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On the way home from a trip to Portland Maine a couple weekends ago,I quoted to my father a quote from the late 90’s satirical cartoon South Park about political correctness at Christmas. This quote involved the character of Mister Hankey stating that people had been looking so much at what was wrong with Christmas that they’d forgotten what was so right about it. My father promptly re-phrased the question,since we were already on the subject,that since I’d so often stated what what was wrong with the 1990’s culturally,what could I find right about it. At the time I rather frankly answered with by saying December 31st 1999. Readers of this blog are well aware of my feelings on the often unrepresented cultural improprieties on the 90’s-namely in how the culture of the day tried to pump itself up by condemning the decade before it. But the more I lived with that question,the more it fascinated me.
The main locust of this thought process was that by spending so much time decrying the 90’s cultural ethic of infection negativity,was I in fact weakening my position? On the basis of the entire sociopolitical culture,the answer to that type of question might take historians decades to bring to any kind of conclusion. So on a more personal level I decided the best way to make sense of the “best” and more positive aspects of the 90’s was through my perception of music. So this is my Top 40 list of the 1990’s musical spectrum. There is only one criteria I’ve set: this list will have no rules. Recording format,race,gender,album,single or genre aren’t going to matter in this list. Nor does the artist have to have began their recording career in the 90’s. And most importantly,this list WILL NOT discriminate musically based on the cultural credibility or subjective hipness of said artist. So here I present to you what would seem to be some of the best of music from the 1990’s.
MC Hammer set off the 90’s for me…in the year 1990 itself with this song that famously looped a sample of Rick James “Superfreak” with a fast paced Bernie Worrell/P-Funk type “video game” synthesizer solo. With his colorful genie pants and gravity defying James Brown style dance moves,this man even gave the King Of Pop a serious run for his money in terms of performance. By bridging the original boogie funk sound with hip-hop inspired new jack swing music Hammer’s contributions to the evolution of funk are all too easily forgotten and dismissed as a one shot novelty. At the same time,I myself wonder what would’ve happened if something closer to this had become the musical standard for hip-hop.
With a multi cultural trio of DJ’s and vocalists,Dee Lite rang in the 90’s officially in its first here with this groove that crossed the musical boundaries of house dance music,disco and hard core funk. Bringing in Bootsy Collins on bass and assorted vocal lines as well as a well crafted and melodic song to go along with the percussive groove,I tend to associate this song with the height of the “daisy age”-a dance/hip-hop sub culture that seemed to view the 90’s as a decade that would successfully embrace the good vibrations of the 60’s counter culture into more clarity and focus. At 23 years old this year,this song is not only still quite a bit ahead of its time instrumentally but points to a direction that was unfortunately not as fully explored as it deserved to be.
During the advent of the seemingly dime a dozen new jack swing male vocal groups that sprang up almost overnight after the enormous success of Boyz II Men,Portrait stood out. While they are technically a one hit wonder,the one hit they had was probably the best example of this end of New Jack Swing. Musically the song loops a slowed down segment of Stevie Wonder’s composition for Michael Jackson “I Can’t Help It” ,this song also features sly and nuanced solo vocals and rather jazzy collective vocal harmonies. Very few of the new jack era male vocal groups of the early 90’s produced anything that possessed such a unique level of musicality that Portrait achieved with this song. And its probably my personal favorite song of its type of that time. And certainly among the funkiest.
With the crisp sound and extremely melodic song construction,this album presented songs in this style such as “The Ballad Of Peter Pumpkin Eater”,”The Smartest Monkey’s” and “The Disappointed” that showcased that even in a rock scene almost totally dominated by angry,angst ridden punk rockers and their protege’s there was room for more thoughtful and even optimistic pop/rock songwriting and lyrics during the early 1990’s. And what better a band to bring that to being than Andy Partridge and XTC.
When David Sanborn released the single “Bang Bang”,a funky interpretation of the Joe Cuba Sextet’s original,came out taken from his album Upfront,I was taking saxophone lessons in school that year. It was an enormous second fiddle,as I’d wanted to play upright bass but my music teacher feared liability due to its size and I wasn’t sure how to confront her how much I wanted to play it. So somewhat out of spite,knowing that there’s only one Charlie Parker and John Coltrane,the sound Sanborn got on sax at this time was something I really wanted to reflect on the alto I played at the time. Of course I never came much closer than “Twinkle Little Star”,and my playing style led my father to remark that I sounded rather like Archie Shepp-a somewhat atonal free jazz sax player. So the sax lessons faded away fairly soon. But have never stopped loving David Sanborn or that song.
