(originally appeared on Jeremy Gloff’s WordPress Blog)
2008 was a kick ass year for a fan of the retro divas. Both Donna Summer and Grace Jones stepped out of hiding after more than 17 years since their last albums. Madonna, Mariah, and Janet faced off. And Cyndi and Carly quietly trumped them all. Late in the year Marianne Faithfull showed up with her first album in a couple years. And Britney Spears released an infectious irresistible slice of bubble gum crap that we will all hate to love. Here are Gloffy’s thoughts on the new albums I purchased in 2008.
JANET JACKSON – DISCIPLINE
When word leaked out that Janet, Mariah, and Madonna all had new albums coming out, everyone wondered who the winner would be. The initial reports speculated that all three albums may be released in the same month. As it turned out, Janet beat the other two to the punch by a couple months.
At first glance, it all seemed so promising. Janet’s lead single “Feedback” pumped with a killer hook, modern production, and the most potential of any Janet single in recent memory. Initial promo clips that showed up Perez Hilton showed Janet donning a sleek robotic look. It promised to be very post-modern, very “now”.
As the weeks leading up to the album flew by, despite positive reviews “Feedback” stalled on the charts. Then pre-release reviews forecasted a less than amazing album. Early listens to sound clips disappointed.
In the end, DISCIPLINE turned out to be yet another disappointment in the Janet Jackson cannon. DAMITA JO was spotty, 20 Y.O. had its moments, but DISCIPLINE turned out to be Janet’s first complete artistic and commercial bomb. As Janet ages, the faster she runs to catch trends, the more it leaves her career out of breath. Sales were dismal, and subsequent singles were regulated to late night gay club play. A far cry from the pop star releasing gems as late in the game as 2001’s “All For You”. The fact that Janet didn’t write most of the album was another nail in the coffin. The pop star who once served innovative and personal masterpieces like THE VELVET ROPE was now regulated to a producer vehicle. This vehicle ran out of gas fast.
The future of Janet seems bleak indeed. Her last tour flopped, and public interest is at an all time low. How disappointing. I really love Janet. If only she’d cover up those titties and reclaim her artistic side. One and a half out of five stars.
DOLLY PARTON – BACKWOODS BARBIE
Dolly Parton is in her fifth decade. The 60s found her duetting with Cole Porter. The 70s found her going solo and recording some of the most heartfelt and classic country music ever. The 80s found her morphing into a comedic and campy public caricature. The 90s found her star fading while she continued to record mediocre albums. In the early part of this decade Dolly reclaimed her crown. With a series of bluegrass album Dolly Parton reasserted just how effective her songwriting skills are. The pinnacle of this resurgence was the middle album LITTLE SPARROW. Dolly’s bleak and rural mountain songs rang with an emotion and execution unparalleled.
What has plagued Dolly’s career most is the inconsistency of her output. For every jewel in her artistic crowd there’s a series of duds. Following the bluegrass trilogy Dolly has since released four albums. BACKWOODS BARBIE is the latest and it’s terrible. With this album Dolly tries to recapture the mainstream country audience with little success. The glossy production isn’t endearing, and the nadir of this offering is the gender-reversed cover of the Fine Young Cannibal’s “She Drives Me Crazy”. (Now named “You Drive Me Crazy”). I purchased BACKWOODS BARBIE and Janet’s DISCIPLINE on the same day, and ended up just playing my own album on the way home. Dolly’s strongest suit as a writer is as the Smoky Mountain bluegrass siren. This album misses that golden mark by miles. One out of five stars.
