The ArchAndroid – Janelle Monae (2010)

The ArchAndroid album cover

The ArchAndroid album cover

It’s not everyday that something comes along that sounds so new, it makes the most eclectic music of the past sound ordinary. That was the impact Janelie Monae had on the music scene, although not initially. As a strong supporter of the arts, Monae helped found the Wonderland Arts Society to nurture like-minded alternative artist and musicians. She took this creative energy and applied to her first recording, a mildly successful but mostly overlooked EP entitled The Audition. That EP was intended to be the first in an arc of four conceptual albums.

R&B music was not quite stagnate, but was being dominated by sound alike dancing divas with rap cameos. Ironically when Sean Combs, one of the biggest proponents of the new corporate R&B sound, notice Monae, he signed her to his new label Bad Boy Records. It was from that platform that her vision would be realized with promotion worthy of her talent. Fortunately for us, Combs got out-of-the-way and allowed Monae’s vision to flourish.

While The Audition made a very small impact on the R&B charts (as alternative R&B often does), it would be her first LP that would revamp the concept and make innovation and wild experimentation part of the normal fabric of the high-profile R&B scene. If only for a while.

The 2010 release of  The ArchAndroid would wrap the story arch into three suites on one album. Janelle Monae Robinson would assume the persona of Cindy Wayweather a big cropped afro wearing android from the distant future trying to escape her oppressors who are bent on dismantling her from falling in love with a human. By borrowing imagery from the 1927 film Metropolis, Monae was able to create a detailed and lavish tapestry in which to frame her equally complicated music. As in sci-fi, The ArchAndroid uses a futuristic narrative as a backdrop for songs about our fear of immigrants, computers and things we generally too lazy or stupid to understand on our own.

In keeping with a cinematic theme The ArchAndroid starts off with ‘Suite II Overture’ a classical intro that sounds like part of a grand score. It’s when the overture ends that the album starts to sound unconventional. Nearly every song is a unique blend of vaguely vintage yet contemporary sounding futurism. If that sounds confusing, one listen would clearly show why this album defied labels and was much bigger than the R&B label it was marketed with.

For all the complex juxtaposition of art deco and futurist styles, it would be the vintage James Brown tinged hit singles ”Tightrope’ and ‘Cold War’ that most people would recognize Monae by. In actuality there were two distinct Janelle Monae. One with the classic soul vintage sound and the other with the innovative mash-ups like the bouncy Delite-like ‘Wonderland’ or the Carpenters meets Janet Jackson feel of ‘Oh Maker’.

I could go on about this album, but it’s long list of awards including multiple Grammys and accolades from both the press and public proves that The Archandroid one of the best albums of the year if not decade. The dense multi-faceted nature of the albums production means that with headphones, nuances reveal themselves that may have been missed before.

The ArchAndroid may be the first R&B album since Parliment’s  Mothership Connection to use quirky sci-fi themes and still manage to score commercially and influence other artist. R&B music became a bit more accepting to non traditional influences, but Monae still remains a small island of innovation in a sea of  mainstream R&B blanity.


Poolside – Nu Shooz (1986)

Poolside album cover

Poolside album cover

By the late ’80s new wave music had become the mainstream of pop, so it was interesting to hear a near vintage sound become a dominant force on the charts if only for a short time. The husband and wife duo better known as Nu Shooz were already pop veterans when their third album Poolside was high on the charts. The infectious up tempo beats on hit singles like “I Can’t Wait” and “Point Of No Return” had the kind of simplicity more associated with pop from the first half of the decade.

The throwback sound may have been the result of years of Portland area releases that never got national distribution. Then one day a European remix of ‘I Can’t Wait” caught the attention of record execs at Atlantic Records and before you knew it Poolside was recorded, complete with previously released material from the band’s small fish days back in Portland (re worked of course).

Poolside was one of the better examples of tech driven mid to late ’80s pop. In some ways it was unusual as it was a collection of bouncy innocent dance songs that sounded as they could have been sampled by rappers from the Sugarhill era. The bright production was always heavy on rhythm with a back beat that resonated as well on the R&B charts as it did on mainstream pop channels.

That broad appeal made Poolside was something of a small revolution. It was simple, direct and danceable pop that had freestyle elements that appealed to the hip hop and dance community. “I Can’t Wait” had the distinction of being a major pop, R&B as well as dance hit thanks to a Shep Pettibone remix.

