Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The QH Blend's Best in Music of 2010

The QH Blend Proudly Presents: The Best Music of 2010

The Records of 2010: Movement One

#1 V.V. Brown's Travelling Like the Light (Capitol/EMI)
It's hard to be a black pop singer, thankfully her debut Travelling Like the Light makes her case well. With a voice that smooths out the feel-good "Shark in the Water," is quirky on "Quick Fix," and balmy with "Bottles," Brown never hesitates in artistically stating what pop music can still do.

#2 Scissor Sisters' Night Work (Polydor)
The Scissor Sisters are nothing if persistent. Following behind 2006's Ta-Dah!, Night Work arrived like a heady rush. The laser thump-a-thump on the title track is instantly hypnotic, making short work of resisting the charm of Night Work. There is even space for pretty, anthem-driven pop in "Fire with Fire" and "Skin Tight." The unrepentant party record of the year is a must listen.

#3. Macy Gray's The Sellout (Concord)
Gray has surpassed several of her neo-soul counterparts, who shall remain nameless for the sake of comment box controversy. The Sellout, Gray's fifth opus, saw her return to her songwriting after a stylish detour on BIG (2007). Gray still has plenty to rhapsodize about and whether it's heartbreak ("Let You Win"), global group hugs ("Beauty in the World"), or her own psyche ("Help Me") she reigns it in with the best experimental sounds in contemporary R&B.

#4. Katie Melua's The House (Dramatico)
Katie Melua's The House is her moment to step forward into a larger creative space. While most of England (and Europe) know her prior pastel toned pop, teaming with William Orbit only strengthened her strengths and dropped in surprises. Murder ballads rub elbows with world music pop, but her torch material still remains epic.

#5. Adriana Evans' Walking with the Night (Expansion)
While most will know Ms. Evans as the cool voice behind the theme of LOGO's black gay drama Noah's Arc, Adriana Evans fifth long player Walking with the Night demands wider exposure. An alluring splish splash of hip-hop, bossa nova, and jazz are for the unlocking for the uninitiated or the Evans head in the know.

#6. Robyn's Body Talk (Cherry Tree/Konichiwa/Interscope)
An ambitious project proceeded by two EP's before the final product landed this month, Swede popper Robyn slays any doubters with her fifth album Body Talk. Equal amounts of brashness ("Fembot") and sweaty house chops ("None of Dem"), Robyn does it all.

#7. Erykah Badu's New Amerykah: Return of the Ankh (Universal Motown)
The first part of the New Amerykah series, 4th World War (2008), leaned on the external, political themes. On the second chapter, Badu looks inward and rocks her inner soul glow. A summery smorgasbord of R&B with that kooky Badu flavor makes this album her the most accessible since Baduism (1997) or World Wide Underground (2004).

#8. Kylie Minogue's Aphrodite (Parlophone)
Yes, we can feel her in our stereos and Minogue's Aphrodite is an effective taste of European pop. There are plenty of clubbers that will be filling floors but the "quieter" cuts such as "Illusion" and "Closer" will bewitch too. "Better Than Today" almost steals the show with its exuberance, one of her best since "2 Hearts."

#9. Kelis' Fleshtone (will.i.am music group/Interscope)
R&B artists are only allowed a certain degree of experimental freedom, as long as it doesn't veer too far from the code of rhythm and blues ethics. In a daring maneuver, Kelis threw herself headfirst in the electronic arena on Fleshtone. Far from an easy ride, Fleshtone requires the listener to take a journey through a kinetic garden of diverse, jarring sounds.

#10. Seal's Seal 6: Commitment (Warner Brothers)
Seal stumbled on 2008's Soul, his first standards set, and a blundered opportunity to put his mark on that time honored tradition. Then again, after creating five masterpieces prior to Soul, one can forgive him. He regains his footing and presents his best vocal work on Seal 6: Commitment. The backdrops are soul-pop heartthrobs with a nod toward the honey and clover of "Best of Me."

Runner-Up Records of 2010: Second Movement

#1. Toni Braxton's Pulse (Atlantic)
Braxton has been in the business of crafting expert R&B records since 1992. Her sixth long player Pulse is no exception. Balancing between tasteful contemporary spins ("Lookin' At Me") and classic soul ("No Way"), Pulse is crafted to Braxton's velvet voice.

#2. KT Tunstall's Tiger Suit (Virgin)
 Since her debut Eye to the Telescope (2004/2005), Tunstall has added different genres to her folkloric presence. Tiger Suit  borrows from a few electronic whizzers and whirrers, as heard on "Glamour Puss." Rejuvenating versus radical, Suit excites with tribalism on "Uummannaq Song" and chills on the tear inducing "Lost."

