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The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys

First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2006, Volume 13, #10

Written by Simon Baker

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Welcome to iRevue, your guide to the world of downloading. Each fortnight, we will examine the iTunes charts in the U.K. and provide you with the latest news, views, and reviews of the most downloaded singles, tracks, albums, and podcasts. Our goal is to highlight an eclectic mix of musical genres and artists, both new and old, that will help and encourage you to get the most out of your MP3 player.

October 23rd, 2006

The sheer volume of new albums that have been issued in the last 14 days has seen iTunes struggling to keep up with the demands of the record companies, all of which are vying for valuable home page space to promote their wares. Admirably, iTunes has resisted the temptation to sell more advertising space, and instead, it has opted to keep its user-friendly home page intact, albeit with more frequent updates. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues as the festive holiday season gets underway.

Another dilemma for iTtunes of late is the increasing number of formats that it needs to squeeze into its tightly packed opening page. With 5th generation iPods now selling like proverbial hot cakes — and no sign of consumer weariness on the horizon — it would seem that the iPod miraculously is continuing to gain momentum. Music videos are becoming as popular to download as regular tracks, and iTunes U.S.A. is now offering full-length feature films and television shows. Combined with the rapid emergence of podcasting, video podcasts, and iPod games, this means that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify iTunes simply as a facility for downloading music; it now has become an all-media portal.

Top Downloaded Tracks

The current top downloaded tracks list is dominated by the new single from Girls Aloud, British television’s Pop Rivals loser. Having achieved more success than any previous winner on the show, these sassy gals have surprised a lot of pop music critics with their relative quality and longevity. Something Kinda Oooh, the group’s latest single, reflects the powerful, sexy image upon which these girls have based their success. With pounding, heavy bass lines and rich synthesizer riffs, the song is a full-fledged, disco-thumping classic.

In contrast, My Chemical Romance has seen equally good download activity for Welcome to the Black Parade, which was taken from its critically acclaimed set The Black Parade. The song is one of the more commercial tunes from the New Jersey-based punk/pop ensemble, and it features a rip-roaring chorus, chugging guitars, and snappy drumming that resembles a "lite" version of Green Day.

After the success of OK Go’s Here It Goes Again, video singles have become increasingly popular. Fortunately, record companies have been quick to identify the potential for this market, and by releasing a large number of back catalogue classics, they have made clear their desire to develop it. The Jack Black/Kyle Gass combo Tenacious D currently tops the video download list with Tribute, a comedic/serious track from its five-year-old, self-titled debut. For the first time, Duran Duran has made all 15 of its video singles available for download, including the once-controversial Girls on Film, which, incidentally, now looks quite tame. Sitting alongside these is Fatboy Slim’s classic Weapon of Choice, which features an incredible performance by Christopher Walken. All of Britney Spears’ work, including the iconic ...Baby One More Time, Toxic, and Stronger, also has been made available for a new breed of teenage boys (and men) to discover. Music videos viewed on a 5th generation iPod are visually stunning. When combined with the power that the soundtrack wields when heard through headphones, it gives even the older visuals a fresh and unexpectedly new look that will surely see many more downloaders moving into the genre.

Album Download Chart

Some of the key album releases during this hectic, two-week period have included new sets from Robbie Williams, Badly Drawn Boy, and John Mayer as well as the wider distribution of a collection of rarities by PJ Harvey. Robbie Williams’ declining popularity has been documented quite heavily over the past few months, and many critics in the U.K. have been poised for the slightest hint of a slip-up. Unfortunately, Rudebox will do little to stem the tide, and it undoubtedly will provide even more ammunition for the British music press. At 17 tracks in length, the outing superficially appears to be a good value, but in truth, it is an overly long affair that is full of both inferior filler material and uneven cover songs. Even many of the original tracks are uninspired.

On Rudebox, Williams, more than ever, misses the writing skills of his former production associate Guy Chambers. Escapology was the last album on which the duo worked together, and though the split was noticeable, the collection nearly rose above the dissolution of their partnership. With Intensive Care and his latest effort, however, Williams’ reign seems to have come to an end. The set features a number of attempts at the sort of white, urban rap that was developed quite excellently by the likes of The Streets and Arab StrapThe 80s, The 90s, and the title track, among them — but Williams just cannot pull it off. He persists in trying to make everything humorous, and in doing so, it sounds as if he is trying to cover up his obvious lack of authenticity as well as his inability to perform in this style. By scattering a myriad of ’80s references throughout the endeavor, Williams chases the latest disco/pop-revival bandwagon, and it feels like an act of desperation rather than an homage to the genre. Both of his collaborations with the Pet Shop Boys (She’s Madonna and We’re the Pet Shop Boys) will do little to enthuse fans of either artist. The final straw is a ridiculous rendition of the Human League’s Louise on which Williams’ comical impression of Philip Oakey mocks rather than respects the nearly legendary Sheffield outfit. On the other hand, Williams’ high-energy remake of Stephen Duffy’s Kiss Me undoubtedly will become a huge hit, and it already is a contender for the #1 slot during the crucial Christmas shopping period. Although the few remaining tunes do adhere more closely to the style that once brought success to Williams, it’s only on the single Lovelight and the tracks Summertime and Viva Life on Mars that he offers a glimpse of the hunger that inspired him during his early years.

