Wednesday, July 15, 2009

12 Records & Artists of 1989

1989 was an advent of change for popular music culture. Vinyl records were slowly being phased out of existence, outside of a DJing context. Cassette tapes had quickly usurped vinyl as the “go to” approach for convenience in music listening, but cassettes were in danger of being surpassed by the compact disc.

Launched in August of 1981, MTV completely changed how music reached listeners and viewers, producing an entire crop of artists who were grown in the music video medium. Hip-hop was ascending from cult stature to something far more important, while the “Second Summer of Love” spilled from English shores to clubs the world over. R&B had again mutated as it had earlier in the 1980’s, this time it morphed into something harder, sleeker, at times grittier, it was a formidable sound called “new jack swing.”

Through all of these changes 12 recording artists shined at the close of the 1980’s. Some of these individuals were established, trying to reignite interest in their work for a new generation. There were others who were trying to secure a legacy outside of their ‘80’s genesis and some were just getting started. The records these artists released varied in critical, commercial, and creative arenas, but each album furthered respective legacies.

Quality is what tied all these records together, making them the exception to the rule of mediocrity in the music of 1989. Exploring what made these records special will identify why they continue to inspire and attract new listeners 20 years later.

De La Soul

3 Feet High and Rising
(March 1989, Tommy Boy)

Hip-hop was still an unpredictable art form when a trio of Long Islander’s released their debut in 1989. 3 Feet High and Rising revealed that hip-hop wasn’t limited to braggadocio or partying, but addressed varying ideas like any other genre of music could. Handsomely compelling MCs, with one bad DJ: Posdnuos (Kelvin Mercer), Trugoy (Dave Jolicouer), and Maseo (Vincent Mason) strikingly wove in elements of throwback soul and jazz, taking sampling to a new level. Cuts like “Eye Know” and “Me, Myself, and I” are now identified as living hip-hop archetypes, this type of conceptual approach in hip-hop hadn’t been done. De La Soul soon became figures for the forefront of the “socially conscious” hip-hop movement from this release onward.

Recent Work: The Grind Date (2004, Sanctuary)


Like a Prayer
(March 1989, Warner Bros.)

Not as creatively successful in its forward trajectory as True Blue (1986), from a singles standpoint Like a Prayer was a winner. The singles were solid pop constructs built on top of an already laid foundation of musical momentum. The rock/gospel explosiveness of the title track or the soul-lite treats of “Express Yourself” and “Cherish” demonstrated Madonna’s ear for musicality, songwriting, and her growing improvement as a singer. Like a Prayer did have its seductive moments outside of its released output; the Latin fueled “Spanish Eyes” was a highlight. It gave hope that Madonna would return to crafting albums that spun out singles and album tracks, which of course she did.

Recent Work: Hard Candy (2008, Warner Bros.)

Donna Summer

Another Place and Time
(April 1989, Atlantic)

After spending the 1980’s flexing her artistic muscles, Donna Summer sought pure pop simplicity on her 14th album, Another Place and Time. Produced by S.A.W. (Stock, Aitken, & Waterman), the production trio behind the successes of Rick Astley, Dead or Alive, Bananarama, and Kylie Minogue. S.AW. placed Summer’s unmistakable presence in inescapable pop hooks and melodies where she brought deeper dimensions to the hits “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Wanna Get Hurt,” regarded highly by Summer devotees and casuals alike.

Recent Work: Crayons (2008, Burgundy/Song BMG)

Cyndi Lauper

A Night to Remember
(May 1989, Epic)

Lauper’s third album ditched her image-led ditziness to embrace an inner songwriter that had tried to surface on her first and second albums. Without question, Lauper as a vocalist had been proven and with a steelier batch of songs to support it, her voice soared. The glorious rock epic “I Drove All Night” set her version of that song in stone, just as powerful was her hand at the sparkling romance of the title track. A Night to Remember was the stage Lauper used to be more than an ‘80’s flash in the pan, but rather one of the leading lights it produced.

Recent Work: Bring Ya to the Brink (2008, Epic)

Jody Watley

Larger Than Life
(May 1989, MCA)

Watley’s sophomore set upped the ante started on her eponymous debut from 1987. Firmer and groovier in its execution, it set her own blueprint for R&B reinvention that carriedy her into the next two decades. Larger Than Life divided deftly between dance funk, and love songs while blowing open what was a burgeoning trend. Chaka Khan with Melle Mel (“I Feel For You,” '84), Rene & Angela with Kurtis Blow (“Save Your Love,” '85) were the first collisions of hip-hop and R&B, though Jody Watley added her take to this movement. Working alongside hip-hop titans Eric B. & Rakim on “Friends,” a tale of true friendship in the “me” decade, it became one of Watley’s biggest hits. Watley wasn’t just an urban diva, she was the urban diva and Larger Than Life evidenced this.