#3. Chrisette Michele's Let Freedom Reign (Def Jam)
Let Freedom Reign, La Michele's junior effort, is spangled, modern R&B. Expanding on her past step into a more commercial air with Epiphany (2009), Reign's confidence ("I'm a Star") is buoyed by sincere pleas and confessions ("I Know Nothing").

#4. Corinne Bailey Rae's The Sea (EMI)
With Rae's sophomore outing The Sea, Rae took her husband's untimely death and used it constructively. An aural spread of vintage soul, Rae's flower print vocal rends on "I'd Do It All Again." There is room for healing and celebration in the new romance of "Paris Nights/New York Mornings."

#5. Sade's Soldier of Love (Epic)
Bleak in contrast to the warmer Lovers' Rock (2000), Soldier of Love is a work of art in its own right. Sade and Co. prove that they can still lay on the grooves that translate the dusty voiced approach of their lead singer beautifully.

#6. Goldfrapp's HeadFirst (Mute)
Marking their 10th year in recording, Will Gregory (a modern day Dave Stewart) works synthesizers to Alison Goldfrapp's glacial sing song voice. Refusing to be pigeonholed Goldfrapp have placed themselves in the keyboard fault lines from Van Halen's '84 power rocker "Jump" with a few Euro kicks.

#7. Shakira's Sale El Sol (Epic)
Last year, Shakira almost had the gold on her sixth record She Wolf. The title track along with "Men in This Town" and "Gypsy" ranked as Shakira's best work. Sale El Sol, her first Spanish project since Fijación Oral Volumes 1 & 2 (2005), courts the energy of the mentioned trio of She-Wolf cuts over an entire record.

#8. Hanson's Shout It Out (3CG)
Damn it all if Hanson hasn't been behind some of the most creatively fertile albums since people wrote them off after 2000's  This Time Around. Hanson makes like the Jackson 5 heading to Epic Records in the mid-'70's and puts down funk-lite, horn kissed music that is all played, sung, and performed earnestly.

#9. Hot Chip's One Life Stand (EMI)
Obtuse British dance acts aren't necessarily rare. Hot Chip claim to fame is a special ingredient they infuse to their oddly appealing electro: Alexis Taylor. The lead vocalist of the outfit, Taylor's clipped, cool, and unorthodox calm elevates One Life Stand.

#10. Jamiroquai's Rock Dust Light Star (Universal)
The title brings to mind a funkier brilliance than given here. Not that what is on this long player is lacking, it reworks the same '70's R&B passions Jamiroquai have been known for since 1993. "Blue Skies" sweeps and tempo ascendancy is heard on "She's a Fast Persuader."

[Editor's Note: A thank you to Andrew Bird for his amazing art and Darren Spence for coming through in a tight spot. Much love to you both.-QH]

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Spice Girls "Forever": 10 Years Later

At the dawn of the last decade, the Spice Girls were the biggest female group in the world. Launching out of Britain in 1996, they used an irresistible brew of personality, music, and marketing savvy to pierce the global consciousness in a way few acts could or would.

Surviving the untimely exodus of member Geri "Ginger Spice" Halliwell in the late spring of 1998, the remaining four Spice Girls (Melanie's Brown & Chisholm, Victoria Beckham, Emma Bunton) blazed through the American leg of their Spice World tour. They'd also sew the grains of maturation that came to term on their third, final, and unsung long player Forever (2000).

The History
After Halliwell's departure, the Spice Girls began a visual, musical shift into an adult refinement. The closing of their first tour birthed "Goodbye," their eighth U.K. #1 hit. "Goodbye" had their talents in fine form as songwriters and singers. As 1999 began, each member branched into solo projects. Also during this hectic period, the Girls embarked on a U.K. only Christmas in Spice World tour. That tour showcased the material from their upcoming junior effort, due in first year of the millennium.

The Record
The initial sessions for Forever began in the summer of 1998 with producers Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe, whom they'd partnered with on Spice (1996) and Spiceworld (1997). While Forever's first single was "Goodbye," the actual album wouldn't materialize until the fall of 2000, totaling two years since an album of original work had been released.

Additional collaborators included Elliot Kennedy, the co-writer of "Say You'll Be There," Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and his cartel, plus Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Songs like "W.O.M.A.N.," "Right Back At Ya," and "Holler Holler" (later to become "Holler") eyed a sleek, sexy, sophisticated edge that drew on both dance and R&B. Neither style was alien to the Girls, R&B had been the driving pulse on their debut recording Spice. One listen to Spice tracks "Last Time Lover," "Naked," and "If U Can't Dance" suggested the Girls had an ear for just a bit of grit to be cut with their shimmer.

