Tuesday, August 21, 2012

First Listen: Brandy - "Wildest Dreams"

I think nowadays people tend to forget just how influential Brandy has been since dropping her 1994 debut album (which contains one of my favorite R&B songs of all time, "Baby"). A major part of this is the same thing that affects all popular musicians in most genres - if you're a performer, once you hit your 30s shit gets really difficult, and few artists manage to survive at all much less remain successful. With her upcoming sixth studio album, Two Eleven, Brandy hopes a return to her roots and commitment to making traditional R&B work with a modern sound will mark a comeback from a five-year period of personal and professional struggles. Her new single, "Wildest Dreams," makes a strong case.

Brandy's particular struggles over the past five or six years are hardly exceptional - I can't think of anyone in their thirties on the front-of-camera end of the pop music business (with the possible exception of Ryan Seacrest) who hasn't had to contend with some inimical manner of fuckery in order to continue on their chosen career path. She was involved in a fatal car crash, then an album (2008's Human) that suffered from a new label and set of collaborators who phoned in sub-par work, and a subsequent split from both management and label; she was fired from an ABC series after it was picked up; perhaps most horrifying, despite being a favorite on season 11 of Dancing with the Stars, she ultimately lost to Bristol Palin. Ouch.

Monday, August 20, 2012

First Listen: Ellie Goulding - "Anything Could Happen"

One pleasant consequence of the kind of late-breaking success that came upon UK singer Ellie Goulding here in the US is sometimes it means the peak of your popularity coincides with the commencement of your next project. Typically the purpose of a lead single is to achieve two main goals: first, to remind the public who you are and why they like you (or why they should like you more this time), and second, to provide some idea as to what the new album is going to be, musically, thematically, stylistically, or whatever. Well, in the US at least, Goulding doesn't really need to worry so much about the first one, seeing as her surprise US hit single "Lights," from her 2010(!) debut album of the same name, currently sits at its probable peak of #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is all over mainstream radio. And it's probably just as well, because to those of us who know Goulding through "Lights" alone would find little to remind us in "Anything Could Happen," the lead single from her upcoming sophomore album Halcyon.

"Anything Could Happen," released on both sides of the pond today, is a stomping mid-tempo march ostensibly about a breakup (Goulding, who is currently attached to techno upstart and Grammy-sweeping dubstep poster boy Skrillex, has said of the album, "I didn't set out to write a break-up record but I think it became one"), but could relate equally to, say, that time in your life when you realize you don't have to keep people around forever if you don't want to. Goulding's raspy, distinctive vocals might surprise "Lights"-only familiars but those more experienced with the singer won't find that to be a new revelation; what is somewhat unexpected is the Goulding abandons her generally more demure tone for some rather Pat Benatar '80s rock wailing to drive home money shot lyrics like "Baby, I'll give you everything you need, but I don't think I need you."

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Not Sorry: The Fucking Heroism of Madonna

There are many people from whom I've taken inspiration of some sort, but there are very few I would call "hero." Madonna is one of those few.

It's not her status as a nearly godlike cultural icon, nor her fashion sense nor her stubborn, monumental success nor her role in defining modern pop music, though I greatly admire all these achievements. Madonna is a hero to me because she is arguably the only major entertainment celebrity (with the exception of Mae West) who has truly and unhesitatingly fought for the right to absolute sexual freedom, without exception, without shame, and without apology, in both her art and her life in general. Madonna has labored to show that it is possible to be both sexual and intelligent; sexual and successful; sexual and honest; sexual and mainstream; sexual and religious; sexual and artistic; sexual and female; sexual and loving; sexual and American; sexual and good; sexual and human. In a culture wherein nearly every societal construct is designed to discourage sexuality, Madonna has had the courage and the understanding to protest and to prove the point in her words and deeds, and in doing so she has had an enormous impact on my own life.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Popologist Panel (August): Frank Ocean, Pink, Madonna, Marina and the Diamonds

They say the third time's a charm. So for the third edition of the Popologist Panel, we have gone far and wide to tackle our most ambitious batch of new music yet. As always, we examine selections both large and small: on one end we discuss the comeback singles from pop icons Pink and No Doubt, as well as new work from indie darlings The Noisettes and Dragonette, recent UK successes (and frontwomen of imaginary bands) Marina and the Diamonds and Florence + the Machine, and from the Queen of Pop herself, Madonna. On the other end we take a look at the newest kids on the block: Cherrytree tadpoles Colette Carr and My Name is Kay, Australian DJ Havana Brown, and the undiscovered pop sensation and dancer extraordinaire Kimberly Cole teaming with an unlikely artistic partner, known to YouTube fans as Keith Apicary. Finally, we examine debut works by Frank Ocean and Luke Christopher, a pair of innovative, silver-tongued hip hop/R&B artists with prodigious and wide-ranging talents who look to challenge the norms, limits, and ultimately perceptions of genre.

There's a good crop of new stuff here you probably haven't heard, so we hope you'll check out anything here you think might interest you. As usual, there is not one piece on which we all agree; in fact, we seem to have a few more disagreements than last month! We also welcome our first guest panelist, who offers us a fresh look from a new perspective to keep us all in check. Enjoy, and please share your thoughts, whether you think we're right on or full of shit. We're very likely both.

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