Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ten female singers of note

Karen Carpenter: The girl-next-door with the milk chocolate voice. The Carpenters were dismissed in their 1970’s hey-day due to their squeaky-clean image and a few questionable song choices, post 1976, and counter to 2010's pop landscape, Karen’s singing was never about bombast or vocal acrobatics; she simply sang the song, and she did so exquisitely. Download this album: A Song For You.

K.D. Lang: Underground interpreter began her career as a tongue-in-cheek country singer and blossomed into a vocalist beyond classification: is she country? Is she pop? It doesn’t matter, because she makes every song she sings her very own. Download this album: Ingénue.

Pat Benatar: I barely paid attention to Pat Benatar in the 1980’s, during her commercial peak, and it was my loss. Classically trained, Benatar applied her opera instruction to rock-and-roll and paved the way for girl-rockers today. She sings way too little these days, as far as I’m concerned. Download this album: Crimes Of Passion.

Denise Williams: You know her fluky hits from the 1970’s and 1980’s, “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late,” with Johnny Mathis, and “Let’s Hear It For The Boy,” from the movie, "Footloose," but there’s so much more to this phenomenal and underappreciated talent with a voice like an angel. Download this album: This Is Niecy.

Ann Wilson: When Ann released her first Heart album with her sister, Nancy, everybody thought she was merely a Robert Plant wannabe, a flash-in-the-pan novelty, but over the next decade and with two, major stylistic shifts, Ann Wilson proved she possessed a completely unique gift, and we music fans are all the better for it. Download this album: Dreamboat Annie.

Joni Mitchell: Mitchell’s voice has taken on a different timbre over the years, moving from the high-registered hippie chick from the late 1960’s, to the sultry jazz crooner in the 1970’s, to the sage and sooty, road-worn vocalist that graced her most recent album, the solemn and prayerful, Shine. Download this album: Court and Spark.

Patsy Cline: is timeless, because of her straight-forward approach to tackling songs, taking country foundations and adding a bit of pop and tin pan alley into a highly original sound that still sounds fresh today (and is, indeed, still emulated). The dance floor fills every time they play “Crazy,” as well it should. Download: Few original albums remain in print, but most “hits” packages take you where you need to go.

Tracey Thorn: Smoky, sexy, and mysterious, Thorn’s voice is the lynchpin for the duo, “Everything But The Girl,” and her quiet power sneaks up on you on spine-tinglers, like “Rollercoaster,” “Corcovado," or their best-known song, "Missing." Download this album: Amplified Heart.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

"A Christmas Album," by Barbra Streisand

Barbra Streisand is a polarizing figure, artistically and politically. Everybody seems to have something to say about the renowned singer: Quincy Jones called her a “national treasure” in 1994, George W. Bush begrudgingly honored the living legend in 2008 with a Kennedy Center Honor, in what may have been his most awkward Presidential moment ever. Some even worship her: Richard Simmons, in kind, made a quarter life-sized doll replica of her in the 1990’s, and in 2010, the genre-blending “Duck Sauce,” further immortalized the sixty-something songstress in their techno hit, “Barbra Streisand.” But whatever the inspiration, Streisand stands as the only singer in the history of singers to score a number 1 album in five consecutive decades, including this one. Not too shabby. And in the first decade of that impressive feat, Streisand made the quintessential Christmas album, setting the template for holiday records for decades to come and selling millions of copies along the way.

Up to that point, in 1967, holiday records were fairly rote affairs: a collection of standards, respectfully treated, with a silly photo of the artist covered in fake snow, holding a gift or a holiday ornament, and/or wearing a Santa hat. With A Christmas Album, Streisand created a new holiday album prototype: building a foundation with a few secular songs (“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” and “White Christmas”), adding a few sacred hymns (“Sleep In Heavenly Peace,” “Ave Maria,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”), and throwing-in a few left turns along the way (like the then-new song about her newborn son, “The Best Gift,” the meloncholified iteration of “My Favorite Things,” from the most cheerful movie about Nazi occupation ever made, “The Sound of Music,” or the silly, revved-up rendition of “Jingle Bells?” that opens the record and, no doubt, inspired the clownishly sublime version of the same song, decades later by Canadian rockers, The Barenaked Ladies).

A Christmas Album, in fact, was the only holiday album by a female artist, up to that point, to be the best-seller of the year, and it revolutionized the genre, even today, influencing artists like Shawn Colvin and Shelby Lynn, who took Streisand’s lead in invigorating the oft-lifeless, holiday album genre with fresh arrangements and unusual song selections. Even Susan Boyle, the “Oops, I’m selling a billion albums,” insta-TV celebrity, added a few surprising, innovative song selections to her 2010 holiday outing, which included covers of Crowded House’s exquisite, #2 hit from 1987, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” and Lou Reed’s equal parts depressing and beautiful, “Perfect Day,” from his 1972 album, Transformer.

Interestingly, Streisand indicates that she is hesitant to perform live these days, because of all the ballyhoo about her “perfect voice.” She feels too much pressure to live up to the hype. This album, recorded while the singer was enduring a seasonal cold, is a big part of the reason for said hype. A Christmas Album is, in a word, stunning, and a must-have for every holiday collection. On a personal note, Streisand’s first Christmas album provided the soundtrack for some of my best holiday memories, growing up: time with family and friends, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, the tantalizing holiday smells from the kitchen, and of course, Christmas songs. Streisand’s Christmas album is a perennial favorite at my house during the holidays. Its old-fashioned loveliness is like a cherished friend on cold, December days, especially in years when I can’t make it back to the farm for Christmas.