Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Favorite Albums of 2018

1. Lady Gaga & Bradley Cooper- A Star Is Born Soundtrack
2. Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer
3. Jake Shears 
4. Flasher - Constant Image
5. Shawn Mendes
6. 1975 - A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships
7. Brandi Carlile - By the Way, I Forgive You
8. Troye Sivan
9. Charlie Puth - Voicenotes
10. Natalie Prass - The Future and the Past
11. Low - Double Negative
12. Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy
13. Robyn - Honey
14. Leon Bridges - Good Thing
15. Arctic Monkeys - Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino
16. Ariana Grande - Sweetener
17. Mitski - Be the Cowboy
18. The Weeknd - My Dear Melancholy
19. Calum Scott - Only Human
20. Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever - Hope Downs
21. The Carters - Everything Is Love
22. Kacey Musgraves - Golden Hour
23. Camila Cabello - Camila
24. Bright Light Bright Light - Tough Love
25. Black Panther the Album

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 Beyoncé did a similar thing with Beyoncé 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.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Favorite Albums of 2016

  1. Beyoncé - Lemonade
  2. Frank Ocean - Blonde
  3. badbadnotgood - IV
  4. Radiohead - A Moon Shaped Pool
  5. David Bowie - Blackstar
  6. Rihanna - Anti
  7. Sturgill Simpson - A Sailor's Guide to Earth
  8. The Weeknd - Starboy
  9. Bruno Mars - 24K Magic
  10. Alessia Cara - Know-It-All
  11. Bon Iver - 22, A Million
  12. Lady Gaga - Joanne
  13. Maren Morris - Hero
  14. Andy Shauf - The Party
  15. Emeli Sandé - Long Live the Angels
  16. Sia - This Is Acting
  17. The 1975 - I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It
  18. The Hamilton Mixtape
  19. Britney Spears - Glory
  20. Drake - Views
  21. Whitney - Light Upon the Lake
  22. Carly Rae Jepsen - E・MO・TION: Side B
  23. Kanye West - The Life of Pablo
  24. Blood Orange - Freetown Sound
  25. Wet - Don't You

Monday, December 05, 2016

Predicting Grammy Album of the Year: A Look at "Surprises"

I'm going to do something I haven't done since 2011: wade into the waters of predicting which albums will be nominated this year for the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. (AOTY) Nominations will be announced December 6.

This year, the conventional thinking is that the five nominees will be Adele, Beyoncé, David Bowie, Drake and Radiohead. And guess what? That's probably going to be wrong, since every year--without fail--there is at least one surprise in the Grammy's top category. To try to get a handle on the AOTY "surprise factor," here's a look at what I viewed as the surprises in recent years.


Nominees: Taylor Swift (winner), Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Alabama Shakes, Chris Stapleton

Last year was one of the easiest years to predict in recent memory. Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar were considered locks, and The Weekend was a likely nominee. There was also quite a bit of talk about Alabama Shakes. Foo Fighters' omission was perhaps the biggest surprise; however, that Chris Stapleton got it instead wasn't a major upset, as he was definitely in the running (as was D'Angelo). This slate presents a nice balance of genres, better than if Foo Fighters had been nominated, since that would have yielded two rock albums.

Biggest surprise: No Foo Fighters


Nominees: Beck (winner), Beyoncé, Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Pharrell

This was a bigger surprise year. Beyoncé and Sam Smith looked like locks going into the nominations, but the other three nominees, although talked about to some extent (especially Beck), were certainly not universally considered frontrunners, especially Pharrell, whose name I do not recall at all in the talk before the nominations. Instead, there was considered talk for Jack White (a 2012 nominee), Miranda Lambert and Sia. The Frozen Soundtrack and Tony Bennett/Lady were also bandied about. Ed Sheeran's nomination was a surprise since, demographically, he's similar to Sam Smith (male, white, British, pop), and the nominees tend to be diverse. Pharrell was a surprise because although "Happy" was a massive hit, its parent album wasn't really. My hunch is that Pharrell's nomination may have been driven by his behind-the-scenes work, making him a bigger name among Grammy voters than music listeners.

Biggest surprise: Pharrell


Nominees: Daft Punk (winner), Taylor Swift, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kendrick Lamar, Sara Bareilles

This one almost went like clockwork, except for one major major doozy. Daft Punk, Taylor Swift and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were not at all surprises here. Kendrick Lamar was more a long shot, but he certainly had a lot of support. The big surprise here--and it was a huge one--was the inclusion of Sara Bareilles. Nobody was talking about this album as a potential nominee. It wasn't a particularly big album either commercially or critically. Yet, there it was. So who didn't make it? An equally big surprise for the omission of Justin Timberlake. His first album in 7 years looked like a sure-thing. However, I think his move to nominate The 20/20 Experience as a double album, rather than just submitting the vastly superior Part 1, may have been his undoing. Part 1 was a huge success: sales in the U.S. over 2 million and a 75 average at Metacritic--his highest among four albums. Part 2 was definitely less so: it sold less than half the copies as Part 1 and has a Metacritc average of 60--his lowest score. Submitting only Part 1 would've given voters a strong album with several hits (Mirrors, Suit & Tie). Submitting Part 1 and 2 provided them a bloated experience with a hit-and-miss second half.

Biggest surprise: No Justin Timberlake


Nominees: Mumford & Sons (winner), Frank Ocean, The Black Keys, Jack White, Fun.

