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The Divas and the Bee Gees

In the 1970s, the Bee Gees could do no wrong. Alongside Donna Summer, the band dominated the pop charts with a string of hit single (24 of their singles hit the US top 20 and 26 hit the UK top 20) and multi-platinum albums, most notably the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.

With the disco backlash, came an unfair revisionist assessment of the Bee Gees that lumped them with trashy disco artifacts like Disco Duck, Ethel Merman’s disco album, and the Brady Bunch variety show. That’s unfortunate because the Brothers Gibb – Barry, Robin, Maurice – were among the craftiest and most professional songwriters in pop music history. Don’t believe me? Just listen to the pillowy ballad “How Deep Is Your Love” and tell me you didn’t swoon.

But starting in the 1980s, the Bee Gees started to experience a decline in their commercial fortunes. But the Gibbs were ace songwriters so they were never in any danger of fading away. Even though pop radio lost interest in their music, they turned to producing other artists, and enjoyed a healthy second career in the 1980s as go-to songwriters. One of their biggest and most recognizable hits of the 80s was the classic Dolly Parton/Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream” (which appeared on Rogers’ 1983 Gibbs-written album Eyes That See in the Dark). 

The Brothers Gibb also found themselves working with three pop divas, revitalizing their careers and bringing them back to the top of the pop charts. Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick were the most successful female acts of the 1960s and for a large part of the 1970s. But by 1980, they started to feel a similar dip in their sales as the Bee Gees did. The trio of legends felt a jolt in their careers with their Gibbs-helmed records: Streisand’s Guilty, Ross’ Eaten Alive, and Warwick’s Heartbreaker.

GuiltyStreisand’s Guilty (1980) was the most successful of the three albums and one of the most successful albums in Streisand’s career (it went on to sell over 6 million copies). It went to number on the album charts in the US and the UK, and it spawned a string of hit singles, three of which found their way into the top 10. By 1980, Streisand had cemented herself as a crossover superstar, winning Oscars for her movie work and a bunch of Grammys. During the 1970s, she shifted away from her supperclub pop of the 60s, and became a soft-rock/adult contemporary star. Hooking up with gooey songwriters like Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Marvin Hamlish, and Michel Legrand, Streisand was the proto-Celine Dion, releasing albums of fillers larded with hit singles. Like a lot of mainstream pop singers, Streisand joined the disco craze and found success with some dance songs, including the monster duet “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” with Donna Summer.

But by 1980, Streisand, though still massively popular, looked like she was in a rut. Enter Barry Gibb – that hairy-chested Adonis of pop who completed Streisand’s Malibu by way of Brooklyn transformation. Guilty is easily one of the most sublime and listenable pop albums of the last 40 years. Gibbs joined their longtime collaborators Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson to produce a light and frothy record that works as a breezy soundtrack to a casual jaunt down Rodeo Drive.

Guilty sounds like high-quality leftovers from Saturday Night Fever. The Gibb trademarks are all there: the shuffled percussion, the frothy synths, the simple chord transitions, airtight backup harmonies. Streisand does a great job in easing up on her famous histrionics, too. The danger of pairing a powerhouse like Streisand with a seeming lightweight like the Gibbs is that she has the potential to overwhelm the music and production (the audio version of a bull in a china shop). But Streisand’s heavy, gigantic belt is kept in check, as she ably reigns in her near-operatic voice, sounding like a credible fourth Bee Gee.

As a duet partner, Barry Gibb proves to be a capable counterpoint to Streisand. Their voices blend perfectly and seamlessly, as if they were blended in a recording studio Kitchen Aid Blender. Streisand never goes full disco, though “Promises” with its galloping gait comes very close as does the plastic faux funk of “Never Give Up,” that fails to be convincing but is an admirable failure.

No, people listen to Streisand to luxuriate in that brassy voice, and she sounds best on ballads. Good thing the Gibbs are great at building solid slow dance songs. They’re corny, sappy, but impeccably crafted. And Guilty would be one of the few times in her career when Streisand doesn’t sound totally lost jumping on current pop trends.

HeartbreakerEven though the Bee Gees were known for their funky music, let’s be honest, they were squares, which is why it makes sense that they were a match made in heaven for Streisand as well as Dionne Warwick, a singer of uncommon talent and tonality, but one that not necessarily the most soulful on the radio (despite being tangentially linked to soul greats like Aretha Franklin, Cissy Houston, and Whitney Houston). Warwick’s early 1980s career was a strange animal. One of the leading hit makers of the 1960s, her 70s output slowed down, but then she hooked up with Clive Davis and Arista, and suddenly, she seemed somewhat relevant to pop radio again.

Like Streisand, Warwick found that hooking up with the Bee Gees would prove to be a commercial crafty thing to do as 1982’s Heartbreaker sold over 3 million copies. Its title track was one of Warwick’s biggest hit. Like Streisand, Warwick feels more at home in slower numbers, and so Heartbreaker is filled with romantic ballads. Unlike GuiltyHeartbreaker doesn’t feel quite as ambitious or well made. Nothing is wrong with the album per se, and the title song is infectious, but the album as a whole feels like a collection of songs that Streisand rejected for Guilty.

But like Streisand, Warwick’s voice is a perfect compliment for the slightly gauche production of the Brothers Gibb. She has a loud, husky voice that sounds at once affected and distant. Her phrasing is distinct and precise and there’s a chasteness in the way that she sings her love ballads. In the 1960s, she was paired with her musical kindred spirit Burt Bacharach, and he was the only musician who could make her dry delivery sound impassioned and urgent (“Don’t Make Me Over” is a gorgeous plea that Warwick sells beautifully). The Gibbs aren’t as successful and the result is that Warwick’s arch delivery sounds drained and mechanical. The whole affair feels drab and rote and the result is a parody of Adult Contemporary conventions (the songs – including a slick version of “Our Day Will Come) sound like something that would be played during the slow dance at cruise ship.

Eaten Alive (Expanded Edition)

Diana Ross is the only singer of the three had has the chops to do dance music. In fact some of her best solo work as been for the clubs. Like Streisand and Warwick, Ross also saw her audience shift as musical trends moved around. By 1985, when her Gibbs-produced LP Eaten Alive was relieved, Ross was in commercial limbo. She left Motown for RCA and her seemed to become merely an extension of her celebrity. She sold well, initially, but Eaten Alive came at a time when Ross was struggling to keep up with young pop divas like Madonna or Jody Watley. And unlike Streisand and Warwick, Ross always dove headfirst into pop trends, chasing them for pop success (she was rewarded for her foray into post-disco dance with the Chic-produced diana which sold four million copies and spit out a string of top 10 dance hits including the classics “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”)

Eaten Alive is the least successful of the three albums covered, both artistically and commercially. By 1985, it seems as if the Bee Gees had given their best work to other artists and struggled to find something good for Ross. The title track is interesting because it not only features work by the Bee Gees, but superstar Michael Jackson. His fingerprints are all over the angular dance track; in fact, his tight-fisted, clipped sound crowds  out the Bee Gees pretend-soul  (Jackson’s soulful growl ends up stealing the show at the song’s end, despite Barry Gibb’s caterwauling). The other dance number “Crimes of Passion” works a little better, but that’s because Ross’ impassioned performance makes the slight song seem better than it really is.

