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The QH Blend’s “100 @ 30”: [1 thru 20]

Correct!

Spice Girls (1) / Kylie Minogue (2) / Donna Summer (3) / Brandy (4) / Seal (5)

Spiceworld (Virgin, 1997): My desire to grasp “the groove” combined with curiosities for musical epochs gone by when I encountered this album. Further, my appreciation for character in a voice―not just a voice―stemmed from this LP. Spiceworld also proved that producing good music didn’t guarantee fair appreciation from music critics―popular music politics aren’t always just. The Spice Girls were the reason I picked up a pen to write about music and give voice to artists / fans who didn’t have one. 

Kylie Minogue (deConstruction, 1994): Kylie Minogue made me relearn everything I thought I knew about pop song structure at the time. The “suites” that were fashioned on the album weren’t laborious, instead they formed their own patterns. In regard to the actual texture of the music and Minogue’s voice, it was the right blend of maturity, evolution and exploration that captured me.

The Wanderer (Geffen, 1980) Donna Summer never fit into the traditional slot that black women were meant to stay in―musically speaking or otherwise. I was enamored with The Wanderer, but it would be years before I would hear its influence on other women (Madonna, Kylie Minogue) that I favored too. I’ve often remarked that this record was the first “dance-pop departure” vehicle that set that standard that dance-pop was not the only mode pop operated in. Summer didn’t just create that model, she stamped it with this album.

Human (Epic, 2008): Personally, this album has been an emotional companion for me since its release; in the context of Brandy’s legacy I think it was her most consistent thematically. Human had Brandy putting her own experiences to a sonic backdrop that was timely (production wise), but still had that “Brandy feel” to it. I am not sure that she’ll ever top this record.

Human Being (Warner Brothers, 1998): What a songwriter, but due to him being someone of color he was marginalized on both ends of the music spectrum. It’s a shame, because Seal’s ability to work within a soul framework without losing pop’s melody stood second-to-none. This album was darker and maybe that’s why it received such a cold shoulder at the time. I’ve always loved its stormy appeal.

100-2

Cyndi Lauper (6) / Culture Club (7) / Sophie Ellis-Bextor (8) / Cathy Dennis (9) / Madonna (10)

Hat Full of Stars (Epic, 1993): Hat Full of Stars crossed folk, R&B, dance and alternative; Lauper’s style on this was very New York and it made the record sound big, especially listening as a teenager in the summer of 2002 when I copped it. Her songwriting was never better, you can really hear it on “Who Let in the Rain,” “Feels Like Christmas” and “Someone Like Me”.

Colour By Numbers (Virgin, 1983): An album that always comes immediately to mind as living up to its hype. I loved how sharp the music on this was, but not so slick that it didn’t leave room for Culture Club’s character. “Black Money,” an ultimate tearjerker, I realized I had to “grow into” with life experience to appreciate.

Shoot From the Hip (Polydor, 2003): I like that even when her first record painted Bextor in a corner creatively, she made another album that pushed back against pop being tagged as, you guessed it, dance-pop. There are some floor fillers here, but they don’t sacrifice the arc of this album pulling from other places for its inspiration.

Am I the Kinda Girl? (Polydor, 1996): I remember the first time I heard this album and I was just blown away. The way the 1990’s alternative tunage interacted with 1960’s pop was gorgeous. That something this refreshing wasn’t more broadly known continues to sadden me.

American Life (Warner Brothers, 2003): A lot of people incorrectly pegged American Life as Madonna trying to admonish others when she was examining herself. Musically it was her third in a four part electronic quartet that concluded with Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005). Granted Confessions was warmer at its surface, but American Life won me over as the last great ballad vehicle for Madonna.

100-3

Melanie C (11) / Carly Simon (12) / Tori Amos (13) / ABBA (14) / Kim Wilde (15)

Northern Star (Virgin, 1999): The visceral space Melanie C occupied fascinated me as a teenager. I don’t want to say this was a soundtrack to my angst, but that’s slightly accurate. The longing, the curiosity and how the LP bared its fangs…wow. Its underlying sensitivity spun well on the title piece and “Closer”. They’re just gorgeous recordings.

