Category Archives: Pop

Wham! – Fantastic

Wham!
Fantastic
July 9, 1983
Innervision/ Columbia/ SME
055/100
Wham! - Fantastic
1. Bad Boys // 2. A Ray of Sunshine // 3. Love Machine // 4. Wham Rap! (Enjoy What You Do?) // 5. Club Tropicana // 6. Nothing Looks the Same In the Light // 7. Come On // 8. Young Guns (Go For It!)

Fantastic, the debut album of UK-based 1980s blue eyed soul duo Wham! is one of those albums that is uniformly shitted upon, not only by music connaisseurs but especially by its creator (the guy who wrote, composed, sang and produced everything on this record) George Michael. Three of the singles released, as well as that album-title seem to indicate that it was meant to play as a sort of practical joke on the listener. Wham! Rap (Enjoy What You Do?) and Young Guns (Go For It!) appear to be a parodies of sorts of topical Kurtis Blow rap-disco songs. The former glorifies unemployment and mooching off ones parents, the latter laments the concept of early marriage. Then there’s Bad Boys which is a whiny synth-pop ditty about the joys of defying ones parents hopes and expectations of you becoming a functioning member of society, a sentiment which is also an undercurrent on the former two songs.

It’s a shame that these dated, goofy travesties of songs are the songs best remembered off Fantastic because there’s more positive, less gimmicky hedonism to be found on this record. On the one single that actually sounds like Wham! gave a fuck about what they were doing; Club Tropicana, there’s silliness a plenty, but this cheese is less stinky. And the faux-latin disco instrumental and catchy-as-ebola hook make this one a summertime jam for the ages.
A Ray of Sunshine and Come On are more generic, but no less fun in their rubbery throwaway funk-lite vapidness. The same goes for the Miracles-cover Love Machine, which sounds pretty much exactly like the original version, except caucasian. These, and especially the atmospherically hungover/blue ballad Nothing Looks the Same in the Light, in retrospect appear to indicate of Michael’s future one-hundred-million+ records sold. They also make up over half of this half hour-album’s running time, so while Fantastic is far from perfect, (even calling it good would be a bit of a stretch) it’s not complete shit as George Michael would have you believe.

Best tracks
A Ray of Sunshine
Club Tropicana
Come On
Nothing Looks the Same in the Light

Recommendations
1980s post-disco aficianados may want to give the above four tracks a spin.


John Mayer – Heavier Things

John Mayer
Heavier Things
September 9, 2003
Aware RecordsColumbia RecordsSME
062/100
John Mayer - Heavier Things
1. Clarity // 2. Bigger Than My Body // 3. Something’s Missing // 4. New Deep // 5. Come Back to Bed // 6. Home Life // 7. Split Screen Sadness // 8. Daughters // 9. Only Heart // 10. Wheel

Singer-songwriter John Mayer’s first full length album Room For Squares sold milions of copies and unexpectedly so. Who knew women of all ages have a soft spot for a guitar-strummy pretty boy velvettily crooning his little heart out about his feelings regarding the fairer sex and his aspirations? (Please don’t answer that in the comment section, that was a rhetorical question.)
Yes Room For Squares was aimed at the heart of the white middle aged housewife demographic adult contemporary radio, and it was incredibly dull. But it still served a purpose in being the perfect soundtrack to an hour or so spent in a Starbucks by members the then-budding hipster community. And if you paid attention to it and managed to stay awake doing so, you would discover that Mayer was a pretty good songwriter with attention to detail and has some pretty good observation skills.
I would give you a example of where Squares offers these qualities here but I cannot remember a single song off Squares beyond Your Body Is a Wonderland, which isn’t a very good example of what is good about John Mayer, despite being his signature song, well until Daughters was released as a single, which also isn’t showing Mayer’s best side, but I digress.

Heavier Things isn’t a grand departure from Squares or anything, but it does sound different enough in that the sound is beefed up justlittle bit. This upgrades Mayer’s music from the sort of adult contemporary radio music you don’t really notice being on to the sort of adult contemporary radio music that gets stuck in your head. In short Heavier Things‘ producer, Jack Joseph Puig, did something to Mayer’s music Room For Squares‘ producer, John Alagia couldn’t; make it memorable at times. Those times are the album-opener Clarity, the next song Bigger Than My Body and Come Back to Bed.
Oh and Daughters is memorable too, although it’s debatable whether it’s positive or negative for that particular song.

