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Sound and Vision: Songs of the Season — 10 Great “Summer” Singles

Summer and songs. They fit together like Santa and snow, like sex and the city, like Coldplay and Rihanna in the “Princess of China” single and video, which both acts no doubt are hoping will be the song of the summer of 2012. (And if it’s not, Rihanna’s got another shot anyway, with “Where Have You Been,” the fifth single from her Talk That Talk album.)

But the songs of summer aren’t just about the latest, greatest hits when warm weather starts to roll around. If they were, we all would have been stuck with Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” on an endless beach loop last summer (and certainly some of us were). The hottest season has been figuring prominently into pop since the beginning of time, regardless of the temperature outside.

This year, it will be no different. So while the rest of the world is sweating it out to Rihanna and Coldplay, or Rihanna on her own, or brand new music from Justin Bieber, Usher, Chris Brown, or Fiona Apple (my personal beach pick), feel free to pad your summer mix with these ten entries, some of the best “summer’ songs ever.

Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Songs of the Season — 10 Great “Summer” Singles’

Sound and Vision: Why Judging a TV Star Search Is More Valuable Than Winning One

The votes were counted and Phillip Phillips was crowned the 11th American Idol on May 23. So what’s next?

If this is going to be just another case of recent history repeating, a first blush of modest success (his Idol winner’s single “Home” entered Billboard’s Hot 100 at No. 10, with 278,000 downloads), maybe even a platinum post-Idol album (like his predecessor, Scotty McCreery), then… nothing much. Unlike American Idol‘s early seasons, which made durable stars out of Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, taking the grand prize no longer comes with guaranteed gold or platinum (if only for one album).

Even Adam Lambert, Idol‘s eighth runner-up and the show’s lone international star launch in the past several seasons, is in the throes of a sophomore slump. Although Trespassing, his second studio album, released on May 15, entered Billboard’s Top 200 album chart at No. 1, it did so with only 77,000 copies sold its first week. That’s 120,000 less than his 2009 debut, For Your Entertainment, and the lowest one-week total for a No. 1 album since last August, when Adele’s 21 sold 76,000 copies in its 12th non-consecutive week at No. 1. Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Why Judging a TV Star Search Is More Valuable Than Winning One’

Sound and Vision: Is Gotye This Year’s Foster the People?

Here today, gone today, one-hit wonders make the world of pop go round—but never for long.

The late ‘70s gave us a plethora of short-term disco stars who lived—and quickly died—by the groove, while the Tacos, the Kajagoogoos and the After the Fires of the early ‘80s, arrived wielding synthesizers and tressed for fifteen minutes and less of success. More recently, in 2005 and 2006, sensitive singer-songwriter guys Daniel Powter (“Bad Day”) and James Blunt (“You’re Beautiful”) helped usher out the pre-Rihanna/Katy Perry/Lady Gaga phase of pop.

In 2009, as a higher number of headlining newcomers than usual ascended to the summit (Lady Gaga, Jay Sean and Jason DeRülo, among them), at least one, Owl City—the act behind “Fireflies”—was bound to never fly anywhere near those heights again. And last year, with dance music dominating the airwaves more dramatically than it had since the aforementioned disco age, we got indie-pop with a beat for exactly one massive hit single, courtesy of Foster the People, who went all the way to No. 3 with “Pumped Up Kicks.”

Which of 2012′s first-timers so far are most likely to not still be succeeding by their next single? fun., the rock trio that recently spent six weeks at No. 1 with “We Are Young”? Or Gotye, who rode a quirky song and an even more oddball video all the way to the top?

At a quick glance, Gotye seems to have all of the trappings of a one-hit wonder. Interesting name that one might need a pronunciation key to get right? Check. Song that sounds unlike anything else on the radio? Check. A colorful video that jumps off the screen for reasons that have as much to do with the high concept as the song itself? Check.

Continue reading ‘Sound and Vision: Is Gotye This Year’s Foster the People?’

Sound and Vision: Lady Gaga’s Album of the Year GRAMMY Nominee — Big Hit Or Major Miss?

In pop music, you’re nobody until everybody loves you or hates you, and few recording artists polarize everybody the way Lady Gaga does. Mad genius or plain mad? A true original or hopelessly derivative? Hit or miss?

That last question easily could apply to Gaga’s second full-length studio album, Born This Way, which was released to near-unprecedented fanfare in May of last year. The music press gave it “generally favorable reviews,” according to Metacritic, which assigned the album a score of 71 out of 100. Madonna, however, was less than blown away by the title song and first single, which many declared a too-blatant rip-off of her 1989 hit “Express Yourself.”

