit this week. "Fireflies" was a #1 hit in the US in November, but didn't become a hit in the UK until a couple of weeks ago. All week, including on Friday, Iyaz was leading over Fireflies, but in the end, Fireflies pulled head. I haven't seen them yet, but I imagine the sales totals were really close.

3. Don't Stop Believin' - Cast of Glee

To fill the massive void before the start of the second half of the first season of Glee, Chris and I are re-watching the first half on DVD (in fact, as I write this, we're watching the pilot). I'm quite surprised and thrilled to see that "Don't Stop Believin'" didn't vanish from the chart, but in fact, has climbed two spots to #3. In the US, this single debuted at #4 and then sank like a stone, as all Glee releases tend to do on the Billboard Hot 100. (This just came on...Lea Michele is just SO amazing.)

6. Won't Go Quietly - Example

Dance act Example scores their first top 10 hit with "Won't Go Quietly," following up their #19 single "Watch the Sun Come Up."

8. Broken Heels - Alexandra Burke

Alexandra Burke climbs two spots with the now fully released single. This still feels underwhelming.

10. One Shot - JLS

JLS's new single is taking off, already #10 despite being weeks away from a full release. Probably another #1 hit for them. It's up 22 spots this week.

15. Empire State of Mind II - Alicia Keys
21. Empire State of Mind - Jay-Z feat. Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys continues to climb with her version of "Empire State of Mind," up 8 places this week, surpassing the original, which falls a notch to #21.

19. Echo - Girls Can't Catch

Girls Can't Catch's attempt to enter in the girl group race falls a bit short, as "Echo" debuts at only #19. That poses no threat to Girls Aloud, Sugababes, The Pussycat Dolls or The Saturdays, who all are generally good for the top 10 these days.

20. Many of Horror (When We Collide) - Biffy Clyro

Biffy Clyro climbs 18 spots with fully released "Many of Horror." Sad to see it outside the top 10.

23. Do You Remember - Jay Sean feat. Sean Paul and Lil Jon

Jay Sean's follow-up to #3 hit "Down" enters the top 40 this week.

36. Take a Bow - Cast of Glee

Glee scores its second UK top 40 hit. This single did not make the US top 40. "Gold Digger" was almost a top 40 hit, coming in at #44. And "Bust Your Windows," from next week's show, is already #57. I can't wait to see how well some of the season's highlights do--"Taking Chances," "Alone," "Somebody to Love," "Sweet Caroline," the mash-ups, "Defying Gravity," "Endless Love," "You're Having My Baby," "Imagine," "Jump," and "Don't Rain on My Parade." How exciting it will all be.

Album Review: Vampire Weekend - Contra (4/5)

Most Americans will remember the Contras from the Iran-Contra affair, the 1986 political scandal during which is was found that high-ranking US officials were selling arms to Iran and using the proceeds to fund right-wing Nicaraguan revolutionaries, the Contras. In 1986, Vampire Weekend's lead singer Ezra Koenig was 2 years old, and given that the band met in college, I imagine they are all about the same age, and clearly too young to remember the Contras. That they invoke the political group for "I Think UR a Contra" and even name their second album after them is the kind of clever-for-the-sake-of-it move that turned me off to their first album (read my review of Vampire Weekend).

Yet Contra appeals to me for other reasons and in ways their first album did not. The sound is pretty similar--a Paul Simon-evoking blend of indie rock and world music beats. I guess this time I'm more willing to overlook their pretentiousness and enjoy their upbeat, original melodies. Maybe I'm okay with clever if its accompanied by creative rhythms and pleasing melodies.

Life has certainly been good to Vampire Weekend, and it shows in their music. Their 2008 debut catapulted them to indie stardom, and their follow-up, which debuted last week at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart, appears to have pushed them over into the mainstream. Contra's songs are sunny, bubbly fun--no post-modern doom and gloom here.