"If U Can't Dance" in particular substantiated their taste for grooves in its usage of an iconic sample loop composite of Sly & the Family Stone ("Sing a Simple Song") and Parliament Funkadelic ("Theme From the Black Hole"). The sample became famous on the Digital Underground classic "The Humpty Dance." The fact that the Spice Girls rode that sample as superbly as the Digital Underground attested they weren't pop dollies.

As recording continued, Rowe and Stannard's work ("W.O.M.A.N") were cast aside as the Girls began exclusively working with Jerkins, Jam, and Lewis. Both productions units had a knack for bridging the gaps between the realms of pop and R&B. Jerkins résumé included soul ingenue Brandy and Jennifer Lopez, among others. He and his Darkchild imprint piloted eight of Forever's tracks.

Jam and Lewis had the best understanding of melding the melodies of pop with the larger beats of R&B music. Starting off in Minneapolis, Minnesota alongside Prince and The Time, they went on to produce some of the hottest black acts of the '80's. Jam and Lewis shaped a post-modern black dance phonic later known as "The Minneapolis Sound." Their work with Janet Jackson, at this time a fellow label mate with the Spice Girls, indicated their knowledge and credibility. They produced two sides on Forever.

The Spice Girls stayed true to their songwriting credentials amid the talented gentleman driving Forever's sound. The opener "Holler" was cool and crisp, done up in Britain's fashionable two-step R&B. Vocally dexterous after two years of touring, each member had a moment on a section of the verses before drawing together for the slippery chorus.

Beckham of the four had a noticeable improvement, setting the stage for her eponymous debut that followed a year later. Farther on, the keyboard boldness in "Get Down With Me," the swank showered "Wasting My Time," and the Girl Power kiss off "Weekend Love" saw the Girls working their musical muscles in their sassy dance and R&B motifs.

The call-to-arms riot of "Right Back At Ya," co-written with the mentioned Elliot Kennedy was more explicit and harder than his slight urban flirtation the Girls showcased during their Christmas in Spice World shows. Kennedy reportedly felt that Darkchild's productions had turned the cut into a "boring, plodding R&B song." A sour comment considering the song had that sonic stance before Darkchild pumped it up. Either way, this song would have shined during the Girls 2007/2008 reunion if it had been reworked.

"If You Wanna Have Some Fun," one of the two Jam-Lewis sides, sizzled. The track rode along a similar pathway that previous Spice stepping favorites "Who Do You Think You Are" and "Saturday Night Divas" had without sounding like a retread.The remaining Jam and Lewis side "Oxygen," was one of the four ballads that softened the uptempo flavors of Forever. Jam praised Bunton's voice as one of the best "instinctual" presences he'd worked with and she shone on "Oxygen." Forever was grounded in a way that their genre diverse opus Spiceworld wasn't, a risk for any pop group known for their chameleon tendencies.

The Impact
The climate in the United Kingdom, the Girls largest market, was still frenzied with Spice Girls electricity in 2000. Beaming from their BRIT Awards "Outstanding Achievement in Music" win months earlier, Forever seemed ready for commercial victory. On October 23rd, 2000 "Holler/Let Love Lead the Way," Forever's first single, scored the Spice Girls their ninth British number one. Now the Spice Girls sat in a pantheon of acts like The Beatles, ABBA, George Michael, etc. who had a large collection of number one singles in the British charts. Quickly moving silver units in England, it landed in the Top 10 reaches of the international charts (Canada, Asia, Australia, Spain, etc.). "Let Love Lead the Way" only had single status in Canada (#5) and England, elsewhere it remained the flipside to "Holler."

America had no commercial single released for either song and on airplay and import sales "Holler" reached #7 on the Bubbling Under Hot 100 Singles chart. The video for "Holler" was popular in the U.S., and thanks to MTV TRL (Total Request Live) it landed within the Top 5 of their video chart.

Forever was released on November 6th, 2000 in England and the remaining global sectors, America followed on November 7th. The record had immediate competition from British boy group Westlife and their Coast to Coast album. In a heated promotional battle, Coast to Coast stole the vaunted number one slot on the U.K. Album Chart, while Forever came in second. America saw Forever as the Spice Girls' first failure there, it lurched into #39 on the U.S. Billboard 200 Album Chart. There was little to no promotion Stateside for Forever. In England and Spain the record hit platinum, double platinum in Canada, and gold in Brazil, Germany, and several other countries. In total, the sales for Forever currently sit at five million copies worldwide.

