Sunday, December 27, 2009

The QH Blend's Records of 2009

2009 is pretty much done and it closes a bleak chapter on popular music. The 2000's wavered in its balance between quality and quantity, but that doesn't mean there wasn't good music in 2009. The 10 records that made the cut do so because they put the previously mentioned idea of quality first. Good music is always there, one may just have to look harder for it. Before I unveil my 10 "winning" selections, I want to share my 10 "runner-up" records of the year:

Best of the Rest of 2009

1. Nelly Furtado: Mi Plan (Universal/Nelstar)
2. Mos Def: The Ecstatic (Downtown)
3. a-ha: Foot of the Mountain (Universal/We Love Music)
4. N'Dambi: Pink Elephant (Stax)
5. Tori Amos: Abnormally Attracted to Sin (Universal Republic)
6. Backstreet Boys: This Is Us (Jive)
7. India.Arie: Testimony Volume 2: Love & Politics (Universal Republic)
8. Mariah Carey: Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (Island/Def Jam)
9. Basia: It's That Girl Again (Koch)
10.Teena Marie: Congo Square (Stax)

The QH Blend's Records of 2009

10. Whitney Houston: I Look to You (Arista)

Those expecting a halfbaked comeback will be surprised by the tasteful, vogue settings Ms. Houston utilized for her sixth studio album. Seven years after Just Whitney, Houston displayed vocal prowess injecting vitality into deluxe ballads and a few upbeat numbers. (Notable Track: "Call You Tonight")

9. Vanessa Williams: The Real Thing (Concord)

Vanessa Williams' velvet toned R&B/pop has only appreciated in value through the years and is articulated nicely on The Real Thing. Splicing classic chestnuts and newly minted material together over pastel sound palettes is style with substance. (Notable Track: "Hello Like Before")

8. Q-Tip: Kamaal The Abstract (Battery)

Set for release in 2002, Q-Tip's second record was shelved, deemed to be too much of an artistic sucker punch to mainstream hip-hop's paunch. The intelligentsia force of Kamaal was unearthed this year, demonstrating the witty and insurrectionist attitude Q-Tip has made his calling card. (Notable Track: "Feelin")

7. Annie: Don't Stop (Smalltown Supersound)

Annie's Don't Stop is a miscellany of influences that crash into one another, creating juicy grooves. Annie's voice, previously a glossy, sopoforic wisp has filled out in all the right areas, blithe and commanding. (Notable Track: "I Don't Like Your Band")

6. Zap Mama: ReCreation (Heads Up)

Zap Mama (Marie Daulne) has made another all-embracing world music farrago, unparalleled in her appetites in jazz, hip-hop, funk, and Euro-pop. Daulne's strange singing sews these mentioned genres together in a quilt-like fashion. Notable Track: ("Non, Non, Non")

5. Amerie: In Love & War (Island/Def Jam/Feenix)

Amerie's fourth long player bridges the divide between commercial convention and her "chi-chi" experiments that Amerie is renowned for. That lemon piquant voice pumps with sass, but can frost songs with sadness when needed. Overall, the album is a sprightly affair, confirming Amerie's status as R&B's artsy darling. (Notable Track: "Tell Me You Love Me")

4. Chris Brown: Graffiti (Jive)

Chris Brown's temerity for edging forward in his sound should be praised. Graffiti juggles seductive inamorato boasts, incendiary confessions, and glowering club bangers. The true star is Brown's vocal and lyrical progression, his whiz-kid precision makes Graffiti an adroit junior album. (Notable Track: "I'll Go")

3. Natalie Imbruglia: Come to Life (Malabar/Universal)

Imbruglia's distinct brand of alternative pop is some of best in its arena. On her fourth record, and first on her own independent label, Imbruglia wastes no time resting. Come to Life recreates her ballads and adds a few electronic twists for a pop maverick feel on the latter half of the album. (Notable Track: "Wild About It")

2. Joss Stone: Colour Me Free! (EMI)

Continuing to defy the narrower classifications of "blue-eyed soul,"  Joss Stone serves up another piece de resistance of gutsy, luxurious music. The task of outdoing her third record is met with consistent studio polish that doesn't sand away Stone's grit. (Notable Track: "Could Have Been You")

1. Mandy Moore: Amanda Leigh (Storefront)

A decade makeover in the process, Ms. Moore is indisputably this decade's leading female singer songwriter thanks to Amanda Leigh. Studying Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, and Carole King, Moore has added her own lyrics and gossamer voice to the folk-pop medium. Moore's album is all heart, presented on the stage of fine musicianship. (Notable Track: "Merrimack River")-QH

[Editor's Note: Special thanks to Andrew Bird for the art & enthusiasm on the project.-QH]

Monday, December 7, 2009

Chris Brown's Messy Masterpiece: "Graffiti"

Graffiti is an appropriate summation of Chris Brown as an artist thus far. Born of contemporary street culture, it can appear disposable. Further examination shows graffiti as an art like any other.