"Horchata," named after a thick Latin American beverage, is a delightful start to the album, mixing an addictive percussion arrangement over an air melody of acoustic instruments and lyrics that, to me at least, suggest a pleasant remembrance of a Mexican vacation. "White Sky" is similarly light but with more synths. "Holiday" is a little more upbeat, but still retains an airy, party feel, despite its references to war. In "California English," Koenig delivers a rapid-fire vocal processed with auto-tune, the crutch of much rhythmic pop music today, but generally not used in this genre.

The middle of the album delivers many of its best songs. After the pretty upbeat opening, the gently sweet strings, piano and even harpsichord melody of "Taxi Cab" offers a respite of classical influence. "Run" is my favorite song on the album, which builds its verses fantastically with horns, synths and a great dance beat. Then comes "Cousins," which sounds like Vampire Weekend's take on the Arctic Monkeys, with its rough, rapid sound and less than 3 minutes running time. "Giving Up the Gun" is infectiously upbeat, pushing up the album's average BPM.

After these great songs, I find the final two songs disappointing. At 6 minutes, "Diplomat's Son" is the album's longest song, and about halfway through I'm ready for it to be over, as I find it rather bland. "I Think UR a Contra" is plodding and weird, as well as devoid of the energy that runs through the rest of the album. Despite this though, overall I found the album to be surprisingly enjoyable and better than their first outing.

Best: Run, Horchata, Giving Up the Gun, Cousins, Taxi Cab

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Music of 1990: January

United States

As the ball fell in Times Square ending 1989 and beginning 1990, America was still in love with Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise." The single spent the first 2 weeks of the decade at #1, for four weeks in total. The song, about the plight of the homeless, was the first and biggest single from Collins' fourth solo album, ...But Seriously. It won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, and ...But Seriously was an Album of the Year nominee. This was Collin's 7th and last US #1 hit. Three more top 5 hits would follow from the album, but after that, Collins' chart appeal faded significantly.

The other #1 hit in January came from adult pop crooner Michael Bolton. "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You" was the second single from Soul Provider, Bolton's sixth album. Although his popularity had been on the rise for awhile, this was his first major hit--both his first to hit the top 10 and #1. The album would yield two other top 10 hits, and Bolton would have his second #1 hit a year later, a remake of "When a Man Loves a Woman." Although Bolton wrote this song, his version is actually a remake, as it was first recorded and released in 1983 by Laura Branigan, whose version hit #12.

Janet Jackson began 1990 with a bang, landing at #2 with "Rhythm Nation," the second single from her fourth album, Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814. It was upbeat dance pop in a similar vein to predecessor single, the #1 hit "Miss You Much," but while that video's choreographed dance routines were set in a laid back pool hall, "Rhythm Nation" had an industrial, militaristic look. This would be the first of five top 5 hits for Jackson in 1990. Why Rhythm Nation wasn't nominated for an Album of the Year Grammy is, in my book, a major oversight.

Belgian dance act Technotronic saw their 1989 smash hit "Pump Up the Jam" become a US #2. The song's strong house beat and rapped verses would become a defining sound in early '90s dance pop. "Pump Up the Jam" is perhaps notable as the first of several dance hits subject to lip-synching controversy. Although credited as "Technotronic Featuring Felly," it turns out that "Felly," who appeared in the video, was really just a visual stand in for the song's real artist, Ya Kid K. Dance acts C&C Music Factory and Black Box were also revealed to have covered the singing of heavy-set Martha Wash (of the Weather Girls) with younger, slimmer stand-ins. Wash successfully sued for credit and payment. Of course the most famous lip synching scandal would come later in 1990 (I'll save it for the proper time, but I'm sure you ALL know what I'm hinting at).

Jody Watley won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1987 after the success of her debut album. In 1989 she released her second album, Larger than Life. Like her first album, it gave her three top 10 hits. Ballad "Everything," which hit #4 in January was the last of the three, and in fact the last top 10 hit of Watley's career (she would have one more top 40 hit, "I'm the One You Need," from her next album).

January 1990 was also notable for the introduction of MTV's show Unplugged, a concert program where artists performed "unplugged" (i.e. with acoustic instruments, although they still seem to use microphones, amplifiers and stage lights, so there must have been a few "plugs" around). Unplugged grew in popularity in the '90s, and eventually artists started releasing their Unplugged appearances as albums, a tradition that continued in the 2000s, including notable, even award-winning releases from Mariah Carey, Eric Clapton, Nirvana, Tony Bennett, Lauryn Hill, and Alicia Keys. No notable albums were released this month.

