Sound And Vision: The Year in Review — What Was Hot and Not in Pop (and Beyond) in 2011?

No discussion of the last twelve months in music would be complete without a proper shout out to Adele, the blue-eyed, soulful Brit who ruled 2011 with one album (the multiply GRAMMY-nominated 21) and two No. 1 singles (“Rolling in the Deep” and “Someone Like You”), so here we go.


Okay, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here’s what was hot and not about the rest.


1. Drake: Last year, he called his debut album Thank Me Later, so now feels like the right time to express our genuine appreciation for the Canadian rapper who balances tough and tender so perfectly. With his second album, Take Care, and two of its key cuts, in particular”the fantastic first single “Headlines” and the title track (featuring Rihanna)”he brought sexy back to rap for the first time since ladies loved (LL) Cool J.

2. Girls on film: From Britney Spears’ “Till the World Ends” to Lady Gaga’s “Judas” to Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Into You” to Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” it was an excellent year for women in pop videos. But it was Ke$ha in “Blow,” Kelly Rowland in “Motivation” and Rihanna in “We Found Love” that injected new energy into a decades-old art form and elevated it above and beyond promotional tool to indispensable companion piece.

3. Haley Reinhart and Casey Abrams “Moanin'” on American Idol: I didn’t love the bulk of their solo performances during the 10th season of Idol, but when Reinhart and Abrams came together on the Top 8 results show for the vocalese version of Charles Mingus’ “Moanin’,” the unexpected result was the best musical moment I saw all season.

4. Diana DeGarmo on The Young and the Restless: Speaking of Idol losers, season three’s runner-up’s stint as Angelina on daytime’s No. 1 soap hasn’t been so well-received by critics or fans, but I dissent. There’s both artistry and comedic gold in DeGarmo’s portrayal of a tone-deaf “singer” and daughter of a New Jersey mob boss, and I’m looking forward to being as wowed by her Pygmalion-style makeover as I was by her Idol rendition of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” all those years ago.


Sound And Vision: Strange Bedfellows — The Best of Music's Unlikely Collaborations

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” Ringo Starr sang on the Beatles‘ 1967 classic. These days, so do many of music’s top stars. Two’s company, and so is three and sometimes four. The more the merrier, the higher and higher they get.

On the charts, that is.

In the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week ending December 10, seventeen songs were collaborations between separate recording entities. Four of them featured Drake, and three apiece featured Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both appeared on tracks with Drake and with each other. But featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger”and debuting at No. 36 with “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” which the threesome performed on the November 20 American Music Awards”was probably the one that nobody saw coming.

Old-school Rolling Stones fans must be cringing at the idea of Jagger going anywhere near Lopez and so soon after Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera went to No. 1 by invoking his hallowed name on “Moves Like Jagger.” But for a sixty-something legend like him, hit records”even if in name only, a la Duck Sauce‘s GRAMMY-nominated “Barbra Streisand”are a near-impossible dream unless they’re in tandem with other, often younger, stars.


The EditoriaList: Top Ten Singers-Turned-Actor

Once you’re a hugely successful musician, with lots of people telling you how awesome you are, making the leap into acting (or painting, or politics, or baseball, or aviation, or molecular biology) must seem like a piece of cake. There are so many object lessons to teach us how untrue that is (Britney Spears’ Crossroads, anyone?). But there are a few double-threats out there who have successfully made the leap.


10. Queen Latifah

It’s pretty aggravating to see a talented actor take an opportunity to do quality work, wipe their ass with that opportunity and flush it down the toilet. Queen Latifah has done this a couple of times. She could have had a solid career as a supporting actress after The Bone Collector and Bringing Out The Dead, but then she kicked America in the crotch by being part of The Country Bears, among other debacles. She was then lucky enough to be cast in Chicago, and it was inarguably a star-making performance. Finding herself in that enviable position, she accepted roles in a bunch of utter garbage, including Taxi and The Perfect Holiday. Sigh. But dammit, she’s always fun to watch on screen, whether it’s comedy or drama, and I suspect she’ll continue to appear in quality movies from time to time. Just don’t expect consistency.