The voice of Nu Shooz, Valerie Day had the charm and optimism of the best girl groups of the time, but with a subtle sophistication that came with a bit of experience on the scene. That experience may have been one of the reasons Nu Shooz was nominated for a Grammy in 1987 for Best New Artist category, even though they were not new, just new to national distribution.

Nu Shooz’s impact on the charts would continue with their follow-up Told U So in 1988. Poolside however is the pair at their bubbly, happy rhythmic best.

 


Breath of Another – Esthero (1998)

Breath from Another album cover

Breath from Another album cover

The late ’90s was a good time for the emerging trip hop music scene. The year 1998 in particular saw a number of releases that are now considered trip hop classics. I remember buying an unusually high number of CD’s that year because important albums from Massive Attack, Hoverphonic and Tricky made it a banner year for the genre.

With so many important luminaries making impressions on the dance charts within the span of a few months, it was easy to overlook one of 1998’s best trip hop albums; Breath from Another by Esthero.

The case of Esthero lack of success would be a difficult one to crack if it were not for all the releases that overshadowed their debut in 1998. That’s unfortunate because the duo made up of Jenny-Bea Englishman’s voice and Doc McKinney’s production was amongst the best of the year. DJ’s and singers have got together before to make dance music, but Esthero had so smooth refined mix of jazz and trip hop with lyrics that were a bit on the Madonna side of saucy.

That’s really a shame, because Breath from Another sampled some of the styles of late ’90s soul, hip hop and dance music rather effectively. While there are no proper hits from this album, there are a few tracks with more exposure than others. ‘That Girl’ the final promotional single was where I first heard the band. It’s a proper pop song with some acid jazz overtones. When I first heard it I assumed it was the Cardigains. Thanks to Sade, jazz was finding its way into a lot of pop and dance music.

Speaking of jazz, a few tracks feature horns like the distinctly Swingout Sister sounding ‘Flipher Overture’. The jazz themes continue with echos of Sade on ‘Half a World Away’. As nice as those tracks were, I thought Estero was at its best when they found their own groove as on songs like ‘Indigo Boy’.

The beat heavy album experiments with a range of sounds, some like the classical Spanish guitar in ‘Heaven Sent’ would become a remixed dance hit. While the strings may have given some songs a distinctive old world charm, McKinney’s production reminds you that this is dance music with pronounced beats and little sound samples in the background.

The diversity of noises and styles gives Breath from Another a kind of unfocused approach, but it only illustrates the potential of Esthero in the hands of the right producer. As good as this album was, it remained a sleeper, but sold nearly 120,000 copies. Not bad for an album with just two seldom seen videos and hardly any official singles. Estero did have some success with ‘Heaven Sent’ on Billboard’s Hot Dance singles where it reached #4.

There might be any number of reasons Esthero were not inaugurated into the class of 1998’s top trip hop albums, but the biggest might be the lack of an image. Their sound could have been interchangeable with any number of artist including RES and a few mentioned above. Even in the ’90s the importance of widely circulated videos and live performances went a long way in promoting a band.

Esthero had a follow-up release many years later, so many in fact that I almost forgot they were still together. It didn’t matter anyway because some song from Breath of Another is likely to be on some playlist of mine for many years to come.


Sign o’ the Times – Prince (1987)

Sign o' the Times cover

Sign o’ the Times cover


I really miss the old Prince, I mean not the Controversy-Dirty Mind one so much as the Sign o’ the Times one. That album was Prince at his best both commercially and critically. As his 9th album and first one without the Revolution, his fans had come to expect the unexpected from their Purple Hero. Sign o’ the Times was a music movie without the movie. It was a performance footage film, but it was it’s soundtrack that was a hit not, the film as in Purple Rain.

While not so Purple any more, Sign o’ the Times was recorded without the Revolution per se, however many of its members were still there including new ones like Atlanta Bliss on horns. The band was as tight as ever, so it did not matter so much that the Revolution was gone, as they were very much in spirit there.

All the things that  made Prince’s music exciting seemed to converge on this album. The raw funk of ‘If I was Your Girlfriend’ was Prince at his androgynous best (the flip side of the single ‘Shockadelica’ was even funkier). In addition to the regular sex antics, there was the obligatory soul-searching on ‘The Cross’. Spiritual conflicts started as early as 1982’s 1999 with ‘Free’ and had become a musical theme on at least one song on every album since.

