amazing icon

Sound and Vision: Pop's Greatest Gender Benders – Songs That Sound Better Sung By the Opposite Sex

One of the best releases of 2012 to date is Boys Don’t Cry, an album of covers recorded by Anglo-Pakistani singer-songwriter Rumer (nee Sarah Joyce). As a vocalist, Rumer is soothing and smooth, strictly middle-of-the-road enough to earn her an invitation from U.S. President Barack Obama to perform at the White House in May, the month her album came out ” but that’s not to say she doesn’t have a slightly subversive streak.

After all, who chooses to release a collection of remakes for their second full-length studio album. (Rumer’s 2010 debut, Seasons of My Soul, earned her widespread acclaim, two Brit Award nominations, and a platinum certification in the U.K.)

Then there is the theme of Boys Don’t Cry (whose title was not inspired by The Cure song, which is not among the album tracks): Everything on it was written and performed by male artists in the ’70s. Somehow Rumer makes quintessentially guy songs like Ronnie Lane‘s “Just for a Moment” (about an instant of clarity in a drunken haze) and Neil Young‘s “A Man Needs a Maid” (title: self-explanatory) sound strong enough for a man but made for a woman.

(more…)

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.

Girl!

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

HOT

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.

(more…)

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 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.

(more…)

Riffs, Rants & Rumors: 2011 in the Rearview Mirror

You didn’t think RR&R would torture you with anything as tedious as another year-end Best-of list, did you? Granted, we do have a piece in the works that will inform you of some excellent albums you might have missed along the way, but that’s as close as we’re willing to get. Instead, this time around we’ll simply take stock of both the magic moments and the missteps that the last twelve months have brought us”works that delivered delight and dismay in equal measure.

Old Punks Never Die


Wire “ Red Barked Tree

As the original post-punk outfit, Wire has always lived or died by how well they balanced their arty side with their edgy side. Their discography isn’t without its share of miscalculations in that area, but thirty-four years down the line from their debut album, this one is right on the money.

Gang of Four – Content

The Gang were right on the heels of Wire in first-gen U.K. post-punk, and were just as groundbreaking, but their twenty-first century revitalization has been marred by some dodgy moves. First they re-recorded a batch of their classics on 2005’s Return the Gift, and then they made matters worse with this irksome outing, which is considerably more annoying than the output of the worst third-hand Go4 copyists.

Social Distortion  - Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes

True survivors, old-school SoCal punks Social Distortion have been through every rock & roll tribulation”death, drugs, you name it (How did VH1’s Behind the Music miss these guys?)”but not only are they still going strong, they added some extra bluesy swing and Stonesy swagger to their latest.
(more…)

Sound And Vision: Six Artists I Love Although I Know I'm Not Supposed To

Most of us probably would be loathe to admit it out loud, but we all have them: Singers and bands we love in spite of everybody else. They create music to our ears, while to those who consider themselves highbrow connoisseurs of cool, they’re incurably uncool. I’d call these acts “guilty pleasures,” but when it comes to the music I listen to, I don’t believe in shame.

Jennifer Lopez Don’t judge. And don’t write off Love?, Lopez’s 2011 pop comeback. It’s a lot better than the title. All these months after she debuted the video from her judge’s perch on American Idol, “On the Floor” still never fails to take me there, and “I’m Into You,” the follow-up single, deserved so much more than a No. 41 peak on Billboard’s Hot 100. The other day, my iPod landed on Lopez’s first hit, “If You Had My Love” (No. 1 in 1999), and I didn’t press skip. In fact, I hit repeat. Twice. Carp about her thin vocals all you want, but if you’re a pop fan and you say you haven’t gotten swept up in her groove at least once”most likely thanks to the aforementioned “On the Floor,” or  “Jenny from the Block,” perhaps her greatest hit”I’d say you’re probably lying.

