Tag Archives: Hikaru Utada

The QH Blend’s “100 @ 30”: [21 thru 40]

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Janet Jackson (21) / Diana Ross (22) / Gloria Estefan (23) / Solange (24) / Paula Abdul (25)

20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006): Control (1986) or Damita Jo (2004) easily could have made this list.  But 20 Y.O.’s veteran precision was just too strong to ignore. It was a great vocal showcase in Jackson’s discography―it didn’t hurt that the first half of the album was black dance music done to the nines. Despite its silly title, this was adult R&B with a pinch of youthful spirit.

The Boss (Motown, 1979):  Dress rehearsal for diana (1980)? I think not. Ross’ second-to-last Motown album had her slip into disco with soul. Jams like “It’s My House” and hushed valentines like “I’m in the World” bore Ross’ interpretive streak like no one’s business.

Alma Caribeña (Epic, 2000): The album that opened me up to non-English music. Recalled certain critics observing that Estefan’s voice supposedly shone better in her native tongue. I enjoyed Estefan in-and-out of English myself. However, there is some truth to their statement as the liveliness present on Alma Caribeña poured from every note played and sung.

Sol-Angel & the Hadley Street Dreams (Geffen, 2008): Who would have thought that Solange could pull this rabbit out of popular music’s hat when she did? Her fix on a vintage / modern vocal attack kept my ears glued to this in the late summer of 2008.

Head Over Heels (Virgin, 1995): The musicianship for this? Grade A, top shelf and every other adjective you can plug in. Even if on you don’t like Abdul’s voice―which was exceptionally versatile on Heads Over Heels―the arrangements on the LP were so intelligent. You had jazz, you had hip-hop, you had funk all wrapped together. You just don’t hear that kind of diversity on pop albums anymore. 

Hall & Oates () / Phyllis Hyman () / Randy Crawford () / Jamiroquai () / Michael Jackson ()

Hall & Oates (26) / Phyllis Hyman (27) / Randy Crawford (28) / Jamiroquai (29) / Michael Jackson (30)

X-Static (RCA, 1979): X-Static. The frenzied send-off to Hall & Oates’ patchwork 1970’s era before their 1980’s dominance. That isn’t a knock, Hall & Oates jumped around to every conceivable sound on their initial albums. I adore genre jumping, it’s so pop. Anyway, X-Static was funky and playful―definitely a record for those that like a myriad of music.

Somewhere in My Lifetime (Arista, 1979): God, this woman’s voice. It’s phenomenal. She has many different phases in her discography, but her “bright period” was exceptional on Somewhere in My Lifetime. The right amount of jazz and disco on this offering was a welcome backdrop for a Saturday afternoon.

Everything Must Change (Warner Brothers, 1976): Crawford’s voice possessed kick, but she never fell into gratuitous singing. She complemented the crisp production at play throughout this piece with patience. Everything Must Change made no (sales) ripples, but was a true hidden treasure when I found it.

A Funk Odyssey (Sony, 2001): In light of the “disco revival” that has been raging over the last three years, many forgot that Jamiroquai spearheaded it as far back as 1996. I think they hit their stride with it on A Funk Odyssey. Though their acid jazz had disco at its roots, this was full blown floor killing music. 

Off the Wall (Epic, 1979): The greatest black dance album ever? For once I can actually agree with the masses on this score. Michael Jackson kept making great music post-Off the Wall, but the joyousness evinced on this LP wasn’t present in his later output. 

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P.M. Dawn (31) / Ace of Base (32) / Emma Bunton (33) / Swing Out Sister (34) / George Michael (35)

The Bliss Album…? (Island, 1993): My Dad played this album a lot in the car when I was kid; it would be years before I realized how ahead of the curve P.M. Dawn was with The Bliss Album…?. Truly a black alternative brainchild, it pains me how this act has been relegated to 1990’s nostalgia. This record, along with their other three LPs, are the best alt-soul spinners you’ll hear.

