2005 – November

KATE BUSH – Aerial
Kate Bush’s eighth studio album, Aerial, has at last been released after an agonising 12 year wait. After five albums in the first seven years of her career, and – finally – three in the next twenty, some people had begun to wonder if she’d just retired altogether. The rumours were rife : she’d had a nervous breakdown, gone insane, been institutionalised … you name it, she was alleged to have suffered it. What a load of old cobblers! All that happened was that she reached the age to have a family, took some time out and generally lived a normal life. There is nothing wrong with her state of mind, her health or – on the evidence here – her quite individual talent for producing a veritable opus of a body of work. Her back catalogue is pretty much flawless, from the opening bars of “Wuthering Heights” at age 19, to the title track Aerial, the 16th and final song on offer here. Indeed, it was precisely because she was so amazing that EMI granted her unprecedented creative freedom with everything she did. Of the process of finally releasing Aerial, she recently said it had reached the laughing stage with the suits at the company whenever they contacted her to ask how it was going. They knew never to hassle her, or give her a deadline or – sometimes – even ask her at all. They just patiently twiddled their thumbs knowing that she’d deliver, and when she did her ever increasing legions of fans would snap up whatever she came up with … and so they should. This is a wonderful album. A beautiful baby. A gift of music for the world and I love her with all my heart …
Musically, the album is a dense and multi-layered work, incorporating elements of folk, classical, reggae and samba into an adventurous pop style. As on 1985’s The Hounds Of Love, this double-disc album is split into two sections. The first disc, subtitled A Sea of Honey, features a set of thematically unrelated songs including the first single, King Of The Mountain, the medieval-style ode to her son “Bertie,” and the Latin-influenced “Joanni,” based on the story of Joan Of Arc. The second disc, subtitled A Sky of Honey, features thematically related songs linked by the presence of birdsong (the album’s cover art, which seems to show a mountain range at sunset is in fact a waveform, which represents birdsong). It also features Rolf Harris’ vocals on two tracks. Other artists guesting on the album include Lol Creme (10CC) and Gary Brooker (Procul Harum).
To sum up, Aerial is almost classical in the heights it reaches, sublime in the sensuality it offers and simply untouchable as a record of the artist at this point in her career. It’s everything you want and more. Why are you still reading this? Just go out and buy the most important album of the year.

EURYTHMICS – Ultimate Collection
Annie Lennox, like Kate Bush, is one of those curiously eccentric female artists that emerge in the UK every once in a while. The Great British public sees no reason not to indulge them, and embraces them, warts and all, in order to see what develops : is it genius? Is it folly? Or a cunning combination of the two? What jolly fun, eh? More Pimms anyone?
Annie sings like an angel, looks like an elf of indiscernible age or sex (I could imagine her in Rivendell, strolling around in the background while Elrond and Gandalf try to decide who will go with Frodo to destroy the ring) and she’s classically trained on the piano. She dabbled with Buddhism for a while, has had two painful marriages and one emotional breakdown, and yet, resilient to the end, she’s now back with her long-term musical partner, Dave Stewart, himself a guitarist and producer of consummate skill and repute.
Like a lot of the best songwriting teams, they never quite sounded right, or indeed good enough, whilst pursuing their solo careers. Annie released three solid enough albums, while Dave guested on loads, produced a few more and collaborated on some others … all until Annie’s triumphant return to the public eye with her stunning appearance at Live8.
Maybe that’s when they met up again? Who cares! They’re back, there’s two new songs and the promise of future albums. Sweet Dreams are made of this, and who am I to disagree?
There’s 19 tracks in all, including the two new tracks, the uptempo “I’ve Got A Life” and the slower, more sensual “Was It Just Another Love Affair”, as well as all the hits. When your back catalogue has been as influential and ground-breaking as theirs, it’s quite something to revisit the songs and find them as fresh as ever. This is mostly down to the solid songcraft on show here, but also due in no small measure to the clean production of Stewart. While some other 80s “electronica” artists can sound a bit dated now, songs like “Sweet Dreams”, “Who’s That Girl?”, “Love Is A Stranger” and “There Must Be An Angel” still sound fresh and vibrant. Their latter period saw less of a reliance on synths and the move towards a more mainstream pop-rock sound with plenty of guitar to the fore, and those tracks – “Thorn In My Side”, “Would I Lie To You?”, “When Tomorrow Comes” – sound punchy and alive too.
Texas, Goldfrapp and all the other pretenders to Annie’s crown can move aside now …

ALICIA KEYS – MTV Unplugged
Keeping on the “amazing female artist” tip, Alicia Keys releases a live set for the first time and if you’re a fan already, you know she’s gonna deliver. And how! Alicia amazes audiences yet again, this time without the help of studio aided effects. She belts out the songs and beautifully accompanies herself on the piano. Even though the album features many of her hits that have previously been released, she restyles them so drastically that its like a whole new take of your favorites like “Fallin,” “How Come You Don’t Call Me?” and even throwing in a jazz club sounding version of the Nas song (featuring Ms. Keys in its original release) “Streets of New York.” There’s guest appearances from man of the moment Damien Marley as well as Moss Def and Common and a great duet with Maroon 5’s Adam Levine on The Rolling Stones classic “Wild Horses” (no, really – it actually works!).
But for me, the absolute highlight is the unveiling of “The New Song”, in this case the absolutely blistering “Unbreakable”. It’s a revved-up funky love song, which really gets a groove goin’ down straight from the off and – I’m telling you NOW – will be a number one hit all over the world. I love it. It’s almost worth buying this just to hear that one, new, wonderful, groovy, amazing song …

