Tag Archives: Donna Summer

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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The QH Blend Elsewhere in 2014

OtherAssignments

The QH Blend had a very busy year with its essays being published on both PopMatters and Blogcritics. If you’ve missed the essays, I’ve collected them all here; see below for the specific link to the corresponding artist that you’re interested in.  My selections from 2014 will be appearing soon, so be on the lookout!

Beyoncé / Brandy / Madonna & Kylie Minogue / Alanis Morissette / SealDonna Summer / Kim Wilde

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I’m Free: Donna Summer’s “Cats Without Claws” Turns 30

Promotional poster for Cats Without Claws

Promotional poster for Cats Without Claws

Ten years had passed since Donna Summer arrived with Lady of the Night (Groovy Records, 1974). In the decade that ensued Summer rarely rested, reshaping popular music with a string of albums and singles that defined a generation.

Later, Summer shifted into the second phase of her recording career with The Wanderer (1980). Her inaugural set for Geffen Records heralded that the “Queen of Disco” was casting off to embrace her pop spirit.

Summer’s third Geffen release Cats Without Claws―and 11th studio album overall―was her first commercial miss. Subsequently, the record fell into obscurity, all but forgotten outside of Summer’s core constituency. Listening to Cats Without Claws 30 years removed from its inception, one can hear the complexity of pop’s most misunderstood voice steady in its exploration of new sonic shores.

The History

When Summer left Casablanca Records, home to the first half of her discography, she took up residency at the newly launched Geffen Records. An industry power player, David Geffen saw the rebranding potential in Donna Summer; she herself proved game for change with The Wanderer. The record secured critical acclaim and modest sales. Importantly, it made Summer one of the few viable black acts in the now alabaster post-disco, pre-Thriller (1982) pop world of the early 1980’s.

What came next were a series of career hiccups for Summer. I’m a Rainbow―the last record Summer cut with principal partners Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte―was shelved by Geffen. The ambitious new wave dancer―later issued in 1996 via Mercury / Polygram Records―didn’t seem sales savvy to the label head. As a result, Summer was paired with modern maestro Quincy Jones for her eponymous effort that appeared in 1982. Donna Summer invoked ire and praise with it being Summer’s debut trek into R&B; it produced the charter “Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)”.

"Supernatural Love" single cover

“Supernatural Love” single cover

To add to the pressure, Polygram Records, who now owned the Casablanca Records label, reminded Summer that she contractually still owed them an album. Summer saw this as an opportunity to release a record she’d recently cut with producer Michael Omartian.

A potpourri of rock, synth and soul-pop, She Works Hard for the Money (1983) became the prize record of Summer’s 1980’s stretch; the hit Geffen wanted for himself but, effectively, rejected had come and gone. She Works Hard for the Money was merely the blueprint for what came next, musically, for Donna Summer.

The Record

Summer remained partnered with Michael Omartian for the follow-up to She Works Hard For the Money. Omartian, a former A&R staffer, had become an in-demand producer of the period. Excusing input from Summer’s husband, former Brooklyn Dreams vocalist Bruce Sudano, Omartian commented on he and Summer’s working relationship:

On the last album we began writing together and found that we really enjoyed the procedure. Donna and I would spend about 5 or 6 hours a day workingyou know, she’s (Donna) really gifted with melodies. So we’d put together a tune with drum machines, then put it away. Two weeks later we’d take it all out, review it and select what we wanted.

We decided up front not to clog up the tracks, so we really didn’t cut them with a lot of folks. We used the drummer’s tracks and my keyboards as a basic guide, which left everything wide open and uncluttered. So, from the beginning, you’re not committed to a certain direction. This makes things more flexible and you end up with much less in the way. We also decided not to involve other names in duets and backgrounds, so this album really is a personal statement, very straight-ahead. Besides, everybody’s doing duets and stuff; where does it end?

Cats Without Claws photo shoot contact sheet; shot by Harry Langdon

Cats Without Claws photo shoot contact sheet; shot by Harry Langdon

Cats Without Claws, a focused song cycle about humanity (at its best and worst), was inspired by Summer’s own spiritual travels.

