#20. Maroon 5 – Overexposed
So what should you expect from an album called Overexposed? Especially when it seems like Maroon 5 just had a new album out Hands All Over. Before listening, I expected this to be a lot of reworked outtakes from that album. An album to house “Moves Like Jagger” since it was only tacked onto later copies of Hands. And if you bought this on iTunes, it was tacked on the end as well. For physical disc buyers such as myself who usually buy early, no such luck. I wasn’t rebuying the album when I have the original deluxe edition already.
Yes, this is the pop Maroon 5 of “Moves Like Jagger”. Now I have a confession to make. I was not a fan of Maroon 5 at first. Mainly because back in the 90s, Maroon 5 started as a band called Kara’s Flowers. Their one almost-hit “Soap Disco” was a favorite of mine. At the time their debut Songs About Jane came out, I didn’t know it was the same band. Once I found out, I was disappointed that they weren’t the quirky alternative band they started as. But the band’s convinction grew on me. Of all things it was the video for “If I Ever See Your Face Again” with Rihanna to make me a fan enough to buy that album, and I’ve followed ever since.
Where Hands had a more organic soulful funky sound, Overexposed moves in a much more polished radio-ready direction. Hands was produced by Robert “Mutt” Lange, who produced classics like Hysteria by Def Leppard and Heartbeat City by The Cars amongst many many others. Max Martin, executive producer here, is best known for his work with P!nk on much of her best work.
Things start off with the current hit “One More Night”. It’s the closest they get to dub reggae, but with Adam’s upper-scale-white-boy-soul voice and catchy hook, it’s an instant earworm. The same goes for “Payphone”. I wanted to dislike it based on its move towards electronics and rapper cameo by Wiz Khalifa, but I can’t. Even though it is more slick than previous efforts, it’s so fun to sing along with “One more fuckin’ love song I’ll be sick!”.
So with the two hits down you realize soon, almost every track on here could be a single and a hit. “Daylight” has a bright sunny chorus. “Lucky Strike” rocks a little harder. There are moments Adam easily hits notes that one could easily mistake for autotune because of his higher range. There are “whoaoaoaoa”‘s a plenty. “The Man Who Never Lied” has a sweet melody as Levine lays his emotions out for yet another wrongful ex. “Love Somebody” is a definitely highlight with a electro-disco thump to it’s beat, which actually works well and makes it lively instead of leaving it cold. My bet is on this for being a big future single. Then there’s “Lady Killer” which comes off either about an ex-girlfriend who’s after another woman, or he forgot to consult Cee Lo Green what the word means leaving the song gender-confused. But the song is good in any case.
One of the better lyric moments is the song “Tickets”. “She’s got tickets to her own show, but nobody wants to go. And I’m stuck sitting in the front row, singing along like there’s no tomorrow”. Now that’s some great symbolism for a troubled relationship.
The most powerful heartfelt song on the collection is a piano ballad called “Sad” where Levine belts about “only hanging on by a thin thin thread”. This is the track that made me stop in my tracks and pay full attention and remember how powerful Levine’s voice is unaccompanied by electronics and beats. And “Beautiful Goodbye” is a nice laid back acoustic-based pop song that’s a nice way to end… on the regular edition.
If you bought the deluxe edition there’s more! First is “Wipe Your Eyes”, a song that has big drums and a sample of all things of a middle eastern sounding Damon Albarn song. Quite good and interesting for an outtake that probably should have made the cut. “Wasted Years” follows next. Far more more soulful than most of the other upbeat tracks, with horns and an irresistible groove. And lastly, a slightly bizarre but spirited piano bar blues version of Prince’s “Kiss”. Quite different in arrangement from the original, but somehow it works!
Now if you got the Target deluxe edition, you get two more added remixes of “Payphone”, the Supreme Cuts Remix, and the Cutmore Remix. The first dark and moody with a more hip hop style beat, and the second an all out clubby dance mix. Both are decent mixes but really just an afterthought. That’s all…unless you got the iTunes version, with an added atmospheric mix of “Payphone” and a Skrillex-ish remix of “One More Night”. These are okay. But one more fucking remix, you’ll be sick.
Overall, this album is a good followup to “Moves Like Jagger”, and I’m sure will have plenty more successful singles in 2013. It’s upbeat, catchy, the band still sounds tight, and they aren’t afraid of pop like it’s a dirty word while still being a band.