CARLY SIMON – THIS KIND OF LOVE
Only weeks before Mariah and Madonna were set to drop their new albums Carly snuck in with this low key offering released on Starbuck’s now defunct Hear Music label. At first listen the one was almost dismissed as a clunker, but further listening revealed the album to be up to the standard of Carly’s best 70s and 80s work. The best songs on this album are carefully crafted with the precision and heart that makes Carly Simon’s music so unique. Especially effective are the opening trilogy of songs. The lead off title track features a soft samba groove and romantic lyrics. “Hold Out Your Heart” could easily hold court with Simon’s best 70s material. In this track the harmonies swell and burst with the power that only Simon can muster. The drum-loop heavy “People Say A lot” seemed ridiculous at first…but that ridiculousness turned out to be its charm. “People Say A lot” crawls with the anger and camp not much different from past Carly Simon classics in this genre (“Big Dumb Guy” from THE BEDROOM TAPES, The entire SPOILED GIRL album.) The almost would be a five star release, but the album loses a bit of steam in the second half. Four out of five stars.
MARIAH CAREY – E = MC2
Pre-release buzz for this album was at fever pitch. Mariah herself purred that if the previous EMANCIPATION OF MIMI was dinner, this new offering would be dessert. Early forecasts from industry listening parties were enthusiastic. Even record exec L.A. Reid said in an interview that Madonna was wildly foolish for releasing an album around the same time as Mariah.
The fever pitch was further elevated by the release of the album’s debut single “Touch My Body”. The song was an instant classic upon first listen. It was familiar yet fresh. It was classic Mariah Carey but with a new injection of sexy female empowerment. I was immediately sold.
My friend Sam and I were so stoked about the album’s release that we set up a lunch date centered around it. The plan was to buy the album, sample the tracks, eat hot dogs, and fall in love with the album. With great fever we rushed to my car and listened to ten second snippets of each track. Maybe it was the hot Florida sun getting to us but Sam and I made a premature proclamation that afternoon that E=MC2 was in fact a much better album than EMANCIPATION OF MIMI.
After lunch I went home to my normal post-new-album purchase ritual. I lit incense. I laid on my bed with the lyric sheet. And I began at track one.
By track three of E=MC2 I found myself irritated. I became a Mariah fan during GLITTER, at which point I went and bought Mariah’s entire back catalog. I was familiar with her work. As I read the lyrics and listened to the songs it became apparent that eighteen years into her career Mariah Carey had discovered ebonics. I take great interest in the lyrics of a song…and damned if 90% of these tracks didn’t heavily incorporate urban slang. I have zero issue with urban slang, however it felt very false coming from Mariah Carey. Especially this late in the game. To me, it felt like shrewd marketing targeted at a more urban crowd rather than a natural evolution of speech. Mariah Carey has never been the most genuine artist out there, but never did she seem as affected and false and when she sang lines like “wherever I go he be cruisin’, turn to the right, oh he’s so smooth with it”.
Luckily, there were a couple tracks that sort of redeemed the album, and “Migrate” got a lot of plays on camp value alone. “Loving You Long Time” was pleasant enough. Mariah turned out to be absolutely correct…the album was much like dessert. All fluff and no substance.
Overall, this album fell miles short of expectation. Two out of five stars.
CYNDI LAUPER – BRING YA TO THE BRINK
Let’s face it. No one was really paying attention about the upcoming Cyndi Lauper album. I casually peeped her wikipedia page here and there. But basically I mentally regulated this as one of those albums I would pick up out of obligation, quickly to fall to the wayside.
My initial fears regarding this album came true. The first couple tracks were in the style of the generic gay club house I so feared. Lead singles “Set Your Heart” and “Same Old Story” both reeked of the horrible generic thump that’s been glued to us since the 90s. These were the kind of songs that would fit perfect during a SEX IN THE CITY scene featuring drag queens and Samantha Jones at her most “fierce”. I figured I could endure bad-gay-house-music Cyndi Lauper until her next album…when she got back to the good heartfelt stuff.
I bought the album at Borders without much fanfare. The cover art was quirky in a cool way. I put the album in my stereo and was prepared to jump through the tracks rather quickly. To my delight I found that Cyndi had released the absolute two worst songs from the album as singles!
