Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Album Review: She Wolf

It’s very clear from the first beats of She Wolf that I am not listening to the Shakira that I’ve come to know and love. It seems that Shakira has traded her blatantly Latin beats and influences for twitchy eletrcopop. Although this switch might disappoint some hardcore fans, this reinvention is a good thing. She Wolf is a remarkable pop album, because of the way each of its nine songs (twelve if you include the translated songs) work together cohesively to redefine Shakira’s sound while still remaining true to her previous efforts. Don’t worry, Shakira hasn’t gone anywhere. She just sounds a little different

On She Wolf, Shakira is constantly on the prowl. Sex is a very prominent theme of the disc, and Shakira rhapsodizes the subject with her signature vocal ticks. She coos, growls, moans, and whispers her way through various lusty situations. On the title track, Shakira claims that all women contain wild animal that’s itching to escape and ravage unsuspecting men. On the excellent second single, Did it Again, Shakira chastises herself for succumbing to a dangerous man, yet it’s clear that she loved every second of passion with him. What elevates this from a Flo Rida song is that Shakira, no matter how love hurts her, seems to be in charge of her sexuality. She never preaches dependence. A she wolf needs no man.

As I write this, I do feel like there’s one potential exception to the point of my previous paragraph. The final song (before the Spanish translations kick in) is Mon Amour, an extremely spiteful song about Shakira’s ex-lover. She cries that she’s “fragile” and that “you broke my heart.” This might seem like a contradiction to what I just wrote, but the real message of the song seems to be that even though he broke Shakira’s heart, he’ll come crawling back to her. She won’t subvert herself to him. However, the real reason I bring this up is to segue into another important aspect of this album: the lyrics.

When the title track was released as the first single, I instantly preferred the Spanish version of the song. The lyrics were more poetic and logical. I was unimpressed with the awkward phrases in the English translation. However, I realized that this “kitschy” English was a constant theme of the disc—one that I appreciated as a deliberate effort. You see, to the American market, Shakira represents Latin flavor. However, a good deal of that has disappeared from the production of these tracks. A few retain some instrumentations and phrases that evoke older Shakira songs, but most do not. In other words, the lyrics constantly remind the listener of Shakira’s Columbian roots. Mon Amour is this most extreme example of this. “And every night I pray that you don’t knock her up/cause I still want to be the mother of your child.” Somehow Shakira’s delivery makes that line seem a bit awkward—entertainingly so. Moments like that remind the listener of Shakira’s foreign origin.

Overall, She Wolf is odd, sexy, and ultimately very entertaining. To me, Shakira has finally proven that she can conquer the world in both English and Spanish. All hail the She Wolf

Rating: 4/5 stars

Savage Songs: Loba, Did It Again, Gypsy, Spy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Top 20 Songs of 2000-2009: Songs 6-10

10. Crazy in Love-Beyonce

It would be foolish to deny Beyonce’s musical influence this past decade. From her Destiny’s Child roots to her movie career, Beyonce has dominated pop culture in many different ways. Picking her best moment is almost an exercise in futility, because there are so many options and it’s hard to go wrong. Although Single Ladies and Say My Name were both strong contenders, I could not ignore her first single. Crazy in Love dominated 2003 and helped elevate Beyonce from Desinty’s Child front-woman to international superstar. It’s also a damn good track. Those horns…they’re inescapable.

9. Since U Been Gone-Kelly Clarkson

She-rock had a very strong showing this decade. Avril Lavigne and P!nk both made some excellent tunes that showed tougher women could dominate the pop charts. Now, Kelly wasn’t always a badass. After winning American Idol, she was poised to be America’s Sweetheart—the likeable Texas girl with strong pipes. Although Miss Independent hinted at her rock leanings, it wasn’t until she cut loose on this song that she really showed some new depth. Additionally, this song is further evidence that Max Martin is a musical god.

8. Try Again-Aaliyah

Timbaland wasn’t always the production monolith he is today. In the 90s he was just beginning to break into the mainstream and had a few hits here and there. Most of those revolved around his muse: a young R&B princess with a smooth voice. This muse may not have been the strongest singer or the most emotionally available, but something about her hypnotic delivery sat well with Timbaland’s beats. Yes, Aaliyah managed to bring something out in Timabaland’s music that very few could. This song is perhaps their greatest collaboration and a sad indication of Aaliyah’s potential had she lived longer.