The Bridge (Arista, 1995): Much stronger and wider in its scope than what Ace of Base hinted at with The Sign (1994). When people ask me what my favorite “follow-up” album of all time is, I answer with The Bridge. The world music textures on this transported me to places unseen, their goal I assume. Though I think they improved even more with Flowers / Cruel Summer (1998) and Da Capo (2002), the magic and mystery of The Bridge lives.

Free Me (Universal, 2004): I knew when this record dropped it was going to change the game―for British pop and the overall Spice Girls legacy. Bunton was not the only Brit to dip into the mod-pop pot, but she wore it well. Beautifully sung and produced, Bunton’s second album reset what a former Spice Girl could do artistically (and commercially).

Filth and Dreams (Mercury, 1999): Mentioning 1960’s pop revivalists, Swing Out Sister arguably stamped that movement. What I liked about Filth & Dreams was its modernity mixed with retro pop appeal. While Swing Out Sister were no strangers to melancholy, they courted a solemn air on this project. Personally, I thought the gravitas was pretty.

Older (DreamWorks, 1996): Though Michael wouldn’t come out for another two years, Older played close to the confessional hilt. Michael adjusted the temporal frequency for Older to add hip-hop textures on “Fastlove” and “Spinning the Wheel,” which suited Michael well like his previous black music forays.

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Will Young (36) / Duran Duran (37) / The Supremes (38) / Hikaru Utada (39) /Joni Mitchell (40)

Echoes (RCA, 2011): For my money, Will Young was the real deal when it came to reality show produced talent. The first winner of ‘Pop Idol’ in England, Young took quick creative control of his music. His fifth album caught my attention and I went back to discover his other stuff. But, Young’s understated blend of blue-eyed soul and pop with Echoes made my ears very happy in late 2011. 

Notorious (EMI, 1986): Starting with this funky entry, Duran Duran became a group based in the sound of the period―even if it was not what critics or fans wanted. Slimming down to a trio didn’t halve Duran Duran’s abilities, not to my ears. If anything the division gave them clarity to dress up and get down.

Touch (Motown, 1971): The 1970’s were very kind to The Supremes from an artistic stance. As the album format dawned at the start of that decade, The Supremes shifted away from the singles approach and became a “back-to-front” recording act. Touch was was an ideal play for a rainy day or a bright morning. 

Heart Station (EMI, 2008): The clean production lines on this album were fantastic, and there was a reason why. The LP had taken and applied everything Utada learned from 2002 through to 2006; that stretch of time contained her bravest music recorded. As a result, Heart Station was aware of its structure, but not impeded by it. Utada’s lyrics and vocals synced up and painted a picture of a woman that was in complete control of her artistic expression.

Hejira (Asylum, 1976): Mitchell’s guitar took on many different shapes on Hejira. I’d never known the guitar to possess that kind of versatility displayed―most of the instrumentation was centered on it during the LP’s run time. It was an album that put the listener on a journey through Mitchell’s aural soundscapes of love and life.

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

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The QH Blend’s Class of 2004

20042014

Hello readers! If you missed my 2004-2014 retrospectives from throughout the year, I’ve collected them all for you here. See below for the specific link to the corresponding album that you’re interested in. My selections from 2014 will be appearing soon, so be on the lookout!

Emma Bunton: Free Me (read here)

Vanessa Carlton: Harmonium (read here)

De La Soul: The Grind Date (read here)

En Vogue: Soul Flower (read here)

Janet Jackson: Damita Jo (read here)

Gwen Stefani: Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (read here)

Hikaru Utada: Exodus (read here)

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Easy Breezy: Hikaru Utada’s “Exodus” Turns 10

"Devil Inside" single cover

“Devil Inside” single cover

“I don’t think it’s the music I’m concerned about. It’s obviously that I look really different and there really aren’t any completely Asian people who are popular singers in the U.S. right now”.