Clarity is relaxing and uplifting at the same time and has Mayer’s corduroy croon slide into smooth falsetto on the hook. This combined with the soulful instrumentation makes for something much richer than anything off his debut.
Bigger Than My Body is where the album really picks up steam and ups the tempo. It is unfortunate that Mayer never really comes back to it because this type of faster song (relatively speaking off course, this is still Mayer so the song is still going to be chilled enough to not disrupt a dinnertable conversation) fits him like a glove. Unfortunately the album hits snooze shortly after and never really manages to wake up on time.
On Come Back to Bed however this drowsiness is actually a good thing. On it Mayer pleads to his better half to rejoin him after she got out of the sack because of something he did or didn’t say (What exactly he did wrong he hasn’t figured out himself yet.) It’s gracious, sexy, hooky, bluesy and soulful and would’ve been a big hit if Aware Records/ Columbia had released it as a single.

Then there’s Daughters which has an inescapable hook and could be considered a Hallmark card set to wax or aural dreck leaving a slime trail depending what side of the fence you’re on. This reviewer hates it with every fiber of his body. Contained within it are all those things some wish real boyfriends knew and said, as well as sexism aimed both at women and men in several instances. It may be a well written contemporary pop-classic and all but bleh, this trifle is nauseating.

All of the other songs are alright, nothing more, nothing less. They sound more interesting than the filler off his last album but not by a wide margin. But, in combination with the stand-out songs, they sound good enough to call Heavier Things a fairly big improvement over his first album.

Best tracks
Clarity
Bigger Than My Body
Come Back to Bed
Daughters

Recommendations
Pick this one up. It’s an alright enough record for lazy sundays. Do buy a used copy though if you can find one. This album isn’t necessarily worth a lot of money.


John Mayer – Room For Squares

John Mayer
Room For Squares
June 5, 2001
Aware RecordsColumbia RecordsSME
055/100
John Mayer - Room For Squares
1. No Such Thing // 2. Why Georgia // 3. My Stupid Mouth // 4. Your Body Is a Wonderland // 5. Neon // 6. City Love // 7. 83 // 8. 3X5 // 9. Love Song for No One // 10. Back to You // 11. Great Indoors // 12. Not Myself // 14. St. Patrick’s Day

John Mayer is a rather controversial figure. Depending on whom you ask about him you may get aswers that range musically from guitar-strummy coffee house music-wimp to blues god in the making, and personally from douchebag lothario shagging his way through as many Hollywood debutantes as possible to an entertainingly sober individual with a healthy sense of humour about his celebrity status.

They’re all true to different degrees, depending on what stage of Mayer’s career you’re checking out. With his major-label debut Room For Squares, which recycles five songs from his EP Inside Wants Out, we get a blend of all of them, but the music backing his phlegmatic tenor mostly push this in the coffeehouse wimp territory and the album’s biggest hit, the Grammy awarded Your Body’s a Wonderland, is a prime piece of douchebag lotharionism or a practical joke on the listener, or perhaps both even.

Still for what it’s worth Mayer plays the roll of ‘that boring dick with the guitar that gets the girls to swoon’ with skill and gusto and proves himself to be a pretty skilled songwriter in the process. The opening number No Such Thing is the joint for those who were complete nonfactors in high school but were never that angsty or depressed about it and have since bounced back.
My Stupid Mouth is a potential anthem for those who accidentally call the uncalled for and fuck up socially because of it, and Your Body Is a Wonderland may be everything she needs to hear to give it up already in one neat little package, but it’s still gentle and full of wonder enough to not be the R. Kelly song it for better or worse could‘ve been. It’s also the only thing on here that contains any sort of subject matter that might get any of the young ladies that follow John Mayer’s career to blush because it elaborately talks about fucking, sort of. Apparently John for the time being took his own My Stupid Mouth to heart because all of the other material is so clean it squeaks.
Other highlights are the jazzy nighttime infatuation ride of Neon and the breezy celebration of off-and-on relationships that is Back to You. All of these are skilfully written with attention to detail, but thanks to their production even they all sound alike. Apparently producer John Alagia (of Dave Matthews band fame) is not a fan of risk-taking and Mayer’s later characteristic bluesy guitar playing is left out of this album entirely in favour of poppy jazz lite and folk lite stylings, which may not sound bad but also aren’t remotely memorable. ’83 and 3X5 are so lacklustre this reviewer can’t remember jacques merde about them despite having heard Room for Squares several times in its entirety. That goes for all the songs not mentioned as well.