United Kingdom

Like America, Britain began 1990 with a holdover #1 from the previous year. Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" came out in 1984. A charity record for famine relief, it featured an amazing combination of many of the times' biggest stars--U2, Phil Collins, Queen, Duran Duran, The Police, Bananrama, etc. It was also 1984's Christmas #1. This 1989 version, recorded under the name Band Aid II, was produced by pop hit factory Stock Aitken Waterman, and featured many of their big names such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan. A third version, released in 2004 as Band Aid 20 (celebrating the 20th anniversary of the original), would feature a similarly broad mix of hit artists as the first version, and would go on to be 2004's Christmas #1 and one of the 10 best-selling singles of the decade.

Speaking of Kylie and Jason, who hit #1 a year prior with their duet "Especially for You," both artists would also have solo hits in January 1990. Kylie Minogue hit #1 with her remake of "Tears on My Pillow," becoming the Australian singer's fourth #1 and second from her second album Enjoy Yourself. It was the album's last single, but her third album, Rhythm of Love, would be coming soon, along with more top 10 hits. Fellow Aussie Jason Donovan's "When You Come Back to Me" hit #2 in December, but climbed back to #2 in January.

The New Kids on the Block became major breakout stars in the US in early 1989 but didn't catch on in Britain until the end of the year. "Hangin' Tough" spent 2 weeks at #1 in January, and was the follow-up to their first chart-topper, "You Got It (The Right Stuff)." "Hangin' Tough was their only #1 hit in both the UK and the US ("I'll Be Loving You Forever" and "Step By Step," which also hit #1 in the US, hit #5 and #2 respectively in the UK). The single propelled their album of the same name to #2 the week of January 20.

US hip-hop/pop act Mantronix would score a major British hit in January with "Got to Have Your Love," which hit #4. The dance pop song would become a #1 hit 12 years later when remade by Liberty X.

Madonna's last British Like a Prayer single, "Dear Jessie," hit #5 in December and stayed there into January. Along with "Gambler," which hit #4, "Dear Jessie" is one of Madonna's few UK top 5 hits that were not released as singles in the US. The video is one of Madonna's most unusual. In an era where Madonna was well-known for shockingly sexy imagery in her videos, this child's themed clip, which mixes animation and live action is shockingly tame.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lady Antebellum "Need You Now"

Get ready for the next big country crossover act. Lady Antebellum's single "Need You Now," the first release from their forthcoming second album of the same name (out January 26), is #44 and rising fast at top 40 radio. I'm interested in their album now, and their crossover potential was first brought to my attention by John, who predicted last month they'd cross over after performing this during the CMAs.

The group's first eponymous release came out in April 2008 and was a big country hit, particularly the song "I Run to You," which was a country #1 and is a Grammy nominee for best country song and best country performance by a duo or group. Last year they were nominated for best new artist.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

UK Singles Chart, January 23, 2010

My UK singles chart commentary is coming while I watch the Golden Globes. Crazy Heart just won best song--saw the film today, and I loved it. Anyway, on to the music...

1. Replay - Iyaz
2. Fireflies - Owl City

Iyaz spends a second week at #1 with "Replay," holding off the week's biggest new single, Owl City's "Fireflies," which was a #1 hit in the United States in November. Since last week also gave us a #2 hit in Sidney Samson's "Riverside," this year so far there are more new #2 hits than #1 hits. Surely that will reverse soon (in any given year, there are generally always more #1 hits than #2 hits--I'll spare you the mathematical reasons for this, but it makes sense).

