Fall/Winter 2006

Justin Timberlake: FutureSex/LoveSounds
Jive Records
Release Date: September 12, 2006

On the first single from Justin Timberlake’s sophomore solo outing, he’s claiming to have brought “SexyBack,” and I’ll be damned if he hasn’t. This single (which has been at the top spot on the Billboard charts for a month) isn’t even as sexy as it gets on this disc of a dozen sweet‘n sweaty songs. Timberlake has tapped into the R&B and hip-hop genre without ever losing sight of his pop sensibilities, thereby creating frenzy for fans of all of the above. There isn’t a dud in the bunch of dance songs, even when he slows down the groove on a very rare occasion – most especially for the final track, “(Another Song) All Over Again.” The second single, “My Love,” has already been delivered to radio, while the first single has shown no sign of slowing down. The entire production was helmed by the latest and greatest of the new millennium, Timbaland, and it is so slick, the budget will easily see a profit within the first week of sales. Word of mouth will keep it alive long after the curiosity factor has waned. With future singles on tap, such as “LoveStoned” and “Damn Girl,” it looks like it will be a long fall/winter/spring and summer stay on the charts for Mr. Timberlake. Who would’ve thought nearly a decade ago, when Justin had a teenage crush on the then-reigning pop princess Britney Spears, that this member of the boy band N*Sync would turn into one of the most interesting and important pop stars of the new century? I didn’t, and my earshot is usually better than the neighbor’s poodle. It’s been said that Timberlake has always been fascinated by Michael Jackson’s musical genius, and this album not only hints at that “rumor,” it downright concedes it. This CD is to Timberlake what Off The Wall was to Jackson. It firmly establishes the boy singer as a respectable adult entertainer extraordinaire. It’s also apparent he’s channeling Prince. Shades of the purple man’s influence resonate throughout. If Jackson and Prince could’ve had a child, this is what he would’ve sounded like. It also assures us that Justin’s first solo CD, Justified, was no fluke. Not only has he “justified” his love for making music, he confirms it with one of the best “grown-up” albums in years. FutureSex/LoveSounds most definitely lives up to its title. The heavy beats and synths combined with Timberlake’s vocal never sounded or felt so good.

Lionel Richie: Coming Home
Island Records
Release Date: September 12, 2006

After listening to Lionel Richie’s latest CD, it’s no wonder he titled it Coming Home. Every single track echo’s Richie’s R&B roots, tracing him all the way back to his heyday with The Commodores and his two solo albums of the early 80’s, Lionel Richie and Can’t Slow Down. The latter two made him one of the best selling solo artists of all time.  The first single from this latest collection, “I Call It Love,” cracked the Billboard Hot 100 and remained on the charts for a respectable stay, as well as landing the latest #1 single on the R&B singles chart. And it has made its way into the Top 20 on the Adult Contemporary chart. As far as the title track goes, Richie stated “It’s my older, wiser song. I feel like I’m coming home on many levels, personally and musically. I had wonderful collaborators with current writers on this record. The result is we have a 2006 record that really sounds like an “old school” Lionel Richie album with a “new school” flavor!” And who better to produce this record than L.A. Reid – someone who understands old school sensibilities and new school techniques. Highlights are a-plenty on this ten-track set, which is heavy on ballads but doesn’t stray away from an adventurous up-tempo tune such as “All Around The World,” which was written by Richie with Quicksound. “As soon as I heard the track, I said ‘what in the world is this?’ It’s the cousin of “All Night Long,” (Richie’s mega-smash #1single from the summer and fall of ’83) – it has that familiar sound yet it’s a brand new song.” That pretty much sums up this new disc from Richie. The other standouts include “I Love You,” which is the quintessential Lionel Richie ballad that could be included with “Hello” and “Truly” in his never-ending catalogue of outstanding love songs. The closing track, “Outta My Head” is especially poignant and is very reminiscent of The Commodores’ smash “Easy.” I could dissect each song and tell you how glad I am that Richie has returned to his roots thus giving him the success he so truly deserves. This Oscar, multiple Grammy, and eleven-time American Music Award recipient is on the wave of a great comeback, and I am one of the fans that sincerely want to welcome him back. The funny thing is the fact that old time fans will be delighted to hear this disc, while younger fans will relish the fact that Nicole Richie’s father has “become” a successful singer/songwriter of some great R&B tunes! Lionel sums it up by saying, “the record Coming Home really says it for me because that’s what I’m doing. It’s great seeing the people pull out the welcome mat for me with this album. It’s nice to know that when people hear something familiar, they hear Lionel Richie from back in the day…and everyone starts smiling.” I’ve been listening and I can be counted as one of the fans smiling. You will be too, as soon as you hear this great new CD. Welcome home, Lionel. It’s been too long.

Scissor Sisters: Ta-Dah
Universal/Motown Records
Release Date: September 19, 2006

Scissor Sisters first formed in New York back in 2001 and developed a small cult following. The first name of the group was Dead Lesbian, and then they followed that with Fibrillating Scissor Sisters, until they shortened it in 2003. With only a handful of “groupies,” their 2004 debut album was released and became one of the most revered pop albums of that year, garnering a Grammy nomination as well as the biggest selling album of 2004 in the U.K., closing in on ten million albums sold. They conquered the U.S. and U.K. simultaneously, appearing in numerous magazines and television programs from early morning talk-fests to all the top-rated late night variety shows.

For those of you who are unaware, the term “scissor sister” is slang for a lesbian sexual position. Also interesting is that out of the five members, three of the four men are gay and the lone female member, vocalist Ana Matronic, describes herself as a drag queen trapped inside a woman’s body.