With little hype and lots of praise, Mercury Music Award-winning singer/songwriter Badly Drawn Boy issued a new set this past week. Titled Born in the U.K., the collection is the fifth studio album of Damon Gough’s career. Throughout the endeavor, the Manchester-born artist recreates the sound that he concocted for The Hour of Bewilderbeast. Using his well-ingrained, Manchester-baked attitude (and, occasionally, his accent), Gough continues to deliver splendid pop songs that mold British folk, roots, and country influences into melodic, beautifully produced works. This album, in particular, sees Gough using a full range of instrumentation to create music that ranges from simple piano-led melodies to full orchestral numbers, and it features authentic lyrics and a strong vocal performance. Key tracks include the very British sounding title tune, the beautiful arrangement of Nothing’s Gonna Change Your Mind, the country-inspired The Way Things Used to Be, and the wonderfully lyrical One Last Dance.

Another relatively low-key artist who has released a critically acclaimed set this week is John Mayer, who, oddly enough, sounds more and more like Steve Winwood with each passing outing. His latest endeavor Continuum finds him once again tapping into the blue-eyed soul market, while also providing music (and looks) over which his female fans can swoon. It’s the quality of his music, however, that has been the key to his success, and Continuum provides ample evidence of this. On the album, Mayer has matured into an established singer/songwriter, and his heartfelt lyrics combined with his slick but organic production demands attention. Key tracks include Stop this Train, his cover of Jimi Hendrix’s Bold as Love, the Winwood-esque Waiting on the World to Change, and the beautiful Gravity.

Another noteworthy release is the latest outing by PJ Harvey. Aptly titled The Peel Sessions, the collection compiles an array of performances that were made by legendary deejay John Peel. Throughout his career, Peel famously lent his support to a number of up-and-coming artists via his now iconic, late night radio show. As part of his program, Peel would invite bands to record live sets in the studio, and since his sad demise in 2005, he has been recognized for his achievements. For example, a stage at Glastonbury now bears his name, and numerous awards have been given in his honor.

Harvey’s The Peel Sessions includes material that was recorded on Peel’s program between 1991 and 2004. Her voice resonates with echoes of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, and some of the early recordings on the set are filled with raw passion. A troubled soul, Harvey’s lyrics are, at times, morose and hard-hitting. Nevertheless, the Mercury Award-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is an uplifting New York-inspired soundscape that should be heard by everyone. The Peel Sessions, as a whole, provides a unique glimpse into Harvey’s progression as an artist, albeit one that is viewed through the eyes of Peel, and it offers a rare treat to her many fans. Key tracks include Oh My Lover (Peel 29.10.91), Sheela-Na-Gig (Peel 29.10.91), Snake (Peel 5.9.96), and Beautiful Feeling (Peel 10.11.00).

New Musical Journeys and Inspirations: Focus on R&B / Soul

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Browsing through the R&B/Soul section of iTunes is a daunting experience. The modern definition of the style includes just about every artist of African origin. Granted, it’s not an easy genre to encapsulate in simple terms, and an examination of its roots helps to explain why so much has been mixed together under one heading. After all, R&B traditionally stood for Rhythm & Blues, but, in recent times, the term has adopted a meaning that is all its own. With new artists featured alongside their more experienced counterparts, there certainly is a lot to discover. One look at the top downloaded albums under the R&B/Soul category yields an unlikely blend of performers that range from Lionel Richie and Ray Charles to Avant, Beyoncé, and The Brand New Heavies. Generally speaking, these are not artists that typically would be found on any single iPod playlist.

Amy Winehouse’s Rehab currently resides at the top of the list of downloaded tracks for the R&B/soul genre. Winehouse sometimes is described as an unpolished Macy Gray, and her distinctive voice oozes Motown, while the ’60s-style production and instrumentation completes her old-school image. However, as with many modern interpretations of the Motown sound, the use of modern terminology and attitude sometimes taints the endearing charm that so carefully has been created. Other selections that are ranking highly include Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable; the pure pop sounds of The Sugababes’ Easy; and Lemar’s smooth and sultry, classic R&B nugget It’s Not that Easy.

Among the albums that currently are faring quite well is Once Again, the latest outing from former child prodigy John Legend. This soul- and gospel-inspired artist from Ohio has produced a sophomore set that contains a distinctive jazz-oriented ambience that, at times, sounds like a more soulful rendition of Jamie Cullum. In fact, with his cracked voice and his strong, piano-based melodies, this set quite easily could break into the jazz section of iTunes. Legend’s soulful roots, however, form the basis of all of the tracks, and therefore, the effort retains its place within the R&B/Soul grouping. A former session musician, Legend is fast developing a solo career of his own, and coming on the heels of his breakthrough debut Get Lifted, Once Again proffers another batch of quality material.

Another newcomer to the scene is Corinne Bailey Rae who, earlier this year, released her eponymous debut. Rae is a former student from Leeds, and her young, soulful voice has been compared with that of the legendary Billie Holiday. Rae’s first single Put Your Records On was the surprise hit of the summer, and the album demonstrates that Rae is capable of producing a lot more than mere radio-friendly pop tunes. On the endeavor, it is refreshing to see a new artist stretching her vocal range by attempting songs that would be deemed too risky for many established artists to tackle. She will find it difficult to break into a market that has become dominated by Joss Stone and KT Tunstall, but Rae’s self-titled debut suggests that she may be strong enough to find her own niche.

Ray Charles, of course, is a legend, and his latest outing Ray Sings, Basie Swings finds him paired with the equally astounding Count Basie Orchestra. This fusion of swinging jazz and classic R&B provides an interesting introduction to both styles. Charles, of course, was a pioneer of the traditional R&B/soul sound, and this set provides a glimpse of his extraordinary vocal style as well as his wide-reaching influence upon countless subsequent artists. Browsing through his enormous back catalogue on iTunes will yield many collections of classic R&B songs and albums, all of which should be viewed as sterling reference points for any newcomer who is just venturing into this wide-ranging genre.

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Copyright © 2006 The Music Box