Enya Back in college I worked in a record store, and one day I faced an angry customer who had requested something similar to Enya and was recommended Kate Bush by one of my colleagues. She bought it, tried it, hated it. If only my clueless co-worker had known that nothing compares to Enya. She’s lumped into the new-age category”home of Yanni (yikes!)”and her songs often are dismissed as music for insomniacs because of it. But stay awake and listen: Her potpourri of Irish folk, choral music and gospel, with occasional flourishes of tribal and world music, sometimes tense, sometimes soothing, is so much more than anodyne pop.

(more…)

Sound And Vision: Director's Cuts — From Lady Gaga to Kate Bush, the Mixed Results of Tampering with Your Own Songs

I’ll never forget the day Basia lied to me. Twice. I was interviewing the Polish singer (best known for her 1988 hit “Time and Tide”) shortly before the release of her 1994 album, The Sweetest Illusion, which was coming five years after her previous album, London Warsaw New York. That day, she promised me two things: First, she would never again make me wait so long for new music. Second, she’d never release a run-of-the-mill greatest hits album featuring, well, her greatest hits. She felt that at the very least, artists owed it to their fans to reprise their hits as brand-new tunes, not just repackage the same old songs.

Her next studio album, It’s That Girl Again, wouldn’t arrive until 2009, nine years after she had released Clear Horizon”The Best of Basia, one of those run-of-the-mill greatest hits albums featuring, well, her greatest hits.

The morals of this story: 1) You can’t rush inspiration. 2) The first cut isn’t only the deepest”sometimes it’s the best, too. That’s a lesson Mariah Carey may have learned last year when she scrapped plans to release Angels Advocate, a remixed version of her Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel album, after a new version of “Up Out My Face” (Memoirs‘ best song) featuring Nicki Minaj limped onto Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 100 and refused to go any further.

But apparently, Lady Gaga, the reigning queen of remix albums and EPs, still hasn’t received the memo. When she released Born This Way back in May, she put out a special edition that included a separate disc with remixes of five of the album’s songs. (Bryan Ferry did a similar thing with last year’s Olympia.) Divine inspiration or clever marketing ploy? Perhaps a little of both, but “Born This Way”-with-a-twang never would have spent six weeks at No. 1. The “Country Road Version” makes for an interesting one-time listen, but I never need to hear it again.

(more…)

Drama Queen

Britt Daley

Percussive, soaring, and melodic, the music of Britt Daley is an elixir that’s almost instantly intoxicating. The Florida artist crafts enchanting synth-pop gems that are full of longing and wonder. Never Done This begins with the seductive thump of bass and new-wave synths. It’s a ballad with a beat and a singer who pierces the upper register with clear, bell-like vocals that are a mix of Tori Amos and Kate Bush. Lilly is impossibly romantic, an airborne catharsis of vocals and piano. But our favorite track may have to be the swooning, rhythmic Closer To You. With a chorus that’s more like an incantation, Daley summons you into her dreamy headspace. Bring me closer to you, she pleads. Trust us, after hearing her music, you’ll be echoing the sentiment.

Sound And Vision: Why I Miss the '90s

Every decade lives twice. Each one seems to get a second shot about twenty years after the fact. The ’50s were hot again in the ’70s (which might be why Happy Days was one of TV’s biggest hits). The ’60s resurfaced in the ’80s (as did tie-dye t-shirts and the British invasion), and Saturday night fever flared up one more time in the ’90s (though that didn’t stop the film 54 from flopping).

We’ve been stuck in the ’80s for a while now, but the ’90s are coming around again. I recently attended a ’90s party at a nightclub in Sydney, Australia, and the dance floor was packed with the retro-obsessed. The beats were technotronic indeed, but thanks to the varied playlist, I remembered that there was so much more to the decade in music than grunge and Europop. (Bell Biv DeVoe‘s “Do Me” and Elastica‘s “Connection” provided particularly pleasing trips down memory lane.) Here are five reasons why the ’90s rocked even harder than you might recall.

