Friday, January 3, 2014

2013 The Year In Review

2013 was a year full of catchy pop dance oriented music and controversies. Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus brought us both, they danced and  twerked with two of the biggest songs of the of the year. Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” spent 12 weeks at #1 and ended up at #2 on the year end HOT 100 chart, in the UK he had the best-selling singles of the year. The Billboard Hot 100 chart started factoring in YouTube streaming data ,on-demand audio streaming, and online radio streaming, this along with radio plays and digital sales turned songs like Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and Baauer’s the “Harlem Shake” into huge hits. You could not go anywhere without hearing New Zealand’s young alternative artist Lorde and her hit “Royals” which spent 9 weeks at #1. The rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis kept going strong with their first LP “The Heist”, “Thrift Shop” not only topped the weekly charts but it topped the year end Billboard chart while their other  #1 hit “Can’t Hold Us” ended up in the top 5. Their most important song “Same Love” might have stalled outside the top 10 at #11 but it’s message on equality and pro-gay marriage stance rang throughout the world. On the year end Billboard album chart, no surprise is Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience” at #1 followed by Taylor Swift “Red” and One Direction’s “Take Me Home”. The UK boyband topped the charts again at the end of the year with their 3rd LP “Midnight Memories”, but enough about Billboard, what about my thoughts, there were so many releases at the end of the year, a few of them battled out for the last spot.

  1) Random Access Memories--Daft Punk

I have to admit I’m not usually a fan of records that are vocal-lite, but there’s no doubt what album deserves the top spot this year. French EDM duo Daft Punk takes the best of their 90 dance oriented sound and infuses an old school production to create an absolutely timeless record. The album was recorded with real instruments, a full orchestra and choir which gives their sometimes robotic sound a warm feeling. They also hired some of the music industry’s biggest producers to work with them. Nile Rodgers (Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna) gives them the chart smash and best song of 2013 “Get Lucky” and “Lose Yourself To Dance”. Rodger’s signature guitar licks and melodies are unmistakable infectious and pulls you right in, both songs co-written and sung by Pharrell Williams just can’t get any better. The album’s other opus “Giorgio By Moroder” tells the story of the king of Eurodance and music maker of Donna Summer”, with no vocals aside from his little prologue story the song goes on into dancefloor bliss, mixing the sounds of the 70’s with, as  Moroder expresses, the “sound of the future”. Many of the songs like “Within”, the relaxing “Motherboard” and “Beyond” take you on an atmospheric trip, the latter begins with a beautifully orchestrated segment and settles into a Daft Punk –esque groove. I could easily see their music as a score to a major film or story. “Instant Crush” featuring Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, and “Fragments of Time" featuring Todd Edwards both sound like lost forgotten 80’s synth records.  Then there is the odd “Touch” sung by American composer singer/songwriter and actor Paul Williams known for writing for the Carpenters, Barbra Streisand, and the theme to the Love Boat TV show. The song is a slow groove, a 70’s acid trip mixed with “vocoder” style vocals, sandwiched between emotive vocal verses that sound like the Phantom Of the Opera rising. This isn’t a hard beat high BPM house album; all the sounds are filtered and sophisticated, robotic yet somehow organic at the same time.  

2) Electric—Pet Shop Boys

After the sophisticated slow jam album “Elysium” released just a year ago the boys come back with their 12th studio album. Produced by Stuart Price, "Electric" is a high octane dance floor banger that piers half their ages could only wish for. From the opening “Axis” the albums 9 songs takes you on a fabulous journey. From the Soviet-esque catchy “Bolshy” to “Love Is A Bourgeois Construct”. The latter based on Michael Nyman’s classical piece “Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds” is magnificent, and fits right up there with some of their best songs, like “Go West” it a gay dance floor anthem and a broken heart song with tongue and cheek-y lyrics that only Neil can deliver “love is a bourgeois construct so I've given up the bourgeoisie”. It's a blatant fallacy You won't see me with a bunch of roses promising fidelity Love doesn't mean a thing to me”. The albums centerpiece for me is “Thursday” featuring UK Rap artist Example whose vocals blend very smoothly with Neil. The song has a beautiful melody and all the 80’s bells and whistle of a signature Pet Shop Boys song, but one that could easily play on the radio today. Then there’s the odd cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last To Die” but like their other covers (“Always On My Mind” or U2’s “Where The Street Have No Name”) they turn it into a new song with a four on the floor dancebeat, a fantastic backing chant and in my opinion a more effective vocal take by Tennant then by Springsteen. After listening to it, one wonders if they are talking about its original intent, the Iraq War or perhaps the Aids epidemic? “Fluorescent”, “Inside A Dream” and the final track “Vocal” could fill the clubs and keep the kids dancing all night long, but unlike most EDM music their songs soothe and groove with you, they have an organic natural feel. The only track I don’t like is “Shouting In The Evening” a bit too dudstep for me but maybe the kids will like it.

