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Adventures In 2014: Top 80 Songs

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Oh yeah, I went there this year.

For me, 2014 truly belonged to the singles, the stragglers, album tracks, and the lone guilty pleasures. Narrowing down the list of my favorite jams of the year to my usual 20 to 30 songs was just impossible for me to do, and I knew I couldn't live with myself if I left off some of my favorites of the year just because I didn't have room. So I decided that its my blog and I can do whatever the heck I want so I made plenty of room PLUS I even went the extra mile to make a handy Spotify playlist so you can enjoy the tracks in their full glory. Ain't I sweet or what? (Just note that not every song featured on this list is on the playlist as Spotify is saddity and doesn't always have everything that we all want when we need it.)

Also, for the list itself, not all the songs featured were covered on this blog or on my posts for SoulBounce. I always like surprising you guys, so prepare to go "Really, Jen? That lame ass song?" or "Oh wow! That is the most amazing song ever!" when you get your scroll on.

So take a peek at my top 80 songs of the year after the cut, and be sure to tell me in the comments about what songs you enjoyed this year!

Adventures In 2014: Top 20 Albums & EPs

2014 was a wee bit rocky for me, especially in terms of finding albums that I could connect with. While songs by themselves I had zero trouble with (and you'll see what I mean later on...), albums and the creative construction of them have been in a constant dry spell. Yes, I'm crankily repeating myself from previous years, yet it seems at the end of the year I always find myself in déjà vu when it comes to culling together a list of my favorite albums of the year because as I get older, I'm well...more difficult to please.

These days the way an album is released has become more the focus than the actual content itself, and well, for an 'experience' girl like myself, I sit going: "Okay, fabulous, you did some epic shit, but what else have you got?" See, I like to be carted off from my lowly little existence and taken on adventures, sound adventures, lyrical adventures. I like to hear artists take risks, build from their previous efforts, and yes, at times just have some frackin' fun and not take themselves so seriously --- so few full projects fit those things now.

Still hope is never lost as even though it was a difficult year (once again) for the album, as usual I was able to dig into the cavern of sludge and uncover some aural gems that while weren't perfect --- they were perfect for me.

So take a peek at my top 20 of the year after the cut, and be sure to tell me in the comments about the albums you enjoyed this year!

Class Of 1994: TLC, Madonna, Changing Faces & Brandy

Monday, December 29, 2014

As y'all may be well aware at this point, I also spread my wealth of words over to SoulBounce, and this month we are doing our annual retrospective series 'Class Of...'. For those not in the know, the 'Class Of...' series is where the SoulBounce staff take turns throwing the spotlight on a bevy of influential albums of the soul, hip-hop, and R&B persuasion that have turned 20 years of age.

This year we're are covering the year 1994, and you can bet we have a lot to cover considering 1994 was one of the golden years for R&B and hip-hop. Due to the the onslaught, SoulBounce has set up two full weekends* to cover all the albums that we all collectively felt were essential to the 1994 groove. Yours truly is covering the 1994 albums of TLC, Brandy, Madonna, and Changing Faces, and you bet I had lots of fun recapping these vocal dames' game changing sets.

'Class Of...' is one of my favorite series on SoulBounce as I've been doing it for close to three years now, and it's always a treat to dig back in the crates for it. So join me in the time travel if you will by checking out my reviews, as well as other great albums of '94!

Madonna Exposes Six Sides Of Her 'Rebel Heart'

Monday, December 22, 2014

After a bushel of unfinished demos posing as a new album leaked online without permission, Madonna rightfully got pissed. While her rhetoric was reckless ("artistic rape"? Ugh, you're terrible Muriel...), Madonna decided to stop her Grinch grumbling and allow her heart to grow a few sizes bigger, caving into the irksome unveil to officially release six new songs from her upcoming album, Rebel Heart, as an early Christmas gift to fans. Well, bless her.

Here's a breakdown of each track:

Living For Love
It only took a few seconds, but there was instant romance with what is to be Rebel Heart's official first single. It's a superbly stacked track that has Madonna in a seamless mix of her past and foreseeable future as she dances amid glitter bomb grooves with Alicia Keys in the background just banging away on piano. She rests on her laurels with a smattering of religious references and the ghosts of "Deeper And Deeper" and "Rescue Me" wiggling their way in, but these remnants also play strategically well into the '90s House revival that is currently dominating the radio and it allows Madonna to flourish into the future without a stumble. Cluttered in its production list only (Diplo, MoZella, Nick Rowe, Toby Gad, Ariel Rechtstaidand MNEK were all involved), "Living For Love" is seriously the best single Madonna has released in the last 10 years.