Room For Squares is promising in that it doesn’t completely suck but isn’t that good either. It’s basically what a Norah Jones album from the same time would’ve sound like if Jones was a guy. Still despite the fact that the presentation is entirely lukewarm a handful of these songs are fairly good and that gives off the promise that Mayer could be an interesting artist if backed by a more engaging sound and let his hair down a little.

Best tracks
No Such Thing
Why Georgia
My Stupid Mouth
Your Body Is a Wonderland
Neon
Back to You

Recommendations
Don’t bother with this one. Chances are these songs can be found a lot more alive-sounding on one of Mayer’s live-albums, or on his acoustic debut EP Inside Wants Out even.


New Kids on the Block – Hangin’ Tough

New Kids on the Block
Hangin’ Tough

September 6, 1988
Columbia RecordsSME
055/100
New Kids on the Block - Hangin' Tough
1. You Got It (The Right Stuff) // 2. Please Don’t Go Girl // 3. I’ll Be Loving You (Forever) // 4. Cover Girl // 5. I Need You // 6. Hangin’ Tough // 7. I Remember When // 8. What’cha Gonna Do (About It) // 9. My Favorite Girl // 10. Hold On

Whenever paying attention to New Kids on the Block I never cease to find amusement in the idea that this group was recruited and assembled solely for the purpose of producer Maurice Starr getting back at his former New Edition pupils for singning to MCA Records to have a succesful career, after he brought them fame by producing their debut and releasing it on his indie label, without him getting any share of the profits whatsoever.
Off course this probably is not reality, or rather it’s not the complete story: New Kids on the Block was started first and foremost to compensate Starr’s lack of said profits because the man, like anyone, enjoyed having an income, although my proposition of Starr’s reasoning is most likely not entirely without truth.

Whichever of the man’s life purposes NKotB primarily served (that’s one shitty acronym, when you pronounce it not one syllable is won from the full name) vengeance or greed, doesn’t really matter because their sophomore album Hangin’ Tough achieved them both in one fell swoop by selling over seventeen million copies worldwide, which is seven million more than New Edition’s and Bobby Brown’s 1988 albums Heart Break and Don’t Be Cruel sold combined. Add to that the three million people who casually picked up a copy of the Kids 1986 self-titled debut, which had been gathering dust on shelves for two years by the time the second one dropped, and you’ll find that the New Kids and Starr sold well over double what New Edition sold that year, despite putting out somewhat derivative, inferior product. I’m not sure what of many possible causes led to this situation but to some it would seem that Starr was willing to get his goals of being filthily rich and victorious over New Edition by any means, even if that meant riding so called institutional racism that disadvantaged other members of his own so called race.

Hangin’ Tough plays like New Kids of the Block but a bit more streamlined and a bunch less funky. It would seem that the advent of New Jack Swing didn’t go unnoticed by producer Starr. Indeed Hangin’ Tough sounds like Teddy’s tinny-drum-machine-‘n’-keyboards sound chill filtred to neutrality, with some rock-ish guitars thrown in to please white parents. The result of Maurice fucking around with this sound is some impeccably produced and sung ballads and dance numbers. Despite getting the sound down Hangin’ Tough lacks the attitude to be credible to the homeboys in the streets the way Guy or Bobby brown or the sexiness to appeal to Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat’s ladies. That was quite alright though because Starr was aiming for an entirely different demographic, one which got their albums by whining at their parents to buy them (One of the more effective ways of marketing stuff, today as much as then).
With this in mind it was probably the right decision to strip the music of every notion of personality and settle for catchy and hollow. This album is filled to the brim with the kind of naive visions of love people in their early teens can relate to, performed confidently and quite good by five handsome boys girls in their early teens like to look at on posters on bedroom walls.

Knowing that, it is probably a moot point to call the album insincere, plastic and soulless (which off course are things this album is) but I kid you not, listening to Hangin’ Tough makes one reconsider New Kids on the Block‘s artistry because that album with it’s jingling guitars, vocoder work and funky air of 100% raw milk queso sounded a lot more fun than this pasteurised horseshit. Who knew a bunch of white kids from Boston would be better at aping the Jackson Five innocently and joyfully than they ever were at trying their hand at something slicker and tougher? (I suppose all of you are now raising your hands at their computer screen, you do realise that I can’t see you, right?)

Nevertheless I have no real issues with Hangin’ Tough I suppose. I couldn’t remember so much as a single individual song after Hangin’ Tough was through, which must mean nothing even sucked memorably about it.