The ballads aren’t any better. Often the production overwhelms and buries Ross’ pretty croon, and she can sometimes sound muffled. This is never more true than in “Experience” a by-the-numbers love song with Ross sounding lost in the song’s mix (there’s a crazy echo that acts like a reverb, rending her nearly incomprehensible).

But there is one unequivocal triumph: “Chain Reaction,” a cracking number in which the Bee Gees do a beautiful job aping Holland-Dozier-Holland, and give Ross a stomping Motownesque number that sounds like a top shelf song she would’ve recording with the Supremes. The production is grand and dramatic, and Ross is engaged and fantastic. It’s nostalgia at its best, and its brilliance overshadows the rest of the songs on Eaten Alive (and is easily Ross’ best single post from the mid 1980s) and is the best and most innovative song from the trio of albums reviewed. It also went to number 1 on the UK charts.

As they continued with their own recording career, the Bee Gees continued writing and producing for other artists, but Diana Ross’ Eaten Alive was the last time that the band devoted its combined talents to update an iconic pop diva’s sound and career. Streisand, Warwick, and Ross moved on from their brief Bee Gee sojourns with varying success. Streisand, followed up Guilty was a long list of platinum albums and reunited with Barry Gibb on the sequel Guilty Pleasures (2005). Warwick’s career continued to coast with periodic blips of huge career success, peaking with 1985’s “That’s What Friends Are For” a treacly ballad she recorded with Elton John, Gladys Knight, and Stevie Wonder, which was a gigantic hit (the proceeds went to AIDS research). Ross had arguably the most fitful and frustrating career of the three. After the relative failure of Eaten Alive, she bounced back with the gold-selling Swept Away, which featured her last US top 10 hit “Missing You.” She then failed to ever regain her commercial fortunes in the US (though in the UK and Japan she was still a reliable hit maker scoring top 10 hits all the way into the 200os).

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Barbra Streisand returns to Broadway with some famous pals on ‘Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway’

Encore: Movie Partners Sing BroadwayBarbra Streisand is linked to the musical theater, which is a bit of a mystery as she hasn’t been in a play in over 50 years. Her long and prolific discography, though, is sprinkled with tunes for the Great Way. In 1985 she had one of her greatest recording triumphs with the number 1 hit album, The Broadway Album, and she followed up with a sequel in 1993. Since then, she’s released a string of pop albums, soundtracks, and live albums, but has finally returned “home” so to speak with her 35th studio release, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. Like her last album, PartnersEncore is a collection of duets – this time by actors who sing. The result is a surprisingly enjoyable record with few missteps. Though the concept – Streisand cuing up to the mic with a fellow superstar – feels hackneyed given that she just had a duets album out a couple years ago, she’s collected an impressive group of actors to share the spotlight. Each partner delivers an enjoyable performance, though, she may be accused of cheating a bit when hiring Jamie Foxx, Hugh Jackman,  or the late Anthony Newley, as all three of these guys have had great success on stage, screen, and vinyl. But the thespians less known for their vocal work – Melissa McCarthy, Patrick Wilson, and Chris Pine all acquit themselves admirably.

The song selection is all over the place – a little bit of Sondheim, a touch of Rogers & Hammerstein, a soupcon of Berlin. Her close and departed friend, Marvin Hamlisch is represented by two songs: “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line, which Streisand sings with Anne Hathaway and Daisy Ridley; and “Any Moment Now” from Smile. Hamlisch and Streisand were kindred spirits, so it makes sense that the songs show Streisand off at her best: she gets to show off her supple voice – still buttery, still strong, though now flecked with grit – but also gets to act. On “At the Ballet” Streisand trades lines with Hathaway and Ridley, each playing the part of a hopeful hoofer. With “Any Moment Now” Jackman and Streisand play a couple on the verge of a breakup, though each feels neglected by the other. The music is syrupy and the lyrics aren’t exactly subtle, but it’s Broadway, so more is always more. Jackman, who fancies himself a song-and-dance man slips easily into the song, his light voice a good contrast to Streisand’s; her sparring with Hathaway and Ridley also works, though knowing the vast age difference between Streisand and her guests stretches the song’s credibility.

Also successful is the playful rewowrking “Anything You Can Do” as a feminist anthem. Streisand is paired with comedienne Melissa McCarthy, and the two Funny Girls start of as adversaries, but they quickly abandon the song’s original conceit of one-upsmanship, and rework the lyrics as a Girl Power theme. McCarthy is a solid vocalist and the two singers are funny, though the song takes on some unintended poignancy in light of McCarthy’s Ghostbusters pal Leslie Jones’ online harassment. The song is so funny that listeners will remember just how funny Barbra Streisand really is. In fact, it’s too bad that she doesn’t devote a whole album to comic songs – there are lots of standards and Broadway tunes that are hilarious, and it would be a refreshing detour from the more staid and serious songs she usually records. And Alec Baldwin – another accomplished screen comedian – has a fine set of pipes, and personality to spare, and proves to a great foil (I’d love for them to collaborate on that comedy album I proposed).

As with any Streisand duet, the success of the song largely depends on the partner. If it’s a vocal cipher with little-to-no vocal oomph of his/her own, then Streisand has a tendency to drown him/her out – poor Johnny Mathis, Michael Crawford, Don Johnson (yup, Miami Vice‘s Don Johnson), Bryan Adams, and Josh Groban have all been victims of Streisand’s vocal body slam. So poor Chris Pine just didn’t even have a chance. Despite a respectable showing in Into the Woods, he’s not distinct or assertive enough of a singer. And Antonio Banderas, a solid singer in his own right, also cannot seem to keep up with Streisand’s belting.

But more of than not, Encore works. When Jamie Foxx and Streisand tackle the nearly-operatic “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” the album closes on a high note (literally). Though Foxx’s range is naturally limited and Streisand’s has been narrowed with age, there are some subtle key shifts and tone changes that accommodate for that, and the two end up really selling the song.

At 74, Barbra Streisand’s been recording for over 50 years. At this point in her career, when it seems like she’s recorded every song possible, it’s a little difficult to be innovative or cutting edge. The A.V. Club had a feature in which the writers suggested how veteran artists can shake up their later-day recordings – someone suggested that Streisand hook up with Jack White for a total makeover. But as seen on Encore, Streisand is no longer looking to be the envelope-pusher of the 1960s. The album is lush, plump, and luscious  – with wall-to-wall orchestra. And Streisand is in fine voice, hitting notes divas a quarter of age would only be able to reach via an elevator. If she’s become predictable, that’s okay – she’s also consistent.

Click here to buy Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway on amazon.com.

 

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When a “wardrobe malfunction” destroyed a career, exposed our nation’s prudish hypocrisy, and overshadowed an almost-great album

Damita Jo [Explicit]

In retrospect, the Super Bowl XXXVIII controversy, or as it would be called, the “wardrobe malfunction” or “nipplegate” seems tame and ridiculous now, some twelve years later. The hand wringing and condemnation all seem like absurd overkill, given that sex tapes are now seen as viable ways of either resuscitating a career or creating one. At the center of the absurdity were two pop stars: Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. While Timberlake emerged from the manufactured controversy unscathed (a string of film roles, hit singles, three multi-platinum albums), Jackson wasn’t so lucky. A once bright career which was notable in its lack of controversy, was hobbled. She was booted from a Grammy tribute to her late pal Luther Vandross; a biopic of Lena Horne was shuttered; Disney World ejected a Mickey Mouse statue that was dressed in a Rhythm Nation outfit; Spike Lee slammed Jackson as media-hungry, forgetting that she dropped some coin to help fund Malcolm X; the FCC slapped the producers of the show with heavy fines, and most improbably, MTV boycotted Jackson’s new music, thereby dampening the expected hullabaloo that should’ve greeted Jackson’s then-new album, Damita Jo.

