CD REVIEWS – Spring/Summer 2008

Idina Menzel: I Stand
Warner Bros. Records
Release Date: January 29, 2008

To those not familiar with the name Idina Menzel, perhaps her work will be more recognizable. She started out on Broadway over a decade ago in the musical Rent in the role of “Maureen,” a bi-sexual performance artist. It earned Menzel a Tony nomination. Her real claim to fame came in the hugely popular 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, the green witch who was far from what the title of the play suggested. It earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical and also got her noticed by record companies for her outstanding vocals, and Hollywood began offering her roles in numerous projects, including the 2007 sleeper Enchanted, and of course, Rent.

Fresh off of her 2007 Top 5 Billboard Dance Chart hit, “Defying Gravity,” a song originated in the musical Wicked and remixed to dancefloor perfection, Idina set out to record an album of original pop following her inspirations, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand, and she does so flawlessly on her debut solo album, I Stand. Menzel wanted to show that she could conquer the Broadway stage, act on the silver screen and deliver a pop song as successfully as her mentors. I’d say she’s off to a great start. One major detail that does separate Menzel from Midler and Streisand is the fact that she co-wrote nine of the ten songs off her debut, mostly with her legendary producer Glen Ballard, who has produced albums by Annie Lennox, Celine Dion, Dave Matthews, No Doubt and many more.

The title song is a pleasant multi-track anthem that kicks off the album and is sung with strong conviction by Menzel’s powerhouse vocals and exquisite interpretation. Coming from the stage, it’s easy to hear that Menzel not only sings the songs, she understands the lyrics as she lives out each track.

The album has several highlights, such as the great up-tempo track “Gorgeous,” the mid-tempo “My Own Worst Enemy,” and the stunning closer (lyrically and vocally) “Perfume And Promises.” The one and only track not written by Menzel is a sensational standard “Don’t Let Me Down” written by James Blunt. If you were to play just one song to convince someone of this album’s beauty, I would suggest the third track, “Brave,” which is the standout ballad on this collection.

This album was written for a big voice and Idina Menzel delivers the goods on a grand scale.

Taylor Dayne: Satisfied
Intention Music
Release Date: February 5, 2008

If you listened to the radio, went to a club or merely watched television from 1987 through the mid-90’s, there’s no doubt that you were familiar with the sound of Taylor Dayne and her unmistakable powerhouse vocals. Whether it be a fierce dance beat over a gold-certified single such as “Tell It To My Heart,” or a lush vocal over love songs that include “I’ll Always Love You” and her biggest hit, the No. 1 gold-certified single “Love Will Lead You Back,” Dayne was the new girl on the block before we ever heard of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey and even the girl that followed in her footsteps, Anastasia. The great Dayne ruled the airwaves and filled the dancefloors to capacity.

After a decade of compilations, I’m happy to report that Taylor Dayne has returned with the type of material and songs that put her on the musical map two decades ago. She sounds as fresh now as she did then. If you were to put a 1988 record up to one of her new songs from 2008, it would be impossible to decipher which era this amazing vocalist was singing from. The only difference is that the new songs are just that, new. And Ms. Dayne has a critical, and hopefully commercial, hit on her hands.

Beginning with the first single release “Beautiful,” Dayne sounds as if she never left the dance arena with this up-tempo ditty that stands up next to her classics. She continues to keep the beat with other potential dance hits such as “I’m Over My Head,” “My Heart Can’t Change” and the reggae-tinged “She Doesn’t Love You,” all primed and ready for a remix overhaul.

When Dayne decides to slow things down, she sings such gorgeous ballads as “The Fall,” which is a heartbreaker that showcases Dayne’s powerful vocals with just a piano and minimal orchestration. Other standout ballads include “Kissing You,” the most stunning and finely crafted ballad Dayne has delivered since her heyday, “Crash,” as well as the stunning closing track, “Hymn.”

If you think you’ve heard a song before, your ears aren’t playing tricks on you, as Dayne covers two rock ballads in her own unique delivery; The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1988 masterpiece “Under The Bridge” and The Rolling Stones’ “Fool To Cry,” where Dayne proves she can hold her own next to Mick. Jagger.

Taylor Dayne has sold more than 75 million records worldwide, and has won over legions of fans. With the release of this new disc, fans will be more than “Satisfied.”

Sheryl Crow: Detours
A&M Records
Release Date: February 5, 2008

In the past five years, Sheryl Crow has beaten breast cancer, which she met with the song “Make It Go Away,” survived a highly publicized split with Lance Armstrong, chronicled in the track “Now That You’re Gone,” and become a single mother, beautifully written about and performed with the closing song “Lullaby For Wyatt.” All of these issues and more, plus her never-ending battle for peace and equality with great political fare, are delivered impeccably in Crow’s most poetic and searing album since her 1993 debut, Tuesday Night Music Club. Maybe that’s because producer Bill Bottrell, who oversaw Crow’s first solo effort that rewarded her with three Grammy’s and over ten million sold, has returned to do what they do best together, make beautiful music. Most importantly, these are intelligent songs that marry the stirring lyrics to the strong melodies, and make this Crow’s finest complete outing since that first record fifteen years ago.