3) Right Place Right Time—Olly Murs

A UK X-Factor runner up, Olly has proven that a TV product can put out a credible album. Writing alongside some hefty pop songwriters, Wayne Hector, Claude Kelly and Steve Kipner, Olly hold his own. His 3rd studio release opens up with the fantastic orchestral gem “Army Of Two". The Canadian release includes the hits “Heat Skips A Beat” and “Dance with Me Tonight” from his sophomore album, but even the original UK edition without them has lots of nuggets. The first single “Troublemaker” sound like a Maroon 5 copycat but who cares, the songs thumping drums and groove is infectious, I don’t usually like guest rap artists but Flo Rida only adds to the charm of the song without feeling like it was on add on. “Dear Darlin” “Hand on My Heart” and “Loud and Clear”, a beautiful uptempo ballad cements Murrs into a modern crooner à la Robbie Williams, and way better then Robin Thicke. Yeah a few of the latter tracks are filler but even “Hey You Beautiful” is fun. “What A Buzz” missing from the Canadian edition is worth seeking out, Only Olly can make a song about binge drinking with the lyrics “What A beautiful buzz about the girl I might love” cute. The fabulous title track could have been his X-Factor winning song but sometimes coming in second is better.

4) Swings Both Ways—Robbie Williams

I’m not a fan of swing music that’s why this album took me by surprise. A big part of it has to do with Robbie reuniting with his long time music partner Guy Chambers, in my opinion his music hasn’t been the same since. Another saving grace is that the album is half covers and half originals like “Shine My Shoes” and the first Single “Go Gentle”, an ode to his daughter to beware of men, which is both cute and touching, the song is more big band/pop then swing, musically it reminds me of his old hits like “Feel. I’m not usually a fan of artists reinterpreting their old hits but “Swing Supreme” is just genius, I think I like this version better than the original “Love Supreme”. 

Robbie is joined by some of his friends including X-Factor and “Williams wannabe” Olly Murs on the appropriate I Wan'na Be Like You, Lilly Allen joins him on a acoustic cool rendition of “Dream A Little Dream”, Michael Bublé sizzles on “Soda Pop” but Kelly Clarkson eclipses them all on “Little Green Apples”, her voice is absolutely gorgeous and surprisingly restraint, I actually had to check the credits twice to make sure it was actually her. The album’s opus is the title track featuring Rufus Wainwright, which sounds like a long lost movie duet, à la Fred Astaire and Gina Rogers but gayer if that is possible. Robbie has never shied away from making fun of himself or the rumours of his sexuality with Rufus proclaiming: “Now Robbie, everybody swings both ways, from the butchest, the bandits, the fairest, the faggots and singers…Face it Robbie you’re a little bit gay”. “Snowblind” and “Minnie The Moocher” are the low points but even “Puttin' On The Ritz which I’ve heard many times before makes you want to get up and dance. The Wizard Of Oz’s “If I Only Had A Brain” is cute and quaint.  There’s something about Robbie’s personality that rubs off into his music and makes you wanting more.

5) A--Agnetha Fältskog 

Not counting her 2004 cover album “My Colouring Book” this is the X-ABBA’s first album of original material since 1987’s “I Stand Alone”. Produced and co-written by Jörgen Elofsson (Britney Spears, Leona Lewis, Kelly Clarkson) who crafted what could be the closest to a new ABBA album we probably will ever get. His best material did not go to Britney or Clarkson, so it’s no wonder that Agnetha fell in love with the demos and agreed to do a full album. There something special about Agnetha’s voice, sweet, clear and beautiful, she sounds the same even after all these years. She doesn’t scream a song to death like the modern divas but polishes and caresses her voice over the melody. “The One Who Loves You Now” and “When You Really Loved Someone” are pure Swedish pop magic, if sung by a 20 something singer they would be huge hits. “Perfume In The Breeze” is breathtaking while the ballad “Flower” is beautifully heartbreaking. Oddly the weakest song on the album is the Gary Barlow duet “I Should've Followed You Home”, it just seem more generic then the rest. “Past Forever” and many of the songs seem written for her or about her ABBA years and failed relationships. If you are looking for disco or dance look no further than the marching, thumping Voulez Vous-ish “Dance Your Pain Away”. “Back On The Radio” is a cute ode to her fans, while she may not be setting the charts on fire we can be happy that she is still singing. Jörgen did one thing that Benny and Bjorn couldn’t, he convinced her to write a song, the final track “I Keep Them On The Floor Beside My Bed” shows that she was more than just a pretty voice and face. 