At the start of a decade,many people are always hopeful that anything creatively new is going to impact positively on the world in general. When Arrested Development came along there was an attitude that I was confronting my own generations equivalent of Sly & The Family Stone. This was a group doing something in the hip-hop world that I hadn’t really seen. The band had an extremely strong African spiritual aestetic that seemed to influence the youth back to Africa revival movement occurring at that particular time. Their debut album had many strong songs such as “Mr.Wendell” but it was their hugely successful single “Tennessee” that continues to stick in my mind with its live funk instrumental sound and lead singer Speech’s meaningful and searching lyrics.
Five years after their 1988 album Stronger Than Pride Sade released this fourth album. Both creatively and commercially,this album was almost instantly acknowledged as representative of their peak and sparked a wave of interest in their spare,seductive variety of jazz/pop/funk that matched up to the massive success in the middle of the last decade. The then embarked on a tour that eventually found them releasing a live VHS cassette of one of their performances called Sade Live. On the heels of this enormous comeback,it would turn out to be another eight years until Sade followed up this album. But with songs such as “No Ordinary Love” and “Cherish The Day” leading the way,it hardly seemed to matter.
Until the day he left this Earth Miles Davis continued his mothers advice to always play something people could hum. He delightfully embraced hip-hop on his final and unfortunately posthumous release which found him pared with rappers such as Easy Mo Bee,who famously declared Miles on the title song of this to be a “multi talented and gifted musician/who can play any position”. As thoroughly wonderful as this album is in finding the linkages with jazz,funk and hip-hop,its a testament to Miles following his artistic vision as opposed to more closed minded critics. Since he was doing what most hip-hoppers at this time continually gave lip service too,he should be respected for his emphasis-even to his very final days,on the style and performance quality of his music rather than its superficial social reputation. That might be why this,along with his other work,has and likely will continue to live through the ages.
R.Kelly represents an artist who really ushered in the transition between the more pop oriented new jack swing styled music of the late 80’s/early 90’s with it’s transition mid decade to slower,more consistently funk variety of hip-hop/soul that would pretty much set the stage for the rest of the decade. This 1993 album,a very muscianly release featuring the talents of the sometimes neglected jazz fusion guitarist Bobby Broom,also presented R.Kelly as an artist firmly in the tradition of the male soul artist juggling the romantic and carnal sides of his nature. While the lyrics of “Sex Me,Baby” and “Bump ‘N Grind” showcase the carnal explicitness of Prince,the musical also showcases that artists melodic mastery of harmony and song craft. This is an artist I went back to later,after he had some time to show himself as much more than a one off-even writing one contemporary standard in “I Believe In Can Fly” from his self titled follow up in 1995. But the solo adventures of R.Kelly really started right here.
During the height of the decades musical credibility wars,Rick Astley would be best described as persona non grata. Considering the internet phenomenon of “Rick Rolling” that seems to be very much in play even now. However in 1993 Rick was still in the peak of his musical career and was intent on being a serious soul vocalist. This album,which actually came to my attention based on my mothers collection,actually has a similar musical pallet to Sade’s music of that period-with it’s mix of melodic gospel based pop/soul with strong funk and lite jazz influences. Astley has probably never sounded better vocally than he did on this album,in particular on songs such as “The Ones You Love”,a message song that was quite rare in the pop world at the time.
Former Ornette Coleman bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma released a song on this 1993 album called “Trouble”,which I originally heard via a Grammavision sampler my father once played for me. Not only is it firmly in the hard mid/late 80’s funk style instrumentally but the songs lyrics are a strong and intelligent warning about the level of urban decay,violence and personal angst that was being delivered earlier in the 90’s decade. Though Tacuma’s music was not promoted nearly enough to reach a broader audience,I always found this song comforting in the sense it showed that not every socially conscious musician of that era was only capable of projected nonstop rage and pain.
Until very recently I didn’t know the name of the artist who did this song. But that is why YouTube is so constructive in that regard. As I mentioned in another post on this blog,it was during my earliest days shopping for photography equipment and the thrill of that creative venture that I was hearing this song a lot. Musically speaking it has a similar jazzy harmonic phrase about it’s melodic pop/funk sound that reminded me a bit of what I’d heard Portrait too,somewhere at the cross section of Anita Baker as well. The artist was Jeremy Jordan and the song “The Right Kind Of Love”. I wonder if this song had an influence on Justin Timberlake when he began his solo career because the influence on a young male singer with a strong funky ethic is more than evident here.