Best tracks
Please Don’t Go Girl

Recommendations
Meh.


New Edition – Heart Break

New Edition
Heart Break
June 20, 1988
MCA RecordsUMG
075/100
New Edition - Heart Break
1. Introduction // 2. That’s the Way We’re Livin’ // 3. Where It All Started // 4. If It Isn’t Love // 5. Skit #1 // 6. N.E. Heart Break // 7. Crucial // 8. Skit #2 // 9. You’re Not My Kind of Girl // 10. Superlady // 11. Can You Stand the Rain // 12. Competition // 13. Skit #3 // 14. I’m Comin’ Home // 15, Boys to Men

When Bobby Brown kicked himself out of New Edition he took their collective nutsack with him if Under the Blue Moon and King of Stage were indicative.
In the mean time Johnny Gill’s career wasn’t really going places despite evident talent. His first two solo-albums and the collaborative album with Stacey Lattisaw hadn’t made him the star Cotillon Records thought he was when they signed him and I imagine that the label quietly released him from his contractual obligations, as is the way with record labels and unsuccesful artists. The label by the way didn’t fail at getting  Gill to the top of the charts for lack of trying by the way, most acts don’t get three strikes at success. They tend to get dropped immediately when their debuts tank.
I’m not sure how Ralph, Ronnie, Ricky and Mike met Johnny but the music industry is a small world and given that they had met one can just see five lightbulbs pop up over the boys heads. NE was missing something and Johnny was all unfulfilled (and unemployed) potential. Why wouldn’t he join the group?

This album was released on the exact same day as Bobby Brown’s Don’t Be Cruel. That’s some serious marketing genius from whoever it was at MCA Records, the label on which both albums were released, that got to make that decision. In 1986 Bobby Brown split from New Edition very tumultuously and very pubically creating a feud between the singer and his former group. That feud had pretty much ended and become a healthy form of competition when New Edition and Bobby Brown were releasing Don’t Be Cruel and Heart Break. Apparently the guys weren’t that immature. And considering the fact that they were old friends who had been through a lot together after all and more importantly both parties had remained commercially successful in music following the split it wasn’t too difficult for them to reconcile. No hard feelings. But for many fans New Edition vs. Bobby Brown was still very much a thing. So when the fans got to the record store and saw these albums fresh on the shelf they felt more compelled to pick at least one of the two albums up to support the party they felt was right in the messy split, which pushed the sales figures of both albums up. Kanye and Fifty Cent pulled a similar marketing shenanigan in 2007. It always works to make an audience have the idea they have power over proceedings and have a real choice in matters. It is the multi million dollar equivalent of putting two tip jars on a bar with Justin Bieber and Chuck Norris names on them and letting customers decide who they like better by putting their tip in the jar with the person of their choice. The entire success of reality tv. talent concept shows like Pop Idol or The Voice on which the next pop idol is being chosen by viewers voting is also based on this idea of making the audience feel like they’re involved in this shit. If only that idea worked better for politics and getting people to actually vote for that shit, right?

In the mean time the world of contemporary R&B was changing around them. Guy had incorporated some hip-hop elements into the sound of traditional soul music to mass success. So Naranda Michael Walden, Ray Parker jr. and Freddie Perren weren’t called in for their services. Unfortunately the guys couldn’t get any Teddy beats because he was busy hanging out with frienemy Bob making his prerogative sound good.
So in stead they reached out to production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis who had spent ’86 and ’87 helping Michael’s little sister succesfully transitioning into musical adulthood to see if they could do the same for the new edition of New Edition. Truth be told Jam and Lewis didn’t change that much about New Edition’s sound. The biggest difference between the sound of Heart Break and any of their previous albums is that New Edition sounds like a group of adults rather than a pack of young boys, which is because by ’88 they were aged around twenty and because the addition of Johnny Gill meant that they collectively sounded older by default since that guy has had the voice of a singer aged thirty since he was fifteen.In stead of racking up second rate Teddy Riley beats Jam & Lewis mostly create a bunch of lush compositions that build on the strengths of the group but sounded less sunny than their previous work and really sounds like nothing more or less than the logical next step after 1985’s All For Love and Gill’s sophomore solo album Chemistry of the same year.