Sound And Vision: Where Is the Love? — The Disappearing Power-Ballad Duet

Back in the day, every major female pop star had one: a male pop star (or two, or three or more) who loved her”at least on the record and on the charts. Over the years, Barbra Streisand had Neil Diamond, Barry Gibb and Bryan Adams. Diana Ross had Marvin Gaye, Lionel Richie and Julio Iglesias. Olivia Newton-John, Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks had their pick of men (Andy Gibb, Don Henley, Aaron Neville, Tom Petty and John Travolta, among them.) Whitney Houston had Teddy Pendergrass, Bobby Brown, Enrique Iglesias and George Michael. Madonna had Prince. Celine Dion had Peabo Bryson and R. Kelly. Mariah Carey had Luther Vandross, and so did Janet Jackson.
But where did the love go? Though there have been scattered duet hits in recent years (Jordin Sparks and Chris Brown‘s “No Air,” Ciara and Justin Timberlake‘s “Love Sex Magic”), they are fewer and much farther between. On the Billboard Hot 100 dated March 19, 2011, “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson‘s country chart topper, was the only traditional male-female duet, way down at No. 34.
I’d say that part of the blame lies with the faltering power ballad, which isn’t the chart force that it was in the days when Celine Dion ruled the airwaves. Consider pop’s leading single males: Both of Usher‘s and Enrique Iglesias’s two recent Top 10 Hot 100 singles have been not ballads but dance-oriented collaborations with rappers and, in the case of Usher’s “OMG,” Chris Brown’s comeback-in-progress also has been harder-edged and boosted by male guest stars like Lil Wayne and Busta Rhymes, and of Justin Bieber‘s two Top 10s to date, neither has been a ballad, both were with rappers.
But it’s not just about what the public seems to want” it seems to be what the artists want, too. Why play the conventional good girl, duetting with Usher or Iglesias, when it’s so much more fun being bad? In the past year or so, both Rihanna and Katy Perry have gone Top 10 with rappers (Eminem and Drake, and Snoop Dogg and Kanye West, respectively). Meanwhile, Ke$ha went there with electronica hipsters 3OH!3 (after scoring her first hit riding shotgun with Flo Rida), and Beyoncé and Lady Gaga got there together.
As for the guys, boy-on-boy (or boys) rule: Bruno Mars with B.o.B and Travie McCoy, Jeremih with 50 Cent, Usher and Iglesias with Pitbull, Iglesias and Bieber with Ludacris. If it were 2001, Iglesias, or Ricky Martin, probably already would have zipped up the charts with Katy Perry and/or Rihanna on his arm. But it’s 2011, and just as every good girl wants a bad-boy rapper by her side, it seems the hit-making males would rather roll with the rough boys than mush it up with the ladies.
Will the power ballad survive the current disinterest in them? Can singing couples make a comeback? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Pop music is cyclical, and if Jennifer Lopez can rise again, so can love (which, incidentally happens to be the title of J. Lo’s upcoming album, minus a question mark). All it needs is the right tag team to deliver it back into the public’s good graces and up the charts. I’d pay money to hear Pink and Adam Lambert together, but would the masses buy it? I’m not so sure, but wouldn’t it be just like them both to try and find out?

Sound And Vision: Why Did The Academy Stop Picking Hits For The Best Original Song Oscar?

First, the good news: Tunes from Country Strong, Tangled, 127 Hours and Toy Story 3 will have the distinction of competing for Best Original Song at the Academy Awards on February 27th. The bad: Not one of them touched Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart.

Surprised? It’s not like movies have been putting on the hits lately. A few tracks from Burlesque grazed Billboard’s charts, but for the most part, soundtracks are no longer the record-label cash cows they used to be. Even a blockbuster film like Alice in Wonderland couldn’t turn Avril Lavigne‘s “Alice” into a hit. (It peaked at No. 71 on Billboard’s Hot 100.) When I think of recent soundtrack-single successes, only two quickly come to mind: Miley Cyrus‘s “The Climb,” from 2009’s Hannah Montana: The Movie, which was disqualified by the Academy because it wasn’t written specifically for the film, and Taylor Swift‘s “Today Was a Fairytale,” from last year’s Valentine’s Day, which, unlike two Burlesque numbers, wasn’t even deemed good enough for a Golden Globe nod.