Now the hard part – how do you follow such an enormously successful album as their self-titled 2004 debut? As lead singer Jake Shears put it, “The first time around we didn’t even realize we were making an album. We were just having fun, writing songs.” Considering the events of the world have gone from bad to worse since 2004, the “sisters” felt it was a great opportunity to keep making fun and happy music. As bass, guitarist and keyboardist Babydaddy describes it, “Every time we turned on the TV it seemed the political situation in the world was getting worse and worse” so they thought it was time to cheer the world up. And cheer up is just what they did.

The first single and track on the album may be titled “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” but sorry folks, dancing is what it makes you want to do. Its infectious melody and dance vibe reminds me of the Bee Gees’ classic, ironically titled “You Should Be Dancing.” They have the falsetto sound that’s so identifiable with the Brothers Gibb that one almost thinks this was an alternate take to the landmark 1976 production. It doesn’t hurt that Elton John is credited as co-songwriter, as well as the piano player, on this track. It’s not only one of the best tracks on the album, it’s one of the best tracks they have recorded thus far. The remixes are already running rampant around the clubs, and the single has just entered Billboard’s Top Ten Radio Airplay Music chart. “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” is also a top ten single in over a dozen countries, and just unseated Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” on the Euro charts. The album also stole Timberlake’s crown because Ta-Dah, and “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” are simultaneously #1 across the pond. 

The group is best described as a glam-slam throwback to the 70’s, with heavy influences from Bowie to Elton, along with Jake Shears’ remarkable falsetto so reminiscent of the Bee Gees in their heyday. This isn’t to say that they are not remarkable in their own right. They are, especially because of their own unique and refreshing lyrics and melody. The sound may be familiar with the aforementioned legends (which is a good thing), but they make their songs all their own.

Other fabulous highlights include “She’s My Man” which can’t escape the classic 70’s Elton John comparisons, even though Sir John had nothing to do with this song. “I Can’t Decide” is a fabulous throwback to the sound of the 70’s with new wave lyrics of the era such as “Fuck and kiss you both at the same time/Smells like something I’ve forgotten/Curled up and died and now it’s rotten.” Oh yes, Sid and Nance would’ve been proud to add this ditty to their collection.

One of my favorite songs on the disc is fronted by the female vocalist of the band, Ana Matronic, as she enthusiastically pounds her way through “Kiss You Off.” She explains, “It’s not a love song, it’s a falling out of love song. It’s about knowing you’re better than how you’re being treated in a relationship and getting the fuck out. And then telling him to kiss your ass! I think it’ll be a good break-up song for a lot of people.” From the opening electric guitar and heavy bass, it’s hard not to think of the Giorgio Moroder produced 1980 Blondie classic “Call Me,” and Ana’s vocals are superb. When’s the last time you heard a wild dance song and could decipher every single lyric? That’s how wonderful a vocalist she is.

Other highlights include “Ooh,” “Might Tell You Tonight” and “Paul McCartney.” The latter was written with the former Beatle in mind from a dream that Jake had. He explains, “I have really vivid dreams. I had one about Paul McCartney. We were both in a room by ourselves having a conversation about songwriting. He told me some amazing things. Then, right before I woke up, he said – and it sounds a little cheesy if you just say it out of context – ‘It’s the music that connects me to you.’” Jake met McCartney shortly after writing the song and told him about it. Shears admits that McCartney probably thought he was a complete nut but Paul was so gracious, not to mention curious, he gave Shears his address and told him “I’d love to hear it.”

Whether you are feeling nostalgic for the great sound of the 70’s, in the mood for an all-out happy album, or maybe a bit of both, you can’t go wrong with this CD. I dare you to listen to it and tell me otherwise. It’s got the sound of the first warm sunny day of spring and lifts your spirits high. If that’s what kind of music turns you on, this is the album for you. Ta-Dah!

Jimmy James: Jamestown
Made Records
Release Date: September 19, 2006

We all know Jimmy James and his funny and fabulous act that he takes on the road. What we’re not used to is hearing Jimmy James’ voice blaring from the rafters over a wonderful beat while we’re dancing our asses off. This is the case with Jamestown, the splendid CD release with Jimmy’s spectacular vocals, which is racing up the Billboard Dance chart. With the first single, “Fashionista,” little Miss James also has a crossover hit. Who ever thought you’d hear crossover and Jimmy James in the same sentence? The track is a throwback to the disco songs of the late 70’s with an updated twist, making it belong to the sound of today’s discerning club-goers. I couldn’t help but think of RuPaul when hearing “Fashionista,” considering this is RuPaul’s territory. How many singers besides RuPaul could you imagine shouting out every designer’s names under the sun, while “Missing Gianni” and singing out loudly that “Naomi’s a bitch?” The song is campy, the song is catchy, and most importantly, the song is contagious – it just works! The entire 13-song set is one wild ride down disco drive, with original songs such as “Famous,” “Summer Sun,” “Kissing A Fraud,” “Ego,” “Old School Disco” and a personal favorite, “Love Has The Power.” For some reason I hear these songs and feel they could have easily been performed by the likes of Cher and The Pet Shop Boys, but it is James who brings them to life, and ends up being the life of the party. Markus Moser, who is a master at producing dance and pop hits, decided to take Jimmy on for this record, and the result is a spectacular collaborative effort. If you’re looking for a deep and serious record, this one isn’t for you. If you’re looking for spectacular unadulterated fun, Jamestown packs the best party punch. It’s the latest and greatest release to hit the gay club circuit. It seems there’s no end to this man’s talent. Jimmy should enjoy major exposure with this CD, considering every song is suitable for the dancefloor. Even if you don’t go to the clubs but enjoy the “old school” beat of Studio 54, this one will certainly satisfy your appetite.