Tresvant, the previously undisputed alpha male of the group lets go of the microphone more often than he previously did and not only in favour of new kid on the block Johnny (perhaps he was afraid of another walk out by a member if business proceded as usual.) but also on occasion to perpetual third in command Ricky Bell, and because of that the group sounds a lot more like a group.
Gill and Tresvant’s voices sound very well together because they’re completely different. Johnny has a chocolaty rich baritone comparable to Luther Vandross’ while Ralph’s voice sounds like Michael Jackson airy tenor, forming a nice contrast. This can be heard at work best on Can You Stand the Rain. The addition of Gill also created a new harmony in the group’s backing vocals which can be peeped on You’re Not My Kind of Girl. Of the remaining three only Ricky Bell pops up in a lead singing capacity on occasion. The rest isn’t in the forefront enough to leave much of an impression, which considering the actual raps heard on Bell Biv Devoe records may very well be for the better. Speaking of rap, not much of that going on on this album. Guess Bobby was the only the hip-hop enthousiast of the group with any influence.

Besides the Jam & Lewis tracks NE slipped two songs on here they produced themselves with Whitney Houston producer and the Time band-member (with among others Jam & Lewis and unofficially Prince) Jellybean Benitez. To their credit these instrumentals don’t sound any less good than the others songs.

There’s a fair share of hit songs and it’s all good stuff. If It Isn’t Love and You’re Not My Kind of Girl are some of those cute little concept songs that NE succesfully took to the charts previously with the likes of Cool It Now and Count Me Out with Tresvant questioning a relationship problem and discussing the matter with the other guys. N.E. Heartbreak is the most hip-hop thing on here and it proves that Ronnie, Ricky, Michael, Ralph and Johnny could rock that swingbeat almost as well as Bobby.
Crucial is sweet and bouncy enough to deserve its hit-status and all is pretty well. The very best thing on here however is hands down Can You Stand the Rain, a quiet storm classic if ever there was one with the lead being passed back-and-forth between Tresvant and Gill and Ricky Bell getting some shine too. It is the most convincing argument in favour of New Edition sans Brown with Gill. It is difficult imagining the NE of old doing this record at all, let alone doing it justice.
Competition also deserves an honourable mention because it has Ralph and Ricky lamenting the split with Bobby, although Tresvant, the writer of the song, could’ve chosen more elaborate wording because it could just as easily be interpreted as an anti-war or even an anti-capitalism song, which contemporary R&B just isn’t a suitable medium for (Workers of the world unite, in front of the fireplace while New Edition gets in your pants).
Boys to Men, the album closer, which has Gill on leads inspired another R&B group to change its name and reach for the stars, eventually ending up making it big under NE member Michael Bivins’ managment (guess which one) and is also notable for the fact that Gill, who thought of it as too childish for his tastes to completely overperform parts of it out of protest. Despite his attempts to fuck it up is was still well recieved by critics so that’s some talented singer problem right there.
The rest of the songs are well meaning R&B-fluff, a little bland on occasion, but never off-puttingly so.

If Under the Blue Moon raised questions of New Edition’s relevance without Brown’s swagger keeping things interesting Heart Break makes it very clear that New Edition, with the addition of Gill, still had a reason for existence, and a moderately new, fresh and more classy, mature artistic direction. For my money Brown had the better, more interesting album with Don’t Be Cruel (and contemporary music buying audiences thought so too since Cruel sold about four times as many copies as Heart Break did) but Heart Break sold two million, which isn’t bad, and it inspired a succesful concert tour which had Al B. Sure! and Brown on it as opening acts (which made it okay for Bobby fans to buy Heart Break and for Ralph-fans to pick up Don’t Be Cruel, clever boys).
Following Heart Break the guys split up with succesful albums coming from Johnny Gill, Ralph Tresvant and unexpectedly the rump-group Bell Biv Devoe, which consisted of Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ron Devoe. With the solo-success of its members for a while seemed like New Edition was history for good. Until Ralph, Johnny, Bobby and BBD each dropped an album that was disappointingly saleswise and they reunited New Edition as a sextet with both Gill and Brown included for an album in ’96, that was. Look out for all those albums being reviewed on the site sooner than later.
For now: Heart Break is a pretty good late ’80s R&B album that you would do well to check out.

Best tracks
If It Isn’t Love
N.E. Heartbreak
Crucial
You’re Not My Kind of Girl
Can You Stand the Rain
Boys to Men

Recommendations
Buy this album.


