Friday, April 30, 2010

The Joy of Cooking: Aguilera Not-So-Surprise

I think I've determined the recipe for Christina Aguilera's new video. Here goes:

Take two cups of Madonna's "Human Nature:"

Mix with two cups Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance:"

Add one tsp. of Britney Spears' "3" (for color):

Add dash of Geri Halliwell's "It's Raining Men:"

And voila! Instant "Not Myself Tonight!" Observe.

Best "Telephone" Remake EVER

Is there any better reason to support our troops than this fabulous video? James Conley, who plays Beyonce, wrote on his Facebook page that "this is what people do with they free time in Afghanistan. Its crazy out here. And yeah I’m in it too."

Eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh...

Friday, April 23, 2010

Starting Up a Brand New Day

Friday might seem like an odd day for the theme of starting anew, but if you've followed my various web endeavors you'll probably understand why. Unlike with angry "I hate you" songs, of which I have surprisingly few (I see people fight and be negative all the time in my real life, so I don't need much in my recreational), of upbeat, invigorating revival motivational anthems for this kind of day I have scads. I thought, since it's early appropriately quick, why waste time with metaphors when you can make Sting sing the crucial three-word triplet? And what better luck, as a seeker of a copy of said track, than to first come across, as I did, not the studio track from the 1999 album of the same name, but rather the cut from 2001 live album ...All This Time, which is a great, bouncing, uptempo jazz version of the eerie electronic original, complete with jazz band, male and female backup singers, and of course Sting, whose voice is tailor-made for jazz. The live album was recorded on the night of September 11, 2001, at the famous concert that was an ultimately helpful gesture showing that life would go on, despite the disaster mere hours earlier.

The relevance of that to this current morning was the first flag, what I heard from our small-scale rehearsals even better, then finally the perfect relevance of the lyrics not only to my goal but to where I begin. The past is now the past, and it is time to start anew for myself personally, once again as my own individuality and solidly single.
"Brand New Day"
A&M, 2001)

Why don't we turn the clock to zero, honey
I'll sell the stock, we'll spend all the money
We're starting up a brand new day
Turn the clock all the way back
I wonder if she'll take me back
I'm thinking in a brand new way

Turn the clock to zero, sister
You'll never know how much I missed her
I'm starting up a brand new day
Turn the clock to zero, boss
The river's wide, we'll swim across
We're starting up a brand new day....

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tears Dry On Their Own (or, My Breakup Theme Song)

A wonderful thing about music is that it can take on a very personal meaning or role unique to an individual alone. Sometimes a song can bring back memories as evocatively as a particular scent, be they good ones, poignant ones, humorous ones, or sad ones. Pop music in particular is useful in certain significant times, moments or events in a person's life: why else would so many couples have "our song," or wedding dj's scour the world for the perfect track for a first dance, or the recent breakup victim find solace or strength in one of any number of tunes appropriate for the desired reaction, be it sadness, anger or reaffirmation of strength.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Oh Em Glee, Part Two

So, what did you all think? I confess I did not get to witness the merriment myself, but I do plan to seek out the video in short order, as the concept of this particular episode more than merits a casual gander (as is, after all, its purpose; sweeps just came early for Glee). I will, however, have a listen to the audio recording that just happened to have been released today (I wonder if they planned that or something!) to get an idea of whether the show's renditions managed to transcend imitation alone as with earlier in the season, particularly with the pop songs (Lea Michele's "Take a Bow" and Amber Riley's "Bust Your Windows," for instance, displayed accuracy and vocal ability while entirely lacking style, and would have made top-notch karaoke machine demo tracks). Said episode soundtrack can also be found just below these words, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood pop music blog, Vertigo Shtick. Enjoy (and tell your friends)!

Oh Em Glee

In case you are not a so-called "Gleek" nor exposed to one with any regularity, tonight's television lineup includes the heavily hyped and, so far as I can tell, highly anticipated "Madonna episode," awaited rabidly by the large and growing number of fans of Fox's freshman musical comedy and sure to build on the already inflated ratings of last week's return episode, the first new one since December, which tallied 13.66 million viewers. Maybe it's just the kind of people I tend to know, but even for a Glee abstainer (supporter, just not participating) there is an almost palpable anticipatory energy. It's almost like one can feel the...glee.

Since this week's real true pop event (to borrow from Lady Gaga) is especially relevant to this blog, I thought I'd throw a few bones the way of all the Gleeks out there - without compromising my general distaste for the way the show handles its music, of course (for reasons I have touched upon herein and will undoubtedly expand on forthwith).