#19. Mika – The Origin of Love
The Origin of Love, the third book of Mika’s ongoing diary starts out light and bouncy with the title track, a simple love song comparing the target of Mika’s affection to cigarettes, Nicorette, chocolate, and then cigarettes again, because it rhymes. He manages to throw vocoders, a Mika choir and bible allegories, and eventually a dark electro-monk chant into the mix. This kind of experimentation in the landscape of pop music is part of why I was drawn to Mika in the first place. This song might be slightly too odd to be a single in the US. But who cares? It’s catchy and gets in your brain in four and a half minutes.
This is followed by “Lola” a whimsical handclappy song about, what else?, a prostitute. One thing I’ve noticed on this album is Mika does have a gift of songwriting and particularly storytelling that some of his contemporaries lack. He is great at painting characters like this one. Next is a collaboration track with electro-house music’s Benny Benassi called “Stardust” that feels a bit more “Ray Of Light” than Mika’s typical fare, but not bad nonetheless. Following this we get back to the real Mika, and a track called “Make You Happy”, a pledge of love and devotion backed by strings and offset to a waltz paced beat, laced with dreamy layers of vocoder. This flows smoothly into possibly the most tender track on the album “Underwater”. Starting as a simple piano ballad showing on Mika’s beautiful range, the song turns cinematic and eventually turns into a chorus of Mikas, a trick he pulls off very well. We then pick up the pace with “Overrated”, which would be a more standard dance track if it weren’t for the attention to detail in the beat and the interesting scale in the verses.
Interestingly one of the next songs is called “Love You When I’m Drunk”. I have to wonder if this is an answer of sorts to the Pet Shop Boys’ “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk”. This is also where Mika kills the radio star and tries for a new wave vocal effect. But every bit as playful as anything on his first album. We then relax a bit with “Step With Me”, where Mika makes falling in love sound like a 12 step program, where “We can get married… top it with a cherry”. Yes, for those that missed it, Mika finally did admit recently to the press that he is gay. However there are times you wonder if he is writing through the eyes of another character. Because you later get to the head scratcher, “Emily”, which at first listen is seemingly about a frustrated hetero relationship. Or is it? Now before the album came out Mika released a French song called “Elle Me Dit” which translates to “She Tells Me” that actually went to #1 in France. He then reworked this into English as “Emily” and added a vocal harmony nicked straight from Steve Winwood’s “Valerie”. He then flipped the subject of the conversation in the song from himself to a character named “Emily”, mainly because it sounds so similar. From translations I’ve been able to find online, it looks like the English version is otherwise very close in translation. I think Mika really likes playing with gender this way in his songs and messing with our heads a little. In any case, “Emily” is easily one of his catchiest songs.
There are two more standouts on the album packed towards the end of the 13 non-bonus tracks. First, “Popular”, an upbeat cheerful song about high school, bullying and self-empowerment as a kid, which swipes a bit from Wicked. yes *that* Wicked. It includes vocals and rapping from Priscilla Renea that give it quite a playground feel. Never heard of her before but she helps make this sound like something right out of Glee. In a good way.
The last song, if it weren’t for bonus tracks and such, is “Celebrate”, which could have been an opener or a closer either way. Mika collaborated with Pharrel Williams of The Neptunes and N.E.R.D on this one, but you barely notice him until the end. He wisely didn’t try to overshadow Mika on the track but add a great festive backdrop. While the song is super-happy-overdose, the lyrics actually sound more like a guy trying to convince himself things are better when they aren’t. Don’t we all know that story. It makes it all much more real and believable.
Now the bonuses. The main CD has a “Miami Edit” mix of “Make You Happy” that is stripped down of its layers. But it doesn’t make a second mix essential, just an extra and nice bonus. On the deluxe edition you get nine more assorted goodies. First, you get “Celebrate”, “Origin Of Love”, “Kids”, “Love You When I’m Drunk” and “Overrated” as acoustic versions. These make the deluxe edition worth getting, as these are not just mixes where instruments are stripped out, but new recordings of the songs in a different light. This is where you hear Mika’s vocal power, piano playing and songwriting talents really come to the front. Next is the original French “Elle Me Dit”, followed by “Tah Dah”, a track that would have fit the album nicely. A bit moody and atmospheric but kicks into a great groove when the chorus comes around. Lastly we get the “Benny Benassi Edit” of “Stardust”. Odd because the original is produced by Benassi. It’s more of a re-edit with slightly different percussion in the mix and doesn’t add much to the original. Lastly is the Robbie Rivera remix of “Celebrate”. Another throwaway mix. The spirit of the song gets drowned out in over the top synth-horns that bury Mika in club drone and repetition and pund you in the ear drums til you forget it was a Mika song. But… it’s a skippable bonus track tucked safely at the end.