Unapologetic Bitch
Madonna has always raised a neatly polished middle finger to her dissenters, and she keeps that finger wagging and her salted tongue lashing for this Reggae-tinged roller. Forget about the dopey title that sent everyone in a hashtag tizzy back when Rebel Heart was just mere rumor, Diplo gives Madonna an electric hammock of synths to sway in as she 'pushes and shoves' a little No Doubt flavor into the addictive bounce.

With snarled lip beats, Kanye West sends Madonna into an inky, ominous spiral with "Illuminati". It's a somewhat oddball track that has Madonna waxing a history lesson about what the 'secret elitist cult' is --- and what it is not ("It’s not Jay-Z and Beyonce, it’s not Nicki or Lil Wayne/It’s not Oprah and Obama, the Pope and Rihanna/Queen Elizabeth or Kanye") --- all while evoking shades of "Vogue"'s dicey raps and West's signature stabbing synths. Though goofy lines like "Google of United States" (um, que?) pop up and it clunks rather than clicks in some spots, when the bridges kick in with its prismatic synth walls, "Illuminati" shines like the all seeing eye.

Lyrically better than the others, the wintry "Ghosttown" is Madonna locking into a power ballad and she excels at every turn. Swept up you'll be in the wave crash of synths and the fluid way the melodies just rush and fold over you as this song is crafted with the Madonna of yore in mind, taking us back to the time when she 'took a bow' and was reflecting on the 'rain'. Madonna always comes across as effective when she hones in and gets her chanteuse on, and with this lament she captivates. In a perfect world, I'd love for this to be a single, and for the title's spelling to not look like that ( #JournalismMajorProblems).

Devil Pray
Madonna atones for her whiskey and weed indulging sins on this woebegone wailer that reaches back to the American Life songbook. Yet, it's been ten years, and the riffs on AL are far and few as with Ryan Tedder on production backup "Devil Pray" gallops into a sunset of unusual arrangement textures such as a looping 'demon' voice, handclaps, and synth bleeps, all of it freely flowing into the pillow-lined guitar backdrop. As it hooks you, it also puts a real spin on the country fried melodic, and its another strong contender for single material if you ask me.

Bitch, I'm Madonna (feat. Nicki Minaj)
As I'm one of the few sista girls on this planet who isn't enraptured with whatever Miss Nicki Minaj is trying to peddle off as "feminist rap", I was already sucking my teeth about this number. Still, Madonna can have whoever the f*ck she wants on a song because well, bitches, she's Madonna, and my basic ass probably needs to have several seats about that (Lordy, I felt a few brain cells dissolve when typing that...). Not that I needed confirmation on Madonna's, um, "Madonniness", but for those who needed a reminder, this bratty, spangled banner waves the right to express yourself --- not repress yourself, and who am I to turn a nose up about it. Still this is the lone dud for me, because even the assault of trappy Diplo and Sophie crafted beats doesn't cure me from the fact that Madonna is winking and gunning like a cool mom with this song. I'm sorry, but bitch, I'm Audio Diva, and I've got my listening standards.

Interview: Sidibe

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Sisterhood declarations are a dime a dozen. When you find one that hollers your creed or speaks up for you in ways you couldn't express, there is always this urgent need to pocket it and then pull it out whenever it's just one of dem days. Somehow I wasn't looking for another sisterhood anthem --- I thought I had it covered for now --- but it was one of those stars aligning type deals that brought Sidibe's "See You Girl" into my orbit. I was immediately struck by how delicate and intimate it was, this considering all the women empowerment songs I usually hear are brazen and bold statements that are raisin' all kinds of hell. This one was different, special, as it made sure to spotlight all the kinds of ways women love and are inspired by one another. Mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, even lovers --- "See You Girl" is for women who flat-out just love to love and want to seek and spread that love around.

