The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2006, Volume 13, #11
Written by Simon Baker
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.
Editor’s Note: Our "New Musical Journeys and Inspirations" feature has been suspended for several issues so that we can devote more space to the overwhelming slate of new albums and singles that are scheduled for release.
November 6th, 2006
Over the course of the past week, the major labels have ramped up their album release schedules, though, as is customary at this time of year, not all of the material that is hitting virtual store shelves is new. Customers are being bombarded from all directions with a wide assortment of greatest hits collections — all of which are being heavily advertised on television and, rather annoyingly, are filtering into nearly every prime time program. The U.K. version of X-Factor, for example, has featured a different musical theme in each of its first three episodes. Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, and Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus have all lent time to helping the contestants. Not so coincidentally, however, each also has released a "best of" package in the week immediately following the show’s airing. Finally, as if to add fuel to the cynical fire, some U.K. bookmakers have stopped taking bets on the coveted #1 slot for Christmas because an unknown song from an unknown artist very well might achieve that lofty position; as it turns out, whoever wins the current edition of X-Factor will release a single in time for the holidays. Thankfully, none of the albums in question have made any impact upon the download charts. Long may it continue.
Top Downloaded Tracks
Considering the increased focus upon albums, it isn’t surprising that the singles market has experienced a slowdown in new releases, and subsequently, only a handful of notable changes have occurred on the corresponding download charts. The first of these is Rock Steady, the newest release from the recently re-formed outfit All Saints. As one of the early risers in the ’90s wave of British, all-girl bands, All Saints was, at one time, on par with the Spice Girls as the U.K.’s leading female combo. Unfortunately, Rock Steady is a rather bland tune that likely won’t achieve the heights of the group’s critically acclaimed 1999 hit Never Ever.
Another uninspiring track that has featured heavily in recent weeks is Smack That by Akon. Though it boasts a guest appearance by Eminem, the Detroit rapper’s presence is limited to a few token lines that are scattered throughout the tune. As such, it relies solely on the continued hype surrounding the latter artist, rather than the talents of the former collective.
One new song that is worth investigating is The Saints Are Coming by U2 & Green Day. This cover of the classic track by The Skids has been recorded and released in order to raise funds for musicians who lost their instruments in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The collaboration works surprisingly well because Green Day’s edgy guitars amplify the political undertones that are brought to mind by Bono. Not only does the tune do justice to the original recording, but it also stands as a rare musical event — a charity single that succeeds on its own merits.
Video singles that have been released this week include Justin Timberlake’s My Love as well as the now dated but still fun "Weird Al" Yankovic with White & Nerdy. The excellent original video for Kasabian’s single Shoot the Runner is, however, the pick of the current crop.
Album Download Chart
With so many album releases over the last 14 days, it is difficult to identify just two or three endeavors that are worth noting. However, from amongst the onslaught of new compilations that are available, a few do deserve further investigation.
During the past 30 years, Paul Weller has been one of the most prolific British artists, and the boxed set Hit Parade places his biggest-selling songs in one handy package. Weller already has had success with a greatest hits collection; his 2003 endeavor Modern Classics served as an overview of his solo material. Hit Parade, on the other hand, spans Weller’s entire career, and as such, it combines tracks from The Jam and The Style Council with an array of his solo selections.
Hit Parade features no fewer than 67 tracks, and it effectively charts the progress of one of the U.K.’s best-loved and most diverse singer/songwriters. From the under-produced, full-charging post-punk sounds of The Jam to the uplifting refrains of The Style Council to the mature reflections of his solo work, Hit Parade highlights the complete range of Weller’s abilities. No matter what guise his music has assumed — be it the angry, young man behind The Jam; the mellowed but sarcastic leader of The Style Council; or the mature songwriter who has conveyed his intimate, considered thoughts as a solo artist — Weller has used his songs to challenge political points of view. Hit Parade not only provides a snapshot of Weller’s career thus far, but it also serves as a time line of the British music scene. Key tracks include The Modern World, Going Underground, Town Called Malice, Shout to the Top, Walls Come Tumbling Down, Broken Stones, and Wild Wood. (Editor's Note: Hit Parade is slated for release via Yep Roc on January 23, 2007 in the U.S.).
