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The Downloading Portal
News, Views, and Musical Journeys

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2006, Volume 13, #9

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.

September 12th, 2006

Album Download Chart

Downloading offers a real-time glimpse at the collective musical mood of pop culture, and therefore, it’s not surprising that there has been a lot of movement in the single and album charts within the last 14 days. In the UK alone, the past few weeks have seen the annual Mercury Prize ceremony, an endless stream of reviews of Bob Dylan’s new album Modern Times, the last night of the Proms, the television broadcast of a Robbie Williams concert, and a full-scale marketing budget on behalf of the Scissor Sisters — all of which have combined to weigh heavily upon the climate.

This year’s Mercury Prize, which formally is known as the Mercury Music Awards, was won by the Arctic Monkeys for its effort Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. (Key tracks from the endeavor include I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor, When the Sun Goes Down, and Mardy Bum). Considering, however, that the outing was the biggest selling album of the year and that it broke all of the existing sales records on the day of its release, it did not feature heavily in the subsequent download chart. Two artists that did benefit hugely from the exposure, however, were former Pulp guitarist Richard Hawley and former Lamb vocalist Lou Rhodes. Both works, Hawley’s Coles Corner and Rhodes’ Beloved One, are excellent examples of singer-songwriter-oriented fare, and each contains heartfelt and deeply personal lyrics that leave listeners pondering their own thoughts and emotions.

Hawley is a Sheffield lad through and through, and on Coles Corner, his fourth endeavor, he croons his way through a myriad of atmospheric moods with lounge style vocals that demand attention. With his honest lyrics and simple yet spacious orchestration, Hawley has the ability to create portraits that are so vivid that he is able to transport his listeners wherever it is that he wants them to go. Highlights include Coles Corner, Hotel Room, Tonight, and Just Like the Rain.

With her album Beloved One, Rhodes has produced a similarly beautiful set. A deeply personal reflection of life, the album conveys its message via a haunting, soft vocal performance that has its roots in folk music. This traditional style, combined with the very simple acoustic ambience of the work, provides the listener with the space to create images from the music and the lyrics. Rhodes recorded the album after leaving behind the commercial success of Lamb and taking to a simplified life in the countryside. Her newly found method of musical expression makes it is easy for the listener to ‘see,’ without a single brush of paint on canvass, exactly where she lives and how she feels. Key tracks include Beloved One, Why, Each Moment New, and To Survive.

Rather surprisingly to some, Bob Dylan has appeared at the top of the download chart, albeit briefly, with his latest offering Modern Times. With positive reviews across the globe, it appears that there is no substitution for iconic stature within the music industry. Ironically, with its stripped down production, the set is probably Dylan’s most ‘un-modern’ outing in quite awhile, and even more than Love and Theft, it sounds very much like a laid-back, old-style blues recording. At times, Dylan gives a painfully thin vocal performance, though as usual, his lyrics are expertly constructed, highly opinionated, deeply moving, and full of heavy thoughts. Fans, of course, would expect nothing less. Unfortunately, Modern Times, and in particular the style in which it is delivered, may not appeal to everyone, and a younger, more dynamic audience possibly will regard it as nothing more than the rambling of a grumpy, old man. Highlights include Workingman’s Blues #2, Ain’t Talkin’, Spirit on the Water, and Thunder on the Mountain.

This year’s two-month-long Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall in London has had to cope, rather unusually, with a few dramatic events. A small fire caused the cancellation of a number of nights, making it a struggle to get the whole ordeal completed on schedule. Nevertheless, with its usual surge of patriotism and national euphoria, it concluded like clockwork. As is customary, the music performed on the final night forms the basis of many a new collection of classical music, simply because fans are born through their exposure to the genre via the affair’s excellent television and radio coverage. This year was no exception, and The Last Night of The Proms Collection by the BBC Concert Orchestra & Barry Wordsworth has found itself squarely planted in the Top 10 classical downloads for each of the last four weeks. The key track undeniably is"Pomp and Circumstance," Op.39: March No. 4 in G, Jerusalem and Rule Britannia. However, one of the lesser known but equally worthy pieces of music performed was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No 2 in C Minor. One of the greatest recordings of the piece was performed in the mid-’90s by the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Sir Simon Rattle, and it recently has been made available for download.


