Sunday, December 30, 2012

Popologist Panel: Kylie Minogue, Kelly Clarkson, Daley, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J, and more

December was a month of movement. No, literally, I moved back to Los Angeles. It's been a heck of a month, and only three of my fellow panelists were able to join me, and I have to say their work has been done for weeks and it was I who needed to catch up. But as Meryl Streep-as-Julia Child says, "never apologize" when you're creating, so I'll just head right into this, the final list of selections from the year 2012. We have two retrospectives of different kinds of the careers of two of the biggest stars of our time, Kylie Minogue and Kelly Clarkson, as well as variously successful collaborations between controversial artists from and Britney Spears to Diane Warren and Jessie J. There are the latest works from two R&B/pop vets, Ciara and Ne-Yo, picks from the sophomore outings of Ellie Goulding and Shoshana Bean, and pieces from two stunning newcomers: pop singer Brittany McDonald and soul vocalist Daley.

As always, there's a good crop of new stuff here you may or may not have heard, so we hope you'll check out anything here you think might interest you. For an extra bit of fun, each panelist has selected one of this month's selections as his or her "Top Pick." What's yours? Enjoy, share and please send your thoughts, whether you think we're right on or full of shit. We're very likely both.
*   *   *   *   The Popologist Panel   *   *   *   *
  • The Pop Messiah - Dean Boudreau is our lone Canadian panelist, which means he's pretty much like us but can't get Spotify and you can't send him iTunes gifts. That doesn't stop him, and his witty but wise blog, from getting it right when it comes to pop music (if not Ke$ha, who is in fact the pop Messiah). (@thepopmessiah)
  • SmartPopScott- Scott Interrante is a music student who grew so tired of the blogging world that he decided to join it. Wanting to counter the satanically emblemed music site's preference for fashion and scene over musical content, he focuses his writing on the music and theory of Pop. His writing can be found at Dear Song In My Head (@SmartPopScott)
  • Techno School - You may know Techno School from contributions on Vertigo Shtick as dance/electronica correspondent. Based in Detroit, Techno School's blog is an interesting look at life in a new city woven into insights on today's EDM and the state of techno. (@itstechnoschool)
  • Vertigo Shtick - The spark that grew into Vertigo Shtick came when one overly critical-thinking arts writer noticed that there were almost no pop songs on Pitchfork's Best of the 2000s list, nor most other outlets either; it now exists to question, decipher, explicate and dispense the critical and artistic elements of mainstream pop, down to the nitty gritty details. (@vertigo_shtick
Off this month:

      NOTE: All the music discussed in this article can be heard by clicking on the album artwork provided; most of the selections are available on the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the post or by clicking here. Of course, we also encourage you to patronize those you enjoy by buying their material. (I did). Dates and label info are for US releases.

      *   *   *   *   Albums of the Month   *   *   *   *

      Kylie Minogue - The Abbey Road Sessions (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah:  Kylie Minogue is an artist whom I personally feel should be seen as a pop legend the world over, but hasn't really attained (or should I say maintained) the level of fame she truly deserves here in North America. In The Abbey Road Sessions, Minogue reminds us that she's capable of much more than heavily processed (albeit always breathtaking) dance floor fillers by taking highlights from her back catalogue, transforming and often elevating them to beautiful new heights. Tracks like "Confide In Me," "I Believe In You," and "Come Into My World" seem like they were always intended to sound this way, while more imaginative re-inventions like "Slow," "I Should Be So Lucky" and "On a Night Like This" are almost unrecognizable from their original form. The songs that dare to change things up vary in degree of success. Perhaps it's sacred to me given that it was one of the tracks that served as the soundtrack to my coming out some twelve years ago, but "On a Night Like This" didn't work for me, despite it being a cool arrangement. "Slow" is brilliant and a definite album standout. Another notable track is the beautiful "Flower," the set's only new offering, which I suspect some may feel wilts among an album full of Kylie standards but it really is a beautiful song. Overall, I feel that years down the road, The Abbey Road Sessions will feature as a career highlight. Gorgeous.

      SmartPopScott: Ok, I have a confession. And I know it’s terrible. As a Pop blogger, it may be unforgivable. But I really don’t know Kylie Minogue’s music very well! I own Fever, and I know her hits, but I am not familiar with most of the songs on this album. Which I think gives me an interesting perspective on it. For me, these aren’t reimaginings of the songs, they’re the first incarnations. It was fun, then, to listen to this and imagine what the dance version sounds like. Sometimes, it really peeks its head through the orchestra, with the syncopated vocal lines and characteristic chord changes. But as an album, The Abbey Road Sessions is a very cohesive and interesting listen. I applaud her for not choosing to rely exclusively on the orchestra, knowing that some songs would not benefit from it, nor would the flow of the album. I was disappointed to not see one Minogue song I know, “If You Don’t Love Me,” penned by Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon, but all of these songs are really great. The opener, “All The Lovers” is really fantastic, and now that I’ve heard the original, it’s becoming one of my new obsessions. That same thing goes for “Better The Devil You Know,” which, in its original version is very different, but equally powerful. The collaboration with Nick Cave on “Where The Wild Roses Grow” was a little underwhelming to me, and there might be a few too many songs to feel like a real album, but this has reminded me that I’m WAY behind on listening to Minogue, and the arrangements are some of the best I’ve heard all year.