So for the first of two Gleeky posts in honor of the occasion, I have helpfully compiled the eight tracks from the Queen of Pop's vast library creator Ryan Murphy et al have chosen to absorb into the Glee diaspora for your preparation, LEST WE FORGET that none of the earth-shattering amazingness supposedly in store would be possible, much less relevant, were it not for the original success of the one and only Madonna. And after the show, come on back to bask in a second playlist, this time with the incorrigible cover versions you love ever so much.

1. "Express Yourself" (Like a Prayer, 1989)

One of my favorite early/middle Madonna anthems, not just because it trumpets my own personal philosophy of life.

2. "Borderline" (Madonna, 1983)

People who were around when this came out seem to like this song a lot; I don't care for it much, but then I wasn't yet born.

3. "Open Your Heart" (True Blue, 1985)

Ditto the above, but to a lesser degree (and I was born, but my ears were nowhere near Madonna music I'm sure).

4. "Vogue" (I'm Breathless, 1990)

I definitely give the Glee folks props for their fabulous promotional video starring the superb Jane Lynch (who doesn't sound half bad) as sociopathic villainess Sue Madonna.

5. "Like a Virgin" (Like a Virgin, 1984)

The first thing I think of when this song comes up nowadays is the scene in the film version of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in which Bridget attempts to teach a jail cell full of Thai women that the chorus to this song is nowhere near as explicit as they had readily assumed. As do I, now.

6. "4 Minutes" (Hard Candy, 2008)

Of all the recent material to utilize, this seems like a poor selection, but supposedly Amber Riley and Chris Colfer (as black diva stereotype Mercedes and flamboyantly gay stereotype Kurt) "tear it up."

 Wait, we got how many minutes to save the world? Hell to the naw!

7. "What It Feels Like For a Girl" (Music, 1996)

Mildly interesting, as the number is to be performed by the male cast members in tonight's show.

8. "Like a Prayer" (Like a Prayer, 1989)

I give a second round of reluctant props to the Glee crew; as closing numbers go, this one has as much or more potential as "Don't Stop Believin'," used to such great effect in the climax of the impressive pilot episode.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Deja Vu (Volume One)

Some time ago - I have a sneaky suspicion it was right around the time Rihanna re-released her smash hit third album as Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded - I got to thinking about the nomenclature of pop songs: specifically, the occasions of common nomenclature in terms of song titles that, while not necessarily rampant, were frequent enough to catch my attention. I had encountered confusion several times in the past when contemporary artists released tracks with the same title as, say, a jazz classic I knew well from my Ella Fitzgerald-heavy musical upbringing, or (more amusingly) even as a song from a Tom Chapin, Raffi or other such children's record I'd grown up with. Those instances, once clarified, were understood and deemed justified, for the most part.

Then Rihanna scored her second number one single from just the three BONUS tracks off the re-release of her album (having already earned one from the original track list, the ubiquitous "Umbrella," and later the first single off the bonus album, "Disturbia") with a song called "Take a Bow." As might be predicted when dealing with songwriters, the ballad centered on an underlining metaphor using theatrical imagery - specifically, focusing on the end of a performance - to illustrate a state of a relationship. Hardly groundbreaking, but the solid symbolic foundation on which many a poem and song lies (this is NOT unique to pop music, lest the indie elitists feel an urge to raise their noses at this generalization). Ho-hum.

Only, that metaphor had been used before. Granted, with the staggering amount of creation that has taken place since mankind learned to do things other than mate, eat, sleep and defecate, show me a metaphor that hasn't been used before somewhere and I'll show you Samantha Mumba's recent singing career. Except the metaphor had been used rather famously in another ballad - a pop ballad, mind you - in the not-so-distant-that-you'd-be-excused-for-assuming-people-wouldn't-necessarily-remember-it past. And the similarities pile on: solo female singer, major pop icon, long-running number one hit single...and that's not even getting into the similarities within the songs themselves.

Well, maybe I was the only one a little indignant on Madonna's behalf, because Rihanna's "Take a Bow" leapt from 58 to number one on May 24, 2008, and remained in the top ten for fifteen weeks, the longest stay of any of the artist's previous or subsequent tracks (and, to add insult to injury, the title of the third single from the re-release? "Rehab." More on that later). And so, from now on, if someone were to mention the song "Take a Bow," (why? but that's beside the point) some may think of the forgettable Rihanna ballad, others of one of Madonna's best ballads, others may know enough to ask clarification, and others won't know either way and therefore unsuited to whatever point one may have been trying to make in bringing the song up in the first place. (This problem may be more indicative of a lack of ingenuity on Rihanna's part than anything more broadly relevant, but there you go.)