Recent Work: The Makeover (2006, Avitone)


(May 1989, Warner Bros.)

Serving as a bookend collection of sounds to a decade Prince helped define; Batman was also a tie-in soundtrack to Tim Burton’s smash hit film of the same name. Prince’s sexy, kooky Minneapolis attitude was on display on the searing flash of “Electric Chair” to the goof-funk of “Trust.” After several conceptually led albums, it was nice to hear Prince simply get loose. Prince coasted comfortably and Batman succeeded in being a Prince record that had all his fun tricks with none of the frills.

Recent Work: LOtUSFLOW3R/MPLSoUND (2009, NPG)

Swing Out Sister

Kaleidoscope World
(May 1989, Fontana)

Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell were anomalies in 1989. Inspired and sounding like the peerless lounge, jazz, and pop of the halcyon '60s era, they didn’t necessarily fit into the mainstream on either side of the Atlantic. Regardless, this British duo crafted an immaculate and stronger effort in their sophomore set Kaleidoscope World.  Lyrical affirmations and moody portraits of love and life conflicts colored in sumptuous orchestral backdrops. With Drewery providing vocals and Connell arranging, this duo could do no wrong when it came to doing what they did best.

Recent Work: Beautiful Mess (2008/2009, Avex Trax)

Gloria Estefan

Cuts Both Ways
(July 1989, Epic)

Gloria Estefan catapulted to fame with floorfillers like “Dr. Beat,” “Conga,” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” as a member of the Miami Sound Machine. They'd break ground by infusing authentic Latin rhythms and melodies with contemporary pop and dance music. Estefan herself flowed well with the ballads “Words Get in the Way,” “Can’t Stay Away From You,” and “Anything for You” all written by her. Stepping out exclusively on her own, with the Miami Sound Machine still behind her, Cuts Both Ways straddled the poles of adult contemporary and uptempo pop. Estefan’s songwriting featured prominently on the whole record, and Cuts Both Ways has become a fan favorite in the process with hits like “Don’t Wanna Lose You” and “Get on Your Feet.”

Recent Work: 90 Millas (2007, Burgundy/Song BMG)

Janet Jackson

Rhythm Nation 1814
(September 1989, A&M)

After the self-identified freedom of her third album, Control (1986), many didn’t know what avenue Jackson embark to next. She continued to make room to dance and celebrate, but did turn an eye to societal concerns with her fourth album. Working alongside constant producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Rhythm Nation was sculpted from the heated trends in black music. Its message focused stance didn't always cooperate, but when it did, as on the funky attack of “The Knowledge” or the breeziness of “Love Will Never Do (Without You),” this album cemented Jackson’s icon status. It can’t go without saying that those unconvinced of Jackson’s singing abilities were left speechless with “Miss You Much,” and “Someday Is Tonight.”

Recent Work: Discipline (2008, Island Def Jam)

Lenny Kravitz

Let Love Rule
(September 1989, Virgin)

Predating the retro cool of the 1990’s, Lenny Kravitz didn’t hide his love of Led Zepplin, The Beatles, and Sly and the Family Stone as Let Love Rule ran in the same vein as those acts. Kravitz did put his twist on his childhood heroes, as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist. Passionate on the fuzzy vintage title track or oozing devil-may-care on “Mr. Cab Driver,” Kravitz’s music was clearly here to stay, but it took a few more records for him to internalize his love of past music heroe and find his own voice later.

Recent Movement: It Is Time for a Love Revolution (2008, Virgin)

Kylie Minogue

Enjoy Yourself
(October 1989, PWL/Mushroom/Geffen)

Out of all the S.A.W. acts, Kylie Minogue went onto achieve massive recognition, barring America, globally rivaling only Madonna. With her second album Enjoy Yourself, Minogue dished the same doe-eyed froth that made her debut Kylie (1987) so catchy and possibly irritating to some. Enjoy Yourself was a weaker record than Kylie, its singles key to its appeal. The tarty “Never Too Late,” and sing-along shimmer of “Hand on Your Heart” found Mingoue with a pleasantly unique voice all her own. Thankfully, the only way to go was up and each following record built on the merely playful backbone of Enjoy Yourself’s singles.

Recent Work: X (2007/2008, Parlophone/Capitol)

Lisa Stansfield

(November 1989, BMG/Arista)

Ms. Stansfield didn't reach our shores until early 1990, she began her British reign in the winter of 1989. Probably the finest example of blue-eyed soul excellence since her American predecessor Teena Marie, Affection was modern and classic in its compositions and vocalizing. The mournful, shuffler of “All Around the World” became an instant anthem, coupled with the spiky “What Did I Do to You," and coy “You Can’t Deny It” sealed the deal for Stansfield. Affection placed Stansfield’s voice, beautiful and potent, within the pantheon of blue-eyed vocalists forever.

