One of Leona Lewis’ biggest assets is her voice – a rich, honeyed vocal that can wrap its way around any lyric and instrument light years beyond any of her contemporaries. It has been the siren’s calling card since her stint on the original UK version of The X Factor and her 2007 debut album Spirit. That album, designed to update the MOR-schmaltz that Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston occupied in the 90s, wonderfully displayed her glorious pipes with worldwide hit “Bleeding Love”. After the relative disappointment of her last record Echo, Lewis eschews the chugging, formulaic throwaway ballads for tempo and small experiments with fuzzy electronics on her newest album, Glassheart. Lewis brilliantly teams up with producer Fraser T. Smith (Adele, Taio Cruz) to helm much of the album that takes a distinct foray into dance music.
The first single “Trouble”, co-written by Emeli Sande, is a sleek homage to Massive Attack-like trip-hop with a bed of swelling strings, chronicling an emotional break up. Both the single-worthy title track “Glassheart” and “Come Alive” are pacey, looming numbers – a wall of Lewis’ lilting vocals sliding against eruptions of volcanic, feverish beats. On “Shake You Up”, Lewis lets loose on the summery Rodney Jerkins-produced track which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of Rihanna or Katy Perry album.
Even when the songs venture into the balladry of her first two records, they are less meandering and more progressive. Both “I to You” and “Fireflies” channel her influences of Kate Bush and Tracy Chapman as she respectively evokes mournfulness and marvel into her performances.
Glassheart benefits from increased writing contributions from Lewis as well as an injection of her personality, two key aspects that have been eclipsed by her walloping vocals. She sounds engaged and exuberant, even on quiet and muscular ballads like track “Fingerprint”. The album is a unified set of songs from an artist who has finally stepped outside of her comfort zone.
Björk has always been an eagerly forward-thinking artist, consistently challenging the conventional definition of “pop” music. Each of her iconic musical moments since the mid-90s has contained a specific sonic identity. Microbeats and music boxes, vocal babbles and manipulations, 1950s Sci-Fi brass accompaniments – her mission statement to explore everything possible manifests itself to be more and more high-concept on every album in her catalog. Partially recorded on an iPad, she fuses her past sounds with new flavors and discovers the human’s relationship with the universe on 2011’s ambitious Biophilia. Interestingly, this isn’t just an album – it is a multimedia exploration album in collaboration with Apple, with each of the ten tracks featured as its own singular app designed specifically for Apple operating systems.
Björk embraces her love for nature and technology, connecting her compositions to a much larger scale as the songs reaching high extremes and low subtleties. Biophilia explores sounds and instruments, such as the “tesla coil” featured as a bassline on the mesmerizingly brooding “Thunderbolt”, the creation of “gameleste” on “Crystalline” and a pendulum harp on “Solstice”, compiled to create patterns with the Earth’s movements to evoke the sound of a harp on a handful of other tracks.
On “Crystalline”, the album’s first single, Björk revels in the “sparkle you become when you conquer anxiety” against a wall of punchy synthetics and glassy rhythms before erupting into a frenetic Aphex Twin-like breakbeat. The centerpiece “Cosmogony” finds Björk quietly contemplating creation over a slow-building brass section and harmonious choir. The gargantuan “Mutual Core”, a metaphor for attachments in human relationships, pairs her unique vocal phrasing to a somber organ before rumbling, menacing beats (courtesy of British production group, 16bit) and swooping choir vocals erupt together.
Some Björk’s past few albums have included experimental songs that may be perceived as unlistenable or too peculiar. Biophilia continues this trend, thus bringing down the ceiling of one of her most audacious and fearless moments in her musical career. “Dark Matter” seeks to “connect breath, the human soul and the cosmos” with gibberish improvisations over beat-less electronic drones and swirls. The aforementioned “Solstice”, one of a few songs written with longtime collaborator and poet Sjón, is so eerily intimate and intricate that it is almost without discernible melody to be even remembered. Contrarily, the adventurous “Hollow” and the stunning “Virus” both return individually with breathtaking results. Biophilia becomes her most expertly varied set of songs since the 90s, proving what is so compelling about Björk: her willingness to outdo herself time and time again.
Gone are the usual high walls of sped-up R&B-soul samples and melodically clobbering beats. In their place, Mr. West favors sweeping strings, sparse programming, auto-tuned vocals, quirky keyboarding and, yes…808-assisted drums for his fourth studio album 808s & Heartbreak. Lyrically, he abandons his ego-stroking socially-conscious leanings in an effort to deliver the unloading of emotional baggage accrued from a the loss of his mother and a broken engagement over the past year (thus, explaining the absence of the mascot ‘Dropout Bear’ in support of the expressionless promotional pictures of Mr. West and a deflated heart-shaped balloon on the album cover).
Recorded over three weeks in Hawaii, the 12-track opus provides ample ground to convey his late-night introspection, confusion, loss and heartache. “Love Lockdown”, the album’s first single signaled a new chapter in Kanye’s musical career, puzzled fans and critics with its troubled lyrics, rumbling tribal drums and washes of shuffling keys, among other sonic effects. With this dramatic shift from popular hip-hop towards downtempo, 80s-tinged electronica, the album is somber (the dragging and indulgent opener “Say You Will”) and at times difficult to take all in one sitting (the lazy “Amazing” featuring Young Jeezy and percussive “Bad News”).
Nevertheless, West is focused in his lauded inventiveness to challenge his listeners and contemporaries to expand their musical capabilities. Case in point – the highlight “RoboCop” takes an arresting, machinery-sounding track awash with swirling strings to make humorous yet striking jabs at his now ex-girlfriend Alexis Phifer, (“You’re just an L.A. girl/You need to stop it now/Oh, you’re kidding me/Oh! You must be joking/Oh! You are smoking.” he ad-libs with a smoldering tone). “See You In My Nightmares” (featuring a guest spot by Lil’ Wayne) meets an annoyed Kanye snarling over a rumbling electronic beat with pulsing synth blips. But the most affecting moment comes from the final track, “Pinocchio Story”, freestyled and recorded live in Singapore with a mellow acoustic accompaniment (reportedly added at the last minute after Beyonce’s request). It is here that he delivers his most touching lines. “There is no clothes that I could buy that could bring back the time/There is no vacation spot I could fly that could bring back a real piece of real life/Real life, what does it feel like?” It is here that Mr. West strips down the ego that buoyed most of his past three albums and showcases an inherent insecurity that fame brings to the fore. It has been reported that he has begun recording his 5th studio album, tentatively titled A Good Ass Job for release in 2009. Apparently, he has already accomplished the feat.
(written in Fall 2008 for Stoic Audacity Magazine)