The woman who has spent her entire career nicking sights and sounds from other people, apparently agreed and recently joined the song’s chorus of detractors. “When I heard it on the radio… I said that sounds very familiar,” Madonna told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden in January. “It felt reductive.”

As for the parent album, whether it’s good or bad is a matter of personal taste. Hit or miss, though? Commercially speaking, it depends on how you look at it. Born This Way sold 1.1 million copies in the week after its release, making it the biggest debut since 2005. However, Gaga’s sales feat becomes less impressive when you consider that some 440,000 of those copies were sold in the digital format by Amazon, which practically gave the album away for 99 cents.

By week two, sales of Born This Way had plummeted 84 percent, down to the mere-mortal level of 174,000 copies. In its third week, it sold 100,000 copies, and was replaced by Adele’s three-months-older (in the US) 21 at No. 1. When the dust settled and 2011 ended, Born This Way was the third-biggest seller of the year, with cumulative sales of 2.1 million copies, which means it did half of its business last year in its first week. The No. 1 album of 2011, Adele’s own sophomore effort, sold nearly three times as much (5.8 million).

If Born This Way were a Hollywood event movie, and in many ways it was marketed like one, it would be considered a disappointment, as aspiring blockbusters that only double their opening-weekend haul during their box-office runs are generally considered to be. Worldwide sales in the vicinity of 5 million lack luster when an album’s pre-release set-up positions it to be the biggest thing since sliced bread—or Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Then there are the five singles from Born This Way. Aside from the aforementioned title track, which spent six weeks at No. 1, they’ve performed somewhat below Gaga’s usual Hot 100 standards. The second to fourth singles all reached the Top 10, but none of them enjoyed industry buzz or runaway success on par with previous Gaga hits like “Telephone” and “Bad Romance.” Meanwhile, the fifth single, “Marry the Night,” only reached No. 29 on Billboard’s Hot 100, making it Gaga’s first official single to miss the Top 10.

There’s always the February 12 GRAMMY Awards to provide a nice Gaga rebound (she’s up for three awards), but they probably won’t, not with Adele in the running (and performing). In fact, Adele might have been the one thing most responsible for blocking the view of Gaga for much of 2011.

The antithesis of all things Gaga, she’s a singer who gets by without gimmickry and flash, just strictly on the power of her voice. Her 21 singles have had considerably more staying power than those from Born This Way—the third, “Set Fire to the Rain,” just became the third to hit No. 1—which means that when the dust settles (again) and 2012 ends, some other 21 single probably will still be jerking tears (“Turning Tables”?) or rocking the house (“Rumour Has It”?).

Even Gaga’s videos and live award show performances are no longer the talk of every town, not when Adele hits the same stage, accompanied by a tremolo piano melody, effortlessly knocking rare notes way back into the nosebleed seats, and bringing on the heartbreak with “Someone Like You.” She did just that at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards in September, and she walked away with the most-talked-about live TV performance of the year (without having to reveal that she was pregnant!). Gaga performed “You and I” at the VMAs, but it was Adele whose song was No. 1 on the Hot 100 within days of the ceremony.

Adele will likely steal Gaga’s GRAMMY thunder, too. Gaga scored her third Album of the Year nomination for Born This Way (her second was for the 2009 EP The Fame Monster), but there’s no stopping the Adele express, which is likely to run over everything in its path. Gaga may have to settle for Favorite Album of the Year at the January 11 People’s Choice Awards.

So hit or miss? I’d say Born This Way falls somewhere between stunning success and magnificent failure, definitely closer to the former when both artistry and commerce are accounted for. Derivative first single aside, the album was an uncompromising pop opus, one that is musically to the left of the one that made Gaga a superstar.

Had its more difficult tracks—”Scheiße” and, say, “Heavy Metal Lover”—been recorded by someone like M.I.A. or an obscure European electronica act, they probably would have been declared masterpieces of iconoclastic electro-pop. “Judas,” for sure, would have had considerably lowered chart expectations (it hit No. 10). Released under any other name, Born This Way, far as it is from the mainstream that Katy Perry and Rihanna call home, probably would have sold a small fraction of what it did sell with Gaga’s name plastered on the cover.

There’ll be future hits for her, though, more GRAMMY nominations. And even if her reign as the hottest thing in music is over for good, Adele shouldn’t get too comfortable at the top. In pop, nobody stays there forever.