"Holler" (Masters at Work Club Edit)
Directed by: Jake Nava

Forever was a soft seller, especially within their biggest arena the United Kingdom. America was easier to understand as the Girls really hadn't been a presence there since their single "Goodbye" in 1998. England had begun to hint at a Spice Girls burnout, they'd actively reigned in group or solo form since 1996. Critically, the Spice Girls split pundits.

The crew at Billboard Magazine wrote:
The set oozes with timely funk beats and the kind of well-crafted songs that No. 1 hits are made of.
Others were not so kind, like Rolling Stone's James Hunter, and stated as such:
It's been almost five years since England's Spice Girls had people smiling or sneering. Their third album, Forever, will probably provoke a reaction somewhere in the middle -- with one exception, it's just OK.
Despite its commercial lapse Forever had much life left to it. Virgin Records had promotional singles planned and pressed for "Weekend Love," "If You Wanna Have Some Fun," and "Tell Me Why." "Tell Me Why" received excellent remixing from the leading dance floor heavyweight of the day, Thunderpuss. Internal friction began tearing at the group, bringing an abrupt halt to the promotion of the record. The remaining singles never saw a mass release and are now regarded as collector items.

As 2001 dawned the Spice Girls quietly disbanded without issuing a formal statement, simply calling it a hiatus. The diminutive success of Forever stretched into the new year with three Spice Girls related solo projects marking their last year of assured U.K. dominance. The ensuing decade saw more solo recordings met with acclaim, creative wins, or indifference. The Spice Girls reunion in 2007 heralded their full circle with Forever's singles "Holler," "Let Love Lead the Way," and "Goodbye" sounding relevant. Fans remain divided passionately over Forever. It wasn't a patch on Spiceworld, the colossus of their discography, but it wasn't recycled leftovers either. Forever is the kind of pop record that can confuse if not heard properly. The Spice Girls were never strictly a British or European bound recording act. Their name itself implied a smattering mixture of influences and each album reflected that. Forever remains a bittersweet snapshot of a group still full of musical integrity and fire. Four and a half stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: Forever, like the rest of the Spice Girls work, is readily in print.-QH]

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Donna Summer's "The Wanderer" 30 Years Later

The QH Blend has widely discussed the year of 1980 in terms of its connection to the dissolution of disco. Some acts survived, many more struggled. Donna Summer symbolized a phoenix from the ashes of a musical movement in which she was its figurehead. The Wanderer, her eighth album, was a bigger gambit for Summer. The creative freedom earned on this long player allowed Donna Summer to become the pop presario she always hinted at.

After the triumphs of Lady of the Night (1974) and Love to Love You Baby (1975), Summer climbed through the rest of '70's on the back of several conceptualized works that synthesized black dance and European pop into an art called "disco." By 1979, Summer had achieved dominance commercially and exemplified that her transition from the underground to the mainstream hadn't soiled her artistic flow.

On the horizon was a looming anti-disco sentiment that sat next to Summer's discontent with her image. Summer was ready for a cleanse. Gracefully sealing off her glory days with On the Radio: Greatest Hits in '79, Summer left Casablanca Records and jumped aboard Geffen Records. The label swap marked a experimentally rewarding period that encompassed her second decade.

The Record
Never a slave to the conventional
"9 to 5" black female vocal prototype, Summer always explored wider options with her voice. Longtime partners in production Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had planted the seeds for Summer's rock revolution with cuts like "My Baby Understands" and others on Bad Girls.

The Wanderer, another concept record, dealt with a woman attempting to flee from the mundane. She gets swallowed by the big city and love, but emerges spiritually reborn. The journey mirrored Summer herself who had just become a "born again Christian" at this time.

Lean, but filling, The Wanderer downplayed any  beats and swirling orchestras for clean, keen guitars, enthralling programming and snappy brass. The title song, with its spazzy character driven vocal, was wacky, weird, and wonderful. Said character singing stayed in effect on each song, making the narrative of the record richer. Summer siren sang along the roiling tidal wave of ambience that was "Grand Illusion." On "Cold Love" and "Stop Me" her voice burned with passion and defiance. She was as soulful as any drab belter and tackled tracks like the gospel shaded "I Believe in Jesus." Summer was taking no prisoners with what her voice could achieve on this album.

The musical map of the LP was strewn with rock externally, but the pop ("Looking Up") and soul lines ("Breakdown") didn't hide. Prose wise, Summer maintained her tale telling with "Running For Cover" and "Who Do You Think Your Foolin'," both identity searching anthems.

The Impact
The Wanderer was an immediate critical hit when released on October 20th, 1980. Rolling Stone  ranked the record in second place in a year-end tally behind Bruce Springsteen's The River. Stone's final assessment gifted The Wanderer with a total of four stars.