As someone who was living on a pretty steady musical diet of Aja and The Nightfly at this time,it was a very happy occasion when Donald Fagen made a comeback after ten years with his 1993 album. Of course the witty future shock lyrics of “Tommorow’s Girls”,an enormous hit that fit comfortably in the classic Steely Dan sound,got my attention at the time most. Yet over the next couple of years it was hard to get “Florida Room” and “On The Dunes” out of my head. Funny thing is,considering this was written about a man who was then confronting middle age it forever proves how eternally old headed I seem to be that these lyrics seemed as relatable as they did to me when I was just entering adolescence. Perhaps middle age and adolescence can evoke the same emotions when it comes what they receive from art.
After the 80’s I somehow started to forget about Sting. Especially after his third solo album The Soul Cages went rather unnoticed by me. With songs such as “If I Ever Lose My Faith” and “Fields Of Gold” bringing Sting back to his commercial peak,this contemporary and mildly hip-hop/soul influenced album produced music videos that were in heavy rotation on the satellite video channels my father was able to pull in on the TV station he worked at during this time. So between that and the radio,these songs bought Sting back into my musical consciousness for the time being. And the rest of the musical public as well. He sank again into oblivion for the rest of the decade and has never really fully reached this level of big commercial success again. But it represents to him what Love Deluxe did for Sade the way I figure it.
Though even British pop radio and music charts had an unspoken embargo on anything outside the American alternative rock culture during the early 90’s,any new releases by Pet Shop Boys were an exciting event for me. The orange Lego-like jewel case this album came in was only the icing on the cake when I first heard “Can You Forgive Her”-a song that not too subtly puts the whole musical credibility wars into perspective with one lyric: “She’s made you some kind of laughing stock,because you dance to disco but you don’t like rock”. Instrumentally their 80’s dance sound was still going full throttle throughout this album-as well as their iconic pop song craft. Even though this album fell full victim to the credibility wars and its airplay embargo’s,that doesn’t stop it from being a melodically and intellectually satisfying electronic dance classic.
Interesting enough,this song was my first exposure to U2,a more groove oriented electronica number that I later learned was not the sound typically associated with them. Especially a a family friend of ours was a huge U2 admirer around the time this song came out this actually got me interested,albeit a bit belatedly in exploring their other music as well.
As if her appearance on Pee Wee’s Christmas Special singing “Jingle Bell Rock” didn’t make K.D Lang’s sexuality abundantly clear,as well as being my very first exposure to her talent,this album was the first I ever heard of her. Here I was presented with an extremely talented,velvet voiced singer/songwriter on songs such as “Constant Craving” and “Miss Chatelaine”-on an album whose mix of jazz folk/pop lyrically explored K.D’s personal mission of officially revealing her homosexuality to the public. And with the sweet,poetic way in which she presented her melodically intense compositions I feel she did a totally bang up job on every possible level.
During the middle of the 90’s when I was becoming heavily interest in the 70’s funk era,this 1993 debut album for Jamiroquai leaped out at me. First by hearing the song “Blow Your Mind” on another of my fathers samplers,than by hearing this album following the massively successful Travelling Without Moving. The fact that the band were looking to Afro Latin percussion based jazz fusion rather than hip-hop as the main influence for their message oriented funk showcased that they were a contemporary band leading what would turn into a massive live band funk revival that actually drew from the music’s original sources as opposed to its secondary ones.
This album entered my family through being recommended by two of their friends who ran a Pride shop in Portland called Drop Me A Line. Suede mixed a swinging jazz attitude with a melodic pop sensibility on songs such as “Puddle Of Love” and another favorite here called “Promises”. Earlier this year,in fact I learned the song was originally composed and performed by Basia-a singer/songwriter whose general musical aestetic is interestingly very similar to Suede’s.
TLC were a trio that I always admired for their ability to deliver Ohio Players/Sly Stone-type melodic and slick funk through the filter of contemporary hip-hop/soul. Their album Crazysexycool was a near masterpiece of its time in that sense. Still its this melodic wah-wah guitar and horn powered groove that continues to have the most impact on me as time goes on. Speaking from the point of view of someone whose love of funk derives from its balance of rhythm and melodicism,this is probably one of the most significant R&B/pop crossover hits of 1994.