Barring two emotionally driven covers―“There Goes My Baby” (The Drifters) and “Forgive Me” (Reba Rambo)―Cats Without Claws was a Donna Summer original. Looping back around to “There Goes My Baby” and “Forgive Me,” both songs gripped an understated warmth thanks to their sensitively sequenced synthesizers. In particular, “There Goes My Baby” had Summer tease the song’s teen angst into a much more palpable pathos than heard in the original recording by The Drifters.

Mood acted as an integral ingredient on Cats Without Claws; the titular piece, another of Summer’s social commentaries, put the listener into a dangerous cityscape. With its slasher-flick synths, various effects and colorful vocal, Summer captured the disillusionment of urban life. That voracious vocal acting heard on the title track reared its head throughout the rest of the long player. Torchy on “Maybe It’s Over” and cool on the freestyle flash of “Face the Music”―the flipside to “Supernatural Love”―Summer held fast to her chameleonic talent.

As a songwriter, Summer continued to advance as affirmed on the dank voyeurism of “Eyes” and the insistent “Supernatural Love”. The latter, along with “It’s Not the Way,” were 80’s beat-pop candies that melded contemporary dance music with pop melodies. Summer even added her flavor to the “island craze” sweeping popular music at the time with “Suzanna” and “I’m Free”.

The song structures were among her best; Cats Without Claws owned Summer’s finest middle-eight’s recorded. The bruised “Oh Billy Please” exemplified this with the song’s configuration changing without warning to a floorfiller halfway through. It made for exciting listening.

Not since Lady of the Night had Summer been so stylishly pop and succinct. Cats Without Claws promised to get the charts chatting with its contents.

The Impact

Cats Without Claws arrived Stateside on 9/4/84; “There Goes My Baby” preceded the album by several weeks as its lead single. The single became a mild hit―U.S. #21, U.S. R&B #20, U.S. A/C #17―though it was a disappointment after the frenzied reception of “She Works Hard for the Money”.

Single cover to "Eyes"

Single cover to “Eyes”

The year of 1984 saw established talent like Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan and Linda Ronstadt―peers to Summer―present projects that met commercial success; Turner obviously led the charge with her Private Dancer album.

Then there were the new girls on the scene: Pat Benatar, Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna. All of these new voices had sprung up in rock, R&B, pop and dance―genres Summer had conquered at different points in the past. Summer’s competition was considerable this time around.

At home, Cats Without Claws made modest headway: U.S. Billboard 200 #40, U.S. Top R&B / Hip-Hop #24. The long player worked itself into the international markets later in the month of September with varying degrees of impact: U.K. #69, Germany #39, Denmark #13, Sweden #10, Norway #15, Netherlands #19.

Summer blazed through a decent promotional trail for the record domestically and abroad; notable American appearances included ‘American Bandstand and ‘Soul Train. The latter allowed Summer an opportunity to memorably elaborate on the themes of Cats Without Claws with the show’s host, Don Cornelius.

The album failed to find its audience and became Summer’s first recording to not achieve gold certification since her commercial ascendancy in 1975. Critically, the album mostly went over well with critics. Rolling Stone writer Christopher Connelly opined:

Buoyantly tunfeul, admirably restrained and only occasionally silly, Cats Without Claws continues the resurgence of Donna Summer. As on She Works Hard for the Money, producer Michael Omartian displays Summer’s considerable talents to their best advantage.

Producers tend to swathe divas like Summer in yards of backing tracks, but Omartian has wisely used spare settings, with a solid, uncomplicated rhythm section and just the right touch of high tech.

Others weren’t as charmed by Cats Without Claws; Ralph Novak of People Magazine selected the album as a “pan” for their “Picks and Pans” feature:

Prevention of Any More Songs Using the Metaphor “Flame Burn Higher” should be alerted, since that phrase is part of “Supernatural Love,” a Summer-Michael Omartian-Bruce Sudano song on this LP. That sort of unimaginative material is, in fact, all too prevalent. The title song has some possibilities at least, and Summer’s revival of the 1959 Drifters’ classic, “There Goes My Baby,” is fun—though it peters out as if nobody could think of a smart way to end it.

