Complementary Albums

I try to save weekends for writing about – or even just sharing – things that bring me joy. Here’s some music that brings me joy!

Even in the age of streaming, playlists and songs, I’m still a lover of the the full-length album (and more specifically the pop album). Scot often laughs, but one of my criteria for a really good pop album is “flow” – how well the songs on the album work together in the order presented, and the overall feel of the album. Today I’m taking that a little further, and sharing my picks for pairs of albums that I think work so well together that listening to them together as one is pop music synergy.

Confessions on a Dance Floor, Madonna & System, Seal

Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor is easily my favorite album to date: I love the songs and I adore Stuart Price’s production. Sitting alongside, though, is another favorite of mine, System by Seal, also produced by Stuart Price. Both are polished dance records with gorgeous layers, synths and sequences. Good beats.

Highlights from Confessions  are Get Together, Let it will be,  and How High, and my favorites from System  are Loaded, Dumb, and The Right Life.

Ladies of the Canyon, Joni Mitchell & Seventh Tree, Goldfrapp

A couple of breezy, folky albums that are perfect for Sunday afternoon listening. Although I’m definitely a fan of Goldfrapp, and love Seventh Tree, I don’t know much of Joni Mitchell aside from Ladies of the Canyon.

Top picks from Joni’s album are Conversation and The Circle Game, and, while it’s hard to pick the best tracks from Seventh Tree I’d suggest Happiness, A&E, and Caravan Girl are unmissable.

Zonoscope, Cut Copy & Made In The Dark, Hot Chip

Quirky dance albums are definitely my thing, and though male voices tend not to be, these two albums have the kind of posh non-American male voice that I find pleasing. Both albums are definitely what some people might call overproduced, but it’s the kind of thing I like. Also guitars and a mix of dance and pop will always win me over.

From Zonoscope I recommend Pharaohs and Pyramids and Haning onto every Heartbeat; and from Made in the Dark my stand-out tracks are Out at the Pictures, We’re Looking for a lot of Love, and Hold On.

A Joyful Noise, Gossip & The Family Jewels, Marina and the Diamonds

JB Hi-Fi files both of these very excellent albums under ‘Alternative’, but I’m not sure I agree with them. They’re both really good pop albums, just with growling. As is the (almost) theme, they are a bit quirky, quite dark in places, and have hard-hitting beats.

From A Joyful Noise my favorites are Move in the Right Direction and Into The Wild; and my favorite tracks from The Family Jewels are all of them, but particularly Shampain, Mowgli’s Road, and Hollywood.

Blood Like Lemonade, Morcheeba & The Reminder, Feist

I’m lying to myself a little here – I actually think the perfect companion to The Reminder by Feist is by Damien Rice, and I’ve had more than one evening with those two albums and good red wine, but I’m here suggesting pairing The Reminder with Blood Like Lemonadea perfectly nice and understated album by Morcheeba. Another couple of records that are a little folksy with some quirks, they bring me a sense of calm.

My picks from Blood Like Lemonade are Crimson, Recipe for Disaster, and Beat of the Drum. The Reminder is another one to pick favorites from, but if pushed I’d recommend So Sorry, The Park, and The Limit To Your Love. I also have a deep love for Brandy Alexander and I’m including it here because it reminds me of a friend.

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Last albums & pop goodbyes

I grew up listening to M People. I’d probably still say they are my favorite band, although I listen to them much less now than I did when I was 15. Mum & Dad bought me their album Bizarre Fruit II for Christmas in 1996 and I became addicted to it. Then in 1997 we went to see them live at the Hull Arena for their Fresco tour. I bought the album shortly after that and became addicted to that too.

Over the next few years most of my money was spent on building a collection of M People CD singles: their total of four albums I managed to collect quite quickly – and all the international versions thereof – but by probably 2000 I had managed to complete my collection. I owned every M People release.

