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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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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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Seal’s “Seal II” Turns 20 on Blogcritics

"Prayer for the Dying" single cover

“Prayer for the Dying” single cover

My essay on Seal’s second self-titled LP Seal II (1994), is up for reading now at Blogcritics, where it was first published. Celebrating its 20th birthday last month, this album is home to Seal’s popular hit “Kiss From a Rose” and other treasures. Make sure to check it out!

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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)

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Love’s Divine: Seal’s “Seal IV” Turns 10

Seal, Circa 2003

Seal, Circa 2003

Seal was never an ordinary force. With a voice spun equally from sugar and grit, his vocals on DJ Adamski’s “Killer” placed him directly into the British (nu) soul revolution that was gripping the world in the early 1990’s.

Later, he confounded and thrilled when he slid into “Kiss From a Rose”; it made Seal an adult contemporary darling as much as a dancefloor principal.

The release of Seal’s fourth album, third to bear his name, Seal IV (2003) marked a beginning and end. For Seal, his fourth album was about consolidation and exploration. The question then, which lingers even now, is whether Seal and his music was in step with the period or drastically misunderstood and out of time.

The History
Seal’s grip, assured in the first half of the 1990’s, had started to lose its hold by the end of that decade. His third album, the maligned masterpiece Human Being (1998), was greeted by commercial and critical indifference. Thankfully, the record found its calling as one of, if not, his best work at that time with his fans.

Temporarily parting with longtime producer-partner Trevor Horn, Horn handled his first three records, Seal collaborated with Henry Jackman. The album, entitled Togetherland,  was canned by Warner Bros. in 2001. Only one cut survived the vaulting, “Heaven” (retitled “This Could Be Heaven”); it appeared on the motion picture soundtrack to ‘Family Man’.

To pass time between the shelving of Togetherland and the recording of what would become Seal IV, Seal recorded two high-profile features with Mylène Farmer (“Les Mots,” 2001 France #2) and Jakatta (“My Vision,” 2002 U.K. #6). The former made a cameo on the French pressing of Seal IV, while the latter appeared on every version of Seal IV. Both songs somewhat suggested the direction Seal walked toward for his fourth album; to realize it, he returned to Horn.

The Record

Single Cover to "Love's Divine"

Single Cover to “Love’s Divine”

In a way, the abortion of Togetherland lended a sense of rediscovery to Seal IV. Seal, along with Horn (producing) and Mark Batson (co-writing) sewed a taut record that played to Seal’s strength as a songwriter and vocalist.

The musical canvas was pieced together from tasteful pop (electronic, orchestral) and vintage rhythm and blues flavors.  What made Seal IV strike hard was its mode of duality when it came to its modernity and antiquity. Songs like “Waiting For You” and “Don’t Make Me Wait” reveled in their “old school soul” twang; the tracks were R&B reduplication perfection. The future remained focal for Seal on “Heavenly (Good Feeling…)” and “My Vision,” both offered hearty, if synthetic arrangements.

Drawing spotlight to “Loneliest Star,” its backbone was a snug, melancholy acoustic rhythm that Seal rode vocally and lyrically to heartbreaking effect. Elsewhere, Seal’s pen prominently shone on the plush reggae sway of “Where There’s Gold,” or he made romantic fantasy flesh on “Touch.” His voice, never lacking pathos or joy,  resounded on the mentioned “Waiting For You” and slow build-up of “Love’s Divine”; “Divine” stands arguably one of his finest forms occupied in his entire recording career.

Opening, and closing, with the (mock) Philly soul groover “Get It Together,” Seal IV tracked as Seal’s leanest effort, one where every song hung together and worked as a unit to tell Seal’s musical narrative anew.

The Impact
Seal IV hit the streets on 9/9/03, during its run it spun off three singles from late 2003 to early 2004: “Get It Together,” “Love’s Divine” and “Waiting For You.” The global chart statistics for each single were fair: “Get It Together” (U.K. #25, Austria #38, Switzerland #22, Sweden #23, Germany #41), “Love’s Divine” (U.K. #68, Austria #11, Switzerland #4, Sweden #43, Germany #4) and “Waiting For You” (U.K. #80). Stateside, all three songs made major strides on a variety of the U.S. Billboard Adult Contemporary and Dance charts; the best performances being “Get It Together” and “Love’s Divine” which topped the U.S. Billboard Dance charts respectively.