Summer’s voice and lyrics are so much at the service of the rhythmic thrust of these basically dull songs, however, that she has to be in peak form, singing something that is sharp and clever, to make much of an impact. Since Bad Girls she has too often ended up with pedestrian material.

“There Goes My Baby”

Directed By: Ian Leech

Two additional singles were pulled from Cats Without Claws as 1984 wrapped: “Supernatural Love” (U.S. #75, U.S. R&B #51, U.S. Dance #17) and “Eyes”; neither were able to revive the recording. All wasn’t lost as Summer netted a “Best Inspirational Performance” Grammy for “Forgive Me” that year. It was her second win in that Grammy category after she garnered one for “He’s a Rebel” in 1983, an album cut from She Works Hard for the Money.

Summer took everything in stride and emboldened by a decade of more successes than failures, she took respite with her family for the next two years. Summer produced another quality effort for Geffen Records before closing that tenure of her career—All Systems Go (1987). Summer scaled the charts again with her Atlantic Records backed Another Place and Time (1989) LP.

The usually lazy generalization with Summer’s 1980’s output was that she struggled to find her footing post-Casablanca Records. Cats Without Claws, like any of the records she cut from 1980 through 1989, had Summer trying out new sounds on her terms. The music was eclectic, axiomatic proof that Summer had come “out from under shadows” and that pop had worked its “miracle” on her once again. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: For years, Cats Without Claws was the most expensive out of print recording in Summer’s discography. This album, along with the remainder of Summer’s Geffen and Atlantic records, will finally be reissued on 12/1/14. For information on the reissues and Summer’s continuing legacy, please visit her official Facebook page. Special thanks to the dedicated fan space Donna Tribute for valuable research information. Recast Harry Langdon photograph artwork courtesy  of Travis Müller.-QH]

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Donna Summer’s “Lady of the Night” Turns 40 on Blogcritics

"Lady of the Night" cover

Lady of the Night cover

My essay on Donna Summer’s debut LP Lady of the Night (1974) is up for reading now at Blogcritics, where it was first published. Celebrating Donna Summer’s 40th year anniversary in popular music, I peer into this obscured gem of a recording and its impact on Summer’s recording legacy. Make sure to check it out!

 

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“Bedtime Stories” & “Kylie Minogue” Turn 20

Minogue & Madonna, circa 1994

Minogue & Madonna, circa 1994

Head on over to PopMatters to view my 20th anniversary essay on Madonna’s Bedtime Stories and Kylie Minogue’s eponymous fifth album. Both records were groundbreaking in restructuring the dance-pop departure model as created by Donna Summer with The Wanderer (1980).

[Editor’s Note: Above art courtesy of Travis Müller.-QH]

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The QH Blend’s Year in Music

2013-Content-Marketing-Trends
Hits

V V Brown: Samson and Delilah^ (YOY)

Samson and Delilah

Record of 2013

Synopsis: From glowing to gothic, Brown’s Samson and Delilah brought the dark side to the illumination of her debut Travelling Like the Light (2009 / 2010). Dense, electronic and highly emotive, Brown’s command of her abilities allowed her to avoid empty pop rhetoric, in short the “artpop” prize of 2013 for sheer craftsmanship goes to Ms. Brown.

[Listen / Watch: “Samson“]

!!!: Thr!!!er (Warp)

Thriller

Synopsis: Dance-punk freaks ‘n’ geeks !!! (pronounced and stylized as “ChkChkChk”) topped themselves (yet again) on their fifth project Thr!!!er. From blues to synth, these pop pirates spared no expense when they redefined their dancefloor hijinks. Oh, they’re also very brainy lyricists if one paid attention to the words alongside the grooves here.

[Listen / Watch: “Californiyeah“]

Amel Larrieux: Ice Cream Everyday^ (Blisslife)

IceCreamEveryday

Synopsis: An alternative soul record that was uncompromised, but equally inviting? After a seven-year absence Larrieux’s Ice Cream Everyday was full of flavors: celebratory, cerebral, nocturnal, sexual and sensitive. It helped that Larrieux’s voice hadn’t lost its twinkle, it made the sugar of this treat taste so wonderful.