Playing Possum (Elektra, 1975): Never understood the critical drubbing this got. Even though I enjoyed the two previous Richard Perry produced predecessors, Playing Possum was curvier. Its sex appeal was seductive and comforting;Simon was brainy (and busty) when it came to her wordplay on this set. 

From the Choirgirl Hotel (Atlantic, 1998):  From the Choirgirl Hotel was my introduction to Tori Amos a decade ago. Having had this as an entry point, it set the bar Amos repeatedly met as I began trekking through her albums. I loved how succinct Choirgirl was, its combination of electronic and classical music enthralled.

The Visitors (Polar, 1981): ABBA really outdid themselves with this album. Pop acts are supposed to stay behind the lines of “inoffensive” and “innocuous,” but ABBA went noir with The Visitors. Man, you have everything from the personal to the voyeuristic on this effort and it’s (still) superbly catchy. 

Catch as Catch Can (RAK, 1983): Catch as Catch Can’s charm is somewhat unidentifiable. Just as strong as the two previous RAK era albums that came before it, Catch held glossier grooves and assured vocal performances. It was the ideal cap to that first part of her sound.

100-4

Mandy Moore (16) / Lupe Fiasco (17) / Jody Watley (18) / Dannii Minogue (19) / Prince (20)

 Amanda Leigh (Storefront, 2009): I really loved that this was the summation of Moore’s Coverage (2003) and Wild Hope (2007).  Amanda Leigh placed its affection directly in the pocket of 70’s pop and a keen ear will hear her many influences―notably the Carpenters. Moore as a singer made this album a real treat as she wore a variety of hats depending on the song being handled.

Food & Liquor (Atlantic, 2006): My first hip-hop record. I have to be honest, it was my hormones that drew me to Lupe Fiasco; once his music hit my ears, I was a fan. His usage of samples and how he built his stories around them was beautiful. I had never heard hip-hop sound mournful and emotional―yet, there was this devil may care approach in how the songs were expressed. 

Midnight Lounge (Avitone, 2003): Jody Watley has one of the most progressive bodies of work in R&B. From album-to-album, Watley preserved her persona while refining her sound. When I heard Midnight Lounge, its mix of soul and electronica was effortless; the record was revolutionary for Watley and R&B music.

Neon Nights (London, 2003): Where dance and pop intersected best in the last 15 years; Dannii Minogue’s Neon Nights was the record I danced to when I started (gay) clubbing. Outside of its obvious nostalgia, the LP has held up in the ensuing years―especially when compared to the plastic EDM peddled now. 

Parade (Warner Brothers, 1986): Coming off of Around the World in a Day (1985)―Prince at his most pop―the Minneapolis titan managed to rope back in his black base without sacrificing his roving (genre) eye. This album was free, sexy and practical too. He kept churning out some serious master jams, but this LP remains at the summit of Prince’s output.

[Editor’s Note: Please visit your local record store or online retailer for information on availability.-QH]

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Senses Working Overtime: Mandy Moore’s “Coverage” Turns 10

Coverage era Mandy Moore

Coverage era Mandy Moore

Moore’s junior album Coverage, excusing a repackaged edition of her debut in 2000, demurely appeared in the fall of 2003. It preceded her colleague Britney Spears’ In the Zone (2003) by a whole month. While Moore’s album went unnoticed, in a broader commercial sense, Spears enjoyed another smash. Ironic then a decade later, while Spears is still setting the charts alight, her output is for lack of a better word, uninspired. Moore’s Coverage on the other hand was a signal to one of the surprising resets in pop music.

The History

Moore’s rise in the wake of Spears and Christina Aguilera, at first, was nothing but the product of the American boom of pre-fab pop in 1999. Unlike the bluster of Aguilera, the dullness of Spears and the facelessness of Jessica Simpson, Moore’s voice was the right mix of ability and charisma; with it, Moore powered modest hits (“Candy,” “I Wanna Be With You”).