Bobby Brown – Don’t Be Cruel

Bobby Brown
Don’t Be Cruel
June 20, 1988
MCA RecordsUMG
080/100Bobby Brown - Don't Be Cruel

1. Cruel Prelude // 2. Don’t Be Cruel // 3. My Prerogative // 4. Roni // 5. Rock Wit’cha // 6. Every Little Step // 7. I’ll Be Good to You // 8. Take It Slow // 9. All Day All Night //10. I Really Love You Girl // 11. Cruel Reprise

Bobby Brown was once more than an ex-New Edition member and Whitney Houston’s ex-hubby (a faulty marriage well documented because Brown and Houston are ex-reality tv. stars as well as recording artists).
He was at one point R&B’s brightest young star as well as the archetypical boy band bad boy, that point was following the release of his sophomore album Don’t Be Cruel. When Robbie Williams gave Take That and Nigel Martin-Smith the finger to find bigger success solo than the group had ever had collectively he was basically following Bob’s career trajectory. When Donnie Wahlberg tried to set fire to a hotel with a Molotov cocktail… well I don’t think Bobby ever did something that fucked up, but the man has had plenty of lewd and laviscous content, driving under influence, police chase, resisting arrest and drug posession arrests on his name as well as the public image of a crackhead wifebeater. To each former teen heartthrob his own way of shedding the bubblegum pop image. Word to Justin Bieber.

Don’t Be Cruel was released at the height of the New Jack Swing era which supposedly blends old-fashioned R&B soul with old school hip-hop although acts like Guy, Al B. Sure! and Keith Sweat are simply soul singers with more electronic production than was usual in the ’80s backing them in my book with little to no hip-hop influences being noticeable, but that is just my opinion so you can ignore that if you want to.
Brown however did blur the line between soul and hip-hop rapping as much as he sings on the title track and doing an LL Cool J-esque rap on the ballad Roni and busting out a verse at the end of the video edit of Every Little Step adding hip-hop swagger to his rhythm and blues.

The producers involved L.A. Reid, Babyface and Teddy Riley had all had moderate success in the music business before Cruel (Teddy working on all those Uptown records and L.A. and Face as in-house producers for Dick Griffey’s SOLAR records.) but were to completely own mainstream contemporary R&B in the decade that was to follow this album’s release. It’s not difficult to see why, their work on this album is excellent. One could say that they kickstarted the ’90s with this and it wouldn’t be much of an overstatement.

If the first five songs following the intro aren’t the best five-song-run on an R&B album ever they’re up there with the best of them. From the title track’s slinky, sinister funk through My Prerogative‘s brassy middle-fingerfest. Roni‘s B-boy romanticism, Rock Wit’cha‘s more mature sexy business and Every Little Step‘s puppy love and pop ‘n’ lock groove. This is some terrific music making, with Bob’s charismatically gruff Rick James/James Brown-ish tenor locking tightly into the groove of the somersaulting drum machine clatter. He isn’t the best technical singer out there, having a rather limited vocal range, but he knows well how to stay in it while at the same time making full use of everything he’s got and is a born entertainer. What’s more is that his sense of rhythm is excellent and he appears to really enjoy singing these catchy songs with a natural charisma that allows him to come across as both badass and as a fun individual, a loveable rascal. It is one rather engaging, catchy affair. These songs were all in the top three of the US R&B charts, in the top ten of the US pop charts with three of them hitting #1 in the former and one, namely My Prerogative, hitting #1 on the latter and copping a Grammy. And well deserved.

If this album consisted of only these five songs Don’t Be Cruel would be a perfect ten. Following them however are four well meaning but forgettable cuts. I’ll Be Good to You is standard fare late-’80s Teddy Riley-funk. It’s not bad but it absolutely pales in comparison to his other contribution My Prerogative, the album’s biggest pop-hit and a Grammy winner. (A little bit of trivia: Boy George’s 1989 Teddy Riley-produced, hit-single Don’t Take My Mind On a Trip was originally slated to appear on Don’t Be Cruel. It’s easy to imagine Bobby perform it. I would love to hear Bob’s version if any of you readers has it on a hard drive somewhere.) And closing the album are three rather forgettable slow jams Bob himself co-produced with Cameo-frontman and King of Stage-producer Larry White that require more technical singing than Bob has to offer to bring them to life.

In short Don’t Be Cruel has a fan-fucking-tastic opening run but slightly falls apart at the end. But overall it still is a really good but somewhat forgotten album that packs more hits and more punch than you can shake a stick at and proving just why he was a thing once. It is the best New Edition album, solo or otherwise. For that it derserves to be aknowledged and revisited.