Michael Jackson: Thriller 25
Release Date: February 12, 2008

This album, entitled Thriller 25, is being touted on its cover as “The World’s Biggest Selling Album Of All Time.” With 100 million copies sold worldwide, there’ll be no lawsuit on that claim. I’ll skip over what you already know and tell you about what makes this two-disc album so special. Aside from the digitally remastered tracks, we are treated to an additional five remakes and one unreleased track from the original Thriller sessions. “The Girl Is Mine” with is far better than the syrupy original recorded with Paul McCartney back in 1982. gives this track a funk, accompanied by silky smooth beats, that the original lacked, as it segues into another song was lucky enough to play with; the light-hearted “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) which holds zero recognition to the original. This track is fresh, fun and, most importantly, still carries Jackson’s indelible vocals, which easily sail into 2008 as they did so well in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is also a song that gets a complete makeover by the likes of Akon and the ever-present The chorus and beat are closer to the original of the aforementioned tracks, but it’s kept alive by its fresh sound, that would slip into the airwaves of this millennium just as smoothly as the original did in 1983.

I was happily listening along with my head moving and my feet tapping until the blunder came from the retelling of “Beat It,” which features Fergie. I would say this is the weakest moment on the album. The fierceness that the original carries with its macho lyrics is sadly lacking with lackluster vocals from the former Black-Eyed Peas front-woman. If it’s any compensation, at least Eddie Van Halen’s solo guitar remains the centerpiece of this superb pop/rocker.

Moving on, Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” which I consider to be his jewel in the crown, gets the makeover treatment from superstar Kanye West. Even though West does his best and keeps the song interesting, nothing, and I mean nothing, could ever top the original. But hats off to K.W. for doing the best he could with a masterpiece that really needed no reexamination at all.

The old adage is save the best for last, and that could easily be said about the one unreleased track from the original Thriller sessions back in 1982. It was probably a toss-up between this track, “For All Time,” and the inclusion of “Human Nature,” which was a Top 10 single back in the summer/fall of 1983. If included, it would’ve made the perfect companion to the aforementioned track with its tender beauty and exquisite vocals that Jackson has always possessed on his quiet ballads.

Disc two is the DVD portion of the collection containing the “short films” “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller,” but I have to say the biggest thriller of them all on this video disc is the inclusion of Jackson’s legendary performance of “Billie Jean,” taken from the television special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, and Forever, which originally aired in the spring of 1983 and unveiled Jackson’s famous moonwalk for the very first time. If there was ever a turn that transformed a superstar into megawatt superstar, this was it for Jackson. No one has ever lit up the screen with such a dynamic live song and dance performance. When people speak of Jackson’s talents even today, that performance still stands out in anyone’s mind who ever had the privilege of witnessing it.

If you were ever a fan of Jackson’s, I highly recommend this collection that also contains a 48-page booklet of lyrics and photographs. Not only will you be in awe of the sheer genius that made Jackson one of the brightest stars in the universe, the 2008 tracks will remind you why the new generation of the music industry still considers this King royalty.

Footnote: Michael Jackson’s Thriller 25 was the second biggest selling album in its debut week. It sold close to 166,000 copies. If older albums were eligible for the Billboard 200, it would’ve debuted at #2 in the country. It debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Pop Catalogue chart and at numbers 1 & 2 in over a dozen countries. Michael Jackson still a thriller? Undoubtedly yes!

Diane Schuur: Some Other Time
Concord Records
Release Date: February 26, 2008

Diane Schuur has been recording and performing for almost three decades, and has distinguished herself as one of the finest pop/jazz female vocalists on the planet. So it only feels natural that she would record an album that appeals to a universal audience with standards from the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Rodgers & Hammerstein and more. The CD is dedicated to her “Momma” who died forty years ago, and she sings some of the songs that she was exposed to as a child to commemorate the occasion.