1. Sisters with voices ruled. And I’m not just talking about Sisters with Voices (otherwise known as SWV). TLC was arguably the most unique multi-platinum girl group ever, while En Vogue was the most glamorous one since the Supremes. Solo stars like Mariah Carey, Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan joined the hit parade, and Whitney Houston could still raise the roof”and she did with the soundtrack for The Bodyguard. Aside from Adele and Beyoncé (when she’s not huffing, puffing and trying way too hard to bring the house down), none of today’s female hitmakers can match the fierce ruling divas of the ’90s for sheer vocal power.

2. Rock & roll was king. Grunge may have been a relatively short-lived turning point, but for a moment there, the music was actually more important than the marketing. Thanks to bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Radiohead (all of whose platinum success seemed more accidental than calculated), Britpop (Blur vs. Oasis was so much better than Kings of Leon vs. Glee or the lead singers of Coldplay and Muse being married to Hollywood), and the grrrl power of female and female-driven acts like Bjí¶rk, P.J. Harvey, Alanis Morrisette, Hole, Belly, the Breeders and L7, rock and alternative music was both popular and interesting.

3. Stars were born, not manufactured on television and YouTube. This year, Rebecca Black went viral on YouTube and became a “star” without ever actually having a hit. (“Friday” topped out on Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 58, 24 notches lower than the Glee remake.) And nothing against American Idol it’s given us some bona fide, hit-making talents (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood and Adam Lambert, among them)”but it’s also gave us William Hung! When music stars are created instantly (in Hung’s case, due to an extreme lack of talent) or groomed in front of our very eyes, pop stardom starts to lose its mystique. Clarkson’s fame will never seem as hard-won as Celine Dion‘s; Carrie Underwood will never be as good a story as Shania Twain; and I’d trade soulful, one-hit wonders like Dionne Farris and Des’ree for Fantasia every day of the week. At least we never had to watch them almost self-destruct in public. Which brings us to…

4. Less was more. Before Twitter, YouTube and tabloid media overload, pop stars always left us wanting more. Now they reveal every thought and all of the minutiae of their lives via endless Twitter updates. (Sean Kingston recently tweeted a photo of himself surrounded by medical equipment while recovering from a jet-ski accident in Miami that nearly cost him his life. Too much?) The tabloids give us 24/7 access, showing them doing just about everything except going to the bathroom (including having sex!). And we can catch them whenever we want to on YouTube (and make them seem more popular than they actually are by continuously pressing play in order to increase their “views”) and watch them falling and bombing onstage, tangling with the paparazzi, and getting prickly with TV interviewers before doffing their shirts and hitting the streets of New York City.

Lauryn Hill was one of the biggest stars of the late ’90s yet she always managed to sidestep overexposure. Where is she now? God only knows (though it recently was revealed that she’s pregnant with her sixth child). If only Amy Winehouse, her critically acclaimed late-’00s equivalent, had been able to fall apart in the privacy of her own home.

5. Courtney Love was far more daring than Lady Gaga. I’ll admit it: I miss Courtney Love. Whatever you thought about her music, the lead singer of Hole was never boring. Take away Lady Gaga’s freaky-creepy visuals, though, and all you’re left with is a talented but over-earnest, politically correct pop star. She’s says all the right things, but listen closely”none of it is even slightly provocative. Her carefully considered soundbites are intended to be up with underdogs and offensive to no one. Even her pro-gay agenda is as respectful as possible to the political right. Just once, I’d like to see Gaga get naked and sexy (for someone who wears so little clothing, she’s remarkably, and safely, asexual), or totally lose it, throwing good intentions out the window and engaging in a public bitchfest. Isn’t the moral majority asking for it?

20 Essential ’90s Albums

Annie LennoxDiva

BabyfaceFor the Cool in You

BellyStar

Bjí¶rkPost

The Cardigans - Gran Turismo

Dolly PartonThe Grass Is Blue

Elvis Costello and Burt BacharachPainted from Memory

Faith No More - Angel Dust

John AndersonSeminole Wind

Kate BushThe Red Shoes

k.d. lange - Ingenue

Mary J. BligeMy Life

Morrissey - Vauxhaull and I (or Your Arsenal)

Neil YoungHarvest Moon

Neneh CherryHomebrew

Portishead - Dummy

Radiohead - The Bends

R.E.M.Automatic for the People (or Out of Time or New Adventures in Hi-Fi)

Sarah McLachlanFumbling Towards Ecstasy

SuedeComing Up

Sound And Vision: Will Adele Beat the GRAMMYs Best New Artist Curse?