[Listen: “Afraid“]

Omar: The Man (Shanachie)

TheManSynopsis: Terms like icon, underrated and gifted will be bandied around when British pioneer Omar is brought up. Not missing a beat since Sing (If You Want It) (2006), The Man was enriched by classic funk, some newer R&B widgets and Omar’s own awareness of his (rightful) greatness.

[Listen / Watch: “The Man“]

Texas: The Conversation* (PIAS)

ConversationSynopsis: They’re back again; after two years shy of a decade in silence, Scottish crew Texas unveiled their most focused set of music since The Hush (1999). While the sound of it, on an initial listen, recalled the blue denim vibes of their pre-White On Blonde (1997) output, the pristine finish to the LP could only come from years of practice on their blend of rock, pop and blue-eyed soul.

[Listen / Watch: “The Conversation“]

Alice Smith: She (Rainwater)

SheSynopsis: For Lovers, Dreamers & Me (2006), Smith’s debut, leaned on the alt-side; far from an R&B-sell-out, the acquired soulful sway of She felt like a progression of certain moments from the aforementioned For Lovers…LP. Smith’s voice contained enough character to not be identi-kit, the ideal lure for first timers unaware of her beguiling presence.

[Listen: “Ocean“]

Janelle Monáe: The Electric Lady^ (Bad Boy / Wondaland)

ElectricLadySynopsis: The femme upstart of rhythm and blues showed no mercy on her second full length long player. Monáe spanned the epochs of black music through the eyes of her character Cindi Mayweather, a freedom fighting android; along for the ride was a tidy clutch of guest spots (notably reigning in the often irrepressible Prince). Progressive and retro, Monáe’s contradictions were aural candy for her listeners.

[Listen / Watch: “Dance Apocalyptic“]

KT Tunstall: Invisible Empire //Crescent Moon^ (Blue Note / Universal)

InvisibleCrescentSynopsis: Stripped all the way back after the frenetic (and underrated) Tiger Suit (2010), Tunstall put the emphasis on her voice and lyrics. The ambitious album was recorded in two different intervals and inspired by two different events, despite this the narrative of loss and recovery translated. Musically, the folk-fizz garnished the stated lyrical /vocal deliveries so eloquently they mesmerized.

[Listen / Watch: “Made of Glass“]

The Brand New Heavies: Forward (Shanachie)

ForwardSynopsis: Finally, the true stars behind one of the leading acid jazz outfits stepped to the front on Forward. Jan Kincaid (drums, vocals), Simon Bartholomew (guitar, vocals) and Andrew Levy (bass) have been the nucleus for The Heavies since their inception. Here they employed new (Dawn Joseph) and old (N’Dea Davenport) talent to execute their exquisite cross-section of disco and jazz that tied Shelter (1997) for their finest album to date.

[Listen / Watch: “Sunlight“]

John Legend: Love in the Future^ (GOOD / Columbia)

LoveinFutureSynopsis: A striking compromise of elements from Once Again (2006) and Evolver (2008), Love in the Future was nothing short of a handsome masterpiece for Legend. Hitting hard and pulling back when necessary, Legend’s fourth record tightroped between production muscle and vocal nuance with a ridiculous sense of ease.

[Listen / Watch: “Made to Love“]

Alison Moyet: The Minutes (Cooking Vinyl)

TheMinutesSynopsis: The very essence of the word “chanteuse,” Moyet’s mighty career has spanned decades and styles. The Minutes, a reach-around to her electro-pop roots, toggled between darkness and desire; Moyet stood stellar throughout the record, her pipes just as haunting as ever.

[Listen / Watch: “Changeling“]

Dawn Richard: Goldenheart (101)

GoldenheartSynopsis: Even if you’re underwhelmed by her girl group connection (recently reestablished) with Danity Kane, Richard’s first LP Goldenheart suggested that alone she held more power than imagined. Goldenheart’s embrace of mainstream and underground black club culture, with a few other surprises along its length, captivated.