This thirteen-track set seeps deep into your soul as this two-time Grammy winner proves she can breath new life into some of the greatest songs from the mid-20th century. The kick-off track is a delightful recording of George & Ira’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Not just a pro vocalist, Schuur also plays her beloved piano on two of the highlights on this collection, one of which is “It’s Magic,” which is a song Diane cherished as a child from Dinah Washington’s catalogue, but I remember most dearly as Doris Day’s staple. Whatever your favorite may be, Schuur makes it all her own with her extraordinary vocals. The other song that Schuur tinkles the ivories on is “The Good Life,” which is a fabulous version of the song most identified with everyone from Bennett to Sinatra. Again, Schuur manages to put her indelible mark on the song. The Irving Berlin jewel “Blue Skies” never sounded so clear, as “Taking A Chance On Love” is sung with such poignancy, it’s become one of my favorite renditions. The CD closes with a song that is close to Diane’s heart and even closer to her mother’s, the timeless classic “Danny Boy.” This interpretation will break your heart like no other. Trust me.

It’s always an exciting event when Diane Schuur delivers a new album. This latest offering is no exception.

Janet Jackson: Discipline
Island/Def Jam Records
Release Date: February 26, 2008

This is Janet’s debut on Def Jam Records, and is a welcome return after her highly disappointing outing from a couple of years ago, 20 Y.O.

This is the age of electronica and Jackson embraces it with great ease. Rodney Jerkins, who also produced Janet’s first fierce single off the album, “Feedback,” is one of many A-list producers that include main squeeze Jermaine Dupri plus Ne-Yo, Stargate, Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. This album would even make Jam & Lewis proud. Welcome back, Janet! I didn’t realize how much I missed you until I heard this album.

For hardcore Janet fans, I recommend the two-disc CD + DVD Deluxe Edition that includes five additional video tracks; The Photo Shoot, The Recording Studio, Rehearsal, The Making of the “Feedback" Video and "Feedback" Video.

Randy Jackson’s Music Club – Volume One: Various Artists
Concord Records
Release Date: March 11, 2008

If anyone ever wondered what qualified Randy Jackson to earn a position as one of the judges on the hottest show on television, American Idol, all one has to do is some good old-fashioned fact-checking of his background in the music industry. This is a man who began as a musician (most notably with 80’s super-group Journey), then took on a position in the A&R department at Sony, before he developed his skills as a songwriter, manager, record executive and producer.

Speaking of producer – he isn’t just your run-of-the-mill producer. This man is a Grammy-winning producer superstar whose credits include the most important artists of the day, such as Aretha, Whitney, Madonna, Mariah, Celine, Dylan, Springsteen, Destiny’s Child, etc., etc., etc, and trust me, the “etceteras” are just as impressive.

The first single release off the album is the dance track “Dance Like There’s No Tomorrow,” which has landed his good friend and colleague, Paula Abdul, back on the Billboard charts for the first time in thirteen years. The single is already a huge success, soaring up the Hot 100 as well as placing it as one of iTunes’ most downloaded tracks.

But don’t think that the first single is an indicator of the album’s genre – this is not a dance record. It is a record for everyone that enjoys just about every type of music, with some of the best talent providing the joy. This album is a potpourri of songs that include the aforementioned dance track, pop, rock, R&B, rap, country and an all-out seven minute gospel track, “I Understand,” that’ll blow your socks off, featuring the vocals of Kim Burrell, Rance Allen, Bebe Winans, Mariah Carey and Hezekiah Walker’s Love Fellowship Tabernacle Church Choir, which brings this CD to an orgasmic climax.

All of the dozen tracks are meticulously chosen and slickly produced by Jackson. The highlights include Joss Stone’s mix of pop, soul and R&B on “Just Walk On By,” with a hook of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David classic fused with Stone’s hip-hop flavoring and Randy Jackson’s ad-libs.

Trisha Covington, Keke Wyatt and Kiley Dayne take on “What Am I So Afraid Of” with pure rock confidence, as do Richie Sambora, Travis Tritt and Lucy Woodward on the country/rock gem “Willing To Try.” Rap is also present with Crunk Squad Featuring Ghostface Killah on the tough ‘n ready “Like A.”

The legendary Sam Moore teams up with R&B superstars Keb’ Mo’ & Angie Stone on the Honky Tonk Willie Dixon track “Wang Dang Doodle,” as polar pop opposites Katharine McPhee and Elliott Yamin do a flawless take on “Real Love,” which has great chart potential.

Another favorite is “Something To Believe In,” which features the fabulous pop/rock vocals of Van Hunt, Jon McLaughlin and Jason Mraz.

Jackson not only produces one of the best compilations so far in 2008, he also plays bass, rhythm guitar and vocalizes on many of the dozen tracks.

I’m ecstatic that this album is subtitled “Volume One,” because it just makes me yearn for what’s to come with the next volume in the not too distant future.

Dame Shirley Bassey: Get The Party Started
Decca Records
Release Date: March 18, 2008

This is 71 year-old Dame Shirley Bassey’s first new album in a decade, and what a way to return to the spotlight. This is the ultimate remixed, remade and remodeled disc, put over in a way that only Bassey can. We get the party started with exactly that, the title song. The intro is a slow orchestral climb before the British diva’s vocals enter the mix, and suddenly there’s a cool beat and electronic rush that races this “party” song from first to fifth gear and we’re off! The song isn’t just pure fun, it’s damn important with Bassey’s commanding vocals.