      Techno School: Unlike everyone else on this panel, I am unfamiliar with most of Kylie Minogue's discography, so I found myself looking up every other track for its original counterpart online, to better understand The Abbey Road Sessions. I got to ease into things, because "All the Lovers", the opening song, was one of just a few that I’d already heard. I still remember when my girlfriend cried to me that the music video for "All the Lovers" was just an orgy of people in Downtown LA and HOW DID WE NOT NOTICE WHEN THEY WERE TAPING THIS? I also fast-forwarded to "Can't Get You Outta My Head", the song everybody knows, to gauge what exactly Minogue was up to. I get it--unplugged, minimalist, stripping dance beats down to their musical roots. Unfortunately, I really think that Kylie's angelic, otherworldly voice is more suited for the bumpin', synthed-out, over-produced world of pop. Not for a lack of her ability, but just...her sound. It doesn't agree with classical or folk tunes. In this acoustic form, it was hard to find a track that didn't feel forced or overly-dramatic. The huge build in background music at the end of "Finer Feelings", for example, is one of many awkwardly big moments in the album. Especially when compared to its relaxed synth-pop equivalent (which, ironically, actually has a complete drop in background music at that same point in the song). "Slow" is another song that doesn't benefit from Minogue’s re-imagining; it really needs the deep house background to feel well-rounded. "Where the Wild Roses Grow" appealed to the Nick Cave fan in me, but I still think I prefer the original. The peppier "Locomotion" is the only song that seems to translate well to this unplugged format, probably because the original is so retro. Also, holy shit, Kylie Minogue is the voice behind "Locomotion"? That song they played at our grade-school soc-hops? Consider my mind officially blown.

      Vertigo Shtick: Kylie Minogue celebrates 25 years on the music scene this year, and this retrospective, revisiting some of her hits re-imagined for live sessions at Britain's historic Abbey Road studios, shows why she's been here so long. It does so not only by highlighting the strength of her material, which is sturdy enough to stand up to such interpretation, but also Minogue's own artistry, since she's still the one singing (and doing a better job than I'd expected). It's such a neat concept you wonder why no one's done it before (Alanis Morissette did an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill for its tenth anniversary) until you realize that, save for Madonna, none of the big stars of the electronic pop era has reached such a point in their careers yet. Of today's superstars, the only two I can imagine pulling off something like this are Pink and Lady Gaga (maybe Ke$ha), although I'd love to hear Britney take a rock & roll look at her library sometime.

      The new settings either amplify or represent the tone of the original (“All the Lovers,” “Locomotion”), or, more interesting, contradict it (“Can't Get You Out of My Head,” “I Should Be So Lucky”). Some work better than others, and some add more than others. The stripped down environment elevates the uplift of “All the Lovers” and the devastation of “Hand on Your Heart,” and ramps up the seductiveness of “On a Night Like This” and the best revisit, “Slow,” which has haunted me for weeks. It does, however, lay bare the dopiness of “Love at First Sight” and the unnecessary melodrama of “Confide in Me,” though the new version of the latter is so over the top I have to say I prefer it. “Come Into My World” is irresistible, showing off the magic that the song seems to have. The intense, jewelry commercial strings and frantic pace of the determined “Can't Get You Out of My Head,” however, fall so dramatically short of the admittedly lofty heights of the original because the new version loses the original's relaxed, effortless aura, which Kylie's breathy cooing fit perfectly. The one new song here is pretty gut-wrenching: Minogue sings to the children she never had in “Flower,” which is way harsh, Tai. I found this album terribly enjoyable and poignant, and we are fortunate to have such an accomplished and mature veteran like Minogue still working after all these years.

      Kelly Clarkson - Greatest Hits: Chapter One (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: If you know me well at all, you may know that I don't "stan" for many people, aside from Darren Hayes and the only American Idol winner who really matters: Kelly Clarkson. Truthfully, I can't pinpoint what it is that makes me such an adoring fan but as emotion is what primarily draws and connects me to music, if I had to name one thing about her that resonates with me, it would be the level of emotion conveyed in her vocal performances. With Greatest Hits (Chapter One), listeners get what they would get from any such hits collection: a cheaper way to enjoy all of the big, multi-genre radio hits that have kept Kelly on the map (and a couple of decent new tracks for promotion sake) without having to purchase her full body of work. The down side, is that despite what is a stellar line-up of truly fantastic hit singles, Kelly's most shining diamonds aren't necessarily her big hits. While a "Greatest Hits" package can be a blessing for an artist who packs their albums with tuneless filler, they can serve to under-rate an artist like Kelly who frequently has non-single tracks that make even the glossiest #1 hit seem like a flop. I'm still a bit pressed and disappointed that more singles (i.e. "You Love Me") weren't released from Clarkson's 2011 album: "Stronger." As a collection, all of these tracks (including the three new tracks) are pretty incredible and ..Chapter One is well worth your money, but I truly recommend just investing in all of Clarkson's studio albums.

      SmartPopScott: I remember it all very clearly. I was 11 years old, acting in a community theater production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (as Charlie, because I was awesome when I was 11). All the adults were talking about this new show, American Idol. It had just started and I had never even heard about it. That didn’t last long, of course, as the entire country banded together to watch the first season (remember Dunkleman?!). I didn’t start watching till the top 10, but I instantly had a favorite. She was small, very cute, and could SING. Her name was Kelly Clarkson, and she was my first true musician crush. (My first celebrity crush, of course, was Jennifer Love Hewitt. God was it Jennifer Love Hewitt). We all know how the story goes after that. She won, came out with that AMAZING song, “A Moment Like This” and then made that phenomenal piece of cinematic history, From Justin To Kelly. Over the past 10 years, she has become one of the most consistent artists of all time, releasing only great pop albums with great pop singles. (Well, ok, there was a brief period where she lost me a little bit. I’m looking at you, “I Do Not Hook Up”. But I’ll get to that later). She has never become crazy, or fallen into any sort of tabloid BS, never had a mental breakdown or a drug problem. She just seems so levelheaded and focused. She’s the true American Idol (except for Clay Aiken, of course. Stupid Ruben Studdard. Speaking of which, did anyone hear Ruben’s newest album? He covers “Pure Imagination”. It all comes full circle). In fact, “Since U Been Gone” can be seen as the beginning of my true Pop awakening. I remember it being one of my first “guilty pleasures”, now that I was in Middle School and had left the days of American Idol far behind me. It also served as the beginning of the Dr. Luke era, which we are still very clearly in. And though the production style of “Since U Been Gone” is very different than his post-dubstep work on the new Ke$ha album (is it safe to use that term yet?), this is what made him so huge.