As an album, Seal IV made decent dents in various places: U.K. #4, U.S. #3 (his highest chart debut Stateside), Switzerland #1, Austria #7, Germany #14, Sweden #19.

Critically, Seal had his share of opposition and praise. David Medsker, of PopMatters, shared his thoughts on the long player:

Single cover to "Waiting For You"

Single cover to “Waiting For You”

The soulful Seal IV is actually much better than one would expect from an artist whose last decent album is now nine years old. At the same time, something about it is off; for the first time, Seal is not merely outside his time (good), but behind it (bad). If only someone had introduced him to the Neptunes. He tries to get the party started with “Get It Together”, a soul-inspired disco number with a good hook but no real high-energy payoff. It may be catchy, but it can’t fill a dance floor, coming off like dance music for people who don’t dance anymore.

The same thing happens with “Waiting For You”, a horn drenched R&B nugget with a far too passive rhythm track. The combination of pop music getting harder while Seal gets softer makes Seal IV sound more antiquated than it should. What some enterprising mixmaster out there should do is take these songs and mash them with the beats from Kenna’s album New Sacred Cow (produced, natch, by one of the Neptunes). Those beats, with these songs, would have created something otherworldly. Maybe next time, and hopefully not four-years-from-now next time.

Other times, Seal was caught in the shadow of Seal (1991), but had fair compliments bestowed upon him by Beth Massa of Amazon.com:

After five years and one do-over later, Seal presents a fourth album that finds the singer growing with his audience. The disc’s opener, “Get It Together,” melds a quiet “live” moment into a horn-and-string disco number, setting the stage for the rest of the disc, which is largely a nod to Detroit-and-Philly-R&B. The British-born musician pulls it off. His rasp and emotive, positive vocals are well suited for the retro stylings he attempts.

“Waiting for You” will flood the dance floor, and he’s unafraid to dig deep for the ballads, Marvin Gaye would approve. The funk is real, but saddled with a pop safety net, and the upbeat tracks need a helping hand from a good remixer before they are as compelling as his seminal singles “Killer” and “Crazy.” Seal never goes all out in any direction and this coolness, combined with Trevor Horn’s perfectionist production, plants the album inescapably in the realm of adult contemporary (although this is as good as adult contemporary gets).

After all was said and settled, Seal IV moved 658,000 copies worldwide; certifications were balanced in gold (U.S.) and platinum (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland). Seal’s ability to divide between the austerity of adult contemporary and edgier pop had become “old hat” to some.

Or, as the previously mentioned PopMatters critic David Medsker observed, “Now he has to deal with Justin/Britney/Xtina, thug rap, whiner metal, ClearChannel and the RIAA suing its own customers. There isn’t a chance in hell anyone is going to hear this record.”

Seal became the victim of the entire landscape of music changing in the second decade of his career. Seal’s gifts seemed out of tune with the more cynical and harsh environs of the early 2000’s.

“Love’s Divine”
Directed By: Sanji

Seal and Horn did part ways after Seal IV and didn’t return to one another until Seal’s Soul 2 (2012) project, for select cuts. Seal followed Seal IV with a customary “best-of” package in 2004 before releasing System (2007), Soul (2008), Seal 6: Commitment (2010) and the already stated Soul 2. Of the batch, System was the underdog, a return to the grinding dance that was heard on his eponymous debut.

The sales of each following record were either strong, or weak, depending on the territories of the world they operated in. Seal’s appeal as a live artist remains undiminished today; though he may seem nothing short of an enigma to younger ears and “lost” to his die-hards due to his stately covers recordings.

What is sure is that Seal, as a songwriter and interpreter, is one of the best from the last two decades. Passionate, human and in his own way, defiant, Seal is the best there is at what he does. In spite of the “sound of the times,” he didn’t betray his creative flame. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Seal IV, as the rest of his discography, is readily available in physical and digital retailers everywhere. For current information on Seal, visit his official site.-QH]

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