Dame Shirley also excites us with a song she made famous several years ago, “Big Spender.” This time the Broadway staple gets the remix treatment in a manner that’s consistent with the entire album. The beats are silky smooth, and along with the electronic techno vibe and that sensational voice, make this one of the most played tracks on the album.

Perhaps the most dramatic song on this album is one of the most revered songs in pop history. I’m speaking of the elaborate torch song “I Who Have Nothing.” I’ve heard this song recorded by dozens of artists, but none of them can deliver this the way Bassey does with her tour de force performance. Even the beat and electronics don’t diminish her vocals. Surprisingly, they even compliment the melody. Only Bassey could’ve pulled this rendition off because of her important and unique delivery.

And the drama keeps rolling on with another signature song of Bassey’s, the powerful and independent “This Is My Life.” This song was given a disco redo in 1978, and thirty years later, it’s been given another makeover – this time slowed down from the 120 BPM and filled with every electronic trick in the book. Still, no one can top a Bassey song other than Bassey herself. I’m happy to say, she succeeds yet again with the third (but never tired) rendition of this great song.

If you thought Grace Jones held the patent to the Jamaican beat of “Slave To The Rhythm,” think again. Bassey takes one of the most identifiable songs in dance history and makes it her own. She adds so much dimension to this intentional one-note samba that even Miss Jones would have to cave in and share the glory. Fabulous!

Bassey covered three “Bond” themes in her long and storied career; “Goldfinger,” “Diamonds Are Forever” and “Moonraker.” Though not one of those songs appear for a makeover on this set, interestingly enough, it’s the Nancy Sinatra 60’s theme “You Only Live Twice” that is chosen to receive the royal treatment. Bassey had remarkable results with the aforementioned three, so what’s one more to add to her Bond legacy? She’s clearly not just Great Britain’s first lady of song, she’s also the first lady of Bond.

The other “original” song on this album is the now familiar “The Living Tree,” which was released as a single a few months back and climbed the club charts as fast as Bassey’s career took off over fifty years ago. She can now proudly add one more signature song to her vast catalogue.

Other dramatic highlights on this remix disc include a grand take on “What Now My Love,” the Lionel Richie-penned “Hello,” “Kiss Me Honey Honey” and “Can I Touch You There,” but she saved two greats to close the album, the Donny Hathaway/Roberta Flack duet “Where Is The Love?” where even the techno beats don’t diminish Bassey’s heartbreaking poignancy, and the closer, which is arguably the most famous disco song in history, “I Will Survive.” This is the song of independence for women and men all around the world. The beat and the lyrics are universal, and with Bassey’s dominating vocals, she not only pays homage to Gloria Gaynor’s message, she brings this album to a stunning climax.

As I pointed out, Dame Shirley Bassey is Britain’s first lady of song, and looking back at her 50-plus years as a recording artist, and this latest album, it’s no wonder she’s also an international treasure.

The B-52s: Funplex
Astralwerks Records
Release Date: March 25, 2008

Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland and Cindy Wilson, a.k.a. the B-52s, released their first studio album in 16 years, and it sounds as if they never left. After the untimely death of guitarist Ricky Wilson, brother of Cindy, of AIDS in 1985, the B-52s’ music turned a bit darker, but they resurrected themselves divinely in 1989 with the release of the top 10 singles “Love Shack” and “Roam” from their quadruple platinum-selling album Cosmic Thing. With Funplex, it seems they took the age-old advice, “if it ain’t broke…” and trust me, there is nothing remotely in disarray on this latest outing. It’s simply superb.

It’s hard to believe that this group has been churning out music for over thirty years, and approaching the thirtieth anniversary of their first release, the self-titled debut in the summer of 1979 that spawned their signature song, “Rock Lobster.” Many more signature songs were to follow, but this band from Athens, Georgia, was put on the musical map as one of the most unique bands to ever emerge in the arena of Dance/Electronica/R&B/NewWave/Pop/Rock, and they’ve never looked back.

Funplex gets the party started with the opening track “Pump,” and never slows down throughout eleven fresh tracks. When asked to describe this latest album, guitarist Keith Strickland said, “It’s loud, sexy rock and roll, with the beat pumped up to hot pink.” Fred Schneider adds, “It’s the B-52s now – or 15 years from now.” Yes, even their space-age sound still resonates as if they’re three steps ahead of every other band making music that’s yet to be created. The B-52s have always been firmly established as a band somewhere in the future.