Pop culture site Pop Matters Christian John Wikane wrote of The Wanderer in April of 2007 stating:

By 1980, Donna Summer had amassed enough currency in her career to take chances. In October, Summer astounded audiences with The Wanderer, a decidedly rock-oriented album that marked Summer’s liberation from the image-making machinations of her previous record company, Casablanca, and from the grueling celebrity lifestyle that sent her to the brink of suicide. (The album also inaugurated David Geffen’s eponymous record label.)

Harry Langdon’s album cover photograph for The Wanderer depicts Summer clothed in layers of scarves and leggings, sitting atop a black bench with suitcase nearby, looking very much "the wanderer.” With one hand casually nested in her perfectly coiffed hair, Summer’s gaze is direct and provocative. “I dare you to listen” is the implied message.
Audience reception was understandably split. Summer's primary audience, a white, dance-pop crowd were still stepping to remaining throes of disco's last stomp. Summer's colleague, Diana Ross' "Upside Down" and its parent album diana (1980), represented that mentioned, accessible end of days abandon. Those that did respond saw the greatness Summer's broader pop. Being a black woman in a predominantly non-R&B sound on The Wanderer was confusing for the few black fans Summer did have.

"The Wanderer," Circa 1980

All of these conditions reflected in the commercial outcome, a gold seller with a U.S. Top 10 hit for the title track and two U.S. Top 40 hits ("Cold Love," "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'"). Summer, the first black woman to win a rock Grammy the year before with "Hot Stuff" was nominated for a rock Grammy in 1980 ("The Wanderer") and 1981 ("Cold Love").

Summer continued to maintain her muse throughout the remainder of the 1980's up through her recent release, 2008's CrayonsCrayons patterned itself close to The Wanderer in tone, evidence that pop at its best is an energetic, evolving force. The Wanderer stands resilient in the face of labels, influential and vital. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Like majority of Donna Summer's 1980's work, The Wanderer is out of print and expensive to obtain. I luckily snatched up a mint copy for $38 in 2007, the prices tend to ebb and flow ranging anywhere from $50-$70 for a CD copy at online music retailers.-QH]

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Diana Ross: One Night Only in Dayton

The Boss. The Lady Who Sung the Blues. A Supreme. Motown puppet or an artist in the truest sense of the word? Titles abound with one truth apparent: Diana Ross is, and always will be, a star. Marking her 40th year as a solo performer, Ross kicked of 2010 with a concert show to commemorate her successes. Her performance stop here at Dayton's Schuster Center however, was for a charitable cause. Ross' booking was courtesy of the Kettering Medical Center to celebrate the opening of the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Heart Hospital in Dayton.

On the last official night of the summer, a sea of fans poured into the center as Ross' band assumed position on the stage. Punching onto that stage with the uproarious "I'm Coming Out," Ross immediately took the audience back 30 years when that single and its parent album diana (1980) held the world in its sway. Ross' voice has only gotten better through the decades. She handled the vintage bop of the Spiral Staircase gem "More Today Than Yesterday" from her last offering I Love You (2007) with elegance. A juicy take on "Love Child," a latter Ross period Supremes hit was the highlight of a welcome, if overstayed Supremes hits medley.

She graciously made up for that with a fantastic dance section that included the unsung jam "The Boss," her eternal summer banger "Upside Down," the '95 house hit "Take Me Higher," and her Michael Jackson duet from The Wiz, "Ease On Down the Road."

The Lady Sings the Blues portion of the show saw Ross a vision in sequins, she changed a total of five times during the concert. Once a diva. Ross enjoyed this area of the show most, offering her smooth Billie Holiday cover of "Don't Explain." Only one RCA era hit was performed, the Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers doo-wopper "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?"

Several others lesser known, but beloved, Motown diamonds would have sparkled if performed that night: "Surrender," "Remember Me," "I Thought It Took a Little Time (But Today I Fell In Love)," "Confide in Me," "Sparkle," "It's My House," the list cascades onward. Strangely, "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)," her enduring live anthem was not sung. Fans weren't left wanting as the crowd gave standing ovations to "Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To?)" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

Ross' black and gay fans responded audibly all night. Her white fans moved, albeit in their seats, seemingly afraid to party possibly due to the slight formal nature of the show being benefit sponsored.  The evening substantiated Ross' endurance as an interpretative singer, spanning black pop music throughout the decades into today.-QH

[Editor's Note: For more information and current concert dates, visit www.facebook.com/DianaRoss -QH]

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

1986-2000: Duran Duran's Lost Years

British pretty boys, MTV pin-ups, New Romantics, glam rockers. When it comes to British rock/pop outfit Duran Duran, these are only some of the things that could be uttered about this group. Simon Le Bon (lead vocals), Nick Rhodes (keyboards), and Taylors John (bass), Andy (guitars), and Roger (drums) were one of the leading acts of the 1980's during the advent of MTV. Beginning in 1981 through 1985, Duran Duran released three albums of original material, a live record, and countless singles that will forever be associated with that moment in time.

