As my first introduction to British new wave up-and-comer Marina and the Diamonds (it's just Marina – the titular group of gems refers not to a backup band but to you, me and all of us...sort of like Lady Gaga and the Little Monsters) was the satirical “I Am Not a Robot,” I assumed the act belonged on the lengthy list of Ke$ha-hating indie Auto-tune detractors in whom I am less than enormously interested. Foolish me: when I stumbled upon another track from the artist's debut LP The Family Jewels, the amusing, self-consciously digital age angsty “Oh No!” I was pleasantly surprised to find the sound fitting nicely alongside the best studio/live instrument productions of the current pop output. Like similarly pop-friendly guitar-based bands of the day. Marina and the Diamonds augments accessible musical style with smart yet relatively unpretentious lyricism (she even underscores the irony of “I Am Not a Robot” in the chorus: “I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine;/ I'm now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy! Oh, oh no!”), and the characteristic mixture is aptly represented (with a healthy dose of an insistent piano descant) on this short but sweet track.
34. “4th of July (Fireworks)” Kelis (Flesh Tone)
At a time when female pop stars peddled their sexuality through hints, teases and suggestion (many of them being some years shy of the age of consent at the time), Kelis was someone I always appreciated for being the bad girl on the margins, reveling in explicit sexuality the way not seen since Madonna, Janet Jackson and Salt n Pepa back in the nasty early nineties. Not since Pamela and Tommy Lee was there a more publicly sexual couple than Kelis and Nas, who wed in 2005 and collaborated on some deliciously dirty tracks on her 2006 album Kelis Was Here. But the pair's nastiest act was their messy 2009 divorce, shortly after which Kelis gave birth to a son and was dropped from her label and seemed doomed to sink into has-been obscurity. Instead, the "bitch y'all love to hate" set up a studio in her garage, called up Black Eyed Peas producer will.I.am., and in July released her fourth studio album Flesh Tone, a pulsating, joyous dance album. It was one of the more unexpected but fascinating transformations of recent memory, not entirely unlike that of The Peas. Kelis was never a particularly good singer, but just as her smoky alto was perfect for sexy hip-hop thumpers, her raspy, sometimes off-key upper register somehow manages to fit just as seamlessly into the saturated productions of electronic/dance pros like DJ Ammo and David Guetta. The imperfections provide the emotional edge to a collection of cleverly written songs that in context constitute a jovial celebration of motherhood but with such versatility as to be individually applicable to any number of relationships of any degree of propriety. "4th of July (Fireworks)," with its pulsating synth and pounding bass and Kelis' swirling vocal perfectly mixed so as to blend in with the electronic sounds without disappearing beneath them or sitting over-loudly on top (as is the case at times with the album's bigger, Guetta-produced lead single "Acappella"), is easily my favorite of the album's tunes. It was a particular delight to get to hear her perform it live this summer on the All Hearts Tour, her US club tour with Robyn.
33. “It's My Party” Amy Winehouse (Q-Soul Bossa Nostra)
They tried to make her go to rehab, and you know how that went over. But the bluesy British prodigy who insisted back in 2007 that she simply didn't have 70 days to spare for institutionalization sure hasn't been using her time in the studio preparing a follow-up to her brilliant, award-sweeping neo-soul album Back to Black, much to the chagrin of her many loyalists. Even her equally deft producer Mark Ronson has publicly sniffed about her lack of togetherness in that arena, delivering a buzz-killing rebuttal to Winehouse's promise of an early 2011 release date, and the two even exchanged some nasty tweets before Winehouse (hopefully) apologized for an outburst one might reasonably assume may not have been entirely sober. But if there was anyone with the power to deliver some new Winehouse to ease the shuddering withdrawl of music lovers, it would be legendary producer Quincy Jones – the man who brought us Michael Jackson, among many others. Stars of the highest caliber offered their services for a recent tribute compilation of Jones' countless hits of the past fifty-plus years, and wouldn't you know who was on that list? Winehouse was reportedly planning to croon “ “ for the record before changing to Lesley Gore's chaste poodle-skirt sobfest “It's My Party,” with Ronson at the helm. The results are, as one critic put it, “interesting” to say the least; for at least the first verse one might swear Winehouse was as plastered as Richard Burton between takes; but as she works her way through two more verses and one gut-clenchingly hilarious spoken bridge, it's clear that the girl still knows what it means to kill a vocal...and can that woman SING! It's uproarious, controversial, messy, and addictive, and far from sating thirst it only makes the return of Amy Winehouse that much more a desperate necessity.