Overall, I really like how Mika has matured on this album. His head-turning debut Life In Cartoon Motion was a snapshot of the childhood of a somewhat bizarre little boy. The Boy Who Knew Too Much followed with the snapshot of a befuddled early adolescence, and The Origin Of Love is more or less the part of the story where Mika becomes an adult. It’s not a concept album, but that feel is what ties the whole thing together. I think we all need to see life with Mika’s childlike wonder once in a while.
#18. Alicia Keys – Girl On Fire
Now 11 years into her recording career, Alicia Keys has definitely proven herself not to be a one-hit wonder many thought she might be when “Fallin'” first hit the airwaves in 2001. She has tried several different twists on the R&B formula in that time, from 70s quiet storm soul to the Jeff Bhasker produced big beats on her last album The Element of Freedom.
The leadoff single, “Girl On Fire” was released in a couple different versions. The one that shines though is the Inferno version, featuring a rap from Nicki Minaj about being coaxed towards her own suicide by the ghost of Marilyn Monroe. Unlikely leadoff for a feminist empowerment song right? Love or hate Nicki, this version was the clear winner because of the way the song is stripped down at first to simply a heavy backbeat, Alicia’s voice, and piano. these elements are what we love her for. Sometimes on past albums, her talents are buried a bit under too many layers until they sound ordinary, and that’s a crime and a shame.
The title track doesn’t even come in until halfway through this album though. It starts off with a classical piano piece “De Novo Adagio”, that morphs into the self-discovery anthem “Brand New Me” that brings the house down right from the beginning. Then the adventure begins. “When It’s All Over” kicks in with a complex jazzy percussion loop that steps outside of the r&b box. “Listen to Your Heart” whispers its way in next with a soft touch that straddles between 80s Linn Drum and and rainy day quiet storm. “New Day” blasts in next sounding like it found a long lost Public Enemy beat. This one veers dangerously into Rihanna “Hard” territory, except for Alicia has the vocal chops to back it so it works. Then we have “Girl On Fire” mentioned above. A last minute decision to use the Inferno version was a wise one, as it proves more powerful.
We then head back to the bedroom with the sensuous “Fire We Make” where she trades vocal chemistry and who knows what else with crooner Maxwell. Many babies will be made to this one I’m sure. My personal favorite follows, “Tears Always Win”, a post-relationship sad Friday night theme that is much old school R&B as it is modern. “Not Even The King” follows, another standout stripping everything down to Alicia and her Keys, where she sings from the heart about how love can make you rich. “That’s When I Knew”, “Limitedless”, and “One Thing” follow, and are all definitely good tracks, being more variations on modern R&B. The closer “101” proves quite the way to go out. Starting as a gentle piano torch song, it builds and hits a beautiful smacked-in-the-face-by-her-voice crescendo before it ends. But then it doesn’t end, it builds up even higher and bigger with a “Hallelujah” chorus, church organ and a huge backbeat that truly does lift the song even higher. And then today’s sermon at the Church of Alicia is over.
Alicia gets my respect for trying to branch out in so many directions within one R&B album, instead of the typical fast half/slow half formula that is starting to be the norm. Alicia makes you enjoy the peaks and valleys on the ride.
“Girl On Fire (Inferno Version)”
“Tears Always Win” (audio only)
#17. Rush – Clockwork Angels
It’s nice to know that in this age of iTunes and the hit single/download that some people still care about an album as a complete piece. Rush’s “2112”, while only one half of the album of the same name, set the bar for how to do progressive rock with a storyline. It’s easy to compare Clockwork Angels to 2112 on this basis alone, since Clockwork is the first concept album by Rush in many years rather than merely a collection of songs. But while at first glance the themes are familiar, this a story by an older Rush that has learned life’s lessons.
This story is also set in a dystopian future with a character who starts out life in a world where the citizens are taught their place and to obey “The Watchmaker”, somewhat of a big brother figure. As the narrator grows he runs into misadventure with the traveling carnival in “Carnies”, being framed for an act of anarchy on “The Anarchist”, and flees his city to adventure on the sea. The plot serves as a timeline for Neil Peart to pin some of his wittiest and most pensive lyrics. “BU2B” (Brought Up To Believe) and the later “BU2B2” address his view of changing from growing up with a form of Christianity to later eventually adopting Secular Humanism.