By 1985, the group was at its fever pitch and flamed out. With the group exhausted under the Duran Duran moniker, they ended up splitting into two factions to record. John and Andy Taylor formed with Robert Palmer and Tony Thompson (of Chic) as the funk-rock group Power Station. Rhodes and Le Bon moved further into electronic influences as Arcadia. Roger Taylor removed himself from the board completely until Duran Duran's 11th album, Astronaut (2004).

By the time Duran Duran gathered for Notorious
(1986), only three emerged: John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, and Simon Le Bon. Warren Cuccurullo would become a fixture in this period as the guitarist from Notorious onward, officially joining the group in 1990.

Moving bravely into the new musical landscapes ahead, Duran Duran met resistance. The popular music realm had changed quickly in the year they were gone and many wrote off anything the group did as bids for artistic credibility.

The "critics" were missing the point. Duran Duran's sound evolved throughout their active recording career, they were always about longevity from the start. Their sound morphed, but at the core their pop changeability and hunger for musical adventures never halted. This piece attempts to peek into the period that has become known as their "wilderness years," for others it was a golden age of creative spirit tempered by the flames of adversity.

Pop Trash
Released: 6/19/00 on Hollywood Records
Production: TV Mania*
Singles: "Someone Else Not Me," "Playing With Uranium," "Last Day on Earth"

Released after the stormy Medazzaland (1997), Pop Trash kept the emotional tempo the same as that recording. Duran Duran had coined their own brand of downtempo cool, as heard on the lead single "Someone Else Not Me." The handsome heartbreak wording was honest and handled with grace by Le Bon, the music itself bathed in acoustic and generous synth washes. The warm grooviness housed on The Wedding Album (1993) was gleefully resurrected on "Lava Lamp." Pop Trash did kick and rock occasionally with "Last Day on Earth" and "Playing With Uranium."  The album demonstrated Rhodes and Cuccurullo's knack for production better than any of the other albums from this arc. The tides of Pop Trash came and went without overstaying their welcome, making the LP easy to penetrate. Pop Trash would mark the end of an era, it was Cuccurullo's last recording as a member of Duran Duran. The "lost album" in their body of work, Pop Trash is home to many treasures.

Released: 10/14/97 on Capitol/EMI
Production: TV Mania*
Singles: "Electric Barbarella," "Out of My Mind"

John Taylor departed Duran Duran during the creation of this project, leaving Le Bon, Rhodes, and Cuccurullo to finalize Medazzaland their final Capitol/EMI LP. The album was a black and blue beast, Duran Duran's difficult masterpiece. The title drew from a drug called midazolam, a medicinal chemical Simon Le Bon was subjected to during a dental surgery. A messy mixture of rock and pop was the primary blueprint. After the spooky title track start, vocals courtesy of Rhodes, the next three songs blew by. The rhythmic shift of "Big Bang Generation," the quicksilver "Electric Barbarella," and the Asian splendor of "Out of My Mind" all ranked as divine Duran Duran moments.

Elsewhere, fragments of electro-rock hybridization popped up on the bruising "Be My Icon." Thematically, despondency versus connection threaded throughout Medazzaland. The record also broke new ground, "Electric Barbarella" was the first single to be sold exclusively online at a time when the Internet was still a green avenue for music retail. Not an immediate winner as the melodies dwelled deep underneath Medazzaland, additional exploration was required.

Thank You
Released: 4/4/95 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, John Jones
Singles: "Perfect Day," "White Lines," "Lay Lady Lay"

A collection of cover songs from a cacophony of music influences: Sly & the Family Stone, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, The Temptations, Public Enemy, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and Iggy Pop. Duran Duran funneled these unlikely musical bedfellows through their own kaleidoscopic sound tunnel with solid results. Joined by the originators Grandmasters Melle Mel and Flash on "White Lines," Duran Duran infused it with rock and pop likability while retaining its social hip-hop edge. Dreamy and abstract characterized the lone Duran Duran penned "Drive By" and plush tug of "Lay Lady Lay." Thank You's rhythmic and masculine appeal swung easily on their frisky funk cover of "I Wanna Take You Higher." Roger Taylor, of the original "Fab Five," graciously drummed on "Watching the Detectives" and "Perfect Day" appearing in the video for the latter.