5. Don't Stop Believin' - Cast of Glee
6. Don't Stop Believin' - Journey

Now this is very, very cool. Every once in awhile a song will appear twice in the top 40, but generally there is a reason for it. Like when Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" re-entered the top 40 a few weeks ago because Joe McElderry's remake of it was out. But this time, the event is purely coincidental, making it all the more special. Glee, the musical dramedy series from Fox that debuted in the US last spring, made its UK bow this week. "Don't Stop Believin'" was the signature song of the series' pilot, and debuts at #5 this week. But that's wholly unrelated to the fact that Joe McElderry's multiple X Factor performances of the song also sparked a renewed interest in the Journey original, which holds at #6 this week. As if that isn't delightful enough, the two version appear back-to-back at #5 and #6 in the top 10. Fun fun fun.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see how future Glee singles fare on the British singles chart. These are the six Glee singles that made the top 40 in the US:

#4 "Don't Stop Believin'"
#28 "Somebody to Love"
#30 "It's My Life/Confessions Pt. II"
#40 "Halo/Walking on Sunshine"
#34 "Sweet Caroline"
#31 "Defying Gravity"

10. Broken Heels - Alexandra Burke

Alexandra Burke climbs two spots to #10 with "Broken Heels," released last week on CD single. Yes, it made the top 10, but just barely, which is a bit of a surprise. If Overcome dries up after only its second single, it will be seen as a disappointment.

13. Young Forever - Jay-Z feat. Mr. Hudson
15. Playing with Fire - N-Dubz feat. Mr. Hudson

If you're a hip-hop musical act with a hyphen in your name and you needed a little vocal assist this week, chances are you sought out Mr. Hudson, who appears on two rising top 20 tracks this week.

23. Empire State of Mind II - Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys rises 12 spots to #23 with "Empire State of Mind II," the non-rap version of her recent #2 hit with Jay-Z. It will now be the official second single from The Elements of Freedom instead of "Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart."

32. One Shot - JLS

JLS debuts at #32 with their third top 40 single, the follow-up to #1 hit "Everybody in Love."

38. Many of Horror - Biffy Clyro

Biffy Clyro is a band whose name I've seen here and there the last few years, but never really interested me until this single. "Many of Horror" is a great rock ballad. It debuts at #38 this week and I'm surprised it wasn't a bigger hit.

Addendum: I just saw that Alexandra Burke and Biffy Clyro's singles are out tomorrow, not last week. Let's hope for some climbs.

Friday, January 15, 2010

1990 Album Review: Janet Jackon - Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation 1814 (5/5)

Yes, this album was released in 1989, but no look back at 1990 would be complete without consideration of Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet Jackson's fourth album and follow-up to her breakthrough 1986 album Control that made Jackson a major star. With this album Jackson, with critical assist from longtime production collaborators Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, expanded on the winning dance pop formula of Control with better rhythms, better ballads and an attempt at weaving a social justice concept through the work. The album was responsible for five top 5 hits during 1990, including two #1s, in addition to scoring #1 hits in 1989 and even 1991. In all, the set's seven singles peaked no lower than #4 on the Hot 100, an achievement unrivaled by any other album.

Chimes underscore the opening monologue, "Pledge," during which Jackson explains the concept of the "rhythm nation." After a five-to-one countdown, simply and effectively choreographed for the song's video, comes the explosive first track "Rhythm Nation." What can I say about "Rhythm Nation?" It was the first song to top my personal chart, a fantastic blend of dance pop and New Jack Swing R&B, an amazing pop composition of layered synth melodies and effects, and probably one of my favorite pop singles of all time--second only to "If" among my favorite Janet Jackson songs. The song's foundation is a sample of Sly & the Family Stone's "Thank You (Falettineme Be Mice Elf Agin)" expanded upon with then-modern drum machines and synthesizers. It's the first of the album's opening three-part salvo of pop songs with a social justice message. Granted, these aren't the deepest of themes, but what other major pop artist has opened her album with songs about something other than love, sex or fashion?

Beat-heavy "State of the World" and "The Knowledge" explore how the media shapes how we view the problems of the world and the power of education, respectively. "State of the World" in particular typifies the New Jack Swing sound of the era, most closely associated with producer Teddy Riley, although clearly shown here to also be a comfortable fit for Jam and Lewis. (Riley would go on to producer brother Michael's New Jack Swing album in 1991, Dangerous.)