As I tend to do, I got to thinking about other pop songs with identical titles, and found it surprisingly easy to accrue a sizeable list, although I did find that not all of the pairings had as much in common as the pair of "Take a Bows." In fact, sometimes songs with the same title were so different in all other respects as to make their shared names downright humorous. So I began putting together a playlist to demonstrate my gleeful discovery, and quickly realized I had enough to fill no fewer than four of them. Here, therefore, is the first of an occasional series of playlists on the theme I have just discussed. I encourage you to try and think of some others and submit them in the comments, for while I may already have them on one of the three lists to come (one of which, by the way, is devoted exclusively to Madonna tunes), I also may it's just fun to play along sometimes, isn't it?

Come on, show me love, and enjoy the playlist.

1. "Push It" Salt N Pepa (Hot, Cool & Vicious, Next Plateau Records, 1986)

2. "Push It" Garbage (Version 2.0, Geffen, 1998)

What's Similar: Subject matter, for one... *ahem*

What's Not: Genre (Salt N Pepa - rap; Garbage - alt/rock); Tempo/Tone (Salt N Pepa - light, uptempo, A minor; Garbage - heavy, midtempo, E minor); Era (Salt N Pepa - mid-80s girl rap; Garbage - mid/late '90s alt/rock)

3. "Girlfriend" N*SYNC featuring Nelly (Celebrity, Jive, 2001)

4. "Girlfriend" Avril Lavigne (The Best Damn Thing, RCA Records, 2007)

What's Similar: Genre (Mainstream Pop)

What's Not: The subject matter differs somewhat, although with this particular title it makes sense that a girl rocker and a band of mooning boytoys would have a slightly different take (this is pre-"Don't Cha," remember); the boy wants the girl to lose her toxic man of the moment in favor of himself, while the girl waxes bitchy on her guy of choice's woman of choice with the idea that a switch in her favor is called for. Obviously a late N*SYNC pop song (during the brief - and, in my opinion, best, for the band at least - period between the band's dissolution and the emergence of Justin Timberlake's solo career where the musical influence of the lead singer was noticeable) and a track from Lavigne's expletive-laced sophomore album (trying largely in vain to distance herself in musical maturity from early, fluffy hits "Complicated" and "Sk8er Boy") have their differences in musical stylings as well.

5. "I Kissed a Girl" Katy Perry (One of the Boys, Capitol, 2008)

6. "I Kissed a Girl" Jill Sobule (Jill Sobule, Lava, 1994)

What's Similar: Veracity: yes, they both did kiss a girl. And they both liked it, actually.

What's Not: One is a teasing, boy-baiting female homoerotic come-on that has nothing to do with any girl-girl curiosity (but rather just another way to attract the mens), and the other is, well, exactly what the title suggest. Don't get me wrong; I'm not dismissing either one as an effective and even evocative piece of pop ingenuity - Perry's track was the surprise summer hit of 2008, and Sobule maintains a smaller but rabidly loyal following. The Perry femme-smooch anthem is, in fact, a product of the Max Martin/Cathy Dennis pop machine that brings us Britney Spears, Pink, and Kelly Clarkson (Martin) and many of the best dance tracks of the last decade from the likes of Spears, Kylie Minogue, and Sugababes (Dennis); Sobule's is the product of her own good, wholesome, Pitchfork-friendly singer-songwriter self.

7. "Rehab" Amy Winehouse (Back to Black, Universal, 2006)

8. "Rehab" Rihanna (Good Girl Gone Bad: Reloaded, Def Jam, 2008)

What's Similar: Besides the fact that Rihanna's track debuted a mere two years after Winehouse's (and barely a year after the latter hit the U.S. market and swept Grammy Awards), not much, besides the title.

What's Not: First, Winehouse is actually singing about rehab. There are, in fact, times in songwriting that a tree is just a tree. Rihanna (by the pen of Timberlake and others) uses it as an ultimately stale and untidy metaphor for the whole "I should leave you but I can't but I must but I don't wanna" that is even less palatable given her well-publicized personal relationship troubles that followed shortly after (which in turn produced another entire album of such songs, like the aptly titled "Stupid in Love"). Winehouse's is a brilliant up-tempo throwback jazzy soul masterpiece; Rihanna's is one of the dearth of Timberlake tracks (along with Madonna's "Voices" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" and Timberlake's own "What Goes Around/Comes Around") that play like a set of studies done by a visual artist on the same eventual painting, only the last of which is meant, or suited, for publication. Or maybe that's all Timberlake's got? And, I should add, Winehouse's is fantastic; Rihanna's is not.