      This collection highlights her career very nicely, reminding you just how many damn hits she has! The International Deluxe Edition includes 21 tracks, and they’re all great. Except for one. And I know it’s not important, but I really want to make it clear how much I hate “I Do Not Hook Up”. Why is the scansion like that in the chorus? “I Do Not Hook. UUUUUUUP”? Who said that was a good idea? Anyway, this is a very solid Greatest Hits collection, and the juxtaposition of some of her older hits with her newer ones shows how consistent her career has been, and how much her voice has gotten even BETTER. The new songs composed for this disc are also great. “Catch My Breath” is one of my favorite singles she’s put out recently (besides “Dark Side”. "Dark Side" may be my favorite Kelly Clarkson song of all time). You go, Kelly.

      Techno School: To whoever cut the slut-shaming anthem "I Do Not Hook Up" out of this compilation album: thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. I'm generally a Kelly Clarkson fan, but I have no patience for songs that ignorantly generalize women into the groups: drinking whores, and abstaining angels. The tracks that did make the cut cover most of the rest of Clarkson's radio career. It was amusing to see girl-power tracks sitting right next to weepy ballads on the set list. The order was incredibly striking at times. Single girl anthem "Since U Been Gone" side by side with the codependent cry "My Life Would Suck Without You". Kelly's grandiose love song "Because of You" preceding breakup, screamo track "Never Again". And the album ends with the best pair of them all: her breakout song, "A Moment Like This", followed by her version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Because you're only buying Greatest Hits: Chapter One if you need a last-minute gift for your American Idol enthusiast friend. Duh. Seriously, this album is so aware that it is an album that it’s almost postmodern. Kudos, editors. There are a few new singles mixed in, none of which make me look forward to Chapter Two. "Catch My Breath" is the boring, monotone sequel to "Breakaway". People Like Us" is decidedly unbelievable; its lyrics about being a misfit and hitting rock-bottom is ill-fitting for a small town girl who hit the fame jackpot by winning a talent show that was basically a popularity contest by the end, anyway (can you tell I was totes Camp Justin Guarini?). And "Don't Rush" sounds to me like every other half-decent country duet, probably more because of my ignorance to that genre than anything else. Honestly, considering most of these songs still make their way out to the rush-hour radio broadcast at some point or another, I'd suggest you pass. By the time Clarkson's career is long enough to merit a compilation of songs not already available for free, CDs and mp3s will be obsolete, anyway.

      Vertigo Shtick: Clarkson's first hits compilation opens with a telling programming flub when her biggest and greatest hit “Since U Been Gone” is followed by its not-as-good copycat “My Life Would Suck Without You,” exposing the kind of rinse, wash, repeat cycle that has become a Dr. Luke trademark (hang on, this comes up again). Beyond that misstep, though, this is a comprehensive compendium of the first American Idol's work that showcases a truly powerful instrument and underlines the limitations facing an artist who doesn't play much role in writing and selecting her own material. For every “Mr. Know It All” or “Walk Away” there are good but generic tunes like “Behind These Hazel Eyes” and “Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)” and total embarrassments like “Already Gone.” A lot was laid on producer/writer Ryan Tedder for that boner (its backing track was also used for Beyonce's inexplicably Grammy-beloved “Halo”) but you shouldn't need a top-line writer to write something like “Already Gone.” Britney gets away with not writing her own stuff because the writing on her work is as much in the production as in the melody (and she gets much better songwriters, often culled from the hip hop or indie-pop arenas), but Clarkson is the kind of “real musician” who is challenged to be able to sing her stuff with nothing but a guitar on demand. This is how she has placed herself so she's not relieved of blame for this. When you're all about your voice, it's not as crucial to have new things to sing if you're not going to be writing them yourself (Susan Boyle has made a fortune reinterpreting songs by everyone from Andrew Lloyd Webber to Depeche Mode). While Clarkson sometimes gets lucky with other artists' refuse – Christina Aguilera's “Miss Independent” and Katy Perry's “I Do Not Hook Up” both make much more sense in her hands – she has funny moments like “Dark Side,” which starts with a promisingly eerie verse before relapsing into a cheery “everybody's got a dark side!” chorus like a segment on Sesame Street, and Clarkson is too good and too experienced a performer to have to do that anymore. Now that she's getting hitched, I wonder how she'll be able to carry the torch of the wronged in love anymore. I say she ought to train a successor soon (I suggest Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus) or else we might find her replaced by Taylor Swift, and I never want to see that happen. Like ever.