Best tracks
Don’t Be Cruel
My Prerogative
Roni
Rock Wit’cha
Every Little Step

Recommendations
Pick this up.


Whitney Houston – Whitney

Whitney Houston
Whitney
June 2, 1987
Arista RecordsSME
068/100
Whitney Houston - Whitney
1. I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me) // 2. Just the Lonely Taking Again // 3. Love Will Save the Day // 4. Didn’t We Almost Have It All // 5. So Emotional // 6. Where You Are // 7. Love Is a Contact Sport // 8. You’re Still My Man // 9. For the Love of You // 10. Where Do Broken Hearts Go // 11. I Know Him So Well (feat. Cissy Houston)

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and if there’s anything Whitney Houston didn’t leave Whitney Houston (and probably more importantly; Clive Davis) it was broke.

So for her sophomore album, called Whitney, the same merry bunch of shlockmasters; Naranda Michael Walden, Michael Masser and Kashif were assembled to write a set of songs to similar to that on her debut (Jermaine Jackson was given the boot apparently).
The resulting album is some light, pleasant shopping mall music that every white, middle-aged woman person was bound to experience as as specifically about him/ her. A trick that is what popular music is all about and, do not kid yourself, always has been about, but is rarely pulled off as brilliantly and purposefully as it is by Whitney, Clive and their assembly line songwriters. Or perhaps the trick is solely Clive’s, convincing Whitney that these song were specifically about her because she still sings them with gusto, and if not passion itself at the very least an imitation of passion that is indistinguishable from the real thing. Who was milking who exactly isn’t fully clear and is open for debate. Since I saw her explaining in an Oprah interview how deep something completely purposefully instinct R. Kelly wrote for her was, I like to believe she enjoyed making this type of music, and was actually a lot like her audience relating a lot to these generic songs about struggles that belong to no-one in particular. Feel free to disagree with that, I’m not an expert on music industry fuckery.

What isn’t up for debate however is that this album made everyone involved with its creation richer as it sold some twenty five million copies worldwide, some five million less than it’s predecessor, but hey who gives a shit. Twenty five million meant that in an era when people still paid for music the vast majority of those who picked up the first album picked up the sophomore (and were quite likely to do so again the third time around). This meant that Clive Davis and Whitney Houston were not simply succesful but that they had hit a gold mine that wasn’t going to run dry anytime soon.

Even if you don’t particularly enjoy this diva pop-R&B thing it’s quite easy to see why those who do would pick up a Whitney Houston album. It’s simply a matter of fact that she is a terrific singer, technically. She has a great, big mezzo-soprano voice that the New York times once desribed in a concert review as “a technical marvel from its velvety depths to its ballistic middle register to its ringing and airy heights.” and as “clean and strong, with barely any grit, well suited to the songs of love and aspiration that were the breakthrough hits from her first two albums” in an necrology. Indeed Whitney sold the best because technically she was the best, and no criticism on other aspects of her artistry can take that away from her. This technical singing is almost worth the price of admission of Whitney alone.

My beef then isn’t so much with miss Houston, but rather with her legion of American Idol/The Voice of [insert your country here] imitators, who learnt all the wrong lessons from her and Mariah (and arguably Stevie Wonder as well) and try to sing like her, ‘flaunting their vocal range’, but end up sounding incapable of holding a note and singing the goddamn song already, in stead. This, ladies and gentlemen, is quite simply put because they’re always not as good.
It’s easy imagining how Whitney‘s songs would sound if they were performed by such a third-rate store brand imitation of miss Houston. (And in fact they have been performed a plenty on these shows.) Dry and superficial. The words would come across as the generic pap songwriting they are and the backing music would make for something hotel-elevator worthy.

Since they’re performed by the real deal though.. well.. one should be a little more careful making such assessments. Whitney actually was, as Charlie Sheen would put it, capable of turning tin cans into gold. She breathes emotion and life into these songs. Perhaps overly dramatic, larger-than-life-sized-emotions that are phrased in an overly well mannered fashion that isn’t how people experience stuff, but then again she is after all a diva and not one of those ‘girl next door’ type of singers. And these self-important, overblown projections of feelings are probably perfect backdrops for post-breakup binge-ice cream eating sessions or something. (Listening to this album while tipsy is however not recommended. Lest you get tearjerked, you pansy.) Even if this album makes your hairs on your neck stand up, whether be it for all the wrong or all the right reasons, there’s no denying that there’s a certain epic quality to it.