9. "Whatever" Jill Scott (Beautifully Human: Words and Sounds Vol. 2, Hidden Beach Records, 2004)

10. "Whatever" En Vogue (EV3, Atlantic Records, 1997)

What's Similar: Both songs can be broadly categorized in the R&B genre.

What's Not: The subject matter could hardly be more opposing: the funky divas of En Vogue riff on love's difficulties while Scott makes a point of adoring and welcoming her love in every way. Scott's is a down-tempo, slinky, sensual declaration of love, while En Vogue's mid-tempo groove is a perfect example of the unique way the group managed to mix throwback soul with very modern R&B sounds. Also, I really can't see any of those three ladies offering to run out and grab their lover some chicken wings.

11. "Walk Away" Christina Aguilera (Stripped, RCA Records, 2002)

12. "Walk Away" Kelly Clarkson (Breakaway, RCA Records, 2004)

What's Similar: Title, record label, genre, type of artist, era... on paper these two songs suggest a whole mess of Rihanna-style deja vu.

What's Not: Yet somehow, the two tracks are in execution completely unalike. Clarkson's, which unlike Aguilera's was released as a single, fits the theme of her sophomore (or as I call it, "peace out, Idol") album Breakaway of separation, growth, and renewed or newly discovered strength on one's own (see "peace out, Idol"), and is a passable girl power-light anthem that might not seem as insipid were it not on the same album as the fantastic kiss-off gem "Since U Been Gone." Aguilera's is, on the other hand, a down-tempo, slow-jazz piano ballad that suggests the far more polished jazz infusions the chanteuse explored on her third album Back to Basics several years later, and is one of the better tracks on her awkwardly uneven sophomore fracas, Stripped that got overlooked in favor of disasters like "Dirrty" and diamonds in the rough like "Beautiful."

13. "The Climb" Miley Cyrus (Hannah Montana the Movie, Walt Disney, 2009)

14. "The Climb" No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom, Interscope, 1995)

What's Similar: Climbing metaphors about life (hint: it's a climb, but it's worth it, according to the teenage Disney product and the rebellious Orange County twenty-somethings).

What's Not: Cyrus' is a country pop power ballad; No Doubt's is a nearly seven minute, ska ballad? Screw it, it's just a nice mid-tempo jam session by some kids in the garage, and it's fascinated me since the album first dropped. Back then, of course, I was not much on parsing metaphors, and I remember excitedly explaining the song to my parents with an entirely fabricated story that the song told the tale of a mountain climber scaling Everest...literally, not figuratively, mind you. Then again, I also thought Alanis Morissette was asking if her ex's new girl would make out with him in a theater, so my naivete was widespread at the time. Of course, personally, there's also the difference that I'd gladly listen to Gwen Stefani riff for seven minutes on the price of fertilizer in Mumbai, whereas I'm entirely content with relegating my intake of Cyrus to the two or three singles of hers I find minor guilty pleasures.

15. "Take It Off" The Donnas (Spend the Night, Atlantic Records, 2002)

16. "Take It Off" Ke$ha (Animal, RCA Records, 2010)

What's Similar: The removal of clothing from one's body; both artists are/were minor female pop personalities in their debut round.

What's Not: The Donnas tried to rock, bless their hearts, and they had a witty little premise; too bad it had been done before by every girl group from the Shirelles to the Supremes in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and much, much better, too. Their "Take It Off" is still a fun, light rockout, like something you might play at an all-girls slumber party (especially with Katy Perry in attendance) rather than in an effort to encourage a male companion to take the song's salacious suggestion. Ke$ha's pounding love song to sexual debauchery (the nightclub kind, not the bedroom kind) sings praises to a mystical "place downtown" inhabited by freaks, dirty free-for-alls, and lots of glitter (by the way, thought Ke$ha and I share a city, I have NO idea what place she means in this song, and am dying to find out), and also happens to spell out her philosophy and her entirely valid justification of it all in one song: she's just out to have fun (of this we are aware), but she's not the designated driver tonight, and therefore free to enjoy, for now, her party as she so chooses - with the subtle but present admission that things are not always, nor will always be, that way.