      *   *   *   *   EPs   *   *   *   *

      Daley - Alone Together (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: I've only recently heard of Daley (I caught the end of his video for "Remember Me" with Jessie J a few days ago) but I have to admit that the man is all sorts of fascinating! Not only does he have a really bizarre/interesting look, but one that you wouldn't normally associate with a neo-soul brand of R&B. Collaborating with the likes of soul music royalty like Marsha Ambrosius and pop diva Jessie J, it's evident that this unknown-to-me artist is pretty high profile in his native Britain, or at least a lot of people think he will be. I'm blown away by his vocal skills! All of these tracks are so good that it's hard for me to pick any highlights. "Blame The World" is reminiscent of Bruno Mars but dare I say exceedingly better than anything Mars has released. A cover of Amy Winehouse's "Love is a Losing Game" is heartbreakingly perfect. Singles "Remember Me" with Jessie J and "Alone Together" with Marsha Ambrosius are definitely solid choices; both feature amazing but understated performances and have all of the elements that make classics, vocally, melodically and otherwise! Superb! Quite possibly one of my favorite EP's of 2012. *TOP PICK*

      SmartPopScott: Wow. Who is this?! Why have I never heard this EP before? As I keep saying, 2012 is the year for RnB. This Retro-Soul tinged EP is fantastic from start to finish. Daley’s vocal prowess would be enough to carry the 6 songs, but they are strong enough to stand on their own. Daley stands in between the “cool” kids of RnB right now, Ocean and Miguel, and the more traditional artists like R Kelly and Tamia, taking classic RnB and Soul production styles and keeping it fresh without being overly trendy. The production and vocal arrangements are great, and I can’t wait for his full length next year. *TOP PICK*

      Techno School: Stop the EP that actually follows a storyline?!?! Hallelujah, give this man some bonus points, or a gold star, or something! Listen to the songs on Alone Together in order, and this androgynously-voiced soul singer will walk you through a journey of love, betrayal, and re-discovery of self. Not only do the words convey the story, but so do the music and Daley's tone. In "Alone Together", where we meet Daley with his new lover in their blossoming relationship, he is choking on air, gasping through the beginning of the song, and building in power and confidence as things progress. A romantic, slow, heavy beat reminds us that much of the "alone" time was probably spent in the bedroom. After his lover cheats on Daley (I can only assume) and the two split apart, you can feel him hiding pain behind machismo as he reminds the betrayer that they will "Remember Me". The infectious but soft keyboard beat in the background fittingly illustrates that kind of slick that we all try to exude in front of our exes. Daley ends the EP with a retrospective note: a solemn acoustic bit, focusing on strong, hard vocals, about how "Love is a Losing Game". To me, listening to Alone Together is like watching some Prime Time drama, except better, because it actually feels real. Honest, y'know?

      Vertigo Shtick: Alone Together is a fitting title for an album that features nearly the entirety of the current white soul singer contingent. Daley is the newest in a small but mighty line of white kids from the UK who have found says to bring something new and legitimate to a genre so closely tied to the black experience in the US, and he brings along Jessie J. and Marsha Ambrosius as guests and closes with a sensitive cover of a song by the late Amy Winehouse. From the title track, which features (the half-white) Ambrosius, it's clear the boy has listened to plenty of Floetry, as it's hard to tell the two singers' voices apart. The Jessie J. feature, “Remember Me,” is also refreshingly successful, both because she's clearly in her element and because she sounds like she's singing from out in the backyard. With the three of them on one record you can see each one's unique take on the musical style: Ambrosius the mostly traditional, Jessie J the bombastic, and Daley the knowing observer a la Solange or Lauryn Hill. There's a neat, paradoxical nature to the music I found fascinating, the best example of which is in “Game Over:” I first mistook this as a breakup track, but on the second listen I realized it's the exact opposite. Listening to the lyrics, I see how I was deceived, because Daley refers not to a relationship but to the “game” of dating and pursuing a mate, but he uses imagery of capture, conquest and imprisonment to discuss the new union, so you wonder if there's something negative under the sofa. Even if Daley lacks the charisma of the three ladies beside whom he places himself, the instrument is exquisite. The closing cover of Winehouse's “Love is a Losing Game,” a tribute to a professed idol, is simply beautiful (and the reason for its selection here), but it also reminds us how fully Winehouse mastered the art, leaps and bounds beyond even the formidable talent on Daley's EP, and how sad her loss is even as her influence begins to show itself in the foundations of a new class of talent.

      *   *   *   *   Music Videos   *   *   *   *

      Brittany McDonald - "Notice Me" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: At first glance, it seems a little bit preachy to see such a beautiful girl singing about how nobody notices her while inter-cutting clips of all of your faves from their (mostly) sexed-up music videos. The sad part is that pretty Miss Brittany isn't wrong: "Sex sells is never going out of style." The world gets more and more shallow all the time and the entertainment industry is the biggest purveyor of sexuality for profit out there. While it doesn't ruin the message of the song or video, it does strike me as sort of strange how some of the clips they incorporate are from artists that don't seem to sell themselves with sex at all (Taylor Swift? Carrie Underwood? Are we referring to some sort of virginal, good girl archetype that is semi-lost on me as a sexual role because I'm gay?) Anyhow, "Notice Me" is catchy and strangely endearing.

      SmartPopScott: I’ll start by saying that the video is much better than the song. Also before I get into it, the song sounds a lot like “Till I Forget About You” by Big Time Rush. Anyway, I honestly do like the song more and more the more I listen to it. The lyrics, at first, came across as very heavy handed, and with the spoken word bridge, they certainly are. But with more reflection, I’ve begun to question if that’s really an issue. What she’s talking about, female public image and social pressure and objectification of the female voice, is a very big issue in today’s (well, all day’s) society. And although a lot of artists are focusing on the issue, with songs like “Firework,” “Who Says,” “Born This Way,” etc. etc. etc., it is still a huge problem. Perhaps we need to try a different way of addressing it, and maybe McDonald’s heavy handed, overly direct, method might work. The song is catchy and well produced, especially for an unsigned artist, and I think she has a great voice. This will hopefully lead to much bigger (and hopefully a little bit better) things.