As much as this album is similar to its similarly titled predecessor there are differences as well. Whitney is quite upbeat and uptempo. The debut was all ballads while you could dance to about 50% of the second album (if nobody is around while lip-syncing into a hairbrush in front of the mirror). The first album was all homewrecking-sentimentality, amorous insecurity and emotional breakdowns, this one has but one moment of such ambivalence. That’s Didn’t We Almost Have It All, which is bound to be someone‘s favourite song ever.
There’s also a little more sex on this album. Although it is for the most part weirdly ambiguous sex. And Love Is a Contact Sport is actually not about the contact sport-aspects of love you’d expect an R&B song with that title to be about, which can only be called a practical joke on the listener.
Just the Lonely Talking Again, is a ballad about the age-old question whether an unnamed love interest wants her for her booty or actually likes het as a person. It is a highlight because of its stripped down approach, relatively speaking off course, this is still a diva pop album. The backing music is pleasantly lush but not covered in a thick layer of shimmer. And Whitney’s vocal performance is atypically restrained, but excellent as always.
Love Will Save the Day throws in some lively latin rhythms that, when combined with a catchy song about the power of positivity makes the best song on the album. It would seem that producer Jellybean was listening to the Miami Sound machine before creating this beat. It also makes one wonder what guilty pleasures miss Houston could’ve produced if she would’ve gotten to record a straight disco or dance album, unhindered by ueberschtick balladry.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)So Emotional and Love Is a Contact Sport are also functional and impeccably produced ’80s R&B dance songs, even if they’re not nearly as good or memorable as Love Will Save the Day.

As for the ballads. The previously mentioned Just the Lonely Talking Again sounds sincere and sexy. As does the Isley Brothers cover For the Love of You with its hovering sax riff. Where You Are walks the line. You’re Still My ManDidn’t We Almost Have It AllWhere Do Broken Hearts Go and the duet with mother Cissy I Know Him So Well (Written by ABBA puppetmasters Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and Jesus Christ Superstar/Evita co-creator Tim Rice, and originally part of Rice’s musical Chess.) however is the kind of music that causes instant diabetes and dental cavities. It is the sort of vile super-Disney song that help either helps you through your day or makes you want to kill yourself.

(Speaking of hugely succesful shit that will make you want to kill yourself, ABBA and musicals. Why the fuck hasn’t someone written a lame story around Whitney Houston’s hits and sent that shit to Broadway yet? That shit would just make everyone filthily rich all over again. Mamma Mia! made two billion dollars worldwide and I’m sure Whitney’s music will bring out similar numbers. We’ll call it Queen of the Night. Catherine Johnson, you may have the idea. All I want is a visionary executive producer credit, a fair share of the cash and guarantees I’ll never actually have to watch the fucking show.

Call me!)

Whitney is the type of album that shows both the music industry and Whitney Houston at the peak of their powers, breaking down racial barriers on MTV and other mainstream pop outlets, and separating as many people from their hard earned cash as possible while doing that. It is an incredibly refined product meant to appeal to as many people as possible. And it’s pretty awesome for how accomplished it is in doing that. It helps that miss Houston in fact has one of music’s best. voices. ever. And that the people behind the boards are accomplished queso craftsmen. It is too bad indeed that she never used her powers for good and recorded something truly soulful or less pop charts and MOR radio oriented, but then again she wouldn’t seem very interested in that anyway (Just look up any Whitney Houston interview on youtube. Avant garde she was not.) so it is most likely best to take this music at face value, and consider this pop diva as the artist she truly was, and this music as a product she took pride in delivering to the masses, perhaps even believing it was high art.
Does that however mean you should listen to it? Probably, here’s why. This music aims to please the senses and through it the emotions, without challenging the listener. And it has enough know how to pull it off. I’m not saying that buying Whitney is anything more than buying into a shiny, fluffy illusion with artificial preservatives and taste- and colour enhancers gilore. But if that’s a thing you enjoy every once in a while then hey, there’s no shame in that. We all have our guilty pleasures. As far as diva-pop goes: this is the top segment of the market. And sometimes you just have to take a big greasy bite out of that Big Mac, yo.

Best tracks
Just the Lonely Talking Again
Love Will Save the Day
Where You Are
For the Love of You

Recommendations
If you can enjoy big radio pop that is sterile clean and professional, also a bit pompous, yet prude and old fashioned, and lacks any sort of real edge, you may want to pick this up. Just hide it in a place where only you can find it, and use headphones when you listen to it. You won’t want the neighbours ‘thinking things’.