Despite the obvious enthusiasm that went into Thank You, the project underperformed in critical and commercial corners. The record later received the unceremonious title of "Worst Album Ever" by the ever snobbish British music magazine Q in 2006. Interestingly, every artist covered here enjoyed what Duran Duran did with their work. Groovy and fun, Thank You may have been an exercise of indulgence, but it was still well crafted.

Duran Duran (The Wedding Album)
Released: 2/23/93 on Capitol/EMI
Production: John Jones
Singles: "Ordinary World," "Come Undone," "Too Much Information," "None of the Above," "Breath After Breath," "Femme Fatale"

The album that shook off their '80's curse and bravely placed them in the '90's, their second self-titled effort (often called The Wedding Album) was cool and cunning. Still inspired to write about social issues and love, Duran Duran wrote two of their strongest here: "Come Undone" and "Too Much Information." The former a murky, sensual trip, the latter a glorious surge of energy with jabs at their own history and place in it: "Destroyed by MTV, I hate to bite the hand that feeds me so much information!" Taylor's trench deep basslines, guided by John Jones, made "Love Voodoo" and "Drowning Man" sumptuously play off of Le Bon's versatility. Le Bon himself beamed on the melancholia ache in "Ordinary World." Winning back the sales that evaded them with each release in the late '80's, The Wedding Album is respected by the casual and devout.

Released: 8/20/90 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Chris Kimsey
Singles: "Violence of Summer (Love's Taking Over)," "Serious"

Duran Duran's first offering of the 1990's was an insecure and transitory piece called Liberty. At this epoch in the group's history Warren Cuccurullo officially joined Duran Duran as their guitarist. Drummer Sterling Campbell had a brief stay for this effort as well. Stung by the frosty reception of Big Thing (1988), Duran Duran threw themselves into the pop pot. At its best, Liberty presented Duran Duran in a holding pattern that generated the spiky "Along the Water" and the understated "Serious." The New Jack flat liner "Hothead" and the erroneous retro feel of "Violence of Summer (Love's Taking Over)" muted the few triumphs on the record. Liberty acted as a bridge to The Wedding Album, an uncomfortable hiccup in Duran Duran's pristine discography.

Big Thing
Released: 10/18/88 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Jonathan Elias, Daniel Abraham
Singles: "I Don't Want Your Love," "All She Wants Is," "Do You Believe in Shame?," "Big Thing," "Too Late Marlene"

A winning sound switch paired with Duran's Duran's established phonics described Big Thing. Big Thing operated partly in glossy dancers ("I Don't Want Your Love") and glacial wonders ("Palomino"). The layout of Big Thing was beautifully paced, one song never out of place and featured several inventive interludes. This type of blueprint had the group flexing their conceptual muscles, comfortable in their new skin. Duran Duran was aware of exactly what they needed to convey musically, unfortunately the public didn't "get it" and Big Thing had a decent, if limited stay on the charts.

Released: 11/18/86 on Capitol/EMI
Production: Duran Duran, Nile Rodgers
Singles: "Notorious," "Skin Trade," "Meet El Presidente"

Duran Duran's first effort as a trio (with a then ghosting Warren Cuccurullo on guitar) partnered them with Nile Rodgers, one of their self-confessed idols. The former Chic member brought an urban taste to the songs of Notorious. Duran Duran continued to dabble with black music throughout their career from this point forward. Notorious was home to the glistening sex of "American Science" (one of Le Bon's finest hours) and the ingenious "Skin Trade." The title song became immortalized in hip-hop culture forever in Notorious B.I.G.'s hit single "Notorious B.I.G.," Le Bon's clipped vocal stutter is instantly recognizable. The heavier tones of "Vertigo (Do the Demolition)" showed Duran Duran were definitely not content to repeat themselves in any way.

"White Lines" circa 1995
Directed By: Nick Egan

Of all these albums, praise falls squarely on the shoulders of 1993's The Wedding Album due to its  commercial fortunes before they were halted by Thank You in 1995. Notorious and Big Thing are only recognized for the clutch of hit singles they house, while Liberty, Medazzaland, and Pop Trash remain unexamined. This period shouldn't be forgotten and is in need of being revisited. Evidenced by these selections, Duran Duran dared to dare and beat their own hype. More than mere MTV thralls or '80's nostalgia, Duran Duran is about progress, a progression still running today.-QH

[Editor's Note: *TV Mania refers to the brief production unit/side project of Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo who paired together. An album of their own material was due to materialize but never did after his departure from Duran Duran. Only Notorious, Big Thing, and The Wedding Album are readily in print, the former two due to be reissued on 9/27/10. The other albums featured are out of print, but easily found in indie, used, or online music retailers for affordable prices. For more current information on Duran Duran, visit http://www.duranduran.com/-QH]

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The QH Blend's Ten Dance LPs

What is a dance record? Is it molded and refined by an ambitious DJ or an assemblage of shrewd music industry insiders? Are its origins drawn from pre-disco Motown? Or has it transformed into something else? The answer is an amalgam of yes and no when it comes to what a dance record is or isn't. The inspiration for this piece came from being someone who enjoys music that makes me move. This motley crew of artists and their albums are what I'd want to be tripping the light fantastic to if out for a night on the town.