      As for the video, I’m in love. The use of footage from old films and music videos is really really great. She chose a nice selection as well, juxtaposing Britney’s “Lucky” with Marilyn is a particularly successful moment. The shots of McDonald singing are very powerful as well. She looks beautiful and powerful. She seems in control of everything. She’s concerned but not pessimistic. And I think that’s the best attitude we can have regarding this situation. As the tagline goes, “it gets better.”

      Techno School: The thing I love the most about this music video is the very same thing that is probably keeping Brittany McDonald out of the Top 40 Club: it is unapologetically, bluntly feminist. It truly challenges the status quo. I prefer the earlier version of this music video, which David actually wrote about ages ago; the latest one replaces a very Audrey Hepburn-dressed McDonald with...a half-naked one? The deep cleavage shot that left me, if I can be perfectly honest, hunting for nip slips (bad habit) sexualized McDonald unnecessarily. To me, it didn't underscore the meaning of the video--as I'm sure it was meant to--but instead distracts from it. I could see people disagreeing with my interpretation, and overall I called this one a win. The cuts between vintage and contemporary video perfectly show how far female performers still have to go to be respected as more than just fetishized objects of male desire. More importantly, the brief clips of women being controlled, sometimes in an abusive manner, daringly expose the role of men in the charade that is show business. I like this video a lot, and I know other women who would, but I'm pretty sure a dude is running MTV now, so good luck, Brittany.

      Vertigo Shtick: I've written about this song and video before, and I said some good shit about it so go read that. Here's a sampler:

      "Using clips of female entertainers from classical-era film and contemporary pop music videos stitched between close-up shots of the singer's emotive, camera-friendly mug (we never see her below the bosom), McDonald makes perfectly clear what she's singing about, with a clarity many more experienced artists often fail to achieve. The clips are painstakingly selected, too, in order to ensure viewers understand that (most of) the women we see are there for sympathetic reasons: when we see Lady Gaga disrobing, it's the enslaved Gaga of "Bad Romance" forced to sell her body to heartless Russian tycoons; shots from Rihanna's "S&M" are confined to those in which she is on display against her will. By half a minute in, McDonald has nodded her head toward Gaga, Rihanna, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Lily Allen, Lana Del Rey, Fergie, and Christina Aguilera, not in accusation but in sympathetic sisterhood. No woman is a villain in this piece. (Incidentally, there is a distinct lack of Ke$ha, which is a telling sign of how expertly $he has managed to circumnavigate these issues.)

      If you watch the clip a few times, as I found myself doing, you'll be able to appreciate more and more of the detail McDonald puts into her craft, which I'm pleased to see translates to video as well as audio recordings ("Notice Me" is one of McDonald's first performed music videos). Notice, for instance, the film bride mouthing along to the lyric "brand new," and the classy cutting as she illustrates the line "'sex sells' is never going out of style" with appropriate images yet without identifying or vilifying any single performer. It would be easy to simply plant a clip of Jessica Simpson washing a car or Katy Perry shooting whipped cream from her knockers at that moment, but then we'd just think "oh, yeah, Jessica Simpson, what a slut" and completely miss the point. Perhaps best of all is when McDonald says on the spoken bridge "Whatever happened to using mystery as a device to entice?" and we see a brief shot of Britney Spears, opening her legs while sitting a chair with her back to the camera; it's a classic Britney Spears kind of shot, Spears having all but perfected the art of the tease throughout her career."

      I will point out again how brilliantly catchy and effective this song is and how dead on the video is in using the perfect clip at the perfect moment. It's not just a compilation of images: when she uses Taylor Swift she's saying something different than when she's using Gaga and something different again from when she's using Jessica Simpson, and when she's using Britney-as-Lucky crying she's saying something different from when she's using Britney spreading her legs but backwards and behind the chair. Notice that. *TOP PICK*

      Ellie Goulding - "Figure 8" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah:  I'm ashamed to admit that I have yet to listen to Goulding's latest album offering Halcyon so this is my first impression of "Figure 8." Having had no pre-conceptions about the song itself, the video feels entirely appropriate. I interpret both the lyrics and the video for this track to be about the obsession (bordering on addiction) that love can instill in a person in both its presence and in its wake. As a video piece, it's gorgeously directed and filmed, using a familiar color palette to effectively express the tension, passion, and even withdrawal one can experience at the hands of someone they love. Very cool video and I'm rather impressed with the song which makes me want to catch up to society and finally give the album a listen.

      SmartPopScott: I’m not the biggest fan of Ellie, but I do recognize that her blending of Dubstep and Pop is probably the best in the game right now. It feels more natural to her music, like she’s taking EDM and making it pop, rather than taking Pop and adding in EDM. Either way, this is one of my favorite tracks from Halcyon, though that’s not saying too too much. I am pretty middle of the road with the album. The music video here is fine, but it doesn’t add a whole lot to the song. I’m just so in the middle with everything happening here.

      Techno School: Did Ellie Goulding and Skrillex break up? Google Like, a month ago. I don't follow these things. This pseudo-dubby heartbreak song all but spelled it out: a techno relationship has recently ENDED. Sad. The video has moments of beauty and moments of awkwardness. For instance, where the mattress shots reminiscent of Tyler Durden's abode in Fight Club made me smile, I was left speechless by the image of Goulding spinning around in a bar stool and shaking her blond (pink?) hair. I think that she's supposed to come across as tormented, but half the time it looks like Goulding is enjoying herself. Like she's in a shampoo commercial. Despite momentary lapses into Herbal Essences territory, the imagery generally complements the lyrics without getting too literal, which I appreciated. I actually found myself searching (in vain--this is a commercial music video, after all) for some deeper meaning to those swaths of red fabric, big and small, that made frequent appearances throughout the song. I'd watch it again, a couple times at least.