It wasn’t until her (official) second, eponymous album in 2001 that Moore’s ambition made more than a curious ripple. The worldly flash of “In My Pocket” remains one of the better moments of an epoch when pop began its march toward (artistic) extinction Stateside. The lovely “Cry” featured in the film ‘A Walk to Remember’, an adaption of the Nicholas Sparks book; the movie was Moore’s big co-lead role that led her to a lucrative cinematic career that stands tall today. Both of the stated songs had marked improvements over the fluffier works of So Real (1999), Moore’s debut. Moore’s recent interest in musicality led her back to the songbooks her parents shared with her as a child; namely the tunes of the 1970’s and early 1980’s.

The Record

Moore, circa 2003

Moore, circa 2003

Moore’s switch had to be done correctly; she was not the first pop starlet who used a “credible” catalyst to mark a career transformation. Her attention to this detail led her to producer John Fields; working within both the conventional and unconventional brackets of popular music, he had a vision of how to keep Moore’s change authentic, but commercial enough. Moore’s overall sound arc for Coverage embraced a general, but engaging mixture of adult contemporary, folk, and pop / rock of the previously mentioned decades.

With Fields’ help she enlisted a crack band of musicians who gave the record a full, colorful feeling. Notably, two men present for the Coverage sessions, Tommy Barbarella (keyboards) and Michael Bland (drums), had worked with Prince for the bulk of the 1990’s in his second long running studio / touring band The New Power Generation. Everything was aligned for execution, all that was needed now were the songs.

Regardless of when, who, or why, a successful covers record will score or misfire based on the strength (or weakness) of its song selection. Moore wisely balanced accessibility and intrigue in her awareness of the discographies she was paying tribute to: “Senses Working Overtime” (XTC), “The Whole of the Moon” (The Waterboys), “Can We Still Be Friends?” (Todd Rundgren), “I Feel the Earth Move” (Carole King), “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” (Elton John), “Drop the Pilot” (Joan Armatrading), “Moonshadow” (Cat Stevens), “One Way or Another” (Blondie), “Breaking Us In Two” (Joe Jackson), “Anticipation” (Carly Simon), “Help Me” (Joni Mitchell), “Have a Little Faith In Me” (John Hiatt).

A segued trio began Coverage: “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Whole of the Moon” and “Can We Still Be Friends?”. Moore trademarked her sonic restart with vocal harmonic layering (apparent on all three tracks); this technique would worm its way into Coverage’s following projects. Otherwise, Moore imbued the works with romantic recklessness and a sadness beyond her years. The productions themselves were bright and florid; they kept stride with Moore’s singing.

There were some safe numbers, namely “I Feel the Earth Move” and “One Way or Another,” but Moore’s respect for the originals could be blamed for that. Moore did elevate the stakes on her take of “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters”; her phrasing clean, but not lacking emotional punch, carried the prose of the song. In many ways, Coverage’s true star was Moore’s vocal; at times, she orbited the initial versions due to the sheer boundlessness of her range. Visits with “Drop the Pilot,” “Anticipation” and a strikingly resonant slant on “Have a Little Faith In Me” confirmed her victory.

Coverage’s tight presentation was poised to give Moore the winning feat of reintroducing her earthier, but politely polished persona.

The Impact

On 7/15/03, a drab single remix of “Have a Little Faith In Me” dropped; the single edit sucked the spirit (and purpose) from what Moore was trying to achieve with Coverage. Neither an older crowd or her younger followers were biting this confused lead single; it did land on the U.S. Billboard Top 40 Mainstream Chart (#39).

Alternate Cover to Deluxe Edition of Coverage

Alternate Cover to the Deluxe Edition of Coverage

Directly after Coverage released on 10/21/03, the first international single was pulled (“Drop the Pilot,” 10/28/03). Its natural uptempo vibe might have been better received by her pop base of old; but the single wasn’t for American audiences. Instead it was ushered to Brazil and the Philippines without making an echo in either locales.