"Get the point? Good, let's dance," says Janet before launching into the album's first hit single, "Miss You Much," providing an effective transition between the album's opening social conscience skin to its dance pop heart. The video demonstrated some of Jackson's best dance choreography, staged on a multi-level set reminiscent of Paula Abdul's "Cold Hearted," which had been a hit just months before. "Love Will Never Do," the album's 7th top 5 hit and fourth #1 hit comes next. Janet sings the first verse in a lower register and the second in a higher one, as if performing a duet with herself. The producers acknowledged they considered the song as a potential duet, but in the end just had Janet do it.

"Living in a World (They Didn't Make)" is the final socially aware song from the album's first half, this time about the plight of inner-city youth. It's my least favorite song in the album. It's gloom is quickly forgotten though in the wake of the next two very upbeat songs. "Alright" is a breezy and lengthy ode to friendship, which got a nice remix for the single version that improved the song and accompanied its inventive Broadway-themed dance video. "Escapade" is similarly lightweight, basking in the joys of a romantic getaway. "Black Cat" is the album's most unusual track, pushing Jackson's dance pop into rock territory, not unlike what her brother did with "Beat It." This also was subtly remixed for its single release.

The first rainstorm to appear on a Janet Jackson album introduces "Lonely," the first of three romantic slow songs that close the album. The second, "Come Back to Me," is the best, and was selected and remixed to be the album's fifth single. Lushly scored with warm strings and synths, it's a gorgeously romantic exploration of heartache. Closing track "Someday Is Tonight" finds the singer ready for sex, an apparent sequel to the abstinence-themed Control track, "Let's Wait While."

I got this album for Christmas in 1989 and I played it to death--literally. Sometime in 1990 the tape broke and unspooled, and I had to get another copy. So much of what I remember fondly about pop music in 1990 is tied to this album, from "Rhythm Nation" in January through "Love Will Never Do" in December. It remains one of my favorite pop albums of all time.

Best: Rhythm Nation, Miss You Much, Love Will Never Do, Come Back to Me, Alright, Escapade

X Factor in America

With Simon Cowell having announced this week that he's leaving American Idol to focus on producing an American version of The X Factor, the British talent singing contest is suddenly all over the American press. It's been fun to see, as someone who is at least somewhat familiar with the X Factor. Certainly I follow who has won and have a working knowledge of what the show is about, even if I've never seen a full episode. Alexandra Burke, Shayne Ward and Cheryl Cole, who are complete unknowns in America, are suddenly getting quite a bit of press, as reporters inform future American X Factor fans about what the show is.

For example, CNN has a nice piece here highlighting the biggest stars to come from American Idol and X Factor. It features five of the The X Factor's six winners, although it says that Alexandra Burke has approached Stargate and Timbaland about working on her album, when in fact said album was released two months ago and includes two songs produced by the former and none by the latter. It also claims that Jedward was a popular novelty act (really?) and ignores the fact that nonwinner JLS has managed to become successful too.

I wonder who the judges will be? I'm not holding out any hope of Dannii Minogue or Cheryl Cole getting any U.S. screen time. Since the U.S. version is slated to air in the fall--the same time as the British one--I imagine we'll be getting new judges (unless they want to shuttle themselves across the Atlantic with Simon, but really, who would want to do that?). Maybe another pop has-been will resurrect herself or himself--a la Paula Abdul. Celine Dion? Ricky Martin? Toni Braxton? Here's your big chance.

Personal Chart, January 16, 2010

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sugababes "Wear My Kiss"

Here's the new Sugababes single, "Wear My Kiss." Sounds a lot like Lady GaGa and the lyrics remind me a bit of Madonna's "Dress You Up." Sounds like it fits comfortably in the current RedOne/J.R. Rotem/Tinchy Stryder sound. One of them may have even produced it (don't know yet).