Swingin’ Single:

Deena Jones And The Dreams: One Night Only
Columbia Records
Promo Only

The first single from the highly anticipated film of the Broadway musical Dreamgirls has been officially released to DJ’s. Boasting five versions, including the original film version, plus a Club Mix that runs eight and a half minutes, this is pure bliss. Of course, Deena Jones is the alias for Beyoncé Knowles, and The Dreams are American Idol’s Jennifer Hudson, who steps into the role of the incomparable Jennifer Holliday as “Effie,” and Anika Noni Rose, who plays and sings as “Lorrell.” The show barely disguises the fact that this is the real life chronicle of Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson. The Club Mix is my choice for the best of the remixes, and the one you should be hearing by now in your local dance club as it also ascends up the charts. If this is any indication of the film’s soundtrack due December 12th, then the word “Dream” is far more than acceptable.

Tony Bennett: Duets – An American Classic
RPM Records/Columbia
Release Date: September 26, 2006

So you think you’ve heard it before – and you have. Great collaborations, most famously delivered by Frank Sinatra with his incredibly successful Duets album from 1993, to his follow-up a year later, appropriately titled Duets II. They were some cleverly orchestrated collaborative inventions that sold millions of copies around the world. The reason I use the term “inventions” is because as great as some of those songs were, they weren’t sung with nearly the heart and soul of these recordings that were all sung with a live orchestra, the way singers used to cut albums up until the 1970’s. The great artists of past generations that are still recording in that fashion do this. Tony Bennett is one of them. The fact that the duets were also recorded together, and not edited together in a room full of gadgets at Capitol Records, adds even more charm to these lively and sometimes spontaneous renditions. Listening to this album is like going to a great restaurant that serves everything from the best pancakes to the most delicious pasta – there’s something for everyone. The demographics show no prejudice serving up collaborations from 27 year-old Grammy winner John Legend, who compliments Tony enormously on “Sing, You Sinners,” to the rock and roll legend Bono, offering up a delicious serving of “I Wanna Be Around” as if the two have been together as long as he has with The Edge. Another young crooner that deserves mention is the man with the big band sound, Michael Bublé, who records a swinging rendition of “Just In Time” with Bennett. Who’d of thought that one would hear the dynamic Dixie Chicks singing “Lullaby Of Broadway” so well? It makes you realize just how versatile these “country” songbirds really are. Latin singer Juanes adds shimmer, samba style, to “The Shadow Of Your Smile.” Other rock veterans include Paul McCartney’s touching collaboration with Mr. Bennett on “The Very Thought Of You” and Sting’s smashing interpretative styling on “The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” while James Taylor never sounded so jazzed on a great rendition of “Put On A Happy Face.” Elvis Costello really delivers his pop sensibilities on a fabulous version of “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” and Stevie Wonder is on hand with his fabulous vocals and his ever-ready harmonica for a slower-paced but searing spin on “For Once In My Life,” while Celine Dion sings her lungs out with Tony on “If I Ruled The World.”  Tony has never shown any prejudice to race, creed or color as he has sung with all of the greats from Ella to Count Basie, but you can also add his support to great gay artists such as k.d. lang, who he has shared many a song with in the past, including an entire album. This time around the two pair up for a sentimental take on “Because Of You” while Sir Elton John’s vocals never sounded better on “Rags To Riches” and the vocals of George Michael proves to be first-rate on the heartbreaking ode to love affairs’ realism “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” You want class? This album reeks of it, but it never sounded as stunning as when Streisand and Bennett team up (for the first time) on an exquisite performance of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” complimented by Pinchas Zuckerman’s violin solo. Other artists rounding out this superb set include Tim McGraw on “Cold, Cold Heart,” the sensational Diana Krall on “The Best Is Yet To Come” and Billy Joel’s wonderful contribution to “The Good Life.” Perhaps the best duet comes from Tony and a simple piano, reinventing his signature song “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Bennett first recorded this song 44 years ago, and at 80 he offers a melancholy look back at a song and a career that is as famous as “that city by the bay.” For those looking for an extra treat, I suggest picking up the special edition at Target retailers for the four additional historic duets; with Frank Sinatra for “The Lady Is A Tramp,” recorded in 1988 live in Atlantic City, Judy Garland’s legendary performance with Tony from her 1963 TV variety series, singing with Bennett on his most famous “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” Diana Krall and Tony teamed up back in 2000 for their exciting version of “I’ve Got The World On A String” and Michael Bublé’s recent offering of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby.” For an extra bang for a few more bucks, a CD/DVD set is available at Target that includes a 21 minute “Making of Duets: An American Classic” featuring Bublé, Joel, Costello, Wonder, Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, Elton John, Bono, John Legend, and the man that produced this project so brilliantly, the legendary Phil Ramone. If you are a fan of the Great American Songbook, Tony Bennett and/or any of the artists featured on this CD, this is an absolute must for your collection. By the time this column goes to press, I predict Bennett will have the highest charting debut and best selling album of his career. Not bad for a man that just set out to be a saloon singer and wound up becoming one of the finest and most respected singers of all time. Just like the man and the title of this album, this CD is already a classic.