[Listen / Watch: “’86“]

Orchestral Manouevres in the Dark: English Electric (BMG / 100%)

EnglishElectricSynopsis: For most, the (now) fossilized immortality of their 1980’s evergreen “If You Leave” will be where familiarity begins and ends with OMD. That is unfortunate as their career has included 11 records and existed well outside of a “nostalgia” context; the boldly named English Electric (their 12th record) has their touch of mechanized pop, honed to perfection.

[Listen / Watch: “Metroland“]

Lisa Loeb: No Fairy Tale (429)

NoFairyTaleSynopsis: Quirky and quick, Lisa Loeb’s comeback to the traditional album format was quite welcome.  The rock, bordering on new wave, undercurrent to No Fairy Tale made it Loeb’s “toughest” project since Tails (1995). No Fairy Tale was not a breakaway record, but an affirmation of her songwriter driven pop that has taken many forms throughout her discography.

[Listen / Watch: “No Fairy Tale“]

Gloria Estefan: The Standards^ (Crescent Moon / Sony)

TheStandardsSynopsis: Her second covers record, The Standards drew its sketches on a posh, but not opulent canvas. Estefan’s seasoned, impassioned voice, the true wonder of the piece, didn’t overdo or undersell itself. Pretty, painted and patient, The Standards had Estefan giving another unsurpassed performance.

[Listen / Watch: “How Long Has This Been Going On?“]

Backstreet Boys: In a World Like This^ (K-Bahn / BMG)

InaWorldSynopsis: While critics have sniped that the Backstreet Boys have coasted on past glories recently, they’ve continued assuredly since 2005’s Never Gone. Now back to quintet status with Kevin Richardson’s homecoming, In a World Like This built on the previous momentum of their last three recordings. Their harmonies as rich and dapper as before had the Backstreet Boys show that aging gracefully was not a bad thing.

[Listen / Watch: “Show ‘Em (What You’re Made Of)“]

Agnetha Fältskog: A (Universal)

ASynopsis: Nine years separated Ms. Fältskog from My Colouring Book (2004), her last LP. With A, this former one-fourth of ABBA peered back to a romantic ethos often missing in today’s pop landscape. Interestingly, the sound of A mixed erstwhile affections with modish soundscapes; vocally, Fältskog remained as clear and lovely as she ever was.

[Listen / Watch: “When You Really Loved Someone“]

Almost, But …

Nabiha: Mind the Gap* (disco: wax / Sony)

Almost, But...of 2013

Almost, But…of 2013

Synopsis: This Danish wondergirl slammed into the scene with 2010’s Cracks; snappy and sparkly, her “is it soul, is it pop?” tunes were refreshing. Her follow-up, Mind the Gap mined the same minerals as her debut. Sadly, the music of Mind the Gap has been scrubbed too clean and made Nabiha’s sophomore effort slump. That said, Nabiha’s holding pattern is still beyond the banality in pop today.

[Listen / Watch: “Mind the Gap“]

Chrisette Michele: Better^ (Universal-Motown / Def Jam)

BetterSynopsis: While not the dismal drop in quality it was dismissed as, Let Freedom Reign’s (2010) commercial failure was a pivot point for Michele. Either return to the wholesome neo-soul of her debut or continue to reshape current R&B to her personality. Michele went for the latter and serviced her bright (if at times brittle) soul music on her fourth LP; her greatest platter has yet to be realized.

[Listen / Watch: “A Couple of Forevers“]

Dido: Girl Who Got Away^ (RCA)

GirlWhoGotAwaySynopsis: This hushed-pop figure’s fourth affair, Girl Who Got Away, was strewn carefully with several detours to eliminate the sameness that caused Safe Trip Home (2008) to drag. That said, length marred Girl; the record would have benefitted from trimming to bring out its subtle, but inherent charms.