STEVIE WONDER – A Time 2 Love
Putting out an album every 10 years has its pros and cons. The upside: everybody’s thrilled to see you – plus they’ve probably forgotten how bad your last outing was. The downside: after a decade to get it right, you’d better deliver the goods. Well, it gives me enormous pleasure to report soul icon Stevie Wonder does indeed get it right – or at least more right than wrong – on A Time 2 Love, his long-overdue follow-up to 1995’s disappointing “Conversation Peace”. Despite his lengthy absence, Wonder hasn’t lost his songwriting touch or supple voice; if anything, he’s reconnected with his creative muse and become reinvigorated as a performer, resulting in his first disc in memory that doesn’t seem embarrassing next to his classic albums. Cuts like “Please Don’t Hurt My Baby”, “So What the Fuss”, “Positivity” and “Sweetest Somebody I Know” revisit the irresistible clavinet-and-harmonica funk and soul-pop of the ’70s; the thickly vibing “If Your Love Cannot Be Moved” shows Wonder can handle contemporary hip-hop; heartfelt piano ballads like “Moon Blue”, “True Love” and “How Will I Know” (featuring daughter Aisha Morris) are smooth enough to erase the treacly aftertaste of “The Lady in Red”; and the fact Wonder plays most of the instruments on these 15 tracks goes a long way toward justifying the long wait for this 77-minute disc. You could argue there are a few too many slow cuts in the second half, a few too many questionable guest spots (why have Paul McCartney play guitar and not sing?) and a few too many songs that play it safe. But you can’t dispute that A Time 2 Love is both a solid comeback and a welcome return to form by one of pop’s most significant voices. Signed, sealed and delivered.

ROD STEWART – Thanks For The Memory : American Songbook IV
The old dog surrounds himself with another top-notch cast of collaborators on this, his fourth album of standards, with the set highlights being duets with Elton John (“Makin’ Whoopee”), Chaka Khan (“You Send Me”) and Diana Ross (“I’ve Got a Crush on You”). That phrase “If it ain’t broke … ” has never been more apt than with this rich vein of late form, now being mined for the last time. After this, who knows what Rod will do? Maybe a musical or an opera? Or more likely probably a low down dirty blues album just to get him back to his roots. I certainly hope so, anyway! Don’t get me wrong, the songs here are great and ones that everybody should know, the production is flawless and the duets quite subtle and not too dramatic, surprisingly given Elton’s involved on one of them, but I think it’s good that he knows when to stop. There’s only so many shows Parkinson can broadcast in a year and he’s got to accomodate Jamie Cullum and Norah Jones as well, you know … 

ROBBIE WILLIAMS – Intensive Care
An interesting one from Robbie. He’s ditched his old songwriter, taken a couple of years off and … well … actually grown up a bit, I think. At first listen it’s a bit flat. You’re not sure if it’s him, but you quite like it … it’s just … something … you can’t quite put your finger on … and I think the first single, Tripping, sums it all up quite succinctly. It’s a grower. I’ve given it five or six listens now and, bugger me, I actually like it. All of it. And I don’t really “get” the whole Robbie thing. Maybe I’m growing up too …?

BEASTIE BOYS – Solid Gold Hits
“They can’t, they won’t and they don’t STOP!” Ahhh … The Beastie Boys … a seminal group. A veritable tower of power in the world of hip hop and yet they still couldn’t get white people into black music in the way that Eminem has … and he probably wouldn’t even be around without the influence of Mike D and MCA. Heck, who cares. They’re infinitely more talented and WAY more important than the self-styled Stan The Man.
I defy you to listen to any of the tracks on this superbly crafted retrospective without wanting to strike a pose, get up and dance or laugh out loud at the lyrics. Try it : I dare you.
When you throw in ALL of their AMAZING videos on the bonus double-disc set as a DVD, this can’t be beaten as a package. Remember the spoof 70s cop movie in Sabotage? Or the fighting robots in Intergalactic? It’s all here … so ch-ch-check it out, y’all !!

SANTANA – All That I Am
It seems that Carlos doesn’t follow our Rod’s advice in terms of knowing when to quit while you’re ahead. With Supernatural, Santana were reborn by bringing in guest artists as vocalists. The choice of songs and singers were all perfectly in harmony and the result was an outstanding album. The follow-up, Shaman, was a weak affair that followed the same formula but with patchier material and some less than top level collaborations … and it seems he’s done it again, diluting that bottle and scraping that barrel yet further still with All That I Am, the third album of duets. It’s time to stop Carlos. I’m not even gonna list the artists involved. It’s car crash radio …

MADONNA – Confessions On A Dancefloor
On Confessions On A Dance Floor, Madonna, the most popular and significant female artist in the whole world of pop music, returns unapologetically to her roots. A stunning blend of musical styles with one foot in early disco (à la Giorgio Moroder) and the other pointed toward the future, Confessions On A Dance Floor “is all about having a good time straight through and non-stop,” says the Material Mum, who co-wrote and co-produced every track. For Madonna and music fans everywhere, the all-dance, no-ballad Confessions On A Dance Floor is a welcome guilty pleasure. Party on, girls !

Originally published in 2005

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