7. Maps-The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

When it comes to music outside of the mainstream, I don’t think it gets much better than this song. Even though it’s very lyrically repetitive, the instrumentation and layering perfectly captures the anguish that Karen O is trying to convey. The guitar line is incredible and this song manages to portray heartbreak more minimally and effectively that almost every pop song this decade.

6. Biology-Girls Aloud

This is probably the least influential song on the list, particularly in the United States, but it is also the most perfectly crafted and interesting pure pop song this decade. Taking a leaf from the Supremes, the structure of this song is subtly atypical. It takes two minutes for the chorus to hit. The beat is an odd mixture of Europop and Muddy Waters. It seems so mashed together that you’d think it would never work as a song. Yet, somehow it does. Brilliantly.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Top 20 Songs of 2000-2009: Songs 11-15

15. Not Ready to Make Nice-The Dixie Chicks

When considering country songs that could qualify for this list, I had a very hard time setting aside my personal biases. Miranda Lambert will always be my favorite country singer from this decade, and we saw very strong singles from Carrie Underwood, Sugarland, Brad Paisley, Taylor Swift, etc. However, at the end of the day, I have to recognize The Dixie Chicks for their Grammy winning Not Ready to Make Nice. No matter how popular Before He Cheats was, there was an element of dishonesty to it. Carrie Underwood, not matter how hard she tried, couldn't quite pull of the angry bad-girl act. With Not Ready to Make Nice, the Dixie Chicks shoved all of their genuine rage and frustration into four brilliant minutes. When Natalie reaches the bridge and delivers the lyric, "they'd write me a letter saying I'd better shut up and sing or my life will be over" you can really feel the girl's anguish.

14. Ignition (remix)-R. Kelly

Well, lyrically this song doesn't have anything special to say. However, there's something about how insanely catchy it is that makes me smile. I don't think I'm the only one. This is one of those tracks where people don't necessarily associate it with this decade--yet almost everyone knows it and likes it (or loves it). The groove is undeniable and the lyrics, albeit mundane, seem to capture the feeling of the perfect party. Perhaps that makes this the perfect party song?

13. Heartbeat-Annie

This song is a bit meta, if you ask me. Lyrically, it's about the memory of dancing. Thematically, it is one of the best dance songs I've ever heard. It doesn't start out very special, but something about the way the song layers itself makes it get better and better not only as the song progresses, but also with each subsequent listen. It ingrains itself in you. Before you know it, you're constantly singing the lyrics to yourself. You can almost feel your heart beating with the rhythm, as if your body syncs up with the song. The first time I heard it I thought it was pretty bland. Now it won't leave me alone. I'm fine with that.

12. Umbrella-Rihanna

I don't know what to say. Everybody must know this one. Granted, not everybody likes it anymore, but there was a time when this song was inescapable. Many times a song inexplicably rises to the tops of the charts, defying all critical assessment and logic. Yet when this song was released, it was original and different. Its rise to to the top seemed justified and unavoidable. I think people tend to ridicule it now for its repetitive chorus and extreme ubiquity (you can't blame the song for being sung by people every time it rains), but that detracts from what it is in-and-of itself: Top-notch pop.

11. Rehab-Amy Winehouse

The British re-invasion may have been started by Lily Allen, but it was popularized by Amy Winehouse. This single blew Ms. Allen out of the water with its retro-soul vibe, shocking and autobiographical lyrics, and non-traditional vocal. The fact that it won multiple Grammy's was icing on the cake. The retro-soul movement of 2000-2009 has yet to reach these same heights. Duffy and Adele are mighty talent, but maybe they need a quick stint in rehab to get those creative juices flowing.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Single Review: Russian Roulette

Single Review: Russian Roulette

Rihanna’s new single was, sadly, met with apathy. As a Rihanna fan, I understand her fans’ disappointment. They expected something catchy and danceable in the vein of Disturbia, SOS, or Umbrella. Instead, Rihanna’s upcoming CD is being preceded by a barely midtempo song with some of the most depressing and intense lyrics ever recorded. This song has little hope of commercial viability. It would be a buzz-kill in a club or on the radio. The references to domestic violence are so thinly veiled that only a real idiot wouldn’t pick up on the allusion. Perhaps the pure emotion of the track will grab listeners, but this choice of single was a huge gamble. And yet, I love it. There’s a genius to this song that I will do my best to sort out here.