Recent Work: The Moment (2004, ZTT)

Music, true music, is forever timeless. It is not limited to ideas and concepts such as “old school” or “new school,” it is far more universal and pervading than that. Records like these reflect the current tastes in popular music at that particular period, however each artist present went into these albums with a specific goal. That goal was that the record would sound as fresh and engaging outside of its period of creation. All of these records have achieved this and each of the artists featured here continue to maintain a presence today, building on an already alloyed fanbase.

In 2009, we are again at such a crossroads of change in music, will this era produce acts and albums that will hold up? We’ll have to wait and see what time will reveal, in the meantime one can enjoy these classics until we know.

[Editor's Note: Written by Quentin Harrison (me) in the July 15th-21st, 2009 issue of The Dayton City Paper. Main art created by Brenda L. Mullins, art co-conceived by Ms. Mullins & Mr. Harrison. Special thanks to Jody Watley for providing artwork & believing.-QH]

Monday, July 6, 2009

Still "Off the Wall" 30 Years Later, Michael Jackson's Masterpiece

Music was the reflection of Michael Jackson. It was with this music that he enraptured us in life and lives on past his untimely passing. Many have tried to pry apart the music from the man while peering at his legacy, this has proven to be an impossible task. An important anniversary proves this without fail. The progenitor to Thriller (1982) and his later albums, Off the Wall (1979) on August 10th, 2009 turns exactly 30 years old. This album launched Jackson into the stratosphere of music evolution, and in Jackson's mind, had been years in the making.

Clearly not satisfied with the pleasant, but diminutive solo output during his Motown tenure, now at Epic Records Jackson sought to make an impact worth remembering outside of the context of being a charter member of The Jacksons. Enter Quincy Jones, the production maestro Jackson worked with on the film adaption of The Wiz two years prior. Hitting it off personally and professionally, each had a unified vision for what became Off the Wall, Jackson's fifth overall long player.

It was 1979, the year disco, a dance offshoot of R&B, had taken hold of the mainstream music world after years of amassing power in the underground. With Jones and Jackson in head of production, they drew together a collection of talent that criss-crossed songwriters, session musicians, and singers.

Writers Rod Temperton (Donna Summer, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Heatwave), Paul McCartney (of The Beatles), Carole Bayer Sager (The Carpenters, Phyllis Hyman, Diana Krall), Stevie Wonder, and former Wonderlove and Supreme Susaye Green all brought special songs to the proceedings.

The musicians, also integral, boasted talent like George Duke, Greg Phillinganes, Louis Johnson (of The Brothers Johnson), Jerry Hey, John Robinson (the drummer from Rufus), and David Foster were some of the figures present.

Everyone drew together on a synergistic note to propel Michael Jackson into the pumping pulse of contemporary disco and R&B, without making him a slave to it. Off the Wall fit into the period perfectly and outlived it as well. The preciseness of Jones' R&B know-how, complimented Jackson's exuberance, making the album enjoyably addictive with each listen.

Danceable, groovy, and downtempo elements all cohered on Off the Wall. The bursting "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" was filled to the brim with cascading strings, throbbing bass, varied percussive elements. Through all of this, Jackson whooped, crooned, and sang his heart out. The vibrancy that characterized the searing "Get On the Floor" and "Workin' Day & Night" was muscular instead of the prototypical R&B macho-fuel that drove a few of Jackson's male colleagues. The springy "Rock With You" further found Jackson well-mannered, but not any less enthused.

The arrangements stayed succulent on the slow jams side too. Quaint and sparse described the poignant "She's Out of My Life," a staple for decades in Jackson's live shows. Partnered with Jones' goddaughter, Patti Austin, she and Jackson duetted on the valentine "It's the Falling in Love." Here you hear Jackson humoring some of the last bit of his Motown innocence. The mesmeric "I Can't Help It," penned by the aforementioned team of Wonder and Green, was a living, breathing lush sound of romantic proportions.

If Thriller was the visual and crossover watermark for Jackson, Off the Wall was the pre-MTV, pre-crossover solidification of Michael Jackson as a modern, R&B magus. Off the Wall when released on August 10th, 1979 was an immediate win across the board.

Five singles were released, with the first four reigning as Jackson standards. All four singles were U.S. Top 10 hits, a first in American music history. Off the Wall also gave Jackson his first solo Grammy win in 1980 for "Best Male R&B Vocal Performance" for "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough." The record would certify platinum seven times in America and globally moved over 20 million copies. On October 21st, 2001 the record received a generous remastering, tacking on several demo tracks and interview segments with Rod Temperton and Quincy Jones.

"Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"
Directed By: Nick Saxton

I've always preferred Michael Jackson with an urban slant, his energized vocalizing sounded better against colorful R&B. While R&B's grit and groove was never too far from Jackson as he moved throughout the '80's, in the '90's and early '00's his work turned back to the hearty urban sound he started with. With Michael Jackson's tragic departure, celebration of his music is necessary. It was the medium he used to share joy with all of us. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Off the Wall is available at all music retailers: big box, indie, and online.-QH]

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Celebrating 20 Years of Texas

I first met and fell in love with Texas at 19, during the summer of 2004. Already a fan of various European exports in the form of the Spice Girls, Kylie Minogue, The Corrs, and Robbie Williams, Texas was a welcome addition to my growing collection.

Founded by Johnny McElhone in 1986, a former member of Hipsway and Altered Images, McElhone drew the Texas name from the Wim Wenders directed, Ry Cooder scored film Paris, Texas. Texas shot to fame with the biting urgency of "I Don't Want a Lover," from their debut Southside (1989) in the United Kingdom.

More than another hip '90's outfit, Texas is musical magic, and here is the tale of Texas, thus far...

1989-1993: Earthy Beginnings

Signed (still) with Mercury Records, Texas' debut recording Southside (1989) introduced the world to Sharleen Spiteri. A charismatic voice that was breathtaking. The band, Stuart Kerr (drums), Ally McErlaine (slide guitar), and Johnny McElhone (guitar/songwriter) constructed a solid sound of early-era U2 flavored rock with spacious country ambitions for Spiteri to soar atop. Off the strength of "I Don't Want a Lover," Southside shifted two million units in Britain alone.

1991's follow-up, the insistent Mothers Heaven fell victim to a fickle buying populace. Ricks Road alleviated some of the commercial tension when it released in 1993. The single "So Called Friend" became the theme to Ellen DeGeneres' TV show Ellen. Ricks Road drew from a similar well of blues, country, and rock like their two previous recordings. One key difference with Ricks Road factored into a tender cover of the Al Green classic, "Tired of Being Alone." The first seed of the blue-eyed revolution Texas was to utilize later surfaced on this song.

1997-2000: Blue-Eyed Soul Reigns

Texas' creative overhaul led to a burst in popularity across the board, partially in thanks to Spiteri's transformation from ingenue to confident front woman. McElhone and McErlaine became the only members from the original Texas line-up to stay intact as the band took on a revolving door aspect. Eddie Campbell, a keyboardist since 1991, also stayed with Texas throughout out its swaps.

Texas kept music at the fore and pulled off a major coup with White On Blonde (1997). Mingling alternative pop-rock with soul helped White On Blonde go platinum six times, securing Texas as darlings of the British realm.

Spiteri's growth as a singer was on display with the somber "Say What You Want" and epic "Halo." Texas' exploration of blue-eyed soul reached its zenith with The Hush (1999), their most accomplished record to date and the one that began my romance with them in the summer of 2004.

Taking the best from Philadelphia, Stax, and Motown they worked in those American sounds with a smooth European sheen. The Hush was downcast ("Day By Day"), sexy ("Summer Son"), and groovy ("Tell Me the Answer").

A retrospective followed a year later in 2000 with three new songs: "In Demand," "Inner Smile," and "Guitar Song." Anything cut before 1997 was given a "reworking" for the collection. Depending on the type of Texas fan, this either infuriated or excited. Notably absent was any material from Mothers Heaven.

2003-Present: Experiments & Hiatus

Dabbling in a bit of punk, dancehall, but with their rock soaked soul, Texas unleashed Careful What You Wish For (2003), their sixth LP, and first of original material since The Hush.

The album spawned a muted reaction amongst record buyers and critics. A thrilling, if mixed, bag of tricks in "Telephone X" and "Broken" kicked off the record on a hard note. "Telephone X" owed a debt to Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone," while "Broken" saw Spiteri flaunting her self-harmonies. The first single "Carnival Girl," with Kardinal Offishall, grated or delighted. Careful managed to be effective in stating that Texas would not rest on past laurels, even if the new ideas didn't always click.

Another year passed before Red Book (2005), their safe reach back to pop majesty ("Getaway") that recalled former glory. Dull patches like "Can't Resist" did mar the record unfortunately. Red Book recovered quickly on the sprawling duet "Sleep" with Paul Buchanan (of The Blue Nile) and the watercolor sadness of "Bad Weather." The record didn't fare better sales when compared to Careful What You Wish For, though many hailed it as a return to a "classic Texas" feel.

Texas took a sabbatical excusing their the live album The BBC Sessions  dropping in 2007. In 2008, Sharleen Spiteri issued Melody, her first solo album. The record performed modestly, whether or not its muted success will herald a Texas reunion is yet to be seen. Though favored by the college radios of the U.S.A. they never broke into our marketplace due to our auditory ignorance. Our loss as Texas executed refined pop like none other. One can hope for the Texas story to continue.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information on Texas visit,]