BRING YA TO THE BRINK turned out to be as relevant, imaginative, heartfelt, and consistent as any of Cyndi’s best albums. Both “Into The Nightlife” and “Echo” found Cyndi venturing into new electronic genres…with her penchant for gut-wrenching gorgeous choruses intact. “Rocking Chair” thumped along with an electronic and rootsy vibe. Even the opening track “High And Mighty” was both off center and low key.
A few of the tracks were throwaways, but overall Cyndi Lauper showed up in 2008 with an album that reminded us just how precious and talented she is. A strong four out of five stars.
MADONNA – HARD CANDY
Any new Madonna album is met with great anticipation. Especially from the die hard fans like myself. Truth be told, with this album the signs did not look so good…perhaps for the first time in Madonna’s entire career. Early leaked demos were lukewarm and boring. Even the concept of Madonna working with past-the-moment producers like Pharell and Timbaland seemed a bit sketchy.
The closer the album got, the more that dread set in. Originally the album was to be titled GIVE IT TO ME which didn’t give cause for much celebration. The next rumored title was LICCORICE which also failed the thrill. By the time the official album title was released, HARD CANDY, it was already clear that this was an album without a strong concept.
The leaking of the album’s cover art also did little to light a fire under the project. The prospect of a butch forty nine year old Madonna with her legs wide open did little to appeal. Whereas Madonna’s sexuality once empowered and seemed frisky and daring, this new guise felt a little desperate and washed up. During the TRUTH OR DARE era that was little doubt that Madonna was spreading her legs both in and out of the photography studio. Fast-forward to 2008 and I am reluctant to accept that Madonna’s raunchy pose accurately portrayed who she is today as a person or an artist. At most, the cover was a testimony that aging woman can still look “hot” by stereotypical society standards. Such a statement would be extremely powerful had it been accompanied by music asserting a mature sexual adult woman. This was not to be the case.
HARD CANDY did in fact turn out to be better than expected. “Candy Shop” revealed itself to be much more fun than the demo leak indicated. “Incredible” and “She’s Not Me” both triumphed with experimental arrangements and sounds. “Miles Away” was a catchy and emotional Madonna track. Even “Voices” and “The Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You” began to show their charms after repeated listens. Of course no matter how many spins you gave “Spanish Lesson” it still was the absolute worst song Madonna had ever released.
One must mention the lead single “4 Minutes”. When I first head the song I wrote it off as a horrible clunker. Eventually I grew to love it. The video was killer. The song itself…I am so blinded by my Madonna love I think it’s hard for me to judge fairly. The single was huge, and it was cool to have a current Madonna song that I could sing along to with my mainstream friends. That alone gave the single some positive light.
The worst thing about HARD CANDY was the way Madonna’s voice was recorded. The younger Madonna singing in her high register sounded cute and poppy. Middle aged Madonna singing in her high register sounded shrill and strained. Madonna is much more effective singing in her lower range.
So after all is said and done, the supposed purpose of HARD CANDY was to give us some music that was fun and carefree. Unfortunately even Madonna didn’t sound like she was having much fun on the record. Still, us Madonna fans learned every word and played it over and over, because it’s a Madonna record. Luckily the Sticky & Sweet tour saved this entire Madonna era from complete. As for HARD CANDY, I give it three and a half out of five stars.
DONNA SUMMER – CRAYONS
I was so apathetic about the new Donna Summer album that I completely forgot about it at first on its release date. I am admittedly a fan of her prior album, 1991’s MISTAKEN IDENTITY. But since that hit and miss effort, Donna had reduced herself to a variety of unremarkable niches. There was the Christmas album. Yuk. The frequent tours on the oldies circuit. And worst of all, the numerous one-off singles mostly in the unimpressive genre of generic gay house. I am a huge Summer fan, and I shook my head that one of the pioneers of the dance movement was cutting such bland faceless dance singles.