[Listen / Watch: “No Freedom“]

B.Slade: Stunt  B%$@H # (Suxxess)

StuntBitchSynopsis: A wildcard, B.Slade (formerly known as gospel singer Tonéx) uncovered his ninth record, the aptly titled Stunt B%$@H, to consolidate his erratic musings. The LP was boundary deficient in its grasp of black music from the last three decades (at least); Slade merged era’s within one song like a Mr. Hyde opposite to Janelle Monáe’s Dr. Jekyll. That was the Achilles heel to Slade’s LP, too much in one sitting to consume.

[Listen / Watch: “Tipsy“]

Hanson: Anthem (3CG)

AnthemSynopsis: The Hanson men keep them comin’, three years behind 2010’s Shout It Out, Anthem appeared. More Americana rock than the soul-pop of Shout It Out, the songs showcased craft in lieu of charisma. However, that musicianship can’t be denied, in 2013 there aren’t many bands that played so well on the wax as Hanson have.

[Listen / Watch: “Get the Girl Back“]

Ciara: Ciara^ (Epic)

CiaraSynopsis: A perfumed puff of post-Basic Instinct (2010) smoke, Ciara’s eponymous fifth record rarely broke a sweat being so cool; that is both a good and bad thing. No one can resist Ciara’s cruise-worthy crooning, but the perception is that Ciara is hiding behind her “hold the wall and head bob to the beat” persona. If she has something to share artistically, one has a feeling she does, then she should indulge versus coast.

[Listen / Watch: “Body Party“]

Misses

Céline Dion: Loved Me Back to Life^ (Columbia)

Miss of 2013

Miss of 2013

Synopsis: It isn’t her vocals, those are intact, but the songs themselves; lyrically and musically, Dion’s arrangements were flaccid on this outing. Coming on the heels of the fantastic Sans Attendre (2012) and three shaky, but increasingly improved English LPs in the last decade, Loved Me Back to Life lacked the interpretive spirit of her last two records. All one is left with is two solid covers (“At Seventeen,” “How Do You Keep the Music Playing”) and a wealth of monochromatic pop.

[Listen / Watch: “Loved Me Back to Life“]

LL Cool J: Authentic^ (S-BRO /429)

AuthenticSynopsis: Plagued from Mr. Smith (1994) onward, LL Cool J’s records began slipping; this isn’t to say sales evaded him, in fact he continued to be a commercial contender well into the 2000’s. The quality of LL’s records became spotty though, as such the lofty theory of Authentic is a miss as LL is conquered by too many features and a minimum of “back-to-basics” applications.

[Listen / Watch: “Take It“]

Little Mix: DNA^ (Syco)

DNASynopsis: Even with production / songwriting help from established girl group icons and producers of said icons, Little Mix’s debut lacked personality. They sang wonderfully, but the antiseptic essence that pervaded DNA does nothing for them. A handful of cuts permitted the girls to get out of their own way and break the mold; those moments were few and far between.

[Note-DNA received its initial United Kingdom release in 2012, we received it this year. Little Mix’s new LP Salute follows the same trend, it will be eligible for consideration in 2014.]

[Listen / Watch: “Wings“]

Honorable Mention

Donna Summer: Love to Love You Donna (Verve)

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Synopsis: While Summer’s broader pop strengths went (criminally) unexamined, her dance work continued to receive acclaim. This tribute remix set ventured through Summer’s 1970’s material (with a cameo from her 1980’s music in the form of “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)”); Summer’s songs got the golden touch from existing electronic and dance-pop barons such as Chromeo, Hot Chip and Summer’s past principal producer Giorgio Moroder. The results were explosive.

[Listen / Watch: “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)” Chromeo Mix]

Indie Spotlight of 2013

Promis: Indiscretions (JFP)

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Synopsis: Chilean-born, Los Angeles reared singer-songwriter Promis has spent close to a decade whittling his formula of cabaret pop. On Indiscretions, his sixth full-length affair, Promis cut his European eccentricities with several spices that weave their spell effectively. Distinctly his own man and artist, Promis’ music has a sure bet for longevity.