Billboard Hot 100, January 23, 2010

1. Tik Tok - Ke$ha
2. Bad Romance - Lady GaGa

"Clank." That's the sound of the gauntlet being thrown down in the battle for the biggest hot female pop singer of the moment. It's a title Lady GaGa has enjoyed for the past year, sending five singles into the top 10 since January 2009. But this week, with the release of her debut album, Animal, Ke$ha makes a credible play for the honor in 2010. As I sit here enjoying my hot fudge sundae (with hot fudge I made from scratch), let me walk you through this amazing battle:

Point 1. Over on the albums chart, Animal debuts at #1, knocking off Susan Boyle's I Dreamed a Dream, which has been #1 the last 6 weeks since its holiday-season release. SuBo's album was the second-best-selling album in the US last year (and best-selling in the UK), so this is a pretty decent accomplishment. Animal bows with 152,000 copies sold, a decent sum these days and ahead of projections.

Point 2. On the Hot 100, Animal's release is felt as well. In addition to holding the top spot for a fourth week with "Tik Tok," two other Ke$ha songs debut in the top 40: "Blah Blah Blah (feat. 3Oh!3)" at #7, a surprisingly healthy debut for an album cut, and "Your Love Is My Drug" at #27. Yet a fourth single also bows on the chart; "Take It Off" debuts at #85.

Point 3. But GaGa isn't giving up without a fight. Even though it's pretty clear now that "Bad Romance" is not going to top the Hot 100, it spends its fifth week at #2. Over on the pop chart where "Bad Romance" is #1, GaGa is locked in heated battle with Ke$ha for #1. Despite having been around for quite awhile, both singles are posting amazing spin gains, with Mediabase showing "Bad Romance" gaining over 1350 spins from last week at #1 and "Tik Tok" at #2 gaining over 1450 spins. Considering that a 1000 spin increase for any single at any position in the top 40 is huge, this is really quite unprecedented, as far I can remember. Both tracks have well over 11,000 plays at top 40 radio.

9. Hard - Rihanna feat. Jeezy

Rihanna's "Hard" spends its first week in the top 10, climbing six spots to #9. It's the Barbadian singer's 13th top 10 hit and follows "Russian Roulette," which peaked at #9.

26. According to You - Orianthi

Although she hasn't created reached the level of Ke$ha, Orianthi is another pop starlet to watch. The Greek-Australian singer's first single climbs 7 spots to #26 this week. "According to You" peaked at #8 in Australia and just entered the top 10 at top 40 radio.

31. Telephone - Lady GaGa feat. Beyonce

Lady GaGa's sixth hit single climbs 6 spots to #31. As soon as "Bad Romance" cools off a bit, I bet this will shoot up, as it's a great song.

34. Imma Be - Black Eyed Peas

The fourth single from Black Eyed Peas' The E.N.D., a nominee for the Album of the Year Grammy, becomes the album's fourth top 40 hit, as "Imma Be" climbs 12 spots to #34. The track hit #50 when it was released as a promotional single last year prior to the album's release. It follows "Meet Me Halfway," which peaked at #7.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

UK Singles Chart, January 16, 2010

1. Replay - Iyaz
2. Riverside - Sidney Samson feat. Wizard Sleeve

In our time of instant information always available at our fingertips, isn't it nice sometimes to be surprised? I certainly was when I looked at the UK singles chart today at 2 p.m. and saw Iyaz at #1. I'd checked the midweeks Tuesday and Wednesday, which both showed Sidney Samson at #1. Having neglected to check them later in the week--when Iyaz edged ahead of Samson--I was therefore surprised (and pleased) to see the British Virgin Islander (I guess that's the term) in the top spot. "Replay" has been a hit in the US too, topping the pop radio chart for the last month or so, and getting as high as #2 on the Hot 100.

"Replay" is produced by J.R. Rotem, who has in recent months become the hot pop producer of the moment. He's been around for awhile--he helmed Rihanna's "SOS," Sean Kingston's "Beautiful Girls" and Leona Lewis's "Better in Time"--but since the fall, he's had a number of chart-toppers in Britain and the US, including JLS's "Everybody in Love" and Jason DeRulo's "Whatcha Say." These songs, like "Replay," carry Rotem's musical signature, a deep voice announcing "J, J, J, J, J, R" near the beginning of the track.