This was sort of an odd year, as there weren't a lot of obvious choices. There was some talk that Drake or Coldplay could be nominated, but I don't think it was a major shock that they were not.

Biggest surprise: Fun


Nominees: Adele (winner), Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Rihanna

This was a year of a lot of surprises. Going into the race, I think most people assumed this would be a Kanye West vs. Adele contest. West had been nominated three times previously without a win, and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his most acclaimed work yet. Its omission from the slate was a major surprise--probably the biggest of all the surprises mentioned here--and cleared the way for Adele's easy victory. The other thing that was a surprise was the dominance of pop music, with four of the five nominees. Bon Iver looked like a pretty good bet for alternative nomination, but instead it had to settle for a Record of the Year nomination for "Holocene."

Biggest surprise: No Kanye West


So what do I suspect will the surprises this year? By their very nature, this is hard to predict. I think Beyoncé and Adele are clearly the safest picks this year, and consider them "safe" choices. Any of the other three could be vulnerable. My money is on David Bowie is being the least vulnerable, given the level of acclaim for his album, his untimely death early this year and Grammy's tendency to nominate well-established artists. Drake would be next on my list. For him is that the album was a major commercial success in an era where there are few highly successful albums; against him is that the album didn't get the greatest reviews. Yet, I doubt the Grammy folks would instead put up Kanye West, given his recent antics, or Chance the Rapper, who has yet to really break through to the mainstream. I think Radiohead is the most vulnerable. I like their album, but it's no OK Computer, Kid A or In Rainbows (their three albums that have been nominated). I think they could be displaced perhaps by a country album. Sturgill Simpson, Maren Morris and Margo Price all released acclaimed country albums this year that could draw enough support for putting a country album on the slate. A longer shot is Rihanna, whose Anti release turned out to be a surprisingly strong album.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Best Albums of 2015

June 2016 edit: Since writing this list in December, I've fall hard for the Hamilton musical, which was released last year, but I didn't discover it until April. It's clearly my favorite album of the year, if not the decade so far, so I amended the list. I made a couple of other changes as well.
  1. Hamilton: An American Musical - Original Broadway Cast
  2. Adele - 25
  3. Alabama Shakes - Sound & Color
  4. Carly Rae Jepsen - E-mo-tion
  5. Tame Impala - Currents
  6. The Weeknd - Beauty Behind the Madness
  7. Natalie Prass
  8. Kamasi Washington - The Epic
  9. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly
  10. Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon
  11. Jamie XX - In Colour
  12. Florence + The Machine - How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
  13. Leon Bridges - Coming Home
  14. Madonna - Rebel Heart
  15. Father John Misty - I Love You Honeybear
  16. Years & Years - Communion
  17. Twenty One Pilots - Blurryface
  18. New Order - Music Complete
  19. Janet Jackson - Unbreakable
  20. Donnie Trumpet& the Social Experiment - Surf
  21. Kelela -Hallucinogen
  22. Fifty Shades of Grey - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
  23. Courtney Barnett - Something I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  24. One Direction - Made in the A.M.
  25. Mumford & Sons - Wilder Mind

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best Albums of 2014

1. Sam Smith - In the Lonely Hour. Smith's debut album was on repeat from the moment it was released last spring. I love his soulful lovelorn melodies, a pop debut that evokes Adele but charts it own course too. Best: Stay with Me

2. Taylor Swift - 1989. Swift went 100% pop on her fifth album, delivering her best set yet, possibly breaking the hooks-per-minute record. Best: Blank Space

3. St. Vincent. I found this lovely, weird album to be strangely captivating, a surprise favorite. Best: I Prefer Your Love

4. Lana Del Rey - Ultraviolence. I wasn't a major fan of Del Rey's debut, but I swooned for this second long-player drenched in dramatic retro cool. Best: Shades of Cool

5. Coldplay - Ghost Stories. After chasing bigger and poppier sounds for years, Coldplay dialed it back for this gentle, haunting set. Best: Midnight

6. Jessie Ware - Tough Love. Ware's sophomore set was as strong as her 2012 debut, rounded out by a stronger emotional bent. Best: Say You Love Me

7. Beck - Morning Phase. Beck's cinematic set, a surprise Grammy Album of the Year nominee, was the singer's best output in years. Best: Morning

8. La Roux - Trouble in Paradise. La Roux may be a solo act now, but she delivered as much great music as she did on her 2009 debut, continuing to effectively mine a retro dance sound. Best: Uptight Downtown

9. The Black Keys - Turn Blue. Another winning set from the blues rockers. Best: Fever

10. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream. Lots of artists have been making "'80s rock" in the last decade, but few put out an album of good as this. Best: Under the Pressure

11. Jack White - Lazaretto
12. Nick Jonas
13. Ed Sheehan - X
14. Ariana Grande - My Everything
15. Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear
16. U2 - Songs of Innocence
17. Michael Jackson - Xscape
18. Rumer - Into Colour
19. Pharrell Williams - G I R L
20. Eric Church - The Outsiders
21. Electric Youth - Innerworld
22. Aphex Twin - Syro
23. Jenny Lewis - The Voyager
24. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire for No Witness
25. Charli XCX - Sucker
26. Take That - III
27. Perfume Genius - Too Bright
28. Wild Beasts - Present Tense
29. Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
30. Metronomy - Love Letters