Audra McDonald: Build A Bridge
Nonesuch Records
Release Date: September 26, 2006

Audra McDonald has been a Broadway denizen for the past decade and a half. By the time this musical actress was 33 years old, she had won four Tony Awards over a ten year duration. This album, her fourth solo recording, finds McDonald looking beyond the borders of Broadway and delving into the contemporary arena with material written by such songwriters as John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, Laura Nyro, Neil Young, Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello and Randy Newman. There are many highlights on this thirteen-track set, made up of mostly ballads, but every so often McDonald lets loose, as she does brilliantly with Wainwright’s deliciously candid “Damned Ladies,” which opens with the sound of castanets and takes on a samba riff that could’ve easily been lifted from 1966 but works equally and refreshingly well in 2006. Interestingly enough, neither Wainwright nor McDonald had been born until the early 70’s. To listen to Laura Nyro’s “To A Child” is splendid, but a painful reminder that Nyro and her talent left us way too soon. The song is sung absolutely stunning, but makes one wonder what songs Nyro would’ve still been creating. Another Nyro song, “Tom Cat Goodbye,” makes its appearance with McDonald’s ever confident vocals, making this one of the album’s highlights. “I Wanna Get Married” is just the type of song that Doris Day would’ve been perfect for a generation ago, with lyrics that indicate how perfect married life would be – “I want to live a Leave It To Beaver Golden Retriever and Little White House Kind of Life.” I found irony in this song, but also reminders of what life was like when people could breathe fresher air and leave their front doors unlocked. The magic of this album is topped off by two songs that absolutely make this CD a must-have; the first is the old Sesame Street-Kermit The Frog standard “Bein’ Green,” as McDonald’s impeccable acting abilities paint a picture of self-acceptance that packs as much power as the grand Whitney Houston power ballad “Greatest Love Of All,” but with the simplicity of a piano and tender reading. The second song that gave my body chills in ninety degree heat was Randy Newman’s masterwork “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” which closes out the album. It’s hard not to make comparisons to Bette Midler’s stunning rendition, but McDonald manages to make it her own. This is a CD that you should make your own. When choosing the songs for this album, Ms. McDonald said, “I’m not singing these songs with a different voice or style. As always, I chose songs that I enjoy mining for their emotional gold.” And gold is the color of the five stars I give this record.

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Divas – Various Artists
Decca Broadway Records
Release Date: September 26, 2006

Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying Andrew Lloyd Webber’s enormous success. Judging from the record-setting London and Broadway musicals he’s been writing and producing for four decades, it’s easy to figure out that many more people are in love with his work than not. If you want to look at it from another point of view, just take a look at who has performed his Tony, Grammy, Golden Globe and Academy Award-winning songs over the years. Just because they haven’t played a part in one of Webber’s musicals doesn’t mean any one of these fifteen divas didn’t want to sing his praises. Most of this disc is comprised of the actual divas who did partake in his extravaganzas, while the others just couldn’t resist adding his songs to their famous repertoires. The disc opens with one of the most recognized songs in Broadway and popular history – the dramatic and haunting “Memory,” performed lusciously by the Broadway baby who sang her way to a Tony Award for Best Actress from the musical Cats, Betty Buckley. From there, this album is a who’s who of the theatre and music world. On one hand, he recruits Shirley Bassey, who ranks as the most successful female recording artist in U.K. history, singing superbly on “All I Ask Of You” from the musical Phantom Of The Opera, while the most successful female recording artist in U.S. history, Barbra Streisand, takes the honors performing a sensational rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard, as she knocks it out of the ballpark for a grand slam homerun. In between these three musicals, four others are heralded on this disc, including selections from Evita, Aspects Of Love, Song And Dance and Jesus Christ Superstar. The CD is “Phantom,” “Sunset” and “Evita” heavy, but that doesn’t mean the selections are any less worthy. We have Madonna covering her Golden Globe award-winning turn of the screen version of Eva Peron with “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina,” but before Patti LuPone fans take offense, this darling diva is on hand to perform “Buenos Aires” from her Tony Award-winning performance in the same role. Whew! Broadway purists were about to spew venom. No need, as we are also treated to the U.K. diva, Barbara Dickson, who put this same musical on the map in merry ol’ England playing Peron with her spectacular rendition of “Another Suitcase Another Hall” as well as the divine Elaine Paige treating us to “Rainbow High.” Besides the aforementioned Streisand performance, Sunset Boulevard fans are also treated to Glenn Close’s “With One Look” as well as Dina Carroll’s version of “The Perfect Year,” which Carroll turned into a Top Ten pop record in the U.K. Still in need of more “Phantom?” Not to worry, Katherine Jenkins does a spectacular version of the masterpiece “Music Of The Night,” while Minnie Driver sings an unlikely interpretation of “Learn To Be Lonely.” Before I wrap up “Phantom’s” most celebrated songs, one tune that was rumored to be in the sequel to “Phantom” (if it ever materializes) is the sensational Webber song “The Heart Is Slow To Learn,” which is a rarity and not found too easily. Lucky for us, we have it performed superbly on this CD by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Marti Webb, who was in the one-woman show “Tell Me On A Sunday,” performs this great title tune while others may be more familiar with it from the Webber musical Song And Dance, which was performed in London and New York by Lulu and Bernadette Peters, respectively. Are you wondering if Webber wouldn’t include his great former half ex-wife and one-time muse, Sarah Brightman? Wonder no more, Webber would be remiss if he excluded Brightman’s brilliant performance of “Surrender,” which is a recurring theme from Sunset Boulevard but expanded here as a complete song. Last but hardly least, Yvonne Elliman (most famous for her #1 song “If I Can’t Have You” from the film Saturday Night Fever) delivers the song from the musical that put Webber on the map, Jesus Christ Superstar. The song I’m referring to is of course the tender and poignant ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” which became a Top 40 hit here in the States for Helen Reddy and Elliman herself. So, with the most famous divas performing some of the most famous and important songs from Webber’s vast catalogue, what’s next – Divos? If so, he has “Another Suitcase” full to release from the same shows. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to have Michael Crawford, Mandy Patinkin, Ben Vereen, Antonio Banderas, Barry Manilow and Johnny Mathis all on one disc? Hey, with the success of this collection, it’s just a matter of time.