After the noise settled a career was in tatters. Damita Jo (named after Jackson’s middle name) opened to good sales, but they quickly leveled off as radio exposure was nil. Jackson then followed up with a string of albums – 20 Y.O., Discipline,  Unbreakable – that continued a distressing slide in Jackson’s commercial fortunes. Since 2004, she has yet to break into the Billboard top 10 (she hit the top 20 once).

All of the swirl of media hype and stylized disapproval managed to bury Jackson’s strong album, Damita Jo. It’s a shame because underneath the controversy is a very good record. It was also one of her most diverse, as her long-time producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis shared production credits with a dizzying array of collaborators including Telepopmusik, Dallas Austin, Babyface, and Kanye West.

Opening with a disposable interlude (Jackson’s obsessed with them), the album essentially gets rid of the chaff pretty early: “Damita Jo” is probably Jackson’s stupidest song. Ripping off shamelessly from Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny from the Block” (Lopez was a backup dancer in Jackson’s “That’s the Way Love Goes” video), “Damita Jo” is a loud and clangy mess that is supposed to humanize Jackson. It’s hard to imagine Janet Jackson as anything but a high-end, multi-platinum diva, but “Damita Jo” strives to convince her listeners that she’s just plain folks – despite selling millions of albums, sitting on a gargantuan pile of money, and having Michael and LaToya as siblings. Being humble is never a superstar’s strongest suit, and when superstars reach for humility, the results are usually disastrous.

But Jackson and company are smart in that they present the album’s sole piece of crap as the first real song. From then we jump into the sprightly “Sexhibition.” The title sucks, yes, but it’s a great song. Dallas Austin proves he has some real affinity for Jackson – he brings in some buzzy guitars and a weird soundscape of techno-funk, that may remind listeners of Jackson’s earlier work with Jam & Harris. Austin returns for the album’s best song (and first single), “Just a Little While.” The song should’ve been a hit. A mid-tempo pop song with a stuttering guitar and an insanely catchy chorus (there’s even a psychedelic-lite bridge), “Just a Little While” is light and airy – and it suits Jackson beautifully.

Aside from Austin, the other heavy hitter to come on board is Kanye West who helps to put together “Strawberry Bounce” an anthem for a pole dancer; the gorgeous, waltz-like ballad “I Want You” and “My Baby” in which he costars. “Strawberry Bounce” is a silly song that casts Jackson as a prodigious stripper – not the most edifying subject for a pop song, but it’s a charming ditty with Jackson employing her steamy, breathy vocals to full effect. “My Baby” is a laid back affair that seems tailor-made for a late summer song. But “I Want You” is majestic – a recall of those yearning Motown ballads, kind of like what Michael Jackson used to sob. Though Janet Jackson is only about a quarter of the vocalist brother Mike was, she’s still very effective on the swinging ballad. If the “wardrobe malfunction” never happened, “I Want You” would’ve been a monster hit.

Along with Austin and West, Jackson also hooked up with super producer, Babyface, the grand daddy when it comes to polished, elegant urban pop-soul. Babyface’s impressive resume includes Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Madonna, three of Jackson’s biggest rivals for the title of pop queen. His trademark sound is mounds and mounds of soft, pillowy synths and sexy strumming guitars. “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex” is standard Babyface in that Jackson’s chirpy little coo is nestled in snugly in the swaths of sonic fabric. It’s all very classy and elegant, and the lyrics – regretful, sad, melancholy – would’ve have sounded right at home on his hit soundtrack to Waiting to Exhale.

And though Austin, West, and Face are the deep-pocketed names, Damita Jo also features the work from Sweden – particularly BAG & Arnthor, an electronic outfit that sculpt two EDM numbers: “All Night (Don’t Stop)” (which is helped by a well-placed sample of Herbie Hancock) and the house-spiked “SloLove.” Jackson’s strength has always been dance music, and these two songs – the former especially, show that if Jackson were to shrug off her commercial trappings and just indulge in some weird, esoteric IDM or EDM, she’d manage to carve out a new and exciting career.

As with the bulk of Jackson’s work, the lion’s share of Damita Jo is made possible by the contribution of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (along with some assistance from pals like Scott Storch or the Avila Brothers). The Jackson-Jam-Harris contributions show the trio’s strong and enduring chemistry. The are able to synthesize various elements of Jackson’s public persona, including her sex kitten identity, her affinity for soft-focus feminism, her giggly girlishness, as well as, her undeniable instinct for a mean pop hook. Jam & Harris are graduates of the Prince University of Funk, so they give Jackson’s shiny, glossy sound enough grit to easily stay clear of bubblegum territory. They also are highly sympathetic to her queerness and her magnetic-like draw to queerness and always remember to craft sturdy singles that would play great on a dance floor, as well as be ready-made for some heavy remixing later on. The ballads – while impeccable – always try the listener’s patience because they often meander and stretch out, feeling like they’re playing for days. Jackson often adopts a dozy murmur when she purrs over Jam & Harris’ slow number, making these songs definitely sleepier moments. But when Jackson and Jam & Harris look for radio material, their collaboration is rarely at fault: “R&B Junkie” is about as perfect as any funky dance-pop song can be – a nostalgic and affectionate nod to Jackson’s musical roots (I’m picturing her early appearances on Soul Train). “Island Life” is the kind of frothy, empty nonsense – pop music version of diet soda – that the trio can create in their sleep.

There is still a lot to find annoying with Damita Jo. The lyrics’ preoccupation with sex can feel a little one-note – especially in light of how sex-heavy her work had become at that point (And would continue to be until the release of the more wide-ranging Unbreakable in 2015). And those interludes are pretty stupid. They’re never profound and present Jackson as vapid and dull (and a touch dim).

Damita Jo entered and peaked on the Billboard album chart at number 2, the first studio effort of her’s not to go to number one since her 1986 breakthrough Control. It opened with over 380,000 copies (an astronomical number these days), but sales quickly tapered off and the album capped at about a million copies (again, respectable number these days if your name isn’t Adele). None of the singles were hits, though “Just a Little While” appeared on the pop charts at number 45, effectively severing her lengthy string of top 40 hits. For the next decade, Jackson would try to regain some of her commercial footing, but to no avail – none of her albums after Damita Jo would sell well, and her singles would fare badly too (except for a brief comeback when “Feedback” from Discipline managed to claw its way to number 19 on the pop charts). The album has been forgotten by now, a footnote in a long and illustrious career. It’s a shame because it’s the perfect example of a solid pop product which has been buried, unfairly, under a pile of unwarranted controversy.

 

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Ariana Grande stumbles on near-pop perfection

Dangerous Woman [Explicit]If a group of scientists got together in a laboratory to create the perfect pop star, Ariana Grande would be the result of such a project: she’s ridiculously telegenic, beautiful, and talented, and possessed the sort of cross-over appeal that makes her music marketable to tweens and teens as well as their moms (and their gay uncles). And like virtually every young female pop star, Ariana Grande hasn’t enjoyed the affection of “serious” rock critics. And that’s too bad. On her third studio effort, Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande (along with a crowd of producers and songwriters) releases a nearly-perfect pop record.

