Tag Archives: madonna

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]

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative, Hip-Hop, Music, Pop, R&B, Rock

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Alternative, Pop, R&B, Rock

“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]

Leave a comment

Filed under Pop

The QH Blend’s Class of 2003

Q---Class-of-2003

2013 was a busy year for The QH Blend. The essays for the above pictured LPs, on their 10th anniversaries, played a role in the successful relaunch of this site. Granted, there were many fantastic records released in 2003, but even I can only write about so many. Thus, you have all nine retrospectives collected in one space in case you missed them the first go round. See below and enjoy. However (!), be on the lookout for my selections from 2013 in music sometime next month.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Shoot From the Hip (read here)

Blondie: The Curse of Blondie (read here)

The Cardigans: Long Gone Before Daylight (read here)

Jewel: 0304 (read here)

Madonna: American Life (read here)

Dannii Minogue: Neon Nights (read here)

Kylie Minogue: Body Language (read here)

Mandy Moore: Coverage (read here)

Seal: Seal IV (read here)

2 Comments

Filed under Alternative, Pop, R&B, Rock

X-Static Process: Madonna’s “American Life” Turns 10

Madonna, Circa 2003

Madonna, Circa 2003

American Life, Madonna’s 10th studio recording, boldly sealed off the second phase of her career.

That period began earnestly with Bedtime Stories (1994); Madonna spent the majority of the ensuing years reaching a renaissance peak of expression with her craft. American Life became Madonna’s letter to herself; the personal narrative described how she fit into the broader Western-American cultural context and how she related to herself as a woman. Was the world ready for that level of pathos from Madonna is the question still surrounding the American Life LP.

The History
Madonna, musically, was at a level of success that qualified her (finally) as a credible singer-songwriter and performer at the first half of the 2000’s. The Drowned World Tour and GHV2 (her second hits collection), both happening in 2001, celebrated her artistic shift toward that inward space.

Records like Bedtime Stories, Ray of Light (1998) and Music (2000) found ways to cut between ballads and the dancefloor; her sonics were stylistically at their most diverse.

Where else could Madonna adventure in the remainder of her third decade? If Music was a coeval, Technicolor dream of Madonna’s musings up-to-that juncture, American Life staged a sharp, monochromatic swing in direction. Recording began immediately once the ill-fated ‘Swept Away,’ the film partnership with her then-husband Guy Ritchie, wrapped in late 2001.

The Record
Madonna and co-creator Mirwais Ahmadzaï headed up the project, which left the rest of a Spartan supporting cast to round out the principal sessions: Mark “Spike” Stent, Guy Sigsworth, Jem Griffiths (later just Jem), Monte Pittman and Stuart Price. Ahmadzaï was one of the key players behind Music; his chemistry with Madonna echoed her former partnership connection with Shep Pettibone.

Alternate shot of the "American Life" single cover

Alternate shot of the “American Life” single cover

The intimacy of Madonna and her acoustic guitar (again) factored into the ingenious-incongruity that summed up American Life; the album was a mixture of flesh and steel taken to the next level.

Electro-fury shook on the jarring slam-bam beats of “Nobody Knows Me.” It labored alongside the superfluous production chatter and melodic guitar-lines of “Hollywood.” Further combinations dominated the record on the dramatic, string-laden, mechanized tango-stepper “Die Another Day.” There, Madonna’s voice was full-bodied and clipped (“Sigmund Freud, analyze this!”), dovetailing between the natural and artificial with guile. The clinical-cool vocal of the title track was nowhere to be heard on the zephyr-like “Love Profusion” and “Intervention” however. “Profusion’s” tempo was paced a tad faster than the subdued-and-stripped power ballad “Intervention”; both songs became definitive downtempos for Madonna.

Additional slower numbers littered the LP: the quiet folk of “X-Static Process” and the gospel-grace of “Nothing Fails.” Each marked a continuous confessional presence in Madonna’s second stage of her music. Lines like “Do I have to change my name? Will it get me far? Should I lose some weight? Am I gonna be star?” imbued American Life with a self-reflecting, if masochistic, air.

If “I’m So Stupid” and “Mother and Father” stuttered with their heavy-handed, if admirable, chastisements of celebrity culture and her (past) childishness, there was redemption in the album closer “Easy Ride.” Doused in grandiose violins, the song detailed that Madonna was hard at work on herself, her marriage, her family and the world itself.

American Life, at 11 cuts, didn’t overstate itself. In its span, the long player allowed Madonna to succinctly critique her idealized self and the “American dream” that spawned her.

The Impact
The “first” single from American Life was “Die Another Day,” the theme to the 20th James Bond spy film of the same name. Madonna herself had a playful cameo as a fencing instructor named Vesper in the movie. Released on 10/22/02, the song became the expected hit worldwide: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #3, AU #5, U.S. #8, France #15. The actual American Life long player and its titular single wouldn’t be released until the Spring of 2003.

From the "Die Another Day" music video

Still from the “Die Another Day” music video

In a perverse sense of timing, “American Life” (the single) was dropped on 3/24/03.  That was just several days after the U.S. Invasion of Iraq on 3/19/03.

The video, one of her most controversial pieces, ended up being pulled by Madonna at the final hour. Never one to shy away from getting people to think, or speak, on a subject, Madonna maturely stated: “I have decided not to release my new video. It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video. The Jonas Åkerlund directed clip featured an uncut and edited version, neither are available commercially currently.