After Fresco in 1997 and their subsequent Best Of album in 1998, I waited for their next album. It never came. And I never understood because they were at the top of their game, they were successful and so popular, but the next album just never happened. Heather Small made a solo album, and the band toured and kept touring for years – in fact they never split, so I always hoped. Even until last year when Heather finally announced she was leaving the band, I had hope that they might record new material. It didn’t happen.

Artists that I love do seem to have a habit of doing this. Not all of them, of course, but I become wary of getting too attached to bands and artists now. My favorites seem to do disappearing acts too often, so I tend to just assume that every album is their last nowadays.

I discovered Moloko pretty late in their career – towards the end of their promotion of Things to Make and Do which was their third album. I bought their fourth, Statues, on a whim and I fell in love with it. I am still in love with that album and I think I always will be. It was a wonderful final album for a band that I discovered I loved when I went and bought the rest of their albums on the strength of Statues, but like M People, they put out a Greatest Hits and then just stopped recording. Lead singer Roisin Murphy put out a couple of solo albums, but then even she disappeared for eight years before recording (the rather delicious) Hairless Toys last year. She’s got something new coming this year but because of what seems to happen with artists I love, I won’t believe it until I’ve bought it.

Confessions on a Dance Floor would have been a perfect final album from Madonna. To me it felt like a retrospective, like a goodbye, and like it was the album she had always wanted to make. It wasn’t of course – she’s put out another three since then. But I’ll say the same about her latest, Rebel Heart – it feels like it could be her last. I’m sure it won’t be.

Macy Gray’s Big should have been her last. I loved her first three records, but when I bought Big over Easter in 2007, I was sure she would never make a better one. To date she hasn’t. The Sellout was flat, her collection of cover versions was dreadful, and although she gave a good effort when she recorded a version of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book in its entirety, it was disappointing.  I wonder if I would have lamented Macy Gray’s disappearance if she had quit after Big. I’m sure I would have.

Perhaps the Spice Girls should have given up after Spice World as well. Their two albums were pop perfection (despite most of the non-single tracks on Spice being garbage), and what became their last album seems to tarnish my memories of them. The Ting Tings, whose first album I adored, made a “could do better” second album, and then a third which honestly sounded like they were happy enough with demos of some songs they had written, and didn’t bother to do any real production on them. They should have quit while they were ahead.

So I wonder – was M People’s disappearance a good thing? Could they ever have made an album as good as their first four or would they have become tired and gone the way Macy Gray did? I’ll never know I guess.

But I wonder.

My thoughts on MDNA

MDNA by Madonna is four years old today. I’ll be honest, it’s one of my least favorite Madonna album, and I don’t think it’ll be one of the ones she’ll be remembered for but, that said, I think it does stand up as a pretty decent dance album. Highlights for me are still Girl Gone Wild (which I do think is one of Madonna’s very best club tracks) and I Don’t Give A.

Here’s what I wrote about the album when I first listened to it.


 

I’ve listened to MDNA a couple of times, and I must say it is growing on me. I was hoping for something I’d love as much as Confessions or Ray of Light, but what I think I’ve got is something like Music: an album that is essentially good, but something I cannot fall in love with.

 

Girl Gone Wild

I was initially disappointed, but after having listened to this quite a few times, and with an open mind, the album’s opener does seem to be one of the better tracks. It’s very Madonna.

Who did it first?

For a song about girls just wanting to have fun and breaking the rules by, umm, dancing and having casual sex, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun feels a little more authentic.

 

Gang Bang

Gang Bang feels very ‘underground’. A driving beat, very bassy. I like it. The production on the vocals is outstanding and even makes you forget that Madonna isn’t actually a very good singer. Overuse of the word ‘bitch’ is a little grating though.

Who did it first?

For a song about killing a lover and having no remorse, try Strange Behaviour by Macy Gray.

 

I’m Addicted

I’m still not sure on this one. It sounds like MDMA. I think there’s a really good song in there somewhere, but it sounds like a remix and almost as if the producers have tried to drown out Madonna’s vocals with special effects and, well, production.

