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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’s Records of 2014

Sample of The QH Blend's 2014 music selections

Sample of The QH Blend’s 2014 music selections

The QH Blend unveils its selections for 2014 via Blogcritics. Please click here to see which albums made the cut and my thoughts on said recordings. See below for individual reviews for albums included in my 2014 list.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Wanderlust / Johnnyswim: Diamonds / Kelis: Food / Kimbra: The Golden Echo / Lenny Kravitz: Strut* / Jennifer Lopez: A.K.A. / Kylie Minogue: Kiss Me Once / Jody Watley: Paradise

[Editor’s Note: *―denotes originally published on Blogcritics.]

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(Re) Birth of a (Pop) Empire: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Wanderlust” Saves Pop

Bextor wanders on new LP

Bextor wanders on new LP

In pop, people hear and see what they choose to. This unfortunate truth guides the perception of Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Formerly an indie-band front-woman and vitreous vocalist to a superb DJ track, her actual solo career remains unfairly pigeonholed.

In regard to Bextor, it didn’t matter (to some) that she cut torch (“I Am Not Good At Not Getting What I Want“), needling new wave (“Catch You“) and synth dirges (“Starlight“), all anyone could “hear / see” was her neo-disco workouts. Always a pop singer first, Bextor tried to evince that with the intimate and smart Shoot From the Hip (2003); she was shot down unceremoniously. Fast forward a decade and Bextor is still doing her thing; her fifth long player, and second independent affair, Wanderlust is aptly titled.

In the great dance-pop departure tradition paved by Donna Summer, Kylie Minogue and Cathy Dennis, Bextor expands on her voguish trials with “under-the-radar” producer Ed Harcourt. The sum includes flights of Russian recherché and other tasty tidbits.

That voice is still unmistakable and it steers theaudience nod of “The Deer & The Wolf” and the tremulous lead single “Young Blood”. The latter is her riskiest opening move since “Catch You,” it unfurls within the narrative of the album magically and emotionally.

The aforementioned Russian rouge that colors the idiosyncrasies of “Birth of An Empire” and “Love Is a Camera” are ravishing, but what of the other considerable Mod-era flourishes? The Ronettes (“Runaway Daydreamer”), The Beatles (“13 Little Dolls”) and Dusty Springfield (“Until the Stars Collide”) are all touched upon and channeled through Bextor’s tea-time vocals and “heart-meets-mind” lyrical approach; it’s a delectable mixture that is coquette in its retro resurrection.

Wanderlust Promotional Video Sampler

At 11 cuts deep, Wanderlust is precise and doesn’t overstate itself. Looking at the United Kingdom’s current charts, they feel overtly influenced by American music; Wanderlust is unapologetically British in its experimental eagerness. Seeing other contemporaries struggle and set the torch down for pop music, Bextor knowingly picks it up. Her “simple and eternal” guiding principal of staying close to the changeability of the genre assures its survival in this turbulent time. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: Wanderlust is an import and available through online / physical retailers. For current information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit her official website.-QH]

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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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Making Music: Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Shoot From the Hip” Turns 10

Bextor, circa 2003

Shot from the Shoot From the Hip photo session

When Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album revealed itself in the fall of 2003 it was an assured bet to be a hit. Coming off the successful Read My Lips (2002) project, Bextor had competed among some of the finest in British dance-pop and held her own.

Ironic then, that Shoot From the Hip (2003) made a conscious effort to shift itself out of the dance-pop matrix and present an eclectic rostrum for U.K.-inflected pop.

The History

Beginning with the Brit-pop crew theaudience, their eponymous debut was released in 1998 and got the U.K music scene piqued; sales were slow and the promising group amicably disbanded in 1999. For her next maneuver that was more Kylie Minogue than Shirley Manson, Bextor laid her glassy vocals over DJ Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” in 2000. The song became a massive hit and contemporary classic. In 2002 Bextor dropped her solo debut Read My Lips; led by the strutting “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the album and its subsequent singles (including a great recasting of Cher’s 1979 Casablanca Records-era hit “Take Me Home“) found favor with fans, critics and the charts.

It seemed that as long as Bextor played the part of the moody, dancefloor doll she’d have no worries. But didn’t the former frontwoman of theaudience want more space to create in the true, versatile pop style?

The Record

Bextor, circa 2003

Bextor, circa 2003

Read My Lips was top-heavy despite its high points; the songs felt labored in that general, millennial Euro-pop-dance frame. The second time around, Bextor’s rich British timbre and acute lyrical skillset allowed her to shape Shoot From the Hip in an intimate, albeit commercially aware manner. Bextor did not relinquish her autonomy of writing / producing when she courted collaborators: Gregg Alexander, Matt Rowe, Damian LeGassick and Jeremy Wheatley. All four men had, were and would write hits on both sides of the Atlantic in a miscellany of genres in the 1990’s and 2000’s. With this quartet on board with Bextor, she decided to pry apart the age-old concept that dance and pop couldn’t be done as individual entities.