      *   *   *   *   Singles   *   *   *   *

      Ciara - "Got Me Good" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: Hmmm. this is a NEW Ciara single? The funny thing about Ciara, is that in contemplating her career to date I can "c" no "eras" at all. (Ok, I was aiming for clever there, but that was a bit of a groaner, wasn't it?) While her contemporaries (i.e. Rihanna) have evolved somewhat musically and visually from project to project, Ciara's work exists in a vacuum where both look and vibe cease to be either dated or distinct. One could argue that this is a strength and not a weakness, but I'm not 100% sure either way. Overall "Got Me Good" is rather danceable and a bit of good, fluffy fun. There are hooks for days, from the "rap" refrain to the over-lapping, sugary-sweet chorus melodies. Fun aside, it's a whole-lotta-predictable from CiCi. It actually felt like she was sampling melodies from hew own previous hits in parts (the whole ".. touch me like dat" pre-chorus sounds strikingly familiar).  The first single from 2013's One Woman Army, which was a classic R&B slow jam entitled "Sorry," was released this past September and was more appealing to my tastes. As with all of her albums, ".. Army" will surely pack a few great singles to add her evolution-less, booty-poppin legacy.

      SmartPopScott: Ciara is great. She always has been. She’s always been underappreciated in the RnB/Pop world, and I’m very excited that she has a new album coming out next year. This track is alright. I like Darkchild, but this isn’t his best work, and it’s not hers either.

      Techno School: You know, I never thought before that there would be a place in the wide world of music for horny, dancing women to non-ironically mention how tight their bras are. Thank you, Ciara. You’ve filled a gaping void in the realm of dance music. In all seriousness, though, I love love love "Got Me Good". The beat is retro--very Missy E--and it's revved up to overdrive, making this track the absolute definition of high-voltage. Those wind-up/wind-down tones in the background (listen closely around 2:43) nod at popular Aoki tracks without overwhelmingly pandering to today's techno-fied radioscape. "Got Me Good" gets me on my feet and makes me wanna hit up the club. Hard. Glad to hear Ciara is back with a vengeance.

      Vertigo Shtick: There was plenty of hand-wringing about the label drama and commercial failure of Ciara's last album and seeming struggle to resuscitate her career since. The problem is that Ciara isn't an exceptional artist, though she's skillful enough that with great material and direction that she can nail it (“Love/Sex/Magic” with Justin Timberlake, “Lose Control” and “1, 2, Step” with Missy Elliott). Because she depends on that, she's stuck with second-rate material and collaborations as she grows older and further away from the Rihanna-dominated center of the world. It's a story as old as Hollywood. I've listened to “Got Me Good” several times and I can barely remember anything beyond an awkward line about her bra being too tight, a lyric that exemplifies the kind of stuff she gets. I prefer her appearance on Nicki Minaj's Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded - The Re-Up, and maybe she should consider helping out her more successful colleagues who shop at Whole Foods instead of getting her own groceries at Food 4 Less.

      Jessie J. - "Silver Lining (Crazy 'Bout You)" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: Try as I might, I don't understand why Jessie J seems to be such a polarizing force among pop music fans. For some reason, she seems to evoke strong love/hate reactions from people. I happen to fall on the love side of the spectrum and absolutely adored her debut album, Who You Are. Taken from the soundtrack to film Silver Linings Playbook, this new track follows in the stylistic footsteps of album standout "Abracadabra," recalling the pop/r&b sound of the late 1990's (a la early Mariah Carey.) While the melody is super sweet and overall the track brings a big, toe-tapping smile to my face, I don't think it has a lot of hit potential in today's music scene. I'd love for the world to prove me wrong, but I suspect this song won't make much of a splash in North America. I do, however, love it!

      SmartPopScott: Oh no…

      I really like Jessie J. I think she’s got a great personality, and a great voice, and some really dynamite songs. “Domino” is pretty much Pop Gold Standard in my eyes. But this. I’m just not sure I get it. Like “Got Me Good,” this is produced by Darkchild, but it’s nowhere near as good as his work on the Bieber album. (I’m still disappointed that so many people are overlooking that perfect album). And Diane Warren, who I normally never like anyway, wrote it. Jessie J sounds like she’s struggling to make the song do something it’s incapable of, trying hard to make it memorable or catchy or exciting, but even her fantastic voice can’t do that. In the end, it just seems embarrassing for everyone. Especially when you watch the atrocious music video. Poor Bradley Cooper.

      Techno School: Is that some SOUL coming out of Jessie J's mouth? For serious? The same woman who sang about bouncing around in glittery rain comes out with a slow, pulsing ballad? I actually think this single will sit pretty on the Top 40 charts, mostly because Fun.'s "Some Nights" is getting way overplayed, and we need a fitting replacement--something decidedly low-tech, but more substantive than tracks coming out from hipster favorites like The Lumineers and Passion Pit. The snare-heavy beat is very classic, familiar to the point of being almost boring, and I'm a bit irked by the way Jessie J's voice, like, reverberates when she tries to really belt it out. I still prefer her in bubble-gum pop form. But that's not to say that I wouldn't gladly play this song for a commute or two. It's alright.