This is Chris Brown. A contemporary hustler at a glance, peel back the surface to discover swirls of Michael Jackson and Usher (think "U Remind Me"). Imagine what Graffiti, Chris Brown's third outing, would have been without the fallout from his domestic abuse incident with R&B-pop waif Rihanna. No one can know, but Graffiti is an album of modernist R&B properties. Brown manages to address his recent ills and push Graffiti forward outside of that context. He trademarks his uptempo vigor on the future funk of "I Can Transform Ya," featuring producer Swizz Beatz, and rap urchin Lil' Wayne. "Wait," a jangly groover is sure to reverberate through any and all car speakers in the approaching 2010 summer season. "Sing Like Me" is Brown at his bedroom best whereas "Famous Girl," a colorful shuffler, hides a bittersweet sentiment lyrically. That sentiment appears readily on "Crawl," a highlight where Brown emotionally stretches his legs.

Brown takes tentative steps on the verses toward the explosive imploring chorus: "If we crawl, till we can walk again, then we'll run until we're strong enough to jump. Then we'll fly, until there is no end. So lets crawl, crawl, crawl, back to love." " The lonely "Fallin' Down" displays a healthy amount of vulnerability and "I'll Go" nearly matches "Crawl" in intensity. A deluxe edition includes six additional songs, all surprisingly sturdy. On "I Love U," one can hear Brown's boyish smile riding the goofy, romantic accordion sample.

Stumbles do crop up on Graffiti with the clumsy "Pass Out" and the semi-spellcaster "Take My Time." Both songs feature unneeded collaborations (Eva Simmons and Tank), Brown can carry his own album. Brown's statement in "Lucky Me," "I'm finally becoming a man, now I've got a bigger show to do," has him facing a difficult transition into adulthood. That Brown is willing to share the bumpy journey makes Graffiti's softer sides real.

Directed By: Joseph Kahn

Graffiti, like the aforementioned art and Chris Brown are not perfect. Perfection isn't the aim, instead Graffiti wins in its mixture of confidence and curiosity. Look for more from Chris Brown in the future, a work in progress. Four stars out of five.-QH

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Natalie Imbruglia Comes to Life on New LP

Natalie Imbruglia shot up like a wildflower in 1997 with her  engaged cover of the little known Ednaswap song "Torn," pulled from her debut Left of the Middle. Ms. Imbruglia fit right in with the other women working the alternative pop stance that was popular and crowded in the mid-to-late 1990's. Imbruglia's real voice laid ready to catch fire under the less ambitious material of her debut.

After the start of a new decade, Ms. Imbruglia finally caught that fire on her sophomore recording White Lilies Island (2002). Imbruglia's voice and songwriting now had endless, and worthy, sonic walls to bounce off of.  Her third album Counting Down the Days (2005) bathed itself in romantic splendor, supported by the successful single "Shiver."

2007 saw the arrival of her hits set Glorious: The Singles '97-'07, with four new tracks rumored to be from a shelved fourth record. Those songs betrayed an interest in electronic infusion to her rock and pop, something that came to fruition on this newest endeavor. Via the indie imprint label Malabar Records, distributed by Island/Def Jam and Universal Records, Imbruglia's fourth LP Come to Life is close to brilliance.

Alongside a stellar set of talent, Imbruglia went to work on the creative collisions collected on Come to Life:  Brian Eno (U2), Ben Hillier (Depeche Mode, Blur), Chris Martin (front man of Coldplay), Daniel Johns (front man of Silverchair, former husband), Gary Clark (Melanie C, Cathy Dennis, Liz Phair). "My God," "Lukas," "Fun," "Twenty," and "Scars" come from the grounded, progressive colors Imbruglia painted in on her past records. This time the edges are sharper, cleaner, but still organic. "My God" bubbles with intertwined guitar and keyboard as Imbruglia burns intensely as never before.

"Lukas" is a bittersweet take on "Our Last Summer" ABBA-esque story telling and is Imbruglia's grandest moment. "Scars," incredibly human, is a picturesque revelation: "I climbed the walls, you hit the bars, I am from Venus, you are from Mars, you got your brand new friends, and I got a broken heart. Doesn't matter who we are, everyone has their scars." "Scars" is the portrait of heartbreak for the recently divorced Imbruglia

"WYUT," "Cameo," "All the Roses," and "Wild About It" make up the second half of the album and sport Imbruglia's electro threads. "WYUT" gets too close to power pop for the demure Imbruglia, but she grabs the wheel of the song to guide it. "Cameo's" sex and salt isn't dissimilar to the appeal of "Wild About It." The latter, Imbruglia's most galvanizing song, is a springy number with a fantastic chorus climax. On "Wild About It," the sound of exploratory freedom is heard ringing. "Want" acts as the portal between both sides of the album, combining old and new Imbruglia. It interpolated an established highlight, "Be With You," one of the new tracks from her 2007 retrospective, its first verse appearing boldly in "Want's" middle eight. Through it all, the mannered, emotive Imbruglia makes the cut intimate.

Directed By: Diane Martel

Come to Life is satisfying from start to finish, making its muted commercial fortune frustrating. The record is set to get a physical release in Britain in January 2010. Currently it's available only in  digital form there. The album could also get an American release in February, her first since White Lilies Island. The continued growth shown here indicates Natalie Imbruglia's flame has not only "come to life," but will burn for years to come. Four and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Come to Life is available as an import, varying in price, at your local independent music retailers. For more information on Natalie Imbruglia, visit:]