17. "Work It" Nelly featuring Justin Timberlake (Nellyville, Universal, 2002)

18. "Work It" Missy Elliott (Under Construction, Atlantic Records/ATG, 2002)

What's Similar: This is one of the more egregious instances of what I call the "Summer Sci-Fi" effect, named for the curious tendency for there to be each summer, like clockwork, at least two or three major sci-fi films with the same general theme (e.g. Armageddon/Deep Impact; Volcano/Dante's Peak; Comic Book adaptations). In this case, two of the biggest rap stars of the early 2000s came out with singles with the exact same title in the same year. Say whaaa?

What's Not: Nelly's, of course, featured the soon-to-be ubiquitous guest vocals of one J. Timberlake (seriously, he's like the Dakota Fanning of pop music: are there no other young male pop singers out there?) and was a far more dance-rhythmed club thumper than the St. Louis rapper's typical fare. Meanwhile, Misdemeanor worked a killer beat, filthy lyrics she somehow made sound clean, and, of course, a chorus of absolute gibberish to create what is commonly selected as one of the best singles of the decade. Timberlake's influence made the "working it" in Nelly's track less boudoir and more ballroom, but no one had any question of for what activity Elliot needed time to shave her cho-cha.

Actually, I chose this pairing to wrap up this first volume of Deja Vu playlists because today is Monday, and I know there are a lot of folks out there who could use a little pep talk from the gadunk-a-dunk dunk of Missy Elliot to rev them up for a productive and survivable work week ahead. Enjoy!

DJ please, pick up yo' phone, up on the request line!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Song(s) for the Day: Shaken, Not Stirred

Think back, if you will, to 1997, when Bond meant Brosnan instead of brooding Craig, brunette instead of blonde, chest hair galore instead of shiny smooth muscles emerging from the sea, and when theme songs were almost as enjoyable (and popular) as the films they accompanied. Tomorrow Never Dies, the second and arguably best of the iffy Bond foursome starring Scottish stud Pierce Brosnan, arrived two years after Goldeneye brought a new Bond to fruition, future X-Men star Famke Janssen (and her killer thighs) into the limelight, and the great Tina Turner title track (written by Bono and the Edge of U2), but it didn't exactly have a great deal to live up to. Still, it was an enjoyable romp, with such delights as an Asian Bond Girl (Michelle Yeoh) whose powers for once extended beyond being named "Pussy Galore;" a kickass submarine finale; Jonathan Pryce (fresh off Evita) as one of the better Bond villains not armed with a white cat; the brief scenes featuring Teri Hatcher that culminated in her being bumped off a third of the way in; and so forth.

Another gift Tomorrow Never Dies gave was addressed to the music world, and herein lies an interesting, if brief and familiar, story. David Arnold, who penned the score for the seventeenth Bond film (having been hand-picked by boss-lady Barbara Broccoli), also put his hand to writing a theme song, a theme which also would crop up several times during the film - because, after all, isn't that what a theme song really SHOULD do? But I digress. Said song, originally titled (wait for it) "Tomorrow Never Dies," was recorded by lowercase-loving songstress k.d. lang, at her sultriest and most sensual throughout. But after Tina Turner, someone decided that the new theme song should be selected through a competitive process, and a total of twelve songs were submitted from a variety of artists, including Arnold and lang's. In the end, though, it was Sheryl Crow's entry that won the day, although Arnold and lang's tune was given the opening end credits slot and renamed "Surrender," only the fourth time a Bond film would have a different opening and closing theme song.

When I first saw the film I was no Sheryl Crow devotee (nor am I still, although that is not to say I view her in any negative light), and I felt strongly that "Surrender" was a far more appropriate Bond song in general and in terms of the particular film itself. Over time, I've learned to appreciate both for their own merits (it is certainly one of Crow's most exciting songs), and now I'm not sure I have, or need, a preference.

Which, if any, do you prefer, I wonder?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

White Magic Woman: A Britney Spears Playlist

I laughed when this past weekend I started noticing excited tweets from attendees of the annual White Party, then underway in Palm Springs, that a certain beloved pop music legend was apparently in attendance. Details were vague, but that's nothing new when you're talking about the White Party. For those blissfully not in the know, the White Party is one of a seemingly endless circuit of weekends involving swarms of generally affluent and attractive gay men (I believe admission requires several hundred dollars a night and notarized proof of visible abdominal muscles and/or Latino ethnicity) who descend upon a helpless semi-tropical city to stand shirtless around swimming pools during daylight posing for photos and at night consuming copious amounts of controlled substances and engaging in marathons of sexual experimentation and then return to civilization denying all of it.

