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The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys

First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12

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.

Editorís Note: iRevue is taking a break for the holidays, and this will be its last appearance in 2006. The column will return in early January 2007.

December 4th, 2006

With the record companies showing their hands by releasing all of their big guns during the last two or three weeks, it is no surprise that the album release listings have been dominated of late by what arguably is lower quality product. Although fans of the artists undoubtedly would disagree, it is inevitable that the latest legitimate releases will find it impossible to make much of an impact when pitted against such high-volume company as the retrospective packages of U2, George Michael, and Oasis. Also, the race for the Christmas #1 single wonít really heat up until the week before the big day, and as a result, the charts are a little stagnant. With this in mind, iRevue will delve into the interesting, new iTunes "holiday" section to take a look at the festive music, old and new, that is being downloaded this year.

Top Downloaded Tracks

The singles download chart is still being dominated by Take Thatís Patience and by Chris Cornellís You Know My Name, the theme for the latest James Bond film, which respectively are holding the top two slots. Nevertheless, Gwen Stefaniís Wind It Up and Booty Luvís high-energy interpretation of Tweetís Boogie 2Nite are beginning to make some headway. The first holiday tune to make the charts this year is Mariah Careyís All I Want for Christmas Is You, which entered at #6, even though it comes from her 1994 endeavor Merry Christmas.

Album Download Chart

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A commercial first for the most successful boy band in history occurred this week: Take Thatís latest album Beautiful World entered the album download chart at number one at the same time that its new hit Patience was perched atop the corresponding singles chart. Surprisingly, the band had never achieved this feat during its heyday, but its much hyped comeback finally has added this achievement to Take Thatís lengthy list of accolades. The public would be forgiven for assuming that the current buzz that is surrounding the Manchester-based ensemble is nothing more than hype. Yet, when listening to Beautiful World with the blinkers off and the cheesy memories placed to one side, it becomes apparent that the set is an astounding piece of pop artistry. Many of the tracks predictably meet all of the requirements for being radio-friendly chart hits. Traditional ballads are situated alongside upbeat harmonies and memorable choruses, and all of the groupís members are suitably showcased on lead vocals. Yet, the outing also features songs, which ó if they had been written and sung by more credible artists ó undoubtedly would be coveting much praise. Boasting superb production that places big sounding instrumentation and lush vocal harmonies alongside intimate, low-fi vocals and acoustics, Beautiful World will appeal to the most discerning audiophiles as well as to radio DJs. The boy band that disappeared 10 years ago has resurfaced as a "young man" band, and the maturity that comes with it has spawned an endeavor that not only will produce a glut of singles releases over the next few months, but also may equal the record that was established by Michael Jacksonís Bad, from which every tune had its day in the sun. Consequently, every single song on Beautiful World is noteworthy, and Reach Out, Ainít No Sense in Love, the ELO/Beatles-inspired Shine, and the larger-than-life anthem Beautiful World sit very well against the simple and lyrically emotional Wooden Boat.

Other significant releases include the new outing from ex-No Doubt vocalist Gwen Stefani, which is entitled The Sweet Escape. What is particularly interesting about the set is that she experiments with, amongst other things, R&B and hip-hop styles. Unfortunately, none of the tracks are particularly noteworthy, because, it would seem, Stefani possesses little in the way of natural soul to carry it off. Consequently, it is, from start to finish, an uncomfortable listening experience that provides a classic example of an artist who is desperately trying to fit into a category that clearly is beyond her capability.

This concept is highlighted further when Stefaniís The Sweet Escape is compared (perhaps unfairly) to the new endeavor by Mary J. Blige. Reflections: A Retrospective, as its title suggests, is Bligeís greatest hits collection, and it showcases her outstanding vocal talent. Itís a truly soulful album that is performed in such an authentic and powerful way that it makes Stefani sound a little out of her element, to say the least. Key tracks include Bligeís beautifully crafted collaboration with U2 on One, her brilliantly funky Family Affair, the Motown classic Iím Goiní Down, and a cover of Stevie Wonderís As, which she performs with George Michael.

iTunes Holiday Music

On December 1, iTunes introduced a large and very comprehensive collection of holiday music, and in true iTunes fashion, it provides and highlights an eclectic mix of genres and artists. Spending an hour or so browsing through the section is not only an eye-opening experience, but it also can be quite hilarious and somewhat confusing. An examination of the top downloaded tracks results in an eclectic array of old Christmas hits. Wham!ís Last Christmas, Bruce Springsteenís Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, Brenda Leeís Rockiní Around the Christmas Tree, and Cliff Richardís Mistletoe and Wine all dominate the current chart. With record companies holding off with their shots at the Christmas #1 until the week just prior to the holiday, customers are left to muddle through the huge back catalogue of songs available on iTunes.

