Vitamin C (Elektra, 1999): Vitamin C was one of the pop records that shaped my view of intelligent pop. An example was “Girls Against Boys”―a deeper cut on the LP―it mixed French spy pop and hip-hop, no lie. It’s amazing to think that Colleen Fitzpatrick, the woman behind Vitamin C, has gone into the corporate sector of the entertainment industry.
Stronger Than Pride (Epic, 1988): The dreaded “they used drum machines, how could they?!” album. Never understood what the big deal was. The group simply added another layer to their already progressive sound. The songwriting and arrangements were livelier and not turgid as they had been on Promise (1985)―my least favorite record by Sade.
The Grind Date (AOI, 2004): Not too dissimilar from the other hip-hop records (quality wise) accounted for on my list, this LP bursted with tunage too. Literally, the debut side of The Grind Date jumped at me through my speakers. Also, not that I have anything against longer albums, but this one did not overstate itself. It was just enough.
Fame (Island, 1978): Ah, Grace Jones and disco―people either loved it or hated it. Fame took the gold with its well-thought out seguing and a capable Jones at the vocal wheel. Fame captured this abbreviated span (by critics, fans) and acted as a good entry for anyone curious about a pre-Nightclubbing (1980) Grace Jones.
Pennies in a Jar (S-Curve, 2011): I kept seeing these online ads for Nikki Jean back in 2011; each one played up what she had in common with all of these different artists. Later, I realized Nikki Jean had taken up the task to write with the artists they mentioned in the advertisements―Carly Simon, Burt Bacharach, etc. I was hesitant to label the album as “throwback” then, though Jean’s affection for classic pop was obvious. Interestingly, the LP held a modern vitality that made it relevant to listeners in 2011 and beyond. And that voice…!
Wildest Dreams (Parlophone, 1996): Tina Turner got boring after Private Dancer (1984). With Wildest Dreams, Turner was involved in song selection and its presentation, it showed. Cut at a time when adult pop was seen as sexy and youthful (ironically), Wildest Dreams was Turner giving face on the wax.
Travellers in Space and Time (Elephant 6, 2010): Though The Apples in Stereo had been around as early as 1992, they gradually came up out of the indie-pop scene to establish their in foothold in music . This record saw them decked out in white boy disco threads, as such it got serious spin time in my car during 2011 and 2012.
Take It Off (Atlantic, 1981): Chic founder Nile Rodgers pretended (and still does) that Chic post-Real People (1980) just stopped. Chic pushed back against the disco backlash with three more records between 1981 and 1983. Yes, they were commercial failures, but musically the quintet had not lost their touch. Everything great about the group’s tailoring, production wise, remained but with an ’80’s R&B twist.
Atlas (Sonic 360, 2003): Half asleep one night in 2013, I woke up to this band playing on ‘Guitar Sessions’ named Kinky. Thought the name was sexy. I got up, jotted it down and went back to sleep. Several months later, I had been overcome by this Mexican five-piece band. Atlas, more than any of their other (epic) LPs, brandished Kinky’s electro-rock, dance and Latin feel.
A Love Supreme (MCA, 1994): Sadly, Ms. Moore has recently become known for reality tv spats; once upon a time she released an unsung R&B long player in need of exposure. A Love Supreme managed an―I hate this term―old school appeal, but was new school in how it positioned itself (sonically). To say Moore was in good voice is an understatement to her gift.
Octopus (EastWest, 1995): Their legacy was storied by the time they reached Octopus, but the trio that came to define The Human League turned in a sharp offering here. What made me admire Octopus was its peerless production. The kind of music they were making may not have been “in,” but it was fresh. When their sound did come back “in,” the album evinced how late the rest of popular music was to The Human League’s party.
Folklore (DreamWorks, 2003): Built on the feel of Whoa, Nelly! (2000), the arc of Folklore was broader, bigger and better. But, with words like “Paint my face in your magazines, make it look whiter than it seems! Paint me over with your dreams, shove away my ethnicity!” heard on the lead single “Powerless (Say What You Want)” the LP wasn’t destined for a charmed sales life.
All Over the Place (Columbia, 1984): My favorite harmony group, hands down. Their love of the Beatles was apparent, but they brought their own California sass to the proceedings. A lot of folks go on about how “unpolished” this record was over their second LP Different Light (1986). I think that Different Light may have been a bit more eager to please, but All Over the Place possessed mighty pop hooks too.
Islands (EMI, 1984): Nothing gets me going in music more than a group that could defy expectations. Though Kajagoogoo’s tale as a one-hit wonder was set in stone, their second LP Islands refuted that. Jazz and new wave intertwined on the LP and would have made contemporaries like Culture Club a bit envious.
Butterfly (Columbia, 1997): Mariah Carey was like chemistry, too much of one ingredient could spoil the overall taste of the dish. Butterfly got the formula right: hip-hop, grown-up soul, pop melodies. All of it joined by Carey’s voice and her imaginative pen. She came close to orbiting this album at least twice, but it’s doubtful it will be eclipsed.
Shadowland (Warner Brothers, 1988): Country and pop were genres lang weaved throughout her three decade career seamlessly. Shadowland leaned closer to the former. Like any of lang’s country albums, its torchy root is what stayed with me. As a singer, lang’s chops could never be questioned and made the spread available on Shadowland bountiful.
Traveling Like the Light (Capitol, 2010): Getting dressed for work one day and I heard this guitar lick that was like sunshine coming from my tv. I bounded out of the bathroom to catch Ms. Brown do her thing on “Shark in the Water,” a single from Travelling Like the Light. Clear, beautiful pop. In 2010. By a black woman. Black pop singers, like in the non-R&B influenced style, weren’t (and aren’t) common; it was love at first listen. Her subsequent album lived up to the single’s promise too.
Lionheart (EMI, 1978): Her initial pair of albums were my staples. Her singing worked wonders over that airy, late ’70’s pop aesthetic. I knew that Lionheart was considered the rush job of the two records by the majority, including Bush. For me, it was an ideal companion to The Kick Inside (1978).
1 Fille & 4 Types (Epic, 2003): Ms. Dion’s French material stayed on the excellent tip; 1 Fille & 4 Types concerned itself with mannered music, usually acoustic based. Dion, in a calmer space, allowed herself to emote gradually and authentically. If there was a spike of bombast, it was welcome as a natural progression.
4 (Columbia, 2011): Never in a million years would I have pegged myself as a fan of Mrs. Carter. But, thanks to 4 and its (actual) craft, Beyoncé cured the cynicism that kept her at bay from my ears for close to an entire decade. The culprit that got me to pay attention to 4 was its spunky single “Countdown”―arguably my favorite song by Mrs. Carter.
[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]