In short, it's more a place you might expect to find Lady Gaga than Britney Spears, but Gaga is busy taking over the world, visiting new hospitals, and preparing to headline Lollapalooza, so Ke$ha was sent in her stead. Spears showed up to support Swedish pop star Agnes (the two share a manager) and apparently enjoyed the night's festivities from a private area constructed entirely for her "appearance." I say good for her; obviously she was out to bring some attention to the newer European import and to enjoy a bit of wholesome fun among her gays, and that she showed at the White Party was a comforting reminder of Spears' career-long history of open-mindedness and support for different sexualities (as well as her canny way of doing to to her own maximum publicity benefit as well without being too noticeable). And as some of us suffered through clips of former reality show "real" housewives doing something that almost resembled singing and dancing, it was also a nice reminder that even if Christina Aguilera's upcoming new album Bionic turns out to be a disappointment, Britney cuts new studio records with twice the speed and frequency as she divorces men.

In honor of our fabulous reader and fellow Britneyphile Kurt on his 22nd birthday, Vertigo Shtick is celebrating Our Lady of the White Party, Spears-style: with 22 of the hottest Britney tracks to rock and roll him into another year, and some of her more iconic photographs in white as well.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sue Sylvester, We Love You

I dislike Glee. I've said this before; I've made my protestations against the uninspired karaoke and canned music even while admitting gladly that I am nothing if not pleased that Glee exists and that so many people do, in fact, love what I sadly cannot.

That said, bravo, Jane Lynch. (Come on...this is a pop music blog, is it not?)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Playlist of the Week: Classy Brass

Like many middle class white kids from protestant liberal blue state artsy families, I was subjected to music lessons from an early age. I started on piano, but when the teaching continuity was broken by a move to another town when I was nine that came to naught; next, having the choice of any symphonic instrument to learn at my new school where no one knew me but everyone knew everyone else, I eclectically chose the trombone, which I played ever so dorkily until taking up the violin in sixth grade, becoming moderately skilled at that instrument until the lack of ensemble options at my high school led me to abandon it for good old-fashioned voice. Since I abhor little more than I do "practicing," that suited me just fine, so I don't miss the days of being an instrumentalist.

My upbringing did, however, endow in me a particular appreciation for the unique qualities embodied in an actual instrument, as opposed to the digital sonic creations of a gifted electronic musician. The latter, of course, has become a staple in modern mainstream pop music, making a loud cacophanous debut in the 80s before mellowing nearly to stasis in the 90s, then undergoing hyperbolic renaissance with the teen pop era of the early 2000s before revisiting its house/techno roots (which is where European pop has lived happily for decades now) in the past few years.

This does not, however, mean that the instrument is dead or unwelcome in current pop music, and to say so would be to wallow in indie rock-superiority complex shortsightedness. The instrument, by which I mean the unadulterated sound of the original unplugged tangible instrument, has instead taken on a certain significance that the cleverest of artists and producers have utilized often to great benefit. They're sort of like a swear word (or at least how swear words ought to be used): not part of the normal vocabulary, but rather only thrown in occasionally for emphasis or to drive home an especially important point. You might argue that such use actually increases the importance of the instrument, since whenever it is used it earns notice.

In pop music, this can manifest in several ways. The instrumental moment sometimes finds place and meaning in one or several brief appearances within a track in which by all generic standards they wouldn't be expected. A keenly engineered string loop, for instance (albeit synthetically produced, but the effect remains) can take a track by a supposed throwaway teen pop star into the top five of indie champion Pitchfork's year-end singles countdown; an unexpected trumpet blast in the waning seconds of a down-tempo electronic RnB seduction song can turn a sleazy throwaway bonus track into...well, at least a sleazy bonus track from worth making a music video is deemed a worthwhile endeavor.

In other instances the instrument's effect actually propels or at least saturates an entire track; thereby it is the track itself that makes whatever statement is meant through the use of the atypical instrumentation. (I'm not talking something easy here like guitar or piano, by the way.) The entire ska movement of the mid-nineties centered around the alien sound of a trumpet section as part of its standard sound, while a track wishing to evoke the good ol' days of brass bands and Great Depressions will indubitably reek of brass. Likewise, when Fiona Apple wants to make it clear she may be back but she doesn't give a damn, she can neatly say so by hauling in a wind orchestra to accompany her long-awaited comeback single.