Whatever personal demons Prince was grappling with extended to social commentary. The album’s first single, the title track addressed urban crime, drug use and the fate of black males in American society. It was unusual hearing such serious subject matter coming from Prince, but his throwback rock style made it palatable and even funky. For every song laced with political or social commentary, there were two of the upbeat ‘I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man’ types.

It would be the mid tempo songs that expressed another element of Prince’s music that I looked forward to during the ’80s: his knack for oddly accessible experimentation. Unlike almost anyone else in music at the time Prince’s progressive songs manage to connect to a broad audience and be innovative at the same time. This to me remains his creative legacy, as very few artist can match that feat.

Songs like ‘Starfish and Coffee’ and ‘The Ballad of Dorothy Parker’ recalled Joni Mitchell while moving the concept of a funk ballad forward. There was something for everyone from James Brown inspired funk numbers (‘Housequake’) to smooth crooner (‘Adore’) and just about everything in between.

Of course ‘You Got the Look’ with Sheena Easton had become his biggest hit since Purple Rain, making Prince a household name once again. It was easy to hear Prince music from multiple sources during those times as his hit making machine was in full effect for other artists like Shelia E, Jill Jones, The Bangles and of course his own aborted project from that year the Black Album.

It wasn’t too many years after Sign o’the Times that Prince would no longer rule the pop charts. Instead he continued making innovate music, but clearly not as interesting as the years went on. As an artist, he’s not one to re hike old trails, but I do miss the unusual combination of trail blazing innovation + pop accessibility from the old Prince.

 


Move To This – Cathy Dennis (1991)

Move To This album cover

Move To This album cover

During a time when Britpop bands like Blur and Oasis were making headway on America’s rock charts, British soul music was wrapping up it’s own invasion. Music from Soul II Soul, Loose Ends, Caron Wheeler and Lisa Stansfield were having considerable success on American pop and R&B charts.

While The Brand New Heavies and Lisa Stansfield were often at opposite ends of the charts, artist like Cathy Dennis filled in the middle. Except for the emphasis on house music styles, there was nothing distinctively British about her debut album Move To This.

She did represent a kind of coming of age for British Soul, but not in the way you might think. Despite her somewhat child like voice, the lavish production that surrounded her represented a kind of corporate assimilation at the price of national distinction.

If you could image Dennis’ vocal tracks removed, the music on Move To This could have been interchanged with just about any Martha Wash or CeeCee Penniston album of the time. There was a growing contingent of American R&B artist who were being influenced by international club culture. Move To This had a sound that was squarely in the middle of this trend from a British perspective.

On Move To This Dennis used an international cast of producers (most of them American) who created a slick club sound with American R&B undertones. The team included Dennis herself as well as Shep Pettibone and Nile Rodgers.

Many of the songs are underlined with the kind of bouncy bass-lines made popular by Nelie Hooper for Soul II Soul and later Loose Ends. The similarities with other British soul would end there as Move To This featured club ready songs that were well written with wide pop appeal.

The big break out hit ‘Just Another Dream’ featured backup vocals from D Mob (who sounded remarkably like Rick Astley). It was enough to put the song in the American Top 10 during the height of Rick Astely’s popularity. Another hit on the dance chart, ‘All Night Long’, may be the only other song most people know Dennis from.

The success of Move To This prompted Dennis to cater to American audiences with a more mainstream pop approach only to switch up later with more sophisticated material. Despite the changes in her career and the critical acclaim some of it garnered, it all seemed to comeback to the hits from Move To This. Her last album from 2000 draws heavily from her debut with remixes, but Move To This remains her strongest collection of dance pop and is an excellent (if not somewhat generic) example of early ’90s dance pop.