The album didn’t meet more than mild positions at home (U.S. Billboard 200 #14) and abroad in Australia (ARIA #97). Critically, Moore hadn’t gotten out of the line of fire completely from her past indiscretions as far as some pundits were concerned.

Rolling Stone critic Jon Caramanica both criticized and praised Moore’s “middling” talent as he called it:

Effortlessly genial and impossibly well-scrubbed, Mandy Moore is almost shimmery enough to overshadow her middling vocal talent on Coverage. Taking on familiar songs, though, always unearths the rough edges beneath the polish, especially when they sound flat wrong emanating from the mouth of America’s peppiest 19-year-old. Listen to Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow” or the Waterboys’ “The Whole of the Moon,” on which Moore wails, “While you filled the skies/I was dumbfounded by truth” about as convincingly as a flight attendant. Other tracks that were rendered indelible by previous vocalists — Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two” — sound little better than American Idol outtakes here. The irony is that in denaturing these songs, Moore truly makes them her own.

However, there were some commentators that saw to the core of Moore’s Coverage. All Music Guide veteran Stephen Thomas Erlewine opined: 

Moore decided to broaden her horizons and position herself for a long-term career with her third album, Coverage. With this record, she leaves dance-pop behind and heads toward mature pop — and in a far more effective fashion than Jessica Simpson’s Andy Williams revamp In This Skin — by positioning herself, with the assistance of producer/engineer John Fields, as a pop/rock singer by covering classic singer/songwriters such as Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens, and Elton John, as well as cult pop icons like XTC’s Andy Partridge, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Joe Jackson, and Todd Rundgren.

Though the selections Moore and Fields have made are predictable — each songwriter is showcased by one of his or her best-known songs, with the arguable exception of “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” for Elton and Bernie Taupin — that does make sense, since it piques curiosity: listeners will want to know how does Mandy Moore sing “Can We Still Be Friends,” “I Feel the Earth Move,” and “Senses Working Overtime.” The answer: pretty good, actually.

“Drop the Pilot”

Directed By: Nick DiBella

Excusing a platinum and two gold certifications for her previous recordings, Moore wasn’t the chartbuster Spears and Aguilera were. The continual sales slip of Coverage (moving just 294,000 copies as of 2009*) could at least be seen as admirable due to its creative factor. The official second single, “Senses Working Overtime,” was issued on 1/17/04 with no promotion.

Epic Records and Moore quickly, if amicably, parted ways; Epic unceremoniously issued the The Best of Mandy Moore later in 2004 to Moore’s annoyance. Hindsight shows that Epic could have tried putting a push behind Moore’s LP; another wave of singer-songwriters of the Venusian persuasion had appeared at the dawn of the 2000’s (Avril Lavigne, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton). Moore’s Coverage would have been right at home.

Moore’s repetoire as an actress built up steadily from 2004 to as recent as 2012; some of her box office hits included  ‘Saved!’ (2004), ‘License to Wed’ (2007) and Walt Disney’s ‘Tangled’ (2010). Music, never far from Moore’s heart, remained a part of her focus. The seeds that were sown on Coverage blossomed on Wild Hope (2007) and Amanda Leigh (2009); the latter record was birthed in the afterglow of her marriage to country singer Ryan Adams in 2009. Both albums had Moore writing her own material, this led to the complete acceptance of Moore within the singer-songwriter format she started reaching for on Coverage.

Amanda Leigh in particular had Moore’s full powers staged properly; it was here that she trumped her former peers who’d spent the mass of the 2000’s clumsily trying to prove their “serious” mettle. Coverage didn’t herald Moore as a sales darling; it did show one of the quieter, but no less magnificent transformations in modern pop when one sticks to their truth. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: *-Follow the hyperlink to Billboard for the certifications of Moore’s recordings as of 2009. There are two editions of Coverage, the standard and the deluxe (w/ a bonus DVD about Coverage’s creation). Coverage is in print and readily available physically and digitally. For current news on Mandy Moore, visit her Twitter page as her official website is under construction. Banner created by Andrew Bird.-QH]

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