As a trombonist it quickly became clear to me I had not selected the sexiest of instruments, and it was not until I had the great opportunity to soak in a good deal of high-level professional live jazz in college and afterwards that I began to begrudgingly accept my former galumphing musical appliance as anything but the orchestral equivalent of pit stains. About the same time I enjoyed a rousing reminder of the power of a great brass section to really liven things up, and if it worked so well for jazz and big band, after all, then why not upbeat pop? So I gathered a number of fine examples of this inspired incorporation of brass into pop music; some of them will seem obvious, while others you might not have noticed, or at least thought much about, the influence of brass within. With that, how about a fanfare? Enjoy this week's playlist!

1. "Tightrope" Janelle Monáe ft. Big Boi (Tightrope, Bad Boy/Wonderland, 2010)

Neo-soul rising star Janelle is far and away the most exciting new artist to me on the scene right now. Forget Justin Bieber and his multi-million dollar last grasps at pre-pubescent soprano clarity; Monáe's as-yet-untitled (and unannounced) full-length debut is the one I'm anticipating on the edge of my seat. With recent single "Tightrope" Monáe strays slightly from the uniquely high concept first project - a futuristic set of EPs as the so-called Metropolis Suite, the first of which landed in 2007 and included the fascinating single "Many Moons" - to deliver simply a scrumptious, fully realized dose of soul throwback with the perfect modern (and futuristic) twist. With the sheer number of innovative ideas clearly stuffed inside the 24 year old's head, if Monáe and Lady Gaga ever got their heads together I truly believe the universe might well explode.

2. "You Can Do It" No Doubt (Tragic Kingdom, Interscope, 1995)

Taking a trip back to the mid-nineties when No Doubt's third (yes, third) album Tragic Kingdom finally vindicated the Orange County ska-rock band's numerous prior tribulations by becoming a blockbuster phenomenon (single "Don't Speak" topped the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay for a near-record sixteen weeks), it might be odd to remember the group's ska background given its cunning metamorphosis to secure Rock Steady, their fifth and at present latest studio album (a sixth is scheduled to drop later this year), within the new pop directions of the early 2000s.

3. "Smooth" Santana feat. Rob Thomas (Supernatural, Arista, 1999)

Speaking of big ol' hits, Santana's 1999 album Supernatural was a somewhat unlikely megahit as well, tapping deftly into the pop sound of the mid-nineties (including perhaps the last non-ironic ska remnants) and utilizing a few of the time's big (but, wisely, not big enough to eclipse the man behind the guitar) names on vocals while remaining in the end unmistakeably a product of the great Carlos Santana. This was my favorite of the several tracks that burned up the airwaves that year.

4. "Crazy in Love" Beyoncé feat. Jay-Z (Dangerously in Love, Columbia, 2003)

Oh, 2003; what a phenomenal year that was for pop music. Nothing was tired, and everything that mattered seemed new, exciting, daring, and (shocker of shockers) GOOD! Leading the cavalry of the new decade of pop was former frontwoman for soon-to-be defunct girl group Destiny's Child, now going by the singular moniker of Beyoncé, and who could forget the fanfare with which she crashed onto the scene? The blaring, twirling, pounding, stomping horns signaling Queen B's arrival were just one of the many things that made her debut single "Crazy in Love" a bonafide smash with critics and the public alike.

5. "London Bridge" Fergie (The Dutchess, music group/A&M, 2006)
A few years later, horns made another comeback, although in the case of Black Eyed Peas singer Fergie's solo debut single they as often as not tended to seem to contribute to some form of madness. It would become clear later that Fergie's girl-rap stomper was actually a harbinger (or perhaps just well-timed example) of a brief girl rap craze that found its way into the albums of nearly every solo female pop singer who released an album between 2006 and 2008 (e.g. Gwen Stefani's "Wind It Up" and "Hollaback Girl," Beyoncé's "Ring the Alarm," Janet Jackson's "Son of a Gun," and Robyn's delightfully satirical "Konichiwa Bitches"), but at the time, it just sounded like a lot of sirens and what a college marching band's horn section might sound like on the way home from a homecoming party. (By the way, has anyone ever figured out for what exactly "London Bridge" is supposed to be a metaphor?)