Secondly, Jamiroquai has released a compilation called High Times: Singles 1992–2006. This is a surprising collection in that upon scanning through the tracks it becomes clear that the Manchester-born front man Jason Kay (a.k.a. J.K.) actually has produced music that defies the bad-boy, sports-car-crashing thug, which is how he typically is portrayed by the British media. When heard without this prejudice, Jamiroquai’s material can be viewed as credible pop-funk of the highest quality. Using the work of Stevie Wonder as a reference point, Kay has refined and modernized the sound of ’70s funk-rock, and the band’s frequently stunning production yields a stylish, polished ambience. High Times: Singles 1992–2006 will surprise those who might have forgotten just how many popular hits Jamiroquai has had over the years. Key tracks include When You Gonna Learn?, Too Young To Die, Virtual Insanity, Alright, Deeper Underground, and Runaway.
Other compilations that currently are popular include Girls Aloud’s The Sound of Girls Aloud, Moby’s Go: The Very Best of Moby, and although they haven’t been released yet, both Oasis’ Stop the Clocks and U2’s 18 Singles are obtaining a lot of pre-sale attention.
Among the new, non-compilation outings that have been released recently are endeavors by Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice, The Magic Numbers, and Madeleine Peyroux. After a relatively long absence, Rice finally has issued the follow-up to his successful debut O, and 9 currently occupies the top slot on the album charts. Simply put, it is another helping of acoustic artistry. Using thought-provoking and sometimes very personal lyrics, Rice once again has provided the listener with a subconscious visual landscape onto which he paints many scenes and scenarios. Often one is transported into Rice’s childhood, his travels, and his deepest emotional experiences. Placed against a barren but beautifully simple acoustic backing, his voice becomes the focus of attention on each track. Rice also employs another sonic trick by often singing so quietly that the listener has to concentrate very hard on his lyrics, and the end result is that each piece assumes a rare, intimate quality. That is not to say that Rice does not occasionally belt out a few choruses; he can raise the volume when a moment’s emotions demand it. While a four-year gap between sets may be unusual, especially considering the success of his debut, it is apparent that Rice admirably has forgone commercial pressures in order to produce a worthy sophomore set. 9 was well worth the wait. Key tracks include 9 Crimes; Rootless Trees; Me, My Yoke, and I; and Grey Room.
The Magic Numbers’ sophomore outing Those the Brokes comes hot on the heels of the band’s highly acclaimed eponymous effort, which was released just last year. Once again, the retro-minded group pays homage to the summery, ’60s-imbued sounds of The Mamas and the Papas and The Beach Boys. More commercially viable than The Flaming Lips, the ensemble’s emphasis clearly is on foot-tapping beats and lush harmonies that elevate rather than confuse listeners. Those the Brokes is a well executed idea, and while it doesn’t challenge any musical boundaries, it does create a jaunty, happy mood. Key tracks include Take a Chance, Boy, Runnin’ Out, and Goodnight.
As an aside, iTunes recently has made available an exclusive pre-release rendition of Wait, an EP by The Polyphonic Spree. Similar in style to The Magic Numbers, this enormous sounding choir, which boasts more than 20 members, also re-creates the sounds of the ’60s by blending strong harmonies with simple but pleasing arrangements.
Finally, Madeleine Peyroux is an unusual artist who has captured the imagination of the downloading public in the past two weeks. She has been marketed as a jazz performer, though her voice firmly places her within the blues genre. Nevertheless, her new set Half the Perfect World has turned up in neither of these places; instead, it has entered the pop charts, where it has remained since its release. Upon hearing the endeavor, it immediately becomes apparent as Peyroux has managed to crossover into the mainstream with such ease. Granted, the sumptuously photographed, commercially appealing album sleeve will attract the attention of many, and it likely will befuddle buyers once they have listened to the first track. However, exposing new listeners to a new style of music in this manner can only be a good thing, surely, and it would seem that, once the initial shock has worn off, many like what they have heard.
For just about any new female artist venturing into the jazz and blues veins, comparisons to Billie Holiday come with the territory, but Peyroux’s vocals do bear (perhaps unfortunately for her) an extraordinary resemblance. Her vintage inflections crawl through each track, leaving in their wake a lazy, smoky texture that belies her 20-something years of age. Using her talent as a singer/songwriter, she refreshingly commingles her own material with sturdy interpretations of the classics. In addition, her duet with k.d. lang on Joni Mitchell’s River not only provides an interesting combination of vocal styles, but it also offers a welcome return to form for Lang. Key tracks include I’m Alright, Blue Alert, River, California Rain, and I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today.
Other new albums that have been released in the past two weeks include Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, McFly’s Motion in the Ocean, Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster is Loose, J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton’s The Road to Escondido, The Long Blondes’ Someone to Drive You Home, and Keith Urban’s Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing.
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box