Saturday, December 23, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017

1. P!nk - Beautiful Trauma
2. Taylor Swift - Reputation
3. Call Me By Your Name Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
4. Ed Sheeran - Divide
5. Lana Del Rey - Lust for Life
6. Jessie Ware - Glasshouse
7. Harry Styles
8. Kendrick Lamar - Damn
9. Foo Fighters - Concrete and Gold
10. Steps - Tears on the Dancefloor
11. Lorde - Melodrama
12. The War on Drugs - A Deeper Understanding
13. The National - Sleep Well Beast
14. LCD Soundsystem - American Dream
15. Kelela - Take Me Apart
16. Rag'n'Bone Man - Human
17. Tennis - Yours Conditionally
18. SZA - CTRL
19. St. Vincent - Masseduction
20. Jay-Z - 4:44
21. Dear Evan Hansen Original Broadway Cast Recording
22. Kelly Clarkson - Meaning of Life
23. The XX - I See You
24. Sam Smith - The Thrill of It All
25. London Grammar - The Truth Is a Beautiful Thing

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Annie Lennox, Diva: The 25th Anniversary Track-by-Track

Annie Lennox, Diva: The 25th Anniversary Track-by-Track

I wasn't a big fan of the Eurythmics as a kid. I missed the whole '80s new wave thing, having not started listening to pop music until 1987, at which time its synth-drenched melodies had faded in popularity. Of course, I knew "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," but only years after it had been a major hit.

So I was taking a bit of a risk in the early summer of 1992 when I purchased Annie Lennox's album Diva, her solo debut which was released around this time 25 years ago. I'd heard "Why" on the radio and fell in love with it. It was beautiful and different than other pop tunes at the time, and I was intrigued.

Needless to say, Diva quickly became one of my favorite albums. In fact, for many years it was my top choice (today, I'd say it's among a handful of favorites, but I don't have one favorite album right now). Although the album wasn't a major hit--it debuted at #33 on the Billboard 200 albums chart the last week of May and peaked at #23 in early August--it was highly acclaimed, eventually snagging a coveted nomination for the Album of the Year Grammy Award. Although Lennox lost that honor to fellow Brit Eric Clapton and his Unplugged set, she did snag the Brit Award album of the year trophy.

Twenty-five years later, I'm still enchanted with Lennox's solo debut. It's a gorgeously produced album consisting of ten tracks (eleven if you count the CD bonus track). A modern mix of acoustic and synthetic instruments were used to create the set's atmospheric melodies which, despite their considerable depth of sound, never threaten to overwhelm Lennox's authoritative vocals. The sound is definitely soulful and more adult than her Eurythmics work. I wouldn't call these "love songs" necessarily, but they are songs about love and its myriad emotions. It's a concept album about a woman--the "diva"--who has achieved success but feels incomplete.

While the music can certainly stand on its own, Diva is really a visual album as well (more than two decades before BeyoncĂ© did a similar thing with BeyoncĂ© and Lemonade). Videos for seven of the album's tracks were put out at the same time as the album (released on VHS), while additional videos were shot for "Walking on Broken Glass," "Precious" and "Little Bird" when they were released as singles (only "Stay by Me" never received a video). All of the videos were shot by Sophie Muller, who previously shot many Eurythmics videos, and has worked with an enviable roster of mostly female pop stars, including Gwen Stefani, Rihanna and Lily Allen.

Let's take a closer look at the songs.

1. Why

"Why" has long been my favorite track on Diva and for good reason. The plaintive tune about a troubled love affair that is about to reach its conclusion, is a gorgeous swirl of synthesizer chords, piano and guitar. Lennox's emotional vocal alternates between recognition that the relationship is trouble and yet still wanting to give it one last shot. "Why" was released as the first single in both the U.S. and U.K., peaking at #34 and #5 respectively. The song's music video shows Lennox gazing into a dressing-room mirror as she puts on her makeup and costume to become the "diva" for a photo shoot as depicted on the album's cover. Listening to this song brings back many memories for me, the best of which are the times I spent in the summer of 1992 at our Oregon beach house listening to this pretty much nonstop. Best line: "I may be mad, I may be blind, I may be viciously unkind, but I can still read what you're thinking."

2. Walking on Broken Glass

Whereas "Why's," instrumentation is mostly synthetic, Lennox ups the piano and strings on "Walking on Broken Glass," the album's most upbeat tune--at least musically. Lyrically, it's even darker than "Why," its wounded, heartbroken protagonist pleading with a lover to come back, even though their relationship was stormy. This second single was the album's biggest hit in the U.S., peaking at #14 (in Britain, it was the third single, reaching #8). I like this song, although it's never been a standout for me on the album. I prefer the album's moodier tunes. Best line: "'Cause if you want to hurt me, you're doing really well my dear."