The public flogging The Dixie Chicks endured at openly criticizing President George Bush a month earlier may have played a role too. In spite of all the buzz around the song, it met lukewarm-to-positive reception critically and on the charts: U.S. Dance #1, Canada #1, U.K. #2, France #10, U.S. #37. With its Che Guevara inspired album cover, American Life released on 4/22/03. The recording divided critics, positive and negative perspectives overlapping into one another.

All Music Guide’s Stephen Thomas Erlewine thoughtfully discussed:

American Life winds up as the first Madonna record with ambitions as serious as a textbook. It plays as somberly as either Like a Prayer or Ray of Light, just as it delves into an insular darkness as deep as Erotica while retaining the club savviness of the brilliant, multi-colored Music. This is an odd mixture, particularly when it’s infused with a searching, dissatisfied undercurrent and a musical sensibility that is at once desperate and adventurous, pitched halfway between singer/songwriterisms and skimming of current club culture.

It’s pulled tight between these two extremes, particularly because the intimate guitar-based songs (and there are a lot of them, almost all beginning with just her and a guitar) are all personal meditations, with the dance songs usually functioning as vehicles for social commentary. Even if the sparer ballads are introspective, they’re treated as soundscapes by producer Mirwais, giving them an unsettling eerie quality that is mirrored by the general hollowness of the club songs.

Dimitri Ebrlich of Vibe Magazine nailed the spirit of American Life on its head:

The formula she (Madonna) developed on her previous album, Music-acoustic-guitar ditties dressed up in with club friendly electronica-is still as distinctive as it is danceable. What has changed, however, are Madonna’s lyrics, which have evolved to examine aging, death, loss, and the meaning of life.

Stylus Magazine writer Ed Howard gave the effort a failing grade stating:

This is Madonna’s most conservative album instrumentally as well as lyrically. Producer Mirwais (who also helmed the boards for a few songs on 2000’s Music) crafts from his usual palette of heavily processed guitars and subdued techno beats, keeping the mood mostly restrained and low-key in stark contrast to the genre-switching Music.

After the squelchy keyboards of the opening title track and the mid-tempo guitar-hop of “Hollywood” (both of which, barring some gratingly awkward raps, are at least somewhat engaging), the album descends into a group of trite acoustic ballads. 

The chart statistics for American Life were initially strong: U.S. Billboard 200 #1, U.K. #1, France #1, Canada #1, A.R.I.A. #3, Japan #4. In some territories, the marathon year ahead for American Life and its subsequent singles would wear out the album, despite its early high energy showings.

Shot from the "Hollywood" music video

Shot from the “Hollywood” music video

“Hollywood” (7/14/03) and “Nothing Fails” (10/26/03) were lifted from the platter as singles; both were persona non grata at the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 where neither charted. Other U.S. charts (U.S. Billboard Adult Singles, U.S. Hot Dance Music/Club Play), the United Kingdom, and the general international scenes favored Madonna still: “Hollywood” (U.S. B.B. Adult Singles #35, U.S. Dance #1, U.K. #2, Canada #5, France #22), “Nothing Fails” (U.S. Dance #33, Canada #7, France #34, AU #54).

As “Nothing Fails” limped into the mid-to-lower chart regions, Madonna’s pair-up with her anemic follower Britney Spears, “Me Against the Music” (10/20/03) was making waves (U.S. Dance #1, AU #1, Canada #2, U.K. #4, France #11, U.S. #35). The song was serviced as Spears’ first single from her fourth record, In the Zone (2003).  This partnership came on the back of an eyebrow-raising performance at the MTV Video Music Awards the same year; Madonna performed with Missy Elliott, Spears and Christina Aguilera during a medley performance of “Like a Virgin,” “Hollywood” and “Work It.” In a memorable pop culture moment, Madonna kissed both Spears and Aguilera.

American Life’s credibility took a hit with the unnecessary kissing stunt. By the time the final single from the LP (“Love Profusion”) and a companion EP (Remixed & Revisited) appeared at 2003’s conclusion, the record had run its commercial course. The sadly forgotten and fine “Love Profusion” did have a few favorable showings globally: Spain #1, U.S. Dance #1, Canada #3, U.K. #11, AU #25.

In the end, Madonna pulled platinum in her major areas of interest (U.S., U.K., Canada, France, Australia) and gold in every other country. Madonna steamrolled into 2004 and unleashed her sixth concert, The Re-Invention World Tour. The show was a critical, creative and commercial victory/revenge against those that discounted Madonna just a year prior to its launch. Combining a “jukebox” hits approach, but without sacrificing that the tour was a hotbed for American Life’s music, Madonna had her cake and ate it too.

“Love Profusion”

Directed By: Luc Besson

Madonna rebounded with across-the-board favor on Confessions on a Dancefloor (2005); it was her first veteran affair. American Life was Madonna’s last album to be hungry for the kind of artistry that encapsulated the second era of her music career.

Appropriate then that it was the curtain call on a period known, mostly, for Madonna’s music garnering attention primarily. The record is a fantastic time capsule of where the Queen of Pop was personally and professionally; all-at-once American Life was (and is) unapologetic, refreshingly sensitive and thoroughly Madonna. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: American Life is readily in print, in digital and physical formats. For current information on Madonna, visit her official site.-QH]

6 Comments

Filed under Pop