"See You Girl" is housed on Sidibe's second collection, Soul Siren, where other love letters are written and primed to be useful for those days (and nights) of soulful searching whether with a partner or on the solo tip.

Sidibe was gracious enough to answer some questions for me (okay, okay, a lot of questions --- you know me, inquisitive to the hilt), and from this chat, you'll learn about how this fresh n' soulful dame from Los Angeles is making a name for herself, and is a true 'soul siren' in her own right.

So without further adieu, kick back, give Soul Siren a spin, and allow Sidibe shoot from the hip for a bit...

D'Angelo Rises With 'Black Messiah'

Monday, December 15, 2014

Hark! What is this? A Christmas miracle?

It took about 15 years and lots of dashed promises and hopes, but with a twinkle in his eye and a sly smirk, D'Angelo decided to give us an early, wrapped present in the form of Black Messiah.

In a surprise attack, while not a creature stirred, and everybody had already unleashed their end-of-the-year lists (I see what you did there D), over the weekend some goodies were left in our social media boxes with care as a brief announcement of the album's arrival popped up on YouTube, then a few hours later, the track "Sugah Daddy" materialized.  D and his Vanguard troop decided to keep spreading the soul cheer 'round as he saved the biggest gift for last as Black Messiah dropped in full on iTunes and Spotify at midnight --- and of course everybody and their mama lost their collective minds.

As brilliant as this master release game plan was (how did we miss that it had been in motion since June?), what D had to say about the album is equally insightful, as it reads in the album's liner notes:
"'Black Messiah' is a hell of a name for an album. It can easily be misunderstood. Many will think it's about religion. Some will jump to the conclusion that I'm calling myself a Black Messiah. For me, the title is about all of us. It's about the world. It's about an idea we can all aspire to. We should all aspire to be a Black Messiah."  
It's about Ferguson, and in Egypt, in Occupy Wall Street and in every place where a community has had enough and decides to make change happen. It's not about praising one charismatic leader but celebrating thousands of them. Not every song on the album is politically charged (though many are), but calling this album Black Messiah creates a landscape where these songs can live to the fullest. Black Messiah is not one man. It's a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader."
Spreading that good will towards man y'all.

Yours truly has called in "D'Angelo Ill" today to put aside a slice of time to digest the supreme soul and testament (and mumbled enunciation...) that is awash in this, and on first spin, "Really Love", "The Charade" , and the album shattering closer "Another Life" sound good to my ears, but that will probably change in the next few days, because yes, my Audio Children, the album is that good. D'Angelo still meditates in the church of guitar washed backwoods soul, but for all of his fuzzy lyrical mumbles and wailing falsettos, he's still pretty much given us somethin' we can feel that is out of time, but is still so lounging in it. Well, it took almost half a decade for D'Angelo to tinker and be the keen perfectionist on it so naturally we weren't going to get anything less than stellar, right?

Black Messiah has risen (it has already soared up to #1 on iTunes!) and in a time where soul and R&B music are in vastly different stages, this is a bold and somewhat foreshadowing entry to how the genres are going to sound in the coming year. The game plan has shifted...

Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars Are Bringing That Uptown Funk, Y'all

I feel like such a goober for missing this funky funky stuff, but this Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars collabo came out during a really bad time for me --- so better late than never right?

Ronson and Mars (who's seriously one of my favorite people) have done something special with "Uptown Funk" as it has influences galore, but instead of it being a cluttered mess, it truly does evoke all the best parts of the '70s and early '80s soul-funk foundation, giving big nods to a ignored period in funk and soul where the "disco backlash" reigned --- but didn't extinguish the spirit of the groove. Zapp, Cameo, Rick James, Kool & The Gang, One Way, The Time, Sly Stone, Michael Jackson, and of course James Brown are all embedded in this slam jam that boasts braggadocios lyrics and a killer horn section that is just bringing the electric heat.

The lively video visually gives great homages to the two eras, and is just egging on the fact that Ronson's upcoming Uptown Special is going to be super freaking fun when it arrives next year.

Mary J. Blige Hangs Tough & Tells Truths On 'The London Sessions'

Monday, December 8, 2014

Mary J. Blige has always been truth serum for the heartbroken. The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free --- Blige was there, speaking out --- and she had her head held high, a tear or two flowing, fussing and fighting to just be well, happy. She just gets this thing called life, and it's why for 20+ years, Blige has been at the forefront of confessional soul and hip-hop, crowned as the queen.