 6) Since I Saw You Last—Gary Barlow

Only his 3rd full solo album, Take That’s lead singer/songwriter works his magic skills. The album leads off with the fabulous piano driven “Requiem”, a Robbie Williams co-written Beatles-esque tune”. Lead single "Let Me Go", and final track “More Than Life” are inspired by the popularity of folk/pop groups like Mumford & Sons but I'm happy that the rest of the album stays away from this sound. Keane’s keyboardist Tim Rice-Oxley joins Gary on the rock stadium ballad “Jump”. The album’s centerpiece is the Elton John duet “Face To Face”, one of 3 songs co-written by John Shanks, Elton sounds fabulous on this piano driven uptempo number. “G_D” is a beautiful heartfelt look at modern society, religion and morals, “If you found God and he gave you hope / Would you tell the world or save your soul. If you found God, would you take him home / Would you open the curtains or keep them closed”. The cute melodic boyband track “Small Town Girls” will make heats flutter, his voice on this track proves why he was chosen as the lead singer of Take That. The excellent “6th Avenue” sounds like he is channeling the best of Billy Joel, too bad popular music is too EDM to accept this type of song. “We Like To Love” for me is the weakest track, a bit boring although it does sound a lot like an old Take That songs, I could hear Mark Owen singing this, the ending with just the piano and his falsetto is really pretty. The album gets back on track with “This House” and the title track, Gary sings “I’ve made my peace with what may happen / Accepted I won’t be in fashion”,  in response to the criticism of being “settled in” or too middle of the road, but why should these songs be any less valuable then the latest hip hop, dubstep or rock metal invasion. If you want wretched emotions check out the touching “Dying Inside”. The Deluxe edition includes 3 extra songs, the first 2 are filler but the last one “The Song I'll Never Write” is worth checking out.

 7)  Word Of Mouth—The Wanted

A cross between a boyband and the sound of Colplay The Wanted seem to always play second fiddle to the mega group One Direction.  Word Of Mouth is their 3rd, 2nd or 1st album depending which country you are from. There are so many different versions from a 12 track regular edition to a 16 to 18 song deluxe editions that it’s hard to know which one to review. In North America the album includes the 2 years old smash “Glad You Come” while it omits the dance club hit “Chasing The Sun” which is on the UK CD.

Let’s go with the newer songs. The album opens with the sing-a-long bar drinking anthem “We Own The Night” followed by “In The Middle” and “Out Of Reason” both are solid pop songs but they don’t compare to the next 3 tracks.  “I Found You” released earlier this year is a thumping EDM dance track with one of the best falsetto of the year. The Dr Luke penned “Walks Like Rihanna” had mega-hit written all over it, why it didn’t happen is beyond me.  “Show Me Love (America)” is absolutely lush with a beautiful string arrangement and orchestra. The next few tracks go into deeper dance club territory with the generic “Summer Alive” and even harder dubstep “Glow In The Dark”. Check out the last song on the regular edition “Everybody Knows”, it's one of the most honest songs on the album. The boys have a spattering of co-writing credits throughout the album but I was surprised this wasn’t one of them. The song written by pop hit makers Steve Mac and Claude Kelly feels tailor made. The extra 6 tracks unfortunately don’t match up to the rest of the album. The album needs a bit more cohesiveness, but with so many pre-single releases and a two year plus recording time, it’s no wonder it feels thrown together.