The choices were difficult to make as many records easily deserved to make this list. I based my selections on my requirements of what makes a dance long player for me. Requirements include a relentless energy that propels one section of the album and a necessary "cool down" area for refreshment. Additionally, albums like these cross genres because dance is not just an electronic medium. I hope you enjoy what I have picked.

#10 Emerald City
Circa 1986, as performed by Teena Marie

Hot off the win of 1984's Starchild, that record was rendered tame next to the dark, steamy brew Marie served on Emerald City. Still bearing all of Marie's hallmarks, a shift toward guitar and heavier beats lined the first half of the album. The caustic pull of "Lips to Find You" and the explicit grind of "Shangri-La" had Teena Marie in full effect.

#9 Secrets
Circa 2001, as performed by The Human League

The nucleic trio of Phillip Oakey, Susan Sulley, and Joanne Catherall behind the era definer "Don't You Want Me?" have had trouble escaping the reach of that song. A look at their last effort of original material, Secrets proved as ingenious as any Human League '80's effort. With delectable instrumental vignettes tying together the other nine vocal tracks, Secrets was cool, British musical art.

#8 I Feel For You
Circa 1984, as performed by Chaka Khan

One of the records to highlight the oncoming onslaught of hip-hop's influence on overall popular music, I Feel For You was a pre-New Jack Swing collision of hip-hop & R&B production techniques. Bold, exciting, sometimes jarring, I Feel For You had Khan steering her unmistakable voice through the interesting curves and bends on the album.

#7 Bring Ya to the Brink
Circa 2008, as performed by Cyndi Lauper

Lauper's first journey into the glitterati realm of dance music wasn't an exercise in creative contentment. Enlisting a group of reputable collaborators in the fields of electronica and dance, Lauper built shimmering sonic structures. Dense and daring, Brink remains a staunch strike of genius for Lauper.

#6 A Funk Odyssey
Circa 2001, as performed by Jamiroquai

Resisting the notion of disco's bastardization at the hands of crueler critics, Jay Kay & Co. pulled out all the tricks that made groups like Tavares and Earth, Wind & Fire great. Equally symphonic ("Corner of the World") and electronic ("Twenty Zero One"), Jay Kay pumped vocal vitality into A Funk Odyssey.

#5 Gloria!
Circa 1998, as performed by Gloria Estefan

Estefan's first two major international crossover hits "Dr. Beat" (1984) and "Conga" (1985) professed Estefan's love of dancefloor phonics despite her later Spanish language and adult contemporary forays. Marketed as her official return to dance music, Gloria! brilliantly embraced classic disco, nu-disco, and Latin styles.

#4 Off the Wall
Circa 1979, as performed by Michael Jackson

Seminal black dance record of all time or appetizer to the all-conquering Thriller (1982)? Most would say, I'd hope, the former over the latter. Off the Wall was Michael Jackson at the peak and joy of his power. Split into two movements, footloose funk ("Rock With You," "Get on the Floor") and handsome chill ("I Can't Help It," "Burn This Disco Out"), Jackson's Off the Wall remains his definitive statement.

#3 Night Work
Circa 2010, as performed by Scissor Sisters

These New York pop hedonists and culprits returned with glam fists swinging on Night Work. Through a wealth of influences, Night Work is a glowing, smutty mess that had the group dividing between current European and vintage American dance music.

#2 Four Seasons of Love
Circa 1976, as performed by Donna Summer

One of many masterpieces in Donna Summer's vast discography, Four Seasons of Love is a special record due to its sheer scope. Based on the idea of the four seasons, the songs glide by in various moods. Summer occupied desire ("Spring Affair," "Summer Fever") alongside regret ("Autumn Changes," "Winter Melody") believably on all four sides of the record.

#1 Neon Nights
Circa 2003, as performed by Dannii Minogue

No record in the last 10 years dealt in early '80's dance music mixed with all the now European and American toppings. Dannii Minogue, Kylie Minogue's sister, did just that with Neon Nights. It carried the boundless energy of dance music without effort.