Sarah Brightman: Diva – The Singles Collection
Angel/EMI Records
Release Date: October 3, 2006

Sarah Brightman’s name became synonymous with Andrew Lloyd Webber as his one-time wife and muse two decades ago, but it was her voice that made her a star and would have made her a star with or without Webber. Yes, she became famous for singing his tunes early on, but it was her talent and undying love for her art that made her the biggest-selling soprano of all time. With such masterpiece albums as Eden, La Luna, Harem, Requiem, Surrender and Timeless/Time To Say Goodbye under her belt, this collection is compiled of the greatest songs from those and one Lloyd Webber cast album, Phantom Of The Opera. Brightman already has a devoted following, and if you play this CD for anyone who is not familiar with the superiority of Sarah’s vocals, you are sure to add that many more to her fanbase. It’s hard to say where to begin on this collection because all fourteen tracks are proven winners. Whether it’s the splendiferous opening track of “Phantom Of The Opera,” which features her duet partner Steve Harley, to the sensational, spine-tingling closer of “Time To Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiró),” complimented by Andrea Bocelli, there’s nothing not to like on this magnificent CD with its carefully chosen tracks. In between the opening and closing tracks, we are treated to phenomenal selections that include “Just Show Me How To Love You,” “Deliver Me,” “What You Never Know” and her gorgeous interpretations on such contemporary American fare as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” to Procol Harem’s 1967 masterpiece “A Whiter Shade Of Pale.” Her Italian is perfection on “Nella Fantasia” while her unique interpretation of Queen’s “Who Wants To Live Forever” will knock you out. If you already are familiar with these tracks and want to savor them on one splendid disc with gorgeous liner notes and photographs, this one’s for you. If you’re a visionary and would like to take this magnificent journey one step further, I suggest the DVD companion that contains 20 performances, which include the aforementioned plus superb performances like “Ave Maria,” “Anytime, Anywhere,” “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” and several more. To hear Sarah Brightman is diva divine. To see and hear Sarah Brightman is simply supreme.

Emmanuel Santarromana: Fab4Ever
Pschent/Wagram Records
Release Date: October 10, 2006

It’s always a bit dicey when covering a famous singer or groups’ material, but does it get any riskier than an all-out eclectic pop/rock mix of the most famous rock and roll band in history? I think not. Sure, everybody’s covered The Beatles, from Aerosmith to Ella Fitzgerald, but usually with honest renditions and better results. This album isn’t a complete washout. There are some interesting tracks such as “Blackbird,” featuring the vocals of French actress Marie Payen, “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” featuring Emmanuel’s own vocals, “Day Tripper,” again with vocals by Payen, “Sun King,” featuring vocals by choreographer Blanca Li,, and the CD’s true highlight “Strawberry Fields Forever,” again featuring Santarromana. Unfortunately that’s less than half of the CD. The other seven tracks sit in a bin of disappointment labeled “what was he thinking – or was he thinking at all?” It’s too bad, because you’d think a man with Emmanuel’s talent would’ve been able to pull off the entire set with ease listening to the other selections, but “Come Together” doesn’t come together at all, “Paperback Writer” eliminates the bridge which is crucial to this songs arrangement, and an alternative, slower-paced rendition of “We Can Work It Out” is another song that ironically doesn’t live up to its title. The song selection was great, but tracks that suffered include “Back In The USSR,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and “Across The Universe.” I really wanted to like this CD, and I did at times with the aforementioned highlights, but all in all, if you want to be Fab4Ever, I suggest picking up the original masterpieces from forty years ago. That was fab, this is not.

Offer Nissim Feat. Maya: Second Time
*69 Records
Release Date: September 12, 2006

Total Escape-DJ Escape-Various Artists
Act 2 Records
Release Date: October 10, 2006

Being Out Rocks: Various Artists
Centaur Records
Release Date: October 10, 2006

This Is NYC Bitch!: The East Village Mixtape –Jonny McGovern-Various Artists
Gay/Nerd Records
Release Date: November 28, 2006

In the spirit of gay pride 2006, other albums that are musts for your loud-and-proud collection should include the new album from Israeli producer, remixer and DJ, Offer Nissim and his reissue of his debut album, Offer Nissim Feat Maya: Second Time on *69 Records. Offer offers up a bonus disc of all-new material featuring the fabulous vocalist, Maya. Not only do we get one full disc of sensational dance music, we are treated to a full disc of his original hits all remixed and released for the first time.

Compilations for the dance-minded and prideful include new releases from DJ Escape titled Total Escape, which is a continuous CD of unreleased mixes that includes Janice Robinson’s “The Gift,” Lauren Hildebrandt’s “Dance With You,” Kim English’s “C’est La Vie,” Osha Kai’s “Free Your Mind” and ten other glorious tracks that kicks off with the Bob Sinclair mix “World Hold On.” This disc will be available on November 7th from Act2 Records.

Coming November 28th is This Is NYC Bitch!: The East Village Mixtape from the Gay/Nerd music label. Jonny McGovern features fabulous remixes of the title song by La’ Mady featuring Kevin Aviance, plus “This Is How You Go-Go” by Jay, “Servin’ It Up” by Peppermint Gummibear, and seven other tracks that’ll have you movin’ to the sometimes raunchy and always raucous flavor of this disc. Let me tell you folks, it doesn’t get any gayer and more glorious than this disc!