Sound And Vision: What Will George Michael Do with His Second Chance at Life?

It’s been nearly eight years since George Michael released an entire album of new music, and three since he put out a single that wasn’t a cover of New Order’s “True Faith.” But in 2011, the singer-songwriter starred in what must have been one of the year’s most gripping YouTube videos, two minutes as gripping and heartfelt as anything on Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1, his essential 1990 album.

There was no music, and Michael didn’t sing a note. In the clip, which was posted on December 23, Michael gave a press conference in which he discussed his recent near-death experience that began on November 21 on the Vienna stop of his forty-eight-date European tour and which he described as “the worst month of my life.” The normally robust singer, who had contracted a chest infection that was later diagnosed as life-threatening pneumonia and spent a month in hospital in Vienna (including ten days in the intensive-care unit), appeared gaunt and gray, often struggling to catch his breath.

In a year that took so many of music’s greats (R.I.P., Amy Winehouse, Nikolas Ashford, Phoebe Snow, Vesta Williams, Clarence Clemons, Dobie Gray, Billie Jo Spears), Michael is truly lucky to be alive —and he knows it. So what’s next? First, as he said in the interview, he will reschedule the cancelled dates on the Symphonica Tour that he was staging throughout Europe and the UK when his illness struck. The shows featured Michael performing his own hits and non-hits as well as select covers (including Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game”) with a symphonic orchestra.

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Sound And Vision: 10 Things to Look Forward to in 2012 (Featuring Soundgarden, the Stone Roses and Freddie Mercury — Alive Again!)

A US Presidential election, Summer Olympics mania (London’s calling—again!), Rihanna’s film debut (in Battleship, out May 18) and the possible end of the world. Those are a few of the things I won’t be looking forward to in the coming year. Fortunately, music will offer enough thrills to distract us from all that we’d rather forget. Here’s what’s topping my 2012 anticipation list:

1. Madonna makes fiftysomething fabulous all over again. Although I’m curious to hear what Madonna does with Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. on the final cut of “Gimme All Your Luvin’” when the single is released the last week of January, that’s not the main reason I’m excited about her upcoming twelfth studio album (due in late March), her first since turning fifty in 2008.  “Masterpiece,” a new song featured in the Madonna-directed W.E. (which goes into wide release on February 3, two days before her Super Bowl XLVI performance) and her reunion with her Ray of Light producer William Orbit, is an achingly beautiful ballad that recalls the best of ’90s Madonna while gently proving that she can still create pop magic all on her own.

2. Madonna vs. Elton John vs. Mary J. Blige vs. Chris Cornell vs. Glenn Close (!) at the Golden Globes. Too bad the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disqualified Madonna’s “Masterpiece” from competition at the February 27 Oscars. Why? Because it’s the second song featured during the closing credits, and eligible songs must either be in the body of the film, or the tune that plays when the credits start to roll. Oscar’s loss. The January 15 Golden Globes showdown featuring five monsters of pop, rock and soul and acting will be just as star-studded—and as tough to call—as George Clooney vs. Brad Pitt vs. Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Ryan Gosling in Best Actor in a Motion Picture Drama.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: 10 Things to Look Forward to in 2012 (Featuring Soundgarden, the Stone Roses and Freddie Mercury — Alive Again!)’

Sound And Vision: Strange Bedfellows — The Best of Music’s Unlikely Collaborations

“I get high with a little help from my friends,” Ringo Starr sang on the Beatles‘ 1967 classic. These days, so do many of music’s top stars. Two’s company, and so is three and sometimes four. The more the merrier, the higher and higher they get.

On the charts, that is.

In the Top 40 of Billboard’s Hot 100 for the week ending December 10, seventeen songs were collaborations between separate recording entities. Four of them featured Drake, and three apiece featured Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, who both appeared on tracks with Drake and with each other. But will.i.am featuring Jennifer Lopez and Mick Jagger—and debuting at No. 36 with “T.H.E. (The Hardest Ever),” which the threesome performed on the November 20 American Music Awards—was probably the one that nobody saw coming.

Old-school Rolling Stones fans must be cringing at the idea of Jagger going anywhere near Lopez and will.i.am so soon after Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera went to No. 1 by invoking his hallowed name on “Moves Like Jagger.” But for a sixty-something legend like him, hit records—even if in name only, a la Duck Sauce‘s GRAMMY-nominated “Barbra Streisand—are a near-impossible dream unless they’re in tandem with other, often younger, stars.