Every track is a treat, most especially “Hot Corner,” which is one of the finest party songs on this album, as well as in their vast repertoire. The multi-layered harmonies of Kate and Cindy set to Fred’s rapping outbursts still put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. The infectious hooks of Keith’s guitar is just icing on this scrumptious set.

Even though the message might get a bit serious in the politically themed closer “Keep This Party Going,” one can’t help feel the joy from this Hi-NRG composition. Speaking of keeping the party going, it’s also a great way to bring this album to an explosive climax. All it does is make you anxious for this band’s next album, and the one after that. Until that happens, share the love and joy in the appropriately titled Funplex. It’s one of the finest party records in years.

Kylie Minogue: X
Astralwerks/Capitol Records
Release Date: April 1, 2008

This sexy siren known as “the Aussie Madonna” releases her tenth (hence the Roman numeral “X”) studio album, and her first in five years. If you think her unfortunate bout with breast cancer a few years ago has slowed this dance diva down, think again. This CD is thirteen tracks of electronic fun, and just about every track, with the exception of the closer (“Cosmic”), is primed and ready for the dancefloor. I’m sure by the time the DJs get a hold of the “slower” tracks, they will also be remixed to party perfection, as every track has potential to be a hit in a hot ‘n sweaty mix of boys on the dancefloor.

This feel-good album opens with the breathy, mid-tempo “2 Hearts” and, with the additional background of vocal “woos,” adds a sexual spirit that’s not only custom-made for the dancefloor, it’ll also work nicely on the bedroom floor or whatever location you may desire.

One of the finest tracks on this disc is the retro disco number, “The One,” with its pulsating 126 BPM and the ever-present Giorgio Moroder-style electronic pulses reminiscent of his heyday in the mid-late 70’s. Kylie takes us on a ride as fine as Donna Summer did all those years ago, and doesn’t let us get off until she slows it down a notch on the following track, the light and airy “No More Rain.” 

“Heart Beat Rock” is an electronic masterpiece that allows Minogue to coo and woo one second and knock the track out of the ballpark with her strong and capable powerhouse vocal when needed. “Stars” also returns us to electronic heaven with Minogue’s vocals mixed to multi-layered precision.

One of the most interesting tracks is the new wave electronica push of “Wow,” which should be a club hit as well as a video smash.

Another gem is “Nu-Di-Ty,” that first could’ve been mistaken for a song off of Janet Jackson’s latest opus, Discipline, but by the time this track hits the one minute-mark, it’s easily definable as pure Kylie with her clearly identifiable vocals.

The aforementioned closer “Cosmic” is a mid-tempo ballad that sweetly describes her love of the world around her and her gratefulness to be back from the two-year “dream,” that she prefers to call the illness that would’ve devastated some but empowered her to move in a positive direction.

This CD is uplifting, joyous and an affirmation that Kylie Minogue is still one of the most important dance artists of our time. X marks the spot.

George Michael: TwentyFive
Epic Records
Release Date: April 1, 2008

It seems like another lifetime when George Michael first hit the airwaves with his partner, Andrew Ridgeley, performing as the duo Wham! with their first breakout hit, “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.” As much fun as it is to reminisce about that first #1 single, it’s the white Dolphin shorts that Mr. Michael sported in the accompanying video that is something I don’t look back on with fond memories. Maybe it’s because I (with many other twenty-somethings) wore them with as much pride as George did back in the day. Yes, that upbeat bouncy song that sang about “the sun shining bright as Doris Day” is included on this two-disc collection, along with twenty-eight other meticulously chosen tracks, which include six brand new recordings.

Some of you may be wondering what “TwentyFive” signifies. To put it short (in a long and storied career) it stands for the number of years George Michael has been recording and performing. Before the scandals with his record label (with whom he has settled and is recording for again) and the tabloid scandals that almost brought down this powerhouse showman, George Michael has proved that talent will always win out in the end. Many things have been stripped from Michael (literally), but talent isn’t one of them.

The smartest thing that Michael and Epic Records have done on this second “greatest hits” collection is offer many different choices than the first one did a decade ago. Along with “Go-Go,” we’re also treated to Wham! hits such as the fabulous holiday song “Last Christmas” and the extended recording of one of their best, “Everything She Wants.”  In addition to those, we’re also treated to some of the greatest tracks Michael has recorded in the past decade including the wonderful dance tracks “Amazing” and “Flawless (Go To The City),” along with poignant ballads including the outstanding take on Roberta Flack’s piece de resistance, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

The six new singles are what has excited me (and many record buyers) the most, including the first release, “Feeling Good,” which Michael performed on the ABC series “Eli Stone,” in addition to being one of iTunes’ best-selling singles of the past few weeks. Three new duets show up on this collection, the finest being the Stevie Wonder masterpiece “As,” performed sensationally with the always brilliant Mary J. Blige. The other standout duet is a newly recorded version of Michael’s “Heal The Pain” sung with sincere love and passion with Sir Paul McCartney. Speaking of Sirs, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the smash single with the other Sir, Elton John, “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” is also included on this set.