To find an Oscar-nominated song that made a dent on the Hot 100, you’d have to go back to 2008, when “Falling Slowly” from Once went to No. 61 after winning the Academy Award. That’s as high as the Beyoncé-sung Dreamgirls nominee “Listen” had peaked in 2006. (The 2009 champ, “Jai Ho,” from Slumdog Millionaire, had to be translated into English-language pop by Pussycat Dolls in order to get to No. 15.)
The last Oscar winner to hit No. 1 was Eminem‘s 8 Mile single “Lose Yourself,” which took the prize in 2003. In comparison to the ’00s, every Best Original Song of the ’90s was a sizable chart hit, with two of them””My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic and “A Whole New World” from Aladdin”going all the way to No. 1. Between 1981 and 1987 every Best Original Song Oscar winner was also a No. 1 Hot 100 single. Back then the category was more interesting and a win felt more prestigious because people could actually sing along with the contenders when they were performed on Oscar night.
But when did the Academy stop paying attention to what was on the charts and on the radio? Probably around the same time that movie hits dried up, soundtrack sales plummeted and the labels stopped releasing them with any regularity. Michael Jackson‘s This Is It was a smash in 2009. This year, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never didn’t even get a soundtrack”unless you count the Justin Bieber remix album that was released on February 14th, three days after the movie opened at No. 2 with a North American box-office haul of $29.5 million.
David Fincher went edgy when he hired industrial rocker Trent Reznor to write the music for The Social Network, whose Oscar nomination tally includes Best Original Score, but it’s telling that he didn’t get Justin Timberlake, who costarred in the film, to contribute a new pop song. Despite Trent Reznor’s chart success as the leader of Nine Inch Nails, the soundtrack only peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200 album chart. He’ll score Fincher’s upcoming English-language version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, but unless he wins the Oscar to go with his Golden Globe, I’m sure no one is counting on improved soundtrack sales.
Though TV soundtracks still occasionally chart well” especially if they have the word “Glee” in the title”movie soundtracks seldom do because they rarely seem to feature songs that you can’t find elsewhere. These days when movies use music to accompany the onscreen action, directors generally turn to classics as well as recent and current hits rather than commissioning new tunes. Daft Punk‘s Tron: Legacy score charted quite well, but it functioned as much as a proper Daft Punk album. For the week of February 19, 2011, the musical companion piece to Country Strong was the only movie soundtrack in the Top 40, and not one song on the Hot 100 originated in a film.
A couple of weeks ago, Barbra Streisand sang “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born),” 1977’s Best Original Song Winner and a No. 1 Hot 100 hit, at the GRAMMY Awards. Thirty-four years later, everyone still remembers it. I doubt that anyone will be singing any of this year’s nominees at the GRAMMYs or even in the shower in 2045. I doubt that anyone is singing any of them now.

GRAMMYs Stiff Slit Ari Up!

Along with the onstage duets of black mentors and white mentees, the now annual ritual of proclaiming the crossover of country and the ubiquity of pyrotechnics, one of the big themes that ran through last night’s GRAMMYs Awards Show was the legacy of the great female performer. From the ten-minute tribute to the Queen Aretha Franklin to Lady Gaga‘s conspicuous (and borderline Dadaist) thanking of Whitney Houston while accepting the award for Best Pop Vocals to the night’s climactic moment”Barbra Streisand‘s proclamation of the winner of the Album of the Year, there was a sense that the show was bending over backwards to address a panalopy of female perspectives”so much so that if you looked really quickly at Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Hudson, Martina McBride, Yolanda Adams and Florence Welch singing together on stage, you might’ve thought you had tuned into a musical performance of The View.

So this made it all the more disappointing that Ari Up!, the pioneering front woman from the seminal reggae-punk outfit, The Slits, was omitted from the GRAMMYs memorial tribute.  Ari (see Ariane Forster), who died of cancer this past October at the age of 48, was subverting genres and deconstructing female archetypes while Lady Gaga was still saying, Ga-ga, goo-goo. During her heyday, Ari and The Slits broke into the punk boy’s club and helped establish the sonic and visual vocabulary that would spawn the early ˜90s riot grrrl movement. Unlike many of her punk rock contemporaries, however, the dreadlocked singer-songwriter never stopped evolving. Her legacy isn’t just of being at the right place at the right time, but is of a career of perpetual risk-taking”from founding a band (at the age of fourteen) with a name that virtually no DJ at the time would dare to utter to performing what she called space age reggae with the New Age Steppers to moving to Jamaica and starting to perform under the new moniker, Medusa to reuniting with The Slits in 2006.

In fairness, this year’s GRAMMY show was one of the most entertaining in ages and the truth is that someone deserving always gets left out of the memorial montage at every awards show. Moreover, having had the honor of calling Ari my friend, it’s hard to even imagine her wanting her image to dissolve in to Lena Horne and out to Teena Marie. She likely would’ve laughed at the number of cutaways during the telecast to The Apprentice‘s Cyndi Lauper who has long since thrown out the torn fishnets and pink tutus that she took from Ari and shared with the mainstream. She would’ve found perverse pleasure in the fact that the only slits being discussed last night were the ones in the gowns of Heidi Klum and Lea Michele.