      Vertigo Shtick: Silver Linings Playbook is a romantic comedy ostensibly about mood disorders. Bond themes are more nuanced than Diane Warren's trite, facile treatment, which basically amounts to a tired “crazy about you” trope with the words “silver lining” tossed in. Every lyric in the song has been used before, over and over, usually in support of more useful and compelling ones like a base (e.g. “I can't help it/ Nothing I can do”). When “silver lining” shows up it's misused: “you're my silver lining/ You make the light come through,” like a window? The song adds nothing to the lexicon of love songs, and though Jessie J makes a competent go of it (not that it would challenge a fifth grader with no taste who can carry a tune), there's no reason for it to exist. The producers might as well have used Beyonce's “Crazy in Love” or Patsy Cline's “Crazy” or Britney Spears' “(You Drive Me) Crazy” or Madonna's “Crazy for You” or Kimberly Cole's “Psycho,” whose chorus, “whip me til my eyes bulge/ Tie me til my skin's cold/ Love me love me love me like a psycho” is itself exponentially more interesting than Warren's.

      Shoshana Bean - "Runnin' Out of Days" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: Shoshana Bean is best known in the realm of Broadway for her run as Elphaba in Wicked. I'm a big fan of musical theatre and certainly can appreciate Shoshana's voice.  In "Runnin' Out of Days" she goes for a jazzy adult-contemporary kind of vibe, but there's something about the production that makes it sound dated to me, so much so it feels like it would be more at home on a retro playlist than one of new music. Perhaps it's intended to be a bit of throwback or my ears have just become so used to overproduction that they're having trouble adjusting to a more organic sound. I think she sounds fanastic, but something about this song just isn't my current cup of tea. I do seem to like it a little more each time I listen though, so who knows!?

      SmartPopScott: I don’t have too much history with Shoshana Bean. I saw Wicked when Idina [Menzel] was still in it, and although I know that she’s become popular as well, I haven’t paid too much attention to what she’s done. But I guess she has an album coming out, and this is the first single from it. I like it, and her voice is great, obviously, but the song is underwhelming to me. There’s a lack of momentum, which is key to these kind of Motown-styled songs. The pre-chorus is where I think it happens. It’s just too long, and the horn arrangement drags behind the beat instead of pushes ahead. The tempo could also stand to be a little bit faster. It’s not a bad song by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s mostly forgettable.

      Techno School: I guess I shouldn't be surprised that an actress from Broadway smash hits Hairspray and Wicked is singing a sort of campy, retro tune like this. It makes sense as a stage show. Very Motown, very much...a performance. I do like "Runnin' Out of Days", but I can't help but think about what it would sound like coming from Christina Aguilera instead. At least, like every on-stage hit song, the big band music sets the perfect drop for a larger-than-life voice like Shoshana Bean's (seriously, that's a great name). I even like the uber-optimistic concept: one person pleasantly surprising the jaded, suspicious other, and blissful love ensuing. I'd watch whatever musical this track belonged to. I'd play it at my next Christmas party. I just can't imagine hearing it on the radio.

      Vertigo Shtick: One of the insidious things about those who burn you in love is how they not only strike once but linger to fuck with the future in absentia. If anyone understands this it's Shoshana Bean, the Broadway performer-turned-LA club mainstay whose shows are known as “Church,” where she heals with forced ex phone number deletions, shots, and incredible music (seriously, if you ever get a chance to see her, do). She is truly the greatest live performer I've ever seen – even better than Robyn, and Robyn is like the Dalai Lama of live performance. Bean's first solo album, Superhero, was a charming collection of pop/soul, and her live stuff is heavy on the latter with elements of the former that make her broadly appealing (along with her infectious personality). While her message (enjoy it now because it's happening now!) is easy to relate to, the song takes on a certain added poignancy if you know Bean lost her boyfriend in an auto accident in 2006. I love this song, and Bean's sophomore album is imminent, which is exciting for us all.

      Ne-Yo - "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah: Ne-Yo is at the forefront of the wave of R&B artists who manage to crossover to pop radio by releasing dance singles. While many, including me, can criticize this trend from time to time, I have to admit that Ne-Yo has been responsible for at least one of the finest R&B/Dance crossovers of all time in 2008's "Closer." When it was released in July, my first impression of "Let Me Love You" wasn't ecstatic but since its popularity has grown to a point that it's still in heavy rotation more than four months later, I have to admit that I've developed a fondness for it. As a child of the 80's/90's, there's something familiar and comfortable in the piano chords on the verses and being someone who's always felt a little bitten in the ass by the old adage that you'll never find love until you learn to love yourself, Ne-Yo's re-assuring vocals on the chorus make the damsel in distress inside of me swoon just a li'l.

      SmartPopScott: I love Ne-yo, and I love his new album. I love “Let Me Love You”. The melody in the chorus is great, and the production is stellar. The verses somehow manage to do the dotted-eighth-note syncopation that is so common ("Till The World Ends," "We R Who We R," etc) and not sound annoying or cliché. The issue, of course, is the lyrics. We have a lot of these lyrics, lately. Here’s my hypothesis. In 2010 and 2011, we had a huge surge of “Love Yourself” songs. "Firework," "Who Says," "We R Who We R," "Born This Way," "Fucking Perfect," "Skyscraper," and many others. These were songs from female pop stars aimed, mostly, at young female fans. This was a great movement. In 2012, we’ve been getting a male version of this. When a bunch of teenagers in One Direction tell you you’re beautiful because you have self-esteem issues, you have to get the sense that the guys didn’t quite get the point of the movement. “Let Me Love You” suffers from a similarly misguided notion that women would want to be treated this way. It’s certainly not as bad as “What Makes You Beautiful” (or the horrid Ed Sheeran-penned “Little Things”) but it still rubs me the wrong way. At least the music is fantastic.