8)  20/20 Experience Part One—Justin Timberlake

Another slickly produced album by Timberlake and Timbaland. Unlike their previous effort this isn’t hard dance but a slow romping jam excursion with songs like the beautifully orchestrated “Pusher Love Girl”, and “Spaceship Coupe”, it then moves into Barry White territory on “Strawberry Bubble Gum. I love the jazz infused sophisticated pop songs like “Suit & Tie”, the horn sections are fabulous, but I could really do without Jay-Z, I don’t see what his rap adds to any song. The album is chalk full of hits from “Tunnel Love” to the Grammy nominated “Mirrors”. “Let The Groove Get In” is a nice change of pace, a Cuban inspired Gloria Estefan type of song. I realize his absence from the music scene prompted JT to release a “Part 2” album a few months later, but I wish he would have pruned it down to one album of best tracks including the amazing song on Part 2  "Take Back The Night” inspired by the 70’s groove of The BeeGees, it would have made one hell of an album. 

9)  Loved Me Back To Life—Celine Dion

After a few low key albums, Celine comes back with a vengeance. A change in her singing and approach is evident with the incredible “Water and A Flame”, her voice isn’t over powering like usual but subtle, warm and rich, it has texture that she hasn’t had before. “Somebody Loves Somebody” is the type of pop I’ve been waiting for her to make, modern current but not too far away from her roots. The Title track ventures slightly into dubstep but I find it a bit overproduced, not digging the stuttering “I-I-I-I-I’s”, I think it was a misfire to release it as the first single. The Ne-Yo written duet is absolutely fabulous, and he really holds up to Celine’s vocals, a feat which is not easy, the song is a huge hit in the making. “Beakaway” and “Didn’t Know Love” are beautiful and emotional ballad either could be singles. “Save Your Soul” keeps the album going strong with cool slice of R&B groove just as good as her contemporaries. “Thank you” is not single material but another good track, unfortunately this is where the album starts losing steam. I love Stevie Wonder's song “Overjoyed” but I hate this production by “Tricky” Stewart and his team on this duet, they slow it down to a syrupy, drippy version that just clogs my ears. The album’s other cover Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” is poignant when Celine explains why she covered it but it just doesn’t sound right. The Walter Afanasieff produced “Always Be Your Girl” and Diane Warren’s “Unfinished Songs” are good but they venture back into her safe repertoire.

 10)  Closer To The Truth—Cher

I wasn’t enamored at first with this album but it has to do with the first 2 tracks and lead singles  “Woman’s World”, and “Take It Like A Man”, both tracks are a bit dance generic, I love the sentiment on both but outside of the 2AM rave party they don’t offer much musically. The album doesn’t start cooking till the 3rd song “My Love” a beautiful melodic song that while is in dance mode I could easily see making a great ballad. “Dressed To Kill” “Red” and “Lovers Forever” continue the club oriented side of the album and a nod to her gay fans. What I like to call side 2, tracks 7-11 turn into a rock/pop oriented sound. The Pink penned “I Walk Alone” is one of the standout songs. It starts off with a country riff, turns into rock/pop on the verses and then goes slightly dance on the refrain, it sounds eclectic but it all works together beautifully. “Sirens” is the centerpiece on the album, a beautiful wind sweeping ballad. “Favorite Scars” sounds like it was tailor written for her, while “I Hope You Find It” originally sung by Miley Cyrus seems to have found a new home, way better in Cher’s repertoire. The album ends off with another great track “Lie To Me” written by Pink. There’s no doubt that Cher and her team had 2 ideas for this album, one for the dance clubs, the other more in style with her 80’s music. I’m fine with that, I just wish they would have opted for different singles.

My Top Singles of 2013

1.            Get Lucky--Daft Punk        
2.            All-American Boy--Steve Grand
3.            Same Love --Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert
4.            Troublemaker--Olly Murs
5.            Walks Like Rihanna --The Wanted           
6.            Take Back The Night --Justin Timberlake          
7.            Love is a Bourgeois Construct--Pet Shop Boys
8.            Wrecking Ball --Miley Cyrus
9.            Story Of My Life--One Direction
10.         Show Me Love (America)--The Wanted  
11.         Face To Face--Gary Barlow and Elton John
12.         King Of Everything—Boy George
13.         Popular Song--Mika and Ariana Grande
14.         Burn--Ellie Goulding
15.         Thursday --Pet Shop Boys
16.         Loud & Clear--Olly Murs
17.         Gypsy--Lady Gaga
18.         Army Of Two --Olly Murs
19.         I Hope You Find It--Cher
20.         Incredible (Duet With Ne-Yo)-- Céline Dion
21.         Dance Your Pain Away--Agnetha Fältskog
22.         Mirrors Justin Timberlake
23.         Go Gentle--Robbie Williams
24.         In A World Like This--Backstreet Boys
25.         Half of Me--Geri Halliwell


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