After being absent so long from the public eye,80’s era synth pop innovator Thomas Dolby re-emerged in 1994 with this soundtrack to the third installment of the then highly innovative CGI movie The Minds Eye. With the previous installment having been scored instrumentally by Jan Hammer,Dolby adds a spare and ambient hip-hop/soul/chill type electronica rhythm and female vocals to songs such as “Neo” and “Quantum Mechanics”,which somehow became part of the rotation of songs used by my mother for an aerobics class she put on at the apartment where we lived at the time.
The public defrocking of Michael Jackson’s character in 1993/1994 was a weary time for someone who even to this day still finds much to admire about Mike’s character. When his first new music since the child abuse charges first emerged in 1995,it was with a duet called “Scream”,recorded with his sister Janet. This was not needless angst projected in an unintelligible manner. With complete coherence and conviction Michael demands of a merciless segment of the media “Stop pressuring me”-still referencing the James Brown style vocal chants he embraced from the get go. The song meanwhile is a cluttered,percussive and mildly discordant funk groove with a typically strong melody. I’ve never exactly heard a song quite like it since. People are still debating the type of person Michael Jackson really was to this very day. However the honest authority with which he delivered this cannot be denied. And just to have MJ back kicking on all cylinders was worth it for me anyway.
After years of dealing with the loss of his first lover to HIV/AIDS and lack of record company support,George Michael made a comeback that I got very excited about in 1996. This album had a hit in the uptempo “Fastlove” is a funky dance floor friendly groove that’s very much a modernization of the funkier grooves Wham! produced on their 1983 debut album. There are also numbers such as “It Doesn’t Really Matter”,sparsely electronic and jazzier numbers that showcase the talents of this singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist at what is probably his very best creatively.
Someone had to do it sooner or later. During the same time I was contemplating coming out of the then still very closed closet of society and revealing my own homosexuality,an artist I’d never heard of named Me’Shell Ndgeocello was presented to me by my father with this song “Leviticus: Faggot”. Using the template of out and out 70’s bass/guitar hard funk,Me’Shell tells the tale of a fundamentalist religious family trying to change their sons sexual orientation and his ensuing struggles. Neither before nor since have I heard this topic broached so perfectly,let alone in the context of hard bass driven funk. It was that groove that spurred my father to bring this to my attention. But sometimes I wonder if it was his subtle way of letting me know that not only was he aware of my sexual orientation,but that what happened to the young man in this song would never happen to me if my family had anything to do with it.
When I was a member of the now defunct BMG Music Service,they required their customers to buy one item at the often prohibitively expensive regular club price. They usually offered what they called a “featured selection”-hoping that you would make that your one selection to receive the seven free CD’s the club members had joined for in the first place. During 1996 I was reading Ricky Vincent’s book Funk-which referred to the Isley Brothers as “the epitome of funky manhood”. Sure enough my next BMG featured selection was this album,so I decided to buy it to get the seven free CD’s. In this instance,the featured selection I bought was the most interesting thing about the order. Not only was it my very first exposure to the Isley’s,but the first new music I purchased with my own money. R.Kelly’s production on this album essentially makes this the Isley’s take on the 12 Play sound,only of course with lyrics stating the romantic impulse with the Isley’s intimate and eloquent elegance.
I just always loved this stand alone Janet Jackson hit from 1996. With it’s mix mildly African influenced pop/soul with a little East Indian sitar mixed in,it was a world pop influenced hit that escaped the credibility wars statements that any world music elements in American pop were a “pretentious marketing tactic”. Plus very few are in this era knew their way around creamy multi tracked vocal harmonies the way the Janet Jackson/Jam & Lewis team did.
Emerging smack dab in the middle of the mid 90’s funk revival,Galactic came out of the Crescent City funk scene that had once spawned the iconic Meters in the 1970’s. Since funk is generally going to be an important aspect of all music that comes out of New Orleans,its only natural that on songs such as “Start From Scratch” that this album would satisfy my interest in the more live instrumental end of funk music of that era.
Toni Toni Tone were one of my favorite bands of the 1990’s,though technically they began during the late 80’s. Similarly to their Minneapolis contemporaries Mint Condition,they endured into the middle of the decade. In 1996 they released their fourth and so far final album House Of Music. The song that sticks out most in my mind on this album is “Thinking Of You”,group leader Raaphael Saadiq’s highly successful channeling of the slick HI/Willie Mitchell type soul/funk popularized by Al Green. Before the term retro soul or neo soul was in the public consciousness,this song began to bring that sound to the forefront. And I personally found it extremely comforting.