Despite its title, there’s little that’s dangerous about Dangerous Woman. And though the cover with Granda donning a fetish-like mask, little of the songs hint at anything deeper or darker than unrequited love. Dangerous Woman is an aggressively mainstream record, one that is supposed to appeal to a wide format of pop radio: there are soulful pop ballads and dance songs – these tunes would sound comfortably being piped through the sound system of a department store or being played at a local gay club. There’s little innovation with Dangerous Woman and it’s a largely safe and unambitious record, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: in this current landscape in pop music, albums often serve as little more than skeletal homes for hit singles. To its credit, Dangerous Woman is solid and consistent.

The album’s opener is a pretty ballad that takes its cues from swinging doo-wop and will remind listeners yet again of how much Ariana Grande owes to Mariah Carey (the song sounds like a 2010’s take on “Vision of Love”). “Let Me Love You”  is another song that has Grande sound earily like Carey (aping the diva’s slightly-nasal delivery when performing mid-tempo, sultry urban-pop ballads). When Grande’s debut album came out, reviewers noted the similarities between she and Carey, and it sounds as if she’s taking the comparisons to heart.

Other ballads litter the record, making good use of Grande’s impressive pipes: the title track is a slow-burning number with some dramatic wall of sound synths that makes the song sound like Grande’s audition to sing the next Bond theme; “Thinking Bout You” is a stately slow song which boasts a strong vocal performance  and an epic production that makes Ariana Grande’s case for Celine Dion’s successor; “I Don’t Care” is a solid effort to showcase Grande’s sensual side; “Knew Better/Forever Boy” is a good ballad with some interesting vocal effects that has Grande stepping ever so slightly outside radio-friendly pop.

And though Grande’s voice is well-suited for ballads, the more uptempo songs are highlights, too, including the album’s best moment, “Be Alright,” a fantastic house song that is at once an affectionate nod towards the singer’s sizable queer fan base and a wonderful wink back at 90s disco. Grande moves even further back into the 1980s with “Greedy” a shiny, spike dance ditty with some nifty horns. Both songs while mining the past don’t feel fusty or stale – instead, she successfully updates some of the tropes of 80s and 90s dance music. And “Into You” sounds state-of-the-art with its beeps and bloops, but doesn’t sound dated or silly.

Like every decent superstar release worth its salt, Grande has some famous friends stop by: Nick Minaj enlivens “Side to Side,” a decent reggae-lite tune, with her overs-sized personality, and manages to give the silly novelty number some oomph and credibility. Future pops in for the slow, churning “Everyday,” and a somewhat surprising cameo by Macy Gray on “Leave Me Lonely” shows off the “I Try Singer” at her best, doing a great Nina Simone impression (while Grande takes a solid stab at 70s soul balladeering).

As with any album boasting this many tracks, there will be some filler – “Sometimes” is an affecting, if innocuous ballad that is so light it threatens to float away and uber-producer Max Martin dollops a lot of his sonic gloss over his tracks, rendering them indistinguishable from the other radio hits he helms. But even if his songs feel a bit bland and cookie-cutter, they’re still okay examples of solid craftsmanship.

Unfortunately because Ariana Grande’s main audience consists of teen girls and gay men, Dangerous Woman won’t get the critical acclaim of her peers. It’s a shame because while she doesn’t try to change the music world like Beyonce does with the excellent Lemonade, nor does she possess the artistry of Adele, she’s still a contender. Dangerous Woman doesn’t show significant growth from Grande’s other two studio efforts, but that’s okay. She’s young and has time to grow as an artist. In the mean time, as a product of escapist fun, Dangerous Woman more than fits the bill.

 

 

 

 

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Artist in Spotlight: Janet Jackson

Design of a Decade
Janet Jackson is one of the last few artists left today who was born out of the MTV Revolution. Back in the 1980s, the channel created a new musical archetype: the video diva. The video diva is a telegenic performer who visuals are as important (if not more) than her sound. Janet Jackson, the youngest of the famed Jacksons, benefited greatly from MTV. She ruled the music channel for a long time before the relationship soured after her unfortunate wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show. Before that ugly snaffoo, though, Jackson was a mighty titan. Her videos were expensive, elaborate productions that rivaled the kinds of work Bugsby Berekely produced in his hey day.

As a musician, Janet Jackson is harder to pin down. She’s a product of her collaborators, though she exerts a large amount of control and influence over her image or sound. Since 1986’s Control album, she’s had a hand in writing and/or producing her work, largely with former Time players Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. As a singer, she’s benefited from Jam & Lewis’ then-cutting edge productions, melding icy synths with funky beats, to create state-of-the-art urban dance-pop. Her lyrics contributed to her image as first a feisty and assertive young lady, then a socially-conscious disco diva, and finally to a sexy pop diva.

Her discography includes 11 studio albums, three compilations, two remix albums, and over 50 singles, 10 of which went number one. While she released meticulously-produced albums, she was primarily a singles artist, and her string of hits represented some of the best pop music of the 1980s and 1990s. Her longevity was also impressive, considering that she was competing with pop titans like Prince, Madonna, and her older brother Michael Jackson. Like the aforementioned icons, Jackson emerged from the 1980s, but seemed to have an easier time of adjusting to the 1990s. She retained her commercial dominance throughout the 1990s, slipping considerably since the 2000s, when the music industry as a whole began to go through changes. As a result of these shifts, big-budgeted superstars like Jackson were becoming increasingly irrelevant.

This past year, Jackson released her 11th studio album, Unbreakable, to critical acclaim. It also became her  seventh number one album. The album was warmly received by critics and fans after a string of releases that disappointed.

Alongside her career as a pop singer, Jackson also maintained a solid career as an actress. Though she’s far more famous for her music, Jackson’s entry into show business was as a child actress, first appearing with her famous family in 1976 in a variety show, The Jacksons. Though Michael Jackson was clearly the breakout, many took notice of Janet – particularly with her impressions (audiences liked her decent Mae West impression). Norman Lear saw The Jacksons and brought Jackson in to costar in the final two seasons of Good Times, as Penny, a child suffering from child abuse. After Good Times ended did a quick stint on A New Kind of Family (which featured a young Rob Lowe), before scoring a recurring role on the Gary Coleman sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. After Strokes, Jackson joined the sprawling cast of the TV-version of Fame, and stayed on for a season before embarking on a music career.

Poetic Justice 27x40 Movie Poster (1993)

Her film career started with John Singleton’s 1993 project, Poetic Justice, his follow-up to Boyz in the Hood. Though Jackson and the film received mixed reviews, she scored an Oscar nomination for the film’s theme, “Again.” She didn’t appear in another project until 2000’s Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, in which she starred opposite Eddie Murphy. She was able to add another number one hit with the film’s theme. Afterwards she became Tyler Perry’s muse, starring in three of his works: Why Did I Get Married?Why Did Get Married Too?, and For Colored Girls. Again, her notices, while respectful, were mixed for the most part. As an actress, Jackson has yet to prove herself as something more than a competent dilettante.

Studio Albums:

Product DetailsJanet Jackson (1982) – produced by Rene Moore & Angela Winbush, Jackson’s debut showed little promise of what was to come later. Janet Jackson was essentially another entry in the growing litter of Jackson sibling solo albums, and though Jackson’s voice – thin and a bit unripe – was charming, the production was essentially a holdover of late 1970s disco. The album has a couple bright moments, most notably “Say You Do” a blatant rip-off of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” but a strong one with some fantastic bristling strings.