The band is playing with more focus and precision than many of their previous efforts. Rush previewed the first two tracks on their last tour in 2010 to give a taste. These two leadoff tracks, “Caravan” and “BU2B” show Rush finding a balance between all the things that make them great. They rock much heavier than 80’s Rush, without the deliberate showoff factor of Hemispheres. But what keeps this from being bland is the attention to detail. The first half of the album is fairly heavy. A lot of story line is twisted into the songs, but with riffs a plenty from Alex Lifeson, Geddy Lee still sounding no less powerful than ever, and whirlwinds, twists and turns courtesy of arguably one of the most talented drummers alive, Neil Peart. When we get to “Seven Cities of Gold”, we start out with a bass line that sounds more like one of Rush’s disciples, Les Claypool of Primus. Then again, Rush has said before that they never rule out anything musically, so it is nice to know they are aware of their musical followers.
Later in the album we get to a couple songs in a row that are a bit more memorable to the untrained prog ear. “The Wreckers” tells the tale of being lost of the sea as allegory for spiritual growth, with “All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, every thing in life you thought you knew”. The song soars with a string arrangement rather than synth strings, which really add some colors to this one. “Headlong Flight” follows and is a bit heavy on the riffs, finding its sound somewhere between “The Big Money” sped up, “The Spirit of Radio”, and the grittier sounds of Rush today.
The album seems like it should come to a close with a song about forgiveness called “Wish Them Well”. The track shines with a strong melodic vocal from Geddy Lee, a guitar melody that feels like early 80s Rush, while not sounding like a rewrite either. The actual album closer is a quieter affair, with an acoustic based slower song “The Garden”, seemingly about realizing eventually adventure stops and that you have to settle into old age peacefully. How very monkish. But if this is where Peart is at in life now, he sure hasn’t let go of his talent for writing and playing drums. In fact, all bands should hope that they are this creative and on top of their game nearly 40 years into their careers.
#16. Of Monsters and Men – My Head Is An Animal
What a breath of fresh air! Of Monsters and Men is only the second act I can name to come from Iceland, with the first being Björk and/or the band she came from, The Sugarcubes. My introduction to them was in the form of their stunning animated video for “Little Talks”, a song that gets under your skin quickly with its big bombastic horns and pirate-like chants of “Hey!”. The band has two lead singers, one male, Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson, and one female, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir (no I couldn’t pronounce their full names if I tried). Unlike other bands to spotlight a female such as Arcade Fire or Grouplove, the two really are co-lead singers and trade lines and harmonize throughout almost every song. This formula provides a fresh sound, especially since Raggi has a higher more whispy male voice that is pleasantly unique. The two meld into one. Crisp and clean with no caffeine. Well maybe a little.
At times the album sounds like a snapshot from another time in history, like “From Finner”, which almost sounds like a pirate ship singalong.”Your Bones” has touches of spaghetti western and mariachi. “Mountain Sound”, with its refrain of “Hold your horses now!” (when’s the last time you heard that phrase in a song?), plays out something like Arcade Fire covering The Supremes. There’s a big echoey room acoustic to the album that gives it a very ghostlike presence in the backdrop.
One of the most gorgeous moments is “Love Love Love”, spotlighting Nanna singing “you love, love, love, when you know I can’t love”. Lyrically on a page that looks simple, but her voice makes all the difference in conveying the heartbreak. The majority of the album has a somewhat melancholy feel, but still celebratory at the same time on the more upbeat “King and The Lionheart” or the stomp/clapalong “Six Weeks”. Maybe a way to describe this would be moody songs to set sail to, as there are many references to the ocean all throughout. You realize start to feel quickly that there must not be much to do in Iceland but fish, fall in love, be reflective, and fish some more. It all winds down in the end with somewhat of a lullaby called “Yellow Light”, that even ends with a musical box melody.
This is definitely one band that’s not like the others, and to see them getting some notoriety with “Little Talks” makes me happy. We need more bands that don’t sound like what’s already out there and still can write catchy yet meaningful songs. And from now on when I think of Iceland and music, I will think of this band, and not Björk and her wild umm… well… Björkishness.
“From Finner” (Live)
Check back next week when I cover #10 through #11!
-written by Rob Goodman