When it comes to the subject of domestic violence, I find this song can be seen as a bit of a paradox. I applaud Rihanna for releasing a song that so clearly evidences the emotions of being trapped in an abusive relationship. The interplay between her fear and her determination to complete this “terrible game” completely ties to what I understand are common emotions of women in abusive relationships. I feel both her desperate desire to escape and simultaneous unwillingness to do so. Yet, I can see how some would argue that this doesn’t quite send the right message to women in a similar situation. In the song, Rihanna chooses to play Russian roulette. She doesn’t walk away.

However, the gunshot in the final seconds shows how Rihanna is destroyed at the hands of the game. Although she emotionally cannot escape, it’s clear at the end of the song that she should have left while she could. I think this song will emotionally resonate with many people and hopefully those individuals will correlate staying with someone physically and emotionally abusive to playing with a loaded gun. In the song, Rihanna chooses the more common path—the path destined for tragedy. She makes her decisions based off of the same emotions that the abused men and women experience. Anyone who saw the picture of her post-beating knows where her path ended. Hopefully Russian Roulette makes the abused see a little more clearly how important it is to leave an unhealthy relationship. Thank God Rihanna had the courage to pick this song.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Album Review: Overcome

Alexandra Burke is the next big superstar to come crashing out of the X Factor machine. Although the show is currently working to produce its next star, this former winner is working to win over the UK and (hopefully) the world. She’s just released her debut album, Overcome, and it’s already hit #1 in the United Kindgom following the success of her amazing single, Bad Boys. Does this album deliver? In essence, yes. However, like most debut albums aimed at chart domination, its lack of coherence and artistic identity ultimately make it a safehaven for strong singles as opposed to a disc worthy of critical acclaim.

All that being said, a near majority number of the songs on Overcome have massive potential. I’ve already expressed my feelings on Bad Boys, the lead single from the disc. The fun does not stop there. Good Night Good Morning is a sexy midtempo song about finding that special someone for a night of intercoursing, The Silence is an epic ballad of Biblical proportions (yes that was sacrilegious), and All Night Long is an electropop song that’s extremely catchy. Etcetera. By the way, I’ve just referred to the first four tracks on the album. I could list every song on the CD and laud their pop and R&B sensibilities. However, that would get redundant. Let me just pick a few highlights. Broken Heels is an infectious club number about female empowerment with a chorus that will haunt you for days. You Broke My Heart is a bit of a soul throwback about a relationship that has gone sour. If you’re going to start somewhere on Overcome, I’d start there.

Additionally, Alexandra’s voice is in great vocal voice (to quote the esteemed Paula Abdul). Although not all of the tracks afford her the opportunity to wail, she does when she can. The aforementioned song The Silence shows that off, as does the title track. Her instrument vacillates between smooth and husky, vulnerable and soulful. She may not have the polish and maturity of more seasoned performers, but she definitely has the raw talent. I’m excited to see how her singing develops in the coming years.

With all this said, Overcome sounds more like a greatest hits CD than an album. Sure, that’s a compliment to the songs, but Alexandra beach balls between styles so often it’s a bit disconcerting. One minute it’s electronic, then it’s R&B, then it’s 60s throwback, then it’s piano ballad, and on and on. There is no cohesion and no sense of who Alexandra is. It’s vapid concoctions like this that mark the death of albums. I enjoy listening to most of these songs and I could even enjoy listening to them in succession, yet it’s so highly commercialized that it almost hinders one’s ability to relate to the material on a personal level. Say what you want about Taylor Swift, she at least has an artistic identity.