Product DetailsDream Street (1984)- released during her time with Fame (the title song was used on the show), Dream Street was a so-so collection of substandard dance-pop. There are hints of what direction she was destined for, particularly with the smeary “Pretty Boy” and the sexy “Fast Girls” two of the record’s strongest songs, produced by Prince guitarist Jesse Johnson. The success of those two songs show that Jackson was really meant to be a Prince protegee a la Vanity or Sheila E., instead of a safe, middling teen pop star.

Product DetailsControl (1986) – easily Jackson’s best album and a mid-80s masterpiece, though it’s as much a triumph for its producers, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. The album featured the duo’s patented metallic-funk – a fantastic amalgamation of funk, pop, dance, soul, and rock. Aside from the excellent production, what sets Control apart from Jackson’s first two albums is that she has a hand in writing and producing the record, allowing for her personality to shine through. The album boasts six top twenty singles, one of which went number one (as did the album). The singles were instant classics: the funky “Nasty” became an updated feminist anthem, as Jackson demanded respect from her suitor with the classic line: “No my first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet. Miss Jackson if you’re nasty!” The similar “What Have You Done for Me Lately” – a muscular, thumbing number has Jackson castigate her layabout lover for not satisfying her. Gone were the pop thrushes who worked overtime to please their man. Jackson stepped in with a handful of pop singles that pushed forward a palpable pop feminism that was at once mainstream and commercial, but at the same time important and subversive.

The dance-heavy album finishes with two ballads – the abstinence-celebrating “Let’s Wait Awhile” and its immediate opposite “Funny How Time Flies” (which ends with Jackson’s orgasmic moans and mutterings in French). The record’s boffo success – it sold over 5 million copies – stunned the music industry, which was only too happy to write off the performer as merely riding the coattails of her famous siblings. She topped off her banner year with an incredible performance at the 1987 Grammys that was received with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

Product DetailsJanet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 (1989)-Jackson ran into the same problem her brother did. After Thriller, Michael Jackson wrestled with coming up with a strong follow-up, and few felt that Bad lived up to the expectations. In the wake of Control‘s success, the pop charts were flooded by Jackson clones (including her former choreographer Paula Abdul), and her label was pushing for a Control sequel. Jackson was reportedly inspired by the news of school shootings and stories of the War on Drugs and worked with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis on putting together Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Crammed with good intentions, the album feels like a let down after the roar of Control, but still contains some of Jackson’s best single moments. The album reeled off a record-setting seven top 5 pop hits, and spun off hit singles for three years. It also won Jackson her first Grammy for Best Long Form Music Video, and its tour became the most successful debut tour by a pop artist.

The album is seen as Jackson’s landmark album, and for most, the first album one needs to buy. I disagree. I think it’s a solid effort, but the socially-conscious lyrics let the music down. Some went as far as comparing the record to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which is ridiculous. Jackson’s lyrics while well-intentioned, sound naive and unformed. On the title track – which uses a fantastic sample of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – is a near-perfect collage of industrial beats, clattering samples but Jackson’s chirping of a monochromatic utopia makes little sense – even worse, the video features Jackson and an army of dancers, all done up in pseudo-military gear. While an arresting image, it nonetheless doesn’t jive with the “peace and love” agenda in the lyrics. “State of the World” is a little better because Jackson isn’t singing in general platitudes but is directed her ire at specific ills, namely homelessness. “The Knowledge” is probably the best of the political songs – a breakneck-paced dance song adorned by vocal and radio samples that is convincing in its message for education.

After a clatch of socially-conscious songs, Jackson lets loose her dance diva and it’s clear she’s far more comfortable leading folks on the dance floor than to the voting booths. “Miss You Much” is the greatest song that Prince should’ve recorded. The bright, clipped dance beats and tight percussion make this a classic for the clubs. The quick and breezy “Alright” is also good, as is “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” a midtempo number that has Jackson singing in a lower register (the song was reportedly planned as a duet with Prince). “Escapade” is one of the album’s dated moments, a thick sludge of synthesizers, keyboards, and drum machines that thunder through the speakers.

Product Detailsjanet. (1993)-by 1993 Janet Jackson was a bonafide superstar. She was no longer being compared with her brother, and drew far more comparisons with Madonna. Also by this time, Jackson’s place in the pop world was secure and untouchable, resulting in a record-breaking $32 million contract with Virgin Records (which Michael Jackson would dwarf soon after with a $65 million contract, which Janet Jackson would later best with a $80 million contract – these numbers look stupid today with albums barely selling 500,000 copies).

Despite her definite break from her family’s shadow, she still named her 1993 Virgin debut janet., leaving off her last name. It was an unnecessary move, but one that proved to be prescient when Michael Jackson’s career was struck by child molestation allegations. On janet., Jackson not only moved away from the looming shadow of Michael Jackson, but she shifted away from her image and sound. During most of Control and Rhythm Nation, Jackson was clad, nearly head-to-toe in black. She shocked fans and critics with the video for “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by appearing in a pair of tight jeans and a cropped-top, cavorting with half-naked male models (the clip, directed by photographer Herb Ritts, was a clear rip-off of Madonna’s “Cherish” video, also directed by Ritts). janet. continued in Jackson’s interest in sexuality and music by introducing sexual lyrics and imagery. The album’s cover was a cropped version of her famous Rolling Stone cover that featured the singer topless with an anonymous pair of hands cupping her breasts. All of this could be dismissed as cheap publicity, but janet. is one of the singer’s most compelling albums, and is one of the best dance albums of the 1990s.

The first single “That’s the Way Love Goes” (which earned Jackson a Grammy), showed the music industry the kind of album and sound janet. had. Instead of featuring tight dance beats, the song was a gentle slow-jam. It has a slinky, swinging beat and owes far more to funk and jazz than dance. Jackson’s voice – never a distinct or powerful instrument – works its way like a slithery laser, purring the heady lyrics.

But fans of disco Janet needn’t have worried, because much of the album was highly-produced dance music. janet. also flirted with other genres including rock, rap, jazz, house, even opera. “If” was a fantastic dance number with guitar shredding throughout the song while “Throb” paid homage to gay house and disco.

Because Jackson wasn’t Whitney Houston, her ballads often suffered because they betrayed her massive vocal limitations, but on janet., she and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis managed to create sensual ballads that showed off Jackson at her best. “Any Time, Any Place” is a darkly erotic song that Jackson sells with a dreamy, sinewy performance, while “Again” is a tear-stained piano ballad that benefits greatly from Jackson’s tremulous performance.

Like her the preceding two albums, janet. unfurled a string of top ten hits and ultimately sold over 20 million copies, becoming Jackson’s best-selling work. It was released during the seeming peak of the recording industry. It is a large, expensive record that encapsulates 1993 in pop music. Just as the grunge era was going to emerge, largely thumbing its nose at these kinds of pop colossi, janet. has become an artifact of a time in the music industry when artists whose names weren’t Adele were selling 20 million records.