[Listen / Watch: “50 Bucks From Me“]

Considerations of 2013

Boy George: This Is What I Do, Tamar Braxton: Love and War, Cher: Closer To the Truth, Natalie Cole: Natalie Cole En Español, Sheryl Crow: Feels Like Home, Daft Punk: Random Access Memories, Earth, Wind & Fire: Now, Then & Forever, Goldfrapp: Tales of Us, India.Arie: Songversation, Glenn Lewis: Moment of Truth, Teena Marie: Beautiful, Katie Melua: Ketevan, New Kids on the Block: 10, Pet Shops Boys: Electric, Sheila E.: Icon, Robin Thicke: Blurred Lines, Ultra Naté: Hero Worship, Robbie Williams: Swings Both Ways

[Additional Editor Notes: ^=Denotes expanded / alternate edition was reviewed or is available. See respective social media outlets for each artist for further information. *=Denotes album is an import, not a domestic U.S. album. #=denotes digital format availability only.]

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The (Other) Shades of Donna Summer’s Rainbow

Summer, circa 2011

Summer, circa 2011

In the year since her death, to say that Donna Summer has been a hot topic is an understatement. Subjects from Summer’s impact on popular music to inner-race relations have percolated. With her acceptance into the (often) unjustly bias Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, Summer’s music has been closely scrutinized. Enter “the lists.” In this media-soaked age we dwell in, everyone and their opinion about Summer has had a say. Case and point, lists such as these, though well-intentioned, are usually obvious. It isn’t that the songs contained in the hyperlink aren’t deserving, but just boring. Who wants to read a list with the same songs that people pick all the time? Especially with it becoming, if slowly, more apparent that Donna Summer’s work was bountiful in its styles. I often, and with love, use the expression that Summer was the “Empress of Pop”; but the full range of her powers remains misunderstood and rarely mentioned. It ain’t all about the dancefloor with Summer.

To prove my point, I have selected my own collection of 10 songs culled from Summer’s four decades in music. Please understand, due to the vast nature of Summer’s discography, I couldn’t include everything. An honorable mention must go out to the contents of her 1984 opus Cats Without Claws. Open your ears, minds, and hearts and vibe to the rainbow of Donna Summer’s musical journey.

Down_Deep_Inside_(Germany)10. “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”* from ‘The Deep’ Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1977)

Thoughts: Lost to the tides of this thriller film from the 70’s, “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)” has become something of a rare disco classic for Summer. Released as a single in 1977, the song combined Summer’s lyrics to elements from the movie score under direction from the late John Barry. Yes, that John Barry known for his work on countless Bond themes. Regrettably Barry and Summer never got around to doing a Bond theme themselves; this sensually dark trip replete with otherworldly guitar allowed Summer to channel her classic “Love to Love You Baby” vocals over one of the most dynamic arrangements she’d record.

[Listen to “Theme from ‘The Deep’ (Down, Deep Inside)”]

DonnaSummerCrayons9. “Crayons”** from Crayons (2008)

Thoughts: This tangy morsel was from Summer’s first album of original material since 1991’s Mistaken Identity. Never one to rest on her laurels, Summer threw herself into the island-flavor of the titular cut. She even brought along reggae royalty with a feature from Bob Marley’s son, Ziggy. The results were one of Summer’s patented social commentary numbers that grooved the head and heart. Spirited and (as ever) in fantastic form, Summer sounded recharged and ready for the pop landscape in 2008.

[Listen to “Crayons“]

ladynightsing8. “Lady of the Night”* from Lady of the Night (1974)

Thoughts: Often, many omit or forget about Summer’s first hit album Lady of the Night. While it wouldn’t find itself in print on our shores for many years, it was the album that got Summer her start in Europe. The title song made a case for Summer’s European romance. A lush collision of accordion, Moog synthesizer and dramatic flair helped “Lady of the Night” become one of those larger-than-life jams that are impossible to sit through without moving along to its sweet music.

[Listen/Watch “Lady of the Night“]

DonnaSummer-OnceUponATime-Front7. “A Man Like You”** from Once Upon a Time (1977)

Thoughts: This smooth slow dance was one of Summer’s straight-ahead R&B tracks. Complete with robust brass and a solid, soulful vocal from Summer, the song slightly stuck out among the chillier pop that lined the remainder of Once Upon a Time. “A Man Like You” was a neat break in the Euro-pop disco model that suggested Summer, as always, was more than meets the eye, in this instance ear.