6. "Ain't No Other Man" Christina Aguilera (Back to Basics, RCA, 2006)

Aguilera, who had earned chart and sales success but critical lambasting for sexually charged sophomore album Stripped in 2002, made a ballsy move by making her third album a two-disc mixture of big band and jazz throwback and modern pop, and an even ballsier one in releasing "Ain't No Other Man" as the lead single. Metrically, instrumentally (trumpets?), even lyrically (wait, she's singing about a guy she likes and it's not a ballad?), the single didn't come close to fitting the pop singles mold. Yet "Ain't No Other Man" exemplified the best moments on Back to Basics, where the throwbacks and the modern stuff actually met within the same song, somehow creating a track that sounded essentially timeless. Plus it's a hell of a lot of fun.

7. "Rehab" Amy Winehouse (Back to Black, Universal, 2006)

Meanwhile, back in merrie olde England, producing wizard Mark Ronson took a substance-abusing, marble-mouthed 21-year-old chavette and, as if by magic, unleashed the smoldering musical genius underneath, at least long enough to record the brilliant sophomore album Back to Black and stumble through a few promotional performances (although if you want to see what I think might be the only time Amy Winehouse has been sober on camera, check out a clip of her first US television appearance, singing "Rehab" on David Letterman) before the demons within took hold once more. I can only hope and pray that eventually she will come back from black and drop a few more on us in time.

8. "Video Phone (Extended Remix)" Beyoncé feat. Lady Gaga (I Am...Sasha Fierce, Music World Music/Columbia, 2008)

People complained that the extended remix to this minor song, the closing track on Beyoncé's disappointing I Am...Sasha Fierce, was full of pointlessness, including the appearance of Lady Gaga for a couple additional verses and some more undulating diva skin in the funny-hot video (although it seemed abundantly clear to me that the tit for tat, so to speak, on two tracks about telephonic accessories was a deliberate bit of promotional cross-pollination). But these people are the same people who always seem to forget what makes contemporary pop music contemporary pop music: excess! pastiche! electronics! sampling! genre-crossing! It's all here in this almost uncomfortably sexy track, wherein the unexpected and triumphant horn blasts mentioned previously combine with a whole mess of ingredients to this bit of cheesy dessert.

9. "Going Back to Cali" LL Cool J (Walking With a Panther, Island Def Jam, 1989)
Lest we start thinking this occasional brass invasion only shows up in sung pop, I hereby offer you...well, trumpets and rap! It's like chicken and waffles!

10. "The Way You Move" Outkast (Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Arista, 2003)

More trumpets and rap! Outkast really changed the game for rap music in 2003 with the smash hit double album Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which spawned greats like "The Way You Move," "Ms. Jackson" and "Hey Ya!" And there were trumpets!

11. "The Jump Off" Lil Kim (La Bella Mafia, Queen Bee/Atlantic, 2003)

Yet again! I'm telling you, chicken and waffles! Lil Kim's fantastic 80s throwback "The Jump Off" was as brassy as the Queen Bee herself (whoops, sorry Kim...seems Beyonce stole your self-bestowed title while you were in the big house!).

12. "4 Minutes" Madonna feat. Justin Timberlake (Hard Candy, Warner Brothers, 2008)

Of course, nothing can really fully be a pop music trend, even an occasional one, until it's been done by the Queen of Pop (back down Beyoncé and Ms. Spears - rocking crotch shots at fifty years old deserves a few more years to reign). And since this is such a good one, there were several examples I could have used for this purpose, but the 2008 Timbaland sound is perhaps the only one on this list that might possibly have featured an unsexy trombone in some way, so I feel I owe it to the brass section geek to give it a little lip service.

13. "I'm Horny" Mousse T. (Horny '98, Peppermint Jam, 1998)

Not only does the song actually fit the theme, but it's just too perfect not to use to close out the playlist. Because really, after reading all of that ... aren't you?

Friday, April 2, 2010

New Singles from Christina Aguilera, Robyn

There are a couple new singles out this week from two of the biggest pop stars around. One, in my opinion, is mediocre but will get tons of play and might grow on me. The other is fantastic and won't get any play, so I am entrenched in order to get you to love it. Can you guess which is which?

Don't cry for me, Guatemala...

Here's the new one from Christina Aguilera's new album Bionic (to be released June 8), "Not Myself Tonight." It hits the radio on Tuesday and iTunes on April 13. Thoughts?

And here is a new track from one of the three new albums by Swedish pop sensation Robyn due to come out later this year. "Fembot" can also be heard streaming at Robyn's website.

So, lovely readers? Who wins the new single-off?
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