Adele should have been a contender, but who knew she’d end up being arguably the UK’s female act most likely to still be succeeding in 10 years?
When she arrived on the pop scene in 2008 with her debut album 19, she was sandwiched between” and overshadowed by”fellow Brit-soul divas Amy Winehouse and Duffy. Then something unexpected happened at the 2009 GRAMMY Awards, where Adele was nominated in four categories, including Record of the Year and Song of the Year for “Chasing Pavements,” her second single. Against all conceivable odds, she pushed Jonas Brothers, Lady Antebellum and Duffy aside to take Best New Artist, the prize Winehouse had claimed one year earlier.
Though the careers of GRAMMY’s Best New Artists have gone in many different directions (good luck, Esperanza Spalding), the high failure rate has spawned the urban legend known as the Best New Artist GRAMMY curse. Yes, some (Bette Midler, Sade and Mariah Carey, among them) have gone on to major careers and/or iconic status, but just as often (Starland Vocal Band, Debby Boone, Paula Cole, etc.), they haven’t. And at least one (Milli Vanilli) had the award rescinded for not bothering to sing a note on the album for which they won it.
Her freshman-year GRAMMY haul aside (she also took home Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Chasing Pavements”), Adele has had a slow build by contemporary pop-star standards. Her first album arrived under the radar in January of 2008 and stayed there for most of the year. But by autumn, Adele was in the right place at the right time: performing on an episode of Saturday Night Live, which”thanks to an appearance by then-US Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin”became the program’s highest-rated episode in fourteen years. (Does that mean she owes her US success to Sarah Palin?)
The chart action that ensued may have been a no-brainer, but there’s nothing predictable about Adele. It’s not just that she sounds far more seasoned than you might expect twenty-two-year-old to be. On her 19 version of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”” recently still hovering high on the UK singles chart more than two years after its release”she did what Billy Joel, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and even Dylan himself had failed to do: She gave the song soul.
And that special brand of blue-eyed soulfulness is the foundation of her sophomore album, 21, its power and its glory. God knows where Winehouse is at the moment, what she’s doing and when/if she’ll ever resurface again. And Duffy inched farther into the pop realm on her second album, Endlessly, and the result has been poor sales in both the US and the UK. In contrast, the critical and commercial reception to 21, which was released on January 24th in the UK and will be out on February 22nd in the US, has been promising. A week into its life span, it was already platinum and No. 1 in Adele’s homeland.
Paul Epworth’s production on “Rolling in the Deep,” the opening track and first single, is as big as Adele’s voice (which I’d place closer to the husky domain of Alison Moyet or even Florence Welch than to Winehouse or Duffy), creating a huge wall of sound that’s like nothing else on the radio right now. It entered the UK singles chart at No. 2 a few weeks ago, immediately matching the peak of “Chasing Pavements,” and it’s cracked Billboard’s Hot 100. The album would have been more streamlined and focused with fewer producers (Epworth, Rick Rubin, Ryan Tedder and Adele herself are among the seven credited), but it’s more about Adele’s voice anyway, and at least she doesn’t sound like she’s moved on from chasing pavements to chasing hits.
It’s hard to imagine 21‘s best tracks” which include left-of-the-pop-mainstream songs like “Rumour Has It” and “He Won’t Go”” posing any major threat to the leading ladies on the Hot 100, but Adele’s against-the-grain musical mentality works in her favor. Despite those early comparisons to Winehouse and Duffy, Adele stands on her own musical ground. Because she’s not easily categorized, she’s not quickly forgotten.
As Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush and other iconoclastic legends have proven in the past, long, sturdy music careers need not be built on hit singles or pre-packaged sex appeal. When the dust settles and most of today’s pop starlets have fallen far out of flavor, Adele just might be the last woman standing.