Prince had an undefinable identity during the 1990’s. The record company/credibility war issues had essentially left his career in ruins. And it was somehow voluntary on his part. Ironically this complicated period of his career was when I began getting interested in Prince. This album which contained at least two CD’s worth of the strongest funk he’d made in awhile was my favorite album creatively of this time period and represented the first “new” Prince material I ever bought. Still feel as apparently others do this was Prince’s most defining and well thought out musical statement of the decade.
Driving about town with family I was beginning to hear this song on the radio called “Da Funk”. It was this grooving mixture of contemporary DJ/electronica sound effects with a hard bass/guitar driven funk back drop. Later on I learned it was a French house duo called Daft Punk. Shortly after I became acquainted with another song of theirs from this time period called “Around The World”. Here was someone doing something futurist and compelling with the long neglected 80’s era electro/boogie funk-dance sound and also becoming hugely popular. This also seem to come around at a time when the credibility wars in the music community was beginning to recede-at least in my eyes. Ever since I first purchased this album,I’ve seen Daft Punk grow and grow creatively until now the enjoy the success the melodically electronic funk music they’ve championed truly deserves.
Marvin Gaye’s musical and vocal standard has inspired a lot of people. But few I’ve heard have actually been able to effectively adapt his exact song structure and vocal timbre to their music to the same level as the relatively unknown Pete Belasco did on this 1997 debut album. Although his music doesn’t sound precisely like Marvin Gaye and is quite a bit calmer in vocal delivery and musical subtleties,Pete did showcase that at least he understood how to make use of the inspiration he drew from Marvin’s music.
While on vacation in Montreal with family in the summer of 1997,I picked up this CD at the local HMV. It wasn’t rare. But I really respected Brandy and,even though I don’t have all her music,often go back to her. This early Rodney Jerkins production of course is best known for her enormous hit single with Monica “The Boy Is Mine”. But the one thing I like most about Brandy is that she directs her music to the actual emotional concerns of adolescents,rather than talks down to them. And the fact that the music is based on melodically sophisticated and minimal funk grooves makes this one of my favorite albums of 1997.
With hip-hop bitterly divided into schools during the 90’s,Will Smith launched his solo career very proudly devoted more to hip-hop’s original aestetic. Mainly in that Nile Rodgers/Chic-based music early 80’s post disco was directly responsible for hip-hop’s earliest success. With its blockbuster hits such as “Gettin’ Jiggy With It”,”Miami” and the theme for Men In Black Smith,while not the most vital or even vocally talented MC’s makes up for the qualities he lacks in sheer personality and charisma. He also showcases an interest in Cameo by featuring the band itself on a cover of their hit “Candy”. Its tangy enough to appeal to Will Smith’s age group,yet lacking in a tipper sticker it’s safe enough for even the most prudish of parents. Its a reminder when hip-hop wasn’t merely a bone to fight over for mere credibility. A time when hip-hop had been fun.
The still genre defying artist Imani Coppola first came to my attention via this particular song,of a type of which I’ve never quite heard before. Mixing a loop of Donovan’s hit “Sunshine Superman” with a touch of bluegrass fiddle picking,this psychedelic/drum ‘n bass/bluegrass/pop hybrid puts Imani into the character of the female equivalent of the unnamed lead character in an Unforgiven type figure. Musically and lyrically it represents what it really meant to be a musical non conformist when it came out in 1997.
During their enormous commercial success in 1997,the Spice Girls represented ground zero of what turned out to be the final days of what I call the credibility wars-a time when those who produced,promoted or purchased musical artists were deemed far more significant than what the artist was actually creating. Depending on where one went,buying anything by The Spice Girls might mean raised eyebrows,backhanded giggles or in some cases perhaps a High Fidelity style lecture about their “coolness factor”-read: supposed lack thereof. From the first time I heard the Spice Girls,I loved what they were doing: emphasizing the optimism and confidence of the 60’s and 70’s era pop/R&B/funk spectrum and crossing it over to a young pop audience. This soundtrack to their feature film of the same title has it all for someone of my particular musical taste-the hardcore latin rhythms of the uptempo “Spice Up Your Life” and the mellower “Viva Forever”,to hardcore dance/funk like “Never Give Up On The Good Times”,”Move Over” and “Do It” as well as powerful,soulful ballads “Too Much”-as well as the Motown girl group of “Stop” and the cabaret swing of “The Lady Is A Vamp” showcase the groups ballsy solo vocals and tight harmonies. No wonder they got so skimped on in their prime: their music stood for everything the 90’s alternative press seemed to want to destroy. Yet this has actually endured and is often now recognized as the…fairly ingenious soul/pop/funk/dance album that it is.