Hikaru Utada (宇多田 ヒカル) made this remark around the unveiling of Exodus, her fourth LP. It was Utada’s attempt at penetrating the Western music marketplace after five years of dominance in the EastExodus was never destined for a charmed existence, but Utada was aware of the cultural uphill battle awaiting her album―she didn’t flinch. Utada, then 21, continued on the progressive track of Exodus’ preceding album, Deep River (2002). Exodus was dense, dark and delicious; the album challenged the conventional pop groupthink prominent at the first half of the 2000’s.

Utada was no shrinking violet and Exodus was an uncompromising work that sought to satisfy her own artistic appetites, but somehow appeal to the fickle American pop populace. A decade removed from its release, Exodus retains its charismatic position in Utada’s discography.

The History

The product of two accomplished musicians, Utada was born in New York City, New York in 1983. As a young girl, Utada jetted between Tokyo and New York City due to her parents work commitments―Utada became bilingual very quickly. Language wouldn’t be the only thing imprinted on Utada, she bathed in the cultures of America and Japan.

It was no surprise that Utada took to music and exhibited childlike prodigy traits. Songwriting her penchant, Utada inked a deal with Toshibi EMI who dropped her first major label record Precious (1996). She worked under the pseudonym “Cubic U,” a play on being the “third power” in the Utada family; the record was sung in English and written by a 13 year-old Utada. The album appeared in America and Japan on 1/28/98 and made no headway.

Undaunted, Utada fine-tuned her skills in arranging and producing. A year later, her real debut First Love (1999) caused a sensation in Japan. From 1999 through 2004, Utada monopolized the Japanese music scene with First Love and its followers Distance (2001), Deep River (2002) and Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004)**. Amid her hectic promotional schedule, Utada married her first husband Kazuaki Kiriya (15 years her senior). She also attended Columbia University briefly on a break from recording. In that same span of time, Utada recorded two songs in English for a film (‘Rush Hour 2’) and a video game (“Kingdom Hearts”).

Alternate shot from the Exodus photo shoot

Alternate shot from the Exodus photo shoot

The former, entitled “Blow My Whistle,” had Utada alongside The Neptunes and Foxy Brown; “Blow My Whistle” wouldn’t have been out of place on any of her first three recordings.

The latter, “Simple and Clean,” was a reworking of an established hit single from Deep River, “Hikari” (“Light”). The ethereal appeal of “Simple and Clean” created an immediate cult following, notably in America. Inspired by this, Utada decided again to record an album in English. However, Utada’s soundprint was turning toward something mercurial. Beginning with tentative steps on portions of Deep River, Utada experimented with ethereal wave, dream pop and classical music. All of these things coalesced on “COLORS,” the lone original recording on Utada Hikaru Single Collection Vol. 1 (2004). “COLORS” pointed to a moodier sonic space where the seeds of Exodus were sewn and cultivated.

The Record

Looking past the A&R maneuver to include “input” from Timbaland and his protegee Nate “Danja” Hills on two tracks (“Exodus ’04” and “Let Me Give You My Love”), Exodus was handled by Utada. There was an occasional contribution from her father Teruzane, working under the guise of “Sking U”.

Voyeurism acted as a central theme to the execution of Exodus. Even when Utada wrote about herself―“You Make Me Want to Be a Man” explored tension in her own marriage at the time―there was a distance. Utada seemed to want to step outside of herself here.

Musically, her previously three LPs dabbled in electronic music whereas Exodus wore its stormy electronic temper on its sleeve. The genre transformed throughout the course of Exodus’ playing time. Utada was tribal (“Devil Inside”), she smacked on arcade bubblegum (“Easy Breezy”) and manicured a post-prog-rock symphonic dirge (“Kremlin Dusk”).