Well, those are my two cents. Sample the songs on iTunes or YouTube and download your favorites. There are many to choose from and a lot of them are great. There’s just no sense in going for the whole album because you don’t gain anything by doing so. My rating is generous out of respect for the overall song quality, but I am personally disappointed that this disc represents the sad future of albums in the music industry.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Savage Songs: Bad Boys, The Silence, Broken Heels, You Broke My Heart

Docket: 11/5

Many, many things coming up!

Shakira-She Wolf
Where the Wild Things Are
Paranormal Activity
Annie-Don't Stop
Cheryl Cole-3 Words
Carrie Underwood-Play On
Leona Lewis-Echo
Lady Gaga-Bad Romance
Rihanna-Russian Roulette

Top 20 Songs of 2000-2009: Songs 16-20


Well, I think it’s close enough to 2010 that I can publish this list without risk of repercussions. If one of the best songs of the decade comes out in the next two months, I’ll eat my words and you can laugh at me. Anyway, this list is a pretty fair hybrid of subjectivity and objectivity. There are hundreds of songs from this decade that I think could be included on a “Best of the Decade” list. So, whittling that group down inevitably includes a degree of subjectivity. That being said, I tried to pick songs that were the strongest representations of musical trends from the past ten years. Admittedly, some of my personal biases crept into the list. In fact, I would say that the most subjective choice is the number one song. Well, without further ado, here is the start of my list.

20. We Belong Together-Mariah Carey

I’ll say it. In a subjective world, this song wouldn’t have made my list. However, considering how many epic musical comebacks occurred in recent years, I thought it was important to highlight the song that epitomized perhaps the most successful return in the 200Xs. Since Britney never truly left and Whitney is still trying to get off the ground, I think the Mariah’s 2005 CD, The Emancipation of Mimi, marked the most dramatic comeback I’ve ever seen. Multiplatinum sales, eight Grammy nominations, and a slew of hit singles all prove that this diva did it right. Ignore her lagging sales and impish boyfriend…four years ago, she had it right. This song was the biggest and best part of that. Perhaps the needy undertone of the song highlighted her urge for public approval. Whatever the case was, the American audience lapped this up. Comeback achieved.

19. Don’t Know Why-Norah Jones

I have no idea how this song became popular. Utterly mellow and seemingly fit just for adult contemporary, somehow this song managed to charm both critics and consumers alike. Although the song only peaked at #30 on the Hot 100 chart, it’s still a pretty remarkable feat considering how unfit for pop radio it is. Combine that with the fact that most people know this song and it’s hard to deny that the tune wormed its way into ubiquity.

18. SexyBack-Justin Timberlake

Let’s be real. There were a lot of JT songs worth considering. Between the spiteful Cry Me a River and the inventive My Love, Justin really made his mark on this decade. And let us not forget his meaningful *NSYNC contributions. However, given this decade’s tendency towards reinvention (see Nelly Furtado and, again, Mariah Carey) I thought it was appropriate to pick the best reinvention song of them all. If the cover of Future Sex/Love Sounds shows JT smashing a disco ball, this song is the musical equivalent of such an action. It’s an exciting meld of hip hop, pop, and (for lack of a better term) futuristic beats. I know this song offended Prince, but I think I have to go with JT on this debate. Sexy left. Justin brought it back. And how.

17. Bleeding Love-Leona Lewis

I would like to take this time to talk about Ryan Tedder. The One Republic front man may be a bit of a one-trick pony with song writing and production (a fact most hilariously emphasized by comparing Already Gone and Halo), but damn. It is a great trick. I don’t think one person got so much mileage out of one idea since the Saw franchise started. When looking at the Tedder discography, there is one clear choice for the alpha dog: Bleeding Love. There’s a perfect meeting between Leona Lewis’s empty deliver and the lyrics about being, well, drained empty. The touch of hip hop made the song all the sweeter.

16. Toxic-Britney Spears

One of my good friends in high school, who I would describe as an indie music snob, loves this song. Don’t get me wrong, I love some B-Spears, but she is so clearly a consumer product that it’s almost obnoxious. However, this song was so well produced and written that an indie snob loved it. That’s all I need to say.