The award winning pop success of Mariah Carey in the early/mid 90’s didn’t endear her music to everyone. And although I heard most of these songs via videos and radio and didn’t purchase the actual full album until years later, this is a good candidate for Mariah Carey’s most potent full length album of her first decade as a recording artist. The potent mixture of spare,romantic jazzy pop/funk with Mariah concentrating on her powerful natural voice rather than her chirping high pitched 3 octave range my personal favorite stand alone piece is here is her version of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones”,which she transformed into a passionate duet with Dru Hill. One of a couple Mariah Carey albums I actually loved all the way through.
During 1998,my mother would often go to listening stations posted on the walls of Borders Books & Music where I often browsed for music during this time and check out some contemporary musical artists to see if she found anything appealing. She found a lot there actually-always gleefully mentioning this to my father and myself. She offered for me to hear this album,which shocked me because Sister Sledge hadn’t made an album in over twelve years before this. Its urban contemporary jazz/pop sound was nothing like what I’d heard from them. It is the title track,a genuinely Afro-Latin/funk percussion based groove that showcased the Sledge sisters strong vocal abilities and adherence to the Afrocentric ideologies. Another strong number I remember is the melodic salsa pop type number “The Thank You Song”,dedicated to the creative contributions of their sister Debbie. This album always reminded me of the 70’s “people music” funk I was deeply involved with at the time. And is one of my favorite albums of 1998.
Because Lauryn Hill and The Fugees were so over hyped by the “keeping it real” side of the credibility wars,at the time this album came out I avoided it like the plague-thinking that as with many albums promoted in that atmosphere this would be a cold,violent and edgy diatribe. That was one of the only times during this era that I was completely wrong about an album. Upon hearing it at least a decade after it was released,this sonically and lyrically beautiful hybrid of jazz funk and conscious hip-hop was in every respect the precise opposite of the way it was first presented to me through the music press from which I first heard about it. Hearing this album actually helped me the importance of exploring music for it’s own sake during the 90’s and not being pushed away from something by…well what in this case was a few cry wolf type critics who misrepresented what Lauryn was doing here. And what she was doing was showing the conscious linkages between hip-hop and the funk era.
In terms of her creative arc,this 1998 album is something I think of as Madonna’s Sgt.Pepper. She’d ducked out of the world of recording after the mid 90’s,at a time when her music was starting to take on a more artful type of atmosphere and than re-emerged five years later with this album that totally reinvented her musical personality-acting in the film Evita and giving birth to her first child Lordes along the way. Enlisting the help of William Orbit,Madonna’s music from the spastic title song and “Frozen” found Madonna’s dancefloor friendly sound created in the context of a more ambient electronica atmosphere. It was such a happy event for me that an 80’s era musical icon such as Madonna had,by age 40 still remained a musically powerful figure who would be able to creatively evolve into an album oriented artist.
Again it was the cutaway CD bin at a now defunct brick and mortar record store on coastal Maine called Wild Rufus that bought this album to my attention in the final year of the 1990’s. Presented to me as being very Earth Wind & Fire-like,the feeling I got from this album was very much that of a lower key and more house music informed version of Jamiroquai. The highlights from this album include the Eastern melodicism of the title song,a version of The Jones Girls “Nights Over Egypt” and-yes their hard funk collaboration with Jamiroquai on “Get Into My Groove”. This album sparked my interest in the musical offerings of vocalist Maysa Leak and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jean Paul “Bluey” Maunik that continues to this very day. So to me,this really did represent my music future.
Now that this article,which turned out to be an enormous labor of love on my part mind you,is complete I do have an answer to my fathers question: what was so good about the 1990’s to me? On a personal level? My original answer still stands. On a strictly musical level though,the 90’s did present an opportunity where finding music of the quality I was looking for-whether popular or not,much more of a challenge than it would’ve been had the music world of the time not been so intensely divided. Musically the 90’s was a decade the focused more on the writer/critic than the artist. So many people would tend to look for music bought to them by that source. Even in the case of word of mouth,often one sided critical assessment tended to be the order the day. So searching for actual sounds that personally spoke to your heart and mind was mostly in the hands of those interested in seeking out the music. And on that one personal level? Perhaps that was what was “so right” about the 90’s.