      Techno School: I've heard this song so many times on the radio that it's going to be hard not to hate it just for being overplayed, but I'll try my best. How about I start with a fun fact, Ted Mosby style? Did you know that, according to Wikipedia, Ne-Yo got his big break when he penned a song called...wait for it..."Let Me Love You" for Mario!* Remember that song? That was a great song! And now Ne-Yo has his own "Let Me Love You (other words that distinguish this from Mario's single)"! Let’s call it the pop circle of life. Anyway, getting to Ne-Yo's latest radio single, I actually like the lyrics about him sweeping some woman off of her feet and treating her to the delight of being loved. Maybe that unoriginal but generally ear-pleasing club beat swayed me. Or, maybe because I'm a big 'ol sap this month. Usually, these tracks annoy the hell outta me. Speaking of which, the almost constant clap/snare in the backbeat did not do the song any favors, although I could see it fitting into Ne-Yo's dance-centric image (there's always a beat to pop/lock to). I just think the song could have reached further heights had the melody been augmented and shimmered, all Avicii style. Now can we please move onto a new Ne-Yo single? I'm sick of this one.

      *Two How I Met Your Mother references in two sentences. I win.

      Vertigo Shtick: Ne-Yo has written some of the great female R&B songs, some of which are all about female empowerment: most notably Beyonce's “Irreplaceable” but also Rihanna's “Take a Bow,” Lindsay Lohan's “Bossy,” and Kelly Rowland's semi-ironic “Grown Woman,” which is notably about female empowerment not held up against that of men. At the same time, as a solo artist he has placed himself somewhere between Usher's lovable philandering and Chris Brown's misogyny, and it's pretty much the only way the three performers differ. His hit “Miss Independent” (not Kelly Clarkson's) is his typical brand of patronizing sexism (I'm so proud of you for having your own cash and car and stuff, now come ride daddy's dick), presented innocently enough that, along with his track record with female singers, makes you wonder if it is as naïve as it seems. “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” sounds just like Usher/Chris Brown in the last few years, but you can figure out whose it is because Usher wouldn't be this patronizing and Brown wouldn't be this nice. I joke about the rest of the title being “...But Then I'm Out of Here,” and I wonder how far off this would be; the relationships he seems to like all give him a certain power over the woman. Then look at who he's written for - I mean, he hasn't written for Christina Aguilera – so maybe it's true. Frankly, I'd rather he stick to his day job behind the scenes and give his pulpit to some of the younger breed, like Miguel or Luke Christopher, who seem less fucked up in their sense of women. & Britney Spears - "Scream & Shout" (RCA, October 12)

      Pop Messiah:
      While heavily-anticipated after and Britney revealed the collaboration on Twitter, I have to admit that I find it hard to get terribly excited about anything is involved in after the last few Black Eyed Peas projects. "Scream and Shout" is catchy, but completely vapid and overly repetitive. I love Britney, but the strange British accent doesn't really do it for me and her vocals on the hook aren't anything to write home about. I know everyone is loving this track because we worship The Holy Spearit but if this track featured anyone else I truly believe most of us would never have heard it. I'll happily welcome a new Britney album when the time comes and I'm sure I'll still have a good time when this track happens to come on, after all the beat is kinda sick and there are some great danceable moments here, but I really doubt I'll be the one to press play or request it.

      SmartPopScott: Oh boy. I don’t’ want to say that I’m not a fan. Because I think he’s sometimes very brilliant, and always very aware and in control of what his art is doing. And this is no exception. This track is shit, and that’s great. Britney’s presence is useless except to justify the sampling of “Britney Bitch,” which I get the sense is the only reason they made the track in the first place. But, as is the case with all songs, the more I listen, the more I’m seduced. I will absolutely not “turn this shit up” when I hear it in the club. Special appreciation should be shown for the bridge, where the background synth moves from eighth notes to triplets to sixteenths and so on. It’s a cool effect and breaks the four on the floor patter that consumes the rest of the song (though I would have loved it if he went to fives at some point). I will not comment on that video.

      Techno School: Skipping bass beat? Check. Repetitive nonsensical lyrics referencing the club and/or dancing? Check. British robotic voices? Check. Looks like we've got a techno song on our hands. Well, not completely, but "Scream and Shout" is definitely more techno than pop or hip hop. Much as I loved old-school Black Eyed Peas, I have to admit that watching venture deeper and deeper into electronic territory gives me that warm fuzzy feeling inside. Is it any surprise that Lazy Jay, creator of the stomping beat behind Azealia Banks' "212", also produced the lighter, airier Britney Spears/ collaboration? Well, yes and no. Stylistically, the two songs differ greatly, and I wouldn't expect those two riffs to jump out of the same brain. Realizing that they do, though, you can start to pick out the similarities between them. The 15 second introduction. The ultra-short musical phrases with an emphasis on the tail-end (very beginning?) of every measure. A little before 2min in "Scream and Shout", you'll even hear muffled sirens break into the beat in a way very similar to how the "212" beat is perfectly interrupted by its own trumpet-ish tone. There's enough variation between the two that the similarities feel more like Lazy Jay's signature than his formula, per se. I dig it. Looks like Calvin Harris and David Guetta have some competition in the Featured DJ corner.

      Vertigo Shtick: The first time I listened to “Scream and Shout” I was underwhelmed. In fact, if I hadn't seen that Alex and Scott were enjoying it so much I might not have taken such a close technical look at it for what it is: techno. This opened it up for me, and I appreciate how it fits into the trajectory has explored with this kind of low voltage, high-excitement sound, following Kelis' “Scream” and the Black Eyed Peas' “The Time (Dirty Bit)” knows how to play emotion and energy cards and create intensity without volume. The last segment builds to an almost ecstatic level, but there's no bass drop payoff at the end – it just leaves you at the high. That's especially useful in the club setting, where this build can lead into another song, adding something to both. Britney, of course, is a good sport as always, and you know it was she that came up with the Britishney idea that instantly takes the tune from techno hit-or-miss experiment into a catchphrase-laden piece of the zeitgeist.

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