Yet, for someone so intimately associated with heartaches, who had indirectly and directly endured abuse, and survived addiction, Blige seemed to wean off her usual script for her last few albums as the albums following the 2005 stunner, The Breakthrough, seemed to not possess the same introspective spark as her others. While she broke through and noted that she was 'just fine', and we were there rooting for her to climb above the grey clouds, there was some distance, and some sincere want for the raw ,"heartsick Mary" again just so we could have those "I'm Going Down" and "No More Drama" moments.

Still in-between the heartaches, it's always difficult to find artistic footing when you've been at it for so long, and when the musical climate shifts and blows frosty in your direction. What had been painful for Blige, and worthy of document, has dulled somewhat and left little room for contemplation. Yet, there was still room for change.

Change came when British production whiz kids, Disclosure reached out to Blige for a re-work of their single,"F For You". The result was undeniable as the two differing acts proved compatibility, and Blige sounded electrifying and anew. When crooner Sam Smith came into the picture another bond was formed as she found a kindred somber soul spirit and one of the best duet partners she's ever had. With these new ties, Blige decided change was in order, as she packed her bags and headed to London for a month-long stay to craft what is possibly her best foot forward in almost a decade.

Artist Watch: Mahaut Mondino

With a twitchy single like, "Jungle", Parisian singer/songwriter Mahaut Mondino is onto something. Infectious to the hilt and daring to be different, Mondino has sculpted her music in a vibrant new medium. It is a glaring fact though that Mondino is the daughter of THE Jean-Baptise Mondino, and he has helped her cultivate her visual aesthetic by directing her all of her videos thus far. But Mondino, while inheriting an artistic gene from her photographing papa, is still driving in her own lane.

She first cut her teeth working on production duo Supreme Cuts' 2013 album, Divine Ecstasy, contributing to the pieces "Gone" and "Brown Flowers". Out on her own, Mondino has gleaned together soulfully fringed trappy beat songs that, in essence, remind me of the humorous and harmonious funk of Maylee Todd. So full of play is the flirty "Voodoo Me", along with my favored "Jungle" and its hiccuping diction and punchy hip-pop sound. Unlike some, Mondino knows how to lasso that fluctuating voice of hers, and doesn't overindulge or overwork it. Her keen sense of this is best heard on her current single, "The Great Elements", a neo-jazz deal that steams and bewitches and keeps you intrigued throughout.

My only quibble is the quality of Mondino's visuals have left me a tad cold. Never the mind that Papa Mondino had a hand in them, and that Mahaut seems to exert a kinetic personality (though she skirts a wee bit too close to FKA Twigs' steeze for my taste...) --- they just didn't work for me. Uncultured swine I may be. Still, my criticisms towards Mondino's videos are not to belittle her voice, as she's got one --- a great one in fact --- and it's robust and soulful with just the right touch of variance that shows a kaleidoscopic personality at play.

Visuals aside, Mahaut Mondino is without a doubt one to watch, and with an EP premiering next year we'll be soon privy to many more 'great elements' when it arrives. So for now, lend an ear and fall into the funky....

Lifetime's 'Whitney' Biopic Actually Looks...Decent

Friday, December 5, 2014

In the wake of the mangled mess that Lifetime made of Aaliyah's biopic, there has been unease over how the network was going to bring Whitney Houston's legacy to life. Earlier this week, the network leaked out exclusive shots of the film, and just yesterday the trailer premiered over at Buzzfeed, and wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, it looks quite promising!

From first look, director and dame extraordinaire, Angela Bassett seems to have a hold on making this pic visually appealing right down to getting the wedding attire of Houston (played by YaYa DaCosta) and Bobby Brown (played by Arlen Escarpeta) on-point, and really capturing Houston in all of her facets, good and bad. Bassett has also been pretty straightforward about her vision for the film, citing that she wanted to seriously focus on the turbulent relationship between Houston and Brown, as well as the struggles Houston had with addiction, and there is plenty of skewed wigs and white lines to clarify that (though DaCosta needs a sweatier upper lip while performing --- just saying).