Enter CRAYONS. I heard a couple of the songs on You Tube prior to the album and they didn’t catch my interest much. I rushed into Target to buy that album on my way to a dinner date with a straight guy. As I put the album into my Cd player and was running expectedly late, I hated CRAYONS at first. The album at first seemed desperate with trend-chasing. And worst of all…it seemed Donna was incorporating hip youth lingo into her lyrics…which was awkward at best…unlistenable at worst.
But damned if I didn’t fall in love with this album more and more with each listen. The songs were irresistibly catchy. And more importantly, varied. And with closer listening it was quite evident Donna herself was having a ball making this album. I hadn’t heard Donna Summer sounding this spirited and invested on a record in years.
“Stamp Your Feet” was a true anthem, and it was cool going to gay clubs and hearing a new Donna Summer cut. “Mr. Music” and “The Queen Is Back” were camp at its most catchy and fun. “Sand On My Feet” is the most gorgeous romantic song Donna Summer has ever recorded. My personal favorite cut is “Science Of Love” that charges along with the same intensity and desperation of Donna’s best early 80s cuts in the same vein.
After all is said and Donna, I never would expect that Donna Summer would eclipse the big three…Janet, Madonna, and Mariah. But quietly she did. CRAYONS is a later-career masterpiece that shows its rewards with repeated listens. Kudos to Donna for not making a modern generic dance record. By shifting from modern pop, dance, jazz, ballad, country, and new age Donna Summer truly did show the variety in her box of CRAYONS. This was a classic. Five out of five stars.
EMMYLOU HARRIS – ALL I INTENDED TO BE
When I caught wind that the forthcoming Emmylou album was going to be produced by Brian Ahern I was super stoked. Ahren was the producer of all the early classic Emmylou albums. They were a married couple, so the subsequent divorce naturally led to a creative parting. They say time heals wounds, and the two did a one off song together on a Rhino comp a couple years ago. The prospect of a Harris/Ahern full length thrilled.
1970s Emmylou Harris was earthy, rootsy, polished, and classic. The albums were a potent blend of bluegrass, 1970s L.A. country-pop, all with a singer/songwriter vibe (even if Emmylou wasn’t a frequent writer herself.) In the mid 1990s Harris shook it up by working with producer Daniel Lanois (famous for his work on classic U2 records.) Since then most of Harris’ output has maintained that spacy, ethereal alt-country vibe. Lots of echo, reverb, and musical effects. While that new sound is classic in its own right, by Harris’ last solo full length, STUMBLE INTO GRACE, the sound had run its course. So a turn back to her roots seemed perfectly timed.
The album’s stark black and white photography was gorgeous. As I slipped the CD in the player I was immediately moved to tears by the opening track “Shores Of White Sand”. The way the music and harmonies swelled…well it was like it was 1980 all over again.
Well turns out, it was 1980 over again. Harris and Ahern took a music track recorded in 1980, took off the vocals of the original (and deceased) singer, and added Emmylou’s vocals.
Elsewhere the album wasn’t as reminiscent of Harris and Ahern’s 1970s prime. The album charged along with a stark simplicity and gloom. Never had Emmylou Harris as boldly and blatantly addressed her older age…and the always approaching day of death that all of us face.
ALL I INTENDED TO BE is not an album for the optimistic or carefree. It’s an honest and stark album recorded and written by someone later in their life, addressing the concerns of that age. I didn’t listen to the album as much as some others that came out this year…but truth is that has more to do with where I am at in life than the merits of the album itself. I wish the album had been more of a throwback to the sound of Harris’ 1970s slick albums, but I’m fully aware that artists rarely look backwards. Kudos to Harris for still moving forward thirty-something years into her career. Four and half out of five stars.
JEREMY GLOFF – 1987
In this great year of pop music I released my own 1980s dance album. I think it’s one of my most solid albums…I edited myself hard this time and knocked the album down to 13 tracks as opposed to the previous albums 18. What this album lacked in the sincerity and emotional investment of my previous albums, it made up for in fun and catchiness.