Who did it first?

For a song about being addicted to a lover as if he were a narcotic, Like a Drug by Kylie Minogue ticks all of my boxes.

 

Turn up the Radio

More dance-pop-pop-dance, which is what Madonna does best. The lyric is trite, but not painfully so. In essence, it sounds like what a Madonna song should sound like in 2012.

Who did it first?

For a song about what to do when all else fails and you long to be something better than you are today and the advice being: dance, try Vogue, by Madonna.

 

Give Me all your Luvin’

What Madonna does, you see, is make music that is slightly ahead of the times. It’s off-putting, and even when she gets it right, people get confused. The other problem is that normally it isn’t as light and fluffy and, well, poppy as Give Me all your Luvin’. We were expecting something ahead of the trends like Music, and we got something ahead of the trends like Like a Virgin.

Who did it first?

For a song about being a bit in love and wanting to sing a song about it try … well … anyone. Everyone. This is just decent pop music for the year 2012.

 

Some Girls

If you can ignore the lyrics – which I can’t – this is a good track. It does for MDNA whatRunaway Lover did for Music: it tells you what the album sounds like, but it’s not what you’ll remember the album for.

Who did it first?

For a song about every other famous girl being a slut who gets what she wants by giving head, the similarly titled Some Girls by Rachel Stevens is a little more subtle.

 

Superstar

A lovely song that just makes me want to smile. It does win the award for Worst Line Of The Album (‘You can have the keys to my car / I’ll play you a song on my guitar.”), but it makes up for it in niceness and Madonna-ness. Madonna sounds very at home and relaxed on this track, and it feels like the sort of song she wants to be singing.

Who did it first?

Again, a song that is unashamedly unoriginal. So it would be wrong to lambast it for being so.

 

I Don’t Give A

She’s still drinking soy lattes. A dodgy bit of rapping that only Madonna can make sound good sets an uneasy, dark mood for this almost personal track. And Nicki Minaj does do rather well on this.

Who did it first?

For a song about the perils of getting married when you’re famous, and the inevitable messy divorce, I’m reminded of Tell Me by Mel B (nee G, nee B).

 

I’m a Sinner

William Orbit works his magic on this one, and I’m reminded how brilliant Beautiful Strangerwas. It’s a bit psychedelic, a bit full-on and a bit makes-you-want-to-dance (which the songs about dancing on this album, unfortunately, don’t). I like happy Madonna. And this is happy Madonna.

Who did it first?

For a cheeky little number about being a bit naughty, how about Bad Influence by Pink? I’m clutching at straws here, because Madonna has done this very very well.

 

Love Spent

William Orbit with some Die Another Day-style strings and a banjo that works surprisingly well. Madonna presents another more personal song that holds the album together, but is not single-material. A definite thumbs-up.

Who did it first?

Now, being a Macy Gray fan, I can’t help but notice that the lyric is very similar to Treat Me Like Your Money from Macy’s Big album, with some lines lifted almost directly from that track. Shameless plagiarism by Jean-Baptiste (although he did in fact write both songs).

 

Masterpiece

It’s been too long since Madonna has done a proper ballad (“ballad”), so it’s nice to have a bit of a come down, and as well for Madonna to show us that despite the fact she can’t sing, she’s a very good singer.

 

Falling Free

Remember all that vocal training that Madonna had for Evita. Well, so does she in this gorgeous, gorgeous song. Madonna glides over lovely string arrangement, with some plinky piano bits. I’m reminded of Mer Girl from Ray of Light, and how that left me feeling empty (in a good way). This leaves me feeling as full as that left me empty.

Who did it first?

Like with Masterpiece, this is Madonna just being Madonna with no front and no-nonsense and no hype.

 

 

Some more thoughts:

There’s nothing on here as awful as Spanish Lesson from Hard Candy.

There’s nothing on here as good as Hung up.

All in all, I feel the same way about this as I feel about Music.