Life is full of surprises, and sometimes, so is pop music. In recent weeks, it’s recovered its long-dormant ability to shock, or at least catch us off guard with the unlikely hit, or the unexpected comeback.
Several months ago, I never dreamed I would ever ask the question that is the title of this article. It had been more than twenty-five years since Lionel Richie’s commercial heyday, and on the charts, he had been succeeded by younger romantic leads in pop and R&B many times over (Babyface, Usher, Ne-Yo, among others).
Then came one of those surprise developments seldom seen in pop anymore: On Billboard magazine’s Top 200 album chart for the week following the March 26 release of Tuskegee, Richie’s first studio album since 2009’s Just Go (which didn’t make the US Top 20 and failed to go gold), he debuted at No. 2 with first-week sales of 199,000 copies, right behind Madonna’s latest, MDNA.
On second thought, don’t.
That might have been what Justin Bieber was thinking in March when he found out he might be facing legal action for tweeting a fake phone number minus one digit to his 19 million Twitter followers, resulting in more than 1,000 phone calls being made to a man and a woman in Texas who threatened to take him to court. (The potential plaintiffs’ requests: an apology, concert tickets, free publicity and financial compensation for out-of-pocket expenses.)
It was a harmless enough prank, yes, but the next time Bieber tweets something, he might want to consider doing what so many pop stars are doing and tweeting it to someone who’s also famous”like his new BFF Carly Rae Jepsen, the recipient of several recent Bieber tweets, including one wishing a happy easter to his fellow Canadian and fellow Top 10 resident on Billboard’s Hot 100 (Bieber with Boyfriend, Jepsen with Call Me Maybe).
Who else is connecting on Twitter? I love you, you cray, Katy Perry tweeted on March 31 to Rihanna, who made news when she began following her ex Chris Brown on Twitter. Rihanna’s sometime collaborator Nicki Minaj had a brief war of words with Cher last November on Twitter over a third party’s misinterpretation of Minaj’s lyrics: “@cher did you know that b***h @NICKIMINAJ dissed you in her song DID IT ON EM.” Cher flipped. Minaj fans flipped, too, explaining that it was a “rap metaphor,” not a jab. Cher conceded defeat. Minaj offered, simply, “@Cher #stopit5.” Case closed.
“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 will.i.am 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 will.i.am 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.
Lady Antebellum has a spark. There’s something about the way that Hillary Scott’s clear voice meshes with fellow lead vocalist Charles Kelley’s rougher tones. The way that the two of them sing, weaving their voices back and forth to tell a story, combined with the way that these two powerful voices can give and take seamlessly is so special. The combination of their voices creates an effect which evokes double the emotion, showcases double the talent and makes for an all-around great listen.
There have been many country acts who use both male and female vocals to add variety to their sound, but few have been able to mesh the voices as successfully and as consistently as Lady Antebellum. Many artists choose to create a solo album and then feature duets with other singers, for example Jason Aldean, who collaborated with Kelly Clarkson for a track on his album My Kinda Party, or Brad Paisley‘s duet “Remind Me” with Carrie Underwood. But it is truly remarkable that every song by Antebellum utilizes both Kelley’s and Scott’s voices to their full potential.
Although less well-known than Lady Antebellum, The Civil Wars”an alternative country/folk duo”also blends the voices of two singers (Joy Williams and John Paul White) into every song. Both Lady Antebellum and The Civil Wars feature voices that could easily stand alone, but together create something much more magical. Because these singers are equally incredible at harmonizing and keeping a balance where neither is over-powering, they can create a sound which is phenomenal.
Think of Sugarland‘s album The Incredible Machine as something akin to The Little Engine That Could.
The title of the classic children’s story seems perfectly suited to describe Sugarland’s latest full-length recording. Even though it was released last October, the album continues to gather fans, awards and national exposure for the duo of Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush. The two are consistently juggling sold-out arena concerts and high-profile appearances, such as the performance with Rihanna at last month’s Academy of Country Music Awards show televised from Las Vegas.
“That album was just a lot of fun to write and record and play,” said Nettles, noting the songs on it stretch the boundaries of country music by weaving pop, rock and soul throughout. “Mostly, we had a lot of fun writing this album. When the music is there, that just shows up in the recording and concerts.”
Although the GRAMMY Award-winning artists have been red-hot for years”their 2004 debut album Twice the Speed of Life went multi-platinum”there wassomething that just set them into another musical level when The Incredible Machine was released.
Bush said that in Nashville, where writers and performers are often thought of as two very distinct groups, he and Nettles have been welcomed into both camps.
“It’s been incredible to be welcomed as songwriters as well as artists,” he said. “This whole album is an example of what happens with the two of us.”
Bush is referring to the synergy he has with Nettles. On this project, they mixed and matched their musical influences”think Chrissy Hynde, Peter Gabriel, Blondie, and other ’80s icons”to develop the sound for this latest batch of songs.
The duo were so excited about the process that they produced and posted a documentary dubbed “Living Liner Notes” that shows them writing and recording.
“There’s always a mystery behind a record,” said Bush. “We had this new idea called ‘Living Liner Notes’ because we both like liner notes so much”we were those kind of kids. We wanted to share the process with the fans. So rather than just seeing a name”so and so was the engineer and so and so was the drummer, well here they are. Watch them work.”
Bush said one of his favorite clips is of the process to develop the song “Find the Beat Again.”
“We walk you through the whole thing,” he said. “Here you’re watching us write it. Then you’re watching us record it. It really shows how these songs developed.”
“We tried to make our weaknesses our strengths,” said Nettles. “For example, the guitar. I love the way Kristian plays guitar when I sing. I love his choices, I love the way he fits his choices in and around my singing. We have been doing it together long enough now that there’s a really nice volley and a really nice way it dances together. I said to him ‘Why don’t you just play it? Why are we getting a guitar player?’ That’s one example of how we work together. That’s one reason each song feels so organic and fits perfectly.”
Something tells us this Machine will keep gathering steam for a long time to come.
Sugarland is on tour. For concert information, Living Liner Notes, and other news, go to their Web site.