GRACE JONES – HURRICANE
With Grace’s last proper full length being 1989’s horrible BULLETPROOF HEART and her last truly great album being 1985’s SLAVE TO THE RHYTHM, it was up in the air how this one would go. Of course everyone got a sneak preview when the track “Corporate Cannibal” leaked onto You Tube…and that song was great. The odds were looking positive.
When Grace put the album up on her myspace page all doubts were squished. HURRICANE contained the best elements of Grace’s gravy Compass Point years updated and vibrant. With her signature sound intact, lyrically HURRICANE presented the most mature and personal Grace Jones the world has ever seen. Best track was the autobiographical “William’s Blood” which was a collaboration with Wendy and Lisa. There wasn’t a stinker on this album. Four and a half out of five stars.
BRITNEY SPEARS – CIRCUS
I became interested in Brit after her mental meltdown. Before that, she was an erasable blip on the pop culture radar. With my interest up, I purchased BLACKOUT, which turned out to be a cult-sleeper. With repeated listens, BLACKOUT revealed itself to be on of the catchiest, darkest, most hedonistic pop/dance albums of 2007.
Fast forward to 2008 and after a mental health hiatus America’s beloved Britney Spears has returned. All flowing blonde hair and big smiles.
As a marketed product CIRCUS is flawless. The songs take the most accessible elements of BLACKOUT and drop them into a more commercial digestible pop setting. CIRCUS presents classic Spears with enough left over grit to appeal to both the mainstream and the underground.
As far as high art, CIRCUS is a worthless piece of crap. The vocals are completely autotuned. The songs are fluffy, fun, and catchy. It’s a flawless pop record from beginning to end. “If You Seek Amy” is the catchiest disguised double-entendre in recent memory. “Womanizer” is a killer hit single, and the title track mixes the edgy with the catchy. I’m sure CIRCUS will keep Spears on the positive side of the pop culture map for a couple years. When I’m in the mood for something mindless, well-crafted, and fun CIRCUS fits the bill. This album was everything HARD CANDY tried but failed to be. I have to give CIRCUS two ratings. On one hand it gets zero stars, because it’s a shame what the general public wants and gets these days. On the other hand it gets five stars, because for modern pop music it doesn’t get any better than this.
MARIANNE FAITHFULL – EASY COME EASY GO
Marianne Faithfull has a sterling track record. In her four decade career, rarely has Faithfull ever artistically mis-stepped. This is both a blessing and a curse. With each subsequent album there’s the expectation to be met. Of course, Marianne Faithfull probably could give two shits. Ever the trail-blazer, Marianne seems to create daring projects without consideration of approval. If anything it has usually proven that in Marianne’s case…the bigger the artistic risk the greater the reward. Case in point: her last album BEFORE THE POISON was a collaboration with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey that won in spades.
EASY COME EASY GO was produced by Hal Wilner, the man also behind the boards for 1987’s STRANGE WEATHER. While STRANGE WEATHER was an cover album of standards, this new album covered both oldies and songs by current relevant bands. And of course it’s only on a Marianne Faithfull album where a Dolly Parton cover would be sequenced next to a Neko Case song.
Upon first listen I felt Marianne’s voice was abrasive on this album in a less endearing way than usual. Of course, with any high art, sometimes one doesn’t “get it” at first. Such was the case with this album. The more I spun it, the more its nuances and quirks became evident. And most importantly, the more the absolute POWER of the songs was revealed.
As always Marianne gives a riveting and impassioned performance. Knowing that many of these songs were cut in one take with a live band only furthers ones respect for the project. The album came in two versions: a ten track CD, and also a three disc version with a second eight-song disc and a documentary DVD. The first disc is solid and classic, and the second one is still growing on me. There really are no stand out tracks on the album—the selections are extremely varied and consistently successful. This is another stellar release from Marianne Faithfull. Five out of five stars.