3. Precious

Like the previous songs, "Precious" continues to explore a thematic contrast of hardship and salvation, only in this case, instead her emotions are directed toward a child--presumably her daughter Lola, who was born in 1990. "Precious" feels to me like the closest Lennox comes to her old Eurythmics sound on Diva. Awash with synthesizer chords and effects, "Precious" is another very upbeat track, albeit with a darker sound than "Walking on Broken Glass." This was the second single in the U.K., peaking at #23. It was not released as a single in the U.S. The single version is slightly remixed and shortened from the album version. Both versions contain a wonderful horn solo during the middle eight. Best line: "Precious little angel don't you worry, don't you cry; when this bad old world has crumbled, I'll be standing at your side.

4. Legend in My Living Room

This is a song that wasn't a standout for me at the time I bought the album, but has become a definite favorite in recent years. I think it's the sexiest song on Diva: I love the deep synthesizer chords that begin the song. The melody builds slowly from there, eventually reaching its muscular climax during the middle eight. The song, about the struggles that come from pursuing success in the entertainment industry, is one the album's best dramatic moments. Best line: "But I've shed my tears in bitter drops until the thorn three bloomed, to take the spiky fruit to crown myself the queen of doom."

5. Cold

"Cold" is one of Diva's gentlest-sounding songs, closing the first half of the album like a cooling kiss, even if the song, in typical fashion for the album, wrestles with its own share of demons. It's a song about love and longing filled with gorgeous lyrical imagery that's a perfect match for its serene, synth-heavy arrangement. "Cold" was released as the album's fourth single in the U.K., where it peaked at #26; it was not released as a single in the U.S. The single version is slightly longer, with an additional intro used in the video, but is otherwise indistinguishable from the album cue. Best line (best line on the whole album): "Dying is easy; it's living that scares me to death."

6. Money Can't Buy It

After cooling off with "Cold," Diva's second half kicks the tempo back up with this slinky mid-tempo offering. The theme isn't a new one--money won't buy you happiness--but Lennox pulls it off in this slinky package that, like "Legend in my Living Room," builds its sound to a big middle-eight climax. Best line: "I got diamonds--you heard about those--I got so many that I can't close my safe at night in the dark, lying awake in a sick dream."

7. Little Bird

Lennox speeds the Tempo up to Diva's fastest stomp on "Little Bird," a song about wishing you could escape your demons but realizing instead that you must find the strength to face them. It's a stylish affair that got a particularly glam music video in which Lennox struts around in top-hot and cane as the emcee in a cabaret featuring Annie lookalikes dressed in costumes from her Eurythmics era and some of the preceding Diva videos. The track was remixed for its video and single release, and I actually prefer the single version, which has extra musical flourishes and vocals that I think enhance the track nicely (it's available as the "(C3 Answers)" version from iTunes). "Little Bird" peaked at #49 in the U.S., where it was the album's third single, and #3 in Britain, where it was the album's fifth (and final) release. Best line: "I walk along the city streets so dark with rage and fear; And I wish that I could be that bird and fly away from here."

8. Primitive

"Primitive" is another quiet moment for the album and an intimate one about being with a lover and feeling like everything else just fades away. Although there isn't a bad song on the album, this has always been my least favorite. I basically consider its gauzy, vaguely Egyptian melody as "downtime" between the stomping "Little Bird" and the emotionally hefty "Stay By Me." Best line: "Sweetheart, the sun has set all red and primitive above our heads."

9. Stay by Me

For 25 years, I've wondered this: why wasn't "Stay by Me" released as a single? It's an absolutely epic track, an immediate standout when I first heard Diva that still resonates with me as one of my favorite songs on the album. It never even got a video; at the time, I thought that was a clue that it was planned as a future single (since "Walking on Broken Glass" and "Little Bird" likewise did not have videos at first), but alas, it didn't happen. "Stay by Me" begins with a trilling piano before its gentle beat and layered instrumentation kick in. The vocal in this song is very slow but also quite assured. It's another love song, one that expresses quite a bit of vulnerability. Best line: "Please take these lips...even if I have been kissed a million times."

10. The Gift

"The Gift" is the final lovely ribbon on this package, beautifully scored with keyboards and synthesizers over a deep, plodding beat. The video brings back the diva from "Why" and sends her out in the streets of Venice to pose with pictures with passersby. Best line: "I need to go outside, I need to leave the smoke, 'cause I can't go on living in the same sick joke."

Other tracks of the era

Keep Young and Beautiful

"Keep Young and Beautiful" is a bonus track included on the CD and digital versions of the album. Scratches and noise overly the song like its being played from an old vinyl disc. The song itself a sprightly, shortened remake of a 1930s song by Eddie Cantor with some lyrics revised. It's very different from the rest of the songs on Diva; fun, but not essential.

Step by Step

Whitney Houston fans will recognize this one, since the singer remade the song 4 years later with new lyrics and released it as the second single from The Preacher's Wife soundtrack. It was included as a bonus track  on the Japanese version of the album and released as a B-side with "Precious" in the U.K. The Lennox version of the song is mellower than the buoyant Houston version, but definitely similar in tone.

Love Song for a Vampire

This quiet but dramatic song was recorded for the 1992 film "Dram Stoker's Dracula," and released as a double-A-side in the U.K. and a B-side in the U.S. with "Little Bird." The ballad is appropriately haunting with a lovely synth-driven melody.