[Listen to “A Man Like You“]

DONNA SUMMER  The Wanderer6.“Breakdown”** from The Wanderer (1980)

Thoughts: Some were blindsided by the  “sudden” shift into rock ‘n’ roll Summer pulled with The Wanderer. Bad Girls (1979) this wasn’t. However, The Wanderer’s music was so accomplished and potent it just couldn’t be denied. “Breakdown,” one of the funkier moments on the album, was a lost opportunity to be selected as a single. Here, Summer confesses her philandering ways and how her recollection of the act has caused her “breakdown.”

[Listen to “Breakdown“]

donna-summer-a-love-trilogy5. “Come With Me”** from A Love Trilogy (1976)

Thoughts: Spicy and sexy, “Come With Me” drew the perfect close to the steamy A Love Trilogy project. From its rattling rhythm section, to its varied hues of Summer’s voice, “Come With Me” brought pathos and desire into a wonderful gestalt. While “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” and “Could It Be Magic” are often what this platter is remembered for, “Come With Me” platforms that the album sides had plenty to offer as well.

[Listen to “Come With Me“]

Allsystemsgo4. “Fascination”** from All Systems Go (1987)

Thoughts: Oh, imagine this. Had “Fascination” been lifted as a single and serviced to the “Quiet Storm” formats, it would have further reinvented Summer. Sadly, it languished as an album side on All Systems Go, the final record of Summer’s stormy, but creatively fulfilling Geffen Records tenure. Here, Summer was restrained and emboldened by her emotion; using the nuance of her abilities she gave an excellent read to the lyrical material housed on this soulful sapphire.

[Listen to “Fascination“]

I'm_A_Rainbow3. “To Turn the Stone”** from I’m a Rainbow (1981/1996)

Thoughts: A breathtaking, almost funereal hymn, “To Turn the Stone” was a ballad that hummed on that same spiritual frequency that some of Summer’s most revelatory numbers did. Over a canopy of soft bagpipes and ethereal synths, Summer’s rhapsody of life was beyond supernatural, it was from another dimension. It, and the rest of her opus I’m a Rainbow, were shelved shrewdly by label-head David Geffen. Summer’s version wouldn’t see the light of day until its reissue in 1996. However, Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA fame covered the song in 1982 on her third solo set, Something’s Going On. Debates still rage today between ABBA and Summer fans of which version of “To Turn the Stone” is definitive.

[Listen to “To Turn the Stone“]

2prhflg2. “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”* from Endless Summer (1994)

Thoughts: Lifted from the single-disc distillation of the superior two-disc Donna Summer Anthology (1993), “Melody of Love” was one of two new recordings utilized for Endless Summer. One of the most powerful and convicted performances from Summer is here; it’s uplifting in that “Dim All the Lights” fashion. Its slow-to-fast transition marked how Summer’s past disco gems were piloted. Moving back to Summer’s vocal take-down of the song, she worked the track with an energy that begged for Summer to service a new record. There was still another 15 years ahead before that transpired.

[Listen/Watch “Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)“-Single Edit]

Donnasummer821. “Lush Life”** from Donna Summer (1982)

Thoughts: The ennui classic created by jazz great Billy Strayhorn has had reads from Nat King Cole, Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah to name some. Summer took a stab at it in 1982 on her eponymous album helmed by the production wizard Quincy Jones. Evoking some of the jazz fusion her peer Chaka Khan was cooking at the same time with albums like What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me (1981), Summer displayed a whole new side to her personae. If anything, “Lush Life” was axiomatic proof that Summer could handle any genre with the same level of dedication and artistry she lended to her past experiments.

[Listen to “Lush Life“]

[Editor’s Note: *-denotes single, **-denotes album cut. Crayons, Lady of the Night, Once Upon a Time,  A Love TrilogyEndless Summer are all in print. The remaining albums the other songs were pulled from are not in print at this time. Please see physical and online retailers for further details. For information on Donna Summer, please visit Donna Summer Tribute.-QH]

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