Product DetailsThe Velvet Rope (1997)-After the smashing success of janet., Jackson’s imperceptible decline started to take place in 1997 with The Velvet Rope. Though it debuted in the top position on the pop charts, it sold a fraction of what janet. sold. The six singles spun off from the album weren’t the immediate hits, and “only” two were top five smashes. Still, after janet., Jackson seemed to have little to prove. The Velvet Rope is an underrated near-masterpiece that has some of the singer’s most interesting and strangest music. Battling depression, Jackson took pen to paper to illustrate her pain and anguish, and in the interim, she made some beautiful music.

Like janet., The Velvet Rope is a sprawling work that reaches to different genres. Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis try out different textures and sounds – electronic bleeps, guitar screeches, feedback scratches, looping synths, funky bass or guitar licks. The lyrics explore Jackson’s personal demons as well as thoughtful musings of society around her. She writes of homophobia, AIDS, and domestic violence and is far more convincing here than in Rhythm Nation.

The album’s first single was the gorgeous “Got ’til It’s Gone,” which featured Q-Tip and Joni Mitchell and a sampling of Mitchell’s classic “Big Yellow Taxi.” The song is a minimalist funky song with nods toward alternative urban pop. Jackson’s vocals are minimal and ghost-like, and she offers a laid back performance, one that doesn’t rely on her stardom or charisma. It’s a strange and eccentric song and a bold move on Jackson’s part – instead of intrusively demanding space on her own record, she just sort of lets the beats work their magic as she croons delicately.

The title track is a loud harsh mess that examines privilege. Violinist Vanessa-Mae shreds some serious electro-violin, before a multi-tracked Jackson appears to start singing about exclusion. “What About” has a similar aesthetic as Jackson rages over crashing guitars at an abusive partner – it’s interesting to compare the pissed-off Jackson of “What About” to the offended Jackson of “What Have You Done for Me Lately.”

“Free Xone,” “Together Again,” and “Tonight’s the Night” is a trilogy that lends itself to Jackson’s identity as a queer icon and queer ally. “Free Xone” – a funy, rushed number that samples James Brown has Jackson singing about the equality of queer love, while “Tonight’s the Night” has the diva covering Rod Stewart, but choosing to make the ballad a lesbian love song. And “Together Again” has Jackson returning to the dance floor with a sterling tribute to her friends who’ve died of AIDS. Though “Throb” was a pretty queer song, these three songs upped Jackson’s alliance with the queer community. And in 1997, it wasn’t as common for pop singers to embrace their queer fans – this was years before It Gets Better, marriage equality, Caitlyn Jenner. In fact, only a year earlier, DOMA was signed. This wasn’t a great time to be queer.

With janet., Janet Jackson became an international superstar. With The Velvet Rope, Jackson became a well-respected artist.

Product DetailsAll for You (2001) – After the dark angst of The Velvet Rope, Janet Jackson returned to bright, sunny pop music with All for You. Unlike janet. or The Velvet RopeAll for You would not be an ambitious effort, nor would Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis try to be innovative or cutting-edge. Instead, the trio put out a competent, enjoyable album with a great batch of singles, some good b-sides, and some filler. All for You has also the ignominious distinction of featuring Jackson’s last US top 10 hit (to date).

The album’s first single, the title track, was a monster hit for Jackson. It stayed at number one for seven weeks, winning the singer another Grammy. It’s a fantastic song. A frothy, gurgling dance-pop confection that harks back, affectionately to Jackson’s 80s years. Jackson’s voice is multiplied and multi-layered so it sounds like there are a hundred Janet Jacksons chirping merrily the inane and flirty lyrics.

Though Jackson was coming off a rancorous divorce, little of the album reflects that. It’s mostly bright, sunny pop. While engaging, it feels like a bit of a let down, given just how far Jackson pushed herself with janet. or The Velvet RopeAll for You features some solid work, but little of it would rank as her best work. “Someone to Call My Lover” (her last top 10 hit) is upbeat, though a bit anodyne (though it makes great use of the folksy guitar hook of America’s “Ventura Highway.” Better is “Come On Get Up” – a thumpy house number with some fun tribal drums.

The nadir of the album is a bizarre reworking of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” entitled “Son of a Gun (I Betcha Think This Song Is About You)” which like “Got ’til It’s Gone” samples heavily from a legendary singer-songwriter’s iconic hit. But Joni Mitchell’s contribution to “Got ’til It’s Gone” was tasteful and interesting – Carly Simon’s awkward guesting amounts to one of the most ridiculous white-lady raps I’ve ever heard (she made Madonna sound like Tupac). Jackson’s vindictive lyrics and heated murmurs toward a cheating lover are okay, but Carly Simon shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near this song.

Product DetailsDamita Jo (2004)- Damita Jo is a strange entry in Jackson’s catalog. It was overshadowed by Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, and hobbled by a radio and MTV ban which doomed its sales and media presence. It was her first album since Dream Street not to reach the number one (though its first week sales were strong), and it was her first album since Dream Street not to have a top 10 hit single. A shame, really because while not a classic, Damita Jo is a good album – more interesting than All for You, though it tries to attain the light, upbeat mood of All for You. It’s still a bit of a mystery why Damita Jo didn’t live up to its potential, but it came and went without much noise, and was the first slip that would turn into a steep decline in Jackson’s commercial fortunes.

Too bad. Damita Jo has some good moments. “All Nite (Don’t Stop)” is a great club banger – one of Jackson’s best, really (it uses a fantastic sample of Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”). And “R&B Junkie” is a great dance song that pays tribute to urban dance crazes. “Sexhibition” despite its awful title, is also a solid slice of stylish dance music. Two of the album’s singles, the waltz-like Kanye West song “I Want You” and the guitar-pop of “Just a Little While” are strong songs that would comfortably rank alongside some of Jackson’s more classic moments.

Product Details20 Y.O. (2006)- After the failure of Damita Jo, Jackson tried to regroup, releasing 20 Y.O., a misleading release that supposedly paid tribute to her career, and marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Control (1986). That promotional gimmick was a mistake because 20 Y.O. pales in comparison with Control. Little of the album is worth mentioning, and it’s the first of Jackson’s post-Control albums that doesn’t have a memorable tune. “Call on Me” was the album’s most successful single, a rap duet with Nelly, that manages to stand out as does “So Excited” which has Jackson turn to Herbie Hancock again, this time sampling “Rock It.”

Like Damita Jo20 Y.O. was met with relative indifference, and failed to hit the number one position. None of its singles met with much success, either. This is probably the least essential of Jackson’s post-Control albums. It isn’t that the album’s terrible – it’s just boring, bland and nondescript.

Product DetailsDiscipline (2008) – After 20 Y.O.‘s release, Jackson’s contract with Virgin Records ended and Jackson signed with Island. Along with a new label, Jackson also decided to work without the steadying hands of her longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. Jackson’s partner at the time, Jermaine Dupri took on executive producing duties, and Jackson hooked up with some top shelf dance and urban-pop producers including Rodney Jerkins, Ne-Yo, StarGate, and Tricky Stewart. The resulting album was marginally better than 20 Y.O., and it signaled a hopeful direction in Jackson’s sound, as she experimented with electropop. She also muscled out a top 20 hit (her first in years) with the album’s lead single “Feedback.” At this point in her career, Jackson ossified into a self-parody and caricature of a once-vital and impressive recording artist. Once she was sexy and sensual, but now, the lasciviousness on her records were sounding boring and rote. Though Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were missed, Jackson’s willingness to work with some out-of-left field artists like Daft Punk and Missy Elliott meant that Discipline wasn’t the ho-hum effort that 20 Y.O. was.