She Hangs Brightly – Mazzy Star (1988)

She Hangs Brightly album cover

She Hangs Brightly album cover

At some point young people, especially college students go through a period of musical discovery. Even now in the everything all the time age of the internet this rite of passage is still commonplace. Invariably when students learn of ’60s protest era rock from a history or physolophy class, they began to explore Dillion, Hendrix and the Doors as they work their way through the greatest hits of the era.
In my observation, the musical bus seems to park somewhere between the Beatels and Bob Dillion. Forcing unexposed freshmen to record stores (and now the internets) in search of inspiration. Some aspects of the hippie aesthetic can have a powerful impact last a lifetime leading impressionable minds towards neo psydeloca once they have exhausted the easy pickings of the greatest hits collections.
In the ’80s the contemporary end of that peonoma saw the profiles of bands like The Dream Syndicate, Echo & the Bunnymen and even the Cure rise. A trend toward reviving aspects of psychedelia in the ’80s reached across musical generes. Even Prince was one of the biggest proponents of neo-psychodelica for a time.
Mazzy Star was one of the late bloomers to the folk/neo-psychedelia movement. They also became one of my favorite bands as the movement progressed. They combined the atmosphere of late ’60s rock with a easy going haze of fuzzy shoe gauze style guitars.
The band centered around vocalist Hope Sandoval and songwriter David Roback. Often simple and introspective in style, Mazzy Star’s debut She Hangs Brightly features Sandoval’s voice with nothing more than guitar accompinemt and the occasional organ on most songs.
Songs like the title track highlight the detached, often spooky vocal style that was somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission. Sandoval’s singing is sometimes accompined with a vintage style keyboard treatment, all recalling the Doors circa 1967. One of the albums strongest songs, ‘Give You My Lovin’ is blusey and comes closest to the structure and discipline expected in a pop song.
This album was more about mood and presence than sharp or focused songs anyway. In that respect it makes an excellent backdrop to lazy summer days or as mood music. That’s how I use it for the most part (not to sell it short). Future releases from Mazzy Star would be more consise and focused with in the context of dream pop. For raw atmosphere She Hangs Brightly is hard to beat, even if drums are used sparingly in it.


OK Computer – Radiohead (1997)

OK Computer album cover

OK Computer album cover

Mention Radiohead and you’re sure to get a strong response either way. For many and myself included, the band sounded like yet another U2 disciple – abet a very good one. When The Bends became a commercial and critical success (building on the U2-like sound from their debut), fans had little reason to think that the band would do anything different.

It was a small miracle that OK Computer was even completed, considering that the band was undergoing a difficult tour and were now cryin the blues that came with the fruits of rapid success.
To top off the difficulty factor, the band decided that OK Computer would be self produced, with the help with Nigel Godrich (who became a virtual surrogate band member).

The U2 comparisons were growing thin on Tom Yorke and with that in mind the band went out of their way to distance themselves from the guitar led anthems of past two albums. In it’s place came a swirling, dense mix of prog rock, ambient and jazz-fusion styles that produced one of the most original rock albums of the late ’90s. In many ways OK Computer opened the door to Radioheads relentless experimentation, as if distancing themselves even further from a then stagnant U2 would be the goal with every release moving forward.

Although the bands record label though Radiohead had created a artful masterpiece, they did not expect much in the way of sales. After becoming the band’s most successful album to date, OK Computer silenced the corporate brass and gave the band license to do whatever they wanted. A long list of singles including ‘Paranoid Android’, ‘Karma Police’ and “Luck No Surprises’ became MTV and modern-rock radio favorites.

The album drew from a wide range of influences, but my favorite track, ‘Let Down’ best conveys the melodic influences of 70s rock to the point of sounding warmly familiar. Other tracks like ‘Airbag’ are structured on the surface like a more straightforward rock song, but closer inspection reveals moments of deconstruction.

The lyrical themes expand along with musical palette. Metallic and digital sounds like processed voices and robotic tones heighten themes of isolation, consumerism and social alienation. These themes were not new as they were the cornerstone of new romantics 20 years before, but Radiohead managed to give the material a warm almost organic edge.

Ironically the kind of isolation the band sung about in 1997 is now a potential reality with people talking to their phones directly with “OK Google” prompts. Tom Yorke might not have foreseen the coming smartphone revolution, but it was clear that technology was moving towards personalization that could be harmful to normal socialization.

From OK Computer on, Radiohead would distance themselves from the U2 inspired sound and nearly everyone in contemporary Britpop. Each album afterward would explore a new musical directions. Even with all the rapid changes fans still gravitate back to the original experiment.

OK Computer remains a critical and fan favorite that marks the time when Radiohead really found themselves and became their own influence and motivation.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t_3P4lPtcZI

 

 


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