Disc one is titled “For Living.” Disc two is titled “For Loving.” If I had to sum up the entire collection, I’d borrow the title of the new single “Feeling Good,” because that’s exactly what this collection accomplishes.

For those interested in seeing George Michael live in concert, he takes to his first American tour in seventeen years on June 17 in San Diego. From there, other dates in June take him to San Jose, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. He will be touring the country though August in twenty cities, so chances are he’ll be stopping close to your neighborhood. I urge you to take in this show. George Michael is electrifying on stage, and it’s a concert you’ll treasure for many years to come. I look forward to seeing you there!

Moby: Last Night
Mute Records
Release Date: April 1, 2008

Here’s a CD that was released last month, and due to an overabundance of releases recently, I’m finally giving it its due. Last Night is Moby’s first album in three years and his sixth studio album. After releasing slower and more introspective albums in the past decade, Moby returns with a full-out Electronic dance album that returns him to the glory he began with in the 90’s.

When asked about why he returned to the genre that put him high on the charts last decade, Moby responded, “It’s a lot more dance-oriented and electronic than my last few albums, probably as a result of all the dj’ing I’ve been doing lately, and it has some interesting guest vocalists. My favorite is the rapper on ‘I Love To Move In Here.’ His name is Grandmaster Caz and he is one of the writers of ‘Rappers Delight.’ He’s been rapping since 1975 and I’m really happy to have him on this record.” And so are we as this is one of the greatest tracks on this and any Moby album that has been released thus far.

Other great tracks include “Everyday Is 1989,” which carries a retro disco beat, and it segues into “Live For Tomorrow,” which sounds as if Grace Jones went Electronic. In this case, the vocalist is Chrissi Poland. The track “Alice” is pure space age, accompanied by Aynzli Jones and S.O. Simple & Smokey from 419 Squad with backing vocals by Amelia Rose Zirin Brown. Another track that delivers an infectious disco treatment is “The Stars.” The disc then slows down a tad for a trio of gorgeous non-vocal Electronica songs; “Degenerates,” “Sweet Apocalypse” and “Mothers Of The Night.”

Just when you think “Last Night” closes out this Electronic opus, a hidden track entitled “Lucy Vida” becomes part of the jazz-inflected medley to make this nine-minute-plus closer a stunner with sensational vocals by Sylvia Gordon.

Last Night is one hour of pure Electronic ecstasy, and returns Moby to the glorious music that made him famous and the reason why we all fell in love with him, and continue our appreciation for this unique and celebrated artist.

Mariah Carey: E=MC2
Island/Def Jam
Release Date: April 15, 2008

Two weeks ago, Mariah Carey went where no other solo recording artist (male or female) has ever gone. Her most recent single, “Touch My Body,” became her 18th #1 hit, and 79th career week at #1. With this feat, she set a historic chart record, surpassing Elvis Presley’s 17 #1’s, and tying his all-time high at 79 weeks. Mariah is now positioned as the only active recording artist in the 50 years of the Billboard Hot 100 (which began in 1958) with the potential to surpass the Beatles’ all-time high of 20 #1 hits.

This past week her follow-up single, “Bye Bye,” became the “Hot Shot Debut” on the Billboard Hot 100 chart at #23 and appears to be destined to become her 19th #1. Both of these releases are from her latest release, “E=MC2,” but more about that in a minute.

In September 2001, Mariah Carey was practically laughed out of the business when her film debut in the box office crash “Glitter” and the accompanying soundtrack got her bolted from Hollywood, and lost her a lucrative multi-million dollar contract with Virgin Records. Mariah Carey was written off as a “has-been” just two years after becoming the greatest female recording artist to emerge from the 1990’s. Everybody has off moments in their careers, but it seemed that Mariah was in the midst of a personal breakdown, and unfortunately, due to her high-profile celebrity status, her personal life became public ridicule after her peculiar behavior on Carson Daly’s MTV afternoon show “TRL.”

The tabloids that litter our newsstands had a field day with Ms. Carey, and it seemed as if the pop princess had imploded. She was mentally and physically “worn out.” Mariah recovered with help from physicians and beloved friends and family. She signed with Island Records, and her 2005 release “The Emancipation Of Mimi” more than reaffirmed that she hadn’t lost an ounce of her talent. As a matter of fact, the album became one of the finest recordings of her then-15 year-career, which spawned some of her greatest singles including “Shake It Off” and the biggest single of 2005, “We Belong Together,” coinciding with the best selling-album of the year. Mariah, a.k.a. Mimi, was back!