Top Downloaded Tracks

Two artists — Robbie Williams and the Scissor Sisters — have had the full weight of their publicity machines thrown behind them in recent weeks. Williams, who, at one point, seemed to be poised to take over the world, has seen a miserable downturn in the popularity of his downloads, which coincided with his arguably disappointing live performance on British television. A concert that featured ad breaks(!) and a performance that was more reminiscent of an excited child than an accomplished performer resulted in iTunes pulling its exclusive remixes and special features for the singer. His subsequent poor download sales have meant, not surprisingly, that none of his singles or albums have appeared in the Top 50 of either chart. Nevertheless, a few suggested tracks include: Angels, Let Me Entertain You, Tripping, Feel, Rudebox, She’s the One, and Rock DJ.

Alternatively, the recent publicity surrounding the release on September 18 of Ta Dah, the new album from the Scissor Sisters, combined with the announcement of the group’s tour as well as its performance at a charity event in London’s Trafalgar Square has seen a massive upsurge in downloads across the band’s entire back catalogue. Seven tracks have featured in the Top 10 during the last 10 days. Highlights include I Don’t Feel Like Dancing, Take Your Mama Out, Laura, Filthy/Gorgeous, Mary, and Comfortably Numb.

There are several other items of note among the top downloads: When You Were Young is the excellent new single from The Killers’ forthcoming effort Sam’s Town, which is due in early October. Equally strong is The Feeling’s Never Be Lonely from its debut Twelve Stops from Home. Also highly recommended is Snow in the Sun, the new single from Scritti Politti’s widely acclaimed White Bread, Black Beer.


New Musical Journeys and Inspirations: Focus on Country Music

In the U.K., country music generally has been viewed through a rather blinkered vision of rhinestones, cowboys, big hats, line dancing, and, of course, Dolly Parton — to name a few of the clichés that, over the years, have taken hold. As a result, true country music fans are hard to find. With the emergence of "new country" artists such as Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, kd lang, and Garth Brooks, country music did see a brief period of rising popularity during the ’80s, but the trend was relatively short-lived. Nevertheless, recent events and new inspirations have succeeded in reigniting the genre.

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The public and sad demise of Johnny Cash helped to reintroduce the style to many potential fans, and there is no better base from which to discover country music’s rich and varied history. Cash still dominates the country music download charts, and in fact, five of the Top 10 albums are his. American IV: The Man Comes Around has been in the top slot for months, and the indisputable quality of his work with producer Rick Rubin has helped to return him to the forefront of modern music. His highly regarded cover of Nine Inch Nails’ Hurt has helped Cash to connect with a new audience, which resulted in the song’s promotional spot being voted into the Top Five of MTV Europe’s all-time greatest videos. This same fresh crop of potential country music lovers has proceeded to look into Cash’s back catalogue with interest, and American V: A Hundred Highways, American III: Solitary Man, several greatest hits compilations, and the classic concert set Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison have all benefitted immensely. A few of the key tracks include Hurt, Ring of Fire, I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, A Boy Named Sue, and Jackson.

Another highly regarded, classic artist that has helped to reinvigorate the country music scene is Bruce Springsteen. His latest effort We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is a collection of traditionally-minded fare that was made famous by Pete Seeger but has been reborn through Springsteen’s unbridled enthusiasm. The music on the effort frequently crosses the line between country and folk, both of which are obviously close to Springsteen’s heart. The majority of songs are rattled off in quick succession with excitement and fervor, as if they were being played at breakneck speed in a rowdy pub or club. Seeing one of the most successful recording artists in modern times pay such homage to this genre would seem to be another shot in the arm for country music fans and artists alike. Key tracks include Old Dan Tucker, John Henry, Jacob’s Ladder, and Eyes on the Prize.

Old favorites, such as Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 and John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, still appear in the download charts, but the genre has a lot more to offer than just these country-pop standards. Alison Krauss + Union Station, for example, offers a glimpse of bluegrass that is fused with a modern, airy vocal style. The group’s tight production has produced some surprising moments across a series of albums. Highlights include A Living Prayer, Gravity, Jubilee, and Could You Lie.

Similarly, Keith Urban, a native of New Zealand, has produced a sumptuous album entitled Days Go By on which his rock ’n‘ roll vocal style combines with a country-rock ambience that is on the verge of crossing over into the mainstream. Key moments include Days Go By, Somebody Like You, You’ll Think of Me, and She’s Gotta Be.

The more traditional sounds of Trace Adkins also are worth sampling, as is the modern, sassy style of the female vocal ensemble Dixie Chicks. The unusual 32 Below also is worth a look. In short, country music is a genre well-worth investigating. While it has continued to stick to its roots, it also has embraced change, which in turn has fomented an array of new artists who will continue to keep the music sounding alive and fresh.


Copyright © 2006 The Music Box