Unlike the crap trap Aaliyah movie (and its hilarious memes), Whitney will feature some of Houston's music, but sadly, the original tracks won't be played (Cissy Houston had her mad face on 'bout that) as Deborah Cox will fill in and perform the limited set-list, featuring songs, "I Will Always Love You", "The Greatest Love Of All", "I'm Your Baby Tonight" and "I'm Every Woman". While I truly believe, Whitney Houston's life story deserves a splashy big-screen treatment like what we saw with the lives of Ray Charles and James Brown, at least Whitney looks entertaining, and will no doubt be a hell of a lot of fun to live-tweet when it premieres. So consider me cautiously optimistic and crossing my fingers and toes for this one....I mean, it can be as bad as that Aaliyah travesty, right? *shudders*

Whitney will premiere on Lifetime, Saturday January 17th. Check local listings for proper times and view the extended trailer after the cut.

Hold Up, Wait A Minute, Antonique Smith Has Got This

Nestled into Antonique Smith's debut single is this crackling line: "see your wining her, after dining me, but what's crazy is, my names on both receipts."

Damn. Preach on.

I came into "Hold Up, Wait A Minute (Woo Woo)" unaware of Smith's powerhouse vocals. I already knew she could act, as in addition to a number of stage and screen roles that she's already done, I best remembered her in a extremely effective role as Zoe Kravitz's older sister in the 2011 flick, Yelling To The Sky (check it out on Netflix --- it's pretty good). Smith is also effective vocal wise as she lays down a vocal assault on the funky brass blasting "Hold Up, Wait A Minute (Woo Woo)", giving off some saucy Blu Cantrell-meets-Christina Aguilera game.

Though this high-octane track has been out for about a year now, the official music video has been released with Larenz Tate at the directing lens, and Lance Gross making an appearance as Smith's suave n' sexy rebound guy. If you haven't gotten into this fireball kiss-off number then dig in, and be on the look-out for Antonique Smith's long-awaited debut album, Love Is Everything when 2015 rolls around.

Woo woo, y'all.

Little Boots Mixes Business With Pleasure

Monday, December 1, 2014

Can you mix business with pleasure? Little Boots certainly believes it's possible. Serving as a preview for her upcoming third LP, Little Boots (aka Victoria Hesketh) has released, Business Pleasure a four-track set that keeps the London singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist in experimentation mode.

After hitting some speed bumps on her 2009 debut, Hands, Little Boots absolved the four-year break between projects with last year's Nocturnes, trimming the fat and synth over-zeal of her debut to create a streamlined dip into a Vice City nocturnal groove, with single "Every Night I Say A Prayer" leading the way.

For Business Pleasure, Little Boots has still got that chilled nighttime vibe on the brain, but this 'fourplay' is a bit warmer, frothier, especially when the cheeky minimalist of "Taste It" comes to pout, and "Pretty Tough" dreamily lounges in a spacious alt-R&B arena. The two stand-outs for me are the breathy '90s trance piece, "Heroine" and the skittish title track which plays in the waters that Prince couldn't compute back in 1983, showing off once again how much Little Boots has her ear tuned to the synthesized vibes of the 1980s.

With Com Truise on production duties, Business Pleasure, while brief and wanting, teases to what can become of Little Boots' evolving sound, and you can almost 'taste' the goodness that is to be in store.

You can get down to business by streaming the EP this instant, as well as take pleasure in the pre-order via iTunes.

14th Tells Some Sweet, Slow Burning Lies

It's just a sheer hunch that the onslaught of boy-girl duos from the UK led as to why London duo, 14th flew under the radar. With their 2011 EP, Hide Yourself, 14th played like AlunaGeorge's more somber, older cousin, bringing a sublime, almost quiet quality to the revival garage R&B mix. After some years on mute, the duo of 14th have recently reemerged, expanded their intimate line-up to a trio, and have now closed the gap between their 2011 debut with a brand new number, "Sweet Lies".

It's a slow burn but "Sweet Lies" is 14th back to seamless fragile confessionals as the track strolls in the same back alleys of twilight ballads of the 1980s, with twinkling lonely synths and an impressive performance from lead vocalist Tracey Duodu, whose voice continues to soulfully crawl all over you. Even better news is that the track is up for free download, so snag it while you can, and wrap yourself into it, especially when the sun begins to slip.