So Dutch DJ Sidney Samson has to settle for #2, not bad for his first single. The track samples late rapper Tupac Shakur uttering an expletive, which is probably its biggest selling point.

3. Starstrukk - 3Oh!3 feat. Katy Perry

3Oh!3 manages to live up to its name this week, climbing 3 spots to land at...#3. Isn't it wonderful when things work out this way? I'm surprised this song has become such a big hit in Britain. The band's first single, which hit #1 on the UK chart, was a much bigger hit in the US (#1 at top 40 radio and #7 on the Hot 100), while "Starstrukk" was a flop, peaking at #66 on the Hot 100.

5. You've Got the Love - Florence and the Machine
(23. Dog Days Are Over - Florence and the Machine)

So, what did dear Florence do this week? Someone must let me know, because there has to be a reason that "You've Got the Love" shoots up the chart this week, rising 8 spots to #5 to become the singer's biggest hit. She's also at #23 with "Dog Days Are Over," a single which has previous never been in the top 40 (and thus becomes her third top 40 hit). I read she performed on a New Year's Eve special, but surely all this love is due to something besides just that. Her album, Lungs, is also currently #2 on the albums chart.

6. Don't Stop Believin' - Journey
(#15 The Climb - Joe McElderry)

This is another baffler. Still climbing! And X Factor is way over now, yet this song endures. The winner himself takes a rather dramatic dive down 13 places to #15. In an amazing coincidence, the song will probably continue to be popular the rest of the month due to its inclusion in the Glee pilot set to debut in the UK tomorrow.

7. Look for Me - Chipmunk feat. Talay Riley

Chipmunk climbs 3 notches to #7 with "Look for Me," the follow-up to his #1 hit "Oopsy Daisy."

9. Ego - The Saturdays

The Saturdays climb 8 spots to #9, scoring their sixth top 10 hit.

12. Broken Heels - Alexandra Burke

"Broken Heels" climbs 7 spots this week. The single is out January 18th, which should be good timing for this. Will it become her third #1 hit? I'm thinking not, but top 5 for sure.

Back to 1990: Introduction

Last year, my recurring theme for the year was the best albums of the decade. This year I've decided its going to be reliving 1990, looking back at the charts, albums and other pop music events of the year.

As we've seen with the disco revival of the late '90s/early '00s, and the new wave revivial of the mid-to-late '00s, I imagine we're poised to soon start hearing '90s influence in pop music. But what will it be? Alternative rock/grunge has had a lasting influence, so a resurgence wouldn't really work. I'm curious whether pop music will embrace the sound of dance pop that was big at the time--House-influenced beats with drum machine working so hard they were surely smoking. This sound was huge in the US and the UK. You can hear it in Madonna, Snap!, C&C Music Factory, Cathy Dennis, Marky Mark, etc. Eighties rock was still big too, with Heart, Aerosmith and others scoring big hits. Rap, which had been steadily gaining in popularity during the late '80s, crossed over to top 40 with the first #1 hit at pop radio (MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This") and the first rap #1 on the Hot 100 (Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby").

As I mentioned earlier, 1990 was the first year I made a weekly top 40 chart, which meant that for the first time I was really focused on what music was out and popular. My perspective was limited to just the US at that time though. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can now also see what was popular in the UK at that time, so I'll write about that too.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Personal Chart, 20th Anniversary

It's been 20 years now since I've been making a personal top 40 hits chart. I got really into pop music starting in 1987, and by late 1989 I was a devotee of Casey's Top 40, a countdown of the top 40 songs at pop radio. So much so that in the first week of 1990 I decided to create my own personal chart, something I've now done every week since. While I don't have my records from the early '90s, here's a close approximation of what songs were probably on my first top 40:

Friday, January 08, 2010

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Billboard Hot 100, January 16, 2010

1. Tik Tok - Ke$ha
2. Bad Romance - Lady GaGa
3. Replay - Iyaz

Ke$ha holds the #1 spot for a third week, where she's been since the beginning of the year. After resisting this song, I'm warming to it now. She holds off Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance," which spends a fourth week a #2, up one spot this week. She pushes down Iyaz's "Replay" to #3.