Her latest CD release, E=MC2, is most appropriately titled, considering it seems to be the long-awaited sequel to her 2005 smash. Just in its first week alone, she has sold 463,000 units, which is the biggest first week sales of her 18-year career, as well as the biggest first week sales of 2008. The album has a multitude of high-profile producers, including Jermaine Dupri, DJ Toomp, Stargate, Will.I.Am, Bryan Michael Cox, Nate "Danjahandz" Hills,  James Poyser and Carey herself.

The CD also follows in the footsteps of its predecessor by offering a plethora of music genres, including pop, R&B, hip-hop, electronica, gospel and sensational power ballads. Besides the hit “Touch My Body” and the gorgeous haunting ballad “Bye Bye,” Carey also chronicles her life in the 90’s in the autobiographical “Side Effects,” which is a look at her 1994 marriage to Sony Music honcho Tommy Mottola. It describes Mariah’s personal hell and the inner demons that finally caught up with her a couple of years after their nasty and public divorce.

This opus opens with her trademark vocal ‘bird calls’ on the song “Migrate,” which is a fabulous kick-off track featuring T-Pain. “I Stay In Love” is a pretty piano, hip-hop laden ballad alongside the myriad of musical genres that make this album so listenable and relatable to people of so many backgrounds. The gorgeous “I’ll Be Lovin’ U Long Time” and “Cruise Control” are destined for radio. The closer is the exquisite gospel inflected “I Wish You Well,” which not only ends on a vocal high note, it absolutely inspires you.

There are songs of love, fun, romance and past relationships, filled with infectious hooks and outstanding vocals that should put this collection in the running for “Album of the Year.” At first listen, I wasn’t just pleased with this album, I was overwhelmed that she exceeded her last recording. E=MC2 is the perfect equation for a perfect album at the perfect time. Brava Mimi!

Carly Simon: This Kind Of Love
Hear Records
Release Date: April 29, 2008

Carly Simon has been a longtime fan of Brazilian music, and she’s never made any secrets about it. Dating back to some of her greatest albums of the seventies, Simon always seemed to include a selection or two that showed her affinity for this sensuous and soothing musical genre.

On her latest and first album of newly self-written material in nearly a decade, Simon shows us that she’s still one of the greatest singer/songwriters to emerge out of the decade when she and her contemporaries, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, were delivering a new album practically on a yearly basis. Ah, the good old days. Simon hasn’t lost an ounce of her wittiness, cynicism or humor when it comes to penning a great song – in this case, thirteen great songs. By herself and with the help of some great writers, Simon once again comes through with a thoroughly unique album that carries her smoked-ash trademark vocals that I, and millions of others, have loved ever since her first single and album release back in the spring of ’71.

The romance exudes on such tracks as the gorgeous opening title track written by Simon and longtime pal and collaborator JimmyWebb. Webb’s talents are utilized on two more songs, the beautifully simplistic and introspective “In My Dreams” and “The Last Samba,” which will transport you to a gorgeous beach on a deserted tropical island. It’s just exquisite.

Offspring Ben and Sally Taylor are present on “The Island” and “So Many People To Love,” respectively. They also fill in on counter-harmony that makes these two tracks irresistible. “Hola Soleil” is a track that Ben co-wrote with mom that carries a delightfully global flavor.

One of my favorite tracks is the cynical “People Say A Lot.” Simon’s never been shy when it comes to exposing the people that she feels have antagonized or taken advantage of her over the years, and trust me, this song is no exception. The first two minutes are a poetic rap that is interspersed before her vocals take over. The finale is perhaps the most telling of messages, as it has the very last lines of dialogue taken directly from the film All About Eve delivered straight from George Sanders’ character Addison DeWitt, when he says, “Tell me Phoebe, do you want someday to have an award like that of your own?” Phoebe: “More than anything else in the world.” Addison: “Then you must ask Miss Harrington how to get one. Miss Harrington knows all about it.” The melodramatic music plays over the dialogue as Simon’s haunting “Oohs” complete it with the severity of attacking violins.

“Too Soon To Say Goodbye” is a heartbreaking track that is apropos to close out the album. It’s filled with Simon singing delicately while the chorus’ ‘La las’ make it melancholy and tender.

Anytime Carly Simon delivers a new album that’s this good, it reminds me of that spring back in ’71.  She recorded another classic that same year when she sang the line “These are the good old days.” Indeed they are.

Duffy: Rockferry
Mercury Records
Release Date: May 13, 2008

In the past couple of years, many new English female artists have come along to practically start a new British invasion. The most visible are Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Estelle. We can now add Duffy to the list of these prominent and highly talented female vocalists. Her debut album, Rockferry, has already hit No. 1 in the U.K., as well as the single “Mercy,” which is also rocketing up the charts here in the U.S. The album has just debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and should hang around for a very long visit.