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Sound And Vision: Foster the People’s Chart Challenge — Is There Life After “Pumped Up Kicks”?

Foster the People just might be the pop anomaly of 2011.

The trio of Los Angeles-based twentysomethings led by founder and namesake Mark Foster looks like a boy band (only cuter), plays instruments like rockers and produces music with beats that thump as hard as any backing up those fierce divas currently ruling every dance floor in clubland. And then there’s FTP’s breakthrough single, an insanely catchy song called “Pumped Up Kicks” about cool shoes and a youth with homicidal tendencies.

I mean, really?

Even more surprising than the song’s smash status despite its decidedly un-poppy protagonist—that troubled kid contemplating a shooting spree—is the fact that it’s created barely a ripple of controversy throughout its lengthy chart run. Did the clever lyrics fly over the heads of the country’s guardians of morality and decency in songwriting? Were we all just too lost in the beat to notice the finger on the trigger?

Or perhaps for the first time since the second British invasion of the 1980s brought such alternative pop acts as Duran Duran,
Depeche Mode and indie-pop pioneers the Smiths into and around the mainstream, both the masses and the pop-music establishment (radio and retail) are ready to support music that touches on more complex subject matters than “dance music sex romance”—to quote a track on pop iconoclast supreme Prince’s 1982 album, 1999, one of the records that launched the censorship wars of the early ’80s that would hardly raise an eyebrow today.)

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: Foster the People’s Chart Challenge — Is There Life After “Pumped Up Kicks”?’

Sound And Vision: Britney Spears At 30 — Where Does She Go From Here?

It seems like just yesterday: She was invading the dreams of pedophiles and lusty teenage boys everywhere. But that was 1998, the year Britney Spears, then sixteen, broke with her No. 1 debut single, “…Baby One More Time,” and its accompanying video, in which the singer made an unforgettable first impression as Lolita-lite, a sexy school girl who was up for just about anything.

At the time, Britney seemed destined for the cut-out bin in two years flat. Her synthetic pop sound didn’t sound built for longevity. And didn’t the name Britney Spears, which was too close for comfort to that of ’80s hair metal heads Britny Fox, have one-hit wonder written all over it?

Boy, was I wrong! Thirteen years later, she’s still with us. Her albums may no longer be as huge as they were at the dawn of the century, but she’s still one of the leading ladies of pop. Super-stardom, however, isn’t everything. Even an act with a hit list that’s as thematically shallow as Britney’s must crave a little artistic growth. She’ll turn thirty on Dec. 2, but to me, she’s still seventeen—partly because I don’t want to admit that I’m getting so old, but mostly because Britney herself still doesn’t sound as if she’s a day over twenty.

Sure she’s lived a lot. There have been two marriages, two divorces (actually, one divorce, one annulment), two children and countless scandals. I interviewed Britney for Teen People right after the release of her second album, Oops!… I Did It Again, in 2000, back when she still hearted Justin Timberlake. She struck me as a sweet teenage girl with a maturity level that matched her age. I don’t know what she’s like today, but her music doesn’t make her sound much older.

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Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows

On November 9, Nashville celebrated itself (again!) with the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. For the fourth consecutive year, the event was hosted by Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, but the masters of ceremonies weren’t the only thing that gave me that old deja vu feeling. Hadn’t these accolades already been handed out just a few months ago?

Wait, those were the Country Music Television (CMT) Music Awards in June. And before that, there were the Academy of Country Music Awards. And, just in case that’s not enough Music City honors for you, there are the 2nd annual American Country Awards coming up on December 5.

Pop and R&B are just as self-congratulatory, offering the MTV Video Music Awards, the MTV Europe Music Awards, the Billboard Awards, the American Music Awards, the Teen Choice Awards, the BET Awards, the BET Hip Hop Awards, the NAACP Image Awards and the Soul Train Music Awards.

Then, of course, there are the GRAMMYs, which following so many other back-slapping fests, have been losing their lustre for years now—though that’s hardly the only reason. Winning one used to be the musical equivalent of snagging an Oscar, but now its just more clutter for the awards shelf.

In a few weeks (November 30, to be exact), the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2012 GRAMMY Awards (to be held on February 12). Doesn’t it already feel like we’ve been there and done that over and over and over already this year? Am I the only one who doesn’t doubt that we’re in for another repeat of The Adele Show, with a very special appearance by Lady Gaga. Good as it is, like Christmas, I only need to sit through it once a year.

Continue reading ‘Sound And Vision: Why I’m Seriously Considering Boycotting Music Award Shows’

 


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