The leading single “Feedback” was reminiscent of “Rhythm Nation” in production. Clattering kettle drums and loopy scratches and samples and spacey techno flourishes made Jackson sound current and with it. The lyrics are stupid and again, unnecessarily smutty – but really, lyrics matter little when listening to a Janet Jackson club banger. Even better is the neo-disco of “Rock with U” which was actually a really good song. Criminally underrated, this thumbing house number was fantastic, and a welcomed tribute to her queer fans. It is exactly the kind of dance music that Jackson should have been doing: modern, interesting, and creative. “So Much Betta” was another crazy creative song. Heavily sampling Daft Punk’s “Daftendirekt” the song distorts, mutilates and reshapes Jackson’s vocals over a rubbery, stomping beat.

Despite these hopeful peaks, Discipline easily became Jackson’s worst-selling album of her post-Control years. After the failure of Discipline, she was released from Island, and Jackson was without a major label for the first time in her recording career. A world tour was shuttered due to illness, and her relationship with Jermaine Dupri ended. Jackson would put her music career on a hiatus that would last seven years (with the exception of a couple one-off singles). In the mean time, she resurrected her acting, married a billionaire and, most tragically, suffer the loss of her Brother Michael Jackson in 2009.

Product DetailsUnbreakable (2015) – Jackson’s latest album is a welcome return to form. Reunited with Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, the singer seems to have assessed what she did wrong in the past few years and made a concerted effort to avoid those missteps. One of which was toss up her lyrical content. She wasn’t preoccupied with outsexing her competition. Instead, she took the time she had away from the music industry, and used that experience to inform her music. The album is tight and far more economical, without the slushy interludes that bogged down her other efforts. There is a far higher ratio of hit-to-filler, and it feels as if Jackson was rejuvenated by her time off.

The title track, an anthematic R&B – joyfully retro number,  pays tribute to Jackson’s longtime fans.  “Burnitup!” is a fantastic dance song that reunited the singer with Missy Elliott, another music legend that has been gone for too long. The song is sounds like classic Janet Jackson, and Elliott shows that her hiatus hasn’t slowed down her rhyming skills. “Dammn Baby” is a wonderful slice of Minneapolis funk that recalls Jackson’s Control days. “The Great Forever” is a swinging number with a chugging beat and catchy hook. The album’s brightest spot is one of the most uncharacteristic numbers, “Gon’ B Alright,” a swirling, rollicking number that would do Sly & The Family Stone or James Brown proud. It’s a tight-fisted, rocking funk n roll number with Jackson belting in an appealing lower register.

As with janet., Jackson announced her return not with a flashy dance single, but with a drowsy ballad, “No Sleeep,” which wasn’t the best choice, as not only is the song bland but it’s a bad representation of Unbreakable, which has some of her most exciting music in years. And like “Dammn Baby” reminding listeners of Control, Jackson makes a reference to Rhythm Nation with the socially conscious EDM number “Shoulda Known Better,” in which she ruefully regrets her naivete.

Unbreakable debuted at number one on the pop charts, bringing her total of number one albums to seven. Sales have been sleepy, but it doesn’t seem like record sales matter anymore. No longer beholden to a ridiculous contract and a bloated label, Jackson’s much leaner now and more efficient. Though a superstar, she’s operating like an indie artist (well, as close to an indie artist as a superstar of her magnitude can be).

Compilations

Product DetailsDesign of a Decade: 1986-1996 (1995)-Jackson’s first greatest-hits album credited Jackson with designing a decade, but because of label issues, only Control and Rhythm Nation are featured heavily, while janet. is represented by one song, the classic “That’s the Way Love Goes.” And no singles from Janet Jackson or Dream Street are featured. It’s an odd collection, but one that shows just how on-the-mark Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis were at their peak.

For new fans, Design has two new songs: “Runaway” and “Twenty Foreplay.” The former is a frothy pop song that mishmashes world music cliches and tropes, while Jackson trills about all of the places she’s seen. It’s a silly song with little-to-no substance, but is light and inoffensive. The latter is a long, languid ballad that starts of listless before ramping up into a funky midtempo soul song, featuring some of Jackson’s most forceful and soulful singing. The two new songs are well-produced and solid tracks – both done at a time when Jackson, Jam & Lewis were at their creative heights, so it’s a tribute to their prowess that neither feels like a throwaway track, and each feels like a legitimate hit.

Product DetailsNumber Ones (2009)-Number Ones is a far better, more comprehensive hits package that not only contains all of her singles from Control to Discipline, but it also has some duets that have not appeared on a Janet Jackson album. And it also boasts a killer new track “Make Me” a wonderful disco song that pays lovely homage and tribute to the late Michael Jackson. As with Design of a Decade, Jackson is still pretending that Janet Jackson and Dream Street never happened.

But so what? Number Ones is worth getting for the rarer duets like her breezy uptempo pop hit “The Best Things in Life Are Free” from the Mo’ Money soundtrack. She shares singing duties with soul great Luther Vandross on the New Jack Swing tune (which also features Bell Bid DeVoe and Ralph Tresvant). It’s interesting hearing Vandross smushed into a genre for which he’s not a natural (still he sounds glorious), and the song is cheery and breezy.

Another, more interesting, entry is “Diamonds” recording during Jackson’s Control time, when fellow A&M artist (and label founder) Herb Alpert turned to urban-pop for chart success. “Diamonds” written and produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis sounds like an outtake from Control. Alpert’s famed saxophone is trumpet, but it acts more like a Janet Jackson record than anything. Though the song was a huge hit at the time, peaking in the top 5, it’s somewhat of curio in Jackson’s discography and unavailable on any Janet Jackson album (though folks should pick up Alpert’s credible bid for crossover success Keep Your Eye on Me, which also features “Making Love in the Rain” a slow-jam that features Jackson on vocals).

“Scream” Janet Jackson’s much-anticipated duet with brother Michael is also included. I have always had mixed feelings about this song. It’s clearly Michael’s song and he dominates it (though it is produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and not one of Michael’s collaborators); his vocals are prominent while Janet’s feel mixed low and obscured by production. The song itself is clashing and loud dance-rock with some elements of pop and soul. By the mid 1990s, Michael Jackson’s work had devolved into creepy, paranoid screeds against the media. He felt persecuted and the feelings of self-pity bled into his music, so that a lot of what he did post-Bad was unlistenable. There is some of that with “Scream” but it’s lightened up considerably by the influence of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, as well as Janet, all of whom manage to ameliorate some of Michael’s woe-is-I ways. It’s not Janet Jackson’s finest or definitive moment, and it feels like a bit of let down, considering the talent involved, but it’s an important song nonetheless.

The brightest song in the package is “Make Me,” a tremendous disco song. Harking back to classic Janet Jackson the song features fine, tight percussion and a clipped speed that recalls some of her greatest dance music of the 1980s and 1990s. It also feels like a sweet tribute to her late brother (she recalls his hit “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” throughout the song). Like with the high points of Discipline, “Make Me” is the kind of music that Jackson should be concentrated on.