The beats weren’t necessarily unfriendly, the bulk of them passed for clubby chic with a casual listen. But the fashionable surfaces of “Tippy Toe” and “Hotel Lobby” hid gloomier tales of infidelity and prostitution, topics not normally associated with pop. The most approachable song on Exodus was “Easy Breezy”. To the attentive listener, the song contained a tongue-in-cheek poke at American men’s ideas of Asian women (“You’re easy breezy and I’m Japan-easy…”) and one of the better phallic references ever written (“She’s gotta new microphone, she doesn’t need you anymore!”).

For the first time, Eastern flourishes were present in Utada’s output. Was Utada giving English listeners what they expected? Maybe, but in true Utada style there was an “in on what you think of me” air. Exodus poised itself to be the next enthralling chapter of this young woman’s journey.

Hikaru Utada, circa 2004

Hikaru Utada, circa 2004

The Impact

Still signed with Toshibi EMI, Utada inked a deal with Island / Def Jam for Exodus Stateside. Mercury Records handled bringing the album to British ears in 2005.

Exodus debuted in Japan on 9/8/04, 10/5/04 in America and 9/25/05 in England. Four singles were culled from the project over the two year period: “Easy Breezy” (8/3/04), “Devil Inside” (9/14/04), “Exodus ’04” (6/21/05) and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man” (10/17/05).

While the record landed no hits on the Oricon Single Charts**, a first for Utada, Exodus did become the biggest selling foreign language album in Japan’s history. Exodus found a healthy life on all the Oricon Album Charts: weekly (#1), monthly (#1) and yearly (#6). The album shifted a million units and was awarded gold status; another success story for Utada.

Stateside it was a different, if not unexpected, story. In lieu of a diminutive campaign, Exodus placed at #160 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart; the record ended up selling 55,000 copies. Utada’s statement of being the first Asian singer to really reach out to American listeners had proved correct. She was an untested commodity and even with her clout abroad, the notoriously regimented U.S. radio formats couldn’t find a space for Utada.

With that said, the American clubs took to “Devil Inside”: U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Club Play #1, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Singles Sales #5, U.S. Billboard Hot Dance Airplay #10. Only two music videos were shot out of the four singles selected from Exodus: “Easy Breezy” and “You Make Me Want to Be a Man”. “You Make Me Want to Be a Man,” the only single to represent Utada in Britain a year later, fed her growing fanbase but didn’t cause a commotion: U.K. #227.

Critically, the album was greeted with positive reception. Andy Kellman of All Music Guide remarked of Exodus:

As the child of Japanese musicians who reside in both New York City and Tokyo, Utada Hikaru was perhaps predestined for a career as a performer informed by multiculturalism. On her first major-label English-language album, Utada delivers a diverse collection of urbane, modern, and, at times, almost avant-garde electronica and dance music.

“Easy Breezy”

Directed By: Jake Nava

Even as Exodus rescinded when Utada went onto her next LP, its effects lingered. The album was second in a three-part evolutionary trip that started with Deep River and ended with Ultra Blue (2006). All three albums had Utada pushing herself as far she could go and created one of the best back-to-back album stretches in popular music. Much of the material from Exodus Utada performed live on the tours Utada United (2006) and Utada: In the Flesh (2010).

Remarking of the record in 2009, Utada said: “Exodus was a very experimental album. I was like a mad scientist working away in an underground laboratory. I had the time of my life but it was a very intense, introverted process”.

Exodus might have been too powerful to make non-familiars comfortable with its sound. It does speak to Utada’s integrity that she would not eschew her music’s momentum to appease anyone. Utada bravely invited the uninitiated into her world, thus making her most introverted recording extroverted by sharing it. Risk is always worth the reward and as Hikaru Utada’s catalogue attests, that can never be a bad thing. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: **―Oricon Charts are the Japanese equivalent of our own Billboard charts. They split their album charts into three sections as seen in the essay. The Japanese often precede their first name with their last name. Exodus is available through any physical and digital music retailer. For current information on Hikaru Utada, please visit her official site.-QH]

 

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