Last but hardly least, I have to mention an oldie but goodie from 2002. We recently celebrated National Coming Out Day on October 11th and with the events of Gay Pride 2006, it’s only appropriate to revisit the fabulous CD compilation Being Out Rocks, from Centaur Records. There are 21 tracks that include gay artists such as k.d. lang and her fabulous 2000 single “Summerfling,” Rufus Wainwright’s “California,” Janis Ian’s 1967 chestnut “Society’s Child,” the ferocious and fabulous vocals of Kevin Aviance on “Alive” and closing out the album is the gay anthem of all gay anthems, Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am” sung by the outspoken and always unique vocal style of Harvey Fierstein. Other artists that round out this disc are gay and gay-friendly vocalists Sarah McLachlan, Cyndi Lauper, Ani DeFranco, Sam Harris, SONIA, Suede, Catie Curtis, The B-52’s, Bob Mould, Queen, Cris Williamson, Dar Williams, Matt Zarley, The Butchies, Jade Esteban Estrada and the unwavering and always supportive Taylor Dayne. Being out and being proud never sounded so fabulous!

Gladys Knight: Before Me
Verve Records
Release Date: October 10, 2006

So many vocalists young and old have made recording the great American songbook so popular again, it’s almost a given that this “trend” is going to continue for a very long time. The reason why is very simple – this music truly stands the test of time. No matter how many times you hear the Gershwin brothers’ masterpiece “Someone To Watch Over Me” or Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather,” the takes are always fresh and the music is forever symphonic. It will never be out of style. For the first time in her legendary career, Gladys Knight devotes an entire album not only to the great American songbook, she does it with a touch of jazz. Knight’s trademark style is all you need to make a song great. The emotive raspy quality to her voice is in top notch condition and adds a greater warmth to these songs, as opposed to the sterile and studio sound of another raspy-voiced lounge lizard of late, Rod Stewart. Where Stewart missteps, Knight shows the rocker how and why these songs are so important. Gladys is not just singing these classics, she’s truly feeling them. And as the listener, you actually sense that she longs for “The Man I Love,” and you trust her on every lyric of the gorgeous Sammy Fain standard “I’ll Be Seeing You.” On various tracks, Knight has toned down her ability to belt, and it makes it feel more intimate, especially when it’s necessary on such tracks as “Good Morning Heartache” and “Since I Fell For You,” but her throat muscles get a great workout on the Billie Holiday staple “God Bless The Child” and the Duke Ellington jewel “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” Other highlights on this twelve track-disc include “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” “This Bitter Earth,” “But Not For Me” and a stunning rendition of “Come Sunday,” which closes out the set. A lot of people are unaware that Gladys Knight began as a young teen growing up in Atlanta singing in a jazz band. Since the age of nine, she was also singing R&B and Pop with her brothers and cousins as one of the Pips when they became a local sensation. So great were the Pips that they got the opportunity to open for the late, great Dinah Washington in Atlantic City. Through Washington, she ended up meeting and admiring other artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan, and Nina Simone, as well as their male counterparts Duke Ellington, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Count Basie. The title “Before Me” is paying tribute to the artists that truly came before her and, as she said, “paved the way for me to be a part of this industry.” I’d also like to take the time to thank these remarkable artists for their unique talents, for without them we would’ve been deprived of the greatest American music of all time and never would’ve had the chance to hear Gladys Knight sing these standards with such passion, love and understanding.

Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs Of The Sixties
Arista Records
Release Date: October 31, 2006

Just by saying this has been quite a year for the veteran crooner would be an understatement in itself. Barry Manilow began 2006 with the predecessor to this time capsule by debuting at #1 last February with The Greatest Songs Of The Fifties. In between that album release and this, he has continued to sell out his Las Vegas extravaganza, Music and Passion, five nights a week. The show is so successful that the Las Vegas Hilton just extended Manilow’s contract through 2008. He picked up his second Emmy Award this past August for the live on tape broadcast of that event, and with the release of this album, he has his highest-selling tally in a debut week than he has for any other album of his 32 year recording career. Barry also holds the distinction of being the only artist of 2006 to have two Top two records in Billboard in one calendar year. When it came to recording his follow-up to the “Fifties,” juggernaut, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what the concept would be. All it took was Clive Davis to help sort out the material and all systems were go. For the critics who have tarred and feathered Manilow since he hit #1 with his very first single, “Mandy” over three decades ago, you’d think by this time they’d cut him some slack. No dice. Manilow has even admitted he wouldn’t know how to react if he heard a kind word from a critic, the Brooklyn-born writer, arranger, producer and crooner has always depended on the devotion of his fanbase. And it’s not just any fanbase. These people are hardcore fans, dubbed “Fanilows.” On this CD, we are treated to thirteen chestnuts that made the 60’s one of the best eras in pop music history. The pop songs run the gamut of that decade offering everything from Bacharach to the Beatles and in between honest and original covers that include a sensational retooling of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” which kicks the disc off into high gear. Other highlights among highlights include a duet with 60’s supergroup, The Association, on their staples “Cherish” and “Windy” that Barry cleverly arranged as a medley. Elvis’ gorgeous 1962 ballad “Can’t Help Falling In Love” is lusciously delivered as is The Righteous Brothers 1965 anthem “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” Even the somewhat hokey #1 Dean Martin single “Everybody Loves Somebody” from 1964 fits in divinely as Manilow gives it as much warmth as Dino did over forty years ago. Sinatra’s smash hit from 1966, “Strangers In The Night” is so effective, Franks’ daughter, Tina, gave Manilow a thumbs-up for a sensational interpretation. Other pop staples included are the Herman’s Hermits “There’s A Kind Of Hush,” Bacahrach’s gorgeous song from ’68 “This Guy’s In Love With You,  as well as his ’69 Oscar-winner “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.” The Beatles shimmering 1964 ballad “And I Love Her” and Bobby Vinton’s 1963 “Blue Velvet” is just as haunting as the original while the mood on the 1962 love anthem “When I Fall In Love” originally a hit for The Lettermen is optimistically heart-wrenching. The album ends on a positive note (pun intended) with the 1965 anthem for hope “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” Never was that sentiment so true - never was a Manilow album this gratifying. Everything from song selections to Manilow’s masterful arrangements to his honest readings, this record is easily ranked as one of the best of his storied career. Look for The Greatest Songs Of The Seventies inside a year. You don't need a fortune teller to figure that one out.