The chart for holiday albums traditionally throws up a few surprises, some of which are good and some of which are very bad. This year is no different. Occasionally, however, an artist will produce a Christmas album that is so horrible that it instantly is transformed into folklore, and a temporary moment of insanity becomes a mocking figure that can loom over a career, seemingly for an eternity. This yearís prime candidate comes from that snarling, lip-curling personification of í80s rock-oriented sex appeal that is Billy Idol, and the outing, which is titled Happy Holidays, is sure to leave his fans crying into their Vital Idol tour t-shirts.

The collection is Idolís first foray into traditional Christmas music, and he serves it up with a big slice of cheese. Throughout the set, Idol performs the usual selection of classic Christmas songs, and he does so in a traditional but truly cringe-worthy, Bing Crosby-sitting-by-the-fireside sort of way. Surprisingly, this is not the worst thing about the endeavor. Most shocking of all is that he achieves this feat with a straight face! It would appear as if Idol almost certainly was mocking the style, and if so, it would go down as one of the funniest Christmas albums ever. His apparent sincerity, however, is disconcerting, which leaves one final, burning question: Is this for real, or is it British irony at its best?

Fear not, the apparent lip-curling gap in the Christmas market has been filled surprisingly well by ex-Stray Cats front man Brian Setzer. Taking his rockabilly/big band style and applying it to classic Christmas fare results in a foot-stomping, boogie woogie holiday season set that makes for a refreshing change. Two albums that he recorded under the moniker of Brian Setzer and His Orchestra are featured on iTunes: Boogie Woogie Christmas and Dig that Crazy Christmas, both of which are well executed collections of swinging, holiday party fare.

Irish new age crossover artist Enya has issued a special Christmas edition of her (non-Christmas) set Amarantine. The new outing includes four additional, seasonal tracks.

Diana Krallís 2005 endeavor Christmas Songs recently was added to the iTunes catalogue. Throughout the affair, Krall, with the help of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, transforms many Yuletide classics into smoky jazz standards.

For a more personal selection of Christmas fare, the prolific indie/rock artist Sufjan Stevens has produced Songs for Christmas. The outing boasts a rather large selection of material that he compiled from the self-produced musical Christmas cards that he has been sending to family and friends each year.

For a heartfelt, authentic attempt at Christmas music, Leigh Nash has produced a brief set entitled Wishing for This. Containing only seven songs, this outing is a serious attempt at providing a little "quality" holiday fare, and her beautiful voice is mixed with acoustic production to convey an intimate ambience.

Itís rare, however, for the Christmas album charts to be overrun with new material, and this year is no exception. The current download chart is full of the traditional classics that appear every year. From crooners to classical and from jazz to pop, the charts always present a wide-ranging mixture of styles. A few examples include Christmas with the Rat Pack from Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr; Elvis Presleyís Christmas Peace; and John Denver and The Muppetsí A Christmas Together. Artists such as Mariah Carey, Bette Midler, and Christina Aguilera sit alongside choirboy Aled Jones, Cliff Richard, The London Community Gospel Choir, and The Kingís Singers.

However, a word of caution is warranted regarding one particular classic Christmas album: Arguably one of the best holidays sets of all time, Phil Spectorís 1963 collection entitled A Christmas Gift for You does not appear in its original format. Re-packaged as Christmas Spector by The Spectorettes, the newly minted endeavor contains a track listing that is identical to its initial incarnation with the exception of two bonus tunes. Nevertheless, although it features the same Spector-produced backing track, the vocals have been re-recorded, and the quality is terribly poor. Make sure to avoid this one at all costs.

Compilation albums are undoubtedly the biggest sellers on all of the charts, and iTunes has reflected this by including a "Christmas Compilations" sub-section. Here, customers can browse through a diverse selection of holiday music from all over the world. Key outings include: Celtic Harp Christmas, An Irish Christmas, Caribbean Christmas, Salsa Christmas, Big Band Christmas, and Trojan Christmas, to name but a few.

The most downloaded compilations, however, are the modern Christmas collections, which feature a variety of #1 singles and classic party tracks that have been culled from the past 30 years. Many of them have ridiculously similar titles (The Christmas Selection, The Best Christmas Album, and Christmas Hits), and there is a huge overlap among the tracks and the artists.

A recent phenomenon that is best to avoid is the advent of Christmas remix outings. On both Christmas Remixed and Holiday LoungeóThe Christmas Remixes, classics from the í60s essentially are redeployed with fat bass lines and hip-hop beats. Surely, this is taking things too far, and these albums are, at their best, unpleasant.

Finally, an album that ought to be sampled, if only for the fun of it, is Twisted Sisterís A Twisted Christmas. Itís a true gem amongst holiday albums. Not only will it put a smile on oneís face during the holiday season, but it also will leave behind a puzzled expression that will last at least until February.

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Copyright © 2006 The Music Box