This is not to say Bextor didn’t have a few mirrorball spinners on Shoot From the Hip, but often the musical backdrop of her record pulled from various places and were tied to other unconventional sounds. Take the Kraftwerk inspired click-clack that worked over a freestyle-like beat line on “Making Music,” or the rock ‘n’ disco integration that frolicked unabashedly on “Love It Is Love”; Bextor was showing her chameleon strengths.

There were some (forgive the pun) pop straight shooters in the pack: the bubbly “I Won’t Change You” and the acoustic four on the floor “Party In My Head” were lip smacking aural treats. Other explorations were savvy and unexpected; her torch ballad touchdowns on “I Am Not Good At Not Getting What I Want” and “Hello Hello” had her capable of delivering softer material convincingly.

Bextor vocally excelled on each track and lyrically her thoughts could be swift and sentimental; examples of this included the 1980’s electro-quakers “Mixed Up World” and “Another Day”. The songs had Bextor as the day-to-day heroine and Girl Power girlfriend respectively. Though the wordsmith masterpiece of the Shoot From the Hip epoch went to the b-side of “Mixed Up World,” the sparingly dressed “The Earth Shook the Devil’s Hand”; capturing the emotional trauma of a bad romance, Bextor gave a plush tribute, unknowingly, to her theaudience roots.

Those that needed an excuse to wiggle their bums, Bextor hadn’t forgotten them. She cooly dished the sleek chic of “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”; originally made famous by Australian songbird Olivia Newton-John in 1981, Bextor’s very British and cerebral reading of “Physical” was tucked away as a hidden track several minutes after the conclusion of “Hello Hello”. Further, Bextor’s cover of the Spanish recording duo Baccara’s 1979 smash “Yes Sir, I Can Boogie” (the flipside to “I Won’t Change You”) served up knowing-kitsch done to a high standard.

The album was perfectly titled as it was succinct, quick and full of pop that landed each hit it launched at the listener. It clearly was designed to take Bextor to the next level as a singer and songwriter.

The Impact

Single Cover for "Mixed Up World"

Single cover for “Mixed Up World”

Launching the LP, Bextor moved forward with “Mixed Up World” on 10/13/03 as the lead single; it preceded the release of Shoot From the Hip which dropped shortly thereafter on 10/27/03.

Not immediately danceable as “Murder On the Dancefloor,” the single placed at a fair spot on the U.K. Singles Chart (#7). Globally, it was received well (Denmark #3, Norway #9) or poorly (Ireland #26, ARIA #32, Switzerland #49, Germany #69). The record itself charted in few international territories after it arrived to store shelves not long after “Mixed Up World”: U.K. #19, Mexico #11, Switzerland #35,  Germany #84. “I Won’t Change You” was issued quickly on 12/22/03 and managed to perform well at home (U.K. #9) but dismally in the world markets (Ireland #40, Germany #80).

Bextor’s impending pregnancy put a complete halt to any further promotional duties; recently this year, Shoot From the Hip just certified silver in England. The album was Bextor’s second to last recording with Polydor Records; three years bridged Shoot From the Hip from its follow-up Trip the Light Fantastic (2007).

It seemed that the world was not ready for a more reflective, expansive Sophie Ellis-Bextor. All Music Guide critic K. Ross Huffman seemed to summarize the (erroneously) dismissive attitude people had taken toward Bextor in 2003:

Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s second album lacks anything nearly as distinctive as her early singles “Murder on the Dancefloor” and “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love),” but it’s still a solid, perfectly respectable collection of contemporary dance-pop. Of course, “respectable” doesn’t necessarily count for much in pop terms, although Ellis-Bextor has mastered a knack for exuding sophistication without being off-putting and stuffy — she’s so posh (her unmistakable accent) that the slickness of the production complements her personality rather than diluting it.

“Mixed Up World”

Directed By: Rupert Jones

Bextor’s makeover that benefitted from a sense of amity versus just interpretative distance had backfired, sales wise. Many wanted the glossy, radio-ready material that had made Read My Lips safe. Bextor continued on with the mentioned Trip the Light Fantastic and later with a few label struggles that led her to found her own indie imprint (EBGB’s), she delivered her dance fever on her fourth affair, Make a Scene (2011).

In spite of losing her chart clout, Bextor has become one of Britain’s most revered pop figures of the last 10 years; Bextor’s fifth LP, Wanderlust, releases on 1/20/14. Shoot From the Hip was Bextor’s brave moment when she created something to challenge without thought to commercial consequences. The result was one of the unsung pop classics of the last decade. Ranking: Classic

[Editor’s Note: There are two editions of Shoot From the Hip; one includes “Making Music,” “I Won’t Dance With You” and “Physical”. The other edition omits the three former tracks. Both versions are in print physically and digitally as an import. For current information on Sophie Ellis-Bextor, visit her official site.-QH]

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