Rockferry carries a unique retro 60’s flavor as far as arrangements and orchestrations are concerned, and it’s hard not to compare Duffy’s vocals to the late, great Dusty Springfield and new kid Amy Winehouse. Hey, if you’re going to be compared vocally, that’s not bad company to be in.

The album kicks off with the title track, and besides carrying the retro 60’s arrangements, this song and many others also generate a “wall of sound” that Phil Spector made so famous with some of the greatest artists of his generation.

Shining highlights include “Warwick Avenue” and “Stepping Stone,” which sounds like a Burt Bacharach/Hal David arrangement and the type of songs that Dionne Warwick had such great success with in the early to mid-60’s. There’s no escaping the comparisons to one of their best, “Walk On By,” on the latter.

“Syrup & Honey” is a bluesy number that has all the earmarks of a Winehouse track. As a matter of fact, it almost sounds as if Duffy is doing a dead-on impersonation of the troubled songstress. But don’t confuse that with the fact that Duffy is unique and most definitely the real deal, as her singing and songwriting deserve to stand on their own merits.

As the album progresses, my love for the songs intensifies with such selections as “Hanging On Too Long” which display Duffy’s spectacular vocals and really show off her great range and extraordinary power.

The aforementioned “Mercy” may just be this summer’s anthem song. Every summer has one, and the airiness to this brilliant track should be getting much airplay for months to come.

The disc comes to a close with “Distant Dreamer,” which is one of, if not the, most sumptuous tracks on the entire collection. The song has a larger-than-life wall of sound arrangement (tambourines are in full reverb mode) and a sensational orchestra that brings this album to a stunning climax.

Say what you will about the eccentric Phil Spector, but this is an album that would make him proud, and producer Bernard Butler (who also co-wrote many of the album’s songs) obviously has a great affinity for his talents, as well as all of the pop music that came out of the 60’s.

Just to clarify, if you think you’re getting an album that sounds “old” – not true. You’ll most definitely be reminded of the pop sound of the 60’s, but the arrangements and orchestrations are freshly produced to meet the standards of today’s music.

Donna Summer: Crayons
Burgundy Records/Sony BMG
Release Date: May 20, 2008

At long last, the album many Donna Summer fans have been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for has finally arrived. It’s been 17 (17!) years since Ms. Summer last released a full-length studio album. Bush 41 was still in office, the country had yet to be introduced to the wonderfully charismatic Bill and Hillary, and (to save the worst for last) Bush 43 wasn’t even a realistic nightmare yet. This album has nothing to do with politics, yet everything to do with what Summer knows best, and that’s Hi-NRG dance music.

Besides containing some of the best dance tracks this side of the millennium, Donna has written and co-written an array of musical genres (hence the album’s title “Crayons” for its diversity) that are absolutely stunning.

The first single, “I’m A Fire,” proved to be as hot as its title, rocketing to #1 on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart just a few short weeks ago. The second single, “Stamp Your Feet,” has been perfectly remodeled for the clubs (most notably, The Jason Nevins Remix) and by the time you’re reading this, you’ll most likely be familiar with the next great Summer dance anthem (artist and season alike).

Other great dance highlights include the tongue-in-cheek “The Queen Is Back,” in which Donna admits to making fun of herself. She explains, “There’s irony, it’s poking fun at the idea of being called a queen. That’s a title that has followed me, followed me, and followed me. We (her co-writers Jonathan Rotem and Evan Bogart) were sitting and writing and that title kept popping into my mind and I’m thinking, ‘Am I supposed to write this? Is this too arrogant to write?’ But people call me ‘the queen’ so I guess it’s okay to refer to myself as what everybody else refers to me as. We started writing the song and thought it was kind of cute and funny.” Cute and funny is an understatement. The autobiographical song of Summer’s career is one of the best tracks on the album and is destined to heat up the dancefloor in the very near future.

There’s plenty of anthems on this album for dance junkies to get their fix, but there’s also three wonderful ballads; “Sand On My Feet,” “Be Myself Again” and the fabulous closer, “Bring Down The Reign.”

You want more crayons? Summer goes Reggae with Ziggy Marley on the title track, she heads way down south with the calypso-driven “Drivin’ Down Brazil” and full out Electronica on “Fame (The Game)” and “Science Of Love.” “Slide Over Backwards” is the R&B scorcher three quarters through this opus, and Summer adds a Tina Turner-ish rasp to her voice to make it a full rock ‘n soul experience.

Donna Summer is back with an album that’ll fit beautifully into her vast catalogue of recordings. This five-time Grammy winner is in peak form as a writer and vocalist. Time for your inoculation, Summer fever is back.

© 2008 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.