Michael Jackson: Visionary – The Video Singles
Sony Records
Release Date: November 21, 2006

For the MJ fan in your circle and a fan of one of the greatest artists in the history of music, this boxset is like a treasure trove of some of the most sensational music and video of all-time. Not only does it feature Michael’s greatest hits and videos, it offers 20 bonus tracks! Each Dual Disc features the original audio version of the single along with a bonus audio track PLUS the single's corresponding video! All 20 discs are beautifully packaged in picture sleeve wallets featuring the original 7" or 12" cover art and collectively, the reverse side of each inner wallet creates an exclusive collage image of Michael Jackson! This is one of the most exquisite collections ever. But would you expect less from a King?

The Beatles: Love
Capitol Records
Release Date: November 21, 2006

The Beatles spectacular new album, Love, which stems from their hit Cirque du Soleil Las Vegas extravaganza of the same name, is out of this world. If you think you’ve heard everything there is to hear from The Beatles - think again. This remix project is out of this world. No doubt It will be #1 “Across The Universe” in record time. The Beatles changed the course of pop music. This album proudly extends their legacy.

Gwen Stefani: The Sweet Escape
Interscope Records
Release Date: December 5, 2006

Stefani’s sophomore solo album, The Sweet Escape, is the follow-up to 2004’s quadruple-platinum Love. Angel. Music. Baby. which included the hits "Hollaback Girl" and "What You Waiting For? The first single from The Sweet Escape is The Neptunes-produced "Wind It Up." The video is directed by longtime collaborator Sophie Muller. Other contributors to the album include Akon, Tony Kanal, Nellee Hooper, Sean Garrett, Swizz Beatz, Dave Stewart and Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley. "This album is surprisingly different than the last one. I started recording it last year before Kingston was born and it’s definitely evolved over the last year. The dance sound is very ‘now.’ It’s modern…not so retro," says the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter. Simultaneously, Gwen will release the concert DVD Harajuku Lovers Live, filmed during shows in her hometown of Anaheim, CA. The concert was also filmed by Sophie Muller. Gwen will embark on a U.S. tour in April 2007.

Mighty Real: Showstoppers – Various Artists
Centaur Records
Release Date: November 21, 2006

This is a collection of some of the best dance music ever recorded. These extraordinary 12” mixes haven’t seen the light of day since your turntable went into storage. Take a journey back and listen to the music that had the dancefloor on fire. Highlights of this set include rarities such as Harlow’s “Take Off,” “Souvenirs” by Voyage, the smash radio hit “Love Is In The Air” performed by John Paul Young, the shimmering and out-of-print “Shine On Silver Moon” from Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. as well as the club sensation “Manhattan Shuffle” recorded by Area Code 212. Six more club classics round out this fabulous disc which is the first in a series of fifteen volumes scheduled to be released from Centaur Records. If the rest are nearly as tight as Volume 1, we are in for a un”beat”able treat!

Evelyn “Champagne” King
RNB Entertainment Group
Release Date: December 2006- Exact Date TBA

Since she was 18 years-old, Evelyn “Champagne” King has been performing her smash club and radio hits such as the disco anthem “Shame,” “I Don’t Know If It’s Right,”  and “Love Come Down” just to name three. Early buzz is that King has outdone herself on this first studio recording in a decade and is sounding better than she did when she was just a young dance diva. This new album is produced by Preston Glass, who has produced albums by artists including Stanley Jordan, as well as Kenny G’s five-times platinum smash album “Duotones.” Among his extensive credits, Glass has penned thirty Top Ten R&B hits and five Top Ten Pop hits including “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” for Aretha Franklin, and he has served as a co-writer for Whitney Houston, George Benson, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, and other artists. King states, “I’ve been consistently doing material live at shows non-stop, so this album is way overdue. It’s time for me to get back in the studio. I know what my fans want from me.” After hearing King perform last year, this album is certain to rank up there with her finest and may well be the best record of her career. I think it’s safe to say, that King should be Queen again in record-breaking time.


Bette Midler: Cool Yule
Columbia Records
Release Date: October 10, 2006

The first question that comes to mind about Bette Midler’s Christmas album, Cool Yule, is what took so long? Bette Midler has been a shining star since her smash debut album, The Divine Miss M, 35 years ago. Lucky for us, she’s recorded a holiday album that’s reminiscent of the style we fell in love with all those years ago. The title track (penned by Steve Allen) is a sparkling up-tempo ditty that reeks of the big band sound that Midler so proudly reclaimed and brought back to life in 1972. When I think of Bette Midler, I think of nostalgia and her clever way of recapturing an era that brought us some of the best music ever written and recorded. Another one of the many gifts Midler possesses is that she can make you laugh and cry at the drop of a hat and she can alter your emotions quicker than you can say Merry Christmas. This is most evident when she goes from the brassy and boisterous duet with Johnny Mathis of “Winter Wonderland/Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and shifts gears faster than Santa jumps rooftops when she launches into the ever-so-melancholy “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Bette also doesn’t escape her hometown roots of Honolulu on the sensational recording “Mele Kalikimaka,” where you can almost envision Miss M playing a ukulele in a grass skirt while her hunky Don Ho-ish back-up boys accompany her on the sands of Waikiki in Santa hats. I’ll leave the rest of their wardrobe up to your imagination! If anyone can conjure up Christmas Hawaiian style, it’s unquestionably a toss-up between Ho and Midler herself. Bette also stays true to the traditional songs of the season, such as a sincere rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Her romantic side gets us in the mood with such wonderful offerings as “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” and “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” which sounds as if it could’ve been recorded 50 years ago. That’s the knack that Midler sincerely possesses when she makes you long for the innocence of days gone by. The two closing numbers are true gifts that complete this album superbly. The first is her revisit to her Grammy Award-winning song from 1990, “From A Distance,” which is newly recorded with additional lyrics, and begins with a sample of “Little Drummer Boy.” Finally, on the Bing Crosby holiday favorite “White Christmas,” Bette stays true to the original Irving Berlin standard by including the rarely recorded introduction, and launches into the melody with so much heart and soul that she makes this well-recognized masterpiece truly her own. This entire disc resonates so deeply with the season it makes Midler’s long overdue recording of holiday music stand up and be recognized with the best of them.

Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong
Arista Records
Release Date: October 17, 2006

If you’re looking for a feast this holiday season that’s not just for your stomach but for your ears as well, Sarah McLachlan is certain to steal your heart and satisfy your appetite with her new Christmas album, Wintersongs. From the opening track, the John Lennon/Yoko Ono peace anthem “Happy Xmas/War Is Over,” which is complete with The Sarah McLachlan Outreach Children’s Choir and Youth Choir, this rendition ranks closely to Lennon and Ono’s original 1971 musical masterpiece. McLachlan also offers up a few traditional songs such as “What Child Is This? (Greensleeves),” “Silent Night” and “In The Bleak Mid-Winter” with such clarity and beauty, that it may make you want to play this disc well after you’ve taken down your tree and stored your ornaments for next season. If ever there were any reservations that Sarah McLachlan was a Joni Mitchell fan, those doubts are erased with her splendid interpretation of the 1971 evergreen “River,” which sprouted from the famous Blue album. This song is sung so exquisitely, Mitchell herself has to be beaming that one of her treasures is touched upon with such reverence. The title track is the only original song written by McLachlan that’s included, and slips in as seamlessly as the tried and true, like a hand to a winter’s glove. It’s as inviting as the classics that were written decades before, and gives even more warmth to an album that’s as cozy as the fire you’ve built on the eve before Christmas. The holidays are full of delicious treats, and many of them are the contemporary selections such as the wartime tour de force “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” which has always resonated with many as a tribute to a family member or loved one that’s been away and is sorely missed. It’s a lovely but lonely chestnut, and Sarah never loses sight with her sense of hope and longing. It’s truly a highlight among highlights.  “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is a song that will always be identified with the late, great Judy Garland and Sarah presents us with a special serving that makes it her own without straying away from the original sentiment. It’s clear that Sarah has an affinity for her fellow Canuck’s, as she sang so beautifully on the aforementioned Joni Mitchell sonata and she does on Gordon Lightfoot’s 70’s classic “Songs For A Winter Night,” which is sung with such delicate perfection it’s almost as if she was auditioning for the veteran songwriter himself. Out of the dozen tracks, number twelve is worth the price of this album alone – “Christmas Time Is Here,” which was made famous in 1965 as it was introduced to an international audience in A Charlie Brown Christmas, is hands down one of my very favorite Christmas songs of all-time. This song, and Sarah’s rendition, brought chills to my body and tears to my eyes. McLachlan is gorgeously accompanied on piano by her friend, the fabulously talented Diana Krall. The sentiment that runs throughout the final cut is “Beauty Everywhere.” That’s an understatement that could sum up this entire album.

Now That’s What I Call Christmas! 3: Various Artists
Sony BMG Music Entertainment
Release Date: October 10, 2006

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or record producer) to figure out the allure that the “Now” albums series have held for nearly a decade. With each volume of “Now That’s What I Call Music,” the sales numbers are staggering. It’s no wonder that they’ve latched the series of successes onto Broadway, Soundtracks and Christmas music. In this third incarnation for the holidays there is literally something for everyone. This two-disc-36-track set offers us everything from the traditionalist great American singers, such as Sinatra, Bennett, Garland and Mathis, to the contemporary styles of Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Rihanna and the Pussycat Dolls. Disc One kick off with Nat King Cole’s “O Come All Ye Faithful” and explores Dean Martin’s “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” Andy Williams’ “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year,” Johnny Cash’s “Blue Christmas,” as well as Judy Garland’s haunting version of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” In between those artists are other superstars of yesteryear, such as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Gene Autry, Peggy Lee, Burl Ives, Louis Armstrong, Brenda Lee and, of course, The Chimpmunks’ 1958 novelty, “The Chimpmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” Disc Two offers us the Christmas music that began a 60’s movement of popular rock, pop and soul artists, such as The Beach Boys’ “Little Saint Nick,” and takes us all the way to 2006 with Reliant K’s “12 Days Of Christmas.” In between those decades, “Now” serves up Smokey Robinson & The Miracles’ “Noel,” Al Green’s “O Holy Night,” Dianne Reeves’ own splendid recording of “Christmas Time Is Here,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and Celine Dion’s “Feliz Navidad.” In between those contemporary classic performers we are also invited to hear such favorite recording artists as The Jackson 5, Kenny Rogers, Alison Krauss, Gloria Estefan, Jessica Simpson, Ne-Yo, and Stacie Orrico. Whether you’re holding a gathering for twelve, twenty or two hundred, there’s something on this collection for everyone. Just press “Random” on your CD carousel and let the music of the most wonderful time of the year take you away. This set is a can’t-miss.

These CD Reviews first appeared in the BottomLine Magazine in Palm Springs, CA.

© 2006 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.