Over on the Top 40 Mainstream chart, GaGa bumps Iyaz from #1 this week, giving the Lady her fifth #1 pop hit. That puts her in a five-way tie for the second most #1 hits on the chart, an honor she holds with Pink, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Avril Lavigne. Only Mariah Carey has had more #1s--six of them--since this chart began in mid 1992.

9. I Gotta Feeling - Black Eyed Peas
17. You Belong with Me - Taylor Swift

Black Eyed Peas re-enters the top 10 at #9, up 5 places. The end of the year gives a bump to several of the year's biggest hits, no doubt to enhanced airplay on year-end wrap ups as well as consumers looking back and snapping up any favorites they may have overlooked. This was definitely the year's biggest hit, so it's no surprise to see it here. Also getting a boost is Taylor Swift, who climbs two spots and scores this week's airplay gainer. Airplay Gainer! For a song that was a hit at the end of the summer! That's quite crazy.

Overall, the top 10 is looked a bit ragged this week, as most of the singles in it have been around for quite awhile now. Seven of the top 10 hits have appeared on the Hot 100 for over 20 weeks, with "I Gotta Feeling" being the oldest at 30 weeks. The youngest hit in the top 10 is Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance," a mere 10 weeks old.

18. Drop the World - Lil Wayne feat. Eminem

Sneaking in during a week where everyone is looking back to last year is the new single from Lil Wayne featuring superpower rapper Eminem. I haven't heard this song, so I can't say much more about it.

25. Use Somebody - Kings of Leon

Another of the year's biggest hits makes a rebound, up 10 spots this week and this week's Digital Gainer.

Next week: Expect Ke$ha to make a big splash in the top 10 with "Blah Blah," a track from her album out this week.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

United State of Pop

Months ago I posted about a mashup of Annie Lennox songs created by DJ Earworm. Now he's created a mix of the biggest hits of 2009 called "United State of Pop (Blame It On the Pop)," which has become a real sensation. It's currently #49 at top 40 radio and moving up fast. It will be interesting to see how high it goes. It seems like the kind of thing that probably got a lot of play this week, but probably won't after that. Still it's quite fun and quite well done.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Personal Chart, January 2, 2010

New Album Releases - January

Happy New Year! A whole new year, new decade really, of music awaits us. Here's what's coming in the new year.

Ke$ha - Animal (Jan. 5). She's got the decade's first #1 hit with "Tik Tok," and Tuesday her debut album drops. Includes a couple of songs produced by Max Martin.

Delphic - Acolyte (Jan. 11). Delphic is an electronic indie band from Manchester, named to the BBC Sounds of 2010 list. Acolyte is their debut, preceded by early singles "Counterpoint" and "This Momentary," as well as current single "Doubt." Comparisons to other groups grounded in an electronic, new wave sound seem obvious--Hot Chip, Junior Boys, The Postal Service, etc.--but I'm hoping this group will prove to be a cut above the rest.

Vampire Weekend - Contra (Jan. 11). Indie band Vampire Weekend releases their second album. Critics loved their 2007 debut, and while I wasn't wowed by it, I'm willing to give them a second chance, particularly since several commenters here seem to really like it. First single "Cousins" is already available. Admittedly, it's not doing it for me.

Esmee Denters - Outta Here (Jan. 11). Dutch singer's 2009 debut gets its British release, featuring the title track, a recent top 10 hit.

Spoon - Transference (Jan. 18). The Texan band that last gave us Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga releases its seventh studio album. "Got Nuffin," which was released as an EP last summer shows up, as well as new single "Written in Reverse," a strutting mix of piano and guitar that I'm rather enjoying.

Charlotte Gainsbourg - IRM (Jan. 25). French electronic singer releases her third album, which includes recent Beck collaboration, "Heaven Can Wait."

The Magnetic Fields - Realism (Jan. 26). Reportedly acoustic album from the Boston-based group.

Coming albums from Corinne Bailey Rae (Feb. 1), Sade (Feb. 8), and Marina and the Diamonds (Feb. 15).