32. “Bobblehead” Christina Aguilera (Bionic)
I'm not even going to get into the infamous mess of frustration, thrill, waste, brilliance, idiocy and/or folly that is Christina Aguilera's Bionic (I have already, at length...and probably will do further at some point), other than to select but one of the many missteps involved, that being song selection. Aguilera's previous two albums were both overlong epics of which Cecil B. DeMille would likely approve, and Bionic is no different; similarly, like its predecessors, Bionic contains (more than) its share of duds mixed with (and diluting) its bullseyes. But in fairness, the historical model of the pop LP has always comprised of semi-equal parts hits, intriguing non-hits, and pointless, sub-standard filler, and in the days before bonus tracks and internet leaks there was really no reason to complain that those of the third category were unjustly occupying space that might have been filled by better tracks recorded but left off the final track listing, because no one really knew if such outtakes existed, or at least had any notion of their relative quality. Now, though, we get access to a great deal more per album recording session, a perk that has proven interesting at best and ignored at worst, but with bonus tracks and leaks comes the means for public scrutiny of this previously behind-the-curtain element of the album-making process. This could be a good thing: every “Rock Me In” and “Amnesia” and “Phonography” gives the public less and less reason to tolerate “Mmm Papi,” which in such a competitive industry leads one to hope the marketing geniuses that run the Britney Spears machine will prove wise with a more consistent track list for the next project. But rarely has there been such a glaring disparity in terms of quality between official and bonus tracks as with Bionic, an error far more glaring by the multitude of other flubs on the project, but sorely obvious regardless. The four bonus tracks included in the “Deluxe” version of the album are individually among the strongest of the entire, overcrowded bunch: the solid, emotive ballad “Stronger Than Ever” wipes the floor with at least two of the four that made the varsity squad; the delicious Ladytron production “Birds of Prey” stands comfortably alongside the greatest of Aguilera's career repertoire; and the two additional John Hill & Switch productions, “Monday Morning” and “Bobblehead,” remind the shellshocked listener of the duo's two early tracks on the main set list and how much better they and their two bonus offerings are than nearly everything else. I particularly enjoy “Bobblehead” because as an exercise in electronic production it is nothing short of fascinating, not to mention rather hilarious...only this time, unlike with several less-intentionally comical tunes on the A-list, Christina seems in on the joke rather than the oblivious butt of it. For that I'll ignore the disastrous attempt at rhyming with the word “bananas.”
31. “Love" Chuck Brown feat. Jill Scott (We Got This)
The Grammy Awards are rivaled perhaps only by the Golden Globes in terms of utter ludicrousness (although their official status, as opposed to the straightforwardly tangential purpose of the Hollywood Foreign Press kudosfest, pretty much knocks them over the edge), but every so often the Academy does manage, intentional or no, to do something right...or at least right a wrong. Case in point: a cruelly overdue nomination for the "Godfather of Go-Go," Chuck Brown, over thirty years after his best-known single "Bustin' Loose" helped solidify his place in the annals of funk music. The nominated tune, fortuitously, is a duet with R&B star and Grammy favorite Jill Scott, succinctly titled "Love," and it's not much more complicated than its title. Still, if you're going to produce a run-of-the-mill crowd-pleaser, might as well do it right, and Brown and Scott deliver a lively, aww-shucks midtempo jam that's as good as a low-aiming track could be, and while it's no more a superlative of the year gone by or distinctly award-caliber record than Murder on the Orient Express or Gangs of New York were career epochs for Ingrid Bergman or Martin Scorcese, I wouldn't make a fuss if the pair carried home the golden gramophone in February.