 

 

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Gwen Stefani responds to her divorce with a shiny pop record – ‘This Is What the Truth Feels Like’ – a review

This Is What The Truth Feels LikeGwen Stefani’s status as pop star has taken a back seat to her current high profile gig as one of the hosts of The Voice as well as tabloid fodder given her recent divorce from Bush singer/guitarist Gavin Rossdale as well as her even more-recent coupling with Voice co-host Blake Shelton. But Ms. Stefani is trying to right that with the release of This Is What the Truth Feels Like, her third solo outing and first in 10 years. She hasn’t exactly been silent in that decade: there was the mild success of a No Doubt reunion record, Push and Shove, in 2012, and there were a couple singles that didn’t do anything on the charts. But judging from the sounds and collaborators on This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani was carefully keeping an eye on an industry she ruled so easily 10 years ago.

It’d be tempting to call this her “breakup” record – and she does include songs that may allude to the end of her marriage. But that’d be too simple. Stefani is far too savvy a pop star, and instead has crafted a big-budgeted monstrosity that will appeal to all kinds of markets – she crams synthpop, dance, rap, dancehall, AC, pop, and disco in one album, and to her credit (well, to the credit of the small army of songwriters and producers tasked to make this thing), the album sounds cohesive and neat.

One of the smartest things Stefani did was allow her sound to grow, but not depart too much from her signature music. In the past, she has found success in trashy, ridiculous bits of pop like “Hollaback Girl” and “Wind It Up.” Her lyrics were often schoolyard/jump rope chants shouted over processed beats. With This Is What the Truth Feels Like, Stefani hews closer to the “Don’t Speak” chanteuse, wearing her broken heart on her sleeve. In the process, she’s come out with a surprisingly compelling record.

The album’s opener “Misery” is a a standout and a great way to open the record. Stefani’s vocals are rueful and sad, and the music itself is a great harkback to 80s synthpop, complete with dramatic choruses, echoes, and crashing drums. The song is also moody and sounds like something The Cure or Depeche Mode would’ve turned down as too mainstream or too pop. Like “Misery,” “Truth” is another soul-baring song that glides on shiny, pop-perfect production. “Used to Love You” is also another tear-stained synthy pop number that has Stefani’s gulping vocals recall heartbreak and heartache.

But it’s not all sadness and gloom. First and foremost, Stefani is a pop star. The album’s lead single “Make Me Like You” is an excellent disco number that will remind folks of the MTV-era Stefani. It’s a roller rink number that moves briskly with some nifty guitar licks swirling synthesizers. It recalls 70s-era dance music in the best way, without sounding derivative or musty.

Not all of the record works – “Naughty” is a loud mess with off-putting vocals and Stefani’s ill-advised penchant for spitting rhymes and “Red Flag” has the same issue (though the crawling, buzzy synthesizer is pretty cool). And Stefani’s voice is an acquired taste: it can be fun and pleasant, but it can also sound honking and shrill (this is especially true in the more novelty-like numbers). When she’s practicing restraint, she can sound lovely, but too often, she adopts a yucky brashness that can be very off putting.

In the end, though This Is What the Truth Feels Like does what it sets out to do: provide a nice, comfy home for some catchy singles that should extend Stefani’s chart reign. Gwen Stefani was never a particularly innovative artist, nor was she really all that transgressive. Her music has always been fun dance music, so it’s nice to see her noodle a bit with her successful formula to do something a bit more substantial.

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Cyndi Lauper’s new country album ‘Detour’ is just that – a detour

For the past few years, Cyndi Lauper has used her studio albums to play around with different genres, moving away from the New Wave-influenced pop that made her a star in the 1980s. Since 2003, the singer-songwriter has released a string of albums that had her experiment with styles of different styles of music: At Last had Lauper dip her toe into the American songbook; Bring Ya to the Brink recast Lauper as a disco diva; and Memphis Blues gave the singer an opportunity to demonstrate her blues chops.

With Detour, Cyndi Lauper yet again tries on a different musical persona: this time it’s country diva. For some the Queens-reared Lauper with her infectious Queens squawk may seem an ill fit for country music. But one thing we know by now is that Lauper is a serious talent – the woman can sing anything.

And for her country music debut, Lauper assembled a collection of country-western standards, instead of opting for the more-predictable choice of getting a batch of new songs written for her. The breadth of the music here is impressive: she takes on Wanda Jackson, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Skeeter Davis, and Dolly Parton, among others.

“Funnel of Love” is a perfect opener. The original by Wanda Jackson is a rock-a-billy classic with a raspy, sassy vocal performance. Lauper has always flirted with rock-a-billy (her band Blue Angel was heavily-influenced by rock-a-billy), and so the choice is fantastic. Mimicking some of the original song’s strangeness, Lauper also injects some of her eccentric persona into the song (she punctuates some of the verses with her patented vocal hiccups). The band behind her create a sympathetic and credible background for her to vamp.

Joining country icon Emmylou Harris, Lauper takes the swinging “Detour” and makes it her own. Harris may seem like a strange companion for Lauper, as her singing style – crystalline, ethereal, wounded – clashes with Lauper’s idiosyncratic style, but it somehow manages to work. They don’t attempt anything close to harmony, but Harris does some of her most forceful singing, and though the song feels like a novelty, it works in spite of itself. When paired with another legend, Willie Nelson, Lauper unintentionally steamrolls over his more laid back, conversational vocals with her showy belt and the song feels awkward and rushed.

“Misty Blue” is a lovely waltz that allows for Lauper to tug at her listeners heartstrings, something she does beautifully. “The End of the World” is a highlight – not surprisignly, since the original owed more to pop than country. And few can convey yearning the way Lauper can, especially when she stretches a note and her voice shifts and creaks into a heartbreaking crack. “Begging to You” with its gorgeous steel guitar, gives Lauper the opportunity to play the role of the heartbroken chanteuse, which she does superbly. Listeners will marvel as she does an incredible job of mimicking Patsy Cline on “I Fall to Pieces” – at times it’s eerie how close the sounds to the country legend. And when she joins Alison Krauss on Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” she indulges in some heart-stopping vocal riffs – it’s a sad song, one of Parton’s saddest, and Krauss’ angelic twill matches well with Lauper’s more forceful voice. Given that Lauper’s forte is singing about bruised hearts and sad times, “Hard Candy Christmas” fits her like a glove, and it’s only a wonder why she took so long to cover it.

As good as Detour is, there are moments when the album’s good intentions collapse under the weight of Lauper’s kooky persona. “Walkin’ After Midnight” is a misfire, Lauper’s campy persona clashing with the song, that benefited from Cline’s husky phrasing. “Heartaches by the Number” is another exercise in what feels like a joke – a preternaturally-talented singer who planted herself on stage at some honky tonk and is condescending the audience with some C&W drag. And “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” feels like silly filler.

It’s when she takes on an intentionally-funny song like “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” that Lauper’s outsider persona works best, because the song itself is a bit of a weirdo. The song – a country version of The Lockhorns – is a duel between a married couple who rag on each, but love each other, in spite of their mutual hideousness. The original was sung by Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, and included a great spoken verse that had the two snipe at each with Lynn sniffing that she looked like a movie star, to which Twitty retorted, “Ruth Buzzi” (a cruel joke, given that Buzzi was pretty). In Detour, Lauper spars with Vince Gill and do a bang up job – and thankfully, the spoken verse on their version doesn’t go after a contemporary female celebrity, and instead, the two riff, aping something more akin to Al and Peg Bundy from Married….with Children.

So while her country record doesn’t signal a new direction for her, it does show a solid skill for interpreting any kind of material. Her fine renditions won’t make listeners forget about the originals, but they may introduce curious Lauper fans to classic country music.

 

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