Amid all of the musically themed conversations I’ve had with my family,creatively inclined acquaintances and friends there is one particular theme that has popped up an uncomfortably large amount of times. The collage of album covers you see above you say it all: I’m taking about musically (and often commercially) renowned artists seeming to take longer and longer to release new music. Sometimes its a mere five to seven years. In some cases its a decade or more of continuous absence. There have been many different points of view of looking at the possible reasons for this. But up until now, I never have bothered to organize any of these viewpoints into anything that expresses a level of clarity to the matter itself. So tonight I would like to try,with a number of possibilities presented,to make sense of this potentially overwhelming creative matter.
The first possible reason might have to do with self criticism. Artists such as Stevie Wonder are renowned for their dissatisfaction with their own work-on a solely creative level. On a complimentary level,that goes with the related reasons of pressure. Especially when an artist is entering middle age and feels that one of the keys to their success is connected to their youth,it’s not outside the realm of possibility that they might begin to second guess creative decisions they make in music production. Even to the point of adding younger and often more commercially popular guests (especially from the hip-hop world) to their songs in an effort to win back their audience. The assumption is that music is a type of game an artist plays with the public: who can throw a song better and who can catch faster. This ethic of self competitive creation could surely delay the release of new music for such an individual.
The second possible reason has a generational back-round: the advent of music video. Many videos released during the MTV/VH1 era of the 1980’s and 90’s had location shoots and financial budgets sometimes equaling that of a full Hollywood film production-complete with scripts and special effects. Organizing such a production would be extremely difficult. This matter also has to do with why younger artists arriving on the scene from the 90’s to today take longer time between albums then their progenitors did in the 60’s,70’s and even 80’s. Often a big budget music video precedes an album release by months. The process of organization a miniature feature film type video production as a necessity to promote ones music will obviously lead to many delays-both expected and unexpected in the matter of new music getting released with the level of consistency it would in a time when an icon such as James Brown was released up to two to four albums per year in his prime years of the mid 60’s to early 70’s.
The third possible reason is the matter of music downloading and piracy. With the advent of the internet,the online world is full of different places to download music for free. Since the high profile incident with Napster at the turn of the millennium,even many artists have followed the party lines of music publishers and organizations such as the RIAA in insisting the illegal music downloading is hurting not only sales,but their ability to make music. This ensuing anxiety has hauled the ability of many of these artists to find innovative new ways of viewing the online downloading/file sharing phenomenon. And the result is probably the biggest media blame game in the history of the music business: is free music stealing or the beginning of a new way of looking at music distribution? Considering people’s all too easily attained fear of change,this reason interrelates with the next possible reason for such delays in music release
And that fourth reason would be a near total dissatisfaction with the music industry itself. One of the factors of the 1970’s is what it did for artists rights in the music world. Many of them began to understand their financial success depended more on their song publishing-almost always once held by record labels,rather than in touring and song/album releases. Looking at the business side of music,especially today it seems to run antithetical to art: even once fringe characters such as Courtney Love openly bemoaned that the “system” of music was set up so that the artists hardly got paid. This emphasis on money,litigation and suspicion has led to the depressing ruin of the careers of Prince,Van Morrison,George Michael and Chaka Khan-all of whom have enjoyed very erratic album releases (and often end up recording for poorly distributed indie labels) and therefore result in possible protracted absences from them releasing new material.
So in the end is the reasoning for such long waits between new material for some artists ego,material,creative entropy or a combination of all of them? I’m sure a number of music admirers,critics and cultural analysts are likely scratching their heads even today trying to break down the same question I just did. In any case much of the reason might have to do with the cynicism of the audience as well. In the case of a legacy artists,an icon whose prime years are considered behind them,people continue to expect to hear them on either film soundtracks,hip-hop samples or guest spots on songs by contemporary artists. It then becomes not just a generational affair but an implied lack of respect of older generations of musicians. As if their musical contributions cannot stand along without the help of their descendants. Human problem or business problem,artists need to be able to be free from the need to accommodate an economically motivated mold and create based on their artistic terms. And that is sure to make everyone involved more happy and fulfilled.