WENDY AND LISA – WHITE FLAGS OF WINTER CHIMNEYS
The final release that has interested me is the new release by Wendy And Lisa. Only for the sake of reference will I mention that these ladies came into prominence as members of Prince and The Revolution. Since leaving the Prince fold…the girls have gone on to produce five solid albums of their own. This is the latest, and it’s a classic.
There are no surprises on this album. Wendy and Lisa have always excelled at mid-tempo dreamy introspective jams. But rather than experiment this time out Wendy and Lisa refined. There’s a world-weary maturity in these songs that can only be gained by time and experience. Recorded and released completely independently, Wendy And Lisa were left to their own devices. The songs swirl with memories, regrets, sadness, hope, and closure. Wendy and Lisa have always delivered albums there were mostly consistent from beginning to end. WHITE FLAGS continues and ups that standard…the songs flow together as a suite of songs united.
In stark contrast to the manufactured pop music of today, WHITE FLAGS is a breath of fresh and sincere air. I have a lot of respect for artists going the independent route and creating art just for the sake of it. This album deserves a lot more exposure than the mainstream press will probably give it. But that’s the beauty of the whole thing in a way…by means of grass roots exposure true artists will connect with those who they need to connect with. This album is another five star release from Wendy and Lisa.
PRETENDERS – BREAK UP THE CONCRETE
The last Pretenders album I LOVED was LAST OF THE INDEPENDENTS. Neither VIVA EL AMOR nor LOOSE SCREW failed to excite me. On this new album Chrissie is fierce and inspired. Easily the best (and most artistically forward) Pretenders album in years, the band dabbles in Americana and it fits like a glove. Four out of five stars.
ALANIS MORISSETTE – FLAVORS OF ENTANGLEMENT
Easily the best Alanis album since INFACTUATION JUNKIE. The songs are catchy, well produced, and for the first time in awhile sincere. This album got a bit lost in my shuffle, but I really enjoyed it the times I listened to it. A solid four and a half out of five stars.
LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM – GIFT OF SCREWS
After putting this album on the shelf for over ten years, Buckingham finally finishes the job. This album mixes Buckingham’s best pop elements with his knack for experimentation. Buckingham always comes out a winner when he is able to equally balance the two, as he did on this album. Compared to his murky and tuneless experiments on Fleetwood Mac’s SAY YOU WILL, GIFT OF SCREWS is an enjoyable and successful listen. Four out of five stars.
ALICIA BRIDGES – FAUX DIVA XXX
On this album Alicia culls and remasters the remainder of her unreleased back catalog, and throws in a couple unreleased early years tracks. While not as essential as last year’s SAY IT SISTER, FAUX DIVA does include the savage “Self Applause” and the wonderful “Breakaway”. Now that Bridges has recapped her vintage catalog let’s hope she starts writing some new material. Three out of five stars.
THE THOMPSON TWINS
All 3 of the Twins classic albums have been reiussed as double disc sets, as well as their first two albums being released on CD finally. This is definitely of note to Thompson Twins fans.
THE KILLERS – DAY & AGE
They have yet to do anything as interesting (and let’s face it, great) as HOT FUSS, but this album is fun enough. Three and a half out of five stars.
JOHN MELLENCAMP – LIFE DEATH LOVE AND FREEDOM
A serious, somber affair from Mellencamp. Haunting and gorgeous. Five out of five stars.
So overall, this has been one awesome year for the music I love. 2009 doesn’t promise as many classics as this year. My most anticipated release is Courtney Love’s NOBODY’S DAUGHTER. We have an Annie Lennox greatest hits to look foward to, as well as a Madonna compilation. The new Teena Marie album CONGO SQAURE sounds exciting, and that’s about it. Oh, and yet another Fleetwood Mac RUMOURS reissue. Yawn. Happy Holidays everyone, and may be beat go on.