Christina Aguilera’s photograph is shown here because she perfectly exemplifies the entire topic of this article. Recently I wrote an article here about singing hinting at what I am about to say tonight. But I wanted to expand on that more. All of my adult life, soul music has always been a passion of mine. In fact its come to a point where I flat out tell everyone that, rather than focusing in on the dreary instrumentation and dry singing that permeates a lot of alternative rock type music its that quality of soul, in whatever genre I find it in, that peaks my aural interest more and more. Basically soul singing could be easiest described as a quality of singing directly from your heart but,most importantly carefully controlling the way in which your voice projects these emotions. Its basically a matter of tension and release. Aguilera has an enormous performance charisma and the image of a classic Hollywood movie starlette, which is ideal for the image conscious music world of today. In terms of depth and richness, her vocal instrument is actually quite a powerful one too. It is the way in which she, and many others present that voice of which I am about to speak of.
Whenever I’d travel with my father during the beginning of my rising adulthood, we would often play music on the car CD player for each other and talk about it among ourselves. One thing we often discussed was the phenomenon of oversinging. It is a term that means what it says, and a very common one too. Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson have all oversung at one time or another. And sometimes, it does actually enhance a song. But you have to know when to use this technique. Yet especially in the modern R&B genre, oversinging has gone to a whole new level since the ringing in of the new millennium. At the root is singers making themselves the center of attention-pushing themselves and their voices out front and center and generally over emoting. I had no particular name for this modern variation of so called “soul” singing. So I am about to do something very out of character for me: quote another writer because John Eskow of the Huffington Post defined this vocal phenomenon so wonderfully in an article he wrote on February 8th,2011. The word he coined was oversoaling, a term originally conceived by Atlantic Records Jerry Wexler . Here is what he said about that way of singing:
“To me, the horrific part of Christina Aguilera’s rendition of the National Anthem — and “rendition” is an apt term for it, because she kidnapped the song and shipped it out to be tortured — was not her mangling of the words, but her mangling of the tune itself: to paraphrase the great Chuck Berry, she “lost the beauty (such as it is) of the melody until it sounds just like a (godawful) symphony.
This is the same grotesque style — 17 different notes for every vocal syllable — that has so dominated the pop and R&B charts for years. Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston are relatively minor offenders, but singers like Aguilera — who admittedly possesses a great instrument — just don’t seem to know when to stop, turning each song into an Olympic sport as they drain it of its implicit soul, as if running through the entire scale on every single word was somehow a token of sincerity.
It’s called melisma — the bending of syllables for bluesy or soulful effect — and what’s creepy about the way it’s used now is that it perverts America’s true genius for song, as evinced by its creators in the world of gospel and R&B, like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. You will hear more of this tonsil-twisting insincerity — to your eternal sorrow — if you watch any episode of American Idol. The great Jerry Wexler — who produced both Ray and Aretha — coined a great term for it: “oversouling.” He described it as “the gratuitous and confected melisma” that hollows out a song and drains it of meaning. “
Jerry’s words as translated by Mr. Escow rang extremely true to me. Again it speaks of someone who has the basic elements of a soul singer, yet they allow themselves to lose control over their vocal emoting to an near piercingly theatrical degree. The result is the quality of Olympic singing Escow speaks of in his article. In all honesty, this phenomenon did not originate in the 1980’s: a decade that tends to be a pop culture whipping post for critics to this very day. Even pop artists who practiced soul singing of the time such as George Michael and Rick Astley had very careful control of their vocal projection and presentation. It seemed to start in the early 1990’s during a time when every R&B/soul artist looking to release uptempo music seemed to have to do so using the new jack swing hip-hop/funk hybrid started by people such as Teddy Riley in the late 80’s. Dancing frenetically in colorful parachute pants under heavy lights and sweating a lot, these newer singers had to find a way vocally keep pace with the faster music and dances. The result was a phenomenon of “oversouling” vocals, in particular with gospel influenced male vocal groups-many of whom sang through their noses in a therefore nasal fashion that only heightened that quality.
During the time with Christina Aguilera was ascendant in the music world, the patter was reversed. Male singers influenced by neo/retro soul tended to be influenced back in the direction of controlled vocal expression. Whereas female soul oriented singers began to take the oversouling style to new heights. Now just to be aware of my own writing, you probably noticed my constant repetition of the word “control” in this writing. That’s because that seems the most appropriate word for the most vital element in genuinely soulful singing. How to keep vocal qualities such as melisma from completely overwhelming one’s dynamic as a singer. There’s no question about it-it is still very much a singers world in music today. They are the most celebrated in the media. And people such as myself might bemoan that. But if it is to be this way for now a degree of shading,insinuation and nuance to ones vocal expression will likely have the affect of making said vocalist more likable. And their voices will be more appreciate if they are just themselves rather than forcing their singing in desperation for attention. After all those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.